THE COMMITTEE, a film by PETER SYKES, 1968 (DV1/Southbound DVD)

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THE COMMITTEE, a film by PETER SYKES, 1968 (DV1/Southbound DVD)

This strange, disturbing and largely unseen until now British film defined "cult movie" for many decades.

With Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones as the central character, incidental music by Pink Floyd and Arthur ("I am the god of hellfire") Brown performing Nightmare, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of pop film.

But it is far from it.

The Committee is a counter-culture vision where Kafka's The Trial meets Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment against the backdrop of British conformity and the emerging anti-establishment in the late Sixties.

Within the first 10 minutes, Jones' character seemingly makes the cold-blooded killing of a middle-class man who has picked him up while hitchhiking (the man comes back to life after the decapitation and Jones sewing his head back on) and later Jones is called to account by a mysterious committee.

What follows -- the intellectual heart of the film -- is a discussion of responsibility, society, democracy, culture and conformity. The film is based on a story by Max Steuer who was at the time a lecturer in economics and social sciences, who also wrote the script and handed it over to first-time director Sykes.

com1The menacing and bureaucratic committees in the film (there are a few mentioned) are skewered for their seeming lack of productivity and purpose, "but they keep the system going" as one character says with conviction.

There is an eerie and slightly surreal British politeness and reserve maintained throughout, despite the prevailing sense of menace.

I can vividly recall seeing this film (and Jones in his previous film role in Privilege) at a one-off Auckland screening at the time and it had a profound impact -- and not because of the scene where Arthur Brown enters with a flaming headpiece. It was more the constant sense of dislocation, snippets of inane conversation, the knowledge that somewhere behind all this -- this ordinary world just like mine -- was a powerful committee doing . . . something.  

Now available on DVD -- with interviews with Sykes and Steuer, and a reworking of Jones singing the title song -- The Committee remains an unusual, vaguely troubling film which anticipated the Prisoner -- and was the black'n'white flipside to the quirky Britain of The Avengers, not to mention the Summer of Love and Sgt Peppers of the previous year. 

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