Dennis Potter was as brilliant as he is dead. In his last months on earth, the iconoclastic British playwright struggled to finish his final two works, "Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus," and somehow he managed. Both films air this week on cable TV here.
This is a television event like no other. And to make it even more so, both films star Albert Finney, one of the greatest actors on the planet.
"Karaoke" will be shown in two two-hour installments, tonight and tomorrow night at 11, on the Bravo cable network. "Cold Lazarus" follows Wednesday and Thursday at 11 p.m. In addition, Bravo will air a profile of Finney Sunday night at 8.
Potter's final two films are not just scripts but letters from the grave, all the eerier because the central character in both, Daniel Feeld, is clearly the author's alter ego. Like Potter, Feeld is an acerbic and irreverent writer who is no stranger to hospitals; Potter suffered from severe psoriasis and arthritis earlier in life and died, in 1994, of pancreatic cancer. Of several embarrassments Feeld suffers in "Karaoke," the first is a barium enema. "This is all a bit undignified, isn't it?" he says to the doctor and nurse.
The hospital scenes naturally evoke "The Singing Detective," another of Potter's works about a man undergoing intensive medical care. Potter is best known, at least here in the States, as the author of "Pennies From Heaven," a bizarre musical fantasy involving old phonograph records lip-synced by the main character. It was made into a film by Herbert Ross but suffered from the absurd miscasting of Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. Also, Hollywood demanded a happy ending.
"Karaoke" is an existential mystery thriller in which Feeld, struggling to finish work on what will be his last film, is justifiably alarmed to find people on the street, or in restaurants, uttering bits of his dialogue. Feeld's film, called "Karaoke," of course, is in the turbulent final editing stages and Feeld, in addition to being in great pain, continues to drink and smoke heavily against doctor's orders. Is he hallucinating when he hears his lines in a West End restaurant? Is it possible that characters he thought he created out of his imagination really exist?
The riddles are fascinating and you're kept deliriously off-balance for most of the film. Even if you didn't buy a word of it otherwise, Finney's performance would win you over -- he's roguish, robust, ferocious, desperate, a magnificent crank railing against evils and conspiracies that may be actual or fanciful. In the last analysis -- which he himself is facing -- what's the difference?
"Karaoke" takes place over four days, one per hour, as Feeld tries to make sense of what seems to be happening to him. A karaoke bar, where customers sing along to prerecorded orchestral tracks, is important to both Potter's film and Feeld's. It's a metaphor, says Feeld: "The story of our lives is sort of already made up for us," with each person allowed a small area in which to improvise and interpret. Potter indulges again his love for the cheap sentiments of pop songs, among them "Teenager in Love" and "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?", the latter sung in Japanese.
The high point is when Finney himself does a karaoke number in the final hour, a tune with heavenly resonance for even casual fans of Potter's. Finney, with an assist from Bing Crosby, makes this a triumphant, exhilarating, mystical moment.
Among those trying to cope with Feeld and his seeming derangements are Roy Hudd as Ben, his doddering longtime agent, a nervous man given to such spoonerisms as "He who fays the piddler"; Keeley Hawes as Linda Langer, an actress from the wrong side of the tracks who stars in the film; Richard E. Grant as Nick, the director, a sniveling and indecisive snip (Grant played a similar role in "The Player," only he was a writer that time); and Saffron Burrows as Sandra Sollars, a karaoke "hostess" with whom Feeld becomes obsessed. He follows her all over London, rumbling in the rain, certain she is a character he made up for his script.
You will also see, briefly in Part II, Julie Christie, intensely beautiful yet almost unrecognizable as Lady Ruth Balmer, the rich wife of the director and his source of funding. Hywel Bennett plays "Pig" Maillion, the gangsterly villain of the piece.
"Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus" are ingeniously interlocked. As "Karaoke" nears its end and Feeld is told he is nearing his, he investigates the possibility of being cryogenically frozen, so that years later he might be thawed, cured and finish out his life. It doesn't work out just as he'd hoped. When "Cold Lazarus" begins, the world has gotten nearly 400 years older -- it's now 2368 -- and Feeld survives only as a disembodied head kept alive by chemicals in a glass enclosure.
"Cold Lazarus" uses many of the devices of science fiction but isn't quite science fiction. It's set in a world like that foreseen by the Ned Beatty character in "Network": No more states or nations, only gigantic governing corporations. Potter's nightmare of things to come is based on his wariness of multimedia conglomerates -- a few powerful interests controlling movies, television and the press.
Fittingly, his villain this time is clearly inspired by media megamagnate Rupert Murdoch. In "Cold Lazarus" he's called David Stiltz and played ultra-slimily by Henry Goodman. Stiltz is a goon, a consummate vulgarian, a man described by others as a "muck merchant," a "monster" and a "malignant oaf." He has 800 million subscribers worldwide being bombarded with his TV and cable output and zipping into his virtual reality bodysuits for a bit of "interactive sex."
And he wants that head! Daniel Feeld's head, that is, which is, as the film opens, residing in Cryonic Laboratory A of a corporation run by the eccentric Martina Matilda Masdon, played in a mad but disciplined way by Diane Ladd. Martina can look down from her hovering luxury penthouse (replete with pet men in various states of undress) and peek in on any of her enterprises. She doesn't even realize the commercial value of Feeld's head until Stiltz pounces on it.
The lab is run as a tight ship by the no-nonsense Emma Porlock (Frances de la Tour) and her minions, one of whom may be a member of the subversive group called RON, for "Reality or Nothing." These latter-day hippies want to overthrow the corporate culture and all its controlling fantasies. The have their work cut out for them.
Directed wittily, as is "Karaoke," by Renny Rye, "Cold Lazarus" includes many interpolated scenes from the first film, some of them altered by Feeld's faltering memory. These memories come flooding into the lab as giant floating globules from a screen tapped into Feeld's thought processes, such as they are. The memories are jumbled, erratic and unpredictable and not necessarily 100 percent reliable. But Stiltz thinks they can be turned into fodder for the masses and more big bucks for him.
We see Finney only in the flashbacks. Otherwise he is mostly the motionless floating head. Like many of Potter's works, "Cold Lazarus" combines a dark cynicism with an almost sentimental hopefulness in a pungent way that only he could bring off. In an interview recorded two months before his death (and shown on Bravo last night), Potter said one should always look back on one's own past with "tender contempt," which does seem to summarize his attitude. "Karaoke" is the more powerful of the two films, but "Lazarus" is mercilessly gripping, too.
Come now the sadly inevitable caveats. Bravo supplied critics with the original unedited versions of "Karaoke" and "Lazarus" but, in a final insult that Potter is powerless to prevent, the network plans some "slight" censoring for American audiences (such delicate things we are!). A Bravo spokeswoman couldn't be more specific and wouldn't say how much of Potter's angry raunchy language would remain intact. There are tiny bits of nudity but nothing much beyond the "NYPD Blue" level. Still, there's no reason to assume that the people at Bravo, a small-time cultural channel, know what they're doing or what they're doing it to.
Even if the films endure tampering by bureaucrats (a nice irony there), both "Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus" should retain their distinctive irascible impact. The scheduling may seem odd but it turns out to be appropriate: The commercial network TV season has ended and now the real television, the serious television, can begin.
"Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus" are the latest and the last dispatches from the ambitious and restless mind of Dennis Potter, and as one of his characters says in reference to something else entirely, they are worth their weight in plutonium. They are also simply and credibly incredible. They are the living end. CAPTION: Albert Finney gives a bravura performance in Dennis Potter's "Karaoke" on Bravo. CAPTION: Head honcho: Diane Ladd plays executive Martina Matilda Masdon in "Cold Lazarus." CAPTION: Dennis Potter finished "Karaoke" and "Cold Lazarus" in the final months of his life.