Andy Milligan is a perplexing and difficult director to grasp, and nowhere is this more evident than in his 1970 feature Nightbirds, starring Berwick Kaler and Julie Shaw. Nightbirds undoubtedly possesses a compelling narrative centred around two young, down-and-out hippies who, through a chance encounter, come to live together in a run-down flat in the East End of London.
Previously thought lost, Nightbirds has been saved and restored with the help of Drive (2011) director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Dane has a mild obsession with Milligan’s work and spent $25,000 to buy the original prints) and the BFI. Milligan is perhaps best-known for his horror films, but in Nightbirds he frankly explores the sexual liberation of the 1960s and 70s (the effects of free love and sexual promiscuity etc) through what even today would be regarded as graphic sex scenes.
The two central characters Dee (Shaw) and Dink (Kaler) meet in the street one day and go on to develop an experimental sexual relationship, controlled in the main by the manipulative Dee. Dee’s sexual dominance contrasts well with the child-like naivety of Dink, a virgin until he meets the nymph-like temptress. Both have complex psychological problems stemming from broken family relationships – for Dink this borders upon an Oedipus complex with his unseen alcoholic mother.
The treatment of the central themes is intriguing, showing a rather ugly side to the often rose-tinted view latter generations generally have of the Free Love period. The couple live in relative poverty, resorting to digging through bins for food and stealing clothes and money. There is also a dramatic contrast between the two characters in terms of moral behaviour. Dink is caring, if somewhat irritating in his childishness (demonstrated by his rescuing of an injured pigeon), where as Dee is shown to be controlling and selfish through her string of lovers and bi-polar treatment of Dink. These contrasting personalities eventually come into conflict. As their tumultuous lifestyles continue it becomes clear that their moral choices are leading to a mutual destruction.
Refn has stressed that Milligan’s unusual choice of camera angles and exploration of controversial themes show that there is something captivating about the way this exacting director made his films. Ultimately, however, this will not quite be enough for most viewers – the performances in particular are very weak, due to either stumbled lines or simple over-acting. Nightbirds might have the ability to spark a viewer’s initial interest, but it lacks the polish and direction to sustain it.