James B. Harris is arguably best known for the series of films he produced in association with Stanley Kubrick: THE KILLING, PATHS OF GLORY and LOLITA. In 1965, Harris made the move to director with the Cold War drama THE BEDFORD INCIDENT. By the early 1970s, when Harris was casting around for a project that would allow for a more personal element, he recalled the short story “Sleeping Beauty” by John Collier, a British fantasist whose works were frequently adapted for television (ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED).
Collier’s mordant fable concerns an upper-class Brit who squanders his fortune on procuring and resuscitating the titular lass, not to mention the travails he subsequently encounters with litigious kinfolk and exorbitant medical bills. Upon awakening, the girl proves to be the complete opposite of all his expectations and desires (and unfaithful to boot), leading to a cruelly circular conclusion. Harris claims he was drawn to the story’s exploration of the chasm between fantasy and reality, but felt it was unfair to simply blame the woman, since she serves as little more than an obscure object of the man’s desires.
So Harris reconfigures the storyline to place the emphasis on masculine psychology, exploring the realm of erotic roleplaying in ways that align SOME CALL IT LOVING with a film like Bernardo Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS, or even Kubrick’s Schnitzler adaptation EYES WIDE SHUT. Indeed, with its deliberate pacing and ambiguous narrative, Harris’ film has more in common with contemporary European art-house fare than others of the New Hollywood vintage. As well, the film’s pervading ambience of decadence and disaffection brings to mind an Antonioni film.
SOME CALL IT LOVING’s pre-credits sequence literally sets the scene with a shot of French doors opening onto a sculpture-strewn veranda that overlooks the sea. Heavy red curtains framing the entryway betoken a sense of theatricality, while the chessboard pattern on the terrace suggests a taste for game-playing. The vignette that follows depicts a kinky sort of ritual, the mock aftermath of a funeral, that introduces protagonist Robert Troy (Zalman King, BLUE SUNSHINE) and his dual obsessions with loss and erotic betrayal. To emphasize the existential stasis that currently cripples him, the scene ends on a freeze frame. As subsequent events unfold, we will find out little about these people beyond what they tell each other (which often resemble scripted and rehearsed scenes); and we will never learn for certain the rules of their games.
After the credits, Troy strolls along a carnival midway, where he’s drawn to the “Sleeping Beauty” attraction. Entering the tent, he finds a phony physician (Logan Ramsey, HEAD) and nurse (Pat Priest, THE MUNSTERS) extolling the wonders of their slumberous charge (Tisa Farrow, ZOMBIE). For a small fee, any man in attendance can pretend to Prince Charming’s throne and attempt to wake the girl with a kiss. But, as the dubious doctor portentously warns, “it is the fate of those who kiss sleeping beauties to be awakened themselves,” thus neatly providing the film with its very own thesis statement.
Not content to risk revivification when he can own Beauty outright, Troy acquires the entire concession (lock, stock, and wildly decorated transportation), hauling her back to the mansion he shares with Scarlett (Carol White, DADDY’S GONE A-HUNTING) and their playmate Angelica (Veronica Anderson). Upon reawakening, the girl (rather prosaically named Jennifer, as it happens) is soon initiated into the household’s more kinky pastimes, which include dancing the tango in nuns’ habits and attending formal dinners where Angelica attends in full livery.
Because Harris appreciates the play of theme and variation in jazz music, he makes Robert Troy a saxophonist who plays in a small club (the Collier original had no independent source of income). We will see him perform at length on several occasions. It’s also at the club that he runs into dope-addled addict Jeff (Richard Pryor, WILD IN THE STREETS) painting a Day-Glo heart over the restroom urinal. Pryor’s frenzied extended riffs, freeform and improvisatory as any post-bop solo, play in stark contrast to the film’s otherwise languorous pacing and minimal dialogue, almost as though he’s dropped in from another film altogether. Later, when Troy tells Jeff he envies his freedom to choose, it’s a strangely ironic concession given Jeff’s debilitating addiction (and subsequent death), but one that effectively highlights Troy’s sense of doomed foreclosure, his inability to truly awaken to his own freedom.
SOME CALL IT LOVING charts Robert Troy’s increasing disaffection with Jennifer, in particular her willingness to succumb to the interminable domestic games. With a sort of horror, he listens to her nebulous account of her uneasy sleep (a nicely ambiguous soliloquy that only hints at her nightly violation). And it’s with equally mounting frustration that he realizes his inability to convey his need for honest contact with another person to Scarlett. “Only connect,” E. M. Forster famously advised, but Troy doesn’t stand a chance in the airless, joyless world he has created for himself. So alienated is he from his own desire, it takes the ministrations of a naked cheerleader (Brandy Herred) merely to stoke the fires of his lust, and that only after he has minutely (and a bit risibly) laid out the very precise parameters of his fantasy scenario.
Inevitably—not least because the source material suggests it—Troy returns Jennifer to her sleep and assumes one final role, that of carnival doctor. The film’s vicious circularity condemns Troy to an eternal return of the same, even while providing him with a twisted reflection of his deepest desire: to watch while his loved one betrays him with an incessant stream of prospective “saviors,” much like the one he once imagined himself to be. SOME CALL IT LOVING is a darkling fable for adults, which is, in itself, a miracle of rare device in modern cinema. Like an initially inaccessible piece of free jazz, it takes some getting used to the film’s idiosyncratic rhythms, but, once on its wavelength, viewers are likely to find it a richly rewarding experience.
Etiquette Pictures’ 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray looks great overall, especially when compared to the lousy Monterey VHS edition available back in the 1980s. Colors are bold, with fine details of décor and costuming clearly delineated. Grain gets pretty heavy in the nighttime scenes, and in sequences that use heavy diffusion, while there’s some evidence of speckling and the occasional smudged blue bar along the frame edge. But the lighting schemes from cinematographer Mario Tosi (CARRIE) are often gorgeous, and the interior of Robert Troy’s mansion never looks less than sumptuous. The Master Audio mono track is solid enough, with dialogue clearly discernible, only moderate levels of hiss and background noise, and it certainly puts across the score from Richard Hazard (NICKELODEON), Troy’s jazz numbers, as well as the affecting diegetic use of Nat King Cole’s “The Very Thought of You.”
The commentary track with Harris moderated by Sam Prime delves into his motivations for cutting SOME CALL IT LOVING by almost twenty minutes after disastrous previews, taking the film to Cannes, and the film’s very different critical reception at home and abroad. An on-camera interview with Harris, “Some Call it History” (6m 52s) covers his wartime experiences, being introduced to Stanley Kubrick, making the leap to direction, and his abiding love for the filmmaking process. In “A Dream So Real” (8m 27s), DP Mario Tosi talks about his early life in Italy, passing on EASY RIDER after working with Dennis Hopper on THE GLORY STOMPERS, his disinclination to track aimlessly behind Zalman King in several scenes, Richard Pryor’s irrepressible behavior during his character’s funeral, and getting rave reviews for the film at an Italian film festival.
Also included are almost sixteen minutes’ worth of silent outtakes with commentary from Harris and Prime, showing extended snippets and entire scenes that were cut either for time or for being too exposition heavy, including a subplot that dealt with Robert Troy’s mother’s funeral, where he encouters a former cheerleader-turned-nun played by none other than Millie Perkins (THE SHOOTING). The booklet contains an essay by Kevin John Bozelka that’s as strange and unconventional as the film itself.