Saturday, May 18, 2013

If This Wasn't Streaming on Netflix, Would Anyone Remember It Existed?: WHERE IS PARSIFAL? (1984)

(UK - 1984)

Directed by Henri Helman.  Written by Berta Dominguez D.  Cast: Tony Curtis, Cassandra Domenica, Erik Estrada, Peter Lawford, Ron Moody, Donald Pleasence, Orson Welles, Christopher Chaplin, Vladek Sheybal, Arthur Beatty, Nancy Roberts, Jay Benedict, Anthony Dawson, Edward Burnham, Victoria Burgoyne, Ava Lazar. (PG, 82 mins)

Alexander Salkind (1921-1997) had been producing films in Europe since the early 1960s when he finally had a pair of breakout hits with THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973) and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974).  He managed to make opulent films while always keeping an eye on the bottom line, as evidenced by the cast of the MUSKETEERS films--which were shot simultaneously--suing Salkind for only paying them for one film when his plan was to release them as two all along (this flim-flammery prompted the Screen Actors Guild to create what's actually known as the "Salkind Clause," which prevents producers from extending an actor's contract for one film into two or more).  He tried the same thing a few years later with SUPERMAN (1978) and SUPERMAN II (1981), the latter being shot mostly at the same time as SUPERMAN until Salkind and his producing partner and son Ilya (born in 1947) fired director Richard Donner and replaced him with Richard Lester.  Co-star Gene Hackman, aware of Salkind's chicanery on the MUSKETEERS films, wasn't having any of it and refused to return when shooting reconvened with Lester in 1979, forcing the use of a Lex Luthor double in SUPERMAN II's Lester-shot footage (anything you see of Hackman in SUPERMAN II was actually shot in 1977-78 by Donner).  Alexander Salkind became a veritable mini-mogul thanks to the SUPERMAN films, but a string of costly bombs quickly sent things south for him.  SUPERMAN III (1983) flopped and the spinoff film SUPERGIRL (1984) and SANTA CLAUS (1985) tanked badly.  By 1987, the Salkinds were forced to sell the SUPERMAN franchise to Cannon's Golan & Globus, who produced the botched SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE.  Salkind resurfaced in 1992 when he produced CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: THE DISCOVERY, which cost $40 million and grossed $8 million, landing a spot on the Ten Worst list of virtually every major critic that year.  Following the COLUMBUS debacle, both Salkinds left the movie business.  Alexander died in 1997, and several years later, Ilya attempted an ill-advised comeback by trying to cash in on Oliver Stone's ALEXANDER with the troubled YOUNG ALEXANDER.  Filmed in 2004, YOUNG ALEXANDER had release dates announced in 2007 and 2010, but remains shelved, possibly uncompleted, and thus far has yet to be released anywhere, bringing the once-mighty Salkind legacy to its apparent conclusion.

Maybe the Salkinds weren't cut out to be blockbuster movie producers.  Alexander seemed to be more at home with artsy and auteur-friendly European fare like Abel Gance's 1960 epic AUSTERLITZ and Orson Welles' brilliant 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka's THE TRIAL.  But during the height of their success--or at the beginning of the fall--there was one other Alexander Salkind project, made between SUPERMAN III and SUPERGIRL, that's fallen through the cracks over time and is rarely mentioned.  WHERE IS PARSIFAL? was produced by Salkind and veteran director Terence Young (DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, WAIT UNTIL DARK), and was conceived as a vanity project for Salkind's wife Berta Dominguez D, who wrote the script under her own name and co-starred under the pseudonym "Cassandra Domenica."  She'd written scripts before (1977's CROSSED SWORDS) and after (Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1990 misfire THE RAINBOW THIEF), and acted occasionally (her own self-financed 1982 film MAYA, and co-starring in Catherine Breillat's 1988 film 36 FILLETTE), but WHERE IS PARSIFAL? was Salkind giving his wife carte blanche to make whatever she wanted to make and he provided a generous budget to get a large cast of big names, even if many were on the downside of their storied careers.  The film is the only English-language work of French TV director Henri Helman, and considering the appearances of Young regulars like Vladek Sheybal and Anthony Dawson (both vets of early 007 films), it's possible that Young may have directed some of it. 

Little is known about WHERE IS PARSIFAL?, as it vanished shortly after being screened at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.  Columbia submitted it to the MPAA and it got a PG rating, even with a few topless shots of Victoria Burgoyne, but they ended up shelving it.  It never received a US theatrical or home video release, and was largely unseen in the rest of the world, turning up first on VHS in Australia in the late 1980s.  Bootleg DVDs have appeared, and the film made a recent British Film Institute "75 Lost Films" list.  Well, it's lost no more:  it turned up on Netflix streaming earlier this week in what looks like a 1.33 VHS transfer, around the same time that same transfer magically appeared on YouTube (you can tell it just went up because as of this writing:  5 views).   There's a reason WHERE IS PARSIFAL? was buried under a rock and has been nowhere to be found for decades:  it's a self-indulgent, unwatchable piece of shit.

As Elba, Dominguez D/"Domenica" is the supposed star, but after an incomprehensible introduction pulling off some weird theft with sinister magician Morjack (Sheybal), she largely takes a backseat as the film is overtaken by a cast of embarrassed guest stars.  Elba's husband is financially-strapped inventor Parsifal Katzenellenbogen (Tony Curtis), an eccentric hypochondriac who's desperately trying to sell the rights to a skywriting machine.  Parsifal, or "Parsi," oversees a house full of oddballs: his depressed teenage son Ivan (Christopher Chaplin, Ilya Salkind's brother-in-law and the youngest child of Charles, who was 73 when he was born) and his older girlfriend Sheila (Ava Lazar); Elba's rollerskating lover Luke (Jay Benedict); Jasper (Arthur Beatty), a tall black Buddhist who broadcasts radio transmissions through Parsi's mansion; and alcoholic German butler Beersbohm (Ron Moody).  All of these characters mug shamelessly, shout, run from room to room, slam doors, drop things, engage in slapstick pratfalls, and spout improvised nonsense.  This goes on for some time until Parsi arranges a dinner party with some potential purchases of the skywriter:  wealthy gangster Henry Board II (Erik Estrada), who's accompanied by aging, has-been movie heartthrob Montague Chippendale (Peter Lawford); babbling, kilt-wearing Scotsman Mackintosh (Donald Pleasence), and, much later, gypsy billionaire Klingsor the 19th (Orson Welles).  What transpires is a lot of yelling, more running around, periodic bits where wacky music plays over sped-up action in an attempt to be "zany," Moody turning in the most humiliating performance of his career--at different points in the film, he's sporting bird shit and a lampshade on his head--and finally, a mawkish skywritten message from Berta Dominguez D, instructing the world to "Master Your Fate, Try Love."  People will do a lot for love, and if nothing else, the pointless, practically plotless WHERE IS PARSIFAL? proves that Alexander Salkind truly, madly, and deeply loved his wife.

You'll rarely see a cast looking more abandoned than the one spazzing out here.  Curtis, his career on a decade-plus downward spiral from which it never really recovered, was hitting bottom with alcoholism and a serious cocaine addiction that rendered him virtually unemployable in Hollywood.  He looks terrible here, and shortly after finishing PARSIFAL, he was hospitalized and went into rehab.  He got clean and sober, and was rewarded with his best role in years in Nicolas Roeg's INSIGNIFICANCE (1985), but Hollywood lost interest in him and he was still forced to resort to stuff like LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS by 1989.  This was Estrada's first movie role after the hugely popular TV series CHiPS went off the air in 1983.  His big-screen career pretty much started and ended with WHERE IS PARSIFAL? and while his TV fame didn't carry over to the big screen (his next film was the 1985 Italian action flick LIGHT BLAST), he remained busy in low-budget DTV fare and, inevitably, reality TV, and is a fan-convention fixture to this day.  It had to be disheartening for Estrada to make the leap from TV to movies and think he's hitting the big time in an Alexander Salkind project with all these big names.  Who wouldn't sign on for that?  Estrada's performance here is pretty hammy, but unlike almost everyone else, he doesn't shame himself and manages to generate some amusement with his delivery of lines like "I'm gonna kick your ass to Katmandu!"  WHERE IS PARSIFAL? was Lawford's last film (he died in late 1984) and he's essentially playing a caricature of himself.  Welles turns up about 70 minutes in and promptly takes over the film, which wasn't too difficult.  Welles died in 1985 and WHERE IS PARSIFAL? is sometimes erroneously credited as his last film.  It's his last onscreen appearance playing a character, if that counts for anything.  His final two films were posthumously released:  he was the voice of Unicron in the animated TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE (1986), and played a version of himself dispensing filmmaking and romantic advice to the insufferable Henry Jaglom in Jaglom's SOMEONE TO LOVE, shot in 1985 but unreleased until 1988.  Welles was never one to turn down an easy payday, but he probably felt some sense of gratitude to Salkind, who bankrolled THE TRIAL for him two decades earlier and, though it was a low-budget film and Salkind ran out of money before it was finished, he was one of the few producers who left Welles alone, trusted him, and let him make the film he wanted to make.

WHERE IS PARSIFAL?, allegedly a satirical look at the Salkinds' odd home life, is a thoroughly and painfully unfunny home movie disguised as a farce, broadly played to the back rows in the most grating way imaginable, trying to go for some kind of "anarchic" spirit, but it's essentially a bunch of vignettes with once-reputable and probably intoxicated pros acting like blithering idiots for a paycheck.  Curtis is at least energetic and amped up, but it was probably just the coke.  It's no surprise Berta Dominguez D's acting career never took off, considering that she manages to get crowded into a corner for the bulk of her own vanity project.  No one should have to endure WHERE IS PARSIFAL? (I almost bailed after ten minutes), but with that incredible cast, there's an undeniable train wreck fascination to it, even if it makes what should be a brief 82 minutes feel like a prison sentence.  It's one of the worst comedies of the 1980s, and maybe even one of the worst films you'll ever see and while it was smaller and more under the radar compared to expensive turkeys like SUPERMAN III, SUPERGIRL, and SANTA CLAUS, WHERE IS PARSIFAL? must share some of the culpability in the crashing and burning of the Salkind empire.

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