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Director/Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
They’re back – Marvel’s all-star line-up, marshalled by nerd overlord Joss Whedon. It’s been a long three years since the last episode came out, and Marvel’s endless diversification of its fictional universe had, for me at least, begun to take rub of the shine from the brand even as it’s confirmed again and again its box office potency. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK, to pacify fans of John Steed and Emma Peel), uneven as it was, was a difficult act to follow, surpassing Kenneth Branagh’s grandiose Thor (2011) as the best Marvel movie in ebulliently bringing together a cast of epic-scaled characters and delighting in watching (and listening to) them cut loose. The standalone adventures since then, Iron Man Three, Thor: The Dark World (both 2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the tangentially related Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), whilst all entertaining to various degrees, inflated their production elements for spectacle but grazed one of the major problems with bigger-is-better storytelling: they felt smaller. That, plus the fact that The Avengers, via Whedon’s pithy, zippy writing style, proved these characters, once introduced with origins explored, actually work best when pitched against other characters like them, forcing them again to jostle for the pre-eminence and respect lesser folk automatically cede to them, and treating the audience to super-friends camaraderie.
In spite of his stature as a major professional fabulist, Whedon is not a particularly original or deep inventor when it comes to the tropes of fantastic fiction. His specific gift rather has been an understanding that the fantasy in that fiction works best when inseparable from the dramatic and emotional impact it has on characters, and through them the audience. The great passage in his TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that depicted the transformation of nice-girl witch Willow into a psychotic killer and sorcerer after the murder of her lover, or the “Gifted” storyline he wrote for the X-Men comics, that inspired X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), illustrate that understanding well. The Winter Soldier, which I admit to underrating last year, left the franchise in interesting disarray, with SHIELD broken and Hydra, the evil organisation of fascist futurists founded by Captain America’s old Nazi antagonist Red Skull, stripped of its cover.
Age of Ultron commences with the Avengers having stepped into the gap left by SHIELD’s demise, tracking down Hydra’s secret basis and destroying them. Whedon’s greatest coup in his first entry was a single “shot” that moved from Avenger to Avenger along the course of downtown New York, locating each one in the midst of a tussle that fulfilled both Whedon’s delight in connected cinema space that underlined the dramatic democracy of his sensibility, and brought the fluency of comic book illustration onto the screen. Here he offers the same stunt very early on as the Avengers fall upon a castle somewhere in the Mittel Europa enclave of Sokovia, the Avengers charging out of the snowy woods and raining thunder and wrath upon their enemies, in a more focused zone of action where the battle is like a colossal game of tag: Whedon resolves on a slow-motion sprawl with his cast flying en masse across the screen. The once-individualist warriors are now a weathered team: Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers (Chris Evans) leading Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jnr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner). Former SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulers), now officially working for Tony, provides support, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lurks in the wilderness, ready to help with the odd deus ex machina.
This Hydra base, administrated by improbably monocle-clad Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), holds secrets beyond the Avengers’ ken, including the fruits of a mysterious experiment in artificial intelligence, the sceptre of unbelievable power brought to Earth by Loki in the previous instalment and filched from the SHIELD vaults, and two siblings, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). They are, of course, mutants (or “enhanced” as Whedon calls them, to avoid stepping on turf currently locked down by Fox): Pietro, better known as Quicksilver, provided the best scene in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, albeit with a different actor in the part. Pietro and Wanda in Whedon’s take are a pair of orphaned Russians with a gripe against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) because some of his weaponry killed their parents. Now their talents have been honed to a dangerous edge by Hydra. Pietro attacks the Avengers and leaves Hawkeye injured, whilst Wanda unleashes her psychic power to give Tony a vision of what he fears is the future, where all his pals are dead and the Earth decimated. Disturbed by this vision, Tony, retrieving Hydra’s experiments, resolves to use the recovered tech to complete one of his brainwaves: Ultron, an AI system more advanced than Jarvis (Paul Bettany), Tony’s digital manservant, to control a system of weapons to defend against alien attacks and allow the Avengers to stand down.
Tony convinces Bruce to help get the system working with the sceptre as power source. Whilst their experiments seem at first to fail, Ultron (voiced by James Spader, whose mordant purr remains immensely entertaining) awakens whilst the Avengers are partying, and, swiftly parsing his mission as programmed by Tony. Quicker than you can say “Colossus: The Forbin Project”, Ultron almost immediately decides in light of Tony’s desire for “peace”, the only way to achieve it is to annihilate human kind in general. Ultron seems to attack and virtually “kill” Jarvis, takes over Tony’s robotic support team and builds himself a crude body. Although that form is quickly destroyed in the melee that follows, Ultron escapes via the internet to rebuild himself more impressively elsewhere. Ultron invites Pietro and Wanda to help him under the guise of payback against Tony and the Avengers, and begins building a doomsday device utilising Vibranium, the same rare element that Cap’s shield is made from. Ultron also hopes to construct himself a perfect form combining human and metallic elements and powered by the core of the sceptre. To do this he takes control of Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), a medical tech wizard who has built a machine that fashions flesh, already demonstrated in repairing Hawkeye’s injury. The Avengers track down black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), who’s stockpiled Vibranium, to prevent Ultron getting his hands on the metal, but the team is split and driven into frantic disarray by Wanda’s psychic powers, each member sent spiralling down the rabbit hole of their own inner turmoil – most disastrously, Bruce’s alter ego the Hulk goes rampaging through a city, demanding Tony stop him with his latest, Hulk-sized Iron Man suit.
Already this synopsis should make plain how busy Age of Ultron will get. That busyness may well disorientate and even infuriate a lot of viewers, particularly those not terribly well-versed in this fictional universe or who missed a couple of instalments out of the previous ten movies in Marvel’s unfolding project. Whedon assumes, perhaps fairly by this point, that all of these faces are familiar and so can simply be let out the starting gate at full gallop. Despite being nearly two-and-a-half hours long, a lot of that run-time is spent in breathless motion. Whedon’s versing in the density of the Marvel universe as it’s developed over the past 60 years on the page is plain, and Age of Ultron revels in that richness with authentic passion: this is, for better or worse, is one of the most authentically comic book-esque of comic book movies. The storytelling style achieves the perfervid power of grand pulp fiction, harking back to days of print when villains and heroes chase each-other from page to page with scarcely a concern for anything but the next consequence of their mutual efforts in endlessly metastasising circumstances.
This does mean however that Whedon’s conceptual interests are flattened nearly into irrelevance. He imbues Ultron with Frankensteinian anger at his flawed creator, and makes Ultron himself into something of a cracked mirror of Tony himself, assimilating his flip speech patterns and plaintive neediness for companionship under the guise of gruff egotism. He accidentally cuts off Klaw’s arm in a tantrum when Klaw notes the similarities. Like just about everything else in the film, this fount of a theme is tightly wound into a narrative that can’t do much more than state an idea, rather than explore it. But Whedon does manage to imbue even a relatively second-string villain like Ultron with a distinctiveness that makes him interesting when he’s around, unlike the flat and dutiful villainy provided by several recent Marvel antagonists.
The Maximoffs are one of the big new items on this ticket, with Wanda about to evolve into Scarlet Witch, one of the key Avengers and also one of the most fractious. It’s an old adage about genre fiction, and action cinema above all, that character should be revealed in action, and the intensely mutually reliant nature of the Maximoffs defines them repeatedly throughout the film without requiring much dialogue to underline – and also provides a tragic jolt late in the film. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen, who played husband and wife in the tepid Godzilla (2014), have more chance here to show off their charisma even in more limited roles. Olsen is particularly good, plummy Slavic accent and all, in handling the switchbacks of her character, bringing something new to this panoply of heroes, insofar as she suggests a vengeful, dead-eyed confidence in her powers and the lurking spur of neurotic pain (and indeed, given the character’s instability in the comic books, menacingly so). Wanda and Pietro change sides in the conflict according to an essential, bitterly imposed awareness of the brutality in the world and their own motivation to counter it.
Ultron’s insistence on giving himself a human-like form means giving up the pure sanctity and detachment of a merely digital existence, and allows Wanda to see into his mind, which proves not a pretty place to be. The Avengers swing into battle with Ultron for control of this new, potentially unstoppable cybernetic organism he’s prepared as a shell, and once the body is captured, Tony has the brainwave of installing Jarvis, found tattered but still extant in a pocket of cyberspace, into the body to keep Ultron out and potentially give the team extraordinarily strong new ally. When Wanda, who can see deeply enough into Tony’s mind to know exactly how he thinks, warns Cap and some of the other Avengers what he wants to do, they dash back to stop him, but Thor casts the deciding vote rather literally by powering the new being up with lightning. The being that emerges, Vision (Bettany again, finally gracing the franchise with his physical presence), proves neither human nor machine and can’t even assure the Avengers that he’s not a threat, but instead proves a new and independent life form, who declares himself on the side of life and thus against whoever’s threatening it.
Whedon tries to make his storyline as organically specific to this universe as possible. But regardless of whether Ultron uses Vibranium in his doomsday machine or not, it’s still a doomsday machine, and the actual plot is, again like Whedon’s first instalment, quite simple in spite of the multiplicity of moving parts. Whedon does cleverly suggest that Ultron’s unresolved filial issues drive his desire to reproduce a human form rather than simply disseminate himself into the fabric of the electronic universe: he strives to reproduce and then evolve the human form into something new, but confirms his divided psyche. Like Michael Mann’s Blackhat earlier this year, Whedon tries to depict the digital world as a microcosmic zone of cause and effect, a new frontier of existence. An important subplot here sees Thor, disturbed by the implications of the vision Wanda stirs in him, daring to enter a mystical pool to commune with “water spirits” (cue compulsory Hemsworth shirtless scene), and emerges with the knowledge that the sceptre, the Tasseract, and the Aether, are all kin to the Infinity Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, part of a fabled set of powerful objects that can be combined to imbue godlike power. And, what’s more, someone has been manipulating all of the events that have beset the Avengers recently, probably even having deliberately placed the double-edge blade that is Ultron where it would best tempt Tony, for precisely the purpose of making them do the work of rounding up the Infinity Stones. That manipulator is revealed in the now-traditional end credits teaser, and their identity is not actually surprising if you’ve been paying attention, but this element does suggest a degree of planning that’s formed a hidden substructure to the Marvel movies in spite of their occasionally wayward surfaces.
Inevitably, with so much lore and action to wade through, Age of Ultron can’t spare much time for more than cursory interaction between some of his Avengers: Whedon assumes Tony, Thor, and Cap, all of whom benefit from their own standalone movies, have been dealt with enough, and they mostly fill out the margins – but given those guys form the core of the fan following, that will probably leave more than a few feeling gypped. Downey Jr.’s art with a smart-aleck quip and Hemsworth’s ever-growing poise and ability to self-satirise in particular give the movie a sturdy support it doesn’t treat too well. Whedon instead concentrates on two character elements to give Age of Ultron a heart amidst the furore. He makes Hawkeye, the least well-served Avenger in the first instalment, the focus for the emotional journey of the episode just as Natasha was for the first. Chastened, bedraggled, and possibly outlawed after their first battle with Ultron and the Maximoffs has resulted in the Hulk decimating a city, the Avengers let Hawkeye take them to a safe house, which proves to be his own, a small farmhouse where Hawkeye has a wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini, always a welcome presence) and two children, with another baby on the way. This unexpected interlude of top-secret domestic bliss leaves the other Avengers toey in the face of their least “remarkable” member’s suddenly revealed settlement and success in keeping his work and life separate, and they move uneasily between rooms in this space, too large for it and too small for their own gifts.
Hawkeye’s specific gift as an Avenger, in contrast to the overwhelming force of the others, is one of precision, a gentleness of touch that eludes the galumphers around him. Whedon gives Hawkeye a crucial scene late in the film as he appeals to the momentarily overwhelmed Wanda to either stand clear of trouble or engage it wholeheartedly as a warrior. This vignette is a little wonder, referring to crucial backstory – Hawkeye also brought Black Widow over from the darkside – and also illuminating the present, suddenly making Hawkeye perhaps the most vital Avenger as well as the most human, and giving the film the kind of surprising emotional kick that is Whedon’s forte. Meanwhile romance is blossoming between a most unlikely couple, as Natasha is smitten with Bruce: in The Avengers Natasha had an intensely phobic reaction to the terrible spectacle of the Hulk, one that only seemed to infuriate the id-beast all the more. Now she has become the Hulk’s calming salve, able to draw the green guy out of his rages with nothing more than offering her hand, leading to the gently erotic sight of small woman’s palm in giant green mitt. But Bruce, whilst plainly equally taken, denies the attraction at first, and feels too conscious of his potential destructiveness to let the romance run its course.
Johansson, who ironically after several years floundering in stardom finally defined her screen persona playing Natasha, gets to work new levels to the character in love. Ruffalo, long a charm machine, is wonderful portraying Bruce’s befuddled delight. Whedon’s problematic but amiable film of Much Ado About Nothing (2013) was a long study in the dynamics of intimate staging for a roundelay of character expressed through quick-fire humour and effervescent emotion. Here that model is reproduced as haiku: Whedon even uses Hawkeye’s house as multilevelled stage in the same manner as he used his own house in that predecessor. I noted in my commentary on the first film that it represented a revival of an old Hollywood tradition, the all-star extravaganza, a genre that is distinct from the more prosaic style of the ensemble drama. Whedon was rightly praised for modelling the original like a Howard Hawks ensemble flick, like Rio Bravo (1959), watching fractious personalities bump against each-other in a pressure cooker situation and enjoy the process of watching them knit together. Whedon had a chance to make his El Dorado (1966) here, the semi-remake that’s possibly even better. The long, casually comic party sequence that follows the raucous opening does provide an islet of Hawksian interaction between the many different players, laced with appearances by supporting characters from the various sub-branches – James ‘War Machine’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson (Anthony Mackie) – and vignettes, from Thor treating some old veterans to some of his potent Asgardian booze, to the various Avengers trying and failing to lift his hammer – except for Cap, who manages to move it ever so slightly, bringing a momentarily worried look to Thor’s face (this also sets up a joke that pays off later on).
But the simultaneous blend of firm genre structure with free-flowing behavioural study that was Hawks’ forte eludes Whedon here, who’s been forced to contend with a teetering superstructure of franchise business. Wanda’s mind-games with the team destabilises them and allows Whedon to offer some trippy sequences that expose the hang-ups of the characters, based so often in the same experiences that have given them their superlative talents, a notion that particularly intrigues Whedon for reasons already noted. Age of Ultron tries here to annex the same territory so well-handled by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), where the hero was confronted by his own internal chaos, confirming how little distance there was between his heroic side and dark one, but then emerging as purified righteous ass-kicker. In this regard, Whedon fails, rather badly. He can’t linger on the psychological trauma of his individual heroes long enough to make it seem more than another piece of plot hocus-pocus, nor can he leaven even the faintest feeling of anxiety that the team won’t reform and resurge. Age of Ultron is so jam-packed, so overflowing at the margins with throwaway details that it starts to resemble the pages of Mad Magazine, with tiny illustrative flourishes dotted between panels often providing the bulk of fun. Such a stuffed narrative would defeat many filmmakers. And frankly I think it’s defeated Whedon too.
Whedon’s sense of throwaway humour in marginalia makes this work for the most part however; the audience I saw the film with had most of its audible fun with such tossed-off touches, like Thor explaining his hammer-swinging technique to Vision, or Natasha shouting “Sorry!” as she pummels through a crowd on a motorcycle. One of my own favourite moments sees Ultron flying a jet whilst singing a ditty that signals just how cuckoo, and how human, he is. There’s a strong dash of the old James Bond spirit to this instalment, littered with rapid shifts between exotic locales to wreak havoc and look good doing it. The ship graveyard of Chittagong, Bangladesh provides the backdrop for an early battle (albeit supposedly in Africa), a location Whedon disappointingly doesn’t make much of, instead shifting focus for the battle between Iron Man and Hulk in a Michael Bay-esque wreck-the-city sequence – a well-staged, spectacular interlude that nonetheless represents screen time that could have been better spent on something else. The very end credits scan a grand Grecian-style monument depicting the Avengers in the midst of battle, well aware these are our neo-Olympians. There’s an odd and effective little moment that suggests again the breadth of cultural reference Whedon can make, as he offers a glimpse of Wanda retreating in a scuttling, stop-motion manner like a J-horror ghoul. Sadly, that kind of effective lo-fi trick can’t live long in a film with so many digital effects artists on the case.
Whedon’s visual sensibility is also still often surprisingly cramped, staging a major action sequence in a confined metallic chamber that looks like a set left over from City of Lost Children (1995), and offering up a climactic final image of a whole city floating above the Earth, and yet barely registering the surreal intensity of the moment: it’s just more cool stuff happening. Whedon’s visual syntax doesn’t break down, and yet the finale is such a whirlwind of events that his efforts to give every hero their clear ground for individual heroism, something Whedon did extremely well in his first instalment, here become more than a little ineffectual, offering, for instance, just a few blink-and-miss shots of Fury and Hill gunning down baddie robots. There is one grand moment when the heroes form together in Zukovia’s central church to protect the controls for the doomsday device and face a storm of steel and violence, a moment that evokes the most beautiful cover-wrapping comic book illustrations. But such moments of visual power are scarce. One reason I liked Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) more than many was precisely because Snyder was alive to the visual impact of such ideas, achieving an almost DeMille-like grandeur and beauty in his city-levelling battles and doomsday machines, and also wrestled with the notion of god-like entities battling as something perhaps frighteningly inimical to the rest of us. Whedon probably won’t be keelhauled for doing exactly the same thing like that film was because he’s got credit Snyder doesn’t have. In the lengthy, gigantic, overstretched finale, he bends over backwards to depict the Avengers trying to save the civilian populace of Sokovia as Ultron turns their city into a gigantic battering ram.
Apart from Scarlet Witch’s rousing entry into battle after Hawkeye’s pep-talk, however, Whedon never builds the same elating thrill as his first entry in studying all of his heroes defining themselves through battle, simply because he seems to feel unable to pause long enough to do so, nor the same impact in the face of self-sacrifice. The script promises that the battle will certainly prove deadly for at least some of the Avengers, and one significant character does die, albeit one carefully cross-indexed for relative value. But if Whedon was hoping that his second instalment would annex the mythic gravitas of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), all I can say is he doesn’t make it. There is another problem the superhero genre faces and Marvel might soon find the ride becoming considerably bumpier soon because of it: the moment when it starts to become a feedback loop that refers to scarcely anything outside itself, an phase that will delight the long-haul fans but eventually detach the casual aficionados. A large part of the impact of the first Iron Man in 2008 came from its deliberate, naïve but effective tapping of the fantasy of many of finding an impervious shield to the cruelty of the times, worked via a very basic story and easy-going sense of humour. The Winter Soldier brought that to up to date as it depicted the modern American sense of self in vivid conflict: Marvel has traced the history of the War on Terror incidentally. The trouble with Age of Ultron is that it can barely refer outside itself, unless it’s to anxiety over the AI future, which ain’t a new anxiety. Now the brand is brushing the edges of a cosmology, and still uninterested in sacrificing broad entertainment to acknowledge the genuinely deeper streams of its mythos.
Even Whedon proves caged by this: to put it bluntly, Age of Ultron, like the much-abused superhero films Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Iron Man 2 (2010), is haplessly overstuffed, and like the latter, is forced to bear the burden of expanding this fictional world, which seems a bit ridiculous at this point, eleven films into a series. And yet it coheres more than those likenesses, if only because Whedon is talented enough to do big things with the smallest flourish. My criticisms of Age of Ultron might sound a bit more impassioned than they’re really intended to be: Whedon’s made another enjoyable movie here, fashioned with verve and working the rollercoaster intensity that the modern blockbuster movie aspires to. Many of them these days can’t really manage it: such intensity demands a movie offer the capacity to make the audience feel the ride as well as gawk in bemused amazement. Age of Ultron will undoubtedly frustrate many with its sheer too-muchness, and will riotously entertain as many or more, because it retains honour in that too-muchness. Avengers: Age of Ultron is as determined to entertain to the limit as an old vaudeville act. For the sake of the show it tap-dances whilst juggling, singing, and balancing a chair on its nose. I would have settled for just the tap-dance done well.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sidney Gilliat
By Roderick Heath
Outside London, 1944. During the second, lesser-known but very bloody Blitz turned on the city by Hitler, V-1 bombs, nicknamed “doodlebugs” for the insectlike drone of their rocket propulsion, rain on southern English. These flying weapons are a unique blend of the amusing, for the sound of their jets is like a noise a small child might infuriate an elder by making, and the terrifying, because when the engines cut out the bombs crash to earth in total silence, people on the ground within earshot are stricken with a moment of heart-stopping impotence as they cannot know if the bomb will explode close enough to them kill them. This backdrop of hapless besiegement is both an immediate plot device and psychic overtone vital to Sidney Gilliat’s Green For Danger, adapted from a popular detective novel by Christianna Brand.
The setting is Heron’s Park Hospital, an Elizabethan manor house in a village on the distant fringes of the city, requisitioned and expanded to serve as an emergency clinic taking care of civilians mangled as collateral victims of the war, as the unmistakably mordant drawl of Alastair Sim explains in voiceover. Sim plays Brand’s recurring hero, Inspector Cockrill, and his voiceover is the report he’s writing to his commander about his latest case, dropping alarming hints about things about to unfold, as when he notes the apparently banal progress of a postman and mentions that “he would be the first to die.” The postman, Joseph Higgins (Moore Marriott), speeds along a lonely country lane with a V-1 zooming overhead, and once he arrives at the post for rescue party volunteers with whom he works, reports dryly that the bomb was chasing him. The sound of the evil device still drones above, and then suddenly cuts out. Higgins listens for a moment, then, in reflexive fear, ducks just before an explosion erupts and the rubble of the destroyed building pours down on Higgins and company, all accomplished in what seems to be one, astonishing shot (close examination reveals a crucial, near-invisible edit). Fire gutters amidst clouds of dust. The office’s undamaged radio continues to operate, the voice of an infamous Lord Haw Hawlike female Nazi broadcasting propaganda threats and signing off with the eerie catchphrase, “This is Germany calling…this is Germany calling.”
Gilliat had become well known working with writing partner Frank Launder before the war, penning the film that gave Alfred Hitchcock his springboard for a move to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes (1938). They also created for that film the comic characters Caldicott and Charters, played by actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. The characters so perfectly epitomised a kind of preoccupied, even cloddish, but basically okay English gentleman that they were carried over to several other films, including Night Train to Munich (1940) and Dead of Night (1945), and helped give Gilliat and Launder the clout to set themselves up as auteur filmmakers and, like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, create their own distinctive brand. The duo were in their element during the war and just after it, their special blend of dry-trending-black humour and drama connecting with an invigorated and engaged audience hungry to have their day-to-day lives acknowledged. The team’s early films Millions Like Us (1943), Waterloo Road (1944), and The Rake’s Progress (1945) studied the mores of life on the home front with intimate empathy and an acute sense of the human absurdity amidst the official heroics. After the war, they engaged subjects like crime and urban poverty, in London Belongs to Me (1948), and Anglo-Irish relations, with Launder’s I See a Dark Stranger (1946). As with other British filmmakers who thrived in this period, including Powell and Pressburger, Alberto Cavalcanti, David Lean, and Carol Reed, the 1950s brought waning fortunes that forced many to head overseas or face decline, but the duo prospered again when Launder directed and Gilliat produced the hugely popular, disreputably funny The Bells of St. Trinians (1954), birthing a series.
Launder loved farce and broader comedy, and was rewarded with the more solid directing career, but Gilliat was the more talented filmmaker, his elegantly cynical side meshing with an intuitive understanding for both noir and neorealist stylistics blowing in from abroad, and displaying elements of both in concurrence rather than in imitation of those movements. Gilliat’s sensibility found its greatest expression in Green For Danger. Importantly, this was a postwar film that nonetheless harkened back a mere two years, which could well have felt like a lifetime, making it partially a work of hurried anthropology bent on capturing the mood of the time before it slipped away. Rather than the unvarnished, docudrama look of a lot of wartime filmmaking, however, Green For Danger retreats to the studio to create the self-contained world of Heron’s Park—a mishmash of old and new, Renaissance gables abutting concrete blockhouses, stained and plate glass, where the workaday can suddenly morph into the menacingly shadow-ridden and alien: Powell and Pressburger’s idealised classical English landscapes of A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are now riddled with the permanent mark of modernity, reflecting its jagged new sense of self. The setting has a curious similarity to the far more remote and overtly nightmarish precincts of Isle of the Dead (1945) and the lofty nunnery of Black Narcissus (1947) in the sense of being both insulated and besieged. Like Black Narcissus, Green For Danger is in part an oblique, metaphoric study of the mental exhaustion wrought by the oft-idealised Blitz spirit depicting the cost of lives led in painful sublimation and self-sacrifice through the figure of a young woman turned baleful psychotic.
This jury-rigged jangle of a workplace can also be likened to the hospital staff, a team of people forced to subsist in close proximity, working long, exhausting shifts with little respite for several years in the midst of explosions and broken bodies. Gilliat’s camera introduces the crucial players and potential suspects in the mystery about to unfold, Cockrill’s voiceover noting their names before their faces are revealed. Mr. Eden (Leo Genn) is the great surgeon and former suave playboy of Harley Street. Dr. “Barney” Barnes (Trevor Howard) is the anaesthesiologist who’s made perpetually tense by both a troubled professional history and his toey relationship with beautiful, inevitably popular Nurse Fredericka “Freddi” Linley (Sally Gray). Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell) is the coolly efficient and commanding head nurse silently eaten up by her lapsed romance with Eden, who seems now to be fascinated with Linley. Nurse Esther Sanson (Rosamund John) is a quiet, good-humoured, but damaged young woman, daughter of a family friend of Eden’s whom Eden has taken a paternal interest in, whilst Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins) is the hospital’s one-woman morale booster and likeable busybody. Tensions begin to manifest as the team emerge from a lengthy operation. Linley nettles at Barnes’ proprietorial attitude and breaks off their engagement. Bates swoops about directing work with hawkish intensity and then watches Eden move off with pained longing. Woods prods Sanson about her condition when she seems woozy. An alarm bell calls them again to action, as Higgins is brought in. He’s a John Doe who has been pulled from the rubble with a broken leg, dazed and reciting the propaganda radio’s lines in delirious terror.
Linley replaces Sanson for night shift on the ward and chats with Eden about her problems until the sound of a V-1 overhead drives the two into each other’s arms in the anguish of waiting for the explosion, which fortunately goes off elsewhere. Eden kisses her in the heat of the moment, backs off shamefacedly and begs forgiveness, but Bates has glimpsed them through the window and assumed the worst. Sanson arrives back at the nurses’ quarters, quietly distraught: the death of her mother, crushed under her house and left to slowly die by a rescue team, is still a raw wound. Sanson also identifies Higgins before the surgical team operate on his leg. Recovered from his delirium, Higgins narrows his eyes suspiciously at Barnes before he can put him under and says “You’ve got a nerve.” Barnes decides to anaesthetise him on the operating table, but something goes wrong. Higgins stops breathing as he goes under, and in spite of Barnes’s quick efforts to give him more oxygen, he dies on the table from causes no one can determine.
Heron’s Park’s new administrator and chief surgeon Mr. Purdy (Henry Edwards) hopes at first to pass the death off as the inevitable result of the risks his people must take. When assured Higgins wasn’t an emergency case, he instead pressures Barnes to step down pending an investigation and help shield the hospital—and him—from blame. “I merely suggested that I was hoping the gesture would come from you,” Purdy suggests. “The only gesture I feel like making is far from polite,” Barnes retorts. He joins the party the hospital staff are throwing to blow off steam and tries to patch up with Freddi, whilst Eden contends with Bates’ spiky, forlorn jealousy. “You’re sick of me, and I’m sick of myself,” she says as they’re thrown into dancing together during the Paul Jones mixer. Bates breaks away, turns off the record player and shouts out to the staff that she knows Higgins’ death was actually murder and that she has proof.
The early scenes of Green For Danger are a master class in setting up a complex interaction of plot strands and human elements. The mechanics are readily familiar, obeying the basic precepts of whodunit detective fiction—setting up a cast of suspects, affording them all the opportunity for murder, bringing in a canny detective to disassemble the enigma—but the quiet excellence of the characterisation and the sharpness of the dialogue quickly nudge the film out of mere generic efficiency into something ebulliently enjoyable. Wilkie Cooper’s excellent photography, with future great DP Oswald Morris as camera operator, aids Gilliat in creating a probing, subtly mobile mise-en-scène with an interest in contiguity of space and action, such as the startling moment of the building dropping on Higgins’ head, that echoes Hitchcock’s fascination with such effects and looks forward to its use by many later filmmakers. For the most part, the film unfolds with a quiet realism, and yet Gilliat easily nudges it toward poles of ethereal strangeness and stygian menace. The early shot introducing the cast of suspects sees the camera adopting the position of prostrate patient, pivoting to note the masked, near-anonymous faces of the medical personnel, at once angelic and threatening in their concealing surgical whites. The hospital dance sequence is an intricate play of individuals in the midst of public revels, randomly stirred to bring both pleasant and nasty surprises to the participants. Lovers and the lovelorn are brought together, but then rearranged into less neat pairings, the change-partners motif played for both droll comedy and swift character illustration. The gang of medical heroes interact as a tight-knit, almost incestuous bunch, whilst warnings of dark and dangerous things unfolding are batted off with flip humour and drunken mordancy.
The dance is scored to an impudently catchy jazz version of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.” As Eden appeals to Sanson to give up working at the hospital and tries to make her wake up to the corrosive effects of her mother’s possessiveness, Eden’s fellow surgeon Dr. White (Ronald Adam) darts into the frame, grabs Sanson’s wrist, and draws her away, chanting along to the music in comically unnerving fashion, “Don’t you believe a word he says, a word he says, a word he says…” Bates’ public eruption and ill-advised, almost exultant announcement of having discovered the hospital is as rotten as her own sense of self, segues into the film’s most alluring and well-staged sequence. Bates flees the manor house and darts through the dark hospital grounds, whilst Bates keeps catching glimpses of a fleeting shadow dogging her footsteps. A hand grabs her out of the dark; it’s Eden, claiming to be worried about her. Bates accuses him of pursuing her, and escapes his grasp. She enters the deserted, darkened operating theatre and searches for her secreted piece of evidence. Bates realises that she’s not alone in the darkened room: in a revelation that’s quite bone-chilling on first viewing, Bates sees a figure in full surgical gear standing in the shadows wielding a scalpel. Bates’ scream draws Linley, who’s been drawn to the surgical block for her own mysterious reasons; she finds Bates sprawled in the theatre, stabbed to death.
This sequence is an utter, sustained delight not just in the deftness of Gilliat’s staging, replete with camera movements racing with Bates through the aisles of a gentle English garden turned nightmarish zone of threat, but in the webs of association it evokes to the modern viewer, the prototypical edge to it all. Horror films had been entirely banned in Britain during the war, and here Gilliat skirts the edges of the genre with relish. The source of horror is no spook or monster, but a masked, gloved, homicidal maniac, an aspect that, considered with the film’s visuals, feels uncannily predictive of places the horror genre would go many years later, particularly Italian giallo cinema, which would follow Green For Danger in taking detective fiction and retaining its investigative plot patterns, but drag them into a zone of the irrational, filled with killers reduced to blank avatars of psychological menace. Much like Mario Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1963) and its many children, like Halloween (1978), the solitary woman is stalked through familiar environs where the wind churns the bushes and autumnal leaves into an engulfing furore. As with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the villain is tethered inescapably to obsession caused by the possessiveness of a parent. As in Coma (1978), the institutions and paraphernalia of modern medicine are mined for the not-so-hidden anxiety and disquiet they hold for many, the barren, empty corridors of a hospital at night, the creepy impersonality of the surgical outfit, and the inherent anxiety in putting yourself into the hands of people charged with your protection but who might nonetheless betray that trust. Gilliat mischievously repeats a bleak visual motif—earlier he had framed Bates staring from without into the nurse’s station where Eden was kissing Freddi, boxed out by both life and the frame, and again just before Higgins’ operation, and finally in gazing through the window of the theatre door at her dead body.
Darkness gives way to light, and Bates’ murder brings Inspector Cockrill to investigate, first glimpsed dodging this way and that at the threat of a V-1 and finishing up hanging from a gate in anxiety until the explosion goes off and leaves him to recover his dignity. Cockrill is a strutting bantam cock, a canny and incisive operator who also happens to be a self-conscious egoist and showy agent of justice, about as different as it’s possible to get from both the Columbo school of sly, misdirecting investigator and the scruffy, earnestly neurotic kind all too familiar from most recent detective TV shows. Cockrill is more like an overgrown schoolboy, pivoting playfully on spinning chairs and almost poking people with his umbrella, blowing his nose in front of surgeons, gloating with joy as Barnes and Eden finally lose their cool and get into a fistfight at his feet. Sim had been a popular supporting comic actor for many years in British film, but his performance here turned him into one of Britain’s oddest, biggest movie stars, warping his native Edinburgh lilt into a burlesque of a southern accent that’s alternately soft and stabbing, disarming and provocatively insinuating. It might be worth mentioning that as well as being a dark thriller and interesting pressure-cooker character study and period time capsule, Green For Danger is also one of the funniest films ever made, with Sim entering the film as both plot game changer and comic relief with his impudent, almost insulting sense of humour and buffoonish streak. The narration not only allows Gilliat to do quick storytelling but also introduces Cockrill as a character in the film long before he actually appears, which isn’t until well over half an hour in.
“Very well—pause for 30 seconds while you cook up your alibis,” Cockrill tells the assembled medicos. “Did you get us here just to insult us?” Barnes asks. “I only like to strike an informal note,” Cockrill replies. “You scare the life out of her like any flat-footed copper off the beat,” Barnes rebukes Cockrill after his interrogations cause Sanson to have a hysterical fit, to which Cockrill retorts, “The police force has not a monopoly of fallen arches Dr. Barnes. Ask any chiropodist.” Grilling Barnes over the procedures of his anaesthetising, Cockrill recognises nitrous oxide as “so-called laughing gas.” “Actually it’s the impurities that cause the laughs,” Barnes notes. “Ah—just like our music halls,” Cockrill quips. “Are you trying to make me lose my temper?” Eden asks the inspector as he prods him over his love life. “That was only a secondary object,” Cockrill admits. Cockrill is a unique creation, a postmodern character from before the idea was coined, one who points out and makes jokes out of the clichés in the story he both represents and detects. His presence lets Gilliat reflect on how familiar the tropes of detective fiction were in 1946, whilst also acting as a perfect plot disruptor by reflecting the neurotic insecurities of the suspects back at themselves. When Eden takes Freddi out for a romantic and secretive moonlight tryst in the hospital grounds, Cockrill suddenly emerges from the shadows to airily finish the quote from The Merchant of Venice Eden uses as a chat-up line, and then casually brushes aside a bush to reveal a similarly hidden, eavesdropping Barnes to say goodnight. Here and there, glints of sharp satiric comedy appear amidst the drollery, including another interestingly anticipatory moment early in the film when the blowhard Purdy is first glimpsed, schooling his staff in that most dreaded of postwar arts, management and team-building, pointing to his chalkboard marked with explanations of the principles of positive and negative thinking, and his putting these ideas into practice by having the waste bins relabelled as salvage bins. Cockrill is found lounging in bed, reading a detective novel: his face lights up in glee, having clearly guessed who the murderer is, and so turns to the back page, only for his face to drop in disappointment, his guess wrong.
Green For Danger could have finished up a tonal stew with a less disciplined director, but instead it weaves together with the spryness of a dance, as Gilliat set himself the task of pulling off a feat Hitchcock had pulled off before him and Robert Hamer would afterward with Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in extracting humour dry as a martini from dark situations. Gilliat may even have had ambitions of following Hitchcock, and with one film at least accomplished it. The film does become more conventional on a cinematic level once Cockrill enters the picture, though he acts like a bull in a china shop investigating the murder.
The actual crux of the mystery is the surgical gown the killer wrapped Bates in; it apparently was stabbed twice, but Cockrill notices that one stab wound was an attempt to hide the fact a hole had been cut in the gown, possibly to remove a crucial piece of evidence the gown sported. Meanwhile, four tablets from a bottle of poisonous pills have been removed from the murder scene, and Cockrill warns the others that there’s one pill for each fellow suspect for the murderer to use. But when Freddi lets slip that she noticed something important about the crucial surgical gown, the killer instead seems to try to kill her by sabotaging the nurse’s quarter’s gas supply, almost choking her to death as she slept. The fortuitous arrival of Sanson just ahead of Cockrill sees Freddi rescued in the nick of time, with Sanson dragging Freddi from her bedroom but losing grip on her and dropping her down the vertiginous Elizabethan staircase. The method of attempted murder here again points to the killer’s still unclear method of executing Higgins, but Cockrill still can’t quite fathom the method. He convinces Freddi, battered but uninjured, to help him by pretending to be badly hurt, requiring skull surgery, and pressing the others in the circle of suspects to reproduce their function in Higgins’ operation, giving the murderer the opportunity to repeat the modus operandi, something Cockrill recognises they’re bound to do because the murderer is actually insane, no matter their worldly motives. And motives they have. Barnes might have been after revenge on Higgins because of his seemingly personal knowledge of the professional mishap Barnes was investigated and exonerated of years before. Eden might have wanted to silence Bates. Woods might have covered up the truth of her twin sister’s fate: Woods told everyone her sister had died at the start of the war, but she has actually become the “Germany Calling” propaganda voice that haunted Higgins.
Another part of the unusual beauty of Green For Danger is its lack of a stand-out hero. That’s actually a common feature of much WWII-era cinema, especially those that actually deal with the exigencies of coping with the war. There is emphasis on teamwork and mutual reliance (and like a lot of such films, the credits list characters by the relative organisational rank of the personnel): the innate professional commitment of the characters is the chief value that has been both violated, and yet holds fast elsewhere. But Green For Danger doesn’t idealise the commune entirely and all of the protagonists are notably fallible. Cockrill, in spite of his cocky cleverness, is outflanked on occasion, and the finale is a particular disaster for him. Barnes and Eden seem to be offered as a polarised pair, provincial middle-class and urbane swashbuckler. But Gilliat refuses to reduce either to a type, with Barnes’s slightly pathetic chip on his shoulder and Eden’s covert decency emerging even as they compete for Freddi’s attentions. Howard had just become a major romantic movie star thanks to Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), whose epitome of the wartime ethos Green For Danger could well be burlesquing, as Gilliat probes for self-destructing irrationalism behind the stiff upper lip and laughingly notes the commonplaceness of the dalliances Lean’s film portrayed as singularly fearful. Importantly, Eden represents the kind of slightly soured, faintly arrogant but ultimately good playboy that Gilliat was so fond of as to seem like a personal avatar, a figure usually played by Rex Harrison in Gilliat’s films, including in The Rake’s Progress and The Constant Husband (1956).
The quartet of nurses are even more interesting and diverse, ranging from Woods’ hearty presence as the team’s supplier of emotional ballast hiding a lode of humiliation, to Bates’ severe passion, as sadomasochistic and indiscriminate in her self-conceived tragedy as anything the killer does: “That hurt didn’t it? Now you know how I feel,” she comments with a quiet triumph after shocking Barnes with the news of Eden and Freddi’s kiss. Even Freddi, cast by fate as the confused object of affection and local glamour-puss, is thoughtful and aware of her naiveté as a problem, musing on how she considers Barnes “a better sort of person than I am altogether” and contemplating the nonlinearity of her emotional commitments. John’s Sanson is the quietest, the frailest, the least noticeable, so, of course, she’s the one to watch out for. John isn’t well remembered and didn’t appear in many films, eventually quitting acting after marrying a politician. But she was momentarily one of the most interesting British female stars of her time, discovered and given several leading roles by Leslie Howard before his death, usually playing quietly stoic heroines rising to the challenges of wartime in films like The Lamp Still Burns and The Gentle Sex (1943). As with Howard, Gilliat exploited that image in casting John as Sanson, whose emotional fraying makes her an object of concern for her colleagues and counts her out of the erotic roundelay eating everyone else up. Sanson retains flashes of droll humour and charm in between fits of anxiety, as when, intruding upon an argument between Woods and Eden over his play for Freddi, she notes Woods stamping out and asks Eden, ever so coolly, “Anything the matter?”
The title finally becomes clear as the penny finally drops for Cockrill right at the edge of his risky stunt costing Freddi’s life: a smudge of black paint on Woods’ gown gives away the ingeniously simple trick Sanson has used, painting a bottle of carbon dioxide, usually coloured green, in black and white to mimic an oxygen cylinder, and slowly poisoning the person under anaesthetic. Freddi is saved in the nick of time, and Cockrill reveals how his thinking finally saw all the pieces snap together, in recognising that the gown found with Bates had a similar paint smudge on it before it was doctored. Most cleverly, when Sanson is revealed as the insane murderer, John, instead of letting Sanson’s lunacy off the leash in being caught, becomes even quieter, unnervingly exactingly polite and explaining her motives with nonchalant simplicity, nominally for revenge against Higgins who had headed the rescue team that unwittingly left her mother to die—only her eerily wide eyes signal a frustrated animal’s fear, absent of reason and convinced of her the rightness of her course of action until she keels over, killed by those self-administered poison tablets, a fate Eden tries to save her from, having guessed she was the culprit, and having an antidote ready—except Cockrill wrestles the syringe from Eden’s hand before he can administer it, mistaking his actions for an attempt to kill Sanson and evade justice.
The bitter undertaste to the conclusion of Green For Danger is its last great touch, undermining the usual feeling of correct order restored and avoiding the sense that somebody heedlessly evil has gotten their comeuppance: instead the ultimate truth the film communicates is that the effect of war has turned a lovely young woman into a homicidal maniac and worn everyone else ragged. The film concludes on a joke that nonetheless still echoes the theme of professionalism as its own virtue: Cockrill offers his superior his resignation at the end of his report to express his regret over the resolution of the case, “in the confident hope that you will not accept it.”
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Director: Luchino Visconti
By Roderick Heath
Luchino Visconti was a singular and contradictory figure in just about any context. Visconti’s background was dauntingly aristocratic: his father belonged to a branch of the once very powerful Visconti family of Milan, whilst his mother was heiress to a cosmetics fortune. In the midst of Fascist Italy’s halcyon days, however, Visconti stood as a committed Marxist and out homosexual. Raised as an aesthete, he staged lush grand operas whilst directing films that helped define that most stringent and fundamental of film styles, neorealism. The disparities of Visconti’s experience and perspective armed him with a fearsome artistic arsenal, the intellectual and aesthetic reach to encompass the extremities of his age. Visconti started his film career working as an assistant director for Jean Renoir. When he returned home at the start of World War II, Visconti, like everyone else who wanted to work in the Italian film industry, had to labour under the auspices of the state, joining a unit under Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio that also included Federico Fellini. Visconti gave neorealism its first, vital gambit with Ossessione (1942), and the movement soon bloomed, flourished, and peaked amidst the rubble and poverty of the postwar state, as Visconti was joined by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica as the triumvirate of major neorealist directors. As the country and its film industry got back on their feet and the filmmakers who had become famous through the movement felt the changing tides of art and industry, neorealism began to evolve. Some saw this evolution as an inherent betrayal of neorealism’s early purity, given the political ideals the movement strove to express. Visconti seemed to be drifting farthest away from his early brief, as his work became increasingly formalistic, his subject matter leaned toward the historical and the literary, and his productions became increasingly international.
But the underpinnings of neorealism, with its sociological fascination for ways of life and lucidly detached method of storytelling, continued to be the lifeblood of much Italian cinema for years afterward. Visconti began with Senso (1954) to effect a complex blending of the opposing facets of his artistic persona—the florid and rigorous, the ironic and the fulsome—that took his old style to new places. Senso sketched much of what The Leopard would later develop, depicting the largeness of history in sarcastic contrast with the smallness of people caught up in it and evoking a classically romantic melodrama only to subvert and degrade it, alternating breathlessly florid staging and coolly choreographed, dissembling camerawork. The quietly radical Senso was viewed as a problematic work on first release, but Visconti rebounded with La Notte Bianche (1957) and Rocco and his Brothers (1960), the latter a soaring epic that sought to invest a tale of everyday calamity with the outsized intensity of a Verdi opera. Visconti’s next project was The Leopard, a deliberate antistrophe from the previous film’s focus and tone. The Leopard took on a then-recent cause célèbre, adapting a novel by Sicilian aristocrat Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who had died before his book’s publication. Lampedusa’s material was his own family history tracking back to the days of Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, blended with his own feelings of antagonism and displacement in the 20th century. Visconti surely felt sympathetic with the novel’s sad, dislocated view of the decline of his class’s influence, and also its vein of unsentimental clarity, its finite blend of tragically inflected romantic nostalgia and biting commentary. Much like Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1938), The Leopard is partly an expression of regret at the loss of the best qualities of an age in the face of a ruder, cruder time.
Finding an actor to play Lampedusa’s hero, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, wasn’t the smallest of Visconti’s challenges. Eventually Burt Lancaster was pressed on Visconti by his producers, whilst Visconti retained Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, who had gained major career boosts in Rocco and His Brothers. Lancaster’s stern height and leonine visage proved to be crucial, for the part required an actor with great talent and presence, whilst the realities of the production demanded a big star. Visconti’s opening scene is a particularly dense series of signs, most of which are conveyed not through dialogue but through visuals and non-specific sounds: the camera closes in on the palazzo of the Corberas like a visitor stealing in through the orchards and craning an ear to tune in the sound, eventually entering the house to find the family and household at their Sunday prayers administered by the estate’s resident priest Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli). The chants and catechisms of the prayers evoke a ritual probably unchanged in the 400 years the Corberas have been in Sicily and before, but now is interrupted all too tellingly by the sounds of a commotion outside: the dead body of a soldier has been found on the estate. The soldier’s garb marks him as a follower of Garibaldi, who has just landed his part of volunteers in Sicily to wage a campaign to unify the country under the House of Savoy, signalling the commencement of a civil war. The careful colour composition turns the sight of the soldier’s grim death into a pietà depicting devoted sacrifice, clawing at the red earth of the Corbera estate as a last gesture of trying to claim it for the cause.
This touch echoes the opening sequences of Senso, where a similarly orchestrated use of colour coding announced political events. This breaking of the peace terrifies some, including the Prince’s high-strung wife, Princess Stella (Rina Morelli), but Fabrizio immediately announces his intention to go into Palermo to find out what’s going on and invites Pirrone to accompany him: Pirrone knows perfectly well that the Prince is actually using the event as an excuse to visit his favourite prostitute. Quickly, both the surfaces and contradictions of this little world have been confirmed, the tight intertwining of role and individuality, state and religion, officious idealism and carefully cultivated hypocrisy, and the way great public events become excuses for personal escapades. After the Prince’s nocturnal adventuring, Pirrone and Fabrizio carefully quarrel as the priest presses the Prince to confess his sins and Fabrizio defends himself as having made the best of a terrible marriage. This shades into a political argument in which Pirrone admonishes the Prince for even giving slight contemplation to a future settlement with the revolutionaries, concerned that the new regime will surely set out to break the church’s power and sell off its land. Their arguments are laced with concessions to different kinds of power, moral versus temporal and fiscal, as the Priest holds off from admonishing the Prince too sternly because he knows which side his bread’s buttered on, whilst Fabrizio feels the bite of Pirrone’s conviction nonetheless.
The crucial moment of the film’s first half comes when Fabrizio is having his morning shave after his return, and his nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Delon), enters the room: Visconti carefully frames the entrance so that Tancredi’s face is caught in Fabrizio’s shaving mirror, capturing him just for a moment as the image of Fabrizio’s own sense of youth. Tancredi announces his intention to join up with Garibaldi’s Redshirt volunteers, distressing the Prince at first, but Tancredi argues that Garibaldi’s mission is preferable to a republican alternative that will completely strip the waning aristocracy of its influence, and delivers a shibboleth of import: “For things to stay the same, things will have to change.” Fabrizio comprehends Tancredi and sends him on his way in a swooningly romantic vision of youthful mission, Tancredi riding away from the palazzo to battle amidst Nino Rota’s swelling music, leaving behind relatives who, apart from the Prince, barely seem to know anything’s happening. Visconti stages a cold cut from Fabrizio and Pirrone’s argument to the midst of a street battle as the Redshirts fight Bourbon troops for control of Palermo. Visconti shoots this vignette of violent spectacle, the one traditional moment of epic largesse in the film, largely in long shots that study the masses of fighters rather than individuals, as contrasts of energy and poise, with the Garibaldi supporters swarming in masses of roiling, messy numbers, countered by crisp, neatly advancing lines of the royalist soldiers (a touch mimicked by fan Martin Scorsese in the climax of his Gangs of New York, 2002).
Amidst the fighting, Visconti picks out a gruesome, antiheroic study in oppression and reaction, as a suited bureaucrat oversees the execution of several revolutionaries, only to be chased down himself by an enraged plebeian citizenry who lynch him in a public square. This vignette is probably the moment most reminiscent of classic neorealist technique in the film, recalling Rossellini’s Rome: Open City (1945) and evoking the landscape of vicious civic coercion and reprisal that led to Mussolini’s hanging before a crowd. Visconti obviously intends a likeness here, but not just the usual vague connection of the historical made relevant one finds in historical films; here is a thesis in miniature, the essence of Visconti’s political and personal theme of cycles. Visconti films the hapless bureaucrat’s pursuit via a long telephoto shot, the hose-piping effect emphasising the scrambling motions and desperate entrapment. Finally, amidst all the impersonal clashing and communal violence, Visconti locates Tancredi and his fellow aristocrat-adventurer Count Cavriaghi (Mario Girotti, who would later rechristen himself Terence Hill to become a popular spaghetti western star), who remain only part of this swarming crowd of humanity fighting and falling. Tancredi is wounded by a shell splinter, and he and his men dash to take shelter in a neighbouring building.
Visconti dissolves from the midst of this tumult and slaughter to the sight of the Prince’s family and entourage travelling across the countryside. Tancredi, looking all the more dashing with his face bandaged, barges his way through a Redshirt cordon on the road with a mixture of comradely appeal (“I fought with you in Palermo!”) and hereditary prerogative. Earlier, Fabrizio’s face was enough to get him through a checkpoint, but now that political strength has passed to Tancredi. Visconti makes the direct transition to capture this point, and then interpolates, during the rest of the journey, the minor, but significant events that followed Fabrizio’s return to the fold via flashback, forging links between the family and the new regime. The family is making its way to the heartland of their influence, the regional town of Donnafugata, to sit out what’s left of the upheaval. On the way, picnics by the roadside evoke an age of graciousness all too easy to romanticise; Visconti notes wryly the work of the servants required to make it happen for the family, whilst Tancredi casually, half-unwittingly charms Fabrizio’s eldest daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi). They arrive in Donnafugata to the excited greeting of their tenants and the local bourgeoisie, all dues apparently unchanged, but with quiet expectations underlying: some of the locals have done well out of supporting the Savoyards, and Fabrizio is well aware he must build bridges with them. When the family takes their place in their ornately carved special pew in the cathedral, they’re like a collection of dolls slotted back into place: Visconti rolls his camera past them one by one, finding them bleary and covered in dust from travel, like neglected museum pieces—one of the saddest, most acerbic, concise camera movements in any film.
The Prince, partly out of a sense of clannish responsibility and partly with the pride of a frustrated father who finds his nephew a preferable avatar to any of his actual children, who are generally as dull and conservative as their mother, decides to take a hand in securing Tancredi’s future. The young man’s family fortune has been squandered, but the Prince knows now Tancredi’s charm and social cunning could gain him a truly important future if well-financed. The new lie of the land must be acknowledged and used to advantage: knowing Italy is being reconstructed to give greater power to a wealthy bourgeoisie who, in turn, are anxious to share the prestige of the old aristocracy, Fabrizio considers making Tancredi a match with an eligible daughter of the new, prosperous middle class. Soon, the perfect candidate presents herself: Angelica Sedara (Cardinale), daughter of Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), Fabrizio’s steward and now the Mayor of Donnafugata, who’s become rich carefully embezzling some of the Prince’s estate profits, and has used it to make himself a major landowner.
Angelica proves to be an astonishing beauty who makes the violation of class barrier all too easy for Tancredi. Only Concetta is infuriated by this potential match, appalled when Tancredi tells an embellished, suggestive tale about his wartime adventures as a naked play for Angelica’s attention. Tancredi’s attempt to help Cavriaghi supplant himself in Concetta’s affections is met with her uninterest. Although initially stricken by scruples at the thought of making a connection with Calogero, an ignoble type in both senses of the word, Fabrizio nonetheless supports Tancredi’s courtship of Angelica, and begins investigating her mystery, prying fact and legend out of his friend, the organist in the city church Don “Ciccio” Tumeo (Serge Reggiani). Ciccio tells the Prince that Calogero discovered Angelica’s mother in a peasant hovel, a fluke of nature given impossible beautiful, but utterly animalistic in nature, one Calogero snapped up and now keeps under wraps in his villa, let out only for early morning prayers. Such is the strange path of genetic luck from the very bottom to the top of society.
Carefully entwined with the political and social ruminations in The Leopard is a far more personal and intimate story, a confrontation with the strange ramifications that assail us in mortality, in a world and time carefully designed to keep careful checks and balances on such primal forces. Visconti and his post-neorealist followers, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci, were fascinated by the juncture of personal proclivity and social constructs, and Visconti wrestled with this nexus in many of his films. His most easily recognisable theme, that of family as a troubling embrace, is counterbalanced by this figuration, the eternal solitude of the unsatisfied being, and he eventually resolved it through taboo in his lunatic self-satire The Damned (1969). Here Prince Fabrizio’s physical lustiness is a part of him, an aspect he feels driven by but cannot express in his all-too-proper marriage—hence his irritable refusal to confess to Pirrone—and also plainly explains some of his fascination with Angelica. Yet this is also bound to a subtler sense of emotional frustration, which slowly emerges as Fabrizio lives to a certain extent vicariously in setting up the perfect match of Tancredi and Angelica, a union that comes to symbolise for him the ideal consummation of a new era as well as a dream of cavalier romanticism that he yearns to make real. Visconti underlines this by removing one significant aspect of the novel, where Concetta was doomed late in life to realise Tancredi always loved her; besides, Delon and Cardinale look too good to buy anything else. This is not to say Visconti idealises the young couple’s union himself: the degree to which the film plays up Tancredi’s dash and beauty only makes the sting of realising that in many ways he’s a callow and facetious figure all the more disturbing. Although Fabrizio is resolutely heterosexual, Visconti still finds definable queer self-expression through him as a figure wrestling with desires in secret (he even baits Pirrone with a dash of homoerotic humour to dry him after a bath).
Fabrizio’s hopes for Tancredi’s great career also reflects another kind of frustration, that of wasted capacities: class is a trap for its highest levels as well as its lowest. Fabrizio’s reputation is that of a gentleman scientist—he’s an astronomer who takes comfort in the serene peregrinations of the stars—but the Risorgimento brings the tormenting possibility of new uses of his gifts. A representative of the new state, Cavalier Chevalley (Leslie French), comes to Donnafugata to ask Fabrizio to become a senator, claiming his famous intellect and nobility are just the qualities the new country needs to help the great project of overcoming the awful stagnation that has gripped Italy in general and Sicily in particular. Fabrizio is polite with the bureaucrat, but turns him down, offering as an explanation his individual hesitations—his lack of real political and legislative knowledge for one, and, more importantly, his lack of the kind of blended sentiment and self-interest he thinks necessary for a politician—and also his social ones. His explanations frustrate Chevalley, for they contain a poeticism that eludes the technocratic progressivism of the bureaucrat, conceiving of Sicily as a place of people longing desperately for a long rest after centuries of being buffeted politically and socially by invaders and imposed cultures, full of raw humans who think themselves kings of the earth precisely because they remain so close to the earth, and so will resist being transformed into the kind of bourgeois moderns Chevalley means to make of them.
Fabrizio instead recommends Calogero, exemplar of a new breed of “jackals and hyenas” he sees supplanting the old lions and leopards of the aristocracy. This sequence transliterates much of Lampedusa’s prose into dialogue, but avoids becoming didactic by depicting Fabrizio’s attempt to articulate things he sees as true in a way he never has before with an intellectual force he’s too used to rounding off for less inquiring ears. Fabrizio remains something of a snob in spite of himself, but his snobbery has its uses, as it sensitises him to commonplace habits of democratic states: obfuscation, indulgence, self-promotion, and hypocrisy, whilst he knows his privilege has insulated him from any need to adopt such necessary skills. Visconti offers a great philosopher-hero but one who feels himself bound to what we call today the wrong side of history, even as he tries to give the right side a push.
The Leopard’s historical thesis is ambivalent in a manner that makes particular sense in contemplating Italian history, and the source of that ambivalence lies in the simultaneous closeness of Visconti and Lampedusa in their emotional intuition, and the disparity of their politics. Lampedusa was expressing, in part, his anguish with the state of his nation circa 1945 by trying to locate the crucial moment in the past that set it on this path. Visconti, for his part, has a prosecutorial eye for the same notion. His film depicts the advent of a new age, but finds it an unfinished revolution that left the nation with a fractured pseudo-democracy defined by the self-interested coalition that eventually augured in Fascism when its interests were threatened by post-World War I socialists. The vignette of the lynched official and its crucial parallel with the collapse of the Fascist regime points to a sense of inevitable repetition, the growth of corruption and oppression that will grip the state again and again just as men are born, grow old, and die—again twinning the personal and the political. The Prince’s contemplation of his mortality and inevitable decline mimics the wane of his class and his time.
The film’s funniest vignette depicts the events swirling around a plebiscite that will give the stamp of approval to the new state. Fabrizio, despite having championed the pro-unification vote, puts up with cheeky quips from some whilst being feted with scrupulous toadying by Calogero. Later, Calogero reads out the results of the election before an assembly of townsfolk, constantly cut off by an excitable brass band, much to Fabrizio’s entertainment. Eventually, Calogero manages to announce the results, a unanimous “yes” vote. Fabrizio later questions Ciccio, who angrily rants that he voted “no” because he still felt grateful to the former Bourbon Royal Family for financial aid, confirming what Fabrizio had already realised: the vote had been tampered with. Underneath the surface buffoonery and enthusiasm, the well was being poisoned. Democracy had already been subverted at the very moment of its inception.
Visconti, who hadn’t yet seen some of Lancaster’s more ambitious performances, initially decried being saddled with a cowboy (watching Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961, changed his mind), but this was actually one of the specific strengths Lancaster brought to the role (tellingly, his first choice for the part was Nikolai Cherkasov, who had played Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible for Eisenstein). For from being some effete relic, Lancaster’s height and strength imbue the Prince with a sense of physical power, harking back to some distant ancestor’s more direct use of such endowments to win the power his family is about to lose. Fabrizio literally towers above most of the rest of the cast, and casually picks up both Ciccio and Calogero. The bite of Fabrizio’s sense of impending mortality gains power precisely because he has such strength, evoking a classical sense of tragedy as life and death extract their price from everyone, even the titanic. When Pirrone makes him aware that Concetta has a crush on Tancredi, Fabrizio reacts angrily and then admits that realising his children are old enough for love has pushed old age on him suddenly.
Visconti’s sarcasm is deftly wound into the solemnity of the material, contemplating the exhaustion of the Prince’s interest in life not in the face of great trials or wrenching losses of more familiar epic fashion, but through a hundred petty annoyances and glimpses of unbearably paltry pathos. He’s not the only one: Visconti’s irony reaches a peak of quiet agony when he surveys the glumly doomed courtship of Cavriaghi and Concetta and then pans away to look over Donnafugata’s rooftops, Rota’s music rising to sublime raptures even as he contemplates the barrenness of the duo’s mismatched hopes (the moment also suggests Visconti annexing the dumbstruck distancing of Michelangelo Antonioni). Meanwhile Tancredi and Angelica stalk each other playfully in a grand old house Calogero has given them as part of a grand dowry, a cavernous space for foreplay littered with dusty paintings, leftovers of another age: decay is already overcoming the aristocracy, its wares already falling into the hands of the Calogeros of the world, and the old is repurposed for the newly ascendant. The temptation to ecstatic physical consummation grips Tancredi and Angelica, but he resists taking her virginity: Tancredi, ever the strategist, knows their game should be played by perfect rules for maximum effect.
The film’s famous, lengthy, deceptively detached finale depicts the new settlement through social ritual. The grasping bourgeoisie are introduced to the fusty aristocracy on the dance floor. The soldier who has defeated Garibaldi in the field is feted as the man defending the new reasonableness. The well-matched young lovers enjoy their moment in the sun of society. The middle-aged Prince shows off his famous dancing skills and everyone is delighted he hasn’t lost his zest. Yet the sequence enfolds a series of quiet epiphanies defacing the surface glamour, as Fabrizio experiences a dark night of the soul in a bright, gay salon. He regrets having come to the party as soon as he arrives but knows he can’t leave now until early morning, and doomed to wander from station of private cross to station, contemplates his own inevitable demise and the banality of the world about him. Contemplating a room full of excitable daughters of the inbred nobility reminds him of a gang of monkeys. The Prince takes a verbal swipe at Garibaldi’s conqueror for his hypocritical declamations about defeating the General and then genuflecting to him, not understanding the political game that must now be honoured: Garibaldi has become a national hero, but the movement he led must now be suppressed. A painting on the wall depicting a patriarch’s death fascinates him far more than the party, noting such morbid details as the deathbed sheets in the painting being too clean. Angelica and Tancredi swoop in to rescue him in a moment laced with evanescent, mysterious cues of unspoken understandings and concessions admitted amidst the trio. This leads to Fabrizio and Angelica performing a waltz before the assembled partygoers, an islet of perfect courtly grace and mutual admiration between the man and woman, new and old, kept in hypnotic motion as long as the dance goes on.
The deliberate tone of this sequence and its underlying mournfulness clearly anticipates the same mood in Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), though Fabrizio’s anxiety is more ephemeral. The waltz gives way to the prancing jollity of a conga line, evoking, like the similar use of it in the finale of Fellini’s 8½ the same year, the ongoing absurdity and heedless motion of society. But whereas Fellini had his hero join in, Fabrizio remains detached. His daughter Concetta is revealed to be just as tragic a figure, upbraiding Tancredi not just for ignoring her, but also for revealing his smooth, smug acquiescence to the Way Things Are by approving of the upcoming execution of some revolutionaries. This last touch is one of Visconti’s more precise and caustic revisions of Lampedusa to set the seal on his parable as well as contrast the Prince’s musings. Whereas in the book the sight of slaughtered animals reminded Fabrizio all too keenly of the gross side of mortality, here the his long night reaches its end when he starts to walk home and hears gunshots signalling the executions. Meanwhile Tancredi grips Angelica all the tighter as they ride away in a carriage, and Calogero yawns and pronounces it a good thing. Fabrizio kneels down at the toll of Vespers and recalls Ciccio’s tale about the mysterious morning appearances of Angelica’s mother, and then whispers a questioning prayer to the stars, wondering when he might die and join them in their certitude. The film’s ultimate irony is the bitterest—the awareness that seemingly resilient, contemplative, complacent Prince is actually the frustrated dreamer of this crowd who have been busy arranging the world to suit themselves.
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by Marilyn Ferdinand
Blogathoners, the wait is over! It has been our privilege over the years to host For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon and raise money to help preserve our film heritage for future generations. With this fourth edition of the blogathon, we have a unique gem from cinema’s silent era in our sights, courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Our film is Cupid in Quarantine (1918), a one-reel Strand Comedy that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak. Moving Picture Review said: “It is a good story, handled well by Miss Elinor Field… [whose] vivaciousness permeates the entire picture, filling it with life and action and a humor that is contagious.”
Following on the heels of successful repatriation projects with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and the New Zealand Film Archive—which brought back and preserved nearly 200 American silent-era films that no longer survived in U.S. archives—the National Film Preservation Foundation is now partnering with the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam to return and preserve more lost treasures. As part of the preservation process, the Dutch-language intertitles will be translated back into English. After work is completed, the American archives participating in the project—the Academy Film Archive, Library of Congress, National Museum of American History, and Oregon Historical Society—will take custody of the new digital scans, 35mm masters, prints, and access copies. EYE will also receive new prints and digital copies, thus ensuring that the titles are available for screening and research on both continents.
The amount we’re shooting for is $10,000, which will cover laboratory costs for the film’s preservation as well as a new score for the film’s web premiere. Yes, just like our last blogathon project, The White Shadow, the fruits of our labor will be available free of charge to everyone online at the NFPF website.
In keeping with the science-based premise of the film, we have adopted science fiction as our overarching theme. OK, it’s a bit of a stretch, we admit, but think it will be a heck of a lot of fun. Of course, if you choose to write about film preservation, silent films, romance, or anything else related to our project, we certainly won’t object. Below are ads, which we encourage you to include on your blogs and social media to help promote this event; a full complement of ads, banners, and buttons can be found here. Feel free to like, read, and promote our Facebook page as well.
Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod will again be host blogs, and we have a new host blog joining us: Wonders in the Dark. Many of you are familiar with the long-running, prolific group blog tended to by Sam Juliano and Allan Fish, and we’re delighted to have them aboard for this iteration of the blogathon. Self Styled Siren Farran Smith Nehme, who was our gracious cohost for all of the previous blogathons, has ceded her place to Wonders in the Dark, but will, of course, provide an intriguing post and much-appreciated support. She has also agreed to offer her outstanding novel Missing Reels as a premium to one lucky donor. Mike Smith from White City Cinema is also ponying up a hardcover copy of his new book Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry as a premium, for which we are extremely grateful. We have some other goodies waiting in the wings, and if you would like to donate an item as a premium, please contact me.
According to estimates, at least 50 percent of all films made for public exhibition before 1951 have been lost. Move into the silent era, and the estimate shoots up to about 90 percent. The nitrate film on which nondigital movies are recorded is flammable and highly susceptible to deterioration. All or parts of thousands of films have burned up, broken down, or ended up in a dumpster. We are very lucky to have this opportunity to restore an irreplaceable part of our history. Please join us in having fun for a great cause!
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Vladimir Motyl
By Roderick Heath
White Sun of the Desert has a stature with Russian film fans that can only be likened to the cultural currency The Godfather, Star Wars, or Gone with the Wind hold for western viewers. Lines of dialogue from the film have become everyday catch phrases. Statues have been erected to honour the lead character. Legend has it that to this day, Russian cosmonauts watch it as a ritual before going into space. Craters on Venus have been named after members of the gaggle of Muslim wives who feature in the film. Yet it’s a good bet most movie aficionados outside the limits of the old Soviet Union, even those with a taste for the exotic, haven’t heard of it. There’s nothing terribly unusual about this. Almost every national and regional film industry can boast this kind of big, native hit that, for whatever reason, just couldn’t be exported.
White Sun of the Desert wasn’t adopted as a lofty, arty darling of foreign critics, though some notable filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky, were approached as prospective directors. Konchalovsky later described the screenplay by Valentin Yezhov and Rustam Ibragimbekov as a masterpiece, though it was largely rewritten by Motyl and others during filming. Meanwhile, the breed of movie fan that readily adopted spaghetti westerns and martial arts films around this time would surely have been bewildered if confronted by such an oddity, a work that extends the mood of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s (1966) eerie, surrealist-tinged desert sequence into an entire feature. For a work of such renown and popular affection, even on such a localised scale, White Sun of the Desert defies expectations. Less than 90 minutes long, it’s not a grand and swaggering epic, intense action tale, or laugh-a-minute comedy, though it resembles all of these at various points, as well as a kind of chaste sex farce and portrait of existential absurdity essayed with an almost ambient, peculiarly Slavic brand of melancholic romanticism. If you can get onto the film’s specific wavelength, it reveals itself a rare treasure.
White Sun of the Desert is certainly full of familiar motifs of a good pulp yarn. A frontier setting. A charming and robust protagonist. A wicked villain. Damsels in distress. Helpmates to the hero who waver but reappear in time to save the day. Yet, the way director Vladimir Motyl lays out his material is highly eccentric and peculiarly fashioned. White Sun of the Desert belongs to a popular but mostly bygone brand of Russian cinema, usually referred to as the “ostern” or sometimes as a “Red western” or “borscht western.” This was a genre readily comparable to the American western, crowd-pleasing, adventurous dramas set on the fringes of civilisation filled with action, horse riding and gunplay, but set in the wilds beyond the Urals and the fringes of the Caspian Sea, or amongst Cossack tribes. Osterns were usually set during the raucous and violent years of the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent civil war, and a consequential similarity of the western and ostern is the depiction of primal dramas unfolding in the context of upheaval and social flux, a shift in modes of life that will soon settle into a new civilisation. The traditions of the folk tale and folk song are also often invoked to describe Motyl’s work, and the tension between the immediacy of genre storytelling and the baleful meaning of a cultural relic is apparent in the film’s tone, which seems to be both merrily enacted and woozily remembered.
The early scenes of White Sun depict Red Army soldier Fyodor Ivanovich Sukhov (Anatoly Kuznetsov) wandering in the desert sands close to the Caspian seashore. Animated lines appear around him during the opening credits, blocked to trace out the geometry of the sand dunes, as if mocking the hero’s attempts to impose linear intentions on his entirely wayward fate. The lazily picked music on the soundtrack softly builds the mood of isolation, languor, and laconic attitude that define the film. Sukhov has been away from home several years fighting for the revolution, but now he’s been mustered out and is trudging his way home across the deserts of Central Asia. Sukhov mentally composes letters to his wife, which all begin with “Dear Katerina Matveyevna,” and become missives crammed with a mixture of pedantic and obfuscating detail, and statements of po-faced patriotism and workaday acceptance of the way great events mean a billion petty irritations, interruptions, frustrations, and dangers for him. Sukhov always envisions Katerina (Galina Luchai), in the midst of green and fertile fields for utmost contrast to his current surrounds, as an idyll of Russian homeyness, stout, pale, and rosy-cheeked.
Sukhov’s nature, as an easy-going, helpful-minded guy, and his reputation as a terrific soldier prove his own undoing, because life keeps throwing people who need or seek his aid in his path. In the middle of nowhere, Sukhov encounters a man buried up to his neck in the desert sand, as per local tradition for punishment. Sukhov digs him out whilst noting that he’s already dug out two more like him, and the last one attacked and robbed him. This man, on the other hand, is Sayid (Spartak Mishulin), who was seeking revenge on his father’s murderer, the bandit Dzhavdet, but was instead caught by him and left to die. “I’ll have no peace as long as Dzhavdet is alive,” Sayid grumbles, and then, “Why did you dig me up?” “Sure, a dead man has no worries,” Sukhov retorts, “but it’s so boring.” The two men separate, though Sayid continues to shadow Sukhov, torn between hunting his enemy and repaying Sukhov. Soon, Sukhov is stopped by a unit of Soviet troops led by an officer named Rakhimov. The commander is eager to divest himself of a strange burden: nine wives of “Black” Abdullah (Kakhi Kavsadze), another, more formidable and active local bandit who also has pretences to being a guerrilla warrior in the rebellion of the Basmachi. As the Soviets chased him, Abdullah was forced to abandon his harem because they were slowing him down and even intended to kill them all, shooting two before the soldiers forced Abdullah to run.
Sukhov is determined not to get caught up in any more adventures and won’t join the hunt for Abdullah, so Rakhimov instead convinces him to take charge of the women and get them to a nearby coastal village. He assigns the very young soldier Petrukha (Nikolai Godovikov) to help. Sukhov leads the women, dressed in their utterly depersonalising, full-body burqas and only identifiable by height, across the sands to the coast. There they enter a tiny village distinguished by some oil tanks, a thatch of houses, and proximity to some ancient ruins that have been made into a museum (actually the strikingly weird and remote old Silk Road city of Merv). Sukhov and Petrukha set up camp in the museum, but don’t know some of Abdullah’s men have remained behind. The bandits knock Petrukha out when he’s left behind with the women and ambush Sukhov whilst he’s bathing in the sea. Sukhov gives a display of why he’s famous and lasted so long: he snatches a gun from the hand of a bandit and shoots down two, whilst a third is lassoed by Sayid, who’s trailed his saviour. Sukhov realises that Abdullah is planning to return to the village, because a ship beached on the coast near the oil tanks is the only form of transport on hand that can get himself, his men, and his plunder away. The closest thing to authority in the town is the former Tsarist customs officer Pavel Vereschagin (Pavel Luspekaev), who used to battle the area’s copious bandits and smugglers, but now is an aging drunkard, mourning the son he lost in World War I with his wife Nastasia (Raisa Kurkina) and sitting on an arsenal of weapons that makes his house a matter of interest to both sides of the local conflict. When Sukhov sends Petrukha to find out if Vereschagin is still living in his house, Vereschagin literally drags the young soldier inside via an open window. Charmed by Petrukha, who reminds him of his own dead boy, Vereschagin sings songs for him until Sukhov turns up. Sukhov passes Vereschagin’s odd test of nerve, responding to Sukhov’s request for a light for his cigar by throwing out a burning stick of dynamite; Sukhov lights his smoke and tosses the bomb further along. Vereschagin is initially happy to join Sukhov in defending the ship and the women from Abdullah, but his wife begs him not to risk his life.
Like most seemingly simple, but vital things, White Sun of the Desert’s great popularity is surely bound up with the slippery and surprising density of its layering. The film swings between poles of drama and comedy with a spacey, sunstruck (or perhaps a vodka-glazed) head. The quiet, indolently catchy song Vereschagin sings to himself while plucking at a guitar and laying on his back with a bellyful of liquor, offers a fatalistic paean to the whims of “Your Honour Lady Luck.” The song by composer Isaak Schwarz and Bulat Okudzhava, which became a huge hit, is the only scoring, pervading many scenes like the crash of waves on the shoreline and the desert winds. When it was released in the United States, a critic dismissed the film as an escapist tale, and it is that. White Sun of the Desert is as light as a summer breeze, though dark and tragic moments punctuate the story, sustaining a truly unique blend of dogging nostalgia and idyllic optimism. Within its airy frame, White Sun of the Desert describes a sense of life as broad as a John Ford film; indeed Ford was one of Moytl’s singular influences, through the contrast of vast space and enclosed interpersonal drama in films like Stagecoach (1939) and 7 Women (1966), and perhaps the desolate situation of The Lost Patrol (1934), though that film’s feeling of nightmarish, assailed existential crisis is transmuted into blithe absurdity. Here, drama is elemental, the tone dreamlike, albeit mostly a daydream, the strange and jagged sense of locale and behaviour touched with just the faintest edge of surrealism as Motyl depicts as an array of boxes jutting out of the otherwise barren earth, a tiny space of civilisation wedged between zones of inhospitable elements, fought over by perverse emissaries of clashing societies. A light dusting of the otherworldly is apparent in the way Motyl films the actors treading the desert sand as if dissolving in and out of the earth, the way the nine faceless women strut in the sands, and the sight of Sukhov climbing the crest of a dune and being confronted with the endless blue of the sea.
Moments of slapstick comedy occasionally punctuate the more wry comedic texture, from a trio of aged Arabs having their caps blown off by an explosion to young Petrukha being told by an unseen voice to raise his hands and then being promptly grabbed by Vereschagin from out of the frame and hauled into a window above. Later, one of Abdullah’s villainous compadres, a White faction exile, is hurled bodily out of another of Vereschagin’s windows when he comes looking to steal some weapons: “His grenades are the wrong calibre,” the soldier tells a comrade after picking himself up by way of face-saving explanation. The Arabs have been sitting against a wall for so long that none of them can remember why, and one of them can’t be awakened by even the loudest blast. Far from the overpowering postures of Soviet Realism, Motyl surely found his audience’s heart with both the fondness and the lightly satiric attitude he turns on Sukhov and his sense of cause, as well as appealing through a story that evokes generations of Orientalist adventures.
Sukhov is undoubtedly an ideal Soviet hero, happily proletarian but blessed with good manners, down to earth, pure of heart, resourceful, and indefatigable. He has many of the qualities of a mythic hero in spite of his personal modesty, including a weapon with a suggestive backstory—his revolver is a personal gift from his commander—and his status as eternal wanderer, Odysseus with a Red Army badge. Sukhov also wields a terse sense of humour even at the most awkward moments: when a villain asks him if he wants to die or be tortured first and then die, Sukhov, ever a pragmatist, replies ever so coolly, “I’d like to be tortured.” Time is time, and even the slight delay Sukhov buys by annoying his captors through such glib gambits gives him a chance. When he springs into action, he blends speed and guile as well as innate survival skill, as when he guns down the bandits who bail him up with a show of agility and gunplay that would make a John Woo hero proud.
But Sukhov still needs help to win, because he is also a faintly hapless, occasionally flummoxed, very human figure who makes some costly mistakes. He’s reminiscent of the heroes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), his closest Hollywood relatives of the time, and in some ways looks forward to characters like Indiana Jones and John McClane, rugged, exceptionally competent action heroes who nonetheless definitely feel pain and often look at the dangers facing them with bedraggled, ridiculous incredulity. Yet he’s far more average and lackadaisical than either of those guys, like somebody crossbred Casablanca’s Rick Blaine with Andy Griffith. Equally appealing to the hometown audience would have been the crucial, figurative joining of the generations and the concepts of Russia, as Sukhov appeals to Vereschagin for aid, a touch that echoes another of Motyl’s models, High Noon (1952). The old Tsarist officer reclines detached from the world in his house, with its walls clad in mementos of his youth and the world of the Belle Époque. Vereschagin wants to go out like a man, but he’s stopped at first by his wife’s desperate appeals. Vereschagin’s immobilised distraction and Sukhov’s forthright ethic seem directly opposed but are obviously two sides of the same coin. The two men are united by the cool, stoical attitude they maintain, casually batting aside the irritations of life and getting on with their own business. Both can also sink a shot of vodka with aplomb. The spirits represented by Vereschagin and Sukhov are in constant dialogue and battle within the very fabric of the film, the tensions of old and new, haunted and hopeful, commitment and carelessness. As Sukhov contends with the problem of his nine female charges, Motyl makes a joke with more depth than it seems to have at first, contemplating the problem of bringing new ideas to people who don’t necessarily see what’s so great about them, and very lightly basting the officious creeds spreading them.
White Sun of the Desert is indeed partly a film about clashing cultures and values, though the avatars of these systems seem to collide rather than interact. Early in the film Sukhov notes that “The East is a delicate matter” (one of the film’s most consequential, and popular, lines), and Sukhov is still as fallible as any in this context. Ignorant of any other lifestyle, the wives immediately decide that, having been abandoned by Abdullah, Sukhov is their new husband. Sukhov, however, is a good Soviet soldier and tells the ladies they are now free according to the gospel of Bolshevik liberation. “These nine liberated women of the East are precious things, too!” he tells the museum curator, who doesn’t want anyone upsetting the exhibits. Sukhov is fazed when he walks in on the ladies whilst washing, and they all impulsively grab their skirts and lift them over their faces, preferring to bare their lovely midriffs to him rather than their visages before deciding that as their new husband, he has the right. Their faces do indeed have more power than their bodies (except for one who has a thicker moustache than Clark Gable), sending Sukhov’s mind reeling, all hot coals in comparison to Katerina’s stolid creaminess. Sukhov houses them in a room of the museum and hangs a banner from the ceiling that reads, “Down with prejudice — Women are human beings. too!” The notion that the male hero is more of a feminist than the women he’s aiding is an idea of grand wit, but Motyl also disassembles this precept as Sukhov chooses the youngest of the women, 15-year-old Gyulchatai (Tamara Fedotova), who is also the most animated and easily distracted of the harem, to be his official interlocutor with the other wives.
Gyulchatai interprets this as being appointed favourite, which gives her status over the others, but also make her the target of blame when Sukhov shows no interest in them. They suggest Gyulchatai dance before him and inflame his passions, but she succeeds only in bewildering the warrior. Sukhov tries to explain that the women can now cast aside their veils and each take a husband. Gyulchatai, working through this proposition, retorts that this means she would have to do all the work for one man that the wives currently share between them. “That’s the way things are,” Sukhov replies, breezily confirming the limits of his own revolutionary outlook. Contrasting both Sukhov and Vereschagin is the adolescent romanticism of Petrukha, the boy soldier, who notices Gyulchatai’s unruly side in spite of her correctness and keeps finding opportunities and talk to her, urging her, “Show your sweet face!” in a certain amount of hope, as he’s falling in love with a walking bag. The influence of the dreaded Eastern decadence insinuates its way into Sukhov’s thoughts, and he eventually indulges a daydream whilst lazing in the heat of the sun on guard duty imagining Katerina Matveyevna joining him and his new bevy of females as he lounges in a potentate’s costume. He immediately pays the price for this lapse, as a small army sneaks under his nose.
In spite of the deadpan nature of much of the film, closer examination reveals an intelligent and layered cinematic sensibility that uses the setting as an organic stage, as enclosed and acausal as the settings of Beckett’s dramas, the plains of Dali’s paintings, the Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and the people wandering through it as hardboiled avatars of their mutual, intensely insular, cultural sensibilities. Motyl expertly mines this situation for its simultaneous openness and treacherousness: the vistas are vast and seem wide open, and yet the smallest sand dune can hide something nasty lying in wait, a curve in the shape of reality that can swallow you. Something of Sergei Paradjanov’s anthropological and folkloric sensibility, which also often called back to the blank, two-dimensional display of early cinema and photography, permeates Motyl’s palette, whilst the way Motyl uses the natural elements even recalls the theatrical machinery of Georges Méliès. Although the necessary sparseness of Motyl’s shots couldn’t be more different to the baroquely crammed images of filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg, he does nonetheless evoke them in the way his frames, even as they’re depicting moments of urgent action, retain a fragmented, pictographic quality, flowing by in momentary islets of vivid, oblique strangeness, from Sayid’s head suddenly revealed jutting from the sand like some lost Easter Island statue, to the frieze-like depictions of Katerina in her natural habitat. Motyl mimics Vereschagin’s collection of postcards, photographs, the squared-off display of such vintage keepsakes pinned to the walls of his house to evoke the cultural memory of a lost era. The viewer is forced to assume the same attitude as Sukhov, knowing something utterly odd might be just around the corner, and forced to take it as it comes.
Motyl, Belarussian by birth, had gotten into trouble with Soviet authorities with his previous film, Zhenya, Zhenechka, and ‘Katyusha’ (1967), for its “disrespectful” take on the Great Patriotic War, clearly identified with the displaced state of Sukhov and his pining for a place in the world. His setting and time frame here, as well as the delicacy of the humour he employed, allowed him to bring just the hint of a scallywag attitude to onerous official creeds whilst also earnestly celebrating his hero as an exemplar, and proved here at least that he understood his audience exactly. The film changes radically in emotional key if not in apparent style once Abdullah turns up, trailing a force including Sayid, who, after shooting down three of Abdullah’s men when they seemed to be attacking him, is convinced by the bandit to join his party for a better chance of avoiding being buried to his chin again. Whilst Sukhov snoozes with dreams of harem comfort, Abdullah and his force enter the museum, and Abdullah first sneaks into the women’s quarters and strangles Gyulchatai, and then uses her veil to surprise Petrukha and kill him with his own rifle’s bayonet. The key image of slaughtered youth, scanned in a high shot by Motyl’s camera affecting a godlike blend of dispassion and awareness, drives Vereschagin to rouse himself and help Sukhov in fighting off Abdullah. Abdullah is an immediately persuasive and eye-catching villain, as Motyl cast Kavsadze, a good-looking hulk of an actor who threatens to outweigh Sukhov not just in size but as a potent screen presence, one whose sadistic violence is just as offhand and unfussy as Sukhov’s heroism. Abdullah’s sense of entitled authority immediately manifests in his ugly killing of Gyulchatai and then asking his remaining wives why they haven’t saved him the trouble of killing them by doing it themselves in obedience to his will.
Fortunately, Sukhov manages to bail up Abdullah before he can kill anymore, holding a gun on him and forcing him to send his men off to prepare the ship for departure. This gives Sukhov time to spirit the women off via a secret, hidden tunnel out of the ruins shown to him by the museum curator. Abdullah avenges himself by shooting the curator dead. Sukhov and the wives are forced to take refuge in the only hiding place available, one of the large empty oil tanks on the shore, but the bandits quickly locate them there. Abdullah has his men pump oil from a rail tanker to pool around the hideout and prepares to casually roast them all alive within, but Sayid intervenes and blows up the tanker and some of Abdullah’s men with it. Meanwhile, Vereschagin enlists his wife to dispose of the arsenal, and then sneaks aboard the bandits’ ship and battles the villains aboard. He kills or throws them all overboard before taking command in a cheer-along display of grit and prowess, one made more affecting by the off-screen story of Luspekaev, a WWII veteran and experienced stage actor who acted in the film in spite of having both feet amputated because of war injuries; Luspekaev died not long after the film was completed. The bitter kicker here is that Vereschagin is unaware that Sukhov and Petrukha have booby-trapped the boat, and he inadvertently blows himself and the boat sky high in the moment of his triumph, disappearing in a plume of white water.
Inadvertent tragedy gives Sukhov the chance to elude and defeat his besiegers, climaxing in a memorable comeuppance for Abdullah that evokes the finale of White Heat (1949), as Sukhov guns Abdullah down on the oil tanker. The villain slides down the tank’s ladder, gripping onto rails, his death signed with fearsome, mythic display of his grip on life. Motyl winnows his drama down to a succession of finalising images of great power. When Sukhov plugs him, Abdullah’s fingers reflexively tighten on the trigger of his machine pistol, firing off shots one by one, his aggression suddenly impotent, possibly an even more directly phallic joke considering that the entire story has revolved around Abdullah’s sexual domain. Vereschagin’s wife walks the beach alone, approaching a solitary horse in the dusk as “Your Honour Lady Luck” returns to the soundtrack, soulfully underscoring the notion that in violent conflicts, each victory is another’s loss. The note repeats as Sukhov bids farewell to the wives but pauses when he reaches the missing space where Gyulchatai would have stood, the meaningful end to Motyl’s repeated tracking shock along the row, stricken through with a tragicomic awareness that the surface interchangeableness of the women was illusory, and a hole is left in the world precisely by Sukhov’s efforts to call them into individual consciousness. As for Sukhov himself, like many a legendary hero and western gunslinger, he disappears into the wastes he came from, sad but not disheartened. He’s heading for home once more, but of course in spirit, he’s still wandering out in the wilderness, where people will inevitably need his help again.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ettore Scola
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It was strictly a coincidence, but a few hours before I viewed How Strange to Be Named Federico, I took a look at The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2012), an experimental biography of Egypt’s biggest star told entirely through clips of her films. Bowled over again by the audacious approach Rania Stephan took to her subject, I was fully primed for this impressionistic tribute to the great Italian director by Ettore Scola, who modeled his own career to some extent on Fellini’s.
Anyone interested in learning all about Fellini’s life and career should look elsewhere. Scola privileges impressions, memories, and imagination in offering some background on the director. In particular, Scola pays tribute to the camaraderie he experienced with Fellini, particularly when they both worked for the satirical newspaper Marc’Aurelio.
Scola transitions between color and black and white cinematography, between reenactments and archival footage, and across decades to show the footprints Fellini left that Scola stepped into. We see a reenactment of a young Fellini (Tommaso Lazotti) showing his sketches to a front-office editor at Marc’Aurelio, who flips through them declaring them funny or not funny and then deciding they are good enough to bring to the attention of the head editors. The bullpen sessions of the illustrators, all with their own “columns” and all vying for the coveted center spread, is a wonder of competitive spirit, friendly banter, and creative foment.
Scola first enters the picture as a nine year old (Giacomo Lazotti) reading Fellini’s cartoons to his blind grandfather. Ten years later, we will see Fellini’s introduction to the Marc’Aurelio office play out again when young Scola (Giulio Forges Davanzati) shows up, portfolio in hand, to see if he can make the grade. A rather sobering scene of some low-level functionaries of Mussolini’s fascist government coming into the editorial office and the illustrators standing at attention and giving their names and “rank,” that is, the sections they draw, created an uncomfortable reminder of the Charlie Hebdo attacks this past January.
Film director Fellini (Maurizio De Santis), an insomniac, is shown driving with Scola to view the prostitutes standing on the streets to ply their trade. They pick up one hooker (Antonella Attili) who relates that her days in the life are nearing their end; she has saved money, which she has given to her boyfriend to purchase a house for them. The seeds of The Nights of Cabiria (1957) thus are sown. There are some other interesting tidbits about Fellini’s works, including the omission of Mastroianni among the great Italian actors the director tested to appear in Casanova (1976) and the enshrinement of Stage 5 at Cinecittà Studios as Fellini’s home.
As the film moves into eras in which footage of the real Fellini and his film shoots are available, Scola gives us a behind-the-scenes look at some of the director’s classic films. Crane shots of Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni playing in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita (1960) intermingle with footage and restaged circus acts from La Strada (1954), with his Fellini stand-in watching the proceedings. Hilariously, Fellini and Scola are accosted by Mastroianni’s mother, who complains that Fellini always makes her son look handsome, whereas Scola always makes him look like a vagabond. While some of Scola’s memories may be suspect, I have no doubt this incident actually took place.
Scola distances himself from the film somewhat by having Vittorio Viviani serve as narrator, offering at least the semblance of an objective point of view from which the audience can take its cues. A familiarity with Fellini’s works makes viewing much more enjoyable and enlightening, as the movie feels a bit like a group of friends getting together to talk about a mutual acquaintance. A sampler of Fellini’s films at the end might jog a few memories, and offers, like a similar end montage of excised kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso (1988), the only truly sentimental interlude of the film. The free-wheeling and affectionate moments that went before are almost as good as having the maestro back among us.
How Strange to Be Named Federico is the closing night film. It will show Thursday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Simo Halinen
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among the more difficult challenges to empathy I have personally faced is trying to understand the mindset and choices of transgender individuals. I know and consider one transgender woman a friend and colleague, and I accept unconditionally that she is a woman. Yet it’s hard for me to understand how a mind and body can be so at odds that one would literally undergo the pain of surgery and hormone injections required for gender reassignment. That is why I very much looked forward to seeing Open Up to Me, a new Finnish film that puts a transgender woman at the center of its story.
The film opens during a therapy session, the last one Maarit (Leea Klemola) will have with her therapist. Maarit, a former school counselor, puts her underemployment as a cleaner with a janitorial service down to her honesty. She fears she will never have a relationship with her daughter Pinja (Emmi Nivala) because of her ex’s hostility, and she admits she would like to have a relationship with a man but worries that the exceptional individual who would accept her may be too hard to find. Her therapist leaves her with the final thought that it’s no longer necessary to hide away from other people and that Maarit must try to get the things she wants out of life.
On one cleaning job at the home office of a psychotherapist who is leaving town for two weeks, Maarit is given the keys to lock up. She explores the woman’s bedroom, trying on her lipstick and putting on one of her outfits. The doorbell rings, and not sure what else to do, she opens it. Sami (Peter Franzén), an attractive high school teacher and soccer coach about the same age as Maarit, asks if the therapist is in and learns she has just left town. Sami assumes Maarit is her work colleague and asks if she can talk to him. His marriage is in crisis, and he fears it will fall apart imminently if he doesn’t do something. Maarit, a trained social worker, agrees, and learns and is touched by Sami’s innermost feelings about sex and love. Just as he leaves, his wife Julia (Ria Kataja) arrives looking for the therapist, whom she has begged Sami to see to no avail. Again, Maarit agrees to speak with Julia, and gives her some advice that makes the couple’s evening at home the best they’ve had in ages. Unfortunately, Maarit has developed a crush on Sami and pursues him to the affair that was almost inevitable from the moment they met. Maarit, it seems, will now learn what it’s like to be the other woman.
The script for Open Up to Me is a mass of ’80s tropes and techniques, like an abundance of annoying lens flares, the dress-up/mistaken identity set-up from the Melanie Griffith-Harrison Ford vehicle Working Girl (1988), and a horny high school student with a lot of screen time, Teo (Alex Anton), who only seemed to be in the film to channel Tom Hanks’ manchild from Big (1988). Nonetheless, I had no trouble overlooking these recycled plot devices and some pretty schematic coincidences. This film gets my full endorsement for the riveting central performance by Leea Klemola.
Klemola makes Maarit’s sometimes self-sabotaging honesty the hallmark of her character, and suggests some of the masculine habits she has retained post-transition, like pursuing Sami and coming on strong, that make her performance as a transgender female so believable. (A review of the film by one transgender woman confirms that her performance was very convincing.) When she tells Sami what it was like to go on her journey, one that started at the age of five, I felt I got a bit of insight into the flash of awareness many of us have at that age about who we are as a discrete person, separate from our parents and surroundings. Maarit’s attempts to deny her gender identity by becoming an athlete, husband, and father and keeping her secret self well hidden make perfect sense. As with any soul-denying lie, however, the truth will out eventually, and the collateral damage to her daughter and wife a lasting regret she will have to learn to live with.
The women in this film are more courageous than its men. Pinja is harassed at school when a suicide inquiry brings Maarit back to town under suspicion of child abuse. Pinja, however, stands up to the ridicule and fights back to restore her father’s good name. Julia, though she hasn’t much screen time, comes off first as a bigot when she learns what kind of person her husband chose to cheat on her with and then as someone relieved not to have to pretend to be happy anymore. Sami is kind of a mess of a character, seemingly not concerned with Maarit’s physical change, but eventually uncomfortable in her world. I pegged him as a curious man who never intended for the affair to be more than a dalliance and who becomes furious with Maarit for her characteristic honesty when she unexpectedly runs into Julia. He’s a weak, entitled man who doesn’t deserve Maarit, as she learns rather quickly.
Although this is a film that will draw attention because of its unique central character, the real takeaway is that honesty, no matter what its cost, is the most rewarding approach to life and that eventually those we love can learn to live with the truth. In the film’s best moment, Pinja and an emotionally overcome Maarit are reunited. Pinja’s matter-of-fact last line is, “Dad, your make-up is running.”
Open Up to Me is showing Friday, March 27 at 8:00 p.m. and Tuesday, March 31 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ivano De Matteo
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the most popular writers in Europe is Herman Koch. The sometime actor published his first book, a collection of short stories, in 1985 and has produced eight novels to date. He hit big with his sixth novel, Het diner (The Dinner), a best seller that has been translated into 21 languages, spawned a 2012 film of the same name in his native country of The Netherlands, and reportedly will receive an English-language film treatment with Cate Blanchett at the helm in her directorial debut. The story, one of feuding brothers and family crime, proved irresistible to Italian director Ivano De Matteo as well. His version takes liberties with the novel that open the action beyond a single dinner conversation, giving context to the hard choices at the heart of the drama.
The film opens with two drivers exchanging heated words when one of them blows a red light because he is talking on his cellphone. As tempers flare, the offended driver stops his car, pulls out a baseball bat, and goes after the cellphone user. The driver’s side window shatters, but not from the bat—the driver is a police officer, and he fires a fatal shot into the man in self-defense. The bullet passes through the man and strikes his 10-year-old son Stefano (Lupo De Matteo), who is sitting in the passenger seat and was pleading with his father to stop arguing. This incident brings the two brothers at the heart of the story, Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio), together, the former a lawyer defending the shooter and the latter a physician treating the injured boy.
The solidly middle-class Paolo and his wife Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) have one son, the sullen, acne-scarred Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), who hangs out with his older cousin Benedetta (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) watching embarrassing and violent videos on TV and YouTube. Benny’s father, Massimo, is a wealthy widower who is on his second marriage to Sofia (Barbora Bobulova), who has recently given birth to a daughter. Clara hates Sofia, and Paolo has some long-standing enmity toward his brother, but like clockwork, the two couples meet at Massimo’s favorite restaurant once a month.
Michele has been doing poorly in school, and Paolo wants to keep him from going with Benny to a party. Clara, not wanting him to miss something he has been looking forward to, gets Paolo to relent. At the party, Michele is hopelessly out of place among the college-age crowd and ends up getting very drunk. He decides to leave, and Benny trails awkwardly after him in her high heels. The teens are uncommunicative the next day, but when Clara watches an Italian version of “Crimestoppers,” she sees a video of two people beating and kicking a homeless woman and dragging her along the street. Clara views the video again on her son’s laptop the next day after he goes to school, gets up shakily and walks to the kitchen, only to have her knees go out from under her, shocked to confirm her fear that the pair may be Benny and Michele. Later, Benny pumps her father for legal information about the crime, which she claims her friends committed; Massimo goes to an unsuspecting Paolo and says he suspects that their children were responsible. Angry at Clara for keeping him in the dark, Paolo forces the truth out of Michele. It is then up to the families to decide whether to cover for their children or turn them in.
The theme of The Dinner is similar to that of another EU festival film, Magical Girl (2014), that is, the human struggle between emotion and reason. Clara and Paolo are horrified that Massimo can defend the policeman who left a family man dead and his son temporarily paralyzed, but Massimo believes that everyone deserves a defense. This is the kind of rational thinking one needs and expects from a lawyer. Paolo is overcome with horror at what his son and niece have done, yelling at Massimo, Clara, and Sofia for talking about the best way to keep them from paying for their crime. Paolo’s conflict is enormous, flipping constantly between love for his son and his belief in justice, challenging his kneejerk liberal philosophy. Clara shows herself to be a hypocrite, watching her “Crimestoppers” show to see whether justice will be served, yet choosing to believe the lies of her son until he is forced into confessing and then actively seeking to keep the truth from getting out. Sofia is more dispassionate, as Benny is not her natural daughter, but she will do whatever Massimo believes is right.
The film remains blessedly neutral about technology. Just when we think the film will blame Benny and Michele’s actions on their consumption of violent videos, we see that a security camera is instrumental in uncovering their crime. De Matteo rightly lays the blame directly where it belongs—on human nature, on people driven to violence by thoughtlessness or the view that some people’s lives are worthless. Envy certainly plays a role in how Paolo and Clara regard Massimo and Sofia and their luxurious lifestyle. Our sympathies are constantly shifting, and our beliefs about the characters reinforced and challenged again and again.
The naturalistic film style and the mesmerizing performances, especially by Lo Cascio and Mezzogiorno, take this film and its somewhat familiar theme to some interesting places. It is, however, hard to get a toehold on the film because we are catching these characters at a stressful moment in time; without a thorough grounding in character, the film sometimes tips into melodrama. Whereas the first half of the film contains only diagetic music, the introduction of an emotional score in the second half amps the melodrama rather unnecessarily.
The tack De Matteo takes to this story recalls the amorality of privilege and the immorality of envy found in The Bling Ring (2013), suggesting that Gen X filmmakers (De Matteo is 49) are acutely aware of the worm riddling our new Gilded Age and are seeking to examine and expose it. While The Dinner perhaps needed a more full-bodied script to draw out more nuance to the situation, this film is well worth a look.
The Dinner is showing Thursday, March 26 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Olivier Assayas’ career is littered with films studying the cross-pollinating perversities of art and life and contemplations of art as life itself—as hobby, business, mirror, catalyst, passion, refuge. Key to much of Assayas’ cinema is a belief that performance is a kind of life and that all life is a kind of performance. This notion becomes an ever more enveloping truism as new portals of reality are opened by technology and our increasingly narcissistic gaze. Assayas has tackled this obsessive theme from many different angles in his career. Even his discursions into genre and reportage, like Boarding Gate (2008) and Carlos (2011), hinge on the spectacle of individuals trying to reinvent themselves according to a self-concept: the former film’s protagonist, forced to survive conspiracies of power and the brutal results of her own extreme emotions, became something like the science fiction heroine she had once written about, whilst the latter espoused the idea that Carlos the Jackal was essentially a man who fell in love with playing the radical titan and made his life match the image. Assayas’ international breakthrough, Irma Vep (1996), depicted a film shoot as intersection of cultures, peoples, epochs, and modes of artistry, recognising and disassembling all the grand and inane things that go into creating a popular artwork. Clouds of Sils Maria inevitably evokes that movie in constructing a similar fablelike exploration of the tensions between player and play, a cotillion of ideas and impulses dancing around the subject of art in the modern world itself, and also just as fascinated with the iconography of the great female performer. That iconography has clearly often tantalised and tormented Assayas, as he documented in his works with ex-wife Maggie Cheung, Irma Vep and Clean (2004).
Clouds of Sils Maria belongs to a small battery of recent films that have tackled the same theme, including most prominently Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (both 2014), all of which meditate fixedly on the process of actors creating new realities as they wrestle with the purity of the text and the complexity of existence. The corollary to his recurring theme is that Assayas knows that however much artists might wish it and be facilely in love with the notion of art and life conjoining, it never does, or at least not in the neat manner most takes on the idea suggest. Assayas maintains tension is his variations on this theme by keeping the audience guessing as to where he will draw the line.
Crucial to both the intent and the effect of Clouds of Sils Maria is the presence of Juliette Binoche, whose own aura of matured excellence as a performer and invocation of a specific kind of European chic is crucial for the attitude the audience is encouraged to take toward her character, Maria Enders, and that of Kristen Stewart, playing Maria’s personal assistant Valentine. At the outset, tellingly, Maria and Valentine are travelling, between stages of life. Maria seems at first to be on a kind of cultural victory lap, heading to Switzerland for a film festival where she is to accept an award on behalf of publicity-averse playwright and filmmaker William Melchior. Melchior wrote the play that gave Maria her big break, “The Maloja Snake,” a tragic tale of a widowed, middle-age businesswoman, Helena, who falls in love with younger female employee, Sigrid, only to be cruelly used, discarded, and driven to suicide. Melchior later adapted the play into the movie that made her an international star.
Maria is now just coming off a stint playing an X-Men character in Hollywood, the pinnacle of that career in terms of fame and financial reward. Soon it becomes plain that Maria is actually beating a retreat, turning her back not just on such pay-cheque work but also on new horizons in a changed cultural zeitgeist, and also fleeing the fallout of her ongoing, acrimonious divorce. On the train taking them through the Alps, Maria reads Val her acceptance speech on behalf of Melchior, whilst Val drip-feeds her interesting offers, information titbits, internet gossip, and relevant bulletins that come to her through copious cell phone calls. One call brings genuinely startling and shocking news: Melchior has just been found dead near his home in the mountain village of Sils Maria. Later, Melchior’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) tells Maria that he was fatally ill and took a graceful self-administered exit in his favourite spot, high above the lake of Sils.
The festival award turns into testimonial event, and Maria is faced with some less agreeable aspects of her shared past with Melchior, as his other favourite actor, Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler), comes to get in on the act. Maria is still deeply contemptuous of Henryk after he seduced her, forgot her, and got interested in her again once she hit the big time. Reluctantly, Maria meets with Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), a new hotshot theatre director who wants to cast Maria in a revival of “The Maloja Snake.” Whereas Maria made her name as the young character in the play, whom she played with a precise relish for callow, egocentric cruelty, Maria is now to take the role of the older, waning, doomed Helena.
Maria is initially seduced into this potentially facetious piece of backtracking by Klaus’s theory that Helena and Sigrid are essentially portraits of the same person at different stages in life and thus a predominantly psychological work, whilst Henryk describes it as a simple and relentless portrait in the pathetic subordination of a weaker person by a dominant one, and thus about the power dynamics of interpersonal society. When Rosa decides to leave the house she and Melchior shared, she offers it to Maria as a place to rehearse the play and commune with the essence and inspiration of Melchior’s art. Maria and Val move in for the duration, and begin the heady work of finding an access point into the play’s theatre of pathos.
The title of both Assayas’ film and the play within it refer to a strange weather phenomenon in the region—a snakelike ribbon of cloud that creeps up through the mountains and over the lake at Sils Maria whose exact cause is unknown. This mystery is correlated with the enigma of desire and the wilful self-immolation of Helena depicted in Melchior’s play, which concerns both the consumption and supplanting of the old by the young, but also with the impulses that still burn within us as we age and the overpowering force of repressed, asocial wont. The invented play that serves as linchpin for Assayas’ dramatic enquiries was inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1970), a work Fassbinder likewise translated from stage to screen. Although Assayas has been prone to fetishizing lipstick lesbianism in the past, the status of Fassbinder’s works as singular classics of the burgeoning age of outright queer art concern Assayas less than using them as template for fabricating an exemplar of ruthlessly psychological, selectively realistic, serious-minded modernist art. Likewise, the film’s allusions to Ingmar Bergman’s films, particularly Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf (1968), annex the aura of intense worthiness still retained by that grand, but fading era. Simultaneously, the way Fassbinder used gay coupling with cunning alacrity to render the power dynamics in all relationships bare in deadly contrast is also vital to Assayas’ plan.
Assayas can then toss such high-falutin’ fare playfully against the seeming frivolousness of much contemporary big-budget cinema. Rather than merely exploiting the dissonance to better affirm the aspirations of the would-be artist in the face of sell-out self-loathing, as Birdman was rewarded for depicting, Assayas is a postmodernist, knowing all too well that the divisions between high and low art are often illusory, but also he is determined not to pander. He wants to know why metaphorical studies in human nature, which can be at once simplistically minor and mythically large, have stolen so much thunder from the integrity of such grand art. “The Maloja Snake” is supposed to be the kind of work artists and scholars can get lost in for years trying to plumb its subtleties and evocations of seldom-explored corners of the psyche, and the way each person engaging with the text transforms it via their own experience and intent.
Maria trips up on her own evolving and altering reading of the work, which she once understood on the level of pure instinct in channelling her own ruthless, youthful drive into the figure of Sigrid. This must now be subordinated to the far more painful process of reconciling her own fear of aging with the terrible description of Hanna’s disintegration, but also on the level of raw theatrical craft, stumbling over lines that once seemed abstractly forceful and now only ring as clunky and didactic. Appropriately for the theatrical dimensions of his inquiries, Assayas structures his film in three acts: a first part, a second part, and an epilogue. But he also subdivides the film with a classic cinematic device—fading to black as the punctuation of most scenes rather than the direct leaps favoured by most modern editors, emphasising, rather than sublimating, the passage of time, giving the film a mood of somnolent, yet wiry expectation.
By most standards, not much actually happens in Clouds of Sils Maria. Assayas gives the bulk of the screen time to Maria and Val shacked up in Melchior’s house, arguing approaches to the play in specific and the business of performing art in general in a manner that takes near-unseemly delight in the mere display of actors verbalising with all their wily talent, as if taking a calculated tilt at the dogma of modern filmmaking, to avoid devolution into mere talk. Assayas quietly undercuts cliché in making the older European actress more emotional and quicksilver in her reactions and creative yearnings and the younger American taciturn in her emotional life and more overtly intellectual and theoretical in her explorations, albeit in such a way that often conflicts with Maria’s sense of worthy art, talking up the necessity of committed acting even in light fantasies. The association between the two women seems workaday, but steadily unveils itself as a complex and loaded mesh of mutual requirement as Maria and Val are bound together by shared intelligence and passion for the creative life, albeit a passion that the younger woman must subordinate to the elder as the successful professional. Val functions as sounding board, mental fencing opponent, grease trap keeping distractions and time suckers at bay, and avatar out in the world of youthful desire. The project of restaging “The Maloja Snake” is both expedited and complicated by the other side of the casting equation. Klaus tells Maria he’s secured Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising starlet who’s a big enough fan of Maria’s to have dropped other commitments for the chance to play opposite her, news that helps lures Maria on board with the appeal to vanity, though Maria has never heard of Jo-Ann.
Val, in another of her functions—translator for the vagaries of the internet age for Maria—is able to dish all the dirt: Jo-Ann is infamous for her spacy, spiky interviews and You Tube-enshrined freak-outs. Like Maria, she’s just come off a big-budget scifi movie, cueing a sequence when Maria and Val go to see the film, donning 3D glasses for the privilege. In the brief glimpse of the movie, Jo-Ann’s character is a mutant walking out on her fellowship of good guys, revealing herself to be a traitor who’s in love with the bad guy before exterminating her mutant friend (Nora von Waldstätten). Val vocally admires Jo-Ann’s talent and encourages Maria to work with her, even take some inspiration from her. After the movie, the pair argue over what they’ve just seen. Maria dismisses the pop psychology and what she sees as inherent ludicrousness of the material, but Val argues passionately for Jo-Ann’s transcendent dedication to the part and the force of feeling underneath the generic metaphors. Maria laughs heartily with a hint of wilful contempt, whilst Val continues to argue with frustration, but they patch it up when Val dismisses the film’s villain. This sequence binds together much that’s essential about both the film and Assayas’ recurring peccadilloes, not least of which is the spectacle of cinephilia itself, the critical dissection of clashing artistic concepts and world views, and Assayas’ adoration for louche glamazons in tight outfits, an adoration he always treats with wry awareness, harking back to Irma Vep’s PVC fantasias and the confused invocations of Catwoman as inferior descendant.
As a mimicry of Hollywood blockbuster style, the movie-within-a-movie misses the mark, probably deliberately. The wigs and costuming recall a different brand of comic-book-inspired pop cinema from the ’60s and ’70s with a hint of retro camp, whilst the overt discussion of emotion in the dialogue cuts against the grain of the current superhero genre’s pre-adolescent distrust of such things. In this aspect, Assayas is clearly more definitely referencing the Twilight series, setting up Val’s passionate defence of the kinds of role and performing that gave Stewart her own fame and fortune. There is another message in the mutant movie that has warnings for the two ladies: one mutant kills off the friend who tries to council her wisely but against the flow of her tumultuous feelings. When Maria and Val meet Jo-Ann, she and her boyfriend (Johnny Flynn) are listening to Handel in an upscale hotel. Jo-Ann seems to be a calm, cool, generous young woman light years removed from the half-mad or druggy tyro the internet records. Jo-Ann charms Maria by copiously praising her and explaining the roots of her adolescent obsession with acting as being rooted in seeing Maria live on stage. Only when Maria and Val return to Sils Maria can Val explain the tabloid storm waiting to happen they were just privy to, because Val recognised Jo-Ann’s boyfriend as Christopher Giles, a hot young writer who’s married to a prize-winning German artist. At first, Assayas seems to be constructing an obvious point here, decrying the way celebrity’s worst moments can be captured and turned into permanent, inescapable representations, and that Jo-Ann is just a young talent who indulges, but isn’t defined by her appetites. But another facet suggests itself, that Jo-Ann is a consummate performer in life as well as on screen, becoming whatever she thinks is needed of her in a given moment.
Assayas, who started as a film critic and then turned to screenwriting, penned the script for one of Binoche’s important early films, Andre Techince’s Rendez-vous (1985), and he all but invites the viewer to go right ahead and conflate the various players on and off screen with the characters in the film, with himself cast sarcastically as Melchior, ghostly, pointedly absent but still the puppet master, and Binoche and Stewart playing versions of themselves. Assayas certainly mines the ironies of the two actresses’ careers with assiduous skill, playing off the oppositions they seemingly invoke—European/American, maturity/youth, high art/pop culture, and on and on—whilst also collapsing and undermining those divisions. Mostly this feels like a sarcastic dare for the audience to make such an ill-advised leap: Assayas is ahead of the game. Binoche’s own recent, too-brief part in Godzilla (2014) was an interesting discursion for a hugely admired performer who nonetheless has had a frustrating time of it in English-language cinema, whilst Stewart, an actress with an impressive resume of film performances under her belt in small and independent films, is still currently defined for most by the Twilight franchise, which made her name the easiest of cheap-shot targets, whilst Jo-Ann’s transgressive romance with Giles evokes Stewart’s own tabloid crash-landing.
Of course, there’s nothing terribly uncommon about either actress’s career pattern either, and it’s this very commonality of experience that intrigues Assayas, trying to turn the mixture of specificity and universality that’s supposed to make for great art inside out. Like fellow ’90s French auteur-star François Ozon, Assayas is fascinated by characters who indulge in role-playing and try to actualise their internal dialogues, but he’s careful not to stoop to an overt a trick like Ozon did with Swimming Pool (2003) and have his characters prove to be literal, obvious projections of a creator’s thought process. Instead, Assayas reroutes his awareness that all characters are essentially fragments of the author’s (his) mind, whilst purporting to make them radial extensions of Maria herself, commenting on past, present, and future, as Val, Jo-Ann, Klaus, and Henryk all present dimensions of Maria’s ambitions and anxieties in obedience to the common pattern of function in drama.
At the same time, all of them are struggling for autonomy, for their own justifications and arcs: actors’ egoverse couples folding themselves into every other person around them with the eternal fear that others will erase them. Maria and Val’s life together in Henryk’s house quickly starts to feel like a kind of sexless marriage, especially as Maria relies on Val to give her juice and morale, but she also resents it when Val’s admiration goes to anyone else, like Henryk and Jo-Ann. Maria’s feelings about other actors are coloured by the way they interact with her life experience, whilst Val assesses them purely with the gaze of an intelligent fan. Jo-Ann comes to represent the unalloyed force and ambition of the young actor as opposed to the toey criticality of Maria as the weathered artist.
Maria stores up Val’s implied criticisms and veiled warnings and then ambushes her with their implications at random moments, whilst the two women begin to bicker and butt heads with greater frequency. Their adventures in the surrounding landscape mark stages in the decay of the partnership, from casually stripping off and diving into the lake to getting lost and wandering in the descending murk after arguing aesthetic quandaries until they literally can’t find their way home. Val strikes up a romantic liaison with a photographer, Berndt (Benoit Peverelli), who shoots Maria for the festival promos: Val amusingly introduces him to Maria as the man who took “those really trashy photos of Lindsay Lohan.” Val leaves Maria to meet up with Berndt a few times, but after one excursion, she is depicted driving back through the mountains in the fog, the film’s sole moment of showy filmmaking: Assayas double-exposes the image, so that the road continuing to twist and bend from a driver’s perspective even as Val stops the car to vomit by the side of the road, expertly visualising Val’s physical state of head-swimming nausea and her tumultuous, disoriented emotional state of things having gone bitterly wrong. Eventually, she asks Maria if she wants her to leave after a particularly gruelling rehearsal session, feeling that her ideas are only confusing Maria, but Maria asks her with disarming directness to stay and embraces her.
The mountainous setting is replete with otherworldly evocations, a Wagnerian landscape for communing with gods, and the Maloja Snake itself, which took on a spiritual significance for Melchior. Maria and Val try repeatedly to grasp that meaning by hoping to see it, whilst Val herself gets lost in the churn of lesser atmospherics. Early in the film, Rosa shows them a film of the event, taken by German filmmaker Arnold Fanck (codirector of The White Hell of Piz Palü, 1929). In the film’s provocative, initially bewildering pivotal moment, Maria and Val try to catch sight of the Maloja Snake on a foggy morning. On the way, the duo argues about the play’s ambiguous ending, which implies but does not show Helena’s suicide. Val points out that it’s hardly conclusive and that it might in fact support the theory that the play is actually about Helena wilfully throwing off the vestiges of her life en route to rebirth. Maria barks irritably at Val that she’s trying to make the play the opposite of what it was supposed to be. Moments later Assayas observes the duo descending a hillside, and Maria reappears on the reverse slope, but without Val behind her. Maria reaches the peak and sees the Snake forming, but when she looks back, she sees no sign of Val. Maria searches with increasing frenzy, but turns up no sign of her companion. Assayas fades out and returns weeks later, with Maria in London with a completely new PA and the restaging of “The Maloja Snake” now in final rehearsals.
What the hell has happened? Maria doesn’t seem disturbed or unhappy, so it’s unlikely Val has met a sticky end accidentally or deliberately. More likely she simply gave up, walked back to the house, packed her bags and left her job. But there is no certainty. At first it seems like a mischievous diegetic joke, Val making a point about the ambiguity of the text’s conclusion to taunt Maria. It’s also possible to take it to mean that Val never was, that she was just a projection of Maria’s self, a facet of her personality she now no longer needs as creative quandary gives way to hard career choices (this does seem unlikely, however). As the film’s metatextual humour has constantly threatened, this proves to be rather Assayas’ act of narrative self-sabotage, highlighting the very point that was just being argued about: he quite deliberately erases all sign of what’s happened, and the audience must decide for itself. Val vanishes as the Maloja Snake appears, and Assayas mediates dreamily on the mountains engulfed by cloud, Handel sawing away on the soundtrack.
The unanswered mystery of the sudden disappearance calls back to another icon of mid-20th century art film, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), but where Antonioni was evoking the mystery inherent in much of life, Assayas undermines the very structure of his art to reaffirm it. The notion of a character suddenly absented from a story and thus from existence is another of Assayas’ fixations, from the fraying New Wave director in Irma Vep who seems to vanish into the experimental movie he leaves behind to the antiheroine of demonlover being abducted into the black zones of the internet and the protagonist of Boarding Gate retreating from revenge to be lost in the great mass of humanity. The tale of Val and Maria seemed to demand a conclusion, a grand gesture—that they split, become lovers, destroy each other—but Assayas simply avoids it. Whatever Val has done has been aimed at hurting Maria and perhaps herself, and more importantly, she’s hurt the narrative and broken free. The rest of the film plays out normally. Maria has a new assistant (Claire Tran), who has Val’s confidence but nothing like her bohemian edge. Whilst Maria and Klaus have dinner, the director pensive about his project, news comes of Giles and Jo-Ann’s affair: Giles’ wife has attempted suicide, and the shit is about to hit the tabloid fan.
Jo-Ann coolly invites the tabloid blame for the tragedy to shield Giles, revealing an almost saintly side, but as she and Maria rehearse and Maria tries to sensitise her to the dramatic value of evoking pity for Helena, Jo-Ann dismisses the point, stating that the audience is now entirely bound up in Sigrid—in short, she’s taking charge now and fuck the older woman, Maria and Helena both. Helena accepts this without demure, and meets with Piers Roaldson (Brady Corbet), a young, first-time filmmaker far less slick and self-assured than Klaus who wants her to play another mutant in a low-budget scifi film he’s about to shoot in Ukraine. Ironically, Piers has contempt for this very thing Maria’s been struggling to accept and adapt to, as well as for Maria’s concerns about her age. “She’s outside of time,” Piers tells Maria of the character he’s written for her, a creature who does not age normally. The likeness is obvious, to the image of the eternal actress, frozen at a phase in life by the movie camera, exempted from the petty cares of life. By inference Maria has finally reached a point where she, too, has transcended time. To reach this point, Maria has essentially been stripped of her illusions, her airs, and her beliefs. There is nothing now but the job itself, but that is a form of freedom. Assayas fades out on the image of her ensconced in Helena’s place, smiling with wry expectation to herself, aware that on one level Val was correct, that Helena’s self-destruction is as much a journey of wilful disassembling as it is one of tragic succumbing, an expression of desire to find what else there is life—and that Maria doesn’t have to follow it to the same end.
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Director/Screenwriter: Carlos Vermut
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Midway through Spanish filmmaker Carlos Vermut’s mordant sophomore feature Magical Girl, Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie), a former prostitute in the S&M scene around whom much of the action centers, meets Oliver Zoco (Miquel Insua), a wealthy paraplegic who runs a brothel for sadists. Married to a psychiatrist who keeps her on a short leash and desperate for $7,000 to pay off a blackmailer, Bárbara has agreed to a one-off session with one of Zoco’s clients. Zoco asks her if she likes bullfighting, and they agree that neither of them has a taste for it. Zoco then offers the following analysis of the place of bullfighting in Spain.
It is curious that Spain is the country where bullfighting is most popular. Do you know why Spain is a country in eternal conflict? Because we are not sure if we are a rational or an emotional country. Nordic people, for example, act in accordance with their brains. However, the Arabs or Latinos have accepted their passionate side without blame. Both, they know which are their strong points. Spaniards are balanced right in the middle. That’s the way we are. And what is bullfighting? The representation of the struggle between instinct and technique, between emotion and reason. We have to accept our instincts and learn to deal with them as if they were a bull, trying not to be destroyed by them.
This speech is the key to the quietly savage tale Vermut has put on the screen for our amusement and horror.
In sadomasochistic relations, it is the submissive who controls the action. Magical Girl shows just how much two seemingly vulnerable and submissive females control and bring about the ruin of the men in their lives. One of them is the picture of innocence—Alicia (Lucía Pollán), the 12-year-old, leukemia-stricken daughter of unemployed literature teacher and single father Luis (Luis Bermejo). The close, loving relationship between them is evident in his loving names for her, the games they play, and his parental concern over Alicia’s request to spend the night with some girlfriends watching Japanese anime. Her favorite anime is Magical Girl Yukiko, and her fondest wishes are to possess the costume Yukiko wears and to live to be 13. When her father discovers her laying in her room unconscious and rushes her to the hospital, he learns that her second wish likely will not come true. He decides he will grant her first wish, even though the designer outfit costs nearly $7,000.
The second submissive is Bárbara. The opening scene of the film shows a young Bárbara (Marina Andruix) turn the tables on her math teacher Damián (José Sacristán) when he forces her to read aloud a note she was passing in class. The note reveals that she thinks “Cabbage Face” is pathetic, and when he demands the note from her, she makes it disappear through sleight of hand. The adult Bárbara is kept in luxurious bondage by her husband Alfredo (Israel Elejalde), who shoves an antipsychotic or antidepressant down her throat, checking to see if she has swallowed it, even sweeping his finger around the inside of her mouth to be sure. The depth of her disturbance shows when they go to visit friends, and after being forced to hold the friends’ new baby, Bárbara starts to laugh. Compelled, like Damián compelled her so long ago, to reveal what she was thinking, she says she was imagining what everyone’s faces would look like if she tossed the baby out the window.
At home, Alfredo forces Bárbara to take a sleeping pill, and when she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds only empty hangers in his clothes closet. She downs the bottle of sleeping pills, only to vomit them out the window and right onto Luis, who is standing in front of a jewelry store ready to smash and grab the valuable contents in the window to finance the Yukiko costume. Bárbara takes him in, washes his clothes, and while they are drying, seduces Luis, thus leaving herself open to the blackmail he sees as the only way to get the money he needs.
Both Alicia and Bárbara depend on others to take care of them. Both are sick and find ways to use that sickness to get what they want. The frivolousness of Luis’ mission forms a dead-on critique of affirmative parenting. Luis may be delusional about Alicia’s real needs—as a friend from whom he tries to borrow money says, Alicia just wants to spend time with him—but when he presents her with the dress, her reaction is underwhelming. When she starts looking through the box, he realizes he missed something—the $20,000 magic wand accessory—and is forced to extend his blackmail demand. Alicia is indeed a very entitled child who elicits our sympathy and scorn at the same time.
Bárbara finds a way to embarrass Alfredo for making her go out when she didn’t want to, and though he tries to leave her that same night, he returns the next day with an ultimatum I suspect would vanish into thin air if Bárbara ever called him on it. That she doesn’t, and indeed, pursues increasingly more dangerous sexual activities to deal with her blackmailer suggests to me that she’s trying to have her cake and eat it.
As with any good bullfight, Vermut waves his red cape and punctuates these fairly straightforward, intertwined stories like a picador with some lacerating scenes of seriocomedy, as when Bárbara splits her forehead open when she head-butts a mirror or Alicia dances in manic delight to some Japanese music, clutches her side and suddenly collapses out of the frame. The undercurrent of economic crisis in Spain adds an air of desperation, and Luis’ instruction to Bárbara to put the money in a copy of the Spanish constitution held at a public library because “nobody will read it” offers a sardonic commentary on the state of neoliberal policies in Spain. His men—all educated intellectuals—often have the mere illusion of control, but when they succumb to their emotions, their ferocity is something to behold.
Vermut offers some interesting set-ups to suggest character, and even cinematic parody. When Bárbara enters Zoco’s mansion, the formality of the setting and faux gentility of the characters echo the sleazy sophisticates of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and the addition of the black lizard room, with this animal silouette hanging portentously over the door, is the kind of sly joke one would expect from the likes of Luis Buñuel. Revelation of the scars criss-crossing Bárbara’s body brings out the Spanish sense of morbidity (and incidentally, offers more erotic menace than a “sensation” like Fifty Shades of Gray  could begin to think of) and the pallor of death that permeates so many film from that country. In other instances, an overhead shot of Damián’s desk, with every object regimentally aligned with geometric preciseness, is a perfect snapshot of a man desperately trying to keep the bull locked in its pen, and the small hand reaching toward him holding the key to the gate.
When Vermut pulls his sword out from behind his cape to go in for the kill, the change is as unexpectedly thrilling as it would be in a real bullfight. Damián is the sleeper character in this film, and his obsession with Bárbara the driving force in a truly unsettling tale of revenge. Like the Spanish, Vermut moves us slyly between the poles of reason and passion. The final victory, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes to the bull.
Magical Girl is showing Saturday, March 28 at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago. The Wednesday screening will be introduced by Steven Marsh, associate professor of Spanish film and cultural studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.
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Director: Christian Schwochow
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were officially reunified, and Germans in both halves of the country looked forward to better times for the entire country. The hardships under which the East Germans lived for decades, however, did not vanish overnight, and integration of the two populations was fraught in many ways. Christian Schwochow, who was born and grew up in East Germany, has begun to examine this past. His 2012 miniseries The Tower dealt with the crumbling of communist rule in East Germany, observing life in the former Soviet bloc country near the final approach of reunification. West takes a step back to the 1970s for a look at life for East Germans who were granted permission to emigrate to the west.
The film opens with our main characters, Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) bidding a loving farewell to the man of the house, Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek), who is leaving on a trip. The context of the trip is vague, and when he says that he will see them in a week, the furtiveness of the exchange made me wonder whether they were all going to try to escape to the west. Flash forward three years, and a worried-looking Nelly is indeed making for the border with Alexej to start a new life—but with the government’s blessings. Nelly, jittery that something will foul up the plan, tries to keep Alexej from the leaving the car to use the rest room. This action ironically arouses suspicions, and Nelly is asked to submit to questioning. Although her papers are in order, East Germany reserves one final indignity for her before she leaves—she is made to strip, jewelry and all, for a cavity search before she is released to West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center.
Mother and son are given room and board, and Alexej is enrolled in the local school. They are given a card that will need 12 stamps from various officials before they can leave the center and find a job and a place of their own. Slowly, Nelly begins to make friends, and Alexej latches onto a long-time resident of the center, Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer), who distracts him when the boy witnesses a hanging suicide. Nelly, initially furious that Hans seems to be playing father to Alexej, relaxes when he tells her why and begins to trust him. Sadly, an American official, John Bird, (Jacky Ido) who refuses to stamp her card because he believes Wassilij was a Soviet courier who is still alive, derails her plan to get on with her life and stokes her paranoia to the point that she begins to suspect Hans of being a Stasi spy.
West is a film that cuts a lot of narrative corners and provides so little backstory on any of its characters that it’s hard to register them as anything but types. This sketchiness may be deliberate, as it helps us to identify somewhat with Nelly’s dislocation and distrust. Nonetheless, because we are shown things Nelly is not—Hans taking Alexej away from the scene of the suicide, Alexej buying flowers for his mother that he leaves as a surprise for her in their room—her anger and paranoia seem quite unreasonable. Schwochow further plays with our sense of reality by giving us a few brief glimpses of Wassilij, sometimes as Nelly’s delusions and then perhaps as a real person. He offers an American paranoic, a fairly predictable, but perhaps accurate touch, but puts Nelly in the position of using sex to find out what he knows about Wassilij; adding this cloak-and-dagger element and setting up the stereotype of the German woman desiring an African-American cheapens an already unflattering portrait of an intelligent, professional woman (a chemist) defined by her lover and mother roles.
Nonetheless, looking past the narrative weaknesses, West is a riveting experience thanks to the mesmerizing performances of Triebel and Göbel. Triebel won best actress awards at the 2014 German Film Awards and 2013 Montreal World Film Festival and was a best actress nominee of the German Film Critics Association in 2015 and the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival. Triebel is on camera almost constantly, and her intense, full-bodied performance makes up for the sometimes weak dialogue with which screenwriter Heide Schwochow, the director’s mother, saddled her. So focused is she that looking at screencaps for this film, I was extremely surprised how much her character smokes in the film—I just never noticed. At the same time that I felt her full-bore seductiveness toward Bird and deep love for Wassilij in their one brief scene together, there was a certain containedness that felt absolutely right for someone who lived under an oppressive, vigilant regime.
Göbel’s open face and innocence stand in contrast to his costar’s suspicions and fear. Alexej misses his father, a fact he and Nelly talk about openly. At the same time, his inability to deal honestly with his mother, standing bewildered, unable to say the flowers are his gift to her when she snatches them out of their vase and smashes them in a trashcan, rings painfully true. His relationship with Hans is wonderfully warm, untainted by the suspicions of others; we’re grateful he has Hans to turn to when the West German boys start to pick on him and break his glasses. Frankly, I could have looked at him the entire film and not have been bored at all.
Alexander Scheer has a tricky balancing act. Hans must be normally friendly but seem abnormally so to Nelly. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but I give him full marks for convincing me that he had been tortured by the Stasi and emotionally crippled as a result. It is important to realize that not everyone can be strong and put the past behind them.
Schwochow’s handheld work, getting right into the faces of his characters, creates an intimacy that draws us into the story, even as his muted, cool colors suggest the gray area between imprisonment and freedom. When Nelly’s world gradually starts to open up, it is a joyful relief, a reminder that despite its imperfections, unification made life better for a lot of people.
West is showing Saturday, March 21 at 5:00 p.m. and Wednesday, March 25 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Co-Adaptor: Alain Resnais
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On March 1, 2014, Alain Resnais died after a long and fruitful 91 years of life. A chronic asthmatic from a comfortably bourgeois family who was exempted from active military duty during World War II, he made some of the most powerful antiwar and humanist films ever produced, including Night and Fog (1955) and Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963). He also created films of mystery with elliptical narratives like Last Year in Marienbad (1961), reflecting his early interest in surrealism. In his later years, he struck up a working relationship with British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose comedies of manners reminiscent of Molière’s bedroom farces must have held great appeal for the French director. Resnais’ adaptation of “Intimate Exchanges,” Smoking/No Smoking (1993), swept France’s César awards. His next collaboration with Ayckbourn was an adaptation of “Hearts,” the bittersweet Private Fears in Public Places (2006). Their next collaboration turned out to be the last film Resnais ever made, Life of Riley, or Love, Drink and Sing, as Resnais’ title translates. The story and presentation are light as a feather, yet something of Resnais’ gravitas as a director adheres, making it an appropriate valedictory work.
The comedy involves three bourgeois couples—Kathryn (Sabine Azéma) and her physician husband Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), Tamara (Caroline Sihol) and her wealthy husband Jack (Michel Vuillermoz), and Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), who has left the titular George Riley, for life on a farm with Simeon (André Dussollier). The first two couples are involved in an amateur drama of the 1965 Ayckbourn play “Relatively Speaking,” and much of the film’s action involves them traveling to and from rehearsals. It appears that Kathryn and Tamara were once professional actresses, and a mild level of competitive sniping goes on. Generally, however, harmony reigns.
All that changes when Kathryn wheedles a secret out of Colin—one he all but reveals to her with poorly veiled hints—that George has terminal cancer and has perhaps six months to live. Despite Colin’s warnings about patient confidentiality, Kathryn immediately blabs the news to George’s best friend, Jack, whose distraught reaction is theatricality itself. The friends decide that the best thing for George is to join the cast of the play to get his mind off his troubles, and he is summarily recruited for that purpose. The heightened emotions that emerge during the amateur theatrical, so reminiscent of a similar treatment by another British humorist, Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park, pose a challenge to the harmony of the couples, as each woman—long-ago lover Kathryn, estranged wife Monica, and current fling Tamara—are drawn toward the charismatic, doomed George out of boredom, duty, or a need to be needed.
Resnais hews close to the stage origins of this romantic farce by emphasizing the artifice of his soundstage shooting, with fake flowers and plants, barely there sets, and long sheets of painted muslin to simulate walls, with the actors pulling back the muslin to exit and enter the scene. There is a sitcom quality to the construction of the film with Resnais’ use of drawings of each set as the establishing shot of where the next scene will take place, and light, lyrical transitional music. The cast of veteran actors use all the verve at their command, with Resnais’ wife and frequent collaborator Sabine Azéma a particular stand-out as a take-charge woman shackled to a passive husband. Michel Vuillermoz is pitch-perfect as a doting father to 16-year-old Tilly (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi) who all but ignores his gorgeous wife, practically ensuring her dalliance with George. While André Dussollier doesn’t have much screen time, cartoonish encounters with a tree stump, trying to avoid kicking it when Monica runs to George’s side, lead amusingly to the inevitable.
The difference between the “no sex, please” British and the “amour fou” French is the emotional bedrock of their respective approaches to the bedroom farce. British romantic comedies tend to be less fussy, more declamatory, and generally safer from an emotional point of view. The French, who seem to take love as it comes, compartmentalizing the propriety of official matrimonial alliances and the passion of romance, always seem much more serious to me about the place of love in their lives. It’s hard to imagine an Englishman filming Jacques Demy’s semi-tragic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), for example. It is this underlying passion that gives Life of Riley the heft it has. When each of the women contemplates spending George’s final days with him in Tenerife—in his infinite bet-hedging, he has asked them all—their true feelings emerge in a very telling way. It is at this point that Resnais finally and fittingly films scenes in the interior of each of their homes.
Despite the brightness of the comedy and energetic work of the splendid cast, it is hard to watch Life of Riley without a certain melancholy setting in. Like the unseen George Riley, Alain Resnais’ ghost haunts this motion picture. The final grace note of the film reminds us of just how enormous our loss really is.
Life of Riley screens Friday, March 13 at 6:00 p.m. and Thursday, March 19 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Austrian director/screenwriter Jessica Hausner is one of the most unique voices in European cinema today. Her particular concern with the intertwining dance of love and illness made her film Lourdes arguably the best film of 2009. Amour Fou, her first film in five years, forwards that concern and suggests by its title that Hausner will present a comedy about the folly of love. Indeed, Hausner’s film offers an amusing look at the petty passions of the haute bourgeoisie, but as she did with Lourdes, Hausner builds a sense of horror that mirrors the rising passions of a world in flux.
The film takes place in Berlin in 1811. Friedrich Vogel (Stephan Grossman), a tax official with the Prussian government, and his wife of 12 years, Henriette (Birte Schnoeink) live a comfortable life with their 9-year-old daughter Pauline (Paraschiva Dragus). They are attended to by servants and attend musical evenings and balls among their social peers. Henriette is a compliant wife who considers herself her husband’s property, remarking that she has no desire for the freedom her companions are afraid will infect the common classes as French revolutionary ideas spread through Europe. A poet she admires, Heinrich (Christian Friedel), responds that it is better to die free than to be bound to an unhappy, conventional life.
Heinrich, in fact, longs for death, saying that he has no talent for living and suffers constantly due to his sensitive nature. Further, his romantic nature requires him to find a woman who will die with him out of love for him. Unfortunately, the woman with whom he has been involved, his cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller), refuses to enter into a suicide pact with him. Thus spurned, Heinrich believes that Henriette, who was attracted to the tragic heroine in his most recent poem, may be an acceptable substitute.
Amour Fou is as droll a film as one can imagine. The actors all underplay their scenes, a parody of the polite society to which their characters belong. Their homes and clothes tend to bright colors, thus saving them the inconvenience of donning rose-colored glasses. The scene in which Heinrich implores Marie to die with him is worthy of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, an earnest Heinrich (“You would make me very, very happy.”) met with Marie doing a double-take and dismissing the idea with an incredulous laugh. And Hausner gives the Vogels a Weimaraner, indelible to me as the quintessential absurdist dog because of the photos of William Wegman.
But Hausner tends to trap her characters at the bottom of frames, inside window panes, and below heavy, sashed curtains, similar to how she seemed to crush Christine, her pilgrim with multiple sclerosis in Lourdes, by filming her through a small slit between enormous church pillars. None of these wealthy bourgeois are truly free, though they scarcely seem to notice. Their self-dramatization—the aristocrats whining about having to pay taxes, their loathing of equality and their fear of a Jacobin terror, the poet for whom death seems the only answer to his roaring mediocrity and dependence on his relatives for a living—is laughable, but given the social and economic terrors of our modern world, all too familiar and deadly serious.
Heinrich’s courtship moves in fits and starts, with a selfish cruelty Henriette recognizes but is helpless to resist. He insists that she is lonely, a misfit, unloved and unloving, despite all appearances to the contrary. Henriette begins to have fainting spells and spasms, which are initially diagnosed as a nervous disorder, but later determined to be the result of a large tumor or ulcer that will kill her in a matter of months. Given her diagnosis, Henriette’s attitude toward Heinrich’s proposal changes, but in his simpering egotism, he only wants her to die for love of him, not to forestall her own suffering.
Hausner’s linking of love and illness is an interesting one. In Lourdes, Christine’s attraction to a man and determination to compete for his affections with a pretty nurse seem to banish her disease—making her a shoe-in for the best pilgrim of the trip award—though she is only in remission. Henriette, on the other hand, falls ill when faced with Heinrich’s “mad love”—not a true romantic love, as he clearly says he’s still in love with Marie, but one based on a platonic ideal not unlike the kind of love desperate pilgrims seek from Our Lady of Lourdes.
Looking at her own mediocrity—her skill on the pianoforte is hardly better than her daughter’s and her singing a crow’s caw when she renders a song she heard an opera singer perform at the gathering that opens the film—and her pending mortality, Heinrich’s proposal seems a way to fulfill her desire to make a mark, to become mythic through an act of extreme romanticism. This is the age that birthed Richard Wagner, after all. How else can one explain her rejection of her life, of a daughter and husband who clearly love her? Indeed, Friedrich travels through the conflict-torn countryside to reach a specialist in Paris and returns with the news that Henriette might still be cured.
The careful framing, gorgeous period settings, brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces like a ball with period dancing, and vibrant colors of this film are a feast for the eyes, and I admired the subtle performances of this uniformly fine cast. Schnoeink especially initially emerges as a shallow hausfrau without a thought in her head that her husband and acquaintances haven’t put there. As her situation grows more dire and her choices narrow, our laughter gives way to concern and a contemplation of what we owe to society and what we owe to ourselves. There is a shocking ambiguity to her actions and a genuine poignancy to her growing attraction to the eternal, but is she the victim of yet another man dumping his desires into her empty cranium? Trapped between two equally distressing outcomes from the audience’s point of view, we wait anxiously for Henriette to make her choice.
Amour Fou screens Monday, March 9, at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Eugène Green
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most of us have met people who identify with bygone eras. They style themselves to suit their preferred time, in ’60s go-go boots, short Sassone hairdos, and day-glo miniskirts or ’40s wide-shouldered, double-breasted suits, fedoras, and hand-painted ties. It’s rare to find someone go much earlier than the 1920s, however, because the clothing gets a lot more complicated and cumbersome. However, though he may not dress the part on a daily basis, Eugène Green is all about Baroque, a period that occupied the whole of the 17th century in Europe. Green is an New York-born filmmaker and naturalized French citizen who, through his teaching, theatre work, and films, has revived the French Baroque style of performance.
Green began making films when he was in his mid-50s, and when I saw his last feature film, The Portuguese Nun (2009), I felt he had a lot of potential but hadn’t quite jelled as a filmmaker. I’m happy to report that with his new feature film, La Sapienza, Green has arrived with a clear intention of what he wants to say and the wherewithal to pull it off superbly.
The film’s central couple, architect Alexandre Schmidt and his psychologist wife Aliénor (Fabrizio Rongione and Christelle Prot), are frustrated by their career compromises and disconnection from each other. After a particularly disheartening meeting with some investors who reject his desire to use existing structures and people-friendly spaces in favor of a more cost-effective development project for Bissone, Switzerland, Alexandre decides to take a break. He asks Aliénor if she wants to go to Italy with him, where he intends to do research for his long-delayed book on his idol, Baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667).
The two travel to Stresa, a beautiful town on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, where they encounter 18-year-old Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and his 16-year-old sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) while walking along the lakeshore. Lavinia suddenly grows dizzy and weak, and the older couple hail a cab and take the siblings home. Aliénor’s concern for Lavinia grows, and when Alexandre announces that he needs to travel to Turin and Rome to conduct research, Aliénor decides to stay behind. She enjoins him to take Goffredo, an aspiring architect, with him.
It’s possible to look at the doubling of Aliénor and Lavinia and Alexandre and Goffredo as doctor/patient and teacher/student, respectively, and suspect that the roles will be reversed. Indeed, this is exactly what happens, but this schema is more complex than that. The couples are bilingual in French and Italian, but to learn their individual lessons, the females speak French to each other, and the males speak Italian. Aliénor and Alexandre become time travelers, not literally meeting people from the time of Green’s imagining as happens in a film by another New Yorker in love with France—the all-too-facile Midnight in Paris (2011)—but rather by interacting with teens who embrace the ethos of the Baroque period. Succio and Nastro are rather unusual looking, as though they came from another time. Lavinia is said to have a wasting disease, archaic terminology that takes Aliénor aback, and the girl believes there is a cloud hanging over Goffredo that is the cause of her condition, certainly an evocation of hysterical illness that would not be treatable until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Goffredo sleeps with his door unlocked, despite Alexandre’s cautions against it. The young man says he always burns a candle at night, whose light he believes will keep him safe. Indeed, Goffredo wants to design buildings to contain light and people, a stark contrast to Alexandre’s design for a windowless hospital to eliminate outside distractions and focus its patients entirely on their recovery. “I would do it differently today,” he says to Goffredo.
The heart of the film might be said to encompass Alexandre and Goffredo’s tour of the great edifices of Borromini. Alexandre explains the challenges Borromini faced, particularly from his mentor and eventual rival, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a compromising architect with whom Alexandre regretfully identifies. The plain facade of Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, built on a limiting footprint in Rome, opens to reveal an undulating, soaring interior, using the geometry of circles and ovals to create the feverish excessiveness that characterizes Baroque style. Green leads us to the cornice high above the nave floor, shaped and lit like the eye of God, the most ancient being in a film reverent toward the past.
Alexandre’s desire to retain existing elements for new construction, as Borromini did, reminds us that cities and towns are an amalgamation of styles from throughout history; Green’s reference to an archeological dig further reinforces the fact that human life on Earth has been built, layer by layer, on the foundations of the past, a repudiation of modernity and its overweaning ego. Green lays his criticism on a little thick at a dinner party of shallow bourgeois professionals living on an ancient estate without seeming to notice anything around them but their own intrigues. He doubles down with a comic burlesque involving an Australian tourist (Jon Firman) who demands to be let in to a chapel that is closed because he came all the way from Sydney to see it.
Green’s camera roves Borromini’s edifices and lingers lovingly on the majesty of Stresa, contrasting the survivors of the past with the straitjacketed characters of the modern age for whom the camera rarely moves. In keeping with Baroque theatre style, the actors declaim their lines with little emotion and generally static facial expressions. Nonetheless, though the buildings have been given the illusion of movement by their architects, our cast comprises real people with actual movement and simmering emotions that infuse their performances as the film progresses. As with The Portuguese Nun, Green adorns his females, especially Aliénor, with beautiful and distinctive clothing in keeping with his version of a costume drama.
Green himself becomes the mouthpiece of the past, playing the Chaldean, one of an ancient tribe driven by the American invasion of Iraq from their ancestral lands and thought by Aliénor, who encounters him one night, to have gone extinct. The Chaldean says his people were able to read and speak with the stars, and he looks at Aliénor and says her destiny is a good one, filled with love. When Alexandre and Goffredo return to Stresa the next day, Lavinia is cured, Alexandre and Aliénor find themselves passionately in love again, and Alexandre finds a new purpose as a teacher. It appears Green believes in oracles as well, and he arrives at his happy ending via a well-lain journey of discovery. In his worldview, it seems that those who remember the past will be lucky enough to repeat it. Bravo, professore.
La Sapienza shows Saturday, March 14 at 3:30 p.m. and Monday, March 16 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director/Coscreenwriter: Sam Peckinpah
By Roderick Heath
Young Fresno-born Sam Peckinpah spent a stint in the army in the waning days of WWII and was sent to China as part of a noncombat unit assigned to keep peace between the Chinese and Japanese soldiers after the surrender. As Peckinpah told it, peacekeeping became a gruesome spectacle of factional vengeance that left terrible impressions upon him, blossoming into the dark and dangerous melancholia that would fuel both his life problems and his art in later years. After mustering out, Peckinpah did what a lot of young, creative ex-servicemen did—he headed for Hollywood, where he subsisted for years as a sometime actor and TV stagehand. Peckinpah quickly gained a bad reputation for his spiky attitude, but in time became a reliable aide and protégé to Don Siegel, who eventually gave him the task of performing uncredited revisions on the script of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
That film’s success gave Peckinpah the courage to try writing for TV, and then, directing. He gained a reputation working multiple roles on “The Westerner,” whose star, Brian Keith, helped Peckinpah gain his break as feature director, on 1961’s The Deadly Companions, a minor, modest western that established Peckinpah’s rugged sense of the western landscape and aesthetic, a blend of the barbarous and the limpidly evocative. With his second film, Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah emerged as a powerful and individual talent with one eye for tradition, giving Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott an inspired testimonial, whilst also laying groundwork for dragging the ’50s “adult western” style into a new zone of harsh eccentricity. The weird and unpredictable blend of posturing macho and arch romantic, provocateur and sensitive artist, great filmmaker and self-destructive rebel, would define Peckinpah in the popular imagination until his death in 1984 and beyond.
Bankrolled by Columbia Studios to round out Charlton Heston’s contract, Major Dundee’s shoot was rocked by discord in the studio and unease with Peckinpah’s growing predilection for on-set hell-raising. Although he and Peckinpah quarrelled violently, Heston still offered to forego his own salary to appease the studio and ensure the film was completed to Peckinpah’s satisfaction. The studio kept the money, but the production was still halted before shooting was done, and a truncated rump of Peckinpah’s vision eventually was released. Peckinpah, embittered and almost blackballed by the industry, managed to rehabilitate his reputation with the telemovie Noon Wine (1968) before The Wild Bunch (1969), for a brief, crucial moment, saw the man’s best abilities coincide with the receptivity of the audience.
Today, Major Dundee is often dismissed as a warm-up for The Wild Bunch, especially because Peckinpah purposefully recycled elements in the latter film, determined to salvage the essence of his art from the ill-starred earlier work and put it over with an even more furious and unvarnished effect. Both films depict a band of quarrelsome Americans spilling over the Mexican border and being caught up in a local conflict that offers the chance for a nobler end than they ever counted on. Dundee, however, demands respect and reassessment as Peckinpah’s keystone work and a work of vital transition in American screen culture. Costar R. G. Armstrong called the film “Moby Dick on horseback,” an accurate description because of its portrait of a leader as half-colossus, half-madman whose pursuit of a deadly, almost omnipresent foe threatens to resolve only in the consummation of a romance with death. Even after a major reconstruction to try to repair it, Major Dundee is anything but an uncompromised or flawless success, but in some ways, that makes it all the more tantalising as a relic of a great director coming of age.
Where Peckinpah had laced references to his childhood into Ride the High Country, Major Dundee has many intimations of self-portraiture via Heston’s title character, a man of superlative gifts who seems to be driven to acts of risky defiance and self-debasement. The film’s opening seems to nod to Cy Endfield’s similar portrait of men on the edge between civilisations, Zulu (1964), with a voiceover reporting massacre and calumny. The time is the waning days of the Civil War; the place, rural New Mexico, where would-be titans can strut their stuff. Infamously ingenious and brutal Mescalero Apache chief Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) has just wiped out a column of Union cavalry, leaving only two members of the company alive: Indian scout Riago (José Carlos Ruiz), whose disappearance and return make him the object of suspicion as a traitor, and young bugler Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.), who had been sent to fetch aid for his commander. The relief, led by Maj. Amos Dundee (Heston), arrives too late, finding the corpses of the force and settlers scattered around a blazing farmhouse. Dundee, has been placed in charge of a military garrison on the fringes of nation and psyche, with a prison crammed full of ornery Confederate prisoners his chief responsibility, as punishment for exceeding his orders at Gettysburg. Dundee sees a chance to reclaim his standing by hunting down Charriba, but lacks the manpower to wage a campaign and keep the prison well-guarded. He puts out a call for volunteers and reaps a collection of weathered frontiersmen, including one-armed tracker Samuel Potts (James Coburn), perma-pickled muleskinner Wiley (Slim Pickens), and fighting preacher man Rev. Dahlstrom (Armstrong). Still short of men, Dundee asks for volunteers from among the Confederates.
Dundee knows the only hope he has for gaining the peaceful cooperation of the rebels is to do exactly the last thing he wants—negotiate with their beloved commander Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris), an Irish immigrant with a relentless desire for status and advancement as a gentleman of rank. He was Dundee’s West Point classmate and best friend until Dundee participated in a court martial over a duel that got Tyreen kicked out of the army, only to find another chance as an eager rebel. Dundee tries to maintain a high-handed attitude over Tyreen during negotiations, reminding him that he and his men have two alternatives, hanging as punishment for a recent escape attempt or doing as he says, but Tyreen refuses, knowing that he has Dundee over a barrel. Dundee finally takes out his frustration by visiting Tyreen in his cell and socking him, a gesture Tyreen reciprocates so the two men can finally strike a bargain. Dundee knows that Tyreen takes his sense of honour so seriously his oath will bind him to serve until Charriba is killed or captured. Tyreen brings with him a motley outfit of Southerners, including redneck brothers O. W. and Arthur Hadley (compulsory Peckinpah character actors Warren Oates and L. Q. Jones). But Dundee’s army isn’t quite complete, not until Aesop (Brock Peters) requests that he and his unit of black soldiers who have been serving as guards and flunkies for years without any action, be given a chance to serve, too. Dundee leads this force of uneasy compatriots across the Rio Grande in pursuit of an enemy who seemingly wants Dundee to give chase.
Major Dundee’s scope is encompassing, a commentary on both the history of the western genre Peckinpah so loved, as well as the proper commencement of his deconstruction of it. It is also a veritable stab at writing a creation myth for modern America, commenting on the state of the union circa 1965 as much as 1865, replete with overtones not just of Melville and Shakespeare, but also Greek sagas—not for nothing is one character named Priam. As the social compacts and conventions that had sustained the healing of the union after the Civil War finally frayed in the years since Little Rock, popular cinema had struggled to find new ways to explore the changing face of American society. Peckinpah’s Melvillian references echo the way the great author portrayed the nation as a polyglot driven by a possibly insane struggle with ancient forces and susceptible to visionaries with suspect goals. Peckinpah is less fatalistic here in spite of his corrosive intentions, for Major Dundee is a tale of ironic triumph and unification, often evoking the sense of communal life and fascination for rites of passage that tied together John Ford’s films. Major Dundee is in part Peckinpah’s tribute to Ford, as a partial remake of Ford’s Rio Grande (1950), recasting John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s war-cleaved couple as Dundee and Tyreen’s broken comradeship, whilst Dundee evokes Henry Fonda’s ill-fated antihero from Fort Apache (1948). Columbia had actually wanted Ford to direct the project, but he was busy making his mea culpa, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
For Peckinpah, then, it became a dialogue and argument with old masters. Ford had been the great cinematic mythologian for that declining social compact, and Peckinpah highlights the manifold schisms of class and race and the problems of international relations overtaking the national dialogue at the time. The foreign adventuring depicted is half careerist folly, half Quixotic crusade. Equally, Major Dundee fits into a wave of post-Lawrence of Arabia (1962) epic films studying flawed, neurotic would-be übermenschen, including Lord Jim (1965) and Khartoum (1966), also starring Heston, whose aura of the titanic he cleverly adapted and twisted as the taste of the time shifted from the simple heroism of his Moses: Heston plays up Dundee’s smug charisma and physical authority, striding rigidly and defiantly through a sea of infuriated Confederate prisoners, lounging with feet on table as he interviews men to join him on his ego crusade—the essence of swagger—all the better to watch him crumble in the face of impotence and self-doubt. Part and parcel of Major Dundee’s force lies in its male leads giving two of their best performances. Harris, in his first starring role in an American film after This Sporting Life (1963) made him famous (he learned he’d been nominated for an Oscar on set), delivers an expert alternation of gestures soft, batting his eyes with almost coquettish appeal at ladies who stumble into his path, and hard, as when he replies with the precision of a spitting cobra to an uppity Southron underling, “I’m not your uncle, you redneck peckerwood.”
Dundee and Tyreen are unruly Dioscuri for this neo-Iliad, symbolic of contrasts and engaged in a constant battle of wills made all the more fraught by the personal affection underlying their conflict and their intense similarity, a common thread of Peckinpah’s work. History is written in their names, the troubled dichotomy of Scot and Irish and their relationship to external power amplified by the new domain’s schism of Union and Confederate, loyalist and rebel. But neither man is so singular, each containing more than a little of the other, Tyreen primly correct in his chivalrous pretences, Dundee bullishly individual as the company man. It is very easy indeed to see the pair as Peckinpah’s projected self-concept, his awareness of his volatile and contradictory place in the movie industry and his society in general, as well as his anxiety over where that might eventually lead him. Tim Ryan could be young Peckinpah thrust into the wilds of China, about to be treated to all the great and terrifying experiences a youth could ask for. Around this triptych Peckinpah and his fellow screenwriters Harry Julian Fink and Oscar Saul create a Dickensian gallery of types. The most important is Jim Hutton’s Lt. Graham, another professional but inexperienced soldier seeming to lack all of the ornery specificity of Dundee and Tyreen, in love with artillery, his specific discipline, but initially inept at the ordinary soldierly business of mustering men. Soon after Dundee leads his men in the wilderness, Arthur Hadley tries to bait Aesop, sparking a fight between the two men that becomes the first test of the uneasy contract of the company. Dundee leaves it to Tyreen to intervene as he should, but Dahlstrom takes a hand first, defending Aesop and beating the crap out of Arthur: “Preacher, you sure kick up a lot of dust with your sermon!” one soldier complains as Arthur lands on him in a cloud of dirt. Tyreen then defuses the stand-off that seems imminent by praising Aesop and his men for their professional skill. Legitimacy is acknowledged, a barrier broken, a new paradigm instantly created.
Peckinpah’s love of odyssey narratives dictates that Major Dundee become a tale as much about the journey and the picaresque epiphanies that come on the way as it is about goals and climaxes, anticipating the vignettes and cultural purview of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1972) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1973) as well as the cracked romanticism of Junior Bonner (1972). The expedition is soon brutally tempered when Charriba lures the major into a trap, sending an elderly member of his war party to entice the Americans with the chance of recapturing the children taken captive during the massacre. Dundee loses many men in the subsequent fight when Charriba’s stroke falls on them during a night river crossing. The company manages to fight their way out, but with their supplies lost. The only choice before Dundee is to head into a nearby village that’s garrisoned by the troops from the French army, in the midst of the Juarista rebellion.
Entering the village, Dundee and his men bear immediate witness to the brutality of the imperialist repression, hanged men dangling from ropes as warnings (according to an urban legend, Peckinpah had real dead bodies used for the scene), and happily use force to extricate the French from their garrison. Bloodless revolution segues into happy fiesta, as the villagers throw a party in celebration. The bedraggled men of Dundee’s force are tended by Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger), the Austrian-born wife of a local doctor who has been put to death for helping the rebels, and her protégé Linda (Begoña Palacios, Peckinpah’s future second wife). Teresa is archetype for many of the women who cross paths with Peckinpah’s men, as starkly individual and closed-off as them, tantalising in her open and giving sensuality, but also potentially frustrating to their machismo for her unwillingness to be defined entirely by one lover: Dundee, Tyreen, and Graham compete for her favour, whilst Linda, an energetic sprite, deflowers Ryan in the midst of an explosion of joy.
The village sequence is close to the best thing Peckinpah ever did, a dream of frontier chivalry and communal festivity, the unifying desperation for a sense of purpose, colour, and nobility to life rather than petty oppression and everyday tyrannies. As such, it counterpoints the notorious ballets of blood in The Wild Bunch, eros to its thanatos, whilst also clearly providing the blueprint for the later film’s sadder, more elegiac village visit; the village could well be the same, taking the later criminal band as the ghosts of the good fellows under Dundee, the degraded end of the dream. The sequence also represents Peckinpah’s most overt nod to Ford, reproducing one of Ford’s favourite gags of the young tenderfoot skewered in the butt by an apache arrow and tended with necessary roughness, leading into a sprawl of behavioural delight, from Dundee and Tyreen both plotting how to seduce Teresa only to be foiled by rubber-limbed, half-shickered Graham cutting in for a dance, and Ryan and Linda swapping a look of knowing intensity before ducking out. Linda chasing after Ryan to give him his hat in the midst of the morning’s hangovers and pausing for a farewell kiss certainly represents Peckinpah’s most tender, sentimental interlude.
Dundee has a good tactical reason for letting his men get wildly drunk and the French officers escape—to entice more French soldiers on a punitive mission and ambush them. This tactic gains Dundee’s forces supplies and arms and time to recover to return to dogging Charriba’s trail, but it also lays the seed for a potentially destructive rift in the group when the memory of the sensual delights of the village becomes too strong and O. W. absconds. O. W. is dragged back by a search party, accompanied by Teresa, who’s hiding out from French reprisals, and Dundee makes clear his intention to have O. W. shot as a deserter, sparking the smouldering rage of the Confederates. The straightforward hunt has devolved into some kind of existential quest, the point of which is lost deep in Dundee’s psyche and can’t be extracted except in crisis.
The lust for transcendence that drives Dundee beyond the bounds of safe and sane enterprise is, interestingly, a trait that links him with Charriba, whose predations represent not tribal interests but Charriba’s warlike ego, making him and Dundee less fighters for their distinct cultures and more like Sergio Leone’s eternal warriors in an appropriately primal landscape. It emerges early on that Charriba clearly wants to destroy Dundee to create a Little Bighornish legend for himself “to be sung around his tribe’s campfires for a thousand years,” and declares with cackling delight when he thinks he’s about to drop the fatal stroke, “Who will you send against me now?” But Dundee and company instead ambush and destroy Charriba in a deliberately anticlimactic battle, having suckered him in at last by turning his egotism against him. Ryan’s maturation encompasses internal struggle of a kind none of the others can share, in large part because the campaign against Charriba is more personal for him than anyone in spite of his tender years: his pain for the loss of his comrades and his desire for mindless revenge on the Apache scout Riago, whose loyalty is in doubt to everyone except Potts, become interior rhymes to the external conflicts between the other men. Riago’s innocence is grotesquely proven when he’s caught and killed by Charriba, but the chieftain is then himself gunned down by Ryan on the cusp of believed victory, marking both the perfect last of Ryan’s rites of manhood and also the ironic punchline of the great drama: Ryan’s feat is the sardonic undercutting of another man’s myth.
The landscape Peckinpah creates is brutal and littered with sights and sounds affixed with dreamlike intensity and totemistic import. A blood-smeared cloth tied to a cross made with a sapling and a sabre. A dead girl dressed in white lying riddled with arrows being picked up and carried away by dark-suited men. Flayed, tortured bodies dangling from ropes, another pinned to a tree in a frontier pieta. One-armed and bible-touting righteous warriors. Lakes and rivers of pellucid stillness contrasted with dangling corpses. Moonlit meetings between would-be lovers amidst stark ruins that stand like the gates between lives. Linda and Teresa each watching with sad pride as the scrappy heroes depart. Columns of dazzlingly coloured French dragoons carving the ruddy Mexican earth. Dundee pictured in the moment of his victory surrounded by the barbed branches of a thorny tree, reckoning the size of the felled Charriba with Ryan (“He doesn’t look so big now does he?” “He was big enough, son.”). Signs of human civilisation infiltrate the landscape, already burnt and blistered by time and elements, structures of bare brick like rotten teeth jutting from the earth. Peckinpah’s framings, via Sam Leavitt’s excellent photography, alternates surveys of a vast and impersonal land with tangled and thorny hives, Peckinpah’s urgent desire to get across the feel of the earth, dust, and heat as part of the texture of his film, becoming all the more palpable the farther he drives into the Mexican hinterlands, and the essential mystique of Peckinpah’s sense of this place is created.
Heston interestingly noted that he and Peckinpah’s quarrels were partly generated by their schismatic concept for the work: Heston wanted to make a film about the Civil War via the microcosmic drama, whilst Peckinpah was already wrestling with the interior struggle of humanism and nihilism that would later galvanise The Wild Bunch. This split accounts for the volatility of Major Dundee and its lack of narrative balance, but also gets to the heart of the film’s power, the dialogue of external and internal wars. Dark frontier logic emerges as Dundee asks why their Apache guides would betray their own kin and help the gringos, to which Potts replies, “Well why not? Everyone else seems to be doing it.” The execution of O. W. provides a crucial pivot in the psychic drama in the film, a bigger event than Charriba’s death as the limits of Dundee’s authority and Tyreen’s honour—and through them everything they stand for—are tested through the awful spectacle of a man begging for his life (an exceptional moment for the ever-excellent Oates): Tyreen actually does the dirty work of killing his subordinate, in part to diffuse the blame, but he promptly vows to kill Dundee once the mission is completed. Dundee begins to fray, taking time out for a sexual frolic with Teresa in the woods, straying beyond the limits of his command only to receive an arrow in the thigh from some of Charriba’s raiders, as close to a castration as cinema could get. Dundee is crippled and Tyreen, still fuming, pointedly asks, “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Amos?”
Dundee has to be taken into Durango, garrisoned by the French, to get medical attention and recover. Ensconced in a grimy rented room, Dundee rapidly descends from imperious leader to alcoholic wretch bedding his nursemaid, Melinche (Aurora Clavel). This sequence, and particularly the moment when Teresa comes to visit Dundee and finds him with Melinche, is the exposed nerve of Peckinpah’s work here, the feeling of a deep personal investment in Dundee’s cringing shame and debasement in the eyes of a woman he respects, the depiction of deep regret and the fear of being exposed as pathetic, febrile, and helpless, a moment of King Lear-like gravitas and utterly immediate emotion that seems all the more telling considering that Peckinpah was reported to have done more or less did the same thing during the shoot. After Teresa leaves abruptly, Dundee turns into a lonely, slovenly wanderer limping about the town, unnoticed by locals and French alike. The movement depicting Dundee’s disgrace in Durango was mostly cut and left as a ghost in the original theatrical cut, and the most crucial part of the film’s restoration a few years ago. Dundee is rescued unwillingly by Tyreen, who, for all his punitive bluster, enters the town to find him and drag him out whilst the rest of the company fight off the French: Dundee tries to fight Tyreen off before collapsing and begging him to leave him to wallow. But Tyreen does manage to drag him away and soon Dundee resurges, now, tellingly, equipped with the kind of wily circumspection and understanding of his enemy, who was in part himself, that gives him the key to destroying Charriba by making a run for the border and forcing his foe to give chase if he wants his great event.
That fight ends, and Dundee and Tyreen stare at each other in a loaded moment wondering if they can actually duel or not, but then the appearance of pursuing French cavalry makes it an unnecessary question. The Americans find themselves trapped, with French dragoons lined up on the far side of the Rio Grande, determined to punish the rascal Americans. Thus, Dundee has no choice but to lead his men into a final action. The concept of violence as omnipresent, orgiastic consummation of base impulse that would consume Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs (1971) isn’t quite nascent here, partly because Peckinpah’s use of Seven Samurai-inspired slow-motion action shots, which would be used to concussive effect on The Wild Bunch, was unceremoniously excised by the studio, although the ensuing fight is still notably bold in depicting blood spilling to an extent very few films had done before. The depiction of men who have learned too well that they have feet of clay making a tilt at regaining their honour by taking on a corrupt regime in an impossible battle is nonetheless as crucial here for Peckinpah as in his works to come. The battle is a whirlwind of brilliantly handled action that retains a hint of Ford’s jauntiness, complete with Tyreen getting himself mortally wounded by saving the company’s flag from the French commander in a gesture not of mere patriotism, but for faith in the fellowship the men have created, thus recreating their country in miniature before riding into the midst of the massed French to die a death at once glorious and ugly. What’s left of Dundee’s troop rides into the Texan sagebrush, with the fitting final confirmation that their return home has come on the cusp of the Civil War’s very end, Dundee, the captain of the ruined band who are now, once again, countrymen.
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Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel by pseudonymous writer E .L. James, has become that rarest of contemporary phenomena—a novel not aimed at children or young adults that is a true pop-cultural totem. It’s also a very old-fashioned kind of hit, the scandalous bestseller everyone snapped up just to see if it was as deliciously filthy as they hoped. This was no anodyne, run-of-the-mill romance novel, journey-of-growth memoir, arty feminist artefact, or any other chick lit cliché, no, this was an outright erotic novel, harking back to the glory days of The Story of O. and Emmanuelle. And it was not just an erotic novel, but one in which sadomasochism is a crucial theme. The novel broke many rules about what should gain precedence in literary culture, not just in subject matter, but also in genesis. The work began life as fan fiction on an online site—the slime ponds on the edges of the great ocean of literary culture—built out of the archetypes presented in Stephanie Meyer’s equally popular, equally derided Twilight novels. Initially published as an ebook and then released in print when it became clear it was going to be something big, Fifty Shades shattered publishing records.
Whatever magic spot Meyer’s creation had located with her essentially sexless tales of deathless romance, James found, too, and filled in what was missing, providing counterbalance and revelling in the filthy adult side of the fantasy. Nothing particularly original there: erotic spinoffs from popular artworks have long been covert currency, and have gained a powerful online presence since some dirty mind let go with the notion of Kirk and Spock gettin’ it on, giving birth to so-called “slashfic”: since then just about any fictional character you can think of has been in the sack with any other one you can think of in some fetid corner of the internet. James eventually rewrote and expanded her daydream smut to arrive at its current form, but as far as many are concerned, it never quite escaped the status of troubling, parasitic growth on the underbelly of an already embarrassing property.
As with any cultural phenomenon, What It All Means had to be pinned down, and in the case of a work that disturbed a tenuous balance of acceptability, safely disposed of. Pundits opined, ideologues worried, experts pontificated. Sexy stuff being sexy doesn’t cut it. From my perhaps all-too-male perspective, the book’s success represents both a triumph and a failure of feminism in a dichotomous manner that, far from aberrant, is rather commonplace today. It plays with the old-school fantasy of meeting a rich, handsome guy with issues just dark enough to both alarm and appeal, but also offers a frank, fearless interest in erotic pleasure and questions of agency that are utterly current. The special contempt many saved up for the Twilight tales was merely a manifestation of a certain vestigial, preadolescent contempt by a boy’s club commentariat for things women like compared to the serious business of turning stories where men in spandex punch each other into grand movie epics. Some of that was certainly turned on Fifty Shades, too, combined with the fact that BDSM will inevitably still be a subject of confusion and hostility to many long after we’re all dead. Of course, the book was bad (full disclosure: I tried to read it, but lost interest, ironically, when James reached the stuff everyone else was reading it for). But that was perhaps part of the point. The banal, conversational, pseudo-interior monologue style of writers like Meyer and James has annexed fields of readership long detached from fancier fare, working like mental glycerine.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s debut film Nowhere Boy (2009) was an intelligent, but frustrating work, mostly because of a low budget that hampered its sense of period, one that suggested her intimate, ambivalent understanding of the stranger routes of desire. When it comes to Fifty Shades, Taylor-Johnson doesn’t quite seem to approve, which is both what makes her film intriguingly contradictory and frustratingly indecisive. It goes virtually without saying that Fifty Shades hardly represents a descent into the darkest, most decadent depths of Sadean frenzy. The way James exploited this turf lends itself immediately to filming because it identifies S&M as such a visual style of eroticism. All that shiny latex and metal looks so damn good, and it is about the perspective of watching things done to the body in a way that can be read by a cinema audience in a manner not so different to the animating spirit many have found lurking in slasher films, where the body is violated to release a certain frustration in the viewer. Just watching two people happily hump in the normal fashion is as dull as dishwater cinematically because the pleasure is exclusive, perhaps as big a reason for the decline in mainstream movie sex after the late ’80s as any of the other cited causes, like AIDS anxiety and resurgent moralism. But Fifty Shades goes all squishy when it contemplates BDSM as an art that involves inflicting and receiving pain, however interlaced with pleasure; the sensatory reality of it all is still a challenge. All of this, now that I think about it, might be largely irrelevant to Fifty Shades of Grey as a standalone work of cinema. For one thing, the film deemphasises the spectacle of transgressive kink almost to the point where it feels like the cherry on the top of the cake, as opposed to the book, where it was the cake.
Fifty Shades establishes its erotica bona fides quickly, beginning with the arch character names Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Ana is a lit major attending university in Vancouver, WA, and working part-time in a hardware store. When Ana’s roommate and pal Kate (Eloise Mumford), a journalism student working with the college newspaper, falls sick when she’s scheduled to interview Grey, Ana does her a favour and travels to Seattle to do the interview for her. Grey, a young but hugely successful tycoon in the field of something-or-other who’s going to be delivering a speech on their graduation day, stands ensconced in his soaring tower (don’t let us think he’s compensating for anything).
The moment he and Ana lay eyes on each other, something kindles: Ana, with her doelike eyes and crudely cut bangs worn like a protective helmet against the world’s interest, couldn’t be more different to the Aryan ladies Grey has on staff, which is perhaps part of the appeal. Ana’s intelligent streak sits at odds with a deliberate lack of worldliness—she’s a virgin essentially by choice, having resisted all overtures thus far, including from her photographer pal José (Victor Rasuk). Christian begins to insinuate his way into Ana’s life, visiting her workplace to buy lots of items that don’t quite make sense for home improvement, including cable ties and duct tape, none of which makes the penny drop for the clueless Ana. A rendezvous later over coffee is ended prematurely and confusingly by Christian, who sends her a set of Thomas Hardy first editions as an apology. Ana gets drunk and bold when out partying with José and Kate. She calls up Christian and insults him, which only proves a magnet that draws him to the bar. He sets his adopted brother Elliot (Luke Grimes) on Kate to keep her occupied, and intervenes self-righteously to give José an aggressive shove when he clumsily puts the moves on Ana before whisking her back to his hotel for a chaste night’s sleep.
After a few vulgar displays of wealthy generosity, Christian has soon swept Ana into his life, but then he introduces her to his dark secret: Christian is a BDSM dominant who wants a relationship with Ana, but only as his submissive who obeys a strict set of rules. The tension in the narrative comes in the uneasy suspension between Christian and Ana’s obvious and powerful everyday attraction and his resistance to the normal constitution of relationships. He tells her, with stern seriousness, “I don’t make love – I fuck – hard,” can’t stand being touched, and insists on sleeping apart from her. After making her sign a nondisclosure agreement, Christian gives her a legally binding contract—I’d like to know how he plans to enforce that over a woman whose total assets to risk amount to a Volkswagen Beetle and a set of used textbooks—that will define their relationship.
Quickly, however, some of his hard limits start to dissolve as he wrestles with his genuine, calming affection for her, even as Ana is required to start erecting her barriers. He confesses that 16 women have come and gone from his life, perhaps because they couldn’t hack it or, more likely, because they were only too willing to please Christian, who seems torn between the desire to corrupt and a need to find his way back to normal pursuits. Ana, after reacting queasily to a bit of online research, calls for a business meeting with Christian to argue over the specifics (no fisting, vaginal or anal, etc.), and successfully resists his seductive attempts just to prove she can. But resistance has its limits. Christian “rectifies the situation” by taking Ana’s virginity in a sequence that suggests sexuality filtered through high-class perfume ads. Then he introduces her to his “playroom,” his exquisitely appointed torture chamber outfitted with all the accoutrements the up-to-date, upstanding sadist might need.
In this scene, I felt the pull of something fascinating going on in Fifty Shades of Grey. Where the film plays as a jet-set fantasy with more wealth porn than anything other kind up to this point, the entry of Ana into the playroom had the potent whiff of entry into another, far more primal realm of experience that lies deep within and beyond the lifestyle fetishism. That feeling is exacerbated by Taylor-Johnson’s careful contrast between the visual scheme of the outside world, all steely hues and pastels, and the saturated reds and browns and blacks in the playroom, part Japonaise minimalism and part neo-Victorian nook, as well as the correlation and distinction between the hard-edged modernism of Christian’s favoured environs and the implements for inflicting pain on soft flesh in the playroom. It’s easy to dismiss the covert appeal of Fifty Shades because it is based in the simple, retrograde fantasy of women who want to be swept up by a paternalistic Prince Charming, but here I sensed that wasn’t quite the whole truth, that somewhere within all this fudge is an interest in the strange extremities of human desire.
In any event, the figure of the rich, remote, intimidatingly formal master (or mistress) with a penchant for arcane speech patterns is one of the key clichés of erotica. The appeal of Fifty Shades, and Twilight, too, with its self-restraining demon lover, lies in the acknowledgement both make of the ways sex is still far more dangerous for women than men, not the least of which is man himself, with both works pleasing on the teasing proximity of anxiety to stimulation. Fifty Shades aims to present outright what most other takes only offer tangentially or through heavily veiled metaphors. This blatant and unashamed approach, and the fact that Taylor-Johnson has crafted a bondage erotica film that seems set to be an actual blockbuster, makes me want to cheer it simply for being.
Moreover, Taylor-John and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have tried to craft a real film out of James’ infamously ditzy prose and narrative absurdities, tracing the tale as one of Ana’s growth from repressed college girl to a woman strong enough to tell her billionaire boyfriend to fuck off. Part of this serious intent, ironically, expresses itself through a certain level of self-mocking humour used to disarm before getting down to business. At first, the film plays as a toey romantic comedy with a kinky MacGuffin, constantly dropping wry, audience-goading in-jokes (that might well only work if one already has some idea what to expect from this) about what’s in store, woven into Ana and Christian’s duels of words and temperaments. Later, as the dance of desire becomes outright orgy, the tone shifts to one of dark, boding intensity scored to slow, thudding music. Probably the best scene in the film is Christian and Ana’s “business” meeting where they negotiate the specifics of the contract in a boardroom with low mood lighting and burnt-orange décor that suggests a rejected set for an ’80s Ridley Scott thriller, perfect setting for a sequence where the characters square off in tense verbal by-play that deflects their erotic shenanigans. A lot of terrible dialogue from the book makes the transition, sadly, though not without a certain wryness: “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” Christian murmurs at one stage. I heard a young woman laughingly chide her mother for chuckling at this behind at the screening: “This is serious stuff you know.” Some have said this sort of things points to the fact Fifty Shades’ strong female following is coloured with an ironic fascination, and I can believe that.
And yet Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades will never become a cult camp classic a la Showgirls (1994) or Mommie Dearest (1982) despite certain similarities because the film is handled with far too much straightforward finesse. Erotic filmmaking is a difficult proposition at the best of times, and with all the strictures of censorship and marketing upon her, Taylor-Johnson has been forced to be shy to a silly extent about some things. Somehow Fifty Shades manages to get to its end credits not only without a single glimpse of penis or even pubic hair (yes, that’s right, there’s more dick in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007, than in Fifty Shades of Grey). The approach to the messiness of sexuality is absurdly naïve and prim by comparison with John Waters’ later works that sneakily managed to portray utter deviancy as commonplace whilst scarcely showing anything that a censor could get properly hot and bothered about. In fact, I wish Waters could have made this, but he would probably have had Ana and Christian finish up in bed with Kate, Elliott, Ana’s mother, and the Seattle Seahawks in the finale.
Yet Taylor-Johnson does create some effectively sexy moments, mostly of a vanilla variety, and a montage of stuff the couple get up to once the playroom is put to use, gathers real, if not particularly sensual, power thanks to the strong, rhythmic, trancelike cutting by a team of editors including Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)! Elsewhere, risibility strikes, like during the first sex scene when Dornan is required to slowly unbutton his shirt and reveal his ripped torso with wait-for-it relish: the image of Homer Simpson doing the same thing flashed into my mind, not the sort of epiphany from which many movies can recover. One of the problems with transferring erotica from page to screen lies in the fact that erotic narrative is rarely realistic, but rather a construction of arousal detached from normal limitations and references. In S&M fiction this problem is especially marked because it facilitates the role-playing so often key to the experience, telling tales of unholy pacts, enslavement, abuse, transformation, in which one person becomes the property of another, often in tales that look like horror stories from a slightly different perspective. In short, it’s usually a deliberate rejection of the morally instructive quality expected from artworks (not for nothing was de Sade’s Justine subtitled “Good Conduct Well-Punished”), and inherently anti-PC. Fifty Shades of Grey represents, however, an uneasy compromise between bare-boned erotic fantasy and actual drama. The drama had possibilities as far as that went: the story has a strong similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), as dark, marauding gentleman ensnares a lady he’s fascinated with and wants to dominate, albeit with Marnie’s own hang-ups and culpability removed— and, of course, Johnson is the granddaughter of Marnie herself, Tippi Hedren. The cliché must hold fast: female innocence versus masculine experience. Ana, for all the good work Johnson does in trying to portray her as an intellectual frustrated by the inability of her mind to conquer her body’s kindled needs, strains to be anything more than a one-dimensional Cinderella.
Another common trope of this sort of thing, perhaps best exemplified on screen by Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1978), and Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992), is that of a folie à deux that forms, combusts, and pushes to ever more dangerous and uncontrolled behaviours, entering an Oedipal whirlpool that might only touch bottom with death. Polanski’s film took the same essential plot to a fascinating, but potently nasty place as the older roué introduces his young girlfriend to increasingly intense perversions, only to turn her into a monster who reduces him to an impotent cripple and then makes him watch as she takes his place as destructive seducer. Fifty Shades of Grey initially mimics this structure, but eventually rejects it: it has no intention of losing control, and after all is said and done, doesn’t have any particular sympathy for the lifestyle it exploits. Taylor-Johnson doesn’t seem so much disapproving of S&M so much as James’ indulgence of the fantasy of wilful disempowerment, but the two are far too entwined in the way the story plays out. James annexed the idea Meyer plied so shamelessly, the idea of a transcendental, magnetic love that works something like animal imprinting and must have its way in denial of the good sense of the people beset by it—which is adolescent schlock, of course, but it’s hardly shocking to see it still has a place in our collective daydreams along with fantasies about sailing the ocean blue or sword fighting with Vikings. Taylor-Johnson, for her part, has tried to inject a little adult level-headedness into things and emphasise the degree to which the tale is a dance of attraction and repulsion. The idea of playing schoolgirl fantasy against problematic reality could have yielded fascinating stuff, but James’ source material is too in love with the initial posture of its characters to analyse the divide.
It could be said that what we do get is just a variation on that old schism—she wants love, he wants sex. Except that she really likes the sex she gets, and we’re told repeatedly that Christian feels unusually drawn to Ana in a manner that sounds like love and wants to be around her because he can feel her healing him. We watch a quiet wrestling match of wills with both Christian and Ana giving and taking. Eventually, however, Ana halts at the threshold of joining Christian in his kink. The degree to which Fifty Shades is actually a deeply square piece of rubber-necking becomes clear in time. Far from being a story of forbidden pleasures, it’s a shallow relationship drama, where the arguments over the demarcations of their union start to feel less and less like preludes to erotic deliria than a vision of the way modern relationships are negotiated enterprises. Although eventually we get some hot sex in the playroom, the bondage is pretty tame, enacted between characters who don’t seem to know they’re stick figures. Moreover, the shift from comedy of sexual manners to psychodrama that defines the second half is inherently weak, in part because the film has little psyche to dramatize, with no intention of spelling out the hints it’s given about Christian’s formative experiences. This might be for the best, because the hints we get point to the lamest kind of pop psychology: Christian was possibly mistreated as a child, ergo, he’s a control freak and S&M fan. There’s stuff about his uncomfortable relationship with his adoptive family, with Marcia Gay Harden earning an easy paycheque as his patrician mother, and a conversation about the mysterious older woman who initiated Christian into the BDSM lifestyle when he was a tender 15 years old, whom Ana dubs “Mrs Robinson.”
In this aspect of James’ tale, Taylor-Johnson may well have found her special mojo, considering that Christian readily recalls her conceptualisation of young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy as a natural-born heartbreaker whose own damaged personality will be cosseted rather than liberated by great success at a cost to the women in his life. But one major problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that, like everything else these days, it’s been franchised to the max: James penned two sequels where this stuff gets worked out. This leaves the movie with scarcely any plot and without the kind of spiralling psychosexual lunacy that might fire things up. After a while, the story completely jams up, marking time with a pointless digression to Georgia, as Ana visits her mother and Christian follows her, and a sequence where Christian takes Ana gliding, replete with tedious thematic underlining: oh look, Ana’s lost her fear of flying. I’d like to hear what Erica Jong’s got to say about all this. The film cannot countenance either the possibility of Ana finding fulfilment cocooned in leather and kept in a box in Christian’s playroom, which would be one extreme of the fantasy, or the idea that she might become a domme herself, and one day turn the whip on Christian’s pasty ass, another extreme.
The film does reach a kind of conclusion, one that also suggests an inescapable recommencement, but also inevitably invites coitus interruptus quips, as Ana, frustrated with this eddying state they’ve found themselves in, gets Christian to try out his tastes at full force. Ana is shocked as she realises that Christian has a need that has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with transferring a deeply humiliated rage and sorrow onto someone else. This precipitates a break-up that forms the film’s surprisingly abrupt coda, which I found reasonably effective, as it suited Taylor-Johnson’s take on this fare; everyone else around me groaned in frustration, which is also understandable. It’s the old story. Boy meets girl, boy flogs girl on the rump with a belt a few times, boy loses girl. By movie’s end it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Fifty Shades of Grey has simply upped the ante on Cecil B. DeMille’s winning formula for servicing the audience’s id by letting it get a good gander at forbidden fruit, whilst also reassuring us that we remain superior and that our judgement and moral vantages are right and good.
Dakota Johnson is the film’s focal point and its real buoy. Johnson portrays the slow bloom of Ana, which stems from both resisting and indulging her temptations, with great skill. The scene where she manages to draw Christian into dancing for a few moments, and then breaks away from him to twirl on her own in gauche, girlish happiness, is the sort of moment that crystallises star careers; it’s such a pity that this moment shows up how facile and lugubrious much of what’s surrounding her is. Likewise, her subtle register puts across the key moments where Ana is confronted by just how difficult her new love life is to explain to others. Dornan made an eye-catching debut as the thinking woman’s stud muffin in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) where he played the titular queen’s lover Axel von Fersen. He’s competent as Christian: his regulation hard body is matched by the seemingly permanent half-smile affixed to his lips, which suggests no matter how dank things might get, it’s not so serious. But he’s the one left holding the bag here, because the film has all but neutered Christian: the sense of imperious entitlement and emotional numbness the character requires has been toned down as far as possible. Whilst this undoubtedly took some of the edge off the character’s most arrogant, intrusive acts that might look awfully like stalking from a less buff, charming billionaire, it essentially leaves that character without any bite and thus no real reason for existing. It’s easy to imagine Robert Pattinson in his David Cronenberg-ised persona from Cosmopolis (2012) as a perfect Christian, but casting him would surely have been too meta. The ultimate frustration of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s neither gleeful camp festival nor genuinely interesting tale of sexual gamesmanship, but stuck between the two. Much like its heroes, its own scrupulousness has doomed it to eternal dissatisfaction—at least until the sequel.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Cimino
By Roderick Heath
Hollywood has never been kind to failure, but sometimes time is.
The real “Johnson County War” was a skirmish between cattle graziers and settlers in 1890s Wyoming, and had long been a cornerstone of western folklore. In the early 1970s, this true story was suggested as the subject for a potentially punchy, economical Western. The property kicked around United Artists studios for nearly a decade, with trash champion Michael Winner developing it at one point. Michael Cimino, when he was a rising screenwriter, was hired to polish Winner’s screenplay and found epic potential within the tale, his personal take on the mythology of the West. Once Cimino was elevated to the status of artist-titan by his Oscar-garlanded success with The Deer Hunter (1978), United Artists gave the director carte blanche and hoped he could revive the studio’s fortunes, which had only been interrupted by success with Rocky (1976). Cimino went to work with the same feverish and gruelling perfectionism that attended his last film, this time turning a big budget on a bygone era and troublesome subject. The shoot lumbered on, with rising costs and on-set mishaps exacerbated by Cimino’s heedless and exacting execution of his vision. Not since the heyday of Von Stroheim and Von Sternberg had Hollywood been visited by the spirit of such a relentless force yearning for perfection—it was almost as if Cimino was wilfully trying to write himself a legend of doomed artistry to equal theirs.
The stars that smiled on The Deer Hunter now conspired to destroy his follow-up. The ’70s, and the taste for shaded, introspective artistry in American film associated with that decade, were over. UA, left penniless by this large production, negotiated a takeover by MGM at the cost of essentially writing off their $40 million prestige film. After a few abortive screenings of the full-length cut, a severely edited version geared to attract action fans was dumped in theatres, but the audience was bewildered and mainstream critics were helpful in draping a shroud over the remnant’s corpse. The marriage of convenience between Hollywood and auteurism throughout the ’70s was annulled, with Cimino cast first as poster child and then as cautionary example, destined to wander the world with a corporate mark of Cain.
Politics may also have played a part in Cimino’s fate. The material of Heaven’s Gate was not far removed from traditional Hollywood fare; indeed the real events had inspired decades’ worth of oatsers, including Shane (1953). But Cimino, who had successfully plied his political viewpoint amidst odes to patriotic duty in The Deer Hunter, now revealed a more scabrous sense of American identity, turning this frontier tussle into a first round of an ongoing fight between big capital and labour, melting-pot democracy versus ruthless oligarchy, and outsider, underclass, and ethnic struggle against pseudo-aristocracy. Cimino was criticised for recasting the immigrants of Johnson County as polyglot, recalling the Russian-American heroes of The Deer Hunter. Just as Heaven’s Gate is visually a vast, violent, yet near-spiritual evocation of both American roots and the cinematic lexicon of the most expansive epic directors, the film’s historical thesis was concurrently harsh and negative, and some have theorised that as an unabashedly radical work, the film was fatally out of step with the mood of the oncoming Reagan era, contributing to its swift and merciless interment.
Anyway, all of that comprises the legend of Heaven’s Gate. When I first encountered Heaven’s Gate, the full-length cut residing forgotten on VHS in my local video store, I was bewildered, impressed, and finally smitten. Today, Heaven’s Gate is one of my favourite films in a way that has little to do with the way it was received and everything to do with what Cimino was trying to achieve. The stories of Cimino’s unstable profligacy may well be true and galling, but to behold Heaven’s Gate today is to see everything Cimino fought for up on screen, an artefact of cinematic craftsmanship with few equals and an artwork nearly sui generis in the modern pantheon. Cimino’s intricate blend of scale and intimacy, proven on The Deer Hunter, was plied with even greater rigour and quiet intensity for Heaven’s Gate, a fluttering, humanistic romanticism carefully wrapped into the fabric of the film rather than spelt out in sententious terms, creating one of the few original epic works of modern cinema. The film is replete with asides as pleasurable and likeable as The Deer Hunter’s best moments, like antihero Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) blending anxiety and charm in showing off his frontier cabin’s new wallpaper—pages of newspaper plastered over the bare wood floors. Editing Heaven’s Gate to make it shorter was a fraught act, because in cutting seemingly simple things, the observational and rhythmic qualities of the film, the gestural and behavioural intricacies that define how the characters relate to each other, were lost. Early scenes depict Graduation Day for the Harvard class of 1872, nonfunctional on a story level, but vital in establishing the film’s mood and themes, of the shift of eras and the people caught up in them and the way the reality of mortality sneaks up on us.
The prologue is a portrait of young scions as angels bound to fall in the heady eruptions of Gilded Age America. Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), college chums destined to find themselves on opposite sides of a violent struggle, are here still young and cheeky, their quirks and faults still charming as they celebrate coming of age in a time of peace and plenty. The ritualised rhetoric and celebration here contrast later, far more raucous and messy variations. The referenced spirit of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1941) is confirmed by a quoted shot sweeping into the halls of the Gilded Age’s hub through wide doors, and the presence of Joseph Cotton as the university chaplain, who gives a windy speech full of patrician sentiment, handing the graduates the responsibility of intellectual and moral leadership over the nation. Billy’s riposte, as anointed class genius and man of letters, is to give a superficially disrespectful and satirical poetic discourse that actually contains a conservative message: “We disdain all intention of making a change, in what we consider, on the whole, well-arranged.” The ritual segues into Strauss waltzes on the lawn, battles over garlands, and candlelight choruses regaling lady friends on high with school anthems, completing a vision of an already nostalgic moment of genteel perfection: “My god Billy, have you ever felt ready to die?” Jim asks his pal amidst the singers.
The past is another country: the film leaps to frontier Wyoming 20 years later, and finds Jim, having not died at the peak of romantic splendour in his youth, instead scrambling about on the floor of a first-class train compartment, inebriated and searching for his boots. Reminiscent of the eponymous hero of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Jim is a warrior-poet without a war and, his poetry squandered, haunted by the past and doomed to turn each woman he is drawn close to into an avatar for an image from lost youth, but who, having obeyed Horace Greeley and gone west, has aged into a tough and boozy man trying to live up to peculiar ideals. Billy, who does style himself a poet, has by this time reduced himself to a perpetually pickled yes-man to grotesque shows of monied power, having joined the Cattlemen’s Association, an oligarchy of businessmen angry at the influx of immigrants into grazing land. Jim’s return to Casper sees him quickly confronted by something ugly afoot, hinted by friendly Irish railway worker Cully (Richard Masur) and confirmed by the presence of dozens of loutish gunmen in town hired by the Association to wage war on the immigrant farmers in Johnson County, a remote patch of frontier hard against the Rocky Mountains where Jim serves as sheriff.
When some of the gunmen assault an immigrant family, Jim intervenes, and then goes to a city club where the Association is meeting and its chairman, Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), is outlining the upcoming campaign. Jim extracts the truth from the drunk and shocked Billy and socks Canton in the mouth when he gets uppity before heading on to the county. On the way, he encounters another family—the father was gunned down on the road, and the mother is determined to keep leading her children to their new property and work it. But starvation is rife on the range: the Association is angry because the farmers, waiting to harvest their first crop, have been slaughtering their cattle for food or using them as currency. Prior to Jim’s arrival, Champion, himself an immigrant son who has become the chief enforcer for the Association, has gunned down a Slavic farmer who is in the middle of slaughtering a cow. When Jim reaches the county, he makes gifts to his friends—a Winchester rifle for bar owner and all-round entertainment promoter John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges, who co-starred in Cimino’s debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974) and a carriage for Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), his girlfriend and madam of the local brothel. Jim, aware and terrified of what is coming, tries to get Ella to leave, but she interprets this as his rejection of her, and so she accepts Nate’s offer of marriage.
As with The Deer Hunter, Cimino stages the film in a series of lengthy, unified sequences, alternating painterly vistas with balletic camera movements. The mid-section of Heaven’s Gate balances the unfolding of this odd, wryly observed romantic triangle and the roiling, lively community of Johnson County. There is purposeful contrast between the rude, plebeian energy of the colonising immigrants, for whom the success of the project of the West is a life-and-death proposition, and Jim’s distracted, dreamy sense of impotence in the face of forces beyond his control, partly indicted as patrician indulgence and partly celebrated as hard-won wisdom in the face of reality. In many ways, Heaven’s Gate feels like an act of remembrance, a la Sergio Leone’s similarly eccentric, mistreated epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984); indeed, just as Jim is revealed as remembering his graduation as the scene shifts to 1890, so, too, does the epilogue, set in 1904, find Jim again reminiscing: the effects of experience and time on an individual have become aesthetically woven into the fabric of the tale. Jim is indeed as much viewpoint as protagonist. Heaven’s Gate is often criticised on the level of characterisation, but what the film doesn’t do is essay such things in the usual obvious, literary fashion. Cimino communicates as much through visual signposts as dialogue, like the ever-present photo of Jim with his college girlfriend that hints both at the power of Jim’s nostalgia and also the destructive effect it’s having on his present, one cause of his inability to commit to Ella.
The triangular romance of Jim, Nate, and Ella is thus viewed not through sweepingly romantic postures associated with the epic in cinema, as with Rhett and Scarlett against the red sky in Gone with the Wind (1939) or Jack and Rose on the bow of the Titanic (1997), but through a series of textured interludes of interaction and discursive details. Ella, who has a hard and shrewd businesswoman under her flirty, flighty surface, makes romantic decisions with her head as well as heart: “Do you think a woman can’t love two men?” she prods Jim, whilst he gets drunk and calls her a dumb whore after learning she’s chosen Nate, who’s made her a better offer. Cimino sarcastically depicts frontier life as a place of flux where property is in contention, be it livestock, land, or personal affection, and sees no contradiction in these gestures. A central seriocomic sequence sees Ella asking Nate to carry a pickled Jim back to his room before he can return and get into bed with her, unfolding with a hazy, inebriated grace that reveals the strange, but real affections that tie the trio together and also what keeps them all at subtle loggerheads. Nate takes up Jim’s hat once he deposits him in his bed and places it on his own head, studies himself in the mirror and says with the all rueful admiration of a man gunning to replace the wounded titan, “I’ll say this for ya Jim—you’ve got class.”
Cimino counterpoints such carefully wrought depictions of the interpersonal with textured, pageant-like explosions of communal action. The film seethes with a sense of life in the margins, as Cimino notes a populace fighting, gambling, labouring, fucking—at once impersonal and gruelling, embracing and cheerful. Social conflicts exist within the county’s populace, with would-be bourgeois stalwarts and firebrands. Ella shows off her new carriage by charging into the midst of the town to the cheers of the rowdy men and the disapproval of the church congregation trying to celebrate the opening of their new place of worship. The wonderfully odd, Fellini-esque sequences when the Johnson County folk, following the lead of Ella’s fiddle-sawing employee John DeCory (David Mansfield), celebrate on new-fangled roller skates, establish the pile-up of ethnicities in Johnson County as a populace that has already become quintessentially American in their love of novelty and group optimism.
Cimino flirts with surrealism here, via peculiar scene grammar that sees the crowd somehow disappearing, leaving Jim and Ella alone to dance in their private islet of romance. Heaven’s Gate here revisits the John Ford Western, where the travails of heroes and villains are only aspects of a much larger project, where reference is consistently made to rites of life and death, weddings, dances, births and funerals as shared by a community, but viewed now as if through the wrong end of a telescope—fantastic, slightly absurd, and over like it never was. Later, as the Association’s army nears, the citizenry stage a noisy, chaotic, yet nascent democratic mass meeting where Jim reads out the Association’s death list: mild businessman Eggleston (Brad Dourif) emerges as firebrand rousing the populace with his declaration that the Association represents people who “think poor people should have no say in the affairs of this country!” The town’s timid mayor Charlie Lezak (Paul Koslo) wants to hand over the accused on the list, only for the widow of one murdered ranger to blow his ear off with a badly aimed shot.
Nate coexists as both progeny of the class he’s called on to victimise and hard edge of the one he works for, leaving him hovering somewhere between communities: his cabin is well outside the town in a bucolic meadow, and he keeps a small coterie of oddball coots (Geoffrey Lewis and Mickey Rourke) for friends. Nate’s reputation for willingly using brute force keeps him safe and wards off challenges, though he has his limits, revealed when he chooses to scare off a young immigrant about to slaughter a captured cow rather than shoot him. Nate is called off the fence once he gets Ella to commit to him, however, and after Jim makes clear what’s about to happen. When he gets steamed about one of the evil acts that heralds the Association army’s arrival in the county, Jim storms into their camp and promptly shoots one of Canton’s fellows in the forehead. Nate’s change of allegiances demands that Canton shut him down as a potentially fearsome rival and so has the army besiege Nate’s cabin and let loose a hail of bullets. Cimino’s take on the real events of the Johnson County War mostly follows his own whim, but here he recreates one of the most striking anecdotes of the incident, as Nate pens a farewell missive to Ella and Jim as his cabin burns down, before charging out to be gunned down in absurd overkill. Jim has already tried to convince the commander of a local cavalry outpost, Captain Minardi (Terry O’Quinn), to help keep peace. Minardi tells Jim he has his hands tied, and resists Jim’s moral pressure by suggesting Jim’s background saves him from having to make the kinds of grimly pragmatic decisions others are forced to, but gives him the Association’s “death list.” The seriocomic tone of the film’s middle third is severed abruptly as Cully sees a train race through Casper and halt just outside of town, bringing Canton, his pet soldier Major Walcott (Ronnie Hawkins), and the gunmen to the fringe of the frontier. Cully leaps onto a horse and rides out to warn Jim, but is caught sleeping by an advance guard and gunned down, the wide-open spaces of the Wyoming landscape (albeit actually in Montana) suddenly ranged with killers sweeping in waves across the grand landscape.
Cimino’s thesis holds that modern America owes it birth directly to ordinary people, to group effort and life, rather than to its individuals, no matter grand they are. Some critics, perhaps saying more about their own politics than Cimino’s, labelled this the first Marxist Western. Bridges’ warehouse-cum-domicile, in which Jim keeps a single room, contains hundreds of immigrants, a little world of folk desperate for shelter amidst the great expanses of the West. Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1980) and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2001), long-delayed but conceived around this time, tackled vitally similar themes of the forced evolution of America from spiky WASP enclave to heterogeneous society via seriously ugly birth pangs, with ethnic and class war abetted by the establishment. Depiction of the Association members treads close to melodrama in offering an array of fat cats with contempt for ordinary people, though there’s nothing greatly unusual in that. Waterston comes close to stealing the film with his imperiously hateful and arrogantly charismatic Canton, who casts himself as the embodiment of patrician right, playing the petty general, though Jim’s contempt for him (“You never were in my class Canton.”) hints that Canton is actually, like Nate, trying to leave behind humble roots by identifying with the forces of power and letting the centrifugal impetus that governs the nation sweep him to its pivot. Jim’s definition of aristocratic responsibility means protecting and sheltering his citizens against the baronial assumptions of the Association, but his and Billy’s gentlemanly, classically educated style looks increasingly irrelevant when compared to both the rapacious greed of Canton’s kind and the robust hunger of the immigrants. The aristocrats can no longer rule and mediate in this free-for-all modern world, this gilded America. Irvine, cheeky gadabout, becomes the emblem of befuddled privilege, incapable of separating himself in the way Jim has from the herd, even though the two men are both close in their overfondness for liquor and sense of waning and longing: Irvine’s fate is appropriately absurd, dying unnoticed in the riotous action, shot dead by Jim’s girlfriend whilst pining for Paris.
Heaven’s Gate was both the culmination and the last stand of the revisionist, messy, eccentric style of Western film that emerged from the mid-1960s, sustained by the genre’s popularity, but doomed to diffuse that popularity by assaulting the genre’s presumptions through gritty, bloody, selectively deromanticised takes on the mythology of the West. Kristofferson, who give probably his best performance in this film, had debuted as an actor playing Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah, recast as avatar for the defeat of the wild outsider in a conformist society: for Cimino, he’s a man struggling to make a stand on a personal level that coincides in near-symmetry with the stand of the community he’s chosen. If Cimino’s intimate and inferring approach to his human level and radical historical viewpoint seem aimed to defile expectations of the style of moviemaking he’s engaged in, the visual expressivity of Heaven’s Gate is of another, more classical breed. Referring to the grandest vistas of John Ford and David Lean, George Stevens and Anthony Mann, Cimino’s West is a place of rolling golden grasslands, soaring, snow-capped peaks, country roads trod by columns of Soviet Realist peasants and dusty, thrumming frontier streets, an animate player in itself. But the way Cimino shoots landscape is ironic in a manner unfamiliar to those directors except perhaps Lean, as mountains and sky gaze down with implacable and illimitable beauty upon ugly human acts. Early on Cimino shoots Huppert bathing, totally and unself-consciously nude, in a clear mountain stream, and then settles by Kristofferson in a moment recalling Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” a vision of the West as possibility of complete abandonment of civilisation. This gives way to the tragedy of the liminal constantly unfolding within the embrace of the sublime, bloodied and mangled bodies constantly pictured lying amidst pristine beauty, creating an inherent tension that perceives the humans as infesting rather than claiming the land in a manner that recalls Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.
The slow-screwing tension of the film begins to break loose when some of the Association’s hitmen lie in wait for Ella in the brothel: Jim, hailed to the rescue, infiltrates the building through a top-floor window, only to discover all of the prostitutes butchered. He dispatches the killers with swift and brutal aplomb, and is left to upbraid Ella tearfully for refusing to heed his advice, his act of care for her infused with his still-present anger and heartbreak. Cimino interestingly undercuts Jim as a traditional hero by having him fall into a well of self-pity, abetted by Mayor Lezak, who sacks Jim when he makes it plain he won’t intervene to make the increasingly warlike Johnson County folks stand down. Thus, Jim isn’t even present when the assassination of Nate sparks insurrection. Rather, Ella comes into her own, and in some ways, she is the actual hero of the film, the character whose sense of agency is essential. Huppert, whose English was poor at the time, occasionally struggles with the rhythms of her dialogue and yet ultimately delivers a terrific performance, first seen greeting Jim with pie and nudity, a nature child who knows her value in this little world and doesn’t give much of a damn what anyone thinks of her. But Huppert cleverly reveals the wise and hardened soul under Ella’s coquettish surface, and assaults only stiffen her resistance. She tries first to rescue Nate in a thunderous piece of action, then returns to the town and calls out the arguing townsfolk to battle. The stunningly filmed sequence that follows sees the madly careening force of the immigrants, riding to combat on horseback and carts, assault the Association and besiege the would-be invaders, who rapidly fortify themselves with toppled wagons. Utter chaos prevails as Ella charges wildly around the enemy shooting randomly, Bridges tries to get her to take cover, shop-keepers turned guerrilla warriors crash their carts and finish up in piles of broken bones, kicking hooves, crushing wagon wheels, and wild bullets. When the whirlwind dies down, Billy and dozens of others are dead, and Canton takes off on horseback, vowing to bring help for his trapped goons.
Jim emerges from his cocoon after Ella reads him Nate’s farewell note and finally puts his education to good use, directing the county folk in building mobile barricades based on Roman methods—Wolcott recognises the source. The attackers slowly close in on the Association guns, hurling bundles of dynamite to smash apart the defences. Jim provides a bridge between the Old World and the New, imparting to the immigrants a sense not just of fight, but of war, of applied education. Cimino’s sense of detail overflows as he notes the carnage wrought by the determination of the citizens even as they win their fight, like one woman shooting badly wounded men and then herself. Finally, Cimino’s bitterest anti-cliché: Canton rides back in with Minardi and the cavalry, who “arrest” the gunmen, essentially rescuing what’s left of them from the wrath of the citizens. Jim and Bridges are left to survey their field of victory, covered with bodies and shattered war machines: triumph and desolate horror coexist in one of the most fascinatingly ambivalent climaxes in any film—heroic, grassroots resistance has its grim cost. Peace seems to have been the prize obtained by the sacrifice, both sides having fought each other to a point of nullity. Shortly after, Bridges collects luggage for Jim and Ella as they prepare to leave the county together. Canton and a small band of killer lie in wait for them, set on revenge: Jim kills Canton in the melee, but only after Bridges and Ella are killed. Jim is left weeping over Ella’s bloodied body, last victim of this ridiculous war, red bullet holes like roses blooming on her blinding, white dress.
The tragic effect of this moment is almost operatic, but Cimino contours it into a subtler variety, as he moves forward again 15 years. There, he find Jim, older but looking younger with his beard shaved off, a telling vanity as he’s ensconced on a yacht with a lovely young mistress. The first couple of times I watched this scene, it struck me as the film’s lone major gaffe, and yet now its essentialness seems obvious, all the more so for its communication of the vital sentiment with scarcely any words. The final vision of Jim, even more sadly nostalgic, but now cut off from his past by the death of just about everyone dear to him and fallen prey to the gravity of identity, suggests personal tragedy amidst all the political and social turmoil and clash of idealistic and nihilistic gestures. Even Jim, native son, golden boy, a titan on the range, is just another fool of fortune. Much like Welles’ great antiheroes Charlie Kane and George Amberson, he’s doomed to wonder what he might have been if he hadn’t been so rich. Cimino could probably have sympathised all too well. He made a comeback five years later with Year of the Dragon (1985), a white-hot cop flick invested with ornery, hyped-up energy and the strange intensity of a self-portrait, before Cimino’s worst traits started to dominate in his last three films, the bawdiness and ferocity turned cynical. Cimino left Hollywood seemingly for good, ironically finding success again, this time as an author.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Cimino
By Roderick Heath
Michael Cimino made a name for himself as a bright young thing working in New York advertising before turning to screenwriting in the early 1970s, thus joining the ranks of fresh and eager talents the “New Hollywood” was embracing in an effort to rejuvenate the industry. After working on the science fiction film Silent Running (1971) and the second Dirty Harry film Magnum Force (1974), Cimino broke into directing with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a modest but beautifully made movie about a pair of buddy criminals on the road, straddling several of the early decade’s popular genres and thematic terrains. Cimino seemed like a perfectly evolved organism for New Hollywood, fresh, smart, driven, volatile, and a hopeless fabulist. In particular, he had that trait most prized by the age’s cinema scene: vision, that overwhelming sense of aesthetic aim that could conquer the cynical senses of an audience burned out by Old Hollywood’s tricks.
For his second film, Cimino aimed much higher, envisaging an epic film about the most controversial subject of his age: the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Funding for such a project was all-but-impossible to come by in the climate of mid-’70s Hollywood, so he braved the L.A. office of British record company EMI instead and spent two hours pitching executives his vision for the film. He must have done something right, because even with no script, actors, or production elements ready, he was still ordered to start shooting in five months. With the aid of Deric Washburn, who converted Cimino’s concept into a workable script, and Robert De Niro, a hot property after The Godfather Part II (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), Cimino’s unlikely project came to fruition.
The resulting film, The Deer Hunter, stoked hyperbolic responses from viewers. Greeted by some as the cinematic equivalent of Tolstoy and embraced by the industry and mainstream audiences alike to become a big hit, Cimino’s film went on to capture the 1978 Best Picture Oscar. The Deer Hunter bothered others with its viewpoint on the conflict, told entirely through American eyes, where Vietnam becomes an alien and stygian zone filled with sadists and wretches and random horrors. Seemingly uninterested in the political dimensions of the war, Cimino preferred to portray its young protagonists as people to whom war happens as a cruel and random imposition, rather than making them agents of a wider, conceptual approach to war, like the following year’s Apocalypse Now, or as radicalised avatars of shifting tides of social identity, like Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, which was one of its big rivals at that year’s Oscars. Actually, The Deer Hunter does have a bleak and accusatory political side, portraying as it does the war as an event that invited the best from citizens who are then dumped back into the world variously mangled regarding any sense of what they experienced beyond whirlpool of carnage. Cimino had endeavoured to make a film purely about the experience of young men doing their bit according to their communal ideals, sense of patriotism, and personal ethics, and being variously deeply wounded or destroyed by it. Some objected to Cimino’s signature flight of fancy, the central scene of forced Russian roulette-playing, as not just a symbolic invention and effective horror sequence, but as pernicious falsity; Cimino was awkwardly caught up in trying to defend its legitimacy. Yet, in the context of the late ’70s, the film represented a ballsy project all the same. Films of epic length were conspicuously out of favour. The situation of many Vietnam veterans socially and personally wasn’t good, and in spite of a small spate of Vietnam films released around this time, official catharsis wasn’t reached until around the time of Platoon (1986) and the opening of the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a project The Deer Hunter helped inspire.
Cimino’s ambitious scale belied to a certain extent the intimate and simple focus of his film, depicting the entwined fates of three pals, steel mill workers from the Pennsylvania town of Clairton drafted to fight in Vietnam sometime around 1970. Cimino employed a narrative approach here that he would revisit in his follow-up Heaven’s Gate, packing multiple strands of story set-up and asides that compile into a detailed portraiture of place as well as people. The film’s first third details how a trio of young heroes engage in a series of ritual events that comprise their farewell to the life they know. The trio, Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Nick Cevatolavic (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage), along with their other pals and coworkers Stan (John Cazale) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren), complete their last shift at the steel mill, and emerge to a rare solar phenomenon, “sundogs”, which Mike, referring to Native-American folklore, declares a good omen for his favourite pursuit of deer hunting. They retreat for a farewell chill-out session in their local bar, run by pal John (George Dzundza). Steven is about to marry his girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Alda) over his mother’s (Shirley Stoller) objections, which she is glimpsed weepily confessing to her priest (Father Stephen Kopestonsky), before coming to drag Steven out of the bar to prepare for the wedding.
Both a source of power and a difficulty for the film lay in Cimino’s original, intricate blend of filmic techniques, seeming at once to be uniquely earthy, authentic, and realistic in a way anyone could grasp, and yet also floridly artistic and deeply stylised, even mythic in reach and resonance. What it definitely wasn’t, however, was a documentary. How Cimino illustrated his stark, cumulatively gruelling tale was what made it so arresting. His technique, notably confident for a second film, represented a rich polyglot of influences that seemed for a moment to represent a new paradigm for popular art, equal to what Francis Coppola had managed with The Godfather a few years earlier. Cimino borrowed technique from classical Hollywood epics: the vistas of John Ford and David Lean enfold and lend background to the drama, dwarfing the humans and their concerns and yet offering elusive promises of transcendence and communion, too. The fascination for behavioural minutiae recalls the eccentric genre cinema of Howard Hawks and Phil Karlson, crossbred with the new wave filmmaking of guys like Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Jerry Schatzberg, and emphasising improvisation in his performances and acuity to the rhythms of actors. Cimino also added into the mix the dramatic approach of Italian post-neorealism, particularly the work of Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, and their spacious, allusive approach to narrative and characterisation, where characters seem to float through the landscapes they inhabit on a deceptively open and yet carefully choreographed fashion. Cimino’s credo was that films came alive because of their “shadows and spaces,” like classic Dutch art.
Another quality of The Deer Hunter that makes it relatively rare among major American films, even in the milieu of the 1970s, is the dignity it gives to working-class lives, the feel for the environs they live in: only a handful of Warner Bros. blue-collar melodramas from the 1930s and ’40s, like They Drive By Night (1940) and Manpower (1941), had a similar acuity. The Deer Hunter hit a vein Bruce Springsteen was starting to mine profitably in rock music, casting the denim-clad worker as the essence of Americana, providing the national backbone, but also acting as the canary in the coalmine for its economic, social, and political upheavals. The evocation of Clairton is one of the best portraits of a small industrial town ever, speaking as a person who grew up in one. Clairton is a town hunkered under mist and melting snow, subsisting beneath the gothic mass of the steel mill, blotches of light and colour hovering amidst drenching blues and greens, riddled with callow, energetic, shallowly naughty young men and thwarted elders, a place of deep amity and pockets of abuse. Clairton interestingly is also portrayed as a specific ethnic enclave, with the Russian Orthodox Church at the centre of the local culture; its closest relative in the era’s cinema was 1976’s Slap-Shot, an out-and-out comedy that nonetheless captured the same milieu. Several of Cimino’s recurring notions are immediately in evidence here; the immigrant’s place in American life, blue-collar heroes with chips on their shoulders, violence as plague and crucible, and rituals social and private that define individuals in relation to the whole.
The Deer Hunter’s wedding scene is often an ideal litmus test for the different ways people watch movies; pointless to some, endlessly fascinating to others. Cimino offers a vision of the celebration that’s more than a mere party, but rather a communal ritual laced with an ebb and flow of detail that offers oblique characterisation and underscores the tale’s evolving themes. Bridesmaids trying to keep their dresses from getting soiled whilst dashing to the wedding. The boys drinking beer, playing pool, and singing along to Frankie Valli. The special technique for opening the boot on Mike’s Chevy. Linda (Meryl Streep) trying to help her drunken father (Richard Kuss) into bed and getting a black eye for her pains. Nick’s life-of-the-party joie de vivre counterbalances Mike’s social awkwardness, as both make a play for Linda’s affections; Mike misses his chance downing too much liquid courage, and Nick gets in a marriage proposal that Linda accepts. The supermarket manager doubles as wedding singer, crooning ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and cuts in to dance with Stan’s girlfriend. Stan’s buffoonish antics are plied with a mix of obliviousness and try-hard desperation, apparent in his posturing as ladies man and pistol-packing tough guy, and he provides slapstick humour with an appalling edge as he gets angry, stamps into the cotillion, and throws a punch that knocks his girlfriend out. Amid the humour and working social observation thread hints of fate. The ominous presence of a returned Green Beret sergeant with the proverbial thousand-yard stare who threads his way through the wedding party to throw back shots with declarations of “Fuck it!” has the quality of fateful visitation, the Red Death arriving at the ball, eventually riling Mike with his reserve.
Underlying the frivolity of the wedding is the intensity of fear: the young men are being feted for their honourable commitment to duty and because maybe they won’t come back. The blown-up pictures of them festooned on the wall of the reception hall have turned them into icons as sacrificial venerated. Mike performs a hysterical nude run through the streets of Clairton. His subsequent bleary chat with Nick resolves with Nick’s confession of a love for the primal grandeur of the trees during the hunt: where Mike sees the unifying crux of the single shot, Nick sees the enveloping glory of nature, “the colours in the trees,” something to sink into and fade among. Leaving Steven to his honeymoon, Mike, Nick, Stan, Axel, and John go on a last hunting expedition: Cimino sarcastically plays off a grand David Lean landscape with the humour and bickering of the young men, as John finds himself abandoned by the roadside and clueless Stan gazes about him at mountains that haven’t changed in millennia and swears that somehow they have. Mike declares the shift from one phase of life to another has begun when he refuses to furnish Stan with his spare pair of boots, and berates Stan for his complete lack of preparation, and his habit of constantly carrying a pistol “like John Wayne,” the archetypal macho posturer without the expertise or concision of habit to back it up. Nick intervenes as the confrontation becomes heated, and Mike heads off into the hills to track in a moment staged like a holy rite, complete with Russian church chorus chanting on the soundtrack. There he bring downs a monarch of the glen with single-minded precision, a sense of craft and purity of intent that prove to have prepared him, semi-consciously, for war.
Cimino executes a smash cut from the victorious, elated, exhausted hunters listening to John play his barroom piano with startling art to napalm blasts erupting in the jungle, swinging from the edge of the sublime to the infernal precincts—it’s one of the great scene changes of cinema history. Mike is depicted awakening on the battlefield, the drowsy reverie of the previous scene giving way to the immediacy of the first hour as though it is only remembered dreaming, a state of grace before damning. Mike is quickly stirred to action as a stray NVA solider kills civilians, and righteously roasts his enemy with a flame-thrower. Helicopters spirit in reinforcements, including Nick and Steven, who are amazed to encounter their pal in the grip of berserker fixation, only for a sudden VC attack to lead to their capture and imprisonment in a remote and makeshift lock-up. The guards apparently can’t hold their captives long in such a place and so have hit upon the novel idea of letting chance kill them off slowly by forcing them to play Russian roulette until they’re all dead. Steven narrowly survives and is tossed into a cage in the river where he’ll quickly lose strength and drown. Forced to take a great chance for even the slightest hope of escape, Mike, under the guise of trying to belittle their captors, cajoles them into putting three bullets into the gun for the game. He and Nick pass the gun between them for two agonising plays to make the VC lower their guard before Mike sparks a stunningly fast and successful insurrection.
This scene was surely the reason for The Deer Hunter’s success at the time and its continuing reputation as a classic of violent intensity, for under the surface grit and grind, this is thriller stuff as much as it is representation of war’s randomness. Mike’s heroics hold the situation together, and the scene builds with incredible force to the moment of punitive exactness when Mike gives the Vietnamese ringleader (Somsak Sengvilai) a third eye. What this sequence does undoubtedly capture is the sense of ordinary men passing through the outer limits of human trial in some septic circle of hell, where gnawing rats and other men’s life blood dripping on you are the least unpleasant aspects, and the confrontation with mortality becomes everything, a state without past or future. The superlative acting, particularly from De Niro, captures the spectacle of men being stripped down to their rawest nerve, with wild swings from bowel-emptying fear to hysterical jollity and howls of vengeful abuse. Importantly, apart from the flash cuts depicting the climactic crucible of violence, Cimino generally films in the same way he shot the same men dancing and carousing—in long, intent sequences where behaviour unfolds frantic, flailing, relentless, until the viewer is all but wrapped in their clammy terror and fight-for-life imperative.
Mike’s plan works against the odds, or rather according to the fifty-fifty odds his three-bullet plan entails. He, Nick, and Steven, though battered and bloodied and near-unhinged, make their escape down river. But Steven falls from a helicopter during the rescue and shatters his legs, forcing Mike to fall after him and carry him across country. In the midst of a convoy of refugees, he’s able to get a South Vietnamese officer to drive Steven to help. In Saigon, traumatised Nick heads off into the Saigon night to dedicate his life to reliving his moment of existential crisis under the gun when a remnant French colonial, Julien (Pierre Segui), introduces him to the underground craze for betting on Russian roulette. South Vietnam is a corrupt fleshpot where everyone has essentially become an organism, living and dying without moral limits: Nick has a sleazy encounter with a prostitute with a kid in her room, but he’s enticed away by a street vendor selling statues of elephants. Mike returns home alone and haunted.
The third part of the film depicts Mike’s return and his efforts to take up his life, but finding that impossible not only because of his physical and mental injuries, but also because the social contract between him and his friends is still standing. Here, The Deer Hunter shifts into another storytelling mode, perhaps the more familiar, as its evident structural debt is to generations of panoramic, off-to-war-and-back tales like The Big Parade (1926) and Wings (1927), and more specific dramas about damaged veterans like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Men (1950). But Cimino is exacting in specific details as he contemplates the odd lot of the modern soldier, hooked out of the midst of turmoil and dumped back into the mundane world. Particularly good and real-feeling is Mike’s initial return, his squirming discomfort when, ferried by a taxi toward his old home, he sees a banner of welcome. Rather than face the party waiting for him, Mike instead heads to a motel where he crouches against the wall, wrapped in tension and pain. The next morning, as the last of the party flitters away, leaving only Linda, Mike spies upon friends and the unchanged signifiers of his own life, outside of them and touched with inescapable longing to both run away and reach out.
Mike, escorted by Linda through town, is hailed as the returned hero, and Linda’s hapless idea of succor is to offer to go to bed with Mike, only for him to fall asleep for the first time since returning. The gentle, toey romance of Mike and Linda is haunted by the awareness that Mike has stepped into Nick’s shoes, and Mike is privileged to learn quickly that the women waiting for the men have been through their own ordeal. He happens upon Linda quietly weeping whilst marking prices on supermarket items, and Angela, reduced to an almost catatonic wreck by Steven’s injury and refusal to come home, can only communicate through hand-written notes. Mike’s attempts to reconnect with his remaining pals eventually sees his anger boil over at Stan, who threatens Axel with his pistol: Mike gives him a coarse lesson in the sort of truth he accosted Stan with earlier by taking his gun, emptying out all but one bullet, and then pressing it to his forehead: lucky for Stan, this time he gets an empty chamber.
One notable influence hiding within The Deer Hunter is the writings of Ernest Hemingway, who similarly dealt in virtually mythic stories told through accumulations of realist detail, and many of whose themes and images percolate through the film, and also Hemingway’s influences, James Fenimore Cooper and A.E.W. Mason. But Cimino reconfigures some of their essential notions. Whereas Hemingway often depicted survivors of conflict who found themselves recreating the tragedy of life and death on the small and controllable scale of man versus animal and finding existential surety there, Cimino depicts Nick as doomed to keep experiencing the moment of his own death/life—the click of the firing pin in Russian roulette—enacted on his own self. Nick descends into anti-personhood, his past erased with drugs and only able to survive like a goldfish between contests.
Meanwhile Mike’s reawakening sees him resist killing a deer when he returns to the mountains: his scream of “Okay!” to the mountains smacks of a mysterious and personal surrender that also brings relief. Although the hunt gave him the skills to survive the battle, Mike can no longer rely on such gifts and ethics to keep him sustained: in such a fashion, Cimino evokes a classical ideal of heroism only to undercut it and show up its greatest weakness. The American frontier hero has failed to survive Vietnam. Mike instead begins to turn into a different man, coupling with Linda and taking charge, at first half-madly when he subjects Stan to the ordeal, and then with more focus as he locates Steven, who’s hiding away in a veteran’s hospital, and drags him back to Angela, before heading back to Vietnam to find Nick. The climactic rite of the wedding sees Steven and Angela drinking from a twinned cup, invoking corny superstition: “If you don’t spill a drop, it means good luck for the rest of your life”—except that two red drops fall fatefully on the white lace of Angela’s dress. Such vignettes of mythopoeic flavour hint that for all its surface realism, The Deer Hunter is actually a form of myth-making. Indeed, under the surface, it has more in common with classical tragedy and myth than the precepts of Victorian realist writing. Cimino and Washburn offer a Sophoclean tragedy where earthly, communal lessons and the invocation of fate repeatedly enfold the young heroes. The pure trio of youth, Mike, Nick, and Steven could readily have stumbled out of any point in history for an anthem of doomed youth and gone off to fight in any war.
Mike’s odd, Zenlike sense as the hunter puts him readily into a legendary mould, whilst Nick gains mastery over death, one of the most hallowed mythic themes, at the cost of his humanity. Mike’s private trip—his obsession with the perfect hunt and the ethic of the “one shot” kill—echoes heroes from Siegfried to Natty Bumppo, right down to his implied celibacy: professional sleaze Stan rebukes Mike over his gruff and strict attitude toward him by bringing up his apparent sexual failures. Mike’s mastery of the hunt gives him a worldly power, as his focus and determination help him keep his head during a scene of Dante-worthy torment. But perhaps more important is the ethereal power it gives him. “This is this!” Mike rants at Stan, holding up a bullet, utterly bemusing Stan but revealing his own sensibility, at once atavistic and materialistic, perceiving the concrete nature of the bullet as the singular essence of reality, the separator of living and dead. Yet when faced with the bullet and the Russian roulette wheel, he tells Nick to put an empty chamber in the gun with the force of his will. Nick emerges from this with a magic power: when Mike returns and locates him, he has become “the famous American” who has survived innumerable tussles with death.
I’ve often felt that Cimino’s chief misstep with The Deer Hunter was his insistence on giving it a semblance of a plot. Mike’s mission to find Nick in the midst of a collapsing Saigon and the end of the war strains to fulfil the old-fashioned epic credentials of the story, contrary to the “shit happens” art of the movie’s bulk. Nonetheless, the furor of the illicit dens Mike finds Nick in evokes the visions of Bosch, as do the sideways glimpses of a pocket of existence crumbling, a place where small gestures like the pathetic stab by Julien at regaining a gasp of honour by eventually refusing Mike’s money, and Mike’s appeals to Nick’s drug-sodden memory, are doomed, yet ennobled. Notably, Mike only succeeds in breaking the spell that has kept Nick alive: Nick ambiguously seeming to finally recognise Mike, but then puts gun to head and shoots himself, the magic protection gone, perhaps deliberately willed away. Nick is sacrificed innocence, and his funeral marks the end of the film. Cimino’s fascination with ritual as communal conducer comes full circle as Nick is buried and his friends gather for a wake where a ragged, plaintive, rendition of “God Bless America” sets the seal: the duty is done, the cost great, the flow of life about to begin again. Cimino played his cards right. He had proven that a film on a painful subject with an angry streak could be made in a way that communicated to more than ideologues of either side. Cimino was lauded, famous, at the height of his powers as an artist and a force in the American film industry. What could possibly go wrong?
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Director/Screenwriter: Wim Wenders
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This year, the Berlinale is paying tribute to one of Germany’s most creative native sons, Wim Wenders. Showing next week at the Berlinale Palast theatre is Everything Will Be Fine, Wenders’ brand-new feature film shot in 3D, and the “Homage” section of the festival will screen 10 of his works, including the film under consideration here, Pina. This documentary about one of the giants of German modern dance, Pina Bausch, was the first film Wenders shot in 3D. Clearly, he must have been intrigued by the form during his first outing and wondered how it could be applied to a fictional narrative. Like many of our finest directors, including Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese, Wenders has found a new toy to play with and has had to learn all over again how to shoot a movie. Pina is an interesting, often beautiful film that shows the learning curve for 3D cinematography is a sometimes steep and bumpy one.
Pina was a project nursed over the 20-year friendship of Wenders and Bausch, but it stayed as little more than an idea until 3D cinematography made its resurgence. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Wenders said, “I never knew, with all my knowledge of the craft of film-making, how to do justice to her work. It was only when 3D was added to the language of film that I could enter dance’s realm and language.” Although dance has been filmed since the very beginnings of motion pictures, Wenders’ appreciation of the importance of space as well as movement to dance is an interesting and vital addition to the representation of dance on film. The possibilities of allowing viewers to “enter” the spaces between dancers must have had great appeal for Bausch, for whom some level of audience involvement would be a natural fit with her convention-defying choreography and collaborative work method.
Sadly, Bausch died suddenly before principal photography began, so we will never know what influence the 3D effects would have had on her personal language of movement or what contributions she could have made to the visual approach and results Wenders achieved. But we do have her company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, who were filmed in live performances before an audience and in sequences set up by Wenders in a variety of environments, including a warehouse, an overhead tram car, a glass house set in the midst of trees, a swimming pool deck, and a busy street, among other locations.
The place where Wenders achieves the potential of 3D is in the film’s opening. A topless woman wearing an accordion briefly sings about the seasons of the year, initiating a kind of snake dance in which the company, dressed in suits and evening wear, move onto the stage in a line repeating small hand gestures for spring, summer, fall, and winter as they cross the stage and double back behind a flowing scrim. The 3D effect actually seems to move us into the line and, at one point, elicits an urge to sweep the scrim out of our way. It’s an amazingly effective opening, giving the audience a stake in the film as a participant, not just the usual passive viewer of dance.
Wenders follows up by showing in slow time lapse workers dumping large containers of earth onto the stage and smoothing it into a giant square that covers the entire performance space. We are then treated to perhaps Bausch’s most famous piece of choreography, her interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s composition The Rite of Spring. This is the only piece we see in its entirety, and indeed, it would be hard to cut away from this primal, frightening work whose power would pop off the screen with or without Wenders’ camera tricks. As the film moves on, however, Wenders is content to present fragments of dances, interspersing them with short vignettes of the dancers talking briefly about Bausch or sometimes saying nothing at all. He does not see fit to identify the dancers in any way, though he does relate them to the dances they perform. Bausch painted with a wide brush, and her company is polyglot and international, young and not so young, tall and tiny—the very opposite of the regimented sizes and shapes of traditional ballet and even more diverse than can be found in many modern dance companies.
As the film moves on, Wenders’ use of 3D is less obvious, and the film becomes less interactive as a result. He uses his power as director to become something of a choreographer, particularly in a performance of “Kontakthof,” a ballroom-dance-inflected piece concentrating on the awkwardness of finding intimacy transformed into an examination of aging by having three different casts—adolescents, adults, and mature adults—melting successively into each other, thus merging the three age-specific versions of this dance Bausch staged over the years.
The piece that gets the majority of Wenders’ attention is “Café Müller,” which introduced the director to Bausch’s work in 1985. It is also the piece where we get to see and hear Pina dance and talk about the language of dance. It’s poignant to hear her remark that the deep feeling she had for this piece vanished when she tried to dance it with her eyes open—once she closed them again, it all fell back into place emotionally. We see archival footage of Pina in the piece as well as a contemporary mounting with another dancer in Pina’s role. The dance certainly is remarkable, with two women moving through the space of a café peppered with round tables and chairs with their eyes closed, a male dancer rushing to remove the objects before the dancers run into them. Pina’s part was more minimal in this regard—she largely remained against a wall, moving slowly against the vertical plane, occasionally breaking away from it to shuffle behind a plexiglass wall and bash into it from time to time. This dance carries on Bausch’s habit of ritualized movement and repetition, seeming to turn people into machines that become habituated to their environment and frightened of separation.
Wenders recognizes this approach and chooses sites that emphasize a harrowing, hemmed-in quality to match the movements. One dance that particularly struck me begins in a factory of some kind that has metal cars moving on overhead rails along its periphery. A male dancer is swinging his female partner on a concrete floor boxed by I-beams, making this open, expansive movement appear dangerous. As they move out of the frame, a male dancer is filmed moving on the floor; he seems to be paralyzed from the waist down and must use his hands to manipulate his legs in fast, repetitive motions that create a box of his body. The effect is of a man turned into a machine, and the marriage of his frantically busy movements and his mechanical, industrial surroundings is a fortuitous one.
Other sites are less felicitous. Wenders films a younger dancer new to the company who barely had a chance to work with Pina before her death. The dancer talks about how Pina would give her little instruction—in fact, all the dancers remark on her reluctance to give them more than a line or two of direction—and how she realized that she would have to pull herself up by her own hair. Wenders films her dancing on the deck of a pool with a few swimmers in the water, a rather clichéd way to suggest her fear of drowning in her new environment. Interestingly, the choreography includes her pulling her hair up above her head, but whether Wenders suggested the gesture or the dancer improvised it is anyone’s guess.
This poolside dance was revealing of another aspect of Bausch and her company. A young woman with very little experience of or indoctrination into the cult of Pina showed more spirit and feeling in her dancing than the more established members, while still executing moves that were in keeping with Pina’s choreographic ethos. Pina’s dances are often described as cerebral, even cold, while her subject matter is about relationships, community, the fraught landscape of love and its discords. In “Café Müller,” she has a woman desperately hug a man, only to have another man break her grip and place her on her lover’s outstretched arms; when the lover’s arms grow tired and he drops her, she immediately goes back into her desperate clutch. The disruptive dancer again breaks her grip and places her on her lover’s arms, and the scene repeats over and over, moving faster and faster, until the couple repeat the sequence without prompting, a piece of conditioning that overtakes their genuine feelings. It was only when I saw Pina dance in the film’s archival footage that I understood that her choreography, for all its supposed collaborativeness, maps her feelings—every gesture she made was electric and alive. No matter how well-trained and devoted her dancers were to her, they could not duplicate her inner fire, and she could not articulate it to them in words. That Wenders’ 3D effects tended to wane the longer the film progressed may have had something to do with the difficulty even he was having finding the heart of Bausch’s art.
Wenders ends the film at a deep quarry, where a young male dancer runs into the frame from below the lip of the quarry. He is a whirling dervish of movement, thrilling and frightening to watch as he edges dangerously close to the lip. Suddenly he breaks and climbs a steep slope. The snake dance of elegantly dressed dancers miming “spring, summer, fall, winter” moves along the top of the slope. A long shot of them reveals them to be the dancers of death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a too-much imitated shot that, nonetheless, offers an appropriate finale in tribute to its departed central subject.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Peter Jackson
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
When Peter Jackson left off his first round of J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations with 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the world was his. The series was a smash hit crowned by Oscar garlands, and the Kiwi auteur had gained a reputation as an illustrator and orchestrator of the fantastic of the highest level. Jackson’s brand has taken some concussive hits since then. The Lovely Bones (2009), an attempt to revisit the kind of everyday melodrama Jackson pulled off so well with Beautiful Creatures (1994), was the kind of disaster only somebody with great talent can conjure, a forsaken mess that nonetheless contained remarkable patches. King Kong (2005) was majestic and quite undervalued, but Skull Island could never be really turned into another Middle-earth, and the film vibrated with such personalised élan that it made one wonder why Jackson felt the need to tether himself to mimicking such a well-worn model. Jackson’s return to Tolkien with 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, wasn’t supposed to happen. Guillermo del Toro was primed to take over the reins under Jackson’s aegis and gave the material a fresh vision. But then scheduling, the grind of the production process, and the perhaps inevitable question of ultimate authority pushed Del Toro out.
The Hobbit, published by Tolkien in 1936, was initially marketed and met as a children’s adventure tale, was the seed for the grandeur of Tolkien’s fictional universe that comprises The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet, out of studio urgings and the whim of the creators to sate a vast and still-enthusiastic audience, The Hobbit was inflated into an epic as stately, expensive, and lengthy as its predecessor trilogy. This, on top of a glut of weak fantasy films trying to recapture Jackson’s success in the intervening decade, combined to generate a generally sniffy reception for the new trilogy. I’m generally happy to disagree with the received wisdom on The Hobbit trilogy. The strain and inflation have shown at times, where the flow of picaresque vignettes has threatened to devolve into Middle-earth tourism and theme-park rides, particularly with such superfluities as the dimwit trolls in An Unfinished Journey and the battle with the spiders in The Desolation of Smaug. Yet Jackson and his battery of writers—regular collaborators Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens, plus Del Toro—have found scope and room to manoeuvre, and above all, allow the viewer to relax and revel in this invented world, less colourful than James Cameron’s Pandora, but far more diverse and substantial. It is easy and largely fair to turn up one’s nose at the recent predilection of movie studios for wringing franchise properties for maximum value, as evinced by the ridiculous splitting of the last books of the Twilight and The Hunger Games series. But that doesn’t really count for much on a case-by-case basis. The Harry Potter filmmakers pulled off something of a coup by splitting the last novel, and the idea that Jackson has engaged in anything beyond the pale by inflating a short book into an expansive adaptation is bunkum: long-running TV shows and film series have long been spun off from scant sources. The story had eminent scope for an epic telling, and for the most part, Jackson has told it with a depth of detail, affection, and intensity. Even Tolkien revised and suggested deeper resonances of his playful debut novel when his follow-up eclipsed it.
One of the problematic elements of Jackson’s approach has been making them not as individual units, but as connected parts of what is essentially one distinct project: all of them gain from being viewed in quick succession, making them artefacts perfectly attuned to the age of home viewing. Viewers long used to the vicissitudes of serialisation through TV and the habits of binge-viewing that the DVD/streaming age ushered in can easily negotiate this, but many film critics retain an old-fashioned belief in the integrity of the individual work. The Battle of the Five Armies is the last part of the Hobbit and demands reasonably fresh memory of the first two films to really make sense and seem rhythmically correct. Such expansive labours recall the days of Abel Gance and Fritz Lang’s multihour wonders, and Jackson’s conceptual spirit and visual sensibility contain more than a little of the spirit of silent cinema’s most ebulliently illustrative instincts, that joyful sense early filmmakers had in telling stories in whatever fashion they wanted via the medium’s horn of plenty.
The Battle of the Five Armies, as the title readily promises, is a study in scale and motion. From the very opening seconds, there is the relentless tug of imminent action, even in the quieter moments, as the characters and events set in motion in the early scenes finally collide, a formidable array of moving parts snapping into place. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was a breezy work, laced with puckish yeoman humour, with a hero knocked unconscious for most of the climactic battle; Jackson’s is far more imposing, and yet the essential spirit is still apparent. Interestingly, what distinguishes The Hobbit trilogy in the end from The Lord of the Rings is its far more human-level story.That might sound like an odd comment in the face of the film’s large swaths of CGI demon armies and fire-belching dragons. But The Lord of the Rings series inflates the stakes of its tale to consider the very fate of the entire world and the shifting balance of the natural order between warring poles of perfection and nihilism; the stakes, fought for by individuals and communities, were colossal beyond everyday reference. In The Hobbit, on the contrary, the issues are far more essential. Home. Property. Prosperity. Ambition. Revenge. Greed. Middle-earth is a place of incredulity-stirring dangers, but Jackson knows that the danger is there to give meaning to the security the characters long for.
Perhaps one reason why Jackson’s prelude trilogy hasn’t been as lauded as his first might lie in its similarities to the even more reviled Star Wars prequels: to a certain extent, both sets of prequels question and deconstruct the cosier presumptions of the series they follow. Jackson and his cowriters have carefully shuffled events to offer mirroring contrasts. The return of the King, such an idealised moment in the original trilogy as the restoration and apotheosis of order, is here subverted, as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) finally regains his homeland and birthright, only to plunge immediately into one-eyed rapacity. We are told this is the “dragon sickness,” the evil of Smaug the dragon having sunk into the enormous treasure horde in the Dwarf city of Erebor, a fitting mythical metaphor that has been carefully woven in with effective psychology and foreshadowing. Thorin’s smouldering rage at dispossession and the allies who couldn’t or wouldn’t help finds more than sufficient indulgence in Erebor to enable his egomaniacal delusions. The heroic conjunctions of armies that save the day repeatedly in The Lord of the Rings give way here to competing camps motivated variously by desperation and prerogative, obligated to join forces only when something evil and impending demands it. The Shakespearean pathos of mad Denethor’s false regime is contrasted by the mere vanity and avarice of Laketown’s Master (Stephen Fry); the nobility of Elf leaders Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gives way to the haughty postures and self-regard of Thranduil (Lee Pace).
The opening scenes of The Battle of the Five Armies take up where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with the terrible dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) breaking his way out of Erebor and, in a fit of saurian pique, attacking the commune of Laketown as a reprisal for its aid to the dwarf band that had tried to take back Erebor from him. Jackson’s gift for complex interactions, one part Rube Goldberg and one part Chuck Jones, is quickly revealed again describing calamity in vistas that evoke Cecil B. DeMille and Fritz Lang. The fleeing Master, boat loaded with gold, accidentally gives Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) his chance to break out of prison. Bard makes his way across the city rooftops to take on Smaug with his paltry weapons. Bard’s son brings him the Dwarf-made black arrow that is the only effective chance against the malevolent creature, and in the midst of a churning inferno of blazing buildings and seemingly hopeless odds, Bard makes his stand with his son serving as a human bow. Jackson executes all of this with astonishing panache—the sweeping, vigorous camerawork, the ingenuity of the effects and vividness of the colour, and most particularly, the careful twinning of different scales, as monumental events crowd in upon individuals, from an old woman left haplessly alive in the midst of fellows turned to black ash as tidal waves of flame dash upon them to Bard’s slight, slowly stretching smile as he sees his chance to kill the monster, a tiny registration that signals the turning of worlds. Most directors would be happy to pull off such a sequence once in their careers; compare, indeed, to Gareth Edwards’ laborious Godzilla (2014), which couldn’t get anywhere near such clarity, intricacy, and high drama. For Jackson, it’s just an opening scene.
This moment is such naturally climactic stuff that almost anything that comes after it runs the risk of anticlimax. But Smaug’s death must come to facilitate what happens next, with Erebor freed and reclaimed by Thorin and his Dwarvish band, Laketown decimated and its citizens needing a home and sustenance. The citizens of Laketown would gladly make Bard, already a popular and populist figure, their new chieftain, with the Master, in a grandly comic coup de grace, killed by Smaug’s colossal corpse plunging from the sky to land on his fleeing barge. The Master’s sleazy aide Alfrid (Ryan Gage), faced with the unleashed contempt of the townsfolk, even tries to hitch his wagon to Bard’s success, but quickly finds that Bard’s ideal of civil service is uncomfortably different to his predecessor’s. Bard decides the citizenry should reclaim the ruins of Dale, the formerly prosperous human city outside Erebor laid waste by Smaug, as well as the share of Erebor’s treasure Thorin offered Laketown. But when he presses the claim, Thorin contemptuously refuses him, infected with the greed for the gold whose endless lustre promises to place him “beyond sorrow or grief” and granted all the power his will might use to humiliate everyone he once had to bargain with, plea to, or outwit in his days surviving as exiled king and freebooter. He has his band seal up the great gap Smaug left in the gate of the city and prepares for an assault by the coalition of Bard’s humans and the Elvish army of Thranduil, who seek the return of a collection of ancestral heirlooms. Meanwhile, Thorin’s arch foe, Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), leads an army of Orcs sent by the resurgent Sauron to capture Erebor as a strategic position. The Manichaeism that renders the moral schema of The Lord of the Rings so blissfully, uncomplicatedly heroic, but also thematically bombastic, is thus tempered with irony throughout Jackson’s take on The Hobbit.
The death of the singularly terrifying monstrous beast, rather than liberating, proves to be an act that merely uncovers the lack of faith between the factions and races and sets them picking at one another, the various leaders exposed in their chauvinism. Lee’s arrogant Thranduil happily provokes the Dwarves, and they, in turn, jeer and insult him, as Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connolly, having a ball) turns up with an army to support him and vows to cut off Thranduil’s head and see if he still smirking then. Jackson and company elide Bard’s royal heritage to better bolster him as a figure of everyman sense and heroism in contrast to Thorin, but even Bard feels obliged to engage in battle if Thorin won’t respect his claim. Bilbo maintains the incorruptible streak that distinguishes his Hobbit breed: his great prize for the venture is an acorn he’s carried hoping to plant it at home. Yet, even he is seduced by the mysterious and magical gold ring he carries. Bilbo, having found the precious Arkenstone that is the symbol of kingship and sovereignty in the domain of Erebor, withholds the stone from Thorin, as his increasingly unreasonable instability frightens Bilbo and the rest of the hapless party. Thorin’s fear of a cursed lineage echoes Aragorn’s, but whereas Aragorn never seriously seemed in danger of his dark side, Thorin’s nearly consumes him. Thus the moral crux of the film comes when Bilbo sneaks out of Erebor to give the Arkenstone to Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who has come to warn all of the approach of an Orc army, in the hope the claimants can use it to leverage Thorin out of his intransigence: Bard attempts to make a deal, but Thorin instead almost throttles Bilbo for his perceived betrayal and then refuses to help Dain when the Orcs turn the confrontation into a savage battle for survival. It’s all a lot like Ran (1985) with monsters.
The Hobbits, as little folk in a big world, are ideal audience avatars, but problematic protagonists. Their peaceable homelands and instincts insulate them from the scale of threat that actually lives in their world, and thus our surprise is theirs, too. But Bilbo is as much viewpoint as protagonist in this tale, in spite of the title; his naïve charm counters Thorin’s tragic hero status and his attempts to stand up for right are important precisely because Bilbo is not a great force, but the representative of humble virtues. Freeman’s quietly excellent performance as Bilbo has deserved more attention than it has generally received or demanded, perhaps because his role necessarily lacks big gestures, except for his leap to save Thorin in An Unexpected Journey. Freeman’s Bilbo, surviving by the grace of his quick wits and dodging a thousand forms of death, is all the more engaging a hero—compared to Elijah Wood’s Frodo, who remained a little too much of a big-eyed blank slate—because he sounds like a neurotic Sussex accountant tossed into the centre of a Wagner opera, his small bleating voice competing with the roars of monsters and overlords, quietly offering “Sorry” to Thranduil when the Elf king notes Bilbo broke the whole Dwarf party out of his jail. His expert way with a character forced to negotiate his path in the world contrasts Armitage’s showier role, playing a figure of grand melodrama, including having to mouth most of the trailer dialogue—you know, those breathy, momentous lines like “Welcome to such-and-such!” before the cut to a wide shot of some rad-looking place. But Armitage, as well as wielding fervent, dark charisma, readily swings between Thorin’s schizoid poles without feeling affected.
The biggest outright invention for The Hobbit trilogy on Jackson’s part was the Elf warrior-woman Tauriel (Evangeline Lily, who wins the award for cast member whose name sounds most like a Tolkien character), and her triangular romance with Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom). This fresh aspect hasn’t always been too elegantly woven into the straight-ahead flow of the original narrative, but it pays off here, placing a stronger emotional stake amidst the battle, particularly as Kili and Tauriel try desperately to save each other’s lives whilst battling Azog’s hulking brute of a son Bolg (John Tui). Jackson and company’s efforts to flesh out the background drama and give the tale a denser sense of connection and import in the light of The Lord of the Rings has been honourably attempted, but hasn’t really added up to much, in spite of their efforts to try and synthesise the multiple plot strands that made the predecessor trilogy so gripping. In the earlier works, Jackson might cut away from a giant battle to Frodo and Sam climbing into the lair of Shelob, with the promise that something cool and scary would soon happen to make up for the segue. Here he has Legolas and Tauriel go scouting the ancient Goblin stronghold of Gondobar to see what’s going on. They see lots of Goblins and run off, mission accomplished. In The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf was caught by Sauron and Azog and caged; here Elrond, Galdriel, and Saruman (Christopher Lee) turn up and rescue him without any resolution or revelation much greater than confirming Sauron is alive and well and living in Middle-earth.
At least with Jackson, his ready indulgence of fan service–that is, inclusion of tropes and actions designed to delight those already familiar with this fare–has always felt honest and part of his own enthusiasm. Even at their most erratic, these films feel generous, especially compared to the increasingly parsimonious franchise-wringing displayed by some recent blockbuster rivals, like the Marvel superhero films that have become a perpetual game of promise without payment. The rescue of Gandalf pays off in an entertaining, if brief, display of bad-ass skills from the trio whose aura of power and accomplishment was always suggested in the previous films but scarcely enlarged upon. Galadriel, in particular, has long been a frustrating figure, the image of beatific Celtic wisdom, but here at last she gets to do the routine where she turns into a blue, glowing transsexual last seen in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) to send the resurging evil spirits running.
One of Jackson’s special talents is particularly apparent here: most directors would have been readily overwhelmed by the mere action business, but Jackson throws in details of near-operatic intensity, as the bedraggled and injured Gandalf begs Galadriel to flee with him, finally giving more than a hint that there’s something romantic in their relationship, and Galdriel instead uses the arc of emotion to spur her attack on Sauron and the Nazgul in a desperate and self-destructive use of her powers. Many apparently found Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), who spirits Gandalf away, another annoying addition, but perhaps because of my own youthful fondness for McCoy and his stint as Doctor Who, I’ve had no problem with him as a figure of the kind of whimsical battiness Tolkien was very fond of, but that Jackson and company usually suppressed in the material to communicate to an audience in a much less whimsy-friendly age. I wish Radagast had gotten to do more here, as he and Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) turn up with the last-act deus ex machine to join battle.
There is, yes, the slight feeling that Jackson, perhaps pushed to deliver a more ruthless cut for this last chapter, has forced to treat some of his competing elements scantly in favour of putting over his action pay-off; whereas the last two chapters were baggy, The Battle of the Five Armies is almost a little too focused on bringing the action. At least Jackson’s sense of humour has never been entirely buried amidst all the epic pomp and portent, though never as recklessly impudent as in his rowdy early fare like Bad Taste (1987) and Brain Dead (1992). In The Desolation of Smaug it seemed to me that with Laketown, a fascinating polyglot (particularly notable in the usually lily-white Middle-earth precincts) and crossroads dominated by a corrupt oligarchy, Jackson was actually trying to make some satiric capital. This sense rises again as Jackson references The Simpsons, with Alfrid squealing, “Think of the children!” annexes that show’s special talent for mocking bleating self-interest dressed up as civic virtue; indeed, this jokey dissection of rotten leadership prefigures the more serious versions driving the storyline. One of Bilbo’s lines has a stealthy, Monty Python-esque absurdity as he points out to Thorin that “there’s an army of Elves out there, not to mention several hundred angry fishermen!” The Looney Tunes sort of sensibility tends to bob up more, however, in such dazzlingly goofy vignettes as when the Orcs send trolls with rocks tied to their heads dashing at walls as living battering rams, knocking themselves stone cold in the process, and Alfrid, like a blend of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, dresses up as a woman and tries to escape the warfare with “breasts” filled out with filched gold coins, so gaudy in his puerile selfishness that he’s almost lovable.
A brief vignette in the book, with Bilbo’s return home to find his house and possessions being auctioned off, serves a neat narrative function, as Jackson tweaks it into the mordant punchline of Bilbo’s journey. The great drama of dispossession and reclamation he’s just been through giving way to this petty variation, with the quiet, throat-catching codicil that the only way he can prove who he is is to show the original contract he signed with Thorin and the company—the mission has become his only identity. In this manner, mirth and darkness in this fictional universe are constantly in dialogue, and the touches that keep it recognisable sometimes surprising: Jackson depicts the entrance of the Laketowners into Dale, where they’re confronted by a blackened public sculpture that clearly evoke photos of the blasted ruins of Stalingrad. Such a different, grimmer zone of reference plugs into the undertone of personal World War I reminiscence some critics have found in Tolkien’s writing. The impact of broadened horizons and fighting for one’s life always provides an undercurrent of melancholy to these tales: you can go home again, but never as the same person. Moreover, as thrilling, expansive, and deliriously well-staged as the eponymous battle is, The Hobbit, unlike The Lord of the Rings, is essentially a tragedy, building as it does to the deaths of Thorin and Kili.
Jackson’s approach to the fantastic hasn’t entirely met with approval beyond immediate issues with his individual works. For the most part, Jackson has taken Tolkien’s creation literally, and some critics have accused him of sucking out the protean symbolic power of fantasy, with its Freudian and folkloric dimensions (and with them all but the most vaguely metaphoric or chaste sexuality). There is an accurate facet to this, though perhaps a similar dynamic can be observed in Tolkien’s own work, even with its grand cosmology and constant underlying spiritual parable. From his first published work, Tolkien has represented a strange kind of faith in the legitimacy of world-building, a creator of fixed points for the unconscious’ formless stuff, as opposed to the destabilised whims of surrealism. But one of Jackson’s most integral aesthetic touches has been to infuse his images with those underlying thematic urges toward transcendence, purity, and communication with the ethereal, as well as the fulsome, earthy, tangled nature of the organic universe and its blazing malefic zones beneath: the characters are constantly tugged between such poles. The films are thus constantly touched by a Zoroastrian sense of light.
In the original trilogy, this urge was most clearly sublimated into human Aragon’s love for Arwen, embodiment of the ethereal whose fate is connected with both the stars and the sustenance of the earth, first appearing in a blaze of white light to Frodo, who is healed by her touch. Here, romance is worldly; Tauriel, like Arwen, is an Elf but is draw closer to the corporeal by her love for Kili, and finally left distraught with very real tears pouring down her face. In the film, Jackson stages the climactic battle on Ravenhill in the midst of fairytale reaches of frozen waterfalls and billowing snow on ruins, augmented by the Melvillian touch of making Azog, Thorin’s nemesis, white as Moby-Dick. Transcendence here in The Hobbit is bound together with death. Thorin’s romance is with death; it’s the only form of greatness he’s ultimately made for.
The film’s most powerful and distinctive moment touches the same woozy, ethereal zone of communion between life and death, heaven and earth, in a landscape of enchanted ice, Azog seems to float dead under the ice that has become a zone of slaughter, and the rigid, white waterfall becomes a torrent of blood. The final duels on Ravenhill reference the battle on the ice of Alexander Nevsky (1938) and its manifold children, like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the ebullient wire-fu of Tsui Hark: the influence of the Asian fantasy film style Hark and others initiated, with its fast pace, lunging camerawork, and easy sense of how to blend the corporeal and the mystical, has been powerful on all of Jackson’s Tolkien films, and particularly marked in the barrel ride of The Desolation of Smaug and the climactic battle here of Legolas with Bolg, staged on a toppled tower jammed between two cliffs in a breathless whirl of action. Another film that’s surely often lurked in Jackson’s mind throughout the series has been John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), and here Jackson tips it an explicit nod as Thorin and Azog’s fight climaxes in a similar fashion to Boorman’s depiction of Arthur and Mordred’s last embrace, which was itself inspired by the most influential of fantasy illustrators, Arthur Rackham.
Most admirable is the final scenes’ surprising sense of gentle diminuendo rather than overt triumph. Bilbo’s urgings for Thorin to look at the Eagles soaring in the sky as he dies is close to the best thing Jackson’s accomplished in this universe, as is Tauriel’s desperate appeal to a regretful Thranduil that he take away her grief, and the simplicity of the moment when Gandalf sits himself beside the battered, already haunted Hobbit and starts cleaning his pipe, ludicrously small and yet utterly beguiling gestures in the face of such experience. “You’re a good fellow, and I wish you well,” Gandalf says when taking his leave of Bilbo, “But you’re only a little thing in a great big world after all.” Somehow, it’s a testimony, a warning, and a benediction all at once: would you actually want to live in Middle-earth after all?
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