Lincoln’s opening shots depict warfare: writhing bodies in primordial mud, flesh punctured by bayonets, and mouths yawing in screams of pain and murderous passion. White Confederate soldiers and black Union soldiers are engaged in war as primal and terrifying as anything out of Homer, evoking not merely the awesome violence of the American Civil War in general, but of war itself. Here is the threatening spectre of apocalyptic racial blood feuds, too, uncontained by nominal loyalties to uniforms and factions beyond skin colour.
Director Steven Spielberg’s gambit here clearly evokes some of his career’s many scenes of brutal conflict: this charnel-house vision is grimly realistic in its squirming, thrashing, intimate corporeal violence, and yet also distinctly stylised, bordering on abstract, in its depiction of clashing bodies and frenzied motion, a reductio ad absurdum of humanity in the very pit of self-willed dehumanisation. In such a moment men are not men, but rather bundles of desperate, murderous/survivalist impulse. Such dehumanisation is to be the stake of the story, but of a different kind, that is, the condition of the slave rather than the soldier, although these states are linked in many ways. The stylised quality continues in the subsequent scene at an army staging post, as columns of soldiers being deployed march past President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to another terrible, but possibly climactic, campaign. This is a churning cauldron of rain, squelching mud, filthy and sodden men, eerie light and shadow, the president backlit, half iconic, half ogrish, attempting to interact with patient politeness with the men. Lincoln listens to the testimony of two black soldiers (Colman Domingo and David Oyelowo), who are veterans of such internecine slaughter. One recounts his experiences, and the other tries to lobby for better treatment, pay, and advancement, looking forward already to the painfully slow crawl toward the epiphanies of the mid-20th century. Lincoln listens with polite rectitude, as he will continue to do through most of the following narrative, resisting outright declarations and positions until he has made up his mind and knows that his displays will carry weight.
The mood here is similar to the climactic scene of Spielberg’s previous drama, War Horse (2011), with a similar purpose, albeit with different inflections: where that film was mythic and romantic in its approach to a cruel historical milieu, this is quite different, but still sustaining that film’s sense of hovering on the edge of a dream memory. Spielberg imbues the soldiers’ camp with an appropriately bustling realism, but also somehow suggests a more ethereal, spiritual, elemental drama in the offing. This scene signals a nexus of testimonial artefact, historical tableau, and Brechtian drama, underscored when some of the white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan) attempt to recall the words of the Gettysburg Address, delivered in halting and stilted terms, whereas one of the black soldiers recalls it verbatim and with a certain poetic flare whilst walking off into the shadows, transmuted from immediate presence to an almost elemental voice, the scene suddenly empty except for Lincoln. The specific impact of Lincoln’s most famous speech is reflected back to the man himself, via the people to whom it was a missive of mourning and also a promissory note, a hope of a restoration of moral order and centrifugal reason to an age of wild slaughter.
This scene is a clear declaration from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that what follows is a hindsight study, full of after-the-fact epiphanies and perspectives, an evocation of the inevitable gap between us and Lincoln, and between the man and his own works and words, rather than a documentary. It’s a necessary declaration, particularly as Lincoln soon devotes itself to a specificity occasionally redolent of political journalism, depicting the minutiae by which Lincoln and his “team of rivals” (per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s source history) achieved their last and greatest political coup against a backdrop of epochal brutality and moral compromise. Lincoln is as panoramic as it is biographical. Here is the Union’s political universe, the landscape of a society at war, a complex system of interrelated personages, institutions, ideals, and necessities. Lincoln’s recent reelection has empowered him to take bold actions to win the war and also find its essential purpose and meaning. The air of hallucination from the opening continues even as a more domestic, intimate note is struck, as the scene shifts to the White House, where Lincoln recounts a stark and distressing dream of riding headlong into calamity aboard a strange vessel (actually a stylised Monitor warship). His wife Mary (Sally Field) interprets the dream as his anxiety over an upcoming military assault, but then realises it actually portends his need to pass the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment.
Lincoln makes his desire clear to his Secretary of State, William Seward (a particularly cagey David Strathairn). Lincoln illustrates the spur for his determination to get the Senate-approved amendment passed in the House of Representatives by turning a petitioning interview with a petty-minded landowner and his wife (Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel) into a quorum on the abolition question. The couple tacitly supports it as a war measure, but finds the idea objectionable if peace were to come out of fear of an imagined horde of larcenous ex-slaves on the loose. Lincoln thus argues to Seward they need to get the amendment passed before Republicans elected on Lincoln’s coattails are swept into Congress, because the war could be over by then. Seward agrees to help but feels Lincoln should stay out of the murky activity this demands, as many Democrats sacked by their constituencies can be inspired to vote for the amendment with the promise of mid-level bureaucratic jobs and other semi-corrupt devices. To this end Seward puts together a team of operators, Bilbo (James Spader), Latham (John Hawkes), and Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), who begin working on the lame ducks.
Lincoln, in its subject matter and aspects of its approach, is definable as Spielberg’s follow-up to his antislavery epic Amistad (1997). But whereas the earlier film was rendered as a kind of visual-dramatic operetta, Lincoln is superficially cooler in style, offering character portraiture intertwined with a procedural take on political manoeuvring in the context of a particular society’s most crucial moment of redirection. Amistad depicted the process by which the slow asphyxiation of that primordial American sin, slavery, began, by both direct and violent action and legal minutiae and cultural reconstruction; Lincoln takes up the culmination. Spielberg’s instincts as a cinema artist and a practised, “mainstream” entertainer have often noticeably clashed in his films, but here they work in perfect tandem. Dashes of low comedy, even slapstick, graze against high-flown orotundity, grand carnage, bruising domestic tumult, and purposeful theatre of righteousness, all with a Shakespearean sense of interconnectivity, traced to common roots, a clash of essences enacted on every scale from the most intimately personal to the pan-national.
Lincoln’s depiction of the disparity between solemn institutional responsibility and the vulgar, lively, often absurd nature of communal life, has roots in Spielberg’s early films—The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975), 1941 (1979)—in which a carnival-like Americana was evoked with a craft similar to, if less cynical and purposeful than, Robert Altman’s. The film justifies its title in its concept of Abe Lincoln not merely as an icon of the era, but as its fulcrum, the man on whose face and, ultimately, whose very mortality, the struggle’s course is written. And yet in the course of the film’s narrative, Lincoln himself is often sidelined for stretches of running time, waiting for results of actions he’s set in motion, at once removed from them and yet feeling their abstract import all the more keenly as a result. It is this sense of moral culpability as well as virtue that Spielberg and Kushner look to as the measure of worthiness; a genuine engagement with the problems of human worth becomes a right and proper yardstick for determining that worth.
Everyone is judged by this maxim, from Lincoln himself, who is all too aware that his labours are often on some level at cross-purposes, wielding violence and subterfuge to secure the liberty of one sector of the populace at some expense to another, to anti-abolitionists who subordinate humanistic concerns to those of sectarian interest. These are represented in the film by the “copperhead” Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie), who attempt to forestall the abolition bill for various myopic reasons that masquerade as matters immediate, overriding, and pragmatic. Spielberg avoids repeating himself in regards to Amistad, because he can take it for granted that he’s already portrayed the immediate horrors of the slave’s condition.
Spielberg has big shoes to fill here, even by his standards; Honest Abe’s stature as the most iconic and admired American President in history has inspired some hefty artworks over the years, including John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which depicted Lincoln’s evolution from frontier whelp to canny lawyer whose meandering folksiness conceals a stiletto-like sense of purpose. Ford’s film is also about the world around Lincoln. Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln, on the other hand, is trapped within a more elevated but no less tumultuous community, that of high democratic politics. Whilst waging a war that calls into question every presumed bond, ideal, and motive in the nation Lincoln leads, he attempts to lay down its greatest claim for future self-respect.
Lincoln’s specific heft is saved for negotiating with two major political figures who stand as nominal partners, but who could also choke his efforts if they choose. The first is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Republican Party cofounder, a pure-bred optimate who claims to have founded a “conservative anti-slavery party”: Blair agrees to aid the bill but only on condition Lincoln lets him try to initiate peace negotiations with the Confederates. At the other extreme is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), leader of radical Republicans, set on imposing a punitively righteous reckoning on the remnants of slave power and whose cabal in Congress regards Lincoln as a prevaricating sell-out. Lincoln must tread the torturously narrow trail between the two camps. He agrees to Blair’s project and, surprisingly and problematically, it bears fruit: a team of negotiators led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) starts north for Washington. Lincoln is faced by an immediate crisis of conscience, albeit only a newly sharpened version of the one he’s been wrestling with for four years, as he must choose between negotiating an end to the murderous war but possibly ruin the cause for many believe it has been waged. Meanwhile, as Bilbo and his team work, they manage to sway a large number of their targets, but finally come up against insurmountable barriers.
Lincoln’s constant frustration with his businesslike War Secretary Stanton (Bruce McGill) during a Cabinet meeting sees his jokey non sequiturs segue into a lengthy exposition of the lawyerly skill and intellectual heft Lincoln is used to wielding not in frontal charges, but in sneak attacks, against positions as various as proletariat obtuseness and aristocratic pomposity. He outlines the seemingly impossibly tangled thicket of dilemmas and self-contradictions involved in his Emancipation Proclamation, an edict that theoretically could be reversed, and therefore his desire to see it backed up by constitutional amendment. It’s a hypnotic piece of actor’s linguistic legerdemain and screenwriting, with Spielberg, via Janusz Kaminski, executing a creeping dolly move towards Day-Lewis like with unblinking attention. The scene is all the better for the concision with which it aids not merely an understanding of the issues at stake, encapsulated with rapid-fire yet entirely coherent intensity by Lincoln, but also characterisation. The Lincoln who got himself elected to the highest position in the land suddenly reveals himself as well as the even more elusive one, the agonised moralist and thinker. Spielberg’s empathy with Lincoln could well be described as that of one communicator who knows well enough to coat ugly truths in sweeter flavours for another. Lincoln’s “folksiness” is consistently revealed not just as his way of buttering up people, but also of disarming them, making them underestimate him, of clearing space and shifting the style and intent of attention turned upon him. Later, Lincoln purposefully distracts his colleagues and military staff as they wait for news of the attack on Wilmington with a jokey anecdote harkening back to the Revolutionary War and its easy patriotic associations that stand in contrast to the somehow more painful immediacy of civil slaughter. Stanton, irritated beyond measure by another story, stomps out whilst the President rambles on, only to come back and grip Lincoln’s hand as news comes in.
War is only glimpsed at the very start of Lincoln, but it is manifest throughout the film, working as a slow poison that infects everything. This is made apparent on an ontological level, but described most tellingly in Lincoln’s home life, in barely dampened turmoil since the death of the Lincolns’ third son. His youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) has taken to wearing a uniform. He likes to lull himself to sleep studying Alexander Gardner’s photos of freed slaves, obsessing over their ragged desperation like many a morbidly conscientious youth of Spielberg’s generation (and after) fixatedly rereading Anne Frank’s diary. The White House is at once home and bunker, jail and mill for the Lincolns, a warren of light and dark, cosy nooks and painfully cramped spaces for nation-administrating labour.
Lincoln’s scenes with Tad call to mind irresistibly the father-son moments of Jaws, linked in the portrait of the paternal figure as an assailed, troubled figure in whom real authority and civil responsibility is invested, still keeping a grasp on his family life as a way to stay sane, but the sons also mimic his stance and reflect his own attitudes back at him with painful/beguiling acuity. The intelligent but unbalanced Mary lives in mortal fear of losing her eldest boy Robert (Joseph Gordon Leavitt), who’s been studying law but desperately wants to join up before the war ends for the sake of social and personal approval. Mary dreads the possibility of his death so intensely that even the promise of a cushy staff position can’t mollify her. Lincoln tries to give Robert a sobering experience by taking him to tour a hospital full of wounded soldiers: Robert demurs, but, following a blood-leaking cart hauled by orderlies with curiosity, he’s revolted by what proves to be its load of amputated limbs. But Robert is still not dissuaded.
One of the best, most realistically, penetratingly human scenes Spielberg’s ever filmed has Lincoln reduced almost to a wraith cowering in the window bay, accepting Mary’s wrath for failing to dissuade Robert until she attacks him for a lack of feeling, whereupon he finally reacts with the indignation of a man who had to bury his grief because he had to remain functional for his job. Field’s brilliance as Mary lies in how she suggests both Mary’s aggravating pathos, which has a showy, demonstrative quality, but also her frustrated intelligence and scathing verbal force. Such force is exhibited when, confronted by Stevens and his followers when Abe holds a White House gathering to court necessary support for the bill, she quietly and mercilessly rips Steven apart for his parsimonious interest in her efforts to decorate the presidential mansion. At such a moment, it’s clear both why Abe married her and also what she might have been in a different time, and also why she’s like sweating dynamite now. Mary finally sums herself up, perhaps a tad too neatly, but with apt self-awareness, as the necessary counterbalance to her husband’s heroic stature, the face of the gnawing fear and pain of the age.
A second female figure in Lincoln’s household is Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mary’s maid and a former slave, whom Tad asks with guileless fascination whether she was whipped. Keckley is the moral barometer, as her face and attitude often silently charts the course of events, feeling on the most immediate level the fear and hope the drama is depicting. Lincoln’s solicitation of her opinion is another fascinating moment, as Keckley asks him bluntly about how he looks personally at the racial problem. Lincoln (and Spielberg and Kushner) attempts to avoid mealy-mouthed piety at the risk of sounding standoffish, explaining his difficulty in assessing the matter because he doesn’t “know” black people with real understanding: “I expect I’ll get used to you,” he says with dry Midwestern humour, as if aware that in trying to regard the problem from Olympian heights, he recognises that common humanity is only ultimately a matter of neighbourliness. But humour only goes so far, as Keckley reminds Lincoln she’s the mother of a fallen soldier, questioning what this makes her for the country if not a citizen worthy of veneration as well as emancipation and tolerance.
A race against time enters this narrative as Blair semi-wittingly threatens Lincoln’s intentions with his successful entreaty to the Confederates. Their emissaries are ushered across enemy line into the hands of Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), to Union Army reception committee stacked with black soldiers, a seemingly calculated provocation. Grant, determining that the emissaries are serious men, recommends to Lincoln that they be interviewed, leaving Lincoln with a most definite choice, either to stymie the negotiators briefly to help ensure the vote’s passage, or allow the Confederate company to come straight on and possibly end the war. The issue leaves Lincoln a peripatetic insomniac, awakening his assistants in the night by sitting on their beds to discuss pardons for deserters, and finally, hovering on the edge of decision, seeming to discursively explain Euclidian geometry with two signalmen. But of course he’s actually considering moral calculus, drawing the lesson that peace and safety for one group cannot be obtained if it means abandoning another group to tyranny, and this informs his last-minute decision to order Grant to delay the emissaries and work on the vote for the bill. When he finally confronts Stephens, his entreaties fall on deaf ears. Spielberg pulls off one his most adroit pieces of editing, cutting to the infernal sight of blazing Richmond, its devastation the implicit result of both Lincoln’s politicking and Confederate intransigence. The images, long since soaked into the folk-memory of the U.S. and the world, of Lincoln’s journey across the pulverised battlefields to Richmond, and Robert E. Lee’s (Christopher Boyer) plaintive return of Grant’s salute after surrender, retain not gallant lustre but a newly bleak sense of the nature of leadership: “We’ve made it possible for each other to do terrible things,” Lincoln tells Grant.
In this regard, the John Ford film Spielberg’s Lincoln feels kin to is less Young Mr. Lincoln than his sublime Civil War segment for How the West Was Won (1962), where Grant and Sherman argued with palpable personal angst in the midst of carnage. The filmmakers’ relish of Lincoln as a protagonist and his mental alacrity calls to mind A Man for All Seasons (1966), and like that film, it manages to invest history’s saints with living wit and artistic poise. The depth and intensity of this film’s preoccupation with political and personal responsibility is thankfully leavened by counterpointing such weighty matters with Bilbo’s rather less moral, although equally determined, efforts, which include, at one point, his having to fend off a congressman who tries to shoot him. When Lincoln pays a visit to Bilbo, he amiably quotes Henry IV Pt. 1 to him (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!”), a knowing glance at the Bard’s skill at conflating the business of kingship with that of knaves, and Bilbo’s Falstaffian demeanour sit well with this (a superbly bluff performance from the once wolfishly poised Spader). Lincoln’s decision to engage more directly with the vote-reaping process, as it looks like it’s failing, sees him directing his more intricate and psychological gifts at the problem, as appeals to self-interest and the ephemeral pleasure of being seen to do good cannot entirely sway more powerful, if not always more reasoned, emotional and intellectual stances they’ve encountered. William Hutton (David Warshofsky) is touched by hatred for blacks since his brother died in battle for their sake. George Yeaman (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) hates slavery, but fears sudden emancipation might expose the people it’s designed to help to calumny. One thing Spielberg and Kushner get particularly right is the degree to which the era’s political verbiage was as much theatre as message, pitched to the galleries rather than the cameras and to awe journalists into recording them like prophets rather than bewilder them until the news cycle ends. In the film’s broadest scene, as the anti-abolition forces try to bait Stevens, Stevens must muster restraint and linguistic cunning, mixed with raw abuse of his opponents, to survive the moment. He immediately earns the upbraiding of a fellow radical for demurring on the issue of equality, to which Stevens ripostes he’d do anything if it means having ensuring that the only inclusion of the word “slavery” in the constitution is an amendment proscribing it.
Lincoln is, by and large, a study in the fundamental dilemma of democratic government of how to identify and achieve the most good for the most people as a natural extension of the communal will rather than an imposition. The relationship, prickly and peculiar, between Lincoln and Stevens is the film’s ideological engine. When Stevens outlines a plan for post-war punitive legislation to reconstruct the American body politic by replacing Southern oligarchs with empowered free blacks, it’s startling how much force and beauty his plan still has. Lincoln drolly describes this as the “untempered version of Reconstruction,” but interestingly, Stevens, like Lincoln, is a study in human frailty under statuesque heroism, and all the more so literally, forcing himself to stand erect before the Congress when he must bend and shuffle to walk, clad in a dreadful wig to hide his bald pate, hiding his love affair with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). The ironic reveal of this dalliance fascinatingly confirms the sort of implications aimed at the abolitionists of the era, but Spielberg treats it with delicate good humour, as Lydia welcomes Stevens back from Congress with the bill in his hand, and segues to the politician getting in bed with Lydia and asking her to read the bill out whilst counting off the clauses himself. There’s a reprise of the almost recitatif-inflected opening here, as hallowed political language is again employed, but with the immediate force of its human implications presented in the most unexpected of fashions: the muted tenderness of the couple in bed automatically undercuts the scurrilousness, and instead imbues the film with the first glimpse of peace as a promise after the fractious bitterness and soul-searching.
The actual vote is a Spielberg set-piece of the first order, albeit with a difference, because, whilst the outcome is known, the tension is still remarkable, with Lincoln in part reduced to audience surrogate as he must wait for the result of the vote. The exact outcome remains in the balance until the crucial cry of “Aye!” escapes Yeaman’s lips, and even the Speaker (Bill Raymond) adds his vote to the balance. Spielberg pulls off a great discursion here as he cuts away from the final tallying to Lincoln in his office, awaiting word, alerted by the pealing of bells to his success, and then cutting back to the eruption of jubilation in the Congress where the dignified politicians rejoice like teenagers at a post-game kegger—a singular and well-earned moment before the reckoning. Part of the thrill here comes from the natural power of seeing great good achieved, and also from the simple release of the film’s weighty mood, as the Representatives whoop and hoist the amendment’s manager James Ashley (David Costabile) in the air, the man himself almost weeping with relieved glee, whilst Stevens, with the silent satisfaction of a man who’s triumphed against time and the world, asks to take the bill home with him.
If there’s a downside to the muted bravura Spielberg wields throughout this work, as the first drama he’s offered in a long time to gain near-universal acclaim, it is thus; the moments of truly expansive vision glimpsed in the likes of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) are dampened in favour of a more convincingly intimate, but less overwhelmingly pure exuberance in cinema. But Spielberg self-critiqued is still Spielberg, apparent in the authorial deftness of his camera precisely charting dramatic highs and lows, in shots as casually telling as the camera movement that follows Stevens as he strips himself of his worldly regalia and gets into bed with his mistress, or as strikingly odd as the semi-surreal visions of Lincoln’s dreams. Spielberg’s partnership with Kaminski has achieved more spectacular results, but rarely more expressive, and indeed quasi-expressionistic, in a film that uses the dance of light in an either naturally illuminated or candle-and-lantern interior world. There’s a strong suggestion of the influence of Victorian painting in the visual scheme, and a particular debt to Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic,” with its similar manipulation of source lighting to create a surgeon-hero bathed in the light of reason. A recurring motif of the characters framed in windows, poised between light and dark, hearth and world, sees Lincoln both demonic in his row with Mary, and ethereal, as he draws Tad behind a curtain to look out on the celebrations of the bill.
It’s peculiar to think of Spielberg, often described as the Peter Pan of American cinema, entering his autumnal phase, but whilst there’s still plentiful verve and control in evidence, the usual tones of a late-career masterpiece are here. Late in the film, Spielberg offers a brief sequence that feels utterly vital, a signature flourish that reveals much: a visit to a theatre, which at first glance is immediately processed by an expectant audience as Ford’s, but proves rather to be one where Tad watches an Arabian Nights arabesque that sees hero save damsel from devilish villain who falls only to release a phoenixlike spirit. There’s an obvious, deliberately naïve quality to this bit, offsetting the agonised dragon-slaying of the historical drama with its most childish, Manichaeistic representation. It is also reminiscent in its brief window of theatrical wonder to the pantomime visit in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), a moment spared for the mystique of the Victorian theatre and its transformative strangeness, a prelude to the cinema in transfixing spectacle remembered on the hazy horizon of popular culture.
There’s also a nod here to Spielberg’s awareness of his own wrestling with the themes of his “serious” films earlier in his career through his equally colourful stylised genre excursions, like the equally Arabian Nights-esque absurdity of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Here the fantasy illusion is ruptured in the worst possible way, as Lincoln’s assassination is abruptly announced to the theatre, and the horrified Tad begins to scream and scream. Of course, for Spielberg, the nexus of tragedy in Lincoln’s death is found in the fundamental image of an orphaned son, both consummation and defloration of the director’s career concern with paternal care and the child’s wayward path to maturation, and so the film connects history with a gaping hole in the family life. The film’s final moments, lapping back to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, risks lurching at last into the familiar refrains of the historical pageant, but manages to capture the vibrating question and threat in Lincoln’s words, still echoing 150 years later.
Reggae is in my blood. Around 1980, when I was only a couple of years out of college and on my own in Chicago, I started visiting a new club called the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary that featured live reggae music seven nights a week. Lodged a block from Wrigley Field among traditionalist neighbors who fought the installation of lights at Wrigley for night baseball until just a few years ago, the club’s marijuana perfume and rhythmic music filled with revolutionary messages and prayers from musicians who worshipped Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ were an endless source of irritation.
For a person like me whose early enthusiasm for the blues, jazz, and bossa nova turned into a passion for world music like reggae before it became a market niche, the Wild Hare let me escape the great white stiffs of the Great White North as the only club where I could reliably count on a man—always Jamaican or Ethiopian—to ask me to dance. As I worked up a sweat on the concrete floor that always turned my legs to rubber bands, I could only glance with condescension at the uptight white boys who did nothing but sit at the bar drinking Guinness at one of the few places in the city that served it while I chanted uncomprehendingly (and probably offensively) “Jah Rastafari” along with the band.
Along with local and small touring bands, a lot of big reggae stars played at the Ethiopian-owned club, including Jimmy Cliff, Dallol, and Shabba Ranks. The biggest star of them all, Bob Marley, was already too big a draw by the time the Wild Hare opened to play there. He made his one small-club appearance in Chicago at another of my hangouts, The Quiet Knight, back in 1975, but alas, I had not caught rasta fever in time to see him. In fact, until yesterday, I had no idea he had played there; a mention of the appearance is only one of numerous eye-opening facts I learned while watching Marley.
From its conception in 2008, Marley was meant to be the definitive documentary about the life of the Jamaican superstar. Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, both superb craftsmen of music documentaries, picked up and then dropped the project. It fell to Kevin Macdonald, an impressive documentarian in his own right with a spotless film pedigree as the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, to meld archival footage with talking heads to tell the cradle-to-grave story of Bob Marley. Ziggy Marley, the oldest son of Bob and his wife Rita, acted as an executive producer of the film and provided photographs and footage that had never been exhibited publicly to help flesh out many facets of his father’s life.
One important facet of Bob Marley’s life was that he was so-called “half-caste,” with a white English-Jamaican father and a black Jamaican mother. The film shows the only known photo of Norval Marley, a handsome plantation overseer who was “the” Marley of Jamaica until his charismatic son took over that title. Norval had almost no contact with Bob and his mother, traveling constantly and fathering other children with other women, a practice Bob would pick up along with his father’s good looks. Bob would also deal with the prejudice against half-castes by saying his allegiance belonged to the god who chose to make him half-black and half-white; his shaky status and his life with his black mother most likely turned him toward his African heritage and his pride that Africa is the place where the human race began.
Marley has footage of Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, a rather funny portion of the film in which we learn that Selassie emerged from the airplane in Kingston, saw the massive crowd on the tarmac, and turned right around and went back in. Selassie’s visit, however, marked a turning point for Marley in becoming a Rastafarian and growing his trademark dreadlocks. Scenes of Marley smoking marijuana in spliffs and pipes, lost in a haze of smoke, follow. Marley’s wife admits that Bob was almost perpetually stoned, though whether you view this as the religious devotion Rastafarians say it is or a consequence of being a poor musician, or both, is up to you.
Regardless of your views, there is something to the assertion in the film that pot smokers are laid back and peaceful, something Marley and his band The Wailers always preached and lived. It is rather amazing to see footage of two violently opposed political groups in Jamaica come together briefly during Marley’s 1978 One Love tour and Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party (PNP) join his rival from the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), Edward Seaga, onstage at Marley’s urging. This gesture is even more extraordinary considering that extremists tried to kill Marley and The Wailers at his Hope Road compound only two years before when a planned free concert by Marley was coopted for political capital by the PNP, angering JLP supporters.
Interviews with family members and intimates are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the film, which mainly concentrates on Marley and the music. Incredibly, Macdonald talks with Mrs. James, Bob’s grade school teacher when he lived in his rural hometown of St. Ann, who remembers his musicality. After Bob and his mother moved to a Kingston slum called Trench Town, Bob met aspiring musician Desmond Dekker. Jimmy Cliff recalls auditioning and recording Dekker, and then being approached by Marley. He immediately noted Bob’s use of lyrics to convey a message, recalling Marley’s first recording “Judge Not” as an assertion of his human rights; Macdonald shows a young boy looking stern and punching the air as the song plays in the background.
Thus, the interviews become voiceovers with scenes that illustrate what the speakers are discussing, for example, a tall Rastafarian walking along a street in Trench Town with his enormous dreadlocks piled high under a knit hat and Marley’s song “Knotty Dread” playing under the voiceover. A result of this “reenactment” is that we get a sense of Bob Marley’s life as it was lived, a visual representation of his inspiration, and lively and colorful images that invite audiences to participate rather than nod off to a wall of words. Amusing and interesting capsule facts are scrawled on the screen as well, such as that there is no record that “Captain” Norval Marley ever rose above the rank of private.
Each step in Marley’s rise to superstardom is given attention, with remembrances from such figures in his life as childhood friend and original band member Neville “Bunny” Livingston; Chris Blackwell, who signed the Wailers to Island Records; and manager Danny Simms. Simms recalls how ambitious Marley was, agreeing to open for The Commodores in Madison Square Garden less than a year before his death so that American radio stations would play his records. Marley may have thought that the concert and radio plays would find him an audience among African Americans, which seemed as indifferent to Marley as white audiences were enraptured by him. The film is chock-full of concert footage and music, charting his career in a way any fan will absolutely adore.
Marley’s personal life adds to the film’s well-rounded portrait of the artist. Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World 1976 and Marley’s most famous lover, figures prominently in the film; when asked why Marley attracted so many women, she says incredulously, “Look at him!” Rita Marley seems to have had a laissez-faire attitude to Bob’s lovers and their children (she took lovers of her own), and thought that the key to his romantic success was that he was shy, recalling their own courtship. Cedella Marley, Rita and Bob’s daughter, is not so forgiving of the free love that pervaded her parents’ life, asserting that her mother was made unhappy by Bob’s philandering. In truth, Cedella seems the most unhappy with her father, complaining throughout the film of his lack of attention and even a lack of time alone with him in the days before his death.
Most informative and touching for me was an account of Marley’s final illness. I had always heard he had brain cancer, the joke going around that the ganga got him. In fact, in 1977, he was spiked in the toe while playing soccer, and when he went to have it looked at, the doctors diagnosed him with melanoma in the nail bed. Marley refused advice to have the toe amputated, worrying that he would not be able to dance or play soccer. In 1980, after a run in Central Park, Marley collapsed. When he was taken to the hospital, he was found to be riddled with cancer. Without real hope for recovery, he played his last concert in Pittsburgh, lost his dreadlocks to chemotherapy, and vainly sought relief at a holistic clinic in Germany. The film concludes by showing his burial site in St. Ann and surveying Marley’s lasting influence on world culture.
There is a lot of information out there about Bob Marley, much of it false or half-true. Marley is a treasure to fans and future generations who want as accurate and big a picture as may be possible on film of a man who freed a lot of people with his music.
Live concert audio from The Quiet Knight in Chicago, 1975
For the record: I don’t expect there to be a more exciting film at the Chicago International Film Festival this year than Lebanese video artist Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni.
After viewing a number of ho-hum and near-miss films during my prefestival screenings, I literally bolted forward in my seat as I watched this fascinating experimental film—a rarity itself for this festival—that in the simplest terms could be called an interpretive biopic of the popular Egyptian actress Soad Hosni. However, Stephan’s assemblage of nothing but film clips from among the 82 feature films Hosni made from the 1960s through the 1990s offers more than a portrait of the artist. Hosni’s roles are arranged by Stephan to progress from the freshness of youth and ambition to stardom, through to adult pains and a dramatic death, thereby illustrating how the flickering images of our most cherished stars reflect back to us the archetypal dramas of our own lives. You’d have to watch Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart for anything close to a similar experience.
The popularity of Golden Age Egyptian cinema throughout the Arab world made Soad Hosni a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East. With the decline of the Egyptian film industry, the loss of many films through decay and fire, and the 2001 death of Hosni herself from a suspicious fall from a balcony that was ruled a suicide, Stephan felt three distinct losses, or disappearances, that she wished to note in her film. She used images from available copies of Hosni’s films, without trying to restore, color-correct, or remove any of the faded subtitles (she simply superimposes new ones) from the VHS tapes that bear witness to these disappearances.
Soad Hosni, in looks, figure, career, and influence, reminds me very much of Elizabeth Taylor, the last great Hollywood goddess. Like a goddess who represents something immutable in all women, Hosni is shown being greeted by the many different names of the characters she assumed in quick cuts that enliven and add humor to the early part of the film, exemplifying the energy of youth. Stephan does not shy away from Hosni’s sensuality. She emphasizes through scenes of Hosni emerging from the sea in a wet bathing suit and provocatively dressed to sit for an artist the importance of the actress’ “attributes” in launching her career. It is through her own determination to become a star, signaled in a number of scenes in which her characters voice that ambition, that we learn it takes more than a gorgeous face and body to get to the top.
Romance and marriage soon follow, with steamy kisses (some complete with censor cuts) and highly suggestive bedroom scenes that offer the kinds of fantasies both men and women long for at the movies. In a sly commentary on Hosni, some of her characters are shown getting married to the pictures’ leading men, suggesting the four marriages Hosni entered into herself. In a cliché of the serially married movie star, Hosni’s characters descend into unhappiness, with one ending her marriage by saying she no longer respects her husband. At the end, to show the complete degradation of the memory of a fabled movie goddess, Stephan cuts together several brutal rape sequences, all the more harrowing for their rapidity and the struggle Hosni puts up in each of them to maintain her honor.
Throughout the film, a character Hosni played is shown laying on a psychiatrist’s couch trying to remember events of her life. This clever device amounts to something like the voiceover narration given by Natalie Wood, Hosni’s contemporary in time, career, and mysterious death, as she chronicles her life in the rise-and-fall show biz picture Inside Daisy Clover (1965). Thus, whether or not one is familiar with Hosni and her body of work, moviegoers will have no trouble recognizing her story.
The shocking ending of The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni packs an emotional punch that I would not dream of spoiling here. I will consider my reportage on this film festival successful if I induce any of my readers to seek out this original, finely crafted example of experimental film at its best.
An excellent article about the film and an interview with Rania Stephan can be found here.
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosniscreens Sunday, October 21, at 2:30 p.m. and Tuesday, October 23, at 4 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
At 81, Jan Troell, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman, continues to make finely crafted films that plumb real figures of Scandinavian culture to illuminate seminal events in Troell’s life and world history. In 1996, Troell made a warts-and-all biopic of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, a beloved Norwegian novelist who felt appeasement was the best way to ensure Norway’s sovereignty in the face of German aggression under Adolf Hitler. With his latest film, The Last Sentence, Troell trods this same territory as he examines the life of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt, a vehement anti-Nazi who did all he could to end Swedish neutrality during World War II. Even moreso than in Hamsun, politics in The Last Sentence takes a back seat to the peculiarly Swedish preoccupation with unhappy marriages.
Troell sets the stage brilliantly in the opening credits with newsreel footage from 1932 of Hitler being named Germany’s chancellor, followed by a hand moving a fountain pen across a piece of paper, a linotype operator punching the words into his machine, and a compositor lifting the type sent out by the linotype machine, applying ink to it, and rolling a paper proof sheet over it. The column-wide proof is delivered into the hands of newspaper publisher Axel Forssman (Björn Granath), who chuckles at Torgny Segerstedt’s (Jesper Christensen) characterization of Hitler as “an insult.” Axel’s Jewish wife Maja (Pernilla August) joins the men in a celebratory drink at their “declaration of war” against Germany’s new chancellor and steals back to Torgny after her husband thinks he has left her at the elevator to give her lover his well-deserved kisses.
At the Segerstedt home, Torgny wife’s Puste (Ulla Skoog) worries absentmindedly over the place cards and glassware for a dinner they are hosting. Puste has been in a state of suspended grief since the death of her 13-year-old son seven years earlier; Torgny has forbidden any mention of the boy, driving Puste around the bend and creating an estrangement between the couple. Torgny and Maja flaunt their affair at the dinner party, with Maja rearranging the dinner cards and entertaining guests by asking them if her nose looks like the Jewish caricatures rampant in Germany. Talk of Sweden having good Jews who are more evolved that the kind in Germany underlines the fight Torgny will have as his crusade against Hitler proceeds all the way to the end of the war, when Torgny dies in bed moments after hearing the news of Hitler’s demise.
The Last Sentence is punctuated with war news that has the effect of coming as news flashes that immediately recede into the background as the drama of Torgny’s domestic affairs take center stage, yet there is a subtle parallel between the macro and micro in the film. Sweden faces subjugation not only from Nazi Germany but also Soviet Russia when the Red Army invades Finland. A panicked populace hangs onto its gossamer-thin lifeline of neutrality. In the same way, Torgny openly pursues his passion for Maja while holding Puste hostage with his contempt and, yes, his love. Axel has a surprisingly open attitude to the affair, embarrassed rather than angry when he comes home early and runs into Torgny taking his leave from Maja. Puste, a Norwegian, suffers where Torgny, Maja, and Axel do not, throwing into relief the apparent ability of Swedes to compartmentalize, thus allowing them to maintain their political neutrality in the fact of overwhelming misery and threat from without.
One of the lovelier touches in the film is Torgny’s relationship with his three dogs, a Great Dane, a black lab, and a bulldog. Every day, his limousine takes Torgny and the dogs partway to his office, and then lets them out for their brisk walk the rest of the way. The bulldog, old and squat, can’t negotiate the steep hill and stairs on the route, so the car picks him up to take him up the hill, and he rides the elevator to Torgny’s office. The dogs are present throughout the film and add a dimension of unconditional love and devotion that balances the unhappiness between Torgny and Puste.
The acting is without peer, and I was very happy Troell decided to cast Christensen, a sexy and vital Danish actor who quite resembles Segerstedt, instead of his first choice, Max von Sydow. August leant a charismatic female presence to the film, whose lust for life and doing what she liked blew like a breath of fresh air through the rather conventional storytelling; equally, August deftly handles Maja’s fading light as her health begins to fail and Torgny takes up with his secretary Estrid (Birte Heribertson). While Puste is a fairly commonplace drudge, Skoog draws a line that refuses our pity; even when she sings a passionate love song to her husband, she remains emotionally true, the antithesis of a rejected mate open to our ridicule.
I have nothing but praise for the look of the film. The locations are sumptuous and perfectly appointed, the costumes add to the characterizations, and the luxurious HD black-and-white cinematography by Mischa Gavjusjov a good choice to accord with the newsreel footage and the opulence of the world Torgny inhabited. The excellent soundtrack, too, was meaningful in painting mood and feeling.
Although the film is based on two biographies of Segerstedt, neither of which has been translated into English, thus making fact-checking for this review a real challenge, facts have been altered for dramatic purposes. A number of names have been changed, persumably at the behest of the families involved, and Torgny died several months before Hitler, making his deathbed triumph satisfying only to the moviegoing audience. I’d venture to guess that a certain death did not actual occur as written, but rather was made to fit a Nazi movie cliché.
The Last Sentence is a worthy follow-up to Troell’s moving 2008 drama Everlasting Moments, and will satisfy most moviegoers with its superb craftsmanship and intriguing tale. For me, the film suffered because of its close likeness to Hamsun, which made the project seem more like one Troell felt capable of making rather than one he felt compelled to make as an artist. As I hold Troell in high regard, I felt a bit let down. On the other hand, this story offers a wonderful example of how necessary a truly free press peopled with brave journalists who will speak truth to power is to creating a just world. Torgny Segerstedt is virtually unknown outside of Scandinavia, but hopefully many people the world over will learn about him through this full-bodied work by one of Swedish cinema’s elder statesmen.
The Last Sentencescreens Tuesday, October 16, at 5 p.m., Friday, October 19, at 6 p.m. and Saturday, October 20, at 4:30 p.m. The director is scheduled to attend the October 19 and 20 screenings. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
The career of Edward D. Wood Jnr. went thus: he made bad movies, was not rewarded for this, and died young, poor, weird, and obscure. A simple narrative, one obeying seemingly cast-iron rules of talent in art and industry, a ready example of an almost natural law at work—except that we sometimes tend to rebel against such obvious arcs, a temptation that’s especially strong today when movies can cost $200 million and still be less coherent, personal, or fun than the films Wood slapped together on rock-bottom budgets. Wood’s status as a hero of cash-strapped delirium has passed through phases, from roots in the punk era’s camp-hued affection for trashy antitheses to the slick emptiness of much popular culture, through to genuine, if sometimes over-earnest, attempts to embrace him as the essence of the outsider artist and a ramshackle surrealist.
In fact, Wood was a schismatic creature, at once a filmmaker who packed his movies with peccadilloes and private delights, and a hack who tried to winnow his way into Hollywood with his own ineffably clueless takes on material he thought popular. Wood lamely attempted to ape his betters, but also was a secret rebel twisting their noses with his characterful statements in favour of acceptance and against nuclear-age blustering, reflecting a general inability to fit into the conformist world of the 1950s, as if he was a prototypical, half-unwilling beatnik lost in a jungle of coldly commercial professionalism. Yet, it was precisely his inability to recreate the art that pleased him and to express his serious ideas in a serious manner that makes his work so disturbingly thrilling at times, the simultaneous horror and delight in the obviousness of the intention and the depth of failure. Edward D. Wood Jnr. has become the Charlie Brown of cinema icons, locked in an eternal frieze, trying to kick that cultural football and missing.
Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, spun from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is as much a film about the art and the idea of Wood and what they meant and could mean for other artists and filmmakers, as it is a traditional biopic. For me, it’s a film inseparable from its era, released as it was during the burn-out of Gen X alt-culture of grunge and yapping Tarantino obsessives. Ed Wood views his life through a prism of decades of semi-underground art movements, to celebrate those movements and their clique-happy enthusiasm. Burton feted Wood’s career through a series of ironic contrasts, reproducing his tacky special effects and cardboard motifs with large-budget, detail-driven zest and exacting technical competence, precisely the qualities Wood so badly lacked. Mimicking Wood’s style in the visuals of the film freed Burton somewhat from having to devote too much time to depicting the products of Ed’s work. Burton seemed to latch onto Wood as a personal avatar, another natural outsider, a singular oddball with a strange power for attracting and employing a posse of glorious misfits to whom he could offer a protective wing. Burton also found the same essential pleasure in cinema as a way of exploring the ephemera of things readily dismissed as tacky and corny, and yet which lingered with strange intensity from the shoals of childhood memory and adolescent fixation.
Wood’s story, at least the notable phase of it depicted in the film extending from 1953’s hallucinatory Glen or Glenda? through to his sci-fi anti-epic Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959), offered plentiful raw materials for a tragicomedy. The film concerns itself mostly with Wood’s friendship with the aging, haggard Béla Lugosi (Martin Landau) and others inhabiting the Hollywood fringe, including TV psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), monster movie hostess Maila “Vampira” Nurmi (Lisa Marie), temporary fiancé and future tunesmith Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), gloriously gay socialite Lyle “Bunny” Breckenridge (Bill Murray), and hulking pro wrestler Tor Johnson (George Steele), provided a gallery of characters to rival the Addams Family for incongruous charm and the Keystone Kops for incompetence in the line of duty. Ed Wood is unusual as a movie narrative in many ways, then, because unlike most films, especially biopics, which lead us towards either a singular triumph or cathartic collapse, it becomes instead a snapshot of people fending off the ravages of time with fellowship, and the only triumph is an illusory one. Wood’s employment of the footage he took of Lugosi in Plan Nine is, here, no longer merely a man using a desperate gimmick for box office appeal, but an instinctive poet’s attempt to stave off mortality’s victory and the inevitable dissolution of the weirdly beautiful world he’s built around himself.
By presenting a biography of a director where the resulting work is, implicitly, negligible, Burton offers one of the most beguiling portraits of the artist as young self-deluder ever. Johnny Depp’s Wood is a creature of manic-depressive highs and lows, sometimes gnawed at by self-doubt suppressed with alcohol, but often skating along on the back of enthusiasm, process, and the druglike rush of believing in his own brilliance. Burton captures the latter attitude in a perfect visualisation: stock-footage explosions and patriotic parades are superimposed over Wood’s beaming face as he marvels at his own achievement, blending both the man’s defining traits and his techniques into a seamless, singular image. Ed Wood is the essence of every artist who has remained convinced of their own worth even whilst every force in the universe seems to be contradicting them.
For Burton, Ed Wood was a departure, and it remains a stand-out in his career, not only as his best film to date, but also in how he tackled a true story and transmuted it into both companion piece and negative image to his other works, executed with an uncommon economy, yet still stuffed with stylistic coups. Coming after his uneasy rise to the higher ranks of Hollywood through his Batman films, and his still-beloved diptych of black-comedy satires on family and suburbia, Beetlejuice (1987) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), Burton indulged a measure of self-analysis, possibly casting his thoughts back to his own brief partnership with Vincent Price on Edward Scissorhands in regarding Wood’s and Lugosi’s alliance, and extrapolating the image of himself as a man locked in a contradictory posture of eccentric, individualistic creativity finding a niche in a world with opposing priorities and values. Leading man Depp’s interpretation of Wood seems partly channelled through his one-time director John Waters, whose Cry Baby (1990) helped give Depp his first move beyond the teen stardom of “21 Jump Street.” (Waters’ own early efforts were something like Wood’s, though operating from a perspective of self-aware absurdist chic). In spite of the overt artifice Burton indulges, like black-and-white photography and flourishes of generic parody, and indeed largely because of this, Ed Wood is also a film with a sense of time and place so vivid you can practically smell the shady bars, two-room apartments, seedy low-rent studios, and bunkerlike offices of fly-by-night producers. This milieu is inseparable from Wood’s own work, with its location filming in deepest San Fernando and the down-market corners of Los Angeles. Ed Wood captures that atmosphere with an intensity that’s at once tactile, seamy, nostalgically affectionate, and occasionally, as in the opening, transformed into an adjunct of Wood’s shoestring-Expressionist worldview. Ed Wood remains a daydream about the underside of ’50s Hollywood.
Ed Wood commences with Criswell warning the audience in the manner of his introduction for Wood’s Revenge of the Dead (1960), from a coffin in the Old Willows Place of Bride of the Monster, about the dread experience the audience is about to witness, before the opening credits explore the environs of Wood’s iconography via an extended piece of brilliant model-work, resolving on a soaring vision of Los Angeles transformed into a Gothic wonderland. Wood is found fretting over the lack of press turning up for the premiere of a play he’s putting on. The glimpses we see of the play offer the Wood sensibility already fully formed: a giddy mix of the naively poetic and the woodenly terrible. Wood’s fearsome optimism proves resilient even in the face of a bad review served up by Victor Crowley’s copy boy, though his fiancé Dolores mournfully takes to heart its jabs at her (“Do I really have a face like a horse?”). Ed’s fairy godmother Bunny cynically dismisses the whole thing with his knowledge of the forces that really run Hollywood: sex, power, and money.
Ed, whose day job is carting around props at Universal Studios, is a man constantly trying to understand the business he’s involved in, marvelling at the forces can produce camels for a bit of backlot flimflam, and yet its resources of magic remain ever out of reach, even as he finds possibility and excitement in detritus like the reels of stock footage an older employee digs out and then files away. Wood’s adoration for and grasp on the potential in the marginalia of this world extends to his spotting of Lugosi, whom he happens upon as the aging, haggard star is checking out coffins at an undertaker’s for the next exhausting tour of a production of Dracula, hanging onto the last vestige of his fame and means of making a living. Ed makes friends with Lugosi simply by offering him a ride in his car, saving the once wealthy star from having to catch the bus.
Ed’s tale is as much about trying to subsist and thrive within the precepts of the grand narrative of American and Hollywood success, whilst also, almost accidentally, trying to resist the pulverising conformity those 1950s narratives could assert, as it about making bad movies. Late in the film, Ed and future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette) reminisce over their childhood love of the figures of wonderment broadcast to them through the highways of pop culture, from pulp radio serials to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, evoking the way such enchantments change lives even in the boondocks. Ed’s attempts to get into that game himself retain this innocent quality. Ed’s troupe become something akin to a family, accumulating members, some gleeful, some resistant, but all glad to find a temporary shelter and the shreds of dignity Ed’s drive gives them. Lugosi entrances Ed with a nostalgic, pseudo-intellectual paean to delights of the classic Gothic horror film, complete with Freudian jive about the felicities of Dracula as spur to scoring with the ladies in a humorous tilt that seems aimed as much at the psycho-sexual desolation of most contemporary genre film as at the ’50s giant monster craze Lugosi derides, as well as the spectacle of two horror nuts trying to lend their obsessions a veneer of profundity. (No, I wouldn’t know anything about that.) Mostly, it establishes Ed and Lugosi as men fundamentally out of step with their technocratic and fashionable time, one in which Lugosi is grievously humiliated on a live TV comedy show where the host’s improv mockery overwhelms Lugosi. The sequence suggests the real way Lugosi had been reduced to a comic foil in Abbot and Costello and Bowery Boys movies. Ed can’t even get Dolores to dredge up Lugosi’s name in making her guess who he just met (“You met — Basil Rathbone!”).
But Ed, in finding himself a star who needs money, gains through Lugosi a ticket into the great world of movie directing, even if it’s only a film about sex changes, hastily redrawn from a Christine Jorgensen biopic after the rights get too expensive for producer George “I make crap” Weiss (Mike Starr). Ed, after catching the article about Weiss’ efforts in Variety, makes an initial pitch to Weiss, trying to compel him with his own secret kink, his love of cross-dressing (“You a fruit?” “Oh no, I’m all man. I even fought in WW2”), draws the beefy, volcanic Weiss in to listen eagerly to tales about making parachute landings in the war whilst wearing a bra and panties. Ed’s desire to be a success is constantly stymied by, and also inseparable from, his desire to present himself unmasked to the world, and to explore himself and his obsessions through his work, lacking the essential inner censor who can corral such impulses into professional limits. Late in the film, he convinces Baptist Church stalwarts Reynolds (Clive Rosengren) and Reverend Lemon (G.D. Spradlin) to give him the money to make Plan Nine from Outer Space, or Grave Robbers from Outer Space as it’s initially called, promising to make them enough cash to bankroll their own pet project, a series on the 12 apostles, only for the uptight religious financiers to take umbrage at Ed’s habit of putting on the angora sweater and blonde wig to relax on set.
One comic highlight here is the striptease Ed does for the for Bride of the Atom wrap party, with Criswell slipping cash into his garter and concluding with Ed unveiling his face to display his beaming, dentureless face in a moment of pure camp-grotesque cool. Fittingly, it’s both the moment of Ed’s personal liberation and the final straw for Dolores, who announces she’s leaving him to write songs for Elvis Presley. Ed’s personal identification with Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio and Maurice LaMarche) as the symbol of youthful, all-encompassing genius presents the hope of the artist-rebel as transcendent titan, as opposed to Wood, doomed to be the image of the artist-rebel as ant. The climactic (fictional, but readily imaginable) encounter of Welles and Wood spells out the similarities in their career troubles and dreams in sarcastic, and yet oddly accurate terms. For artists, Ed Wood constantly suggests, the only hope for such contrary personalities is to try to reconceive the world through the personal prisms of creativity, making no distinction between good and bad artists. Wood’s attempts to do so culminate when he uses his draft screenplay to reveal his predilection to Dolores, his doting partner rising in realisation from the chair in their kitchen to open the door upon Ed in full drag, like a sweet-tempered Frankenstein’s Monster.
Whilst art is liberating in Ed Wood, it is also enslaving. Lugosi finally, happily embraces association with a single role to the extent of having himself buried in Dracula’s cape, a fate many actors would recoil from precisely because it’s the last chance to force reality to obey their own will. Lugosi, in readily adopting his Dracula guise, is photographed taking his fixes in shadows, as if he’s become one of his own expressionist grotesques, and is finally found lolling in a pool of despair and self-pity; composer Howard Shore uses strains of Swan Lake, the theme of crepuscular romanticism from Tod Browning’s film, to lend undertones of tragedy to Lugosi’s attempts to hold onto his final alternate identity. The generally jokey movie quotes segue into outright horror, in the glimpse of Lugosi tied up in rehab, screaming at detox horrors, a vision transmuted through a B-movie nightmare. In counterpoint to Ed’s awkward emergence as the man he really is comes a transformation of Dolores herself, one which Parker exposits in a key of cleverly stylised archness in moving through stages of twentieth century American femininity, souring slowly from the ever-chipper, supportive wife-to-be, to a domestic terrorist who knocks Ed with a frypan brandished in Amazonian ferocity, as well as a wisecracking professional who leaves Ed in a mixed fury of personal and professional frustration. Ed offers movie stardom to Tor Johnson, who believes he’s “not good-looking enough” to be one: “I believe you’re quite handsome,” Ed assures him. He gives the girl just off the bus, Loretta King (Juliet Landau), a chance to become a star, too, even if it’s only because he mistakes her for a rich kid who can invest in his movie, and the act of trying to capitalise on this results in the start of the breakdown of his relationship with Dolores.
The secret codes of show business remain, however, constantly undecipherable to the wonderstruck Ed, even as Criswell tries to clue him in: “People believe my folderol because I wear a black tuxedo.” The spectacular failure Glen or Glenda? leaves Weiss threatening to kill Wood if he ever sees him again, and Universal Studio exec Feldman (Stanley Desantis) thinks it’s a practical joke foisted on him by William Wellman, before declaring to Ed that it’s the worst movie he’s ever seen. “Well, my next one’ll be better!” our hero replies without missing a beat, only to meet dial tone. Still, Ed tries to make the movie he thought up on the spur of the moment when talking with Feldman, Bride of the Atom, both for his own sake and for Lugosi’s, as the actor becomes increasingly distraught over his lack of money and doubtful future. This time, Ed attempts to raise funds independently, cueing a series of excruciatingly funny attempts to fool rich people into giving him money. Ed reaches an abyss of humiliation after a chance encounter with Vampira leaves him begging on his knees, looking like the biggest schmuck in history. Vampira herself describes the same downward arc as the others, only quicker, for when the moment of success is exhausted, she’s reduced to travelling on the bus in full arch-brow, décolletage-flashing Goth garb on the way to a job for Ed, unaware of how she provides a barren stretch of L.A. with a sketch of surrealist delight. “You should feel lucky,” Kathy admonishes her when she’s mournful about sinking to appearing in one of Ed’s film,: “Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t cast judgement on people.” “That’s right,” Ed adds, “If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.’
Ed Wood is first and foremost a comedy, and indeed it is, to me at least, one of the most truly, consistently funny films ever made. Alexander and Karaszewski’s dialogue is absurdly quotable—back in the late ’90s when I was often trying to shoot no-budget, hand-crafted movies with family and friends, every new shot was presaged by our own ritual quote, “Let’s shoot this fucker!”—and the film is littered with tiny bits of comic business that provide endless pleasure. Much of the humour resembles those little sketches in the margins in MAD Magazine, captured in throwaway flourishes of wit, far too many of them are worth mentioning but impossible to cram in here. The inherent absurdism of Wood’s labours, from running from police because he lacks a filming permit to breaking into a studio warehouse to steal a giant octopus prop, inhabits the realm of farce.
Burton leavens it all with his most precise comedic rhythm and staging. There’s strange magic in Ed setting his impish helpmates and actors Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Conrad Brooks (Brent Hinkley) to find props and dig up body doubles for the deceased Lugosi, scurrying into action like lost members of the Three Stooges; in Ed and Lugosi watching Vampira on the TV presenting White Zombie (1932), with Ed irked by her sarcasm whilst Lugosi marvels over her jugs, attempting to hypnotise her through the TV screen; in Bunny submitting to a baptism for the sake of getting financing for Plan Nine, Baptist beatitude and nelly enthusiasm finding a bizarrely beautiful accord; and in stealing the octopus for Bride of the Atom, a moment in which Tor takes on the persona of Lobo to wrench away the lock on the warehouse door. The film’s set-piece comedy sequence, one of the funniest scenes in anything, revolves around the disastrous trip Ed and his troupe make to attend a premiere of the retitled Bride of the Monster, only to find the crowd going berserk, an event that sees them mugged by lecherous adolescents, lost in a maelstrom of popcorn (“I gotta save ‘em!”), and chased down the street by rioting movie fans, after the hearse they arrived in is found being stripped down by street hoods. For a moment, all the boundaries between persona and person, movie and reality, dream and discontent dissolve in a frenzy of anarchic delight.
For Burton, Ed Wood’s formal rigour, as well as the concision of its humane yet raucous spirit, remains unsurpassed. The lucid, often bald and unflattering, and yet also often textured, swooning beauty of the Stefan Czapsky’s photography is one of the film’s great qualities. Burton and Czapsky find actual expressionism lurking behind Wood’s half-assed attempt to find it in his jerry-built sets and location shoots. They transform the interior of Lugosi’s shell-like prefab house into a Gothic castle littered with remnants of former greatness and Lugosi’s past—the beauty, mystery, and threat of the exotic imprisoned in suburbia. Burton actually extends the dualistic contrast of Wood and Welles by constantly using Wellesian technique to depict Wood’s world, with soaring camera surveys of models that seems liberated from physical limits, passing through glass, in and out of water, with the sort of joie de vivre Wood himself seemed to be chasing haplessly; deep-focus, multiplaned shots and deadpan, medium-long shots, sometimes engaging in dramatic spoof or comedic contrast, and just as often leaving his characters stranded in their hapless pathos. Such dazzling cinema is often the very opposite of what Wood was infamous for, and yet his own flourishes of oddly inspired low-rent hype, like the lightning strike that announces his own name at the start of Plan Nine from Outer Space, are faithfully reproduced. One of my favourite shots in the film comes when Lugosi gives an impromptu recital of his famed “Home? I have no home” speech from Bride of the Monster, with Burton’s camera shifting to frame Lugosi, a façade that provides him with a suitably sepulchral proscenium arch. Equally terrific is Shore’s scoring, one part satire on the tinny stock music slapped onto Wood’s films, one part celebration of retro weirdness, complete with theremin whistling eerily over driving beatnik bongos.
Many biopics tend to reduce their subjects, and that’s true to a certain extent here. Ed’s sideline as an equally terrible screenwriter for hire is left out, and Lugosi, who had an entire politically tinged history in Hungary, is a touch less than the commanding figure he was, but then considering the film’s theme of how show business turns everyone for better or worse into the image they create for themselves, it’s understandable. Suffice to say Landau’s performance deserved every one of his copious plaudits, and the rest of the cast is impeccable. For Depp, though the film gained him little real reward at the time, it remains one of his best, most cleverly pitched performances, one that proved he could move into adult roles and introduced him as that most contradictory of figures, a star character actor. The film’s powerful undercurrents of melancholia, even tragedy, as it encompasses Lugosi’s sad final months and the start of Wood’s alcoholism, does not overwhelm the comedy, and in some ways even enhances it. Landau’s professed ambition to make Lugosi both funny and sad describes the film as a whole, as both emotions here well out of the same fundamental details—the try-hard aping of mass commercial culture, the struggle to retain a sense of personal beauty in the face of impersonal forces, the ravages of age and the hopeless delusion of youth. It’s a note that becomes especially keen in the closing moments when Kathy and Ed leave an imaginary triumphal premiere for Plan Nine to get married in Las Vegas. Ed’s real story was doomed to run out of gas somewhere out there in the California desert he and Kathy are last seen heading off into, but his legacy remains. The roll call of the characters’ fates listed in the prologue rams home the ephemeral nature of their labours, even though time has proven kinder to so many of them than they might have expected. The true cheat of Ed Wood’s life was his death barely months before his rediscovery commenced.
Phil Karlson is one of those indispensable figures for the enterprising movie fan in search of lost heroes: a jobbing studio hand with a chequered career whose touch, nonetheless, betrays for the attentive a wealth of individuality manifest in scattered gems. Karlson started off with C-grade screen filler in the ’40s, and finished up helming gaudy cult flicks like Ben (1972), Walking Tall (1973), and a couple of Matt Helm movies; in between, he managed to produce a run of deeply eccentric and richly textured little noir films, including the belatedly beloved likes of Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), 5 Against the House and The Phenix City Story (both 1955). Karlson’s vivid sense of storytelling, with a special feel for moments of intense violence, combined in his best work with a discursive approach to structuring scenes and absorbing character that was rare in the era’s cinema. Karlson anticipates the likes of Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom has included Karlson in the long list of film influences on him. Karlson’s heroes tended to be cynical proto-hipsters or hard-scrabble, blue-collar guys and girls alienated from their own society, and several of his films dealt with racial persecution and social conflict.
Just as his noir films are joyfully strange, Hell to Eternity, a film based on the life story of Guy Gabaldon, is one I saw once many years ago and could never get out of my head. Revisiting it recently, I realized why: it’s a rowdy, dirty-minded, defiantly deromanticised film that’s a fascinating marker in the era of the decline of the old studios and the oncoming age of a new realism. Karlson’s best films greatly resemble Samuel Fuller’s in taking on meaty subjects with a hard wallop to the metaphorical jaw. Although Karlson ultimately lacked the spiky individualism that irresistibly endeared Fuller to critics and filmmakers even when his career almost entirely foundered, Karlson’s films, often just as bold in their subversion and raw in style, are just as deceptively sophisticated.
This film’s uniqueness is partly disguised by its god-awful title, which tries all too obviously to suggest a melding of the Audie Murphy biopic To Hell and Back (1955) and Fred Zinneman’s From Here to Eternity (1953). Karlson’s film commences during the Depression. Young Guy (Richard Eyer) is a member of a multiracial gang, getting into brawls with the blond Neanderthals in his California schoolyard. Japanese-American schoolteacher Kaz Une (George Shibata), father of Guy’s friend George, is disturbed by Guy’s semi-sadomasochistic displays of bravado and antisocial anger, and drives him home one day to discover he’s been living alone in his house because his gravely ill mother has been hospitalised. Kaz takes Guy to live with him, and Guy swiftly finds unexpected love and unity with the Une clan, including Kaz’s parents (Bob Okazaki and Tsuru Aoki), a couple of harmless, lovable old moths who could have stumbled in directly from an Ozu film. Mother Une begins teaching Guy Japanese, and Guy responds by helping her with her English, a task he’s surprised that none of Kaz’s younger siblings have tried. After his mother dies, Guy becomes a permanent member of the clan and remains virulently aggressive towards anyone turning racist epithets on his family as he matures into the virile form of Jeffrey Hunter. His life reaches a singular and historical crisis point when Guy, as a favor to George (played when grown by an absurdly young George Takei), takes George’s crush Ester (Miiko Taka) out to find out what she thinks of George. When they stop at a fast food joint, insults are thrown her way. Guy assaults the big mouth, only to learn that everyone’s hot under the collar because Pearl Harbor’s just been bombed.
The Unes are soon collectively bustled off to the American internment camps, or, as Guy angrily calls them, concentration camps by another name, in a blunt sequence that concludes with Guy left utterly alone, the bland and friendly suburb he’s grown up turned into a ghost town in the blink of an eye. Ironically, as his family adapts to their exiled circumstances and his brothers are able to join the famous 442nd Regiment, he’s rejected as a 4F. He eddies in frustration and anger at the government until he’s finally inducted into the Marines,because of the desperate need for translators. Guy, never particularly at ease with authority, clashes with raucous Sgt. Bill Hazen (David Janssen) and bests him in a judo match-up, which, of course, cements their subsequent friendship. They’re both attached to a special unit composed largely of skilled, hardened warriors from the Pacific theater being put together for a new campaign, and along with another friend from boot camp, Corp. Pete Lewis (Vic Damone), they raise hell in Honolulu before being shipped out to join in the landings on Saipan, an island colonised and garrisoned by huge numbers of Japanese, and about to become the site of a bloody and protracted death match.
Hell to Eternity bends aspects of Gabaldon’s tale a little: there’s no mention of the fact he was of Latino background, and the actual reason it took him so long to be accepted into the army was because he was still only 17 when he was accepted in 1943. But Gabaldon acted as advisor on the film, and presumably signed off on all that followed. The film fits nominally in with the run of ’50s war movies based on true stories, with their focus on interesting individual experiences of the war, and the sudden onrush of movies about racism and tolerance that began to increase in frequency, urgency, and bluntness throughout the decade. Karlson’s film in that regard is less like the message movies of Stanley Kramer and more reminiscent of the likes of Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950) and Kings Go Forth (1958), and Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1960), in blending the drama with other generic concerns, not merely presenting racial harmony as the only sane option, but simultaneously filled with violently neurotic energy as the characters are caught between world views and melodramatic crises that expose their conflicts on macrocosmic levels. But Karlson’s film, on another level, couldn’t give a damn about the message aspect of the story, compelled as Karlson really is by Gabaldon as a character, a man filled with anger at his own society and soon filled with it again by the enemy in a war zone, a man whose fractured psyche, informed by his strange, almost Candide-like variety of experiences and outsider perspective on the era, drives him to near nihilism and lunacy before finally turning him into a rare kind of hero. Hunter, an actor of whom I’ve never been particularly fond, gives what is almost certainly his best performance, coherently inhabiting Guy’s emotional extremes.
Most ’50s war films out of Hollywood sadly tended to be rather plastic, best if they stuck strictly to combat. A lot of solid war novels, like Leon Uris’ Battle Cry and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, and other projects that tried to depict not merely raw warfare but the sexual and emotional lives of young men engaged in profound adventures of body and mind hit the screens so bogged down with prestige, prettification, and pandering that they finished up weak and interchangeable. Hell to Eternity is infinitely less self-important, possessed of a gamy vigour and a refreshingly disreputable, gritty, semi-anarchic feel, beyond even what Stanley Kubrick and David Lean then dared put in their war movies. Hell to Eternity instead looks forward, in its cruder way, to the raucous, earthy sensibility of Sam Peckinpah, whose ’60s films, like Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), have a similar feel for the overflowing joie de vivre of men who are ironically trapped in lethal situations, as well as the seamy reality of violence. Remember how Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was supposedly the first film to openly defy the Hays Code convention about not showing a gun fired and the person shot in the same frame? Well, Karlson does it here years earlier, and with the same DP, Burnett Guffey, in a sequence that’s amazing for other reasons. Long before the The Wild Bunch, Karlson depicts bursting bullet wounds close up in the midst of a grueling sequence in which Gabaldon, maddened by Hazen’s death, stalks the battlefield flushing out exhausted, wounded, and starving Japanese soldiers and shoots them in the back.
Hell to Eternity is therefore curiously anticipatory and modern in both aspects of technique, and in the tangle of raw violence and ripe sexuality that makes it into the film. Karlson had a peculiar, indulgent interest in simply watching his characters behave on screen, and a particular genius for depicting what I might call the intricacies of homosocial behaviour, or put more simply, guys hanging out. In this attribute, he is reminiscent of Ford and Hawks, but more distinctly modern in tone and attitude, less romanticised. 5 Against The House blended a heist drama not only with portraiture of the psychological damage and social difficulties of former soldiers, but also with a flip and funny collegiate playfulness, especially in its lengthy, discursive opening, that looks forward to the likes of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) (in fact, 5 Against the House can be described glibly, but with some accuracy as “Animal House goes Rififi.” For its part, Hell to Eternity’s middle sequence in Honolulu offers for no particular reason, except to get some T&A into the tale and to suit Karlson’s taste for an epic, oddball sequence of pure behaviour, the quest of Guy, Hazen, and Lewis to get drunk and laid in roughly that order.
Guy scams a taxi driver out of a load of booze, and, hitting the nightclubs, Guy uses his linguistic skills to hook some Japanese-American B-girls, whilst Hazen points out to Lewis the Mount Everest of conquests, journalist Sheila Lincoln (Patricia Owens), stationed in Honolulu to report on the great enterprise of young men going off to war, and whose ability to brush off the most charming GI lothario has confounded all comers so far. “She writes that everyone should give their all to the enlisted man, but she don’t practice what she preaches!” Hazen murmurs with the ruefulness of one who’s tried. But Sheila does accept an invitation to a party from Lewis, only for the party to prove just a drunken orgy in a hotel room, where another one of the girls the boys have managed to pick up proves to be a former stripper who gives a show, whipping Hazen and Lewis into a frenzy. Sheila, after guzzling liquor with gusto whilst sitting apparently cold and disdainful all night, suddenly arises to do her own striptease, whereupon the males do a fair impression of Tex Avery’s big bad wolf, and Guy finishes up making out with Sheila on the veranda. This whole movement of the film is glorious in its unapologetically discursive, seamy fashion, lending the film an edge of B-movie sexploitation and superfluity. But Karlson lets it unfold as if it’s really the raison d’être of his film, possibly torn directly from somebody’s memory, maybe Gabaldon’s, maybe Karlson’s, maybe those of screenwriters Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt—or perhaps they just wished it happened to them. What it clearly does is capture the explosive, incantatory sensual energy of the characters who soon will be venturing into war and the women close to them. It also feels like an attempt to show how the scenes with Frank Sinatra, Monty Clift, and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity should really have played. In any event, Karlson offers the sexual gamesmanship, frank carnality, and almost blackly comic contrasts of character and situation—with Janssen’s excitement reaching near-lunacy, and Guy, already a practiced seducer, conquering Mount Everest almost casually—with a fearless intensity that lingers long in the mind. Either way, it’s like barely anything in Hollywood cinema between the late silent era and the mid ’60s.
Perhaps such carnality and camaraderie is so emphasised because Hell to Eternity isn’t in any sense a typical war movie celebrating a hero’s competence with violence, but whose gifts for bridging cultures and charming people give him a chance to transcend war. This film is the wicked twin to Sergeant York (1941), revolving as it does around a hero whose heroism is, surprisingly, about saving lives in the midst of carnage and finding unexpected common humanity—except Guy’s not a goody-two-shoes but a man furious with the world, and for whom love and hatred are forever closely related. When the warriors actually hit the beaches of Saipan, the film turns into a grueling, slaughter-clogged slog across country, anticipating Terence Malick’s version of it The Thin Red Line (1998), and in a set-piece sequence in which a band of Japanese defenders, rather than surrender, mass for a banzai charge that engulfs the Americans. Suddenly they’re hurled back into the warfare of centuries past where what hand-to-hand combat skills they have must keep them alive, and the film turns into a Kurosawa movie.
Lewis dies in this battle, and the survivors overlook the aftermath of astounding carnage, ground strewn with corpses. Hazen is killed shortly afterwards by enemy soldiers on the charge, and Guy becomes somewhat unhinged. Where before he had difficulty shooting anyone, he becomes near psychopathic, and where he had used his language skills to talk individual soldiers and pockets of resistance into surrender, he now drops grenades on them and flushes the exhausted and ruined men out to meet his gun. By the end of the ’60s perhaps it wouldn’t be so odd to see a movie protagonist acting in such a fashion, but even then, not usually a hero and a real war hero to boot. It’s revealing then that Gabaldon let himself be portrayed in such a fashion, and it gives force to the feeling, coming on top of the film’s frankness about unfairness of the internment camps and even the dirty playfulness of the Honolulu scenes, that Hell to Eternity is perhaps the most morally complex, honest, and tough-minded American war movie of its era, in its conception of war as a place where any individual can act on both the best and the most bestial impulses within themselves, depending on the pressures in any given moment.
Finally Guy’s CO, Capt. Schwabe (John Larch), tries to intervene, weakly at first (“I’m not saying what you’re doing is wrong, but…”), and then by trying to talk him into resuming his translation work by taking him to watch the spectacle of Japanese civilians hurling themselves off cliffs in obedience to the Emperor: Guy sees his family in the innocents casting themselves to their deaths, and this shocks him out his murderous phase. Finally, he and another soldier locate the underground dugout being used by the Japanese commander, Gen. Matsui (Sessue Hayakawa), and are able to eavesdrop on him ordering his men to stage one last suicide charge. Guy assaults the dugout and takes the general captive, the two men engaging in a duel of wits that, oddly, evokes the deceptions and gamesmanship of the Honolulu scenes, as Matsui, like the reporter, plays coy whilst testing the mettle of his opponent. Guy outsmarts him by not revealing his knowledge of Japanese until Matsui tries to trick him, and Guy finally convinces Matsui to forego the hopeless destruction of the remnant of his army, which, when they go out to see it, proves to be a mass of barely clothed, starving, ruined humans: “God, what a pathetic sight!” Guy says with a mix of disgust, contempt, and pity. Karlson stages an unforgettable climactic shot as Matsui commits seppuku after ordering his men to surrender, sinking to his knees and dying with Guy at his side and the column of his soldiers moving past, barely able to spare their dying commander a nod as they trudge toward the safety Guy has given them. All that’s left is for one of Guy’s fellow soldiers to bestow on him the unofficial title of “Pied Piper of Saipan” as his soldiers see him leading this unlikely exodus.
I tend to blow hot and cold on David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, filled as it is with works such as Videodrome (1982), Naked Lunch (1991), and A History of Violence (2004) that strike me more as catalogues of interesting moments and ideas rather than completely coherent films. But it’s impossible to deny that the Canadian auteur has been one of modern mainstream cinema’s most consistently visceral, intelligent, and original fountainheads, and at his best, can be a fearsome artist of psychological straits and the overflowing id. Cronenberg’s reputation is still often immediately associated with his early, overtly horrifying essays in body distortion and corruption; thus, A Dangerous Method, his latest and one of his most subtle films, seems, in abstract, like an outlier. But A Dangerous Method’s guardedly realistic approach to character and historical setting revolves around some very Cronenbergian motifs, not the least of which is the strange and often perverse manner the inner self and the outer self relate.
The film’s early scenes are fixated on Keira Knightley’s unhinged performance as Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian Jewish woman who suffers from an overwhelming, physically manifest neurosis. Sabina, dragged out of the carriage that brings her to the Burghölzli Clinic in Switzerland in 1904, is placed into the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a young, brilliant doctor at the clinic. He decides to employ Dr. Sigmund Freud’s theoretical and almost untested “talking cure” on her. Sabina, in the extremes of her disease, contorts and buckles and twists, her jaw elongating as things push about inside her, looking as if she’s about to explode like a character out of Scanners (1980) or undergo a transformation similar to Jeff Goldblum’s in The Fly (1986).
Sabina’s pathological pain and rage prove to have two sources: her hatred for her father, the kind of authoritarian who’d make her and her siblings kiss his hand after he struck them, and her powerful masochistic urges, partly imbued by that cruelty, that she can’t assimilate in any form other than as a kind demonic aberration. As Jung works with her, she slowly begins to return to a functioning state, and as part of her therapy, is encouraged to pursue her interest in studying medicine. Two male figures overtly and covertly influence her fate: Jung and his medical field’s unchallenged leader and guru, Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Not long after Sabina becomes Jung’s patient, the peculiarities of her case and Jung’s success in putting Freud’s method into practice becomes a catalyst for the two men to meet, form an initially powerful accord, and then slowly but surely break apart.
Freud, proud and fully aware of his virtually imperial position in a nascent realm of medicine, is actively searching for heirs apparent, and he soon declares Jung one. He entrusts to Jung’s care another of his potential heirs, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), a cocaine-sniffing libertine who begins to preach total liberation from traditional familial and social forms, and who is considered insane by his own authoritarian father. His egocentric arguments coincide with a time in Jung’s life when his rich wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and their marriage is strained, leading Jung to capitulate to his attraction to Sabina.
We live in a world where the catchphrases and oversimplified versions of psychoanalytic theory have gone through phases of utter disdain, near-religious acceptance, and back again. A Dangerous Method sets out to portray a window in not-so-distant history when ideas of the self and society seemed set for a radical change, and the consequences of that change were still potentially inexhaustible, but the people offering the change were still irrevocably tethered to the world as it was. Freud and Jung are portrayed as men caged by their worldly concerns. It’s not the first film to look at the formative years of psychiatry and its figures: John Huston’s amazingly undervalued Freud (1962) pitched the tale of Freud’s speculative development as an expressionist detective story where the younger hero fights through his own neuroses to uncover experiences and epiphanies that he converts into his classic theories. Cronenberg’s film takes a calmer tack and comments wryly on the way Freud, Jung, and Spielrein each in their way turn a fierce personal intelligence in on itself with analytical daring, and yet still constantly give in to bad judgment and behaviours they would reject and criticise in others. Freud proves a fascinating mixture of wisdom, moral rectitude, and a powerful circumspection, even timidity, in the face of disrupting social assumptions and straying beyond immediate scientific rationales.
Many directors become long-winded, not always unfruitfully, but often indulgently, in their late-period films, but Cronenberg here has honed his style to a succinct, discretely impressive economy. He wastes no more frames and words than necessary in a series of interpersonal exchanges, like the way he shoots Jung’s sessions with Sabina constantly from in front her, her alarming visage dominating the foreground whilst the calmly listening doctor hovers behind. The stage origin of Hampton’s work is detectable in the essentially limited range of characters—only five of the actors really matter—and the largely conversational drive of the tale. Cronenberg’s approach to such material is cunning, breaking his film up in a fashion that makes us aware of leaps of time whilst maintaining unity in the flow of vignettes and talk reminiscent of epistolary novels, accumulating over a nine-year period and coalescing into a narrative. Cronenberg does this through a purposeful use of cuts between episodes that lack the usual passage-of-time film grammar, watching relationships evolve and devolve. Simultaneously, Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, adapted from his own play and a book by John Kerr, accumulates detail in an unforced but clear-minded and literate fashion: for Hampton, the story has clear affinities with his script for Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995), which similarly delved into the sordid affairs of fin de siècle antiheroes.
If A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (2007) saw Cronenberg leveraging flashes of personal inspiration out of essentially impersonal material, A Dangerous Method sees him thoroughly submerged in his chosen story, which has echoes as far back in his oeuvre as The Brood (1979). Rather than placing into a dramatic context the imagery of the id, here he peers with quiet wit at the forceful, often violent meeting of minds and bodies that gave life to modern psychological theory. Cronenberg, at any rate, steadfastly refuses to go in to standard biopic histrionics and structures the film backwards, with Sabina’s neurotic explosions all at the start; the finale sees the protagonists all diverging on solitary adventures. The mesh of cultural, political, and personal values that bind and define the characters is laid out in concise terms, especially when Freud draws Jung’s attention to the difficulties of their profession and that fact his theories are gaining credibility as being bound up in the overwhelming Jewish membership of the Viennese psychiatric circle. When Jung asks, “What’s that got to do with anything?” Freud replies, “That, if I may say so, is an exquisitely Protestant remark.” Freud is well aware that such irrational, yet potent prejudices as anti-Semitism can only give fuel to the aggression of his detractors, who will not stomach the implicit condemnation of all Victorian ideals of child-raising, and aspects of the social structure itself, that will inevitably flow out of psychotherapy’s new wisdom.
This is, after all, early 20th century Europe, with its uneasy blend of the liberal and untold lodes of hypocrisy and buried frustration that will soon be released in its orgiastic moment. Sabina seems a by-product of the peculiarly bestial undercurrents and power-favouring assumptions of the era, which the starched collars and trim skirts cocoon. Jung and Freud present less frenetic yet identifiable versions of the same thing, particularly well invested in Fassbender’s expert acting, as he squirms both within the assurances of his professional and actual garb and the tools of his mind to control his impulses, and yet he requires only slight encouragement to give into them. Nonetheless, in the first half of A Dangerous Method, Jung’s use of Freud’s talking cure pulls Sabina back from the brink of self-destruction and helps form a partnership between the two doctors, and the scene fulminates with creative and intellectual potential, as their first meeting goes on for hours before Freud first notices. Taking lunch in Freud’s apartment, Jung yammers away on sexual theory until Freud casually encourages him to not observe any conversational niceties, causing Jung to remember that Freud’s family are listening with beguiled fascination.
Cassell’s Gross is the serpent in this particular Eden, in which Freud is initially high priest and lawgiver who puts Jung and Gross together like the experimenter he is, hoping for another catalytic reaction, and then getting chagrined at some of the results. Gross proffers a blend of entitled addict’s reasoning and unapologetically rebellious attitude, which persuasively preaches a total freedom whilst seeming at the same time to be deeply disturbed. He penetrates Jung’s head with temptation exactly when he’s vulnerable to it, attracted to Sabina on several levels and alienated from his wife and her bourgeois rituals of family-rearing—rituals Gross mocks mercilessly. Perhaps the most revealing, biting, and propulsive aspect of A Dangerous Method is the way it identifies the porous boundaries of the psychoanalytical field, with characters stepping over borderlines between doctor and patient according to the necessity of the moment, and the implicit theory that it takes a neurotic to know a neurotic. “You’re exactly the sort of person we need,” Jung tells Sabina when she asks him if he thinks she can ever be a psychiatrist: “Insane, you mean?” she deadpans.
Jung’s actual affair with Sabina is undoubtedly sexual—Cronenberg casually zeroes in on the stain of blood left when he takes her virginity—but is punctuated by his indulging her masochistic desires. He’s glimpsed methodically smacking her backside as she writhes in erotic frenzy with the air of man simply extending therapy into the bedroom. Sabina sets out to seduce Jung out of romantic interest, but also to satisfy her growing awareness that a good psychoanalyst with an interest in sex like her ought to know something of what she’s talking about. Gross is glimpsed fornicating in the garden with a clinic nurse whose bored expression suggests it’s an equivalent to emptying bedpans and giving out medication, and Gross with an expression redolent of the junkie getting his daily fix. Gross commences as at least a tacitly functioning intellectual but soon enough flees like a man chased by ghosts, asking Jung to tell his father he’s dead. Sabina, on the other hand, travels from barely functioning wretch to a professional. Jung, after deciding early on to steer Sabina toward the medical ambitions she’s already harboured, makes her an assistant in experiments, including one in which he has his wife perform a word association test where the quiet discord in the Jungs’ marriage is made apparent to Sabina.
Jung’s privileged position is underlined when his wife buys him a huge house and a yacht whilst acquiescing coolly to the possibility of his having an affair, and just as coolly reclaiming him with the certainty that for all his percolating temptations to break with his fastidiously bourgeois upbringing and outlook, he’s effectively held within those limits by his own conscientious thinking. These factors do lead him to break with Sabina and even to try to obfuscate the nature of their relationship in his dealings with Freud, obfuscation Freud later claims as one reason for his severing his ties with Jung. But that split already began when Freud tried to block Jung’s desire to move beyond strict adherence to Freud’s purely sexual model, itself challenging enough that Freud predicts that people will still be resisting aspects of it for a century, and starts adopting theories the older man dismisses as unscientific nonsense. In one scene, Jung, having absorbed a criticism from the older man, suddenly begins interpreting a clicking sound emerging from a heating system that coincides with a twinging in his stomach as proof of the possibility of psychic anticipation. Of course, all what’s really manifesting is his anguish at Freud’s determination to remain the guardian at the bridge of legitimacy.
As with the word association scene, close to the film’s end, there’s a clever use of theory to introduce a new idea: in 1913, Jung recounts a dream we know contains a dread portent for the world he lives in, filled with images of waves of blood and piled corpses. Freud’s own spurts of unease when confronted by Jung’s wealth is drolly handled and gives a telling weight to Freud’s discomfort and determination to retain his intellectual leadership. Freud’s understanding of the perilous position he’s in, reminding Sabina of their shared Jewish responsibility, gains a chilling clarity in the coda where we’re reminded that Freud died as a refugee from the Nazis and that Sabina perished at the hands of an SS murder squad in 1942.
One quality of A Dangerous Method that distinguishes it from Cronenberg’s earlier films in a similar key—my favourite of his works, Dead Ringers (1988), and my least favourite, Crash (1996)—is that where he might have adopted an air of chilly archness when dealing with such characters and situations, the tone of this film also has a strong grasp on the hothouse feeling underneath. As with his uneven yet occasionally remarkable Eastern Promises, there’s a deep ocean of feeling and a quiet beauty to the film, as if Cronenberg has grasped at last a way to articulate passion as well as pathology without stooping to bathos. Fassbender’s characterisation of Jung is very much the centrepiece of the film, though he doesn’t dominate. Of the startling amount of work he’s ploughed through in the past 18 months, Fassbender gives one of his very best and most subtle performances here, capturing the finite play of guilt, frustration, attraction, and professional zeal in Jung, a man who doesn’t quite seem to find his sense of mission until after his break with Freud and his last goodbye to Sabina.
Undoubtedly when the time comes to estimate awards, the early scenes of the deeply disturbed Sabina will count most both for and against Knightley’s performance; but the quality of her acting is best noted by how she modulates the characterisation in the later stages, her overt symptoms dissipating, yet maintaining something freakishly odd about Sabina, who operates on a level of feverish strength beyond anything Jung and Freud can contemplate releasing in themselves. That strange intensity is most apparent in such moments as when she’s taking notes on a roomful of Jung’s patients listening to Wagner, hovering with a blend of geeky enthusiasm and hawkish intent. Mortensen is however perhaps the film’s quietest coup, incarnating his Freud as an icon of pipe-smoking sang froid and cagey authority. It’s as restrained a piece of star acting as you’ll ever see, and one of the most effective. Like the film itself, he’s so measured, smart, and effective, you almost don’t realise it.
The world of cinema was shocked by the not-unexpected, but relatively premature death of Chilean-born filmmaker Raúl Ruiz on Friday. The 70-year-old director was known for his parodic approach to film styles, his lush canvasses, his sometimes overstuffed plots, and his extremely fecund output. For those seeking a deep dive into this complicated, experimental filmmaker, I recommend this survey/memoir by Jonathan Rosenbaum for starters and a date to view his Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), which has started to show in the United States and likely will be booked in more venues in tribute. As a Ruiz novice, I will try to honor his legacy as best I can with a review of Klimt, one of his more recent and accessible films, and a style of biopic more filmmakers should adopt.
Ruiz takes an ingeniously elliptical approach to film biography, one that puts the spirit of artist Gustav Klimt and fin-de-siècle Austria at the forefront as it drops the details of his life almost subliminally into our consciousness. As such, the film does something that is nearly impossible to do—find a channel, however speculative, into the creative process itself.
The film opens with Klimt’s protege Egon Schiele (Nikolai Kinski) going to visit Klimt (John Malkovich) as he lays dying in a bath. The doctor greets Schiele by swinging a skeleton in front of him and pointing out the various bones that comprise it, each from a different donor, all of different nationalities. Schiele comments that while there may be a scarcity of many things, there is no shortage of dead bodies. Klimt died of syphilis February 6, 1918, a few months before the “cure” for all war, World War I, formally ended. Klimt was treated with mercury, the standard remedy of the time and a poison that may have hastened his death and one that did not save him from the madness that accompanies advanced syphilis. Thus, the parallels Ruiz sets up between Klimt’s private disintegration, delusions, and madness and those of Europe at this time are established. Klimt’s mental free-fall through his life comprises the rest of the film.
Klimt’s life could be a template for the stereotypical successful Artist. He was a sensualist who bedded many women and fathered many children out of wedlock, who enraged the art establishment while still enjoying great popularity. We meet him in memory first in his studio, as three naked models move above his head on swings of cloth and another lays down on a bed in the background. Klimt ignores all of them as he pours water on a square of glass to examine the images it creates. He dismisses the models. The one on the bed remains. He says, “What about you?” She answers provocatively, “What about me?” Malkovich lets virtually nothing cross his face to indicate his state of mind, though perhaps the tiniest of smirks does escape by the end of the scene; it’s a bold choice, to keep Klimt in the state of sexual abstraction he must have needed to do his work when faced with an off-hours temptation.
This containment marks much of Malkovich’s performance, even in scenes where he declares his ardent love for an actress (Saffron Burrows) who plays dancer Lea de Castro (Georgia Reeve) in a short film by Georges Méliès (Gunther Gillian). Their embrace is one of the more awkward in film history, though Brown is wonderfully natural in her nakedness considering that her character is being watched from behind a two-way mirror by the real Lea to see how Klimt behaves. The fracturing of personality, the real and the false fronts, the interchangeability of human beings as seen in the mix-and-match skeleton in the first scene, all are preoccupations of both Ruiz and the Klimt he has written. Indeed, any representational artist is faced with how his or her creations poach from many sources and create illusions that are, nonetheless, physically real and real experiences for those who take them in.
Ruiz’s hallucinatory touches are inspired. Klimt’s long-time companion Emilie Flöge (Veronica Ferres), called Midi here, quarrels with him in his studio while he is applying gilding to a painting. Suddenly, her lips are gilded as well, an incarnate inspiration that Klimt would transfer to his canvas. When she slams the door to his studio, she blows the small squares of gilding into the air, sending Klimt, childlike, chasing after them to catch them on his brush. His cat starts mewling, and Klimt comes face to face with the Secretary (Stephen Dillane), a government functionary who becomes Klimt’s projected guide through his life and desires and, finally, his death. The Secretary, though sympathetic to Klimt’s art, seems to contradict Klimt’s outsider stance as part of the Vienna Secession, and suggest that his life was a function of bureaucratic manipulation.
Ruiz isolates the artistic claptrap of the day in a wonderful scene in a Vienna coffee house. A waiter takes orders from some of the patrons, calling their names and having them respond “as usual.” Klimt is dining with a friend who gives him the lay of the land of the different artistic schools of thought. A camera tracks around them, the background spinning one way, and Klimt and his friend spinning in the opposing direction, suggesting Klimt’s contrarian state of mind and bringing a liveliness to the Viennese art scene that ends with Klimt pushing a cake into a rival’s face.
The proper Viennese bourgeoisie, represented by Klimt’s mother (Annemarie Düringer) and sister (Marion Mitterhammer), are placed in a cool, utilitarian setting. His mother scolds him for his many illegitimate children, and his sister insinuates something unnatural about him for choosing only Jewesses to bear his children: “I didn’t make it up, I read it in the paper.” Klimt retorts, “You didn’t have to make it up because the papers already did it for you.” The poisonous atmosphere that would later engulf Austria gets a brief, but effective airing, but so do the distortions of media about celebrities, a very modern concern.
Apparently, no expense was spared in putting this film together. The costumes and sets are utterly sumptuous, and artists were brought in to recreate the scandal-inducing paintings Klimt produced for the University of Vienna that were destroyed in a fire in 1945, as well as a fictitious portrait of Lea and various Klimt canvasses in different stages of completion. Little is known about Klimt’s life, so the decadence of the times is brought to bear on his womanizing reputation while creating an atmosphere that helps the viewer sense the forces that influenced his sensual art. For example, Klimt goes to the Moustache brothel, where gentlemen play games in various rooms—Klimt is locked in a cage wearing a gorilla head in the African room—before going off with one or more of the moustachioed whores.
The anteroom of Klimt’s death is filled with the atmosphere of his life—the ever-present Viennese snow, stuffed cats, a bare-bones studio, and doors opening onto different paths. I hope Ruiz’s anteroom was just as inviting.
The creation myth for Sergei Eisenstein’s final work is as vast in scale and resonance as any epic movie. Like most other Soviet filmmakers, Eisenstein was forced to flee east during the German invasion and near-capture of Moscow during World War II. Away from the capital, Eisenstein, whose relationship with the state and Stalin had gone through many rollercoaster switchbacks, had been ostracised when his initially successful Alexander Nevsky (1938) had been embarrassedly put away following the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, and then rehabilitated after Operation Barbarossa. Eisenstein struck upon the idea of making a film about one of classical Russia’s most controversial figures: Tsar Ivan IV, the self-declared first “Tsar of All Russia,” whose nickname “Groznyy” (usually translated as “Terrible”) encompassed the awe-inspiring and fearsome figure he remained in the Russian memory. Stalin himself made no secret of his admiration and emulation of the man, and this helped Eisenstein get the project off the ground. The result was another of many fiascos that plagued Eisenstein: the second part of the proposed trilogy was shelved and left unseen for more than a decade, well after Eisenstein had died at only 50 years of age. Eisenstein’s film, whether deliberately or not, commences as an expressionist panegyric to ruthlessly strong leadership and curdles steadily into an hysterically gothic, insidious portrait of power corrupting. Ivan’s reign of blood, enforced by his cabal of loyal bodyguards, the Oprichniki, bore too potent a resemblance to Stalin’s purges and the horrors wreaked by the NKVD.
The actual film moves beyond the dead-ahead narrative simplicity of Alexander Nevsky, whilst pushing Eisenstein’s interest in stylising his cinema to the point where it started to resemble Wagner’s ideal of the “total work of art,” encompassing not only drama and visual artistry, but also music and a quality akin to dance, mime, and opera in the acting styles. During his stay in Mexico, Eisenstein’s friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had encouraged him to regard his movies as “moving frescoes,” a phrase which describes much of Ivan the Terrible perfectly.
The first film commences with young Grand Prince of Muscovy Ivan being crowned with splendid pomp as the Tsar of the new super-state and declaring his nation as the third and enduring Rome. Ivan’s openly announced plan is to break the power of the aristocratic boyars, whose in-fighting and factional cynicism he blames not only for the deaths of his parents, but for keeping Russia from achieving unity against its enemies. His young fiancée Anastasia Romonova (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) comes from a family that seems to be behind him, but Ivan’s friends are still few. At his wedding feast, one of Ivan’s friends, Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) still tries to woo Anastasia, his former flame, and another, Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov), announces he’s going to avoid the inevitable power struggle by becoming a monk. The feast is interrupted by infuriated common folk, led by hulking Aleksei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma) and the chained, seer-like Nikolai (Vsevolod Pudovkin), who threaten to kill Ivan if he doesn’t follow through on his promise to break the boyars. To everyone’s surprise Ivan blesses Basmanov and repeats his vow.
Ivan faces many formidable opponents, but the most formidable is his own aunt, the fiendishly glowering boyarina Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafima Birman), who wants to place her own simpleton son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) on the throne. Even neighbouring Kazan Khanate declares war on him, but Ivan, with Kurbsky as his general, musters a great military force and conquers Kazan instead. The potential power of a united Russia is confirmed, but Ivan falls ill while returning from the war, and the boyars, with Staritskaya leading, refuse to swear allegiance to Ivan’s infant son. Only Kurbsky emerges from this smelling like a rose, because while trying yet again to seduce Anastasia, he hears of Ivan’s recovery and so makes the pledge to the young prince. This pleases Ivan, who sends him off to war in the west against the Polish and Livonians, who are conspiring to stifle Russia’s trade with England. But Kurbsky, after losing a battle, goes over to the enemy, and Staritskaya sets out to assassinate Anastasia because her attachment to Ivan keeps her relatives in check. She tricks Ivan into letting her drink from a poisoned cup. After Anastasia dies, Ivan is convinced by his chief henchman Malyuta (Mikhail Zharov), Aleksei Basmanov, and Alexei’s son Fyodor (Mikhail Kuznetsov) to confederate a force of commoner supporters who will become totally loyal to him. Ivan does so, creating the Oprichnina, and then leaves Moscow for a small town to wait for the people to demand his return.
Eisenstein had moved a long way from Socialist Realism, as well as the mostly efficient, but rather stagy style then dominant in most western national cinemas. His work here is a constant flow of synergistic illustrations in which the actors are as angular and bristling as the set details and props. Eisenstein never meant, of course, for Ivan the Terrible to be his final, summary work, but that’s what it became, and it’s interesting that the film stands at a nexus, filled with allusions not only to the historical past, but also to cinematic past. It references silent film expressionism, particularly Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924, the last episode of which was a similar fantasia on Ivan), and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) throughout in the sheer organic tangle of the historical Russia on display. The amusing casting of Pudovkin, one of Eisenstein’s greatest colleagues/rivals of the silent era, adds to this impression. Yet it’s also a forward-looking work, newly sophisticated in the blending of Eisenstein’s belief in a symphonic, constantly flowing imagism and the techniques of sound cinema. Where Alexander Nevsky needed its Prokofiev score much more than it needed dialogue, here the anti-realistic dramatic exchanges are nonetheless important. The next generation of Russian directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov would build upon Ivan the Terrible’s precepts for constructing a totally immersive kind of cinema.
Eisenstein had become interested in kabuki theatre when visiting Japan in the late ’20s, and that experience bore fruit here in the intense, highly formalised gesturing and precisely choreographed movements and expressions of the acting. Such an element is easy to mischaracterise: within these theoretically stifling parameters the actors are still good, and Cherkasov pulls off the difficult demands made on his performance with fixity of purpose in uniting disparate and original approaches to filmic drama, particularly as his Ivan deepens from self-righteous crusader to sardonic, mocking ogre. But it’s also a long way from traditional realism. The architecture throughout the film’s elaborate set design subordinates humans to the caprices of space or the lack of it, like the many low doors that require the actors to bow to get through, and the Escher-like, criss-crossing stairwells and passages where nothing is either truly private or expansively free. Ivan the Terrible takes the historical remoteness and Byzantine atmosphere of dread and deceit as licence to paint the setting as a primal and psychologically manifest expression of a corrupt and dangerous world.
Initially, however, Eisenstein’s film enshrines a vision of Ivan that is idealised and idolising, and geopolitical resonances are easily and aptly mined. Ivan, first glimpsed as a fresh, energetic man in his prime who declares he’s going to take on the world and win with a young man’s self-conviction, is feted as a hero standing up for his nation and his subjects against entrenched aristocratic interests. He declares his plans whilst still in the cathedral, to the shock and outrage of both the boyars and the church, to tax everyone, maintain a standing army, and secure domestic control over seaports and trade routes currently controlled by other nations. Foreign envoys watch and peevishly predict his failure in his reforms and mock his pretensions to being Tsar of all Russia, except for a bespectacled Pole who notes, “If he’s strong enough, all will agree.”
Ivan is painted as the man willing to do anything to ensure the unity of his nation as the only way it can stand up to the invasions of other countries. This point is proven quickly when the envoys from Kazan come to declare war on Muscovy, and the delegate gives Ivan the gift of a knife with which to commit honourable suicide. Ivan instead reacts with exultation at the challenge, eager to prove the potency of his new super-state. When the band of furious common folk, led by Nikolai, invade the palace wanting to clobber boyar heads, Ivan comes to meet them and promises them that criminals trying to stir up panic by falsifying bad omens in the populace will be caught and executed, a promise that impresses them. “We will crush sedition, eliminate the treason!” Ivan declares in repeated variations, and even on the battlefield he’s being warned against the potential treachery of boyars, seeming to justify Stalin’s paranoid purges of the Red Army. A subplot invokes Ivan’s efforts to trade with England, sending envoys to tell the English to send their ships into the White Sea to Archangelsk, both a true historical detail and a neat echo of the convoy supply route between Britain and Russia still running when the first film was released. Ivan’s retreat from Moscow and subsequent restoration resemble that flight from Moscow by Stalin, Eisenstein, and the government when the Nazis reached the city’s suburbs.
Gold coins poured on Ivan at his coronation prove to be the first line of a narrative rhyme, for later, dishes are filled with coins by soldiers marching to war with Kazan, to be collected after battle to accurately count the dead: such is the precise totemic reflection of Ivan’s power over the people and theirs over him. The subsequent siege sees Kurbsky stringing up Mongol prisoners on the Russian barricades, the arrows fired by their brethren in the city killing the pinioned captives, before the sapping under the city results in a colossal mine blowing a hole in the fortifying wall. When Ivan falls ill after capturing Kazan, he begs the boyar grandees to swear allegiance to his son while sprawled weak and disoriented on the floor and pleading with physically helpless. but emotionally powerful despair. Their stone-faced gloating makes clear just how much he’s alienated them; Ivan’s determination leaves him increasingly isolated and lacking people he can trust, losing first Kurbsky, and then his wife, a lack he sets out to correct by forming the Oprichnina.
Ivan even begs Fyodor Kolychev to return to civic life and take over as Metropolitan of Moscow, but even he proves more an enemy than friend, as he lets his boyar relatives talk him into trying to curb Ivan’s power with his religious authority. When Kolychev tries this, Ivan ruefully declares, “From now on, I shall be exactly what you call me—terrible!” The general tone of the film is increasingly dark and twisted, played out quite literally in the acting styles, in the perpetual glower of Staritskaya and Ivan’s hawkish, increasingly gargoyle-like appearance, his swooping, bowing, and hunched-over stances. Yet there is still humour in the film, particularly in Eisenstein’s wittily framed, visual puns and dense, Brueghel-esque shots. Ivan’s European coronation guests, reacting in outrage to his plans, have great, frilled collars that fill the screen and seem to interlock, a wall of impressive, yet easily demolished starched cloth. The King of Poland’s court possesses a chessboard floor upon which the knights and bishops and pawns pose. At Ivan and Anastasia’s wedding, the camera peers directly down the length of the table as the guests strike their cups together over the rows of identical candelabra. Mulyata, to unnerve the boyars, stalks about the palace literally peeling his eye to remind all and sundry that he’s always on the lookout.
Interestingly, however, whilst the first part is generally regarded as the best, I found it merely a cheque that Eisenstein wrote and then cashed with the second part. Part II – The Boyar Conspiracy sees the rush of pageant-like, sprawling historical detail give way to only a relative few, almost operatic key scenes, and the flat, declarative, dramatic pitch of the first part likewise resolves into something more subtle and emotionally penetrating. I suspect the Ivan the Terrible diptych had a large influence on how Francis Coppola conceptualised the first two The Godfather films for the screen, for those gangster films follow a similar arc in setting up Michael Corleone as a self-justifying antihero, and then slowly revising the portrait into that of a craven, self-deluding monster. The second episode alters the meaning of the film considerably, as the characters and their different viewpoints become more substantial, and Ivan alters from posturing hero to sardonic, mean-spirited tyrant. The boyars likewise cease to be a mere implacable mass of impediments: the moral quandary of Kolychev is given credence as he tries to curb Ivan’s power and save lives. When the two clash in church before an audience of boyars, a piece of religious theatre plays out with children acting out a parable about the King of Babylon who would have executed three Israelites if not for an angel’s intervention, a part Kolychev is called on to play; the parable is pointed enough to make children watching realise Ivan is the wicked king. There’s a tacit acknowledgement here of the power of smuggled messages in drama that hints why the film’s portrayal of Ivan is being revised. Small wonder Stalin was so furious at Eisenstein the second time around.
In Part II, Ivan is still mourning Anastasia’s death, and, realising that she was poisoned and that Staritskaya was almost certainly responsible, faces a crisis that violates one of his few remaining ideals, the untouchable nature of the royal family. Similarly, he gives Kolychev permission to retain power over him in condemning people for the sake of retaining at least one nominal friendship, but this decision provokes another crisis: Ivan can’t be seen to be accountable. Instead, he lets the Basmanovs and Malyuta talk him into letting the Oprichniki off the leash. They scour the royal palace, drag out the boyars who had resisted paying his war tax or otherwise interfered with their plans, and slice their heads off. As this is happening, Ivan contorts in conscientious anxiety, but when he comes out and sees the dead bodies, he bows to them, crosses himself, and declares, “Not nearly enough!” Meanwhile the boyarina’s attachment to her dimwit son, whose high cheekbones and large eyes make him look more than a little like a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich, is portrayed as blending peculiar, discomforting impulses. One supposes initially that Staritskaya wants to put her son forward as Tsar because she can control him easily, but it also proves to be because she worships her twit of a lad. She cradles him comfortingly and sings a lullaby about a beaver being killed to provide him with clothing for his coronation, a display of maternal care that’s more than a little perverse and disquieting, least of all in how power, violence, and child-rearing have become inextricable in her psyche.
The portraits of a Vladimir as a man who can’t really grow up and a mother who’s all-controlling counterpoint a long flashback in which Ivan recounts to Kolychev his own childhood: he saw his mother die from poison and grew up surrounded by boyars who manipulated him and ran the state for him, until he finally rebelled and confirmed his own power by having a bullying minister dragged away. This tale lends psychologically deterministic weight to the portrait of Ivan, and also elucidates how his idealism is tempered by a constant, vengeful hatred that all too easily leaks out to infect his entire political life.
With Anastasia dead, he essentially marries his bodyguards. This peculiar relationship culminates in the film’s greatest scene (shot in colour), a bizarre, florid, homoerotic banquet sequence during which the Oprichniki dance in drunken hysterics, led by Fyodor Basmanov clad in drag, and sing a childish song about chopping off heads. Here, Sergei Prokofiev’s score cuts loose in dizzying, raucous strains as the Oprichniki stamp feet and clap hands in rows and fling themselves about in breathtakingly energetic kazatchok moves. It’s clear that Ivan has created a kind of morbidly erotic cult in his followers. When Vladimir drunkenly warns Ivan about an assassination attempt awaiting him when he leaves the banquet to attend to morning prayers, Ivan, instead of being grateful, mockingly dresses his guileless cousin in his own royal vestments, and then sends him out in his place to be stabbed to death by the lurking assassin. Staritskaya rushes out to crow over what she imagines is her defeated foe’s body, only for Ivan to strut out unharmed. The boyarina gathers up her son’s body and starts singing the same lullaby to him. Ivan won’t touch her, and even has the malicious gall to free the assassin, for he has “killed our greatest enemy.” He’s Ivan the Terrible, and he’s also a real stinker.
It is unthinkable that a filmmaker with as much pomp and circumstance in his blood as Cecil B. DeMille would not tackle the irresistible story of Cleopatra. With a great beauty and queen endowed with divinity by her subjects bewitching two mighty Romans, hubristic overreaching for power, betrayal and murder, internecine warfare, and a double suicide, the story would have been fit for the Theatre of Dionysus had it not already fallen into disuse well before Cleopatra walked the earth. The story has been filmed several times for the big screen, most notably by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1963—the bloated costs of that film made it a financial disaster of such epic proportions that it appears to have scared off other comers, though curiously, Hallmark Entertainment came up with a version in 1999, which is a strange project on its face from such a family-friendly company.
DeMille’s reputation rests mainly on his epic pageantry and action, which his Cleopatra contains, but in smaller doses than in his other historic and biblical films. He wasn’t known for being adept with actors, and accordingly, the emotional resonance of Cleopatra is weak. But he cut his teeth in the silent era making a variety of films, including such delightful domestic comedies as Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), so the intimacy of the film about larger-than-life historical figures, while perhaps not expected, is not entirely incongruous either. Importantly, this isn’t Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, but, as advertised, a vehicle that starts and ends with the queen herself. DeMille’s focus is not unlike that of Josef von Sternberg concentrating his gaze on his creation Marlene Dietrich, as cinematographer Victor Milner captures an uncharacteristically glamorous Claudette Colbert, ravishing her and managing to make even her unflattering right profile look pretty good (a feat that perhaps put him over the top to win his only Oscar of nine nominations).
DeMille immediately gets our adrenaline pumping by showing a bound and blindfolded Cleopatra being driven by chariot into the desert on orders of her brother, who wants sole control of the throne of Egypt. Quite gratuitously, she is bound to a stake, but even before her captors depart, Appollodorus (Irving Pichel), the schoolmaster and adviser taken with her as an aid to her survival, unties her. She makes her way back to Egypt to appeal for her life and place on the throne to Julius Caesar (William Warren), who is in Alexandria to manage Egypt’s affairs and receive financial tribute to Rome. She appears to him as a gift wrapped in a rug, spilling out seductively in a skimpy outfit and with appeals to his vanity. Eventually, she seduces him with visions of an vast empire in which he and she will rule side by side as Emperor and Empress, and returns to Rome with him to be his bride after he has cast aside his wife Calpurnia (Gertrude Michael). His tyrannical aims bring about his death at the hands of several Roman Senators, including his friend Brutus (Arthur Hohl), and Cleopatra flees back to Egypt.
Eventually, Rome ends up on Egypt’s doorstep again, this time in the person of Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon). Cleopatra forces Antony to come to her barge, where she has lain a silken trap—dancing girls, seashells filled with jewels, wine and food, and, of course, the pleasure of her company. Antony stays in Egypt to be with Cleopatra, angering Octavian (Ian Keith), the co-ruler with Antony of the empire, and forcing a war in which Antony commands the outmanned, outarmed Egyptian army against Rome. When the Egyptians are utterly defeated and his disgrace is complete, Antony plunges a dagger into his stomach. Rather than live without Antony as a slave to Rome, Cleopatra clutches a poisonous asp to her breast and takes its fatal bite. As the Romans enter her palace, we are left with a final long shot of the queen—dead but still seated on her magnificent, winged throne.
Of all the DeMille epics I have seen, Cleopatra strikes the best balance between action and intimacy, with a truly cinematic approach that mainly overcomes the director’s tendency to turn his epics into the Ziegfeld Follies. In the gaudiest scene in the film—Cleopatra’s seduction of Antony—some awkward fan dancing gives way to bright choreography and a titillating low-rent scene of women in leopard costumes having a cat fight for Antony’s amusement. Quick cuts between the women and a lustily laughing Wilcoxon add energy to the film and make us complicit in the delirium overtaking Antony through this lavish spectacle.
Milner and film editor Anne Bauchens are equally adept at amping the brutality of the war between Egypt and Rome and making it vibrant by cutting between the massing of the troops on both sides, the charge of the Egyptian chariots, and the close fighting between the soldiers, with close-ups of blood-smeared faces, fallen soldiers, and clashing swords against process shots that might have been recycled from other DeMille films. I was surprised at how the artificiality of the process shots actually added to the intensity of the battles, and use of the models Caesar examined during his first scene with Cleopatra were deployed during the war scenes as actual weapons, a great echoing of the fall of two Romans in thrall to the same woman.
Milner’s close-ups work extremely well during the assassination of Caesar, as we see the Senators from Caesar’s point of view closed around him with their daggers plunging. Although the scene is filled with movement, Hohl takes his time in approaching Caesar with a dread determination. Only when his face and drawn dagger fill the screen do we switch to Caesar and his famous last words, “You, too, Brutus?” as he succumbs.
Of the three lead actors, Warren William is the least interesting. He’s a cold bureaucrat with virtually no nuance; it’s hard to believe Cleopatra’s grief at hearing of his death, which seems emotional and not tied to her plans for empire. His polar opposite, Henry Wilcoxon is a handsome, vigorous man whose lusts and ardor are completely believable and extremely enjoyable to interact with. He’s incredibly magnetic, and one wonders why his talents could not have made him the equal of Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power on the big screen.
Finally, Colbert never looked more beautiful, with her perfect make-up, extravagant costumes, and smooth demeanor. She is perfect in the art of seduction, full of playfulness and vulnerability. I did not see the heart of ambition beating in her, however, but that may have been by design. When Herod, King of Judea (Joseph Schildkraut), comes to her suggesting that Octavian would be very grateful if she would poison Antony, she does not reject the plan—indeed, her testing of poison on a condemned prisoner seems the height of efficiency—but is regretful and enormously relieved when Octavian’s declaration of war allows her to abort the plan. Colbert’s Cleopatra seems completely the woman, not the queen, a relatable and sympathetic creature who seems only to have loved and lost. Absurd, of course, but romantic and beautiful to experience.
We’ve been having an impromptu BBC-TV week here at Ferdy on Films, beginning with my assessment of Dennis Potter’s Cream in My Coffee and continuing with Rod’s dual review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Rod and I have both noted how these works were influences—in the former case, on Potter’s later works, in the latter, on later feature films dealing with the Cold War. With The Debussy Film, one of several commissioned works Russell did during the 1960s on famous artists, composers, and dancers for the BBC series Monitor and Omnibus, Russell experimented with images that would show up in his films Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). The films also laid the groundwork for a extended examination of famous creators in feature-length biopics, such as The Music Lovers (1970), Savage Messiah (1972), Mahler (1974), Lizstomania (1975), and Valentino (1977).
Rod commented to me that watching Russell’s BBC work made glaringly obvious how unambitious those now working in television and film are when it comes to biography. Indeed, most such films are either documentaries, hagiographies, or focused only on the most sensational parts—or indeed, only one particular slice—of a famous person’s life. Additionally, experimentation of the type Russell indulged in his biographies is so audacious—and largely successful—it puts other such works to shame. For example, the Oscar-nominated Exit through the Gift Shop (2010) mixes reality with fantasy in offering a biography of its central protagonist, but its experiments are so hamfisted and immature—not to mention that the film’s story may be largely a made-up joke—that it seems like the 43rd clone of a Russell original: pallid, weak, and played out.
The Debussy Film is no such beast. Russell sets out to tell the life story of composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), borrowing in structure from Citizen Kane by offering the end of Debussy’s life first and recounting the whys and wherefores of how such a great composer could have been buried with so little fanfare and such a small mourning party attending his funeral. He also adopts a narrator similar to Jedediah Leland in Kane. This narrator is the “director” of the film (Vladek Sheybal), who also plays the role of Pierre Louis, a rich photographer and one of Debussy’s benefactors. With this casting, and with an opening showing the cast and crew assembling at a location in Eastbourne, Russell signals that he intends to move freely between the period film and the present, letting the bones of shooting the film show through the skin.
Russell uses a newspaper reporter on the set to interview the director about the film as the device that first allows his narrator to state the facts of Debussy’s life. The director introduces the dramatis personae, for example, an offhand “There’s Debussy, over there” as the camera pans to Oliver Reed talking to an actress playing Madame Vasnier, a singer for whom he wrote the first songs of his to be performed in public and someone who was “looking after him at the time. He always needed someone to look after him.” We are informed they were also lovers, as the camera pans to Monsieur Vasnier, sitting apart from the pair, the shadows of the camera crew clearly visible in the foreground. Then the camera switches back to Debussy and Madame Vasnier, and the figure of a young woman moves between them and embraces Debussy. “And then I met Gaby,” intrudes Reed’s voice as he looks into his script. It is in this daisy-chain manner that Russell moves characters in and out of Debussy’s life.
Gaby Dupont, played by the Piaf-like Annette Robertson, lived with and supported Debussy for nine years as they both explored the bohemian artists’ world of Paris. They are shown in the throes of a young, carefree love—walking in the rain, chasing through a garden, with “Gardens in the Rain” playing under the scene. We learn during this scene that Debussy took up music because of French poet Paul Verlaine’s mother-in-law, who claimed to have studied with Chopin and who taught Debussy how to play piano. Again, we learn these facts from Reed in voiceover, speaking as Debussy. And then Russell moves us into the present, as we watch Robertson and Reed act out the love of Debussy and Gaby while swimming.
I particularly loved the stroll Reed and Sheybal take through the Tate Museum gallery containing the paintings of Rossetti and other visual artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (sadly, not seen to their best advantage in the black-and-white photography of the film), who inspired Debussy’s impressionistic and dreamy music. “He wanted his music to be paintings in sound,” says Sheybal, and noting Debussy’s love of Whistler’s nocturne paintings, introduces one of the composer’s three nocturnes, “Les Fêtes.” The arresting images of a Catholic procession, full of stern nuns and masked priests carrying an idol of the Madonna and child, presage the themes and images Russell would use in The Devils.
Another image, one that would show up in a slightly different form of drown lovers in Women in Love, occurs after Debussy’s story moves past his rejections of Gaby and Lily Texier (Penny Service), his first wife. Both women shot themselves in despair, and both survived, but Russell gives us an image of their prone, still forms in bikinis lying across rocks on shore as he walks with his new patron and future wife, the rich and artistic Madame Bardac (Isa Teller). The pair moved into the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, where he composed “La Mer,” my personal favorite among Debussy’s works. Another arresting image shows Debussy standing on a balcony, and the crane shot goes from a relatively close shot of Debussy and pulls back gradually to reveal him near the top of the enormous hotel edifice, literally on top of the world with his money problems behind him, a bonafide masterpiece under his belt, and his star on the international scene about to rise precipitously. Still, below him in the ornate hotel pool, swims Gaby, suggesting that she was his one true love and muse.
In 1914, when World War I began, Debussy received a commission to write a piece of war music. “It was to be for Albert, King of the Belgians. It had to include the Belgian national anthem,” Reed says in voiceover. Says the director, “‘Berceuse héroïque’ is possibly the most unheroic, unbloodthirsty war music ever written.” Russell juxtaposes the solemn, beautiful music Debussy wrote with what to the composer would have been completely alien images of war. That he accepted the commission at all is part of a section recounting his feverish activities writing film scores, operas, anything at all to support his daughter Chouchou after his wife’s income was cut off.
The film then trails into Debussy’s final years, when illness and ennui sent him into seclusion, and he continued his work on a piece based on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Twelve years of tortuous work imagining a man, Roderick Usher, with whom he completely identified, yielded only “two or three sheets of music.” Russell creates a wonderfully evocative, short horror film in which Reed moves through an enormous, empty castle. He is met in a geometric hall not by the risen ghost of Usher’s sister, but rather by images of Gaby and Lily, the women he wronged, as the final strains of “La Mer” yield to the funeral procession set up in the first scene of the film.
Russell indulges his sexual provocations in what I thought were mainly juvenile ways—taking an out-of-context scene of a woman in modern dress being shot through with arrows in reference to Debussy’s composition “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” and having the director tell the reporter they had intended to do it with the actress nude. The reporter, looking at the actress seated next to the director primping for an extraordinarily long time in a hand mirror, leers and gets flustered. Additionally, he has Service meet Reed and other cast members by emerging topless from the pool of the Grand Hotel, which made me feel nothing but embarrassment. Yet one scene, in which the rejected Lily, remembering her love with Debussy in his passionate embrace, runs off in despair, was heartfelt and affecting.
It was a privilege to see Russell developing his ideas in this and the other programs contained in the invaluable Ken Russell at the BBC box set. I hope would-be film biographers can one day work with the courage, spirit of experimentation, and fun Russell displays here.
One night in 2003, after breaking up with his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) goes back to his dorm room and, between swilling liquor and firing off angry blog rants about Erica, slaps together a rudimentary website called “Facemash” so that his fellow students can compare and vote on photos of female undergrads. This stunt proves so popular that he crashes Harvard’s network at 4:00 AM. Mark is momentarily in trouble with the college establishment, and in deep, permanent hot water with Erica, but he’s made a name for himself, and now discerns an uncharted corner of the online world’s possibilities. He soon receives an offer by twin rich kids Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (Armie Hammer) to build a website they have in mind, to be called “Harvard Connection,” in which the selling point is the exclusivity of the harvard.edu address. Mark signs on, but busies himself instead with developing his own version of the idea using cash and some code provided by his friend Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) and fellow computer wizards Dustin Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello) and Chris Hughes (Patrick Mapel). Within a few months. it’s clear Mark has put together the basics of a project that has the potential to turn his crew into billionaires—The Facebook, named after the institutional catalogues of Harvard alumni.
We remember Balzac’s maxim: all great fortunes come from a great crime. The great driving fantasy of the dotcom generations is the possibility of expunging that maxim by accumulating wealth based in digits and know-how rather than polluting the planet and exploiting labour, and yet such innocent wealth is as elusive now as ever. The Social Network tells a story electrifying to anyone who’s young and dreams big. There are certainly moments in it that made me wish I’d dedicated the early years of the millennium to learning how to write computer code rather than coherent sentences. And yet the story confirms enough impressions of licentious misogyny, business bastardry, indulgence in controlled substances, and nerdish social dysfunction to satisfy the antimillennial prejudices of the most jaded fogey.
The Winklevoss twins, or the “Winklevii” as Mark contemptuously refers to them, believe Mark has stolen their idea, and, after delaying because of Cameron’s gentlemanly scruples, hit Mark with a lawsuit. But the root of all evil and creative ambition in The Social Network is not plagiarism but sex. It’s the fief of the sanctified “Final Clubs” of Harvard where golden boys party all night with good-time girls brought in by the busload, and the promised land for the successful businessman who otherwise lacks natural advantages. After being dumped by Erica, who describes Mark’s conversational mix of brilliance, jealousy, suspicion, and ambition as like “dating a Stairmaster,” Mark sees the market value in creating a site that avoids the tedious work of developing relationships and instead offers you the equivalent of a sign that reads, “I am single, please fuck me.” Later, Mark and Eduardo, their new website having made them instant celebrities on campus and in other colleges that have adopted it, begin accumulating groupies, including Christy (Brenda Song) and Alice (Malese Jow), hot-to-trot Asian students in hooker heels who fulfil all their boyish fantasies in blowing them in the union bar bathroom.
The serpent arrives in this Eden in the form of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), a randy, drug-and-chick-lovin’ entrepreneur whose website Napster (before being killed by lawsuits) set in motion the degradation of the music business. Intrigued by a glimpse at The Facebook from the bed of a college demoiselle (Dakota Johnson) he’s just laid, Parker meets with Mark and Eduardo, suggests dropping “The” from the title, and inspires Mark to hire more code writers and move out to California, about which Sean is able to bewitch Mark with visions of endless sexual escapades with underwear models on giant piles of money, or something close. When Eduardo finally follows them out west, he’s dismayed to see Parker attaching himself to their baby and tries to make Mark pay attention to him by freezing the operation’s finances just before Mark and Parker arrange a colossal hedge fund loan. Eduardo soon finds himself manoeuvered into signing a contract that sees his share in the company plummet, inspiring a final blow-up, which, along with Parker’s being disgraced in a romp involving cocaine and underage college girls, leaves Mark alone and beset by vendetta lawsuits.
The Social Network tells a story worth telling, a key modern “creation myth” (as it’s described in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay) for a modern movie audience that is often badly served by Hollywood, in particular. The likes of Sorkin and Peter Morgan have cornered a market in offering imaginative takes on events we’re too used to seeing through the surface-only lenses of popular media and the bare-boned language of reportage. Sorkin’s writing and Fincher’s direction lay out the complexities of that story with coherence and cinematic fluidity. It’s as slickly made a drama as any Hollywood’s put out in years, equipped with some witty dialogue. It’s well-paced and the time taken to watch the film passes swiftly.
So why did it all finally ring so hollow for me?
The trailer for The Social Network, which utilised the Scala Choir’s a capella rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” actually delivered images, dialogue, and visual chic of the film with far more spirit, darkness, emotion, and implied thoughtfulness than the complete film comes close to offering. “Creep” was an uncanny choice not only because using Gen X songs seems to instantly thrill a lot of Gen X critics, but also because its lyrics quite clearly lay out the repressed self-loathing and hunger for community that’s a darker aspect of the contemporary youth zeitgeist, and that particular recording imbues it with a spiritual reach and faintly menacing kind of beauty that makes Parker’s pronouncements about “This is our time!” sound vaguely übermensch-like. Instead, in the context of the full film, it’s a rather vaingloriously tacky statement by a piddling debauch.
I’ve made no secret in the past of my lack of love for Fincher as a director, and The Social Network is a neat portrait of both his strengths and perennial lackings. He’s a formidable technician, and The Social Network represents, at least, a welcome return to the kind of procedural immediacy he brought to 2007’s Zodiac after the spectacular, yet oddly ineffectual fantasy of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). But it’s also peppered with a lot of the shallow social commentary of the vein that littered his earlier work, like Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999), is poorly shaped, falling away from a racing start, and filmed, as ever, with his familiar interiors shot through greeny-amber filters, like somebody’s urinated on the lens.
Even when Fincher toys with open-ended narratives, like that of Zodiac, he holds to such a streamlined, conventional structuring of scenes that the very real strengths of his work—particularly a firm sense of mise-en-scène—are diffused by his determination to be a Hollywood player of the most mainstream kind. Fincher has no idea how to end a movie without an explosion: like Zodiac and Benjamin Button, The Social Network stumbles to a halt, rather than ends, in a way that evokes less the chill of unanswerable questions than running out of time. He domesticates even anarchic and disturbing narratives to an infuriating degree. His approach to wringing drama and sex appeal out of a possibly dry, geeky tale is to play the old DeMille game of employing sexploitation and then moralism, as Fincher offers hot chicks making out with each other and stripping on tabletops, whilst pretending to shake his head over this decadence, or to have people leap out of their chairs and rush across campus when something dramatic happens, like they’ve just discovered the killer’s identity and that the phone calls are coming from inside the house.
Sorkin, too, shares similar traits: his snap-crackle-pop dialogue and self-assertively smartypants sensibility are all rigorously glib, and the overt, high-pressure cleverness of it all, rather than seeming literate and challenging, smothers the story’s resonances in the cradle. His fine TV series The West Wing and its cinematic ancestor The American President (1995) earned a pass partly because they wore their stagy, fairytale stylisation on their sleeve and partly because Sorkin’s writing wasn’t as consciously arch then as it has become. Every character in The Social Network, except for the odd stoned young wenches who flit by in the background, talks in rapid-fire TV-ese. The emotional and social theses are constantly stated, never felt or deeply communicated by the filmmaking; in fact, they’re typed up like memos. It was a nice reminder of how much I disliked Sorkin’s previous outing as a screenwriter in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), a despicable film that bespoke the complete exhaustion of the Hollywood liberal film tradition in reducing the Afghan-Russian War to a video game whilst celebrating Tom Hanks’ right to screw Julia Roberts and Emily Blunt. The only flare of real feeling in The Social Network, and the easiest to convey, is Eduardo’s squall of rage when he realises what’s been done to him and stomps out to tear Mark from his IT bubble. And that’s The Social Network in a nutshell: it constantly takes the easier path.
The depictions of bright teenagers and early twenty-somethings are so stylised as to defy credulity. I’m not saying The Social Network should have been a mumblecore movie, but just a few keen dashes of the sort of well-observed Bright Young Thing angst that make star Eisenberg’s previous film, Adventureland (2009), so engaging would have made The Social Network feel more personal and personable, and given depth to its admirable grasp on the business chicanery at its heart. Certainly getting in touch with its inner teen flick would have been preferable to Sorkin’s patented Walking Insta-Quote Machines. The Social Network is a drama centering around social insecurity and genius IQs, and repeatedly posits Mark’s break-up with Erica as a kind of lost Eden, an original sin, culminating in the final image of Mark patiently refreshing his Facebook page waiting for Erica to accept his friend request. It’s a touch that hammers home the notion that Mark’s life irony in constructing a forum based in friendship has left him denuded of friends, and one that completely fails to achieve any resonance beyond the obvious, because Mark’s relationship with Erica is so quickly hurled out of the way of the plot. Erica is so obviously conceived as an emblem of things Mark doesn’t get. Why was Erica going out with Mark? Why was he going out with her? Did she mean a lot to him? Or does he merely miss the idea of her, the untrammelled spirit of feminine good sense he heedlessly turned his back on? I had less of an idea about any of this after the film was over than when it began. Mara is eye-catching in her brief contribution to the film, but there’s nothing about her character that begs fixation or even great interest: I even found myself siding with Mark in his feeling of aggravation, if not in his obnoxious, but pretty run of the mill dissing of Erica on his blog, for her dumping of him is as clumsy and insensitive as anything he does.
Eisenberg plays a brainier and smarter-of-mouth variation on the kind of part he’s become known for, but denuded of charm and insight. He’s very competent, but his portrayal of Zuckerberg, or at least his embodiment of the Zuckerberg handed to him by Fincher and Sorkin, is so closed-off and one-note as to render him a practical nonentity. His sharpest moment in the film comes when he impatiently informs the Winklevii’s patronising lawyer that he doesn’t deserve all of Mark’s attention because he’s also busy thinking of grander schemes at the Facebook offices “where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.” It’s an interesting moment that both lays on the line Mark’s arrogance and also his honourable dedication to a vision he thinks everyone else would like an undeserving piece of, and judging by the lawyer’s bemused reaction as a defeated foil, Sorkin and Fincher at least in part agree with Mark, both obviously regarding themselves as belonging to that assailed niche of the Smartest Guys in the Room. The film proposes Zuckerberg then as hero and antihero, an identification figure in his outsider anxiety, his assaults on settled bastions, and his carelessness about money, whilst also expediting what is basically an old-fashioned morality play about the perils of success, where Mark’s drive is less financial than one of desiring preeminence as a ticket to inclusion, to be THE guy.
The film presents the Winklevii with a certain wry empathy, especially for Cameron’s gentlemanly pretences, but still offers them up as foils whose sense of entitlement Mark feels no compunction in puncturing. Being jocks as well as rich-kid entrepreneurs, thus combining two of Mark’s pet hates, they compete as Olympic-level rowers, and their loss in a regatta to a Dutch team is portrayed in a pointless scene scored to Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” a sequence Fincher might have mined for symbolic value in mirroring the beauties of genuine competition rather than oligarchy, but instead gains only the cheap schadenfreude of watching the rich boys lose.
And there’s a large aspect of The Social Network that never came alive for me, and this sucked most of the strength right out it: the social conflicts. The class resentment and socio-sexual unease that’s supposed to drive the drama only ever feels rhetorical and convenient, especially considering that we learn so little about Mark’s life and worldview—we can only presume he’s middle-class as well as Jewish. The supposed gap between the WASPs and the Jews at Harvard seems to have been transcribed virtually undiluted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, even if the golden boys are now wearing baseball caps backwards.
The Social Network is bookended by two lines of dialogue spoken by bright ladies. At the opening, in which Erica breaks up with Mark, she delivers this would-be devastating put-down: “You’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” In the closing scene, Marylin Delpy, a lawyer assisting Mark’s chief counsel, modifies this comment: ‘You’re not an asshole, Mark, you’re just trying to be one.” Very neat, very circular. It’s also clearly a message from a screenwriter commenting on the character of Mark Zuckerberg using these facile female characters as mouthpieces.
Such do-you-get-the-point-isms like Mark’s line, “Eduardo, it’s like a Final Club except we’re the president,” are unnecessary, especially considering that incidents like how Mark turns a search for interns to do their code writing into exactly the same kind of competition, involving racing against time whilst downing shots, illustrate better the way Mark tries to turn his version of IT capitalism into a mere rival to, rather than dissension from, the kinds of hierarchy, competitiveness, and tribalism he’s supposed to be at war with. As the film progresses, and Parker enters the film, his sexed-up, eternally adolescent ideal of what an IT magnate should look and act like becomes Mark’s model. Parker’s California is supposed to be a land of decadence and conniving, though the decadence on display is dismayingly low-rent: Parker can’t even get down to sniffing cocaine out of a college girl’s navel in peace without getting busted. His pernicious influence on Facebook’s genesis makes itself clear in the underage floozies hanging about the house Mark and the rest of the team share, getting high and playing video games whilst the boy’s club gets on with it. One of the more subtle yet telling moments comes when Mark’s handing out jobs in his I-just-invented-it company to his buddies, and when Christy and Alice ask what they can do, Mark offhandedly says, “Nothing.” Which is fair enough, considering he doesn’t know what they can do, but he doesn’t even think to ask. But I would have appreciated Fincher’s and Sorkin’s efforts to elucidate the misogyny that infects these characters and their world more if their own work didn’t reek of it, particularly in the startlingly cheap comedy they wring from the scene in which Christy gets destructively, pathologically possessive of Eduardo and sets fire to his bed like every caricature of a crazy Asian chick you’ve ever seen in a movie.
As the film grinds into its last quarter, the dramatic strands, scenes, and time frame all become increasingly fragmented. The flash-forward structure, constantly drawing us from the immediate travails of building Facebook to the grisly lawsuit roundtables, proves finally to be a rather half-hearted expositional device: the results of the lawsuits are tossed off in a final explanatory scrawl, and the probable desired effect, one of bewildering, tragic distance between “then” and “now” is lost because there’s no variation in the dialogue or editing styles, or in Mark’s pithily dismissive attitude. I could go on dissecting what displeased me in The Social Network, but not perhaps without boring both you and myself, so I’ll settle for saying that The Social Network finally left me with a curious impression of great loquaciousness concealing a lack of anything to say.
I can at least praise the cast easily. That Hammer does a great job playing the Winklevii is not worth denying, even though I wondered if pulling such a stunt really contributed anything to the film other than allowing Fincher to advertise that he’s still a technical master. I kept spotting the matte lines and focus gradations that bear out the special effects, and then, in turn, kept unnecessarily alerting me to the unnecessary trickery—was it really that hard to dig up a couple of good-looking twins? Timberlake manages to do an amazing amount with very little: Timberlake’s musical persona of a privileged puppy with a glint of the genuine satyr that gives him some grit helps enliven his characterisation, swinging from swinger-smooth highs to humiliated, almost boyish desperation when he’s trying to assuage Mark’s alarm when he finally crashes and burns. But otherwise, if good is the enemy of great, The Social Network is Exhibit A. l
Something that’s always struck me about the music of the peace-and-love era’s pop artists, particularly British ones like Roger Waters, Pete Townshend, and John Lennon, is how much anger, confusion, and frustration often radiates from their lyrics. I got some insight into this through my own father and his experiences as a young British male, a personal key for glimpsing a generation that often felt they were raised like the proverbial mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed on bullshit. “All John Lennon Needed Was Love” states Nowhere Boy’s threateningly facile tagline, but it’s not such a long bow to draw an immediate link between the Beatle’s overt longing for a fellowship of Man and his emotionally bereft, often disturbingly abusive low points. A trait of his generation was the way in which a sense of their own psychological integrity was vitally linked to the state of the world around them, and Lennon exemplified that: the ’70s were, for him, the ultimate bad trip after a euphoric high. It’s clear in hindsight that a private psychodrama that eroded Lennon’s achievements and consumed much of his later life, began in Lennon’s adolescence. Sam Taylor-Wood’s debut directorial feature attempts to discern through Lennon’s experiences a more general bildungsroman: how does the way we’re brought up affect us? Do we sense lies and mysteries in spite of all efforts to hide them? Is it useful to channel these problems into creation, or is that merely self-crucifixion?
Lennon’s and others’ lives like it present heavily-trodden ground for rock biographers, journalists, and memoirists, but not so much for filmmakers. A few ’70s films, especially the fictionalised versions of Lennon’s life That’ll Be the Day and Stardust (both 1974), and Quadrophenia (1979), Franc Roddam’s riff on Townshend’s themes, evoked the teenage highs within the tawdry world of the first Brit-Rock era with immediacy and grit. Alan Parker’s film of the Waters-masterminded Pink Floyd opus The Wall (1982) described with inspired breadth of vision the psychic landscape of a burnt-out ‘60s rock star. Backbeat (1993), a minor, but well-directed and acted account of the Beatles’ crucial years in Hamburg (especially by Ian Hart, his second stab at playing Lennon after the 1991 telemovie The Hours and Times). Backbeat makes for a virtual prequel to Taylor-Wood’s film, which ends with Lennon setting off to Hamburg. Someday, I suppose, someone’s going to take on the unenviable challenge of trying to squeeze the history of pop music’s most definitive band into a feature film, but so far, movies have been content to describe the edges of that phenomenon. Lennon’s status as an avatar for his age’s confused masculinity could, nonetheless, be a cultural lightning rod in the right artist’s hands as much as it was in his own.
Nowhere Boy recounts a defining triangle that’s well known to anyone who’s ever read about Lennon’s life: his relationship with his stern bourgeois aunt and guardian Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and his mostly absent, free-spirited but fragile mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Julia left John to live with Mimi amidst the wreckage of her marriage, another part-victim of the Second World War’s chaotic impact on settled lives, and also of Julia’s own mental instability; these reasons are at least in part motivations that John (Aaron Johnson) has to discover in a variety of emotional detective story, because they’re deeply hidden under layers of protective propriety. The sudden death of John’s father figure, his Uncle George (David Threlfall), proves a catalyst for John as he’s passing through his middle teens; his behaviour becomes wilder and angrier, and he glimpses Julia for the first time in years, hovering at George’s funeral. When his cousin Stan (James Johnson) pries John away from Mimi for a day trip to Blackpool, he tells John he knows where Julia lives. When John calls on her, she grasps onto him with famished eagerness. After he’s suspended from school for touting pornography, John starts hanging out during the day at Julia’s place, and she introduces him to playing the banjo. That cosy arrangement ends when Mimi finds out what’s going on and confronts the pair; John momentarily spurns Mimi, but is forced to return to her when Julia’s husband Bobby (David Morrissey) worries that having John around might cause another of her breakdowns.
In the meantime, John doodles in notebooks, practises funny voices, cuts class, seduces girls into elementary sex in the park—there’s one of those “fish and finger pies”—and bubbles with latent creativity. He stoically dismisses his headmaster’s abuse by calling himself a genius. As rock ‘n’ roll soon becomes John’s obsession, he finds it’s also Julia’s love, and she gleefully explains the etymology of the phrase. His channelling of his unruly, rebellious, creative energy into that despised art form is partly informed by the alternatives Julia offers, and her own wayward, undisciplined joie-de-vivre and porous boundaries. Discomfortingly, a spark of something suggesting attraction between him and Julia percolates unconsciously as the sensual older woman encounters the good-looking young bloke she barely knows. John, having found a constructive form of rebellion, announces to his mates when they’re gathered for a smoke in the school toilets that he’s going to form a skiffle band. When they prove surprisingly enjoyable at a public performance in a local park, with John’s charismatic, enthusiastic performing drawing real interest, they soon attract Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and an alarmingly young George Harrison (Sam Bell). They have prodigious instrumental skills Lennon smartly adopts forthwith, but he’s also jealous of them when he notices they can turn attention, including Julia’s, away from him. Meanwhile, John’s increasingly aggressive, brittle behaviour drives Mimi to ineffective punishments and widens the gap between them.
Nowhere Boy is most distinguished by a smart psychological grasp on its protagonist, depicting aspects of Lennon’s behaviour that would recur throughout his life, and positing the reasons why. Taylor-Wood does bend over backwards to avoid the usual tropes for foreshadowing future greatness, portraying Lennon and McCartney’s first meeting as a deft mix of shy friendliness and power-playing, and the one moment in which a future song is preordained is an ugly one, when John attempts to drunkenly apologise to one of his girlfriends, only for her companion to pull her away dismissing him as a loser. Lennon and McCartney’s crystallising understanding commences when John learns Paul’s still grieving for his recently deceased mother, and is finally sealed, ironically, when John clobbers Paul and then embraces him with desperate self-disgust, in the wake of tragedy. The narrative builds steadily toward a night of crisis that is Lennon’s 17th birthday; Julia throws a party for John and his friends, but John’s seething frustration begins to boil over, and he slams a washboard over a friend’s head, insults Julia and confronts her over her abandonment of him, and then leaves in a fury. Returning to Mimi, he finds she prepared a birthday feast, too, and bought him a new electric guitar. Julia turns up desperate to heal the rift, resulting in a tempestuous airing of dirty laundry that reduces Julia to pleadingly explaining her mental problems whilst being dragged along the floor. John, dazed and forlorn, wanders into the night and awakens in the dawn light on the Mersey bank.
That’s a sustained and effective depiction of the way youthful rites of passage can sometimes turn into eruptive opportunities for catharsis. Duff and Scott-Thomas are excellent at portraying opposites of character and social expectation conjoined in their pained, fractious sisterly relationship, and the preternaturally unusual and infuriating young man they share. Particularly admirable is the scene when the two sisters finally sit down together, Duff’s Julia registering Mimi’s unexpected kindness with the faintest of tremors running through her face. It’s a pity then that Nowhere Boy finally sets its sights rather low, both stylistically and thematically. A common problem with biopics is that they rarely muster anything like the invention of their subjects, and Nowhere Boy is the kind of middle-of-the-road, tasteful piece of work Lennon would likely have mocked. Similar to the pre-Swinging-60s sociology of another recent film, An Education (2009), it fails to recreate visually and convincingly the milieu in any but the most prettified and flavourless of fashions. Like Anton Cobijn, who brought a pungent, yet unforced verisimilitude to Control (2007), his film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Taylor-Wood is a former photographer. This fact usually entails an advanced visual sense and much less advanced drama-shaping skills, but oddly the opposite seems a problem here. Taylor-Wood doesn’t do anything to grit up the long-since deindustrialised environs of Liverpool, and the necessary recreation of the tactile, gritty world that produced the Beatles is missing. There’s not much invention or poetry to the visuals, and though the performance scenes are convincing and enjoyable, there’s little electricity or sense of a talented but inexperienced band getting better.
Taylor-Wood does offer one excellent little flourish, when Julia’s given John his banjo and he strums it clumsily and makes progress in snatches of real-time whilst Julia’s household whirls in time-lapse around him: it’s a strong vision of the kind of self-removal and obsession-mastering any art requires. If Taylor-Wood had mustered more such invention, Nowhere Boy might have added up to more, but it feels like a movie that’s over before it’s getting started. More subtly, it fails as a specific portrait. Johnson’s performance is terrific in its way, in his period mannerisms, playful imitations, and deft reserve of Liverpudlian obscenities, but he never quite seems to have a handle on Lennon’s individualistic humour and spiky intelligence, and he emphasises glowering teen angst to the point of tedium: Lennon’s snaky charm is too often missing. Still, there’s an effective vision of a young man growing into his skin when Johnson’s Lennon, after wasting so much energy trying to appear tough and defiant, walks away from the art college he’s now attending clad in rocker hairdo, blue jeans, and Buddy Holly glasses, clearly, suddenly, stridently in control of his persona and his mind, if not his emotions.
The failure to add up to much is exacerbated by the film’s last-act weaknesses and pat scripting, particularly the common fault of foreshadowing tragedy—Julia’s death in a car accident—with scenes that amble along in just such a way that lets us know something bad’s going to happen purely by their lack of urgency. The very conclusion is airbrushed into a standard-issue crisis resolution, with John seeming to have accepted Mimi as parent and setting off to conquer the world. Completely avoided is John’s later, pained encounter with his long-absent father. Modern films are under the spell of giving us closure, even when it’s inappropriate, and it’s inappropriate here. Although Taylor-Wood’s debut is filled with engaging touches, it still required more daring and personality. The guy who wrote “I Am The Walrus” as well as “I’m A Loser” deserved as much. l
With the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, Steven Soderbergh helped make American independent film into a minor religion. He followed that debut up with a battery of peculiar, uneven, but interesting works in the ’90s before finding a niche with 1999’s The Limey, a cryptic and stylish but finally featherweight film noir. Actually, I could attach those adjectives to most of his films, which are definable by their refined surface approximations and which made him a mainstream darling with 2001’s oddly empty sociopolitical panorama Traffic and the wittily styled, equally shallow Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh has found a niche in the last decade as a polished pseudo-auteur and pet ringmaster for various movie stars, specialising in ironically deadpan satires, genre works clad in retro chic, and occasional returns to indie cinema realism. Last year’s The Informant! was interesting chiefly for combining the disparate halves of his oeuvre and preoccupations, with its genuinely probing sense of modern American values and expansive, concerned sense of political culture, mixed in with jaunty ’70s-ish music and candy-coloured, caricatured visions of Midwestern suburbia.
His colossal Che Guevara project, on the other hand, seemed a total rejection of his Hollywood side, and it’s largely a success as that: Che looks for much of its length like something Ken Loach might have made, minus his up-the-proles sentimentality, but failing to generate the kind of gritty tragedy and rousing sense of fighting for a cause that Loach managed in his Land and Freedom and to a lesser extent his The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Che as a whole seems precisely designed to alienate the people who might have paid to see it—young faux-radicals wearing Che t-shirts—as the flavour of Soderbergh’s work is purgative, studying in unremitting detail the arduous experience of Guevara as victorious and tragic revolutionary warrior. The approach to the project, coproduced by star Benicio Del Toro, is an attempt at total resistance to any whiff of romanticisation, aiming merely for tactile realism and elemental narrative. It’s also equally possible to label Soderbergh’s cool, procedural approach as avoidance of controversy. Certainly, cautionary examples are on offer, like the infamous 1969 Richard Fleischer film Che! It is, however, a coherent unit of his career, and one that casts some of what he’s been trying to get at in new light.
Like Traffic, Che questions the cost the triumph of the United States and consumer culture has had on poorer neighbours and points out the dubious aspects of postwar American hegemony (even his otherwise totally disastrous The Good German had that element). As in many of his other films, it offers a doomed hero locked in a battle with combines and conspiracies—with the obvious difference that Guevara was a real man, one idolised and vilified with equal fervour. It’s possible either way to discern more than a dash of nostalgia in Soderbergh’s film for foreign antagonists of the U.S. and alternate political creeds about something more substantial than bristling religious prejudice and hazy geopolitical spite, for the days when even such opposites as Guevara and a U.S. senator (in this case Eugene McCarthy, played by Jon DeVries) could converse with firm but polite discourse, and for the thrill of new possibilities when Latin American socialism didn’t bring to mind the horrors of the Shining Path on one hand and the egotisms of Hugo Chavez on the other. That nostalgia is, however, troubling in itself: what exactly Guevara’s journey means to the contemporary landscape other than, in strict terms, lessons on how to fight, win, and lose guerrilla wars, is only suggested in animating spirit rather than concrete depiction. Moral necessity and moral cost are questions kept at a very distant arm’s length. One thing is certain after the film is finished: the man was determined. And even if the film’s precepts are backwards-looking, Soderbergh attempts to realise Guevara’s trials as the most immediate kind of cinema.
The ironies of Guevara’s career are captured with some dexterity. Guevara is still venerated, and comrade-in-arms Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) has become a faded figure of sclerotic despotism, largely because Guevara gave up the tricky arts of management to keep on with the gritty arts of war. Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) is heard to say early on in the film that “revolution is not exportable,” in the sense that each form of revolt has to be specific to the soil from which it will spring. Yet Che forgets this in ignoring warnings that Bolivia is too xenophobic and peculiar for it to accept a simple repetition of his Cuban success. The film’s diptych structure is stimulating not only as a study of diverse outcomes, but also of perspective: what looks heroic and determined in one case looks foolish and pig-headed in the second. Present is the suggestion—not analysed—that Che’s desire to bring the revolution to Bolivia is motivated by its proximity to his native Argentina, whose sleazy dictatorship he would have held in contempt.
The screenplay by Peter Buchman, with Benjamin A. van der Veen contributing to Part Two, is adapted with few digressions and little psychological or sociological portraiture from Guevara’s own diaries and accounts. Part One is punctuated by flash-forwards to Che representing Cuba at the UN and being interviewed by journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond) in New York, his air of ruffled but towering dignity and paramilitary clothing cutting a swath through that city’s chattering classes. This stands in counterpoint to the finicky business of the actual revolution: telling off sloppy soldiers, weeding out unpromising recruits, executing criminals, listening to the tales and complaints of Cubans he and his men encounter, and a hundred other tiny aspects of turning a band of uninspiring adventurers into a popularly supported, effective army, one that he finally leads to victory in a memorably filmed sequence of street warfare in the town of Santa Clara. Che, in New York, is absorbed by Soderbergh’s camera as faintly dissociated, weary, haunted, and happy in ways that are all indefinable, whilst still fierce enough to take on the cabal of petty dictatorships and hypocrites that comprise the other American delegates—out of place at parties and amusingly exasperated by his translator’s constantly absenting himself to see the town. The suggestion is there, too, that Che’s fame came as much out of the impact he made in being seen in that environment, packing the spirit and the firm corporeal rigour of the revolutionary into his intimidating person in an incongruous context, as it did from any anecdotal triumph.
The contrast, with the younger, beardless Che and Fidel speaking seriously but amiably about their plan in an apartment in Mexico City before embarking on their Cuban adventure, is telling in itself, and even more so is the vision of Che in Bolivia, increasingly gaunt, grizzled, and wheezing in crippling asthmatic fits, engaged in what looks awfully like the kind of quixotic bourgeois adventuring he would have disdained. There he’s aided by some hangers-on of dubious relevance, like a German socialist dubbed Tania (Franka Potente), as he and all his warriors take on pseudonyms and too little organic contact with the Bolivian radicals they’re supposed to be aiding. The film takes care to note that the Soviet-backed local Communist Party refused all aid to Che, whose style and aims by this time were all too clearly as offensive to the Eastern Bloc as to the West (at least so the films suggests, whilst many historians feel that Che’s committed Marxism had the opposite effect on the Cuban revolution). The Communists instead instigate a strike that results in the massacre of miners. Meanwhile, in perhaps the film’s most pointed scenes of contemporary relevance, American military and intelligence personnel advise and aid the Bolivian army in tracking down their insurgents.
Soderbergh’s deliberately happenstance sense of continuity, though sometimes bewildering, is convincing in portraying a world where faces and events whip by and out of view: even Che’s battlefield romance with Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is only vaguely, tangentially suggested. “We’ve only won the war,” Che tells a cadre when Batista’s fall is announced: “The revolution starts now.” The irony there is that Che soon runs off to another war, bringing up the possibility it’s war that he’s truly best at and is now more comfortable in such situations than in his home life, and certainly not in the impersonal squabbles of governing and diplomacy. Soderbergh constantly notes Che’s immediate, interpersonal sense of decency that both inspires loyalty and hero-worship amongst his soldiers and the people he meets, and renders his sensibility finally inimicable to the kind of personality-cult leadership that Castro radiates. He also retains a good little middle class boy’s propriety for private property, as noted in the first part’s amusing coda, when he tells off some of his men for embarking on their triumphant ride to Havana in a stolen hotrod. The revolution will not be a joyride.
Soderbergh’s visual discoveries are quietly revelatory. The Cuban half is defined by a sense of dynamism, with the intercutting between war and present endowing all the bits and pieces with a sense of direction and meaning. Even the denseness of the jungle is as enclosing and reassuring as it is frustrating and arduous, for it hides the revolutionaries from their enemies. The purposefulness of the structure as well as the described narrative is always apparent, as Che and his army leave behind that jungle for the flatter hinterland and, finally, the clean white streets. In Part One, Che is shown learning how to punish transgression with some neatly disposed court justice, when he quickly shoots two of his soldiers who have turned to stealing and raping, thus prefacing his eventual comfort executing hundreds of state enemies as the militarised, expedient ethos of the battlefield became the defining key of the new nation.
In the Bolivian half, no such reassurance is present. Che and his soldiers move in less definable directions, and are as often as not discovered sitting or standing about in patient but discernable cluelessness about what to do next. Their one ambush of Bolivian soldiers is a tragicomic interlude where the enemy soldiers’ hated officer blubs and cowers, and the men are finally marched off without their guns and gear. The Bolivian landscape, often as unforgiving but more arid and less enveloping, invokes in itself the failure of Che’s efforts to flourish. He and his band are finally caught in a canyon by Bolivian soldiers whose advancing ranks, picked out in an effective long pan, are reminiscent of a similar army that appears to crush the rebels at the end of Spartacus (1960).
Che’s two parts have definite conceptual rigour in the balance and contrast that define its hemispheres, and the project retains a compelling, hypnotic flow that suggest that by stripping himself of all obvious supports, Soderbergh found a kind of purity. But conceptual rigour doesn’t guarantee depth of purpose, and what the Che diptych finally achieves is questionable for a work of such scope and heft. As a plain portrait of a man of war, it’s an undoubted success, one charged with a kind of spare poeticism and effervescent melancholia. On the other hand, it’s a film that might have infuriated Che, at least to the extent that it’s so disengaged from any personalised, dramatised sense of what he was fighting for. If Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) reduced young Ernesto Guevara to a gap-year holiday-maker who once read a political pamphlet, it nonetheless captured a sense of a man whose sensibility was fed by interaction with the world. What that world, and Guevara’s politicised interpretation of it, means to him, is much less vaguely defined here, for Soderbergh’s approach owes less to neorealism than to television documentary, where everything is depicted through snatches of interviews and wobbly glimpses of chaos. Che’s cause is explicated through recited rhetoric and snatches of sloganeering: the meaning of Guevara’s politics, both to himself and to the political business he got involved in, remains a given—and a ghost, tantalisingly and finally irritatingly out of reach. Whilst Soderbergh’s focus is coherent in intent and effective in result, he finally seems to have worked himself into a corner, where the most interesting reasons for making a film about El Che—to wrestle with recent history and understand the revolutionary appeal—have been excised.
Perhaps it’s because Soderbergh’s clearest similarity to Guevara is how both men quickly became dissatisfied with past achievements and must move on to new projects. Soderbergh’s wild pace of work in the past few years, playing with styles and technical challenges, is the trait of a craftsman, not a radical. The great amount of time and effort that Soderbergh takes to say some obvious things (revolution is hard work, failing and dying is a pain in the ass) is partly vindicated by the many small treasures he unearths along the way, but finally Che adds up to a fascinating and occasionally superb failure. It’s less suggestive of a creative mind avoiding cliché than of a process one witnesses too much these days: an artist-intellectual arguing himself into an expressive dead end. l
Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of French Elle, became something of an instant legend when from inside the stroke-paralyzed, speech-robbed shell of his body, he produced a book of haunting, poetic beauty called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Originally intending to reimagine Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo with a woman as the main protagonist before the stroke, he fulfilled his book contract by describing instead the dreams, sensations, thoughts, fantasies, and emotions brought out by his condition. Filming a largely interior monologue presents huge challenges, but if anyone was likely to succeed, it was Julian Schnabel. As a artist of largely nonrepresentation images, his vision of how to film Bauby’s fantasies as well as his subjective reality stood a chance of matching up to his subject’s poetry. Janusz Kaminski, Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer whose sharp, color-saturated work wouldn’t seem to be a perfect choice for this film, shot it, and there are some wrong choices that I have to think are his. Yet, overall, the film’s visual sensibility is both as binding and freeing of our imaginations as Bauby’s mind was to him.
The film opens in a blur of snatched images that float and move back into the mists. We are experiencing with Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) the first disorienting moments after he emerges from a three-week coma. He finds himself in a hospital in Berck sur Mer, a place he used to visit as a boy. Now he has a medical team telling him he’ll be fine, that is, until his neurosurgeon, Dr. Lepage (Patrick Chesnais), asks “Jean-Do” to consider him a friend (to Jean-Do’s protest that he’d rather Lepage be his doctor) who has come in to tell him “the truth.” Jean-Do is completely paralyzed with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome. More shocking to Bauby is that all his utterances in response to his caregivers have been in his head, as Dr. Lepage casually announces he will have a speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze), who will try to bring his verbal and swallowing skills back so that he can speak and eat again. Henriette and physical therapist Marie (Olatz Lóprz Garmendia) come into the room and introduce themselves as Jean-Do haphazardly eyes their breasts, which are at his eye level.
Jean-Do’s life in the hospital begins with a tech who sews his right eye closed to prevent damage to the cornea. Jean-Do pleads against this procedure, but we watch with him in a how-did-they-do-that shot as the curved needle moves through his flesh, pulling sturdy thread behind it. After this trauma, Schnabel focuses mainly on the parts of Jean-Do’s days spent learning to communicate using his good eye to blink out words, one letter at a time, as Henriette recites the alphabet, and receiving guests.
His first guest is a man named Roussin (Niels Arestrup) to whom he gave his seat on a plane that ended up getting hijacked. Roussin spent four years as a hostage; feeling a kinship with Jean-Do’s condition, he advises him to hold onto what is most human in him to endure the ordeal. His second guest is Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother of his three children, who stays by his side even as Inès (Agatha de La Fontaine), the woman Jean-Do left her for, refuses to come to the hospital, preferring to remember Jean-Do as he was.
Jean-Do prefers to remember himself as he was, too, overseeing a photo shoot for Elle, driving with his son in his new car, visiting Lourdes with his girlfriend Joséphine (Marina Hands), whose obsession with a lighted Madonna prevented their love-making that night and precipitated their break-up. Catching sight of himself, with his drooping, drooling mouth and patched eye fills him with horror. Considering his helplessness reminds him of going to care for his invalid father (Max von Sydow), in a close and emotional scene of the younger man shaving the fussy older one. Eventually, Jean-Do decides that he must live somehow, and that is when he calls his publisher and says he wants to fulfill their book contract. Claude (Anne Consigny) is hired to learn the alphabet communication and take down the prose Jean-Do “dictates,” resulting in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
Bauby likened his condition to that of a deep-sea diver, while nonetheless hearing butterflies fluttering in his head: “To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention, for their wingbeats are barely audible.” His contrasting of the heaviness of the diver with the delicacy of the butterfly is a metaphor Bauby used to convey the silent life that continued inside the leaden uselessness of his body. Schnabel presents these images in a straightforward way, showing a diver floating underwater and a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.
His fanciful shots that suspend Jean-Do between reality and imagining are really quite wonder, for example, recounting the history of the hospital as a place where Nijinsky was said to have leapt 12 feet in the air, and showing this feat among the nurses and orderlies. Another fantasy in which he and Claude, who is smitten with him, indulge in a food orgy compares favorably with the food-seduction scene in Tom Jones, even if it does include oysters as the obligatory aphrodisiac.
Schnabel digging into the oppressiveness of the Madonna figure on Bauby is especially effective. Showing how the electric Madonna destroyed Bauby’s relationship with Joséphine highlights what went wrong between him and Céline, whose motherly, fretful demeanor must have killed Bauby’s passion for her. Seigner is wonderful in conveying the hurt and confusion of a woman abandoned for being what women with children are supposed to be. When she has to translate Jean-Do to Inès on the phone, her pain at his longing for her is nearly unbearable.
Some of the imagery came from Schnabel’s imagination and didn’t work for me. For example, Schnabel has been quoted as saying that the collapsing front of a glacier that begins Jean-Do’s inner exploration was necessary, or there would have been no film. The image is too heavy and heavy-handed for me, and showing it in reverse in the closing credits was just weird. I also think Kaminski might have contributed some unfortunate choices, for example, showing Jean-Do’s sewn-up eye. The closing from the inside told us all we needed to know about this loss; actually showing the result on the face seems voyeuristic. In fact, in general, I preferred to inhabit Bauby’s dreams and imagination and follow his amusing and rueful musings about everything from wanting a father’s approval to wanting to feel the bodies of his children in his arms again—each thought a precious meditation on the infinite importance of the intimate moments that make us human.
The final problem I had with the film was mine alone. Amalric looks exceedingly like Robert Morse, a musical comedy star whose persona is quite at odds with Bauby’s. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t dislodge my impressions of Morse from Amalric; perhaps a failing on my part, perhaps the result of a weak performance. However, that I cared about Bauby as those who cried for him in the movie did points to me as the problem. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an intriguing and touching tribute to one man’s perseverence and discovery of what mattered to him in his too-short life.
An authentic piece of cinematic shamanism, Sayat Nova was a work that placed its brilliant Georgian-born, ethnic-Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov in hot water with the Soviet-era authorities. At first glance, this seems nearly incomprehensible. What the hell was so subversive about a plotless, characterless, almost-silent extended montage of beautiful and mysterious images? Perhaps therein lies the answer: nothing upsets the bureaucratic mindset like mystery. Of course, there are layers to such a controversy. Paradjanov was a dedicated nonconformist, a bisexual bohemian linked to nationalist and civil rights groups and celebrator of pan-Caucasian folk traditions, and his film was an aggressive act of cultural dissembling. Damn it if the commissars didn’t sense something under all the strange gestures and allusions to Armenian history. The Soviet Union, like Tsarist Russia before it, had always maintained a hegemonic domination of the many smaller nations it bordered and swallowed, and Paradjanov’s fetishist celebration of his culture’s dreamtime past seemed a jab at that hegemony.
A contradictory quality of much post-Stalinist Soviet cinema is what appeared to be its relatively unfettered artistic bent, producing wondrously innovative cinema from the likes of Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, Klimov, Konchalovsky and others, which rarely betrayed any sign of subordination to the familiar rigours of narrative appeal. Indeed, Paradjanov was taking to an extreme something Eisenstein had begun in his historical films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible Part I (1943) and Part II (1946) in reducing mise-en-scène to iconography and acting to gesture: the distance from Ivan the Terrible’s wedding dance to Sayat Nova’s figurations isn’t so great, even if the gothic force and giddiness of Eisenstein’s style is dispensed with. Such a retreat into formalism and poetic allusion angered authorities, but it often was the only mode of expression left to genuine film artists when “Soviet realism” was defined only as sanctioned realism. Either way, Sayat Nova was edited, retitled as the less culturally specific The Colour of Pomegranates (reflecting one of the first images of the film) and often completely suppressed; its director was later imprisoned on trumped-up charges, including that he raped a man bigger than he was.
None of which says much really about Sayat Nova as a piece of artistry, which in intent and effect transcends the immediate agonies of its history. Named for and, after a fashion, telling the life of famed 18th century Armenian “ashug” (poet-troubadour) Harutyun Sayatyan (his popular title means “King of Song”), Paradjanov refused to create a biopic, instead preferring images illustrating poetic metaphors and vaguely describing the key acts of Sayat Nova’s life. The opening seems to be juxtaposing images associated with one of Sayatyan’s poems on the stages of the soul’s ripening. Paradjanov apparently identified deeply with the poet, and the on-screen biography seems partly imbued with aspects of Paradjanov’s own life: both men were born in T’bilisi outside of their ethnic homeland.
In vaguest outline, Sayat Nova is similar to Paradjanov’s good friend Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev: both examine the role of the artist in terms of society in historical contexts infused with allegorical purpose. Each embellishes sketchy life narratives with similar details as both films’ heroes reject the world after youthful pains and burrow deep into monkish asceticism, only to spurn such mortification as death-in-life, and return to the world without spurning faith. It’s easily discernable why such a narrative could fascinate artists in a troubled political milieu. There, however, similarities end: where Rublev is allusive and illustrative in a rarefied but comprehensible and mostly realistic fashion, Sayat Nova is pure artifice, exploring Nova’s poetics and life through tableaux vivant that achieve a synthesis of the aesthetics of early cinema; the Byzantine-influenced, flat-perspective stylisation of Orthodox religious art; and the ritualised dance and theatre of folk cultures.
The biographical details Paradjanov evokes of Sayatyan’s life (he’s played at different stages of his life by Sofiko Chiaureli, Melkon Aleksanyan, Vilen Galstyan, and Giorgi Gegechkori) can be discerned through this panoply of artifice. We see him in childhood, the son of wool vendors in a small village. He is taught a love of books by a priest and introduced to the human body and eroticism by spying on men and women in steam baths. His life as a courtier and traveling diplomat, his ill-fated romance with a princess, his retreat into a monastery, his final disillusionment with such a withdrawn life, and his failed attempt to return to the world all follow, before his final violent death at the hands of invading Persians. Much of the film was shot in or near the 1,000-year-old Haghpat Monastery, where Sayatyan really met his end. It’s how Paradjanov invokes such details that is amazingly creative, relying on the viewer’s visual literacy, for instance, ability to infer from a woman’s beauteous mode of dress and bearing what her social rank is, and how she holds a veil of embroidery over her face to suggest the barriers of form and propriety that keeps Sayatyan from being able to love her. The fact that the same actress, Sofiko Chiaureli, plays both the young poet and his princess amour suggests the narcissism often inherent in young crushes (and also an inherent sexual ambiguity in Paradjanov’s sense of the artistic figure); Paradjanov juxtaposes this with a pair of mimes enacting a ritualised romance between the figures of a devil and an angel.
In between the identifiable moments of narrative in Sayat Nova is a cornucopia of evocative imagery, built out of the cultural and religious tropes of classical Armenia, and essayed in not-quite-surrealist terms. The wonder of music as it is presented to young Sayatyan is evoked by his standing with music teachers amongst a number of hovering instruments; a love of literature explicated in a remarkable moment when a priest has him and others rescue soaked books and dry them upon the roof of a church, the young poet standing amongst dozens of the wind-wavered pages. The necessary connection of artistic passion to the earth is communicated when the young poet pours earth from a dish onto a cloth he holds; later, when his sense of life has degraded, he holds up an empty dish forlornly. A late crisis in his sense of life is communicated through an awe-inspiring sequence in which the roof of the church transforms into fields reaped by labourers, whilst the aged poet stands on a ledge, his pale body contrasting dead stone whilst the chaff rains, his separation from the natural wellsprings of creativity confirmed.
Interestingly, Paradjanov criticised Fellini for driving ever deeper into mystification. This is a curious stance because mystification seems an objective for Paradjanov, and the men used not-dissimilar techniques. But it becomes apparent that such an affection for the corporeal, the tangible, an attempt to suggest through texture alone the solidity of things rather than mere dreaminess through surrealism, is altogether exceptional: Paradjanov ransacks and offers up the very building blocks of a culture in its many manifestations (songs, poems, books, architecture, clothing, paintings, dance, acting, religious and social ritual, design and pattern) as wrought from the same tactile relationship with soil and nature. Paradjanov’s visions take on the characteristics of mystical incantation, even magic, but they are certainly nonetheless linked to a subtle dialectic between spirit and flesh, earth and aesthetic, that refuses the celebratory, but arguably solipsistic reinvention of reality that Fellini offered up in his final films.
Nonetheless, in structure and effect, Sayat Nova is a rite, a liturgy, an invocation for the sake of remembering, as well as a study in the nature of poetic elucidation and the formation of artistic character. The film is almost entirely lacking in spoken dialogue, and indeed many immediate sound effects are also muted in favour of folk music styles on the soundtrack, and recitations of Sayatyan’s poetry. Paradjanov notes a child’s fragmented, distracted way of reading existence in the early sequences, full of jagged observations of such fleeting wonders as the feet of women dancing upon carpets being washed in his home village where such carpets are made, boiled up in vats of crimson dye that becomes interchangeable with blood and therefore sustenance. Likewise barnyard animals constantly appear throughout the film, most memorably, a chicken that sits on the poet’s arm like a natural aide, and a flock of sheep that invades the church. Such glimpses are linked to the much later, more complex metaphors of the grown artistic imagination. Later in the film, the cloistered Sayatyan is visited by nuns, one of whom, looking like the princess, magically strips off her black gown, stepping out in blinding white, and comes to him with a carpet, as if embodying the lingering spirit of the fecund, romantic, industrious life he left behind: when she moves to kiss him, he pulls the carpet up between them, echoing the veil the princess once held up to him and reinforcing the self-imposed barrier he’s put up against life.
This encounter precipitates his crisis, however, for the poet’s search is for an utterly selfless kind of love, and yet discovers in such a moment that his retreat is self-obsession. Begged to come perform by villagers, he ventures back into the landscape with the blessing of the monastery’s abbot to spread his art through the land. But he seems to be too late, finding nothing but empty dishes and encountering the white-clad woman’s burial. Escorted by cherubim, he returns to the monastery. There, however, he meets her again, incarnated now as a nature goddess or angel of resurrection: she tips a vat of red dye over him, symbolising his final murder, falling victim finally to utter corporeal truth. But as he dies, a workman holds up lengths of pipe and calls for him to sing; his songs echo forever from the pipes, a plain metaphor for the ability of the artist’s work to transcend death, and his songs become part of the structure of his culture and nation. The angel provides the final, reigning image, of an evergreen creativity.
Whilst all of this might sound obscure and dull, the images flow with hypnotic rapidity and teeming imagination that always tantalise and stimulate even at their most bewildering; it’s also a weirdly, subtly sexy movie in its layered textures and obsessive refrains to Chiaureli’s ambisexual beauty. Sayat Nova moreover doesn’t so much demand intellectual dissection as emotional involvement with the intricacy and beauty of its images. Certainly such a conjuring requires an intensely shared cultural basis to work from, as well as a keenly developed symbolic imagination. Still, peculiar and unreproducible as it is, Sayat Nova also seems to have influenced many a director, like Pasolini, Scorsese (in Kundun, 1997), Theo Angelopolous, Gus Van Sant and Bela Tarr, through perhaps to Todd Haynes’ Dylan flick I’m Not There, which sustained a similar conceit of using multiple actors, including a woman, to embody a hero reduced to a series of quotes and affected figurations.
It’s worth noting in such light that Paradjanov’s impish sense of humour is often in evidence, in moments such as when a number of monks are bathed by their fellows and then carried away as if in preparation for some rite, but actually for treading wine grapes; a flashback the poet has to his childhood of a wool fair that sees a gusting wind upsetting everyone’s wares; and those sheep in the church circling whilst the monks repeat sonorous cant to mourn their dead Patriarch evoking the silliness of religious solipsism and Pavlovian habits of worship. And yet the film’s texture surely confirms two of Paradjanov’s personal statements of his aspiration: “Direction is about truth. It’s about God, love, and tragedy”, and “Beauty will save the world.” Whether he’s right or not, Sayat Nova certainly suggests an untapped world of cinema still awaiting conquest. l
Jane Campion is a puzzle to me. She rose out of Aussie cinema in the late 1980s with something of the reputation of a firebrand and a new breed of woman director which she has never really lived up to. Her international hit The Piano (1993) was a kind of mash-up of college-level lit studies, feminist theory, and perfervid Victorian melodrama, with its half-defined metaphors for control of the female voice and the often bartered nature of erotic desire, scored through with a weird variety of emotional and sexual masochism. Those notes were something that recurred in her execrable adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1999), and In the Cut (2003), in all of which smart but curiously febrile ladies throw themselves at the mercy of beastly male conquerors. It seemed as if Campion’s only mode for exploring femininity was in its battles with a particularly prickly kind of masculinity, whilst never being as direct or lucidly provocative as Catherine Breillat. The cornerstone of her reputation remains, then, her biography of writer Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table (1991). Finally, with Bright Star, about the famed poet John Keats and his amour Fanny Brawne, she goes back to English lit class and comes close to making the Twilight of poet biopics.
Bright Star begins as an intriguing and layered look at three distinctive characters: Fanny (Abbie Cornish), a dressmaker and designer who lives with her mother (Kerry Fox) and younger brother and sister Margaret and Samuel (Edie Martin and Thomas Sangster) is part of the social circle of the Dilke family. The Dilkes are renting out half of their house to two poets, Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Keats is spindly, doe-eyed, and visionary; Brown is sarcastic, stolid and jealous of Keats’ attention, aware that he’s by far the greater poet. Fanny, intelligent but uneducated, with a defensive prickliness bordering on offensive in her initial encounters with the two men, wants to understand poetry better. She purchases a copy of Keats’ poorly received first book Endymion in order to find out “if he’s an idiot.” Impressed, she makes more tentatively appealing approaches to Keats, asking him to teach her how to approach and understand the poetic process. Brown and Fanny’s encounters are punctuated by grazing, elusive cross-purposes and suspicion, but her talks with Keats are restrained, intelligent, and convivial. The penniless Keats soon falls in love with Fanny, whom he is completely incapable of marrying and taking care of in the expected style.
The film’s earliest segments, detailing the uncoiling, complex, elusive triangle of admiration and frustration between the two poets and the invasive female, are compelling and original. The idea of introducing Fanny as a transcription of a more contemporary type of woman into a period setting to constantly set Brown on edge illustrates a well-described set of appositional tensions. The masculine fellowship of Keats and Brown, Brown’s resentment of Fanny’s intrusion into it given an even keener twist by his attraction to her, and Keats’ efforts to be fair to everyone whilst dealing with his dying brother Tom (Olly Alexander) are all given their moment’s attention.
Campion’s firmly physical invocation of time and place, realised by Greg Fraser’s interesting cinematography, emphasises a Georgian England of flapping laundry, singing birds, insect trills, mud, colour-bleached woods, and freeze-dried winter forests. Scenery is absorbed with simple yet intimate vividness, as the natural setting that defines the characters’ lives and that both helps feed Keats’ imagination and wastes away his body. Campion’s feel for physical context is one of the strongest in modern cinema, and the setting, a Hampstead village still not yet annexed by the city of London, seems nearly as exotic as the stormy shores of New Zealand in The Piano. In a splendid early sequence, Fanny and Keats attend a soirée where Campion tries to define the fecundity of an era based entirely in oral and literary skills using a short, but droll turn by Samuel Roukin as John Reynolds, a friend who elegantly evokes the beauties of Keats’ work and a choral of singers spinning beauties in the shadows of the period house. Later, as the couple’s relationship blossoms, their play together is in a fashion that’s offhand, charming, and possessing the flavour of real life. The central pas de trois concludes when Brown writes Fanny a teasing valentine; when Keats hears of it, he erupts in jealous suspicion, Brown insultingly dismisses Fanny as a mere flirt and fan, and Fanny runs from both of them, grievously insulted. It is, however, only the momentary crisis that allows Fanny and Keats’ love to truly expose itself.
Unfortunately from this point on Bright Star steadily ebbs away to nothingness. The trouble with almost all biopics with a focus on such ill-fated figures is that they eventually must lurch into morbid deathbed fetishism. Campion, far from trying to sidestep the problem, embraces it like an ardent hippie girl with a poet crush determined to feel every hopeless minute of it. There are endless scenes of the heretofore intriguing Fanny weeping over an increasingly desiccated Keats coughing up blood and his friends trying, too late, to secure passage to the healthier climes of Italy. The screenplay’s fatal problem is that the conception and portrayal of Keats never develops beyond spindly, endangered, romantic victim. All the originality and detail of characterisation goes into the sparring duo of Fanny and Brown; Whishaw, who’s already cornered the market on playing bedraggled, doomed avatars of creative self-consumption, is left spouting airy poetic theory and then wasting away in despairing angelic fashion, as if he were as gossamer and ethereal a creature as the famous nightingale of his poem. In one scene, having been installed in a London flat to wait out the time before he can sail, and to spare Fanny and her family the sight of his pain, he turns up lying on the lawn, having walked all the way to berate Fanny for not coming to him.
Finally this Keats suggests less a living, or dying, man, than an idea for Fanny to fall in love with, an icon to inspire female suffering. In opposition, Schneider’s full-bodied, gratingly convincing performance is far more affecting not only because does he seem more realistic, but he also actually seems to be in the room. Of course, Bright Star is as much, or more, about Fanny, but here’s an equal, quieter failure. Fanny is introduced as a spottily-educated woman desperate to gain some intellectual traction in an almost strictly masculine field of endeavour, and Campion presents a dual-layered parallel of the difficulty Keats faces as an innovative artist in an epoch set strongly against stylistic advance (and as a poet in any era) and that faced by a woman seeking a more than merely passive relationship to both art and men. The trouble is Campion never even tries to reconcile the disparate concepts, the doomed pair of arch-romantics, the wasting troubadour and the weeping true love, and the earlier, more complex creations.
Cornish’s terrific performance is indeed the force that drags the film along, with alternations of sniping, self-promoting anxiety, her somehow forlorn efforts to prove herself in showing off the dresses she made with their too-showy adornments as her substantial riposte to the airiness of Keats’ words, and finally devastated grief. But Campion’s script pulls the rug out from under her in the second half, and her hopefully devastating final scenes lack the impact they ought to because she’s already been crying for most of the last half-hour. Nor is the film finally interesting for saying anything new about poetry or sexism in the arts: Campion flinches from the questions she raises, so that whilst her filmmaking is artful, her concepts come up empty. Compared with, say, the Julian Temple’s Pandaemonium (2000), which tackled this kind of material with less finesse but far more intellectual heft and provocative cultural theory, Bright Star looks like a witless and stilted objet d’art. l
Movie makers, working in the collective dream factory, are in the mythology business. Familiar stories are told and retold in the best tradition of earlier oral historians and folklorists. And like the hero myths of the classical world and before, a modern hero occasionally emerges whose feats are counted and recounted in songs, stories, and, in our modern way, movies. In an earlier time, biopics about presidents like Lincoln and soldiers like Sergeant York dominated the hero narrative. In more recent years, modern, nonwhite heroes like Gandhi, Malcolm X, Biko, and Ali have taken center stage.
Now Clint Eastwood, a man deeply interested in chronicling the myths and mores of manhood, has made his trek across violence and its failures to the shores of Nelson Mandela’s rainbow renaissance in racially divided South Africa. Invictus tells the true story of the early days of Mandela’s presidency and how he inspired national unity by throwing his support behind a potent symbol of white supremacy, the national rugby team, the Springboks, in their bid for the 1995 World Cup in their first year of eligibility following the lifting of sanctions against the country. Eastwood’s effort is both more than it appears and less that it has already been hailed—an epic in the grand tradition of the ancient bards and a story of inspiration that denies the whole truth of the story its smart script tells in a deceptively “accurate” fashion.
The time is 1994. The film gives us the lay of the land and then takes us to a rugby field. Young white teens are playing on a groomed and neatly fenced field, uniformed, coached, and drilling with precision. Across the street behind a battered chain-link fence, black boys in tattered clothes kick around a soccer ball. When a motorcade on the road that separates them approaches, all run to their respective fences. The black boys wave and cheer as the newly elected Nelson Mandela (Eastwood regular Morgan Freeman) parades modestly on his way to his new home in the national capital of Pretoria. On the other side of the road, a coach tells his charges to remember this day as one when “our country went to the dogs.” In this simply explanatory scene, the racial schism in South Africa is economically sketched. The rest of the film concerns how Mandela will stitch it into whole cloth.
Mandela, seeing half the presidential staff packing or already gone, calls those still in the building together. He tells them there will be no repercussions for their past associations and actions, and asks them in his humble, gracious manner to stay and serve their country at this difficult time. Smiles appear on their white faces. Large frowns appear on the faces of his black security force when he sends in white security guards—enforcers that likely tortured and killed many blacks in the bad old days—to work alongside them. “How can we trust them?” one guard asks head of security Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge). “It is what Madiba wishes,” he answers with dismay. “What did you call him?” a white guard (Langley Kirkwood) asks. “Madiba. That’s what WE call him.” “We’ll call him Mr. President,” is the white guard’s chilly response.
Mandela attends a Springboks game against England. He notes to his private secretary Brenda (Adjoa Andoh) that the whites cheer the Springboks and the blacks cheer England. He did the same when he was imprisoned on Robben Island to annoy the guards. To black South Africans, the Springboks are a hated symbol, but by observing his enemy while incarcerated for 27 years, he learned how much this team means to his white jailors and the rest of white South Africa. He stops an attempt by an all-black South African athletic authority to ban the name and colors of the Springboks and decides, against advice, to stand firmly behind the team in their bid for the World Cup championship. He invites the Afrikaner team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to meet with him, thanking Pienaar profusely for sparing some of his precious time to come to see him. When Pienaar comes out of the meeting to meet his wife Nerine (Marguerite Wheatley), who has been waiting in the car, she asks him what Mandela wanted. “I think he wants us to win the World Cup.” Indeed he does.
From this point, the film develops as a straightforward, feel-good, sports drama. The black and white security guards play rugby together in the presidential compound, Mandela checks his watch while meeting diplomats to see if he’ll be done by game time, the Springboks go from hapless losers to a mighty Cinderella team. Finally, the entire nation shuts down to watch the World Cup finals against New Zealand, white cops outside Jo’burg’s Ellis Park Stadium, where the game is being played, dancing joyfully with a black boy who has stopped to listen to the neck-and-neck match on their car radio. When the closing credits juxtapose Morgan Freeman in his Springboks jersey and hat with a photo of the real Nelson Mandela in the same outfit, the convergence of myth and reality is complete.
At its heart, Invictus is a story about self-determination, a subject that resonates through Eastwood’s career, from Dirty Harry asking various criminals “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?” to Bronco Billy’s answer to Miss Lilly’s question about whether he’s for real, “I’m who I want to be,” to Maggie Fitzgerald being given the right to choose to live or die in Million Dollar Baby. A voiceover by Freeman reciting the last lines of William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” (“I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul”) recurs at various points, and Eastwood shoots a scene of Mandela writing the poem out for Pienaar to inspire him and his team to greatness. Mandela believes in the intangible—the power of forgiveness, inspirational words, even the powerful “juju” of the Maori war chant the Springboks’ opponents perform before the opening scrum. Ultimately, his belief in the right of all South Africans to determine their own future—rejecting the theory of separate racial destinies of the apartheidists—is what steeled him to his life’s hard work.
Since this is a hero’s journey, that which is tangential to the central character’s project gets little more than a quick scrawl. Each character exists to be won over by Mandela’s personal magnetism and the power of the intangible; a scene in which Mandela asks to be quizzed on the names of the team members shows his careful preparation for making people he doesn’t know feel special. Women are helpmates and objects with whom Mandela can flirt. Mandela’s wife Winnie accompanies him out of prison and then is banished from the film; his daughter Zindzi (Bonnie Henna) is introduced as an embittered woman who avoids her father only to be shown to have been won over by his Springboks strategy, cheering the final match on TV. Strange in a film so dedicated to self-determination to have so many people reduced to cardboard cutouts. One of my colleagues calls it Brechtian distancing. I think he is right; it certainly prevented me from feeling emotionally engaged in the final rugby match, which visually was kind of a mess of grunts, smashing bones, and bruising.
It is also cheat. Brecht used his epic approach to force people to identify with the social milieu of his story, not the characters. Eastwood has decided we need to come together, right now, and it’s hard not to see some parallels with Obama’s good ship Hope. Sadly, Obama and his handlers understood the marketing that helped Mandela charm the masses, but do not seem strong or dedicated enough to push for substance. The reality in South Africa, that Mandela also had to work with the white minority that owned and ran the country, and that the country is still reeling from decades of apartheid economics and social oppression, is not really allowed to register. Maybe we all do need a booster shot of hope, but being real is more than saying what we want to be. We have to be it.
There’s a new subgenre of prestige pics delving into underappreciated women of history, featuring young starlets hunting for Oscar glory by strapping on corsets like their male movie counterparts often strap on body armour. Last year’s The Duchess was, hard as it was to admit, one of the most solidly satisfying and intelligent works of its kind, a quiet success amidst the stern and manly business of making end of year best-of lists. The Young Victoria seemed primed to be a strong successor, offering the up-and-coming Emily Blunt a meaty, attention-grabbing role as the monarch who gave her name to an entire era and way of life, and yet who remains largely a cipher in the public imagination, largely envisioned as a tubby old lady speaking about herself in the collective pronoun.
As contemporary historians have often revealed, however, Victoria was a woman—at least in her early years—who, along with her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was synonymous with the increasing liberalisation, moral probity, and broadening outlook of British society and empire, a process that began with her own ascendance at the fading of a highly macho age embodied by the aged Duke of Wellington. The Young Victoria attempts to dramatise that very point in portraying the teenage Victoria as confined as much by her opportunistic mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her ferocious bully of an advisor and confidant, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), as by protocol and concerns over her safety as the only heir to the throne, with her uncle King William (Jim Broadbent) childless and her own father long dead. Early sequences of Conroy terrorising Victoria and kicking dogs resemble Victorian melodrama, sure enough, you know, like The Woman in White or something where the young heiress is being browbeaten by the wicked relative into signing over her fortune. Whether or not Conroy is the Duchess’ lover is mooted, yet not ventured into, and the Duchess’s willingness to let her daughter be used as a plaything of state is underscored by Victoria’s rather closer relationship with her childhood confidant and fill-in governess, Baroness Louise Lehzen (Jeanette Hain).
Victoria, however, despite being raised as if wrapped in cotton wool, has a nascent strength of will, and this, along with William’s ranting distaste for the Duchess and Conroy, holds them at bay long enough so that Victoria, on her uncle’s death, is crowned. Meanwhile, back in Belgium (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write), the fresh prince of that newborn kingdom, King Leopold (Thomas Kretschmann), wants his young relative Albert (Rupert Friend) to present himself as an interested suitor to the newly minted female monarch. Albert, awkward and intellectual rather than dashing and lordly, appeals to Victoria for precisely these reasons. But Victoria soon falls under the spell not of a romantic rival but a political mastermind, the current liberal Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), a vigorous manoeuvrer and charmer, who works to fill Victoria’s household with his friends’ wives and soon uses her influence to outmaneuver his chief rival, Robert Peel (Michael Maloney).
Julian Fellowes’ script attempts to draw in as complete and fleet-footed a fashion as possible the proper political perspective as well as the intimate human drama at its core. The idea here, as usual, is to humanise the icons, which means moments like that in which Victoria and Albert express their giddy love for each other by skipping about in the rain. It is in many respects, and not just in being about the same woman, a prequel to Mrs. Brown (1997): where that film’s title came from the epithet spat at Victoria for presumed dalliances with her footman John Brown, here Victoria is branded “Mrs. Melbourne” for her ties to the Prime Minister after he loses an election to Peel, a way of portraying a society that couldn’t perceive a woman as anything more than an extension of whichever man was close to her. Victoria stands firm in not dismissing his cronies in her employment to please Peel, precipitating a constitutional crisis that forces Peel to concede to Melbourne and provokes the usual yowling movie mobs to chuck bricks at Buckingham Palace’s windows. Likewise, director Vallée works to keep things moving with a springy, edit-happy pace, as if trying to live up to having Martin Scorsese as a coproducer.
Fellowes, to his credit, tries to suggest some depth to his view of the personages, from Wellington (Julian Glover, having fun) commenting on his inability to charm Victoria like Melbourne due to his dislike of her father (“The meanest officer I ever met”), to Conroy halting his gothic tantrums long enough to contemplate his wasted potential. But these remain potted little pretences to character portraiture, and you won’t come away from the film with any but the vaguest feel for who these people were. Threads that are supposed to be affecting, like the rivalry between the Duchess and Lehzen for Victoria’s heart, are doomed because neither is rendered as more than a sketch. Nor do Fellowes and Vallée come close to finding an appropriate rhythm of storytelling or a compelling dramatic arc. The film opens with a sluggishly written voiceover by Blunt and a choppy montage that suggests the techniques of a cable TV docudrama, a feeling that never truly fades. In one moment, Vallée has Victoria glide weightlessly across a ballroom floor towards Albert to take her first post-coronation dance, a gimmick designed to suggest her buoyant love in a moment of triumph, but really a mere showy rupture in the film’s technique. Rather than infuse it with vigour, Vallée’s approach sucks away whatever contiguity it might have possessed, and the comparison to any scene in Sofia Coppola’s hip, yet incisive Marie Antoinette (2006) is not becoming.
Whilst the politics of the era are evoked and touched upon, there’s no real penetration into the complexities of governing or indeed what exactly is being governed. There’s acknowledgement of Victoria’s interest in social welfare as opposed to Melbourne’s lip-service liberalism, but precious little of the breadth of Victoria’s interests and what she meant to the people of her age—how, for instance, she forcefully repudiated and insisted on contrition for the often crazed suppression of the Indian Mutiny. The scope of the drama rarely proceeds far beyond a procession of gorgeous interiors employed in such a way that doesn’t so much suggest Victoria’s purposefully limited horizons as it does the usual contradiction of this genre: emotional brutality and repression leavened by classic real-estate porn. And, yes, the costumes, buildings, and lighting and shooting thereof (by Hagen Bogdanski) are all pretty indeed, infused with a kind of honeyed light that suggests the luxuriant beauty of being held closest to the bosom of the belle époque.
Moreover, The Duchess at least found an intense and wrenching personal story at the heart of the period bric-a-brac, something that’s stillborn here. The romance of Victoria and Albert is not one of consuming passion, but the niceties of this kind of film don’t allow the filmmakers to find any humour and discursive unconventionality in their romance. Friend nicely captures Albert’s uneasy, but innately decent manner, but Blunt’s characterisation never quite comes into focus. Blunt has talent, but her portrayal remains curiously inert. The pitch of Victoria as a quietly gutsy woman taking on a world rigged against her self-determination remains entirely theoretical. Ironically enough, her best moment comes in the most contradictory scene, in which Victoria, having fought to assure everyone she’s not too young and too female to rule, throws a bratty fit at Albert for taking an active part in managing royal affairs, to which his entirely justifiable response is to walk out on her as she orders him to stay. In the next scene, he gamely receives a wound in throwing himself between Victoria and a lunatic assassin’s bullet, just in case you take him for some Eurotrash nancyboy. The best performance is easily that of Bettany as Melbourne (not surprising as Bettany often steals films), providing the charm offensive Melbourne requires, and yet sharpening to a wicked point in a scene in which he explains to a still-hopeful Conroy: “I’m sorry, I can see that I am not speaking clearly—you have played the game, and lost!”
Director/Screenwriter: John Byrum
Cinematographer: László Kovács
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When the hubby and I got together, I was worried that we wouldn’t stick. “I’m too bourgeois for you,” I said. Watching Heart Beat, based on Carolyn Cassady’s memoir of her marriage to and life with Neal Cassady, the real-life inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarity in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I thought of these fears anew. Cassady (like the hubby) was a charismatic wild child who, in being immortalized in the jazz-inspired prose of Kerouac, banged the bongos for what became known as the Beat Generation. That he never set out to be a symbol, that he tried to have it all—freedom, sexual and otherwise, and domesticity with Carolyn—when conformity and fidelity were national obsessions, is something that Heart Beat seeks to explore. That its often shallow, underwritten screenplay never really pulls it off, miraculously, doesn’t cripple this film. The poetry and poignancy of the post-WWII generation is created with amazing beauty and clarity by the assured hands of renowned cinematographer László Kovács and production designer Jack Fisk.
The film begins with the atomic blast at Bikini Atoll and pages through black-and-white stills of typical 50s scenes of tract housing, happy families, television, all to the lushly orchestrated song “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” Carolyn (Sissy Spacek), in the voiceover narration that will punctuate the film, describes herself as a typical postwar American, waiting for Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet. “That was before I met Jack and Neal.” Then we meet them, too.
Jack Kerouac (John Heard) sits tapping away on his portable typewriter, a cigarette wisping smoke into the air, a print of Edvard Munch’s The Scream a symbolic urging at his back. Neal Cassady (Nick Nolte) is shown adjusting his large frame in his brown suit as he walks out of prison and runs off to steal a car to get back to New York. The trio of friends is completed by Alan Ginsberg, called Ira Steiker in this film and played by Ray Sharkey, who, with Cassady, barges into Kerouac’s apartment. Ira heads for the icebox, while Neal swills chianti from the bottle and reads the newest pages from Jack’s book.
The famous cross-country journey that will become On the Road sees Neal pick up Stevie (Ann Dusenberry), a beautiful teenage runaway who is meant as a fictional placeholder for Cassady’s real first wife LuAnne. The trio pulls into San Francisco and shares a room in a flop house. Neal is acquainted with a rich eccentric (Tony Bill) who invites all three to dinner at a posh restaurant; all wait for Carolyn, his fiancee, to join them. Carolyn enters, a slow-motion vision of tasteful elegance, and the spark is struck.
Jack loves Carolyn, but Neal steals her away. Heartbroken, Jack goes to New York to try to sell his book, meeting with nothing but rejection. He joins the merchant marines, traveling anywhere but San Francisco. When, at last, he can get no other outgoing ship, he returns to the city by the bay, only to find that the Cassadys have moved to the suburbs where they are raising three children on Neal’s earnings as a railroad conductor. In typical fashion, Neal greets Jack at the door, and takes off with him on an all-night bender. When Neal goes off to work the next day, Carolyn confides what a rough time she’s had with her bridled, but unbent husband. In a previous scene, for example, she came home to find Neal in bed with Stevie and Ira the day she found out she was pregnant with their first child. Jack, still in love with her, takes her to bed. “My best friend and my best girl,” Neal says when he finds out, not really displeased. Share and share alike.
When Jack finally sells On the Road, he goes off on a publicity tour. Pretty soon the Beat Generation is launched as a bonafide marketing phenomenon. One night, Neal enters a jazz club populated by poseurs in berets asking if he’s got any “boo, mary jane, tea, marijuana, man.” He flees, only to be tricked by an undercover cop into sharing a joint. Neal goes back to prison for narcotics possession, Jack drowns in his celebrity, and Carolyn, thinking to set Neal free, divorces him. We catch a glimpse of Neal driving Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters to Mexico. At the end of the line, Jack implores Carolyn, “What did we do wrong?” “We didn’t do it wrong. We just did it first.” Curtain.
There are a lot of things wrong with this film—the script, for one, though that may have more to do with Carolyn Cassady’s flat, boring writing style setting the tone right at the start. We see the characters do a lot of things, but they don’t really seem to interact. I never really believed Jack and Neal’s friendship, Carolyn and Neal’s love, Jack’s heartbreak. Byrum even inserts a straight-arrow couple named (get this) Bob and Betty Bendix (Steven Davies and Jenny O’Hara), who go from bewildered, to bemused, to vaguely turned on by the changes in the Cassady household. For a minute, I thought my DVD had suddenly switched over to MeTV, and an episode of “Bewitched” featuring the ever-flummoxed Gladys Kravitz was on.
The lack of a substantial script hampered most of the performances, leaving us with types and quirks instead of people. Ray Sharkey is reduced to behaving wildly inappropriately, shouting his anger-filled poetry in public places and cursing the philistine publishers who won’t give Kerouac the time of day. Nolte, strangely uninvolved and almost completely devoid of the charisma that must be conveyed, mainly uses his imposing body and gestures to get his character across. Heard comes off a little better because Kerouac was shy, writery. Unfortunately, the center of the story, Carolyn, suffers from the hopeless miscasting of Sissy Spacek. She is neither lovely nor sensuous enough to inspire such devotion; if she had been given better, more mature lines, that would not have been an issue. But Carolyn starts conventional and stays conventional. She’s as boring as the 50s that bred her. To be fair, however, real people are never what the legend makes them out to be, but there was something special about these people that Byrum never locates.
The only person in the cast who left a strong, emotional impression on me was Ann Dusenberry, who shades Stevie deeply. When Stevie senses that Neal is about to leave her, her sadness is just under the surface, covered by the rueful shell she adopted when she first laid eyes on Carolyn. She simply gives the best performance in this movie.
There are some good observations in the script, mostly in the second half of the film. For example, Jack goes on a talk show where he is grilled for writing about drugs and free love. This scene seems very contemporary, showing Bill O’Reilly as part of a continuum begun with this unnamed talk show host, nicely played by John Larrouquette. When, however, we see Jack dining with the host, talking on the phone to Neal about how the host is just posturing for the camera and isn’t really that uptight, it seems both true and a sad commentary on how serious our television personalities take their personae these days. The scene in which Neal is duped by the undercover cop (Ray Vitte) shows the generous nature that was part of Cassady’s personality, joyous in his celebrations of music, sex, and friendship, pained and disappointed by this betrayal.
Luckily, the look of this film takes up the slack. For example, production designer Fisk presents the first of several strokes of genius across three scenes, beginning with Carolyn’s first meeting with Jack and Neal. Spacek is dressed in angelic white and photographed by Kovács in a way that makes her seem to float through the room. In the next scene, she is met by Jack and Neal outside her home and taken dancing. She is wearing a black dress with white polka dots. In the following scene, the three attend an art exhibition. The enormous abstract paintings are black and white, and Spacek wears a black dress adorned with a large white-diamond broach. The black-and-white world of the 50s, from television to lifestyle and attitudes, is slyly suggested in Carolyn’s settings and wardrobe, and communicates Carolyn’s essential nature. Kovács shoots her sandwiched between Jack and Neal, both wearing white shirts and brown jackets, a harbinger not only of the unconventional “marriage” these three people will form, but also of an attitude they represent that will squeeze the pulp out of the conformist 50s.
In another noteworthy scene, Neal retreats from dinner with the Bendixes to smoke a joint. He sits on the backyard swing intended for his children. In the background are the staggered windows of three homes, darkened save for the glow of three TV sets showing “The Ozzie and Harriet Show.” This isn’t the first film that will show a man trapped by conformity altering his mental state, but it certainly is the most poetic.
In the scene that dazzled the socks off me, Neal has been part of a lively bacchanal in a jazz club. The scene is alive with movement, Kovács’ camera darting around the room and finally resting on Neal, whose overflowing joy results in a kiss with a woman not his wife—a spontaneous act so reminiscent of the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of a sailor kissing a nurse that appeared on the cover of Life magazine on VJ Day. When the time for celebration is over, the scene moves into the street outside of the club. Neal emerges, crosses into the steep street lit only by a flashing neon sign and a circular pool of light from a street lamp, and climbs haphazardly up the asphalt toward a lapis half-moon of sky. This visual poetry is the epitome of Beat, and satisfaction for people who come to this movie looking for what Kerouac and Cassady represented to a generation. Heart Beat is a poem that barely needs its words.
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