Thursday, June 27, 2013

Up in the Cellar

Writer/director Theodore J. Flicker created a choice entry in the annals of satiric cinema, THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST in 1967. It remains one of the sharpest lampoons of bureaucracy I've seen. When I discovered the existence of 1970's UP IN THE CELLAR, I was eager for another devilishly enjoyable observation from the man who would also go on to create the droll sitcom Barney Miller.

I was not (entirely) disappointed. I tried to accept that this newer film would not achieve the heady slapstick of ANALYST by any stretch. Not that Flicker doesn't try......

College student Colin Slade (Wes Stern) is hungry for revenge. As a budding poet lauded for his prose by professor and adoring classmates alike, he becomes a victim of a computer snafu which causes him to lose his financial aid. It's a sort of Kafkaesque scenario that was exploited far more trenchantly in 1985's BRAZIL. Colin's efforts to enlist the help of the school's president (and senatorial hopeful) Maurice Camber, played with brio by Larry Hagman, are met with indifference and hollow words about character building and life lessons.

When Colin returns home in time to see his dorm bulldozed, he finds all that is left is to end it all. A grand opportunity arises - he'll jump from the tower for the new campus radio station during an unveiling ceremony led by Camber - who in a moment born out of narcissism rather than courage or even pity will scale the tower and rescue the young man.

Incensed, Colin formulates an elaborate plan to ruin Camber. He'll seduce the women in the man's life: daughter (Nira Barab), wife (Joan Collins), and secretary/mistress (Judy Pace). Not merely to get laid. In fact, Colin doesn't actually seem all that interested in sex. There are bigger designs. Seduction will prove to be a tricky task, at first, but each woman will be instrumental in Colin's scheme to humiliate the political animal in the making.  This will include the creation of a would-be porno film substituted for a screening of THE SOUND OF MUSIC during Camber's rally for "decency."

Flicker tackles and skewers many social issues/taboos in UP IN THE CELLAR.  The black secretary tells Camber she has trouble making it with a white man; his sexuality is too alien for her to get aroused. The wife is obsessed with astrology. School security guards hover like the gestapo, quick to break up coed kissing.  A student named Arkin recruits Colin to join his "revolutionary" group of neo-Conservatives. Meanwhile, a Black Panther-like group wreaks havoc all over campus.

The results are always amusing, once in a while laugh out loud funny. Calling the movie dated is to state the more than obvious, a compliment, even. And that's probably its real strength. Flicker's laundry list of counterculture America is ticked off systematically: feminism, sexual liberation, civil rights, rebellion, political ambition. The film wanders, outright goes astray at times and is not as consistently on target as ANALYST (the potshots at Ma Bell are especially funny in that one).

But if you enjoy loopy, knowing jabs at the zeitgeist, this movie is worth the trouble on a slow night. It's also great fun to see Hagman and Collins play characters so far removed from their iconic TV roles in the 1980s.

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