One great thing about limited TV access while teaching here at Shared Worlds (Wofford College) in Spartanburg, SC, is that I’m spending my evenings reading and watching movies on Netflix. I’ve decided to go a little esoteric and catch up on some flicks that aren’t exactly Hollywood blockbusters.
Case in point, Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing, starring Theresa Russell and Art Garfunkel. It’s got all of Roeg’s signatures: unusual use of montage, unusual ideas about how to cut, frame, and bookend scenes. In this case, rather than at the service of a horror story (Don’t Look Now) or a SF movie (The Man Who Fell to Earth), he uses these devices to film a script about a terribly mis-matched couple—Russell plays a kind of hedonistic soul who lives in the moment, and Garfunkel plays a psychologist who is attracted to Russell but is exasperated by her lack of commitment. The movie opens with Garfunkel accompanying Russell’s character to the hospital in an ambulance, and then cuts back and forth between the past and present, often doing so several times in a few minutes without ever being confusing.
So there’s the mystery of why Russell’s character is going to the hospital, the mystery of the complexities of their relationship, Garfunkel’s connection to the military, why Russell’s character keeps going over the border into Czechslovakia…and, really, it all revolves around their personal story no matter how the film tries to throw you off with the idea that it might become some kind of political thriller.
Some scenes are absolutely wonderful in the way they exemplify why mastery of technique can result in increased emotional resonance. When a detective examines the woman’s apartment after she’s in the hospital, Roeg cuts back and forth between the detective and a scene between Garfunkel and Russell months earlier. So the detective, for example, peers around the corner of a room and then Roeg cuts to Garfunkel staring out from the bed like he’s looking at the detective, but he’s looking at Russell. And so on. It might seem artificial, but in fact Roeg is basically just operating the way memory can work, and the pointing out the ways in which we interact even when we think we aren’t. The detective might not see the couple, but he can sense the ghosts of their arguments.
Cutting a scene like that jolts the viewer out of customary ways of seeing without seeming disjointed or random. The film editing here is very sophisticated and quite frankly made me want to weep thinking about your average run-of-the-mill Hollywood drama.
Bad Timing ironically enough runs out of steam the more provocative it becomes—which is to say there’s a kind of decadent-era inevitability to what happens. Throughout Garfunkel is more than adequate, but it’s really Russell who shines here. A couple of scenes in particular are painful to watch in the sense of seeing a person who seems genuinely wanting to break out of the kind of shackling roles people are sometimes made to play, in part because of the image of them in their friends’ or lovers’ heads.
It’s not Roeg’s best film, but it’s intelligent, finely acted, and thought-provoking.