THE TOUCHABLES (1968, directed by Robert Freeman, 89 minutes, U.K.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC As part of The Philadelphia Art Museum’s “Pop Goes the Museum” exhibition The Secret Cinema will be presenting a rare screening of Robert Freeman’s 1968 Pop-tastic film, The Touchables in 16mm. Set in and around “Swingin’ London” The Touchables was dismissed by Renata Adler at the New York Times as “a sort of fidgety mod pornography, ” perhaps understandable in its time. Yet to modern eyes the film looks like a 60s fetishist’s catalog of groovy fashions, beautiful people, and Playboy Magazine-derived titillation, off-set by a cynical air that bridges the gap between the heady mid-sixties and increasingly tumultuous decade’s end.
The action centers around a quartet of striking young women who live along a small body of water in a giant clear inflatable dome. When we meet them at the opening they’ve conspired to steal a wax effigy of Michael Caine (complete with his Harry Palmer glasses) from the far-out party they’re attending. After success with snatching the dummy, the women set their sights on “Christian” a superstar pop musician who they kidnap and tie to their circular bed as their sex slave. Games, rituals and heavy talk ensue.
The Pop Movement had completely been absorbed into the DNA of this sort of hip, counter-culture-aspiring vehicle, and Chiquita banana logos, super heroes and posters of rock stars flash before us to honor the aesthetic. On the periphery is a colorful bunch of characters played too broad to take seriously, including a ballet-trained wrestler and black gay gangster who goes by the name “Mr. Lillywhite.”
Robert Freeman was brought in as first-time director, his main claim to fame being photographer of choice to The Beatles (Freeman photographed every U.K. cover of the Beatles from With the Beatles to Rubber Soul), but if 20th Century Fox thought they were getting a kind of sexy female version of Help out of the generously-budgeted production they were mistaken. By 1968 violence and revolution were in the air and the film itself can’t seem to completely keep darkness away. The quartet of gorgeous “Touchables” aren’t driven by love or passion, one lass even brings down their captive’s ego in bed by assuring him post-coitally, “You’re just a temporary solution to the leisure problem. Our flavour of the month.”
It’s a cynicism and weariness you’ll find in a similar feature that was released on the same day in November of 1968, The Monkee’s Head. That film was a bust too. Freeman would do a 180 with his next film, a quiet and exquisitely bleak domestic drama titled Secret World with Jacqueline Bisset. That would bomb too and Freeman would return to photography never to direct again. But he left behind this gorgeously-wrought bauble of a moment when Pop’s giddy veneer began to crack and reveal the gloomy post-60s vibe that was to follow.
The Secret Cinema In Conjunction With The Philadelphia Museum Of Art’s International Pop Exhibition Presents The Touchables Wednesday, February 24, 6:00 p.m. @ The PMA Phawker film critic Dan Buskirk will lead a post-film discussion