Due to Waters, `Boom' finally makes joyful noise

April 23, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"A pointless, pompous nightmare."

"An ordeal in tedium."

"Outright junk."

That's what the critics were saying about "Boom!" when it was released in 1968. But not John Waters. "I saw it, I think, probably at the New Theater, or somewhere in downtown Baltimore," Waters recalled last week. "It was a big flop. There were, like, three people in the audience, and it vanished in one week."

But that wasn't the end of "Boom!," Joseph Losey's adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore." Critically scathed and ignored by audiences, the movie has never come out on video. But Waters has launched a one-man crusade on the film's behalf, championing it in the august pages of Premiere and presenting it to appreciative audiences at festivals in Dallas and Toronto.

Baltimore filmgoers will finally have a chance to see Waters' favorite movie tonight, when he presents "Boom!" at the Maryland Film Festival. Elizabeth Taylor plays Sissy Goforth, the richest woman in the world. "And Richard Burton plays the angel of death, someone who visits rich ladies right before they die to get their money," Waters said. "The problem is, she was much too young [for the role] and he was much too old for the role."

Filmgoers might be tempted to reduce "Boom!" to merely a camp classic. Which it is. "Elizabeth Taylor wears the most insane outfits and Noel Coward plays the Witch of Capri," said Waters. "And the house is really amazing. It was built only for this movie, it had no roof or anything, and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton tried to buy it. They drank Bloody Marys all through the making of this movie so they tried to buy it. Her character has the best curtains I've ever seen in a movie."

But Waters doesn't worship "Boom!" as camp so much as a noble disaster. For him, "Boom!" is a litmus test movie, which he shows to potential friends to ascertain their compatibility. "The only other people I ever found out who liked it are Pat Moran and Martin Scorsese," he said. Tennessee Williams also approved, calling it "a beautiful picture, the best ever made of one of my plays."

Filmgoers will surely laugh at "Boom!," especially when Burton turns to the camera and utters the movie's oft-repeated punch line: "Boom, the sound of each moment of still being alive." But even with lines like that, Waters insisted, "it's not a bad movie. It's a failed art movie. I've said it before, and it's true: It's so genuinely beautiful and awful that there's only one way to describe it, and that's perfect."

John Waters will present "Boom!" at the Charles Theatre tonight at 8.

Family love fills `Hollow'

Rory Kennedy visited Appalachia in 1997 with an eye toward making a film about the impact of welfare reform on rural communities. But when she met Iree Bowling, who along with her 13 children lives in a hollow in eastern Kentucky, her focus changed.

"I was instantly struck by their sense of family and community, and a way of life that was unfamiliar to me, in terms of living off the land and gardening and making quilts and going to the mountain and collecting ginseng and bloodroot. I thought, there's a great film here."

The result is "American Hollow," Kennedy's portrait of the Bowlings that made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and will be shown at the Maryland Film Festival tonight. Lauded for its sensitive portrayal of a family rooted in tradition yet grappling with the pull of urban life, "American Hollow" will air on HBO in November.

The fact that Kennedy, 30, was drawn to a story about family and community should come as no surprise. The youngest child of the late Robert Kennedy, she is, after all, a member of an extended family that parallels the Bowlings in its strong sense of continuity and responsibility -- not to mention a fiercely determined matriarch. "Despite the vast differences, there was something I identified with," Kennedy said in a telephone interview from her office in New York. "Certainly that was part of what intrigued me."

As Kennedy recounts her stays with the Bowling family, one cannot escape another parallel: Her father's own trip to Appalachia in 1968, when he sought to understand poverty in the United States.

"That was a really meaningful experience for him and certainly part of the reason why I was interested in visiting the area," said Kennedy, who was born six months after her father died. (Her sister is Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.)

Rory Kennedy will present "American Hollow" at the Charles Theatre tonight at 7. Her mother, Ethel Kennedy, will be in attendance. The film will be shown again tomorrow at 10 a.m.

Festival schedule

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