Cinema's 50 greatest flops, follies and failures: part 6

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In the Top Five, distant past and cosmic future meet in a veritable explosion of profligate spending and wasted man-hours, not to mention the end of the line for two brilliant directorial careers...

5. Peeping Tom (1960)

Directed by Michael Powell
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Proof, if it were needed, that public outrage doesn't equal creative failure, Michael Powell's masterpiece about a lonesome, London-based voyeur who has a bizarre fixation for filming young women was so shocking on release that it destroyed the career of Britain's greatest ever film director. The irony is that, in the same year, the only other moviemaker arguably worthy of that claim released a film which was just as furtive, exploitative and vicious, but which had the good sense and decorum to treat the whole serial-murder scenario as one big joke: Hitchcock's ‘Psycho' may be a great ride, but it's no ‘Peeping Tom'. But could the film's impact be replicated today? Is any single image or concept so shocking - outside of sheer illegality - that it could ruin the career of a beloved national treasure?

Powell's big mistake was to lay the blame squarely at the feet of cinema itself. In a spectacular case of biting the hand that fed him, the director implied that not only was his audience sick for wanting to see this sort of filth, and that he himself was sick for wanting to make it, but that the entire twisted, detached and voyeuristic business of making and viewing films would inevitably result in humanity becoming a twisted, detached and voyeuristic species. As an expression of self-loathing it is near-pathological, a film drowning in oppressive, stifling horror and misanthropic hatred. But as an artistic and intellectual experience it is grand, subversive and wholly thrilling, one of the absolute peaks of our national cinema.TH
Watch the suitably overcooked trailer

Read the Time Out review


playtime 1.jpg

4. Playtime (1969)

Directed by Jacques Tati
Tales of the city
An unyielding desire to fulfil a personal artistic vision at any cost appears to be one of the key symptoms of the grand cinematic folly. Enter ‘Playtime', the fourth film by Jacques Tati which – during its production – managed to break banks, hearts and spirits. Four years in the making, this near-plotless municipal ballet sees Tati's spring-heeled interloper M Hulot bounding around a less-than-gay alternative Paris where the glass-and-steel bootprint of modernism has relegated cultural landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Coeur and Arc de Triomphe to mere reflections in office windows. The film was a labour of love for Tati, and like all good labours of love, it was a box office dirty bomb. He sank everything he had into its production, with the creation and maintenance of a huge purpose-built set in the Parisian suburbs - affectionately dubbed ‘Tativille' and intended to function as a Cinecittà for the French film industry after its use - leaving him near-penniless after filming wrapped. Even then, Tati went to extreme lengths to preserve his singular artistic vision, including personally re-editing the film night-upon-night in the projection booth of Paris's Empire cinema during its initial run.

It's easy to peg the film (and, indeed, Tati's entire cinematic oeuvre) as being archly dismissive of technological ‘progress'. Take the early furniture expo scene where useless innovations such as brooms fitted with headlights and doors designed not to slam captivate throngs of tat-thirsty dilettantes. But it's actually a film that locates the joyful, absurdist heart at the centre of these ultra-ergonomical (and, let's be honest, chillingly accurate) living environments: fishbowl domiciles where life becomes public theatre; open-plan offices with leather chairs that make funny noises; cubic tower-block facades that prompt an almost fascistic human impulse to walk in dead straight lines.

Breezily including dance, poetry, art, architecture, music, mime and comedy into the mix, ‘Playtime' is one of very few feature comedies that feels as spontaneous as it does cogent and microscopically crafted. It's a wild compendium of detail and observation with Tati - the wild-eyed architect at its centre - placing them on to his vast celluloid canvas where they overlap, double-up and interlock at a rate which, especially if you're sitting too close to the screen, is likely to outrun even the most watchful of eyes. ‘Playtime' is also the most lucid expression of Tati's effort to ‘democratise' comedy - where every character, no matter how small, has the potential to be funny - even to the point where the beloved Hulot is submerged into his crowded set-ups, all filmed in majestic long shot. But, as Tati always said, some films have Sophia Loren in the starring-role. In ‘Playtime', the city is the star. DJ
Watch a classic Tati visual gag

Read the Time Out review

Dune.jpg

3. Dune (1984)

Directed by David Lynch
In space, no one can hear you spend
Some follies sound great on paper, but then something goes awry in the translation. Not so ‘Dune', which was always a pretty daft idea. Attempting to squeeze Frank Herbert's sprawling sci-fi epic into a single two-hour-plus film, incorporating all of its many plot diversions, religious entanglements and political machinations, is simply an impossible task. For producer Dino de Laurentiis to then hand the project over to a self-confessed avant garde experimentalist with only two films behind him was bold but, clearly, bonkers. As Lynch himself admitted, ‘you'd have to be either stupid or crazy to do something like this.' No kidding.

Let's be clear - ‘Dune' is an extraordinary film, flaws and all. David Lynch's understanding of Herbert's world, his extraordinary translation of word into image, remains breathtaking, as does the sheer, mind-boggling scope of the entire enterprise: the sets, the ships, the shouting. Lynch's script does a fine job of compressing vast amounts of outlandish information into relatively bite-size chunks, even if it does take a few views to get it all. And the cast is just perfect: everyone remembers Sting in the big black nappy, but he's a rare misfire in a globe-spanning ensemble cherry-picking the very best from 50 years of prestige cinema, from the crumbling magnificence of Jose Ferrer to the brooding intensity of Jurgen Prochnow, from the stately beauty of Francesca Annis to Kyle MacLachlan and his planetary bumchin.

And yet the film, unsurprisingly, flopped, taking a mighty portion of the De Laurentiis fortune with it. Was it the aforementioned inscrutability, flinging around words like Kwisatz Haderach and Shadout Mapes with gleeful abandon? Was it the fact that, thanks to swingeing post-production cuts, the script had been sliced down to its barest bones (some cinema chains even gave away a crib sheet to help understand the plot)? Was it the grotesque, Lynchian nastiness of the project: the heart-plugs, the live cow autopsy, the grand-patricidal four year old? Or was it a combination of the above, coupled with the fact that mainstream audiences were never going to go for an epic deconstruction of the Middle East problem - with spaceships? Well, with Hollywood set for another snort at the spice, we may soon have a chance to find out...TH
Watch the first part of a superb interview with Lynch and Frank Herbert

Read the Time Out review

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2. Heaven's Gate (1980)

Directed by Michael Cimino
Like Watergate, only far more costly
Cimino's grand western folly came at a hefty price, but it's a hefty piece of filmmaking. Yes, it was a financial bust, yes, it left the director's reputation in tatters and yes, its failure put the studio behind it - United Artists - out of commission, but if you put such piffling trifles to one side you're left with a film of uninhibited scope and grandeur that improves year upon year.

Hot off the back of Oscar-baiting 'Nam-slam ‘The Deer Hunter', Cimino was given the keys to the kingdom and set about building the western to end them all. Based around the Johnson County Wars of 1892, it takes its sweet time mulling over the dichotomy lurking within the American ideals of freedom and progress - and considers the plight of the poor bastards perennially stuck in the middle.

The original 228-minute cut might be pushing it for a film with no recognizable stars, scant gunplay and a ten-minute scene devoted to a skating session in the titular ‘Heaven's Gate' roller rink, but on the other hand, the cast is superb, the action, when it does arrive, is awesome and the aforementioned scene is one of the most lyrical ever committed to celluloid. Monumental in every sense of the word, ‘Heaven's Gate' was a flop, a folly, and - for most people - a failure, but for those willing to be swept away by its opulence it remains a treasure undimmed. ALD.
Watch how the west was really won – on roller skates! – here

Read the Time Out review here

And click here to reveal the number 1 folly...

Author: Adam Lee Davies, Tom Huddleston, David Jenkins and Anna Smith



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