Geeky Cinephile Musings…
I don't pontificate, I blather.

In Defense of High Spirits

Dear Mr. Jordan, (May I call you Neil?)

I am writing to you as a concerned advocate of your films. I have followed your career closely, and I pretty much adore everything you do. Quite frankly, if you did a short film about toilets, I would most likely be one of the first in line at the box office. I realize that you have created lush, cinematic works of art that have led me to refer to you as the Francisco Goya of the silver screen, and I realize that you put your heart and soul into each of these pieces, and that they are all individually very near and dear to you.

All, it would seem, but one.

Let me give you a little background first, so you’ll know better where all this is coming from. At the tender age of 13, a school-mate of mine gave me a VHS tape, mottled and worn with age, with blue marker-ed slashes indicating on the spine that the footage contained within was that of a film called “HIGH SPIRITS.” Now, this school-mate’s stepfather is Irish, so his newly formed American family had naturally gravitated to all things Irish (as us Americans tend to do), including the welcome mat proudly proclaiming, “Caed Mile Failte!!” at the front entrance.

No matter, I digress.  My friend said to me, “You would LOVE this movie. Here, take it.” And I did. I brought it home that very evening, showed it to my mother, and said, “Here’s what we’re watching after dinner, Mom! High Spirits!!” to which I received a cocked eyebrow and a dubious, “Okaaaayyy…” Come to think of it, at that age, she probably thought I was bringing home some kind of movie advocating marijuana.  At any rate, what began that day, after popping that tape into the ol’ VCR was a love affair with two things: You, and a real recognition and appreciate of the art of ensemble acting. At the age of 13, that’s not too shabby. Throughout the years, this film has continued to be one of my favorites—and my mother’s! I’ve just about driven my husband mad by playing it over and over again. I’ve memorized most of the dialogue. This is my go-to film when I need to sit on the couch on a gray and rainy day (we don’t get a lot of those in Los Angeles, but when we do..!) and giggle helplessly.

I’ve continued to watch and re-watch your other films as well—quite an impressive resume you’ve got going there—and what a wide array of subjects! You always pluck my heart strings with your gorgeously tragic tales of impossible love, with humanity shown at its ultimate vulnerability and strength, and with your ghoulishly sensual sensibility. I set out to write an entire essay based on you and your work after my readers voted for you as a topic (it was either you or a debate on horror films and CGI, and you won! Congratulations!). Well, imagine my surprise, then shock, then shame when I discover during my EXTENSIVE research that…

…you HATE HIGH SPIRITS?!?!?!?!

I stared, unbelieving. I shuddered. I moaned. I threw off my clothing and cowered in the corner of our old, cracked-tile bathroom, turned on the shower full blast, let the hot spray hit me, tried to wash off the invisible dirt of my cinematic sins, and I sobbed until I thought my heart would break.

“NOOOOO!!! Why?!!? WHY?!?!?!” I shouted in vain at the heat lamp (which doesn’t work anymore, simply MUST get that fool of a landlord back in here again) above. The world is a cruel, cruel place when someone who prides themselves on their knowledge of film suddenly realizes one of their favorite movies is THE one that one of their favorite directors despises.

I DO see your point, dear Sir. I scrambled to find any information on what happened in that whole post-production process. As you probably know, there isn’t much explanation, save from a few choice words from you in various interviews. I’ve learned that the U.S. production company completely usurped you in the editing room to the point where your stellar cast (Sorry, but I just CANNOT include Steve Guttenberg and Darryl Hannah in that description, although their performances were not nearly as atrocious as Rotten Tomato viewers would have us all believe) was complaining that it wasn’t even the film they originally signed up for. Your version has, quite tragically, never been shown.  I myself would have, in all likelihood, preferred the version that you would have made, had you held the reins.  Apparently you wanted it darker (fancy that!), more quaint, more restrained, and you wanted the Irish characters pushed to the forefront. I heartily concur on all of those points.

However, having now dusted myself off and applied salve to the various, self-inflicted slash marks on my forearms, I am determined to present to you a lukewarm-at-best argument that quite possibly may convince you, once and for all, that High Spirits, although not the film you originally intended it to be, is nevertheless a wonderfully entertaining film, and it has more of your trademark stamp on its features than perhaps you realize…

…or at least I hope to have you refrain from saying that it’s “a piece of shit,” “the worst of the bunch,” etc.

Let’s start, shall we?

Reasons why High Spirits is not a total piece of shite:

1. Your own daughters love it the best of all your films! Doesn’t that SAY something? This is the fruit of your creative loins!! Pure, unadulterated film innocence, and THEY love High Spirits! Out of the mouths of babes, Neil…

2. This is ensemble acting at its finest. Watching High Spirits, I’m reminded of Noises Off, one of the most brilliantly crafted ensemble pieces of all time, working equally well on both stage and screen. High Spirits actually reminds me of a play—I wonder if you envisioned it originally as such, although I can find no evidence to support this. But it does have some major elements of a play, most notably the static setting within the castle and the dexterity the actors show in playing off one another.  Darryl Hannah and Steve Guttenberg are often separated from the rest of the cast with their storyline, and it works well—they don’t contribute much, but neither do they take away as much as most critics would have you believe. They have their moments—one of my favorites is when Mary (Hannah) drops her terrible Irish accent long enough to bemoan her husband having warts and stinky feet in a post-modern American valley-girl-type cadence.   The rest of the ensemble is stoutly intact, and (you’ll be happy to know) the Irish folk ARE a large part of that group comedic genius. So, even though you feel the Irish were pushed to the background—their craft shines through.

3. You had the DP of a lifetime at the helm—the late, great Alex Thomson. His stamp is irrevocably left on the film, lending it elegance and finesse.

4. The writing is impeccable and sharp, with the sole exception of “You’re a ghost, I’m an American, it would never work out.” I wonder now which bits were not yours, if any. I know you were locked out of editing, but I cannot find any evidence of anyone having written the dialogue but you, and it is piercingly hilarious. Peter O’Toole and the Irish folk, in particular, have wonderfully memorable lines:

I’m not a lady, I’m a BANSHEE!!!” saith Katie (the honey-voiced Mary Coughlin) on the luggage rack…where you often find Banshees.

“…but I can assure you, my first name is not ‘Dick,’ nor is my last name ‘Face.  I do not have a middle name, but had I one I feel certain that my father would not have chosen ‘low-life, shit-for-brains peckerhead.” Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole). Actually, Peter Plunkett’s opening monologue on the phone with Mr. Brogan is absolute, word for word, perfection. You really outdid yourself there.

And of course, my all-time favorite opening speech for any character, of any film, a propos of nothing, given by the amazingly twisted & sexy Miranda (Jennifer Tilly) when she meets Brother Tony (the puppy-dog-adorable Peter Gallagher):

So, I was seeing this guy, and he’s a devil worshipper, right? I mean, he’s a hairdresser really, but he devil worships on the side. And we booked this dumb tour because he likes that kind of stuff—you know, corpses, dead gerbils, that kind of thing. And then he ran off with this Buddhist Monk. I mean, how was I supposed to know he was gay?

5. Liam Neeson is dead sexy as a horny, farty, sexist, wart-ridden ghost who repeatedly stabs his wife every night. How’d ya manage that? Seriously. How DID you manage to make THAT sexy, even if it is Liam Neeson?

6. Despite that fact that it’s a comedy (a farce, even), the horror stands on its own very well. When the ghosts decide to turn it on in the 3rd act, it gets downright creepy—again, your talent and vision are totally coming through here. When the hand comes out of the fish’s mouth and grabs Malcolm (the deliciously pompous Martin Ferrero) by the neck, I get a wee start, every time.  THAT scene is pure you, through and through.

7. Last, but not least, you were able to work with Beverly D’Angelo in this film. She was your partner at the time. How cool is THAT? Okay, so I’m grasping at this point, but it’s late, and I’m needing another cocktail.

So there you have it, Neil. What do you think? Have I sold you at all here? Are you at least willing to grudgingly admit that High Spirits deserves a little more credit than you (and just about every other critic in the world) give it?

By the way, I am truly saddened to hear that the stellar cast of High Spirits was disappointed with the final result when they obviously put their comedic hearts and souls into this (and it shows). I want to reassure them as well that, although it was not the film they signed up for, their talents shine gloriously through nevertheless. They are a DELIGHT to watch, with the penultimate moment being the storm scene.

I guess what I’ve been trying to say all along is this—it’s very difficult when you’re creating a work of art to step back from it and be truly objective, even under the best of circumstances.  Here, you’ve had the worst—you’ve had your work of art taken from you and made into a misguided collage by a bunch of fumbling, American, money-hungry, bastard, studio suits.   But through it all, your indelible handprint remains, as do those of your cast and crew.  I ask you to try and wash away the grime of Hollywood and see the specs of charm in this film that cannot help but peep through.  It is truly lamentable that we’ll never see your version (Or will we?!?! No? Oh, okay.) .  But for now, this version of High Spirits is certainly NOT an unholy trinity of a gobshite, a hoor’s mouth, and a rat’s knackards.

I wish you the best of luck with your current endeavors, and I hope that someday you decide to tackle an ensemble-driven dark comedy again, because damn it, you’re GOOD at it!!

Good night dear Sir, and God bless!

Joyanna Livingston,

Your Humble, Geeky Cinephile

I have a TALENT for finding people who fuck up GOOD films!!!

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