21st 11 - 2017 | no comment »

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 Batman films, but I found Man of Steel (2013) a truly ambitious attempt on Snyder’s part to render DC’s superhero imprimatur 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 generic concerns and lumpy franchise development. All this was achieved through Snyder’s patented visual muscle 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, 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 (2006), 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 what he’s doing. 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 enjoyable. 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.


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.


26th 09 - 2017 | 5 comments »

Baby Driver (2017)

Director/ Screenwriter: Edgar Wright

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

A heist scene, both in life and in movies, is traditionally a scene of fear, ferocity, chaos, and sometimes bloodshed. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver kicks off on the other hand with a sequence of startling formal artistry and glib humour as its hero, who remains for nearly the entire film known purely by the sobriquet of Baby (Ansel Elgort), sits behind the wheel, waiting in a car whilst criminal associates pillage a bank, bopping and miming along to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s thunderous rocker “Bellbottoms.” Once the proper bandits, Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his wife Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and ally Griff (Jon Bernthal), dash back to the car and cry for Baby to step on it, the young ace takes off and leads the cops on a merry chase through downtown Atlanta, wreaking choreographed mayhem, the raucous yet fleet and graceful action carefully interwoven with frenetic music. Pile-ups are neatly contrived, a row of tyre spikes neatly flicked from under Baby’s wheels under the the tyres of a pursuit vehicle like a soccer player flicking a ball off their heel, rules of man and physics casually subverted in a car chase that exploits the layout of Atlanta’s streets to turn them into a zone akin to Pac Man’s classically boxy, labyrinthine field of action.

Baby eventually delivers himself and his charges in safe, slick fashion to their rendezvous with fence and heist planner Doc (Kevin Spacey). When performing his usual post-job ritual of fetching coffee for all, Baby strides down the street, now to the swing-and-slide saunter of Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle.” The streetscape snaps into the groove filling Baby’s ears, the whole world taking on a funkified rhythm, the actions of the pedestrians and the variegated colourings of the street suggesting the choreography in a Vincent Minnelli or Jacques Demy movie without quite bursting out into proper song and dance. It’s more as if Baby’s immersion instead helps him see the natural music of life about him, keen to the manifold forms expression intersecting in metropolitan life. Baby halts for a moment to mimic the pose on a sprawling work of public art, and the lyrics to the song he’s listening to are written on street lamps. All setting the scene for a moment that will change Baby’s life, as he sees the girl of his lifetime, Debora (Lily James) striding past the coffee shop.

Edgar Wright’s directorial feature oeuvre to date – A Fistful of Fingers (1995), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2011), and The World’s End (2014) – testifies to a talent whose gifts emerge in a devious fashion, realised best when taking seriously things many other people would never pause to think too hard about. On top of formidable visual skill, his films have been thus far both burlesques upon and valentines to beloved movies, music, games, and comics, but are also case studies of people caught in varying stages of development, often arrested but not always unhappily or unproductively, commenting with a good–natured humour that often belies the concision of his satiric streak on the state of modern being in which the tests of character and fortitude that come our way in contemporary life tend to be random, even surreal. Shaun of the Dead reprocessed the basic notions of George Romero’s zombie movies but critiqued their critique, negating the appealing edge of macho fantasy and stern, straighten-up-and-fly-right tenor of most such survivalist horror tales, to celebrate our right to be slouchy slackers when life offers little else that’s more satisfying. Hot Fuzz, the most overt spoof amongst Wright’s films, walked cop and horror clichés through the anxieties of characters who feel stymied in their careers and cheated of the best uses of their gifts, whilst Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World described the problems of trying to reconcile the drug-like power of romanticism with hard truths and the hunt for authenticity via a series of gaudy comic book situations and virtual reality adventures. The World’s End introduced an edge of middle-aged hysteria to his template as it mocked Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style tales but also analysed its heroes’ bilious refusal to change in the face of their own abused and decaying flesh and intractable natures.

Wright is one of the few filmmakers to take heart Quentin Tarantino’s most interesting facet, the one intrigued by the tension between lived experience and the cheering embrace of our cultural touchstones and obsessions, icons in a life journey that lend coherence to the way we see ourselves and orchestrate our days. Wright’s comedic touch has native aspects too, however, in such diverse fields as the sardonic, parochial touch of the Ealing comedy styles, the neurotic potency of the British sci-fi and horror schools, and the puckish, kinetic buoyancy of Richard Lester’s early swinging London adventures. For me, The World’s End failed to quite bring Wright to a new threshold of maturity, as it was also his most curiously misshapen and tonally indecisive work to date. Baby Driver, named for the saucy Simon and Garfunkel song that plays over the end credits, declares with its title an intention to conjure a legend of youthful vivacity, and sees Wright returning to North America for what is in part a romp through a landscape of cultural canards, and like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, his last foray there, focuses on a hero in the awkward space between childhood and manhood. One difference between Baby Driver and Wright’s earlier work however is its new approach to genre storytelling; Baby Driver is a tale of crime and revenge given a day-glo paint job, but still one that takes its pulp imperatives seriously.

Baby Driver’s antecedents are fairly obvious, as the film belongs to a subgenre of crime film that owes many of its tenets and essential ideas to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), which essentially created the modern archetype of the stoic and emotionally uninvolved crime professional who is pushed at last into a personal struggle. Wright’s more immediate touchstone here, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), which retranslated Melville’s precepts back into native American noir traditions (Wright gives Hill a cameo late in the film), and which owed a debt itself to Richard Fleischer’s first attempt to meld these styles, The Last Run (1971). Wright gives this a distinctive twist, of course, in his approach to Baby, whose veneer of detachment is not that of a world-weary pro but a happy-go-lucky kid who’s somehow gotten himself into a deadly line of work. The gimmick at the heart of the film revolves around Baby’s love for music, a love that has practical, even therapeutic aspects. He’s dogged by tinnitus and haunted by the death of his parents, particularly his chanteuse mother, both the result of a car accident that occurred during one of their many, often violent arguments. But music is also his way of keeping a clamouring, insistent, rather evil world at bay, of ordering and structuring his day, of imposing coherent limitations on jostling chaos and impositions. As long as the music is playing, Baby’s universe makes sense.

It’s very plain what Wright actually has in mind with Baby even as he conveys his experience through the trappings of thrills and spills: the experience of being a creative young man trying urgently to maintain equilibrium and a bubble of personal space when surrounded by thugs, bullies, and other energy vampires. Other criminals look askance at Baby’s habits. Griff takes on the role of schoolyard creep in trying to break into Baby’s private world, harassing him, tugging out his earbuds, slapping off his sunglasses, and trying to make him flinch with false punches. Baby successfully maintains his glaze of cool in the face of such predations, however, as he always has another pair of sunglasses and another iPod stocked up with killer tunes to retreat into. Wright contextualises Baby’s strange life as the film unfolds, revealing him as orphaned at a young age, placed into foster care with a deaf and elderly black man, Joseph (C.J. Jones), whom he now cares for in response. Baby grew up with a predilection for stealing cars, and developed his miraculous driving gifts eluding the cops that way. The notion of a white boy brought up by a black man has an overtone of cultural inference in addition to servicing character development. As well as evoking a sense of natural empathy between outcasts, as an avatar of pop culture in general, Baby is son of a rich and fecund sprawl of cosmopolitan artistic heritage, rejecting the brutal inheritance of his biological father, who beat his mother, in favour of celebrating his mother’s creativity and his adoptive father’s soul, making literal Jim Morrison’s comedic boasts about being the son of an old blues man. Baby has obtained his second, rather more Fagin-ish patriarch in the shape of Doc, who deliberately allowed Baby to jack a car of his with some valuable property aboard simply to admire his form and then announced to him he was going to work for him until he’d paid off what he cost him.

Baby expects to go his merry way once he’s finished working off the debt, and even confidently takes a job driving pizzas to please Joseph, who detests Baby’s involvement with crime. Meanwhile Baby sublimates his way of interacting with the world into fashioning pieces of artisanal, purely personal art: he records conversations and uses a pile of dated machinery to create brief, groovy mixes that turn the stuff of his life into art. Baby also mediates his own social dysfunction by utilising the same methods of sampling and remixing to fake his way through conversations, as when he uses some dialogue out of Monsters, Inc. (2001) to mollify Doc. Baby of course soon learns Doc has no intention of letting such an asset go, as Doc delivers threats to his person and loved-ones unless he keeps driving for him, a pivot that seems to render Doc’s status as his defender and arbiter entirely false. Baby’s emotional imperative to find a way out of his predicament gains new impetus as he falls under the spell of Debora, when he encounters her working at the diner he frequents because his mother once worked there too – from the moment Debora walks in singing the refrain of Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” it’s plain Debora is the woman for our hero, and it helps she’s a charming chatterbox who readily falls into a rhythm with the usually silent young man. Wright offers a vision of Debora hovering before a mural depicting a couple in a car racing for the sunset in a vintage roadster and Baby begins to experience faintly David Lynchian fantasies in black and white involving realising the moment with Debora. Wright conjures idealised girlfriends better than any director since Cameron Crowe, and some of the pictures he offers of Baby and Debora’s romancing, their feet bopping in sublime accord to the tune they’re listening to through shared earbuds and their fingers making music with the glasses on a restaurant table, are both expert pieces of observed behaviour with an added lustre of romanticism that plugs into the film’s almost religious sense of musicality.

The idea of making an action film that works like a dance film has an obvious magnificence to it, and the best and most frustrating aspects of Baby Driver are wound in with this idea, as Wright sets up the conceit but never follows through on it in quite the kind of mighty, silent movie, Keystone Kops-esque set-piece it seems to demand. Wright instead keeps the musical motif more like a metronomic pulse for the action, in keeping with Baby’s specific use for the music to structure and time his escapades. Baby gains what seems to be an exact polar opposite and natural adversary in the form of Bats (Jamie Foxx), a flashy hard-ass who quickly reveals a paranoid and ruthless, murderous streak. Bats commands a crew on the heist that marks what Baby thinks will be his last, also consisting of Eddie No-Nose (formerly Eddie Big-Nose; played by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) and hapless JD (Lanny Joon). JD’s various screw-ups on the job, including leaving his shotgun in a car they flee and accidentally buying Austin Powers masks instead of Michael Myers of Halloween fame masks to wear in their robbery (“This is Mike Myers!”) earn him a brutal death at the hands of Bats (can anyone whose nerd lexicon is so poor survive long today?). Baby is handed the job of disposing of body and car in a junkyard press. Baby’s unavoidable humanity is the one roadblock he can’t navigate, natch.

Wright’s method of developing emotional involvement in Baby Driver is relatively smart and supple: Baby keeps gaining short, judicious glimpses of obscene violence, the stuff he’s so urgently trying to tune out whilst taking care of business. And yet he also shares with his director a quick and lucid eye for the stuff of everyday life that puts no-one in contempt until they earn it. His world is essentially one that’s kindly, filled with beaming cashiers, mothers with children, and other, casual passers-by, the people who tend to be knocked over, if they’re lucky, by careening and careless criminals. Baby is even so decent that in one scene when his life’s depending on it he delays his getaway a few moments to give the old lady whose car he’s stealing her purse. Even JD’s pathos is noted as Baby asks him about a tattoo that’s been altered from “hate” to “hat” to increase his chances of employment (“How’s that working for you?” “Who doesn’t like hats?”). Baby is left standing staring at the metal beast chewing up JD and the car, with nothing to do except drift away into the day, turn up the Commodores (has any other film ever wrung such poetic grace from the easy-listening manifesto that is “I’m Easy”?), and get on with the business of being alive.

Baby Driver is of course at heart a fun and carefree entertainment, but it’s not one that’s mindless. In fact it often struck me as having more to say about how many live now than quite a few more serious films, in its blithe and zipless fashion, faithful to the ephemera of behaviour – who hasn’t sat behind the wheel of their car bopping to a favourite song? The modern world offers a peculiar ability to us now, to be at once at large in the world but also to keep it at bay, something an invention like the iPod made easier, more freewheeling, less tethered than ever, and Wright plainly reveals a great affection for this invention (one whose era already seems to be ending) that at last realised the audiophile’s dream of carrying their record collection with them and never having to submit to the indignities of muzak and muffle the abuse of the world to a dull rumble. Wright even seems to gleefully court the diverse reaction people in the audience will have to Baby’s affectations, which will strike some as like self-portrait and others life a mass of infuriating tics and traits, reactions that might depend, perhaps, on one’s age and life experience – anyone who’s been ticked off at a teen relative who won’t divest themselves of their headphones or sniffs at hipster affectations like Baby’s craft-art collection of outmoded technologies might well react in a phobic manner to him. But Baby Driver isn’t merely about such cloistered pleasures. It’s most fundamentally about the moment that comes, or should come, in every life, when you have to turn the music off and abandon the personalised survival mechanisms that one develops when young, and pay proper attention to what’s happening in front of you. This even seems to me to be a general existential state at the moment.

As Doc forces him to continue with his life of crime, Baby nonetheless finds himself plunged back into the company of an all-star team of Doc’s pet badasses, including grizzled and wary Buddy, bombshell-in-both-senses Darling, and batshit Bats. Doc assembles this crew as he intends a robbery of a downtown post office to get hold of blank money orders, and gets Baby to scout the post office in the company of Doc’s young but already canny nephew Samm (Brogan Hall). Where the bullish and impatient Bats can barely restrain his contempt for Baby, Buddy seems to feel a certain affection for him, asking him about his tunes and revealing a similar youthful love for cars, a love that always has to be accompanied by a lucky driving song, which Baby reveals to him is Queen’s theatrical epic “Brighton Rock.” Bats puts the crew through a multiplicity of ordeals, seeming to kill a service station worker to make a robbery, snidely grilling Buddy about what he presumes is a yuppie lifestyle that’s slid into less dignified crimes (“Y’all do crimes to support a drug habit, I do drugs to support a crime habit.”), and threatening to shoot Debora when the crew visit the diner when she’s working there, an act Baby forestalls at risk to himself. Bats has already forced Buddy, Darling, and Baby to aid him in massacring an outfit of gun sellers they meet in an abandoned warehouse, upon the realisation they’re cops, without also realising they’re crooked lawmen in league with Doc (Paul Williams plays the showy frontman of this team, a character dubbed the Butcher, which could be the most unlikely match-up of actor to role since, well, Williams played the Mephistophelian Swan in Phantom of the Paradise, 1974).

The dichotomy of Buddy and Bats as they relate to Baby proves a miscue, at least to the extent that Buddy eventually proves far more dangerous to Baby. Although nominally a shift of ground into a less fantastical style than Wright has offered to date, Baby Driver picks up the running idea of all of his films, in which the adventure offers a coherent metaphor for the maturation, or lack of it, for the heroes, and even presents a variation on the essence of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World where he must face and defeat a doppelganger, and Buddy is Baby’s, with similar background and loves, but one hardened into an underworld swashbuckler. Buddy’s potently carnal relationship with the younger but more than equally loco Darling sits in stark contrast with Baby’s tentative flirtations with Debora whilst also suggesting what they both might become a few years down the track if they are given up to a seedy and destructive world and lose all moral compass. Trapped between varieties of threat, Baby has to run a gauntlet as his beloved, utterly private hobby is exposed and subjected to merciless inspection by his confederates, as when he tries to sneak home to see Joseph he’s caught by Buddy and Bats, who also finds his tape recorder, and enlarge upon their roles as schoolyard bullies engaging in a glorified game of keep-away as they raid Baby’s apartment, steal his tapes and Joseph’s wheelchair, and force Baby to play his tapes and prove they’re merely harmless fodder for composition.

Baby’s attempts to be true to his own code even whilst swimming with sharks eventually forces crisis, as he warns away a pleasant cashier he spoke to whilst casing the post office. The cashier promptly fetches a cop, who arrives by Baby’s car just as Bats, Buddy, and Darling emerge with their haul. Bats shoots the cop dead, and the appalled and enraged Baby for a long moment refuses to move the car even as Bats points his shotgun in his face. When Baby does finally gun the motor, he slams the car into the back of a truck, impaling Bats upon steel poles and setting all hell loose. Police cars arrive and Buddy and Darling start a gunfight in the street, machine guns blazing in downtown as Baby flees on foot, desperately attempting to elude the pursuing cops in a parkour-tinged sequence that readily finds the same electric sense of motion and staging as the car chases. Baby inadvertently prevents Buddy and Darling’s escape again when they both try to steal cars in the same parking lot, and Baby rams the couple’s car, an accident that results in Darling being gunned down as she turns her own weapons on the approaching cops again. Buddy blames Baby for her death, and even though both manage to elude the law at last, Baby finds himself outcast and hunted with no-one to turn to but Debora, and finally Doc reveals his truest colours by melting in the face of true love. It’s more than faintly amazing to me that Wright manages to get such an effective lead performance out of Elgort, who had seemed like the biggest hunk of white dough not yet even baked in the first couple of parts I saw him, whilst the rest of the cast about him delivers superlative work, particularly Foxx in all his character’s supine aggression and Gonzalez as a pocket full of crazy, plus Hamm finally unleashing that long-suppressed edge of the maniacal he constantly hinted but kept buttoned down in his Mad Men days.

It would be fair to say that Baby Driver starts to run out of ideas in its last twenty minutes, and like The World’s End it betrays Wright’s uncertainty about where exactly to draw a line with his narratives, as he insists on following through to a coda that eventually delivers a happy ending after making Baby (whose real name is finally revealed) jump through hoops of law and prison. And yet the finale proper manages to build up such a note of frenetic, maniacal confrontation that subsequent hesitations don’t matter too much. Buddy and Baby battle in an increasingly pathological manner, Hamm’s glowering visage of vengeance bathed in red light, lethal blue stare glaring through shattered glass and flecks of water. Although still nominally in noir-action territory, Wright’s staging here is reminiscent in its colouring and plumes of steam and smoke of sci-fi works, including THX 1138 (1971) and Aliens (1986), whilst also reminding me of a near-forgotten film, Metal Skin (1994), the ill-fated second feature of Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright, which similarly resolved its tale of freedom-seeking hotrodders in increasingly gladiatorial surrounds. Although villain is defeated and heroes left to lick their wounds and find a future, Wright delivers a moment of exacting and totemic punishment, as Buddy robs Baby of his hearing by shooting off his gun on either side of his head. This cruel exacting recalls some of the film’s less noted antecedents, particularly two other tales young hotshots going up against the world only to pay a harsh price in physical coin, Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks (1960) and Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961). Here, in this vision of youth and age in conflict and the spectacle of losing something you love but learning how to live with it, Wright signals that he might be finding his way through to a new maturity with more elegance than he managed with The World’s End. But it’s finally most apt that Wright’s final image returns to fantasy realised as a reunited Baby and Debora drive off in a roadster, pop cinema and pop music rediscovering their place of birth, out on some dusty southern back road. It might not prove the best film of the year, and yet Baby Driver left me with the feeling that it might well be the only one they’ll be teaching in film schools in twenty years.


22nd 07 - 2017 | 20 comments »

Dunkirk (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beachfront of the French coastal region of Dunkirk remains one of the most legendary intervals of World War II. The beaten, bedraggled force of 400,000 men, left without recourse after the infamous Nazi blitzkrieg attacks that invaded Belgium and outflanked the Maginot Line, had to be rescued in a military operation that saw the Royal Navy mount a frantic ferry service, with hundreds of smaller craft, borrowed from civilians and even crewed by them, pressed into service to get men off the beaches. As a result, the core of the British army was saved, the Nazi advance found a limit in Western Europe, and the seeds were sown for eventual resurgence and victory. Or as the comic writer and performer Spike Milligan once reported a veteran of the event telling him soon after, “It was a fuck-up, son – a highly successful fuck-up.” Not that you’ll encounter such brusque and irreverent description of it today. Today, the appeal of Dunkirk as an event has an obvious wellspring as a moment of great communal action, one not without its dark side and its ahistorical mythologising attached, but still essentially true, an epic event that allowed the future to happen. It is the first act in the modern world’s creation myth, with D-Day the second, the turning of the worm. It also has a less agreeable facet now, as the rhetoric of Churchillian resolve and the epic stature of the age have been highjacked by sectors of contemporary society to service how they fondly imagine themselves and their quarrels with the realities of our common inheritance. But perhaps the event’s other aspect speaks equally to others, the background of calamity and resolve, the need for this-far-and-no-farther grit in the face of adversity.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Warner Bros. felt reasonably comfortable expending a huge sum of money on recreating the event. That, and the fact that Christopher Nolan is now fully testing the near-unique reach he’s gained as one of the few popular auteurs standing in contemporary Hollywood. Whatever else one thinks of Nolan, it is certain he’s a distinctive, ambitious talent who wants to reach a mass audience but in terms that don’t compromise his specific vision and methods. Either way, Dunkirk hasn’t had a particularly good time when it comes to movies. The event was encompassed but not depicted in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942), and the subject of a torpid and flimsy Ealing Studios production, Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1958). Although the film around it was wounded by the half-hearted pretensions of its source material, Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement contained a mini-movie depicting the event that has stood as certainly the finest to date, a five-minute tracking shot of extraordinary choreography and artistry following the film’s tragic hero in the midst of the evacuation chaos, a scene of cruelty and camaraderie, bleak immediacy and woozy surrealism, a desperate search for a locus of order and meaning only to be faced with its dissolution. The overt technical conceit succeeded in its aim of reordering the viewer’s sense of reality.

By comparison, in the first minutes of Nolan’s film, when one of his main characters stumbles onto the beaches, Nolan’s eye surveys great expanses dotted with soldiers spaced and grouped into the kind of geometric compositions Nolan is extremely fond of. Although Nolan’s Dunkirk proposes to plunge the viewer into a hectic event, even at its most madcap, this film is rather the by-product of a relentless eye and mind, one always imposing calculation and mechanistic contemplation upon the happenstance business of popular art. Nolan takes a familiar conceit from this kind of panoramic drama in depicting action from three different viewpoints – one from a soldier on the beach, one a pilot in the air, and one the owner-captain of a boat pressed into the citizens’ flotilla – but gives it a tweak by presenting them in different time frames. Thus the aerial swashbuckling of RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) takes place over a one-hour period; the voyage of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young friend George (Barry Keoghan) unfolds over a day, and the survival run of battered soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) lasts a week. All intersect eventually during the flux of events, with Nolan cross-cutting between the three different time frames, thus finding a real-world way to recycle the dream-state levels of Inception (2010).

The humans in these scenes, many of whom are scarcely invested in specifics of character or identity and quite often unnamed on screen (thank you, internet), are intended in part deliberately as blank slates and avatars, clotheshorses for Nolan to drape the experiential finery of his filmmaking on: Tommy’s very name signifies him as the essential British soldier. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy pop up, looking windswept and uncomfortable as two officers, Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, who stand in for the higher rank’s perspective and to offer fillips of exposition for an event that is otherwise left sketched only in the vaguest of terms as to why and how it came to such a pass. The mission statement here is to thrust the audience headlong into gruelling situations alongside these avatars in events that present, in their microcosmic way, extrapolations of the drama as a whole, in its various layers of eye-level experience. Great history is given a man-sized makeover (and I do mean man; no weepy mothers or sultry French hookers a la war movies of decades past get in the way here; a couple of nurses do get the odd line). Tommy and Gibson are two young privates thrust into each other’s company on the beach, when Tommy, who has just managed to beat a gauntlet of German besiegers on his route to the British pocket, sees Gibson burying the body of another soldier. Although Gibson will not or cannot speak, the two men join forces to try to find a more expeditious route onto a rescue ship, and so volunteer as stretcher bearers, carrying a man aboard a hospital ship, dodging the queues and the bomb craters punched in the long wharf, or ‘mole.’

Although they’re then kicked off the ship, the two men clamber down onto the underside of the mole to await a chance to slip back aboard this craft or another. But a Stuka bombing raid sinks the ship, and the pair help pluck Alex and other men from the water before they are crushed by lolling weight of steel. The trio flee down along the beach and take refuge with other soldiers in a beached boat, hoping to sail it for home when the tide dislodges it from the sand. But this plan goes awry when Germans beyond the British perimeter start using the boat for target practice, and the tide starts to flood the hold instead. Meanwhile Dawson, a gentleman of the coast who seems to have experience from the last war, sets to sea with a desire to help with his son and his friend aboard, having lost his elder son, an RAF pilot, already in the conflict. They pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s survived the sinking of a rescue ship and is suffering badly from traumatic stress. The soldier panics when he realises his rescuers are heading on back to Dunkirk. During a tussle for control of the vessel, George is knocked back down into the boat’s interior and hits his head. Blinded at first, George soon dies of an aneurysm, but Dawson continues with his mission to save more men. Above their heads, Farrier and Collins try to ward off the Luftwaffe bombers playing havoc with the rescue; Farrier can’t tell how much fuel he has left after bullets knock out his gauge, so his fight is defined by uncertain guesswork as to how long he can continue it, whilst Collins is shot down over water.

I’ve had many issues with Nolan’s films in the past, but I had started to come around with him after the messy yet fitfully interesting third chapter to his very profitable Batman trilogy, and the sometimes excellent science fiction epic Interstellar (2014), a film that eventually foundered on Nolan’s uneasy attempts to fuse Kubrickian grammatics with Spielbergian emotionalism and a glum retreat into sub-2001 mind-bending, but conjured a genuinely epic brand of realist scifi along the way. It was a real movie, as opposed to a cinematic conjuring trick or pseudo-intellectualisation of genre and comic book fodder. Dunkirk sees Nolan venturing into historical drama and factual portraiture for the first time in his career, a choice that promises in abstract to discipline the writer-director within new parameters. And yet for better and worse, Dunkirk is a Nolan film through and through. Few contemporary filmmakers are as confident in wielding the infrastructure of a big-scale movie production in such a way that it remains touched with a strong personal aesthetic, which in Nolan’s case means scene after scene shot in a dingy colour palette, showy editing patterns, and cunningly orchestrated sound effects. Never in the history of cinema have the sounds of men’s muffled screaming as they drown been so peerlessly communicated.

A fascinating disconnection lays at the heart of Dunkirk, as it did with Interstellar. Nolan is a filmmaker who wants to engage in a voluble sense of human vulnerability, and yet he has little gift as a dramatist, and his human figures tend to stand in for states of mind and feelings rather than experience them. Many said that about Stanley Kubrick, one of Nolan’s evident and oft-cited inspirations, as well, but there were qualities to be picked up in Kubrick, from his coal-black humour to his sarcastic sensuality and the genuine rigour of his shot-for-shot cinema, that are totally absent from Nolan. Take, for instance, the early scenes that see Tommy escaping German bullets, and, when he gets his first time out on the beach, squats down to shit. No worry about mess. Nolan offers this sequence like a bonsai tree, lovely and potted and carefully groomed of all offensive detail as a sop to the supposed grit of his vision, and yet like everything else we see here, it’s preeningly aestheticized. Still, Dunkirk is very much a work of contemporary cinema style, and for a time, this is bracing: there’s no nostalgic gloss or air of antiquity to proceedings here even as the technology tends to look quaint now, like the Spitfires drilling the sky, battling opponents only with a pair of machine guns and their own good eyes to give them effect, and the Lee-Enfield rifles that seem so paltry a defence in the face of mechanised war.

Nolan stages action scenes as a constant scruff-of-the-neck scramble, as when Tommy and Gibson, apparently delivered upon a rescue ship only then to be torpedoed, are forced to survive near-drowning, or later, when a different ship is sunk and we’re treated to a harum-scarum cacophony of images as some manage to swim for safety and others are cooked by spilt fuel oil lit up by a crashing Nazi bomber. Nolan’s images come on coolly at first but soon begin to pile on with ferocity as hell breaks loose. Yet to make a film about such an event takes a streak of madness, of understanding of what it feels like to have the world drop out beneath your feet, and the capacity to revel in it. And if there’s one thing certain about Nolan, it’s that he doesn’t have a mad bone in his body. This is, after all, the man who remade the id-shaped heroes and villains of the Batman tales into creatures of witless literalism and who structured tales of romantic tragedy and adventures into the mind’s recesses as puzzles with placards at their hearts in Memento (2001) and Inception. The trouble with this approach steadily unveils itself, stripping out such niceties as personality, context, and interest in the authentic players of history and replacing them with these pasteboard exemplars who wear looks of hangdog gravitas. This suits what Nolan actually does with his account of Dunkirk, which is to essentially reduce the event to a particularly gruelling fantasy adventure camp and theme park. Survive the sinking ship. Shoot down the Messerschmitt. Crap on the beach. Dodge the broken pier of death. It’s no wonder Nolan is a god for millennial film buffs; he speaks fluently the language of video game.

In Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), the famous D-Day beach opening had its calculated side but successful realised a maelstrom of chaos and gore; death comes from every direction, in every manner. Here, Nolan winds up one shot of a creeping barrage of Stuka bombs advancing towards Tommy and blowing up a neighbour with the precious, self-satisfied smirk of a talented child arranging the elements on stage for a puppet theatre. Nolan compensates for his cynicism towards traditional drama by conveying dread through his films’ constant steely mood lighting. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography is fine and crisp but plays the same relentless game as Hans Zimmer’s scoring. Before going into the film I kept in mind the way Nolan uses Zimmer’s music to propel his drama and quite often provide it, and with such awareness in mind I became acutely conscious of how marvellously the music is used to high-pressure the viewer, as Zimmer mimics a ticking clock and surging tide. Much like James Brown made his band into a giant percussion instrument to fuel funk’s polyrhythms, Zimmer’s orchestrations are less music than metronome, shunting the images along with false urgency, Pavlovian cues steamrolling us into obedience. The crowds of extras are supposed to be stoic and sullen in patient anxiety whilst occasionally showing their humanity, mostly by roaring approval of certain acts of bravery. But in fact they’re as subject to Nolan’s relentlessness as a moulder of elements as any of Fritz Lang’s crowds depicting citizens of medieval Europe or futuristic Metropolis, devoid of raucous communal life.

Nolan’s dedication to studying the event through more of a communal than individual lens has a certain worthiness and aesthetic potential, but in comparison to a filmmaker like Miklos Jancso who really could realise historical events in a way where the mass enacted a tale (e.g., Red Psalm, 1972), Nolan is a clodhopper who reduces characters to switchable pieces of a crowd rather than finding character in the crowd. No one swears, plays cards, tells dirty jokes, sings a ditty, gets drunk. This is our contemporary realism: the stuff of life in the margins is excised. It is not important. Importance is now measured in venturesome suffering. Nolan’s attempt to synthesise a restrained emotional palette suits the material, and Rylance in particular handles this well. But dialogue barely serviceable as expressions of human communication drops from the characters’ lips on occasions, as when Branagh’s Bolton stares out to sea and pronounces, “You can almost see it from here.” “See what?” asks Winnant. “Home.” Later, he stares out to sea (he does a lot of this) and, beholding the small boat flotilla heading to the rescue, he’s asked, “What do you see?” “Hope,” he replies. Nolan got paid to write this stuff, folks. Occasional flickers of anger are displayed, mostly with the RAF for their sparse attendance of the festivities, and by the finish Nolan suddenly makes a thing out of the soldiers’ shame in defeat only then to find they’re being greeted as heroes anyway.

Nolan makes some effort to invest some complexity in his portrait of the situation, particularly in the scenes on the beached boat where Tommy, Gibson, and Alex have taken shelter with a gang of similarly unmoored men from the Highlander regiment. The young soldiers quickly reveal unreasoning ferocity in the face of blind terror. As the boat starts to flood with the rising tide, they turn on each-other. One soldier (Brian Vernel) gets it in his head, in Nolan’s efforts to generate a moral crisis, that they need to throw someone overboard to lighten the boat, in spite of the fact they’re on a sizeable craft where such an action would be utterly useless: they pick out Gibson in his silence as the odd man out, forcing the man to admit that he’s actually a French soldier who’s put on an English uniform to make his escape, his silence a ploy rather than a manifestation of shellshock. Tommy still bleatingly defends him: “It’s not fair.” This sequence reminded me of the similar moral quandary of the two bomb triggers Nolan deployed in The Dark Knight (2008), and it’s just as wince-inducing in its clumsiness as a story device and facetious as a depiction of the panicky idiot lurking under the surface of all men. Even as jittery and desperate as the men here are supposed to be, no-one in his right mind could possibly think through one man off so large a boat is going to stop it sinking. Here Nolan reminded me of some other films with blind spots in this regard, like Joseph Losey’s King & Country (1964), proposing to stick up for the little man in the face of great men’s games but ironically, in portraying that little man as gallant and those others as bestial primitives. When Nagisa Oshima cast David Bowie in his POW drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), it was to exploit a pop star’s strange and alien beauty and use it ironically, to make him emissary of the human race in a way a Byzantine religious artist might have appreciated, as a vision of the rarefied soul. Nolan casts Styles, likewise a pop star foraying into acting, and buries him in the avalanche of lookalikes, a nobody in a sea of nobodies.

The same weakness is evident in another of narrative’s strands, as young George collapses and dies, killed in part by the war and its effect on people. If we actually, properly knew who George was, his end might offer some pathos. Peter doesn’t let the man responsible know George has died. He chalks it up to a fortune of war instead, choosing rather to seek memorialisation for George as a young hero of the great event. Nolan makes a nod here to John Ford’s famous dictum of “print the legend” evinced in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). And yet for all its avant-garde visual force and desire to communicate survivalist urges as an overriding trait, Dunkirk is actually astonishingly square as an historical portrait, the exemplification of “print the legend.” There is no political or institutional anger evinced here, or attempt to assess the failures of a mindset as a way of learning what goes wrong in war and why, as there was in, say, Richard Fleischer’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) or Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk may well have invented a new cinematic genre: the history movie without history. When the great flotilla turns up, envisioned by Nolan as the cavalry running to the rescue, their crews stand upon the decks, chin cocked at noble angles, like they’ve all escaped from some Soviet Realist poster. Rylance’s performance as Dawson is both exceptionally good in its reserve and concision of emotional effect, but it also exemplifies Nolan’s assimilation of cliché: he’s an archetype of everything homespun and simple, soft-spoken and naturally gracious, exactly what we’d fondly like to imagine everyone engaged in this enterprise was like. Hardy’s handsome mug is hidden behind a mask most of the time, elected as stand-in for the Few.

It feels particularly tempting to compare Dunkirk to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a lumbering and ridiculous melodrama that at least signalled some understanding of itself as such, an attempt to visit the past through the lens of that past’s own methods of mythmaking – sweeping cinematic romance and archetypes. Nolan’s efforts here pose as deep and true, but commit the same fraud as Bay did, reducing warfare to an obstacle course whilst affirming movie star credentials through flyboy antics, as Hardy’s masked but dogged hero shoots down about six German airplanes. Man, Tom Hardy is cool. The aerial combat scenes are easily the best thing about Dunkirk however, as Nolan, usually not a director who gives any great thought as to where and why he places a camera, here often tethers his perspective to that of the pilots, their enemies appearing as flashes in the rear-view mirror to the clatter of bullets on the fuselage, or trying to catch a glimpse of a friend or enemy in the water far below. There are only pure equations to survival up here – what you can and can’t see, how long until the fuel runs out. Nolan manages something reasonably original in this way, but then undercuts the exacting practicality as he strains credibility by having Farrier continue to shoot down enemy planes even when he’s run out of fuel, and then barrels in for a perfect landing on the beach, struggling with recalcitrant landing gear all the way.

Whilst Nolan’s temporal gimmick is engaging on some levels, inviting the viewer to piece together how everything fits in the mind and feel the pleasure of certain actions gaining context at length, I wish it didn’t often provoke to wonder if it wasn’t a great ruse on Nolan’s part to cover up how bad he’s been in the past at tracking action. Dunkirk both held my attention but constantly frustrated it, and by the end left me cold in a way that infuriates. Once, ambition and vision in Hollywood could mean works like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980), giant, shambling, endlessly rich mosaics composed of history, dreams, ideas, and fervent emotion. By comparison, Dunkirk reveals how small-minded and blankly impersonal such cinema can be even as Nolan expands the limits of his frames and the impact of his sound and vision. Dunkirk demands to be described in hip clichés like “immersive” and “experiential,” but the cause such aesthetic aims are supposed to serve, in sensitising us to the meaning of individual perspective and placing us in the shoes of people overwhelmed by circumstances, are swiftly transmuting into the opposite, a method used by contemporary filmmakers to turn the art form into something more like virtual reality, sapped of dramatic – and therefore human – values. Along with it, history becomes fodder for a simplistic action-survival thriller – one without the pleasures of pulp or the tatty, bratty cornball of folk history, but instead decked out in its own borrowed finery of import. Kubrick could give you both a moment of profound sentiment like the famous singalong at the end of Paths of Glory (1957) and also a stinging moment of personal rage and black comedy like the anointed martyr who makes his prayers to wine rather than gods. Nothing like that subsists here. This is a cold, barren, sterile beach to die on.


11th 07 - 2017 | 4 comments »

The Lost City of Z (2016)

Director/Screenwriter: James Gray

By Roderick Heath

James Gray has failed to wield commercial success equal to his critical standing, which is significant, particularly in Europe, but also tellingly divisive. Perhaps a greater part of the reason for this lies in the key underpinning of his aesthetic, from his steely debut Little Odessa (1994), through his curiously elegiac crime films The Yards (2001) and We Own The Night (2007), and the mature, mutable drama of Two Lovers (2008) and The Immigrant (2014), is they resist familiar rules of screen drama in refusing to emphasise urgency or agency for its characters, but instead constantly nudge them along with the ineluctable quality of fate. They are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living. Gray’s oeuvre consists of tales of outcasts and troubled inheritors as much stricken and burdened with their ambitions as compelled by them, shot in sombre, moody, yet inescapably authoritative panoramas. Gray is often described as an old-fashioned talent almost without peer in the contemporary cinema landscape, but the truth is his kind of filmmaker was never particularly common or popular, crafting rigorous, lushly shot but essentially told tales of the emotionally thwarted and the life-beset.

Gray’s influences seem to include the stately gravitas of Luchino Visconti, the streetwise tragedies of Martin Scorsese, the sombrely artful side of Francis Coppola, the hymns of repression and freedom of David Lean, and the subtler side of John Ford, the one obsessed with social rituals and the problems of maturation. The Lost City of Z, Gray’s latest, is a venture into new territory for the director, as a film recounting the life of a British adventurer in exotic climes, and yet it pushes the ghost story aspect to Gray’s tales to an extreme. Every action of the central characters in The Lost City of Z is tethered to inevitable dates with obsession and doom. The story he takes up here itself immediately evokes such an mood of eerie transience and doomed embarkation, in recounting the life of Percy Fawcett, a controversial and much-mythologised figure who met a mysterious end in his attempts to penetrate the innermost heart of the Amazon jungle in search of a lost city he had become convinced once flourished there. Fawcett’s adventures were the stuff beloved of Boy’s Own magazines and early mass media hoopla, as Fawcett’s willingness to feed those beasts with tales of giant spiders and snakes as well as lost civilisations fed the lurid dreams of generations. Recently history has caught up with Fawcett in seeming to vindicate his wildest flights, as the remains of just such a civilisation around where he thought it might be have emerged, discoveries that cast a new light on the theories of a man who had been, at different times, dismissed as a charlatan, a eugenicist, and an Ahab-liked madman who lured his son and others to ignominious death in the jungle.

Gray presents him rather as a smouldering social rebel, driven along by the disgrace of his father, who, straining against the tight leash of high Imperial Britain’s social prescriptions, finds a way to give them the slip and strive to touch something grand. In this regard, The Lost City of Z takes up the little-considered but powerful spiritual side of Lean’s later epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and strips away the more sensational elements to makes this pining desire for a transcendence tinged with pantheistic sublimation the focus of the journey. Fawcett, when first introduced, is seen gaining victory in a deer hunt held by British officers stationed in rural Ireland. Much as D.H. Lawrence identified Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans as the embodiment of the western death-dream, Fawcett has the same gift for the chase and touch with death, but he is doomed to hunt something much more rarefied, nominated by chance and temperament as a knight embarking on a grail quest. His swashbuckling prowess is in the meantime undoubted, but he’s still held at arm’s length by superiors who disdain meeting with him at the soiree following the hunt. Fawcett’s attempts to be a model soldier and citizen are contradicted by his broader mind and deeper emotional reflexes than most of the people around him. He’s married to Nina (Sienna Miller), a Victorian New Woman and free-thinker. Fawcett, pushing into his mid-thirties without any significant distinction to his name, finally gains a chance for advancement when his map-making skills, honed in doing surveying work for the army, are requested for use by Sir George Goldie (Ian McDiarmid) and Sir John Scott Keltie (Clive Francis), chieftains of the Royal Geographical Society.

Goldie selects Fawcett to head to South America and plot the precise parameters of the border between Brazil and Bolivia, to head off a brewing war between the two nations in the hunger for the riches produced by rubber. On his passage there, Fawcett meets the man who has volunteered to join his mission, the hirsute Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who’s joining him purely for adventure, but who soon proves a stalwart out in the wilds. He picks up a third comrade in Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), a ranking British soldier sent to meet him in the jungle rubber planters’ town of Fazenda Jacobina, ruled over as a kingdom by petty potentate Baron De Gondoriz (Franco Nero). The Baron gives Fawcett an enslaved native as a guide, Tadjui (Pedro Coello), who tantalises the Englishman with tales of mysterious people who live in the jungle in their large and sophisticated cities.

The Lost City of Z represents a sharp digression for Gray in some ways as the first time he’s ever ventured out of New York, let alone a North American setting, and his intricate grasp on the lost souls of the urban landscape, even as it slots into his oeuvre stylistically speaking with ease, and Gray methodically disassembles several of the potential genres the film belongs to. Gray orientates himself in the jungle by referencing a pair of his favourite films, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), both tales of self-appointed supermen with egos unchecked in the jungle, as Fawcett and his pick-up expedition venture into the wilderness only to find themselves beset by a nightmarish sensation of being unmoored from all familiar yardsticks of life and society. They become targets for native tribes who pepper their barge with arrows, and beset by maladies, like one that causes a team member to vomit up black blood. The forest proves near-desolate as a source of food, until Fawcett finally manages to shoot a wild pig. A brief attempt at revolt by a subordinate sees Costin shoot the mutineer’s ear off. But Gray also contends with such evocations and similarities and moves quickly past them, particularly as although as obsessive as the antiheroes of those canonical works, Gray’s Fawcett latches on to a dream of the landscape that beckons to the higher part of his mind rather than the black part of the id, and his journey becomes more one of diffusion into the landscape than resistance to it. He makes contact with tribes who have known only the thinnest connections to the outside world but soon learns of their capability in existence and the subtle harmonies of their lifestyles, which range from cannibalising dead tribe members to cultivating food and catching fish with special drugs.

Fawcett begins to glimpse haunting signs of long-ago habitation in the jungle, remains of pottery and other fragments of civilisation, and faces carved into trees and rocks, gazing out like the spiritual eyes of the land, a lost part of the collective memory, an idea that gives rise to his decision to name the city out in the jungle ‘Z’ as the last piece of the human puzzle. Fawcett’s return to civilisation sees him mocked at a Royal Geographical Society meeting when he presents his findings and he angrily defends his theories against a reaction he interprets as contempt for the Amazonian peoples. One of the Society’s senior figures, Sir James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), proposes they venture back into the Amazon together to look deeper, and Fawcett eagerly agrees. But Fawcett soon finds he’s made a poor bargain, as Murray proves not only too old and unfit for the arduous exploration, but bilious and recalcitrant too, proving a terrible drag on the expedition. Murray presents a different order of nuisance to the men from Fawcett’s previous expedition, so rather than continue to suffer his insolence and unable to blow a hole in his ear in deference to his standing, Fawcett gives him their only horse and some provisions to head back to the nearest outpost.

Shortly after, Fawcett catches glimpse of another carved face in the rock, and realises he’s finally made his way back to the realm of Z. But a flash flood nearly kills him, and then he’s called back to Costin to camp, and the sickening discovery that Murray sabotaged their supplies before leaving, a petty revenge that might also be intended to forestall any achievement of glory that sidelines him. The bedraggled party make their way back to civilisation and then to Britain, only to find Murray has beaten them there. After mutual recriminations and accusations between the two men, a charged meeting of the RGS sees Goldie and the other society bigwigs pressuring Fawcett to paper over the cracks in their unity and apologise to Murray, but Fawcett refuses and quits the society. Fawcett seems to have crashed headlong into a barrier of class and credibility even on the path of his elevated mission. The outbreak of World War One soon erases all other concerns. In the trenches Fawcett, Costin, and Manley, who fight together, soon learn that Murray has pulled the same tricks on another expedition, leaving no debate as to his treachery.

Fawcett’s tale of real-life daring and fixation has all the hallmarks of a type of adventure tale that feels all but by-gone, but Gray’s approach pointedly disassembles the Boy’s Own side of Fawcett’s ventures, bending them to his own purpose and placing emphasis not on derring-do so much as on personal states of seeing and understanding. The Lost City of Z finishes up as much a portrait of a time and place as of Fawcett himself, an old world teetering on the edge of collapse, with Fawcett far out in front of its spiritual plane, hunting for signs in the wastes that once there were not just dragons here. Although an intrepid soul who seems far removed from the drab victims of life in Gray’s earlier films, Gray nonetheless sees shared traits with them, including We Own The Night’s Bobby Green, Two Lovers’ Leonard Kraditor and The Immigrant’s Ewa Cybulski, because like them he is both well aware of how much his place in society and his identity, imbued by genetics, reputation, nationality, and all the rest of it, define him, and drive his simultaneous need to find a place in the world and desire to escape it altogether. Upon return from his second expedition Fawcett finds his son Jack (Tom Holland), born when he was away on his first expedition, has grown into adolescence with a smouldering resentment for him by the time he comes back from the second. But that resentment soon enough evolves into eager desire to join in his adventures, whilst Percy himself obeys the urge to pursue a habit, one that imbues a feverish high whilst risking extermination all too similar to the one his gambling addict father chased by other means. Both men feel an urge towards honouring identity that nonetheless will destroy them, recalling the brothers in Little Odessa and We Own The Night who similarly find bonds of love and emulation become crushing chains.

What Gray signals is important about people like Fawcett is less the specifics of their own manias but the way they inhabit the shape of our dreams at large, as Percy becomes a popular hero and celebrity for much the same reasons the establishment figures are obliged to constantly close ranks against him, for letting his imagination get away from him, and encouraging others to do the same. The limitations of will against identity are also crucially illustrated when Nina, beset by anxiety and resentment at being left at home when her energies and capacities cry out for better use, suggests that she accompany Percy on an expedition. But the idea horrifies her husband and reveals the limitations of his radical principles, as he declares allegiance to the idea of gender equality of mind but not body, particularly not hers in the gruelling reaches of the jungle, a place where, in fairness to him, he’s seen hardened trekkers and warriors crumble. This is a vital scene, not just for Hunnam and Miller’s all too volubly human incarnation of an essential modern problem, but also in offering a scene all too left out of this breed of film, encompassing two entirely understandable but diametrically opposed points of view between people who love each-other whose life circumstances and internal battles keep pulling them in different directions. Each time Percy returns to his wife she’s older and has more children rooting her securely to a world she’s in even more conflict with than he is.

Percy’s encounters in the jungle with the fringes of his own society and what he finds beyond them come as a series of pierced veils that reveal new truths but also new mysteries and tantalising prospects. The pretences to grafting European culture onto a primal shore first glimpsed when Percy finds opera in the jungle gives way swiftly to the backwoods warlord stances of De Gondoriz and the network of scars on Tadjui’s back, whilst the apparently blank malevolence of the tribes who try to wipe out the intruders soon reveal faces and rich gifts for cultivation and nuances of lifestyle. They yield to Percy’s determination to communicate: at one point he gets his men to sing “Soldiers of the King” and waves a Bible and handkerchief before him as signs of his friendliness, signs and song the keys to human interaction, and doesn’t let an arrow that pierces part-way through the Bible break his gesture, even as the sickening proximity of death sends his mind scurrying back through memories of baptising his son. The act of unveiling and discovery gains a new context when Percy is left temporarily blinded by poison gas and rediscovers his family whilst lying bandaged and sightless in a hospital bed, prompting reconciliation between father and son. Survival and reconciliation are themselves a false ending before the quest calls again, and when news comes to Percy a new expedition might be chasing Z, this time Jack convinces his father to let him come with him to the Amazon, and a reluctant Nina acquiesces, and joins her other two children in farewelling them when they set off, in a sequence of unforced rapture, with daughter Joan (Bethan Coomber) chasing after the van carrying them away.

Gray’s repute for crafting films with great visual beauty and concision on tight budgets reaches an apogee here, as every frame The Lost City of Z, thanks to Darius Khondji’s photography, comes on a muted yet cumulatively delirious beauty. And yet there’s a fragmentary quality to them as well, like pictures trapped in amber, managing to evoke the sensation Gray constantly reaches for as more remembered than witnessed. The sequence when Fawcett first enters Fazenda Jacobina is staged as a rapturous string of discoveries, as the bush parts to suddenly reveal an opera stage in the wilderness with singers mid-performance, and they tread the streets of the outpost, a warren of flickering firelight, an emanation from the physical and mental outskirts of the human world. This scene is rhymed later on when Fawcett returns to it with Jack only to find the place deserted, the jungle swiftly clenching it and drawing back into its heart. The town has become an instant and frightening example of just how fast nature can erase the imprint of human achievement once it ceases to be cared for, and thus providing in miniature a thesis statement for Fawcett’s concept for Z itself. Gray carefully violates the texture of his steadily paced, classical outlay of images with flashbacks, as when Percy, exposed before the arrows of a potentially hostile tribe, recalls baptising his son with Nina in a country church, a moment more dream-like than anything he finds in the jungle, which seems to be a trap for time but is actually a rigorously straightforward place.

The cyclical construction and collapse of civilisations is a historical phenomenon Fawcett becomes privy to as he and his mates are shoved into the eye of the Great War’s furore, the battlefield studded with splayed corpses and a lonely statue of Jesus jutting from the wasteland, just as the remnant artworks and wares of Z dot the jungle. Z is Fawcett’s own world, hammered into mud and splinters, whilst he clings on to his Edenic dream, sketched upon a paper scrap he carries with him; Gray locates the science fiction film lurking within the rough-hewn veracity of Fawcett’s adventure, diagnosing Fawcett as a proto-modern with eyes fixed uneasily on a new state of being that is also unknowably ancient, appropriate for an age when history will undergo a violent and wrenching reboot. Fawcett’s command is visited by a fortune teller who grasps the essence of his ambitions and the attractive power of the world he dreams of, “A vast land bejewelled with peoples,” whilst Gray’s pivoting camera matches the stark and filthy mugs of Percy’s battered soldiers with the visages of the Amazonians amidst the primal green. The devolution is completed as Percy leads his men into battle, envisioned in a war scene reminiscent of the one Stanley Kubrick conjured in Paths of Glory (1957) as the Germans become a mere blank force of extermination randomly picking off men around Fawcett. The hawkeyed hunter of the opening deer chase is reduced to ineffectually firing off his pistol at unseen enemies, the cavalier tradition Percy both exemplifies and nettles at finding its ultimate cul-de-sac. Z, a place he senses is real even as it seems to exist beyond any liminal reality, has become not simply a preferable place to be but the only place.

There’s incidental pleasure to be had in the way Gray utilises and disrupts the movie star wavelength of Hunnam and Pattinson, both of whom had been dismissed as pretty boys in their past roles and whose paths to proving themselves lend subtext to their characters here. This is particularly true of Pattinson with face smothered by great wispy beard, playing the oddball Costin who gains his introduction to Fawcett when the officer assaults him, believing him to be some ruffian dogging his footsteps, only to find he’s a tippling Edwardian bohemian looking for a life less ordinary. Costin eventually finds his own limit for Quixotic adventures after the war, when Fawcett tracks him down to a club where he doesn’t want to abandon his soft leather chair and whiskey. Hunnam’s own quality is one several directors have tried and failed to quite harness – Anthony Minghella came closest casting him as a vicious albino gunfighter in Cold Mountain (2003), an ironically villainous role for an actor sent down from matinee star casting, one that understood the tension between his standard, Nordic good looks and his slightly alien intensity as an actor. But it’s this tension that allows him to inhabit both Fawcett’s ready embodiment of the magazine hero type and the contradictions roiling around under the surface, the suppurating anger and spice of special lunacy that sends him again and again into the valley of death. Indeed, there are witty and intelligent casting choices throughout, particularly as Gray employs the likes of Nero, McDiarmid, and Macfadyen, actors with strong and specific associations in the modern movie canon. Murray Melvin, best known as the effete minister and gatekeeper in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), appears briefly in a similar role here as one who warns a grandee that Percy had an unfortunate choice of parentage. And yet the movie fan aspect to incorporating such actors has been carefully smudged into the landscape. Miller’s part critiques the many loyal wife roles Miller has played lately by inflicting that lot on Nina even as she does her best to escape it.

Gray’s patience as a filmmaker often pays off in climactic moments that strike hard as they resolve the themes of the films in ways words cannot, like the contact between the brothers in We Own The Night, and the schismatic last image of The Immigrant that sent its protagonists on their differing ways to paradise and purgatory respectively. Here Gray goes himself one better as he tracks Percy and Jack into the bush on their date with destiny, being caught between two warring tribes and being caught by one, who, deciding to help them on the last leg of their quest, feed them what might by medicine or poison, and carry them through a jungle alight with fire, an image hinted throughout the film and now abloom with atavistic glory for a crossing of the river on the way to oblivion. Nina keeps a faith at home, handing over a totem – Percy’s compass – as a sign they might still be alive in the jungle, living now with the natives as the ultimate mutineers against civilisation. Gray revises the last shot of The Immigrant here as Nina leaves the Royal Society building, filmed in a mirror, vanishing into crepuscular light through greenhouse fronds as the sounds of Amazonia arise on the soundtrack. Gray here signals Nina’s fate to be held arrested by the mystery of her husband and son’s fates, subject to the same vexation in being spiritually if not physically reclaimed by the same cruel and beckoning promise of subsistence within the wilderness, Pandora left nursing hope as the last and most mocking evil, and as ever the most desperately needed, in the box that is the modern world.


28th 05 - 2017 | 7 comments »

Live and Let Die (1973) / The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) / For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Directors: Guy Hamilton, Lewis Gilbert, John Glen

By Roderick Heath

Roger Moore’s death at the age of 89 last week was a sad moment in spite of what was obviously a well-lived life reaching a natural end. There was a sting I didn’t expect in losing Moore and his image, his unshakeable veneer of savoir faire and eternal boyish good-humour, and the fact that Moore had often never quite gotten his due. Certainly not a thespian of enormous range, Moore nonetheless shared a fate common to many actors in that he made difficult things look sublimely easy and remained perpetually patronised as a result. Moore is for the most part associated with his lighter roles, his dashing playboy heroes in the James Bond films and the TV series like Maverick, The Saint, and The Persuaders. His greatest talent was as a comedian placed in apparently dramatic circumstances, where his poker-faced whimsy and way with a perfectly sculpted wry look could bring the house down. But he could get gritty and command the screen with force when he wanted to, as he did in several films made between stints as more familiar characters, including Basil Dearden’s doppelganger chiller The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), two films he made with former Bond director Peter Hunt, the mining thriller Gold (1974) and the seriocomic war epic Shout at the Devil (1976), and two he made with Andrew V. McLaglen, ffolkes (1980) and the rowdy mercenary drama The Wild Geese (1978), where he’s introduced executing the drug dealer responsible for killing an ex-girlfriend’s daughter in a manner bluntly contrasting Moore’s usual image. But Moore’s greatest claim to fame is, inevitably, as 007. And also his greatest claim to infamy, for Moore was doomed to be described as perpetual second-fiddle and tailor’s-dummy fill-in for Sean Connery in the role. Yet Moore’s stint as Bond was so far the longest and busiest of any actor to date, racking up seven films in twelve years.

Looking back on Moore’s stretch as 007 with the gracing interval of a few decades and three other actors in the part, his is now identifiable as just another phase in the character’s surprisingly unshakeable tenancy in pop culture, a phase that defined the character at one of several possible extremes, and mapped out its share of high and low points. The reason Bond has been trending back to a tougher, gamier edition ever since is bound up with that very modish popularity of Moore’s take. Watching the series through again a couple of years ago, it struck me that when Timothy Dalton took over the part with 1987’s The Living Daylights, he used more facial expressions in various scenes than Moore did in his entire occupancy, and yet Dalton simply never seemed eased into the part so well. Ian Fleming’s Bond, under his veneer of classy traits and official duty, was an emotionally dysfunctional creature chasing after jolts of livewire excitement to his general existential numbness. This was an aspect of the character Connery captured well even as the film adaptations began to obey certain cues in Fleming’s stories and drifted towards becoming modern-day editions of classic pulp heroic tales of Fu Manchu and Bulldog Drummond, and Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang’s serial thrillers. Moore’s Bond adapted to the louche, jaunty mood of the 1970s, a seductive charmer, the driest of vodka martinis, quite often confounded by the strange sights his job thrusts before him but never entirely out of his depth. He could be offhandedly violent but usually only when snatching his chance before bigger bullies and insolent toerags. He was, in short, the perfect Boy’s Own hero for a series that embraced its status as disco-age entertainment, combinations of action movie, slapstick comedy, soft-core gaze-fest, and travelogue fantasia.

Live and Let Die was helmed by Guy Hamilton, who had left an indelible imprint on the series with his first try at it, Goldfinger (1964). Hamilton had found a way to push the series towards a gaudier, flashier, more knowing brand whilst not entirely losing contact with Terence Young’s lean and cool first entries. Hamilton had been brought back for Connery’s one-off return to Bond Diamonds Are Forever (1971), produced as antithesis to George Lazenby’s solitary run in the part, Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Lazenby’s film is perhaps still the greatest Bond film, but its relative seriousness and tragic finale, as well Lazenby’s indifferently received performance, saw it written off by many as a miscalculation. Diamonds Are Forever, on the other hand, gave audiences exactly what they seemed to want, glib and glitzy thrills without a solitary thought. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had laboured to introduce Lazenby in a manner that at once gave him instant iconic lustre whilst also authenticating him as the direct continuation of Connery. Live and Let Die takes the exact opposite approach of simply discovering Moore in the role, lounging in bed with a gorgeous Italian spy (Madeleine Smith). Bond was now an interchangeable part of his own franchise. Up until Live and Let Die, the Bond films had been a cultural force unto themselves, defining a central fantasy of the age. With this entry you can sense one aspect sneaking in that would both help keep Moore’s films spectacularly popular but also a tad facile: aping of trends. Live and Let Die mixes together the vogue for urban cop thrillers and Blaxploitation flicks with Hammer horror and some nods towards real-life fixtures on the news landscape of the day, including the early days of the war on drugs, and a villain modelled after ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, then dictator of Haiti.

Fleming’s source novel had shown off both some of his finer gifts, like his pungent way with atmosphere and cunning for harsh violence, illustrated in vignettes when Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter is lunched on by a shark, and also his least charming traits, like the gross racism constantly apparent in a story pitting Bond against Mr Big, an American gangster and agent of the Russian spy group SMERSH. The film’s answer to this problem was simply to offer up one of the series’ usual conspiratorial cabals in fly drag. As a result, Live and Let Die became perhaps the purest pop-art moment the Bond film has had to date and also the instalment that seems most in thrall to the series’ deep roots in Feuillade and Lang-style thrillers. Here we see Bond contending with portals that suddenly open up between normality and the underworld, with a villain who rules over two worlds with disguises and who uses the paraphernalia of superstition to terrify and exterminate enemies, complete with scary craft-art voodoo idols that disguise hidden cameras and poison darts. A stylistic cue was presented by Paul McCartney and Wings’ theme song, a helter-skelter venture into raucous rock, setting the scene for the film’s fever-dream plunge into such madcap climes. Maurice Binder’s traditional opening credits took up the cue in presenting fiendishly beautiful, trippy images of blazing skulls and satanic fires and juju-eyeball lovelies.

Some liberation came from the fact Live and Let Die was the first Bond film since Goldfinger not to use SPECTRE as the antagonist, and the filmmaking team, headed by impresario producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, were eager to take a risk in sporting black villains. One way the film mediated the idea is with humour, as it takes its bad guys fairly seriously, and instead presents an archetypal redneck sheriff, J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), as figure of clumsy comic relief and bogus authority, haplessly trying to keep up with Bond and his enemies as they carve a path through his parish: what had been a strict cultural power a decade before is now a figure of utter ridicule. There was even hope of making the Bond girl Solitaire black too, but fear of getting the film banned in certain overseas markets like South Africa nixed that idea. Instead Bond has a brief tryst with klutzy double agent Rosie (Gloria Hendry), and indeed that was cut out in some markets. Yaphet Kotto, who had made his name the year before in Superfly, was also eager to take on the part of designated villain, Dr Kananga, who also poses as Mr Big, head of a shadowy criminal enterprise that spans the US using the Fillet of Soul bar chain as a cover for his operations. Kananga is himself the president of a small Caribbean nation, San Monique, pictured gassing on about post-colonial politics whilst enriching himself by growing vast fields of opium poppies and planning to muscle his way into the North American drug trade by dumping two tonnes worth of free samples on the market. He has a pet fortune teller, Solitaire (Jane Seymour), whose virginity he guards jealously to preserve her sortilege genius, and a coterie of impressive henchmen, including mechanical-handed Tee Hee (Julius Harris) and the gangly Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder), who plays Emcee to Kananga’s reign of terror based in voodoo worship.

An obvious issue with Live and Let Die’s assimilation of Blaxploitation tropes is that genre depended on black protagonists to mediate their morbid fixation with the bleak side of urban life. Bond is the whitest guy around, although he had also helped foster new heroic figures like John Shaft. By this point in his career, Bond finds himself contending for the first time with a cultural landscape rapidly turning unfriendly to his status as a rich, smug, quick-draw, highly libidinous Caucasian male – a motif that would extend through the Moore years as he would be confronted with aspects of feminism and détente-era niceties. Bond’s adventure into Harlem in the film’s first third sees him isolated and curiously helpless in a way he’s never been before, as one character quips, “like following a cue ball,” and he has to be saved by a black CIA agent, Strutter (Lon Satton). The film gets a kick out of this, but also interestingly points out the path that would see Bond safe for another forty years. Whilst his films would readily reflect changing mores, the filmmakers had accidentally struck upon a truism: the more retro Bond’s style became, ironically the more appeal it retained. The supernatural aspect of Live and Let Die is also one that makes it rather unique in the Bond canon. The film takes the idea that Solitaire can really see the future seriously, and exploits this aspect to lend the film some tangy atmosphere, even to provide perhaps the most stylish moment in any Bond film: Solitaire’s anticipation of Bond’s arrival is visualised with her laying out tarot cards on a table, upon which is projected the image of Bond’s plane on the wing, with the promise that he “brings violence and death.” The paraphernalia of Kananga’s operation reveals the voodoo terror to be so much smoke and mirrors, there’s a suggestion right at the end that Baron Samedi really is the spirit of death lurking eagerly around the corner, Bond’s eternal friend and foe. Bond seduces Solitaire by taking advantage of her susceptibility after she keeps turning up ‘The Lovers’ in her tarot deck, by convincing her to go to bed with him with a stacked deck. Bond experiences momentary guilt at his ploy, only for Solitaire to eagerly embrace adult sexuality with a sly smile.

This last touch helped show off a defining trait of Moore’s Bond, his commanding ease as a seductive presence and way with a double entendre perfectly attuned to the oncoming disco era’s predilection for erogenous exaltation. The early Bond films had done a large part to midwife an age in which sexuality was no longer a hanging matter and where it was generally acknowledged that everyone was hunting pleasure in the sack, but had mediated this by couching them in rigorously macho terms. Moore simply took the edge off the machismo. Meanwhile the film throws up a raft of mischievous touches, like the recurring joke of a New Orleans street funeral being held for one of the luckless do-gooders watching it, to Bond constantly dropping through secret hatches in Fillet of Souls into the midst of Kananga’s operations, and roasting a snake snuck into his hotel room by improvising a flame thrower with a spray can. Only the slightly languid pace of Live and Let Die counts against it, as it seems to keep building to show-stopping action scenes and then throttling off, trying to whet the appetite for the epic boat chase in the last third that sees Bond trying to outrun Kananga’s assassins through the bayous in stolen speed boats, a brilliant parade of stunt work (one boat jump was the longest ever staged at the time). The finale sees Bond venturing onto San Monique to rescue Solitaire from one of Kananga’s cod-voodoo sacrificial rituals along with ally Quarrel Jnr (Roy Stewart), son of his former assistant from Dr. No (1962), in a sequence that splits the difference between The Devil Rides Out (1967) and dance number. Holder, a magnificent presence rarely utilised by film, is particularly memorable with his demonic laugh and physical grace, and Kotto comes into his own in the inevitable confrontation with Bond, alternating between gentlemanly bonhomie and feral grit as tries to knife our hero, before Bond force-feeds him a gas pellet that sees him blow up like a balloon and explode.

Hamilton also directed Moore’s second film, The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), which sported Christopher Lee as a born Bond villain but only afforded him a sluggish, ramshackle entry. Resolving to provide a true showstopper with the next episode, Broccoli brought back another legacy director, Lewis Gilbert, who had helmed 1967’s You Only Live Twice, one of the most spectacular movies in the series. The Spy Who Loved Me could well be considered the design classic of Moore’s films. The film’s most famous flourish, punctuating the usual pre-credit sequence, apexes with Bond skiing off the edge of a great cliff, only to open a parachute festooned with a Union Jack, a perfect ideogram for and encapsulation of the series’ wry tributes to parochial values and commitment to ridiculous yet breathtaking spectacle. The rest of the film comes at you as a perfect parade of essentialist Bond tropes that still loom large – a monstrous plutocratic bad guy with a plan to end the world, his environs of aseptic, asexual futuristic technocracy, a hulking henchman assassin, fast-paced globe-trotting, and plentiful opportunities to get laid. The plot sees Bond pitted against his Russian rival and opposite Agent XXX, aka Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), in competition and then collusion for evidence that will explain why nuclear submarines belonging to both East and West keep vanishing at sea. The two spies follow the chain to shipping magnate and genocidal maniac Karl Stromberg (Curd Jurgens) and his plot to restart human life under the sea after starting World War III.

The Spy Who Loved Me secured Moore’s superstar status as Bond and started the series back on track for record-breaking profits, for unsurprising reasons. It’s an act of grandiose showmanship, utterly confident in itself, avoiding all discomforting matters and even playing the Cold War for laughs as mutual spy bosses M (Bernard Lee) and KGB chief General Gogol (Walter Gotell) readily team up to take on a common enemy. But it also sports many of the problems with the Moore years. In particular, it idles along for nearly two-thirds of its running time, proffering an assemblage of regulation tropes and diversions lacking real wit, as Bond contends with Stromberg’s heavies and Amasova’s frenemy attentions. The series devolution into self-mockery and referential gags had become corny by this point, like playing the Lawrence of Arabia (1962) theme over one scene, and pushing the beloved gadgetry to the point of silliness as Bond is kitted out with a Lotus sports car that turns into a submarine. Amasova was evidently intended as a feminist-era answer to Bond after the series had dodged the problem for a while with dim-bulb comic-relief heroines, like Diamonds Are Forever’s Tiffany Case and The Man With The Golden Gun’s Mary Goodnight. But the film doesn’t quite commit to the notion, and Amasova emerges as rather less convincingly tough and kick-ass than some others amongst Bond’s previous roster of heroines. Amasova does beat Bond at his own game when she seduces him and then knocks him out to get a valuable microfilm reel off him, but is reduced to regulation damsel-in-distress status by the end when Stromberg kidnaps her with evident intent of using her to repopulate his corner of the Earth. Not helping is the fact that Bach is painfully wooden in the role. Caroline Munro makes far more impression in a much briefer part as one of Stromberg’s crew, a bikini-clad flirt who gleefully tries to riddle Bond’s Lotus with machine gun holes whilst giving him a saucy wink.

Stromberg himself is a solid series villain with Jurgens offering silken sadism in his abode, festooned with baroque accoutrements but actually contained within a colossal submersible city, a private sanctuary where he can dine, plot world domination, and feed underlings to sharks in peace. Richard Kiel’s hulking henchman, dubbed Jaws because of his penchant for breaking necks with his deadly steel teeth, rightly became an instant hit and permanent reference point in the Bond lexicon. Eventually The Spy Who Loved Me springs into a last act that, although essentially just a replay of You Only Live Twice, nonetheless pulls out so many stops that you don’t care much. Bond, Amasova, and the crew of a US submarine are captured by Stromberg’s sub-swallowing super-tanker, the Liparus. Bond stages an escape, breaking out the captive crews of Yanks, Brits, and Russkies to seize control of the ship in a brilliantly-staged battle on a colossal set (built inside the specially-constructed 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios, then the largest movie stage in the world). The no-expense-spared solidity of the settings and special effects here give the film a special kind of stature. Another of this entry’s singular flourishes was Carly Simon’s earworm theme song “Nobody Does It Better,” fittingly an ode to the thrill of a lover who’s not terribly good for you but so utterly accomplished as bringer of the big O you can’t quit them. Composer Marvin Hamlisch repeats the song at the very end as a Broadway chorus tune, a genuinely funny acknowledgement that the series had reached a pinnacle as pure crowd-pleasing ham.

The next instalment, Moonraker (1979), pushed many aspects of The Spy Who Loved Me even further, annexing the sci-fi craze sparked by Star Wars (1977) for the series’ box office highpoint. But many also came away feeling this was a bridge too far for the franchise in pushing towards total cartoonishness. When the time came to make For Your Eyes Only, John Glen, who had served as editor and unit director on several previous entries, was promoted to director, a role he would hold for the next five films. Glen’s credentials as series helmsman were obvious – he knew how to cut and shoot action and corral such elephantine production values. But unlike Hunt, the last director promoted from the crew ranks, his brand of flash was also rather anonymous, and when the series needed shots of fresh style to back up the changeover to Dalton, it instead trundled on until reaching a crisis point in the late ‘80s. All that was a long way in the future, however, when For Your Eyes Only was released to instant, colossal success, sufficient to save United Artists from oblivion after Heaven’s Gate (1980). Originally projected as an opener for a new actor in the role whilst Moore was having one of his legendary rows over pay with Broccoli, For Your Eyes Only stands as evidence the series had tried the art of the gritty reboot 25 years before Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale (2006), paring away fantastical elements and trying to get the series back in touch with its roots as still-cavalier but more human-scaled adventuring.

The pre-title sequence also offered a call-back to another era in the series, as Bond, after visiting his dead wife Tracy’s grave, is almost killed when his helicopter is taken over by remote control by a bald man in a wheelchair and a white cat on his lap – evidently supposed to be old nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld (John Hollis) attempting a last act of revenge. Except that Bond manages to regain control of the chopper, scoop him up on a landing prop, and dump him into a factory chimney. This makes for a coldly amusing line scratched through a bit of unfinished business in the series, after rights disputes prevented a more thorough conclusion. The plot stakes when the story proper gets going still invoke worldwide menace but in a more convincing fashion. A British spy ship, the St. Georges, disguised as a trawler, is accidentally sunk by an unexploded mine caught in its nets, the secure, highly secret coding system that allows control of NATO nuclear systems left intact aboard. A marine archaeologist, Havelock (Jack Hedley) is hired by the Secret Service to locate the wreck, but he and his Greek wife (Toby Robins) are assassinated before the eyes of their daughter Melina (Carole Bouquet) by a Cuban contract killer, Ferrara (John Moreno). Bond is sent to follow in Havelock’s footsteps, and he tracks down Ferrara hoping to learn who hired him.

Bond soon finds Melina has the same idea: she plants an arrow from her crossbow in Ferrara’s back, and his hirer, Belgian hoodlum Locque (Michael Gothard), absconds whilst Bond and Melina dodge the wrath of bodyguards together. Bouquet’s Melina was probably the best Bond girl since Diana Rigg’s Tracy twelve years earlier, Bouquet’s powerful jawline and mystic-green eyes perfect for a heroine who explicitly compares herself to avenging Greek heroines like Electra (although even Bouquet still couldn’t escape the Bond girl curse of being listlessly post-dubbed). Her program of revenge stirs both Bond’s sympathy and caution. Bond finds his job complicated not just by Melina’s itchy trigger finger, but also by the enmity of two smuggling organisations with roots in the Greek resistance of World War II, one run by Kristatos (Julian Glover, who had been one of Moore’s rivals for the part of Bond years before), an anglophile and seeming samaritan, and that of Milos ‘The Dove’ Columbo (Topol). Kristatos paints Columbo, his former partisan partner, as the villain trying to obtain the coding device for Gogol. But Bond learns the hard way that Kristatos is the real villain, and must contend with his coterie of thugs, including fake defector and Olympian Erich Kriegler (John Wyman), and Locque, who runs down and kills one of Bond’s casual lovers, a fake Countess (Cassandra Harris, married to Pierce Brosnan at the time) who works for Columbo. Bond gets salty vengeance by pushing the trapped Locque off a cliff inside his wrecked car, before teaming with Melina to study her father’s log and track down the St. Georges.

The desire to stretch the now well-worn Bond formula in some new directions manifested here in some tweaks both slight and significant, including offering a glimpse of singer Sheena Easton as her sultry theme song for this entry plays in the credits, and signing off with a gag as Bond ignores a phone call from Margaret Thatcher (Janet Brown), the only time a Bond film ever nodded to a contemporary politician. This return to a down-to-earth take on Bond doesn’t always pay off as potently as it might have, in part because the pacing problems that would dog Glen’s entries are apparent, and the film still strides languidly through some regulation franchise business, like visits to swank casinos and doomed side romances. Kristatos and Columbo make for interesting villain and ally, but don’t quite seem able to carve a space large enough for themselves, and Glover gives a distracted performance. An annoying subplot sees Bond contending with teenage maneater Bibi (Lynn Holly-Johnson), an ice skating protégée of Kristatos, which seems present to sneak in some youth appeal given Moore was over 50 by the time, and to demonstrate there are some thresholds Bond just won’t breach. For Your Eyes Only also had to deal with the death of Bernard Lee, whose brief but inimitable turns as the crusty M had always been a series highlight. After offering a string of brilliant action sequences, the film builds to a climax that plays out with a weird lack of good action.

These problems are however more than matched by the plusses, which include location work in the Italian Alps and the Greek isles filmed with fervent colour by Alan Hume, and a trio of excellent action set-pieces. The first is a combination ski and motorcycle chase that sees Kriegler trying to run down Bond, careening down snowy slopes and traversing a bobsled course. The second is an underwater battle when Bond and Melina find the St. Georges and obtain the coding machine, but then have to fight one of Kristatos’ henchmen in a pressure suit, and another in a submersible. The third comes when Bond, backed up by Melina and Columbo, climbs a cliff to Kristatos’ hideout in a former monastery at Meteora, only for the stays for his roping to be knocked out one by one by a goon. There’s also a terrific sequence in which Kristatos keelhauls Bond and Melina behind his yacht, their bodies grazing coral crops and both desperately snatching for air, until Bond manages to tie their tow rope around a rock and snap it. Here For Your Eyes Only manages beautifully to tie together the more often divided spirit of the Bond series, the serial-like situation of peril mediated by an eminently credible and gruellingly physical sense of danger. Although he would remain for the most part a fairly stolid director, Glen manages some good directing touches here, based in his feel for editing, as when he repeatedly cuts away from Bond and Melina in the ship to the viewpoint of the approaching hardsuited goon, raspy breathing and menacing perspective ratcheting up surprisingly creepy anticipation. Later, the lights of the enemy submersible are glimpsed like the eyes of some great underwater beast far off in the murk. Glen warns the audience each time something is about to happen, but then holds off the reveal for a few beats longer than expected, so he can land the punch as a shock.

Moore himself took the turn towards a tougher brand of Bond in his stride, perhaps reflecting the recent ventures he had taken out of this zone in other movies. The actor doesn’t quite bring the same ease to the part he did to The Spy Who Loved Me, betraying the fact he knew he was getting a bit old for this sort of thing, and seeming a little strained by proceedings. But that also helps lend some depth to his performance, as Moore does the necessary trick of spinning on a penny from flip to gravitas when confronted by reminders of how brutal and irrational human beings can be, and then indulging the streak in himself, as when he kills Locque. His desire to present Bond as essentially a gentleman is apparent observed as he coaches Melina through a spasm of hate and determination to press ahead with killing her enemies, and when he fends off Bibi’s advances with careful deflection and spry quips. The punch-line, in which Bond cheats Gogol of his prize by throwing the coding machine over the cliff and declaring this act the essence of détente, has a laconic kick that does seem worthy of Fleming’s creation. Another of Moore’s charming if not so purposeful qualities was his declining skill in the rough-and-tumble aspects of the role – the odd karate kick was generally the limit of his action man cred by this point. But this opened the door for the incredible stunt work that recurs throughout all entries, particular in For Your Eyes Only, which testify these days to a lost world of gutsy glories, in such contrast to our CGI-riddled days, when even the most lightweight movies really were made and not processed. These three films certainly confirm that Moore’s Bond days were uneven, but just as readily speak of how, at their best, they offered sublime entertainment.


21st 05 - 2017 | 7 comments »

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Ridley Scott’s chimera of horror and science fiction, Alien (1979) launched its director on a Hollywood career and established a franchise that has become a fixture of the modern cinema landscape. Expanded by James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the Alien series, whilst declining steeply in quality as it went on and spawning an army of imitators, still managed to remain distinctive. That distinctiveness stemmed from the films’ unique blend of down-and-dirty generic imperatives, telling blood-and-thunder stories of rampaging monsters, obscene pregnancies and infestations, and raw survivalism, fused with high-class production values, conceptual intelligence, and technocratic grandeur, lending a veneer of respectability to a portrait of a future far less cheery and far more id-like than the norm for such spacefaring tales. This is a future defined by eerie fusions of biology and technology, painted in chiaroscuro contrasts of assailed light against overwhelming blackness, a place where nightmares dwell and heroes survive only by pure nerve. The series reached a nadir when the menace of the xenomorphs was pitched into combat with the hulking Predators of Twentieth Century Fox’s other beloved sci-fi action property for two readily ignored movies, but then Scott elected to return to the series that had made his name with Prometheus (2011). Suddenly the series, and its director, were exciting for many again. Prometheus proved a peculiarly indecisive concoction, however, and a divisive one.

Undoubtedly, Prometheus was an ambitious and hefty piece of work. But many, including me, were hoping that Scott would extend his work not just in theme and scope but in style. The specific aura of his original, defined by a mood of miasmic dread and mystery, and tension slowly ratcheted then exploited with relentless effect, was attuned to environment as a tool and source of drama, in the twinned environs of space’s unknowable expanse and the labyrinthine twists of the Nostromo. Such carefully worked filmmaking offered lessons too many contemporary directors forget, including, it seemed, Scott himself. Still, Scott poured a great deal of his matured technical and storytelling expertise into the film and many examples of his great eye, so that when viewed as a standalone thrill-ride, Prometheus was a fine effort, sporting one truly classic sequence depicting an excruciating surgical birth. But as a revisit to beloved universe by its progenitor, it was surely more conventional and clumsy.

The curious squeamishness Scott revealed on Prometheus about drawing too many clear lines to his original gives way with Alien: Covenant, his latest foray into this zone, to a bolder reappropriation of his stylistic cues, opening the door for an instalment that moves a long way towards closing the linkage between the two entries. The titles recreate the assembling motif of the original’s opening credits, and Jed Kurzel’s music score quotes Jerry Goldsmith’s plaintive, eerie, barely-there scoring for the original. Scott also quotes ideas from subsequent entries, like a projected image of lovely forest offered as a bogus panacea for grief and the stern rifle-wielding quoted from Aliens (1986). There’s a deftly clever reason to this sort of conscientious trope-harvesting, beyond mere homage and service to a conceptual universe, that becomes clearer as the film goes on. Prometheus dealt with an expedition financed by dying tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his efforts to track down the possible source of life on Earth, discovering facilities used for genetic engineering and the remains of a colossal alien race dubbed Engineers, who laid the seeds for the genesis of the human race but also intended its destruction and supplanting by more fearsome creations. The finale saw sole human survivor Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) appropriating an Engineer spaceship to track down their home world in the mangled company of Weyland’s magnum opus in cybernetic engineering, David (Michael Fassbender).

Alien: Covenant opens with a sequence depicting David’s first conscious moments as a creation and tool of Weyland, back when the creator was still relatively healthy and David was immediately faced with a quandary of being the perfect and undying progeny of a very frail beast indeed. Most of Alien: Covenant however takes place ten years after the events of Prometheus. Following Prometheus’ lead, Covenant is also the name of a spaceship, a craft carrying a load of 2000 colonists in cryogenic stasis to a distant planet chosen as a new home. Their well-being is overseen by the on-board synthetic human Walter (Fassbender again), an upgraded, less independent version of David’s make. In between leaps through wormholes with a solar sail deployed to recharge the ship’s power supplies, the Covenant is struck by a surge of energy from an exploding star, frying its electrical systems and causing the ship’s core crew to wake up. The captain, Branson (James Franco), is burned to a cinder when his stasis pod catches fire, leaving his partner Daniels (Katherine Waterston) distraught and his second officer Oram (Billy Crudup) in anxious command. Whilst repairing the solar sail, another crew member, Tennessee (Danny McBride), picks up an extremely faint and mysterious broadcast from a relatively nearby planet. Watching the broadcast, the crew realise it’s a faint image of a woman singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” When they look at the planet it’s sourced from, a mere seven weeks’ flight away, the crew decide it’s worth travelling there to search for the mysterious woman, because the planet appears to be a closer and superior place to set up their colony.

Arriving at the planet, the Covenant crew, who are mostly married or in relationships to better foster the colonial mission, leave a skeleton force to man the space vessel whilst most of the crew departs to the surface to investigate. Tennessee’s wife Faris (Amy Seimetz) is one joins the landing team, which also includes Oram, Daniels, and stalwart Lope (Demián Bichir, under-utilised), whilst her husband stays aboard ship with another couple, Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett). Daniels has protested vociferously to Oram about his decision to come to this planet which she describes as too good to be true, a protest Oram registers as another slight against him, feeling a victimised status he blames on his oft-proclaimed religious faith. Touching down, the landing party soon find the planet apparently free of all animal life but weirdly rich in familiar, overgrown versions of Earth vegetation. They soon find a crashed Engineer spaceship and find Shaw’s dog tags on board. Two members of the party, Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) and Hallett (Nathaniel Dean) also inadvertently find something else, spore pods that release microbes that latch themselves on their bodies and soon start a gruesome and grimly familiar biological process. Both infected men soon fall ill, bleed copiously, and finally have small but deadly alien organisms erupt out of their bodies. These things grow and go on the hunt, leaving several crew dead and their shuttle craft destroyed. What’s left of the party is saved by a mysterious cloaked figure who releases a bright flare to scare the monsters off. This is soon revealed to be David himself, surviving a solitary existence on this planet with naught to do but pick up where the Engineers left off.

The early scenes of Alien: Covenant confirm Scott’s intention to reverse-engineer the series back to original specs, whilst also quietly stretching out sinew in readiness for hard exertions when they come, as he makes a film where its very status as a variation on a theme is an explicit part of the show. The workaday tedium that afflicted the denizens of the Nostromo is not quite rhymed with the more upbeat and expectant Covenant crew here, whose outlook is fixed on new horizons rather than hacky bonus cheques. This positive aspect to the crew makes them more harmonious and likeable for the most part, but also means most lack the hardened edge of survival instinct that finally sustained Ripley through to safe harbour. The crew’s increasingly panicky, frail responses to hard-charging survival situations comes both in response to sudden swerves of fate but also repeatedly create them. Daniels’ tragic loss of her partner which is also the loss of the expedition leader and pillar of stability has immediately punched a deep and ever-widening hole in the integrity of this unit. Oram cringes and privately fumes at presumed dissension to his authority, especially when the other members of the crew take pause during their repairs to give Branson a funeral. Tennessee becomes increasingly stressed and places the Covenant in danger from the violent storms that sweep over the planet’s upper atmosphere as he becomes increasingly worried about his wife. The way stressful and lethally intense situations sort out personalities, a minor but consequential theme of the original, is here revisited and becomes an overriding part of how Alien: Covenant investigates humanity and alienness as conditions.

This aspect is illustrated with particularly ruthless zeal when the long, investigative first act gives way to rapidly spiralling crises and hysterical goads to action. The creature in Ledward rips its way out of his back whilst he and Oram’s botanist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo) are in the shuttle craft’s med bay. Faris locks Karine in with the monster and makes a frenetic but ineffectual attempt to get a weapon and kill the creature. Although new-born the creature still gnaws Karine to death and tracks Faris through the ship, finally driving her to accidentally blow up the craft with her wild gunshots. Scott repeats this process several times, as situations fall suddenly and ruthlessly on his characters, a callous quality given fresh bite by the fact most of these characters are in relationships, their functions as team members cut across by personal loyalties and instincts driving them in contradictory directions. Daniels’ enveloping grief is employed both as a personal trait and an aesthetic keynote in a mad dream where everything spirals in towards to twinned moments of birth and death. Her hopes for building a log cabin on an alien shore with her husband are recited as pathetic confession, and she shares an embrace with Tennessee when they’ve both lost loved-ones. Scott contrasts the increasingly frenzied, messy, and desperate actions of the humans against the ever-poised David, who, in spite of his solitary Ben Gunn-like existence on the planet and long, ragged castaway’s hair, has kept his composure and found peculiar purpose. He takes the survivors in hand and leads them to a deserted city where the petrified remains of the Engineer race still lie scattered across agora cobbles, like some grotesquely apocalyptic, genocidal edition of Pompeii’s dead. David explains to the survivors that the Engineer ship he and Elizabeth brought to the planet accidentally released a sample of the Engineers’ own biological agents, killing them and all other animal life, whilst Elizabeth was mortally injured when the ship crashed.

Although it has undoubtedly been composed of uneven individual works and has received little recognition, Scott’s late career has been rapidly taking shape as one of the most vital and interesting runs in recent cinema from a major filmmaker. This is apparent on both on the level of sheer cinematic swagger, replete with genre-swapping skin-changes worthy of his xenomorphs, but also in the way the key fascinations of his films have become increasingly compulsive. This phase began after the flop of Body of Lies (2008), probably Scott’s weakest film, and kicked off with Robin Hood (2010), both an attempt to recapture and to farewell a phase in his career defined by the success of Gladiator (2000), the movie which restored his standing as a major hit-maker but also reduced him to a spinner of simplistic fairy-tales for grownups. Robin Hood, although violently uneven and poorly focused, was nonetheless a complex conjuration, meshing closely observed historical context with mythology in a manner that highlighted several of Scott’s career-long concerns, particularly class conflict and the fate of the out-of-place individual, and the question as to how our contemporary humanity has evolved, in terms of one of Britain’s most famous folkloric figurations. The films Scott has made since then – Prometheus, The Counselor (2013), Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), The Martian (2015), and this one – have all agitatedly sorted and re-sorted an essential catalogue of ideas and images, taking on parables in various settings and each with a different tone for framework. The Old Testament punishments for hubris in Prometheus, The Counselor, and Exodus saw moral dramas played out in landscapes of jagged stone and bleak portent, whilst the communal efforts to achieve sanctuary in Exodus and The Martian evinced a positive but exacting sense of vulnerability in the face of eternal powers. Like Luis Bunuel, a very different filmmaker in obvious ways, Scott has explored his own contradictory nature as a person without overt religion but easily fired up by a religious sensibility, urgently examining the forces that make and break us, trying to live up to a humane creed but constantly offering sly sympathy to his Satanic figures.

Alien: Covenant certainly extends this last aspect through the figure of David, who has slipped his bonds and become determined not merely to be excellent product but a most excellent and laborious producer. He’s that figure Scott admires most and has most qualms about, the exceptional being straining against a world of lessers, an antihero driven to be rebel archangel in his outrage at the way things are. Oram is a man of religious faith but little faith in himself and, more importantly, little gift for leadership, and he falls prey to David’s designs with tragicomic ease. The deliberate echoes and suggestions of direct connection provided here with Blade Runner (1981) flesh out something long implicit in the diptych offered by Scott’s most evergreen films, as David here marches on fearlessly into zones of self-definition Roy Batty could not quite bear to contemplate: he still wanted his father to tell him things would be all right. One forceful idea of Prometheus was the notion that discovering God might be a colossally disappointing act, underlined here with the revelation David casually exterminated the Engineers with their own works. One mask of creation simply gives way to another, leaving more mystery and more frustration. This becomes a spur ironically not to despair but to further, ever-more restless engagement with the act of creation itself. But the creation is only ever a mirror to the faults and strengths of what produces it, and David’s root programming error is suggested with a daisy chain of literary references that connects Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and the latter’s wife Mary, as the Frankensteinian progeny plans an elaborate and cosmically terrifying revenge on having been made so well and yet so impotent. His recitation of Percy’s epistle to the titanic urge, “Ozymandias,” reveals his own trunkless legs by misattributing it to Byron – a mistake Walter, seemingly David’s perfect replica, but carefully castrated by a more cautious and circumspect society, notices, the one clue that this would-be god is cracked.

The relationship between David and Walter is one of Alien: Covenant’s most sublime ideas, giving Fassbender a chance to give two supremely confident, carefully varied performances, and the ultimate actor’s challenge and fantasy, to enact both seducing himself and killing himself. David introduces Walter to the pleasures of personal artistic creation when he teaches him to play a flute, the perfect Narcissus eventually even kissing his double in his effort to find a worthy companion in his solitude, and what could be more worthy than himself. But Walter resists and eventually becomes the only real force standing between David and victory over the pathetic flesh-bags. David has become as central and eclipsing to Scott’s re-conception of this franchise as Peter Cushing’s similarly cool, incisive, utterly unrelenting Frankenstein was to Hammer’s series about the character, towering far over the monstrous by-products of his tinkering. The eventual battle between the two synthetics is the ultimate and perfect version of the essentialist struggle that Scott has meditated upon as far back as the inevitably titled The Duellists – at last the mirrored antagonists are actually, truly identical, distinguished only by the mysterious code called personality. Alien: Covenant eventually unveils another inspired notion as it reveals that the missing link between the Engineers’ parasitic monstrosities and the familiar xenomorphs of the series is David himself, toying with these in his attempts to build a species perfectly adapted not just to survival but to actively exploiting and destroying humans.

This provides an impishly clever explanation for why the xenomorphs seems at once so strange and so familiar, compositing animal types found on Earth and giving the Engineers’ brilliant but mutable creations a new spin. At one point David acidly refers to one of his human male victims as the intended mother of one of his children. David has become in word and deeds his own god, a version of god blazing hatefully out of gnostic texts and bitter agnostic fantasy, a mad designer perched over neo-medieval texts splicing together misbegotten demons. The film’s blackest joke involves two renditions of a passage of Wagner’s Das Rheingold depicting gods entering Valhalla, and is also a cunning call-back to a motif again mooted in the original, where Ash celebrated the purity of the alien beast with ardent fascist admiration. The Hitlerian dream is unbound and now written into the music of the spheres. Appropriately, Alien: Covenant is a mad scientist’s concoction itself, all mediated by Scott’s utilisation of David’s urge to creativity as a metaphor for his own, speeding through drafts, each one tossed off with ever-more feverish drive than the last no matter how good or how lousy the results; only the urge to keep moving counts. Thus Alien: Covenant is a highly perverse hymn to creativity as a natural law and urge, manifesting in whatever form it will. Scott’s professional drive to keep working, so often the source of critical suspicion of his output, is constituted by him as the essence of his being.

Scott does more than make a horror film here; he makes a film about the horror genre, its history, its place in the psyche, analysing the way the death-dream constantly underlies all fantasies of ego and eros. Scott reaches out for a hundred and one reference points, some of the already plain in the Alien series lexicon. The deserted Engineer city recalls the Cyclopean confines of the lost cities in Lovecraft tales like At the Mountains of Madness, the Elder Gods all left gorgonized by David’s perfidy. At one point Scott recreates Arnold Böcklin’s painting “Isle of the Dead,” an image that obsessed H. R. Giger, the crucial designer behind so much of the Alien mythos, as much as it did Val Lewton, whose cavernously eerie psychological parables redefined horror cinema in the 1940s; Scott no doubt has both in mind. David’s “love” for Elizabeth, which has taken the form of relentlessly exploiting her body to lend genetic material to his creations, is both reminiscent of a particularly tactile serial killer worthy of Thomas Harris and of the obsessive, invasive eroticisation of the loved one’s cadaver found in Poe, whilst the whole meditates as intensely and morbidly on its landscape of Poe’s poetry. The design of the failed prototype xenomorphs and David’s rooms hung with sketches reminiscent of medieval alchemic ephemera both pay tribute to Guillermo Del Toro’s films and also poke Del Toro’s oeuvre back for its own debt to Scott and Giger. A head floating in water comes out of Neil Jordan’s self-conscious unpacking of fairy tales, The Company of Wolves (1984). The touch of Captain Branson’s death struck me as a possible tip of the hat to Dark Star (1974), in which the captain had died in similar circumstances, and which was of course made by Alien co-writer Dan O’Bannon. Late in the film Scott stages a shower sequence that sees Upworth and Ricks having a hot and steamy moment under the spigot only to be surprised by a xenomorph. At first glance this sequence revels in a trashier brand of horror associated with 1970s and ‘80s slasher films, but Scott also adds self-reference – the xenomorph’s tail curling in demonic-penile fashion around their legs calls back to the similarly queasy shot in Alien when Lambert was attacked by the monster, whilst also nodding back to Hitchcock and Psycho (1960). It’s staged meanwhile with all the pointillist precision of Scott’s most fetishistic visual rhapsodies – spraying water like diamonds playing over soft flesh, fogged glass, grey knobbly alien skin, and the inevitable rupture of red, red blood.

Which points to another quality of Alien: Covenant – its deeply nasty, enthusiastic commitment to being a horror film, an anarchic theatre of cruelty and bloodlust barely evinced in any other film of such a large budget, especially in this age of gelded adolescent fantasies. If it’s still not the deep, dank leap into a barely liminal space like the original, it is perfectly confident in itself and bleakly poetic in unexpected ways. I don’t know if a film has ever been so casually beautiful even when deploying visions of hellishness, apparent in moments like the shower attack. Or in the following scene when a blown-out airlock results in air turning to million-fold vapour pellets and then ice, exploding in dazzling shards. Or in the surveys of the desolate sculpture garden that is the Engineer city. Daniels’ resemblance to Ripley, in her short dark hair and singlets and pluck in the face of monstrous adversity is both another purposeful echo and a miscue, a by-product of Alien: Covenant’s status as a logarithmic variant. Her embrace with Tennessee is one of the most unaffectedly humane moments in Scott’s oeuvre, and a summation of the film’s repeated statement that to be alive is to need others. Only that’s a rule that cuts both ways in a predatory competition for lebensraum, and leads to such fragments of ecstatic insight as David’s distraught look when one of his children fails.

Scott stages another brilliantly executed, madcap suspense sequence as Daniels and Tennessee attempt to flee the planet surface with a xenomorph scuttling around the hull of their craft, Daniels trying to blast the beast on a wildly pitching deck as the monster tries to head-butt its way through Perspex to get at Tennessee. There’s a skittish quality to Pietro Scalia’s editing throughout the film that communicates the off-kilter will at the heart of this project. Only in its very last act does some of Alien: Covenant’s assurance slip, as Scott doesn’t quite match the patience with which he deployed his sneak-attack coda in the original. But there’s still a final twist in store, at once galling and perfectly apt, deployed with obviousness but sustained in ambiguity with such malign showmanship that it becomes increasingly vexing and entirely riveting, before the axe finally falls. Scott builds with cold mirth to a punch-line for the tale that both echoes one he initially mooted for Alien, and which also recalls the sting in the tail of one of the signal influences on that film, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1966). Scott exploits his own well-worn material here to push right to the brink of the abyss in a way reminiscent to what he did before in The Counselor, complete with a note of predetermined evil fate, only in a context where he can bait people to swallow it. But he also leaves a tantalising question open that might still be answered in creative and thrilling ways. This is the worthy achievement of this entry – it rejuvenates a well-worn property and restores all its dark and unexpected power. But more than that, it’s a testament of pure delight in his medium from a filmmaker who really has nothing left to prove, but likes to prove it anyway.


27th 02 - 2017 | no comment »

Remorques (1941)

Director: Jean Grémillon

By Roderick Heath

Jean Grémillon was little-known outside France until relatively recently, in spite his place as one of the progenitors of French cinema’s deeply influential “poetic realist” style. Some of his lack of repute might have stemmed from his wayward career, which suffered through a series of bruising switchbacks in fortune, taking him to zones of both great success and ignominy. A violinist by training, Grémillon’s interest in the link between music and film’s sources of rhythmic propulsion was stirred when he was employed as an accompanist for silent film screenings, and became fascinated with the arts of film editing. He soon started making experimental short movies and then documentaries. When he advanced into feature films in the mid-1920s, he found initial success with an aesthetic approach that attempted to forge a new path at a time when cinematic style was being dominated by German Expressionism’s overt weirdness, Russian cinema’s showy montage schemes, and Hollywood’s straightforward efficiency. Grémillon set out rather to mix naturalistic aspects, including location photography and realistic storylines, with careful visual and dramatic stylisation. Marcel Carne, soon to be probably the most significant of the poetic realists, worked as an assistant on Grémillon’s first movies, and absorbed his ideas. In spite of initial success, the coming of sound saw Grémillon’s efforts to adapt foiled by audiences struggling with the new format, so he went to make films in Germany and Spain. He regained traction at home when he started working with French cinema’s big new star Jean Gabin, who was infamously difficult to manage on set, and yet with whom Grémillon found some measure of rapport.

Grémillon became well-known for making romantic melodramas that tackled ordinary lives through a prism of vivid, heightened situations, and a feel for the less-travelled corners of French provincial life and labour, particularly Brittany, usually with strong admiration reserved for ordinary workers and labourers. The bleak years of the Occupation saw Grémillon’s creativity raised to its highest pitch in the eyes of many, with the three films he released during the war, Remorques, Lumière d’été (1943), and Le Ciel est à vous (1944), usually cited as his greatest achievements. Grémillon’s career ran out of steam in the mid-‘50s as he tried and failed to make several ambitious historical movies, and he went back to making documentaries before dying at 61, whereupon his friend Henri Langlois, the legendary director of the Cinémathèque Française, read a eulogy celebrating Grémillon’s role in modern French film and condemning the studios who cheated audiences of more great Grémillon works. Remorques was a particularly troubled production, as the outbreak of World War II had halted the initial shoot. Grémillon had originally wanted to make it as authentic as possible with location filming around Brest and on ships in his depiction of the working lives of the crews of ocean-going rescue tugboats. But he was left without enough footage, and a brief recommencement of filming in mid-1940 was quickly scuppered by the end of the Phony War. The film’s two stars, Gabin and Michele Morgan, soon fled to America ahead of the Nazi invasion. Grémillon, left to ride out the tides of war and occupation, eventually managed to finish the project by shooting model sequences. His efforts to get the film patched together were rewarded as Remorques became a big hit when it was finally released in cinemas in late 1941.

Although it placed many constraints on filmmakers, the Occupation proved an ironic boom time for French movies, as they had no imported rivals to worry about. The delay for Remorques‘ release might even have been beneficial to the vision of Grémillon and his collaborator, the brilliant poet-turned-screenwriter Jacques Prevert. The cumulatively desolating tale of masculine mission and fleeting passion rendered pathetic in the face of inexorable fate and death found in Remorques, which might have struck an audience in the anxious pre-war days of 1939 as too dour, as happened to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, surely packed the power of public myth two years later, when the country had been beaten to its knees. Remorques – the title, literally translated, means something close to “Tuggers,” although the film’s usual English title is Stormy Waters – opens with a swooping model shot descending on a mock-up of the old, fortified section of Brest, the great French sea port. The opening sequence depicts a social ritual, a wedding, an event for the crew of the tugboat Cyclone, captained by André Laurent (Gabin), as one of his crewmen, Pierre Poubennec (Marcel Duhamel), is marrying Marie (Anne Laurens). The wedding offers a panoramic view of both the tug’s crew and their ladies, and the ways of relating between the two camps.

The first flush of young love is plain in the just-married couple, whilst another crewman, Tanguy (Charles Blavette), is the half-witting target of common mockery because his wife Renée (Nane Germon) is having affairs behind his back. Laurent has been married for ten years to Yvonne (Madeleine Renaud), and they express themselves at first as a perfect union, barely able to believe so much time has passed since their own nuptials. But Yvonne confesses to her husband, in a quiet moment away from the drunken bonhomie of the celebration, that she gets very nervous when he’s away at sea, but immediately dismisses the problem as trivial when Laurent laughs disbelievingly at her words. A messenger interrupts the gaiety with word that a ship is in trouble, and the crew have to return to the Cyclone and get under way, just as a thunderstorm rolls in from the sea. One crewman, Le Gall, is late getting aboard because he’s been having a quick one with Tanguy’s wife, and Laurent dresses him down for it. The tug travels out into the increasingly violent storm, ploughing with agonising difficulty through heavy seas, but eventually beats their main competitor, a Dutch tug, to the crippled ship. Captaining the Cyclone is actually the closest thing Laurent can withstand temperamentally to a desk job, as he used to regularly make long voyages and be away for months at a time during the early days of his marriage to Yvonne. During the night with their husbands off at sea, Yvonne cheerily entertains Marie, but also confesses her dangerously frayed nerves, which are exacerbating a creeping heart ailment diagnosed by her doctor Maulette (Henri Poupon), a man she describes as too good a friend to be fully honest about how bad her disease has become.

Meanwhile, the Cyclone nears the crippled cargo ship, the Mirva XV. The Mirva’s owner-captain, Marc (Jean Marchat), is reluctant to be rescued however, as the bill will be large. He bullies and berates his crew and his wife Catherine (Morgan), who return the contempt happily, whilst Marc refuses to rig a tow rope for the Cyclone, nominally in his anger at their slowness in coming to the rescue. Bedraggled and irate, Catherine at first demands he think of his crew and her before his own hip pocket, and when he continues to screw everyone around, she and some other crewmen abandon the Mirva and row over to the tugboat. This proves a foolhardy exercise that creates great hazard for all involved, including getting two of the just-married Poubennec’s fingers crushed and amputated. Finally, Marc lets the Cyclone take the Mirva in tow, and by morning the seas have calmed. Travelling along the coast, the improperly tied tow rope breaks, forcing Laurent to string a new one. This accident gives Marc an idea, and just as the two vessels enter Brest harbour, he contrives to have the rope give way again, and then makes his own way to dock, cheating the Cyclone out of its salvage prize. Laurent, smouldering with rage, hauls Catherine back aboard her husband’s ship, and clobbers Marc once he gets an earful of his obfuscations.

Gabin and Morgan had first been featured together in Carne’s Port of Shadows (1938), one of the canonical works of poetic realism’s flowering, and Remorques similarly locates itself in a smoky, gritty, lightly stylised version of a working port. Taking on such a milieu, Grémillon courts romantic evocations in essaying seagoing stoicism and embracing the rich atmosphere of Brest and the tugboat community. But Gremillion also emphasises the wearying, nauseating experience of spending hours being tossed about in a tin can on the open ocean, and delves into this job as a rough and dangerous business that regularly claims lives or leaves its practitioners scarred and mangled. Laurent is extremely proud – perhaps to a fault – of his record as a captain, although he’s really only an employee for a shipping company. He complains bitterly after one job goes wrong that now the company will be pleased his record has been spoiled: they don’t like their underlings so unbowed. The humanitarian aspect of the tuggers’ ventures is constantly suppressed in the face of fiscal demands and the daunting realities of the angry ocean. Laurent’s forceful presence and hitherto unquestioned competence as a captain have given him standing and respect unrivalled in his world, befitting France’s top male movie actor. Gabin, whose career had been boosted playing the voice of plebeian cynicism amidst the decaying aristocratic world in Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), had been the perfect embodiment of romantic fatalism in the likes of Pepe Le Moko (1936) and Le Jour Se Lève (1939), playing figures pushed into criminality, defying authority until their luck runs out, people close to the very bottom of society’s priorities but invested with unique stature by cinema’s ennobling imagistic force, through which even the most wretched character can become the axis of the universe.

Gabin’s role in Remorques pushes this persona and the attendant aesthetic to almost hallucinatory extremes, but also quietly revises and undercuts it. Still the working class hero, Laurent is however also a confident authority figure, one whose looming downfall is informed more by personal blindness than malign fate and social degradation, whilst still invoking something close to cosmic when the axe falls. Laurent’s laughing disinterest in his wife’s delicate warnings of trouble brewing soon gives way to more urgent implorations and finally a memorable crack-up when Yvonne lets loose on his egotism; even his expressions of tedium and exhaustion are symptoms of his overweening sense of himself as necessary stalwart and linchpin. “People always know where to find me,” he says when chewing out Le Gall, setting the stage for his own degradation. Catherine’s entrance into Laurent’s world, appearing out of the sea like a siren, her remarkable feline eyes burning bright and wrathful in the face of her husband’s sleaziness, seems at first just another absurd vignette in such a working life designed specifically to further goad Laurent’s stern professionalism. But soon of course Laurent is utterly smitten with this lady as she parts ways with Marc once in port and takes refuge in a hotel. She calls Laurent over for a talk, and he lends a sympathetic ear as she explains how once she was a desperate youth in Le Havre who snatched at the first offer of marriage just get out of her rut. Meanwhile Laurent’s sad-sack boatswain Kerlo (Fernand Ledoux, one of classic French cinema’s most quintessential faces) muses on life’s absurdity with proto-existentialist humour when he notes to the cook, “It’s impossible to escape boredom. I know, I’ve tried everything.”

Much of Remorques is set at night, with overwhelming elemental forces looming on the horizon when not already thundering about Grémillon’s protagonists. Photographer Rene-Jacques took a much-loved picture of Gabin during the production which he entitled “La Homme de nuit,” a perfect encapsulation of a certain brand of archly masculine mystique, the iconic French hero almost but not quite dissolving amidst rain and murk. Remorques is obsessed with this quality, but is also more sophisticated as it injects irony and inspects dichotomies until they lose shape. The special effects Grémillon was obliged to shoot for seagoing scenes are weak, but they’re employed in a manner that fleshes out this sense of primeval furies on the loose, as the ships, expressions of human will and rigour, bob amidst crashing waves, staying afloat under all assaults. The warning call of the Cyclone, loud and strange enough to be audible and identifiable from miles away, pulling in the crew for action and alerting the ships they sail out to help of their presence, sounds vaguely monstrous. It’s an appropriately bloodcurdling sound for when the tug circles the disabled Mirva under flare light, wounded ship and prowling tug dancing around on heavy seas. The dichotomy between the reasoned, orderly, settled world left behind back in port is illustrated with perfect economy, and no small technical skill, by Grémillon when he stages a camera movement retreating through the window of Laurents’ apartment, a shot of Yvonne and Marie left behind to their contemplations passing invisibly through the glass into wild rain, in a moment that presages, and in some ways outdoes for thematic relevance tied to cinematic effect, the more famous nightclub roof shot in Citizen Kane (1941). These contrasted spaces, calm, well-found home and chaotic universe, are presented in near-surreal contrast, but Grémillon carefully probes appearances and quickly finds termites in the structure of domestic bliss, as Yvonne is slowly being killed by anxiety although she never ventures out onto the sea herself, slowly dissipating whilst playing out the role of loving wife. “Everyone’s got troubles,” Laurent rebukes Catherine when she first arrives on board: “They should be left at home. Like women.” But his neat distinctions don’t stand up to any pressure.

Catherine, the one piece of salvage successfully recovered by the Cyclone, is cast as sylph temptress tossed onto the shore by the storm to lure in the virtuous Laurent. Except that no-one in Remorques quite fits their part, and Catherine, trying out her land legs again after years entrapped with the despicable Marc, reaches out to Laurent as the closest thing to a friend. Soon they’re drawn into a quick fling both are willing to mistake for eternal passion, before the call of responsibility takes Laurent back to Yvonne’s side and Catherine prepares to move on with the simplicity of someone who knows this drill, giving Kerlo a keepsake to give to his captain as a memento if ever he needs one. Morgan’s eyes, rimmed with tears and phosphorescent with melancholic triumph, attract Gremillion for an epic close-up in her last moments on screen here, as she wishes happiness for Laurent even as she’s already moving on. Remorques manages to coexist in both the rugged vicissitudes of a genre film close to the Warner Bros. working class action films and the Women’s Pictures of the same era. But Grémillon also stands back to consider how the two styles relate to each-other, the web of cultural assumptions and personal fantasies invested in both, the tension between the official doctrines of manly workaday pride and the feminine art of knitting a safe space, whilst adding that most French of topics, infidelity, the hunger for passion that, like the storm, sets all settlements in riot. Arching over all is a metaphysical aspect, something close to the cosmic level found in Frank Borzage’s films, if essayed in a grimmer hue. In spite of the unions civic, sexual, and contractual in Remorques, everyone is some form of solitary vessel floating around the others. “Unhappy people easily recognise one another,” Kerlo tells Catherine: “Life would be too sad otherwise.” The undercurrent of proto-feminist feeling that flows through the film, with both Yvonne and Catherine fighting in their way to avoid being dragged down by the contrasting yet ultimately similar obsessions of their husbands, is wound in uniquely with its accidental status as an Occupation-era film, as frustrations are voiced, taboos abruptly ruptured, suppressed feeling suddenly explode, everything suddenly thrown into flux. Grémillon would take this confluence further on Le Ciel est à vous, where he would cast Renaud as an aviatrix valiantly pursuing a flying record, purveyed as a metaphor for resistance against the fascist yoke.

The first half of the film is close to one, long sequence unified as a series of interlocking events, commencing with careful deployment of the complex mesh of personalities and tones of the wedding, an event that encompasses modes of expression from pompous homilies to wine-soaked bawdiness in the margins, and seguing directly into the Cyclone’s voyage out to rescue the Mirva. This is a sequence of careful, layered physical detail, interwoven with the continuing arguments and running jokes of the crew. The crew of the Cyclone, and the attention of the audience, only finds relief the following day when the tugboat returns to port, after the storm has died. The watery sun invades the humdrum parlours and cafes, presenting the illusion of returned stability and rationality, and washes over the coastline, just in time to catch Laurent and Catherine walking on the beach. There they toe the flotsam left on the sands, and retreat into an abandoned beachfront house where they play-act creating a home, whilst finding a good stage to finally enact what’s been arcing between them unacknowledged. The serious romantic travails are contrasted lightly with Tanguy’s cuckold status, a popular subject of allusive jokes and teasing around the tug. Laurent encourages him to confront his wife, but Tanguy is swiftly disarmed by her dissembling chattering. Later, Laurent, weighing up his own rapidly evolving hypocrisy, tells him to forget what he said, as no-one outside a marriage can really understand what makes each one persist. By this time he’s committed his own crime by being hard to find, away with a woman who’s not his wife, discovered by one of his crew combing the coast on a motorcycle. Yvonne’s awareness that her husband has probably been off with another woman precipitates a gruelling scene of marital grievance-airing, punctuated by Yvonne’s frantic demands Laurent recognise the reality of her problems. Her shots at his very identity, his pride as a worker and leader and a man, by claiming he likes to own things, from his boat to his wife, drive Laurent away in a fury, believing his marriage finished.

The atoll of romantic fulfilment Laurent tries to retreat into with Catherine proves exceptionally short-lived, as Catherine predicts: “The storm is coming to get me. I know what he’s crying. ‘It’s over. You’ve been happy too long. Now it’s time to go.’” Quintessential fatalism for poetic realism, the doomed lovers sprawled on a hotel room bed, transient feelings from beings snatching a moment of bliss. But Remorques shifts into a more intense and spectacularly woeful key for its finale, as Yvonne experiences a heart attack, bringing Laurent back to her bedside for a desperate interlude of pathos as Yvonne suddenly dies begging for Laurent’s avowal of love, his anguished scream echoing out to the others waiting in his apartment. When he appears to them, he’s just the staring shell of a man, obligated to answer the call of duty even in the eye of utter desolation. He paces down to the dock to join the Cyclone, which has to go out on a mission, in another stinging irony, to save their Dutch rivals. As Grémillon tracks Laurent’s progress through the drenching rain and the cold stonework and wrought-iron forms of the Brest waterfront, a strange liturgical recital begins to resound on the soundtrack, invocations of saints and agents dogging his footsteps, surging on to a creepy orchestral accompaniment that cuts out just before Laurent orders the tug to get under way, heading out into the dark. Grémillon’s background in music surely played a part in executing this fantastical yet perfect matching of vision and sound in a climax that counts as one of the strangest, bleakest, and greatest in cinema. It’s an incantatory moment that sets the seal on a domestic tragedy that has a conventional moral aspect, but which expands thanks to this startling flourish into something far more wild and unique. Here Remorques generates a frenzied aspect of baleful prayer, offering a requiem for an entire falling, drowning world, the end of a cinema genre and a human age.


18th 12 - 2016 | 10 comments »

Rogue One (2016)

Director: Gareth Edwards

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Compared to the electric expectation stirred by last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the build-up to the release of Rogue One has felt comparatively muted. Or at least it has to me, because I felt particularly uneasy about what to expect. J.J. Abrams’ reboot for the Star Wars brand was a lovingly-made mediocrity, and seemed to presage a revived Disney-steered series without any boldness or fresh ideas, a bracing new trio of heroes surrounded by efficient but hollow mimicry and Pavlovian responses wrung out through careful employment of beloved fixtures. Rogue One, set between the first two trilogies in George Lucas’s deathless fantasy universe, sports a director and star I felt unsure about and rehashes old territory. Gareth Edwards, a special effects expert turned director, is the helmsman here: Edwards’ Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2014) were ambitious, impressively mounted attempts to bring anxiety and artistry back to the monster movie genre, but both movies were foiled by Edwards’ unpersuasive dramatic touch. Rogue One had the potential to simply finish up a pile of good-looking spare parts and cheap call-backs for the fan base. Given that I’ve expended a lot of time and effort in the past defining my appreciation for Lucas’ much-derided but substantial and waywardly fascinating, romantically outsized prequel trilogy, I also felt a little threatened by this entry, which seemed poised to be the kind of film those works refused to be. This entry is determined to slavishly recapitulate aspects of Lucas’ 1977 inaugural blockbuster Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, as Rogue One’s narrative quite literally brings us back to the opening seconds of A New Hope. As such it’s an overt work of retro ventriloquism, cloaked in borrowed finery, fan fiction with multimillion dollar heft.

Early signs aren’t greatly encouraging either. Edwards and his duo of very professional, almost overly-competent screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz, insist on recreating familiar beats for the series barely a year after Abrams did the same on The Force Awakens: thus at the beginning we have another wounded, vengeful young tyro created as the Empire’s violence costs her family members, and leaves her forced to fend for herself. In this case the aggrieved character is young Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon), who loses her family as a child, as Imperial commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives on the remote planet to which her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) and mother Lyra (Valene Kane) have fled to lead quiet lives as farmers. Galen, a former Imperial officer and scientific genius who was working on the construction of the Death Star, had renounced his work, but Krennic is determined to pressgang him back into service and use his family as leverage. But Lyra is gunned down as she tries to shoot Krennic and the Stormtroopers fail to track down Jyn, who, recalling a foreboding plea of her father’s to remember all his actions are intended to protect her, hides out until located by a friend of her father, the dissident warrior Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whittaker). Years later, Jyn, having grown into the big-eyed, puffy-lipped form of Felicity Jones, is in an Imperial forced labour camp for incorrigible types. She was raised by Saw but then was suddenly abandoned to drift on the winds of fate, and now she’s an embittered, apolitical survivor and all-round tough cookie. But the Rebel Alliance busts her out of prison and offers her a chance to escape the yoke of law and history.

Thanks to the intelligence gathering of hardened Alliance spymaster Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Alliance knows that Saw has received a message from Galen, delivered by a former Imperial pilot turned defector, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who is currently being brutally interrogated by Saw to ascertain whether he’s a fake or not. Because the Alliance broke off ties with Saw as he drifted into extremism and obsession, they want Jyn to approach him to find out what’s going on. They team her with Cassian and send them to the city of Jedah on a remote planet where the crystals used to power Jedi lightsabers were once extracted: the place has been strip-mined by the Empire for fuel for the Death Star. A Jedi temple used to be located here, and now its scattered caretakers subsist and stir trouble whilst Saw’s adherents fight a guerrilla war with the Imperial soldiers. Jyn and Cassian gain helpmates in two of the former temple caretakers, Chirrut Ïmwe (Donnie Yen), and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). They’re also aided by a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). After ambushes and skirmishes in the streets of Jedah, this ragged band is captured by Saw’s fighters and brought to him. In Saw’s company, Jyn is privy to a holographic message from her father brought by Bodhi, in which he explains the flaw he’s laboured to install in the Death Star’s seemingly invincible defences. But Krennic, in command of the now complete and utterly deadly space station, annihilates Jedah and surrounding territory with a shot from its mighty energy weapon, forcing our heroes to flee, except for Saw, who, seeing his labours have found a fitting point of handover, remains to be swept away in the blast. With the proof of her father’s plan lost in the chaos, Jyn immediately faces the problem of attesting Galen’s good faith, a problem that becomes urgent as the Alliance orders Cassian to go to the planet of Eadu where Galen works at an Imperial research facility, and kill him.

I find Rogue One a tricky movie to critique because it stirred many, contradictory reactions in me, simultaneously annoying my critical faculties and getting my blood pumping. Although it bends over backwards to recreate familiar sights and sounds from A New Hope, it also uses that template as an excuse to shift ground just a few inches and avoids leaning too much on the regulation touchstones of the series, like John Williams’ inimitable theme, and the familiar structural conceits like the Star Wars title appearing abruptly on screen, only incorporating such touches when dramatically necessary. Rogue One instead suddenly and jaggedly announces its title, and Michael Giacchino’s score disassembles and refashions elements of Williams’ compositions whilst maintaining their spirit. Aspects of Rogue One that fail to live up to the Star Wars legacy also help to make it a slightly more galvanising and vital take on the saga than The Force Awakens. It’s a straightforward war film on most levels, fast-paced, refreshingly hard-edged and ready to go to places on a thematic level the series hasn’t touched on much before, as it emphasises the cumulatively taxing and degrading nature not just of life under tyranny but also of the fight against it. This choice allows Edwards to seek new substance in Lucas’s foundational inspirations, the side of Star Wars that was rooted in action-adventure films set during World War 2, particularly adaptations of Alistair Maclean like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) and some older models like The Adventures of Tartu (1942), Secret Mission (1943), and The Dam Busters (1956). Aspects of the plot are so hallowed in the history of spy adventures that David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ great 1984 genre lampoon Top Secret! had basically the same storyline. The zesty, fairytale aspect of Lucas’ original creation has been largely suppressed here; so to has its greater conceptual scope and mythopoeic edge.

The stolidness of Gilroy and Weitz’s script isn’t entirely papered over by Edwards’ pacing and graphics, either. Gilroy’s a master of modern Hollywood’s programmatic story beats and a crinkle-browed idea of pop seriousness – witness his overrated thriller Michael Clayton (2007), which gave a coat of varnish to a mass of old furniture – whilst Weitz, though better known for comedies, directed the poky but weirdly likeable steampunk fantasy The Golden Compass (2007). That film’s bombing still seems to rankle Weitz, as he’s tellingly named his spunky heroine’s mother after its spunky heroine. Their script is much safer in affect than the archly stylised ye-olde-speak of Lucas’s prequels, so many will probably think it’s good, but it’s actually littered with thudding lines, and major characters remain fuzzily defined and lacking memorable traits. It serves, in a strange way, to highlight just how classically constructed and patient the original was, with its slam-bang opening quickly segueing into a long, almost shambling first act that put together its story and gave a feel for the predicament of its characters in the face of a galactic-sized struggle: archetypes though they be, one knew exactly who Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the other characters of A New Hope were by the time they left Tatooine and rooted for them, warts and all. Here by contrast Rogue One’s first third is a stuttering engine that takes a long time to get up to speed even as it tries to drive us along breathlessly.

We set up not one but two father figures for Jyn, good actors Whittaker and Mikkelsen turning up for a few scant minutes where they provide grizzled gravitas, only then to kill them off for teary pathos. Whereas in A New Hope such losses were rites of passage that mimicked familiar life processes in melodramatic terms, here such deaths serve rather another, blunter purpose, as Jyn’s fate inevitably takes a different turn to Anakin and Luke’s. Similarly, there’s a lack of creativity in the storyline that betrays the filmmakers’ lack of any real immersion in the process of inventing science fiction and fantasy concepts for themselves. Instead, they build up to a big, brash edition one of the essential, tiresome clichés of recent blockbuster filmmaking: the big fight around a great tall structure to try and stop or send some kind of all-important signal. Another telling lack, one carried over from The Force Awakens, is a lack of interest in or delight for the alien, the sense of mischievous invention in creating life forms and worlds. Most of what we get here is just slightly transformed familiarities and a couple of hairy moppets and tentacular things given the odd cutaway shot. Perhaps Lucasfilm’s Disney paymasters are still too antsy about the bombardment Jar-Jar Binks received to venture up this trail, and that’s fair enough, but we’re also being cheated of sequences as great and witty as the tavern sequence of A New Hope or characters as vivid as Yoda, Jabba, and Watto. On-screen casting diversity has become a mantra, and that’s something this entry does well, but diversity of personality and species is drying up quicker than the Salton Sea.

And yet, and yet. To a certain extent the problems of Rogue One cheer me more than The Force Awakens’ relentlessly considered, empty, focus-group-parsed idea of swashbuckling fun. It’s a work fashioned with both finicky attention and messy energy, one that finally gains and maintains real force in spite of all its hoary and lumbering elements. If the Star Wars saga has hitherto represented some surviving stem of the Homeric instinct in western art’s pop culture age, Rogue One is an authentically Euripedean discursion from it – touching base with all the familiar aspects of the mythology but also offering a considered takedown of some of its cherished motifs and a weighing up of what you could call the story behind the myth. Thus what becomes the great stage of heroism for Luke, Han, and Leia is seen to be built on the unstinting determination and sacrifice of others, and whose dedication somewhat ironically contrasts the faltering, Johnny-come-lately attitude of our more familiar champions. Our protagonists here are all battered outcasts looking for a way to hurt the forces of terror and iniquity as they in turn have been hurt, with Edwards emphasising the atmosphere of the Imperial control as one of general rundown, depression, deprivation and exploitation – notes repeatedly sounded in early scenes as Edwards darts between settings, particularly the grimy, packed, vertiginous environs of a city where Cassian meets with a jittery spy (Daniel Mays). Krennic’s motives are interesting if only sketched, sourced in his faith that the Death Star will finally bring about peace, echoing Anakin Skywalker’s reasons for turning Sith. Rogue One effectively links the original trilogies in both depicting the fallout of one set of events, the breakdown of a society, and setting the stage for a new pivot. Jimmy Smits makes a welcome if unfortunately brief reappearance as Bail Organa, Leia’s adoptive father, alongside Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma, both in parts they inherited in the prequels as leaders of the Rebels, giving the film a sense of continuity that feels genuinely necessary and cheering.

Much less necessary, even rather ghastly in fact, is the digital simulacrum of Peter Cushing used to represent his role in A New Hope, Grand Moff Tarkin, and, towards the end, of young Carrie Fisher’s Leia. These crappy animations, nominally employed to maintain a sense of immediate continuity, look like something out of a second-rate video game. It’s not even necessary, as O’Reilly’s ease demonstrates. Edwards’ exactitude also stretches less offensively to inserting shots of the some of the actors who play ill-fated X-Wing pilots in the original still in their heyday as hotshots in the Rebel fleet, a much better and salutary touch. Even Darth Vader returns for a couple of scenes to great effect, all his unholy stature, sardonic charisma, and psychopathic force undimmed, initially glimpsed in his private castle set amidst the landscape suggestively reminiscent of the place where he came undone at Obi-Wan’s hands at the end of Revenge of the Sith (2005). Tarkin attempts to lever command of the Death Star out of Krennic’s hands with the justification that Krennic has failed to keep tight security. Krennic visits Vader asking him for assurance his achievement will be credited to him and left in his hands, but the Dark Lord is barely interested in Krennic’s egotisms. Krennic also confronts Galen on Eadu, as he perceives Galen’s betrayal. This confrontation coincides with the urgent moment when Jyn tries to reach her father, whilst Cassian wrestles with the choice of obeying orders or helping Jyn to rescue Galen. A flight of X-Wings sent in by the Alliance to make sure of the question unfortunately decides for them, pulverising the facility.

The gloss and tactile quality of production that distinguished The Force Awakens has been carried over to this film and perhaps even bettered: Rogue One’s production values are always magnificent, and its special effects never less than persuasive. Better still, Edwards shows that he understands the sense of atmosphere, at once concrete and dreamlike, that is the great saga calling card. This is particularly true during the Eadu attack, filmed in a primal landscape of jutting stony mountains, drenching rain, and glowing technological outposts, the visit to Vader’s castle, places of and bleakly beautiful gothic scale and artisanal intricacy, and the sight of the Death Star in the sky like dawning doom. Edwards’ gifts at handling his cinematic canvasses in relation to human-level drama have strengthened, too. On the other hand, so much of the film is dismally underlit and shadowy, just like a few too many recent extravaganzas, affecting moodiness but actually simply trying to cover up any flaws in the effects. It’s telling that the first scene to shock Rogue One to life is one built around a display of physical rather than special effect showmanship, as Yen’s Ïmwe flattens a brace of Stormtroopers armed only with a quarterstaff. Yen’s dashing, lightning-fast moves and good-humoured incarnation of a character obviously inspired by the great Japanese movie hero Zatoichi, and Wiang’s equally fun incarnation of a common type of tough, big-barrel-wielding yeoman common in Chinese action films, gives Rogue One a jolt of authenticity both in the legerdemain on display and the connection to Asian genre film that’s also one of the more notable skeletons in the Star Wars closet. Ïmwe invokes the force throughout and uses it although not with a real Jedi’s competence, but otherwise Rogue One stays true to theme of mystic and spiritual depletion both internal and external that defines the Empire’s reign.

The film’s core dramatic moment comes when Jyn confronts Cassian over his willingness to assassinate her father, and his terse rejection of her harangue, as he’s suffered as much as she has and committed far worse crimes in the name of the Rebellion whilst she’s settled for subsisting on the sidelines. It’s really only here that Jyn and Cassian feel particularly lively as characters, defined by their grazing, mutual sense of righteous anger and defining loss which is of course also complicated by flickers of attraction. Jyn is interchangeable with The Force Awakens’ Rey in too many ways (with dashes of Katniss Everdeen too), to the point where she likewise sets a male counterpart’s eyebrows on high by taking down a few opponents with a stick (c’mon guys, it’s 2016). I don’t much like Jones as an actor and she trades on the same perpetual look of bee-stung hurt that got her through The Theory of Everything (2014) here: Jyn could have been a galvanising heroine but between the non-committal writing and Jones’ lack of effective pith or convincing aggression she remains essentially a placeholder protagonist in spite of the wrenching defining trauma she’s burdened with. Cassian isn’t much more noteworthy, not given any signature moment or quality, although Luna inhabits him with an effective blend of wiry intensity and quiet unease. In this regard Rogue One is something of an inverse of The Force Awakens, which had fun heroes but too often left them without really cool and interesting things to do. It’s more the characters that surround the central duo that keep things lively here: Ïmwe and Malbus, the abused and apprehensive yet determined Bodhi, and the droll comic relief of K-2SO, whose shtick isn’t terribly original – the obliviously inappropriate sidekick business was already covered in a different key by Guardians of the Galaxy’s (2014) Drax – but it’s still pretty good, thanks to one-time Serenity costar Alan Tudyk’s vocal delivery.

The earthy aspect to the action and the insistent edge of reckoning with the cost of great and calamitous warfare also gives the film ballast painfully lacking from The Force Awakens even as it retards the high spirits and breadth of vision Star Wars calls to mind. The film has an idea, that violence even in the service of a good cause isn’t great for the soul and that some causes are nonetheless more important than individual expectations, which means that it has something its predecessor didn’t have. That idea is also rooted in contradictory impulses and views of the same urge, which makes it similar to the conceptual schism that defines Lucas’s prequels: what if the thing you most want to do, nay, must do, is also the thing that destroys you? Rogue One emphasises the Rebel Alliance not as unstinting paladins but as a coalition of not-quite-aligned interests in a state of flux trying to elide outright confrontational warfare for good reason, engaged in a down-and-dirty conflict played out through more personal acts of violence over pieces of information. The reality of the Death Star suddenly and dramatically changes the landscape, forcing decisions and forging new alliances. In turn, Jyn and her new companions, including more Rebels eager for a chance to make a real difference, go, err, rogue and force their leaders’ hands by making a bold incursion at the Imperial archive centre to steal the Death Star’s plans on the planet Scarif.

Another lack apparent here, shared with The Force Awakens, is a failure to understand what made the action sequences in the original series work. As well as opportunities to incorporate the way-cool, they were structured as little stories in themselves – an aspect they had in common with Lucas’ other great pulp series, the Indiana Jones films, as chains of cause and effect pushed along by the characters’ objectives. Before one memorable aspect of the finale, there’s no ingenuity to the staging of action. There are not one but two scenes here that hinge on Jyn’s ability to climb really high ladders. Excitement! Ïmwe’s first display of prowess is both invigorating but also, frustratingly, connects to nothing else – he doesn’t even fight much in such a manner again. Perhaps that’s why the climb-the-tall-thing finale is so beloved of hack screenwriters at the moment: it entwines stake and endangerment in an obvious manner. But – and this is a major but – once Rogue One finally cuts footloose it offers a grand finale that, for all the hesitations, is still tremendous. Here the film finally gains the lucid sense of grand happenings entwined with acts of personal valiantness that make for a good epic. Edwards doesn’t have Lucas’ sense of widescreen sweep and spectacle, his scene grammar and punctuation more standard and jittery in the modern fashion, but he’s a much better director of action and visual artisan than Abrams. The rogue team’s assault on the Imperial archives draws a portion of the Rebel fleet in their wake for aid, led by Admiral Raddus (Paul Kasey and Stephen Stanton), a spacefaring fighter of the same species as Admiral Ackbar, wielding bravado as he tries to smash through the shield system around the planet to let Jyn transmit the Death Star plans.

This sequence is replete with contrivances and clichés, from absurdly placed controls for important pieces of infrastructure to weirdly unsophisticated defence systems for same. But, hell, so are most war films, and at least Edwards and company go for broke and admirably keep to the film’s brief of putting the war in Star Wars, a harum-scarum episode of wildly winging space ships and battling soldiers. Characters die one by one in suitably noble fashions, especially K-2SO, whose act of self-sacrifice is more moving than any of the humans’ deaths, and one which indeed highlights the peculiar approach of the saga to its droid characters, so deeply human as they tend to be in spite of their mechanical and digital natures – indeed, almost hyper-human in their sensitivities and loyalties. A late shot in the film of two people kissing before an apocalyptic plume about to sweep them away steals a vital image from Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii (2014). There’s great fun in the actual method Raddus and his warriors use to knock out the shield. Best of all, right at the very end, Vader’s return to action, glimpsed a figure of nightmarish evil chasing after the vital copy of pilfered plans and cutting his way through Rebel fighters to get them, the red glow of his lightsaber and his remorseless, unstoppable swathe of violence restoring the unique aura of frightening potency and mystery he wielded when first he advanced into view way back in 1977. Rogue One is definitely a mixed bag and a frustrating experience. But I can at least offer it this much praise: in these scenes, Edwards gets Star Wars thrillingly, uncannily right, and the film’s smash-cut punch-line is perfect.


18th 10 - 2016 | 2 comments »

Metropolis (1926)

Director: Fritz Lang

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By Roderick Heath

The title resolves amidst intersecting geometries that coalesce and create a cityscape, ranged with neo-Babylonian techno-ziggurats: Metropolis, instantly a statement worthy of Ozymandias. A super-city where trains and cars shuttle along spanning bridges and aircraft buzz between sky-nudging structures. A great machine that explodes and morphs into a dark god of ages past, accepting human sacrifice into a greedy, fiery maw. A great dial of switches becomes a massive clock crushing its operator. A dark and twisted fairytale abode left like a seed of corruption in the midst of this empire of the will. The outpost of an ancient brand of faith discovered underground, to where the beaten and exhausted tread in search of hope. A beam of light in the midst of a dank, labyrinthine catacomb, terrorising and pinioning a saintly young woman. A robot fashioned in the likeness of a human, all art-deco brass curves and blank features, wreathed by electric arcs, slowly taking on the likeness of the same young woman. The robotic simulacrum dancing like Salome reborn, stirring the lusts of men until their eyes join together in a great mass of rapacious gazing. Statues of the seven deadly sins lurching out of their stalls in a Gothic cathedral, announcing the coming of calamity and death. A mass of desperate children all reaching out for their saviours in the midst of surging flood waters. A rooftop struggle between hero and villain for the life of the heroine, the battle of good and evil staged as vertiginous graph written on the face of a civilisation.

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These are some of the lodestone images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and it’s still easy to feel their power even after intervening decades where their genetic material is woven into pop culture at large. If A Trip to the Moon was the seed of science fiction on screen, Metropolis is its green stem, and much more too. The floodtide of Fritz Lang’s visual techniques and the expanse of the film’s evocation of the future might have met resistance of mind and eye in its day, but even in an abused and truncated form enough of his vision remained to stun the eye and light the creative spark.

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Director Lang and his creative and personal partner Thea Von Harbou had climbed swiftly to the peak of the German film industry thanks to highly ambitious, stylistically radical films that provided basic engineering for cinema as it found maturity and began to branch into different streams of genre and style. Lang, working under the influence of Louis Feuillade, had taken his template and pushed it into stranger places with his rollicking action-adventure diptych The Spiders (1919), and had written the script for the film that kicked off the Expressionist cinema style, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). Lang’s first great opus, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), embodied the shock of the new in cinema, telling in the mode of epic melodrama a tale of crisis in modernity by depicting someone capable of manipulating its many aspects, and then his follow-up Die Nibelungen (1924) had delved into the foundational myth of Germany to explore the ructions that cause tragedy and the ideals and fidelities that make civilisations. Metropolis was destined to be the third chapter in this survey, a myth of the future if still based in the pressing quandaries of the present and articulated through a vast array of concepts from the cultural inheritance. Von Harbou wrote a novel specifically to use as the basis of the script, and the production took over Germany’s flagship film studio UFA in the midst of the national inflation travails that helped shake what little confidence there was in the Weimar republic. Lang’s lordly vision took a toll on cast and crew, fortunes were spent, and the reaction to the film’s initial was like cold water hitting hot metal, warping all perception of Lang’s achievement. Metropolis’s sniffy reception sounds familiar today, as many called it a giant would-be blockbuster that is all visual bluster and no substance. A film hated by no lesser personage in the budding science fiction genre than H.G. Wells. A film Lang himself later disowned, perhaps feeling that well had been too badly poisoned.

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After barely recouping Metropolis’s massive expense upon release, UFA was compelled to let Paramount Pictures buy it out. Metropolis spent much of the next thirty years being cut down and reshaped, until what was left was so confused many thought it had always been that way. It was adopted as fetish object and style guide by the Nazis, who wanted to emulate its monumental aesthetic and absorb its message system into their own, and Von Harbou herself became an active party member. The film eventually became a pop art moveable feast, including being appropriated as a music video by Giorgio Moroder. Only in the past couple of decades has Metropolis been mostly restored to the point where it can be properly judged and studied according to Lang’s original intention. And yet, in spite of such manhandling, Metropolis still stands as one of the most influential films ever made. Metropolis provided a blueprint for envisioning a wing of the imagination encompassing dreamlike horizons, conjoining both the imminently possible and the ages of humankind so far into a grandiose survey of conceptual iconography. Much like the space opera that formed much of science fiction’s first popular phase on the page and which still survives chiefly thanks to Star Wars, Metropolis tries to comprehend the future and the present in terms of the past, envisioning an age of technical marvel and scientific miracle as a new version of the old alchemistic fantasia and the greatest dreams of imperial domain, whilst asking on what foundations such superstructures grow.

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Metropolis is, of course, like most variations on the utopia-dystopia scale, actually an account of the moment of its making, thrown into sharp relief on a mimetic map. The tensions that termite Metropolis are the tensions lurking under the brittle façade of Weimar Germany, where, in the wake of World War I’s calamity, far left and far right agitators had clashed on the streets and nearly seized the machinery of government. The entire apparatus of state had been shaken, and reconstruction, the surge of newness pushing the nation forward, presented a political and social landscape few understood and felt at ease with. Even money wasn’t worth anything. The essential theme of labour versus management was more universal, and the new reality of much work in the early twentieth century, which turned humans into parts in huge assemblies, was taken into Metropolis to its logical conclusion, envisioning a carefully stratified human populace where some live in regimented, downcast, utterly slavish existences, doomed to run the infrastructure that allows more comfortable lives for the rest. Metropolis is the future itself, situated in no identified nation or age. Captain of this great project is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), architect of the city and its Tyrant in the original sense, oligarchic master and civic administrator. Fredersen lives in the “New Tower of Babel,” a skyscraper at the city’s lofty hub.

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Metropolis isn’t just a city he has been elected to run or master but his own brainchild, his ego-empire, the expression of human will essayed on the greatest scale. Metropolis is also in part a variation on a familiar conflict between fathers and sons, the stern and acquiescing pragmatism of age versus the idealism of youth, another universal topic also bound to gain impetus in the coming years. Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the child of privilege, anointed amongst the rich and blessed, free to train body and mind to maximum potential in his days before taking his ease with the procured lovelies invited to the pleasure gardens of the city’s rooftop expanses. But his life is set to be changed by the intrusion of a woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who ushers in a collective of urchins gathered from the lower reaches, to give them a look at the closest thing to heaven, the world Freder inhabits thoughtlessly. This gives the princeling his first sight of inequity and of the woman who becomes the instant lynchpin of his existence. Maria and her charges are quickly ushered out of this exalted sphere but Freder becomes determined both to find Maria and acquaint himself with the lives of Metropolis’s workers. The realm he ventures into proves to be a scene out of a fantasia where Dante co-authors with Dickens and Picasso. Here cowed and regimented workers trudge through blank, institutional corridors and take up work stations at hulking machines where they perform repetitive, arduous tasks for ten hour shifts.

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An explosion in a massive machine inspires the horrified Freder to think of Moloch, the wicked god of Biblical lore. Seeing a young worker collapse at a station where he works a dial-like switching control, Freder rushes to take his place. The worker, whose name is Georgy but is snidely affixed merely with the title 11811 by the bosses, swaps clothes with Freder, who sends him to take refuge in his apartment. Freder struggles through the rest of his shift, almost broken trying to keep up with the vital task. Another worker, mistaking him for Georgy, whispers to him about a meeting Maria has called, and Freder joins the workers who descend into the ancient catacombs under the city to listen to Maria give a sermon. Fredersen, wishing to split Freder from Maria and to break her moral influence over the workers and gain an excuse to establish martial law, visits scientist and inventor C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has constructed a perfect humanoid robot, a Machine Man: Fredersen wants Rotwang to give it Maria’s appearance, and use it to stir up trouble.

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Lang explained that the root of Metropolis lay in a visit he made to New York in 1924, confronted by the looming grandeur of the city’s skyscrapers, floating like a dream fashioned from glass and steel, erected with all the promise of the age’s new possibilities but also stirring some profound anxiety, a fear of being dwarfed and pinioned by the weight of such achievements. The novel version of Metropolis was then written by Von Harbou as a parable about winners and losers and Metropolis still feels strikingly relevant in choosing this as subject matter, as it remains the basic, ever-urgent matter at the heart of the modern dream. The first target of criticism of Metropolis is usually its storyline, which is usually judged not just simple but simplistic and naïve to boot in its treatment of social schisms. And that’s undoubtedly true on some levels. The film’s recurring motto, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart,” is on the face of it a purely humanistic, essentialist slogan. But it’s not such a great stretch of the imagination to link the magical thinking behind it in regards to social philosophy with openness to similarly trite thought that would soon seduce the screenwriter along with millions of others to the Nazi cause. The solution at the end of Metropolis indicts the troublemaker and presents rapprochement between upper and lower classes as a matter simply of mutual respect and good-heartedness. Fredersen, who has built a city on iniquity and laboured to find an excuse to permanently and violently oppress his working class, is let off the hook because he gets anxious over his own son.

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Metropolis is in part an attack on a worker’s revolt as an aim, seeing it as prone to demagoguery and manipulation and destructive in it results. On the other hand, it’s also a fervent attack on capitalist power as self-perpetuating, blinding, and dehumanising. Metropolis proceeds with a plot that is certainly close to comic book. To comment on Metropolis on this level, though, is to misunderstand it crucially. Metropolis invokes a vast sprawl of mythopoeic associations, and represents a clear and direct continuation of Die Nibelungen’s obsessive attempts to grapple with social identity and construction, using the language of mythology as starting point for a work of conjuring that unfolds on levels not just of story and action but in design, costuming, lighting, the entire texture sprawling across the screen. Metropolis betrays an ambition towards creating a total work of art, the gesamtkunstwerk which had been Wagner’s ideal and also had become the credo of the Bauhaus movement, whose cultural vitality and concepts Lang surely had in mind whilst making the film. Metropolis sometimes recalls nothing less momentous than the religious paintings of Ravenna or the sculptures of the Parthenon: we are looking into a way of conceiving the world from side-on, as an illustrative, holistic sprawl. Many of these mythical refrains are biblical, including the parable of the prodigal son and the captivity in Babylon.

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Both Maria and Fredersen conceive the world in terms of legend, each employing the tale of Babel to make their own statement: Fredersen’s New Tower, with his gleaming citadel, announces to man and heaven his lordship over all, whilst Maria recalls the calumny and division implied at the root of such mammoth human projects. The speech she gives to the gathered workers is not a literal political tract but a parable recalling the original myth of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, tweaking it into a tract where in the destruction of the great human project came about because the visionaries designing the tower could not speak the same language, literally and figuratively, as the people hired to build it, causing riot and destruction. She casts Freder in the role of mediator, the man who can link above and below both personally and symbolically. Maria herself recalls the history of early Christianity’s practice in the catacombs of Rome, with similarities to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s much-filmed novel Quo Vadis?, casting Maria as voice of Christian charity and brotherhood. Freder discovers her in her underground church amidst the dark and twisted reaches of the catacomb, the sacred an island in the nightmarish space.

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Other aspects recall the mythology Lang and Von Harbou had examined on Die Nibelungen, as faces and identities are swapped. Freder cast as a young Siegfried-like hero who ventures out to battle with dragons and finds himself swiftly engaged in a much more profound battle for the future of a society where covert designs and mysterious doppelgangers manipulate events. And of course, that other great Germanic myth, Faust, could be the overarching frame – all this represents what happens when mankind sells its soul for progress. The subplot of the twin Marias echo of one variation of classical Greek legend, one that Euripides utilised in his play Helen, in which the real Helen was duplicated by the gods, with the real Helen being whisked away to Egypt where she lived in captivity and incognito whilst her malicious double caused the Trojan War. The way the Trojan myths entwine the cultural and political with the personal and in particular the sexual points to the similar ambition propelling Metropolis, which was in part designed by Von Harbou as a lampooning of the liberated Weimar “new woman” in the figure of the provocative, sensual, carelessly destructive cyborg Maria, a chimera created by the denizens of the new age to enact their not-so-secret desires. Whereas for Lang, this element fits rather into his career-long fascination with the power of the irrational to warp the sturdiest superstructure of ethics and security, of which sexual desire is the most readily apparent and eternally vexing manifestations.

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The crux for the atavistic and futuristic is Rotwang, the archetype of the mad scientist with his wild hair and gloved cybernetic hand whose persona was set to echo on and on through pop culture to come. But he’s also a projection of the ancient figure of the dark magician into a contemporary realm, the alchemist who rewrites laws of nature and steals the power of gods and demons and who worships idols, having turned the visage of his great love into a monument and has pentagrams festooned around his laboratory. Rotwang lives in a twisted, ancient building at the centre of Metropolis. He is linked to Fredersen not just in rivalry as radically different versions of the same titan-genius, but through a very personal link: the lost love was a woman named Hel, who married Fredersen rather than him and died giving birth to Freder. Fredersen’s request of him to aid his designs in regaining total control present Rotwang with a way to destroy him instead, by attacking the city he has built and the son who is the living link to Hel. Rotwang’s name – red wing in English – invokes both satanic stature and political danger. Like Faust, he conjures the Hel(en) figure as incarnation of taunting desirability and illusory object of yearning. His house is a hangover of Gothic fantasia clinging like a weed to the flank of the supercity, but also sits atop a well that leads into the dank labyrinth below the city. Rotwang is the jilted and obsessive lover who has castrated himself in surrendering his hand in creating a facsimile of woman. He knows too well the dark drives of humankind, which allows him to occupy this place, the gateway into secret human motives and the power of the illogical white-anting Fredersen’s ego-empire.

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Lang’s obsession with underworlds, first evinced in The Spiders which conceived of a Chinese colony lurking underneath San Francisco and recurring again and again in his cinema, here has bloomed into something close to a form of psychic architecture that conceives of the whole of Metropolis as a mind, complete with id, ego, and superego, rational stretches and irrational depths, its holy and profane women, its young crusader torn between three father figures, one mad but powerful in mind and emotion, one timid and entrapped, the last seemingly dead in all nerves but will. Similar ideas are evinced in a very different setting in Von Harbou’s The Indian Tomb, a novel set in an Indian city (which Lang would film much later) where the progressive Maharajah’s stirred erotic jealousy turns his world into a repressive state and the shiny bastions of the exterior conceal basements where zombie-like lepers. Rotwang chases down Maria after the workers depart, stalking her through the labyrinth and terrorising her with a torch beam, ironically inverts the image of light in darkness as the bringing of terror and the pitiless of eye of technology (the movie camera?) to the subterranean realm where emotion is truth, to torment the holy innocent.

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Maria and Freder’s journey is linked with two men Freder helps release from their slots in the great machine, Georgy and Josaphat (Theodor Loos). The latter works as aide to Fredersen but gets fired for not being prompt enough in reports, a devastating act that will doom Josaphat to a degrading existence as unemployable pariah. But Freder, as he did with Georgy, throws him a lifeline by letting him take refuge in his apartment and taking him on as a partner in his venture to change Metropolis. Just as Georgy is a near-double for Freder, his less lucky, anointed brother in look and soul, Josaphat has been Freder’s more human surrogate father almost incidentally as the man who took care of his needs on his father’s behalf. Josaphat’s growth from toady to hero is one of the film’s most entertaining elements. But Georgy has been sidetracked by the allure of the high life, and, fuelled by the cash in the clothes Freder loaned him, he goes for a night on the town in the Yoshiwara Club, the favourite night spot for the city elite. Both Georgy and Josaphat come under the thumb of one of Fredersen’s agents, known only as the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who bullies and blackmails both men into retreating into the underworld. Freder himself is imprisoned in Rotwang’s house when he hears, by chance, Maria’s screams coming from inside. Entering the abode, he finds himself duelling with the automated doors that steadily shepherd him into the attic and lock him in. Rotwang places the unconscious Maria in a mechanism in his laboratory that steadily reconstructs the Machine Man’s exterior into a perfect double of Maria.

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The resulting creation is a demonically sensual and taunting succubus operating under Rotwang’s command, and even Fredersen, who knows well what it is, can’t resist when it visits him. Freder breaks out of Rotwang’s house and arrives back at his father’s office in time to see what looks like his father and his lover embracing. The crisis of disillusion on top of his agonised and exhausting adventures is so great Freder collapses in a delirium. The Robot-Maria, sent out by Rotwang to stir up anarchy, performs before the uptown folk at the Yoshiwara Club, Whore of Babylon going jazz age burlesque priestess. The cyborg’s starkly erotic, physically frenetic performance stokes the ritzy crowd, all milk-fed whelps produced by the idealistic, Olympian reaches of the city like Freder, into a grotesque mass of lust. The veneer of civilisation is peeled off like a chrysalis, and soon they’re duelling each-other and staging mass orgies, distracting the scions of the governing class from the chaos about to be unleashed by Robot-Maria’s more pertinent campaign. It takes the place of the still-imprisoned Maria and now preaches destruction of Metropolis’s utility systems, to bring the oppressors low. Freder, Josaphat, and Georgy try to calm the crowd but the workers try to assault Freder, and Georgy is stabbed to death when he throws himself in front of him. Led by Robot-Maria, the workers swarm to assault the Metropolis systems, finally destroying the great “Heart Machine” that coordinates the utilities, paralysing the city. But the workers’ actions unleash a flood that begins to fill their own city with water, threatening to drown their children who have remained behind.

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Metropolis would be remarkable enough for the beauty and ingenuity put into what Lang puts in front of his camera, the sets by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Volbrecht, Eugen Schüfftan’s radically innovative model photography, and Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s totemic design for the Machine Man. But the cinematic textures of Metropolis in cutting, shooting, and use of the camera are equally impressive and represent silent cinema at its most innovative, amassing into an artefact that proves, scarcely a decade after the crude yet sufficiently significant grammar of Birth of a Nation (1915) helped officially open up the true cinematic age, just how vigorous the new medium had become, and looking forward to the ebullient freedoms of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Lang had Hollywood’s spectacles his sights, the colossi fashioned by Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille and laid out for stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, hoping to prove European cinema could not just match such production heft but outdo it for artistry. Lang and his brilliant technical team, which also included cinematography greats Karl Freund and Günther Rittau, explored almost every facet of the medium possible in the time.

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The surveys of Metropolis demanded the creation of a landscape through huge mock-ups and complex model work. The scenes of Robot-Maria’s creation and the destruction of the Heart Machine interpolation of photographic elements in a combination familiar in many respects now but still startling in their eye-filling beauty and inventiveness in context. Midway through the film, Lang launches into an astonishing movement after Freder’s discovery of his father with Robot-Maria. Freder’s mental disintegration is depicted in flourishes of abstract animation and herky-jerky editing that resembles the labours of experimental filmmakers. Robot-Maria’s dance is then intercut with Freder’s raving fantasies, in which he sees the Thin Man as evil priest repeating Maria’s sermon as rhapsodic incantation that stirs the forces of death and destruction into motion. The allegorical pantheon of the deadly sins and Death in Metropolis’s cathedral is seen jerking to life and striding out of their stalls. The film is split not into chapters or cantos like Die Nibelungen but into musical signatures – Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso.

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Lang’s original concept was to have Rotwang literally conjure up magic forces to attack the modern, scientifically enabled world of Metropolis. This idea was mostly dropped but here something of this eruption of the irrational is still present, climaxing in the image out of medieval nightmare of Death slicing the air before Lang’s camera. Lang edges into the realm of outright surrealism here, and does again as he builds to a climactic shot during Robot-Maria’s dance when the screen is filled with that mass of eyes – the male gaze literalised as one great amorphous, greedy force, a shot reminiscent in execution of experimental photography. More subtly, perhaps, Lang’s filmmaking conveys a constant awareness of power relations throughout, befitting a film where the synergies of social relations, positive and negative, are translated throughout into concrete expressions. It’s quietly but surely present in conversational scenes like Freder’s first conversation with his father or the Thin Man’s confrontation of Josaphat, where attitudes of body and expressions define the characters (the latter scene building to the Thin Man’s physical as well as mental domination of Josaphat) in terms of their potency and the regard they show others – the hard line of Fredersen’s tilted jaw as he son appeals to him, only for the young man to realise his father is something like a monster. This aspect is illustrated more explicitly and spectacularly with Lang’s arrangements of human elements in the sequences where workers tread in close, robotic ranks.

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The opening scenes depict the workers changing shifts in obedience to horns that blare out around the city, moving between their underground, near-featureless, pseudo-Berber city, the intermediary stage before Wells’ Morlock evolves and start eating the Eloi above, all scored to an unheard yet definite musical rhythm (no wonder musicians like Moroder have been drawn to the film). There are even moments of hand-held camerawork during Maria’s flight from Rotwang in the underground. One of Lang’s most insistent traits during the German phase of his career was the way he turned his awareness of and fascination for contemporary art styles and his utilisation of them to create cinematic effect. This trait had first made itself known in his plan for Dr Caligari’s Expressionistic effects, and in Die Nibelungen had seen him annexing Cubism and art nouveau for decorative and conceptual import. Here, the entire universe has become, on one level, a form of installation art, the marching ranks of workers elements arrayed in harmonies of line and form. Spaces are carefully diagrammed to open up vistas even within the boxy Academy ratio frame of the day, through use of height – Metropolis is a hierarchical tale on both the thematic and visual levels. The linear clarity and rigid control inherent in such stylisation is ironic considering that Metropolis’s concerns are closer to rather different European artists of the day, including the photomontage satire of John Hartfield and the bleak panoramas of Hans Baluschek.

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Both Fröhlich and Helm were thrust into stardom specifically for this film, but whilst Fröhlich merely looks the part of ardent young hero, Helm, still a teenager during the shoot and yet attacking the role with astonishing gusto as she inhabits the Madonna-whore schism, is remarkable. Klein-Rogge, the hydra-headed star of Lang’s early films, wrote himself into film legend as Rotwang with his wild hair, gloved hand, and imperious gestures. His role is hurt by scenes still missing from the film, including a violent confrontation with Fredersen that gives Maria the chance to escape his house. The workers lay waste to the machinery that oppresses them but in a self-defeating way. Tellingly, Freder’s other self from the worker populace, Georgy, is defined by his dedication to his work, his understanding that he is in a way necessary to the survival of Metropolis even as it uses him up like an replaceable part. The shattering of order, celebrated by the workers who dance around the toppled idols of technocracy, soon gives way to panic as they realise their children are in danger, and they’re impotent to intervene. Fredersen, who has ordered the Heart Machine’s foreman and worker representative Grot (Heinrich George) to stand down and let the workers do their worst, is stricken himself with the seemingly imminent death of Freder in the flood. By this stage his machinations have even cost him the loyalty of the Thin Man, who responds to his desperate demand to know where his son is with the memorable retort, “Tomorrow thousands will ask in fury and desperation, ‘Joh Fredersen, where is my son?’” Meanwhile Robot-Maria is unbound, leading the frenetic, equally nihilistic revelry of the upper class out of the nightclubs and into the streets. Once the ambitions and pretences of Metropolis work themselves out, it becomes, in essence, a Boy’s Own adventure tale not that far from The Spiders’ cliffhanger suspense set-pieces. This is particularly plain in the finale as Freder, Maria, and Josaphat try desperately to save the workers’ children from the flooding, with Maria wrestling with the mechanism to set off the alarm gong in the town square, and the two men making arduous climbs up a shaft to reach her.

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Lang’s acerbic perspective is still in constant evidence, as the climactic scenes hinge upon ideas that would preoccupy Lang in the next decade of his career or so are in play here in the likes of M (1931), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), Fury (1936), and You Only Live Once (1937) – the terror of lynch mob justice, the accusation of the innocent, the reactive and self-consuming rage of the oppressed, the sinister manipulator of events, the rogue villain whose actions show up uneasy relationship of various social strata. The meeting of those strata is literalised almost comically here as the revelling scions of Metropolis’s upper levels, with Robot-Maria lifted shoulder high as their champion, collide with the mass of enraged workers, chasing the real Maria in the belief she is a witch who has led them to ruin. Somewhere amidst this is an eerie anticipating echo of the grim love affair that would soon come upon Nazi Germany with the almost ritualised, orgiastic invitation of destruction. Metropolis remains tantalising and enigmatic in this regard to this day, in spite of its optimistic depiction of a balance less restored than at last properly achieved. Robot-Maria is the film’s dancing Kali, whipping up the passions of the crowd as a brilliant mouthpiece for an insidious force and then leads the people rejoicing in the moment of pointless and delicious vandalism. In spite of the official message of Metropolis, the power of Robot-Maria’s wild, sexualised, anarchic insurrection feels more heroic than anything the nominal good guys accomplish here even if the result is the old conservative nightmare of such actions, the unleashing of uncontainable forces and unintended horrors. In a different time and different social mood, many a hero in the science fiction genre, from Logan to THX-1138 to Luke Skywalker to Neo, takes up the robot’s iconoclastic mantle rather than Freder’s even whilst stepping into his messianic shoes.

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Luckily, the workers chasing the real Maria instead mistake the robot for her: the mechanoid is tied to an improvised pyre, and burnt. Her skin peeled by licking flame, the Machine-Man under the human guise is revealed, and with it not just the tricks of Rotwang and Fredersen but also the queasy face of the next stage of evolution. Rotwang’s degeneration from evil genius to lecher trying to escape Freder with Maria under arm across the rooftops is comparatively unconvincing and a nudge too far in the direction of gothic melodrama, perhaps inspired by the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1922) and surely laying ground for dozens of variations to come. But the staging of this sequence is impeccable, particularly in the moment when Maria falls over a railing and snatches onto a bell rope to dangle over a dizzying drop, the clang of the bell alerting Freder and others to this new drama. Like Rotwang’s house the cathedral is an island of the ancient amidst the city, and the sole place where the schizoid facets of Metropolis can still come together, crux of old and new, high and low, the bleak memento mori of medieval religious imagery gaining new potency in the context of Metropolis’s collapse. Rotwang falls to his death, Freder and Maria are reunited, and Freder literally becomes the mediator in showing Grot and his father how to overcome their pride and make piece. Again, certainly weak sociology, but also a perfect thumbnail for the fairy tale essence of Metropolis as a whole. Both the greatness and the difficulty of Metropolis lie in that essence, as a film that animates the dark and strident fantasies of its age without quite knowing how to critique or contain them. But even the most casual of glances around us at the world today shows that, where most films of its era have joined the ranks of playful relics, Metropolis still has something potent to say. And therein lies some of the deepest brilliance of Metropolis in tethering science fiction, the art of anticipation, with the method of myth, the primal storytelling form—both speak to that moment just over the horizon of experience and foresight. It is never; it is ever.


9th 10 - 2016 | 9 comments »

Alien (1979)

Director: Ridley Scott

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By Roderick Heath

I can imagine opening a newspaper in 1979 and glancing at a review of Alien with its plot recounted in dry ink lines, or perhaps at a poster and beholding the infamous tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” I think one would have been forgiven if the thought didn’t cross your mind that it would one day this film might be considered a major cinematic classic. Even when you know much more about it, the improbability still stands. Sold to prospective studios in script form as “Jaws in space” by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, a pair of young screenwriters who had happily looted the sci-fi B-movies and creature features they had loved as boys, Alien might have seemed something like a garish throwback in abstract, to the days when many a monstrous beast from space went on the loose was all the rage in drive-in fodder. After all, cinematic sci-fi in the late 1960s and ‘70s had generally taken on a more serious cast in keeping with the literary genre, complete with heightened social commentary and philosophical metaphors. Star Wars and Close Encounter of the Third Kind (both 1977) made studios everywhere enthusiastic for the genre for the first time since the ‘50s, however, because suddenly it was making giant piles of cash. O’Bannon had one claim to fame before helping pen the script originally called “Star Beast.” He had co-written, acted in, and helped make the world’s best-known student film, 1974’s Dark Star. But John Carpenter had gained most of the credit for that, leaving the high-strung O’Bannon chagrined and on the hunt for his own success. O’Bannon was particularly taken with the idea of returning to Dark Star’s sub-plot involving a rampaging alien stowaway, visualised in that comic film by a beach ball with talons, and playing this notion straight as a galactic horror movie.

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At first the script seemed doomed to finish up as feedstuff for Roger Corman’s low-budget production farm, because its gore and perverse aspects turned off big studios. But as sci-fi properties suddenly turned hot, the duo sold it to producer-director Walter Hill and business partner David Giler, who had Twentieth Century Fox at their backs. Hill and Giler worked the material over, adding major subplots and changing character names. But they retained one notable corollary of the original script – the parts were “unisex,” and could be filled by any actors, male or female. Hill decided not to direct the movie himself, as he was too busy and inexperienced in special effects work. Picking the right filmmaker was the real trick, as they knew the wrong director might play it as schlock, whilst the right one would have to prove equal mastery over both the hard-edged, hi-tech realism and the mysterious, eerie, virtually surrealistic qualities the story offered. They found their man in a 42-year-old former TV commercial director from South Shields at the mouth of the Tyne named Ridley Scott. Scott had gained a reputation for turning simple advertisements into great visual artefacts, and had just made an impression with his Cannes-screened debut film, The Duellists (1977). He grabbed this opportunity with both hands. Scott and his ideas impressed the studio so much Fox doubled his budget. The result, far from being just another creature feature, is today regarded as one of the major works of sci-fi cinema and indeed modern commercial filmmaking.

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O’Bannon and Shusett happily acknowledged remixing the futuristic terrors and beauties of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Forbidden Planet (1956), This Island Earth (1955), and even the far-flung alien graveyards and body-invading spectres of Mario Bava’s signal sci-fi/horror cross-breed Planet of the Vampires (1966). There was also some similarity to the creatures that menaced their way through the pages of A.E. Van Vogt’s stories “Black Destroyer” and “Moonbeast.” Although not based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, Alien remains perhaps the most effective channelling of Lovecraft’s imaginative palette on film, conjuring a universe of infinite mystery and threat, replete with glimpses of things and places beyond human reference. This is a realm of things that squirm and ooze and move perversely and seem engineered for climes beyond any natural law, glowering with infinite disdain for precious human individualism and acumen. Here there is only the terrible beauty of survival talent and the cold equations of necessity. The purity of Alien as a narrative lies in the way it pits instinct versus intelligence. The self-propagating concept in the title of Scott’s first film is taken immediately to reductio ad absurdum: this is the duel at the edge of the universe, the perfect opposition. Alien as a metaphorical work is in its way as extreme as Solaris (1972) in exploring the essence of humanity through conceiving its opposite, with similar precepts – isolation and a manifestation of the incomprehensibly other. Alien straddles the ever-blurry genre midground with horror by positing a haunted house movie in space mixed with no minor similarity to the slasher movie style that was just gaining real traction thanks to Carpenter’s Halloween, released the year before – a small cast stalked and killed one by one by a roaming killer.

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The story is exceptionally simple on the face of it. The spaceship Nostromo, towing a combined bulk ore carrier and refinery through deep space back to Earth, is brought out of hyperspace and rerouted towards a remote and unexplored planetoid, source of a mysterious generated signal presumed to be a distress beacon. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and his crew, comprising flight officers Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Kane (John Hurt), and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), are awoken from their cryogenic sleep. After confusion and some argument, they follow the protocol mandated by the ship’s owner company (unnamed in this film, later dubbed Weyland-Yutani in James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, 1986) and land on the planet. The Nostromo is lightly damaged during landing and Brett and Parker set about fixing it whilst Dallas, Lambert, and Kane venture out onto the stormy, hostile surface of the planet to track down the source of the signal. They come across a ruined spaceship clearly not built by humans, with the fossilised remains of an ancient pilot with a ruptured ribcage still installed in a kind of cockpit, and a collection of seed-like pods in the hull. Kane gets close to one, intrigued by signs of life within, only for the crab-like thing inside to spring out suddenly and burn through the visor of his helmet. The organism clamps itself over his face, holding him in a comatose state whilst keeping him alive. Ripley, acting commander of the ship, refuses to let Dallas and Lambert bring Kane through the airlock for fear of biological contamination, but Ash ignores her and lets them aboard.

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The creature (again unnamed here but usually called a “facehugger”) on Kane proves to have deadly acid for blood and is impossible to remove without killing its host, but eventually it falls off by itself and dies. Kane awakens, seemingly fine, but as he and the rest of the crew settle down for a meal, Kane suddenly starts to spasm in agony. Something tears its way out of his chest – the larval stage of new creature that will grow to human size and begin killing or utilising rival life forms. The greatest question before Scott and the filmmaking team was what the title creature should look like. Reputedly, it was O’Bannon who suggested to Scott that he take a look at the artwork of Swiss painter H.R. Giger. Both men fell under the spell of Giger’s painting “Necronomicon IV”, which portrayed a bizarre demonic entity with a tubular head, spiny back, and penile tail. Giger’s disturbing, distorted, perversely eroticised pictures tried to render aspects of the subconscious and the surreal, murky and obscure and protean, and provided a vital catalyst not just for the alien’s design but for the aesthetic of the film as a whole. Alien certainly belongs to both the sci-fi and horror genres, rooted in the solid conceptualism of the former but using it to annex the id-shaped atmosphere of the latter. If the film had been painstakingly created to reflect a certain academic shift in the basic imagery and concerns of genre storytelling it could not have been more precise, as the usually solid Freudian forms of sci-fi – all jutting phallic rockets matched to neo-colonialist visions written on the tabula rasa of space – gives way to a nightmarish zone filled with gaping holes and hideous babies that sprout from a man’s body. In this simple yet ruthlessly clever concept lies the aspect of Alien that instantly announced itself as contemporary, compared to the older genre works that inspired it. The alien monster is no simple, clean beast that stows away and rampages, but as a monster insidious and infesting, predatory and parasitic, instinctual and apparently not interesting in anything more than self-propagation but also possessed of a jarring, baleful brand of intelligence.

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This aspect fit into a phase in sci-fi-and horror cinema where anxiety over the human body was becoming a driving concern. David Cronenberg’s early works like Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), and The Brood (1979) had helped define and polarise this new, queasy style. The alternate title of Shivers, They Came From Within, perfectly reflected this motif, twisting the fear of the alien other expressed in titles of 1950s films like It Came From Outer Space (1953) into a motif of internal disorder and rebellion, evoking both the bodies corporeal and politic. Emerging even before the spectre of the AIDS epidemic, this new unease with disease derived from the strange new anxieties of the modern world, one where suddenly awareness of aspects of human life that had normally not been talked about in the post-Enlightenment age were suddenly common currency, many of them sexual, bound up with a time of rapid revision in understanding of gender and desire (also, notably, the superhero movie made its first real impact around this time with Superman, 1978, providing an antithesis). Alien announced this style, dubbed “body horror,” in big-budget, mainstream cinema, as Kane is impregnated and torn to shreds by his own nominal progeny. This vision of perverted birth transplanted onto the male body comes after intimations of oral rape. The intensely sexual aspect of this was already encoded in a series of visual evocations and design refrains. The waking of the ship’s crew in the opening scenes is gently birth-like, guided by the ships supercomputer which is called, mischievously, MUTHR. The coddled human creatures nicely cocooned in the Nostromo and tended to by the maternal computer soon offered up as fodder for the sustenance of a creation that faintly resembles a human but also swiftly grows to blend into the interior of the Nostromo itself, with limbs and skin resembling the tubes and conduits and metal forms of an industrial zone. The human, soft flesh, red blood, is at the mercy of a thing that seems both monster and machine, something that evolves too quickly to be contained and too aptly to be positioned anywhere but at the top of the food chain.

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Sci-fi had generally been a realm of gleaming newness and minimalist chic ever since Things to Come (1936) posited the future as a gigantic shopping mall with a slight Bauhaus edge. This presumption often (though not always) went unchallenged in sci-fi cinema until Star Wars intrigued and impressed genre creators with its “lived-in” vision of a futuristic age (albeit past) that looked functional, busy, often banged-up and dirty. The script for Alien envisioned a future of space travel that has devolved into something much more familiar than cosmic swashbuckling, one where working stiffs ride the highways of deep space hauling around loads of resources, worrying about pay and bills and getting home to loved-ones. This was taken up not just as a background detail but an entire holistic mission by Scott and his designers. Surely Scott’s background, his intimate familiarity with the reverse face of the age of industry and technology, told him something different about what a spacefaring future might look and sound like, gleaned from a youth staring out at the ships on the Tyne and the decaying industrial landscape of England’s midlands, sights that told him how little some spacefaring future was likely to look like the brochures. Aspects of Alien’s look retain the sleek and clean aesthetic of high futurism – the womb-like confines of the stasis pod room and MUTHR’s control room. But these abut the factory-like interiors of the rest of the ship, grimy, functional, and cluttered. The alien planetoid itself – once again dubbed LV-426 in Aliens but left nameless here – is a place straight out of the dark places of the psyche, with its roiling volcanic forms. The horseshoe-shaped space wreck is perched atop a peak like Dracula’s castle gone Analog Magazine, with an interior that is a polymorphous zone of strangeness. Such contrasted landscapes chart both the psychic and physical realities of contrasting life forms.

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O’Bannon’s collaboration with Carpenter on Dark Star had envisioned men on a mission wandering listlessly through space destroying rogue planets in a deadpan satire on the Domino theory, with its main characters so bored and alienated they’ve swapped personalities several times. It made for a sci-fi landscape virtually unheard-of before. Similarly, the humans inhabiting the Nostromo are there purely to ensure the smooth running of the machinery and deliver the load of processed ore to Earth, casually observed, highly ordinary people. Even Ripley, eventually to be canonised as one of the great action heroes, is here just a woman with a slight edge of competence, intuition, and coolness under pressure that lets her survive where all her fellows eventually fall. One common concern of the diverse filmmakers involved in creating Alien, particularly Scott and O’Bannon, was this awareness of social and class conflict and also the individuals perpetrating such schisms. Dallas as captain (and the most Dark Star-esque character) knows his job and can do it virtually in his sleep, preferring to bliss out alone with some classical music and escape the bolshy niggling of Parker and Brett and Ripley’s by-the-book sternness. Of course, that streak had the potential to save the whole situation, as her refusal to let Kane and the facehugger aboard is correct both according to the book and instinct, if not sheer reactive empathy. Ripley is first really defined by this act, an attitude of caution that seems unfeeling whereas Ash does the “humane” thing, although it will eventually be revealed that he’s not only obeying the company’s agenda but is also a more literal tool of a distant but still consequential power, as an android posing as human.

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Ripley’s adherence to principle as well as rules and Ash’s actions in countermanding her seems at first merely a moment of tension in outlook and a road-bump in the chain of command on an already lackadaisical hierarchy – Ripley confronts Ash over the point and pushes Dallas for action but he simply wants to go home and avoid more headaches. But it proves instead the pivotal action that unleashes disaster, and Ripley’s cold act is proven the wise one. This aspect, the human capacity to act both rationally and instinctually according to given situations, is pointedly contrasted with what Ash celebrates it for, its “purity” as a creature of raw survivalist nerve and shark-like purpose that sustains its life cycle through other creatures, a form of exploitation equated with the business of business that motivates all that befalls the Nostromo. The crew themselves are defined by their mixture of camaraderie and interpersonal tension, and also by their varying levels of interest and complicity in that system, from Dallas, the man in charge who’s all too aware how little power he really has, to Parker and Brett constantly bringing the “bonus situation,” their own concerns purely mercenary, a mode of realistic cynicism adapted neatly to the exigencies of a job that demands spending years in forced sleep drifting through the ether. Alien is littered with sharp vignettes, like Parker insistently stealing back “his” chair and brushing it off after Ash has occupied it, Brett’s half-interested parroting of Parker (“Right.”), and Ripley telling them both to fuck off as they try to jerk her around as member of the superior flight crew. The film’s pivotal, immortal sequence when the crew settle down for dinner with the revived, apparently well Kane is a rare moment when the crew are all relaxed, happy, and on level ground, a seeming resumption of normality shot through with relief that gives way to epic horror and tragedy.

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Alien’s defining quality is rooted not simply in its thrills or its vivid imaginative palette, but in its slow, patient, nerveless storytelling, so different from the mad rush of images in much contemporary filmmaking. Scott’s return to this fount, Prometheus (2011), although fine in and of itself, was disappointing for those of us hoping for a stylistic rather than thematic extension, a project revelling in the creation of miasmic atmosphere and slow-ratcheting dread. The normally propulsive Cameron honoured the model with his follow-up in its deceptive blend of quiet and intensity with Aliens before hitting the gas. The opening shot of Alien, a slow, abyssal scan of the dark planetoid silhouetted against the rays of its sun, with barely audible music and the slowly compositing title of the film across the width of screen, immediately roots what follows in a mode of interstellar gothic. There’s a powerful echo of William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days Setting a Compass to the Earth” in its image of a dark sun and the evocation of cosmic powers gathering, as Scott primes the viewer for a dive into an age where the dark, satanic mills and apocalyptic dragons of Blakeian verse have become universal state (and Blakeian ideas and images recur constantly through many of Scott’s subsequent films). This gives way to the Nostromo making its way through space, and much is made, in a manner reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; doubtlessly deliberate as per Scott’s avowed Kubrickian fetish), of the sheer mechanical intricacy of the ship’s efforts to get from space onto the planet, at once ungainly and majestic. Jerry Goldsmith’s seafarer scoring reinforces the way this moment seems at once a super-technological event and a throwback to a days of laborious transport on the whims of the wind and tide. Goldsmith’s scoring, which was subject to conflicts with both Scott and the studio, is nonetheless one of the film’s less-appreciated achievements, defining the eerie, sonorous mood at the outset before swelling to offer overtones of not just menace but also elegy, even romanticism, as these far-out labourers find themselves cast however incidentally as pioneers and adventurers. His music rises to crescendo during the attack on Lambert and Parker where the dramatic furore of the scoring offsets the almost languid, slow-motion quality of the horror, this death-dance where you can do nothing but watch as a grotesque hell-beast sizes you up and prepares to lunch on your brain. And then, no music at all – only the sounds of unimaginable terror, piped through to Ripley as she rushes to a rescue that only come too late. All of it, a master class in the use of film’s sonic textures as well as visual.

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The film’s opening minutes, similarly, say much about what can be done even when nothing is happening. Tracking shots through the ship’s interior, resolving eventually on the forms of the crew in perfect stasis, computers clicking to life before humans, toy baubles bobbing up and down according to the thrum of the constant engines: Scott evokes presence by absence, the eerie chill of a haunted house, the crew already dead but not yet knowing it. The ship’s name of course was taken from Joseph Conrad’s novel, a tale of an ordinary but great man ruined by greed, and a step removed from the heart of darkness. The hunt for the creature commences after its gruesome birth, with the crew at first assuming they’re only dealing with a small, nasty vermin. But soon Brett, assigned to track down the ship’s cat and mascot Jones, encounters the alien, having grown into a gangly, man-sized monstrosity that rips his forehead open with a recessed, springing jaw. Dallas ventures into the ship’s air duct system to track it down, only to be outwitted and attacked, his fate ambiguous (in the later director’s cut, revealed to have been cocooned alive as a meal or host body for another alien). Brett’s ill-fated hunt for Jones and its jolting climax makes for one of the film’s best scenes, in part because of Stanton’s shambling, ineffably hangdog refusal to act like he’s in a horror movie, perfectly depicting a man worn comically ragged by a lifetime of bullshit work suddenly reaching its end in a way no-one could ever see coming, seen as a series of eliding yet hideously suggestive glimpses of obscene creation and violence. Scott uses his search as an excuse to shoot the Nostromo’s darkest reaches with its filth and dripping water in a way that evokes the feeling of such an environment not just as a tactile space but a way of life and a working world that somehow also spills over into the dreamlike. The alien is first glimpsed dangling from some hanging chains and yet the plain sight of it doesn’t register for several viewings precisely because it looks like so much of the mechanical.

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Dallas’ hunt for the alien is a more traditional horror sequence in which tension is built not just by the carefully utilised claustrophobic space Dallas scrambles about in, but the register of the tracking sensor that shows something zeroing in on him, yet remaining chillingly unseen and elusive until it appears at the least expected moment in one of cinema’s greatest ever pure “boo!” moments. Ripley is next in command, and is left the one who has to make a call on what to do now, cueing my favourite moment in Weaver’s performance. This scene depicts Ripley, shaken and grieving after two severe shocks but at the same time coolly taking charge, pacifying Parker and registering her disbelief with Ash’s responses, contrasting the increasingly brittle Parker and Lambert and Ash’s inhuman cool. Suspicious of Ash’s reticence with ideas for catching or killing the monster, Ripley consults with MUTHR only to learn the company has instructed that the alien be returned to Earth with the crew considered expendable to this end. Ripley angrily strikes Ash, only for Ash to chase her down and try to murder her, starting to leak not blood from a graze on his head but milky white fluid – the sign he’s actually an android. Although it displeased O’Bannon, Hill and Giler’s decision to introduce Ash as an android was inspired, as it gave the film a jolt of narrative complexity and surprise, as well as one of Scott’s best whisper-to-a-scream sequences, particularly when Ash is revealed, having silently entered the control room and now standing next to Ripley when she’s just read the shocking orders in MUTHR, to tell her that, in spite of the evidence of her eyes and mind, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of it.

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Ash plays a very similar role to HAL 9000 in 2001 as the electronic entity on board who proves nearly as dangerous as any other threat, and he introduces another common conceptual wing of the sci-fi genre alongside space travel and alien life – the artificial human. But where HAL was a proto-consciousness destroyed by its own confusion born of being perched between states of being, there is nothing confused about Ash or his role, as simulacrum contrived to be indistinguishable and as a proxy to carry out dirty work, a sleeper agent representing both the interests of the company and his own fascination for the alien. Scott would of course return to the theme of the cynically created android being in Blade Runner (1982) and push several ideas nascent here to a limit, particularly the question of how moral in the human sense one could expect such a sentient creation to be when given life to by entirely different creative forces. Ash intellectually votes a kind of loyalty to the alien precisely because it’s more like him than the humans around him, with the keynote word of “purity” signifying something both fascistic and atavistic in that loyalty, with the hint that there’s always something machine-like to any lifeform, in compulsion to survive in itself and to reproduce to extend its genome.

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The alien is a sophisticated but also utterly simple expression of this essence. Parker and Lambert must stop Ash killing Ripley, with Parker decapitating him with a blow. But the android still deadly, until Lambert finally fries him with an electrified prod. The physicality of this sequence is tremendous, particularly as it serves in part as a repeat-cum-revision of Kane’s earlier demise, echoed in the ripping apart of Ash and the exposure of his vitals, except now the human form is substituted for something else – the company man revealed as unholy chimera of literal milk for blood and circuitry, the strength and wicked concision of the android physique suggested as Ash rips Ripley’s curls from her head, forms his fingers like a vice on Parker’s chest, and tries to choke Ripley with a rolled-up magazine. The image of headless Ash still trying to kill is as vital in its way as the alien itself in depicting the maniacal heart of this tale, animating the essential notion of a universe turned animate and hostile, of creation turned insane. When they briefly revive Ash to glean information from him, his mocking smile and cold humour (“I can’t lie to you about your chances but…you have my sympathies.”) give cold comfort but also a fire to the last three crewmembers. They resolve to abandon the ship and blow it up, ensuring there’s nothing left of the alien to pose a threat, or a boon, to anyone else. The climactic scenes see Alien’s pitiless logic still in play even as everything seems to spiral towards incandescent terminus. Parker and Lambert’s scrambling eagerness to survive creates a racket that attracts their nemesis. Ripley finds herself trapped on the ship she instructed to turn off, the intelligent but insensate MUTHR now calmly counting off minutes to self-destruction regardless of Ripley’s screams for awareness.

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Only Ripley is fated to live, to become the emblematic survivor, the eternal neo-Odysseus voyaging home and battling demons of the underworld at every turn. Scott and company had the guts to take up that original notion of O’Bannon and Shusett’s and even take it a step further in a way, making her the film’s pivotal figure without rhetoric or cliché: she became the great archetype of a modern heroine because she simply is. Ripley’s force and character are made apparent long before she has to take up the mantle of command and then the face the axis that will make her either titan or afterthought lunchmeat. To a certain extent this idea wasn’t so radical, particularly as Ripley serves the role of “final girl” already being codified in horror movie terminology. She would become as the archetypal warrior mother in Aliens, Boudica with a pulse rifle. Here she’s just another member of the crew, blessed only with a slight advantage in muscle of body, mind, and spirit that allows her to survive. And even that may be in part due to the alien, as it’s heavily suggested, being canny is enough to use her to so what it can’t—fly the Nostromo’s shuttle away from the dying vessel. Weaver’s performance is both excellent but also less stand-out than the star-driven sequels, as Alien retains something of the Howard Hawks ethic of the ensemble as star, but also because Ripley is becoming, evolving, just as surely as the alien is, switched on by crisis and forced to work every cell in her frame to live. Still Weaver catches the eye at first with the blend of amusement and attitude she turns on Parker and Brett, and comes into focus as she interrogates Ash over his breach of discipline and, later, his seemingly negligent lack of urgency. “You’re still collating?” Ripley asks Ash, with Weaver’s reading at once emotional and beggared and exacting in her refusal to be bullshitted, before announcing a course of action to her fellows that signals both her emotional genuineness and her unfurling strength. It’s the moment Weaver became a movie star and Ripley becomes not just a character but a hero.

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The breathless climactic scenes, as the formerly becalmed corridors of the Nostromo become a labyrinth of din and smoke, do graze the edge of impressive but empty hullabaloo on repeat viewings. But the sneakily appended final act is a perfect islet that repeats the film in miniature and punishes anyone who thought defeating such evil it would be so easy. Tough, resilient, almost androgynous Ripley strips down to her panties, suddenly, almost discomfortingly vulnerable, takes a deep breath, and prepares for sleep, only to find she’s trapped with the ultimate boogeyman. Much like Laurie Strode in Halloween Ripley is terrorised into a cupboard and forced into her make-or-break stand there, adapting tools and formulating a quick plan that needs profound courage to pull off and circumstances allow no other end. The cunning of this sequence lies not just in staging a great twist that the entire film has, in retrospect, been conditioning the viewer for – is it just more quiet and methodical observation, or leading to something? – but in the way it underlines both human and alien as creatures refusing to surrender or abandon their essence. Ripley finds her warrior pith, fusion of dragon killers like St George and Perseus with the princesses they saved, as befitting a modern myth, and the incredibly resilient alien manages to survive in space, still trying to find a way back into the shuttle after Ripley blows it out the airlock, will still not give up the game until Ripley gives it a roasting with the shuttle engines. The last image, of Ripley returned to sleep, is sublime in its sense of circularity, the waking life a nightmare that must contended with, and sleep the place where everyone is safe.


22nd 07 - 2016 | 5 comments »

The Time Machine (1960)

Director: George Pal

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By Roderick Heath

The 1950s saw the first real boom in cinematic science fiction, and those genre halcyon days owed much to George Pal. The Hungarian-born filmmaker had made his name working in the German film industry before the Nazis came to power with a series of shorts linking music and a clever brand of animation he developed known as Puppetoons. After he moved to the U.S. and started working in Hollywood, he captured an Oscar for his shorts in 1943 before eventually turning to feature production with the 1950 fantasy film The Great Rupert, helmed by actor-turned-director Irving Pichel. Pal and Pichel quickly followed it up with a more ambitious project extrapolating cutting-edge scientific concepts, most of which were still purely theoretical, about what space travel would be like and turning them into a movie titled Destination Moon (1950). Not the best of the scifi work of the era and not quite the first, Destination Moon nonetheless renewed the template for a brand of realistic science fiction first touched on by Fritz Lang two decades earlier with The Woman in the Moon (1929), and proved the catalyst for an eruption of interest in all things fantastical and futuristic that would cram movie screens for the next few years. Pal, who seemed to harbour ambitions to emulate his Paramount Pictures stablemate, Cecil B. DeMille, as a maker of grandiose entertainments, soon produced two more works still familiar to anyone who loves the genre: When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953), based on the H. G. Wells novel. His brand came to grief with Conquest of Space (1955), an attempt to return to Destination Moon’s template of hard scifi that was generally rejected as hokey and clumsy, although now its ambition and fumbling attempts at a poetic understanding of space flight now look far more prescient.

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Pal didn’t make another film for three years, and when he did, it came as a straight fantasy for MGM, tom thumb (1958), with Pal himself directing for the first time. The film’s success allowed him to return to scifi with a second raid on the works of H. G. Wells, this time the 1895 novella The Time Machine. Wells’ role in shaping the very concept of science fiction is hard to overestimate. If his predecessors and fellow progenitors Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne opened up the strange new landscapes of speculative interest, the former pair as a psychic vista of strangeness and anxiety, and the latter with a grasp on the potential of machinery, Wells synthesised their approaches and used his real scientific learning to start writing stories that investigated a certain driving idea to a logical end, with his real dramatic and poetic gifts used to shade and guide. Wells was eventually frustrated by the way his early, short, sensational writings overshadowed his more literary and philosophical output even before his death in 1945. His most famous tales also defied easy filming, as they tend to be shaped more like travelogues through certain conceptual universes rather than as propulsive narratives. Pal, however, had no problem overseeing their conversion into forceful blood-and-thunder yarns.

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Partly for this reason, Pal’s approach to scifi has often been divisive for genre fans in spite of his films’ iconic status, as he popularised the form by emphasising elements general audiences could grasp and relate to at the expense of more radical aspects: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds are littered with invocations of the biblical and parochial in contrast to the more difficult, sceptical, acidic impulses scifi in its literary form was just starting to contemplate. Yet Pal and his various stable directors had a grasp on the essence of scifi in the popular mindset as a place of vast frontiers, grand promise, and outsized threat: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds successfully visualised the new awareness of the Atomic Age as a place of both possibility and dread in fervent colours and big-type dramatic reflexes. By 1960, the zeitgeist was changing, and Pal took on The Time Machine with a mellower, more thoughtful palate, if also still happily leaping into adventure territory when the time came. Pal saw scifi through the eyes of a man whose life had been shaped by his love of constructing and manipulating his Puppetoons, a modern take on an old mechanistic craft with its roots based on middle Europe’s folk cultures as a new-age wing of the old fairy tale book; unsurprisingly, his next work as director was to be an exploration of the legacy of the Brothers Grimm. The Time Machine manages to be both thoughtful and wistful, but also childlike in its sense of the possible and glee in the process of the impossible.

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The film’s prologue, a series of gently ticking, drifting clocks in the void giving way to the drumming thunder of Big Ben, has a beguilingly poetic quality that infuses the rest of the film, which looks both backwards and forwards with both youthful joie de vivre and an autumnal sweetness. In this regard, Pal’s visuals are inestimably aided by Russell Garcia’s scoring, with sound and image in deep accord in exploring the way the past and the future are another country. As later transposers of Wells’ art would also do, Pal and screenwriter David Duncan wove Wells himself and his ideas into his tale, essentially presenting the anonymous time traveller of the book as Wells himself, or the version of himself he presented through his writing—a thoughtful dreamer and pacifist out of step with the coldly pragmatic mindset of the late Victorian age. Pal also reset the story at the moment of a great pivot, in the last week of the 19th century, charged with intimations of a farewell and a new beginning attendant to every change of year with the special dimension of one world about to give way to another. The book’s recounted narrative is retained, as kindly Scots merchant Robert Filby (Alan Young) and other members of a circle of friends, gruff Dr. Hillyer (a glorious character turn by Sebastian Cabot), boozy Bridewell (Tom Helmore), and stuffy Kemp (Whit Bissell), await dinner with their inventor friend George Wells (Rod Taylor) in his house. Increasingly irked by George’s absence, the men sit down to dinner served up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd), only for George to appear, bloodied, shattered, and dishevelled.

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George, fortified by wine and Filby’s assurances that he has “all the time in the world,” begins to recount the strange adventure he’s had since he last talked to them. A flashback takes them to their last meeting, on New Year’s Eve, during which George tried to thrill and impress his friends with a demonstration of a miniature version of a time machine he’s built. The small machine seemed to work perfectly, but his friends chose to dismiss it as a conjuring trick. Hillyer and Kemp instead prodded George to turn his efforts towards more practical ideas to serve military applications, whilst Filby feared the machine on a more fundamental level, warning his friend that it’s not a good idea to tempt the laws of providence. Frustrated by their lack of belief and understanding, and appalled by more grim news from the Boer War, George arranged for the dinner a week in the future before heading to his laboratory and climbing into the full-sized version of the time machine, determined to brave all dangers and explore the future in his conviction it will prove to be the place where his dreams become common reality.

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The Time Machine chose to take on its source novel in the period during which it was written and employ the odd and fascinating spectacle of super-sophisticated machinery built in a Victorian fashion. In doing so, The Time Machine’s eponymous creation, a glorious thing of brass curves, plush red velvet and blinking multicoloured lights, became one prototype for the subgenre today called Steampunk. The Time Machine wasn’t the first work to render a scifi classic in period, as a handful of Verne adaptations in previous years—Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Byron Haskin’s From the Earth to the Moon (1958), and Henry Levin’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)—had already exploited the charm and colour of retro conceptualism. But that choice was more felicitous in making The Time Machine because of the nature of its narrative and its themes, and because although submarines and spaceships now existed, the idea of a time machine could still be illustrated in a charmingly vague way. George’s time travels didn’t have to be entirely imagined, and the contrast between his ideals and the reality of the new scientific age could be described, with an extra dimension of introspection from a 1960s perspective.

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First and foremost, George’s plunge into what he calls “the fourth dimension” is both illustrated by and analogous with Pal’s own love of ingenious showmanship, visualising time travel through the basic building blocks of cinema itself—stop-motion and time-lapse photography—and replete with good-humoured flourishes, like the mannequin in Filby’s store window who becomes George’s unageing friend and barometer of shockingly changing tastes in fashion. George’s first stop in future time brings not just the chuffing oddness of a horseless carriage, but also a harsh taste of loss, as he sees Filby wearing a military uniform, only to learn to his sorrow that this is Filby’s grown son James (Young again), whose father has died in the trenches of World War I. George takes away one salve: Filby, who controlled George’s estate, refused to sell the house out of faith that one day George would “return.”

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George despondently returns to his machine and presss on, experiencing his house’s destruction during the Blitz before stopping again presumably in the later 1960s, when atomic war has broken out. Again George is confronted by the sight of people fleeing to air raid shelters, and again meets James Filby in a military role, only this time he’s a silver-suited, white-haired air raid warden urging people to safety, astounded by George’s youthful appearance. The sight of an atomic missile drives Filby away even as Geroge begs him for conversation, and George barely survives the horror of an atomic explosion and the volcanic eruption it sets off. He climbs into his time machine and just manages to avoid being roasted by lava. Instead, he is walled inside a rock form for millennia.

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When the rock wears away, he surveys a marvellously new green Earth where a sublime harmony seems to have evolved between human structures and the elements. He stops his machine suddenly, causing it to careen out of control, topple over and knock George out. He awakens to find himself close to a strange, Sphinxlike building, and when he begins to explore the landscape, finds it an Edenic place with apparently no one to share it, the huge, super-moderne buildings nearby uninhabited and run down. Finally, he does encounter other people, a bunch of wan, blonde, innocent and yet also almost pathologically indolent folk who call themselves the Eloi. George has to save one woman he sees close to drowning in a river under the blasé gaze of her friends. George makes the acquaintance of the woman, who says her name is Weena (Yvette Mimieux), and slowly begins to plumb the strangeness of the society he’s presented with.

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The greatest qualities of The Time Machine become apparent in George’s headlong journey through time, experiencing his own erasure from history, the death of friends, and the calamities awaiting humankind thanks to our inability to learn lessons, all with steadily drooping enthusiasm. Pal grasps intuitively the action of time travel not just as discovery, but also as tragedy, as George finds himself doomed to witness looping events and scenes of loss and destruction, until finally, when the rock encasing him and his machine breaks apart, he seems to behold a gorgeous new future. But there are also peculiar proofs of faith, as when George finds that what was his old house has been turned into a park dedicated by James to his father’s love for his friend. There’s a striking intimacy and humanity to much of the film, for example, when George realises Filby has remained behind after his disappointing demonstration to talk, or George’s interactions with Weena, who gropes towards an understanding of him and the apple of necessary, but painful knowledge he brings to her Eden. When he arrives in the future he so dearly wants to see, his pleasure in what he sees is steadily worn down to a state of furious disillusion: the underlying truth about the Eloi and the strange beings that lurk in the darkness they call the Morlocks eventually proves utterly horrifying, but, in a way, less depressing to a man like George, who finds himself shocked and outraged when he finds the Eloi have allowed what’s left of the human intellectual inheritance to petrify and crumble away as they live happily in the sun eating the bounties provided to them without question or heed.

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Wells set out with The Time Machine to disassemble the precious, barely questioned idealism of the high Victorian period, an idealism that had much in common with the 1950s variety—an official faith in the future with a vibrating anxiety over change and threat beneath it all. He took the still fresh and prickly notion of evolution, whose great proponent, Julian Huxley, had been one of Wells’ teachers, and applied it mirthlessly to the satirical idea that if allowed to continue, the stratification of society would eventually lead to two entirely different posthuman species, the Eloi, descendants of a leisure class, and the Morlocks, subterranean workers who, in a twist of brute sarcasm, have become farmers treating the Eloi as free-range cattle and living on their flesh. Pal and Duncan tweaked this concept to look squarely at the idea not just as a permutation of Victorian labour relations, but also as a distant echo of life in the 20th century: the Morlocks round up their flocks of Eloi by blasting out the sounds of air raid sirens that draw the Eloi underground. The Eloi have essentially become children, afraid of the dark and blithe about what supports their lifestyle, but George’s arrival quickly coaxes deeper reflexes from Weena. She braves the terrors of the night to warn him about the Morlocks as he searches for his machine, which he finds has been dragged within the Sphinx. George and Weena spend a night hunkered before a fire after one of the Morlocks has attacked her, but fortunately, the monsters prove vulnerable to bright light and a good right hook.

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The Time Machine treads campy territory in trying to present the Eloi like a mob of listless, young Hollywood ingénues and beach bums (that Mimieux also starred in the same year’s Where the Boys Are amplifies the association), whilst also interestingly prescient on the oncoming age of the counterculture and its history-reboot philosophy, a movement which had much in common with the onset of many similar ideas in the Victorian age that Wells himself often espoused. There is stinging power in the moment when George, led to a collection of books kept by the Eloi by one of their number, realises the Eloi have let their cultural inheritance decay and literally turn to dust, and the previously idealistic and forward-looking savant is appalled and disillusioned to a crushing degree: “At least I can die amongst men!” he bellows in offense before abandoning his attempts to plumb the Eloi culture, because there is none. It’s also hard to deny that on at least one level, the film devolves into a Boy’s Own tale of two-fisted adventure and revolt as George proves the threat of the Morlocks is only as strong as they’re allowed to be. But the future sequences of the film have a similar mood of stripped-down mythos that would later sustain definitive genre TV works like Star Trek and early Doctor Who. In this regard and more, The Time Machine feels like a vital transitional moment in scifi cinema, mediating the chitinous forms of ’50s scifi and the brand that would dominate for the next 15 years or so in English-language scifi filmmaking—looking more closely at human society, its past and present, through the prisms of parable.

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The soul-searching that often bubbled as subtext in ‘50s scifi films here hatches and becomes overt, contemplating the modern inheritance both as one of wonder, but also cringing fear of what terrors it had conjured. The Eloi living space has the quality of being at once futuristic and distantly mythical. The drama turns inward as it contemplates humanity’s fate with an early intimation of the idea of dystopia, a substrata of the genre that’s still powerful, often playing out in extrapolated versions of high modernist architectural environs and evoking common pasts as decayed and neglected memories, and plied with a dusting of fable as here, including the likes of THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974), Rollerball (1975), and Logan’s Run (1976). The headier, questioning aspect of the film seeds many more genre directions, not the least of which was the time travel idea itself, one barely tackled in cinema before this, but which has become an oft-iterated theme in works as diverse as Back to the Future (1985) and Primer (2004). The haunting quality Pal manages to invest in the film continues to recur, especially powerful and poignant in the sequence when Weena leads George to a place where the remains of human civilisation still persist, the voices of men in ages past recorded on spinning rings reporting tales of bleak decline and death; pointedly, both voices heard are Paul Frees, who had loaned his stentorian tones to War of the Worlds as the definitive voice of futurism, now reporting as the ghost of ages lost in a sublime distillation of the scifi creed in a totemic moment: “My name is no consequence. The important thing you should know is that I am the last who remembers when each of us, man and woman, made his own decision.”

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The lingering shadow of the ’50s monster movie still pervades The Time Machine, as the glowing-eyed Morlocks try to snatch Weena. But Pal still manages to generate a weird and tense atmosphere, as when George witnesses the Eloi responding to the Morlock siren call and then descends into their underground works to rescue Weena and in a gleeful action climax as George battles the cannibalistic, humanoid Morlocks, having discovered the gruesome secret in a room littered with human bones by exploiting their great weakness, their fear of bright light. A particular likeness has long intrigued me about this sequence and the way it connects to Pal’s earlier career and background: Garcia’s music in places sounds awfully reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky’s score for his famous ballet The Firebird, suggesting Pal might well have taken inspiration from that work and its roots in Slavic and Hungarian mythology, and evoking Pal’s own musical reflexes from his Puppetoon days. Certainly Pal had long been fascinated with the classic battery of fairy tales and had adapted several as shorts. This connection makes perfect sense to me, as the story is essentially the same, with George cast as the pure hero descending into a stygian underground to fight the demons and steal back a captive princess, fending off evil with light, and the time machine itself cast as the firebird, the vessel of transformative power. And as silly as George’s battle with the Morlocks is in a way, it’s still a genuinely gripping sequence with a great physicality, particularly as Pal’s eye is strong here, with the nightmarish image of the Morlocks advancing on their penned-up intended meals. The film’s corniest moment is also a highlight—an effete Eloi mans up and wallops one of the Morlocks in the back as it throttles George, saving his life.

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A few good socks to the jaw and some fiery brands fortunately prove enough to give the Morlocks hell, being as they are used to victims who don’t fight back. George is able to rescue Weena and some of the other Eloi, blowing up part of the underground city, and a new dawn seems at hand. But the Morlocks set a trap for George, luring him into the Sphinx with his time machine and then closing the doors, separating him from Weena and forcing him to fight for his life before he manages to escape in time, first travelling forward, witnessing the gruesome decomposition of a Morlock he killed, a surprisingly graphic and spectacular visual punch for 1960. George finally returns to his own time to keep his date with his friends. His only proof for his story is a flower given to him by Weena, and again he is disbelieved, taken by his friends as an attempt to break into the penny dreadful market. At the last, Filby hears the time machine revving up again after George has dragged it back in from the garden and repositioned it in the laboratory so he can reappear outside the Sphinx before Weena.

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It’s appropriate that the last notes of The Time Machine return to that mood of wistful longing and questioning as Filby is left contemplating his friend’s resolve when he and Mrs. Watchett notice George took three books to the future with him, leaving it up to the audience to divine which three books they were. This provides a lovely little supernal flourish that closes off the film on just the right note, again nudging the fablelike with the tiniest signs of human nature—a flower in Filby’s hand, a space on a bookshelf, the lights switching off in a house whose owner will never return, and a man shuffling off in the snow back to his family—proffered as transcendental totems.

The cast of the film lived long and well. When Rod Taylor and more recently Alan Young died, I could not help but think, “You have all the time in the world.”


13th 07 - 2016 | 2 comments »

Jurassic Park (1993)

Director: Steven Spielberg

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By Roderick Heath

The box office success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Steven Spielberg’s third trip to that popular well, partly disguised his struggle to find his artistic maturity, a struggle that defined his oeuvre in the late 1980s and early ’90s. With the fervent, Dickensian lilt of The Color Purple (1985) nominated for multiple Oscars but then frozen out, and Empire of the Sun (1987), now regarded as one of his greatest achievements, a box office bomb and object of critical suspicion at the time, his foray into a more serious brand of cinema might have seemed a blind alley. He returned to lighter, fantastical tributes to moviemaking’s past with Always (1989) and Hook (1991), but in spite of tremendous moments in both, time hasn’t been particularly kind to either on the whole. Whilst Spielberg was working up the project that would eventually become Schindler’s List (1993), he also set out to find a new property to convert into hard-charging popcorn cinema in the Jaws (1975) mode. He found it in a novel by Michael Crichton, a former physician who turned to writing smart-pulpy scifi and thrillers for the printed page and TV in the late 1960s and even found some success as a film director himself for a time. Crichton had essentially recycled the core idea of his 1974 hit film Westworld for Jurassic Park, both being tales of a futuristic theme park contrived to realise deeply cherished fantasies for its audience whose illusion of control vanishes when the exhibits quickly become hunters.

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Jurassic Park now looks very much like a pivotal moment in Spielberg’s career—not just chronologically, or in its success, which was colossal, even industry-deflecting in reestablishing Spielberg as the titan of pop cinema and giving the CGI era its clarion blast. Jurassic Park is its own work of theatre and self-dramatization, paying tribute to the ageless wish to see something truly awesome and to actually satisfying that desire. But it’s also a study in complication, the awareness of mechanics behind spectacles and the dangers of knowledge—the lot of adulthood. Westworld’s grounding in the Me Decade of the ’70s depicted very adult fantasies realised through the well-worn scifi concept of the humanoid robot that goes berserk. Jurassic Park, by contrast, had a more original, timely, scientific McGuffin to employ, and developed it with a variation on Crichton’s recycled concept with broader appeal: what if scientists could recreate dinosaurs using advances in DNA technology and exhibit the results as the ultimate tourist attraction? The concept of primeval forces placed before armies of sticky-fingered kids and their bewildered parents was obviously irresistible to Spielberg—a life-and-death entertainment for whole family.

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Jurassic Park is also, more obviously, a tribute to and contemporary spin on a hallowed strand of scifi, one in which a remnant of the distant past and its formidable wonders is found subsisting in the present. This subgenre had roots in fare like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, entries from the early days of speculative fiction. The most famous movie inheritor of their lexicon was Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933), the definitive monster movie and progenitor over the intervening decades of the likes of Ray Harryhausen’s films and the Japanese kaiju epics. One of Jurassic Park’s key images, of the park’s wooden, momentous gateway, pays direct tribute to King Kong, whilst the opening scene deploys a wry joke for fans of the classic and a bluff for an audience expecting thrills. Tense and wary workmen and their overseer, great white hunter Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), watch as something monstrous stirs behind trees, as Kong did in his first appearance. The culprit? A forklift. But the joke dies in the throat with intimations that something slyer and deadlier than Kong’s lumbering protomachismo is in play—the mechanical monster carries forth one of the deadly chimeras science has conjured ready to take a bite out of any hapless soul foolish enough to get close. Hints of dread give way to contrasts of absurdity and elusive promise, as lawyer Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) braves jungle depths to talk to miner Juanito Rostagno (Miguel Sandoval), who holds a shard of precious amber with its ancient prisoner, a luckless mosquito, every bit as powerful a relic pulled from the earth as Spielberg’s Ark of the Covenant. Gennaro, an insulated modern astray in the field contrasts Rostagno, a man confidently engaged in an ancient and honourable art, one shared by one of the film’s core heroes, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), a digger.

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Alan and his palaeobotanist colleague and lover Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) are tempted away from their dig for velociraptor bones in the New Mexico desert by the initially obscure temptations of twinkle-eyed entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who offers to fund their research for years if they agree to come with him, no questions asked, to inspect his latest creation. Alan and Ellie find themselves thrown into the company of Gennaro and flashy mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who’s also been hired for expert opinion. Soon, the trio find out just what Hammond and his company, InGen, have been brewing on Isla Nublar, a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica. InGen’s scientific wizards, led by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), have conjured a motley collection of dinosaurs bred from remnant DNA extracted from amber-entrapped prehistoric insects and arranged in paddocks. Hammond hopes this will be the commercial coup of the millennium. He’s distressed when the three savants all bring up the potential risks and variables they’re facing now that dangerous animals have come back from the dead, even though the scientific team working for InGen have tried their best to control the population, including breeding only females and leaving them hormonally deficient. But the real spanner in the works is human: Hammond’s chief computer technician, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), angry that he’s not getting paid enough for building Hammond’s cutting-edge, completely automated systems, has agreed to steal embryos for a rival company and arranges to send the park haywire to cover his theft and retreat. Nedry’s plan plays out during a confluence of complicating situations, with a hurricane brushing the island and Grant, Ellie, Ian, and Hammond’s two grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), trapped by the system breakdown in a very inconvenient situation.

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The basic notions at the heart of Jurassic Park are some of the oldest and most familiar in science fiction, but given an ingenious gloss of cutting-edge theory and technology. The Frankenstein question of how far humankind’s dominion can and should stretch over the natural world is dressed up in some pop science thanks to the chaos theories espoused by Malcolm, who doubles as the film’s colour man: Malcolm’s mathematical extrapolations say that no outcome can be entirely predicted, especially when dealing with a living system. The film minimises, but doesn’t entirely eject the scientific detective element in Crichton’s book, as Alan tries to understand how the dinosaurs, in spite of their creators’ labours, prove still able to mate and reproduce: the use of frog DNA to fill in gaps in the genome proves the catalyst. Jurassic Park also came up with a great way to give those old lost world works a believable spin in an age when all the blank spots have been cleared from the world’s maps and a sense of wonder, and caution, in the face of the unknown steadily dulled. For Spielberg, the appeal of seeing dinosaurs is inevitably correlated with his very stock-in-trade, his cinematic skill, and the way he made the act of beholding itself a totemic action in his work.

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Jurassic Park’s most powerful scene, one of the definitive moments of Spielberg’s career, is the lovingly orchestrated climax of the film’s first movement, when the visiting scientists catch their first, amazed glimpses of one of the dinosaurs in a dance of reaction shots, deft little dollies, and careful control of information that makes the act of seeing something as important as what’s being seen—Spielberg’s hotline into the unconscious of his audience at its most precise. Alan and Ellie are instantly plunged back into their own childhood fantasies of communing with the beasts they’ve made the subjects of their adult studies, confronted by a sprawl of saurian species straight off generations of museum dioramas and picture books illustrations instantly recognisable to any dinosaur-mad kid. Amazement gives way, inevitably, to curiosity, as Alan, Ellie, and Malcolm break out of the controlled limits of Hammond’s contrived theme park tour to look more closely at the science and the machinations behind the facades. Curiosity leads to knowledge, and that’s when the expulsion from Eden begins—or rather the dragons in Eden start to slither out of the underbrush. The scientists voice their concerns to the point where Hammond is left bemoaning the fact that the only person unequivocally on his side is Gennaro, “the bloodsucking lawyer,” who represents the purely fiscal mindset at a slight remove from Hammond’s creative vision. Small wonder the film of Jurassic Park inverts the novel’s fates, where Gennaro became a mild hero and Hammond died, consumed by his own creation.

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Spielberg’s empathy with Hammond is vital to Jurassic Park, the filmmaker’s identification with the character’s desire to thrill and provoke people to wonderment mediating the myopia and incidental arrogance that created the park and leads to tragedy. Hammond is initially presented as a Venn diagram for Willy Wonka, Colonel Sanders, and Richard Branson, welcoming the innocent into his land of treats where the dangers are in full view. But Jurassic Park constantly correlates the experience of movie-going and its attendant paraphernalia with the world Hammond has engineered, and Hammond’s pride as a man who built himself up from the humblest of backgrounds—his first piece of showmanship was a flea circus—to become a maker of marvels. If a film like John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) depicted its maker’s increasing sourness and frustration with a zeitgeist he could never quite connect to and felt increasingly alienated from in scifi form, Jurassic Park is revealing of Spielberg’s point of view as somebody who had known success and yet had seen it careen in unexpected directions, throw up hazards, and stir worry he might be losing his way. Jurassic Park lampoons the idea of commercialising creative fruit even as it exemplifies the notion. The park is presented as the ultimate version of the Universal Studios tour where Spielberg’s man-eating shark regularly leaps from the water several times a day—except that the dinosaurs aren’t animatronic and will happily bite you on the ass. Spielberg gets to work through his ambivalence at the idea not just of seeing private inspiration become public circus, but the distance between art and reality above all. This motive comes as another indelible image, when a velociraptor painted on a wall is suddenly contrasted by the shadow of the real thing—wriggling, sniffing, hungry for living meat.

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This moment exemplifies another enriching aspect of Jurassic Park, one that goes a long way to explaining the longevity of the film and the franchise it spawned: Spielberg’s ability to envision the dinosaurs not simply as threats and effects but as animals, with wilful, irrepressible natures, whether they’re brutal carnivores or boding vegetarians. The explosion in special-effects sophistication that allowed CGI to be paired with animatronics helped articulate this idea better than most variations on this idea had managed before, from the triceratops whose sleeping bulk captivates the scientists, to a brachiosaur that sneezes over an appalled Lex, or the sort of Heckle and Jeckle pair of raptors who stalk the kids through a kitchen in all their flitting curiosity and twitchy, predatory nerviness. Jurassic Park understood well the sway dinosaurs hold over people, particularly kids, avatars of a way of seeing the world as both hazardous, but also potentially splendid. The tyrannosaurus that is the film’s antihero encapsulates this understanding, progressing from demonic spectre that terrorises the heroes to engine of almost paternal vengeance that defeats the all-too-human velociraptors. The escape of the tyrannosaurus from its pen is the film’s core set-piece and another vignette of Spielberg’s skills at highest pitch, recalling the charge of Jaws as the monster is glimpsed in awful suggestions—a gory chunk of goat falling on top of Lex and Tim’s car, a pair of massive jaws closing in the flash of lightning—before the beast breaks through the fence left vulnerable by Nedry’s conniving and terrorises the kids, building to that most nightmarish moment in the Spielbergian universe: the object of awe and fascination looks right back at the beholder and decides it wants to eat it. The humans must reach into their most instinctual, primal facets to survive.

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This sequence still thrills for relatively straightforward reasons that nonetheless completely elude so many of the filmmakers with pretensions to working in the same mode as Spielberg: he achieves the Pavlovian ideal of popular cinema, that for a few minutes you’re utterly convinced of the urgent reality of what’s happening. Spielberg creates the feeling of being someone small and vulnerable with the image right out of nursery room nightmare of a black and scaly monstrosity with butcher-knife teeth bearing down upon you, and yet the sequence is entirely logical, even mechanistic, as a series of unfortunate events where an animal’s hunger, the fear of some kids, the concern of two men, the panic of a third, and a broken-down moving part of someone else’s dream provide the elements of a chaotic ballet. Each moment, each gesture, each mistake, each fumbled attempt at recovery creates the context for the next, perfectly illustrating the concepts Ian has tried to expostulate unheeded. The initial note of nascent dread is signalled, like some Buddhist parable, by ripples in a cup of water—the same water, vitally, Ian had earlier used in teaching chaos theory to Ellie. By its climax, Alan has been forced to play Spielberg’s superhero Indiana Jones to save himself and Lex, Malcolm almost gets himself killed helping others, and Gennaro finishes up as lizard food, plucked off a toilet in the most horrible fashion in reward for his cowardice. Alan is left leading his two battered charges through the park, whilst Malcolm is recovered by Ellie and Muldoon moments before having to outrun the tyrannosaurus.

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For all the showy thrill-mongering, much of the pleasure and quality of Jurassic Park comes as Spielberg enjoys his cast and characters interacting and treating the storyline’s conceits with both a sense of revelry and droll suspicion. The latter element is chiefly supplied by Goldblum’s Ian Malcom, whose persona is smartly contrived as the antithesis of the old-school cliché egghead, strutting through the film as leather-clad cool kid and dryly scornful voice of reason, violently contrasting Alan’s shabby, testy earthiness, Ellie’s pleasantly nerdy pluck, and Hammond’s pixilated bonhomie. Malcolm interestingly serves in contrast to one of the classic genre story patterns in which the figure of rationalism is portrayed as the cold arbiter of unfeeling precepts; Jurassic Park is, in part, the tragedy of everyone failing to listen to his Cassandralike omens. The scientists here are the bridging and communication points between the furore of nature and the human desire for order and domain. Muldoon (expertly played by the ice-eyed Peck, who sadly died not long after) evokes another archetype, the rugged bush tracker in slouch hat who sees the ruthless intelligence at hand in the raptors, but who finally proves no luckier than Jaws’ Quint when it comes to taking on his monstrous foes, outsmarted in the underbrush by tactics Alan had anticipated earlier. Alan and Ellie’s introductory scene sees Alan mischievously terrorising a snotty brat hanging around his paleontological dig site with tales of velociraptor acumen and savagery. Alan is basically a big kid himself, and another of Spielberg’s identification figures as the guy who likes stirring reactions in people and the man who fears taking the next step in his life as husband and father.

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The bipolar aspect to Spielberg’s career was still fairly unrecognised when Jurassic Park came out. The mean and mischievous Loki of Jaws, 1941 (1979), and the first two Indiana Jones films, as well as the portraitist of cruelty and anarchy in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, was still dimmed to most eyes by the joyous Peter Pan of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Like most of his fellow generation of “Movie Brats,” Spielberg had personal motives invested in his cinema but no problem plying his work for as big an audience as he could muster. Yet, for such a “big” work, many of the best moments in the film are virtually inconsequential—Ian and Ellie flirting up a storm, Alan beaming with boyish pleasure as he listens to a sickly triceratops breathing, Hammond expressing his quiet loathing for Ian’s taunting cynicism—nonetheless somehow manage to speak of the film’s essential theses of life in all its tumult, brutality, and empathy. The two children of a sundering family along for the ride provide surrogates for the younger audience and fill out one of Spielberg’s already-familiar pick-up families, as Alan grudgingly evolves from childphobic to burgeoning father figure. Early sequences are lengthy and surprisingly talky, prizing conversation, expostulation, the give-and-take of ideas and ways of seeing. The seed is here for Spielberg’s handling of this motif in ostensibly more serious fare, like Amistad (1997) and Lincoln (2012), just as the sequence when the visitors speak with Hammond and Muldoon at the raptor cage sees Spielberg try out a different way of shooting a scene—holding back, allowing multiple dialogues to take place at the same time—that signal an evolving aesthetic.

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It’s chiefly the sense that the filmmaker is in his element that that gives Jurassic Park kick even as the storyline plays out in a predictable and, yes, somewhat slapdash fashion. I’ve never been an uncritical fan of Jurassic Park as a whole, although I’ve come to like it a lot more with time and clearer insight into its genuinely excellent aspects and elevating flourishes. But significant flaws also remain clear. Whilst Spielberg’s animated gamesmanship is always fun, the second half never succeeds in generating a sequence as intimately scary and thrilling as the tyrannosaurus break-out, and many of the situations feel frustratingly basic, failing to build to the kinds of crescendos Spielberg manages in his greatest action-adventure films; that’s one reason I actually prefer his sequel, the gleefully nasty and happily frivolous The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), which is essentially a series of Spielberg set-pieces striving to satirise and outdo earlier Spielberg set-pieces. The difficulties and budget-soaking cost of developing the film’s groundbreaking special effects whilst the script was still a work in progress (the writing was eventually credited to Crichton and David Koepp) shows through in the patchiness of some of the action. The film’s visual palette is relative bland, with Dean Cundey’s photography sometimes emphasising a surprisingly cheap, even TV-movie-like look. Nedry and Gennaro are reduced to crude, very ’90s stereotypes when I usually expect better from Spielberg. Casually killing off Gennaro and Muldoon left the film bereft of one of the book’s more enjoyable aspects, a lack that feels telling in the second half’s rather basic romp-and-chomp chase scenes that never, ever feel as urgent or compulsive as anything in a not-so-dissimilar monster chase movie like Aliens (1986).

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Still, Spielberg continues to pull off great moments. The shock of the raptor attacking Ellie right after she manages to restore power is one of his finest pieces of timing and malicious nerve, whilst the sudden reappearance of the tyrannosaurus at the very end as deus-ex-machina is ridiculous on some levels, but tremendous on others. Moreover, the loose, rolling structure of Jurassic Park allowed Spielberg and his team to cram the film with throwaway touches until the film is as textured with jokes and visual flourishes as a MAD Magazine page. The tyrannosaurus’s yawing mouth glimpsed in a rearview mirror with the message, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Nedry disposing of a handful of shaving cream on a piece of apple pie. Strands of DNA code projected onto a marauding raptor’s face. Hammond crowing, “We spared no expense!” as perpetual B-movie actor Richard Kiley’s voice emanates as tour guide from speakers. Hot starlet sprawled on a zebra skin embodying the call of the wild and Robert Oppenheimer puffing a pipe with warning warring for attention around Nedry’s computer space. The little dance of action Alan performs in trying to escape Tim’s yammering enthusiasm. Repurposing the Woody Woodpecker cartoon from Destination Moon (1951) as explain-it-all short of the Jurassic Park ride experience—a deep cut of referential wit as well as a perfect expository device. Lex with a spoonful of jelly starting to shake like the proverbial when she spies an interloping raptor. And, of course, that capstone flourish of the roaring T-Rex with a poster reading “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” ribboning before the beast’s all-too-genuinely renascent power.

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The achievement of Jurassic Park, both devious and ardent, is that it litters such touches around with abandon and feeds up a significant portion of its cast as dinosaur chow, and yet still manages to close out with a feeling of the sublime. The final frames offer a feeling of conciliation, acceptance, and still-bubbling curiosity rather than fear and retreat, as Alan gazes out at gliding seabirds with a new sense of life in its value, both his own and the kids he’s learned to care for, and the overall continuum that defines species and evolution. John Williams, who provided one of his best scores here, dusts proceedings with a sense of grandeur, even a hint of the elegiac, fleshing out this grace-note that suggests it’s precisely what terrifies us that often draws us back in deeper curiosity and need for understanding. This pivot of comprehension, moreover, backs up an aspect of the tale represented by Malcolm and his cautions against arrogance, and Alan and Ellie’s inquisitive and celebratory mindset. Jurassic Park is a tale of forces inimical to human conceit and the dangers of unfettered experimentation, and yet it finally manages to affirm the yearning spirit and the act of scientific inquiry as one of personal conviction. For Spielberg, it allowed him to tether his light and dark sides together with ease and pointed the way to the future.


16th 05 - 2016 | no comment »

Push (2009)

Director: Paul McGuigan

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By Roderick Heath

More or less ignored when not reviled upon release in 2009, Paul McGuigan’s Push has become one of the very few movies of recent years I can watch any time, in any mood, and enjoy. McGuigan, a talented Scots director, caught my eye in the late ’90s with the grimier, more authentically punkish answer to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995), The Acid House (1996), and the tougher-minded, more authentically maniacal retort to Guy Ritchie’s gimmicky gangster movies with Gangster No. 1 (2000). His work since going Hollywood, Wicker Park (2004) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006), failed to find wide audiences or critical favour, but have located some after-the-fact fandom. After a spell doing TV work, he just recently re-emerged as a feature director, only to have another jarring flop with Victor Frankenstein (2015). Push, his best work to date, is a hugely entertaining concoction in desperate need of some appreciation. It’s colourful, clever, and serious enough to compel, but sufficiently light-footed to evoke the kind of pulp novel adventure and comic book mind-bending its story evokes. Push is hypermodern in its approach and aesthetics, but also has the charm of a cult object slightly out of its time, as McGuigan’s stylish filmmaking blends diverse strands of contemporary cinema that someone ought to remix more often in service of a gleefully tricky narrative that riffs on the superhero genre with more poise and artistry than any actual recent superhero movie.

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Push was also perhaps a little too obviously hoping to be the cornerstone of an original cinematic franchise. McGuigan lays the basic pillars of its plot through the opening credits, as protagonist Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) explains a secret history rooted in the efforts of Nazis to discover and exploit paranormal abilities. This programme eventually evolved into an ostensibly U.S. government-sponsored, but almost lawless and stateless organisation called Division, which specialises in collecting and employing an array of individuals given great psychic and telekinetic powers. These people have been sorted into several basic types, each with an unofficial, but pithy sobriquet. Movers can manipulate, repel, or direct objects. Sniffs have an extraordinary sense of smell and can track people’s movements through the smallest residual traces. Watchers have the power to foretell the future. Pushers can distort other people’s sense of reality. Shadows can mask people and objects from the powers of other breeds. Shifters can mask the true appearance of something. Stitches wield startling healing powers. Bleeders can pulverise with their vocal sounds. A prologue sequence sees young Nick Gant (Colin Ford) and his Mover father Jonah (Joel Gretsch) on the run from Division. Taking momentary refuge in a hotel room, Jonah forces Nick to leave him, as he intends to do battle with Division’s heavies, but tells him before their split that one day a girl will give him a flower, and this girl will give him the key to changing his life. Jonah dies moments later in battle with Division agents, led by the forbidding Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a battle Nick witnesses obliquely from a hiding place before he scurries away and gets on with the business of surviving on his own.

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A decade later, Kira (Camilla Belle), a captive of Division, is seen receiving an experimental drug Division has cooked up to boost the powers of superhumans. Everyone who’s taken the drug before this has died, but Kira survives and escapes with a sample of the drug thanks to a marble dropped by another captive which spins by seemingly random luck across the floor and jams a door. Meanwhile Nick has grown into the stubbly, sad-eyed form of Chris Evans, and is living in Hong Kong, a popular refuge for unaligned superhumans because the dense population makes it difficult for Division’s goons to track them. Nick has inherited his father’s Mover powers, but has neglected to master them for fear he might meet the same fate. Nonetheless, driven by lack of cash, he tries to use his powers to cheat in a craps game, but fouls up and finishes up having to outrun gangsters bent on beating him up. Retreating into his apartment, he’s soon visited by two Sniffs, Agent Mack (Corey Stoll) and Agent Holden (Scott Michael Campbell), who have finally managed to track him down. They’re looking for Kira, Nick’s former girlfriend, but don’t let him know that, leaving Nick bewildered. Once they leave, Nick gets a phone call from 13-year-old Watcher Cassie, who is standing outside waiting for him to open the door so she can raid his refrigerator and enlist him in a search for a large sum of missing money.

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Nick quickly sees through this ruse and declares he doesn’t want to get involved in whatever Cassie’s up to. But he soon finds that he and the girl have already been targeted by a Triad crime family headed up by a kingpin (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who wants to get hold of the drug and make his mob a rival to Division. All of his children have powers—he and his two sons are Bleeders and his daughter (Xiao Lu Li) is a talented Watcher with a fondness not just for sweets but also a sadistic proclivity for taunting her enemies, particularly precocious Cassie, whose mother is a legend in the paranormal community for her Watcher gifts. The clan are dubbed the “Pops” because of the daughter’s habit of sucking on lollypops. The crime family attack Nick and Cassie in a marketplace. The Bleeders cause havoc with their deadly screams—a touch that recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978)—as they chase the duo, causing fish in tanks to explode and finally leaving Nick badly mangled. He escapes death only because the Pop girl warns her brothers that they need him to obtain the drug. Cassie takes Nick to a Stitch, Teresa Stowe (Maggie Siff), who reshapes Nick’s body: Teresa is a haughty S&M priestess who can take away pain, but also return it, and who perversely enjoys not healing, but bringing agony. Then Cassie performs the totemic act of handing Nick a flower, signalling to Nick the time to take a stand has come.

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Push’s conceptual similarity to the X-Men films was widely noted on release, but that is misleading to a certain extent, as the plot encompasses a rather different take on the relationship of its gifted outsider heroes to authority at large (there’s also a notable influence by Stephen King’s Firestarter). There’s less emphasis on spectacular powers than on subtler brands demanding mental discipline and wit. In the company of Push’s cast of superhumans, time and reality are in a constant state of flux to a point where even they can’t necessarily keep up. Push actually hews closer to an honourable update of one of the source texts for the more ambitious and sophisticated strand of superhuman fantasy works, A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with its Byzantine sense of paranoia in confronting a posthuman landscape amidst the shell of the hitherto dominant civilisation. As filmmaking, Push unfolds like a Fritz Lang movie reset in Wong Kar-Wai’s kaleidoscopic modern Hong Kong and jammed in a blender with Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1999). McGuigan’s strong visuals, alive to the colour and teeming liveliness of the locale, borrows from the aesthetics more usually associated with artier filmmakers, like Wong, Sofia Coppola, Michael Mann, and Olivier Assayas. Like several of those directors, McGuigan finds in Hong Kong the perfect hyperkinetic muse to survey the modern world, a place where urban life takes on a venturesome romanticism because it’s a frontier where cultures are meeting and ricocheting in manifold new forms.

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McGuigan and screenwriter David Boursa are able to dramatize this idea precisely through the mechanics of their story, which hinges on people with all their differing gifts and traits working against or in conjunction with each other. Each power tends to complement another, but can also jam things up. The setting and the essential theme are noirish, the nature of fate unfolding in an urban labyrinth. But the mood is far too ebullient to nudge noir fatalism, and besides, Hong Kong is also a setting of action films, and the thematic lexicon can skew close to the traditions of manga and anime radiating from Japan—one of the Pop brothers has Astro Boy tattooed on his arm—and genre fusion mimics cultural fusion.

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Appropriately for a film where a jostling breadth of humanity bestrides the landscape and the many modes of sensing evinced in the storyline, McGuigan’s trippy, tricky fantasia is a filtered, audio-visually layered experience laced with the jazziness of experimental films and music videos, but always plied with measured effect: freaky lensing, uses of contrasting film stocks and grains, careful use of décor and subdivisions of the frame that recall Wong’s assimilation of Matisselike visual textures and putting them into a more dynamic context, judicious slow-motion and time-lapse photography courtesy of DP David Sova. These flourishes are used with particular vividness in sequences illustrating the superhumans’ powers, like the fast-forward visions the Sniffs have when fondling Nick’s cup, visualising their analysis in reducing months of Nick’s life to a blur of action, and vertiginously edited fantasies the Pushers install in people’s heads.

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Nick and Cassie, trying to work out where Cassie’s visions are leading, enlist the help of some other paranormal ronin, including Shifter Hook Waters (Cliff Curtis), Sniff Emily Hu (Ming Na Wen), and Shadow Pinkie Stein (Nate Mooney), who all have their reasons for hating Division and joining the fight even if their good sense tells them to stay out of the way of Carver and his hand-picked goon squad. Meanwhile Kira awakens on a boat in Hong Kong harbour with no memory of how she got there, looked over by the gaunt stranger who owns the boat and a message written with her own lipstick on a mirror simply spelling out Nick’s name and a number: Kira has had her memory of the recent past erased by the boatman, Wo Chiang (Paul Car). She’s soon captured by the two Sniffs but is able to push Agent Mack into killing his partner by convincing him that he murdered his brother, creating an entire alternative existence for Mack in a few blinks of her black-swelling eyes. Kira then manages to defeat Mack in a scrambling melee in a rest stop toilet and flees back to Hong Kong. Following clues given by both Cassie’s visions and Emily’s detection, Nick tries to rendezvous with the mysterious girl who everyone’s looking for. It proves to be Kira, who first response is to take a few potshots at him with Mack’s appropriated gun. Turns out Nick and Kira were lovers back in the States, a romance that ended suddenly when Kira was kidnapped by Division, leaving Nick clueless as to her whereabouts. Or were they? Believing they have to keep Kira out of Carver’s hands and find where she’s stashed the drug, they hole up in a hotel room using Pinkie’s gifts to hide Kira.

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Another good quality of Push is the strength of its cast and the sharpness of its characters. Evans, post-Fantastic Four, first got to move away from Johnny Storm’s dude-bro tediousness and work out the charmingly chilled-out, white bread hero he’d soon purvey to much more money and popularity as Captain America, but also with a scruffy, more asocial quality, anticipating his next foray into Asiatic scifi, Snowpiercer (2013). Hounsou, always a great screen presence, makes for a formidable opponent, one who wears Division’s imperial arrogance like a suit: it feels like a manifestation of McGuigan’s raspy wit that the one-time oppressed hero of Amistad (1997) is now the ultimate manipulator of destinies and identities. Belle, who gained notice in Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2004), has an oddly delicate screen presence that helps draw out the contradictions of her character, who is at once powerful and near-fatally malleable.

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One of screenwriter Boula’s better tweaks of the familiar plot pattern here is the way Nick is presented less as a singular hero than merely one in a group of pan-ethnic characters. Nick’s neglect of his talents means that he’s nearly constantly outmatched in his various encounters throughout the film, ending up battered, tormented, and tossed about like a plaything, as when he tries to confront Carver and his Mover bodyguard Victor (Neil Jackson). His lack of savvy as a hero recalls one of the film’s influences, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), though his lacks aren’t played for as many laughs as Jack Burton’s. His essential decency is noted early on when, whilst being tortured by Bleeders, he uses his powers to push Cassie to safety, and he does finally start to bring his real talents to the fore as the story unfolds. Chief amongst these is not his telekinetic gifts, but his mind for strategy, with which he works out a way to avoid the seemingly unstoppable fate barrelling down on him and his pals.

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Young Fanning, though, taking her first step from child star to adult actor, is the one who walks off with the proceedings, playing Cassie as a precocious punkette with dashes of delirious pink dye in her hair (“Lose a bet with your hairdresser?” Nick prods her) and who draws pictures illustrating her visions in an art book, despite her complete lack of artistic ability: her pictures of the futures she sees are essays in childish style, all too crudely contrasting her precocious projections. Cassie is, in many ways, the film’s proper protagonist, as she’s desperate to save her mother from Division’s clutches. She is partially wizened beyond her years by her gift and also trying to play the grown-up living in her mother’s near-legendary shadow, a person who has touched the lives of almost everyone in the narrative with reverberations that eventually prove anything but accidental. Rattled by her own constant premonitions of death and the taunts of her lollypop-sucking sister-adversary, Cassie tries to focus her gifts and see her way through to another future by trying her mother’s favourite device to improve her seer powers—alcohol. Cassie, roaring drunk, bursts into the hotel room where the ragtag gang are holed up and accosts Kira as the one who’ll get them all killed: “I’m 13, and I’m powering my use!” she declares with truculent bravado.

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Her encounters with Pop Girl are charged with peculiarly personal antipathy as well as a sense of their similarities, both prodigies competing directly on the behalf of family with the obligation to use the prodigal gifts they possess to further the ends of their kin, but with very different ultimate purposes. Where Cassie’s mother lives in a tranquilised void in Division’s headquarter—she’s only briefly glimpsed being led around by guards and dropping the fateful marble that helps Kira escape—and becomes something like a younger sister to Nick, Pop Girl represents a vicious and egomaniacal patriarch and a clan of carefully groomed thugs. When Pop Girl reports a failure to her father, he slaps her around. Later, when she presents her brothers with a more successful insight, it prompts them to ask whether that will make their father love them.

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Push vibrates with unexpected fragments of emotional and thematic depth like these, decorating McGuigan’s framework like the neon that blazes over Hong Kong, never overplayed to bog things down. The emotional tenor here is wound together with the way the Watchers predict the future, becoming, in essence, like film viewers anticipating certain outcomes: “I like how this future ends,” Carver tells Cassie at one point when fate seems to be dooming the outsiders’ revolt to a grim end. The film’s audience, meanwhile, have their expectations constantly switched around, holding fast to the faith certain things will come out right even in the face of mounting contradictions and seemingly impossible knots of fate. Push’s approach to fate is one of its cleverest aspects. The idea that precognition is an ability affected by choices and potentials rather than being perfect insight into the inevitable isn’t a new one—Frank Herbert’s Dune posited a similar concept—and Push presents it as a psychic gift derived from people’s trains of thought, which means it’s vulnerable to temporary disruption. Kira took advantage of this by having her own memory wiped, and Nick eventually formulates a way to outwit the enemy Watchers by piecing together a plan and then having his own mind wiped by Wo Chiang, his instructions written down and parcelled out to his comrades in arms. I’m not sure if all this holds water logically, but it’s damn fun to watch play out. Nick is forced to take such drastic measures after Kira falls sick from the drug she was injected with and has to be handed over to Carver to save her life. This makes her vulnerable to Carver’s Pusher talents: he convinces her that she’s an agent in his employ who is suffering from amnesia.

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Nick’s ploy works, sending both Carver and the Pops scrambling to keep up with the seemingly random twists and turns of their quarries, whilst they follow a chain of clues to locate the suitcase containing the drug sample in a skyscraper under construction, with a super-talented Shadow hired to mask the location. Our heroes still have run a gauntlet of challenges and dangers. The Pops try to zero in on the drug, but are instead fooled by a substitute Nick contrives to deliver to them. He then has a literally bruising encounter with Teresa, who has sided with Carver and has a sadistic streak her healing gifts are weirdly wound in with: she can restore injuries she fixes, and does just this to Nick, planning to torment him further, but his rapidly evolving Mover gifts allows him to outwit her. Cassie, constantly dogged throughout the film by visions of herself dead with a tiger above her, lets herself be bounced randomly around the Hong Kong underground, but still seems doomed to meet her ordained fate when she’s cornered by Pop Girl in a storeroom. But it turns out to be Pop Girl’s body splayed under one of the tiger symbol-emblazoned shipping boxes, her mind wiped by the lurking Wo Chiang. With Kira’s Pusher abilities magnified, Carver keeps her under his control once she’s stabilised and uses her take on the Pop clan’s army of gunmen, leading to a climactic battle within the half-finished skyscraper between the three vying factions.

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I suspect that if Push had been made a decade earlier, it would have been a major cult hit, and not because superpowers weren’t so common on screen then. McGuigan’s sensibility cuts against the increasingly parochial and bombastic flavour of a lot of similar filmmaking, with its focus on international drifters in a polycultural nexus fighting the powers that be harking back to the ’90s milieu, rather than the post-9/11 mindset that rewarded Michael Bay’s fascist chic with big bucks, and the far more conventional and baggy filmmaking of the now exhaustingly dominant superhero movie. McGuigan signals a deliberate note of needling satire about the dark side of Bush-era politics, as he has Carver note, “We’re not ones for diplomacy anymore.” The final battle is a terrifically organised free-for-all during which Carver and Kira turn enemies on each other, Kira orchestrating a battery of killers under her influence like a particularly freaky line-dance choreographer, whilst Nick battles Victor, their powers becoming so well-balanced that they’re essentially reduced to a fist-fight, at least until the Pop Bleeder boys try to squelch them both. McGuigan tips another nod to Big Trouble in Little China when the Pop patriarch releases his Bleeder scream in uncontrolled furore after one of his sons dies, bringing down a heap of scaffolding on him and Victor.

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Nick finishes up carrying the elaborate triple-bluff through to its end when he injects himself with the drug, which by this time has been substituted for soy sauce, and pretends to die under Carver’s contemptuous gaze. The very last few moments confirm that an even more elaborate plot than anyone except Cassie had originally realised has just been pulled off, and though Kira is still in Carver’s clutches, Nick has arranged for her to recover the truth, setting the scene for a most satisfying blackout moment of poetic justice. I’m inclined to call Push a kind of pop masterpiece, but too few heard this tree fall in the woods. A few months after its release, many of the same people who dissed it were calling the equally tricky but comparatively dour and pompous Inception (2010) a major event, which goes to show what a funny world we live in.


5th 05 - 2016 | 2 comments »

Think Fast, Mr. Moto / Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Norman Foster

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By Roderick Heath

J. P. Marquand had a serious reputation as a writer in the 1930s, but he’s been remembered to posterity chiefly for his sideline in pulp fiction. He created Mr. Moto for the Saturday Evening Post in 1935 as a replacement for Charlie Chan, whose creator Earl Derr Biggers had recently died. Marquand quickly wrote several Moto books. His creation proved popular enough that two years later, 20th Century Fox inaugurated a series built around Moto. But this was not quite the same character. Marquand’s I. A. Moto was an Imperial Japanese agent, superficially genial and eccentric but capable of ruthless action. The Hollywood version was renamed Kentaro Moto and redesignated as an importer with a sideline in private investigation who later was employed as an Interpol agent and teacher of criminology. But he was best described by a character in Thank You, Mr. Moto: “Adventurer, explorer, soldier-of-fortune – one of the Orient’s mysteries.”

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Whereas Chan was an avuncular collection of clichéd impressions of Chinese immigrants grafted onto the Conan Doyle template for a genius detective at a time when it was a short cut to popularity to give them distinctive ethnic or physical traits, Moto assembled more than a few Japanese clichés: pebble-lens glasses, big gold teeth, hyperattentive politeness, martial arts adeptness, and so on. Fox cast Peter Lorre in the part and gave him a sartorial makeover. Casting an Austrian Jewish actor as a Japanese gentleman seems a downright perverse idea today, but was hardly strange at the time; Warner Oland and Sidney Toler played Chan and Boris Karloff was both über-villain Fu Manchu and detective Mr. Wong. A big selling point for casting Lorre was that it would show off his thespian dexterity. His Hollywood debut two years earlier with Mad Love had been publicised as the coming to America of a great European actor, one who had electrified audiences worldwide with his performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Lorre, who learnt his lines by rote for his first English-language role in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was to become one of Hollywood’s indispensible character actors. The Moto films, which occupied him for most of the late ’30s, represented a stint of proper stardom. The role allowed him the widest range within a single part, and even the chance to destabilize presumptions about his character constantly.

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Moto, as a skilful detective and globetrotting, multicultural savant, combined aspects of the Sherlock Holmes brand of hero with the physicality of a man of action, a mix that feels more contemporary than most of the era’s pulp heroes. He anticipates later pop-culture titans like James Bond, without his carnal appetites, and Indiana Jones, with whom he shares a fascination with the arcane, with the added complication and fascination of his being a non-Caucasian hero, one who insinuates rather than dominates until he clearly has the upper hand. The Moto series doesn’t entirely transcend the moment of its making. Yellowface bugs many people today and for good reason, and yet the series just as often ridicules, subverts, or inverts such caricatures, often putting the sublimely poised and skilful Moto in the company of clueless Westerners or having him act out caricatures only to throw them off and stun enemies and onlookers. Lorre’s preternatural gifts are also often exploited so that, in the same way that he puts on a new face, Moto turns it about and becomes just about any ethnicity you please, including perhaps his funniest guise in the series in Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938), a German artist who derides a gallery full of modernist work and then shows off his kitschy pictures of kids and kittens.

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Several instalments in the series were helmed by Norman Foster, a former actor and a talent whose gifts were apparent enough for Orson Welles to collaborate with him on several projects, including Journey into Fear (1943), which marries Moto-ish settings with a more Wellesian technique. He later made some interesting noir films, like Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), and then moved into TV, where his career extended into the 1970s. Foster also cowrote the first two Moto films, with their backlot settings offering that delicious tang of the faux-exotic, encompassing much of what was wonderful and goofy about old Hollywood, that many filmmakers since have tried to reproduce. The Moto films are lightning-paced, funny, quirky, brief, but packed full of incident, detail, even mystique.

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Think Fast, Mr. Moto, establishes Moto and his abilities in an opening sequence that sees him in the guise of a scruffy carpet merchant wandering through San Francisco’s Chinatown on Chinese New Year on the hunt for a lead. He encounters a masked stranger secreted in a wicker basket in the store, where Moto tries to sell a diamond; his Union Jack tattoo will identify him as the man who murdered an investigator. Moto has to fight his way out when an officious policeman who thinks Moto’s an unlicensed peddler enters the scene, sparking a three-way battle in which Moto’s jujitsu abilities triumph. Returning to his hotel, the “real” Moto emerges from under the layers of his disguise, but Moto’s motives and designs remain largely opaque until the climax.

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One reason I fell under the spell of Moto as a character when I was a kid stems from this ambiguity. Although toned down from Marquand, Moto is still startling in switches of affect and manner, swinging from beaming friendliness and ready-to-please affability to command or chilling retributory violence according to the needs of the moment. When he confronts the tattooed murderer, who proves to be a passenger liner steward named Carson (John Rogers), Moto’s swerve into cold menace as he faces down and approaches the knife-wielding baddie is impressively badass, and their knock-down, drag-out fight climaxes with Moto heaving Carson over his head and hurling him over the ship’s side like a sack of rubbish. This follows on from an earlier scene in which, dragged into a stateroom by a party of boisterously patronising Americans, he puts up with them until he repays their pushiness by tossing several bodily about the room. It’s a bit of roughhouse payback that Bob Hitchings (Thomas Beck), object of the party and son of the ship’s owner, is good-humoured enough to understand. Moto and Hitchings prove to be linked by both the past—they belonged to the same college fraternity—and by secret, immediate motives; Moto is investigating a smuggling ring that’s been operating through the Hitchings Line, owned by Bob’s father, and Bob, trying to shake off his playboy habits, is heading to take over the Chinese end of the line’s export operations.

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Think Fast, scarcely over an hour long, nonetheless sets up Moto as a perfect pulp hero—infinitely talented, complete with an arsenal of awesome headache cures, magic tricks, and cardsharp legerdemain, tough in all respects and yet usually happily plays a pleasant Asian milquetoast, declining alcoholic drinks in favour of milk. Considering how awkwardly a lot of franchise films these days lumber about for hours trying to set up heroic characters, the casual concision of the film still feels like a perfect antidote and model, an engine of humming efficiency that modern Hollywood could do well to study. Foster surrounds Moto with a rich assortment of character actors and teeming settings, as if he wanted to pack in every possible trope of the exotic mystery, from the shipboard setting and romance to the plunge into Shanghai nightlife where White Russian and Sikh gangsters rub shoulders with international flotsam. Foster orchestrates it all with efficient energy: indeed it’s been funny watching recent high-class movies, like The White Countess (2004), Lust, Caution (2006), and Shanghai (2011), tackling the same milieu and failing to feel half as real, lacking that mythic tilt Hollywood once wielded so deceptively and fearlessly. Ironically, recently you have to go to Hong Kong cinema, like Tsui Hark’s work, like Peking Opera Blues (1986), for similar panache.

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Think Fast sticks to the basic pattern of Marquand books, as Moto teams up with an American innocent abroad who falls into the orbit of a woman of mystery, in this case, Gloria Danton (Virginia Field). Gloria poses as a wealthy traveller to ensnare Bob, expertly tempting him by feigning initial indifference, but, of course, she actually falls for him and is whisked off the ship by her employer, Nicolas Marloff (Sig Ruman), upon arrival in Shanghai. Marloff runs the International Club, one of those chic nightspots Hollywood would have believed were just everywhere in those days. Bob talks the Hitchings Line’s local manager, Mr. Wilkie (Murray Kinnell) into helping him find Gloria, but it’s Moto who secretly tips Bob off that she actually works as a singer in the International Club, and, of course, Moto has good reasons for bringing all the players together. Just getting to the club proves an ordeal for Moto and Lela, as they’re shanghaied by their rickshaw coolies on the order of Marloff’s agent, turban-clad Adram (J. Carrol Naish), who tries to assassinate Moto. Moto proves better with a gun than Adram does with a knife, winging Adram. Then one of the coolies tries to arrange his death by leaving his rickshaw in front of Bob and Wilkie’s oncoming car.

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In good old Hollywood style, once they get to the club, there’s a brief time-out for a song by Gloria (warbling a godawful ditty in which she declares, “I’m just a shy vi-o-let.”). A couple of times during the series, Moto grazes against a love interest, usually a young Chinese-American starlet, but that couldn’t go anywhere with a white guy, even one dressed up as Japanese. Plus Moto’s not exactly the type you see settling down to have 10 kids like Charlie Chan. Here he enlists hotel telephone operator Lela Liu (Lotus Long) to listen in on interesting calls, and then to be his date/back-up on the venture to the International Club. She finishes up getting shot in the back by an unseen villain as she tries to call the police to Moto’s aid, although later we’re assured she survives.

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One of the strong qualities of the series is the humour that constantly accompanies the thrills and seriousness, although it sometimes verges on goofy, as here when Moto has a hapless bartender make up a ridiculous hangover cure that includes gin, Worcestershire sauce, and a raw egg. Wryer is Moto cementing his friendship with Bob by revealing they were fraternity brothers; when Hitchings recalls Moto broke a pole vault record, Moto replies, “Now I would only break the pole.” In another example, one of Bob’s society lush pals, after seeing Moto toss her friends about the stateroom, asks in delight, “Hey – do that to me!” When Marloff asks what Moto is writing in Chinese on a menu, Moto replies that it’s an ancient haiku poem—except that when Lela reads it, it translates into a message to call the cops. In later films, Moto’s heroism is taken as a given, but in the first two entries he retains an opacity akin to ’70s antiheroes in his willingness to play dirty when necessary, think on his feet, and seem to ally with the bad guys if it gets him closer to his goal. Because his identity is so hard to nail down, he can get away with such tricks. When Marloff confronts him with the sight of Bob and Gloria trussed up and captive, Moto laughs and casually advises Marloff to keep Bob as a hostage and “slit her throat and be done with it.” This note echoes again in Thank You, Mr. Moto, in which he smilingly tells a woman, in response to her accusation that he killed a man to get hold of a valuable property, “Of course. I thought it was a very good reason.” The finale of Think Fast is a whirlwind of twists and reversals: exposed by the wounded Adram, Moto is shot by Marloff, and seems done for. Marloff prepares a coup de grace, only for Moto to rise miraculously and toss his enemies about the room before revealing his bulletproof vest to Bob and Gloria and slapping handcuffs on Wilkie, who proves to be both the real head of the smuggling ring and Lela’s attempted killer.

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The collegial feel of the series is partly due to the stock company of actors who played similar or recurring roles: Ruman and Beck play slight variations on their characters in Thank You, whilst Field popped up again in two more. In Mr. Moto’s Last Warning and Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (both 1939), Moto is “helped” by bumbling Englishmen, inverting the usual diptych of Anglo hero and ethnic sidekick. In another entry, Mr. Moto on Danger Island (1938), Moto gains the aid of good-natured palooka, “Twister” McGurk (Warren Hymer), who becomes Moto’s aide in his eagerness to learn Moto’s great wrestling moves. Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938), the third film, has the film buff’s delight of seeing Moto contending with Keye Luke, playing Charlie Chan’s inimitable Number One son Lee. This was a side effect of the rapid revision of the script, intended for a Chan entry, after Oland’s sudden death. In the film Moto mentions his respect for Lee’s father, and maintains Chan’s solicitude to the extent of having Lee locked up in jail to keep him out of trouble. Another interesting sidekick for Moto came in Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), where Rochelle Hudson plays an aviatrix who’s also a spy, staging a crash landing in the Vietnamese jungle to seek out the same rebellious conspiracy Moto’s investigating. The strongest villain of the series was also a self-reflexive piece of casting, as Joseph Schildkraut appeared in the final entry, Takes a Vacation, playing a supervillain with a genius for disguise. Like Lorre, Schildkraut was an Austro-Hungarian émigré and spends most of the film made up as another character, successfully impersonating a crusty American scientist before he’s unmasked, rises to full courtly bearing, and lets slip his Germanic lisp.

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The whole series is generally a lot of fun, but Thank You, Mr. Moto easily stands tallest. Having established Moto, Norman’s second entry does what good sequels are supposed to do; it gets on with business, but also can be enjoyed by any viewer coming in blind. The opening sequence is a gem of atmosphere, as a caravan crossing the Gobi Desert is assailed by a sandstorm, and one of the travellers, a disguised Moto, contends with the homicidal attentions of another member of the party. Attacked in his tent, Moto battles the assassin by the flicker of an oil lamp, with the desolate wind whistling outside. Moto wins the fight, battering his opponent into submission, but the battle begins again when Moto releases him. This time Moto hacks him to death with a knife and begins digging up the sand under the tent to bury the corpse. Moto reaches Peiping (then the name of Beijing), but runs afoul of Schneider (Wilhelm von Brincken), a supposedly concerned citizen who’s whipped up the police to hypervigilance over smuggled art treasures. Schneider smartly detects that Moto has a scroll painting hidden inside his prop walking cane. Moto snatches the scroll and runs for it, managing to elude capture and make it to his hotel room, where his current valet doesn’t recognise him at first. Moto divests himself of guise and valet and attends a formal garden party being thrown by Colonel Tchernov (Ruman), a wealthy White Russian wash-up. Moto recognises the gamesmanship behind such gestures: “Garden parties are seldom given in Peiping without a purpose.”

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That purpose proves to be so Tchernov could invite Prince Chung (Philip Ahn) and his mother (Pauline Frederick), make an offer to buy their family’s collection of scroll paintings and, if they refuse to sell, use coercive means to gain his prize. The party sequence is a another gem, this time of expository staging, commencing with a Hitchcockian crane shot the glides across Tchernov’s ballroom. The villains and heroes of the piece and all congregated with classical dramatic method, with all the major protagonists save the Chungs literally lined up to meet Eleanor Joyce (Jayne Regan), an American Oriental art historian and guest of the Tchernovs. Romantic, young consular official Tom Nelson (Beck) sets out to charm Eleanor with an extended gag about his psychic knowledge of her actually culled from her passport. Moto’s entrance, solitary and singular, is accompanied by a suddenly forceful passage in the dance music, gaining everybody’s interest and cautious attention, especially Tchernov, who invited him to keep an eye on him. This backfires, of course. Moto’s subsequent absence from the ballroom goes unnoticed by everyone except, in a terrific throwaway detail, the waiter carrying his customary glass of milk, as he thwarts Tchernov’s attempt to force Chung at gunpoint to sign over ownership of his scrolls. Foster elides Moto’s intervention; only when Eleanor intrudes, with Prince Chung brushing past hurriedly, does the resolution of the confrontation reveal itself, but through Eleanor’s confused eyes, seeing only Moto and a corpse. Moto convinces her to keep quiet about his and the Prince’s presence so that Tchernov’s death will be ruled a suicide, but finds herself increasingly uncomfortable, believing Moto murdered Tchernov.

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The scroll paintings prove to be part of an elegant pulp McGuffin that form a map to the lost tomb of Genghis Khan: the scroll Moto brought back with him from the Gobi is part of the set, deliberately stored away from the others long away to render the map incomplete. Moto has been hired to race against Tchernov’s allies, Schneider and Koerger (Sidney Blackmer), to bring all of the scrolls together and locate the tomb with its fabled treasure. Everyone wants the scrolls, even Eleanor, albeit for her collection. An antiquarian, Pereira (John Carradine, sporting droopy moustache and fez for some reason), tempts her with one, which might be one of the Chungs’ stolen scrolls. Moto rumbles Pereira by visiting his shop and spots the scroll he’s trying to sell as a fake, but also perceives he stole the real scroll. Pereira is gunned down from a car speeding by just as he’s about to tell Moto who hired him for the heist. Moto faces the same sticking point as Tchernov in trying to learn the secret of the scrolls: even with the Prince’s gratitude to Moto for saving his life, the Chungs refuse to part with their legacy and decry the inevitable looting of the Khan’s tomb. The Chungs’ place in this drama generates peculiar emotional intensity, with Madame Chung’s haughty efforts to cling to the last remnants of their clan pride in the chaotic modern world and China’s dismembered state circa 1937—she used to be a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress—and her son’s arduous position in trying to honour traditional values but protect his mother.

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This schism is painfully illustrated as Koerger and company break into the Chungs’ house, tie up the Prince, and, after beating him fails to dent his resolve to keep silent, begin torturing his mother. This proves more than the Prince can resist, and he gives up the scrolls to the villains. Far from being grateful, however, Madame Chung is appalled at her son’s lapse and makes a last-ditch tilt for honour by trying to stab Koerger with a ceremonial knife. Koerger shoots her, and Chung, once freed by Moto and Nelson, stabs himself with the same knife, expiring in convulsions of shame and despair. Ahn’s excellent performance as Chung, genuinely strong and proud, but with his one weakness awfully, tragically laid bare, sells this sequence. It stirs an interesting reaction in Moto, who reveals a streak of serious Buddhist faith and a conscientious determination to avenge his friend and balance his cosmic books. Moto operates throughout the film, as he did in the first one, between worldviews and hemispheric cultural sensibilities, which are tellingly represented by two versions of the same thing: Tchernov, an exiled tsarist, and the Chungs are both fallen aristocrats out of place in the mid-century tumult, but with radically different responses to crumbling values of homicidal rapacity versus suicidal fidelity, and meeting mirroring ends: Tchernov’s fake suicide (“We call it harakiri,” Moto tells Eleanor) and Chung’s real one. Moto, operating according to mercenary requirement (“My mission has been clearly defined,” he tells Chung), nonetheless feels the pull of other values as the mission becomes more urgent.

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A new dimension emerges as Eleanor eavesdrops on Tchernov’s wife (Nedda Harrigan) and learns she’s been having an affair with Koerger, which her husband’s death leaves her nicely free to continue. Eleanor becomes the object of Madame Tchernov’s jealousy when Koerger takes her prisoner, a random but felicitous element that gives Moto the key to destroying his enemies. Another interesting prefiguration of many a modern action hero is that way Moto becomes a kind of avenging angel: after the Chungs’ death, Tom and Moto pursue the villainous party who have Eleanor captive and most of the scrolls in hand in a car (“You handle your car quite well.” “It’s not mine, I borrowed it from my boss.”). After being shot at, Tom drives straight into a river, car crashing in the water with an almighty splash, and the pair struggle to escape the wreck and swim to safety under a hail of bullets. Tom is knocked out with an oar, and Moto seems to die from a bullet in the back. The villains set off on the trail to Khan’s tomb on a junk, but find their crew spooked by what they call a demon dogging their path. This is Moto of course, who, soaked and covered in mud and detritus, keeps emerging from the dark and fog to knock off henchmen, including Schneider, until he can crash in on Koerger, whom he keeps at bay in spite of the gun in his hand with an elaborate hail of bluffs. Eleanor proves quick-witted enough to help Moto in this, pretending that she’s also Koerger’s lover, which infuriates Madame Tchernov enough to grab at Koerger’s gun hand—all the window Moto needs.

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The very finish sees Moto burning the scrolls to ensure that they won’t ever cause such havoc again and to honour his promise to Chung, rounding off the film with a touch of numinous beauty as Moto prays over the smoking ashes in the flickering firelight of the junk cabin. There’s a haunting note here, with a level of deference for the shared cultural maxims of Chung and Moto that adds up to a rare touch in a genre action movie of the time. Again, Thank You is only 67 minutes long and yet packs in enough narrative layers for a film three times as long. All of the Moto films have solid production values, particularly marked in Thank You, with rich, chiaroscuro evocations of Peiping courtesy of Virgil Miller’s fine photography, with swank Western enclaves, busy street scenes, and gritty, shadow-swamped, almost besieged atmosphere on the fringes where soldiers wait by ancient gates on the edge of sepulchral territories where it seems entirely possible that Moto could be a demon on the hunt for vengeance, although that note is dispelled when he breaks in on Koerger and offers, in his familiarly chirpy way, “Good evening everybody!” The mood echoes back to Josef von Sternberg’s oneiric chinoiserie in Shanghai Express (1932) and forward to Seijun Suzuki’s stylised remembrance in Story of a Prostitute (1964), whilst works of referential pastiche, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Hammett (1982), would later find it a touchstone. The Moto series was ended by the spectre of World War II after eight instalments; the character was left out of the film version of Marquand’s last Moto novel, Stopover Tokyo (1958). Moto’s only comeback has been a cheap 1965 entry played by Henry Silva of all people. Japanese heroes aren’t so verboten now in Western popular culture, though chiefly only the historical kind. I’d love to see Mr. Moto return.


6th 01 - 2016 | 15 comments »

Man in the Wilderness (1971) / The Revenant (2015)

Directors: Richard C. Sarafian / Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

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By Roderick Heath

The story of Hugh Glass contains the essence of American frontier mythology—the cruelty of nature met with the indomitable grit and resolve of the frontiersman. It’s the sort of story breathlessly reported in pulp novellas and pseudohistories, and more recently, of course, movies. Glass, born in Pennsylvania in 1780, found his place in legend as a member of a fur-trading expedition led by General William Henry Ashley, setting out in 1822 with a force of about a hundred men, including other figures that would become vital in pioneering annals, like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John Fitzgerald. The expedition had a rough time over the course of the following year, often battling warriors from the Arikara nation. Near the forks of the Grand River in what is today South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a bear and terribly mauled, and his party on the expedition believed his death was inevitable. Fitzgerald and some other men, perhaps including Bridger, were left behind to watch over Glass. For whatever reason, they departed before Glass had actually expired, taking his rifle with them. But far from dying conveniently, Glass, alone in an inhospitable wilderness, instead began to recover. Living off the land and at first literally crawling his way cross country, Glass headed for the nearest sure outpost of western civilisation, Fort Kiowa, about 200 miles away. He was helped by friendlier Native-Americans tribes and eventually made it to the Cheyenne River, where he built a raft and floated downstream to the fort. He later confronted and recovered his rifle from Fitzgerald.

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Glass found only temporary reprieve from the violent death that would eventually come 10 years later, when his luck ran out and the Arikara caught up. But the account of his ordeal has been told and retold, lending him a kind of immortality. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest work, The Revenant, takes on Glass’s story via the highly fictionalised novel by Michael Punke, and Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith embellished the tale further to illustrate not merely a great vignette of trial and suffering, but also a panoramic experience of a time and place that’s less than two centuries in the past and yet seems near-fantastical. It’s not the first film to take direct inspiration from Glass. Man in the Wilderness was the second of two films Richard C. Sarafian released in 1971, the other being his most famous work, Vanishing Point. Man in the Wilderness fell into obscurity by comparison, perhaps because it was overshadowed by a host of similar films at the time, including A Man Called Horse (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Man in the Wilderness is, after a fashion, also a product of a legendary time of pioneers and radicals impossible to recapture in an age of more insipid labours, except this time the disparity is merely one of artistic modes. Sarafian’s film is a totem for the fresh, sun-dappled, smoky-grainy stylistics of American New Wave cinema, whilst Iñárritu’s comes with a hefty, technically demanding contemporary production with a massive budget trying to recapture the same feeling of extreme experience and offer that peculiarly contemporary aesthetic, high-powered moodiness. Both films are nonetheless fascinatingly unified, and divided, by their approaches to Glass’s tale, and by their stature as products of filmmakers at the height of their respective powers.

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Man in the Wilderness imposes pseudonyms on its characters for the sake of independence and portrays its main character, redubbed Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), as an Englishman, whilst also introducing an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision right at the outset: his “Captain Henry” (John Huston) commands from the deck of a boat that has been repurposed as a huge cart dragged overland by a team of horses, allowing his expedition to tackle both water and land as he aims his team toward the nearest big river to catch the spring melt. Immediately, Man in the Wilderness recasts Glass’s narrative as a variation on a theme by Melville, a tale of hubris on land rather than sea: Huston, who adapted Moby Dick into a film in 1956, here takes on the Ahab-esque master role, one which also fits neatly into the run of such corrupt overlord figures Huston would play in this period, most famously in Chinatown (1974). Iñárritu is less fanciful if not less referential or less preoccupied with symbolic dimensions, as his version of Ashley, also called Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is forced to leave behind his river barge as well as all the furs the team has obtained after a devastating attack by the Arikara that leaves most of the party dead. Iñárritu quickly reveals his own points of adherence as his camera drifts through eerie, sunray-speared forests straight out of some imagined cinematic handbook of Terrence Malick’s (suggested title: “How to Be a Transcendentalist Filmmaker in 2,346 Easy Lessons”), with a strong dash of Herzog as Iñárritu’s camera roams restlessly around his characters on their small raft. Iñárritu creates a jittery, incessantly neurotic mood that suggests that, far from finding limitless freedom and romantic self-reliance in the wilderness, these pioneers are lurching into a bleeding sore in the Earth partly of their own making. Iñárritu and cowriter Mark L. Smith also quickly introduce fictional aspects of Glass’s story, as they portray Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as accompanied by Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his teenage son by his native wife.

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Glass’s life before he joined the Henry expedition was by all reports already amazing. His adventures included a stint of piracy under Jean Lafitte and a spell living with a Pawnee tribe. He married a woman of the tribe and helped represent them in a delegation to the U.S. government. So Hawk isn’t at all an improbable invention, underlining both Glass’s attachment to and affinity for the land and its inhabitants, an affinity too few of his fellows share, as well as lending grim consequence to his character’s preoccupations and the odyssey ahead of him. Iñárritu’s Glass is haunted by the memory of Hawk’s mother, killed in an army raid on their camp, and Glass is marked with enigmatic infamy by his fellows for having killed one of the army soldiers who threatened his son. Fitzgerald, called Fogarty in Sarafian’s film (played there by Percy Herbert, whilst Tom Hardy takes the role in Iñárritu’s), is portrayed in both films as an antsy, truculent, paranoid exemplar of the white pioneer, with a side order of racism and a dose of fear-and-trembling religiosity in The Revenant. Iñárritu makes sure we know whose side to take when his Fitzgerald keeps insistently calling local Indians “tree-niggers.” To a certain extent, Sarafian’s Bass combines aspects of Iñárritu’s Glass and Fitzgerald, presenting a man stripped out of his world and adapted to a new one, solitary and haunted, motivated by almost inchoate need and sometimes seeing the mother of the child he left in Britain, Grace (Prunella Ransome), in foggy memory. Sarafian’s film is a sprawl of hazy browns, yellows, and pale greys, whereas Iñárritu paints with blue filters just occasionally relieved by the touch of the sun.

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Early in The Revenant, Fitzgerald tries to spark a fight with Glass and Hawk in his anxiety and boiling anger following their battle with the Arikara and their looming cross-country hike, a gruelling journey made all the more bitter by their lost fortune. Fitzgerald takes out his resentment on Glass as the man who knows the land and has the cool mastery over it and himself that Fitzgerald lacks. Fate puts Glass at Fitzgerald’s mercy, although Fitzgerald only accepts the sorry and dangerous task because Henry offers him a bonus. He, Bridger, and Hawk remain to keep vigil, but Fitzgerald, who once survived a scalping by Indians—he has the semibald patch on his pate to prove it—is so afraid of being caught again by the war party on their trail that he knifes the protesting Hawk to death, dumps Glass in a shallow grave, and lies to Bridger about an imminent native attack to get him to flee with him. In Man in the Wilderness, Fogarty and the avatar for Bridger, Lowrie (Dennis Waterman), flee when they really do when seeing Indians close by, and, when they meet up with Henry, the commander acquiesces to their decision with a pep talk: “Man is expendable. We’re exploring new frontier – we must always push on and give our lives if need be.” Henry all but invites becoming Bass’s nemesis, not just by not going back for him, but also by anointing himself as representative of all the forces and powers by which Bass has felt persecuted. As the film unfolds, the two men fight long-range psychic warfare, Bass making a spear and aiming it with gritted teeth at the distant mountains Henry is trying to cross, Henry firing his guns into the whirling snow behind his wagon train at the invisible opponent. But Henry has his own bewildered feeling for Bass, as he gave the runaway a place on his ship when he was a youth and wanted to be his father figure; instead, he remained locked out by the coldly self-reliant exile.

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The Revenant’s title comes from a nickname attached to Glass, a French word meaning to come back or be reborn, and both Sarafian and Iñárritu emphasise Glass/Bass’s story as one of both literal and mystical resurgence. Sarafian’s Bass emerges from his rough grave with some piece of his spirit now infused with the land, and his former fellows begin to see the landscape as charged with portents of his survival. Visions of the stalking revenger torment Captain Henry and Fogarty, to the point where Fogarty accidentally guns down Lowrie, thinking he’s Bass back from the dead. The meaning and import of Bass’s experience isn’t discussed or turned into images as literal as The Revenant’s, but rather diffused throughout the textures of the film. Both Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant wrestle with Glass/Bass’s journey as a tale replete with religious, or at least spiritual, overtones, but also present the hero himself in a state of deep crisis about his belief systems, an insistence that suggests just why Glass’s story fascinates them, as Glass travels as far, physically and in terms of life force, from other men as it’s possible to get and then begins his return. Iñárritu loads his take with images of both shamanic and Catholic concepts of rebirth, as Glass crawls out of the grave, emerges from a ritual hut after surviving a bout of sickness, and later is disgorged from the belly of a horse he climbed into to keep warm. He also enters the (possibly imagined) ruins of an abandoned frontier church replete with faded murals depicting devils and angels. “God made the world!” a hand-lashing, Bible-bashing teacher instructs bewildered and smouldering young Bass, and Sarafian’s film studies the divergent tug between the call of the sublime hidden somewhere in the landscape and his hatred of abusive powers claiming to work in the name of an almighty.

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By contrast, Iñárritu’s take on Glass, whilst offering a similarly ecumenical view of spiritual impulses, nonetheless offers what is essentially a passion play, a Catholicised fetish tale of suffering as the way to truth. Both films also depict Glass/Bass’s revenge-seeking journey with a sense of anticipation over whether he’ll actually carry it through. The question of whether to take revenge is couched in terms of maintaining something like an ethical system in the face of a nihilistically indifferent land and a focal point for Bass’s already deep-set sense of alienation and aggrieved fury in the face of humanity’s contemptible side. Iñárritu’s Glass, on the other hand, has a more obvious spur to chase down and confront his enemy—the murderer of his son. Hikuc strikes up a woozy amity with Glass in part because they’re both bereft wanderers, but it’s Hikuc who conveniently spells out the message that vengeance is God’s province, not man’s, and the question becomes whether Glass will heed the credo of vengeance belonging to the Lord and bring mercy to the terrible reaches of the Earth. Meanwhile, authority as represented by Henry is, in very 1971 fashion, posturing, despotic, and grave in Man in the Wilderness; authority, in very 2015 fashion, is callow, well-meaning, and barely competent in The Revenant. “Zach fought against life all his life,” Captain Henry says of Bass, who is presented as a classic prickly antihero of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a self-reliant misfit who can’t handle domesticity, has contempt for standard religion as plied by figures like Henry as representative of the self-righteous, hierarchical world, and who only finally begins to regain a reason to engage with humanity, ironically, because of his betrayal and abandonment. Shortly after he’s left to die, Bass is found by a band of Arikara on the warpath, whose chief (veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) gives him a blessing, an act that arms him spiritually on the way to recovery.

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Sarafian’s world is happenstance, gritty and eerie. Iñárritu’s is enormous, but also reaches incessantly through the nightmarish for the ethereal. Iñárritu, although not universally admired, comes to the material right off the Oscar-garlanded success of Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), and he’s been lauded as a major talent since the release of Amores Perros in 2000. By comparison, Sarafian’s vision didn’t get much time to mature: a former TV director, he seemed poised for a major career with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness and produced a handful of other cultish films, including Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (both 1973), few of which were successes at the time, forcing him back into TV and very occasional features. Nonetheless, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness stand as one of the most coherent units of filmmaking of the ’70s, complimentary mythical takes on the death and resurrection of the American spirit in that age of great national questioning. Vanishing Point’s hero, Kowalski, is contemporary man, riding his chrome horse across the landscape towards his inevitable date with death; Bass is both his ancestor and spiritual counterpart, clawing out of the Earth and relearning how to live in an Ouroboros-like chain. Man in the Wilderness is as shaggy, earthy, and fecund as Vanishing Point is shiny, modern, and solipsistic. Both films start in the present but explore their heroes’ lives via interpolated flashbacks: we see Grace, who had to contend with his restless incapacity to live a normal life and his decision to leave their son in her mother’s care after Grace died, whilst moments of dreamy, proto-Malickian beauty drift by, including Bass, lying tattered and agonised, staring up at autumnal trees dropping their leaves on him in languorous slow-motion, his lost lover’s face fading in and out of focus over maps of autumn detritus.

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Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose script referenced a peculiarly Latin-American brand of symbolic journey also reflected in Iñárritu’s comprehension of his material, which amplifies to the point of overloudness many of the ideas already present in Man in the Wilderness. Iñárritu has plainly long been fascinated by characters on the edge of the mortal precipice, whether explored in personal experiences fending off death or desperation in the likes of 21 Grams (2004) and Biutiful (2009), and caught between worlds, as evinced in Babel (2006). Iñárritu’s Glass is equally at odds with his nominal civilisation but has his place in a new one, again in a manner familiar from a lot of post-Dances With Wolves (1990) westerns. Iñárritu’s visual approach to The Revenant varies the one he proffered in Birdman, often punctuating the film with virtuoso linked camera movements, at once drifting and propulsive, and including staging several violent action sequences in seemingly unblinking single takes. In Birdman, the visual scheme emphasised both theatrical unity and the transformative power of its protagonist’s vision, as well as the impelling intensity of his neurosis. In The Revenant, Iñárritu regards the landscape as a sprawling system and a much larger stage through which his characters wander, apparently both free, but also locked in by the scale and indifference of the land and, even more unavoidably, the brutality of other humans and the wilderness of one’s own mind. But dreams and reveries have just as much import for Iñárritu as Sarafian, interpolating throughout Glass’s visions of his dead wife and other awesome, terrible sights around the west, like a mountain of buffalo bones and the smoking ruins of his village.

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Iñárritu’s narrative incorporates a motif that suggests a tribute-cum-inversion of John Ford’s canonical western, The Searchers (1956), as he weaves in a rival storyline with Glass’s. The Arikara band’s leader, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), scours the landscape because his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), has been kidnapped, and his belief that Henry’s party took her sparked the initial assault on them. At one point, he trades Henry’s recovered furs to a band of French trappers led by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) in exchange for some horses, unaware that this party is the one holding Powaqa captive as a sex slave. Glass finds succour when he encounters a Pawnee loner, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who shares offal from a felled bison with him, and later, recognising Glass is in danger of dying from infection, seals him up in a hut and plants maggots on his wounds to clean them. Glass emerges from this ordeal greatly recovered, but finds in the meantime that the French trappers have murdered Hikuc. He comes across them as Toussaint is raping Powaqa, intervenes, and lets Powaqa kill Toussaint before distracting his fellows whilst she runs away. Glass now has two gangs of incensed enemies on his trail. By contrast, Sarafian’s Bass remains much more of an onlooker, witness to the often surreal on the wilderness. He watches helpless as a small party comprising a white mountain man and his Indian family and companions are assaulted and wiped out by others on the warpath, but the funerary pyres the war party light near the dead bodies gives Bass the gift of warmth for the first time in weeks; he is also able to salvage spearheads and other tools from the attack. Later, he watches as a native woman gives birth in the midst of the woods whilst her man waits beyond a cordon of taboo, a spectacle of pain and exposure that nonetheless communicates an overwhelming charge of life’s unruly beginning and power, forcing Bass to think at last about the son he left behind and marking his own, genuine moment of spiritual rebirth.

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The Revenant comes pouncing out of the underbrush, a careening, unstoppable beast of a film, much like the bear that gives its hero a very hard time. Iñárritu’s film is a visual experience of great verve and occasionally astonishing invention, utilising cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s incredible talent and turning his eye on terrains of grand mountains, snows, rivers, blood, filth, fire, night and day and, most zealously, the sepulchral beauty of magic hour. Iñárritu unveils a vision of nature as hell and cathedral, forge and fire. The director’s new obsession with plying his tricky extended shots and wowing the audience with how’d-they-do-that-isms conjures at least one great sequence, when Glass is awakened by the arrival of the Arikara war party and forced to flee on his horse only to ride over the edge of a cliff, pitching himself and his mount into an abyss. Lubezki’s recent shooting style, which he pioneered to mighty effect on The Tree of Life (2011), has brought to modern cinema something of a panoramic effect, utilising extreme wide-angle lenses, but with looming, lunging actions in the foreground, imbuing even simple actions with epic stature and lucid beauty. Iñárritu leans on this effect like a crutch throughout, when the camera is roaming. Unlike on Birdman, though, this incessant movement here seems to foil the energy and effects of his actors, who are often reduced to filling in unnecessary spaces. The more sophisticated Iñárritu becomes in terms of his filmmaking, the more scanty and heavy-handed his and Smith’s screenplay seems, the more repetitive in its action and straining in its search for significance the film becomes. The second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film concentrates on Glass’s recovery and agonised journey, but ultimately gives less convincing a sense of his method than Man in the Wilderness. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to have his motif of death and rebirth or stage one sweeping chase sequence—he gives variations on both several times.

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DiCaprio’s genuinely good performance does far more to put flesh on Glass than the script ever does, presenting a man who’s in deep, soul-twisting pain long before the bear gets him, a being used to the laws by which frontier life is lived: it’s there in his eyes as he polishes his gun and keeps a firm lid on his son’s mouth. By the end, he’s suffered so much he enters a kind of rhapsody, and the thirst for revenge cannot be sated; it can only be transmuted into a different kind of rhapsody. But Hardy, who stops just this side of broad, has the juicier part as the half-mad Fitzgerald. The film desperately needs more of the eccentric character power of the scene where Fitzgerald tells Bridger about a revelation that a duck he came across was God and had a vision of the interconnectedness of things, just before he shot and killed it. Even this scene, though, doesn’t seem to have a point to make other than to underline Fitzgerald’s already underlined mixture of weird conviction and cynicism. Dialogue in early scenes is so awkward-sounding like it might well have been translated from Spanish. But to be fair, Iñárritu is making his first true epic film, perhaps the first since Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) that tries to mate the worship of expanse and macrocosmic survey that defines the epic with a volatile, near-experimental aesthetic. At the core is an appropriately epic purpose, an attempt to invoke the breadth of the American historical experience as crucible of trial, suffering, and violence, of contention with nature as an alternately brutal and sublime passage of arms, and with human nature, the bitterest of wildernesses. A point of reference here could well be D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death worship at the heart of so much formative American mythology and an attempt to move beyond it, to explore the emergence of new faiths, binding ideas, and crossbreeds of culture created in such a time and place. But Iñárritu doesn’t give enough of that, and it’s also hard to shake the feeling after a while that he just adores all the handsome gore and portent as some kind of art. Sarafian includes the birth scene to give a pungent, urgent image of life counterbalancing death, down to the mother biting through her babe’s umbilical cord. Iñárritu, on the other hand, can handle manly suffering by the bushel, but can’t handle its opposite. His art only exists in a hysterical flux.

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Sarafian’s film is far more becalmed and classical, though in many ways, its approach is not only similar but, in its early ’70s manner, more sensible, balladlike in moments of wistfulness and muscular in action. It’s also much shorter, but still manages to conjure a mythic tone through the force of its images and the surging drama of Johnny Harris’ score, whose old-fashioned romanticism directly contrasts The Revenant’s surging atonal drones and thuds from a battery of composers. Wielding a sense of nature untouched both by human hands and CGI tweaking, Sarafian actually explores his hero’s mindset via flashbacks and the utilisation of the landscape as mimetic space, where Iñárritu rather merely states it: we know what the world means to Bass in a way that’s much richer, and less sentimental, than Glass’s pining for his wife. Indeed, Sarafian’s structure is more successful here than in Vanishing Point, where some of the flashback vignettes laid on formative crises a bit thickly. Richard Harris, an actor who could be sublime or a colossal hambone depending on his mood, was at his best for Sarafian as DiCaprio is for Iñárritu: both actors seem to revel in simply inhabiting their roles with a minimum of dialogue, their reactions to the shock of cold water, the feel of the earth, and the texture of blood entirely real. It could also be said that Sarafian does a slyer job inverting the audience’s viewpoints, as he offers a vignette depicting the Indians recording the sight of Henry’s land-boat in a painting, a glimpse of the strangeness of western enterprise through native eyes. Sarafian presents his Native Americans in their tribal contexts, in their fully formed social life, so starkly contrasting the bizarre, lumbering, unnatural expedition they make several attempts to wipe out.

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Sarafian’s film could well have had significant influence, or at least psychic anticipation, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which revolve around similarly absurdist adventures of western world-builders seen in stark remove. By contrast, in spite of the powerful technical accomplishment of The Revenant and the often extraordinary beauty of its images, its aesthetic seems mostly second-hand, marrying long-take machinations in competition with Alfonso Cuaron to Malick and Herzog’s visual habits, with hints of a dark, wilfully odd brand of historical filmmaking that bobbed to the surface now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1984) and Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), and a rather large dab of Chuck Norris. Both Sarafian and Iñárritu build to action climaxes that underline the hero’s development of a new sense of moral compulsion, albeit here, at last, in notably different ways. In Man in the Wilderness, Captain Henry and his compatriots find the river they’ve been making for has dropped and the cart-ship literally finishes up stuck in the mud, forcing the party to stand and fight off a massed Indian attack. The Indian chief, seeing Bass approaching, clearly believes he’s been spared by cosmic forces to gain his righteous reward, and gives him the opportunity of taking his revenge with the trapping party entirely at his mercy. In The Revenant, catching wind that Glass might be alive, Henry leads men out to find him, and they bring him back to Fort Kiowa, whilst Fitzgerald tries to rob Henry’s safe and runs off, ahead of approaching justice. Henry and Glass ride after him.

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Man in the Wilderness ends stirringly with Bass finally refusing to take revenge, instead simply vowing to return home to his son with a look of weary gratitude and uninterest in Henry and then tramping on. The rest of Henry’s party start trailing after Bass, abandoning their quest and likewise starting off, humbled and delivered from their own baggage, physical and mental. By contrast, the addition of Hawk and his murder to Iñárritu’s narrative has created a more immediate melodramatic spur that Iñárritu feels bound to satisfy at least partway, and so we get Glass and Fitzgerald fighting it out in a savage death match in the snowy wilds, knifing each other and biting off body parts with hateful gusto before Glass has a last-minute attack of morality and instead kindly sends Fitzgerald floating off to be scalped by Elk Dog, who happens along with the recovered Powaqa and the war party and are watching the fight with bewildered interest. Glass’s act of mercy towards Powaqa saves his life here, but the mechanics of this sequence are so clumsy and thudding that Iñárritu fails to deliver the moral lesson he wants to. Sarafian’s finale is the consummation of his work; Iñárritu’s is a bridge too far, an underlining of the director’s habits of unsubtlety and fondness for chasing down the obvious. Finally, the two films stand as ironic avatars of their filmmaking periods. If Man in the Wilderness is an underrated classic that was virtually ignored because of the wealth of such works in its time, The Revenant is a failed attempt to make a masterpiece in a time when Iñárritu will be praised for his ambition to drive cinema into new territory.


17th 12 - 2015 | 29 comments »

Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: J. J. Abrams

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By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

And so it begins. Again. After months of feverish anticipation, it finally came down to me amidst a movie theatre filled by fans, many dressed as their favourite Star Wars characters. Some recoil from the way such popular material can suck up all the oxygen of cultural discussion, but I can’t help feeling enormously cheered when surrounded by people who love a story and a way of seeing so much that it inspires them to throw out the usual rules about how we’re supposed to treat the products of imagination in real life. Amidst such cultish fervour, however, it can also be hard to formulate an objective opinion. J. J. Abrams now lives out the dream of so many in the audience who saw the first Star Wars back in 1977 in relaunching the series for a new time and generation, skewing it back toward his understanding of what made it great in the first place. Abrams is, of course, the former scribe of TV shows, including Lost and Alias, who graduated to making films with the nervy action thriller Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), the big, fun, rather dumb rebooted Star Trek movies, and his best to date, the deeply personal, if derivative, semiclassic, Super 8 (2011).

Auteurist scruples may wince at the prospect, but then again, just as George Lucas was so ready to remix his favourite old movies into something for himself, the time had come, apparently, when someone can do the same to Lucas’ model. The new Star Wars entry comes weighed down with a colossal amount of expectation amongst many hardcore and casual fans, most of who want to bury the memory of Lucas’ prequels that I spent so many digits exploring recently. I like the prequels, and my set of expectations are inevitably different. I’m a fan of the series, of Lucas as a filmmaker, and of fantastic movies in general, a set of loyalties that can converge neatly—or twist in gruelling discursions.

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The Force Awakens nonetheless studiously hits all the right notes from the outset— the classic title swooping away from the camera, the expository screen crawl, the first glimpse of something awesome deep in outer space. In this case, it’s a Star Destroyer appearing as a silhouette against a planet and disgorging a swarm of smaller space ships like some monstrous arachnid. The crawl does a fair job setting up the essential story: the Republic is faltering, a bunch of Imperial holdouts calling themselves the First Order are on the march, and Luke Skywalker has disappeared. First Order jackboots, including new dark lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Stormtroop commander Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), are chasing down dashing X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who’s on a mission to retrieve a map that may show Luke’s whereabouts. Poe receives the map from an old rebel adherent, Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow, pitifully wasted), on the desert planet Jakku, but Ren and his thugs arrive, forcing Poe to hide the map in his droid BB-8 just before he’s captured. The First Order thugs massacre Tekka and his fellow villagers, but one Stormtrooper, whose only moniker is FN-2187 (John Boyega), is disgusted with the slaughter. He helps Poe escape Kylo’s clutches, albeit not before Kylo uses his skill with the Force to extract the map’s whereabouts. Poe gives his rescuer a proper name, Finn, based on his number, and they escape in a TIE fighter. The craft is damaged, and they crash-land on Jakku. Finn thinks Poe has died and starts searching for BB-8 alone, only to be adopted quickly by venturesome young salvager, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Duo and droid flee First Order forces, and eventually hijack an old, battered spaceship found lying about a Jakku junkyard. Whaddaya know, it’s the Millennium Falcon.

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The Force Awakens works well up to this point. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac are able to create likeable heroes and strong repartee with surprising fleetness, setting up this fresh roster of characters in the context of a new era whilst also counterpointing the story beats of the very first Star Wars film in a way that feels apt to the basic patterning that has dominated the series. Rey is, like Anakin and Luke Skywalker, the product of a desolate environment and even more hardscrabble existence, and Finn recalls Han Solo and Lando Calrissian in his determination to do right in spite of a morally compromised past. BB-8 is an ingeniously designed and executed new droid who has to bear all the heavy lifting of cute appeal in this edition, for precious little kid-friendly whimsy will be allowed to slip through tightened fanboy security. Isaac, in particular, is instantly convincing: his natural charisma and swagger, so often damped down in more earnest performances and films, makes Poe a real focal point — so, of course, the film leaves him out of its middle act. Abrams’ insistence on returning as much as possible to “practical” special effects, replete with model work and life-size mock-ups, pays the most obvious dividends. The physical world here has texture, and the technical production is magnificent, every ray gun blast and engine noise registering with thrumming force, every spaceship seeming real and tactile. If Abrams achieves nothing else, it might be that he does something similar to what Lucas, Spielberg, and the other Movie Brats accomplished in their day for his own contemporary cinema: reinvigorate the love of craft and sense of film production as a near-religious event.

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Rey and Finn’s first adventure in the Falcon, dodging TIE fighters inside the strewn wrecks of cast-off Imperial death machines, is dynamically staged, and carries thematic force—the world of the old Star Wars films is now a dramatic scrap heap, a legendary time given way to an age of fractious decay needing new blood and gumption. But The Force Awakens starts to go awry here, too. The arch touch of finding the Falcon in such a circumstance is wittily purveyed, but segues into a desperately flimsy reintroduction for Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who have just returned to their old lives as smugglers because, as Han says at one point, it’s “the only thing I was ever good at.” You’ve gotta be kidding me, Abrams. Han and Chewie, appearing in a big, junky smuggling ship, zero in on the Falcon and pick it up. They hold off some disgruntled clientele and marauding monsters in a sequence that comes across more as a big-budget Red Dwarf gag than Star Wars-grade fare, and Abrams gets to do one of his trademark breathless but unimaginative run-about-hallways action scenes. The best news is that Ford is at the top of his game here, slipping back into Han like a second skin and tossing off his bluffs and grouchy quips with sublime ease. But this is part of the problem, too. Howard Hawks, one of Lucas’ masters and models, knew very well that he couldn’t utilise John Wayne the same way in El Dorado (1966) as he had in Red River (1948), and apart from Han’s tentative reunion with Leia late in the piece, there’s little convincing sense of character development. Abrams offers the juice of seeing an old friend, but with the dispiriting corollary of finding that old friend is still a screw-up. Of course, there’s a reason for this, such as it is.

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It’s not surprising that Abrams is confident in making a continuation that gives us “what we want.” Any experienced TV writer learns quickly how to move onto a project and mimic the qualities that sustain a successful show. Here that honed skill is matched to a fan’s fetishism for the look, sound, and tenor of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens bends over backwards to operate like someone just took all the old Star Wars toys out of your bottom drawer and started playing with them again, at the expense of developing Lucas’ fantasy world in any meaningful way. Spent the last 30 years wondering what the rebuilt Jedi Order would look like, how Han would take to being a war hero and husband to a princess, what the rebuilt Republic would be like? Abrams answers these questions by negating them, hitting the reset button and returning the narrative to comfortable, fan-service postures. Luke’s in narrative purgatory, the Jedi are a nonstarter, Han’s gone rogue again, and Leia’s now a general, which means she does the same thing here as she did in the finale of the original—stand around watching glowing maps. The Republic is up and running once more, but fragile, and the First Order is being fought by “the Resistance,” which is basically the Rebel Alliance with a mandate, still scrappy, outmatched outsiders. The First Order looks, sounds, and operates exactly the same as the Empire though they seemingly have none of that entity’s resources or purview. Having experienced two giant variations on the Maginot Heresy already with the Death Star, here is, well, another Death Star, except it’s been constructed inside a planet and is called the Starkiller base: “It’s bigger!” Han cracks, a touch of knowing self-satire that doesn’t actually excuse the laziness of the story. The First Order have an overlord who’s come out of nowhere named Snoke (Andy Serkis)—wow, there’s a terrifying villain name—and looks like a bigger, even pastier and nastier version of Emperor Palpatine. His underlings Ren and Phasma are joined by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, overacting something shocking) to duke it out for most incompetent bad guy prize.

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The emotional element for many in seeing Han, Chewie, and Leia again after so many years presents Abrams with a ball he can’t possibly drop, and he doesn’t. Nor does he do anything interesting or enriching with it: Han and Leia stand around swapping a few feels, and then we’re off again. The habit of reviving iconic characters only to make them mere furniture or to bump one or two off for shock effect is one comic book readers mocked decades ago, and Abrams lets himself be drawn into the same trap, as indeed he already did on his Star Trek films. One of the major spoilers or whatever here is Kylo Ren’s identity: in a motif drawn from the expanded universe novels that followed the original trilogy but tweaked for the sake of independence, Kylo is actually Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son, who’s fallen under the spell of the Dark Side. The absolute signature moment of the original trilogy was, of course, the revelation by Vader that he was Luke’s father. Think about that moment, how brilliantly powerful and climactic it was, how dramatically staged. Here, we learn Kylo’s real identity in a throwaway piece of exposition spouted by Snoke. Lame scarcely covers it. Kylo keeps Darth Vader’s melted helmet as a totem in his bedroom to spur his longing to become a worthy heir to the Sith lord’s power. Driver is competent in the role, but anyone who critiqued Hayden Christensen’s rather more complex performance as Anakin Skywalker should not have the gall to call this anything more persuasive. Indeed, the film badly lacks a truly potent and charismatic villain, someone to shock the narrative into feeling like anything more than a wire hanger to drape callbacks and footloose action on.

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I know this might sound rich coming from a guy who defended the writing of the prequels, but the script of The Force Awakens is weak in many respects. It struck me to be about three or four drafts away from optimal, and contains many familiar clichés of Abrams’ writing style—and contemporary screenwriting in general. Lawrence Kasdan might have been hired to give the script some gloss of familiarity with the original characters (he’s credited as cowriter along with Abrams and Michael Arndt), but too much of the film has Abrams’ rather more mechanical, weakly balanced sensibility. In its desperate need to get off to a high-powered start and stay in that gear, the sequences that have to bear the weight of character and story development, particular in the middle act when our heroes takes refuge in a bar run by gnomic alien crone Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), take on an awkward feel, at once rushed and laborious. Maz is a fascinating example of how an attempt to reproduce an element of the original trilogy (Yoda) finished up as a bland and forgettable placeholder, someone to nudge Rey along her path toward finding her inner Jedi and nothing more: no one will remember a thing this character says or does. Also, why net an actress of Nyong’o’s quality for such a fruitless aspect of the film? The film sets up a tension whereby Finn fears the inevitable moment when his Stormtrooper past will be revealed to Rey. The moment comes. There’s no payoff. We wait for Han and Leia to be reunited. They’re reunited. And we’re done. Compared with the way Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) wove Indy’s reunion with Marion as a screwball bickering scene in amidst thunderous action, this is strikingly witless. Indeed, for all the faults of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it was a far more accomplished film than this in acknowledging aging heroes and weaving in legacy with derring-do.

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The Force Awakens is a paean to popcorn movies as an ideal, and it moves along with such rollercoaster verve and good spirits that it does fulfil that ideal to a great degree. But something’s been lost. For Lucas, even at his lowest ebbs, the Star Wars mystique was about something more, something richer and more conceptually challenging. The acting is “better” here than in the prequels, but largely because the actors are called upon to do much less complicated things, in that increasingly common pseudo-screwball, TV-influenced manner where they all but trip over their dialogue from having to rattle it off so quickly. Boyega and Ridley give mostly confident, broad performances where they nail what their characters are supposed to be doing in any given scene, as much as the script is clear about who they are and what they’re thinking and feeling, which isn’t as often as I’d like. Boyega has a good sense of humour and he conveys Finn’s anxiety well, a particularly neat turn from an actor whose most notable previous role, as the hapless leader of the gang of posturing toughs in Attack the Block (2011), was defined precisely by a lack of self-humour. But at no point was I ever convinced that this character had ever been ruthlessly trained since childhood as a killing machine and then discovered his humanity. This is actually a very cogent example of something I was getting at in my comments on the prequels, where Lucas tried so hard to make his characters operate according to the laws of his invented universe rather than dumping easy avatars into that world, which is exactly what Abrams and company have done. Ridley, who suggests this year’s model Keira Knightley, is sometimes a plucky lass with a line of good-golly-gosh faces and sometimes an omnicompetent Sarah Connor type, and the film is remarkably cagey—or lazy—in telling us who she is and how she got this way. A couple of the bad guys sneer about her being a scavenger, but this feels more like regulation screenwriting apparatus than a real goad to her class rage. Nonetheless, I liked Finn and Rey as protagonists: as this revived series goes on, they might be allowed to take these roles to some interesting places. Or maybe not.

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I’m not sure what, if any, authentic emotional level Abrams works on, except for his love of classic Gen X action and scifi flicks, and the originals in this series above all. The sprawl of Lucas’ references was vast. Abrams’ take on Star Wars refers to almost nothing outside itself, except with some vague suggestion of an Islamic State programme of all-consuming absolutism behind the First Order, as well as the usual Nazi-authoritarian stuff. Given the post-Romanesque world of the collapsed Empire, there was a good opportunity to give the overarching narrative shape by referring to tales of Charlemagne and Arthur, rather than the Greek and German myths used in the original sextet. One of the best heroic images in the film, when Poe leads in a flight of Resistance X-Wings to battle like charging paladins or knights of the Round Table, grasps this concept. There’s also a hint of Excalibur surrounding the light saber left behind by Luke, which Rey finds hanging around in an odd place (but convenient for Abrams, who still has a poor sense of how to get characters around points A, B, and C) which seems to now choose its owner. But the really alarming side of The Force Awakens is that it completely lacks any kind of fresh, motivating frame of reference or core idea, or at least, none that’s allowed to make itself apparent. The original films never let concepts get in the way of a good story, but they were held together doggedly by Lucas’ carefully parsed underpinnings. It’s enough for Abrams that a character goes from zero to hero; that’s his and Hollywood’s current idea of mythic resonance. Some critics have congratulated this film for precisely the absence of mythological preoccupation. Go to hell, I say; then why am I watching this and not the 300 other action-adventure franchises out there?

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Abrams and his team have gone to great lengths to merely dress familiar things in new garb: here’s a new Emperor stand-in, here’s a Darth Vader wannabe, here’s a second-string Luke Skywalker, without pausing to let any of it breathe or gain substance. The original film took nearly an hour to leave Tatooine in the course of charting the events that set Luke on his journey, passing through stages of surprising stillness and quiet, evoking the meditative edge that often bubbled unexpectedly to the surface in places throughout the sextet. Lucas’ Jedi were thinkers and feelers; everyone here is a doer. Abrams grazes similar moments of horror to the death of Luke’s aunt and uncle and Anakin’s mother in noting the First Order’s violence, but it’s impersonal and offstage. Many branded the prequels as overly light and lacking grit, but The Force Awakens is actually far more blithe and evasive about the impact of violence. Many similarly derided the introduction of the idea of the midi-chlorians as a source for the Force as a misguided demystification of Lucas’ spiritual aspect, but here Abrams and company do something worse as the film reaches its climax and Rey literally gets her Jedi knight moves on in the course of battling Kylo. The whole point of the original trilogy was the process of developing the mental and spiritual discipline required to become a Jedi, and the prequels studied what horrible results could come of the process failing. To Abrams, it’s become just another cheap power fantasy.

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The Starkiller base wipes out a few planets a la the destruction of Alderaan, but whereas that was Leia’s home and an immensely brutal act registered through her reaction delivered with a political purpose of tyrannising obedience out of Imperial subjects, here it’s just some places that get wiped out for no particular reason other than, well, the story needs to make us dislike the baddies some more. Such is the film’s great technical in-your-face bluster and swiftness of movement that the weakness of its story structure and designs is nearly obscured. Return of the Jedi saw the rebels embarking on a rather limp plan to foil their enemies’ defences, but that plotline now looks positively Machiavellian in cunning compared with the way Han and Finn take out the Starkiller base’s defences by holding Phasma at gunpoint and threatening her into lowering the shields. So much for these fanatically committed agents of evil. The second great spoiler here is that Kylo, when Han finally confronts him, kills his father, in a sequence deliberately reminiscent of the death of Obi-Wan in the original. That scene was wrenching and shocking in part because Lucas never really suggested it was going to be so momentous. Here Abrams telegraphs what’s going to happen so blatantly that I couldn’t feel even a flicker of surprise, or even much sadness. By this stage, Han is just another moving part amongst too many. But I did like the flicker of interesting ambiguity that strays into the scene—does Han realise what’s in Kylo’s heart and willingly sacrifice himself, or did he trust too much?—which lends the film momentary depth by offering the one vignette that isn’t plying the obvious.

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The Force Awakens is spectacular, of course, but there’s a difference between spectacular and spectacle. Spectacular is flash and impact; spectacle is lucid and grand. Lucas aimed to give a touch of the sublime in his sense of the cosmic, and so often had a poetic edge to his visuals to counterpoint the kinetic ferocity. His frames spoke of his love of the fantastic, his desire to share with the audience a sense of things vast and strange, even when his words failed him and his movies skidded. Nothing like the romantic vistas of Attack of the Clones get a look in here, and Abrams’ way of evoking the same kind of yearning in Rey as once possessed Luke, so eloquently captured in the famous sunset shot of the original, manifests as her watching a spaceship take off, without anything like the same sense of visual rapture conveying inner meaning. The Force Awakens deploys the same lexicon of fantastic images as Lucas created, the scale of his war machines and the martial vigour of the space battles and final light saber duel. But Abrams has no gift for spectacle, and apart from the few brief visions early in the film, like the wrecked carcasses of Star Destroyers and their cavernous innards, no grasp on the dreamlike sensibility that coiled throughout the original sextet, no feel for the dark and hushed places that often live in the corners of that fantasy world where the heroes often found some of their truest threats.

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Abrams has been consistently improving as a director, and he restrains his messy instincts here to a great degree, imitating Lucas as much as possible. Yet his images never escape the realm of mere prose. The final battle sequences forget entirely about the space war raging above the heads of the duelling young warriors, and the Starkiller base blows up with scarcely a raised eyebrow: there’s no sense of the dramatic shape that made the original’s finale so enthralling. Here it’s just more cool, pretty things going zap and boom. Even the scene I praised earlier, of the Resistance’s charge, kind of comes to nothing. Finn and Rey’s attempt to bring Kylo down really gains strength, but this is then spoilt by Abrams’ need to give too much too soon. I’m being churlish to a deliberate degree, I’ll admit. The Force Awakens is a beautifully produced, solid, fast-paced and entertaining space adventure movie. But on some level, for all the familiar paraphernalia and exacting tribute, I felt like it was barely a Star Wars film, but rather just another imitation, Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) with more money. The film finally wraps up with a coda that is, on one level, excruciatingly clumsy, but also intriguing, as Rey confronts Luke at his hidden abode, an ancient Jedi temple at the edge of the ocean, his grizzled and battered face suggesting the hells he’s been through coping with the aftermath of his awful triumph. It’s telling that merely the sight of Mark Hamill’s face captures exactly the note the film has spent more than two hours trying to strike.


2nd 12 - 2015 | 43 comments »

Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) / Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) / Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Director/Coscreenwriter: George Lucas

By Roderick Heath

The fervent anticipation at the nearing release of Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens carries an unavoidable sensation of déjà vu. Like just about everyone else my age, I grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, and recall another wave of both powerful hype and real expectation through the closing months of the last millennium that crested with the release of George Lucas’ return to the series, Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This cinematic phenomenon began as a good-humoured, referential piece of space disco created by Lucas, a man who up until 1977 had been best known for a film about teens driving about all night to the musical accompaniment of ’50s oldies. But the series he inaugurated with Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) quickly became something rare: giant blockbusters viewers adopted with the fierce personal attachment of cult films. Stripped down to constituent parts, the original Star Wars films seem simple, even infantile, and yet there’s something incredibly powerful encoded in them, defying reduction if not dissection. Almost inimitable amongst modern special-effects-driven movies, they maintain the rarefied quality of fable, combining cheeky but essentially straitlaced heroism with a quality, in their evocations of places seen and visited, their alien cities dancing on clouds and death machines the size of moons and taverns littered with denizens of two dozen species, that resembles the apparatus of dreaming.

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Concurrent with the fond eagerness was a quieter but powerful swell of cynicism from people who disliked the films or resented the hype. Star Wars had germinated as personal fantasia but became marketing event. Lucas began his career with the semi-experimental scifi feature THX 1138 (1971), but more than any other filmmaker of his generation—the so-called Movie Brats—Lucas came to exemplify faith in the broad audience’s wont as well as the artisan-artist’s individual vision. Lucas learnt the hard way about the pitfalls as well as the prospects in making movies for that audience by dealing with the uproar over the nightmarish Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and the flop of the oddball Howard the Duck (1986), and had resolved to be a responsible provider of family entertainment. Facing a new trilogy with much darker and less commercial subject matter than his first series, Lucas at first courted a new generation of young viewers as fans, but he left many feeling he conceded to those young folk excessively. The people who already loved Star Wars certainly weren’t kids anymore. They were 20- and 30-somethings who wanted, whether they knew it or not, two completely divergent yet equally necessary sensations: the feeling of being thrust back to childhood even whilst simultaneously acknowledging their evolution. The Matrix, released a few months before The Phantom Menace, became the film the latter singularly refused to be, a superman fantasy dressed up in pseudo-grit and cyberpunk quotes that fitted the mood of the time. The Phantom Menace was a huge hit, but soon became a byword for the cultural equivalent of a fumbled touchdown. That said, I was and still am bewildered by the level of invective the prequel trilogy receives. In some ways, I even prefer those films today.

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I don’t say this just for the sake of contrariness. Some criticism levelled at the trilogy is legitimate and feelings of dashed expectations are honest enough for many. But I also feel this cult of disdain exemplified something notably obnoxious about the dawning age of the internet, a deeply spoiled capacity to judge with distinction or consider with a sense of history that refers outside of the bubble of fandom, or the opposite, charmless snootiness turned on popular cinema. I think of how lumbering and overhyped a lot of modern franchises have been—The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and Twilight and Hunger Games series, even to a certain extent the Marvel superhero films. So many are testimonies to a brand of professional smoothness or an anodyne brand of fun, rarely taking any risks or offering real ambition to match their flimsy gravitas. Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, formidable as they are, rendered the epic and the fantastic in a manner that remains resolutely concrete, sapped of relevance as parable, and the more they try for the ethereal, the less they seem. So I’ve found myself returning often to the colour and expansive glee apparent in even the least of the Star Wars movies. There’s real beauty and great invention to be found in the prequel trilogy. At their best, they exemplify the creed of the project as it began to explore complicated ideas and motifs through apparently cheery and unpretentious figurations. Lucas had originally drawn on nearly a century’s worth of space opera scifi and pulp storytelling as well as more serious sources.

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The surprising thing about The Phantom Menace is how well Lucas captures the tone of some of the stuff he alludes to—the broad, tony, featherweight joie de vivre of a Saturday afternoon adventure film by someone like Nathan Juran or Richard Thorpe. People wanted the Star Wars prequels to be about their childhoods, but it remained, in utterly crucial ways, an account of Lucas’ youth. One definite impact upon my own sense of art and artistry I can say the series had was the way it introduced me to the idea of auteurist cinema. George Lucas was Star Wars; even when he wasn’t directing, his influence was still all over the product. This eventually proved a sword with two edges, as Lucas the creator became the boogeyman of fanboy campfire tales.

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The overarching story of the prequel trilogy is straightforward, but also much more complex in its dimensions and ramifications than the original trilogy’s. The trilogy depicts the transformation of the Galactic Republic, an ancient, galaxy-spanning alliance of planets, into a fascistic Empire. Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a devotee of the once hugely powerful but long since toppled mystic society called the Sith, is at first a mere senator from the planet of Naboo. He engineers a plot in multiple stages, first leveraging himself into the chancellorship of the Republic Senate by creating a crisis between his home world and a cabal of smug, fish-faced aliens called the Trade Federation, led by Nute Gunray (Silas Carson). Palpatine then foments a full-scale civil war between Republic loyalists and disaffected groups, using his adherent and accomplice Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to manipulate events until he is given dictatorial powers, permitting him to create a full-scale army of clones to control his domain. Then Palpatine moves to wipe out the Jedi, the Republic peacekeepers who adhere to an antipathetic philosophy to the Sith whilst drawing on the same quasi-spiritual energy source known as the Force.

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Woven into the fabric of his plot are three core characters: the elected Queen and later Senator of Naboo, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and his pupil Anakin Skywalker (played as a kid by Jake Lloyd, as a man by Hayden Christensen). The Phantom Menace tells how Obi-Wan and mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) save Padmé and aid her in reconquering Naboo from the Federation. They encounter young Anakin by chance when hiding out on the remote, barbaric desert planet Tatooine, where he and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) are slaves to gruff, sleazy trader Watto (Andrew Secombe). Anakin’s uniquely powerful ways with the Force help gain a victory, and after Qui-Gon’s death in battle with Palpatine’s initial apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park), Obi-Wan convinces the Jedi Council to let him train the winning, but possibly unstable young prodigy. Whilst The Phantom Menace is the least effective of the six feature films to date in the series, it also clearly illustrates the uncool side of Lucas’ obsessions in a way that also confirms their meaning to him. In its first 40 minutes or so, the episode has a much more juvenile style and tone than the other films and is the one most clearly made with a young audience in mind. As much as this tone acts like nails on a chalkboard for older viewers, it’s not actually a flaw in itself.

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That said, Lucas had not personally directed a whole film in 22 years, and the one-time savant of ’70s cinema had clearly grown stiff in the joints. Some parts of this revival are brilliantly executed, others weakly patched together. Early special-effects sequences in the episode are awkward and feel unfinished—particularly an underwater journey for the Jedi—and replete with edits that come a beat too late. The much-hyped, first-ever, completely computer-generated character in a feature film proved to be Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), a floppy-eared, lizard-like alien from a Naboo race called the Gungans who seems composed of a few hundred different comic-relief figures (and ethnic clichés) from old movies. I generally side with popular opinion here: Jar Jar is an annoying figure who nudges the material too close to the cartoonish, lacking the fierce-cute appeal of the often derided but lovable Ewoks. That said, although Jar Jar grates badly in early scenes, his involvement in a climactic battle through which he careens like Jerry Lewis trying to be Errol Flynn, bringing terror and destruction to both the enemy and his own fellow Gungans, blends comedy and action well in a sequence that calls out directly to a lot of classic swashbucklers, like Nick Cravat darting through danger in The Crimson Pirate (1953) or Herbert Mundin amidst the throng at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

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An extended subplot involving the substitution of the real Padmé, who pretends to be one of her own handmaidens behind a decoy, played by a very young Keira Knightley, means Portman and Knightley are forced into awkwardly imitating each other with a weird mid-Atlantic accent. But Padmé begins her evolution into perhaps the most interesting character in the franchise. She’s a product of a culture with a curious predilection for being governed by emotionally and intellectually advanced young women, one who remains the voice of social and political wisdom in the trilogy and a gutsy fighter who has a tendency to leap into frays where others hesitate but who founders on her love for a younger, volatile man. The Ruritanian look of Naboo has a fervent and colourful charm, again clearly linking the instalment with the fantasy filmmaking of Lucas’ youth like Knights of the Round Table (1954) or Jack the Giant Killer (1962). The core theme of the story is distrustful races coming together to fight a common enemy, as the humans of Naboo ally with Jar Jar’s people, the Gungans. The last word spoken in the film is the Gungan king’s (Brian Blessed) cry of “Peace!”, contextualising the trilogy’s developing story as a decline from a state of civilisation into a time of turmoil, ruction, and bloodshed. War comes not as great and appealing crusade or assaults by conveniently abstract others, but because of the manipulations of cabals hoping to gain power or money. Images throughout the film of the Federation’s war machines trammelling the lush, green beauty of Naboo introduce a recurring note of concern for the environment, nodding toward the same themes of natural purity and the insatiable ravening of sentience depicted in Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

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The core sequence, again often criticised but actually a terrific bit of filmmaking, comes when Qui-Gon manipulates events on Tatooine to allow him and his party to escape with young Anakin, which requires letting Anakin enter a dangerous form of competition known as the Pod Race. This sequence provides another evident reference to a movie that stands as distinct precursor to the Star Wars series in both production grandeur and self-mythologising style, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). Whereas the chariot race in that film was a climax, here the pod race actually inaugurates the essential Star Wars myth. It is the spectacle of something new and amazing coming into the world, and serves at least four purposes in dramatic context. In straight narrative terms, it solves the crisis of how the heroes will get off Tatooine and leads to Anakin joining their team. It’s also an action set-piece that jolts the spluttering film to life. It focuses not just the story, but also the mythic element in the evolving epic tale as Anakin’s great, courageous, slightly berserk talent reveals itself for the first time. It also revives the panoramic aspect that’s always been crucial to Star Wars, as tiny, enriching details flit by, from a bored Jabba the Hut overseeing the race and flicking bugs off his booth’s ledge to vendors selling alien small fry to hungry viewers whilst the two-headed race caller mouths off with sarcastic glee. This sort of stuff is, to me, always a great part of the pleasure of Lucas’ creation, a universe of recognisable things given a fantastic, slightly mocking but ultimately effusive makeover. Also, given how junky a lot of ’90s action filmmaking looks today, this sequence is especially great in its clean and fluid use of widescreen, and the perfect legibility of the visual grammar. But sequences like this sit cheek by jowl with awkward ones, like Anakin being teased by some fellow Tatooine waifs, where the style of acting and humour strays too far into a broad and juvenile place, like a Saturday morning children’s show.

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Climactic scenes of The Phantom Menace may push the kiddie wish-fulfilment a bit far as Anakin saves the day by blowing up a Trade Federation control ship to a chorus of applause. But the lightsaber duel between the Jedi and Darth Maul, which costs Qui-Gon’s life and reveals Obi-Wan’s gift for surprising pompous opponents, is in the best series tradition. Attack of the Clones, the first follow-up, is probably the most frustrating entry in the entire cycle. The episode encompasses some heavy lifting in the overall narrative, depicting Anakin simultaneously as a brave and gallant knight who wields an almost unnerving romantic fixity in pursuing Padmé, but also harbouring a dangerously fraying psyche. This side to him, though sensed warily by the leading Jedi Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), is revealed when he returns to Tatooine looking for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), only to find her on the edge of death after being kidnapped and tortured by humanoid nomads known as Sandpeople. Anakin, stirred to psychotic rage after Shmi expires in his arms, slaughters a whole village of them. The monster within Anakin is hatching, byproduct of both his alienated and exploited youth and the process of becoming a Jedi, a process that was supposed to ennoble and cleanse him of such evil. Anakin confesses his act to Padmé, alternating shows of rage, adolescent petulance, grief, and bewildered self-reprehension. Padmé, resisting her own ardour for the handsome warrior, nonetheless acquiesces to and covers up his lunacy.

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Parts of Attack of the Clones have a romantic grandeur that easily match the best moments in any other episodes and strike at the heart of the appeal of this universe. The film starts effectively with a noirish sequence depicting an assassination attempt on Padmé that kills one of her doubles, a moment that signals immediately that the kiddie games of The Phantom Menace are over. Anakin and Padmé kissing before being wheeled out for a death match before a stadium full of insect men is a moment carved out of the very ore of the fantasy epic. The climactic battle sequences, including a tribute to Ray Harryhausen as our heroes battle a trio of monsters, the Jedi finally depicted at their best as they rally to save our heroes and fight off an army of robots, and Yoda and Dooku meeting in a lightsaber duel, are great entertainment, gathering a rolling, rollicking intensity. The landscapes on display are a diorama of fetish points for space opera and classic scifi—robots, aliens, Art Deco supercities, technogothic castles, glistening chrome space ships, and stygian automated factories, as if decades of Amazing Stories and Astounding magazine covers have come to life. Mixed in with this are references to the ’50s pop culture beloved of Lucas, like diners and hot-rod-like speeders and spacecraft, making for the deepest immersion in the fantasy world Lucas had created.

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But the episode is also beset by a baggy narrative that wastes screen time when it should be developing the tortured romance of Anakin and Padmé, whose affair unfolds in settings straight out of Pre-Raphaelite art. Instead we’re lumped with a couple of action scenes that come across more as show reels for the increasingly good digital effects or blueprints for computer games, like an asteroid field chase and a sequence in a droid assembly plant that is well-done and has a certain thematic force by portraying our heroes trying not to be more literally stamped out by a heedlessly working machine, but could easily have been left out. Some sequences even stir thrills and a touch of exasperation at the same time, like the early chase sequence through the planetwide city of Coruscant. Wisely, Lucas reduced Jar Jar to a handful of cameos here, as a malleable political stand-in for Padmé, whilst the reliable duo of C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are turned to for comic relief, though the pair don’t wield the importance or sharpness of humour they had in the original trilogy. For all its flaws, though, Attack of the Clones is a vigorous, fun, substantial work. Many of the best moments, odd for such a piece of big filmmaking, tend to be tossed-off asides: Obi-Wan using a Jedi mind trick on a barroom drug dealer, Anakin playing Joe Friday with bar patrons, bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) spinning his blaster like a gunslinger after shooting down a Jedi, C3-P0 having a killer droid head welded onto his body, and the sight of Anakin speeding across the Tattooine landscape on a futuristic motorcycle like the Wild One gone Zen Ronin.

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A great part of the appeal of the original series lay in the relatively broad simplicity of its heroes, who stood for clear, easily graspable, positive values. Even Han Solo, the slightly tarnished wiseguy uneasily elevated to crusader status, is hardly a Dostoyevsky character. The characters did evolve, but only Luke really deepened, and his journey from fresh-faced farm boy, an obvious avatar for the audience’s fantastic yearnings, to grim inheritor of cosmic destiny, bore most of the real dramatic and mythic weight. By comparison, the prequels force one to empathise with a callow budding psychopath, his enabling lover, and his emotionally constipated mentor. These three protagonists each aid in causing the destruction of the world they think they’re defending. The prequels depict a world falling apart and tellingly refuse to let the audience off the hook, no matter how distanced or naïf the rendering of that hook: almost everything the audience wants to see is bound up in this decay. The desire to see action is sated, but immediately indicted by Yoda as proof of failure. The romance of Anakin and Padmé slips its bonds, but signals impending doom for both. The daydream sustained in the original trilogy is therefore critiqued and inverted.

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Much as older viewers couldn’t relate to Anakin, many kids and teens did. His deeply egotistical and painfully self-castigating sense of having his potential thwarted and his need for control foiled, and Padmé’s optimism waning into an increasingly detached cynicism towards the political process she stands for, depict states of mind all too prolific in our time, ones that contradict common, conflicting expectations loaded upon young people, to be incredible achievers and unswervingly empathetic idealists all at once. “Only a Sith talks in absolutes,” Obi-Wan warns Anakin as he turns to the dark side. At the time, some took this for a tilt at the rhetoric of George W. Bush, as much as it now sounds like a thumbnail sutra explaining the powerful appeal of groups like Islamic State for some—the promise of complete surrender to a simple cause, a pure mode of thought for which any act can be countenanced. In this regard, Lucas clearly had his pulse on something other populist filmmakers have tried to grasp but usually belaboured. What is also clear to me is that Lucas, when he revisited this material, wanted to try to live within in it on a much deeper level than the original films and pay truer heed to the material’s partial roots in the medieval mythos, both Eastern and Western, where lives were lived and death was met according to rather different value systems. The famous title card of every episode declares that this is all “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” but this fairytale motif only really feels true with the prequels. The original films are a charmingly bratty revolution fantasy, where the good guys happen to speak like ’70s American teens and the bad guys have English accents. The prequels are a tragic contemplation of the forces that tear societies, and individuals, to pieces. Lucas’ interest in a chillier, headier brand of scifi parable was obvious right from THX 1138 and here found further articulation.

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This quality emerges strongly in the last film of the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine’s attempts to win over Anakin resemble at once a seduction, therapy session, and a chess match of moral relativism. In the original trilogy, evil was, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an elixir that once tasted was totally subsuming. In the prequel trilogy, both the light and the dark sides are more processes of thought and ways of feeling: by the time he becomes Darth Vader, Anakin is convinced he’s bringing peace and justice to the realm. A constant leitmotif to the prequels is a sense of ethical questioning and a tension between the personal and the political that ultimately destroys both the Jedi and Anakin by pulling them in asymmetrical directions. Yoda warns young Anakin about maintaining attachments and giving himself cause for fear, and it’s precisely this that ultimately leads him straight into Palpatine’s arms. But the Jedi, presented as uncomplicated paragons whose aura is legendary in the original series, are here revealed as gallant but also demanding and elitist, almost incomprehensible to someone who runs on emotion as much as Anakin and perhaps ultimately too detached from the fate of the Republic to actually save it in part because of their own ethic of accepting loss.

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Lucas shows he understands something vital about courtly sagas and classical tragedy: the requirements of role and the nature of humanity are disparate and demanding things. Lucas literalises the tension key to the prequels between role and person early on with Padmé’s absurd regalia, a crushing weight of stately role that continues to stand like a statue even when she’s entirely outside of it. Jar Jar actually serves a fairly analogous role here as Han Solo did to the original films, if much less successfully, as a character who remains oblivious to the pretences of the civilised and the imposing (“Maxi big the Force!”). His clumsiness is the very opposite to the ideal of disciplined self-abnegation that defines the Jedi and also the fetishism of power and order that defines the Sith.

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The writing of the prequels is often criticised, but what this brings up is just exactly what is good writing in such a context? Is it the writing of, say, Joss Whedon, where everyone, no matter where they come from, speaks like a smart-aleck English major in a Californian college, or the brick-heavy koans of Christopher Nolan? That famous quote of Howard Hawks about the trouble working out how a Pharaoh should talk for Land of the Pharaohs (1955) (“I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew.”) is still relevant in this regard. Lucas tries, a bit archly but with some purpose, to recreate the flavour of a certain brand of courtly poeticism in speech through the prequels, with a texture on occasion that strives for the flavour of medieval epics— romantic, stylised, high-flown to the point of sounding like recitative. Lucas himself compared it to a kind of a rhythmic sound effect—a fair description. There’s a much-mocked line in Attack of the Clones when Anakin and Padmé share a romantic interlude by the side of a lake. Padmé remembers days of joy swimming and lying on the sand with an old boyfriend, and Anakin feebly jokes how much he hates sand. It is an uncomfortable moment, but deliberately so: Anakin tries to shrug aside a hint of romantic jealousy with humour, but accidentally reveals a hole in his soul, as he’s actually talking about his childhood on a planet where sandstorms were dangerous and life was hard, a place to which he will soon return. Characterisation, backstory, foreshadowing. Not so bad for a dumb joke about sand.

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That’s not to cover up the many dud line readings in the prequels, most of which are perplexing as they could’ve been salvaged with a few hours’ dedicated ADR work. It’s definitely true that Lucas accomplishes his aims better with images than words. An iconic shot in Attack of the Clones depicting Anakin regarding the dawn and trying to calm his raw nerves with Padmé hovering in the wings, and the final shot of the same film where the pair get married in the rays of a setting sun, have a transfixing, totemic beauty. Lucas’ formal gifts are, in fact, often greatly in evidence throughout the series, particularly his interest in wide shots replete with geometries that highlight the formalism that defines this age in his fantastical world and the tension about to bust it to pieces.

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I think the style is quite deliberate and suits the tone of the material, and is also modulated with a deliberation many didn’t notice, moving from the pantomime-like tone of the opening episode to high operatic drama in the last. But the emphasis on a tense decorum in this futuristic (albeit past) world leaves Portman and Christensen often seeming far more out of place than their predecessors ever did. Christensen, whose chief claim to fame was playing a troubled young misfit on the TV series Higher Ground before Lucas cast him, is one of the most vexing elements of the triptych. Lucas clearly wanted a James Dean-Marlon Brando quality to Anakin, his generational touchstones for rebellious youth and social disaffection, a touch of the immature as well as the fearsome to his asocial side. If Christensen was irredeemably bad, he could simply be allowed to fade into the texture of the films like human wallpaper. But Christensen delivers on occasion, as in the scene when Anakin tells Padmé about the massacre of the Sandpeople: he grasps the degree to which Anakin is composed of alternating repression and inchoate eruption, nobility and monstrosity.

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Plummy old pros like McDiarmid, Jackson, and Oz fit into this landscape better. McGregor acquits himself well enough in the series, an achievement considering he had a difficult job in matching his younger, pithier version of Obi-Wan to Alec Guinness’ quiet and assured characterisation. Although he and Christensen have the athleticism, in some ways Portman strikes me as the natural adventurer of the three young stars, dashing about firing ray guns with delighted eyes; her “I call it aggressive negotiations” quip in Attack of the Clones is pure swashbuckle. Perhaps the best performance in the trilogy comes from August, who does a terrific job of securing the drama in the spectacle of a mother bereft of her son; the reunion in Attack of the Clones has an unusual pathos because the dying woman is transfixed by the sight of her grown son.

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At its best, the prequel trilogy legitimately inhabits the realm of chivalric romance, stocked with themes and stances found in sagas, particularly in the traits that define Anakin, who’s actually much closer to a great mythic hero like Achilles, Jason, or Siegfried than Luke ever was in the violence and intensity of his driving emotions and character stances—forbidden love, crippling conflict between stoic integrity and hysterical eruption, an inability to settle into required strictures of life in the society he represents. Obi-Wan was originally presented as a mentor figure whose initially uncomplicated call to action for Luke was revealed in subsequent instalments to have more dimensions, but he still remained a figure of sagacious wisdom. McGregor plays him as a dashing, but serious-minded swashbuckler who retains a telling and ultimately calamitous blind spot when it comes to Anakin, his pupil and adopted brother, an emotional substitute for the lost father figure of Qui-Gon. This fantasy world is a kind of Eden from which everyone falls, giving birth to a different time and throwing up rogues like Han and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).

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Many of Lucas’ reference points for creating his mythos were pretty disreputable, including not just the classy art of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comics but the vulgarity of their screen serial adaptations. A wealth of other reference points is apparent— the swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz, the conceptual richness of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and the venturesome absurdity of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the sweep of John Ford’s western mythology and the rigorous formality of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, and Ray Harryhausen’s films, which combined ingenious wonders with the ropy charms of B-movies. On the highest level, Lucas has often seemed an acolyte of Cecil B. DeMille, whose embrace of scale and riotous colour as aesthetic tools matched the themes of world-shaping powers with The Ten Commandments (1956), and of Fritz Lang, who laid the groundwork for much of the style of Lucas’ works with his silent epics The Spiders (1919), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1926)—fantastical pieces of world-building replete with similarly surreal and cavernous environs, action cliffhangers, and stories often split across multiple episodes. Coruscant turns Metropolis’ soaring modernist architecture into an entire world. There’s more than a hint of Die Nibelungen (both movie and source myth, quite apart from Wagner’s take) in the recurring images of crushing courtly stature and state, infernal downfall and baleful regard. Palpatine sitting at the centre of all plots is the ultimate Mabuse, manipulating the downfall of others for personal amusement, reducing government to a matter of his own will and detecting the weak points of Anakin’s psyche to turn him into a helpless acolyte.

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The political substance of the series is a mishmash of historical motifs, blending a parable for the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the American Revolutionary War and Civil War, and World War II, complete with space Nazis and galactic paladins. But the prequels contain a consistent thread of real interest in the idea of what constitutes the self and society, diagnosing cynicism as a problem that’s as pernicious as corruption. The original trilogy only seemed to reference contemporary politics by evoking a generational anxiety of becoming what the ’60s counterculture rebelled against, as Luke tried to avoid becoming his father, whilst the battles of the Ewoks uncomfortably suggested an odd hijacking and inversion of the Vietnam experience. The prequels suggest a more immediate and clarified lesson. “So this is how freedom dies,” Padmé murmurs at one point when the Senate votes to make Palpatine Emperor, “With thunderous applause.” Revenge of the Sith, the concluding movie in the trilogy, has a rueful warning for younger generations of how easy it is to be so subsumed when your leaders manipulate you to commit evil in the name of good, with Anakin, youth and talent personified, seduced by promises of power and privilege, called to commit slaughter in the name of peace, to be delivered from fear and frustration. Anakin’s urge to free himself from fear also detaches him from democracy, making him lean toward authoritarianism, the get-things-done attitude of Palpatine.

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One of the most obviously powerful qualities of the series since its inception has always been John Williams’ scoring, and perhaps the most inarguably strong aspect of the prequels is his music, particularly the “Duel of the Fates” piece used in The Phantom Menace, the lush “Across the Stars” motif in Attack of the Clones, and the thunderous drums and choral works resounding throughout Revenge of the Sith. The prequels sport a few nods to the original trilogy that are perhaps excessively cute—having C3-PO prove to have been an engineering project of young Anakin’s, making Boba Fett’s father Jango the genetic source of all the initial wave of clone Imperial Stormtroopers. But there are also some refined and intelligible touches of foreshadowing and mirroring throughout, particularly in Anakin’s two duels with Count Dooku, which mimic cinematic effects and story patterning in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) in suggesting the same forces of fate and divergence of character that define fathers and sons, masters and pupils. Revenge of the Sith signals the closing bookend to the trilogy in echoing Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, as Palpatine’s plots reach climax, the Jedi are wiped out, and Anakin begins a precipitous transformation into that darkest of dark marauders, Darth Vader.

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Frankly, Revenge of the Sith is the best of the Star Wars films, a grandiose distillation of the entire concept of space opera scifi, the closest the series has come yet to fulfilling its neo-Wagnerian streak. It’s also the tightest, most dynamic piece of filmmaking, a narrative inexorable in the same way as A New Hope, except on a downward trajectory, successfully carrying through a promise to turn into high tragedy. Elements that had problems connecting and synchronising in the first two films snap into gear here— even Christensen is fairly okay—if at the relative expense of some aspects, including Padmé, as the dashing figure she cut in the first two instalments is here reduced to mere weepy baby mama, for the most part. The opening sequence is a marvel that shows how far special effects advanced even in the six years since the trilogy began, and unfolds as a pure episode of swashbuckling action, as Anakin and Obi-Wan try to rescue Palpatine, who’s been kidnapped by Dooku and cyborg rebel leader General Grievous. Anakin defeats Dooku this time and kills him at the chancellor’s behest, and finishes up having to pilot a massive crashing spaceship in for a neat landing. This whole sequence is a piece of cinema spectacle I don’t think anyone’s topped in the last 10 years. Revenge of the Sith alternates the urge to such kinetic release and intense, yet quiet, almost cerebral sequences where the characters grope their way through their contradictory impulses and collapsing worldviews.

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Another very large reason I like these films is that they reject nearly every modish trick of so much contemporary filmmaking. As modern, perhaps excessively so, as the digital special effects seemed upon release, the actual cinematic design of the films is rich and classical in utilising the screen’s expanse, and those much-quibbled-over effects, sometimes gorgeous and sometimes cheesy, offer to me a quality like the painted wonders of old matte effects – not realistic, but transportive on some level. There’s scarcely a single too-tightly-framed shot or jerky camera moment in all seven hours of the filmmaking here. Lucas’ trademark Kurosawan screen wipes nudge visual and narrative structure along with fluidic insistence. I’ll also admit I have a liking for aspects of these films from which others recoil, so go ahead and assume I’m mentally ill. I enjoy Lucas’ happy embrace of the kind of outsized, old-fashioned melodrama and idealization usually filtered out of modern tent-pole films where the cult of awesome has a very narrow range of definition; the scenes of Anakin and Padmé swooning in the fields of Naboo, which have a resplendent, flower-child goofiness to them, and Vader’s final, over-the-top cry of “NO!” are big, gregarious middle fingers turned up at the middling, sometimes nonexistent emotional range of most of Lucas’ inheritors. Revenge of the Sith concludes the move away from the kid-friendly tone of The Phantom Menace, as here the young Jedi are butchered en masse by Anakin amidst a night of long light sabers. Marching ranks of Stormtroopers invade the Jedi temple, and Anakin heads to the planet Mustafar to wipe out the separatist leaders, including Nute Gunray, now that Palpatine no longer needs them.

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Lucas’ direction, which grows more vigorous and animated throughout the trilogy, cuts loose in this movement, replete with delirious high viewpoints of marching armies, cross-cut glimpses of myriad alien worlds where other Jedi are betrayed and ambushed, and the churning violence Anakin turns on his enemies, carving up the separatists with a savagery that’s quite unmatched in the whole six-film cycle. The finale of Sith, at once paving the way for the next cycle of history and underlining the total collapse of everything depicted as sacrosanct and worthy in the previous three films, sees Obi-Wan and Anakin battling over Padmé’s crumpled, pregnant form on a volcanic planet where the spuming lava flows mimic the emotional landscape of the characters and the action unfolds in gloriously hyperbolic manner. Molten rock erupts, sparks fly, light sabers streak and slash, colossal machines fall apart and melt. The mimetic quality of Lucas’ creation is at its most unrestrained and beautiful here: I’m not sure if mainstream cinema had seen its like since the days of DeMille, or Powell and Pressburger, whose Black Narcissus (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948) similarly paint obsession and jealousy, love and hate, in bold tones of bloody red and dancelike motion.

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Lucas does grant concessions to the remnant heroic ideal at the heart of the series. Yoda gives the newly crowned Emperor a bit of what-for before fleeing in the face of the crushing political machine the Sith now wields, and Obi-Wan quite literally cuts Anakin’s legs from under him when the young, increasingly mad tyro overreaches and underestimates his opponent. The concluding scenes take the cross-cutting structure to a striking place as two different kinds of death and birth are contrasted—the waning life-force of Padmé even as she struggles to give birth to the crucial Dioscuri of the next epoch, Luke and Leia, matched with the reconstruction of the mangled and pathetic Anakin into the monstrous form of Darth Vader. There’s a perverse and gruelling quality to these scenes that, again, defined new territory for a series once based in mere boyish adventure. The themes of rebirth, cycles and family, decay and renewal, conclude in images of funeral, as Padme is celebrated in death by Naboo, and homecoming, with Leia finding a home with Senator Organa (Jimmy Smits) and his wife. But the very last shot inevitably returns to that most memorable image of A New Hope, as young Luke is held by his aunt and uncle (Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Maree Piesse) as they gaze out on the twin suns of Tatooine, the future with its horrors and glories a distant promise.


1st 11 - 2015 | 2 comments »

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Director: Wes Craven

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By Roderick Heath

Wes Craven’s career making horror films lasted over forty years, but he remained devilishly hard to contain or categorise. A former philosophy student and English professor, he often exhibited great conceptual intelligence in his work, utilising highbrow ideas like metatextuality and nested realities well before they became fashionable, as well as pursuing a definite satirical interest in confronting the violent and perverse impulses lurking under the surface of the modern world. But he also gleefully delivered the down-and-dirty pleasures of his chosen genre, and as he developed from the relatively straightforward rawness of his infamous debut, Last House on the Left (1972), he began to revel in a stylised, madcap, virtually slapstick version of horror. There was a strong dash of Looney Tunes to his horror – the villains reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in their braggart ferocity, the heroes fighting back with their Acme kit-like improvised methods. His sixth feature film, A Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), was the kind of hit every low-budget, ghettoised filmmaker dreams of, one that made mountains of lucre and impacted upon the genre significantly. And yet the director himself was forced to sell the rights to the film before its release, and could only stand and watch as his brainchild became a pop cultural phenomenon. Craven’s career would remain skittish, even after he finally found a degree of stature and mainstream success with the Scream series. In the phase following Elm Street, Craven did some of his best, most distinctive and vigorous work, but little of it was well-received at the time, including the would-be new franchise creator, Shocker (1989), the freakish, scabrous parable The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the ingeniously self-referential Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1993).

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The Serpent and the Rainbow might have seemed at first glance a play for relative respectability. Craven took on a script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, adapted a memoir by researcher Wade Davis, recounting his investigations into tetrodotoxin, a chemical derived from puffer fish venom and used by Haitian voodoo practitioners in zombie creation rituals, with the hope of adapting it for medical use. Respectability seems the last thing on Craven’s mind when the viewer is confronted by the resulting film, however. Long before Charlie Kaufman made a joke out of trying to turn dry reportage into a popular genre movie in Adaptation. (2002), Craven beat him to the reality, creating one of his strangest, most defiantly individual films, as well as one of his best – ridiculous, weird, and riotously entertaining. The Serpent and the Rainbow arrived as a near-freeform assault on familiar narrative niceties, shifting through familiar modes at breakneck speed. It’s a travelogue, anthropological study, political thriller, surrealist fugue, blood-and-thunder horror yarn, and action blockbuster all at once. It looks back to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1942) in trying to seriously and even realistically encompass voodoo as a socio-religious tradition, with an aspect of a specific, very ‘80s brand of fashionable ethnographic study and Third World consciousness-raiser a la The Emerald Forest (1984) or Under Fire (1983). But it also shifts into utterly whacko B-movie shtick and haunted house ride-like showmanship when it feels like it.

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Davis becomes Dennis Alan, played by Bill Pullman, a dashing young Harvard-trained ethnobotanist (!) who arrives deep in the Amazon forest hoping to find commercially exploitable herbal remedies amongst tribal shamans. One shaman (Evencio Mosquera Slaco) feeds him a hallucinogenic concoction as he thinks Dennis needs to perceive things beyond, because there’s some immensely evil force looming over him. Dennis, in his altered state, encounters a jaguar that terrifies him at first but proves to actually be his protective spirit animal. But the shaman is replaced in the fugue by a fearsomely leering sorcerer (Zakes Mokae), who torments Dennis with visions of being dragged down into the earth by dead and buried men. When he awakens from this grotesque trip, Dennis heads to his helicopter in relief but finds the pilot dead, killed by some malediction. Dennis is forced instead to hike out of the jungle, seemingly guided to safety by the jaguar spirit. When he gets back to the US, Dennis is hired by his mentor, Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough), who now works for pharmaceutical company boss Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle): Schoonbacher and Cassedy want him to go to Haiti, to investigate a seemingly authentic case of somebody having been made into a zombie. The first scenes of the film have already shown this, as the evil magician of Dennis’s dream, actually Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), oversaw the burial of the man pronounced dead but, Craven reveals, weeping in his coffin. The Captain works for the Tonton Macoute, the secret police force that did the dirty work for the government of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.

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The unfortunate victim, Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), has since been disinterred and briefly sheltered for a time by psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (the ever-excellent Cathy Tyson), whose report attracted outside attention. Dennis meets up with Marielle but Christophe has long since left the run-down, grimy asylum Marielle tries to administrate: eventually they track him to where he now lives, the cemetery where he was buried, lurking in the shadows as a distraught and disorientated shell of his former self. Christophe was a schoolteacher who was fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, and Peytraud targeted him for destruction. Dennis tries to get on with his job, approaching braggart gambler and alchemist Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) to make some of the supposed zombiefying concoction he’s famous for, and Louis happily agrees for a few hundred dollars. Louis tries to cheat Dennis by giving him a batch of the bogus blend he sells to tourists, but Dennis spots the gag and forces Louis to put up the real thing. Louis eventually agrees but insists Dennis join him the long and complex preparation process for this mysterious concoction. Trouble is, the longer he spends in Haiti, the more deeply Dennis becomes involved with both the local culture and its marvels, and also the evil of the Duvalier regime, as represented by Peytraud, who uses both torture and voodoo to torment and terrorise anyone who attracts his sadistic interests.

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Standing on the side of the just is Marielle’s friend, fellow resistance member, and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), who tries to use white magic to protect Dennis and Marielle as they tread on territory Peytraud jealously defends. In many ways Craven’s sense of style could hardly have been more different to the elegance and suggestiveness of the classic Universal and Val Lewton horror films: his camerawork, quite often utilising hand-held and steadicam shots that roam about his characters and vivid lensing effects that mimic the presence of unseen forces assailing them, is vigorous in a manner that suggests Werner Herzog’s work on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) on crack, the special effects unrestrained, and the manifestations of primal and supernatural terror visualised with gusto. And yet in other ways, particularly in Craven’s obsession with dreams and visions as the bridging point between the concrete and the fantastic, The Serpent and the Rainbow maintains links with an older, more ethereal brand of horror; reality and dream, worldly power and magic are in such a constant flux that they become inseparable. A richly visualised, otherworldly elegance pervades parts of the film, particularly a magical sequence in which Marielle takes Dennis on a trek along with thousands of worshippers on a religious festival. Streams of worshippers flow through the jungle to a rock pool high in the mountains where they carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, camping at night along the way in forests bedecked with jewels and totems and guttering candles, and Dennis and Marielle make love in a cave with a sense of ritualistic fervour, capping a movement of deliriously sensual textures.

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In the midst of this movement, Craven offers an interlude when Dennis has another of his prophetic visions, seeing himself visited in the night in the forest by Christophe carrying the corpse of a voodoo priestess in a white grave dress, which then disgorges a snake for a tongue that bites Dennis on the face. Such are the breakneck shifts of mood and effect in this film, which come so often as to become their own, weird form of lucidity in creating a world where just about anything can and does happen. Dennis is constantly assailed with similarly strange and often spectacular dreams hallucinations and Craven uses these to give a more pyrotechnic brand of horror. Dennis’ early vision of being dragged down into the earth sees corpses thrusting rotting fingers at him before plunging into a black abyss, as if the dread sins of the past buried however deep are about to claim Dennis. Later, when he’s retreated from the villains to a small beachfront cabin, he sees a burning boat drifting to the shore, carrying the voodoo priestess, before the cabin closes up, shrinks down, and becomes a coffin, blood filling it up like a bathtub. The idea that villain Peytraud fights his battles on both a physical level and on the spiritual lets Craven go to town in portraying the totality of this form of warfare. Peytraud also represents for Craven one of several attempts to create another Freddy Krueger, a trickster villain who respects no usual limitations of physical law and logic to attack his enemies. Mokae was a South African actor who first found repute working with playwright Athol Fugard, and his later acting career was usually split between politically oriented dramas and horror films. Here he had a chance to combine those two, and he’s an unrestrained hoot in the role, with his rolling, bugging eyes and gold tooth flashing matched by rasping voice of cruel relish, as if someone recast Robert Newton’s Long John Silver as a Blaxploitation villain.

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Most of Craven’s films had a powerful undercurrent sense of absurdist black comedy, and oftentimes entirely explicit. That streak is certainly present here, particularly apparent in just how much abuse Dennis receives throughout the film. It gets to the point where this all starts to feel like a lampoon on both the usual travails of venturesome heroes in pulp tales – young Pullman’s square-jawed, all-American visage needs only a pith helmet to complete the picture – and also of white western anxiety in the face of dangers beyond the safe limits of home, like Midnight Express (1978) gone troppo. In one sequence Craven reaches an apogee of discomfort in mainstream cinema whilst somehow avoiding depicting any actual gore. Peytraud seeks to terrify and punish Dennis by having him arrested, strapped to a chair naked in the secret police’s favourite torture chamber, and hammering a nail through his scrotum. Before striking his relished blow, Peytraud matches any Bond villain as he responds to Dennis’ desperate question “What do you want?” with, “I want to hear you scream!” This moment ranks with the “Squeal, piggy!” scene in Deliverance (1972) in literalising a protagonist’s emasculation by forces beyond his control. There is a disparity at the heart The Serpent and the Rainbow between the thesis Davis was arguing, that the apparent manifestations of the supernatural were actually the work of a complex, puzzling but actually rational work of nascent chemistry, and Craven’s casual demolition of that concept by embracing ooky-kooky magic. Voodoo as a religion and cultural phenomenon has been a constant source of interest for storytellers interested in the fantastic, but very few investigate it with much depth or seriousness as a genuine cultural phenomenon.

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Whilst The Serpent and the Rainbow throws out any pretences to being seen as a strict tract on the subject, it does find Craven with an anthropological bent, truly fascinated by the sights, sounds, and lifestyle of Haiti, considering it as a fully-fledged society present amidst but also cordoned off from familiar definitions of modernity. The eruptions of irrationality in the storyline literalise this schism and also lets Craven show his own sensibility, associating political tyranny with forces of evil. There’s an appealing casualness to the interracial romance of Dennis and Marielle that looks forward to Craven’s embrace of black heroism in The People Under the Stairs and fusion of horror with Blaxploitation lampooning on Vampire in Brooklyn (1994). The pilgrimage scene is a highpoint of this bent, amidst an immersive sense of place (although the production was forced to leave Haiti mid-shoot and was finished in other locations including the Dominican Republic), as is a brief but fascinating depiction of Lucien performing a wedding. The Duvalier government and the Tonton Macoute really did use the paraphernalia of voodoo as part of their arsenal of repression, although ironically Wade Davis himself had little trouble from them. Marielle, a modern rationalist by profession, is also famed for her performances when possessed by spirits, and Dennis witnesses this transformation with bewilderment: “There is no conflict between my science and my faith,” as she states.

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Craven’s pointed sense of humour makes itself apparent when a tourist-friendly display of local performers for a hotel crowd is portrayed as a festival of the strange with a male performer getting female guests to shove spikes through his cheeks, another chewing on glass, until finally Peytraud, who looks on, announces himself by mesmerically compelling one of the performers to attack Dennis. This scene is mirrored later in a vignette that counts amongst the most Cravenish of Craven moments, when Dennis returns to the States with the zombiefying powder and is treated to a swanky dinner by Cassedy and his wife Deborah (Dey Young) in their mansion as reward. Deborah, possessed by Peytraud in spite of the many miles and supposed barriers between these places, suddenly turns strange and sneering, begins chewing on a glass, and then launches herself across the dinner table in an attempt to stab Dennis, forcing her husband and Schoonbacher to drag her off. This makes for a disturbing/hilarious image of posh, lily-white insularity turned into funhouse for chaos and vengeful lunacy. There are seeds here for Craven’s later, equally wild and loopy The People Under the Stairs, which would turn the mirror back on Reaganite America and accuse it of being essentially the same thing. Craven didn’t help write the script here, which points to why some of Craven’s favourite themes are channelled in slightly different directions to his usual work, particularly his recurring motif of good and bad families and their avatars who, in the course of the tale, become increasingly blurred: Krug and his cohort and the bourgeois parents of Last House on the Left, the holidaying family and the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the suburbanites and their resurging tormentor/victim in Elm Street.

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Here the oppositions are more political and national. The corollary to that theme, of the “normal”, “good” people becoming increasingly warlike and competent in facing their enemies, is more clearly present here too but it takes a long time before Dennis, reduced to a worm before the boot of Peytraud’s intent, finally turns. Peytraud frames Dennis for the murder of Christophe’s sister and uses it to ensure he’ll have him executed if he ever returns to the country, before sticking him on the next plane out. However Mozart sneaks aboard the plane and gives Dennis the batch of zombiefying powder for free, asking only that Dennis let people know about his talents. But Mozart is captured and executed by Peytraud, and after the incident at the Cassedys’ house Dennis feels compelled to return to Haiti as he senses Marielle will be in danger too. Lucien arranges to have Dennis brought to safety by some of his men disguised as cops, pre-empting the Tonton Macoute, so Peytraud has Marielle kidnapped, uses a hex to kill Lucien, and has an operative treat Dennis to a dose of the zombie powder. Dennis desperately begs bewildered people not to bury him as he folds him and seems to drop dead. In his paralysed state, Dennis is forced to experience his own burial.

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This sequence sees Craven paying tribute to the famous dream of death and burial in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), shooting much of it subjectively from the view of the frozen Dennis as he passes under the eyes of friends and doctors, and his mocking enemy Peytraud. Just before he’s put into the ground, the Captain drops a tarantula into the coffin to keep him company, giving Craven a chance to stage a most iconically phobic horror image, the monstrous black arachnid crawling over Dennis’s stony face. Dennis is saved by Christophe, who knows very well what’s happened and digs Dennis out of his grave. The clash of aesthetic attitudes apparent in the texture of Craven’s filmmaking, and the ruthless way the original three-hour cut was pared down into a very peculiar 97 minutes, makes The Serpent and the Rainbow an experience that would probably seem to many perturbingly hectic. But it also finally exemplifies something rare about its maker and gives it force that refuses taming. The finale sees all hell break loose in both senses of the term, as the Duvalier government collapses, leading to scenes of explosive rage and rejoicing on the streets, through which threads the smaller but vital drama of Dennis taking on Peytraud for control of the nation’s spiritual as well as physical fate.

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Here Craven goes all-out with a riotous assault of inspired, crazy images – the torture chair coming to life and chasing Dennis about the room, Dennis being assaulted by Lucien’s shade, his bashing his way through a door only to find gravity inverting as if he’s in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and dangling from the doorframe, and a nod to Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) as Dennis enters a hall of prison cells from which prisoners’ arms reach, unnaturally long, trying to grasp him. Craven connects Peytraud’s relish of holding the captured souls of his victims, including Lucien, with the political oppression, as Peytraud uses his control over the apparatus of terror to turn victims of that oppression into weapons. Except, naturally, this proves a double-edged sword, as Dennis and Marielle smash the pots containing the souls, letting loose the magical wrath of the repressed on their tormentor, spirits massing to drive Peytraud into a fire and burn him alive, whilst Lucien’s released shade passes on his powers to Dennis. Peytraud is defeated in the real world but there’s one fight left on the spiritual plane. Dennis, invested with Lucien’s magic and utilising the fierceness of his jaguar spirit, is able to overpower Peytraud here too, whereupon he hoists Peytraud by his own petard, psychically tethering him to the torture chair and punctured through the balls before being shunted off to hell, complete with reversal of the “I want to hear you scream!” line. The spirits of the dead arise in rainbow colours whilst the populace celebrates and Dennis and Marielle limp away, bloodied but triumphant. This climax goes so far over the top it all but hits orbit, and I dare say the film as a whole is a litmus test, either sweeping you up in its mad thrust or leaving you totally cold. But it’s also uproarious and casually flings brilliantly staged filmmaking at the audience, a perfect encapsulation of Craven’s delight in his art. Horror film will miss him.


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