23rd 01 - 2018 | no comment »

The Tiger of Eschnapur / The Indian Tomb (1959)

Director: Fritz Lang

By Roderick Heath

Fritz Lang returned to make films in Germany after a quarter-century’s absence, after the box office failure of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) finally brought down the curtain on his Hollywood career. Lang had arrived in America as a feted figure wielding great prestige, but he subsisted in marginally produced, often low-budget films after his stern, uncompromising efforts at social commentary purveyed in films like Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937) dismayed audiences. Lang’s late oeuvre has long since been disinterred and celebrated for it lucid filmmaking and devious deployment of social commentary and personal artistry, but Lang himself felt awkward pride for most of them as a hired studio hand trying to wring personal interest from his assignments, understandable considering the comedown the director had experienced from his days as the titan of UFA.

As if in obedience to some common law entwining the nature of gravity, economics, and artistic inspiration, the careers of many film directors seem to fold back upon themselves eventually, bringing them back to their roots and early territory in their later films. Lang’s return to Germany saw him make three final films that all had obvious ties to his early efforts. The two-part exotic melodrama The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb was adapted from a popular novel by Lang’s one-time wife Thea von Harbou, whilst his very last released work continued his series of thrillers based around supervillain Dr Mabuse with The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). To say a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since Lang had last worked on Von Harbou’s material would be an understatement. Lang and Von Harbou had been a glamorous, scandalous, fractious, uniquely productive couple for over a decade, collaborating on some of the greatest films of the silent era. On top of their personal split, Lang represented staunch refusal to countenance Hitler’s rise, whereas Von Harbou had joined the Nazi Party, albeit, she had argued, for the sake of helping her work for the rights of Indians like her third husband under the regime.

This real-life resonance lends even greater piquancy to the story’s wistful daydream about another, almost idyllic world that becomes fatally infected by authoritarian brutality. Two earlier versions of Von Harbou’s novel had already been made. Lang had felt cheated out of directing the first version, which was handled by one of Lang’s great rivals Joe May, because of his lack of directing experience at the time. Getting Lang to make another smacked of the same phenomenon that would produce the following year’s Ben-Hur, the push to make a blockbuster version of a well-proven property to recapture past glories and reinvigorate a waning film industry. In spite of his great influence on the idea of the epic film, Lang had been bypassed for making any entries in Hollywood’s glut of historical sagas which were produced to exploit the spectacle of widescreen processes as an answer to television. Lang famously derided widescreen formats as only good for snakes and funerals. And then he took on a project that revolves around, well, at least one snake.

The lush, Orientalist fantasia that is Lang’s Indian duology suggests, at first glance, a director happily taking refuge in glossy decoration as he faces the sunset of his career. A few years later, Lang would feature as the representative of artistic ambition in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), trying to make an airily abstracted take on The Odyssey and clashing with his sleazy producer. It feels more than a little ironic then that the Eschnapur duology is in many ways exactly the sort of film Godard’s emblematic philistine bankroller would have loved, a vigorous and sexy piece of kitschy showmanship. And yet The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are deceptively complex meditations on Lang’s favourite themes and career-long motifs. Lang’s career was still utterly compelled by his contemplations of ingrained human impulses towards violence, repression, despotism, and paranoia underlying surface social codes, and his incisive perspective was scarcely diluted by age. But he was still also an accomplished fabulist, a talent who constantly battled the dark side of his imagination and occasionally embraced the lighter.

The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb take place in the nominal present-day, but exist more properly in a dream-state, all the better to focus the compulsions of Lang’s lifelong fascination with the distorting, competing gravities of power and desire. Tellingly, the series also stages a partial repeat of motifs found in both Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1926). As in the former, a strong and upright hero defeats a monster only to find himself beset for the sake of sexual jealousy and statecraft machinations. Like the latter, it presents the idea of a city as an embodiment of both the psyche and the body politic. The Tiger of Eschnapur, the first part of the duology, commences with German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid, who had also gone by the name Paul Christian during his own Hollywood foray) staying overnight in a village as he makes his way to the capital of the small Indian state of Eschnapur. Harald, a tall, strong man with a fierce sense of justice, is annoyed when two soldiers harass a serving girl, Bharani (Luciana Paluzzi), so he picks them up and bangs their heads together like Moe Howard. Bharani’s mistress, the sacred temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget), thanks Harald for his chivalry. A tiger is terrorising the countryside, and it breaks into the village after nightfall, killing a boy.

As Harald and Seetha travel in the same caravan across country to the capital, the tiger attacks and drives away Seetha’s litter bearers, leaving her trapped at the monster’s mercy. Harald has the inspiration of driving the tiger off with a fiery torch, saving Seetha. Architect and dancer are both welcomed at the palace of the state’s autocratic Maharajah, Chandra (Walther Reyer), Harald to help with his programme of modernisation and improvement, and Seetha to perform at an upcoming festival. Harald begins mapping Chandra’s ancient palace with the help of western-trained Eschnapuri engineering expert Asagara (Jochen Blume). The bond between Harald and Seetha deepens after they’re met with perfect hospitality by the Maharajah. Harald helps Seetha plumb the ambiguities of her past, recognising a song she sings learned in childhood as an Irish folk song, awakening memories in the lady that confirm she’s the daughter of a British soldier and an Indian woman. Meanwhile Harald earns Chandra’s respect and vows of friendship by saving his life during a hunt for the monster tiger, which is captured and imprisoned in the palace.

The Eschnapur duology unfolds over the course of about 200 minutes (although the two films were edited together into a single 95 minute unit entitled Journey to the Lost City for initial English-language market release), keeping one foot squarely planted in Lang’s earliest movies – the venturesome cliffhanging and secret zones of The Spiders (1919), the Arabesques and Chinoiserie of the stories within stories of Der Müede Tod (1921), the tyrannical figure who tries to orchestrate people’s lives and goes on a destructive warpath when they resist, a la Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). Although the diptych enters wholeheartedly into a realm of melodrama and pulp fiction thrills, Lang maintains fervent emotional depth, shaded by his unique talent for creating worlds within worlds. This talent is signalled in the peculiarly dreamy prologue as Harald first glimpses Seetha as a veiled face hovering amongst ancient brickwork, a ghost of elusive femininity, incarnation of the enigmatically attractive spirit of place. Seetha is a deeply dedicated and pure-hearted avatar of the local culture, faithful to Shiva and seemingly favoured by the gods.

The tiger that erupts out of the foliage to assault Seetha, like the dragon felled by Siegfried in Die Nibelungen, represents chaos and savagery kept at strength by a man blessed both in mental muscle but also physical might, making Harald a contemporary version of a legendary Germanic hero. Their fairy-tale romance is however about to run headlong into their appointed enemy: Chandra, who becomes utterly fixated on Seetha after watching her dance, and insists she marry him. As ever in Lang, there ought to be a sign pointing at everyone’s head that reads, here there be tigers. Chandra however seems like an entirely upright and rational figure when they first meet him. He’s the very model of an enlightened despot, in the mode of Frederick the Great, that long-admired figure of German history who nonetheless made servility seem comfortable for too many both within and without his fledgling nation. Lang sets out to pull apart this cultural ideal with ruthless concision as he portrays Chandra as prone to exactly the same forces of human weakness as anyone else, but who through his place at the centre of a state gets to enact that will apparently unchecked. The Human Beast, the Zola novel first filmed by Jean Renoir and then remade by Lang as Human Desire (1954), offers the perfect thumbnail description of Lang’s later career preoccupations, as he returned with increasingly sly method to the theme in his studio work.

“You’ll notice there are no carpets here,’ Chandra points out to Harald when first showing about the upper apartments of his palace: “Because of cobras.” The inferred if not glimpsed notion of malign, slithering strokes of black sneaking their way into the shining, scrupulously ordered environs of civilisation’s expression conveys not just the essence of the lurking threat in the immediate narrative but also connects again to Lang’s career-long obsession with irrational forces prying at the limits of civilised order. The floors must be kept bare, the clutter at a minimum, the essence of the architecture must show what’s what. Chandra’s plans for a rapid and convulsive reconstruction of his backwater, to be leveraged through the efforts of his imported architects, creates unease amongst the local oligarchs who don’t want any such change or destabilisation, not the high priest of the local sects, Yama (Valéry Inkijinoff), nor Chandra’s younger brother Ramigani (René Deltgen), or his former brother-in-law, Prince Padhu (Jochen Brockmann).

Chandra is still in mourning for Padhu’s sister, the former Maharani, whilst Ramigani has designs for usurping his brother’s throne, for which he needs both the backing of other potentates and a swell of popular support. Ramigani sees in Chandra’s ardour for Seetha a unique chance to gain both: Padhu and the priests are all deeply offended by the notion of the Maharajah marrying again, and the populace might also be swayed. Ramigani decides to help Chandra destroy himself, including arranging the death of Bharani in a magic act as she was acting as go-between for Harald and Seetha, but he’s unable to prevent Chandra discovering the burgeoning romance. Chandra retaliates by having Harald herded into a pen where he keeps captured tigers, including the monster tiger: he gives Harald a pike to battle the tiger with as a chance to survive the ordeal. Harald succeeds in killing the beast, so Chandra lets him leave with the threat to have him killed if he isn’t out of the kingdom within twenty-four hours. But Seetha elects to join him, and the pair flee into the desert fringing the state.

Von Harbou’s book probably conveyed a strong dose of distanced ethnographic interest in India, and some have noted that it also clearly bore out a deep German interest in the era in Indian culture as a fount of western culture in general – an interest that would take on a graver cast given the Nazi’s beloved fantasies of the Aryan inheritance. For Lang, Eschnapur is more like the sort of half-real foreign land where dramatists of Shakespeare’s day would set their parables for easy consumption and sneaky inference. In this regard, the casting of European actors as Indians, whilst grating, helps clarify Lang’s subtexts: all of this is a dress-up game, a pantomime masking the violent fray of feelings enacted by the victimised lovers and the glowering, increasingly implacable Chandra. The narrative highlights the structure and stability of a state, with its pillars of religion, military, and nominally allied grandees, dependent on personal ties and revolving theoretically around the outlook of its leader. Once that outlook is thrown from its proper orbit, the state becomes diseased; when the stuff of government is deeply personal – Padhu allies with Ramigani because a remarriage will offend his sister’s memory – it becomes entirely in thrall to individual neurosis and perversity. The Eschnapur duology essays a theme that’s not really that far from a seemingly very different meditation on recent European history, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), as the inevitability of personal passion which refuses the rule of the state and will of the leadership caste becomes a form of dissidence, however incidental.

“I can think of nothing that might destroy our friendship,” the Maharajah comments to Harald after gifting him a ring for saving his life: Lang cuts with brute candour to Seetha, whose pulchritude is all but literally worshipped as the linchpin of state and religion, which is idolises the sacred feminine. The statue in the temple where Seetha dances is a colossal vision of such, complete with massive, bulbous breasts. Chandra’s decline from modernising and liberalising influence to the worst kind of despot is speedy and requires only sexual jealousy to gain impetus. Powerful and civilised men destroying themselves and, sometimes, those who love them over a woman was one of the most fundamental Lang themes, of course, enacted in variations in films as disparate as Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spies (1928), Scarlet Street (1946), The House by the River (1950), and The Big Heat (1953). Here, the theme is not contained by Lang’s acerbic, realist side, but the fairytale setting allows it to become a veritable universal condition, harking back to Lang’s early expressionist works (including The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1919, which he wrote) where the landscape becomes a projection of the interior drama, a device he managed to deploy in Hollywood works like The House by the River where the eponymous waterway literalises the processes of the psyche, slowly but surely turning in a gyre where every sunken sickness emerges again.

Like many great directors whose career started in the silent era but stretched into the burgeoning age of widescreen colour, including the likes John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and King Vidor, Lang’s later work betrayed a waning interest in the increasingly realistic strictures of post-war film, and an increasing tendency to utilise the devices they were being handed – the bigger screens and the richer colour and the film with greater sensitivity to space and light gradation – to tellingly counterintuitive ends. Lang had pushed the western in the direction of expressionism on Rancho Notorious (1952), and with the Eschanpur duology enters entirely into a zone where the value of colour is at once decorative and spiritual, otherworldly and artistically precise: Lang’s fantasy India is a place where the clothes, flowers, buildings, and animals glow with colour-drenched inner life that threatens to overwhelm the Technicolor textures. The early scenes of Seetha rehearsing her dance and speaking of her hazy past to Harald take place in a dreamy locale of lotus flowers drifting in cool, crystalline water all placed and described with the care of an impressionist master. The animals, from a phallic cobra that Seetha has to dance before, to crocodiles lunging towards some fallen bodies, are more the stuff of pantomime than documentary authenticity. The location photography in India beholds white palisades and bastions, the pageantry of Chandra’s festivals and functions, and subsumes all into a delirium.

The most beautiful thing of all, and the most stringently fetishised, is Paget’s Seetha. Echoing the android succubus of Metropolis whose Salome-ish dance drives rational men into paroxysms of lunacy, Seetha’s well-shaken booty has the power to set the entire state of Eschnapur into chaos along with its leadership caste. Unlike the robot Maria in Metropolis, Seetha is not evil, but is rather like the other Maria in that film, representative of all things good and beneficent, one who obeys her perfectly natural ardour for Harald after initial misgivings over potential cultural tensions. Seetha embodies the sacred feminine but also its very earthly and desirable incarnation. Each episode of the diptych revolves around a lengthy dance sequence in which Seetha performs in the temple adjoining Chandra’s palace, in the shadow of the great statue of the Goddess. These scenes, rather than any action sequences or sprawls of pageantry, are the centrepieces of spectacle in the diptych; Lang’s last true act of cinematic showmanship is simply to confirm that there’s nothing better to transfix the eye than the human form. Seetha’s dances break down the gap between Indian folk dance and Minsky’s act in Paget’s dazzling, sensually provocative gyrations, swathed in gold mail and ornaments for her first dance and teasingly frail-looking silver leaf for her second. Mainstream cinema night not have seen dance sequences as unabashedly erotic since DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), and they were initially greatly curtailed for American release.

Not that this is mere elaborate sexploitation, although it’s certainly that too; Lang offers them as a commentary on the business of movie stardom. Lang depicts Seetha at the outset as an exacting artist, rehearsing her performances with her musicians in preparation for the great festival, only to find in both dances she’s actually performing to prove and then retain her worth as a sexual object. She auditions in the first as a potential wife for the smitten Chandra and in the second to appease the priapic insanity she’s incidentally stoked, symbolised by the snake she has to calmly dance around without irritating. Seetha is a devoutly religious protagonist whose definition of her beliefs transcends the resolutely bigoted use of it by the high priests: when her face dance is halted when she glimpses Harald high above in the temple galleries, and a strange darkening comes over the temple statue, everyone assumes it’s a sign of anger, but Seetha instead sees it as a warning and a promise of care. Paget’s name became synonymous to a certain degree with historical epics in her relatively short career, thanks to her performances in movies including Princess of the Nile (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), where she had also played a living pawn caught between powerful fiends and a true lover, and Omar Khayyam (1957). Her presence, even when dubbed, is vital to the duology, particularly as her genuine dancing skill and strong-looking body, which through its very prowess refuses to be objectified, but instead wields palpable independence as the instrument of her own will, one very large part of what drives Chandra insane in his desire to possess it.

The spectacle of performance rendered as nexus of the sacred and profane evidently amused Lang. It might even be seen as the very basis of his career, his long and patient march against the tide of fortune and industry to keep on purveying his vision regardless of setting. Lang’s career is replete with sophisticated games with the act of storytelling and making art, from the finale of Spione (1928) as a clown’s onstage death represents the ultimate takedown for a would-be world-conqueror, to The House by the River, where the antihero’s incidental homicide becomes fuel for gleeful exertions in creativity. Bharani’s death is a more self-conscious example of spectacle and conjuring as arts worked for deception and political subversion. Here, Ramigani contrives to have the inconvenient servant murdered before Chandra’s court by a fakir who has already managed the classic conjuror’s stunt of the Indian Rope Trick. The ability to vanish in front of a watching crowd gives way to the sight of very real, red blood pouring out of a wicker basket through which the fakir has plunged his swords: Lang telegraphs the moment from so far out and then compels the audience (and Seetha) to watch it all unfold with merciless patience, both women assured by powerful, patronising men all the while that everything is fine.

When Chandra has Seetha scooped up from her private lodgings and installed in his palace, she notes the potentially illustrative irony of having a bird in a literal gilded cage as company. Chandra releases the bird only to have it fly back, but finds humans don’t act as simply as animals. Padhu kidnaps Seetha, intending to ruin Seetha as a potential bride by having her raped and disfigured, only for Chandra to chase them down and whip his recalcitrant former brother-in-law in the face, an act of gallantry that fails to gain what Chandra assumes is its proper reward as Harald and Seetha flee him. Chandra soon greets Harald’s colleague Walter Rhode (Claus Holm), who is married to Harald’s sister Irene (Sabine Bethmann), and instructs him to abandon all plans for modernisation and improvement, and instead build a spectacular tomb, one Chandra implies Seetha will be immured alive in once she’s recaptured. The Tiger of Eschnapur ends with a classic cliffhanger scenario as Harald and Seetha collapse in the desert in fleeing Chandra’s soldiers, sprawled upon the sands clutching each-others’ hands, a pair of crucified lovers. In The Indian Tomb, the couple are found and aided by people from a nearby village, who hide them from the soldiers in obedience to the laws of hospitality, although one man eventually sells them out.

Forewarned, Harald and Seetha leave the village and retreat into jagged nearby mountains, where they take refuge in a cave that’s an ancient shrine to Shiva. Seetha’s urgent prayers seem to be answered when a spider spins a web over the cave entrance, making it seem as if no-one’s entered it in ages. A deeply corny touch, but also charged with a sense of the delicately miraculous as well as a visual flavour straight out of Lang’s silents. Part of the diptych’s weird power lies in just this sense of airy, numinous mystique, and a longing for a spiritual possibility as the only escape from the cruel impulses of the flesh and crueller twists of the mind. Lang conjures a world where faiths new and old, foreign and familiar coexist and blend in unpredictable ways. His patient approach to his storytelling and creating this little world unto itself knits a unique mood, one that retains, from that eerie early first vision of Seetha, of having glimpsed something at once palpable and mystically elusive. An old swami (Victor Francen), a former prince himself, lurks in a ruin on the road to Eschnapur, remarked upon in the first part but not visited until the second, when Chandra goes to see him, at first asking for spiritual advice but soon instead demanding some sort of reassuring platitude. “You don’t want the truth,” the swami retorts: “You want someone to deny it with you.”

There’s an echo here of a similar Indian-culture-through-Western eyes vision, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946), which also revolved around interlopers falling afoul of overpowering passions, where the capacity for total removal from the world of the senses represented by such a figure of religious commitment proved terribly out of reach. Another fascinating aspect of the duology is its approach to Chandra as a character. As monstrous as he often acts, he never loses Lang’s sympathy as his emblem of masculine folly. You can all but feel his teeth grinding in seething sexual frustration and emotional offence in being rejected by two people close to his heart, whilst his better self struggles in vain for supremacy, a struggle foiled by Chandra’s near-unchecked freedom to indulge his ego. Chandra is cursed with an intimate awareness of the incredibly fine line between adoration and detestation, as he articulates to Irene when he encounters that level-headed lady, as he obfuscates the purpose of his intended tomb and describes it as his monument to the idea of a great love, or at least one that will transmute hate into its opposite over the centuries. The centrality of architecture in the narrative serves both to facilitate the plot in this manner, but also allows Lang to nest concepts within concepts. Architecture is at once a metaphor for his own conception of cinema and a way of mapping the torturous locus of history, identity, and personality Chandra’s world represents. No surprise at all to remember young Lang had initially studied civil engineering before switching to art.

Lang had long experimented in blending his own art form with others, most famously with his annexation of expressionism and then cubism to inform his films’ visuals, pursuing the high modernist ideal of trying to create art where the mode of expression is matched to the subject. Like a final statement of faith in the version of the medium he had helped bring to maturity, the Eschnapur duology is a testimony to the illustrative richness and depth of visual field he could gain from the traditional Academy film ratio. That seemingly boxy and intractable space accords perfectly with Lang’s careful explorations of the confines of Chandra’s palace and adjacent catacomb, mimicking the compartmentalisation of the mind; here are places where precious things and high ideals are stashed; here’s where old foes and unpleasant facts are locked away. One film made under Lang’s potent influence, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), which also referenced his overtly Freudian essay in psychic architectonics, Secret Beyond the Door (1948), borrowed the device of navigating by footfall Irene uses here in trying to locate Seetha and Harald’s prisons. The diptych was also almost certainly an influence on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Indiana Jones films, particularly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which lifts imagery wholesale.

Eschanpur as a fantasy landscape echoes Metropolis with its grandiose upper reaches of stability, order, and beauty, and its septic depths. Harald and Asagara’s exploration of the labyrinthine Moghul tunnels under the palace see them wandering into ancient precincts where the carved figure of a skull-bedecked Kali represents the lurking spectre of evils unexamined, and the dark, muddy waters filled with crocodiles can sometimes break in unbidden. Harald accidentally penetrates a chamber that proves to be where Chandra stashes Eschanpur’s populace of lepers, who advance in lunatic ranks upon any intruder. “Haven’t you noticed there aren’t any sick people in Eschnapur?” Asagara asks Harald after rescuing him from the horde. The downright creep scenes with the lepers feel like some rough draft for George Romero’s zombie hordes, actualisations of all that is diseased in the body politic bound at some point to burst out upon the world. Similarly Chandra’s desire to graft new shoals of clean modernity onto his state, represented by the nice neat models poured over by Harald, Asagara, and Rhode, without effecting any sort of political, social, or personal transformation is indicted as a common disease, one that renders it liable to being consumed by all those crocodiles and cobras. Dramatic architecture and the more literal kind fuse together in the diptych’s last act as Irene braves the labyrinth.

The spider’s miracle proves to only temporarily save them from capture as Ramigani and his men manage to grab Seetha and Harald seems to die falling off a cliff along as he battles a soldier. But Ramigani soon reveals to Seetha that Harald survived and is now held captive in a dungeon under the palace, threatening to have him killed if she fails to marry Chandra and facilitate Ramigani’s coup. Catching wind of the conspiracy that seems to surround them, Rhode and Irene try to extract the truth from Asagara, who has a fair idea of what’s transpired but, compelled to remain silent for fear of reprisal from the Maharajah, has to settle for dropping faint hints as to Harald’s fate. Soon Irene pieces together her brother’s map of the palace and uses it to find Seetha, and finally hears the whole tale. Harald himself manages to escape by overpowering his guard, thanks to an admirably simple ruse that builds to a classic, vivid episode of Langian violence as Harald strangles his jailer with his own chains – the terrible face of death filmed in fearsome, looming close-up that speaks of Lang’s impact on Hitchcock – and then locates his sister and her husband in the labyrinth. Asagara dies heroically trying to defend Irene from the lepers after she inadvertently releases them. The film’s last act finally sees the many, patiently worked plot threads begin to collide, as Ramigani’s coup succeeds and Padhu’s forces invade the palace, unchecked by the Maharajah’s own forces because Ramigani has stabbed his general Dagh (Guido Celano) after he refused to join the insurrection. Chandra finally gets his brutal chastening as he’s stripped to the waist, tied up, and viciously whipped for the enjoyment of a gloating Padhu.

But the usurpers’ gloating proves short-lived, as Dagh, injured but still able, appears with his soldiers to shoot down Padhu and crush the coup. Ramigani flees into the labyrinth only to be trapped in a low chamber into which pours river water and crocodiles eager to feast on his flesh, in a fiendishly great comeuppance. But the film’s real resolution is the confrontation between the freed, glowering, vengeful Chandra and Harald and Seetha, as the lord finds man and mate fighting assorted thugs and reacting to his own entrance as just another fight in the offing, Harald with barely enough strength to stay on his feet. For all of the characters, their civilised pretences have been stripped bare, leaving them only primal realities, the essence of their beings stripped to raw nerves and will. Such an endpoint was common for Lang’s characters, although it was often a point of complete internal collapse, like Mabuse. Here, however, Lang opens the gate to new spiritual possibilities, as the spectacle of his own cruelty is enough to cause Chandra to drop his sword and give up his royal life, becoming instead the swami’s new acolyte, another form of self-extinction, but one that feels like a relieve exhalation from its creator, a last attempt to define a zone of life that might deliver freedom from the merciless hunger of life itself. It’s hard to deny that many criticisms levelled at the Eschnapur duology were accurate – it was silly, passé, and naïve. But it’s also still an utterly glorious late testimonial and summative work from one of cinema’s titans.


19th 01 - 2018 | 4 comments »

Phantom Thread (2017)

Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer (uncredited): Paul Thomas Anderson

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, famously starts, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s criteria for family harmony were idiosyncratic to the author himself, but a takeaway for readers and writers everywhere seems to be that only dysfunction is interesting. Well, of course, it’s not, and for all its quirks, Phantom Thread is a prime example of how intriguing and particular familial happiness can be.

The family in question comprises couture fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister and business manager, Cyril (Lesley Manville). The middle-aged, unmarried Woodcock siblings live at the top of a vertical warren of a house in London that also contains their atelier and showroom. Cyril manages the seamstresses who climb the stairs each day to help create the House of Woodcock collections; occasionally, Reynolds joins these white-smocked women as they pin, cut, and sew his designs into being.

Reynolds has just helped a downhearted client, Countess Henrietta Harding (Gina McKee), regain her confidence to go out in society by fashioning a regal ensemble for her. His mission accomplished, he experiences a depression-inducing adrenaline crash. He takes Cyril’s advice to go to their country house ahead of her to recharge, and races his sportster through the winding country roads with abandon.

In the morning, Reynolds takes breakfast at a local restaurant, where a fresh-faced waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), attracts his attention when she stumbles endearingly near the kitchen. She moves to his table, an open smile on her face, and takes his very large order (“I’m hungry” is his signature line when he feels creative). He has her hand over her ticket pad to see if she got everything down, asks if she will remember the order, and upon getting an affirmative answer, confiscates the order. When he has finished his breakfast, he asks her to dinner. After a long pause, she answers, “Yes.” Thus, the master-muse relationship commences.

We have already seen Reynolds tire of his previous muse, Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), leaving the details of her dismissal from the Woodcocks’ lives and home to Cyril. We see the instruments of his seduction—his good looks, his offer to make a gown for Alma, his movement along her body as he takes her measurements, his declaration that he has been searching for her for a long time as they take a romantic cliffside walk right out of Wuthering Heights—as well as the way Cyril abets his creative choice of Alma by assuring the awkward, flat-chested young woman that she has the perfect body for Reynolds. Alma also receives Reynolds’ obligatory pronouncement that he is a confirmed bachelor, thus preparing her for the road Johanna and other women like her have traveled. Alma, however, has her own plans, and it is the interplay between her and the Woodcocks that forms the bulk of the film.

Paul Thomas Anderson has constructed a mysterious romantic comedy through the very nature of its characters and some cleverly constructed storytelling. Reynolds Woodcock is almost a caricature of a fashion designer—incredibly fussy, a mama’s boy still fixated on his dead mother, a creative genius indulged by all with whom he interacts. So many of his lines, spoken from a dramatic sense of artistic entitlement, are incredibly funny: “Were you sent here to ruin my evening and possibly my entire life?” “I cannot start my day with a confrontation. I simply have no time for confrontations.” “I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it.” It seems perfectly in character for him to play Pygmalion, if serially, with his model-lovers, and certainly Phantom Thread echoes some of the themes of Shaw’s seriocomic play.

Alma would seem to be the perfect Eliza Dolittle. She is grateful for everything Reynolds has given her, or so she tells a man—later revealed to be a doctor—who appears to be interviewing her, and claims to have given Reynolds every bit of herself in exchange. It is perhaps an act of misdirection on Anderson’s part that this episodic interview begins near the start of the film and catches up with the plot once the extent of Alma’s power has been revealed.

It’s ingenious that Anderson set a battle of the sexes in the world of high fashion during the 1950s, one of the most sexist decades of recent times. Fashion can be exceptionally cruel to women, and it would have been easy to tip the character of Reynolds Woodcock toward the monstrous. But Anderson and Day-Lewis reveal the soft and yielding side of masculinity appropriate to the story and the largely feminine world in which Woodcock works. Although Woodcock asserts his masculinity with his workaholism, he reveals his dependence on and deference to his rich female patrons repeatedly, for example, designing a dress for a deeply insecure matron, Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris), for her latest marriage and bowing to her insistence that he attend the wedding. It is this occasion that prompts a dramatic gesture from Alma to defend Reynolds’ honor like a proper swain (“It is no business of ours how Mrs. Rose behaves, but she can no longer act like this and be dressed by the House of Woodcock.”), as the pair strips the dress from the drunken, prostrate figure of Rose and swoon into each other’s arms as they carry it back to safety.

Reynolds has definitely met his match in Alma. She tells him that he will lose any staring contest with her—a childish dare that actually plays a big part in their relationship as she forces Reynolds to blink again and again in the face of her desires. She dislikes a fabric Reynolds has used to dress her, only to be told that she has no taste. Alma does not consent to be molded beyond recognition; she likes her own taste and says so. She holds to her own opinions, calls foul on Reynolds’ silly and unreasonable demands, and refuses to be sidelined or kept from doing what she wants to do in deference to Reynolds. In a obverse echo of Pygmalion, Alma asserts her worthiness by speaking to a client, a Dutch princess (Lujza Richter), after Reynolds fails to introduce them. Eventually, her insistent demand to be acknowledged and honored as the alpha female in Reynolds’ life will take an unexpected turn, one that Reynolds learns to appreciate as he discovers what a peculiar happiness he has found with Alma.

Fashion is a supporting character here, and Anderson shot the film with a gauzy, hermetic eye that suggests the rarified atmosphere haute couture occupies. Yet, surprisingly, his camera doesn’t tend to linger on the creations of costume designer Mark Bridges, preferring to treat them as living, breathing garments that move in the world. The spring fashion show that takes place shortly after Alma joins the household and staff occurs in the cramped quarters of the house, where it’s hard for Anderson’s camera to maneuver. The often fleeting glimpses of the garments are tantalizing, but the impression we get is that we are not rich enough to warrant more. The one gown that gets the most time in the film, the princess’ wedding dress, does so because a very ill Reynolds collapses onto it, scuffing it with shoe polish, tearing its bodice lace, and requiring the staff to pull an all-nighter to get it ready for shipment the next day. Even an untrained eye can see that the dress is not very good, indicating the rupture in Reynolds’ orderly, lifeless life that Alma has caused. I highly recommend you read Farran Smith Nehme’s informative interview with Bridges for more on all of the costumes and the real-life designers who influenced him.

Krieps and Day-Lewis create a very believable couple, and Anderson nails the little irritations that creep into every relationship, amping the sound of Alma buttering her toast and pouring her coffee to irritate Reynolds and draw a knowing laugh from the audience. I could relate to Alma’s quest for primacy in the life of a man who signals early on that she is likely a placeholder until the next muse comes along, even as Anderson’s scenario makes rooting for her difficult. I don’t think Day-Lewis could have been better at portraying this fusty Don Juan, and it was interesting comparing his distracted bachelor to his ardent lover in The Age of Innocence (1993), destined for the kind of animated lifelessness Reynolds embraced. Lesley Manville, an actress of exquisite skill, didn’t have much to work with in this film. Cyril (rather close to“cypher”) is like the invisible stagehands who change the scenery during blackouts, favoring solid-black or -navy suits occasionally adorned with a string of pearls and cheap-looking, tiny earrings comprising nothing but three seed pearls. I nearly fell off my seat in surprise when she tells Reynolds that she’s very fond of Alma and doesn’t want him to treat her badly. She only cracks a smile when she is in the showroom or with clients, who expect her to be pleasant. I know Manville has been garnering accolades, and she certainly creates an air of intimacy and solidarity with her brother. Nonetheless, I didn’t get much out of this buttoned-up character with no apparent life of her own.

In the end, Alma and the Woodcocks forge a bond and create a life beyond the House of Woodcock that makes them one of the happier families on the big screen. A strange one, to be sure, but that’s certainly cause for celebration.


11th 01 - 2018 | 2 comments »

All the Money in the World (2017)

Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Where Ridley Scott last left off, he was sending his biologically engineered übermenschen off into deep space to operatic fanfares of crypt-black irony. All the Money in the World, although set in the recent, very earthbound past, nonetheless takes up where that movie left off as young John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) reports in sad and bewildered voiceover his family’s elevation from the lot of common mortals to alien beings, existing in the world but scarcely belonging to it anymore. The idea that the rich might as well be a different species certainly feels rooted in the deepest recesses of Scott’s imagination, but so, too, is a probing, contradictory humanism that wants to understand even in condemning. Out for a walk one night in Rome in the balmy climes of 1973, Paul hears his name called out by the driver of a Volkswagen bus. When he approaches the vehicle, he’s bundled inside by masked, gun-wielding criminals, and spirited away to be imprisoned in an old cellar somewhere out in the Calabrian campagna. His captors are a scruffy bunch of low-rent criminals who see the chance for quick and easy riches. In himself, Paul is actually worth very little. But he happens to be the grandson of John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the world’s richest man not simply of the moment but in the history of histories.

Paul lives in Rome with his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), who has recently divorced old Getty’s dissolute son John Paul Jnr (Andrew Buchan). Young Paul’s strange situation as golden boy with the potential for vast fortune and yet, for the present, simply a good-looking young chancer kicking about Rome is sourced in the manifold ironies of his upbringing, raised in fairly normal circumstances as his boozy but good-hearted father was scarcely acquainted with his own tycoon sire. Scott offers a lengthy flashback to a time when the family was broke, but reasonably happy in San Francisco. In an attempt to deal with their money worries, Gail coached her husband in writing a letter to his father, stating his understanding that their long alienation was the result of Getty’s desire to see his boy prove himself on his own. To their excitement, this gained a telegram response offering John Paul Jnr a job, which proved to be director of Getty’s European operations: “Sink or the swim,” was patriarch’s advice. Getty seemed to take a particular shine to Paul, giving him a statuette of the Minotaur, one he held to be worth millions of dollars, and utilising him as helpmate in his correspondence seeing off the legions writing to him begging for money.

John Paul Jnr, far from being remade by new prosperity, soon started living the bohemian high life, and sank into a drug induced stupor in Morocco. Gail divorced him, taking full custody of the children and refusing any compromises with the Getty dynasty by taking their money. Sadly, the result of this theoretically clean break leaves Gail totally at sea in dealing with the crisis that soon befalls her, and she’s obliged to ask Getty for the cash when the kidnappers demand $17 million for the safe release of her son. Getty, however, soon declares he has no intention of paying, nominally because he doesn’t want to encourage further such actions against his family and to hold a stern bulwark against the encroaching torpor and craziness of the age. Getty instead recalls a trusted negotiator and security chief, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), from the Middle East and assigns him to look into the kidnapping and advise Gail. One of the kidnappers is shot by his fellows after accidentally allowing Paul to see his face, his incinerated body is found on the roadside, allowing the carabinieri to track down his known accomplices and gun down several of them.But they’re too late to retrieve Paul, who’s been sold to the Calabrian mob, the ‘Ndràngheta. Paul forms a mutually tolerant bond with one of them, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), a cumulatively empathic personality who has committed himself with growing unease to a criminal enterprise, especially as he’s essentially sold onto the new masters along with his charge.

All the Money in the World, written by David Scarpa and drawn from John Pearson’s book about the true events that befell the Getty clan but making few bones about being a dramatic embellishment rather than exacting factual account, was given an unexpected boost in notoriety and intrigue even before it came out when Kevin Spacey, who had initially played old Getty, fell from grace thanks to sexual assault allegations. Scott made the decision, rather than see his film shelved and forgotten, to reshoot Spacey’s scenes with Plummer, who was closer to the right age for the character anyway, and still make the release date. All the Money in the World therefore provokes a level of admiration simply for existing at all in a coherent form, although perhaps not that much surprise. Scott, although long ensconced in Hollywood’s ponderous productions, has roots in the tight deadlines, low budgets, and pitiless pace of British TV work in the 1960s, and I get the feeling this was precisely the kind of challenge to skill and discipline Scott relishes. It’s also an achievement that echoes in a peculiar subtextual manner with the matter of the film itself, and the sympathy it offers old Getty as someone who feels obligated by pride, business instinct, and pure predatory gall to turn every exchange into a test of professional strength. Scott understands that side of Getty, the man absolutely dedicated to his work.

The wrath of the outsider, the struggles of the frustrated would-be titan, the duels of individuals, communes, and classes, have long been fuel of Ridley Scott’s films as far back as the title characters of The Duellists (1977) and the working stiffs served up as lunchmeat and breeding husks by corporate paymasters in Alien (1979). Most of his films ably chart fault lines of self-perception and social identity, and All the Money in the World is perfect Scott material in recounting the tale of this benighted youth who finds himself defined and revised – psychologically and, eventually, physically – by inherited facts of identity like a uniquely cruel, inverted version of the sorts of lessons dealt out to Dickens’ waifs, whom Paul somewhat resembles as a wandering child who finds himself the object of both great good fortune and nefarious designs. Scott has also long displayed a fascination for characters nominally on the wrong side of such wars, a rarefied ardour for beings twisted into ignoble Calibans by their travails or separated from the common run of humanity by dint of their peculiar abilities or tastes, sometimes existing on either side of the patrician-plebeian divide or sometimes commingled in single bodies. Most of the characters in Blade Runner (1982) could count as both, but the image of the banished Replicants and ensconced magnate Tyrell in that film remains a blueprint for the essential struggle. All the Money in the World could offer a ready analogy between its vision of old Getty and the Satan figure in Legend (1985), the ultimate mythical reduction of the theme, except that even in that film Scott gave sympathy to his devil as the bewildered exile of a disinterested father clasping at anything precious that came his way.

Getty is Ozymandian colossus, gazing down balefully on high upon anyone fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to fall into his orbit, a Midas whose touch turns relations not to gold, but to ashes. Getty gives his grandson tours of Roman imperial palaces, explaining his conviction he’s the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian, an echo of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, where Henry Ford and JP Morgan were depicted with a similar conviction. Later, Chase is privy to Getty’s designs to rebuild Hadrian’s palace “with flush toilets.” But his everyday life is a parade of skinflint habits, like washing his own clothes and installing a payphone in his English country estate, that are wryly amusing until suddenly they’re not. Chase is first glimpsed in his capacity as a negotiator for Getty, trying to strike a deal with Saudi princes and sheikhs whose fortune Getty made by taking the risk of drilling on their land, but not as much as he made his own. Now the Arab leaders are simultaneously bemoaning their own sons’ profligate carelessness but also hoping to snatch the reins of power from Getty now that his leases are ending and the advent of OPEC is shifting the orbits of the fiscal universe. Ironically, the tools of OPEC in choking off oil supply and sparking energy crises threaten to make Getty even richer. And yet as Gail and Chase press him to consider paying the ransom, Getty states he’s in too precarious a position financially, and responds to Chase’s question about how much he’d need to feel more secure with a simple “More.” This response carries instant and obvious film noir associations, as it comes straight out of John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), as the answer Edward G. Robinson’s gangster gave to the same question.

At his least Scott has sometimes been a purveyor of pretty pictures merely encrusting studio labours rather than enriching them. But at his best he’s a fashioner of little universes replete with suggestions of transitory states of being and feeling. Films like The Duellists and Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and The Counselor (2013), are works that capture in visual textures the gratitude of their protagonists for the islets of beauty and comfort that gave restful ease from a buffeting universe. The opening of All the Money in the World is a dreamy little etude that captures the feeling of being young, reasonably free and able, at large in a city that offers all experience as a bounty, Scott’s camera gliding with Paul as he soaks in the night’s textures, including the erotic promises of the prostitutes who both mock and covet his youth. This sequence is quietly rhymed later to an interlude, earlier in the timeline of events recounted, when Paul is seen wandering the Moroccan abode his father has taken over, a hushed, shadowy abode, ripe stage for decadent adventures, lithe-limbed odalisques on the prowl, and Paul a bewildered youth adrift amongst the tides of greedy pleasures. It’s startling how much texture and self-referential verve Scott packs into this little scene, calling back to the retro-futurist stately abodes of Blade Runner and the historical exoticism of Kingdom of Heaven, capturing the psychic horizon in either direction that lurks for the weak-willed plutocrat, the bastions of dissolute collapse. Scott’s casting of Ghassan Massoud, who played Saladin in the latter film, as one of the Sheikhs arguing with Chase over oil rights brings that story up to date, the course of history also a metronome of shifting economic and political contest.

The ethical schema of All the Money in the World seems so obvious that it’s tempting to rebel against it, and although Scott and Scarpa don’t go easy on Getty for his monstrous clumsiness and abnegation, they do chart with surprising intensity and depth the specific walls of self-protection and carefully nurtured systems of removal and estrangement. Here are the habits of an aged and cynical man who infers emotions through the seismograph of economic appeals and expectations, and for whom truth long ago melted into a perverse geography, the gravitational force of his fortune working like a black hole to distort all relationships. Getty sits uneasily on a relentless source of horror, buried under layers of hard-bitten disdain for lesser mortals, at the pits money can open. He explains to Chase why he entitled a book he wrote not “How to Get Rich” but “How to Be Rich,” a guide to the habits that must be necessarily cultivated and practised with ruthless discipline in order to not merely accrue a fortune and then expend it and one’s self with it, such as instantly befalls his son the moment the taps of addiction-indulgence are opened. Such a theme echoes one of the best lines in a film by one of Scott’s cinematic heroes, Stanley Kubrick, in Barry Lyndon (1975), which proposed that too often the aspects of a character that drive one to make a fortune all too often ruin them after gaining it. He sees traps in plenty and the call of boundless possibility.

And to be fair, Getty has a point, when any quick survey of his immediate family offers plenty of support to his thesis. After all, Chase has found that Paul’s proposals to stage his kidnapping were in league with nominal revolutionaries, who Chase confronted only to be left rolling eyes at their threats to put him trial for crimes against the proletariat. The trouble is, Getty’s cynicism is bound up with a sense of moral phthisis eating its way into everything in sight. Getty practices rigorous tax avoidance by plying all of his earnings into purchasing artworks that pile up around his manor, including purchasing a Renaissance painting of Madonna and Child by for over a million dollars on the black market even as he’s fending off Gail’s entreaties. When Chase learns that Paul had floated, possibly as a joke, the idea of staging his own kidnapping to earn ransom money for himself, he reports this to Getty, who takes it as a sign he’s been used again, and to dig in his heels against any further attempts to get him to pay up. Scott drops hint as to Getty’s part in the sociological upheaval his own acquisitive instincts, noting with ironic alacrity that the energy crisis of ’74 was another kind of hostage drama set in motion by Getty’s fortune. Meanwhile Paul, much like the human shells and twisted homunculi of Alien: Covenant (2017), finds himself canvas for cubist alterations to the human form, as he’s held down and has his ear sliced off by his new captors whose idea of business is just as formidable and unyielding as Getty’s.

Scott stages this scene, one anyone who knows anything about these events will be waiting for with cringing unease, with a gruelling but concise and unflinching detail where others might have cut away or rendered it a kind of horror movie blackout. Throughout his career Scott has let slip a side to his cinema that betrays his British TV roots with their strong traditions of documentaries and realistic and factual dramas, in his fascination for pointillist detail and carefully observed processes that sometimes take on an imperative over and above nominal narrative through-line. This facet usually comes out most crucially in his thrillers like American Gangster (2007) and The Counselor. Here small details like Cinquanta trying to get Paul drunk before surgery and the “doctor” insisting the ‘Ndragheta heavies hold his patient still and then setting to work for a piece of ragged work that just won’t end, serve to focus Scott’s exacting sense of this torture as another business transaction but also one that involves real people who feel obliged to do obscene things for some reason. It’s rhymed, not so subtly but with the sourly totemic kick of an old-school noir director, with the sight elsewhere of a butcher slicing off a hunk of meat. Paul’s cruel curtailing follows a gutsy and cleverly managed escape attempt achieved with the unspeaking collusion of Cinquanta as he improvises a method of setting fire to dry grass neighbouring the building where he’s held, only to be immediately surrendered back into the ‘Ndragheta’s hands, a sequence of casually expert suspense-mongering that builds up to a Fritz Lang-esque punch-line where the conspiracy of evil proves entirely enveloping.

Like Blade Runner, American Gangster, and The Counselor, however, All the Money in the World isn’t really a thriller in the generic sense as a series of compulsive set-pieces. It’s more a heightened dramatic study in familial perversity and obstinacy of character as well as a holistic attempt to encompass the workings of peculiar niche of society, and the methods of various forms of capitalism. Just as The Counselor reduced the drug war to the image of a body in a barrel being endlessly shipped back and forth, here high capitalism means its street-level equivalent and speaks a peculiar language in flesh and blood, building to a sequence that depicts a small army of women working to tabulate the ransom money for the mob bosses and handing over the added total on a slip of paper, echo to the strings of ticker tape Getty adores studying. Rival moral systems are invoked, of course, particularly family, as Cinquanta notes with bemusement the lack of family feeling evinced by the Getty patriarch. I get the feeling Scott, who’s long been the preeminent member of a creative family and who’s been buffeted by loss over the years, feel this point closely. Other forms of fellowship also provide unexpected islands, particularly Cinquanta’s growing empathy for Paul and attempts to help him.

Given that Alien looked a lot like a remix of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), it seems more than coincidental that Paul’s kidnappers strongly resemble refugees out of Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974), that most pungent of paranoid Italian self-diagnoses from the same era, probably even inspired by the very events Scott is analysing. Scott complicates and amplifies Bava’s games of perception and appearance: people are rogue elements within all systems, a point codified in visual terms in the finale as heroes and villains and people in between dodge and weave in the shadowy aisles of an Italian city that turns vertiginous faces to the street, bespeaking a history of self-interest within fortresses turned to the world’s maelstroms. Family proves to be the initially unacknowledged battlefield of wills between Gail and Getty, as the tycoon feels robbed of his grandchildren, whilst Gail was determined to remove them entirely from the sphere of careless and destructive alternations of starvation and plenty that had defined her former husband’s experience of the Getty fortune. Getty is more determined to drive Gail to the wall than he is to pay or punish the kidnappers, insisting on her surrendering custody of her children and signing Paul aboard for stringent turns of repayable loans before he does finally agree to pony up ransom dough up to the maximum that’s tax deductible.

Getty finally bends that far after Gail strikes up another deal with newspapers, in another scene of carefully diagrammed intersection of commerce and violence, to publish a ransom photo of the maimed Paul, so she can then mail a stack of papers emblazoned with the image to Getty. The old man receives them, only for a strong wind to scatter the pages harum-scarum about his driveway, a great little touch that turns biting moral gesture into an active physical force setting a carefully ordered universe in anarchy. Williams as an actress has worked very hard in recent years but I’d also learnt a certain Pavlovian recoiling from her presence in movies as too often it spelt a certain laborious excursion in suffering was in the offering. That’s true of this movie too, to a certain extent, but what’s rare about Williams’ performance here lies precisely how well she inhabits a character who resolutely refuses to be pinned down by hostile forces until driven to insufferable extremes, always retaining a hard edge and a quality of sardonic amazement even as she being driven to the wall by ruthless bargainers on both sides in regarding both the ugly detachment of other human beings and her own capacity to engage in active self-defeat in the process of trying to gain a more vital victory. When Gail does break down, it takes a lot to do it. The Minotaur statue, which seems like a Chekovian gun that offers the chance for a painless solution to Gail’s trap, proves to really be just a trinket, and the mother buckles with crestfallen realisation not simply that Getty bullshitted his own grandson but he also invested illusory value on an object, thus giving it that value until it was tested—which proves true of Getty’s entire enterprise.

Chase, for his part, seems every inch the well-made man of action; taking up a shotgun when invited by Getty to join in trap shooting with other guests, he easily swats clay pigeons from the air. But even he begins to quickly lose his bearings in the maze of motive and potential he wades into, and Chase repeatedly defines his experience as a CIA agent and operator for Getty as more the life of a businessman, a professional deal-maker and mollifier. His ultimate function however is less save-the-day swashbuckler than as intelligent witness and consul to Gail’s war, a war he hinders as often as he aids. Appalled by Chase’s high-handed technique when he intercedes during a conversation, Gail swats him in the brow with the phone receiver, but Chase tries to make her understand his approach, speaking in perfect calm with bleeding forehead all the while. There are a few moments when Wahlberg’s diction in playing a worldly and confident protagonist where he irresistibly reminded me of the actor’s role within a role as international man of mystery Brock Landers in Boogie Nights (1997), and the part has a similar subtext as Chase lets slip he’s still brushing up on his culture under Getty’s tutelage, suggesting he’s a man who quietly hopes to be evolve into warrior-poet serving the emperor.

The spectacle of the kidnapping however imbues new self-knowledge upon Chase, knowledge he finally turns on Getty in the film’s climax of its moral drama if not the physical one. He loses his temper with the old coot and gives him a serving of truth, confessing he’s another pampered rich white boy and that neither of them knows what real struggle or risk actually means. Chase also illustrates with ruthless clarity the fact that Getty might consider money his fortress but in fact that only represents the sum total of the work Chase has put into building his cordons and bastions of muscle and attention. His security is ensured by actual labour and not magic powers. It’s also, of course, a form of prison, one that must be maintained with perfect vigilance without risking one’s life in the same way that Paul did simply by enjoying an evening stroll. When the ransom is finally paid and Paul is abandoned in the woods, he soon finds himself hunted by his vengeful former captors as they realise Chase and Gail alerted the police.

Scott builds to a climax that cross-cuts between young Paul’s efforts to find safe harbour and Getty’s succumbing to a stroke, likening them in flailing entrapment, wandering labyrinthine spaces that offer no safe harbour from fear of death, a metaphor that bears out the dramatic patience lurking in that Minotaur motif. The sequence echoes moments of lost and haunted characters trapped in the belly of the beast in many a Scott film, from Alien’s spaceship innards to the animate and terrorising streets of Black Hawk Down (2001). It’s also an echo and partial inversion of the finale of The Third Man (1949), a film that insisted on Christlike parables regardless of its subject’s utter moral nullity. For Scott it’s close to an existential vision of flailing humanity, one that sees the real flesh and blood boy delivered into arms of mother and dogged helpmate whilst Getty expires pawing his painted Renaissance boy in longing for the real thing. The ultimate irony comes when Getty’s lawyer Oswald Hinge (Timothy Hutton) slides a contract across the table to Gail that will enable her to take in hand the Getty fortune: the same flukes that placed her at the mercy of the same fortune make her master of it. “I think of you as one of the family,” Gail tells Chase at the end as she begins the Citizen Kane-esque deconstruction of the great man’s acquisitions. “It’s nice of you to say that,” Chase replies in complete disbelief, and perhaps a certain relief too. Everyone has their reasons, as the cliché has it. That doesn’t let them off the hook, Scott retorts.


5th 01 - 2018 | 2 comments »

The Alamo (1960)

Director/Actor: John Wayne

By Roderick Heath

For fifty years, the standing set erected for John Wayne’s debut film as director, The Alamo, was a tourist draw outside San Antonio until decay, changing owners and times closed it. Wayne’s paean to patriotic example had a longer life for many as a literal monument than as a movie, which long ago faded into cinematic background radiation, the sort of movie that makes for a Saturday afternoon perennial on television without garnering much interest or respect, to the extent where the original negative is in dire need of restoration. For Wayne, The Alamo had been a labour of love and great expense, one he went into deep personal debt to realise on the scale he desired, and which would, in spite of initial box office success and Oscar nominations, take over a decade to finally recoup costs, and he was consistently irked for the rest of his life when anyone spoke of it as a flop. Wayne’s hopes for the film were both artistically ambitious and bound up deeply with his image of the stalwart all-American hero, both in the public eye and in his own self-estimation, and his desire to try and translate that heft into something lasting, to have an impact as a star on life beyond the movie theatre.

By the time Wayne got his own production off the ground, a craze for all things related to the Alamo and Davy Crockett had swelled and waned in the previous few years thanks to the popularity of the Disney TV series starring Fess Parker, later edited into a movie, with its naggingly catchy theme song. Wayne however had been hoping to make a film about the event since the mid-1940s. He first tried to make such a film at Republic Pictures, the studio well-known for its cheap horse operas and serials for kids. Wayne had been Republic’s biggest asset for many years, but he cut ties with the studio after executives flinched at the proposed cost for his pet project. The script written for it was eventually produced as The Last Command (1955) with Sterling Hayden to capitalise on the Crockett craze, and Wayne retained several aspects of that version for his own, to be reiterated on a much grander scale. Much more recently John Lee Hancock’s more historically exacting and dramatically shaded take from 2004 was a calamitous box office failure. If Wayne was a little late to the Americana party by 1960, epic movies were all the rage at least, as studios were competing with big-scale productions to maintain their edge over television, and The Alamo was at least well-timed to join those ranks. Wayne wanted to avoid starring in his own project, hoping initially to play Sam Houston, but supposedly found himself obliged to play Crockett to leverage financing. Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore just how well the part as written was moulded to fit its star and provide a vehicle of self-revelation as well as personal statement.

Directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and Cecil B. DeMille had all helped to forge Wayne’s screen persona and then mine it for dramatic riches, but Wayne’s stature had developed over three decades in all sorts of movies. Discovered for Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) as a lanky ingénue and seemingly set for the big time, Wayne had been forced after that film’s failure to slog a longer route to stardom through dozens of low-budget westerns and war films in the 1930s and ‘40s. Some of his on-screen appeal seemed sourced in that long apprenticeship in cheap and flimsy product, arriving as the biggest star of the age not through mercurial success but through dogged application. Wayne long styled himself as a leading proponent of conservative, pro-Cold War politics and voice of fierce anti-Communism in Hollywood, a topic he had tackled in self-produced starring vehicles like Big Jim McLain (1952) and Blood Alley (1955). Wayne had made his first directing foray filling in for William Wellman on the latter film. Everything about his screen persona suited this self-appointed role, his great frame and aura of indulgent but unswerving authority that could seem alternately reassuring and incredibly pompous. Jean-Luc Godard famously commented on the jarring dichotomy of reactions Wayne could stir in him, forced to cry at the end of The Searchers (1956) for his capacity to portray the ferocity and emotional neediness of igneous masculinity even whilst conscious of hating the man’s politics. Eventually, Wayne’s second effort as director, The Green Berets (1968), a would-be epic depicting the Vietnam War, was all but laughed off the screen for attempting to portray a pro-intervention argument in the guise of a painfully clichéd and slipshod production.

When he eventually came to direct himself, Wayne remained deeply under the sway of the masters he had worked with. Most inevitably Ford was the filmmaker he owed most to and remains linked inextricably with, locked in a frieze in quarrelling productivity – high-strung Ford with his unstable blend of flinty machismo and sensitivity, Wayne with his hearty but ponderous persona niggled at by personal anxieties like his failure to fight in World War 2, a moment for which he might well have been overcompensating for the rest of his days, a weak point for aggravated liberals to take aim at. By some accounts Ford did actually turn up to the set and try to throw his weight around, shooting some second unit footage Wayne quietly discarded. What an Oedipal moment it must have been. The Battle of the Alamo in Wayne’s eyes became not merely a colourful and dramatically representative vignette from American history, but a paradigm for the entire national enterprise, particularly in the face of Cold War’s tests of moral and military muscle and the threatened change of zeitgeist looming in the 1960 Presidential election. Wayne had been vocal during the campaign in his faith in Richard Nixon and contempt for John F. Kennedy, whom he wrote off as a phony rich kid, and hoped the film might count in Nixon’s favour. He inserted a moment in the movie in which some characters regret not voting for Crockett’s return to Congress because the “other fellow gave him four bits.”

Wayne’s version of history commences well after the start of the Texian revolt against Mexico and the dictatorship of Generalissimo Antonio de Santa Anna (Ruben Padilla). Houston (Richard Boone), the appointed commander of the fledgling Texan army still being assembled and outfitted even as Santa Anna leads a strong professional army north to stamp out rebellion, appoints prickly Southern gentleman and exile Lt. Col. William B. Travis (Laurence Harvey) to take command of a ruined mission chapel turned semi-fortified military post called the Alamo located just outside San Antonio, or Béxar as it was more usually called at the time, and work in partnership with Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), a former adventurer turned would-be landowning gentleman. Travis and Bowie clash constantly as completely diverse temperaments with radically different notions of war. Bowie favours a frontier guerilla approach. Travis insists on traditional military disciplines in his hopes of holding out against potential siege long enough to let Houston complete assembling his army and to gain relief from a nearby force at Goliad. Their fractious joint command is soon enlarged by a new force of volunteers under former Congressman and frontier war hero Crockett. Crockett, having lured his friends and followers from the Tennessee backwoods to come to Texas nominally for the cause of hunting and partying, convinces them to lend their muscle to the coming fight with Santa Anna’s army.

The Alamo’s failings as history are both readily catalogued and sometimes knotty. Some commentators have noted that scarcely any scene in it can be called verifiable. Some distortions are relatively minor, like the portrayal of the climactic battle as taking place in solid daylight rather than in very early dawn for the sake of visual clarity. Others are crammed into that very thin nook between documented fact and heroic fantasy, like portraying Bowie as going down fighting and bedridden from battle wounds rather than disease at the battle’s climax. Other aspects Wayne chose to emphasise or excise or whitewash were both fairly typical still at the time but also go some way to explaining why it’s still rather hard to talk about aspects of American history honestly today. Wayne never goes into the causes behind the Texian revolt or the Mexican reaction, preferring instead to offer it simply as a grand clash between free living and authoritarianism, an idea he constantly, and effectively, reiterates on an essential visual level in the contrast between his wildly attired, rowdily communal yet defiantly individual rebels, and the perfectly drilled and depersonalised Mexican army. Of course, history is never that simple. The Texian revolt was undoubtedly sparked by unfair and repressive moves made by Santa Anna as the head of a newly authoritarian government, but one irritant that helped bring down tough measures on the American population in Texas had been the refusal by many to abide Mexico’s antislavery laws.

One telling aspect of The Alamo lies in Wayne’s affection and admiration for Mexico, perhaps even his tendency to idealise the resilient pith and courtly values of the national character he saw subsisting there, retaining the lustre of certain classical, old-world tenets somewhat lost to the America Wayne otherwise celebrated so enthusiastically. Ford and Hawks were rarely above tossing in a little hackneyed stereotyping with comic relief Mexican characters, but Wayne avoids them completely, even refusing to portray Santa Anna as any kind of creep or fiend (something Hancock’s version, for all its greater adherence to the historical record, felt the need to indulge). Two of Wayne’s three wives were Mexican, and The Alamo noticeably treads close to portraying this aspect of himself as Crockett engages in chivalrous attentions towards a local lady, Graciela ‘Flaca’ de Lopez y Vejar (Linda Cristal). Crockett follows Bowie as gringo interloper who finds himself seduced by the local climes and senoritas: one scene depicts the two men reclining in the evening, Crockett listening as Bowie tries to grasp the essence of the Latino way of life and its appeal to him.

Shortly after his arrival in Béxar, Crockett encounters an American businessman, Emil Sande (Wesley Lau), who is trying to leverage a forced marriage to a local propertied lady amidst the lawless chaos of the revolt, and is also hoarding ammunition from the rebels. Crockett appoints himself watchdog to Flaca’s interests, fending off Sande not through aggressive display but comic irritation. Sande still sends out a gang of thugs to pound him the street, bringing Bowie and others to the rescue in a street brawl. Soon after, Flaca alerts them to Sande’s stockpiles, and they set out to steal it. Sande stands in for a less reputable side of the interloping American influence, crass, exploitative, and relentlessly patronising to the local mores and people. Obliged to depict a drama that involves throwing off the yoke of Mexican rule, Wayne mediated the tension by bending over backwards not only to avoid any old partisan quarrels, but to offer up unbridled praise for the gutsiness of the Mexican soldiers and the Tejano members of the revolt, like Juan Seguin (Joseph Calleia), whom Travis is ashamed to treat brusquely in the name of maintaining calm amongst his soldiers after Seguin brings bad news. “‘S’funny, I was proud of ‘em,” one of Crockett’s backwoodsmen comments after one ill-fated attack by the Mexican soldiers. Wayne gives the Generalissimo the last, memorable gesture of the film to him as he doffs his hat in salute to the ragged, tiny band of survivors leaving the captured fort.

Wayne initially portrays Crockett as a kind of feudal lord riding out of prairies at the head of his band of merry men. One vignette offered to illustrate Crockett’s unflinching potency as such reproduces a scene out of DeMille’s The Crusades (1936) in which the hero-king and an uppity subject slug each-other in a test of manhood, one the leader must and does triumph in to retain status as top dog. Early scenes depicting Crockett’s Tennessean cohort emphasise their rowdy, hard-drinking, hard-living good ol’ boys in a manner reminiscent of Ford’s love for similarly boisterous gangs. Wayne indulges a broad and corny brand of Americana, perhaps best inhabited by Chill Wills as Crockett’s pal Beekeeper, who performs a musical number and seems as much like an emcee at a hootenanny as an actor in the film. The Alamo’s screenwriter, James Edward Grant, had been writing Wayne vehicles since the early 1940s, including The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which had gained him his first Oscar nomination. Grant’s ready mastery of the familiar dialogue and plot patterns of the star’s vehicles undoubtedly felt reassuring to Wayne. But it also explains why a little too much of the film is given over to familiar horse opera motifs – fisticuffs and a cattle stampede and displays of unruly masculine energy – and not enough into meaningful portrayals of some of the authentic players in the actual historical drama at hand. Like Sue Dickinson (Joan O’Brien), Travis’ cousin and wife to his second-in-command Almeron (Ken Curtis), who was one of the few survivors of the siege: although vital to the final images, she’s scarcely glimpsed until half-way through the film.

With Wayne’s Crockett serving as heavy centre of moral gravitas and the chances for thematic conflict and ambivalence stymied by his determined messaging, the drama has to be chiefly driven by character tension. That comes in the schism between Harvey’s snooty, determined, astringent Travis and Widmark’s truculent, defiant, anti-authoritarian Bowie. The conflict between the pair becomes so heated at one point the two men arrange to fight a duel once their duty to the revolt is dispensed with. Crockett plays mediator, getting Bowie too drunk at one point to act on a threat to withdraw his men, and Bowie and Travis reach a tentative peace when Travis apologises to Bowie after grilling him about receiving a message from outside that proves to have been news reporting the death of Bowie’s wife. The Alamo posits the three men as a kind of troika of American types, Travis the old-world inheritance, Bowie the free but ornery man of the frontier, and Crockett as an ironic union of the two, the more complete version. The totally different acting traditions the three men belong to informs their clashes. Widmark’s trademark edge of rasp-tongued, urban cynicism, which he sustained even as he made a leap from playing villains to heroes, makes Bowie a galvanising presence, particularly when his hard crust shatters when he loses his wife, segueing from quivering rage (“Travis, you might die tonight.”) to desperate exposure before Crockett. This scene is carefully mindful of the fear of machismo in being found wanting and friendship being defined in such circumstances by who you can trust to be around at such a moment. It’s an aspect to the film that feels true to Wayne’s sensibility, as it’s the sort of moment he was a past-master at capturing in his performances.

Most actors who become directors usually prioritise performance in all its nuances, but The Alamo contradicts this tendency to a certain extent. The dramatic tone is generally that bright, chintzy, declarative style common in Hollywood filmmaking just starting to be edged out as Method-influenced realism. Although superficially resembling Ford’s gift for depicting humans in bristling, Hogarthian masses as well as isolated and monumental in the landscape, Wayne doesn’t have his touch for staging comedy or finding truth in that old-fashioned acting style. That’s not to say the film’s empty on that level. Harvey, who had just gained significant attention thanks to Room at the Top (1959), seems awkward at first as he puts on a notably bad Southern accent in his early scenes. Once he wisely softens the accent, he emerges as one of the film’s strongest aspects, anticipating his characterisation of Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) in playing an unpleasant yet upright American blue-blood, admirable in his willingness to play total insufferableness and eventually unearth curious decency in such a phlegmatic character. Harvey’s gift for treading such a line helps earn real impact for a couple of the film’s best vignettes. The first comes when Travis unflinchingly directs infantry volleys on charging enemy soldiers to protect returning raiders, gaining Crockett and Bowie’s grudging admiration. The second comes in the finale, when he gets a suitably iconic death scene, battling Mexican soldiers spilling over his defences with drawn sabre, providing an unexpected jolt of swashbuckling action until he’s shot in the gut: Travis, grinning with a rueful look of perverse victory, breaks his sword over his knee before collapsing dead, the embodiment of the cavalier ideal falling before the age of regimentation and firepower.

The laborious aspect of The Alamo lies is a penchant for declarative speechifying in highlighting Wayne’s desired messages. Early in the film, as Travis comes to see him and appeal to him to lend his support to the rebellion, Wayne-as-Crockett readily offers up his personal credos: “Republic – I like the sound of the word.” More often, he drafts lantern-jawed character actor John Dierkes, playing everyman warrior Jocko Robertson, into delivering several significant soliloquies whilst staring into the middle-distance in a vaguely prophetic manner, including a paean to duty as a man of common responsibility to his blind wife Nell (Veda Ann Borg), and later a statement of religious belief (“I can never find a way to argue down you that don’t believe…but I believe in the lord God Almighty”). Nell unleashes a tirade on Travis in insisting her husband has to stand with the defenders in spite of his obligations precisely because he seems so beaten down. Some of this stuff does get wearisome. To be fair, Wayne and Grant go to reasonable lengths to make a film about political insurrection and communal action that tries to portray individuals thinking through and responding to such circumstances. Characters communicating, attempting to summarise complex and ethereal sensations and ideas, is a constant motif throughout.

Wayne tries as a result to imbue the Alamo defenders with a chorus-like quality as they fumble their way through such reactions, as in the scene in which they meditate on the bravery of their foes, and in the contemplation of what death entails that provokes Jocko’s statement of faith. Wayne wants to portray democratic thought and action taking root like the great green tree he has Crockett and Flaca admire during a sojourn together. Such a symbol recalls the great oak in Tolstoy’s War and Peace that invites the meditative eye and heart of its protagonists. Trouble with this aspect of the film is, what we get is less Socratic dialogue than more speechifying that’s spread across multiple characters. As is so often the case, Wayne and Grant fare better when they try to dramatize certain social ideas through the actions of their characters, like Sande and Flaca, who represent the ugly and refined sides of their respective societies. The problem with Crockett’s romancing with Flaca is that it’s necessarily abortive: Wayne’s square idealism chokes off any possibility of transgressive passion between the two although Cristal looks extremely inviting as she leans against a shady bower with bosom trembling in suppressed excitement, only to be hurriedly and literally bundled out of Béxar and the film before the real business of manly men killing each-other gets going.

The only slave portrayed in the film is aged Jethro (Jester Hairston), whom everybody treats deferentially as common paterfamilias, and Wayne depicts him as the kind of man whose voice stirs respect from everyone: his rebuke aimed at Travis (“Colonel sir — you’re wrong.”) is intended to carry all the more moral weight because it’s coming from a man usually obliged to keep quiet. Bowie frees him and Jethro decides to stand manfully with the garrison, and dies hurling himself in front of bayonets aimed at Bowie. Jethro, like Flaca, embodies Wayne’s idealistic hope that individuals transcend the failings of their societies. But Jethro’s part in the tale uneasily draws out a problem with this approach. Wayne tries to validate Jethro as a being who makes his own votes of loyalty and duty once free to, and thus in a way he, like Jocko, represents the Alamo cause at its purest. Wayne seems to have been earnest in his insistence expressed in Blood Alley and The Alamo that non-Caucasian populaces be taken seriously in their search for dignity and liberty, but it was also complicated by his awkward framing of the issue, enshrining paternalist clichés. He lets the slaver off the hook and sticks Jethro with an unswervingly loyal arc, as if slavery was only a temporary misunderstanding between gentlemen.

In spite of its nominal political agitprop, The Alamo feels most urgent as an attempt Wayne to describe himself and his uneasy if purposeful relationship with his screen persona and attempt to reconcile it with his imperatives. Travis notes after listening to Crockett’s early speech to him that he’s not exactly what he appears. Wayne would tell Michael Caine a few years later that the secret to his acting success was talking slowly and little, and it’s hard not to read personal meaning into Wayne’s portrayal of the frontier hero as a covertly intelligent and articulate gentleman who can shift personas according to his company but finds himself all too often caricatured as a hick with cracker-barrel ideas. Arthur Hunnicutt had played Crockett as a canny rustic in The Last Command; to Wayne he’s a man who inhabits a role to please less well-educated but worthy fellows, for the sake of influencing them. He doesn’t don his coonskin cap until half-way through the film, assumed as a sort of costume, stepping into the role he was born and fated to play. Crockett lures his men into joining the Rebellion by having Flaca write out a letter in Spanish which he then has her read to them, a letter supposedly from Santa Anna warning them to clear out lest they be violently chastised, a threat that sets his companions to foaming anger and eagerness to resist. Crockett then warns them that the letter is a fake, designed to illustrate the nature of the enemy and essence of the fight to his men, but he’s already succeeded in rousing their blood to such a degree that they don’t care: it’s enough that his representation of the matter depicted the essence in a way they could understand. Wayne tries here to articulate a statement of faith in his own ability to persuade through art, drawing attention to the very device he’s trying to leverage in becoming a filmmaker.

Wayne shows a surprising confidence and muscular ability in the film’s visuals, created in concert with DP William H. Clothier. Ford’s influence is clearest in the way Wayne arranges actors in vistas and frames them in sweeping diagonals, spurning ostentatious viewpoints even when surveying the advancing Mexican army. There’s a lovely little visual etude early in the film when two of Crockett’s followers, young mascot Smitty (Frankie Avalon) and old Parson (Hank Worden), happen upon Béxar and signal for the rest to come to them, and the Tennessean party advances into view like a tide, titans thrusting their way out of the ground to enact a legend. He returns several times to a shot of the Alamo’s battered old façade framed and silhouetted against dawn skies with wisps of cloud lit like gold in river sand, a shot that sees the Alamo enterprise as perched at the cusp of advent but also charged with the lamenting quality of a dawn vigil for the fallen.

The way Wayne offers a constant flow of shots that look as precisely crafted in arrangement of actors and set and colour elements as Victorian art is more individual, as he chases a certain adamantine grandeur more reminiscent of DeMille than Ford. The tendency of widescreen movies of this ilk from the time to be overlit and shot in flat, rectilinear perspectives works for Wayne in this regard, as it’s precisely that frieze-like quality he chases in his arrangements of actors and elements. At least one shot is directly modelled on such a painting, as Wayne painstakingly recreates John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo” in the sight of a flamenco dancer performing for Santa Anna’s soldiers whilst the Alamo defenders make a night foray. This shot summarises Wayne’s oddly affecting blend of tony pretence and artistic yearning, evoking a classic tradition of American art and Latin culture as viewed through that prism. The then-massive $12 million price tag attached to the film, which would take so long to recoup, at least seems to have all ended up on screen: The Alamo is one of those grandiose pieces of epic filmmaking so common in the era that compelled purely by dint of the enormous human labour placed before the camera, in the scale of the sets and milling armies of extras.

The Alamo stands in the shadow of two superior epics depicting besiegement from the same period, Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) and Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking (1963): Endfield’s movie would prove an equally grand yet more convincingly terse and stoic celebration of the warrior ethic, whilst Ray’s was a more fervent and fretful kiss goodbye to the age of cavaliers and uneasy hello to the modern world’s complexities. The 1950s had seen the advent of what was often called the “adult western” filled with mature themes in analysing frontier social values and individual characters. The Alamo both fulfils that style as it delves into the violently contrasting heroes, but also feels in part like a repudiation of it – there’s none of the anxious probing of The Searchers or The Naked Spur (1953) or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963) to it; indeed, the latter film could well have been Ford’s commentary on his star’s mythmaking hyperbole. But The Alamo also feels like it might have influenced some films still to come on. Where many ‘50s westerns looked rather clean-cut, Wayne’s emphasis on his motley Tennesseans and their attire and the protean cultural blending of the frontier suggests the harsher, woollier textures of ‘60s and ‘70s genre movies. Touches like arming Bowie with a large multi-barrelled gun have a quality of historical piquancy that anticipates Sergio Leone’s fine feel for such ephemera. Sam Peckinpah would mimic aspects of Wayne’s film in offering up a crew of jostling grotesques who seem to have stepped out of myth who venture into Mexican territory on a death trip, with Major Dundee (1965), if in serving a radically different vision.

Certainly, for all the lumpiness of what leads up to it, Wayne’s staging of the climactic battle is a brilliant episode of cinema spectacle, as the Mexican army pours over the battlements and the defending heroes all die in precisely illustrated vignettes. These culminate in Crockett’s demise, where he manages to retain sufficient strength after receiving a lance in the chest to hurl a torch into the magazine and detonate it, literally going out with a bang. Wayne sees the patriotic gore suddenly stymied as the tide of Mexican warriors discover Sue Dickinson and two children – one white, one black, an embryo for modern America – cowering under a blanket, the whole enterprise of slaughter and ferocity of duty brought to a grim and trembling pause by a lingering ghost of chivalry. Wayne offers the sight of them riding out of the captured fort in silent dignity to Santa Anna’s salute as a moment of understanding and apotheosis, point the way forward to an amicable future. It’s also, of course, worth mentioning Dimitri Tiomkin’s great score, particularly his composition “The Green Leaves of Summer,” which pervades the film’s official rectitude with a counterpoint of wistful and transitory evocations. The Alamo certainly isn’t the eclipsing masterwork or powerful totem of republican (and Republican) faith Wayne might have hoped. It’s too patent, too broad and familiar in its specifics, too verbose and dubiously reassuring in its annexation of history. And yet some of its flaws are also wound in with its pleasures, for it’s also an entertaining, outsized relic of a brand of moviemaking rendered in a style now seemingly long gone. The final frustration of The Alamo is that it encompasses many moments where Wayne betrays the touch of an artist, and not a frustrated politician.


25th 12 - 2017 | 12 comments »

Confessions of a Film Freak 2017

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By Roderick Heath

2017 was a grim and unforgiving trail of frayed nerves, last straws, seething frustrations, angry determination, righteous retributions, downfallen tyrants, and general, brawling discontent. And that was just the queue waiting to get into see the latest Star Wars.

Beyond the climes of the movie theatre’s deceptive deliverance from care, 2017 was also a year of learning to live with deeply galling realities and relearning how to fight them. Inside those theatres, the signs of an altering zeitgeist I’d been feeling for a couple of years now became more definite. Try-hard blockbuster franchise extensions and wannabes started bombing and underperforming and outpaced by horror movies, musicals, and Jazz-age detective stories. Nothing quite made sense about this year, which made it both bewildering but also, aesthetically at least, consistently cheering. There was some hot garbage and a lot of very ordinary work about, but what was good tended to be good indeed.


Get Out

Appropriately for a year when rich disgust for and exhaustion with the arrogance of some of society’s winners broke out in blazing rage, one notable theme vibrating like a bass-note through the year’s films was a theme of working stiffs, plebs, hicks, and sundry victims making ploys to rob something of value, even if only self-respect, from under the noses of the powerful or resisting their directives. This imperative linked movies as diverse as Logan Lucky, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, Ghost in the Shell, The Assignment, The Limehouse Golem, Good Time, Get Out, Lady Macbeth, Beatriz at Dinner, Song to Song, A Cure for Wellness, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, American Made, John Wick: Chapter Two, Thor: Ragnarok, Hounds of Love, Berlin Syndrome, Blade Runner 2049, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Fate of the Furious, Star War: The Last Jedi, The Post, Nocturama, and Brawl on Cell Block 99.


Logan Lucky

Property, attempts to penetrate it or maintain it and keep someone out of it or in it, became battlegrounds for these struggles, often twinned to images of characters stepping over the boundary, half-willingly, of zones into illegality and proscribed behaviour. The protagonists of movies like I don’t feel at home in this world anymore., Good Time, Logan Lucky, Tramps, T2: Trainspotting, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Beatriz at Dinner, Baby Driver, and Star War: The Last Jedi were confronted by the citadels of their enemies’ security, demanding they crack codes for entrance and triumph. Some, like the characters of The Beguiled, It Comes At Night, Nocturama, and Lady Macbeth, found such citadels far too comforting once achieved, and abused the privilege. Others, like the captives of Get Out, Hounds of Love, Berlin Syndrome, A Cure for Wellness, Beauty and the Beast, Personal Shopper, My Cousin Rachel, Thor: Ragnarok, A Ghost Story, and Song to Song, found themselves claimed as property, subsumed into the furniture for the betterment and entertainment of others, obliging them to hold onto their identities and resist the blissful call of oblivion of the self. Good Time made telling gestures towards indicting its underclass protagonist’s mindset as colonised by his oppressors, in his stated belief that theft and causing ensuing havoc was in some way an honest form of entrepreneurship compared to relying on welfare. Others struggled to hold onto their property and the delineations offered against a chaotic and frightening universe, from the bleary and shell-shocked farmers of The Levelling to the miscreant threesome of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women who almost find their idyll destroyed by forgetting to lock the front door. Marjorie Prime and Blade Runner 2049 conjectured a near future when people might subsist forever more as a part of their household electronic systems.


Ghost In The Shell

Characters who found themselves created or refabricated as twisted and enraged chimera tried urgently to give themselves complete form and meaning. Their number included the hapless hero/ine of The Assignment, the methodical but quietly, existentially desperate invention/inventor of Alien: Covenant. The broken/reassembled superheros of Justice League. The flesh-refashioning antihero(es) of Split. The splintered personas of Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper. The human wreckage left over after riot and calamity in Detroit. The wordless yet endlessly expressive heroine who finds the key to properly reshaping herself in The Shape of Water. Rey and Kylo, the inheritors of a collapsed world in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The avenging cohort of Murder on the Orient Express. The lost child warriors of It and exiles on Main Street of Good Time and Baby Driver. The self-directing gender-ambiguous scion and lunk-headed outcast trying to escape French society’s bloated corpse in Slack Bay


The Assignment

Some hunks of shameless pulp got me through the first part of the year, including Zhang Yimou’s visually rhapsodic The Great Wall and Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island was a divisive work that I confess to enjoying hugely, and whilst admitting Vogt-Roberts’ movie references and period flourishes were entirely too familiar, the debuting director revealed genuine dynamism in his action staging and an amusing nasty streak that made it a true-hearted revival for its iconic monster star. Walter Hill’s first directorial outing in several years, The Assignment, saw the light of day not long before a film he produced, Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, also hit theatres. Both movies proved telling late-career totems from those two restless old pros, explicitly mocking their own status as by-products of artistic whim and commercial necessity through cruel mad scientist figures within their narratives, toying with characters and grafting together chimera for the sake of sparking new, anarchic sensations. Scott’s bigger budget helped him but his material also fitted the notion of redrafted excursions in madcap creation and destruction, whilst Hill’s shaggy dog story could barely be bothered sustaining its flimsy story but delighted in rambling along with its villain and hero/ine’s exiles-in-society viewpoints.


Personal Shopper

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper was another auteurist Ikea kit, one that set out to give pivotal actress Kristen Stewart a vehicle to both exemplify and mock images and notions of movie stardom, and as long as it was meditating on Stewart’s louche and multifarious impersonations it was riveting. But it was also beset by an annoyingly scattershot script unable to decide on a proper framework for its ideas, if it really had any beyond the imperative to watch Stewart masturbate in designer duds. Stewart’s former costar and object of ritual shaming for the Twilight series, Robert Pattinson, meanwhile continued proving himself with a vengeance in two films this year, filling out the cast of The Lost City of Z with a crafty period turn and then pivoting for a livewire role as a New York reject in Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Good Time. Good Time confirmed the sibling filmmakers are major talents with a riveting study in the chaos ensuing from a bank robbery by two brothers, one of them a shambling, bewildered developmentally-delayed man-child and the other a shark-like survivor, brilliantly played by Ben Safdie and Pattinson. It felt, in its way, like a better sequel to Blade Runner than the official follow-up released this year, in its evocation of a New York submerged in darkness, both crammed to the gunwales with human flotsam yet also littered with cavernous wastelands.


Berlin Syndrome

Adam Leon’s Tramps, one of the year’s small gems, made for a shambolic rom-com echo of Good Time as it tracked two prickly young losers chasing down an illicit shipment they’ve lost and falling in love in the process, facing down their own internal blocks and dogging identities along the way. Two films by Australian filmmakers dealt with captivity and sexual abuse, Cate Shortland’s third feature Berlin Syndrome and Ben Young’s debut Hounds of Love. Hounds of Love invaded the dankest corners of suburban humdrum to depict a teenage girl’s ordeal in the hands of a psychopathic sex criminal and his enabling, desperately needy wife. Young did a fine job communicating terrible straits without indulging his perverts, and gained good performances from a game cast. But the characterisations and the pretences to psychological thrills were as blunt as its second-hand suspense-mongering. Shortland’s companion piece, on the other hand, was overlong and finished with a whimper, but managed to delve into the increasingly twisted dynamics of captor and captivated with a lucid and disquieting intensity, unfolding as a globetrotting fantasy turned to Sadean nightmare where the worst and most insistently tempting fate of all is to let one’s identity dissolve into the logic of someone else’s will.


Free Fire

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire blended his folk-history interests and feel for freaky situational drama for a Stateside debut executed in a more playful if no less violent key. The result sported great ensemble work from a plucky cast and sustained its essential gimmick of staging a movie-long shoot-out waged by low-rent criminals and half-assed rebels with surprising grace. But it never realised suggestions of a deeper theme tracing fault-lines of loyalty in the atomising cultural precepts of the 1970s, and the chirpy tone kept it from feeling as cumulatively tough and ruthless as it should have proved. Steven Soderbergh returned from his brief retirement from directing, likening his own status as renegade alternative mogul to his hero’s via Logan Lucky, a spry comic heist film that played out as auto-critique and lampoon of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s high-life fantasias and sported some splendidly relaxed performances. The trouble was, as well as being impeded by some over-indulged asides and supporting turns (I’m looking at you Seth McFarlane and Hillary Swank) and a baggy, overlong narrative, Soderbergh’s hymn to plucky everyfolk felt beset by the same kind of self-conscious “sincerity” seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.


I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver immersed itself in the same water as Logan Lucky and betrayed many of the same reflexes, but spurned corny social commentary in favour of trying to properly analyse how we live now in our endangered yet chitinous bubbles of mobile culture, swinging with kinetic force and concision through genre modes from thriller to musical to retro dream, a slick, solid, smart entertainment that also served as a proof of love and life for cinema and music. Macon Blair’s I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. also took on the conceit of an ordinary person’s plunge into the underworld that sees them gain new grit and power in their ordeal, and although not nearly as slickly made, the smart casting of Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, and fitful manifestations of a strange sense of humour, made it a likeable little success.


Marjorie Prime

Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime saw one of current American cinema’s most cerebral and conceptually gutsy filmmakers straying into potentially fascinating territory, in portraying a near-future in which artificial intelligences might become friends, helpers, and memory pools for the aging and the damaged. But the material, in spite of its sci-fi concerns and sometimes elegantly dreamy tone, was ultimately an archly affected exercise in talky theatre and moneyed navel-gazing, Almereyda’s direction too detached from the decay and pain of the flesh to properly counterpoint the robotic algorithms of the dialogue, and the ending suggested dismayingly that quasi-immortality might await the rich through their fabulous Oceanside villas. Lovely work from Lois Smith and Geena Davis, regardless. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water proved a unique by-product of its creator’s fervent imagination, daring to act out the implicit sexual element in many a classic monster-menaces-girl tale but play it as a wistful fairy-tale for grown-ups, diffused through elements of period fantasia and satire. Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem sounded like great fun in abstract, a Victorian-era serial killer hunt that mashed together period figures like Karl Marx that, like The Shape of Water, tried to say something about our social evolution through the veil of retro fantasias and dark dreams. But the result was such a flagrant, shapeless mess that it ran out of steam long before its absurd final twists played out.


Columbus

Kogonada’s Columbus was a subtle, intelligent, if rather too wispy piece, depicting the alienated son of a great architect connecting with a young woman who’s clinging on to her current life to keep her wayward mother on an even keel in the titular Indiana town. Great performances by John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson made the experience worthwhile, even as the project as a whole ambled about as listlessly as its characters, and the direction failed to make any real capital out of the interest in architecture as amphitheatre for living. Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner set itself up as the consummate age-of-Trump critique, as it pitched Salma Hayek’s plucky, naively good-natured caregiver against a roomful of snobs holding court before John Lithgow’s monstrous tycoon; good performances could not dispel the air of strained contrivance and corny simplification – its heroine could not even be afforded a taste of enjoyment of celebrity gossip lest she seem less saintly.


Brawl on Cell Block 99

Still, that seemed like a model of crisp and attentive realism compared to one of the worst films I watched all year, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film that managed to mishandle everything it set out to analyse – small-town life, the fallout of crime, the agony of injustice, the gestures that save people from their own private hells – and filled in instead with a parade of would-be rah-rah speeches, ridiculous gestures, dialogue, characterisations, and plot details, and laboured, “outrageous” black comedy, all directed with the grace of a hippopotamus trying to breakdance. It’s a truly amazing movie that can make me never want to see Frances McDormand or Sam Rockwell on screen ever again. S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl on Cell Block 99 had a curiously mirroring theme in charting a Job-like protagonist’s descent into hell for the sake of protecting family, although Zahler’s played out as work of diamond hard modern genre smithing. Bones were smashed, faces peeled off, hell raised, in the year’s finest sequence of purgative catharsis, although Zahler doesn’t quite know when to quit yet.


A Ghost Story

I disliked David Lowery’s debut work Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which struck me as a bunch of borrowed art movie postures. His follow-up this year, A Ghost Story, saw star Casey Affleck was obliged to spend most of the film wearing a sheet, and threatened in abstract to an overblown music video for some feels-peddling indie band, particularly in overly-cute touches like Affleck’s subtitled exchanges with a neighbouring house’s ghost. And yet Lowery’s vision proved doggedly interesting in studying time and place as a way of being and seeing, in a manner that ultimately earned its run time, its hero effectively rendered a blank to himself and our eye by Lowery’s central conceit, finding a new way of looking at history’s surreal march. Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal similarly blended naturalism and fantastical metaphor as Anne Hathaway’s boozy heroine found herself incarnating as a city-stomping monster and battling with a would-be suitor with the same mysterious talent. Like too many of this year’s movies, there was something crass about its would-be clever metaphors, and a fatal lack of the internal logic needed to make its loopy ideas persuade.


The Big Sick

William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth fitted the mood of the year almost too well as it described in excruciating detail the determination of its antiheroine, set up initially as a figure to be cheered to victory over evil patriarchs and cruel period mores, only then to mortify in charting her willingness to sacrifice anyone to the cause of her own good, leading to an unflinching punchline that refused to let anyone off the hook for enjoying their privilege. Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick took on a deeply personal subject based on the immediate experiences of its writers, the romance between a conflicted Pakistani-American comedian and his WASP girlfriend, tracing the faultlines of cultures and genders. But I found the central romance excruciating, the cultural commentary old-hat, and Showalter’s direction listless. The remarkable pairing of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as a pair of frazzled Midwestern parents did however provide, as long as they were on screen, one of the year’s most charming films within another film. Once-reputable director James Foley took on the thankless task of extending the Fifty Shades of Grey series with Fifty Shades Darker, but what once had a sheen of filthy, campy entertainment now just seemed desperately pseudo-naughty, and I turned it off long before it was over.


My Cousin Rachel

Taking place in a similar key of slow-burning passion if bearing no other similarities, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled tackled Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel, and, more by implication, Don Siegel’s 1971 version, with a feminist twist on the material. But I found it the biggest dud of Coppola’s career to date, a ponderous and anaesthetised playlet lacking the hothouse evocation, so essential to the tale, of twinned opposites of daunting plenty and fatiguing shortage driving its characters mad. Assured performances did stand out. By comparison, Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, although never living up to its Hitchcockian pretences, proved more intriguing and successful as it blurred the lines between its male protagonist’s obsessive tendencies and its eponymous female’s native ambiguity, to the point where by the end one could feel you’d seen two entirely different movies depending which interpretation you took. Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express proved one of the year’s more surprising hits, and as a lushly entertaining immersion in retro class and whodunit ritual staged with happy immodesty by its ageing wunderkind director-star and enthusiastically acted by a cast of authoritative pros and eager newbies, it struck me as it seems to have struck the audience, as an offering of decent escapism from the bawling, pulse-provoking paraphernalia of 2017.


Blade Runner 2049

Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut Wind River repeated elements of his scripts for Sicario and Hell and High Water whilst transposing the setting from the rugged environs of the Tex-Mex borderlands to the rugged environs of Alaska, tossing together flinty, grieving frontiersman Jeremy Renner and out-of-place FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen and then failing utterly to make anything interesting of the pairing, and offering a mystery that proved much less thrilling (or socially pertinent) than Sheridan would have us believe. Only Olsen’s good performance distinguished proceedings. The moment of 2017’s cinema I approached with the most trepidation was Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, as Villeneuve, one of my bêtes-noir in current film, took on the task of fashioning a sequel to Ridley Scott’s singular 1982 classic. Villeneuve presented an endless succession of lovingly crafted yet conceptually inert images tied to a storyline that managed somehow to render Scott’s techno-noir universe tepidly cliché. One great scene, in which Harrison Ford’s stalwart Rick Deckard was confronted with the refashioned form of his dead lover, touched the kind of operatic splendour the film otherwise chased unsuccessfully, whilst Ford came close to a career-best performance. Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell was a far better tribute to Scott’s film, conveying a sense of alienation and dysmorphia with far more economy, tossing in some fluid and spectacular action sequences in the process, to offer a spare, semi-abstract, melancholic action movie without succumbing to self-importance.


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets beckoned in its trailers as an island of fanciful, decorative genre splendour, and it was that, certainly. The film’s opening scene, tracking the development of humankind’s engagement with the universe from tentative tin cans in the void to mighty floating cities filled with alien flotsam, was an almost perfect piece of cinema. But after that lay only Besson’s monumental folly, passing off desperately frenetic tomfoolery as exciting action, a dull and incoherent plot as a great adventure, and two distracted and terribly miscast leads as worthy swashbucklers. Matthew Vaughan, who once seemed a promising cinematic punk, offered a sequel to his rude and raucous 2014 hit Kingsman: The Secret Service with Kingsman: The Golden Circle. But the result was a perfect study in the law of diminishing returns, the original’s gall and vivacity swapped out for incredibly tired jokes, wasted actors, and a general air of enervation, like watching a drunk at a wedding who thinks he’s the life of the party urinating in the punch.


Wonder Woman

Truth be told, much of superhero business this year left me in general discontent, be it speciously earnest (Logan, Wonder Woman), straining to be light-hearted and fanciful (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), or a broken-backed product of misaligned auteurism and studio second-guessing (Justice League). James Mangold’s Logan set out with an interesting brief, to give Hugh Jackman’s beloved incarnation of the most popular X-Men hero a farewell in a gritty neo-western. A lot of folk seemed to like it, but I found tedious on a dramatic level and pungently disappointing as an action-adventure movie, obliging its protagonist to struggle through an endless reiteration of the same damn reluctant saviour act he went through a half-dozen movies earlier. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman was well-made, and star Gal Gadot proved born to play the role with some sturdy support from Chris Pine. But the film struggled with a bog-ordinary script that lacked effective conflicts, never seemed as flavourful and pulp-epic as the material and setting promised, and fell away to nothing by its end. Gadot returned months later in the second Warner Bros.-DC entry for the year, Justice League, a work that felt like looking upon wreckage of Egyptian colossi in desert sand, signs of great ambition and scale shattered and jumbled and lost to history.


Thor: Ragnarok

Over at Marvel, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 tried to top its predecessor for lysergic colour schemes and flip humour, and wisely turned to Kurt Russell for a dash of charisma and gravitas in playing a twinkle-eyed but black-hearted planetary consciousness. But the storyline had no ideas, and the try-hard efforts to make everything seem all roguish and larkish and then finally big-hearted only seemed forced and puerile. Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, was greatly superior, for at least its spasmodic moments of scallywag humour and overripe spectacle were truly enjoyable and well-composed. But the film just couldn’t annex the zone of scrappy, hand-crafted ‘80s entertainment it so anxiously wanted to ape, obliged to waste time on franchise-servicing buddy comedy and letting down the specific space opera pleasures of this corner of the Marvel fantastical universe. Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming was an utterly perfunctory and anonymous entry, only elevated at all by a good villain turn from Michael Keaton and the smart-mouth poise of Zendaya.


A Cure For Wellness

Horror cinema had a great year at the box office, providing a sturdy counterpoint to the shakiness of the blockbuster flimflam. Jordan Peele’s Get Out benefited fortuitously from the ornery mood abroad after Donald Trump’s election victory in its deployment of a very familiar genre story, involving mind control and theft of identity, mediated through a wry lampooning of black anxiety over white liberal hypocrisies. Peele displayed formidable formal gifts for sustaining unease and thrills even whilst provoking laughter, and the whole experience was a great lark as long as you didn’t look too hard at its plot mechanics nor expected its – ah-hem – skin deep satirical points (hey look, a black guy acting like a white guy – gold!) to effectively mesh with its more personal sense of endangerment. Thanks in part to the expert performances of Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya, the theme of romantic illusion and betrayal finished up wielding far more kick than its broader socio-cultural targets, finding its climax in the image of Kaluuya’s assailed hero with fingers wrapped around his sphinx-like lover’s throat in bewildered rage. Gore Verbinski returned to the horror genre with A Cure For Wellness, a film that wanted to stand as a gleefully sick exercise in high gothic style in mashing together Suspiria, The Magic Mountain, old Boris Karloff vehicles, and Verbinski’s own established love for slithering aquatic things. But Verbinski’s relentlessly heavy hand turned what should have been a steadily ratcheting exercise in disquiet to a parade of phobic perversity and overbearing visuals.


It

M. Night Shyamalan continued his resurgence with Split, a Twilight Zone-ish tale of madness and kidnapping that proved Shyamalan is most entertaining when letting the mischievous, malicious, downright weird side of his imagination off the leash, handing star James McAvoy perhaps over-abundant opportunities for theatrical bravura in playing a psychologically fragmented supervillain; the result was both enjoyable but more than a little disquieting in its blithe use of schizophrenia and sexual abuse as cheap gimmicks. Andres Muschietti’s first half of a bifurcated adaptation of Stephen King’s It was a big hit that recapitulated the potency of horror in general and King in specific at the box office. But it left me utterly cold, as King’s lumpy but ambitious novel was translated into a showy, repetitious, shallow ghoul-fest that reduced its cast of troubled, young outsiders into an array of dull and poorly-served stereotypes. Trey Edward Shults, who made an eye-catching if annoyingly overemphatic debut a couple of years ago with the crypto-biographical family drama Krisha, returned with a swerve into genre territory with It Comes At Night, an attempt to make a movie almost entirely in a key of foreboding survivor angst and festering hysteria, like a George Romero flick with the zombies cut out. Shults’ interest in depicting clannish self-defence and rituals of protection and expulsion hardened into a consistent theme and his clipped, eerie visuals provoked tension, but his style proved ultimately merely onerous, and his story crises and character behaviours too often felt contrived.


Raw

Hunter Adams’ Dig Two Graves was a far better venture into similar territory involving the supernatural blended with over-the-shoulder glances at childhood trauma and quotidian mysticism than It, depicting a teenage girl’s efforts to expiate her brother’s accidental death and becoming involved with some backwoods necromancers and long-suppressed blood feud. Osgood Perkins intrigued with another tale of adolescent angst shading into infernal bloodshed and mystery, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, but although he sustained an effectively creepy mood and tone of unforgiving alienation, his serpentine storyline and games of perspective never quite stopped feeling like a magpie’s nest of gathered tropes. Julie Ducournau’s Raw likewise took as its basic matter a teenage girl thrust into the disorientating surrounds of institutional schooling and discovering monstrous impulses in herself, and aimed for a brand of tragicomic, deeply sick body horror. But once again, the film never added up to much, because its metaphors felt both too obvious and insufficiently developed, never generating a flicker of real fear or authentic dark revelry.


The Mummy

Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy proved the instant stuff of Hollywood cautionary tales, proposing to kick off a franchise extrapolated from Universal Studio’s classic monster movie roster but falling afoul of a misbegotten Tom Cruise action vehicle. It was doomed to be one of the year’s whipping boys, and indeed it languished with an insufferably dumb plot and a tone far too detached from its nominal gothic forebears. But it also sported a couple of well-handled set-pieces and some intermittently effective images, the striking if wasted presence of Sofia Boutella as the title monstrosity, and the spectacle of Cruise and Russell Crowe beating each-other up. Just who you cheered for in that contest would possibly reveal interesting things about your psychological profile. Boutella also provided a jigger of class in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, her radium eyes with wincing cool providing a momentary flash of emotion before landing in the sack with Charlize Theron for the year’s most gleefully uninhibited sex scene. A pity the film around them lumbered through a series of well-choreographed yet resolutely unexciting action scenes and tortuously convoluted espionage charades that aimed to unite the James Bond, Jason Bourne, and John LeCarre strands of the spy movie, only to fail utterly. Leitch had jumped ship from the John Wick franchise whilst former co-director Chad Stahelski helmed John Wick: Chapter 2 solo. This time Keanu Reeves’ steely antihero was plunged into a spiralling trap where his omnicompetence as a killer proved to only worsen his situation, and the movie was a surprising improvement on its predecessor.


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower was doomed to be the measly also-ran in the face of It‘s success as a film of a beloved Stephen King property. It was certainly a prime example in how not to do this sort of thing, a style-free, flavourless distillation of King’s dense web of mythology and metafiction into something that pretended to be an epic adaptation but looked like it ought to be filling a Wednesday evening timeslot on the SyFy Channel. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey were cast in potentially thrilling roles as cosmic adversaries and yet completely wasted; a moderately exciting shoot-out finale did at least save the experience from being a total waste of time. Guy Ritchie, who suggested surprising new levels and a sense of style on his great The Man From UNCLE a couple of years ago, backslid into smug and torpid laddish humour, corny directorial gimmicks, and stolen fantasy movie tropes when he tackled the energetic yet uniquely tiresome King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Amongst other crimes, Ritchie’s film managed to concatenate all of the root sagas’ great panoply of female archetypes into one dull character, and belittle whatever was left of the other essential aspects of the legends, and actually succeeded in surpassing Sword of the Valiant as the dullest Arthurian movie ever.


Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry was far too arch and tonally unfocused in trying to recreate a certain brand of earnest, magic-realist kid’s movie from the ‘80s, but it didn’t deserve the fascinatingly savage reception it met either. Rian Johnson ascended to the pinnacle of current Hollywood franchise management to offer his twist on the Star Wars saga, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, to the clamour of both wild praise and disgruntled confusion from different quarters. It wasn’t Johnson’s attempts to critique and deepen the social context of the saga or his brusque approach to inherited infrastructure that bothered me, so much as how he did it, continuing and exacerbating the series’ decline into a mere martial melodrama with added teen soap dynamics, the mythopoeic edge and holistic conceptualism of George Lucas’s films falling by the wayside along with another poorly served old hero. The filmmaking was still tremendous in tactile force, but the palette dismayingly reduced.


The Lure

Likely to keep ahead of it as the year’s biggest money-spinner if only because of The Last Jedi’s late release, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast got family bums in theatre chairs and surely became an instant fixture in many a kid-ruled living room, but was also generally dismissed as a shadow of the 1991 Disney film it was a remake of. Having never seen that version, I found this one tolerably jaunty and entertaining thanks to Condon’s lashings of good-humoured campiness, and the game cast did their best to drown out the clang of Disney cash registers. But Emma Watson’s weak vocals and the determined neutering of Dan Stevens’ beastly antihero badly thwarted its impact. An infinitely more interesting contemporary spin on the musical was Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, which revised another Disney-claimed fairytale property into an art-punk soft-core fantasia with a stony centre regarding desire and the desire to change ourself to fit our ideas of what other people want us to be. Jeffrey Walker’s Dance Academy was an old-school you’re-going-out-there-a-nobody stage melodrama about recovery from injury and the need to balance artistic excellence with personal fulfilment, but it was foiled on all levels by remarkably bland filming and acting.


xXx: Return of Xander Cage

F. Gary Gray took on the Fast and Furious franchise for an eighth instalment, once again sporting Theron, this time in full villainous mode conveyed with such ice-eyed relish and taunting sinuosity she almost but not quite succeeded in keeping afloat a series that really should have shut down an episode earlier. Star Vin Diesel also subjected himself to reviving another of his old franchises whilst his training session buffness held out, returning for DJ Caruso’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, a film that at least had the decency to be enthusiastically ridiculous, and sported a finale that went for, and delivered, iconic girl-power action moves. The year’s best action movie hands-down was Korean director Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess, a ferocious headlong dash into some of the most astounding action set-pieces ever shot, matched to a narrative that wheeled with surreal bravura through the ages in its eponymous lady’s life as a string of inhabited roles finally colliding with painful truths.


Battle of the Sexes

The year’s sexual-romantic highpoints in film tended towards the outré, or at least beyond the normcore, including forbidden love between woman and fish-man in The Shape of Water. Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name aimed for a lush, oddly old-fashioned take of wistfully recalled young romance with a queer twist. As with Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash last year, the film testified to the director’s talent for conjuring well-observed behaviour for his actors whilst failing to knit it all together into anything substantial, achieving less a Wong Kar-Wai-ish memory-dream than a haute-bourgeois tourist ad for the pleasures of lounging about the sun-kissed campagna with people with good muscle tone. The film’s real subject, the part played by one’s parents, or not played, in letting you become your true self was only breached right at the end. Angela Robinson’s intelligent, nuanced, swooningly romanticised take on the real-life ménage-a-trois that gave birth to the year’s biggest hero, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, was a movie that, unlike Guadagnino’s, did something with the theme of intellectual characters confronting, analysing, and eventually transforming the meaning of their transgressive erotic impulses. Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes tackled similar territory in portraying Billie Jean King’s struggle with her burgeoning sexuality whilst taking on the jovially absurd Bobby Riggs in their famed sporting match-cum-media huckster carnival. Simon Beaufoy’s script was replete with excruciating point-underlining dialogue and the finale’s potential for intimate drama was badly hampered by having to recreate the match whilst avoiding its stars’ lack of athleticism. But the good acting backed up the directors’ unforced empathy for the specific complexes of all their characters.


Song To Song

Terrence Malick’s hitherto unheard-of rate of work saw him release his second film in as many years, Song To Song, a defiantly shaggy venture into the Austin music scene that nonetheless proved a quintessential Malick work in its themes of romantic disaffection and creative burn-out and sell-out. Whilst it’s probably Malick’s least successful movie in a while, it was still a dazzling, intriguing, vigorous labour worthy of a filmmaker half Malick’s age. Danny Boyle went romping around the old neighbourhood with T2: Trainspotting, a film that attempted the tricky art of both wallowing in its characters’ nostalgia for the good old days whilst also trying to find a way to release them from that trap. Boyle and his reassembled cast gave it a valiant effort, but nothing about the new adventures of this bunch of skivers proved as dramatically arduous and thrillingly indecent as their days of being wild. At the other end of the socio-economic scale but no less smothering in studying insufferable self-involvement were Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers, this year’s official entries in the Fake Woody Allen Movie stakes as portraits of the thick-shelled bourgeoisie, with Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy a redacted third entry.


The Disaster Artist

Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip attracted some utterly bewildering praise for its day-glo antics and sassy clichés. Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul saw Judi Dench return to the role of Queen Victoria, this time with Stephen Frears’ unshakeably professional poise apparent in snappy edits and choreographed camerawork to back her up, but only for a trite buddy comedy and once-over-lightly study in imperialist angst. As if taking pity on Jessica Chastain after she sweltered her way through last year’s silly fake Aaron Sorkin movie Miss Sloane, Sorkin himself wrote and directed a vehicle for her this year called Molly’s Game, an interesting if stagy and absurdly overlong portrait that made some gestures towards describing American enterprise as a symptom of rather than outlet for deep-seated neurosis. Try as they might, Chastain and costar Idris Elba couldn’t help but seem as overripe as their dialogue. Doug Liman’s American Made chased a similar overtone of critique as it cast a game Tom Cruise as the fatally naïve, swashbuckling pilot at the heart of the Iran-Contra affair, whose dalliances in espionage and drug and arms smuggling are painted as a natural by-way for someone chasing the American Dream. The film itself belonged to a school of cheery, scabrous, can-you-believe-this-is-true Goodfellas knock-offs, and finally felt far too shallow to be memorable. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist delved more boldly into queasily amusing, art-imitating-life fare, as he likewise took on a true story revolving around an ironic realisation of all-American ambition, this one recounting the strange journey of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero from wannabes to living jokes to cult heroes. The result was a great laugh and a biting portrait of ego and need colliding with money to create a masterpiece of badness, and also an intriguing if ultimately failed attempt to extrapolate a deeper exercise in role-playing and artefact recreation, as Franco’s direction was too straightforward to properly realise it.


The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post offered another of its director’s profiles in courage from the recent past, recounting Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee’s gutsy collaboration to print stories on the Pentagon Papers. The movie was consciously conceived and executed by its director in a manner akin to the journalistic sprint it celebrated, relying on reflexive skill and professional savvy to spit out a story under a deadline that anyone can still read and comprehend, and it works beautifully if unsubtly in that spirit, spurning the cool investigative tone of Spielberg’s recent work for outsized theatre. Kathryn Bigelow returned for her third pairing with screenwriter Mark Boal with Detroit, a nominal portrait of the calamitous 1967 riots that beset and hollowed out that city, but which chiefly focused on a gruelling, galling recreation of the Algiers Hotel incident. Bigelow’s fearsome technique remained unequivocal, and the film succeeded as a deep immersion in power’s abuse and the toxic legacy of racial and economic prejudice. But the project failed to live up to its great promise, particularly the mooted chance to say something more enveloping and original in the subtextual linkage of the occupation and repression of the city to the occupation of Iraq and War on Terror as studied in the filmmakers’ previous movies, and the last third of the film skirted too shallowly over the business of surviving such trauma.


Dunkirk

Similarly immersive in aesthetic if more traditionally uplifting, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk launched a pummelling cinematic blitzkrieg upon its audience, for a movie that proved once and for all that Nolan is a peerless filmic artisan with absolutely nothing interesting to say about history, politics, or human nature, reducing warfare to a string of well-staged yet utterly calculated survivalist skits, resolutely failing to match even the much briefer but infinitely richer Dunkirk vignette in Joe Wright’s Atonement. For his part, Wright finished up cowering in the shadow of the same achievement as he returned to that milieu for Darkest Hour for the sake of renewed prestige, in an account of Winston Churchill’s first, stormy weeks in office as war leader amidst the calamity of Nazi onslaught. Gary Oldman’s surprising, vigorous impersonation of the portly PM wasn’t sufficient to make up for a one-note screenplay and Wright’s tired directorial showmanship.


Our Time Will Come

Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest touched on the same epoch once more whilst focusing on legendary days of the British film industry’s renaissance in adversity, for a mildly enjoyable romp that nonetheless managed to tick off every cliché in the current middlebrow movie handbook. Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come looked back to WW2 in Hong Kong as a moment of transformation, even liberation, for those swept up in the whirlwind, finding amidst the rubble of an age a string humanist epiphanies, from mothers bickering over the correct protocol for a wedding to a moment of angry and offended personal confrontation between men caught on opposite sides of war, in trying to grasp just why such conflicts seem to engage human identity on its most profound level even when the cost it exacts finally becomes unbearable. Only lackadaisical pacing and shaping foiled Hui’s lush cinema.


Slack Bay

Bruno Dumont, who made his name with dark and dour movies, continued a recent shift towards playful magic realism and free-form genre play with Slack Bay (Ma Loute), a study in period French social concerns pushed to absurdist extremes, including aristocrats inbred to freakishness and peasants turned cannibal, Jacques Tati and Chuck Jones cohabiting with Zola and Celine, and sporting the year’s most delightful extended joke in gender-bending – until it stopped being a joke. The movie weathered Dumont’s breakneck tonal shifts but not his final drifts into affected zaniness in lieu of a genuinely inspired way to tether his ideas together. Alain Guirardie followed his remarkable study in desire Stranger by the Lake with Staying Vertical, a far more fitfully engaging mix of deadpan character comedy and eccentric fantasy with lashings of anarchic sexuality, as it followed a wandering bisexual writer’s flailing efforts to cope with creative crisis and sudden responsibility as a father and lover to several arbitrarily needy country folk.


Graduation

Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling likewise journeyed into a farmland setting and saw not a world of pastoral peace but a zone of murky, exhausting engagement with nature’s meanness and humanity’s flailing in the face of it. Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire contended with the same basic theme of human unease before the boding threat of the natural world and its imminent revenge for being disrespected, positing the acceptance of responsibility and real awareness as the only cure. Herzog’s style was as muscular as ever, and though his script was sophomoric in its fabulist flourishes, it still added up to a surprising statement from its oft-caricatured director. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation was a return to the sort of eye-level engagement with dire personal straits that propelled his 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days after his epic survey of religious fanaticism in Beyond the Hills, charting a portly, middle-aged doctor’s efforts to secure his daughter a ticket to the good life in Britain and extract her from the sink of corruption and moral slovenliness besetting their everyday lives. Mungiu’s most cunning and interesting achievement here was in setting up what seemed to be a message movie but finished up being more a character study that considers how that character helps defines a society as a whole.


Nocturama

Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama translated Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed into an argot of detached and sardonic, brand-aware modernism, as it depicted a gang of disparate young radicals who set out to perform a coordinated series of terrorist attacks around Paris, only to find themselves immobilised and then immersed in the distracting comforts of consumerist plenty as they hide out in a ritzy department store. The result was a fascinating but uneasy achievement, as its critique of contemporary radical possibility and its retardation by the colonisation of our dreams by commerce was obscured by Bonello’s refusal to define his protagonists and their various trips in any depth, which meant that it kept verging on a superficial these-kids-today lament. Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV charted the title event with a bleak yet witty sense of the remorseless decline of the flesh mocking human pretence and pomposity, utilising the prone form of Jean-Pierre Leaud to comment also on the twilight of an age of cinema as well as a canvas for depicting life’s outermost shoals. The experience was, probably by design, alternately painful, mesmeric, and dull. As to whether Serra’s harvest of epiphanies was equal to the time expended on it, I’m not entirely sure.

Performances of Note:

John Cho, Columbus
Geena Davis, Marjorie Prime
Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant ; Song to Song
Harrison Ford, Blade Runner 2049
James Franco, The Disaster Artist
Rebecca Hall, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Mark Hamill, Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name ; Free Fire
Bella Heathcote, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Don Johnson, Brawl in Cell Block 99
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Ellie Kendrick, The Levelling
Jean-Pierre Leaud, The Death of Louis XIV
Teresa Palmer, Berlin Syndrome
Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth
Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus
Bob Odenkirk, The Post
Raph, Slack Bay
Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express ; Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper
Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
David Troughton, The Levelling
Vince Vaughan, Brawl in Cell Block 99
Sigourney Weaver, The Assignment
Allison Williams, Get Out
Zhou Xun, Our Time Will Come
Ensemble: Baby Driver
Ensemble: Detroit
Ensemble: Good Time
Ensemble: The Lost City of Z
Ensemble: The Shape of Water

Favourite Films of 2017

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott’s second, greatly superior attempt to revisit and revise his foundational work saw him roam through a catalogue of genre influences and tropes whilst striving to restore the charge of ferocious nihilism implicit in the material, in a movie that adds up to a freewheeling summary of both Scott’s late career obsessions and the history of the horror genre. Michael Fassbender’s elegant, witty central performance(s) saw his character David emerge as a truly great villain in contemporary storytelling.

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)

The crime movie as dance flick, musical as melodrama; Edgar Wright’s playful concoction tried to capture the private joy and intensity of young love – for music, for the ideal partner, and for learning how to orchestrate the world, even whilst learning the crueller lessons in the price the world claims something back.

Ghost In The Shell (Rupert Sanders) / The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou)

I’m counting these two together because both were unfairly hobbled long before they even came out but represented fruitful matings of Eastern and Western aesthetics, and moreover because they were both much more enjoyable and infinitely superior as cinematic experiences to many an overblown blockbuster released later in the year. Sanders’ film found intelligent ways to contend with its own cross-cultural mutt status and beef up its action whilst maintaining the bleary, dissociative textures of its source material. Zhang’s was a contemporary DeMille epic, a utopian vision of collective action that lacked a script to match its images, but gave its director ample scope to turn the CGI action film into a state of pure colour and motion.

Good Time (Benny and Josh Safdie)

New York filmmaking frères Benny and Josh Safdie stumbled into something like the mainstream through casting well-known faces like Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Barkhad Abdi, but remained true to their creed as portraitists of co-dependent weirdos in dire straits, their fierce brand of artful realism delivered as a form of action painting. Good Time, nominally a contemporary twist on a classic sort of streetwise melodrama revolving around fraternal responsibility and spiralling consequences of life mistakes, also wielded a sharp political subtext critiquing conservative rhetoric, exposing the Robin Hood pretences and clannish loyalty of its protagonist, who’s assimilated the rhetoric of individualist bravado as rooted in disdainful disregard for the common good.

The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach)

A film that views both human grief and agricultural degradation on the same analytical level, this terrific little debut explored the aftermath of a young farmer’s suicide and its impact on his deeply repressed father and his alienated, exiled sister. Leach’s depictions of animal life surviving deluges hover in dreamlike abstraction whilst its humans experience a plunge into putrid realism clinging like dung to the their boots. But it’s the film’s theme of moral implication that refuses to let anyone off the hook for the collapse of systems human and natural that really speaks to the moment. Although nominally belonging to the same strand of cool British naturalism as Lady Macbeth, it was a polar opposite in cumulative message.

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)

Transplanting Nikolai Leskov’s novel and pruning it down to a hardy stem, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth analyses brutality on many levels with a cold and exacting eye, dispensing with tony psychology to look instead unsparingly at human activity as a form of zoology, in competition for dominance, breeding rights, and living space. A look at period mores that suggests that you don’t have to be crazy to rebel against a corrupt social order, but it certainly helps.

The Lost City of Z (James Gray)

James Gray’s fastidious restraint and shaded emotional palette constantly retards his chances of ever finding popular favour, but here proves cumulatively magisterial with his mixture of biography and meditation on lost time, exploring the life of Percy Fawcett as he sought out signs of lost civilisations even as the one about him shuddered and toppled.

The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska) / The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

I count these two films together because both are versions of the same story, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. But each gave this starting point a gleefully weird, divergent spin. Smoczynska’s work suggested what Anderson’s story might look and sound like if a Jesus Franco joint interbred with a Beach Party movie. Whilst not all of Smoczynska’s flourishes worked, she managed to restore the grief, perversity, and an appropriately pained sense of the cost to be borne in denying one’s true nature, inherent in such source material. Del Toro rendered his transgressive concept not just sweet but very close to square, stripping out any feral power and punkish disquiet from his ode to interspecies love. But his fable-like frame allowed his eye to wander his conjured historic landscape, be it to contemplate the false offerings of consumerist priests to the steel idols of a new technological age crumbling before the power of the flesh and its call for transformative passion.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson)

Cramped by a low budget and familiar foreshortening problems of the biopic, Angela Robinson’s recounting of the creation of Wonder Woman by William Moulton Marston and the two women he formed a harmonious and loving life with nonetheless rivalled The Shape of Water as the year’s most romantic film, depicting shifting states of being and self-realisation through fantasy. Robinson pulled off the tricky feat of combining an essentially interpersonal drama with qualities of an essayistic film, contemplating Marston’s creation and its inspirations with a touch keen, like Marston’s lie detector, to the faintest, but most revealing murmurs of the heart.

The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung)

Destined for cult classic status purely on strength of its jaw-dropping, hyperbolically violent, how-the-hell-did-they-do-that? action sequences, The Villainess backed up its formal gusto with a whacko storyline about a vengeful young gangster’s moll recruited as a superspy after slaughtering her lover’s killers, only to find she’s been played hard, making its protagonist’s schismatic existence a gruesomely, expansively theatrical experience lampooning the roles we play in life and society at different stages of life.

Would Be On This List If I’d Seen It In Time:
(to be updated)

Runners-Up

All the Money in the World (Ridley Scott)
Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland)
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)
The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)
Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui)
The Post (Steven Spielberg)

Notable & Underrated

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow)
Dig Two Graves (Hunter Adams)
The Disaster Artist (James Franco)
Free Fire (Ben Wheatley)
A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
Get Out (Jordan Peele)
Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)
I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh)
Salt and Fire (Werner Herzog)
Slack Bay (Bruno Dumont)
Song To Song (Terrence Malick)
Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi)
Tramps (Adam Leon)

Disappointing & Overrated

Atomic Blonde (David Leitch)
The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)
Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
Hounds of Love (Ben Young)
It (Andres Muschietti)
It Comes At Night (Trey Edward Shults)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Guy Ritchie)
Logan (James Mangold)
Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts)
Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)
Staying Vertical (Alain Guirardie)
T2: Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)
Wind River (Taylor Sheridan)
Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)

Crap

Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley)
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughan)
The Lovers (Azazel Jacobs)
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Valerian and the City a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson)

Blind Spots:

After the Storm ∙ Apprentice ∙ Barracuda ∙ BPM (Beats Per Minute) ∙ Clash ∙ A Fantastic Woman ∙ First They Killed My Father ∙ The Florida Project ∙ From Nowhere ∙ God’s Own Country ∙ Heal the Living ∙ Hermia & Helena ∙ Hostiles ∙ Icaros: A Vision ∙ Indivisible ∙ Ingrid Goes West ∙ The Killing of a Sacred Deer ∙ Lady Bird ∙ Lovesong ∙ Lucky ∙ Marshall ∙ Menashe ∙ mother! ∙ Mudbound ∙ Okja ∙ The Ornithologist ∙ Phantom Thread ∙ A Quiet Passion ∙ Sieranevada ∙ The Son of Joseph ∙ The Square ∙ Suburbicon ∙ The Woman Who Left ∙ A Woman’s Life ∙ The Women’s Balcony ∙ Wonder Wheel

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2017

The 4D Man (Irvin S. Yeaworth)
Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra)
The Bamboo Saucer (Frank Telford)
Black Caesar (Larry Cohen)
Cabiria (Giuseppe Pastrone)
Castle of the Living Dead (Michael Reeves et al)
Children of the Damned (Anton Leader)
Chushingura (Hiroshi Inagaki)
Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak)
Erik the Conqueror (Mario Bava)
Images / 3 Woman (Robert Altman)
Kid Galahad / The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes)
The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis)
Legend of the White Snake (Shirō Toyoda)
Mansion of the Ghost Cat (Nobuo Nakagawa)
Mo’ Better Blues (Spike Lee)
My Night at Maud’s (Eric Rohmer)
Nightmare (Freddie Francis)
The Passionate Friends / Hobson’s Choice / Summertime (David Lean)
Pierrot le Fou / Made in U.S.A. / 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her / La Chinoise / King Lear / Nouvelle Vague (Jean-Luc Godard)
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski)
Los Olvidados / Susana / Ascent to Heaven / The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz / Illusion Travels by Streetcar / Viridiana / Tristana / That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel)
Queen Cristina (Rouben Mamoulian)
The Street With No Name (William Keighley)
Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio)
Toute Une Nuit (Chantal Akerman)
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)
Underworld / The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg)
War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk)
Waxworks / The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni)
Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón)


14th 12 - 2017 | 14 comments »

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Although primed as the eagerly awaited follow-up to a hugely successful blockbuster and instant pop culture fixture, Star Wars: The Last Jedi had a daunting job of work ahead of it. If J.J. Abrams’ franchise-reviver The Force Awakens (2015) proved as tepid as often as tantalising in its effort to give fresh impetus to George Lucas’ canonical science-fantasy series, it did at least manage the task of introducing a new, appealing selection of heroes, and set them up as focal points for a grandiose cosmic drama, conveyed in lovingly produced and crafted cinema. But these exciting qualities weren’t particularly well-served by a new plotline that seemed determined to scrub the series blueprint down to its most simplistic outlines, and recycle familiar and comfortable looks and sounds from Lucas’ first trilogy without bringing any fresh ideas or conceptual zest to the table.

New helmsman Rian Johnson took on the challenge of dragging this new trilogy, laden with expectation and the inertia of franchise property protection, into richer, more novel, more genuinely epic territory. Johnson, a very talented filmmaker, turned heads with his 2005 gambit Brick, a film with the memorable conceit of having high schoolers play the protagonists of a noir film, a unique way of mediating the thrilling intensity and melancholy of teenage life. His second two films, The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Looper (2012), were entertaining but flawed attempts to expand his palette, radically different in tone and style but linked by efforts to blend his love of bygone ephemera and old movies with authentic efforts to tap the wellspring of emotions they stir in him, and his delight in telling tales of labyrinthine cunning. His best work post-debut was actually on several episodes of the TV series Breaking Bad, including “Fly,” a memorable instalment regarding its antiheroes’ efforts to catch a dogging fly in their underground meth lab, provoking all their festering anxieties to hatch out, as well as the pivotal episode “Ozymandias” where their lives actually fell to ruins. The Last Jedi actually takes on themes similar to those episodes, as it puts the Star Wars characters old and new in a pressure cooker and slowly but surely forces them to make choices regarding their lives, their beliefs, their loyalties, whilst their world topples.

In the wake of the briefly operational but catastrophically effective Starkiller’s destruction, the pulverised remnants of the restored Republic government and their Resistance warriors are forced to flee base after base, pursued by the First Order, the ruthless renascent offspring of the old Imperial forces led by the malformed but immensely powerful Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Famed Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leads a determined attack on a formidable First Order warship of a “Dreadnought” class, sporting giant energy weapons, to give time for Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the rest of the Resistance leaders to flee. Poe ignores Leia’s commands to abort the mission, and instead calls in a flight of heavy bombers to pound the Dreadnought until the determined, self-annihilating efforts of one bomber pilot, Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), succeeds in destroying the craft. Poe is put on the carpet and demoted for wasting too many good fighters and ships by Leia, and the Resistance fleet eventually finds itself crawling through deep space with the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), in close pursuit.

Desperate to come up with a way to get the First Order off their tail, Poe and pal Finn (John Boyega), who’s just awoken after spending months in care having terrible wounds repaired, team up with Paige’s low-ranked, hero-worshipping sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who has a brainwave about the method the First Order is using to track them, and decides they need to sneak aboard their command ship and shut it down. Together, Finn and Rose take a fast, small ship to a nearby planet, Canto Bight, a playground for the super-rich, to find a codebreaker who might be able to penetrate First Order security recommended to them by Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). Thrown into prison for a parking violation before they can make contact, they encounter in their cell the scruffy, nefarious DJ (Benecio Del Toro). DJ casually breaks them all out of their cell to demonstrate his own talents at subverting authority, and soon they form a pact and flee the planet after raising some hell. Meanwhile, budding Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to leave his hermit existence in a remote Jedi temple on a lonely island and return to breathe new hope into the Resistance cause. But Luke is filled with regret and self-recrimination after his failure to revive the Jedi order and loss of young Ben Solo to Snoke’s influence and the mantle of his assumed evil guise as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey finds herself dogged by unexpected moments of psychic connection with Kylo, whose conflicts after killing his father Han seem to be boiling over.

If the most interesting subtext of The Force Awakens was its “tell me a story, grandpa” angle in contemplating chains of storytelling and their personal meaning, be it old war stories in the context of the on-screen drama and in meta terms the movies and other artworks you loved as a kid, The Last Jedi makes it clear that ardour for things wrapped in the comforting lustre of legend and period glamour must yield to a new and often dismaying reality. So Johnson commences with a mischievous assault on Abrams’ nostalgia, as he returns to the momentous final gesture of the first film, with Rey holding out to Luke his old lightsaber, that technocratic Excalibur: Luke takes the weapon, gives it a cursory look, and then tosses it over his shoulder in contempt. This is a great moment that signals Johnson’s theme, worked on several levels in the movie that follows, that his characters and their hopes can no longer be sustained by stale myths and old paradigms, and must jettison all that baggage to start again from scratch, to cleanse their temples and reinvent their institutions. It’s an intelligent and appropriate and, dare I say it, timely theme. It’s also, unmistakeably, a message aimed at the franchise itself. If Lucas’s prequels chased the ye-olde-timey ring of courtly sagas and his original trilogy evoked ‘40s screwball spark in their romantic scenes, Johnson’s dialogue and humour style here bring the series to a more definitely current, fashionable style. A joke early in the film sees Poe mock Hux by pretending to have him on hold on a speaker phone.

This is a funny moment that also signals, a touch annoyingly, that the Star Wars universe is being more exactingly annexed by a certain glib contemporaneity. Star Wars is no longer a legend of dreamtimes past; it’s a wing of modern pop culture founded by the likes of Joss Whedon. I suppose that’s inevitable to a degree, given that Lucas’s shift to set his tales entirely in a pseudo-historical zone with the prequels was the most fascinating and most ruthlessly rejected of his efforts. The opening sequence with the bombing raid is both thunderous spectacle but also rather senseless – the series has long been sustained by the unlikely notion of WW2-style aerial dogfights in space, but Johnson takes that here to a perfectly improbable extreme by reproducing that era’s style of bombing, with bombs dropped straight down with the use of gravity that doesn’t exist in space. On the other hand, the film’s central movement involves the agonisingly slow chase through deep space between the Resistance and First Order fleets, the latter maddeningly unable to catch the former at subspace speeds but only seeming to fend off the inevitable, in a plot motif bizarrely reminiscent of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) in imposing clear physical limitations and cold equations upon the spacefaring (there are many yawning plot holes in the story, but I won’t carp on those). After Leia is almost killed in rocket attack on her ship, tensions mount in this agonising situation. As there doesn’t seem to be any way out save his friends’ risky plan, Poe feels provoked to rebel against acting fleet commander Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) when she seems to be intending a dangerous evacuation upon shuttle craft.

Star Wars has always been a bricoleur’s assemblage, defined by the ingenuity with which it mixed and matched classic film and pulp literary genres and a trove of mythological motifs. Abrams clearly worshipped at the altar of Lucas’ 1977 series foundation, but that seemed to be the limit of his referential frame. Johnson, on the other hand, is the sort of creative hand hip to Lucas’ method, at least to an extent, as Looper spliced incongruous motifs – time travel and psychic powers, gangster and hitman melodramas, old Hollywood and Anime – into an impressive if lumpy chimera. His preferred modes are classic noir and expressionist dramas rather than the swashbucklers, war movies, westerns, and sci-fi flicks Lucas took most inspiration from – screwball comedy is one significant overlap in their lexicon. This new influence is immediately apparent in the scenes on Canto Bight, where the grand casino inhabited by the smug-ugly has a veneer of ritzy glamour that proves instead to be a den of iniquity in a manner reminiscent of something like Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941) or Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). A pivotal incident in the past that caused Luke and Kylo’s break and the destruction of the fledgling Jedi renaissance is seen three times in revised flashbacks, a touch that echoes many a noir film’s sublimation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and Kane and Welles are more clearly echoed in a sequence in which Rey attempts to confront her own nature as a creature of the Force and instead finds herself confronted by an endless hall of mirror selves, threatened like Welles’ antiheroes with mistaking her own ego for the state of the universe.

Johnson also emphasises the inequality and sleaziness pervading corners of this universe. Lucas’ vision for his future-past was always one of a society with a cynically profiteering sector – witness Han’s travails with Jabba the Hutt and Anakin’s lot as the slave of businessman Watto. Johnson tries to indict the forces at the centre of the Galactic community and their willingness to make money out of war. DJ highlights for Finn and Rose that the fortunes of Canto Bight’s denizens have largely been made selling arms to both the First Order and Resistance. The visit to Canto Bight finds Finn and Rose observing the brutality towards both animals engaged in racing, and the young human thralls used to prop up the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and the plucky Resistance warriors make common cause with both. The sequence in which Rose releases the racing animals is both fun but also a little too Harry Potter-esque for this imprimatur, whilst Johnson’s attempts to work up some of the sort of resurgence-of-the-repressed drama Lucas was so fond of – see THX-1138 (1971); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – manifests in offering up a few waifs straight out of ‘30s Our Gang shorts making gosh-jeez faces. Johnson wants these kids to represent the notion that the Resistance instils hope and the basis for future resurgence, blended once again with the notion of loving this fantastical material as a viewer for its uplifting and dream-stirring cache, and the film’s very ending points directly to this process taking root in the minds of these young people.

This notion doesn’t land nearly as strongly as Johnson intends it, however. He wants us to feel the illicit rush of this rebellious spirit in his tale and also the daring in his lack of cool. Given that Lucas was flayed alive by the modern cool police by his choice to move entirely into the imaginative realm of kids on The Phantom Menace (1999), Johnson’s efforts feel only crudely calculated and tacked-on in skirting the same territory. Where the film is on surer ground is Rey and Luke’s tetchy, mutually frustrated relationship, which evokes but also revises Luke’s encounters with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Luke is a shambolic, self-exiled husk of his former self, detached from the Force and subsisting with hopes the Jedi way will die with him. Confronted by Rey’s raw natural power, he’s both impressed and terrified, as he’s already seen the same abilities in former pupil Kylo. Rey attempts to prod the Master back to action provoke scorn – “Did you think I was going out to take on the whole First Order with my laser sword?” Luke questions in derision. Hamill, whose performance is often taken as a weak link in the original trilogy, nonetheless matured into an excellent character actor in the course of his spotty career. He’s very good here, better indeed than Harrison Ford’s much-hailed equivalent turn was in The Force Awakens, as he invests his aged and haggard Luke with glimmers of his old, dreamy romanticism even as the damage his life failings have done to him gnaws incessantly at his core being. Of course, the question as to whether Luke will return to the fight isn’t really a question, only how and at what suitably dramatic juncture of the story.

One sharp failing of The Force Awakens was Abrams’ neglect of coming up with any genuinely inspired new technology or alien species. Johnson is more vigorous with the aliens, particularly on the temple island where Luke takes milk from giant, lolling walrus-like creatures to drink, and the Porgs, a race of small, furry, but relatively aware critters who object with memorably abject horror when Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) proposes to eat one of their fellows. But there’s still a notable failure to do much that’s interesting or properly, dramatically engaged with the new alien characters. Even Chewbacca, who has long stood vitally on the divide between sci-fi grotesque and beloved supporting character, is marginalised here, and his reunion with Luke is a paltry scene. Johnson does offer up one lovely dollop of fan service as Yoda (Frank Oz) appears to Luke when he’s determined to destroy the last of the Jedi’s founding texts. Rather than try to stop him, Yoda brings down a bolt of lightning to do the job for him, and patiently instructs him in the film’s theme, that faith has to be in the living avatars of the creed rather than relics of the past. Kylo, confronting Rey, makes the same point, encouraging to spurn her past and claim the future as her rightful possession.

This endlessly reiterated message feels as much like a poke in the ribs to cranky old fans like me as a dramatic imperative, and it might have had more impact if the film wasn’t trapped resolutely within the resolutely unimaginative framework Abrams and Lucasfilm-Disney provided. The new series has not just paid attention to all the criticisms aimed at the prequel trilogy but taken them so deeply to heart it’s caused creative rictus, in stripping things back to essentials: although there are little flourishes in the margins here, it’s still basically just an extended chase movie. The First Order, whose resemblance to a Khmer Rouge, Taliban, or Daesh-like force of fanatical opportunism has faded to leave them purely as Empire wannabes, represent the biggest failure in this regard. There’s still no inkling given of their aims, their credos, other than being the Bad Guys. Snoke is the Emperor without Ian McDiarmid’s wit and relish in instilling dimensions of Machiavellian smarts and rancid perversity in his character; Hux and Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) are still just sneering snobs. One quality that distinguished the Star Wars series under Lucas’ hand was the way it steadily evolved, accumulating lore, complexity, and emotional heft, even whilst maintaining an open, light touch for the broadest possible audience. Yes, the original film was a fleet, glib space western, but it laid groundwork quickly and deftly to suggest greater dimensions to everything we saw and felt, and then each of the following five films added something new. But in spite of Johnson’s calls to bring something new to the table and forget the past, he resolutely avoids the hard work of actually doing this.

Johnson indeed seems plainly impatient with much of the infrastructure he inherited from Abrams and Disney’s focus groups – very early in the film, he has Snoke mock and Kylo destroy the incredibly uninspired mask Kylo wore in The Force Awakens, and the path Johnson’s storyline cleaves through the set-up he was stuck with is similarly dismissive. One great task always facing Johnson was to try and come up with a twist as memorable as Darth Vader’s great reveal in The Empire Strikes Back. Johnson does provide a twist; several in fact, but not only do they not approach the momentousness of the model, they don’t really add up to much, in large part because they eventually cancel each-other out and leave the story precepts pretty much what they were at the outset. Much like Rey in her hall of mirrors, Johnson falls into the trap of merely deflating or offering slight tweaks on familiar moments. The flight to battle in rickety spaceships proves a tragicomic joke. The bad guy who becomes a good guy proves then to still be a bad guy – not once but twice. The pivotal scene here involves Kylo’s assassination of Snoke, a gleefully nasty if not total surprise, and one that concedes Snoke was just a ranting placeholder in the role of ultimate evil. Johnson’s staging of this sequence, and Rey and Kylo’s subsequent battle with Snoke’s bodyguards, is definitely the highpoint of the film, one that seems finally to engage with the sheer swashbuckling verve and operatic swerves of human nature of the series. And yet Johnson quickly undercuts its impact by having Kylo prove to be merely calculating rather than complex, and he ascends to the status of unchallenged bad guy, one who is apparently still enough of a sucker to not notice the difference when someone is projecting themselves on the astral plane.

The major subplot involving Poe’s clashes with and eventual mutiny against Holdo is another potentially intelligent story thread that doesn’t quite work, particularly as its raises a worthy and legitimate new theme about types of leadership. Poe, used to command and chafing against his reduction, becomes increasingly angry with the taciturn Holdo, and both fail to a certain extent in arguing for their positions. Johnson seems to be pitching here to launch a thousand think pieces on female leadership and male intransigence, which feels in a way a bit treacherous to the series’ comfort with women as leader figures (Leia, Mon Mothma, Padmé Amidala), which means ironically he’s had his talking point theme at the expense of this creative universe’s established, blithe indifference to contemporary gender politics (none of Padmé’s soldiers questioned her commands). Dern also feels rather miscast in the role, too, as it seems to demand someone with thorny hauteur and icy-eyed determination along the lines of Kristin Scott Thomas. That said, Holdo’s climactic act of vengeful self-sacrifice, ramming her space ship into Snoke’s at high speed, shattering the First Order fleet to smithereens, is a great piece of spectacle, made more effective by Johnson’s removal of all sound, simply observing the surge of pulverising energy and splintering metal. Here he really grips the quasi-Biblical scale of action and destruction matched to grandiose human will in the series forebears by the throat. And yet, again, Johnson doesn’t follow through with any clear depiction of the effect this has. Indeed, it has none on the First Order hunt and core villains.

Ridley and Boyega are still real finds for this series, and both of them display a developing touch in making their roles effective audience stand-ins who nonetheless have properly defined characters. But the way Finn and Poe are handled here makes them feel increasingly like fifth wheels. Finn is proved a dupe who flits about the margins and Poe’s struggles lead him into a position of new authority by the end that feels more accidental than earned. Finn’s final battle with Phasma aboard a disintegrating Star Destroyer is effectively melodramatic, but proves a little scanty. Johnson sets up a romantic triangle of sorts between Finn, Rose, and Rey – or rectangle if one counts Rey’s fleeting if finally extinguished attraction to Kylo. But it’s a long way from the smouldering love-hate of Han and Leia or the guilty, transgressive passion of Anakin and Padmé. Now we’ve got the adorkable pairing of Finn and Rose, which does lead into a gripping sequence in which Rose performs a staggeringly risky manoeuvre to save Finn from his own kamikaze gutsiness, but otherwise feels entirely too cute. Lucas’ characters were archetypes and naïfs, but they were also solid adults who had sex and dashed and dazzled. Everyone in this seems restricted, repressed, stymied. Part of what made The Empire Strikes Back as beloved as it is in spite of its nominally downbeat narrative of calamity and mutilation, was because it was the most authentically dreamlike of the original trilogy. The cavernous spaces and hovering beauty of Cloud City, dragon-riddled asteroids, haunted swamps, and spaceships roaring through twilight skies burned with ardour in authentic fantastical horizons. Nothing here even approaches, at least until the very end when Johnson evokes Lucas’ crucial images of setting suns and dissolution of the flesh, such a state of transcendental beauty.

Rey was and remains the best new character – I’ve heard many invocations that hold her as the sole real achievement and best reason for loyalty to the new series from fans both casual and hardcore – and The Last Jedi does drag her evolution to interesting new places. She’s the voice of a new and ardent breed who craves leadership and direction, appealing to a crusty old warhorse in the form of Luke in a manner that feels true to a real-world context today where the young have looked to older voices of undiluted radical vision. Rey is also beset by her mysterious bond with Kylo, with glimmers of erotic interest and tactile communion as they try to connect psychically (including Rey being distracted by the sight of Kylo sans shirt, a funny moment that also conveys a blessed note of the erotic, otherwise desperately missing from Disney Star Wars) coexisting with fierce antipathy. The film’s ultimate solution to the raised mystery of her parentage feels like another dodge, as her parents were just wastrels who sold her for coin, and her abilities are purely her own provenance. This is neat on a symbolic level, as it underlines Rey as the embodiment of the new and of re-founding rather than legacy, but it’s also rather, well, lame and anti-climactic. Luke reiterates a belief that the Jedi must end, but what exactly what might take the creed’s place, and what Rey in particularly could bring to it, again isn’t given any thought.

The Last Jedi does give Fisher a strong last go-round as Leia, who stands alone as a figure of stature and authority for the first time, running the Resistance cause with a sinking heart and guttering fire of determination. Leia gains some appropriately great moments, including one in which she utilises Jedi gifts surprisingly to save herself from a seemingly inevitable death. She also has a funny exchange with Holdo as they both admit their simultaneous irritation with Poe but also common love for his kind of bad boy. A running joke about Rey’s belief that the Force is the ability to make rocks float builds to a punch-line at the end involving her do just that. That’s about it. And this moment crystallised the way Star Wars has been vampirised by those pretending to reinvigorate it. There’s painfully little wonderment or fantastical beauty left in this universe. Johnson’s film looks good in a way, chasing a quality of desolate, dusky beauty, but too often it looks rather too often grey, dusty, and more than a little dolorous. Compared to the astounding opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith (2005) with it monumental, intricately staged, kaleidoscopically colourful space battle, Johnson’s paltry fleets slowly chugging through space are clunky and dully pseudo-realist. Of course, The Last Jedi is supposed to be set in a different, more run-down and wearied age, but that only covers a genuine paucity of real layering and ingenuity in effects and world-building so far.

The mantle of the Jedi no longer carries with it the scent of green bamboo shoots they inherited from their wu xia and samurai epic models nor the red petals of chivalric romance, and with them goes the very element that elevated Star Wars above its rivals in the modern special effects cinema arms race. And as dynamic as these cinematic inheritors try to be in filling its place, this absence of an elevated plane to the drama, a yearning for higher ideals and the resonance of myth, never mind Lucas’ attempts to encompass his ideas on history and society and the linkages of both to identity, depresses me deeply, as does the refusal to engage in the creative universe beyond the immediate survival drama beyond canards like some of the rich are bad. I might seem to be castigating The Last Jedi more harshly than it perhaps warrants: it’s still easily the best of the three entries (which also includes Gareth Edwards’ mediating one-off Rogue One, 2016) in the reinstituted series. It boasts a handful of powerful sequences, and although it features a finale that goes on a few scenes too long and tries playing the same hand over and over again, and builds to a properly momentous confrontation of Luke and Kylo, it’s only to, once again, reveal itself as a kind of a cheat, failing to deliver Luke to a consummation even close to what he (and the audience) deserves. The universe should shake to its foundations when Luke Skywalker dies. Instead, Johnson merely has him run out of puff. The new series has closed The Last Jedi tells me the series has plateaued in terms of what it can accomplish and how it’s going to do it, and that reasons why I’ve loved this material in the past are slowly but surely being neutered. Where the prequel trilogy has only doggedly and insistently earned my admiration for their achievement over the past decade or so, these new films lay all their cards on the table instantly.


11th 12 - 2017 | no comment »

The Disaster Artist (2017)

Director/Actor: James Franco

By Roderick Heath

When I wrote about Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) in 2011, I finished up my commentary with a flourish of mock-epic prose:

The Room finishes, and yet its all-pervading awfulness remained with me. Everything seemed to grow darker, tainted by its touch. The likes of Michelangelo and Leo Tolstoy would have had their faith in creative endeavour shaken by it, and afterwards I started seeing the inner Wiseau in many a great artist, as if all efforts lead into an immense heart of crappiness.

It seems I wasn’t the only person to feel a personal implication of all artistic ambition in Wiseau’s intrepid failure, and to be compelled against my will by this fragmentary, heartfelt yet farcically inept by-product, the misshapen offspring of an intended, serious piece of artistry. Since then, in the strange fate that befalls certain movies, The Room and its manifold absurdities have only gained ground as a common touchstone, a rite of passage for students and movie fans, and its inanities, so beggaring on first viewing, swiftly became old friends – the non sequitur dialogue and plotting, the random impulses of emotion and gesture, the screw-loose bravura and shambolic majesty of Wiseau’s lead performance and the valiantly outmatched efforts of his supporting cast.

After years of speculation and interest as to just how in hell this car crash of a film came into being, Wiseau’s friend/accomplice/bewildered collaborator Greg Sestero worked with writer Tom Bissell to pen and publish The Disaster Artist, an account of the film’s making, Sestero’s adventures as a young wannabe about Hollywood, and his alternately stirring, ruinous, ultimately triumphant acquaintance with Wiseau, in 2013. The book dished a lot of dirt on the production of The Room, and the man who made it. It was also surprisingly entertaining and revealing in its depiction of Sestero’s own period as a try-hard model-turned-actor, a rare portrait of coping with failure in the city of stars after many elusive promises and chances for success, before he reluctantly joined forces with Wiseau for his bull-in-a-china-shop foray into the world of independent filmmaking. Yet it also revealed Sestero by and large just as confused, stymied, and awed by Wiseau’s enigmatic stature as the rest of us. In supreme irony, the book’s often hilarious but just as often melancholy and disillusioned narrative gained accolades Wiseau might have dreamt of, earning Sestero and Bissell awards and now a prestigious adaptation. Yet the book could only have existed thanks to Wiseau’s failure, and the transformation of that failure into an icon of delighted ridicule.

James Franco seems to have empathised. Like Sestero and Wiseau, he’s been the ardent fledgling actor who worshipped at the altar of James Dean, although Franco actually made the leap to playing the legendary star in a 2001 TV movie. Like them, he’s laboured to escape type-casting and prove himself an adventurous and serious artist on multiple fronts, making a string of movies in the past few years that have often been met with withering contempt, although in Franco’s case the often hyperbolic dismissal of his works far outstripped their modest merits or failings, or at least for those I’ve seen. Franco’s directorial efforts up until now seemed mostly happy as marginalia, using his movie star status to bankroll movies as rough drafts of creative endeavour in the same way a budding painter might tear through dozens of pages on sketches preparing for an ultimate endeavour. His film of The Disaster Artist wields ironies in itself, a ploy for a broad audience built around celebration of a niche cult object, working from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. That said, The Disaster Artist plainly unites several frames of reference already apparent in Franco’s work. Following in the wake of movies like The Ape (2005), Sal, and The Broken Tower (both 2011), it’s a study of troubled and striving creative endeavour. Like Child of God (2013), it’s a portrait of a gnarled, thwarted, inarticulate, furious outcast trying to stake a claim in the world. It follows Interior. Leather Bar. (2013) as a study in the cinema aesthetic itself, conjoined with a contemplation of cultural priorities.

Franco casts himself as Wiseau and his younger brother Dave as Sestero. It’s the sort of idea that seems at first like a Saturday Night Live skit writ large, but proves in practice more like a performance-art conceit, shaded by dint of the brothers’ careful, convincing impersonations of their respective avatars. They render Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero as parts of a fragmented persona, the bland but likeable all-American boy meeting his intense, destabilising, immigrant partner in yearning. Not that the disparity entirely disappears, nor does James want it to. Franco stages Greg’s illustrious first encounter with the typhonic force of Tommy as a momentous epiphany, complete with rumbling, epic scoring suggesting great forces gathering, although what we actually see are Greg’s awkward, rigid performance for a San Francisco acting class and then Wiseau’s unhinged, almost literally scenery-chewing rampage as he offers his own interpretive dance take on the famous “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Most onlookers are stupefied and amused, but Greg is fascinated by Tommy’s energy and willingness to put himself out there, and suggests they play a scene together in class.

Tommy responds by inviting him to lunch and then getting him to read lines in the middle of a crowded restaurant, overcoming his shyness and discovering his inner hambone under the aghast and bemused attention of other patrons. The two men become fast and solid friends, as Tommy seems to be fired up by Sestero’s blonde, cheery inheritance of all natural fortune, and Greg by the older man’s enthusiasm and go-get-‘em energy. They watch touchstone movies together and drive all night to visit the scene of James Dean’s death as a shrine after watching Rebel Without a Cause (1955). On the spur of the moment, Wiseau suggests they both head to Los Angeles and get busy making it as actors, casually revealing that he owns an apartment there they can share. Greg is too thrilled by the idea to pay attention to his mother’s (Megan Mullaly) concerns about Tommy’s intentions, catching wind of homoerotic interest in Tommy’s references to Greg as “babyface” and liking for hanging about with a handsome younger man. Later when they do shack up in Tommy’s apartment he does seem to make a come-on to Greg, only to then laugh it off as a joke. Soon they settle back into amicable, brotherly mutual boosting, but it’s a friendship where Tommy is well aware Greg can only grasp his chances with both hands because his generosity allows him to go for them.

The two men dedicate themselves to the endless, crushing roundelay of auditions and more acting classes, a process that sees Greg quickly snatched up by a top talent agent, Iris Burton (Sharon Stone), purely by dint of his looks. Meanwhile Tommy chafes increasingly against the common opinion he’s got the makings of a terrifying screen bad guy, believing himself far more the stuff of romantic heroism. “You all laugh,” Tommy retorts to an acting coach (Bob Odenkirk) and his sniggering class after one of his performances and resisting their attempts to pin him as a natural heavy: “That what bad guy do.” Soon, with neither of their careers going anywhere, Greg tries to keep Tommy’s spirits up, and he hands his friend a flash of inspiration–the notion of making their own movie. Tommy, with his mysteriously deep pockets, realises he can make it happen. All he needs is a script, so he bashes out his magnum opus and gets Greg to read it over lunch. In his determination to ensure his production has the stature of a great cinematic enterprise, Tommy approaches camera equipment providers Birns & Sawyer and instead of simply renting their gear insists on purchasing all manner of cameras and shooting his movie on both film and video. The staff realise they have a major-league sucker on their hands, and convince him to utilise their small film studio too.

An inevitable point of reference for The Disaster Artist is Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), another biographical drama about a much-hailed cavalier of terrible cinema. The differences between Wood’s adventures as a no-budget huckster and Wiseau’s mogul pretences are as marked as the similarities, however. The Disaster Artist portrays the gruelling shoot for The Room as a process not beset by the fly-by-night anxiety and enthusiastic fellowship Burton found in Wood’s forays, because Wiseau’s money furnishes him with largely competent collaborators and a cast of anxious hopefuls who, just like their self-financed auteur, are hoping to carve a niche for themselves in the industry. And yet the result proves to be just as deliriously out of tune as anything Wood made, stricken with the same fascinating blend of cynical and deeply personal impulses. Tommy tries to encourage the cast and crew he hires to follow him on a grand creative journey, but it soon becomes clear to all involved, even the ever-supportive Greg, that Tommy has no idea what he’s doing, quickly earning enmities with imperial egotisms like a specially constructed personal toilet and turning up late for shoots. He also loses his bravado in performing when it comes time to do it before cameras, spending most of a single day trying to shoot a scene involving one line (All together now: “I did not hit her. It’s not true. It’s bullshit. I did not hit her. I did not.”).

Script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen), who is initially surprised when his pay check actually clears, is obliged to take the film in hand when Wiseau is before the camera, but Tommy studiously ignores his directions and finally, unceremoniously boots him and some other pros from the production. At last, Tommy’s overwhelming desire to realise his perfect fantasy of living in a movie leads to ugly moments like him clashing with the crew when he goes mental over a pimple on the arm of his leading lady, Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor). Tommy is beset by the simultaneous need to express himself creatively and report his emotional travails to the world, whilst also trying to remain shielded against its prying eyes and judgements, unaware that show business, although a business of image and affectation, also requires a fine human touch to navigate. Tommy never reveals the source or extent of his fortune and steadfastly refusing to reveal his age, claiming to be the same age as Greg. Tommy, like some exploitation movie version of Jay Gatsby, believes American success and self-invention can be extended onto all stages of life, that the image one creates of one’s self can become the reality, and his desire to venture into acting and moviemaking betrays an ambition to escape the aspects of identity he refuses to admit, the foreignness that’s patently obvious to everyone else.

Tommy’s neediness extends to both wanting to use Greg as his avatar in the world but also getting peevish when Greg reaps the sorts of successes he wants, as when he lands a girlfriend in the form of cute bartender Amber (Alison Brie). Later on, when they’re trying to shoot Tommy’s passion project, Greg’s announcement to Tommy that he’s moving in with Amber sparks a tantrum from Tommy that echoes the climactic moments of The Room, except that apocalyptic desolation plays out in life as kicking a few vending machines and cradling a throbbing foot. Greg’s discussions with the other actors about the characters and their possible real-life inspirations suddenly highlights that many of them could be versions of Greg himself, and beyond that, projections of Tommy’s shifting ideas of Greg, possibly the one true human contact he’s had in years. Finally Tommy’s controlling streak manifests destructively for Greg when he refuses to bend from his shooting schedule to allow Greg to keep the beard he’s grown long enough to shoot a role on the TV show Malcolm in the Middle offered to him after a chase encounter with Bryan Cranston. Soon Greg loses his temper with Tommy whilst shooting second-unit footage (such as it is) in San Francisco, prodding him over his own refusal to open up, finishing up with the two men getting into a scuffling, spiteful yet still rather brotherly wrestling clinch in the middle of a scene shoot. After time apart, Greg is stunned to see Tommy’s mug gazing down from a colossal billboard ad in downtown LA, and soon the man himself comes to invite him to the film’s premiere.

With Interior. Leather Bar., Franco and documentary filmmaker Travis Mathews collaborated on a nominal attempt to recreate lost material filmed on New York’s gay scene for William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), footage reportedly hacked out of that film because it was too racy, in the name of reclaiming the world it recorded from the realm of sordid legend. Franco’s interest in film as an artefact in this fashion, the desire to capture lightning in a bottle twice, finds a vehicle here that allows him to extend that kind of avant-garde conceit whilst playing the entertainer. He painstakingly recreates Wiseau’s footage and the hapless acting recorded by it utilising talented, experienced, and famous thespians, including Jackie Weaver as Carolyn Minnott, Juliette’s on-screen mother, Josh Hutcherson as Philip “Denny” Haldiman, and Zac Efron as Dan Janjigian, the actor playing fearsome yet negligible drug pusher Chris R. In much the same way that Wiseau absorbs scenes in Streetcar, Rebel Without a Cause and The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) into his creative lexicon, Franco simulates and transforms Wiseau’s images. At film’s end Franco offers the original scenes alongside his recreations to compare both the success and the failure of the reproduction, the slight variances in timing and actor delivery and camera angles coming with logarithmic variance. Filmmakers who do this sort of thing rarely put their labours on the line in such a fashion, and I get the feeling it’s very much part of what Franco was after in taking on the project, a desire to grab the raw material of this compelling piece of outsider art and disassemble it to see how it works, to apply exacting competence to incompetence.

What Franco lacks that Burton brought to his contention with Wood’s threadbare oeuvre is a definite directorial signature to utilise in mediating the stylistic mimicry. Franco’s shooting style, developed on the run on his many projects, has arrived at a baseline of fly-on-the-wall realism conveyed with darting, often hand-held camerawork, affecting gritty and happenstance casualness. It’s the exact opposite of the tony, polished, yet utterly stilted professionalism Wiseau spent about $6 million of his own money achieving. Franco brings specificity to the work more through the associations he can leverage with his casting and his contexts. But Franco does make some sport out of reproducing elements of Wiseau’s visual syntax. Unsurprisingly for anyone had ever seen the infamous football-throwing sequences in The Room, Sestero revealed in his book that Wiseau barely knew how to play the game and yet fetishized it as a symbol of Americanness, so when the Francos’ impersonations try to play a clumsy game of catch, Franco reproduces Wiseau’s square-on, middle-distance viewpoint, revealing awkward cinema is rooted in incomprehension of what exactly was being filmed. The sweeping view from the roof of Tommy’s LA apartment block is presented as the obvious inspiration for the blue-screen panorama constantly seen in his film.

A prolonged and purely cringe-worthy sequence in which Tommy spots Judd Apatow at dinner in an LA restaurant and harasses him with his garbled reading of a Shakespeare soliloquy, sees the brusque producer squirming in his seat in please-make-this-end discomfort, and then attempt to fix Tommy in the eye and make clear to him that he will never be the stuff of stardom. Franco’s own self-mocking subtext here acknowledges Apatow as the man who gave him his break on the TV show Freaks and Geeks. This scene suggests a closer relative to The Disaster Artist than Ed Wood might be The King of Comedy (1983), Martin Scorsese’s ruthless portrayal of obsessive fandom and its ambition to assimilate the vitality of the famous. Except that unlike Rupert Pupkin, Tommy has the money to make his own show happen, to impose his weird, theoretically romantic ayet actually deeply masochistic fantasies. Tommy’s own likeness to a vampire is a repeated quip throughout, fleshing out the suggestion he sucks the life out of anyone fool enough to come into his orbit, most particularly Greg.

James’ performance as Wiseau has to walk a narrow line, because it must be integral to his approach, moving beyond mere skit-like impression but also conceding its status as performance, to find realism in artifice. He manages to walk that line with impressive fixity, nailing aspects of Wiseau’s persona as his peculiar speech mannerisms where the line between old accent and recent nerve damage can’t be entirely distinguished, the slightly dead-eyed gaze, the anxious, robotic laughs and full-on eruptions of hot feeling that suggest a barely-suppressed volcanic heat at the base of the man’s belly. Dave gives a fun performance playing Sestero, but in many ways he has the harder job in playing the man constantly drawn in the wake of Tommy’s eccentricity. And he can’t quite inhabit Greg: the real Sestero, in spite of his general aura of real geniality and loyalty, looked nonetheless born to play the role of blithe betrayer, with all those sculpted planes to his face under ocean-blue eyes, the entitled surfer boy hunk and white-bread heartbreaker one can so well imagine inspiring Wiseau with existential terror, the being he wants to point to every time someone calls him a villainous-looking dude and say, but that’s what threat looks like to me. The smile Sestero put on when first glimpsed without his beard has a quality of rictus to it; you can see, as he reports in the book, his sinking feeling that all his acting dreams are at an end, and no actor can quite reproduce such a look. Franco ultimately shies away from pushing The Disaster Artist to the extremes of discomforting and dismaying absurdity of Scorsese’s film.

The galling if querulous misogyny that flows through The Room is also for the most part elided, regarded as an aspect of the paranoid general misanthropy. When the cast of the film talk about what Tommy’s trying to get at in his script, Juliette describes Lisa as essentially symbolising “the Universe” and its treatment of him. But Franco makes sure to depict the casting process for the film consists of Tommy getting the young actresses auditioning for the role to jump through hoops of behaviour including actions like blowing on a saxophone and licking an ice cream, filled with salacious innuendo, suggesting Franco knows very well Wiseau displays some of the tendencies that attract men like Harvey Weinstein into the movie business. On the other hand, Franco also notes and entertains gleeful complicity with Wiseau’s desire to objectivise himself on camera, to offer his own flesh, both anxiously and narcissistically, as a paradigm on manhood on screen. And so, of course, the moment in The Room that gains the most appalled groans of intolerance is of course when Franco/Tommy’s butt is displayed in colossal detail upon screen, granting the viewers the sensation less of having gained an erotic moment of self-exposing bravura than the feeling that, well, someone’s just forced a theatre of people to look at his ass.

The book was filled with Sestero’s musings on his pal and his shadowy past and modes of income, which are also left out: like many fans of The Room, it’s the very inscrutability of Wiseau that compels Franco, his status as a fever dream sprung directly out of some Eastern Bloc kid’s idea of an American success story made flesh and compelled by his own warring identities to both risk himself and hide all at once. Given that the 21st century has been so far an age of obsessive public fascination with celebrity, with performance of the self as enabled by technology in in all its illusory promise of instant and easy adoration, it’s certainly not hard to see Wiseau as the age’s court jester, its perfect and perfectly absurd embodiment. Less comfortingly, he might even be a fitting antihero for the Trump age as a man who uses a shady fortune to glorify himself and subordinate others to his will. Wiseau’s collaboration was inevitably required in making the film, probably meaning Franco felt obliged to go reasonably easy on him.

And also because in the end, although hopes are dashed, feelings bruised, fools made, Tommy himself is ultimately the one wounded most, this bedraggled yet weirdly gutsy, prosperous yet pathetic avatar of every weirdo who’s longed to be anointed by a more glamorous world, only to become a figure of fun. “Even if you have the talent of Brando,” Franco has Apatow tell himself as Tommy, “It’s a one in a million chance you’ll make it.” Sestero emphasised in his book the way Wiseau’s efforts added up to a form of therapeutic self-rescue, whilst in Wiseau’s pathos Franco sees something more universal but also quite personal, the lot of every creative person, their desire to reveal themselves, to take risks, but on their own, controlled terms. Where Ed Wood had to imagine a sarcastically triumphant ending for its hero, Franco turns the premiere of The Room, the ego trip as objet d’art no-one ever through would actually make it to a movie screen, as a microcosm of the film’s journey from wince-inducing, career-killing calamity to the subject of horrified fascination, and on to become a source of fiercely beloved merriment and communal joy, its creator suffering through ultimate humiliation only to immediately reinvent himself as the proud maker of a deliberately shoddy piece of punk comedy. Whilst he’s simplified and homogenized the phenomena of Wiseau and The Room to a certain extent, Franco can at least claim, in addition to making them into the stuff of a damn funny and entertaining film, to capture the essence of their curious appeal. And now, thanks to it, you don’t even have to actually watch The Room. But I will. Again.


5th 12 - 2017 | no comment »

The Wedding Plan (2016)

Director/Screenwriter: Rama Burshtein

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Wedding Plan is a slippery film to write about. It seems to want desperately to be a screwball comedy in the Julia Roberts mold—mostly fun, occasionally wistful, with a life lesson or two floated on the way to a happy ending. Yet, that’s not what we get. Instead of a mild diversion, director/screenwriter Rama Burshtein and her lead actress, Noa Koler,  reveal the horrible pain of loneliness that drives so many people—especially women trying to fulfill society’s role for them—to marry at any cost.

In an absurdly comic opening scene, Michal (Koler), a Breslov Hasidic Jew who owns and operates a mobile petting zoo, is shown in the waiting room of a psychic (Odelia Moreh-Matalon) she is consulting about her inability to find a mate. The psychic’s son, Shimi (Amos Tamam), moves awkwardly through the waiting room with a box of fish for his mother. When Michal enters the consultation room, the psychic places a fish between them and smears Michal’s face with its slime as she gets Michal to face her fears and find hope for the future. She tells Michal to ask Shimi, who owns and operates a banquet hall, to give her a discount on her sure-to-be wedding.

Sure enough, the next scene shows Michal and her intended, Gidi (Erez Drigues), choosing food for their wedding reception at Shimi’s establishment. But all does not go as planned. Michal, feeling Gidi has been growing distant at the approach of their wedding day, insists that he tell her what’s wrong. He surprises her by telling her he doesn’t love her. Michal is devastated. In a crazy scheme to lift herself out of despair and get the happy ending she was anticipating, Michal decides to proceed with the wedding plan anyway, trusting that putting God and a couple of matchmakers on the case will result in a groom to marry her on the last day of Hanukkah, a holiday that commemorates another minor miracle.

If this had been an American film, we might have seen a rapid-fire series of dates with an assortment of weirdos, with poor Michal screwed up in wide-eyed bewilderment. Burshtein, however, isn’t interested in getting a lot of cheap laughs and gives Michal’s match-made dates room to breathe. True, one of Michal’s dates is with a man (Udi Persi) who proposes to her on two hours’ acquaintance, but refuses to look at her because he wants to fall in love at first sight. When Michal agrees to marry him but only if he looks her in the eye, he accuses her of trying to trick him and storms off. The next date is with a deaf man (Jonathan Rozen) who communicates through an interpreter. He seems great—intelligent, warm, funny—but when he asks her why she agreed to go out with him after turning down an earlier introduction the matchmaker had arranged, she tells the truth: “Despair.” The interpreter does not voice-translate her date’s angry signs.

While Burshtein packs in some strange and funny scenes—a mother repeatedly fending off Michal’s attempts to let a girl at a birthday party pet a harmless snake is the most deadpan—the film is largely a painful experience. Koler brings extreme honesty, bullheadedness, and impulsivity to her portrayal of Michal, giving us a portrait of a difficult person to like. Tempering these characteristics are the raw emotions of Michal’s sadness, fear of being alone, and recognition of the loneliness in others. I recognize the panic in her eyes, the whistling in the dark of her certainty about the success of her plan, the fear of being played by one man who proposes to her. Her line deliveries offer a master class in how to portray a flawed, complex character who can be sincere, insane, and calculating all at one time. Below is a clip that very obviously signals a plot point with the coordinated costuming of Michal and pop star Yos (Oz Zehavi). The pair have met-cute in the shrine of the founder of her sect, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Yos has asked her for her name through the wall that separates the men from the women after being touched by her piteous lament that she cannot feel God’s presence. They meet face to face outside of the shrine.

The Wedding Plan is a problematic film. It’s hard for any feminist to endorse a film that spends its entire running time focusing on women desperate to get married. Michal’s confident assertions that God will provide reminded me of when I was 6 years old and so convinced that I would win a horse offered in a contest that my mother actually got nervous; it’s childish magic thinking that is slightly offensive, even if understandable. Similarly, Michal’s roommate, Feggie (Ronny Merhavi), a pretty, but overweight woman, believes fervently in Michal’s plan because it gives her hope that one day she will find a man. The film is also problematic from a spiritual perspective, which the film acknowledges. At one point, a rabbi tries to dissuade Michal from her quest, fearing that should a groom not materialize, Michal’s faith will be shaken. Indeed, in a cheat that suggests that her prayers have been answered, Yos asks for her address in Jerusalem because he doesn’t want to lose her.

It’s strange that in a film about a woman who says she can’t find a husband, she actually gets four proposals; indeed, the film foreshadows her coming romantic intrigues in the opening scene. I really enjoyed the interrelationships of Michal and her community of women, all gamely cheering her on through her wedding preparations and sitting with her wondering if her prince really will come. While many women will not empathize with Michal’s plan, she is being true to herself and truthful with others to the extent that her positive thinking can allow. We get a tiny peek into Hasidic life, and though the sitcom cliches might have been abrasive, honest acting by a great ensemble led by Noa Koler redeems the film.


28th 11 - 2017 | 4 comments »

The Shape of Water (2017)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo del Toro

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre has long come in two strands: the wistfully poetic splendour and infernal evocations of his Spanish-language films, Cronos (1992), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and the gleeful, geeky spectacle of his Hollywood work, including Mimic (1997), his two Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim (2013). What’s unified both hemispheres of del Toro’s work even is his plain, fervent love of the fantastical, his belief in its worthiness and capacity to bear up powerful emotions and connect with a point of the mind at the edge of shared awareness. 2015’s Crimson Peak saw del Toro trying to unite these two strands in a film that proved a luscious but lumpy effort, high gothic romanticism and old-school melodrama melding uneasily with florid supernatural showmanship. The Shape of Water, his latest, is less an attempt to fuse these two modes than a fully-fledged attempt to make one of his Spanish-language works in Hollywood, borrowing tropes with equal zest from pop culture lore of the mid 20th century, the archives of fantastic literature and surrealist art, fairy tales, and internet, fan-penned, slash-fic erotica. Del Toro signals his credo in a delirious opening sequence in which heroine Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) dreams of being submerged, her apartment flooded, fish wiggling through dancing light patinas, belongings floating in languorous beauty, voices sounding muffled through the water, slowly drawing Elisa back to wakefulness.

Elisa is mute, and communicates in sign language. She lives over a movie theatre in downtown Baltimore in the early 1960s, next door to a Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay commercial artist who’s become a steadfast friend. Her only other real friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), works with her as a cleaner in the OCCAM Aerospace Research Center, a grandiose den of quasi-official experimentation. One day, Elisa and Zelda are privy to an unusual sight, as a large tube containing some kind of living being is wheeled into a room prepared with an open tank as a kind of makeshift habitat. Intrigued by the contents, Elisa touches the tank, only for a hand to slap against the glass from within. The two cleaners soon encounter government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), the man who captured this bizarre specimen from its South American home where, he reports, it was worshipped as a god by tribes there. Later, the cleaners see Strickland stumble out of the creature’s room with two of his fingers gorily severed. Assigned to clean up the bloody mess, Elisa and Zelda retrieve Strickland’s fingers, and Elisa catches sight of the creature through a glass screen, beholding a strikingly coloured and muscled amphibian humanoid. Struck not only by the creature’s pathos but its similarities to herself as a nonspeaking creature desperate for sensible contact, soon she’s sneaking into the habitat to feed boiled eggs to the curious and wary being and play records to him.

In much the same way that The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth meditated upon Spain’s troubled past, The Shape of Water casts its mind back to a time in American history at once recent but also retreating to the fringe of collective memory, a time of jarring disparity between the flashy, technocratic splendours of the burgeoning space age and racial strife, a time that promised so much and now stirs a twinge of regret in lost illusions. Del Toro links this echoing past with the very stuff of his fantastical lexicon, formative creative influences and dream provokers glimpsed on movie and TV screens and read between covers churned together with the psychic landscape of the past. History plays out at times barely registered by the workaday characters drifting through a landscape, as when Elisa goes to work with the fires from riots blazing in the background, and at other times wilfully drowned out, as when Giles anxiously tells her turn over the TV from news reports on civil rights demonstrations and happily retreats into old Alice Faye musicals instead. One totemic image comes early on, as del Toro notes Zelda and Elisa conversing as Zelda dusts down a colossal jet engine. His tale of the little people who are adjuncts to great designs is boiled down to this perfect piece of iconography, dusted nonetheless still with a sense of the dreamlike, of ridiculous Sisyphean tasks and worship of twisted metal gods.

Strickland, by comparison, fancies himself the perfect avatar of American go-get-’em bravura and fortitude of will. Properly introduced to Elisa and Zelda as they clean the OCCAM men’s room as he lays down the cattle prod he uses to torture the fish-man before taking a leak in the urinal without touching his dick to establish his rigorous self-control, Strickland has a picture-perfect family he anxiously wants to move to a better city. Offering Shannon as implacable villain again feels like a highly unimaginative bit of casting, especially as Strickland, representative of the whitest of white bred authority, an Almighty-invoking avatar of septic squareness ignorant of all interiority, feels similar to the role he played in the TV series Boardwalk Empire. And yet it’s also a wise move, as Shannon can play such a creature in a manner that evokes underlying neuroticism and neediness so intense it almost renders him sympathetic even before indulging behaviour that makes him utterly despicable. Strickland is depicted as inordinately proud of his efforts to prove himself the exemplary American, buying a green – sorry, teal Cadillac in a droll scene in which he readily falls for a salesman’s spiel and claims his right to the essential status symbol. He’s also a patronising racist and sexist, who finds himself taken with Elisa, making a play for her sexual attention in wolfish fashion, and enjoys torturing the amphibian when he has it at bay. Del Toro makes no pretence to offering Strickland as a realistic character, but existing as it does in a plain fantasy, he is del Toro’s evil queen or wicked witch, the totemic figure of everything wrong with the era’s self-delusions.

The digits Strickland lost to the fish-man are surgically restored but the graft refuses to take and he’s left with two steadily rotting fingers whose steady degrading to black stumps gives del Toro a mordant device to illustrate the gangrenous state of aspects of the super-duper company man. A cringe-inducing sex scene sees del Toro sarcastically painting “normal” sexuality as obscene, Strickland screwing his wife Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) with ruthless enthusiasm, clapping his hand with black blood leaking out over her mouth to muffle her attempts to complain. Del Toro interestingly revises his patient indulgence of institutions exhibited in the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, where the dens of government experimentation and arsenals, with their labyrinthine corridors and gargantuan yet obscure fixtures, housed swashbuckling weirdos and stolid functionaries in relative harmony. Here, the facility is den of imperial arrogance infiltrated by social cast-offs and the disadvantaged, as well as foreign influences. The predominately black and Latino workforce of cleaners and dogsbodies in the OCCAM facility gain their little moments of peace and relaxation in avoiding the cyclopean eye of the security cameras, taking cigarette breaks in the blind spots for the cameras, a throwaway detail that nonetheless germinates into Elisa’s realisation need only retrain the cameras to get the amphibian out of his den.

As Elisa forges her amity with the amphibian, a scientist who’s been assigned to understand the creature’s physiognomy, Dr Hoffstetler (the inexhaustible Michael Stuhlbarg), sees her but does not report her, because he has his own secret: he’s a Russian agent (real name Dmitri, as he reveals in an affecting aside), employed by a spymaster posing as a diplomat, Mihalkov (Nigel Bennett). But Hoffstetler’s higher loyalty proves to be science, as he tries to argue to both of his nominal masters the necessity of keeping the amphibian alive for study, only for both to decide the creature should be killed. US military bigwig Gen. Hoyt (Nick Searcy) wants the creature’s biology closely examined, and Mihalkov states, “We don’t need to learn – we need to stop the Americans from learning.” So Hoffstetler elects to aid Elisa as he realises she’s planning to bust the amphibian out, after she’s already drawn Giles and Zelda into helping her. The breakout succeeds, after Hoffstetler intervenes and gives a guard about to arrest Giles a dose of the lethal injection he was supposed to give to the amphibian, and they manage to escape without leaving any sign of their identities for the wrathful Strickland to track.

The official inspiration here is one close to the hearts of most fans of classic science fiction and horror film: Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) has long stirred frissons with its image of a grotesque yet curiously charismatic humanoid forming an attachment for a lovely human female who prefers, in that film, the attentions of two primates who barely seem that much more advanced. The connection between male sexuality and bestial impulse isn’t new – to quote a quip from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 concerning another tatty monster, it’s how all teenagers see themselves. Del Toro had even ventured down this path before on Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), where the fish-man Abe Sapien romanced an ethereal elf princess to her unblinking openness, as both were citizens of a magic world indifferent to the fear of the unique known only be humans. Plainly del Toro didn’t work the idea out as far as his twisted mind could there. Like another film that saw the light of day in English-speaking film markets this year, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska’s loony-tunes The Lure (2015), del Toro evokes Hans Christian Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid story – a very different beast compared to the homogenised Disney take – and even parses it through similar impulses to Smoczynska as a post-genre hash of expressive impulses, up to and including musical flourishes.

One way del Toro signals his peculiar bent, and his deep feel for cinema in all its glories, comes in a small detail involving the movie showing at the movie theatre isn’t something cool like a ’50s noir film or one of del Toro’s beloved monster movies but Henry Koster’s forgotten religious epic The Story of Ruth (1960). There’s a faint but definite gesture her in the direction of Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds (1953), which made show of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) screening at the outset, invoking homiletic glow of religious parable and Biblical dimensions to the ensuing Armageddon. Strickland repeatedly uses the story of Samson as his mission statement, only to find out he’s mistaken his own role in the parable. Del Toro runs with another notion encoded in Creature from the Black Lagoon, the idea that understanding different forms of life could give an edge in future adventures into space. In Arnold’s film this idea is deployed instead as justification for vivisection and exploitation of something beautiful and incredibly rare, the pretentions of the space age another guise of colonialism. The Arnold film posited its gill-man as a representative of the untameable in nature, in much the same style as King Kong (1933), powerful and baleful and constantly seeking to breach the new citadels of progress – in short, exactly like the maddening sexuality that vexes both Arnold’s characters and del Toro’s.

Del Toro seems to have in mind not merely the familiar rosters of sci-fi and monster movies from the ‘50s, but also a string of movies from the 1980s, including Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Fred Schepisi’s Iceman (1984), and John Carpenter’s Starman (1985). Those movies stand in many ways as repudiations of values expressed in the older breed, with distrust in authority and cold science, and ecologically-minded sense of the preciousness of strangeness (del Toro isn’t the only filmmaker of late to cast his mind back to those films, as last year’s Midnight Special, also featuring Shannon, leaned heavily on their influence). The Shape of Water can be described without too much stretching as a romantic variation of Spielberg’s famous work, although his contemporary, grounded evocation of the childlike has been swapped out for del Toro’s ardour for the retro and the dreamily erotic. Del Toro might be turning a smirking nod to the TV series Alf when it comes to a gross gag involving the amphibian developing an appetite for one of Giles’ cats. The movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro also seem prominent in his thoughts. One bathroom-flooding sequence pays overt tribute to their Delicatessen (1992), whilst Elisa and Giles are highly reminiscent of characters from Jeunet’s Amelie (2001), although, fortunately, del Toro doesn’t indulge his whimsy to the same degree as Jeunet did when left to his own devices: his mischievous streak, his love for throwing his audience the odd curve ball in jolts of violence and weirdness, keep bubbling insistently to the surface.

Some qualities, running like a vein of gold through The Shape of Water, seem indebted to a more rarefied brand of movie dreaming than del Toro’s genre film loves. The touch of having Elisa and Giles live over a cinema, the sounds of the epics and fantasies echoing up through the floorboards, is reminiscent of the more overt surrealism of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). Hell, there’s even a faint flicker of (1963) in Elisa’s hallway dance moves. Where del Toro eventually steers this annexation of familiar material is in his literal and figurative deflowering of the traditional metaphorical sexuality of the monster movie with relish, as he finally has Elisa and the amphibian shacked up in her apartment after the successful escape. Elisa keeps him immersed in her bathtub, as he can only breathe out of water so long, obliging her to mix table salt in with the water to keep him from suffocating, and even with these measures his physical condition begins to decay. Del Toro has already noted Elisa’s habit of masturbating in the bath as part of her daily ritual, and she sports unusual marks on her neck that look a little like the gills on the amphibian’s neck, a sign that the orphan girl might be the lost heiress to some race of merfolk, a notion reminiscent of another melancholic fairy tale of lost souls and marine life, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). Giles can’t help but remark on how beautiful the amphibian is when he first sees him, and Elisa’s attachment to the creature quickly steps over the line into erotic interest which she first shies away from but then, after trying to settle down for the night on her sofa, throws caution and clothes to the wind, marches into the bathroom to join the creature for a night of passion.

There’s a marvellous joke following this scene for anyone who’s ever watched many a classic monster movie like Creature from the Black Lagoon and wondered why these monsters never seem to have sex organs, as Elisa mimes the opening of the amphibian’s surprise package to Zelda’s mixed repulsion and fascination. Del Toro also links one form of “forbidden” sexuality to another as Giles’ situation as an ageing gay man forms a counterpoint to the central tale: Giles, who laments the stranger’s face that stares at him from the mirror, is anxious to return from his greying exile to his former workplace in an advertising agency but, whether by getting old or letting slip his orientation, he remains unwanted there. He forms a crush on a handsome young waiter (Morgan Kelly) in a coffee shop, forcing Elisa to follow him in and buy pies neither of them can stand eating for the sake of gaining his daily look at his idol. Sadly, Giles compounds humiliation after being fobbed off by his former boss by making an equally unsuccessful and bruising move on the young man. Del Toro links his two outside men as his camera slides from the window of Giles’ apartment to Elisa’s where the amphibian stands in a mimicking pose, matched in their bemusement at their place in this unforgiving world. But Giles also finds himself beneficiary of a bizarre talent the amphibian has. The fish-man has a bioelectric system that pulses as if he’s wearing a suit made of the aurora, and this seems to be the source of a healing power he can wield. This gift repairs wound he accidentally made in Giles’ arm, and stimulates the growth of hair on his head, allowing him to throw away his toupee.

There’s a lovely bounty of humanity in The Shape of Water in this sort of thing it almost makes you ache to think how little of it there is some other movies these days. The fecundity of Elisa and Giles apartments are carefully wrought and textured by del Toro and art director Nigel Churcher as an abode of escape from the shiny, chrome plated super-machines and gritty realities both beyond their walls. Del Toro’s feel for way the apparatus of the past lingers in the dreamscapes of the mind long after epochs fade is part of the texture here. Del Toro has one of the best eyes in contemporary film, and his attentiveness to the little worlds here communicates in an argot of another age, particularly the swirling, futurist décor that permeates the OCCAM facility boldly grasping at an age when science and art can cohabit on the level of engineering dreams, but usually with the malignant Strickland hovering before them. The cold, clean geometries of Strickland’s new Cadillac wield the same whiff of antiseptic modernity, at least until Giles accidentally slams his van into it during the escape from the facility. By contrast, Del Toro’s early 1960s Baltimore is as exotic as his Victorian era was in Crimson Peak, and linked unexpectedly with John Waters’ Hairspray (1987) in its setting and use of Baltimore as an exemplary American city in a time of swift and unnerving change, not quite as blankly indifferent as a megalopolis like New York or Los Angeles but hardly village-like either, beset by unseen borders and a sense of hovering between nothing and nowhere. And, like Waters’ film, it’s concerned with people usually thrust to the margins of life suddenly and boldly claiming their place in the world.

Perhaps this likeness is why, when del Toro abruptly swerves into a musical sequence, it doesn’t feel at all unexpected. Elisa indulges a fantasy shot in black-and-white and gleaned from old Astaire and Rogers movies, where she can suddenly not only talk but sing, and launches into a dazzling dance number with her humanoid beau. Del Toro takes up the old canard about musicals, that their characters break into song when there’s no other way to properly express and contain their emotion, and not only transplants it into an unexpected setting, but links it with his own effervescent love affair with the fantastical genres, a love the revolves around the same notion, the transformative potency of heightened expressive modes, the certainty mere reality cannot contain our manifold selves. The notion of language as something as much physical as oral, mooted throughout as the amphibian learns to communicate through Elisa’s sign language, is also rendered here in a radically different fashion, the need to move, to transcend the limits of ordinary physicality and become fluid as a dream. It’s also a moment that highlights the way The Shape of Water, whilst assembled with many an archetype, trope, and cliché, wields impudent originality in the way he patches them all together. Del Toro counterbalances this with his relatively straight-laced portrayal of Hoffstetler’s anxiety, provoked by the looming malignancy of Strickland on one side and his boss who might be planning to have him killed on the other. This subplot builds to a sequence that reminds me del Toro has a gift for nastiness as potent as his romantic side, as Hoffstetler is saved after being shot through the face by a KGB goon by Strickland who’s been following him, only for the American agent to hook his fingers through the gaping wound in his cheek and drag him around by it before torturing the amphibian’s location out of him (shades here of the infamous stitching scene in Pan’s Labyrinth).

Equally charged, if not as violent, is Strickland’s subsequent confrontation with Zelda, visiting her in her own and terrorising her and her husband Brewster (Martin Roach) in a disturbingly intimate way. Del Toro shoots Shannon like the reincarnation of Boris Karloff he’s long threatened to become, deep grooves in his face picked out by deep shadow and gruelling sweat mixed with rain pouring off him like the natural translucent ooze of an actual beast from the deep, the angry white man as monster. I wouldn’t blame Spencer if she never wanted to play another period menial again, but she aptly embodies del Toro’s theme of nascent rebellion as she weathers this storm and moves to both warn Elisa of Strickland’s warpath and chews out her lazy and cowardly husband at the same time. Jones has been del Toro’s instrument of vital physicality in his movies since Mimic. His performance is expert in imbuing the amphibian with traits both recognisably intelligent and animalistic, and it feels like a just reward for him to at last play romantic lead, even if he is still swathed in latex. What’s perhaps more surprising is that Hawkins, who’s always a deft and inventive performer, nonetheless matches him and dominates the film without speaking a word, purely through intensity of expression and gesture. The film’s waterfront climax is perhaps a little disappointing in its lack of inventive staging or action, even if it does at last deliver a nicely nasty punch line to Strickland’s hand-of-god pretences. But the very last images of underwater love and transcendent transformation finally thrust del Toro’s labours into a rarefied zone, a rapturous embrace of the intimately surreal, and slipping the prison of the flesh.


21st 11 - 2017 | 3 comments »

Justice League (2017)

Directors: Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Here we go again.

Zack Snyder’s films for the DC Comics-Warner Bros. imprimatur have provided ready whipping boys on the contemporary pop culture scene. Compared to Marvel-Disney’s current stranglehold on the zeitgeist, with their chintzy, jolly, near-indistinguishable entries, Snyder’s films, cloaked in a dusky, gothic stature, have aimed higher. I was never particularly sold on Christopher Nolan’s laboriously pseudo-realist Batman films, but I found Man of Steel (2013) a truly ambitious attempt on Snyder’s part to render DC’s superhero roster distinct from its rivals by viewing it through lenses of both neo-mythology and the post-Alan Moore style of introspective, self-critiquing comic book saga. His Superman questioned his own right to do what he does before finally being obliged to shatter a city to save the world. Such conceits were true to the themes of DC’s attempts to deepen its lexicon and complicate the world-view of their superhero comics since the late-1980s, but many critics and viewers responded as if their understanding of the mode hadn’t changed since the 1960s Batman TV series.

When I first saw Snyder’s follow-up, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), I found it a ragged, intermittently impressive mess. Revisiting Snyder’s director’s cut of the film, I saw the themes and style had been rendered truly epic, interweaving real-world contexts – fears of terrorism, the fallout of war, the tattering of social and civic institutions in the face of the 21st century’s atomising realities – with familiar but refreshed generic concerns and some irretrievably lumpy franchise development. All this was achieved through Snyder’s patented visual muscle, granted a stately gravitas that stands a good chance of being remembered not as the worst moment of the superhero craze, as many declared it, but the finest. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman earlier this year won popular plaudits for retaining a fair mimicry of Snyder’s style whilst cutting out the complexity of theme and vision and offering a straight-up new-age heroine. And David Ayer’s Suicide Squad…well, that was just crap.

Justice League, Snyder’s latest offering, is the official moment of consummation when the DC-Warner brand arrives at its The Avengers (2012) moment in teaming up its flagship heroes. Supposedly, following Dawn of Justice’s oft-withering critical reception, it was hastily redrawn, and Snyder’s withdrawal during post-production because of a family tragedy saw The Avengers helmsman Joss Whedon, who is also credited as co-screenwriter with Chris Terrio, brought in to oversee reshoots and inject more of his trademark blend of gags and geekery. There is good reason to be nervous about such shifts in vision. Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011) and Dawn of Justice were both badly hurt by studio-mandated snipping only to be revealed more truly in their extended editions. Justice League also has its share of heavy lifting to do. Although these specific takes on Clark ‘Superman’ Kent (Henry Cavill), Bruce ‘Batman’ Wayne (Ben Affleck), and Diana ‘Wonder Woman’ Prince (Gal Gadot) now have been thoroughly introduced to audiences, we also now have along for the ride Arthur ‘Aquaman’ Curry (Jason Momoa), Barry ‘The Flash’ Allen (Ezra Miller), and Victor ‘Cyborg’ Stone (Ray Fisher). These newcomers were briefly glimpsed in Dawn of Justice as a gallery of ‘metahumans’ Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) was tracking, with the potential to create a potential line-up of heroic defenders to fill the extremely large gap left by the death of Superman.

The start of Justice League takes up where that film left off, with its landscape of ruination and setback both physical and moral: in an opening that tips a self-evident nod to Snyder’s equally iconographic opening for his take on Moore’s Watchmen (2009), he sets Sigrid’s cover version of Leonard Cohen’s cynical anthem “Everybody Knows” to visions of resurging patterns of crime and anxiety following the fall of the Kryptonian hero. Renewing his nocturnal adventures in Gotham City, Bruce encounters a grotesque, flying alien creature which he attracts by dangling a hapless criminal from a rooftop as bait. Diana returns to crime fighting, saving hostages from a gang of nihilist terrorists who want to restore “holy terror” as a state of being for humanity in the face of titanic universal forces. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has retreated into a bubble of soft news stories whilst trying to work through her grief following Clark’s passing. His mother Martha (Diane Lane) loses the family farm to the bank. Believing the alien to be a scout for an oncoming assault by a powerful host, Bruce and Diana set out to track down the other metahumans. Soon that host arrives, flocking at the behest of interdimensional fiend Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), who in aeons past almost conquered and laid waste to the Earth in his attempts to bring together three “mother boxes” that when pieced together fuse into a terraforming device of unbelievable power. A great alliance of ancient races and alien ‘gods’ defeated Steppenwolf’s armies and drove him into exile, but now with Earth absent its great defender, Steppenwolf attacks the Amazon capital Themiscyra where the first box is held, battling Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her hordes of sword-wielding equestriennes.

Meanwhile our earthly heroes attempt to fuse into a coherently operating unit. Barry, having been blessed with astonishing speed thanks to a freakish incident involving lightning, is a waggish but neurotic outsider living off the grid and fuelled by needy angst concerning his imprisoned father (Billy Crudup). Arthur is the heir to the sunken kingdom of Atlantis, but rather than hang out with his fellows like Mera (Amber Heard), who watches over the second mother box, Arthur prefers to spend his days wandering the seas, lending a hand to folks in need like a penurious Icelandic village and a sinking trawler crew. Victor is the newest and most troubled candidate for superhero status. He’s the son of a scientist, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), who was investigating the third mother box, retrieved by perplexed archaeologists. Following his son’s terrible injuries in a car crash, Silas tried to rebuild his boy with the box, only to result in a strange, constantly evolving and upgrading fusion of man and machine. Victor hides out in his father’s apartment, fretting over his changing nature and battling the alien influence he constantly senses attempting to subsume his identity and control over the new form he’s taken. He has the ability to connect with other technologies and parse information at incredible speeds, and he detects Bruce and Diana’s attempts to track him down even before they properly start. Diana, who’s attempting to come out of her self-imposed isolation after the death of her lover Steve Trevor in World War I, appeals to Victor to do the same. But when they go up against Steppenwolf and his minions for the first time, the team realises quickly and forlornly that they don’t stand much of a chance without Superman.

Justice League arrives on the big screen with a heavy air of compromise hovering about it. Often it betrays an initial intention to follow on from Dawn of Justice’s weighty reckonings, and add up to a mythic-scale song of rebirth to counter the previous film’s death trip. This aspect is borne out not merely by Superman’s eventual resurrection but by a climax that pays off in the perversely beautiful sight of alien flowers blooming amidst devastation, capping the motifs of revival and synthesis. Early sequences including Diana’s intervention in the terrorist attack and Steppenwolf attacking Themiscyra prove Snyder’s chops for this sort of thing are almost unequalled in current film, striking momentously heroic notes Wonder Woman laboured for two hours to sound properly. The second sequence is a particularly giddy and momentous interlude, as the cosmic monstrosity beams into an Amazonian temple stronghold to retrieve the mother box, complete with hammer-swinging muscular giantesses bringing down the roof and a desperate relay race trying to keep the box out of the villain’s hands, culminating in a colossal Amazon cavalry charge. It’s a pity the whole film can’t sustain such elephantine, madcap absurdity.

Much as he threatened to do often on 300 (2006), Snyder shifts into full-bore Peter Jackson-does-Tolkien territory for a flashback to the ancient war to defeat Steppenwolf, a gloriously weird spectacle of Amazons, Atlanteans, deities, and even a Green Lantern getting stuck into a colossal brawl. I got the feeling this scene, interpolated halfway through the film, was initially intended as an epic prologue like the Krypton scenes in Man of Steel. Instead it’s reduced to mind-numbingly expensive exposition. The epic film originally intended has been chopped up and interspersed with another one, Whedon’s more traditional matinee romp draped over the mythopoeic design. This is not necessarily a terrible thing, although I would’ve preferred to watch Snyder’s original concept. The relative ease with which the film incorporates the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman, on the other hand, raises the question as to whether all those long, involved stand-alone introductions were necessary, as we go down the Seven Samurai (1954) route of meeting new heroes with individual talents and angsts noted in quick thumbnails of biography and characterisation. Flourishes of Whedon’s trademark stammering yet wordy humour, most of it wielded by gawky and entertaining Miller, actually work in the same way as those sprouting flowers, little squiggles of colour decorating a moody landscape. And yet it also leaves the film creaking in uneasy switchbacks of dramatic style and affect.

Snyder is anything but a subtle filmmaker, but he has two qualities that constantly arrest me. First, and most self-evidently, he’s a director who is properly and entirely visual. His images maintain connection with a bygone age in cinema, the time of Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Cecil B. DeMille, F.W. Murnau, and other masters of film seen as an atavistic art of unchained spectacle. In an age in which cinema too often feels squeezed, cropped, and otherwise denuded by eyes too used to other platforms, he wants his pictures to sweep up the viewer like a physical force. Even in some throwaway sequences in Justice League, like a moment when Aquaman strides out onto a groin to let storm waves crash upon him, Snyder offers pictures of acromegaliac beauty. Snyder wants the audience to see every particle of water and feel its gush and enjoy the noble boner provoked by such manly spectacle. Secondly, he’s developed a surprisingly rigorous chain of motifs in his work. Even 300, the digitally-rendered peplum that made Snyder a Hollywood heavy-hitter and became a dudebro keepsake, was a work compelled by the disparity between the roots of heroic myth and the act of transmitting it, retelling the legend of Thermopylae in a manner its participants would have understood, a duel of propaganda in outsized nobility and debased and deformed opposition. Watchmen set the infrastructure of the comic book universe at war with itself. Sucker Punch portrayed the ecstatic release of fantasising colliding hard with bleak realities. Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice mediated his critical impulses amidst the borrowed finery of a commonly beloved cosmology.

I keep wondering what film scholars might make of the popularity of superhero tales in the second decade of the 21st century in a few decades’ time. So resolute is the mode’s grip on the current box office that it will certainly seem a prognosticative aspect of the age, like the popularity of westerns and religious epics in the 1950s or spy films in the 1960s. It’s certainly not that hard to discern the reasons for their popularity. The genre – I feel it’s safe to call it a genre now – places specific individuals at the centre of modern special effects techniques, and on the dramatic level they work the same way, enacting and complicating basic fantasies of empowerment. It seems the basic matter of whether or not these individual films in this style work revolves around the degree to which they satisfy the schism between the desire to render them dramatically coherent and serious enough to sustain their own weight, and acknowledge their ridiculousness. The Marvel brand has maintained an unbroken run of success through easily and confidently varying a basic formula: a few laughs, a few thrills, a few feels. It’s both reliable and the exact opposite of any kind of creative risk, even the sort exhibited within the imposed limitations of genre and blockbuster intent. Even the superior examples of their approach, like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017), only merely exemplify rather than enlarge their formula. Attempts to paint the superhero craze as some adjunct of a neo-fascist spirit have an accurate facet but also tend to get belaboured, in large part because they also fail to read their essential subject as being the ambivalent relationship between the individual and the community.

I seem to prefer this branch of the superhero craze in part because of this sort of thing, as it exists in the same context as any other genre, one where bad things happen that mostly can’t be undone and the distanced metaphors mean something. If superhero movies are the westerns of today, call these the John Ford and Anthony Mann westerns to counterbalance Marvel’s pleasant servicing of The Lone Ranger crowd. I know that’s a blasphemous way of framing this phenomenon for many, perhaps even to me, and yet I can’t get away from it. For instance, most takes on Superman neglected his alien state before these films; Snyder put this aspect, and the question as to whether he can effectively defend a species who physical nature he does not share, at the centre of his take, a question that proved maniacally offensive to Bruce Wayne in Dawn of Justice, who proposed that only a weaker, mortal creature can be truly brave. Snyder and Terrio blurred the lines between Bruce and Lex Luthor’s motivations to a fascinating degree, suggesting the difference between their ultimate selves was one of personal struggle, one who emerged as Batman and another as supervillain. Bruce is back on an even keel in Justice League, purpose renewed by a sense of mission and also guttering guilt over his near-murder of his better self. He gets into a brief contretemps with Diana as he prods her over her prioritising her personal grief over her natural status as warrior leader, earning himself a wallop in the chest over mentioning Steve Trevor’s name in such a fashion. Similarly, the film’s glances over the shoulder at the travails of Lois and Martha keep the film rooted in the mood of bruised humanity that’s linked the entries in this cycle.

Victor’s struggle with his new, unpredictable, unnervingly self-willed cybernetic enhancements offers another stage for the running psychic struggle of man and superman. Victor’s lot as something not too far from the antihero of some body horror movie, glimpsed hiding in the shadows of his father’s apartment in a faintly menacing and baleful fashion that recalls Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), dealing with his rebelling body’s whims in randomly releasing dangerous energy blasts. Victor’s mainline into the technological marrow of the world swiftly proves indispensable, as he gains greater control over his “body” and joins his natural gifts for analysis to his augmented senses. Barry, on the other hand, in spite of his troubled past, provides uncomplicated dash and eccentric, boyish vigour to the enterprise. Aquaman arrives as perhaps the least well-developed of the characters in spite of possessing legendary backstory and having the oceans at his command. The film offers such brief visions of his underwater kingdom and fellow merpeople they scarcely register, and whilst the approach to Aquaman as a hairy, macho outsider, a bit of rough trade covered in tattoos, intends all too obviously to rescue the character from his previous status in the eyes many as a fey embarrassment in this realm, but instead too often symbolises the film’s awkward pandering in his swaggering faux-cool, such as his already immortally stilted exclamations of “My man” and “Booyah.”

The film is also duty-bound to resurrect Superman, the figure whose presence haunts all the others, and this franchise in general. Superman’s fall and rise is one of those essential motifs, enacted in three of Christopher Reeve’s movies, and now taken to an extreme here, capping a trilogy that’s never been shy about evoking Superman’s status as messiah figure. Snyder’s visions of Clark in his cornfields retain a dusky romanticism as sentimental as anything Richard Donner purveyed in his classic film. Bruce concocts a method of resurrecting the singular hero by utilising the technology in the crashed Kryptonian spaceship still lying in downtown Metropolis and the power of the one mother box still in their hands. Successfully revived, Superman proves confused and aggressive, tossing his would-be helpmates around like skittles and threatening to crush Bruce between his bare hands. Bruce only forestalls his own messy demise by bringing out “the big gun,” which proves to be Lois; she successfully pacifies Clark and spirits him away to regain his bearings. Left with no choice but to venture into battle with Steppenwolf in his stronghold, the rest of the nascent league track the fiend to his base in an disused power plant somewhere in a former Soviet state, where he sets about uniting the talismanic boxes and unleashing its world-fashioning powers.

Whedon’s imprint on this material is apparent not just in the humour style and the quick fillips of characterisation, but also, more vexingly, in the resolute lack of cleverness in the storyline. We get elements of both his Avengers movies recycled wholesale, including a villain who beams in unexpectedly through a wormhole, and this kind of setting for the finale. Steppenwolf is a regulation comic book baddie, a big, weird, nasty alien with a demonic look whose motivations are never delved into beyond the obvious “he wants to destroy our world and build his own” sort of thing, who gets what he wants and then stands around waiting before doing what he intends just long enough for the heroes to turn up and stop him. Again, it’s not such a big crime to simply offer sufficient antagonism to spur the heroes, but it cuts against the grain of what this imprimatur has been striving to achieve. The only real topic The Avengers tackled was the proposition that a bunch of immensely talented screw-ups could unify and prove themselves an effective team, a theme with a certain level of self-reflexive import insofar as it clearly reflected the life of a Hollywood player like Whedon himself. And the essential theme of Justice League is…well, whether a bunch of immensely talented screw-ups can unify and prove themselves an effective team. Hell, DC already did that with Suicide Squad.

It’s this aspect of Justice League that left me frustrated even as I enjoyed the Irish stew it finally served up. Until now the Warner-DC cycle had tried, in however lumpy a fashion, to engage on committed dramatic level and translate comic book fare into a legitimate wing of cyberpunk-hued sci-fi. Justice League’s ultimate answer to the popular pressure upon the series delivers a fair crowd-pleaser but also jettisons the greater part of what made it interesting and distinctive. It pays off, but not with the heft Snyder’s labours to date deserved. There’s also been a noticeable shrinking of the horizons of this series since the truly epic opening scenes of Man of Steel, a film that was majestic on an audio-visual level. Now most of the fights seem to take place in sewers and industrial abodes, the finale drenched in ugly CGI patinas that look like the backdrops of computer games. The amazing thing about Justice League is that it doesn’t just hold together but somehow, in spite of everything compromised and cynical about it, it still manages to count for me as a kind of success, if only because it remains doggedly entertaining. Justice League certainly appeals to that perpetual six-year-old in the back of the mind who just thinks it’s rad to see Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman kicking ass together. And those other guys too, why not.

There’s at least one great joke at the expense of these superfriends, as Barry wheezes a proud gasp for breath after pushing a family out of the danger zone only to see Superman swing by with an entire apartment block on his shoulders. The glue that holds the enterprise together tend to be elements already been well-proven – Cavill’s disarmingly warm grin that lends supple charisma to his igneous frame, Gadot’s statuesque glamour charged with plucky, soulful intelligence. Affleck, who I found a surprisingly effective Caped Crusader in his first outing, seemed less sure to me here, however, particularly as he seems to have walked through some of the mandated reshoots: at least one of his line readings made me want someone to give him an adrenalin dose. Jeremy Irons (as Alfred) and J.K. Simmons (as Commissioner Gordon) were in there too, bewilderingly but gratifyingly. It also helps that Danny Elfman’s scoring is at least willing to service my kind of fan and toss in occasional flourishes of his old Batman (1989) theme and even a faint pastiche of John Williams’ mighty Superman fanfare, deployed at just the right moment, when the finale finally delivers the kind of righteous bash-up this entire cycle has been moving towards. I expect the film was always intended to be this kind of capstone to the cycle, and to get there, even in such an awkwardly framed result, still has a charge of fulfilment. And whilst I can’t say it knocked my socks off, I can’t say it was a few dollars badly spent, either. Perhaps, yet again, what this was supposed to be will eventually be seen on a smaller screen.


17th 11 - 2017 | no comment »

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Director/Actor: Kenneth Branagh

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Kenneth Branagh, damn his eyes. Few figures in contemporary film remain as eclectically gifted and perpetually vexing. The energetic-to-a-fault Irish-born thespian-turned-filmmaker’s directorial career has provoked acclaim and irritation since his electrifying debut in 1989 with Henry V transformed a 28-year-old best known for his stage work into a major cinematic talent. Branagh confirmed with the success of his second Shakespeare film, Much Ado About Nothing (1993), that he had a unique way with popularising the Bard on film. But his output in this period, as he seemed determined to stretch and express his talents at a breakneck pace, proved hit and miss, and his promise never quite translated into the sort of career his debut signalled, even as he continued to go from strength to strength as an actor. His movies in the prolific decade following his gambit included the flop of his capital-R Romantic film of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) and the swift submergence of his radically odd extrapolation of Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), as well as the violently uneven yet truly epic-scale Hamlet (1996), interspersed with smaller, more personal, spasmodically effective works like Dead Again (1991), Peter’s Friends (1992), and In the Bleak Midwinter (1995). Branagh’s directorial style, his adoration of oversized gestures and scarce-restrained theatrical energy, simply doesn’t fit into the current pop cultural paradigm any more than his love for Shakespeare: it’s the antithesis of cool. The attempt to crossbreed Shakespeare with old Hollywood musical idealisation with Love’s Labour’s Lost did, for the six people who saw it including me, help bring all Branagh’s works into focus as covert musicals – the swooping camerawork, the dialogue delivered in quick, dexterous, recitative-like refrains, the actors perpetually propelled about his frame-stages in giddy motion.

Two surprisingly excellent films in the mid-2000s, a TV-debuting version of As You Like It and a dazzling take on The Magic Flute (both 2006) seemed to revive Branagh’s fortunes, but the dismissal of his pointless remake of Sleuth (2007) proved he was still a frustratingly patchy creative force. Then, suddenly and unexpected ease, Branagh reinvented himself as an A-list director in Hollywood with 2011’s successful yet underrated Wagnerian power ballad of a superhero flick, Thor. He followed it with two profitable pieces of studio hackwork, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) and Cinderella (2015), that nonetheless bore weird flickers throughout of Branagh’s cavalier romanticism and melodramatic bravura. What other director could find the same traces of bruised humanity and noble instinct in Tom Clancy’s dullard CIA hero as he finds in a Shakespearean king? Murder on the Orient Express is the latest of Branagh’s career-long efforts to invest a hoary property with a new lustre, and it feels like a homecoming, and a restatement of personal delight in film, within the apparently cosy confines of familiar material. Along with Ten Little Indians, the novel is surely Agatha Christie’s most famous, distinguished by one of her most cunningly crafted and ingenious plots and a great setting, one that shares in common with Ten Little Indians and her legendary play The Mousetrap the quality of claustrophobic isolation.

The plot, as you probably already know: sometime in the early 1930s, Belgian-born, UK-residing private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, inevitably) departs Jerusalem after performing a swift and nifty piece of deduction that defuses a nascent religious riot. Travelling by boat to Constantinople (or Istanbul; either way it’s a Turkish delight on a moonlit night), Poirot meets the keen and lovely governess Miss Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and the stoic, upright soldier-turned physician Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr) on the same boat: although affecting to be strangers, Poirot notes their peculiar intimacy. Once arriving in the great city, Poirot encounters a friend, the cheerfully dissolute Aynesworth (Gerard Horan), nephew of the Orient Express’s owner. When the onerous call of duty summons Poirot back to London, Aynesworth promises to gain him a berth on the very next Express to London, a promise that proves difficult to fulfil as the train’s first class compartment proves to be booked solid, a bizarre event in the winter season. Nonetheless Poirot gains a berth, and finds himself thrust in with a motley collective including Mary, Arbuthnot, talkative husband-hunter Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), White Russian exile Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her paid companion Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), hot-tempered Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his drug-addict ballerina wife Countess Elena (Lucy Boynton), cheery automobile magnate Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), sternly moralistic missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), and flinty, racist Austrian academic Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe).

The greyest of these eminences is snake-eyed American art broker Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), travelling with a manservant, Masterman (Derek Jacobi), and business manager, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad). Poirot’s presence is unnoticed by some of the passengers who exist in their own little bubbles of angst, like Pilar and the Andrenyis, but catches the eye of others, including Hubbard, who seems to zero in on Poirot as an eligible bachelor, and Ratchett, who offers Poirot a lucrative stint guarding him from threats, as he keeps receiving threatening letters, and is worried about the possible repercussions of selling some suspect wares to a group of colourful Italian gentlemen. Soon, the train is trapped in the mountains by an avalanche, and after a night of strange occurrences, Ratchett is discovered in his compartment riddled with stab wounds after an apparently frenzied attack, and Poirot finds himself obliged to identify the killer. Soon the problem Poirot uncovers involves less the question of who would have the motive to kill Ratchett than which one of the plentiful potential assassins did not have a very good reason to kill the man, who was actually an infamous gangster named Cassetti. Cassetti was known to Poirot through underworld whisperings that he staged the kidnap for ransom and subsequent murder of the child of a famous aviator, John Armstrong, and caused the ensuing destruction of many lives connected to the crime and the benighted Armstrong family.

Sidney Lumet of course filmed the book to great effect in 1975, an unexpected swerve into ritzy entertainment for a director more usually associated with raw-nerve realism. Lumet’s film mediated old-fashioned storytelling values with an invested level of New Wave Hollywood grit, and opened with an inimitable prologue, depicting in monochrome visuals staging events then reported in newspaper headlines set to piercingly eerie music, depicting the central crime that drives many of the events in the subsequent story, the kidnapping of the Armstrong child and the event’s evil consequences. Branagh wisely never tries to outdo this scene. More recently, the story had also been adapted as a telemovie showcasing David Suchet’s beloved characterisation in the role of Christie’s sublimely methodical, ever-dapper detective, although the later entries featuring Suchet lacked the lush, easy style of the late ‘80s TV series in which he pioneered the role. So what need, if any, for another take? Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green answer the question by taking an approach similar to the one Branagh took with Henry V and Victor Frankenstein, trying to see if there’s another layer to the drama under what everyone knows about them. Branagh successfully located the complexity of Shakespeare’s hero, usually drowned out by playing up the patriotic fervour in the play, in his moral guilt and anguished reckoning with the distinction between his place as man and role as king and symbol – an investigative mode that Branagh surprisingly returns to here.

Another obvious reason to return to this material is that whodunits are everywhere again at the moment. This mostly true on television, whether in Britain with their many procedurals like Midsomer Murders, Canada, with The Murdoch Mysteries, Australia’s The Miss Fisher Mysteries and The Doctor Blake Mysteries, as well as blockbuster Hollywood properties like the CSI and NCIS franchises. For myself, I’m not the biggest fan of them, although I can certainly enjoy them when they’re well done. But it’s a relentlessly mechanical, formulaic fictional mode that often tends to boil the great drama of life and death down to mere puzzles. As critics have noticed long since it was founded by figures including Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and codified by the likes of Christie, the whodunit is the most comfortingly structured of subgenres. The world is momentarily thrown into moral chaos by a sudden eruption of festering emotion that pays off in a crime, a killing more often than not, only for a detective with the mind of Aristotle and the purview of a priest-king to step in, identify the guilty party, and ensure the restoration of order follows. Christie’s particular genius at this style rested in her grasp of repression as its key-note, even in foreign and exotic climes rendering the parochial, everyday calm and politeness of the English social landscape on a mythic level, upon which plays of frustration and rage unfold: chafing scions bump off greedy patriarch, outraged wives slaughter faithless scum husbands, tortured good men lose control and choke terrible bitch-queens. Authentic transgressive impulses are identified as an essential aspect of the human condition, and the incapacity to keep them in check is then methodically unveiled and punished.

More recently, so-called Scandi-Noir, a peculiarly Scandinavian variant on the mode with roots in the overtly Socialist-themed Martin Beck novels of the 1960s, has found international popularity and prominence as it found a way to make the whodunit more socially and culturally interrogative whilst retaining that ever-satisfying functionality, a slant that’s inflected much of the style since. Branagh himself had recently played one Scandi-Noir hero, Kurt Wallander, on television. This mode’s popularity on the stage, where The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in history, and on television, rather than in film, is telling. Alfred Hitchcock only made a couple of authentic whodunits in his long career as the Master of Suspense, sensing they were inimical to his understanding of film. Cinema, that great oceanic space of design and movement, can so easily encompass the drawing room dramas of the whodunit that it tends to dwarf their little sketches of static decorum and deception. Murder on the Orient Express as a property invites the cinematic eye, with the jazz-age elegance and exclusivity of the train setting, the sweep of the Dinaric Alps where the Express breaks down, the panorama of fascinating types aboard begging to be filled out by famous faces. But it also frustrates that eye as the narrative settles down and plays out like most whodunits, indeed as a perfect reduction of the form to essentials: a series of charged interviews between canny investigator and array of suspects. This comes complete with a punch-line that is at once the ne plus ultra of solutions – the everyonedunit – and a total dramatic bust. And yet how Branagh and Green try to negotiate this problem is a great part of the pleasure of their adaptation.

Lumet managed to make an unusual project work for him because Christie’s tale, however playfully, operated deep within the space of Lumet’s career-long fascination with criminals and law enforcers, how the two often exist in deeply uneasy relationship with each-other, how wretched the avatars of both prove in the crush of pitiless circumstance. Branagh has more an old Shakespearean’s fascination with the figure of the upright and exemplary individual who attempts in spite of their feet of clay to thrust their head into the stars. It’s a thematic fascination he shares in common with a predecessor as a theatre tyro turned movie fiend, Orson Welles, and also like Welles he’s constantly provoked and inspired by the way being totally cinematic also allows him to be, paradoxically, ever more grandiosely theatrical. Branagh’s Poirot comes equipped with a glorious pennant of a moustache, and is imbued with traits that looks awfully like obsessive compulsive disorder, as he’s foiled in his attempts to have breakfast by the inability of the hotel staff to cook two perfectly boiled and arrayed eggs, and constantly annoyed by things like crooked ties. This has a fashionable tilt to it – Sherlock Holmes for instance had often of late been portrayed as inflected with traits redolent of Asperger’s Syndrome – but it’s also part of a more comprehensive attempt by Branagh to both enlarge and engage Poirot as a more defined dramatic player, in a way that links up with an intriguing attempt to critique the whodunit as a whole without betraying Christie’s text.

Holmes was defined by his creator as “the highest court of appeal,” a fantasy of near-deistic insight into the hearts and ways of men, a blueprint for the concept of the great detective which Poirot readily fell into. Branagh takes this to a logical extreme in the film’s opening, in which Poirot is called upon to work out who, amongst a collective including a rabbi, a bishop, an imam, and a police inspector could have stolen a religious treasure from a church shared by the denominations. The detective swiftly reveals the culprit, defusing the eruptive religious tensions and exposing corrupt officialdom in one gesture, even contriving to catch the criminal by thrusting his signature cane into a slot in the Western Wall. It’s quite literally a vision of the detective as god, peacemaker and restorer, fulfilling that role as deistic intervener to a near-absurd degree. It’s an apotheosis Branagh takes as cue to bring Poirot down a few notches before re-enshrining him, shuffling about in the canon for hints of backstory and finding it in Poirot’s wearied glances at the photograph of long-ago love Katherine, representing a ghost of human attachment perhaps stirred by the twinned presence of the young, beautiful, sharp-as-a-tack Mary and the age-appropriate and dazzlingly lovely if seemingly daffy Caroline. Meanwhile the great detective frets increasingly about his restless, compulsive role as archaeologist of fetid human motives and misdeeds. The derailing of the engine leaves the train without power for a day and a dark night, a time in which people both freeze and sweat depending on Poirot’s proximity to them, stewing personal traumas and dependencies witnessed and stoked in numinous candlelight that thrusts all the characters back out of the semi-modern world and into a less forgiving, more sepulchral world.

And what misdeeds he soon starts to uncover, quickly discerning links between many of the passengers and the deceased Cassetti, to the point where everything starts to seem either the product of outrageous coincidence or very purposeful design. Branagh began introducing stage traditions of colourblind casting into film with fresh intransigence on Much Ado About Nothing, a habit that was still raising hackles as recently as Thor when he cast Idris Elba as a Norse god, and he continues this habit, although instead of simply casting a block actor in the role of Arbuthnot and leaving it uncommented upon, he uses it as springboard for digging into the social landscape of the train passengers in a manner that moves beyond Christie’s usual seismic examinations of class pretences to also prod questions about race and sex in manner that more proto-modern. There are intimations of romance between Mary and the good doctor given new hues of period transgression, particularly in the face of Hardman’s apparent subsuming of Nazi ideals in the foment of the age. Aynesworth prevails upon Poirot to take up the investigation by prodding him with the awareness that leaving it to the local police might see Arbuthnot and Martinez persecuted for their ethnicity. A telling joke that lands early in the film involves Arbuthnot catching himself in the act of reproducing the patronising ways of the white west with some Turkish sailors.

Where Branagh is more mischievous, and ultimately more himself, however, is his subtext based in a sense of theatre lurking behind the proceedings. His Murder on the Orient Express, for all its swooning camera mobility and passages of CGI epicism, is fixed securely in his sense of the tale as one rooted in our liking for actors plying their trade, a liking encoded in the story that demands a cast full of familiar faces to fill out the parts in order to render each and every suspect on a level. Although Lumet also had roots on the stage, such a self-aware lilt was beyond him, as it clashed too profoundly with his realist style. Just as Poirot sees a landscape of people pretending to be what they are not, that’s exactly what Branagh sees and knows the audience sees too. The act of stripping off the guise is played out most outright when Poirot instructs Hardman to drop his Germanic affectations and unveils a Yankee former policeman, who proves to have been in love with a maid of the Armstrongs who committed suicide after being tried for complicity in the kidnapping. Dafoe pulls off the moment in which the dedicated but tiring actor is ever-so-grateful in being freed from the part with a deft glimmer of wit, as the prop glasses and snappy accent are both dropped, and the cop idly mentions the source of the role in a way that recalls Branagh’s acting hero Laurence Olivier and his similar admissions of real-life models for characterisation. Dench and Jacobi have been regular members of Branagh’s band of brothers since Henry V, and indeed Branagh’s casting of Dench in that film almost certainly gave her movie career traction, and their presence lends proceedings the pleasant air of an old stock company reunited. To their number Branagh now adds the likes of Ridley, stretching her legs with impressive poise after her breakthrough in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Cruz, doing not much at all sadly, and Depp, who seems most appropriate in movies playing parts like this now, his formerly quirky male beauty hardening into a mask of ruined disdain.

As well as old Hollywood musicals, Branagh has worked through his admiration for Hitchcock before, engaging the Master’s obsessive tropes in a thoroughly personalised fashion with delirious plunge into fractured identities and sharp objects on Dead Again, and there are glimmers of it here, with The Lady Vanishes (1938) an inevitable touchstone: the very last shot inverts the opening of Hitchcock’s film. The climactic recreation of Ratchett’s actual killing rejects Lumet’s stately, ritualistic portrayal of the moment in favour of portraying a frenzy of rage from the carefully marshalled but finally unleashed avengers that has a more distinctly Hitchcockian feel for the ferocity lurking under the stoic mask of the average person. Branagh’s camerawork, at once ebullient but also perhaps the most controlled it’s been since his debut, turns the train into a series of rolling stages. The camera glides horizontally along the length of the carriage when Poirot first boards the train to analyse the conveyance, its compartments, and the passengers looming out from them. He repeats this shot at the very end with entirely changed meaning, the gazes of the people out at him charged with salutary complicity, Poirot’s status as adjudicator of fates reinforced but also his separation from the almost religiously transfigured passengers communicated with great visual succinctness and beauty. Elsewhere Branagh tries, much like the actors in the Globe Theatre might once have, with restless contrivance to release himself from the linear confines of the stage that he’s nailed himself to in the form of the train, be it in staging a brief pursuit down through the creaking, icy beams of the trestle under the immobilised train or picking out Poirot and Mary seated upon milk pails through the open doors of the luggage van, hovering in space halfway between heaven and hell in the midst of white-flanked, gold-crowned mountains.

There’s only so much Branagh can to do to give such a scuffed property a new lacquer of course, and if you know the story then there are few surprises to be had. But that’s precisely what I found so enjoyable here, the murder mystery staged as a dance, an old tune wielded with a fresh orchestration and choreography. And the critiquing aspect of the film remains as a dogging footfall to the main stride of the drama, as Branagh tweaks Christie’s denouement with just enough consequence to remake it more keenly as a moral crisis for Poirot, a reckoning with forms of justice and moral obligation, victim and criminal, beyond his usual understanding of the terms. It’s a way of approaching the story that gives a level of heft to the whodunit mode it usually pointedly rejects: an attempt to get at the visceral nature of crime, the impacts it has on a personal level, and demanding Poirot play his own part. “I see the world how it should be,” he admits early in the film, linking his obsessive characteristics with his moral viewpoint, but by the end of the film such easy linkages have been disrupted, finding nobility instead precisely in the boiling, neurotic desperation of the offended and broken-hearted, particularly Pfeiffer’s striking incarnation of the seething and righteous avenger under the thin coating of courteous disguise. This makes for a morsel of intelligence in a film that is otherwise a blissful time out from the world.


3rd 11 - 2017 | no comment »

Daguerrotype (Le secret de la chambre noire, 2016)

Director/Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Here there be spoilers.

Daguerrotype begins with a canted shot of a train moving into an open-air station. A young man gets off, follows some other passengers down some stairs to the exit, and walks a distance to a gated home where he has to speak into an intercom to be let in. He is expected. With this brief, subtly disturbing opening, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, master of the eerie, takes us from the modern world to an old, dark house of the mind.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that Kurosawa’s 1997 movie Cure is my favorite horror film. Cure is a bloody police procedural, but it is most interested in the way psychological pathologies can manifest in ordinary people given the right circumstances and stimuli. Thus, Cure and other films in Kurosawa’s oeuvre ask us to look inward, to empathize with his damaged, overstressed characters and recognize the limits of our own self-control and the ends to which we will go to regain it.

Daguerrotype and Cure share a trigger in common—guilt. Like the cop burdened with a mentally ill wife in Cure, Stéphane Hegray (Olivier Gourmet) is overcome with guilt over the suicide of his wife, Denise (Valérie Sibilia). Once a highly successful fashion photographer, Stéphane has retreated into his mansion, where he makes nothing but fragile glass daguerreotypes, a type of photograph that was born and almost completely died out during the Victorian era. He creates small images for clients—one of an old woman who seems to want to create something of a death mask of herself, another a portrait of a dead baby for a grieving mother and father, mimicking a common practice from Victorian times.

His newest obsession is creating lifesize daguerreotypes. The weighty, cumbersome photographic plates are too much for Stéphane’s aged assistant, Louis (Jacques Collard), to handle, so the young man we saw in the opening scene, Jean (Tahar Rahim), is interviewed as his replacement. While Jean waits to meet Stéphane, he spies a woman in period dress on the stairs above him. He learns later that she is Marie (Constance Rousseau), Stéphane’s daughter and frequent model. Jean is hired and starts to learn the particulars of his job, including locking Marie into an intricate metal frame to immobilize her for the lengthy exposures—some more than an hour—Stéphane needs for his daguerreotypes.

Much of the first half of the film is devoted to the everyday lives of the characters. We watch Stéphane’s agent, Vincent (Mathieu Amalric), try to coax him back to his career; Stéphane try and fail to conduct a commercial shoot; Marie, an excellent but amateur botanist, try to land a job at a botanic garden. We see Jean commuting on a subway back to Paris, where he lives, and go off to meet friends at a local sports bar. As a sign of his newfound prosperity, Jean settles a debt he owes one of them, only to be scolded for not returning his calls. This is the first hint that Jean is turning toward something new. His life is changing because of his budding love affair with Marie.

The central conflict of the film revolves around the difficulty of forging a future when the traumas of the past freeze us in place. Stéphane considers that he has ensured Marie will live forever by capturing her image on a lifesize daguerreotype, but the flesh-and-blood Marie was literally trapped in a metal vise, unable to move, while he made his pictures. His need for her puts her in a similar bind when she decides to pursue her own life and dreams. She is offered a job at a botanic garden in Toulouse and tells him she has decided to accept it. The consequences are almost immediate, as her father stumbles to the cellar, sees the ghost of Denise, and admits his betrayal of her devotion. Marie goes looking for him, only to tumble violently down the cellar stairs. Stéphane’s sin will be passed to his de facto son, Jean, who ventures into a criminal attempt to sell off the mansion for a substantial commission so that he and Marie can start a new life.

Daguerrotype shows Kurosawa’s command of Japanese horror conventions, specifically those of ghost stories, but put in service of his meditation on the shackles that love, memory, and guilt can impose. His frames reveal images at the edge, like nagging thoughts that won’t come into focus. Similarly, his ability to conjure actions that strongly corporealize his characters leave us confused when we suddenly find ourselves staring at empty spaces. He shows how prolonged exposure to supernatural beings can bring on insanity—it seems that Stéphane, Marie, and Jean are all touched by fire to one degree or another.

Kurosawa is at his most Japanese when Stéphane attempts to hide evidence of his complicity in Denise’s death in the chemical waste containers near Marie’s greenhouse. Hanging lamps that move by themselves entice him into the greenhouse, where he encounters a ghostly Denise moving toward him, slowly choking the frame as her form moves closer and closer to the cowering man, her long-nailed hands reaching for Stéphane’s throat, her unfocused, close-up face crowding everything else out. The moment is terrifying, but resolves in an unexpected way.

So, too, does Kurosawa defy the allure of Paris, so often a supporting player in so many films. We are never really sure what city Jean commutes to and from, as the director refuses any cliché establishing shots and stays on the back streets and in Jean’s crummy apartment when he is in the city. Tellingly, the only time we know for sure we’re in Paris is when Jean and Marie are leaving it for the last time and pass the Eiffel Tower, shrouded in fog.

All of the performances are strong, but special praise goes to Rousseau and Rahim. Rousseau’s Marie is delicate, a Mona Lisa enigma who, like the subject of that masterpiece, is set among the artifacts and attitudes of a past time. Her loving attentiveness to Jean is naturally expressed, characteristic of the passivity she had accustomed herself to in her father’s world. Her few moments of independence don’t really penetrate the serenity of her demeanor—she’s a gentle soul who believes others will treat her gently as well.

Rahim’s performance is a masterful slow burn. We can see the aimlessness of youth in his early scenes and his naïve eagerness to get started on a path with some kind of meaning. Interestingly, he is hired because he knows nothing about photography. That blank slate, like one of Stéphane’s unexposed glass plates, will be developed by his master—much to his misfortune. His attempts to get Stéphane to sell the estate get more and more desperate as Rahim signals the strange possession Jean is undergoing, one he is scrambling to escape. But Rahim never oversells his character’s emotional states, and the genuine feelings he and Rousseau express keep us boring more deeply into their story and invested in its outcome.

Cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine paints a gorgeous film, with rich and meaningful shadows and colors, and interesting depths of field that comment on character, particularly Jean’s. The timing of film editor Véronique Lange adds suspense and plants doubt in our minds. For example, bubbles from below the surface of a river where a body might be submerged churn an anxiety-inducing amount of time before a diver surfaces, empty-handed. The script by Kurosawa was translated into French by Catherine Paillé, revealing both writers to be literate and exact. Daguerrotype is a consummate work by a master and his talented team.

Daguerrotype is available on demand on iTunes, Sony, Google Play, Amazon, Microsoft, Vudu, Comcast, Charter, Cox, Vimeo, and various other cable operators.


29th 10 - 2017 | 5 comments »

The Shining (1980)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Stanley Kubrick

By Roderick Heath

A yellow Volkswagen Beetle winds its way along a vertiginous mountain road, a route that leads from the rational lowlands to the mountains of madness. We’ve already been introduced to Jack Torrance even though we haven’t seen him, a being enclosed in a tight bubble of metal, an economic and cultural refugee from the larger human world, entering a zone where his existence is viewed with implacable disinterest by the soaring, jagged peaks and silently abiding pine trees, merely waiting for winter’s hammer to fall. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s pulsing, droning synthesiser version of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique resounds on the soundtrack. Torrance in the flesh takes the shape of Jack Nicholson, authoritative Oscar winner flashing his trademark zesty grin. But the eyes are slightly fixed, the smile a tad strained, as he speaks with the manager of the Overlook Hotel, Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), a conversation punctuated with Ullman’s uneasy revelation that one of the previous caretakers, a man named Delbert Grady, killed his family during the long winter isolation with an axe, whilst Jack grins and responds it will be a topic of delight for his horror film addict wife. Mutually agreed subtext: Torrance is desperate for a settled job and a chance to break his writer’s block, and Ullman urgently needs someone who’ll take on a job that has a nasty history of chewing up human life.

Like the conversation of scientists in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) who represent the urges of rational cooperation and irrational partisanship, Jack and Ullman’s exchange here manages to be at once perfectly bland, yet also conscious of standing on the edge of an adventure into the unknown where mysterious forces can already be sensed slowly gathering new strength. Down in the flatlands, where the mountains loom in the dreamy distance, wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) wait for news on Jack’s luck with the job. Wendy reads that eternal tome of the sensitively literate and rebellious, The Catcher in the Rye, whilst Danny has conversations with an invisible friend, Tony. But there’s more to Tony than simply providing a slightly detached and creative little boy’s outlet: Tony is an internal voice, a spirit guide, a doppelganger who hovers within and beside Danny, mediating his powerful psychic gifts. Danny senses Tony’s unease over the coming journey to the Overlook. When he asks Tony to show him why, the only image needed is one returned to again and again throughout the film like a pictorial leitmotif – a colossal torrent of blood spilling out of the hotel’s elevators, as if the heart of the building has stored up every drop of gore ever spilt upon the soil it stands upon.

The story has it Stanley Kubrick, looking for a strong commercial property to film after the weak reception of Barry Lyndon (1975), sat day in and day out in his office working through piles of recently successful novels, and one day the sound of the books thudding against the wall ceased when Kubrick took up the third novel by a fast-rising horror writer named Stephen King. What’s fascinating about this vignette is how much it resembles some moments in the film, the anguished search for a story to tell, an idea worth hanging years of mental and physical effort upon, stoking the sensation that Kubrick was drawn to the book because it reproduced aspects of his own mental landscape. Then again, that’s probably true enough for any creative person. Kubrick had not tackled an outright horror movie before, although much of his earlier work had suggested some affinity, in his fascination for humans devolving into imps of the perverse, and moments measuring the precise impact of violence. Kubrick, penning the script with novelist Diane Johnson, entirely sublimated King’s story into his own sensibility, an aspect of the film that still rankles the author. What we watch when we watch The Shining is not just adaptation, but something more like translation, a tale remade through new methods of communication, and inevitable imprint of the new artisan. Kubrick’s The Shining, as King put it perfectly correctly, is cold where the novel is hot, the writer’s guilt-ridden, morbid fantasy of his own worst side unleashed by his drinking problem, transmitted via Kubrick’s contemplation of his own tendency to withdraw and struggle through endless phases of creative genesis, drifting through pentimento layers of past and present and future in contemplating civilisation and its discontents.

Kubrick had already stepped back and forth through the Ages of Man from the horizon of human time to the gilded pretence of a recent past and on to a gleaming technocratic future, evolving somehow towards both divine perfection and primal resurgence all at once, the benign indifference of the Star Child and the savage grins of Dr. Strangelove and Alex De Large the Janus faces of evolution and poor old Barry Lyndon the beaten and curtailed by-product. Kubrick knew very well the human race’s capacity to put on its best face whilst committing its worst crimes, his singular, most obsessive theme. All found a logical terminus in the Overlook, a place where past and present join and twist and the present dissolves like white sky into snow. The Overlook Hotel. The description King’s idol Shirley Jackson gave to her Hill House could describe it just as well – “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone…and whatever walked there, walked alone.” An outpost of affluent white civilisation, a bustling hive of activity when filled with staff. Imposed upon the crown of the American landscape, so offensive to the dispersed and decimated native inhabitants they even tried to stop its construction upon a burial ground. The Shining is the contemporary nightmare rising out of the dream of ’70s shambling westerns like Little Big Man (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). The mountaintop burial place whose invasion stirs the massacre of Jeremiah’s family in the latter film is the unavoidable touchstone. Folk cultural remnants decorate the hotel walls, whilst the art deco interiors quietly mimic and refine the simple, jagged geometries of the Indian artefacts. A common motif in late ’70s horror, of course – the Amityville house was also perched upon an Indian burial ground. A hedge maze adjacent, a feature strayed over from one of the Enlightenment gardens of Barry Lyndon, the orderly compression of space and time into a devious sprawl of false hope.

Jack’s already simmering instability is merely stoked rather than imposed by the Overlook, his fantasies of godlike control over his mental world meshing with a locale that serves as the last stop on the psychic river flowing through a land won in harsh contest. Danny’s reassurance of his parents that he knows all about cannibalism from watching TV stirs a most unnervingly strained and lunatic grin from Torrance as he repeats his son’s words, testifying to a mind already frayed by being long outpaced by other modes of media communication even in the process of shaping his son’s mind. Methods of communication are a secret plane of warfare in The Shining. Jack’s inability to communicate meaningfully, represented by his writing or failure therein, is matched to his urging Danny to suppresses his psychic gifts, perhaps out of concern for the way people will think of him and perhaps jealous of them. Some vital mechanism in Jack has broken down, perhaps from the same process, of having to contour himself and his expectations into a workaday world, or perhaps from suppressing the gift in himself – if the two processes can be extricated at all. Jack hopes to dislodge the clog to his ambitions in the Overlook. Wendy, meanwhile, cute and gawky and ever so chipper, wears her identity like a baggy sack dress, the woman with a shrivelled sense of self-esteem who convinced herself she married a genius.

The Overlook provides the struggling writer and his family with a little kingdom with a brief illusion of possession, reminiscent on one level of the similar smorgasbord of consumer delight George Romero sent his heroes careening through in Dawn of the Dead (1978), albeit slightly more upmarket. Head chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) gives Wendy and Danny a tour of the hotel’s larder, stocked for a long winter and a veritable horn of plenty, a wonderland of space and illusory wealth backed up by an authentic aura of history. The Torrances settle into life in the Overlook, but after initial celebration of their new world, nothing goes right. Jack becomes increasingly tetchy and offensive. Danny keeps seeing strange and terrible things in the hotel corridors, and finally, fatefully ventures into Room 237, where something leaves him bedraggled and traumatised. This assault sparks suspicion and diverging responses of concern and infuriated frustration in his parents. Nature conspires to force a crisis. A terrible snowstorm falls upon the Colorado Rockies. Jack displays increasing signs of falling into a cabin-fever-driven frenzy with dangerous intentions. Soon Jack will also destroy the radio and snowmobile that offer the chance of rescue or escape.

The horror artist’s imaginative landscape is transposed onto the locale, filling up space with illustrations of events gruesome and strange, the many crimes and lost histories straying out of their boxes into the halls and corridors. Trauma clings to the place like a subtle stink of rot, particularly infecting the notorious Room 237, a space Hallorann detests so absolutely Danny can sense it in him, obliging the chef to warn him away from it at all costs. Danny and Hallorann find instant accord, for Hallorann has the psychic gift too, and he seems to be the first other psychic Danny has encountered. Hallorann calls their shared gift “shining,” and gives nostalgic account of his ability to communicate with his mother without moving their mouths. There’s a hint here that Jack probably has the shining too, but has suppressed it so deeply he becomes a mere conduit for the psychic evil in the hotel rather than a bulwark against it, as Hallorann and Danny are. It’s also suggested that the building’s latent evil is often sparked by the intrusion of such preternaturally super-conscious people into its zone. Grady’s slaughter of his family was occasioned by the attempts of one his daughters to burn the place down in her awareness of what it is.

Time quickly begins to break down once the family is ensconced in their private abode within the hotel, a space that serves as a kind of mocking simulacrum of a proper family hostel sealed off from the rest of this cavernous space. Kubrick’s deployed intertitles seem to precisely delineate the time but actually hack up the film into random shards, units of measurement without rule. Days dissolve into one-another; character actions take on a kind logarithmic variability, moving according to programs laid down by the Overlook. One of the most famous flourishes, the endless repetition of the phrase “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” testifies to an illusion of forward motion when in fact the some moment is repeating. Young Danny makes endless tours of the hotel corridors on his tricycle, a system that seems to depend on the same Byzantine logic as the hotel’s beloved hedge maze. The monstrosity at the heart of the labyrinth is no longer a fanciful Minotaur – it’s a suburban father. Kubrick reverse-engineers cinematic language in the course of the film, as if mimicking his time-warp theme. The stark, squared-off, rectilinear shots attune themselves to the hard blocks and angles of the decorative motifs and forms around the hotel, but also call back to early cinema and the work of Fritz Lang and other movie pioneers, their deadpan gaze upon severe and unyielding compositions. As in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), the implacable regard of order and fate is invoked through such rigid figurations, as is the rectangular frames of the photos that in the very end prove to contain and cage the spirits of the dead in the Overlook. The eye of the camera is a mocking form of immortality, locking time in an eternal frieze.

Part of the unique stature The Shining has acquired over recent years, which has evolved to the extent that a whole movies has been made the obsession with this one, seems rooted in just this aspect of The Shining. It’s a movie about looking, in much the same way as Blowup (1966), mediated through a master filmmaker’s eye, one whose visual style was based in his background in still photography. The very last shot reveals, unnoticed amongst the hotel’s keepsakes of a lost, glittering past a photo of a suited Jack standing before a large group of Independence Day revellers, a detail observed by Kubrick in a systematic journey in closer to the image, much like in Blowup. The truth is available if you look hard enough. Small wonder some folks scour the film in urgent hunt for details that might act like the small map of the hedge maze, a map that blends imperceptibly into the real one as Jack studies it. Jack’s own pretensions of omniscience are invoked here as he seems to see his wife and son wandering in the aisles of the maze. The shining is a way of seeing, reading, experiencing – “It’s just like pictures in a book,” Tony tells Danny in coaching him through the seemingly manifold terrors of the Overlook itself, which seems to lack sufficient power to actually hurt anyone, therefore requiring a pliable amanuensis like Jack to do it. Kubrick strips the games of look and reality down to brutalist essentials throughout, constantly hinting at unseen things. The Shining invites you to look closer but also observes the breakdown of order and logic, and the closer you get the faster this process speeds up.

The broadest variation on this motif comes when Jack ventures into Room 237 in search of an apparent interloper who has roughed up Danny. Jack sees at first an extremely beautiful woman climbing sylphlike out a bath, encouraging Jack to embrace her, but then transforming into a garish hag covered in terrible burns and stigmata of disease. This scene mimics the forms of horror with the heartbeat-like soundtrack and steady build to grotesque revelation, but rather plays more as a smirking gag at the audience’s expense, with Jack as the frustrated avatar, inviting in with the desire to see something sexy and then give it a right good goose. In a place where time folds in on itself, beauty and ugliness coexist in one frame. There’s also a hint of in-joke to this scene, or at the very least a sort of knowing reference. Nicholson started in his career in the low-budget scifi and horror of Roger Corman, and this sequence essentially compresses one of his first starring roles, in Corman’s faux-Poe escapade The Terror (1963), into a few excruciating minutes. Poe is an inevitable touchstone for any American artist dabbling in the oneiric arts, of course, the saturnine poet who was found dying one day on a park bench after everything else in his life had slowly withered and died, lost in fantasies of a gallant past turned septic trap. Poe unwillingly but implacably observed the genteel fantasies of the southern planter class he didn’t quite belong to regressing into blood crime, psychosexual dwarfism, and lunacy. King’s approach to the Poe imprint was to use his motifs to interrogate American hierarchism – the bludgeoning effect of money, class, race, gender. Kubrick? Well, suffice to say Stanley seemed a little sceptical about everything.

Sequences depicting Danny’s habits of charging about the hotel on his tricycle are excellent thumbnails describing Kubrick’s skill at compressing and paring back his style in order to land his effects with purified force. The director tracks the boy’s speeding advance from behind, in shots that intriguingly connect them with the same sense of headlong rushing with which he shot the B-52 bomber shooting towards apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove, or; How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), the sounds of his tricycle’s tires alternating between hissing smoothness on carpet and thunderous, irritating sound on the bare wood. You can all but feel Danny’s heedless release in the wealth of space after living in a copped-up apartment, but the cunning control of the sound instils forces the viewer to also empathise in the finest nerves with Jack’s frustration with trying to chase a muse with the racket a young child can make. Kubrick makes you feel this aspect of his tale, to experience it, rather than be passively fed dialogue. It also establishes a visual pattern returned to in the finale, as the roving, pursuing camera fills in for the killer pursuing Danny through the maze proper. Even when the narrative seems to be spiralling into frenetic chaos, the visual language remains unerringly concise. The little sways of the camera tracking the swing of Jack’s axe. The jolting zooms that pick out terrible details and perverse exhibitions. The increasingly intimate views of his actors’ faces as they cave in to lunacy and distress, often with dramatically unusual angles. One example of this is a shot of Nicholson as Jack converses with Wendy through a doorway, filmed from below, a shot that turns him into a caged beast and also invites the viewer into conspiracy with Jack, like one of Richard III’s monologues, as he begins to grin at Wendy’s naive and forlorn expectations of easy escape. The rhythmic interpolations of that singular vision, the torrent of blood, the flash cuts to Danny’s frightened face as he experiences nightmarish terrors with his shining.

Jack’s invocation to the spirits of the Overlook, uttered when he’s first seen in the hotel’s colossal function area called the Gold Room, with its chintzy splendour and gleaming, inviting bar, is, “I’d do anything for a drink – I’d give my goddamn soul for a glass of beer.” This line is almost parodic in its reduction of Jack’s moral and psychological collapse and enslavement to the Overlook to this singular formula, whilst also finally starting the process of nailing down Jack’s problem, his dry-drunk’s neurosis merely starved rather actively conquered. This is when Jack first glimpses the barman Lloyd (Joe Turkel), who seems at first like a fancy of the writer’s, suave and correct in his old-school aplomb, a character invented to match Jack’s remaking of himself as a worldly gentleman. He aids Jack in delivering verbal purgation of the motives that enforced his self-exile to the Overlook, not really an attempt to find creative fulfilment but instead an attempt to escape his alcoholism, and his guilt over losing his temper with Danny. Wendy proceeds through her days with a chipper, workaday front that is both entirely admirable and enabling of Jack’s instability.

After their drive together to the hotel, Kubrick pointedly refuses to ever offer a scene where all three characters are seen together, except for a moment in which Jack is a quivering mess after a dreadful nightmare of murdering them and Danny wanders into frame sucking his thumb in the traumatised wake of being attacked by something. Hallorann fulfils the role of father gently coaxing Danny into communication and community. One key scene here involves no overt violence or action but generates a mood of intense disquiet, depicting Jack, moving in a state of intense distraction, slovenly, unshaven, balancing his son on his knee and making weak attempts to communicate with the boy. This scene might seem queasily familiar to anyone who ever grew up with a depressive or alcoholic parent – the spectacle of a parent, supposed figure of love and protection and unquestioning commitment, drifting away in a haze whose attempts to mollify a child are desperately unconvincing. Danny’s question in response to Jack’s agonising expressions of paternal interest is “You wouldn’t ever hurt mommy and me, would ya?”

But the call of the Overlook is reverberating through Jack’s mind just as it rang out to Danny – come and play, forever and ever and ever. It’s a call that appeals more to a failed adult byproduct than to a wary and canny kid. Danny himself as already heard the call from the pair of twin girls, Grady’s daughters, who have appeared to him in the corridors, manifesting at the same time as the sight of their mangled and bloodied corpses. Danny’s capacity to weather such terrible glimpses depends on his ability to believe in them as mere illustrations rather than as true emanations. Jack instead interacts with them like a man stepping into private fantasies. Wendy’s stark, horrified reaction when she believes Jack might have roughed up Danny has the sorry effect of helping to drive him over the verge of the liminal as he stalks away into the depths of the hotel, arriving in the chintzy splendour of the Gold Room, where Lloyd converses with him in suave, correct old school aplomb, mollifying Jack’s fiscal anxieties and eventually appealing to his desire to be considered important. Lloyd suggests Jack is desperately important to a great project still unfolding at the Overlook. Later, re-entering the same space, Jack finds himself amidst a ritzy celebration of 1920s high life, replete with suited gentlemen and chicly clad flappers, and is bumped into by a waiter, whom Jack recognises quickly is Grady (Philip Stone). Grady protests ignorance of his real identity as Jack grills him about it in a mordantly red-painted bathroom, until the guise slips and Grady assures him with cold precision that he “corrected” his incorrigible family and encourages Jack to do the same with his, in defence of his post as the Caretaker, a role that has slipped any nominal bonds of merely earthly concern and become a post of cosmic significance within this time-space trap.

Fittingly, considering such themes of type-casting and predestination, the casting imbues The Shining not simply with strong performances but with actors who are obliged to act out versions of parts they had before, or with whom Kubrick had history. Turkel had previously appeared in Paths of Glory (1957) playing a young and tragic soldier also sacrificed in the interests of a smooth-working machine. Stone, who had been in both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, had played a retainer shocked by the pathology of the Lyndon household who eventually played successful intervener. Here once more he plays major-domo to the interests of the great estate, although the role of intervener is passed on to Hallorann. Duvall had been the big-eyed, soulful lady of Robert Altman’s Americana fantasias in the previous ten years. Thrusting Nicholson, hero of 1970s naturalism, back into such the zone of his early roles has a mischievous aspect to it, especially as Kubrick picks up and amplifies the coal-black comedy and purposefully cartoonish aspects of a Corman film like The Raven (1963). Kubrick’s fascination for performances pitched right on the edge of overt stylisation reached an apogee here thanks to Nicholson and Duvall. Nicholson’s bravura incarnation of Jack has the quality of a piece of paternal play-acting Big Bad Wolf or Captain Hook constantly threatening to turn into authentically ferocious violence. The film’s moment of truth portrays exactly this pivot, as Jack slowly backs Wendy up a flight of stairs, taunting her with increasingly maniacal flourishes and threats whilst never quite losing the quality of someone enacting a great big joke. Wendy’s name, of course, sarcastically twisted to “Wendy, darling,” amplifies the pantomime connection.

The Shining is, of course, in spite of its stature and pretensions, a haunted house tale. An old and noble adjunct of the horror genre, the haunted house tale can be both a realm of subtle, evocative frissons and outright bloodcurdling showmanship, of gently psychologised anxiety and spectacular manifestation. The Shining manages to describe the range between both these poles. In many haunted house films from earlier times, hauntings usually proved to be illusory, as in the various versions of The Cat and the Canary (1927, 1939, 1976), usually remaking this hoary trope as a vehicle for proving the antiseptic values of modernity. But a later movement, perhaps set in motion by Jack Clayton’s ponderously literate adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents (1961), saw the value of this trope as questions over the ambiguity of viewpoint became central, and the notion of a ready-made, coherent metaphor for the mind as a set of rooms never free of ghostly imprints of thought and memory. Examples of this mode came on through the 1960s and ‘70s, including Robert Wise’s take on Jackson, The Haunting (1963), Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) and Lisa e il Diavolo (1972), John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973), Dan Curtis’s Burnt Offerings (1976), Richard Loncraine’s Full Circle (1976), Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror, and Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980).

What distinguishes The Shining over and above most of these? Kubrick’s fastidious film language is one part of it, of course, the methodical yet remorseless intensification of mood and story that calls to mind the title of that James story – the screws are constantly tightening. But another, telling point of discursion is that in most of those films, the supernatural is an active threat. In The Shining the haunting is entirely passive, only acting through a human avatar – although The Amityville Horror also hinged upon the fright factor of a seemingly decent father turning brutal. One aspect of King’s great success as a horror writer lies in his precise refusal of ambiguities in regards to his generic devices, his monstrosities and ghouls, for whilst embracing the metaphorical meaning of his ideas, King’s realisation of them, from satanic lawnmowers to a girl’s wrathful psychic powers, are perfectly literal. Evil when it breaks out in King’s writer has punishing corporeal and moral dimensions. King liked the theme of ordinary people falling under the power of forces from without – even the hapless dog in Cujo is a victim of this – whereas Kubrick sees it as welling from within. Part of the tensions between King’s story and Kubrick’s realisation of it lies in what feels like Kubrick’s attempts to impose a level of ambiguity about whether what we’re seeing is an actual supernatural event. Much that we see here could simply be a reality created by claustrophobia, isolation, a depressive addict’s sullen fantasising, and shared neurosis of the Torrances. It doesn’t entirely fit: there are too many events in the story that seem to confirm the actuality of the supernatural’s place in the tale, including Danny’s communication with Hallorann and Jack’s escape from the freezer Wendy locks him in after successfully knocking him out with a baseball bat.

It might be impossible to ascertain whether Kubrick ever watched Bava’s films, and yet the points of accord are hard to ignore: as in Operazione Paura and Lisa e il Diavolo, places become infected with the diseases in the minds of the people who live in them, who then find themselves doomed to act out the pathologies locked into the environs about them (Kubrick’s affinities with Bava would again resurface notably in Eyes Wide Shut, 1999). One scene cut from the film directly quoted Operazione Paura, in which Jack picks up a ball tossed his way by a ghostly presence. The deliberate replacement of tension sourced in what will happen with tension rooted in the question of when and how, blended with the theme of Jack’s temptations towards illusory fulfilment of his psycho-sexual needs whilst exterminating actual loved-ones, is similarly close to Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970). Kubrick’s own preferred genre, if he had one, was the war film – six of his thirteen movies depict warfare to a significant degree. His fascination with martial subordination and ritualised violence is evinced here too; The Shining is a portrait of psychic warfare. It’s there in the way Jack is subordinated to the hotel’s programme in the same way the soldiers in Paths of Glory are enticed to destroy themselves and others to live up to a patriotic ideal, echoing General Mireau’s bullying-obliging his subordinate Dax to lead a hopeless and cynically motivated attack on the Ant Hill, and looking forward to the lengthy studies in indoctrination and terrorisation utilised in the training process examined in Full Metal Jacket (1987). As in Lolita (1962), The Shining is also the spectacle of a cultured and respectable being falling to pieces in the face of personal obsession. As in Barry Lyndon, it’s a portrait of a man being slowly crushed by the knowledge he has stepped into the lap of luxury whilst never quite possessing it. As in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, the onrush of calamity is viewed always with a cruelly comic grin, humans portrayed less as thinking, self-aware organisms than as momentary embodiments of various traits, from monstrous will to wretched decency.

Hallorann, a weathered and worldly black man, is the cheeriest character in The Shining, a man who knows how to entertain a kid and keep customers satisfied, and leaves behind the heart of darkness that is the Overlook to go lounge in the sun and watch TV. He initiates Danny into a new community, one that obeys different rules to the rest of society, a world without words. Hallorann calls to mind the intimacy of sharing the shine with his mother, an intimacy to which the Torrance family never aspires. King ironically edited himself out of the ideal nuclear family of the new age in killing off his own avatar and leaving Wendy and Danny with Hallorann. Kubrick concentrates more on the punishing reaction of the offended white male ego, an aspect of The Shining that was prescriptive in the climate of 1980 when Reaganism was on the advance and which today feels all but acutely prophetic. “White man’s burden,” Jack mutters to Lloyd, and soon the film reaches a zenith of deadpan black-comedy grotesquerie as Grady baits Jack, who weeks earlier was probably a good little liberal, with the news that his son is calling in “a nigger” to stymie their designs. Torrance repeats these totemic words in hyperbolic distress, indicating the degree to which he’s fallen under the spell of the old hates written into the structure of the hotel.

Kubrick rhymes and contrasts this sublimation by Jack of the ancient communal hates encoded in the Overlook’s timbers with the amusing sight of Hallorann in his hotel in the midst of black erotica, a touch that also says something about the two men as men, as Hallorann is a bachelor off enjoying his sojourn whilst Jack is entrapped with his family. Making Hallorann somewhat older than Jack and Wendy removed any hint of sexual threat, but Hallorann is still closer to an idealised figure of paternal care. After all, he’s the sort of guy who will drop everything, fly across country, and venture into a blizzard the moment he senses Danny and Wendy are in danger. Jack’s devolution meanwhile sees him increasingly bullying and abusing Wendy for placing her concerns for Danny ahead of his anointed place and responsibility as caretaker and litterateur. Jack’s brutal murder of Hallorann as soon as he arrives is Kubrick’s starkest deviation from his source. This might well have been made to offer at judicious dash of traditional horror in the story – it’s the only actual death in the film – but it also powerfully intensifies the film’s increasingly maniacal mood and sense of exposure. Danny and Wendy must save themselves, for no white (or black) knights are on the march. But it’s also plain in this sequence, in which Jack hides behind a pillar and springs out at Halloran as if to shout “Boo!” whilst slamming his axe into his chest, that there’s still a sick element of play to Jack’s homicidal rampage.

The darkly comic streak of The Shining might be identified as Kubrick’s signalling to the audience he feels himself above the genre on some level, except that, as well as coherent with the rest of his oeuvre, the humour entwines with the fervency with which Kubrick delves into this little imaginative universe he and his great team of collaborators fashioned. The atmosphere of extreme isolation and immersion in the subliminal is knitted together by the strength of Kubrick’s images and his music cues. The note of child’s-play-turned-murder-party is still present even as Jack is hunting his son through the hedge maze, which becomes a subzero game of hide-and-seek with a shiny axe in the mix, and of course in the most famous moment in the film, his spittle-flecked, mad-eyed mockery of television’s appeal, “Here’s Johnny!” Meanwhile Kubrick goes to town in unleashing strange and tantalising visions, as when Wendy spies someone in an animal costume fellating a hotel guest, and another guest with a bloodied wound on his brow beaming at Wendy with a hearty greeting, “Great party, isn’t it?” Yeah, it’s a real lark. Such dioramas of the inexplicable are another facet of The Shining’s mystique, evincing episodes of teeming strangeness contained within the Overlook’s embrace without ever pausing to explain and explicate them, rather suggesting that what is glimpsed and spoken of throughout is only the tip of this uncanny iceberg. Hallorann’s ill-fated dash to the rescue does at least present to Wendy and Danny the means to escape in his snow tractor, whilst Jack, injured and dissolving into babbling lunacy, sits down in the maze, unable to find either Danny or his way out, and is glimpsed next as a frigid, icicle-fringed corpse. It’s a truly pathetic end for would-be artist-god’s designs. The last shot, on top of its mordant and haunting evocation of eternal entrapment and the dissolution of meaning in the face of time’s eddies, begs a certain sympathetic question: is Jack happier this way?


27th 10 - 2017 | 4 comments »

Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon, 1957)

Director: Jacques Tourneur

By Roderick Heath

Headlights, burning the night like eyes of a spectral beast, light the way along a country road at night, branches etched in slivers of brightness against vast darkness. The car arrives before a great old house, and its driver, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), meets with the house’s owner, Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) in a state of clammy desperation. Harrington claims to have seen something, something terrifying enough to make the peerlessly rational researcher, who has been investigating Karswell and his cult worshipping black magic and old gods, come begging for his quarry’s aid in exchange for public apologies and repudiations. Karswell asks some seemingly calm and placatory questions, including about the fate of a scrap of parchment covered in runic symbols Karswell gave him. After learning the parchment was burned, Karswell assures Harrington that he should go home and leave everything to him. Harrington drives back home through the night. But as he’s pulling into his driveway, Harrington sees a spectral figure manifesting in the distance that drives him into a wild panic, causing him to crash his car into a power pole. The last thing Harrington sees as he twists up in the midst of power lines is a colossal, ferocious demon lurching over him and reaching down…

This opening has fineness sufficient unto itself, a miniature essay in form and style in a horror movie – the war of inky blacks and dazzling whites and grey shades in between, the judicious glimpses of a monstrous being at large in the quiet embrace of the English country night, the layered ironies of soft-spoken gentlemen bringing down ruinous forces from beyond. Although director Jacques Tourneur was frustrated by having to show the demon in literal form, the way the film handles its appearance still stands, 60 years later, as perhaps the best and worthiest ever use of a special effect in a horror film, a ne plus ultra in genre spectacle – the strange apparition appearing vaguely in the distance, wreathed in smoke and fire, two massive legs astride the writhing, desperate Harrington, and then a great, looming close-up of the demon’s snarling visage and terrible clawed paw splayed to grip its prey and prize.

Charles Bennett, who had been a top screenwriter for many years and is still perhaps best remembered for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock on projects like The 39 Steps (1935), laboured on penning an adaptation of M.R. James’ “Casting the Runes” for many years, and harboured hopes of directing the completed script. Bennett couldn’t get any studio to back him in this until, agonisingly, just after he had signed over the script to producer Hal E. Chester, who then proceeded to amplify his frustration by rewriting it to better fit Chester’s idea of commercial interests. Chester nonetheless proved himself wise in one regard, when he turned to Tourneur, recommended to him by another producer, to handle this tale of gruelling anxiety. Tourneur had not made a horror film in 14 years, although it was the genre that had made his name working with RKO maestro Val Lewton. Tourneur and Lewton’s partnership had laid down a blueprint for a style of horror not only followed by Lewton’s other stable-mates Robert Wise and Mark Robson, but which made a subtle but pervasive impact on the genre as a whole. The duo’s clarion work Cat People (1942) even purportedly saved RKO from bankruptcy. After extending the series with I Walked With A Zombie and The Leopard Man (both 1943), Tourneur had been rewarded with a swift rise to handling larger-budgeted and more prestigious films, turning out excellent noir thrillers like Out Of The Past (1947) and Berlin Express (1948). Once Tourneur’s RKO contract expired he was free to pick and choose projects from different studios. But far from burnishing his reputation, the string of westerns and adventure movies he made throughout much of the 1950s are generally far less well-known than his foundational work.

Tourneur and Lewton’s collaboration had been rooted in their mutual status as immigrants who had each followed famous elder relatives to the US for work. In Tourneur’s case, his director father Maurice Tourneur, and in Lewton’s his aunt, the silent screen star Alla Nazimova. Both men found accord in this sense of tension between their experiences and their lives in Hollywood, as well as a shared humanist outlook. But they also diverged as Lewton’s romantic rationality was pitted against Tourneur’s interests in the mystic, a division that ultimately synthesised a penchant for ambiguity in their approach to the creepy tales they were obliged to create. Tourneur’s visual palette, influenced by his father’s famous and innovative use of light in his films, was delicate yet firm in its gradations and depth of field, aiding him in his gift for creating a sequestered mood, a state of subtle alienation and isolation from the everyday world. This talent was most famously evinced in such scenes as the swimming pool sequence in Cat People, but Night of the Demon quickly offers a less spectacular, but equally vital example of this touch at work after its fanfare opening. Harrington’s niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) and colleague Dr John Holden (Dana Andrews), who don’t know each other in spite of their connection, frustrate each other as they fly over the Atlantic to London. The incidental meet-cute here is a bit arduous on the dramatic level, but also a model of mood control and audience conditioning: Tourneur evokes a hushed and somnolent corner of a noisy, zippy modern act, in flying aboard a propeller-driven passenger plane, introducing a story where the tension between the modern and ancient, seen and unseen, defines all. Joanna’s light, which annoys Holden, is an ironic beacon of wakeful vigilance where everyone else is trying to sleep, setting in motion the battle between her credulity as to the possibility of supernatural menace versus Holden’s conviction of its impossibility.

Holden is heading to London to chair an academic conference of investigators into anthropology and folklore, at which Harrington intended to discredit Karswell, whose cult activities seem to have driven at least one member of the faithful to go mad and commit a murder. Both Joanna and Holden are met with the news of Harrington’s death upon touchdown, but Holden wastes no time in retracing Harrington’s steps in pursuit of Karswell. Trying to track down some of the research tomes Harrington had listed in his investigations, he goes to the British Museum’s reading room, but cannot find the book listed entitled The True Discoveries of the Witches and Demons. A stranger claims to overhear and offers to show Holden his copy. The stranger is Karswell, who introduces himself in affable manner and gives Holden a card as well as a bundle of his own papers accidentally toppled from his work desk. The card promises, “Allowed three days” in handwriting that vanishes without trace even to a chemist’s eye. Intrigued, Holden decides to accept Karswell’s invitation, taking Joanna, who visits his hotel room to warn him about her uncle’s slow-mounting dread before his untimely end. Holden thinks he has Karswell pegged as a “harmless faker” when he sees Karswell entertaining children as a clown and magician, so Karswell attempts to wipe the smugness from his face by taking credit for a vicious windstorm that suddenly descends and churns the party to chaos.

Karswell claims success in translating portions of the encrypted True Discoveries and gained unique insight into and power over the supernatural world with it, power he has wielded to gain himself a flock of intensely credulous yokel followers, and enriching himself in the process. He also predicts Holden’s imminent death. The stage is set for an extended battle of wills between Holden and Karswell, the stiff-necked rationalist slowly whittled down to size as he finds himself dogged by mounting signs that something terrible really is now dogging his footsteps, manifesting in menacing sounds in his hotel corridors, fits of blurry vision and hallucination, pages vanishing from his diary after the date of his anticipated demise, and pursuit by a smoky apparition when he ventures alone through the woods neighbouring Karswell’s house. Joanna becomes convinced quickly that her father’s dread was based in something substantial; Holden resists her entreaties to pay heed to his example whilst also trying to romance her. Karswell’s elderly mother (Athene Seyler) also attempts to convince Holden he’s in danger, and invites him and Joanna to a session with a medium, Mr Meek (Reginald Beckwith). Meek seems to channel Harrington and his desperate implorations from beyond, but Holden is left more annoyed and sceptical than ever. Meanwhile Holden’s colleagues, O’Brien (Liam Redmond) and Kumar (Peter Elliott), are arranging to medically examine the mad cultist, Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde), and use hypnosis and drugs to extricate the truth of what happened on the night of his supposed murder.

Night of the Demon was released at almost the same time as Terence Fisher’s pivotal work for Hammer Films, Curse of Frankenstein, and like that film it reclaims the imagery of looming, destructive chimera from the world of science fiction and restores it to the embrace of horror’s darker, more intimately troubling world, announcing horror’s resurgence as a vital genre. At the same time, where Fisher’s gore-spiked, gothic fairytale approach was actually a jolt of harsh modernism, Tourneur’s film mediates two eras with intricacy and also some strain. Part of the power of the approach Tourneur and Lewton took in their horror trilogy was rooted in their exploration of the consequences of modern rationality with its weapons of science and psychology, grappling with old figurations for the understanding of the world. Their template refused to entirely demystify those figurations but more often fighting them to a draw in recognising that the cold light of reason never dispels the power of the irrational, even if it only lurks in the recesses of the mind. The possibility of supernatural action in Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie was mediated through the very real and immediate conspiracies of damaged and damaging people, whilst the storyline of The Leopard Man self-consciously invoked the notion of a human lunatic using a primal force, in this case an escaped wild animal, as a black alibi for his predations.

Night of the Demon, by contrast, allowed Tourneur to step back into horror cinema by making that tension between the rational and irrational worldviews the basic matter of the drama. The story concerns the constant dialogue of belief and scepticism that is at the heart of so much of the genre. James’s stories were usually built around such a gap in understanding, mediated through James’ own scholarly habits, his fascination with dust-caked esoterica, transmitting through layers of media a sense of a world lost and just beyond grasping where the laws of the universe was understood in a different way. James’ approach, with his falsified testimonies and second-hand accounts, borrowed from and also augmented the epistolary style of writing, a mode with much in common with contemporary cinema’s love of found footage gimmickry, in terms of trying to convey a charge of verisimilitude. Night of the Demon doesn’t try to reproduce this layered effect, but Bennett did an expert job of transposing James’ story from a late Victorian setting into the mid-1950s. Perhaps, indeed, it found the setting it always demanded, the age of planes and atomic bombs and bright, sterile lights, amidst which the shadows sometimes seem all the darker, more abyssal and witholding. Holden’s conversations with O’Brien and Kumar, who are rather more metaphysically-minded than him and variously open to belief in the supernatural – Kumar in particular – see them engaging in jocular but weighty manner on the ways of understanding such phenomena. Kumar refuses a drink O’Brien offers, calling alcohol the “devil’s brew.” Later, when O’Brien jokingly notes the devil has something with his pleasant drink, Kumar notes “That’s when he’s most dangerous – when he’s being pleasant.” And of course, Karswell is the most pleasant gentleman around.

The charm of the English story, acknowledged early in the film when a local journalist wryly asks Holden to “go easy on our ghosts – we’re rather fond of them,” exudes from a land where the modern lives cheek by jowl with the works of unseen generations, moulded into the everyday habits of the land, dogging memories of ancient convictions and loyalties still infesting the edge of a world otherwise getting on with business. Many moments in Night of the Demon record the essence of this parochial style, particularly the riotously strange séance sequence in which Meek’s wife (Rosamund Greenwood) and Mrs Karswell sing the chirpy ditty “Cherry Ripe” to induce the right spiritual mood, seeing the medium begin to grunt and toss as he connects with the astral plane. Meek passes through a variety of possessions, including of a kindly Scottish gentleman and a small, frightened girl in search of her doll, before finally Harrington enters him and frantically tries to warn Holden and Joana about the demon even as he screams in terror at its looming presence. Holden shatters the mood, and Meek’s trance, by getting up and turning on the lights (“I feel sick.” “You’re not the only one.”) in a conscientious act of effrontery to the construction of credulity enforced by the showmanship of the séance. The film’s most vital performance is also the best conduit for this contrast of English eccentricity and the truly uncanny, in MacGinnis as Karswell.

The Irish-born actor, once a rugged heroic type in films like Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1938) and Anthony Asquith’s We Dive At Dawn (1943), was balding and portly by the time this film came around, and so he slipped into the skin of this character to present conjure master and necromancer, patterned after that eternal fount for horror writes Aleister Crowley, not as sepulchral supervillain (a la Boris Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig in The Black Cat, 1934) or suavely sinister man of the world (Charles Grey’s Mocata in The Devil Rides Out, 1967), but as a bluff and genial former performer who’s nice to kids and helpful even to mean, old scholars who want to persecute him. Truth be told, Karswell bears more likeness to L. Ron Hubbard than to Crowley, as entertainer turned religious leader, carefully feeding out fragments of his revelations gleaned from supposed ancient texts. Bennett and Tourneur seem to have noticed grounds for such a figure to flourish in an age increasingly wary and inclined to reject modernity’s apparent lack of order and calm.

Karswell also anticipates Psycho’s (1960) Norman Bates as a figure of destruction lurking in a big, old house with his mother, one who could be seen as coded queer (though he seems to gain designs on Joanna eventually). But Psycho would announce the proper birth of the modern horror film with its knife-wielding serial killer as monster, Night of the Demon still has a foot in an atavistic world, its momma’s boy headcase bringing down death with justified conviction that he holds the secret reins of the world, whilst, of course, living with the risk they might be tugged from his grip. Karswell makes plain to his mother his way of thinking and his motivation for destroying Harrington and Holden – to protect the worldly and otherworldly success he’s obtained. MacGinnis is great fun as he veers through conversations with alternations of affability and tossed-off threat (“Unfortunately you won’t be able to explain away your death on the 28th of this month so easily, with my prediction of it at this moment,” he mentions airily whilst taking off his clown make-up). He manages to simultaneously imbue Karswell with a genuinely malevolent edge, shading his sweetly tempered voice into deeper, sterner intonations, fixing Holden with cold-blooded stares and triumphant smiles as he stands unmoved during the pulverising wind storm he conjures. MacGinnis also expertly traces Karswell’s undercurrent of genuine awe and trepidation, his all-too-credulous certainty that the terrors he can wield are dangerous, and his awareness of the basic law of magic, “nothing for nothing,” that every cause has an effect and every cup taken from the well must be refilled one way or another.

Holden meanwhile visits some of Karswell’s followers, who seem to live in an entirely different epoch to him and everyone else, when he needs permission from Rand Hobart’s relations to treat him. These people subsist on a farm without any sign of technology, speak in ye-olde-isms, and seem sternly subservient to the old forces of the earth and beyond Karswell has facetiously mastered but they have adopted with iron belief. There’s an intriguing echo throughout Night of the Demon of one of Tourneur’s best-regarded, if least well-known films, Stars in My Crown (1950), as that film’s gentle and empathetic portrayal of a religious warrior trying to win over a rustic community gives way to a man of staunch disbelief confronting an enclave of septic holdouts from a radically different faith. Aptly, Holden’s attitude slowly reveals itself as every bit as monomaniacal as any religious fanatic’s, and sourced in a similar anxiety as to what mysteries an alternative world view open up. This dichotomous aspect is evinced as Holden expressly detests the sensation of being robbed of not only certitude but also forthright sovereignty by the possibility of the supernatural: “It’s easy to see a demon in every dark corner – if this world is ruled by demons and monsters we may as well all give up right now.” To which Joanna ripostes that the existence of forces that cannot be repressed doesn’t necessarily mean being ruled by them. If the essence of the ’50s science fiction film had often been conjuring colossal fears to be defeated by the end, Night of the Demon pointedly refuses the notion that all anxieties can be so defeated, but also suggests the evil forces tend to consume those who invoke them.

Without going too far out on a limb, it’s possible to regard Night of the Demon as a vital signpost in the souring in the postwar sensibility, counterpointing Curse of Frankenstein’s ruthless commentary on unhinged science conjuring monsters where none existed before. The feeling that Night of the Demon was pitched in part as something of a commentary on the waning scifi creed and flagship for horror is bolstered, as Holden is given explicitly Jungian attitudes linking the sightings of flying saucers with the many similar types of demons O’Brien keeps a collection of as evidence of the possibility the demon is real, branding them common archetypes. Holden himself is of the same species as the square-jawed, he-man scientists who could solve all the world’s problems in such films. Night of the Demon hinges on the observation that just because not all fears can be plumbed doesn’t mean they cannot be controlled or reckoned with. The object at the heart of the narrative, the paper inscribed with the mystic runes that serve as summons and beacon for the demon, is a blind tool of supernatural forces, capable of bringing down the demon’s wrath on anyone who holds it, a device that ultimately gives Holden his ticket to defeating Karswell.

Night of the Demon has always been a knotty work to me. I’m often left with the feeling after watching it that with a few tweaks it could have been an unrivalled pinnacle of the genre, but a few vital elements consistently frustrate me. Some of this seems to stem from the tension between the three main contributors to its making, Bennett, Tourneur, and Chester, whose revisions to Bennett’s script resulted in a story flow that doesn’t always seem properly structured, and awkward switchbacks in the style and attitude of the characters, like Holden’s oilier efforts to romance Joanna. Clifton Parker’s often crashing score is another facet that annoys, as well as the frustratingly overpitched performances by the usually reliable Andrew and Cummins. That said, the mood of strained and brittle self-consciousness both actors exude accords with the slowly ratcheting, jump-at-shadows disquiet inherent in Holden’s plight. Moreover, Tourneur’s direction relentlessly accumulates signs of menace, pulling jolting moments out of his hat just as Karswell plucks puppies from his, like a famous moment when two small boys wearing creepy masks leap out from a tree, interrupting Karswell’s quietly menacing conversation with Holden: just two kids at play, but it comes with such perfectly unexpected jaggedness that it still startles after umpteen viewings. Less agreeably, Tourneur’s method here, revising the art of the “bus scare” he developed with Lewton that hinged on utilising jarring cues of sound that prick the audience’s susceptibility with false scares, also anticipates the modern reduction of horror cinema to a series a jumps induced by assaults with volume.

The failure of the séance to convince Holden of his danger leads him to try breaking into Karswell’s manse to get a look at the True Discoveries. It proves an abortive mission, as Karswell senses his intrusion, and Holden is mauled by what seems like a terrible monster in the dark, but proves to be only a pet cat when the light is switched on – or, as Karswell mockingly suggests, a cat possessed by a guardian spirit to protect the house. Holden takes his obtuseness to a new level when he declares his determination to leave the way he came, treading back through the woods neighbouring the house in spite of Karswell’s appeals not to. But his journey becomes a magnificent opportunity for Tourneur to stretch his scaremongering sinews. Holden becomes increasingly jumpy and finally starts running in panic as mysterious footprints of an invisible fiend start pocking the ground, and a glowing ball of smoke seems to chase the panicky scientist through the aisles of skeletal trees and clinging bushes. There’s another echo of a recent scifi film here: the invisible “monster from the id” in Forbidden Planet (1956) left the same footprints, even though the structure of the scene is far closer to the scenes of phobic isolation and anxiety that had been a hallmark of the Lewton series. Like the opening, this sequence is an island of perfection, an ideal representation of a horror filmmaker’s art, conjuring conviction of threat from the most minimal of signs and hints, conveying the way the secure bastions of Holden’s mind are giving way before the spell of the dark.

Tourneur’s irritation in being obliged to make the demon appear is entirely understandable in this regard, because it seems to diffuse the opacity he had laboured carefully to engender through such sequences. That said, just as the ball of fire that chases Holden could be a figment of his imagination, so, too, could the demon itself. The contradiction Tourneur doesn’t shy away from is the problem of knowing, whether the mind creates its demons or merely records them, and ponders if the difference is actually all that important. The modern medicine turned upon Hobart (a performance of incredible, sweat-sodden intensity from Wilde, who would later become well-known playing an amusingly different part on the TV show Porridge) excavates primal terror from the pathetic man who proves to avoided his own, ordained fate to die by the monster by passing the runes onto a fellow. Hobart imbues Holden with vital knowledge for avoiding his own fate, but at the cost of his own life, as Hobart hysterically attacks the doctor in thinking he’s trying to pass his own runes on, and hurls himself through a high window. Holden makes a dash to catch Karswell, forewarned by his mother about his travel plans, and catching him aboard a train with Joanna under his hypnotic control. Holden soon measures the level of Karswell’s fear of him, and when two policemen, tracking Karswell, ironically because of Holden’s complaint about him, barge into their compartment, Holden successfully returns the runes to Karswell under the guise of handing him his coat. The sorcerer immediately realises what has happened and is forced to chase after the parchment, which seems to have a life of its own, until it seems to spontaneously catch fire and burn by the railways tracks.

Karswell finds himself caught between the demon and an oncoming train, a circumstance that allows Holden and Joanna a chance to withdraw from the scene with at least a sliver of ambiguity still in their minds – “Perhaps it’s best not to know,” Holden says, echoing the “they tampered in God’s domain” homily at the end of many a ’50s scifi film. But, of course, the film privileges the audience with Karswell’s viewpoint of a colossal monstrosity that picks him up and claws him with vicious, punitive disdain. The climax delivers a truly nightmarish image; the demon, viewed towering behind a speeding train, wreathed in smoke, Karswell’s body jangling upon its claws before being tossed lifelessly down to lie smoking and bedraggled upon the rails. Again, this moment is so spectacularly achieved I just can’t find it in me to condemn it. Today, most genre filmmakers would much rather have their monster even if they have no conviction about the supernatural or deep feeling about its metaphorical potency. These things have all become tropes now. Demystifying endings were, however, rather common back in the day in fare like the various versions of The Cat and the Canary and other films with their proto-Scooby Doo endings. At least Night of the Demon sustains a note of voluble dread from its manifestations. It might even have helped give it the potent effect it had on the resurging popularity of horror as a movie genre, as it imbues the film with a lively, gleefully ferocious aspect in hindsight. Night of the Demon, in spite of its faults, still stands as one of the truly great horror films.


25th 10 - 2017 | 2 comments »

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Stephanie Rothman

By Roderick Heath

At a time when women directors were still excruciatingly thin on the ground even in Hollywood’s least reputable quarters, Stephanie Rothman forged herself an intriguing place in movie history. Rothman had proven herself a stalwart operative for Roger Corman and his low-budget movie factory at AIP during the 1960s. She made her credited directing debut when she helped patch together a releasable film from a mishmash of footage left after Jack Hill was sacked from a project that involved splicing new footage into a Yugoslav movie, one of many such cunning retrofits Corman’s crew were called upon to perform. With Rothman’s third hand in the pot, the result, Blood Bath (1966), emerged as an incoherent yet tenaciously likeable, free-form collage of images and artistic temperaments. Rothman was given her shot at handling a film in her own right and after her solo debut It’s a Bikini World (1967), she gained a significant hit with The Student Nurses (1970). Rothman followed Corman to his burgeoning New World studio and producer Larry Woolner asked her to make a vampire movie. Rothman and her husband Charles S. Swartz punched out a screenplay built around Rothman’s idea of making a movie centering on a female vampire, a project that would become The Velvet Vampire.

Although it was destined to become her most admired and well-known film, The Velvet Vampire was initially a box office disappointment, and it sped up Rothman and Swartz’s decision to leave Corman’s fold and work with Woolner in setting up a rival production company, the short-live but relatively prolific Dimension Films. Rothman managed to direct three more movies there in between overseeing the company’s filmmaking operations, before her career ran out of steam, and she failed to follow the likes of Francis Coppola, Jonathan Demme, and Peter Bogdanovich into more exalted filmic spheres. Now chiefly associated with horror cinema thanks to Blood Bath and The Velvet Vampire, most of Rothman’s works were sexy comedies, chiefly distinguished by the tense but fruitful way Rothman’s unabashedly feminist ambitions blended with the down-and-dirty prerogatives of genre cinema, working to offer equal-opportunity nudity whilst offering spry examinations of the shifting social more the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The Student Nurses kicked off a successful series for Corman, whilst Terminal Island (1973) looked forward to dystopian tales ranging from Escape From New York (1981) to The Handmaid’s Tale in envisioning a future where death row inmates are stranded in a wilderness prison and a brutally medievalist social set-up quickly evolves and then devolves into outright war between the sexes. Group Marriage (1973) contemplated the possibility of an idyllic polyamorous union between an increasing number of people. If the basis for most of Rothman’s films was the comedy of manners translated for the age of Sexual Revolution, The Velvet Vampire redeploys the same idea in a context where the stakes of conquest are much more alarming.

Rothman quickly announces a real eye with the shot of downtown Los Angeles that opens The Velvet Vampire, a vestigial crucifix jutting high above a precinct of modernist architecture like a remnant of old faith in an otherwise oblivious world. Zoom back to reveal the busy thrum of midday in the city, and then a slow dissolve into the same shot at night, cars and pedestrians becoming ghosts and then fading into oblivion, the buildings readily transmuted into a field of Neolithic standing stones, an arena ready for a primal blood rite. A small squiggle of red strides across the frame upon the pavement: our antiheroine, Diane Le Fanu (Celeste Yarnall). Diane sees a parked motorcycle and correctly anticipates danger. A wild and hairy biker, some escapee of Corman’s The Wild Angels (1967) at war with all civilised mores, quickly obliges as he tackles and tries to rape the chicly dressed lady. But Diane quickly turns the tables, jamming the biker’s own knife into his gut. Diane picks herself up, washes off in a nearby fountain, and casually proceeds on her way. She enters an art gallery where her friend Carl Stoker (Gene Shane) is curating an exhibition, and encounters a young couple, Lee and Susan Ritter (Michael Blodgett and Sherry Miles). Lee and Susan amiably play at being strangers who flirt over the art works whilst trying to fit in with the arty crowd: “I get a lot of sensual energy from it,” Susan comments in regarding a sculpture that resembles the lower half of a bisected female body with legs splayed. Carl introduces them to Diane, whilst old blues man Johnny Shines (playing himself) regales the uptown crowd with elemental tales of evil ladies and demon lovers. Diane invites Lee and Susan out to her home in the California desert with a flirtatious intensity that easily hooks Lee, and the couple, who uneasily fancy themselves swingers, accept the invitation.

They drive out to the remote locale, stopping for gas and directions at a lonely service station, where they encounter anxiously snooty hippy car mechanic Cliff (Paul Prokop), who’s too uptight over his status as a qualified tradesman to stoop to filling up their tank. The station owner Amos (Sandy Ward) reluctantly gives the Ritter directions to the house they’re after, but their car breaks down on the way. Fortunately Diane appears in her dune buggy to rescue them, and spirits them to her house, where she maintains a posh lifestyle with her Native American manservant Juan (Jerry Daniels). Promising to get their car fixed, Diane charms the couple into staying several days, whilst getting Juan to fetch Cliff from the service station. But Cliff quickly learns he’s been called over to be eliminated, and he finishes up accidentally impaling himself upon a pitchfork as Juan chases him about Diane’s garage. Diane introduces Lee and Susan to the environs about her home, including a remote graveyard where her husband is buried, as Diane explains that although she dislikes the desert sun and heat she feels obligated to remain close to his grave, as he was carefully preserved through a method of the local Native American tribal folk. Juan comes from the same tribes, and Diane explains she grew up with him after her parents rescued him as a foundling. But Juan confuses Susan by suggesting Diane saved him when she was already an adult. Diane gives the couple a tour of an abandoned mine that fell into disuse a century earlier after many murders were mysteriously killed, apparently by some sort of feral beast. Susan freaks out when she’s left alone by both Diane and Lee as they stumble about in the dark looking for each-other, and Diane seems poised to attack Susan from the shadows, but is forestalled when Lee abruptly returns. Needless to say, Diane is a vampire.

Diane’s designs on Lee are patent, but she slowly unveils her intention to also seduce Susan, as Rothman makes sly sport of the liberated mores of 1971 and their tendency towards double-standards, as Diane practices divide-and-rule between the couple. She takes the direct approach with the husband but makes charged overtures to Susan: “Have you ever noticed how men envy us – the pleasure we have, that only we can have?” Whilst Diane leads Lee off into the secluded aisles of a ghost town to grab his crotch, a rattlesnake slithers upon Susan as she sunbathes, and bites her leg, cueing a moment of sexual frisson as Diane sucks the poison out of her pink, nubile thigh. What neither Lee nor Susan knows, as they bed down for their increasingly strained connubial nights, is that Diane watches them from behind a glass mirror inset in the bedroom wall, measuring their characters, assessing their anxieties, transmitting dreamscapes into their sleeping minds. They both experience the same fantasia in which their bed is transposed into the midst of the desert, gleaming curves of brass and blood red sheets stark against the roiling dunes. Diane is seen in the distance through haze and dust like a Sergio Leone character, only to then step out of a mirror, suddenly switching to a Cocteau film or Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript (1964) as interlocutor for protean adventures. The dream, which progresses further each night Lee and Susan spend in the house, unfolds in torpid slow motion, punctuated with liquidinous dissolves, sees Lee drawn out of bed by Diane’s commanding presence, but then replaced in bed by her as she claims Susan by carving a cross upon her chest.

These sequences, startling in their hallucinatory beauty and hearty embrace of surrealist design sharply composed to a degree rare even in the trippiest reaches of the era’s cinema, are surely the essence of The Velvet Vampire’s cult appeal. And yet the entire film is a work of admirable craft and art worked on a low budget and within the parameters of an exploitation film of the early ‘70s zeitgeist and the New World imprimatur. Rothman’s films have gained admiration for the expanse of her efforts to consider the cultural landscape of the day within those parameters, the shifting mores, the quicksands of rapidly evolving laws of sexuality and coupling and the advent of the age of lifestyle as a personal religion. The Velvet Vampire makes mischievous commentary not only on cool-kid gimcrackery but on low budget cinema’s efforts to exploit it, offering up Diane as fashion plate and new age idol, mistress of her domain in her perfectly tailored mod clothes and zipping about in that ultimate period symbol of Californian luxury consumer status in such movies, the dune buggy. Rothman offers Diane as a commanding, intelligent, cultured, motivated woman who, if she wasn’t a ghoul forced to live off other human beings, would stand as an idealised fantasy figure of feminine self-sufficiency. Rothman contrasts her with the Ritters, who both tread the outer edges of caricature at first, with Lee obeying the call of his own dick and Susan, with her high, throaty voice faintly reminiscent of Judy Holliday gone bikini-clad hipster, or perhaps akin to Doonesbury‘s Boopsie getting cast as Van Helsing.

Miles and Blodgett, who had played the hunky object of pansexual affection Lance Rock in Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), are the most awkward aspects of The Velvet Vampire, as both are pretty one-note presences. But their very lack of depth as actors to a great extent suits their characters, with their whiny, edgy, facetious postures as hip and cool young things and appearance as a classical west coast Ken and Barbie set, even as their marriage is badly strained by subtle disconnections, and bit by bit they emerge as well-considered characters. Both retain a certain level of sympathy as we see they’re essentially two babes in the pansexual woods, greedy and needy but fatefully poor at articulating their desires. Susan has a habit of freezing Lee out sexually by rarely being in the mood for his amorous advances, and he acts out by turning over and ignoring her as he goes to sleep. After Susan spies on him and Diane making love in her parlour, he barks in the morning, “All right – I got laid last night.” Ironically, Lee properly committing infidelity actually lets the couple reconnect, in part through Lee’s decision Diane is playing games with them. But Susan can’t entirely resist the chance for payback, and a possible adventure with the alluring Diane, nor can Lee bring himself to resist what Diane is putting down. Meanwhile their host continues to delay their departure by pretending their car can’t be fixed yet even as Lee becomes frustrated he can’t return to the city for necessary business.

Events begin to build to crisis point as Diane finds herself increasingly unable to control her appetites. Her dead husband’s grave has never been filled in, covered instead with a camouflage of wooden boards hidden under sand, so now and then she can lie upon its coffin lid or even cuddle up to his embalmed body stark naked, an image right out of the visual lexicon of the Decadents and Surrealists. Juan, kneeling by the grave in close attendance, is sympathetic as she confesses to him from the pit, “I need more and more now – something is speeding up inside me.” When Juan offers to help by finding her “one of my people” to feed on, Diane reaches up and pulls him into the grave to dine on him. Diane’s tragedy as Rothman sees it lies in her doom to constantly devour anyone and anything that loves her. Rothman grants her the stature of a pining romantic, still mourning her beloved mate a century after his death, but then undercuts it with the ultimate revelation that she killed him less than a week into their marriage through her bloodlust. Diane is also avatar for the forces of colonial exploitation that crashed upon the American landscape, playing Samaritan to Juan, saving him from massacre and starvation, but also fostering him as subservient and finally, casually claiming his life when Diane’s insatiable hunger proves too great. The same fate lies in wait for Lee and Susan, extending to them the illusory possibility of mutual erotic fulfillment, but doomed only to engage in murder. There’s a note here that’s similar to one Rainer Werner Fassbender would sound the following year in The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), in warning of the potential in sexual liberation of reproducing the crimes of dying paradigms by refusing to look beyond the ego’s wants.

Rothman’s tale has telling similarities to a clutch of other movies released around the same time employing the same essential theme, including Hammer Films’ Karnstein trilogy, Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1970), and Harry Kuemel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), all stories revolving around female vampires with Sapphic tastes. This aspect of the metaphorical had long been visible in the genre since Coleridge’s “Christabel” and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (Rothman makes the connection between her variations on both Le Fanu’s book and Dracula plain enough with her character names), and suddenly, after a brief and furtive flourish in the mid-1930s with Dracula’s Daughter (1935), had to wait until the easier mood of 1970 to suddenly bloom. The appeal of this small continent of queer-themed vampire dramas, most of which have retained a strong following if not usually free of a touch of smirking nostalgia, lay in the way they made incorporating soft-core thrills easy whilst also appealing to horror fans with overtones of the genuinely transgressive, the crackle of outlaw sexuality according perfectly with horror cinema’s beyond-the-pale status. Where Kuemel’s film lolled in a lush conjuration of retro camp whilst contemplating his vampire lady as ageless, parasitical diva, Franco officially defined his as a reborn misandrist, and the Hammer films played Carmilla as a sort of female, antiheroic James Bond offering to all the chance to both get their rocks off and fulfil their death wish. Rothman presents Diana in yet another key, tracing the outer edges of lesbian desire both more delicately in terms of what she shows but also more directly and challengingly in how she states it. There are no languorous lesbian make-out scenes, and Rothman acts on her credo in eroticising Blodgett’s body as much more than then actresses, but also frames Diane’s come-on to Susan as an outright appeal to come to the isle of Lesbos, kingdom of multiple orgasms.

Islands of peculiar beauty flow by Rothman’s camera from those early frames of the film, with such visions as the frontier graveyard with its crude wooden headstones, and the environs of Diane’s house, where California modern meets Latin manse with plush, décadent overtones. Yarnall’s hypnotic, cut-glass beauty and cool charisma – curiously unexploited by any other filmmakers subsequently – gleams over the brim of her crystal goblets, and burns white against the red Rothman often swathes her in, hovering like a desert rose against sandy environs, or else lounging a naked, pale sylph against her husband’s body. Yarnall, whose best-known role apart form this is probably an episode of Star Trek she guest-starred in, struts across Rothman’s desert landscapes with sombrero cordobés perched upon her head, reminiscent of the way Rothman’s fellow Corman alumnus Monte Hellman costumed Millie Perkins in his desert trip-out, The Shooting (1965), and inhabiting the same role as death incarnated in beauty. Indeed, there’s a curious synergy between Rothman’s approach to her version of horror cinema, with its desert vistas and sense of sun at once stark and hallucinatory, with the vogue for “acid westerns” around the same time, and suggests potential for overlap between western and horror cinema where the few other directors who have tried finding common ground between the two resolutely usually fail utterly.

Likewise Rothman sees no disparity between the open, light-flooded surrounds of the desert and the hard geometric forms of modernism when the film returns to the city: there are wildernesses devoid of human life and those filled with it. Amidst sequences of Diane stalking Susan through bus terminals and malls of LA, Rothman’s eye finds cold abstraction in the rows of telephone booths and escalators, places that seem to mimic the mystical portals and planes of her imposed dreams. Rothman’s eye betrays traces of Michelangelo Antonioni’s imprint throughout, the whole thing could be read as another sun-struck daydream of the protagonists of Zabriskie Point (1970), whilst also mediating between him and the way other eyes like Alan Pakula and Sydney Pollack would read a similar incongruity and alienation in the implacable forms of the new urban landscape. The brief but pathos-charged scenes involving Cliff and his girlfriend evoke the fallout of the Easy Rider (1969) epoch, countercultural exile Cliff desperately trying to stick up for his hard-won status as a mechanic still served up as lunch, and his loyal girl (Chris Woodley ), who swears black and blue that Cliff was off the dope for good, makes a valiant effort to track him down but meets the same fate of being assaulted and sucked dry.

Susan manages to fend off Diane once she finds Lee’s vampirised body in her bedroom, and escapes her villa, fleeing back to LA on a bus only to find Diane has beaten her onto the transportation and silently hovers behind her all the way into the city. Susan finally defeats her tormentor by learning she’s vulnerable to two classical traits of a vampire, fear of the crucifix and pained by strong direct sunlight, and so encourages a mob of spaced-out hippies to aid her in cornering Diane and exposing her, a task the crowd takes to in dissociative enjoyment as if it’s a schoolyard game. Rothman’s cruel sarcasm here sees her worldly and powerful antiheroine, avatar of ages, felled by giggling dopers and crucifixes from a street vendor’s stall, broken by the very real shock of the taboo still wielded by such objects in spite of their mass-commercial debasement, and the devolution of a revolutionary moment and its actors into paltry anti-climax reminiscent less of any Hammer horror finale than of King Kong (1933), which also saw its great monster exterminated by motorised insects. Susan defeats the vampire, but soon finds herself possibly at bay before another, as she visits Carl only to see signs he might well have been Diane’s comrade or acolyte. Perhaps vampirism is about to be the new big thing in bohemia.


23rd 10 - 2017 | 2 comments »

The White Reindeer (Valkoinen Peura, 1953)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Erik Blomberg

By Roderick Heath

It could be argued that all stories we generally refer to under the bracket of ‘horror’ today are in essence a type of folklore, rooted as so many are in storytelling modes descended from ancient cultural forms. To trace the genre’s persistence is to track it backwards through stages in the development, from the age of the urban myth to Freudian symbolic imagery to the haunted mood of Enlightenment-born gothic tales, on through medieval morality plays to the campfire tale. Such stories generations once narrated and sustained to keep themselves entertained and to keep the kids close by the warm and flickering firelight. Such a story could blend a warning about the eyes glowing in the dark beyond the limit of the hearth’s glow and also of other varieties of wolf, the kind hiding behind familiar faces and friendly smiles. As far as horror cinema goes, however, works that engage in authentic folkloric motifs and tales are relatively thin on the ground. The White Reindeer straddles the zone of such arcane storytelling precepts and more immediately recognisable generic necessities, offering what is in essence a werewolf tale, adapted to specific cultural climes, in this case the folklore of the Sami peoples of northern Finland, and mediated through the sorts of figurations one would expect from the setting.

True to its roots in such a tradition, The White Reindeer is more than a ghoul story. It’s also an anthropological recording and observation that has some resemblance to the style of documentary Robert Flaherty had made, capturing a powerful sense of life on the outermost fringes of European civilisation. It’s a creation that manages to bely the inevitable fact that it was fashioned by a collective of technicians and actors, and instead give you the feeling it’s been dreamt into existence. Of course, it’s actually an artful and carefully fashioned work of film craft. Director Erik Blomberg had been working in the Finnish film scene since the 1930s, and his readiness to step between roles as screenwriter and cinematographer perhaps testifies to a jack-of-all-trades necessity in the Finnish film scene of the time, serving in both capacities on the 1938 film The Stolen Death, for instance. Blomberg started directing documentaries in the mid-1940s, and with The White Reindeer made his feature debut. Blomberg’s documentarian experience and eye are evident in the film, as the film serves in part as a time capsule and piece of reportage looking at the lifestyles of the frozen north and its inhabitants, capturing social and communal rituals as a reindeer-drawn sled race and a bonfire night.

The White Reindeer contains relatively little dialogue in the usual dramatic movie fashion, and commences with a sequence where the story unfolds as a silent film with narration offered in song, a chanted account of the events that result in the birth of young Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen). Pirita’s mother Maarita (also Kuosmanen) laboriously forges a path through snowy wilderness, and gives birth to her daughter in a hut belonging to a frontier family who give her refuge. This approach helps The White Reindeer gain traction in its desire to evoke and reproduce a tradition of oral storytelling, whilst also making a show out of the method Blomberg adopts in converting that tradition into cinematic terms. A rhapsodic chain of images as Maarita flees across the endless expanses pursued by wolves, finds shelter with the family, and gives birth to a healthy girl before expiring, resolves in the matriarch holding the stranger’s child in her arms as the flames of the hearth surge high, dissolving into a vision of the snowclad land riddled with veins and caressed by veils of spindrift.

A tale of fire and ice is in motion, in which the landscape charted veers between the transient warmth and security of human habitations, huts and tents, lovers’ arms and family embraces, and the blasted reaches of Scandinavia’s extreme latitudes. Unseen forces rule out there, old gods that ignore the intrusion of Christianity and scarcely tolerate civilisation, offering prizes to the hardy and extracting punishments from the foolhardy with haughty will. The lyrics sung over the opening sequence describe the story that’s going to unfold, imposing a frame of eerie and disastrous fate. Blomberg’s approach here suggests he was taking some ideas from Sergei Eisenstein and his similar method for mediating the present’s vision of the past through layers of filmic conjuring and aesthetic devices on Alexander Nevsky (1938), which similarly forged such a bridge with lyrical music. Once the story moves on a couple of decades to when Pirita has grown into a woman, the hushed and ominous choral recitation gives way to immediate experience, collective clamour, and sensual excitement. Fierce and unflinching young Pirita participates in a sled race, and finds herself battling Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä), who only just manages to best her in the race after all other competitors have been left far behind. The thrill of competition instantly transmutes into erotic excitement as Aslak lassos the dark beauty and draws her in for an embrace. The couple are quickly married after the industrious reindeer herder Aslak offers an impressive bride price to her adoptive father. The wedding proves a scene of drunken merriment and general randy energy as the closest thing the local community has to a nob declares, “There is no more booze, the bread and salt are eaten,” so it’s time to clear out and let the couple get down to business. The young women of the village have to be cleared out forcibly in their delighted attempts to get an eyeful.

Pirita soon finds her marital bliss despoiled when Aslak must go off into the countryside for long stretches to round up wild reindeer. As a sign of devotion, Aslak brings back a white reindeer calf, a valuable and lucky find, and gives it to her as a pet. But Pirita finds herself lying awake at night even when Aslak has returned to her bed, as he falls asleep in exhaustion, leaving her pining for sexual pleasure. She elects to visit the local shaman, Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), to find a way of forcing her husband and other men to find her irresistible. Pirita’s naughty peccadilloes quickly start to reap a cheerless reward. Tsalkku-Nilla performs a rite for Pirita and informs her that she will have to take the first living thing she encounters after leaving his hut up to a remote altar in the countryside consecrated to the goddess Maddar Ahkk, and sacrifice that thing if she wants the spell to work properly. Tsalkku-Nilla beats upon a decorated ritual drum, bouncing around a rune stone upon its taut face, but when the stone begins to dance spontaneously as Pirita touches the drum in what seems a momentary fit of incantatory detachment, the shaman realises she has the powers of a witch.

Pirita treks back to her home and finds Aslak has returned from his trip, and stands before their hut caressing her white reindeer. Electing to take the chance of sacrificing the reindeer, she leads the animal out to the altar, which is surrounded by reindeer antlers jutting from the ice from the other times people have attempted such invocations. Pirita slaughters her pet, but an icy wind starts to blow and assails her, the first sign that she has offended the gods. Pirita soon establishes her magic has worked, as she now easily compels male eyes, but finds she now has the unbidden power to transform into a white reindeer. Heading out into the countryside in an attempt to find her husband, Pirita accepts the offer of some herders to camp with them for the night. But she turns into a white reindeer under the full moon and stalks the land about the camp. A herder named Niilo sees her in the night and gives chase, tracking her into a remote ravine referred to by the locals as the Demon’s Valley. When he catches her, she transforms back into human form. Niilo is dazzled by her beauty until she rips his throat out with sprouting fangs. Soon she commits more vampiric killings, all following the same pattern, and the locals become increasingly wary and vengeful. Pirita is lucky not to be outed as the monster when one of her victims, a hunter who was lucky to survive one of her attacks, sees her face looming in the flicker of firelight during a village celebration and recognises her. He goes berserk and tries to chase her down, but he’s tackled and restrained by his friends, who think he’s delirious.

Blomberg and Kuosmanen collaborated on the screenplay of The White Reindeer, exemplifying what seems to have been a productive romantic collaboration that ended when Kuosmanen retired from acting in 1956. She later died lamentably young at 48 in 1963. The film’s ironic study of romantic disaffection and marital grief suggests a sarcastic form of self-analysis, laced with irony in its realisation and sparked by Blomberg’s evident and obvious obsession with Kuosmanen’s face, an instrument with the same cast of dark, sharp, vulpine charisma that would soon make Barbara Steele a horror icon. Blomberg’s success with The White Reindeer earned him and Finnish film a level of international attention it had not known before, especially after Jean Cocteau and the Cannes jury he headed gave it a special prize. And yet Blomberg would only make four more features before the Finnish movie scene fell into a rut in the late 1950s. It’s not hard to see why The White Reindeer made such an impression in its time, over and above its raw cinematic qualities. A kind of pop anthropological and internationalist cultural interest boomed in the post-war years, fuelled by newly open channels of travel and communication, a process that would help many international filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa find worldwide audiences.

This accorded with many national movie industries both trying to relocate a sense of history and advertise themselves to the world with vignettes of localised flavour. The White Reindeer bolsters its standing as authentic product of a burgeoning culture by sporting a score by the country’s most notable composer of the period, Einar Englund. True to his creed as a cinematographer, Blomberg generates some extraordinary visuals throughout The White Reindeer, including a breathtaking shot of a Sami tent, aglow in firelight, framed against a dark plain and iron sky, studded with abstracted trees. This vision of an islet of human society subsisting in the face of a cold and indifferent universe quickly segues into Pirita’s transformation into the reindeer, visualised through the expedient of turning the image into a photographic negative so that white beast skips across black snow, a simple trick reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphone des Grauens (1922). The bonfire night sequence sees characters wheeling in and out of the fields of firelight, punctuated by an eruption of fearful violence, as the troubled witness sees Pirita’s face looking stygian in the flicker, causing him to leap up, clutching a fiery brand, sparks flying and bodies wheeling within the little galaxies of the hearths.

The White Reindeer was released at a time when the genre was almost entirely fallow, supplanted by the science fiction craze of the early decade, presenting as it did avatars for an age busy congratulating itself on its rationality whilst inflating its neuroses to colossal, city-smashing scale, all the better to be cut down to size. The White Reindeer, on the other hand, betrays knowledge that it’s dealing in a metaphorical coin, but might also be the first major horror film to essentially reject the suggestive model of Val Lewton’s psychosomatic etudes and return to essential figurations, even as it tells a story with evident similarities to Cat People (1942). Lewton liked to smudge the borders between the liminal and the subliminal, to ask the question whether the menace of the supernatural is real or a construction of credulity. Blomberg and Kuosmanen’s approach instead uses the inherent symbolism in the idea of the shapeshifting woman to communicate its ideas, and so finds new power, ironically, in an archaic way of explaining human nature. The heavy emphasis linking supernatural manifestation and erotic anxiety, and its relatively unabashed confrontation of sexuality as a governing theme, could even make The White Reindeer a vital nexus in the history of the genre. Here might well be the point where horror film began reinventing itself, with a newly modern understanding of the forces at play in the genre’s symbology, and the understanding that the greatest source of terror even in the atomic age is the lurking irrationality lying within the human frame.

In more concrete terms, it’s hard not to see Blomberg’s images of Kuosmanen’s terrible beauty studded with vampiric fangs, eyes alight with a lust that conflates hunger for both blood and sexual excitement, and not see the germ for Terence Fisher’s approach to his vampires in works like The Brides of Dracula (1960). Likewise the lifetime-spanning narrative that traces an individual’s entrapment and destruction by predestined forces seems to have left a mark on Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf (1960). Blomberg shot the film himself, and the intensity with which his cinematography weaves in with his vision of remote and legendary climes anticipates Mario Bava’s similar capacity. Closer to home, Blomberg might well have encouraged Ingmar Bergman to look closer at Scandinavian mythology and come up with his own peculiar version of them in The Virgin Spring, which looks precisely at the time when the pagan world Blomberg records met and was uneasily replaced by Christianity. The White Reindeer is also striking as one of the relatively few horror movies made before 1960 to sport a feminine monster, and the essence of the film’s baleful power lies in the collaboration that sees Blomberg’s gaze turned upon relentlessly upon Kuosmanen’s face and her performing with it, tracing out all of Pirita’s careening emotions, as both demonic entity and ordinary woman.

The White Reindeer describes one of the eternal fixtures of folklore, the demon lover. It also records a basic anxiety about female sexuality, timorous in the face of satiating it and apprehensive that it might drive any lady afflicted with greater than normal appetites to satisfy them in ways that betray herself and her assigned social role. But Blomberg and Kuosmanen’s approach to it makes Pirita no mere temptress. The struggle between the two forces opposite and equal within her is enacted in a manner that’s less like the clear-cut dichotomy of good human and wild beast as witnessed in The Wolf Man (1941) than it resembles characters in later generations of horror cinema like protagonists of David Cronenberg’s early work or Andrezej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), those who are driven to fashion their terrible interior struggles into new and perverse forms of flesh. Pirita’s nature is manifold, both child of the surging sky and the embracing hut, and her actions, whether cringing in shame or unleashing her dark side, are all a part of her. The reindeer is source of all industry and a great deal of human cultural activity in these blasted climes, and the fusion of the two has an inevitable quality in this place of flux, where the sun bristles low on the horizon and the landscape loses form amidst snow drifts and skeletal, thrusting branches, a place where it’s hard to get one’s bearings. Blomberg still contrives to shoot his pictures seeking out covert geometries, as if suggesting the unseen powers and subtle influences that shape the lives of these people, found in lines of skiers diagonally dividing the frame, or, in the film’s most reproduced imagery, viewing Kuosmanen through the frame of dead reindeer antlers jutting from the snow just as she’s on the fateful threshold of committing her blasphemous act.

Aspects of the story that resonate throughout other mythologies are particularly tantalising – the animism and motifs of transgression and transformation, the fatefully fused but doomed lovers, the act of forging a special weapon with a care and intention that transcends mere craft to become a totemic object. The necessary but failed sacrifice of a loved-one resembles that found in the tale of the Lambton Worm, another story of monstrous reckoning and legacy. The white hue of the monster obviously calls to mind Moby Dick and his many descendants, with the same inference of spectral stature, the haunting tone of bloodlessness, here also rhymes with the snow that cakes the earth itself, a constant fact and sometime enemy in the lives of the Sami, the hard natural order that claims its price heedless of human feeling. The locals discuss how only “cold iron” can be used to kill a phantom reindeer when bullets won’t hurt it, so all the villagers begin forging their own lances, and Pirita wanders the commune hearing the hammers on forges beating out her doom with bloodcurdling music. She soon almost loses control and attacks her husband when he’s dozing after finishing off his own iron lance. Aslak awakens with a fearful cry when, in bleary half-sleep, he thinks he sees his own wife’s face transformed into a leering, demonic visage – which is exactly what he has seen, but assumes he’s been dreaming.

One incidental problem The White Reindeer has to deal with is that even the largest and most bullish reindeer doesn’t really look that ferally threatening, which probably explains Blomberg’s decision to have Pirita turn back into a human before her killings – the sight of Kuosmanen’s vicious teeth is more alarming than the frankly huggable deer. Although The White Reindeer is a short and deftly compressed piece of storytelling, Blomberg still conjures some tremendously rhythmic sequences, and forges images that seem to claw at the edges of all intellectual awareness in trying to evoke a distant, submerged past still to be found in some Jungian netherworld. This sensibility is particularly apparent in the build to Pirita’s sacrifice of the pet reindeer, in the splendidly odd scene when she sits down with Tsalkku-Nilla where what seems like boastful eccentricity and peasant magic shade quickly into something altogether more abnormal and threatening until the shaman recoils from Pirita in fear. The sequence of Pirita’s journey to the shrine of Maddar Ahkka is a delirious conjuration of image and sound, Englund’s music painting wild sonic textures as Pirita struggles through the snow to reach a hill top where dead reindeer antlers sprout from the ground like a crop. Here a stone cairn capped by more antlers seems to stare out upon the land with stark and sinister promise, and Pirita withers and faints in the sudden tempest that falls upon the mountain.

Equally good are the climactic scenes, after Pirita is finally driven to flee the village after accidentally turning into the reindeer: as in many variations on the Jekyll and Hyde story, her ability to control when and why she changes form is steadily eroded until she transmogrifies in a public place in the middle of the day, and is then hunted across the countryside by the massed village menfolk. Pirita first tries to return to Tsalkku-Nilla and get him to help her, only to find him dead in his hut, glazed in ice, his drum smashed, as if the spirits he stirred have avenged themselves brutally. Pirita then heads to the pagan altar, but there her pleas fall upon deaf ears, and she is once again driven back into the wilds. Blomberg shoots Kuosmanen loping across a ridge with a fascinating, predatory gait, achieving a quality of unnaturalness that David Lynch has often instilled in his actors when depicting similar breakdowns in the walls between the tangible and the subliminal. True to many werewolf stories, Pirita is doomed to be destroyed by the unthinking hand of a loved one, in this case her own husband. Aslak corners her in the Demon’s Valley and skewers her with his lance, only to be confronted with her splayed human form on the snow. Blomberg returns for a brief, meditative glance at the winnowing spindrift flowing over frigid snow, before fading to black, as if to say our rent on Earth is brief, and how the time we have upon it treats us often has little to do with how we will it, but which forces have conspired to bring us into being.


20th 10 - 2017 | 4 comments »

The Mummy’s Hand (1940) / The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) / The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) / The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

Directors: Christy Cabanne, Harold Young, Reginald LeBorg, Leslie Goodwins

By Roderick Heath

Karl Freund’s legendary film The Mummy (1932) presented its title entity, Boris Karloff’s Imhotep, as a sorcerer and antihero defying time and the gods to wield vast magical power. More recent filmmakers like Stephen Sommers and Alex Kurtzman have taken up this idea for the sake of spectacle and drama better fitting the age of the special effects-driven blockbuster. But I’d be willing to bet good money most people, when they think of the mummy as movie monster, probably instead think of a lurching, ghastly, sluggishly advancing yet relentless engine of murder, swathed in grave wrappings. For the source of this image of the mummy, we must look instead to the four films Universal Studios made about the mummy Kharis. For lovers of vintage horror movies, the Kharis films remain an evergreen trove. Not because they’re deep masterpieces of gothic poetic, richly composed metaphor, or galvanising terror – indeed, part of their appeal is that they’re patently none of these things, or, at least, only offer such qualities as small, shiny gems amidst a whole lot of entertaining ore. They’re lovable relics of an era of filmmaking and a brand of horror that retains a modest brand of charisma, deft ideograms compressing all the freewheeling energy and craftsmanship of 1940s Hollywood cinema. Somehow, the Kharis films manage to incorporate all the major motifs and stylistic quirks of the Universal school within their brief, zippy, unpretentious duration, and stand as perfect exemplars of what can be called “fun” horror. They’re the sort of movies you see as a kid and love, and see again as an adult and still love, even if they can no longer compel in the same way.

Each movie in the series is barely an hour long, as quintessential B movie features, made to support other, more ambitious but often less well-remembered movies. All four were made by the smithies of Hollywood film. Only one of these directors, Reginald LeBorg, can be described as any kind of familiar hand in horror cinema, whilst all four directors handled many a diverse genre in their long, factory-line careers. Christy Cabanne, who helmed the series opener The Mummy’s Hand, had been making movies since 1912. And yet the Kharis films testify to the peculiar integrity of the Universal horror mode, as well as the problems that would eventually choke off their brand. In spite of being cheaply produced, the Kharis films all betray the technical resources and effortless class of Universal’s production teams and their gifts for quickly and smartly constructing little, cordoned universes where the shadows are deep and black and things move in the night that should not be moving at all. Universal had a particularly effective ethos when it came to making its B movies, also evinced by the perennially popular Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone. These films, although very often tacky and repetitious, usually had solid writing and a template for atmospheric visuals that could be easily applied by different production teams. The limitations to their strict hour-and-a-bit running times were as usually sharp as the advantages: too many stories develop fruitfully over about 50 minutes and then suddenly careen to a close. This is true of the Kharis films as well.

The series was doggedly popular in its day regardless, at a time when their cheery, restrained approach to generating a healthy frisson stood in stark contrast to the harsh facts of wartime. The Mummy’s Hand gave the waning Universal horror brand a shot in the arm, whilst also laying down a template most of the entries the studio would purvey over the next six years until running out of steam again, in dispensing with most of the outsized Expressionistic effects in sets and lighting and rendering their attendant themes of tragic stature far more muted, if not entirely jettisoned. The series also accidentally helped point the way forward for the horror genre as a whole, in a manner that unfolds over the four instalments, which begins rooted in the mystique of foreign threat and exotic nightmares welling out of a distant, mythical past, but soon shifts ground to portray murderous forces at large in the balmy eves of the good old USA. The Mummy’s Hand introduces the lore and legend of Kharis (played in the first instalment by Tom Tyler), a former high priest under the Pharaoh Amenophis, who fell in love with the Pharaoh’s daughter Ananka. Following Ananka’s early death, Kharis attempted to revive her by stealing a supply of the sacred, long-extinct herb known as the tana leaf, with its mystic qualities for restoring and sustaining life. Caught in the act, Kharis had his tongue cut out before burial alive, doomed to spend eternity serving as protector of Ananka’s tomb. This story is recounted by the wizened and decrepit High Priest (Eduardo Ciannelli) of a sect called the Priests of Karnak, who still subsist within modern Egypt and have dedicated themselves to protecting Ananka’s undiscovered tomb above all.

The High Priest is visited by his anointed successor, Professor Andoheb (George Zucco), an archaeologist who uses his position as a respected figure in his field to either fend off other Egyptologists venturing into Arkam, the area where their temple and Ananka’s and Kharis’s tombs are all located, or else arrange their mysterious disappearance. The High Priest explains to Andoheb his essential duties, of which the most vital is sustaining Kharis’s heartbeat by stewing three tana leaves each night of the full moon and feeding it to him. Whenever Ananka’s tomb is threatened and interlopers dare to violate her sacred surrounds, the Priests revive Kharis by feeding him the the juice of nine leaves, sufficient to get him up and walking around, able to kill and overpower any mere mortal. Once the High Priest finishes his exposition, he gratefully settles upon his throne and dies. In this opening, the basics of the Kharis series are sketched out, and all four films revolve around these legendary details, carried over from episode to episode as essential as a superhero’s back story. One detail mentioned here, constantly teased but never fulfilled in the series, are the dire results of what might happen if Kharis is fed more than nine tana leaves, as a greater dose of the mystic herb would render him a rampaging monster. The Priests of Karnak merely keep him alive as a useful tool.

The first film depicts the discovery of Ananka’s tomb by a gang of footloose Americans. Archaeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his pal, Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford), have come to Egypt when Steve is hunting for a new career break after being fired from the Scripps Museum, in spite of a string of impressive discoveries. Babe is itching to get back to the States, but Steve finds a damaged urn that seems to depict directions to Ananka’s tomb in a bazaar. Steve takes the urn to another esteemed man of the field, Dr Petrie (Charles Trowbridge), who agrees with him it is genuine. But Andoheb, who is Petrie’s boss at the Cairo Museum, dismisses the relic as a fake and contrives to drop it, whilst refusing the stake an expedition to the site indicated. Not dissuaded, Steve and Babe get backing from a good-natured nightclub magician, ‘The Great’ Solvani (Cecil Kellaway). Andoheb tries to foil this recourse by approaching Solvani’s daughter Marta (Peggy Moran) and warning her about conmen trying to sucker her father. Marta threatens Steve and Babe with the revolver she uses for trick shooting in her father’s shows, and she resolves to accompany her father on the expedition to make sure he’s not being robbed.

It takes quite a while until The Mummy’s Hand gets out into the Egyptian wilds, an aspect that betrays a certain level of uncertainty about what level to pitch the movie on. An inordinate amount of screen time is soaked up by Ford and Kellaway’s comedy, although both men were accomplished farceurs and they’re fun to watch. The real pleasure of The Mummy’s Hand, however, comes once it gets going properly and changes scene to the desert. Here Babe accidentally uncovers Kharis’s tomb when he prematurely sets off a dynamite charge, just after the bodies of some of the expedition’s ill-fated predecessors are uncovered by the Egyptian diggers. The archaeologists are astounded to find Kharis’ remarkably preserved body in his casket, but the diggers flee in fear as the black legends about the area seem to be coming true. Meanwhile Andoheb and his agent, a fake marketplace beggar (Sig Arno), keep watch over the camp and when the time comes, Andoheb surprises Petrie alone in the tomb, and feeds tana juice to the mummy, bringing Kharis fully to life. At Andoheb’s behest, the fiend strangles Petrie, the expedition’s chief porter Ali (Leon Belasco), and Solvani during one long night of terror. Soon Andoheb is tempted by beauty and has Kharis kidnap Marta, forcing Steve and Babe to hunt for her. Following Marta’s own theory based on Steve’s urn, Steve finds a secret passage linking Kharis’ tomb to the priests’ temple, and ventures along it.

The Mummy’s Hand is an object lesson in how old Hollywood could conjure something substantial out of virtually nothing. The budget was a preposterously low $80,000 dollars, and the running time is filled out with interpolated scenes from the Freund film depicting Kharis’ disgrace and doom, spliced with new footage of western star Tyler, who, in addition to his suitably strong stature, looked enough like Karloff to sustain the illusion. Smart use was also made of a set left over from the production of Frankenstein (1931) auteur James Whale’s jungle adventure Green Hell (1939) to fill in for the temple. The script also bears traces of such repurposing, as it offers a slight variation on the famous “Children of the Night” line from Dracula (1931). Otherwise the film relies almost entirely on Cabanne’s long-honed filmmaking skills to make the best of minimal sets, transforming the one, basic soundstage set depicting a crook of the desert abutting a mountain into a fantasy landscape flooded with shadow, occasionally punctuated by the bloodcurdling sight of the mummy’s silhouetted form looming through tent canvas over unsuspecting, sleeping victims.

Part of the success and entertainment factor of The Mummy’s Hand lies in its straightforward blend of gothic business, with the free-and-easy tone of an adventure movie. It’s probably one of the many influences on Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films, portraying archaeology as a kind of puzzle work as the characters utilise keys gleaned from relics to open up ancient tombs. The mummy, although blessed with a tragic backstory, is offered mostly as a threatening spectre, a spooky threat lurching in and out of the shadows, informed with character only via Tyler’s eyes, showing flashes of fretful, desperate hunger for the tana leaves that sustain his existence. Foran is charming and stalwart, Moran is cute and plucky, at least until the compulsory finale where she swoons to be carried about by Kharis. The film careens through a last reel in which Babe shoots down Andoheb when the priest threatens him, and Steve enters the temple, frees Marta, and sets fire to Kharis when he stoops to try and lick up a pool of spilt tana juice.

Mummy stories belong to a motif common in storytelling date back to Victorian-era fiction and the vicissitudes of the high colonial days, in fare ranging from a mystery tale like Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone to tales of the supernatural like The Monkey’s Paw. Such stories revolved around the dread fate awaiting those who monkey about with sacred objects of other cultures, and hinged upon Western anxieties in the face of contending with those cultures, both warning about the necessity of respecting those cultures whilst also reinforcing the necessity of stoic detachment in the coloniser over the colonised. The Kharis series reframes this subtext to a certain extent whilst also making it more overt, for the series revolves around the clash between the forces of the old world and the new, the echoing memory of millennia of instilled cultural identity as represented by the powers of Ancient Egypt, and the new wind of Americanism starting to blow about the world. There’s an element of absurd but revealing racial profiling, too, as just about anyone who wears a fez is quickly outed as a supporter of an esoteric and murderous death cult. This aspect is often conjoined with finales in which mobs of the citizenry come out with fiery torches to hunt down the monsters. When Frankenstein had offered this trope, it had come as a criticism of the lynch mob mentality. By 1942, it had evolved into a heroic event, based on around communal guarding against threatening foreign invaders.

But there’s also a theme to the series invoking a schism of faith and desire, identity and yearning. Steve and the spirit he represents is at once passionate about the arcana he digs up but also detached from the spiritual world it represents, the deep wellsprings of other cultural precepts. The Priests of Karnak, including Andoheb and successors Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey), Yousef Bey (John Carradine), Dr Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe) and his disciple Ragheb (Martin Kosleck), are beset by the same diverging desires as Kharis himself. That’s the schism between fulfilling their creed, which revolves around the literal worship of the dead and valuing of them above the living, and embracing their sensual needs, inevitably represented by the young women who fall into their clutches. This pays off in images close to those popular on pulp magazine covers of the time, heroines strapped to altars, threatened with phallic intrusion as the fallen priests threaten them with injections of tana fluid to make them immortal, with the priests intending to join them for an unending life of erotic pleasure.

Quickly and inevitably, Kharis, embodiment of the past’s insidious persistence in the presence of all modernity’s glaring light, is brought to American shores, to haunt the outer precincts a modern land lacking much consciousness of such a deep past. The Mummy’s Tomb, the second episode, easily manages this change of scene, whilst also introducing some peculiar aspects to the series. Although The Mummy’s Hand was demonstrably contemporary if the clothes the characters wore were anything to go by, the sequel is set thirty years after the first film, but again seems entirely contemporary to 1942, to the extent of one character receiving a commission during the film. The fourth film is set twenty years after the third, which means over a half-century passes in the course of the series, making it a science fiction tale of sorts. The Mummy’s Tomb also anticipates aspects of modern franchise cinema, as it brings back Steve and Babe, now thirty years older, but with the brutal intention of killing them both off. Steve is now reclining in happy retirement after Marta’s death, living with his sister Jane (Mary Gordon), recounting his old adventures to his indulgently disbelieving doctor son John (John Hubbard) and his girlfriend Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox).

Turns out Andoheb survived the bullets Babe filled him with, and that Kharis was only lightly singed by fire. Andoheb, now old himself and palsied (a great touch from Zucco), still lurks in the old Arkam temple, handing over responsibility to Mehemet Bey, his successor, with the assignment of taking Kharis to America so he can kill the Banning clan in punishment for plundering Ananka’s tomb. Mehemet secures a job as caretaker of the cemetery of Mapleton, the small New England town where Steve has retired. He sends out Kharis, who strangles Steve in his house. The following night, the mummy does the same to Jane. Babe comes to town to attend their funerals and recognises the tell-tale mark of mould upon the victims’ necks as mould from Kharis’ bandages (“A greyish mark…a greyish mark!”). Babe fails to make the police listen to his warnings so he feeds the story to some interested newspaper men, but soon finds himself cornered in an alley by Kharis and killed. An academic researcher, Professor Norman (Frank Reicher), certifies from a scrap of bandage John finds that there really is a living mummy on the loose. Mehemet, unable to suppress lecherous designs upon Isobel after glimpsing her in the woods with John, has Kharis snatch her out of her bed. When the Mapleton sheriff (Cliff Clark) organises a posse, he’s alerted to the presence of the Egyptian at the cemetery. Mehemet tries to stab John and gets a bullet in his gut for his pains. Kharis seems to be burned up along with the Banning house when he’s driven there, Isobel is rescued, and all ends well.

The Mummy’s Tomb is the most sketchily written and disposable entry in the series, bumping off the likeable protagonists of the first film with a remarkable lack of compunction. The film kicks off laboriously with nearly ten minutes’ worth of flashbacks to The Mummy’s Hand to pad out an exceptionally simple storyline. But it’s still entirely enjoyable, in part for reasons that feel mildly consequential in horror cinema history. This episode was directed by Harold Young, who surely had the best movie to his credit of any of the series captains, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), and there are flashes of the spacious, lushly lit, carefully pictorial style he brought to that film here and here. Shots late in the film of Kharis carrying Isobel through the night are often reproduced in books of genre history, and for good reason: they retain an iconic form of beauty and encapsulation of the mystique of swooning, silk-draped femininity in the clutches of a septic, perambulating id. Transposing Kharis into the leafy, pacific environs of Mapleton allows this exotic monster, avatar of cultural and religious unease, to lurch about in quaint, very normal surrounds. Kharis keeps perturbing the perfectly ordinary New Englanders, be they couples in their beds or young mashers parked in their cars, as his shadow falls upon them and each feels the discomforting sensation of death passing them by.

Whilst this was hardly the first horror film set in a modern western setting, I can’t really think of a precursor that utilised such quotidian environs, and Young’s visuals, emphasising Kharis melting in and out of the shadows in humdrum streets and semi-rural surrounds, capture a quality that would pass on through ‘50s sci-fi works like I Married A Monster From Outer Space and The Blob (both 1958) and then back into horror movies as diverse as Halloween (1978) and the works of artists as diverse as Stephen King and David Lynch, in placing a malevolent force in the midst of suburbia, a portal of pure surrealism astride the banal. The film is also fleshed out by the Austrian-Turkish actor Bey’s fascinating presence. One of the few actors of Middle Eastern heritage to gain any prominence as a Hollywood actor in the day, Bey’s dashing, matinee star looks and ability to project an air of silken menace make for a rare combination in this sort of thing. Bey reportedly liked the role best amongst his performances, and he plays Mehemet less as a glowing-eyed fanatic than as a meditatively religious being willing to do what it takes to restore a key tenant of his faith, but brought down in the end by his inability to suppress his sensual self.

Another significant introduction for this entrance came in Kharis himself. Tyler had been replaced by Lon Chaney Jnr, who had become a fully-fledged horror star in the previous year’s The Wolf Man, and Universal sought to capitalise by casting him across the full roster of their familiar monsters – he would also play Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula. The irony of this is that, at least at first, Chaney makes much less impression in the role than Tyler managed, as his Kharis isn’t allowed even to show the character in the eyes that Tyler could. That said, what could be the first real moment of proper characterisation for Kharis arrives here, as the mummy retreats fretfully whilst Mehemet tells him of his plans to mate with and impregnate Isobel: Kharis’ memory of the terrible wrath of force beyond in the face of such blasphemous acts is strong enough to momentarily make this zombified remnant cringe in fear. The Mummy’s Ghost, the third series instalment, saw directing duties taken over by former Max Reinhardt assistant LeBorg. LeBorg had already directed Chaney in a neat little chiller, Weird Woman (1944), an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s great black magic tale Conjure Wife, and would occasionally return to the genre over the next twenty years, including for the interesting Diary of a Madman (1963). LeBorg’s background with Reinhardt and European sensibility apparently familiar with the Germanic imaginative world of the liebestod might explain why his entry emerges as the oddest and most intriguing of the quartet.

Whilst not violating the already well-settled series formula until its final few minutes, The Mummy’s Ghost is the first entry to make itself more explicitly about Kharis’s search for Ananka, and also needs no flashbacks to pad out its crisp, well-developed storyline. In an ingenious little vignette, Kharis, after breaking into the Scripps Museum where her body and other artefacts are collected, attempts to touch her bandage-wrapped form, only for her mummy to disintegrate into dust. Meanwhile, miles away, a young woman, Amina Mansori (Ramsay Ames), awakens with a cry in her room, having felt the touch of the mummy: Ananka’s spirit now inhabits her body, as a distant descendant. Amina is attending college in Mapleton, and her boyfriend Tom Hervey (Robert Lowery) is a student of Professor Norman. Norman likes to regale his students with tales of the mummy that terrorised the town a few years before. Norman himself is still trying crack the secret of the artefacts and specimens of the tana leaf retrieved from Mehemet’s possession. Finally translating some inscriptions and boiling up nine tana leaves, Norman is shocked to see Kharis burst his way into his rooms. Kharis, after lying dormant since the fire, has been revived by the scent of the tana juice, and he kills Norman before drinking it. Amina, drawn out in a somnambulant daze by Kharis’ presence, collapses near the scene. Meanwhile Andoheb dispatches another acolyte, Yousef Bey, to America to track down Kharis. Yousef attempts to lead Kharis in recovering Ananka so they can both be transported back to Egypt, but realisation that Ananka is now living within Amina leads them to track and kidnap her.

If the guiding tension of the series is between the inflexibly arcane and the blithely, obliviously modern, then the figuration of Amina/Ananka is a clever new dimension for it, affectingly embodied by Ames. Amina carries inscribed in her genes and spiritual heritage the memory of a land stretching back to the dawn of human kind, inhabiting the spry, clean-cut environs of the college and her American lifestyle like a suit of easily discarded clothes. Unease about the possibility of an interracial marriage is mediated through the prism of Amina’s anxiety that her identity, bound up with her strange fits of detachment and sense of living in two different times and worlds. LeBorg makes atmospheric use of the old, abandoned mine where Yousef operates from, the modern, industrial equivalent to the tombs and temples of Egypt, equally desolate and deserted and forsaken by the ways of men, equally cyclopean in the scale of both construction and ruination. Here Yousef, once he actually has Amina in his grasp, again succumbs to the desire to possess her. This time however, knowing that Amina is really his beloved, Kharis rebels, throwing off the yoke of the priests and hurling Yousef from a great height to his death. After he fends off an attack by Tom, Kharis carries Amina off into the countryside. Since her first meeting with the mummy, Amina’s hair has become increasingly streaked with coils of white, and now in his arms turns swiftly into an ancient, parched, white-crowned mummy. Tom and another posse, this time led by canny New York detective Walgreen (Barton MacLane), give chase, only to see the benighted duo of ruined creatures sink into a swamp.

This coda blends truly odd romanticism and faint but definite morbid sexuality with heartbreak, as Tim and his pet dog are left staring into the black waters where Kharis and Amina vanished. It’s a forlorn ending, an overtone new to this series, although it does revive the spirit that had been central to Freund’s film and the first wave of Universal horror films in general. Chaney’s casting in the role, which seemed to negligible on The Mummy’s Tomb, also proves worthier in The Mummy’s Ghost, as Chaney wields enough expressive intensity in body langauge to charge Kharis with a deep and implacable will, his stumbling, grasping forward motion achieving a sense of the genuinely remorseless to his wanderings and killings, fingers curling and limbs twitching when victims give him the slip. It’s a fascinating example of what an actor can accomplish in such strictures. The last episode in the series, The Mummy’s Curse, is the first to offer a jarring lapse with established continuity rather than merely bending it. Somehow the chase witnessed at the end of the previous movement covered a few thousand miles, for now Kharis and Amina supposedly last vanished into a Louisiana bayou. That said, the shift in locale is mined for all the magnificently corny atmosphere and Cajun accents director Leslie Goodwins could muster.

Years after Kharis and Ananka vanished, a new federal operation is underway to drain, clear, and build a road through the same swamp, stirring the disquiet of locals who have kept the memory of the mummy and his bride alive. Two archaeologists, Zandaab and James Halsey (Dennis Moore), arrive with official permission to dig for the two mummies, to the irritation of the project manager Pat Walsh (Addison Richards) and the intrigue of his daughter and secretary Betty (Kay Harding). Zandaab is of course the latest of the Priests of Karnak (by this point in the series always called the Priests of Arkam), and he has an acolyte, Ragheb, posing as one of the road workers, stirring up fright amongst them and stabbing the occasional busybody as he searches for Kharis. Ragheb does locate the mummy, and stashes him in a ruined nearby monastery, but Ananka remains missing. Until, that is, an excavator partly uncovers Ananka (now played by Virginia Christine). Digging her way out of the ground and stumbling through the swamp, she’s picked up by Halsey and Betty on their way back from a date. Apparently without any memory of either of her previous lives, the worker camp’s doctor Cooper (Holmes Herbert) diagnoses her as amnesiac, and encourages Halsey to use her an assistant to keep her occupied. Ananka proves to have intensive knowledge of archaeology and Egyptology without any idea where it came from, but when she attracts the attention of Zandaab, the priest recognises her as the princess, and sends Kharis out to hunt her down.

Although not quite as intricately lit and decorously framed as The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Curse is nonetheless the most visually engaging episode in the series, as the setting allows Goodwins to exploit that mist-riddled foliage of the bayous and rough-hewn rural buildings, and generate some proper creepiness, in a manner looks forward to the later phase of regionally-made and set horror movies. One scene stands as legitimately unsettling in a manner virtually nothing else from the Universal horror cycle can match today, in which Ananka and Cooper listen to the sound of Kharis approaching, a mere scuffling sound that portends the arrival of a force that refuses all reason and annihilates anything that stands in its path. Cooper steps through the tent flaps to behold something from the back corners of a nightmare looming out of the dark. Several scenes take place around a cafe run by Cajun chanteuse Tante Bertha (Ann Codee) and her diminutive husband Achilles (Charles Stevens), a zone where a fecund folk culture and old-world atmosphere still subsist even as the labours of the work crew pierces and cleanses the fetid reaches of the swamp. The ruined monastery is a floating world of crumbling delight, thrust up over the swamp on a rise, crumbled walls and roof again mimicking the ruins of Egypt. Here Zandaab and Ragheb set up base but first have to contend with a zany local (William Farnum) who is the “self-appointed caretaker” of this monastery, demanding the duo and their pagan paraphernalia depart instantly, obliging Kharis to strangle him. Ananka, when she first sees Zandaab, seems to recognise him as a fellow, approaching him in a daze and striking a pose with hands jutting from the sides of her hips, a gesture suggesting the subsistence of an ancient and mysterious creed.

The film’s best scene, and perhaps the most arresting in the series, is Ananka’s revival: first seen as a clay-smeared hand thrust out of the soil, followed quickly by the rest of her, Ananka sheds the earth (and her mummified appearance) as she gropes her way through the trees, following the glow of the sun, rejoicing in the heat as it bakes dry the mud on her and restores her life as a descendant of the sun god. This moment has a genuine charge of the strange and numinous, imbued in part through Christine’s excellent physicality in this scene, worthy of comparison in its way with Boris Karloff’s work as Frankenstein’s Monster for conveying the idea of flesh and bone reanimated against all will and sense, but finding a balm in the glow of the sun as it feeds her and restores her. Christine proves the most interesting of the lovely young ingénues Universal placed in the series (except for future The Big Sleep star Martha Vickers, although she only appears for a very few moments in The Mummy’s Ghost). The only real problem with this entry is a lack of any more new ideas, sending Kharis around the block a few times for a few more random strangulations. The theme of lechery amongst the Priests is palmed off onto Ragheb, who kidnaps Betty in his desire to make her his immortal bride, and when Zandaab censures him, Ragheb stabs him, stirring the wrath of Kharis.

The filmmakers seem to have been aware this was likely to be the last entry, so at least the ending works to bring a proper close to the series. But it does so in a way that lacks much thrill: Ananka is finally, rather lamely dosed with tana fluid and restored to a mummified state, whilst Kharis is buried under a pile of rubble when trying to kill Ragheb, who is also killed, ending the line of priests and all who know the secret of the tana leaves. It’s worth noting the film’s consistent stylistic feature: Frank Skinner’s endlessly repeated musical themes, most of them written for Son of Frankenstein (1939) and slightly adapted, constantly throbbing and surging on the soundtrack like an erratic heartbeat. The Kharis films never quite capitalised on the wealth of potential encoded in their fascinatingly specific and rich trove of folkloric detail and recurring detail, and the dark fantasies of love through the ages and twisted eroticism that slide inkily through its bloodstream. To a certain extent, Terence Fisher would draw these out more in his concatenated remake, The Mummy (1959). But the Kharis series, once again, is one you love for what it is.


18th 10 - 2017 | no comment »

The Quartette (Kvarteto, 2017)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Miroslav Krobot

2017 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I was reminded while watching the fine 2017 Brazilian documentary In the Intense Now, playing at the Chicago International Film Festival on October 19 and 20, that the history of the Czech Republic is filled with darkness. That film surveys the actions taken in several countries during the revolutionary year of 1968, including the Soviet crackdown on the Prague Spring ushered in by communist reformer Alexander Dubček. The brutal images of tanks rolling through Czechoslovakia’s capital are depressing, yet somehow, the Czech people did and do maintain a sideways, even jovial, attitude toward the world. The Quartette continues the Czech tradition of producing films that view human behavior as a three-ring circus of delights.

Tomáš (Jaroslav Plesl), Robert (Lukás Melník), Simona (Barbora Poláková), and Funés (Zdenek Julina) play in a string quartet organized by Robert to perform his modern compositions. The music is discordant and strange—a good match for the emotional atmosphere of the quartet. Simona and Robert have been living together as a couple for three years, but Tomáš and Simona were once involved as well. Funés, ironically nicknamed after the slapstick French comedian Louis de Funès, is passive, intellectually oriented, and happiest when he is alone.

Much of the film revolves around the romantic entanglements and dissatisfactions of the quartet members. Simona longs for Robert to be more demonstrative and romantic, but he doesn’t appear able to oblige even though he says he loves her. She begins to think back to her time with Tomáš, and after receiving a rather vague all-clear from his friend with benefits, Butterfly (Pavlína Štorková), she attempts to rekindle their love affair. At the same time, Funés attends Tomáš’ regular group therapy session and hits it off with the psychotherapist, Sylva (Lenka Krobotová). The various mild-mannered confrontations that come with these goings-on build to the performance of the piece the quartet has been working on since the start of the film.

Droll is the word for this film. Liveliness and joy erupt, as when Simona arranges a party to celebrate Butterfly’s birthday, and Tomáš, Butterfly, and other partygoers strip to their underwear, or when the quartet enjoys Tomáš performing punk electronica in a nightclub. But the overall tone is comically distant. For example, Robert goes to visit the grave of his father with his widowed mother (Jana Stepánková). She complains about her loneliness, even though she says her husband barely said a word. “But at least he was there,” she deadpans, and some in the audience will nod in knowing recognition. Museum docent Funés, the only member of the quartet who seems to work for a living, is cut off by the leader of a tour group as he expounds upon the entire history informing the exhibit they’re viewing. He accepts this interruption as he accepts most things—with barely a ripple to his calm exterior and a certain self-awareness that he is socially incompetent.

We’ve seen the first-world problems of the well-to-do intelligensia mocked before, and Krobot’s critique doesn’t add anything new to the mix; I was reminded of the painful critique of pretentious artists in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) during an amateurish dance performance at Funés’ museum. That said, this film bears the hallmark of every Czech film I’ve ever seen—beautiful cinematography, this time shot by Juraj Chlpík. Krobot directs his gifted group of actors well as they find the humor in their emotional muteness. Small moments—imagining Simona and Tomáš screwing in a 17th-century carriage on unstable springs, two cops ascending a scaffold into Tomáš’ apartment and then having to be told they can climb back down using the front stairs—add to the absurdity.

Finally, Robert decides to disband the quartet, perhaps a logical conclusion to an unsuccessful concert and fraying relationships within the group. But this is the Czech Republic. Tomorrow is another day.

The Quartette screens Sunday, October 22 at 6 p.m., Monday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m., and Wednesday, October 25 at 1 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

’63 Boycott/Edith+Eddie: Two short documentaries provide penetrating looks at racial segregation in Chicago in 1960 and today, and age discrimination against a married couple in their 90s. (United States)

Scaffolding: An undisciplined student headed for a life in his father’s construction company sees new possibilities for his life under the influence of a kind teacher in this moving, coming-of-age drama. (Israel)

Mr. Gay Syria: In this compassionate, eye-opening documentary, Syrian refugees in Istanbul choose a gay member of their community to compete in Mr. Gay World to bring attention to their plight. (Turkey)

Scary Mother: A repressed housewife and mother unleashes her creative writing skills, but her family’s rejection of her sexually imaginative work drives her to the brink of a madness. (Georgia/Estonia)


17th 10 - 2017 | no comment »

’63 Boycott (2016)/Edith+Eddie (2017)

Directors: Gordon Quinn/Laura Checkoway

2017 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

On the 54th anniversary of the October 22, 1963, boycott of Chicago public schools by hundreds of thousands of black residents, the Chicago International Film Festival screened two short films from Chicago’s social-justice film cooperative, Kartemquin Films. Both films deal with prejudice and injustice, one directed against an elderly couple and the other involving racial segregation and education inequality. The hour spent watching these films is likely to leave you sad, infuriated, and hopefully, fired up.

’63 Boycott is a timely look backward as the U.S. public education system stands vulnerably in the crosshairs of public officials who seem determined to destroy it. Archival footage and current interviews with some of the organizers of and participants in the boycott tell the story of an separate and unequal Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system they maintain was created and perpetuated by then Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Schools in black neighborhoods were overcrowded and underresourced. Black students used outdated textbooks, and adding insult to injury, they had to share them. Modern scientific equipment and teaching aids found in white schools stood in stark contrast to the lack of any equipment available to black students. The final straw was the appointment of Ben Willis as Superintendent of Schools. Accused of being a segregationist and a racist, Willis proposed to “relieve” overcrowding not by moving black students to nearby white schools, but rather by turning mobile homes into classrooms situated in school parking lots. Under pressure to resign over this “Willis wagon” plan, his probably insincere offer to step down was rejected by the school board. The time to boycott—and cost CPS hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid—had arrived.

’63 Boycott offers footage and still photos of various activists and activities, including the sit-in at the Board of Education and alternative Freedom Schools set up to teach black history. These images are intercut with footage of protests that broke out in 2013 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered the closing of 54 schools, the bulk of which served students of color. The images are remarkably similar, sadly emphasizing that battles fought years ago have never really been won. Still, it is worth taking heart. Sandra Murray, a bright African-American student in 1963 who was told to forget her ambition to be a research scientist went on to earn a doctorate in biology, win National Science Foundation grants for research into cell biology and endocrinology, and taught in various universities in the United States and in Ethiopia.

Edith+Eddie should have been a love story, plain and simple, but it seems nothing is ever simple for the vulnerable elderly. Edith Hill and Eddie Harrison met in 2007 when Edith came up to him while he was sitting on a bench outside of a betting establishment and asked him to play a lottery number for her. He kept playing it until it finally hit, and the pair split the $5,000 winnings. They married when Edith was 96 and Eddie was 95, and moved into her longtime home in Alexandria, Va. “Yes, it was love at first sight,” says Eddie, and as we watch them dance together, hold hands, receive the blessings of their church on their wedding anniversary, and ride around in a golf cart, it’s easy to believe.

Yes, they’re old—very old. We see their wrinkled, blemished bodies and careworn eyes. We watch them put in their false teeth. Yet, despite Edith’s mild dementia diagnosis, the pair is happy, alert with each other, able to dress and feed themselves, exercise together in a “Sit and Be Fit” way. It’s kind of a miracle in this cynical time that people can have the faith and openness to love at such an advanced age. But because we live in a cynical, cruel age, even this late-in-life joy cannot last.

Even though Edith’s daughter, Rebecca, lives nearby and is taking care of the couple full time, her other daughter, Patricia, wants to move her to a nursing facility near her in Florida. Rebecca believes this is so that she can sell or rent out Edith’s home. Eddie doesn’t want to go, and Edith insists that she has been abused in Florida. A court-appointed guardian who has never met the couple decides to do as Patricia asks. So, thanks to lies told to placate Eddie and a guardian who refuses to believe that elderly people do anything but make up stories about being abused, Edith and Eddie are pried apart.

Like the elderly couple in the Depression-era Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), Edith and Eddie are pushed aside for the sake of her daughter’s future. In such a short film, we can’t know the family dynamics or financial circumstances that may have led to this decision, but its devastating consequences made me more angry than I have been in a long time about how uncivil our society has become. Ageism is a cancer that will continue to spread as the U.S. elder population continues to increase. Edith+Eddie is a cautionary tale for our new era of economic want and callous self-interest.

’63 Boycott/Edith+Eddie screen Sunday, October 22 at 3:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Scaffolding: An undisciplined student headed for a life in his father’s construction company sees new possibilities for his life under the influence of a kind teacher in this moving, coming-of-age drama. (Israel)

Mr. Gay Syria: In this compassionate, eye-opening documentary, Syrian refugees in Istanbul choose a gay member of their community to compete in Mr. Gay World to bring attention to their plight. (Turkey)

Scary Mother: A repressed housewife and mother unleashes her creative writing skills, but her family’s rejection of her sexually imaginative work drives her to the brink of a madness. (Georgia/Estonia)


15th 10 - 2017 | no comment »

Scaffolding (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Matan Yair

2017 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The most telling moment of Matan Yair’s feature film debut comes about a third of the way through the movie, when the central protagonist, 18-year-old Asher Lax (Asher Lax), overhears his literature teacher, Rami (Ami Smolartchik), read from Karl Haendel’s Questions for My Father and ask his class to write their own questions as a homework assignment. Lax is in Rami’s remedial literature class, where the students joke that they can barely read, but this assignment for one of Rami’s other classes fires his imagination. He writes his questions and presents them to Rami with the impulsive urgency that typifies his outward personality. Lax is headed for a life as a blue-collar worker taking over the construction company his father Milo (Yaacov Cohen) founded, but there is something in him that connects with Rami and the softer concern he shows for his students.

Scaffolding extends Yair’s interest in what makes a man. The history and literature teacher, author, and documentarian whose It Is Written in Your I.D. that I Am Your Father (2008) explored Yair’s relationship with his father, wrote Scaffolding with one of his students, Asher Lax, in mind. Although Yair has described Lax as a violent individual, he was drawn to the boy’s special energy when he moved and talked. First-time actor Lax, who is in nearly every frame of the film, mesmerizes with his kinetic performance that hints at layers beneath his rough-and-ready surface.

Asher is feted on his 18th birthday on the construction site where he works by his father and his coworkers. His father gives him an Izod shirt as a gift, which he dons immediately and shows off to his friends later on. Nearby, an overweight classmate of theirs is also wearing an Izod shirt. Asher nearly rips it off his body when the boy says a shop in town was having a sale on knockoff designer shirts. Asher confronts his father about the real cost of the shirt, and earns a hard slap for his trouble.

Rami has troubles of his own getting through to Asher and his apathetic classmates as they study Euripides’ Antigone. Rami often has to read the material to them to get them to participate. Nonetheless, his patient attitude touches Asher, and the boy initiates something of a personal relationship with him. His question to the married Rami about his childlessness (“Don’t you want to meet the people you’ll love the most?”) sets off an unintended earthquake in his teacher.

High school graduation is coming up, but Milo is due to have surgery on the day of one of Asher’s matriculation exams. He insists Asher work in his place, but having found an encouraging voice in Rami, Asher continues to study. An unexpected turn of events, however, throws Asher into a monomaniacal search for answers.

Yair has crafted a very literate film that goes beyond the personal. In an increasingly authoritarian, superstitious world, he seems to be making a plea for humanity and the importance of knowledge as the scaffolding on which fully human beings and society are built. His choice to have Rami and his class study Antigone has us thinking about the power of the state as well—one that refuses to bury what is dead, but gladly walls its subjects into a living death. His unusual choice to include the language from Questions for My Father, an experimental film by a visual artist, broadens our idea of what literature might be and feeds into the Jewish tradition of questioning to arrive at greater truths. In Yair’s scenario, Asher went through a very religious phase, and Rami’s assignment awakens some of his spiritual yearning. Once inspired, Asher uses the questions he wrote to try to understand his father.

The film is fairly hard on its women, showing them as rule-bound, naïve, or entirely absent. Nonetheless, it is important that men change their macho culture from within. Yair’s intimately shot film is a thoughtful, surprisingly touching look at boys and men that all can appreciate.

Scaffolding screens Saturday, October 21 at 8 p.m., Sunday, October 22 at 8 p.m., and Tuesday, October 24 at 1 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Mr. Gay Syria: In this compassionate, eye-opening documentary, Syrian refugees in Istanbul choose a gay member of their community to compete in Mr. Gay World to bring attention to their plight. (Turkey)

Scary Mother: A repressed housewife and mother unleashes her creative writing skills, but her family’s rejection of her sexually imaginative work drives her to the brink of a madness. (Georgia/Estonia)


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