Bad timing, huh... Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger recommends that you check your mechanical advance with a timing light, say, 6 degrees or so, and wiggle the shaft to see if the bushings are sound. Oh, and stay the hell away from any Theresa Russell character, or suffer madness.
"A sick film made by sick people for sick people."—Rank, original distributor of Bad Timing
I didn't enjoy watching Bad Timing. It is, indeed, a sick film, sick to the core (though made by nonsick people for nonsick people, despite the famous quote). Its sickness will invade you as you watch it. If you've had a bad breakup, been a bad man or woman, or ever been with one, this film will open up old wounds and pour cheap liquor into them. It is voyeuristic, yet seems so personal that it makes you feel narcissistic. Even if you personally would never throw a mentally ill woman down onto the stairs and ravish her in front of her neighbors, Bad Timing makes you feel like you might. Top that uncomfortable dose of perceptive insight with an overly convoluted narrative and visual style, mix in a healthy dose of padding—Bad Timing becomes one bitter pill.
With that nastiness out of the way, let's step back a second and evaluate this thing clinically. Bad Timing is exceptionally multilayered; you could literally write volumes on the themes within its deeply nested plot. It is helmed by a great, if unfairly marginalized, director. Bad Timing is honest, gritty, and dense, with intense visual imagery. If you can get past the unwholesome core and irritating trappings, Bad Timing offers a challenging artistic experience.
Facts of the Case
Art Garfunkel (yep, that Art Garfunkel) is Alex Linden, an obsessively restrained American psychoanalyst living in Vienna. He has the misfortune of crossing paths with Milena (Theresa Russell, Wild Things), a mercurial, spontaneous…aw, who are we kidding, stark raving bonkers wild girl (it is Theresa Russell, after all). But is she more screwed up than Alex? Toss-up, that.
As Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel, Reservoir Dogs) soon learns, Milena has a husband across the border named Stefan (Denholm Elliott, Raiders of the Lost Ark). But that doesn't stop Alex and Milena from audacious flirting, stairway screwing, tossing liquor bottles out of third-story windows while screaming obscenities, and taking in Klimt exhibits. You know, the typical Americans-in-Europe antics.
Wait, why is an inspector involved? Instead of her usual nightly hissy fit of sex and emotional warfare, Milena is spending this evening in the operating room getting her stomach pumped and her trachea perforated. Inspector Netusil thinks Alex might know why. Alex isn't talking—and that makes the inspector very curious.
Though I have my own long list of reasons why I dislike Bad Timing, you'll undoubtedly come up with your own. At the risk of sounding uncool, I can see why the film got such a rocky reception in 1980, and why it wasn't reclaimed in a grassroots movement within the last 25 years. It is simply unpleasant to digest.
The 1970s were a fine time for cinema. Directors experimented freely. Realistic human themes were not shied away from; in fact, they were embraced. Bitter tales of bereavement and breakup had a chance to shine. Even within these tolerant bounds, however, Nicolas Roeg was a limit tester. He got away with audaciously racy stuff—if you can call releasing films over a cacophony of public outcry and confusion "getting away." There were rumors of actual "performance" in the steamy Performance. The Man Who Fell to Earth threw people for a loop. Young Jennie Agutter's revealing performance in Walkabout was natural in context, but forgive me for feeling a little creeped-out watching a blossoming schoolgirl in such intimate circumstances.
In Bad Timing, Roeg elevates Walkabout's creepy Agutter riff into an in-your-face refrain. It is intentionally voyeuristic, intensely intimate, and highly creepy. Perhaps films should be judged solely on their own merit and not in comparison to similar works. Nonetheless, the temptation to compare Bad Timing to Walkabout is hard to ignore. Both films had intense sexual politics set within forbidding social environments. Both films highlighted voyeurism and victims. But Walkabout featured innocent victims who did not choose their circumstances. Bad Timing has the same undercurrents, but with consenting adults who are free to take different paths. If you took Kramer vs. Kramer's sunny interpersonal banter, then mixed in some psychological rape and the bunny from Fatal Attraction, you'd be close to the feeling you'll get from Bad Timing.
Is that inherently bad? Isn't the informative exploration of our pain and depravity valid cinematic fodder? Sure it is—but we don't have to enjoy watching it. And if subject matter were the only issue, my take on Bad Timing would be more positive.
Bad Timing has a pathologically convoluted structure. Like Once Upon A Time In America and Pulp Fiction, Bad Timing jumps back and forth in time to create new layers of meaning. Unlike those films, Bad Timing's temporal shifts don't feel like organic parts of the story, but like attacks on our sense of place and time. It is quite effective in small doses, such as when Milena's writhing orgasms are rapidly intercut with her convulsing, blood-spewing throes on the O.R. table. In fact, Roeg's approach may have been novel in 1980, so unfamiliar to audiences that they'd have little hope of following along. In these post–Pulp Fiction days, or maybe just because 21st-century audiences know how to quickly orient themselves, Bad Timing's jarring structure isn't so jarring. There were precious few times that I found myself confused about when or where I was in the film, and I got the distinct impression that I was supposed to be confused. This makes Bad Timing seem quaint at best, disingenuous at worst.
Despite Roeg's best attempts to keep us off guard, Bad Timing wears itself out by the middle act, which seems to go on forever. We're long past the point where we "get" Alex and Milena's interpersonal dynamic. Nonetheless, we must suffer through Alex's tedious path of clinical discovery, a side trip to Africa, several breakups and get-back-togethers, and exhaustive police questioning before the twist-riddled denouement arrives. It all piles on top of itself to make Bad Timing a draining journey.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some of the world's greatest art is exhausting, and painful, and just as cruelly revelatory. Bad Timing's intolerable worm-in-your-soul vibe is actually impressive if you think about it. No one can accuse Roeg of avoiding uncomfortable detail, or of missing the mark. If you've lived your own hell of bad timing, Bad Timing becomes instantly valid. (Incidentally, if you don't already know the gruesome twist at the end of this film, be aware that this section of the review will spoil it.)
Nicolas Roeg is a bold, detailed, and visually emotive director. He has directed a large handful of excellent-to-great films, and many people count Bad Timing among them. Most people involved with the production found it challenging, but also worth the struggle, and they were collectively stung by the poor reception it received. The director, cast, and crew put their hearts into it, and it shows.
Art Garfunkel was cast for his intellectual, snobbish physicality. Though I could never stop thinking in the back of my mind "this is Art Garfunkel," he carries the air that Roeg intended. Art alternates between primly pursed lips and angrily flashing eyes, and his impassivity doesn't do much to sell his emotional range as an actor. He nonetheless manages to convey a strictly constrained intellectual with depraved, suppressed passions.
Theresa Russell is a dynamo. She delivers a flat line or two, but she suffers from directorial indulgence more than anything. The rest of the time, she throws herself into the role with such unfettered ferocity that she compels us and drains us just like an actual borderline lover might. Her character's cold-faucet, hot-faucet mind games and desperate attempts to appear carefree spin a deep emotional web.
Harvey Keitel shows us glimpses of the hardboiled naïveté he would perfect in Reservoir Dogs, but his performance is drastically hindered by Roeg's free-form approach to time and plot, along with stilted dialogue. Denholm Elliott is quiet and powerful in his scant scenes.
Though the plot is plodding and the structure warped, Bad Timing builds a gruesome finale. The twilight of their relationship is full of sound and fury, and Garfunkel and Russell each get the chance to throw heavy punches. Milena is sinister and sublimely cruel when she paints her face into a macabre mask just to shake Alex up. Alex gets the last laugh, of course, when he comes across Milena's unresponsive, drug-riddled body. After her whirlwind emotional assault, who can blame the guy for wanting a nice, slow, uninterrupted romantic interlude with her unconscious form?
Roeg graces these scenes with powerful visual style. Bad Timing is carefully rendered throughout, telling us what undercurrents are present simply through lighting and set decor. The interplay between characters and environment is nuanced and complex. It should come as no surprise that Criterion's transfer flawlessly captures this style. The famous 1970s film stock degradation, if it even exists in this 1980 print, has been erased. Colors are muted but saturated well, with deeper black levels than I expected. The detail is passed through without molestation. There are some strange blurred effects in the last few reels, and I cannot tell if these are intentional or not.
Roeg is a rock-and-roll kind of guy, and he uses a rock-and-roll kind of soundtrack. From The Who to Tom Waits, the soundtrack weeps rock cool. Like many of the film's touches, these songs call attention to themselves, but their inclusion marks Roeg as a guy with good musical taste. Again, I cannot fault Criterion's handling of the audio. However, the audio track suffers a strange disconnection, where words are uttered with no lip movement, and the aural reality seems discordant with what we see onscreen. Like the blurs, this might be print damage, poor editing, or completely intentional—but I can't tell, which makes it suspect in my book.
The deleted scenes are interesting for historical context, but it is obvious why they were cut. The photo gallery and liner notes booklet seem to have taken uppers and turned into mega-gallery and super-booklet. The liner notes are particularly impressive, with an informative essay and a telling interview with Art Garfunkel from Rolling Stone, and more.
The interviews are the real heart of the extras. Theresa Russell is luminous and salty while discussing this soul-rending film. She seems refreshingly normal in comparison to the intensity she shows in her scenes. This is one of the most peppy, informative, and involving actor interviews I've seen. It goes on forever, and gets more interesting as the interview goes on. Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas somehow manage to seem stuffy and maverick at the same time, which goes along with their jocular dismissal of the intense pain and frustration involved with Bad Timing's distribution. Their interview also goes on forever, and is as informative as Russell's but not as engaging. Maybe it has to do with Theresa's considerable screen presence, so the comparison is hardly fair. The point to take home is that this pair of interviews is as detailed as a full-length commentary, but even richer for the face time and stills from the production mixed in.
Bad Timing is a hissing, spitting, emotional monster of psychological depravity. It goes into dark corners and roots around in the muck. Bad Timing is as wholesome as a Klimt painting, as carefree as Nietzsche. In other words, it is as powerful as it is unpleasant.
Roeg appreciators will be in heaven with this DVD package. This is one of his most hotly contested films, and it was a turning point for him artistically and commercially. For these reasons, Criterion's interest in the film is understandable. Nonetheless, some of the stylistic decisions are best left in the seventies—and it is a psychologically brutal film that will terrorize you if you've ever been in a bad relationship, or been the bad one yourself.
My heart says guilty, but the rule of law prevails. Bad Timing gets off on the technicality of being a well-crafted film with an inspired performance from Theresa Russell.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Nicolas Roeg and Jeremy Thomas
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