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Director: Paul Leni
By Roderick Heath
Paul Leni’s name might not be as instantly recognisable to movie lovers as his fellows in the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of the major creative figures of that style, of the budding horror film genre, and of the great mature phase of silent cinema in general. Leni beat both directors to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he did vital work fusing the concerted visual effects of the UFA approach with the steady, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so perhaps had the most immediate impact on a generation of directors emerging at the time, including Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein. Like Murnau, he would die tragically young and at the peak of his talents, in his case from blood poisoning resulting from an abscessed tooth, a sad and ridiculous fate somehow in keeping with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s initial work in cinema came as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt in the theatres of Berlin, and soon plied for directors including Joe May and E. A. Dupont. He continued to provide art direction for other filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was however to be Waxworks, one of the near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German film.
Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks similarly offers an early take on the anthology film, composed of short, distinct but stylistically and thematically related stories. His screenwriter on the project was Henrik Galeen, who penned several Expressionist classics including Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a young poet, played by William Dieterle, later to become a significant director himself, invited to visit a waxworks show that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into town: the carnival is popular but the waxworks is ignored. The poet speaks to the manager of the show (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they want someone to write entertaining stories to lend mythos to the major figures in the show, which are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, who is conflated here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London in the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ offer, and even quickly and amusedly amends a proposed tale when the owner accidentally breaks a limb off the Harun figure; thus the poet begins to tell the story of how the Caliph lost his arm. Leni then begins to illustrate the poet’s historical fantasia, with Harun personified as a corpulent autocrat, played by Emil Jannings. Harun plays chess with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his castle, only to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour. Angry because he was losing the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to track down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The source of the pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle again), who is married to the most beautiful woman in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff again). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts with her husband and then him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious duty and instead returns to tell the Caliph of this desirable jewel.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal as the founding work of the film Expressionist style, had a cunning metafictional device to frame it, as the protagonists in the central drama of mesmerism and murder were revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparison, Waxwork’s frame has a lighter, humorous quality, as the poet’s fancies are devices for flirting with Eva. Except that Waxworks’ chapters essentially tell the same story over in variances, becoming increasingly direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the deadly threat. Woven in with this is an equal and increasingly nervous contemplation of the individual vulnerable in the face of ravening power, couched first social and political terms, in Harun and Ivan, and then in the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper. This first episode offers the theme in a mildly comedic manner, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to claim what the other one has: Harun wants the baker’s wife and the baker, trying to appease her stoked desire for worldly rewards, decides to break into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s visit has stoked awareness in both baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments break out afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I am a man!” This talismanic phrase recurs with more specific force in Leni’s later film, The Man Who Laughs, but its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the individual echoes throughout Waxworks. It’s not hard to look for its relevance to real-world circumstances at the time – Germany was deep in the grip of the post-war reparations-induced economic crisis. Murnau’s The Last Laugh the same year tackled, again with Jannings, the same theme of desperation and dehumanisation through fiscal crisis.
In the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, locating what he thinks is the Caliph but is actually a dummy he leaves in his bed when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures. Believing the dummy is the real Caliph, the baker slices off the figure’s arm and flees, dodging guards and finally escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his home, as his wife hurriedly hides the Caliph in the only secret place available – the oven. The baker’s venture to steal a fake version of the seemingly mystical jewel proves just as vainglorious as the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous end for all concerned as she pretends to use the stolen jewel to wish the Caliph to appear alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, covered in soot but saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a final image of the Caliph embracing both partners, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois in the offing. This chapter of Waxworks somewhat belies the film’s reputation as a classic specifically of horror cinema, instead signalling a link between the performative professionalism and flimflammer art of the carnival and the stage pantomime, as well as reaching back to the portmanteau storytelling tradition as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, as well as the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers.
This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging point is important in itself. The major “characters” of the waxworks are introduced with the actors who embody them noted at the same time, reducing the great historical figures and the big stars to rigid figures, powerless without poets to animate them. Meanwhile the narrative performs a similar function, turning these real beings into functions of a private mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist style, aims not for realism but for a brand of minimalist, almost symbolic representation. Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse together the dreamlike aspect of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, here Leni pushes in the opposite direction, reducing his setting and backdrop as close towards the insubstantial as he can without quite going entirely abstract. The curving minarets and bowing walls of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The awesome yet almost melting halls of the palace interior, where minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is definitely a place of the mind, an inner sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s home is almost a cave, curved and womb-like. The second chapter, shorter than the first, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and death imposing himself on a pair of young lovers. This time, however, the theme is Ivan the Terrible, presented as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, almost childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on just about anyone he pleases. Where Jannings’ bluff, hammy performance was suited for the take on Harun as corpulent, casually murderous but actually easily tamed potentate, this chapter offers Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest part of the id, glimpsed moving in a stiff crouch along a dank passage that connects his apartments with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.
This tale, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and power. Leni presents Ivan as a monster governed and, to a degree, held in check by an elaborate network of irrational devices. In particular, a giant hourglass is used to measure how long his victims will be tortured, their names written on the glass. When the sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, inspires suspicions in the tyrant’s mind over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested. The poisoner, in turn, vengefully writes Ivan’s name on the hourglass before he’s arrested. Ivan’s dubious pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s wedding. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the old man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, but then agrees to be a guest, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar dress in his clothes, and vice versa. The Tsar’s instincts prove right, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides through Moscow, but their bolt, aimed at the regally-dressed figure, kills the boyar instead. Ivan arrives at the boyar’s house and triumphantly announces his arrival, forgetting the detail that the bride’s father is dead. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his body and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury at the Tsar, for which he is instantly imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar also has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop instead, so he drags her down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is however cut short as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked with his name, believing it means the poisoner successfully dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into complete insanity as he thinks he’s dying, and he keeps turning the hourglass over, believing this will stay the moment of his death. A title card explains he kept doing this until the day he died.
Here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly power becomes more distinctly maniacal and driving, whilst the watch-like parts of the story tick on with swift, precise effect. This chapter of Waxworks seems to have had an almost endless influence on many who have followed, most especially Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his similarly arch take on the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular sets and equally angular performances. Leni himself would build upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on both, surely, for his own visit to the realm of the historical fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934). The last chapter of Waxworks is very short, almost an appendix, but it’s also the most bizarre and remarkable sequence. Here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked around the carnival and town by Jack the Ripper, who seems to disappear like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in many places at once, as the world becomes increasingly strange and distorted. Finally the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Here Leni slips all bonds of narrative precept and essentially offers a visualised nightmare, a plunge into a formless state of irrationality, where the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all forms to become a blank, implacable engine of erotic threat. Here is both the seed for the image of the slasher killer who would later maraud his way across many a movie screen in the next century, a psychological conception of threat stripped out of all zone of actual human interest – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. But Leni’s flourishes of style here also veer into virtually experimental film style in his madly proliferating double exposures and increasingly formless sense of space, used to evoke the complete inward spiral of the psyche towards an ultimate confrontation with that dark character within. Here too is kinship with the lawless effects of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.
Waxworks made Leni’s name, and within a couple of years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour as well as style and menace might well have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American project was to film Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That film proved a big hit, laying down a template that would soon resolve into Universal’s house style of horror and offering fillips of style that still recur in horror films today, like its restless, entity-suggesting camerawork. Leni’s third Hollywood film, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre today, in part because of its pop cultural influence, particularly on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, as the eponymous hero of Leni’s film, adapted from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be more different to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s other, more famous protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Laugh’s central figure Gwynplaine represents a politically abused but potentially powerful underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his fine, tortuously sensitive humanity. The film also reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a long prologue where, although the settings are more tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Terrible episode of Waxworks as it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon at the news his soldiers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his young son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies known as comprachico, who specialise in creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the instructions to carve his son’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool father.”
The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a remarkable string of images and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking out of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing around Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore where the comprachicos, sent into exile by James after they’ve done his gruesome bidding, flock onto a boat but abandon young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the elements. The mutilated child gropes his way through a blizzard studded with hanged bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes across a woman, frozen to death but with her infant child still clutched to her breast. He saves the baby and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the baby is blind and demands of the boy, “Stop that laughing!” before he realises he cannot. Ursus takes both youngsters in and they make a living travelling between country fairs. By the time Gwynplaine (Veidt again) and the girl, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folk heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Along with a band of fellow players, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus called “The Man Who Laughs.” But fate has a mean gag in store when they roll into Southwark Fair in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one of William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but also viciously satiric engravings. Here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his remarkable countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now living under a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the current holder of the Clancharlie estate, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the current ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message however is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the court and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this strange and potentially propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne with her wilfully arrogant behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat device of punishment is now open to her.
Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly critical writings on the national authorities, and he wrote it to serve as much as an oddball political parable as a standard historical romance. Leni keeps intact both its nominal setting in English history but also its weird, Ruritanian aspect, using this just as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his weird fancies. Although the sorts of things they’re depicted as doing had been real practices in times much further past, the comprachicos were just the first of Hugo’s inventions. After the gruesome, outsized fairytale flourishes of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into something more like a melodrama, if one still laced with dimensions of perversity. Those dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no right to impose someone of his grotesque stature on her, although she can’t see the affliction. He sees some hope, however, when Josiana visits the fair where he’s performing and, compelled by his strange appearance, invites him to her manor. Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if someone can actually love him in spite of his deformity than he has the right to love Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the object of a fetishist’s electric, potently erotic blend of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick way that Gwynplaine correctly senses is merely the flipside of the more familiar horror and mockery he receives rather than a negation of it. But then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been found, he will be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she will be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling awareness she’s about to nailed to this particular point of her character as her cross just as surely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine running.
This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine finally allowing Dea to feel the nature of his disfigurement, a moment that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the real Gwynplaine!” Both Philbin and Baclanova featured in two other, quite different yet pertinent takes on the fundamental dichotomy presented here, as Philbin had previously played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), opposite Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to again be the figure of taunting sensuality before the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar trap that is identity: he’s arrested by royal soldiers and taken to prison, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he mistakes a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage remarkable sequences, as when the players pretend to be putting on a normal show to keep Dea from learning of his apparent death, and the lengthy finale in which Gwynplaine is presented to the House of Lords whilst Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to find her way to him. For all its facets of brilliance, however, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy experience dramatically speaking, splitting the difference between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and sentimental melodrama, before resolving in a manner fit for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot never quite builds to any sequences as memorable as those in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, interestingly, Waxworks star Dieterle would film in 1939), whilst the attempt to go for a crowd-pleasing tone in the final lap is underlined when Barkilphedro gets his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal dog.
That such a mixture doesn’t entirely blend isn’t surprising, as Laemmle’s determination to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera saw a few too many cooks adding to the broth on the script level. But The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless because of the fervour Leni and Veidt invest in it. Here was the perfect role for Veidt and the perfect mythology for Leni. Veidt’s appearance, a dental plate used to make his permanent smile-snarl seem all the more unnatural, offers a face turned into a kabuki mask, rigid and lunatic. And yet watching how Veidt sketches emotions around the edges of this offers a master class in expressive performing. Perhaps the high point of the film, at once hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first appears on stage at one of his shows. The smile he turns on his audiences gains delirious power, sending the crowd into convulsions and bringing Josiana under the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a series of superimpositions and dissolves, beautiful (but ugly) man and ugly (but beautiful) man bound together, a visual etude of awareness that one must exist to give meaning the other. His hideousness sparks merriment, becomes a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the common folk suggesting the dark side of the society they live in, and finally locating an accord with them, on the level of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity. To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential crisis that can only be resolved in laughter, whilst the man himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being satisfied, and exultation in his rare fame.
The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme surely was to echo on through Universal’s subsequent horror films with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine eventually rises from the status of clown to lord, he manages the more important evolution, finally voiced when bellows with righteous fury at the stunned toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! But God made me a man!” It’s the climactic moment of the film and of the revealing thread of interest that runs through from Waxworks to this film, the depiction of brutal power: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is every bit as totemic, and instantly punishable, as the baker and bridegroom’s invective against their tyrants and the evils forced by life in the earlier film. Fortunately, Gwynplaine’s new status cuts a swathe through the stunned lords, giving him a brief window of escape before the Queen’s heavies move in, and he stages a successful flight across the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s gifts at the free rush of action as well in creating the tangled moods of psychic anxiety. In spite of the never-never setting of both films, or perhaps because of it, a genuine charge of palpable meaning emerges from such flourishes. Leni’s world is a place of wandering, rootless but free artists and yearning poets, twisted beings full of humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social power. But, most fundamentally, for both the poet and Gwynplaine, the man himself is his own enemy. Leni’s small but still vital oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.
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Director: Fritz Lang
By Roderick Heath
The title resolves amidst intersecting geometries that coalesce and create a cityscape, ranged with neo-Babylonian techno-ziggurats: Metropolis, instantly a statement worthy of Ozymandias. A super-city where trains and cars shuttle along spanning bridges and aircraft buzz between sky-nudging structures. A great machine that explodes and morphs into a dark god of ages past, accepting human sacrifice into a greedy, fiery maw. A great dial of switches becomes a massive clock crushing its operator. A dark and twisted fairytale abode left like a seed of corruption in the midst of this empire of the will. The outpost of an ancient brand of faith discovered underground, to where the beaten and exhausted tread in search of hope. A beam of light in the midst of a dank, labyrinthine catacomb, terrorising and pinioning a saintly young woman. A robot fashioned in the likeness of a human, all art-deco brass curves and blank features, wreathed by electric arcs, slowly taking on the likeness of the same young woman. The robotic simulacrum dancing like Salome reborn, stirring the lusts of men until their eyes join together in a great mass of rapacious gazing. Statues of the seven deadly sins lurching out of their stalls in a Gothic cathedral, announcing the coming of calamity and death. A mass of desperate children all reaching out for their saviours in the midst of surging flood waters. A rooftop struggle between hero and villain for the life of the heroine, the battle of good and evil staged as vertiginous graph written on the face of a civilisation.
These are some of the lodestone images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and it’s still easy to feel their power even after intervening decades where their genetic material is woven into pop culture at large. If A Trip to the Moon was the seed of science fiction on screen, Metropolis is its green stem, and much more too. The floodtide of Fritz Lang’s visual techniques and the expanse of the film’s evocation of the future might have met resistance of mind and eye in its day, but even in an abused and truncated form enough of his vision remained to stun the eye and light the creative spark.
Director Lang and his creative and personal partner Thea Von Harbou had climbed swiftly to the peak of the German film industry thanks to highly ambitious, stylistically radical films that provided basic engineering for cinema as it found maturity and began to branch into different streams of genre and style. Lang, working under the influence of Louis Feuillade, had taken his template and pushed it into stranger places with his rollicking action-adventure diptych The Spiders (1919), and had written the script for the film that kicked off the Expressionist cinema style, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). Lang’s first great opus, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), embodied the shock of the new in cinema, telling in the mode of epic melodrama a tale of crisis in modernity by depicting someone capable of manipulating its many aspects, and then his follow-up Die Nibelungen (1924) had delved into the foundational myth of Germany to explore the ructions that cause tragedy and the ideals and fidelities that make civilisations. Metropolis was destined to be the third chapter in this survey, a myth of the future if still based in the pressing quandaries of the present and articulated through a vast array of concepts from the cultural inheritance. Von Harbou wrote a novel specifically to use as the basis of the script, and the production took over Germany’s flagship film studio UFA in the midst of the national inflation travails that helped shake what little confidence there was in the Weimar republic. Lang’s lordly vision took a toll on cast and crew, fortunes were spent, and the reaction to the film’s initial was like cold water hitting hot metal, warping all perception of Lang’s achievement. Metropolis’s sniffy reception sounds familiar today, as many called it a giant would-be blockbuster that is all visual bluster and no substance. A film hated by no lesser personage in the budding science fiction genre than H.G. Wells. A film Lang himself later disowned, perhaps feeling that well had been too badly poisoned.
After barely recouping Metropolis’s massive expense upon release, UFA was compelled to let Paramount Pictures buy it out. Metropolis spent much of the next thirty years being cut down and reshaped, until what was left was so confused many thought it had always been that way. It was adopted as fetish object and style guide by the Nazis, who wanted to emulate its monumental aesthetic and absorb its message system into their own, and Von Harbou herself became an active party member. The film eventually became a pop art moveable feast, including being appropriated as a music video by Giorgio Moroder. Only in the past couple of decades has Metropolis been mostly restored to the point where it can be properly judged and studied according to Lang’s original intention. And yet, in spite of such manhandling, Metropolis still stands as one of the most influential films ever made. Metropolis provided a blueprint for envisioning a wing of the imagination encompassing dreamlike horizons, conjoining both the imminently possible and the ages of humankind so far into a grandiose survey of conceptual iconography. Much like the space opera that formed much of science fiction’s first popular phase on the page and which still survives chiefly thanks to Star Wars, Metropolis tries to comprehend the future and the present in terms of the past, envisioning an age of technical marvel and scientific miracle as a new version of the old alchemistic fantasia and the greatest dreams of imperial domain, whilst asking on what foundations such superstructures grow.
Metropolis is, of course, like most variations on the utopia-dystopia scale, actually an account of the moment of its making, thrown into sharp relief on a mimetic map. The tensions that termite Metropolis are the tensions lurking under the brittle façade of Weimar Germany, where, in the wake of World War I’s calamity, far left and far right agitators had clashed on the streets and nearly seized the machinery of government. The entire apparatus of state had been shaken, and reconstruction, the surge of newness pushing the nation forward, presented a political and social landscape few understood and felt at ease with. Even money wasn’t worth anything. The essential theme of labour versus management was more universal, and the new reality of much work in the early twentieth century, which turned humans into parts in huge assemblies, was taken into Metropolis to its logical conclusion, envisioning a carefully stratified human populace where some live in regimented, downcast, utterly slavish existences, doomed to run the infrastructure that allows more comfortable lives for the rest. Metropolis is the future itself, situated in no identified nation or age. Captain of this great project is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), architect of the city and its Tyrant in the original sense, oligarchic master and civic administrator. Fredersen lives in the “New Tower of Babel,” a skyscraper at the city’s lofty hub.
Metropolis isn’t just a city he has been elected to run or master but his own brainchild, his ego-empire, the expression of human will essayed on the greatest scale. Metropolis is also in part a variation on a familiar conflict between fathers and sons, the stern and acquiescing pragmatism of age versus the idealism of youth, another universal topic also bound to gain impetus in the coming years. Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the child of privilege, anointed amongst the rich and blessed, free to train body and mind to maximum potential in his days before taking his ease with the procured lovelies invited to the pleasure gardens of the city’s rooftop expanses. But his life is set to be changed by the intrusion of a woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who ushers in a collective of urchins gathered from the lower reaches, to give them a look at the closest thing to heaven, the world Freder inhabits thoughtlessly. This gives the princeling his first sight of inequity and of the woman who becomes the instant lynchpin of his existence. Maria and her charges are quickly ushered out of this exalted sphere but Freder becomes determined both to find Maria and acquaint himself with the lives of Metropolis’s workers. The realm he ventures into proves to be a scene out of a fantasia where Dante co-authors with Dickens and Picasso. Here cowed and regimented workers trudge through blank, institutional corridors and take up work stations at hulking machines where they perform repetitive, arduous tasks for ten hour shifts.
An explosion in a massive machine inspires the horrified Freder to think of Moloch, the wicked god of Biblical lore. Seeing a young worker collapse at a station where he works a dial-like switching control, Freder rushes to take his place. The worker, whose name is Georgy but is snidely affixed merely with the title 11811 by the bosses, swaps clothes with Freder, who sends him to take refuge in his apartment. Freder struggles through the rest of his shift, almost broken trying to keep up with the vital task. Another worker, mistaking him for Georgy, whispers to him about a meeting Maria has called, and Freder joins the workers who descend into the ancient catacombs under the city to listen to Maria give a sermon. Fredersen, wishing to split Freder from Maria and to break her moral influence over the workers and gain an excuse to establish martial law, visits scientist and inventor C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has constructed a perfect humanoid robot, a Machine Man: Fredersen wants Rotwang to give it Maria’s appearance, and use it to stir up trouble.
Lang explained that the root of Metropolis lay in a visit he made to New York in 1924, confronted by the looming grandeur of the city’s skyscrapers, floating like a dream fashioned from glass and steel, erected with all the promise of the age’s new possibilities but also stirring some profound anxiety, a fear of being dwarfed and pinioned by the weight of such achievements. The novel version of Metropolis was then written by Von Harbou as a parable about winners and losers in the modern world and Metropolis still feels strikingly relevant in choosing this as subject matter, as it remains the basic, ever-urgent matter at the heart of the modern dream. The first target of criticism of Metropolis is usually its storyline, which is usually judged not just simple but simplistic and naïve to boot in its treatment of social schisms. And that’s undoubtedly true on some levels. The film’s recurring motto, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart,” is on the face of it a purely humanistic, essentialist slogan. But it’s not such a great stretch of the imagination to link the magical thinking behind it in regards to social philosophy with openness to similarly trite thought that would soon seduce the screenwriter along with millions of others to the Nazi cause. The solution at the end of Metropolis indicts the troublemaker and presents rapprochement between upper and lower classes as a matter simply of mutual respect and good-heartedness. Fredersen, who has built a city on iniquity and laboured to find an excuse to permanently and violently oppress his working class, is let off the hook because he gets anxious over his own son.
Metropolis is in part an attack on a worker’s revolt as an aim, seeing it as prone to demagoguery and manipulation and destructive in it results. On the other hand, it’s also a fervent attack on capitalist power as self-perpetuating, blinding, and dehumanising. Metropolis proceeds with a plot that is certainly close to comic book. To comment on Metropolis on this level, though, is to misunderstand it crucially. Metropolis invokes a vast sprawl of mythopoeic associations, and represents a clear and direct continuation of Die Nibelungen’s obsessive attempts to grapple with social identity and construction, using the language of mythology as starting point for a work of conjuring that unfolds on levels not just of story and action but in design, costuming, lighting, the entire texture sprawling across the screen. Metropolis betrays an ambition towards creating a total work of art, the gesamtkunstwerk which had been Wagner’s ideal and also had become the credo of the Bauhaus movement, whose cultural vitality and concepts Lang surely had in mind whilst making the film. Metropolis sometimes recalls nothing less momentous than the religious paintings of Ravenna or the sculptures of the Parthenon: we are looking into a way of conceiving the world from side-on, as an illustrative, holistic sprawl. Many of these mythical refrains are biblical, including the parable of the prodigal son and the captivity in Babylon.
Both Maria and Fredersen conceive the world in terms of legend, each employing the tale of Babel to make their own statement: Fredersen’s New Tower, with his gleaming citadel, announces to man and heaven his lordship over all, whilst Maria recalls the calumny and division implied at the root of such mammoth human projects. The speech she gives to the gathered workers is not a literal political tract but a parable recalling the original myth of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, tweaking it into a tract where in the destruction of the great human project came about because the visionaries designing the tower could not speak the same language, literally and figuratively, as the people hired to build it, causing riot and destruction. She casts Freder in the role of mediator, the man who can link above and below both personally and symbolically. Maria herself recalls the history of early Christianity’s practice in the catacombs of Rome, with similarities to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s much-filmed novel Quo Vadis?, casting Maria as voice of Christian charity and brotherhood. Freder discovers her in her underground church amidst the dark and twisted reaches of the catacomb, the sacred an island in the nightmarish space.
Other aspects recall the mythology Lang and Von Harbou had examined on Die Nibelungen, as faces and identities are swapped. Freder cast as a young Siegfried-like hero who ventures out to battle with dragons and finds himself swiftly engaged in a much more profound battle for the future of a society where covert designs and mysterious doppelgangers manipulate events. And of course, that other great Germanic myth, Faust, could be the overarching frame – all this represents what happens when mankind sells its soul for progress. The subplot of the twin Marias echo of one variation of classical Greek legend, one that Euripides utilised in his play Helen, in which the real Helen was duplicated by the gods, with the real Helen being whisked away to Egypt where she lived in captivity and incognito whilst her malicious double caused the Trojan War. The way the Trojan myths entwine the cultural and political with the personal and in particular the sexual points to the similar ambition propelling Metropolis, which was in part designed by Von Harbou as a lampooning of the liberated Weimar “new woman” in the figure of the provocative, sensual, carelessly destructive cyborg Maria, a chimera created by the denizens of the new age to enact their not-so-secret desires. Whereas for Lang, this element fits rather into his career-long fascination with the power of the irrational to warp the sturdiest superstructure of ethics and security, of which sexual desire is the most readily apparent and eternally vexing manifestations.
The crux for the atavistic and futuristic is Rotwang, the archetype of the mad scientist with his wild hair and gloved cybernetic hand whose persona was set to echo on and on through pop culture to come. But he’s also a projection of the ancient figure of the dark magician into a contemporary realm, the alchemist who rewrites laws of nature and steals the power of gods and demons and who worships idols, having turned the visage of his great love into a monument and has pentagrams festooned around his laboratory. Rotwang lives in a twisted, ancient building at the centre of Metropolis. He is linked to Fredersen not just in rivalry as radically different versions of the same titan-genius, but through a very personal link: the lost love was a woman named Hel, who married Fredersen rather than him and died giving birth to Freder. Fredersen’s request of him to aid his designs in regaining total control present Rotwang with a way to destroy him instead, by attacking the city he has built and the son who is the living link to Hel. Rotwang’s name – red wing in English – invokes both satanic stature and political danger. Like Faust, he conjures the Hel(en) figure as incarnation of taunting desirability and illusory object of yearning. His house is a hangover of Gothic fantasia clinging like a weed to the flank of the supercity, but also sits atop a well that leads into the dank labyrinth below the city. Rotwang is the jilted and obsessive lover who has castrated himself in surrendering his hand in creating a facsimile of woman. He knows too well the dark drives of humankind, which allows him to occupy this place, the gateway into secret human motives and the power of the illogical white-anting Fredersen’s ego-empire.
Lang’s obsession with underworlds, first evinced in The Spiders which conceived of a Chinese colony lurking underneath San Francisco and recurring again and again in his cinema, here has bloomed into something close to a form of psychic architecture that conceives of the whole of Metropolis as a mind, complete with id, ego, and superego, rational stretches and irrational depths, its holy and profane women, its young crusader torn between three father figures, one mad but powerful in mind and emotion, one timid and entrapped, the last seemingly dead in all nerves but will. Similar ideas are evinced in a very different setting in Von Harbou’s The Indian Tomb, a novel set in an Indian city (which Lang would film much later) where the progressive Maharajah’s stirred erotic jealousy turns his world into a repressive state and the shiny bastions of the exterior conceal basements where zombie-like lepers. Rotwang chases down Maria after the workers depart, stalking her through the labyrinth and terrorising her with a torch beam, ironically inverts the image of light in darkness as the bringing of terror and the pitiless of eye of technology (the movie camera?) to the subterranean realm where emotion is truth, to torment the holy innocent.
Maria and Freder’s journey is linked with two men Freder helps release from their slots in the great machine, Georgy and Josaphat (Theodor Loos). The latter works as aide to Fredersen but gets fired for not being prompt enough in reports, a devastating act that will doom Josaphat to a degrading existence as unemployable pariah. But Freder, as he did with Georgy, throws him a lifeline by letting him take refuge in his apartment and taking him on as a partner in his venture to change Metropolis. Just as Georgy is a near-double for Freder, his less lucky, anointed brother in look and soul, Josaphat has been Freder’s more human surrogate father almost incidentally as the man who took care of his needs on his father’s behalf. Josaphat’s growth from toady to hero is one of the film’s most entertaining elements. But Georgy has been sidetracked by the allure of the high life, and, fuelled by the cash in the clothes Freder loaned him, he goes for a night on the town in the Yoshiwara Club, the favourite night spot for the city elite. Both Georgy and Josaphat come under the thumb of one of Fredersen’s agents, known only as the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who bullies and blackmails both men into retreating into the underworld. Freder himself is imprisoned in Rotwang’s house when he hears, by chance, Maria’s screams coming from inside. Entering the abode, he finds himself duelling with the automated doors that steadily shepherd him into the attic and lock him in. Rotwang places the unconscious Maria in a mechanism in his laboratory that steadily reconstructs the Machine Man’s exterior into a perfect double of Maria.
The resulting creation is a demonically sensual and taunting succubus operating under Rotwang’s command, and even Fredersen, who knows well what it is, can’t resist when it visits him. Freder breaks out of Rotwang’s house and arrives back at his father’s office in time to see what looks like his father and his lover embracing. The crisis of disillusion on top of his agonised and exhausting adventures is so great Freder collapses in a delirium. The Robot-Maria, sent out by Rotwang to stir up anarchy, performs before the uptown folk at the Yoshiwara Club, Whore of Babylon going jazz age burlesque priestess. The cyborg’s starkly erotic, physically frenetic performance stokes the ritzy crowd, all milk-fed whelps produced by the idealistic, Olympian reaches of the city like Freder, into a grotesque mass of lust. The veneer of civilisation is peeled off like a chrysalis, and soon they’re duelling each-other and staging mass orgies, distracting the scions of the governing class from the chaos about to be unleashed by Robot-Maria’s more pertinent campaign. It takes the place of the still-imprisoned Maria and now preaches destruction of Metropolis’s utility systems, to bring the oppressors low. Freder, Josaphat, and Georgy try to calm the crowd but the workers try to assault Freder, and Georgy is stabbed to death when he throws himself in front of him. Led by Robot-Maria, the workers swarm to assault the Metropolis systems, finally destroying the great “Heart Machine” that coordinates the utilities, paralysing the city. But the workers’ actions unleash a flood that begins to fill their own city with water, threatening to drown their children who have remained behind.
Metropolis would be remarkable enough for the beauty and ingenuity put into what Lang puts in front of his camera, the sets by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Volbrecht, Eugen Schüfftan’s radically innovative model photography, and Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s totemic design for the Machine Man. But the cinematic textures of Metropolis in cutting, shooting, and use of the camera are equally impressive and represent silent cinema at its most innovative, amassing into an artefact that proves, scarcely a decade after the crude yet sufficiently significant grammar of Birth of a Nation (1915) helped officially open up the true cinematic age, just how vigorous the new medium had become, and looking forward to the ebullient freedoms of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Lang had Hollywood’s spectacles his sights, the colossi fashioned by Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille and laid out for stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, hoping to prove European cinema could not just match such production heft but outdo it for artistry. Lang and his brilliant technical team, which also included cinematography greats Karl Freund and Günther Rittau, explored almost every facet of the medium possible in the time.
The surveys of Metropolis demanded the creation of a landscape through huge mock-ups and complex model work. The scenes of Robot-Maria’s creation and the destruction of the Heart Machine interpolation of photographic elements in a combination familiar in many respects now but still startling in their eye-filling beauty and inventiveness in context. Midway through the film, Lang launches into an astonishing movement after Freder’s discovery of his father with Robot-Maria. Freder’s mental disintegration is depicted in flourishes of abstract animation and herky-jerky editing that resembles the labours of experimental filmmakers. Robot-Maria’s dance is then intercut with Freder’s raving fantasies, in which he sees the Thin Man as evil priest repeating Maria’s sermon as rhapsodic incantation that stirs the forces of death and destruction into motion. The allegorical pantheon of the deadly sins and Death in Metropolis’s cathedral is seen jerking to life and striding out of their stalls. The film is split not into chapters or cantos like Die Nibelungen but into musical signatures – Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso.
Lang’s original concept was to have Rotwang literally conjure up magic forces to attack the modern, scientifically enabled world of Metropolis. This idea was mostly dropped but here something of this eruption of the irrational is still present, climaxing in the image out of medieval nightmare of Death slicing the air before Lang’s camera. Lang edges into the realm of outright surrealism here, and does again as he builds to a climactic shot during Robot-Maria’s dance when the screen is filled with that mass of eyes – the male gaze literalised as one great amorphous, greedy force, a shot reminiscent in execution of experimental photography. More subtly, perhaps, Lang’s filmmaking conveys a constant awareness of power relations throughout, befitting a film where the synergies of social relations, positive and negative, are translated throughout into concrete expressions. It’s quietly but surely present in conversational scenes like Freder’s first conversation with his father or the Thin Man’s confrontation of Josaphat, where attitudes of body and expressions define the characters (the latter scene building to the Thin Man’s physical as well as mental domination of Josaphat) in terms of their potency and the regard they show others – the hard line of Fredersen’s tilted jaw as he son appeals to him, only for the young man to realise his father is something like a monster. This aspect is illustrated more explicitly and spectacularly with Lang’s arrangements of human elements in the sequences where workers tread in close, robotic ranks.
The opening scenes depict the workers changing shifts in obedience to horns that blare out around the city, moving between their underground, near-featureless, pseudo-Berber city, the intermediary stage before Wells’ Morlock evolves and start eating the Eloi above, all scored to an unheard yet definite musical rhythm (no wonder musicians like Moroder have been drawn to the film). There are even moments of hand-held camerawork during Maria’s flight from Rotwang in the underground. One of Lang’s most insistent traits during the German phase of his career was the way he turned his awareness of and fascination for contemporary art styles and his utilisation of them to create cinematic effect. This trait had first made itself known in his plan for Dr Caligari’s Expressionistic effects, and in Die Nibelungen had seen him annexing Cubism and art nouveau for decorative and conceptual import. Here, the entire universe has become, on one level, a form of installation art, the marching ranks of workers elements arrayed in harmonies of line and form. Spaces are carefully diagrammed to open up vistas even within the boxy Academy ratio frame of the day, through use of height – Metropolis is a hierarchical tale on both the thematic and visual levels. The linear clarity and rigid control inherent in such stylisation is ironic considering that Metropolis’s concerns are closer to rather different European artists of the day, including the photomontage satire of John Hartfield and the bleak panoramas of Hans Baluschek.
Both Fröhlich and Helm were thrust into stardom specifically for this film, but whilst Fröhlich merely looks the part of ardent young hero, Helm, still a teenager during the shoot and yet attacking the role with astonishing gusto as she inhabits the Madonna-whore schism, is remarkable. Klein-Rogge, the hydra-headed star of Lang’s early films, wrote himself into film legend as Rotwang with his wild hair, gloved hand, and imperious gestures. His role is hurt by scenes still missing from the film, including a violent confrontation with Fredersen that gives Maria the chance to escape his house. The workers lay waste to the machinery that oppresses them but in a self-defeating way. Tellingly, Freder’s other self from the worker populace, Georgy, is defined by his dedication to his work, his understanding that he is in a way necessary to the survival of Metropolis even as it uses him up like an replaceable part. The shattering of order, celebrated by the workers who dance around the toppled idols of technocracy, soon gives way to panic as they realise their children are in danger, and they’re impotent to intervene. Fredersen, who has ordered the Heart Machine’s foreman and worker representative Grot (Heinrich George) to stand down and let the workers do their worst, is stricken himself with the seemingly imminent death of Freder in the flood. By this stage his machinations have even cost him the loyalty of the Thin Man, who responds to his desperate demand to know where his son is with the memorable retort, “Tomorrow thousands will ask in fury and desperation, ‘Joh Fredersen, where is my son?’” Meanwhile Robot-Maria is unbound, leading the frenetic, equally nihilistic revelry of the upper class out of the nightclubs and into the streets. Once the ambitions and pretences of Metropolis work themselves out, it becomes, in essence, a Boy’s Own adventure tale not that far from The Spiders’ cliffhanger suspense set-pieces. This is particularly plain in the finale as Freder, Maria, and Josaphat try desperately to save the workers’ children from the flooding, with Maria wrestling with the mechanism to set off the alarm gong in the town square, and the two men making arduous climbs up a shaft to reach her.
Lang’s acerbic perspective is still in constant evidence, as the climactic scenes hinge upon ideas that would preoccupy Lang in the next decade of his career or so are in play here in the likes of M (1931), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), Fury (1936), and You Only Live Once (1937) – the terror of lynch mob justice, the accusation of the innocent, the reactive and self-consuming rage of the oppressed, the sinister manipulator of events, the rogue villain whose actions show up uneasy relationship of various social strata. The meeting of those strata is literalised almost comically here as the revelling scions of Metropolis’s upper levels, with Robot-Maria lifted shoulder high as their champion, collide with the mass of enraged workers, chasing the real Maria in the belief she is a witch who has led them to ruin. Somewhere amidst this is an eerie anticipating echo of the grim love affair that would soon come upon Nazi Germany with the almost ritualised, orgiastic invitation of destruction. Metropolis remains tantalising and enigmatic in this regard to this day, in spite of its optimistic depiction of a balance less restored than at last properly achieved. Robot-Maria is the film’s dancing Kali, whipping up the passions of the crowd as a brilliant mouthpiece for an insidious force and then leads the people rejoicing in the moment of pointless and delicious vandalism. In spite of the official message of Metropolis, the power of Robot-Maria’s wild, sexualised, anarchic insurrection feels more heroic than anything the nominal good guys accomplish here even if the result is the old conservative nightmare of such actions, the unleashing of uncontainable forces and unintended horrors. In a different time and different social mood, many a hero in the science fiction genre, from Logan to THX-1138 to Luke Skywalker to Neo, takes up the robot’s iconoclastic mantle rather than Freder’s even whilst stepping into his messianic shoes.
Luckily, the workers chasing the real Maria instead mistake the robot for her, tie her to an improvised pyre, and burnt. The skin is peeled by licking flame, the Machine-Man under the human guise revealed and with it not just the tricks of Rotwang and Fredersen but also the queasy face of the next stage of evolution. Rotwang’s degeneration from evil genius to lecher trying to escape Freder with Maria under arm across the rooftops is comparatively unconvincing and a nudge too far in the direction of gothic melodrama, perhaps inspired by the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1922) and surely laying ground for dozens of variations to come. But the staging of this sequence is impeccable, particularly in the moment when Maria falls over a railing and snatches onto a bell rope to dangle over a dizzying drop, the clang of the bell alerting Freder and others to this new drama. Like Rotwang’s house the cathedral is an island of the ancient amidst the city, and the sole place where the schizoid facets of Metropolis can still come together, crux of old and new, high and low, the bleak memento mori of medieval religious imagery gaining new potency in the context of Metropolis’s collapse. Rotwang falls to his death, Freder and Maria are reunited, and Freder literally becomes the mediator in showing Grot and his father how to overcome their pride and make piece. Again, certainly weak sociology, but also a perfect thumbnail for the fairy tale essence of Metropolis as a whole. Both the greatness and the difficulty of Metropolis lie in that essence, as a film that animates the dark and strident fantasies of its age without quite knowing how to critique or contain them. But even the most casual of glances around us at the world today shows that, where most films of its era have joined the ranks of playful relics, Metropolis still has something potent to say. And therein lies some of the deepest brilliance of Metropolis in tethering science fiction, the art of anticipation, with the method of myth, the primal storytelling form—both speak to that moment just over the horizon of experience and foresight. It is never; it is ever.
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Director: Paul McGuigan
By Roderick Heath
More or less ignored when not reviled upon release in 2009, Paul McGuigan’s Push has become one of the very few movies of recent years I can watch any time, in any mood, and enjoy. McGuigan, a talented Scots director, caught my eye in the late ’90s with the grimier, more authentically punkish answer to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995), The Acid House (1996), and the tougher-minded, more authentically maniacal retort to Guy Ritchie’s gimmicky gangster movies with Gangster No. 1 (2000). His work since going Hollywood, Wicker Park (2004) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006), failed to find wide audiences or critical favour, but have located some after-the-fact fandom. After a spell doing TV work, he just recently re-emerged as a feature director, only to have another jarring flop with Victor Frankenstein (2015). Push, his best work to date, is a hugely entertaining concoction in desperate need of some appreciation. It’s colourful, clever, and serious enough to compel, but sufficiently light-footed to evoke the kind of pulp novel adventure and comic book mind-bending its story evokes. Push is hypermodern in its approach and aesthetics, but also has the charm of a cult object slightly out of its time, as McGuigan’s stylish filmmaking blends diverse strands of contemporary cinema that someone ought to remix more often in service of a gleefully tricky narrative that riffs on the superhero genre with more poise and artistry than any actual recent superhero movie.
Push was also perhaps a little too obviously hoping to be the cornerstone of an original cinematic franchise. McGuigan lays the basic pillars of its plot through the opening credits, as protagonist Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) explains a secret history rooted in the efforts of Nazis to discover and exploit paranormal abilities. This programme eventually evolved into an ostensibly U.S. government-sponsored, but almost lawless and stateless organisation called Division, which specialises in collecting and employing an array of individuals given great psychic and telekinetic powers. These people have been sorted into several basic types, each with an unofficial, but pithy sobriquet. Movers can manipulate, repel, or direct objects. Sniffs have an extraordinary sense of smell and can track people’s movements through the smallest residual traces. Watchers have the power to foretell the future. Pushers can distort other people’s sense of reality. Shadows can mask people and objects from the powers of other breeds. Shifters can mask the true appearance of something. Stitches wield startling healing powers. Bleeders can pulverise with their vocal sounds. A prologue sequence sees young Nick Gant (Colin Ford) and his Mover father Jonah (Joel Gretsch) on the run from Division. Taking momentary refuge in a hotel room, Jonah forces Nick to leave him, as he intends to do battle with Division’s heavies, but tells him before their split that one day a girl will give him a flower, and this girl will give him the key to changing his life. Jonah dies moments later in battle with Division agents, led by the forbidding Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a battle Nick witnesses obliquely from a hiding place before he scurries away and gets on with the business of surviving on his own.
A decade later, Kira (Camilla Belle), a captive of Division, is seen receiving an experimental drug Division has cooked up to boost the powers of superhumans. Everyone who’s taken the drug before this has died, but Kira survives and escapes with a sample of the drug thanks to a marble dropped by another captive which spins by seemingly random luck across the floor and jams a door. Meanwhile Nick has grown into the stubbly, sad-eyed form of Chris Evans, and is living in Hong Kong, a popular refuge for unaligned superhumans because the dense population makes it difficult for Division’s goons to track them. Nick has inherited his father’s Mover powers, but has neglected to master them for fear he might meet the same fate. Nonetheless, driven by lack of cash, he tries to use his powers to cheat in a craps game, but fouls up and finishes up having to outrun gangsters bent on beating him up. Retreating into his apartment, he’s soon visited by two Sniffs, Agent Mack (Corey Stoll) and Agent Holden (Scott Michael Campbell), who have finally managed to track him down. They’re looking for Kira, Nick’s former girlfriend, but don’t let him know that, leaving Nick bewildered. Once they leave, Nick gets a phone call from 13-year-old Watcher Cassie, who is standing outside waiting for him to open the door so she can raid his refrigerator and enlist him in a search for a large sum of missing money.
Nick quickly sees through this ruse and declares he doesn’t want to get involved in whatever Cassie’s up to. But he soon finds that he and the girl have already been targeted by a Triad crime family headed up by a kingpin (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who wants to get hold of the drug and make his mob a rival to Division. All of his children have powers—he and his two sons are Bleeders and his daughter (Xiao Lu Li) is a talented Watcher with a fondness not just for sweets but also a sadistic proclivity for taunting her enemies, particularly precocious Cassie, whose mother is a legend in the paranormal community for her Watcher gifts. The clan are dubbed the “Pops” because of the daughter’s habit of sucking on lollypops. The crime family attack Nick and Cassie in a marketplace. The Bleeders cause havoc with their deadly screams—a touch that recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978)—as they chase the duo, causing fish in tanks to explode and finally leaving Nick badly mangled. He escapes death only because the Pop girl warns her brothers that they need him to obtain the drug. Cassie takes Nick to a Stitch, Teresa Stowe (Maggie Siff), who reshapes Nick’s body: Teresa is a haughty S&M priestess who can take away pain, but also return it, and who perversely enjoys not healing, but bringing agony. Then Cassie performs the totemic act of handing Nick a flower, signalling to Nick the time to take a stand has come.
Push’s conceptual similarity to the X-Men films was widely noted on release, but that is misleading to a certain extent, as the plot encompasses a rather different take on the relationship of its gifted outsider heroes to authority at large (there’s also a notable influence by Stephen King’s Firestarter). There’s less emphasis on spectacular powers than on subtler brands demanding mental discipline and wit. In the company of Push’s cast of superhumans, time and reality are in a constant state of flux to a point where even they can’t necessarily keep up. Push actually hews closer to an honourable update of one of the source texts for the more ambitious and sophisticated strand of superhuman fantasy works, A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with its Byzantine sense of paranoia in confronting a posthuman landscape amidst the shell of the hitherto dominant civilisation. As filmmaking, Push unfolds like a Fritz Lang movie reset in Wong Kar-Wai’s kaleidoscopic modern Hong Kong and jammed in a blender with Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1999). McGuigan’s strong visuals, alive to the colour and teeming liveliness of the locale, borrows from the aesthetics more usually associated with artier filmmakers, like Wong, Sofia Coppola, Michael Mann, and Olivier Assayas. Like several of those directors, McGuigan finds in Hong Kong the perfect hyperkinetic muse to survey the modern world, a place where urban life takes on a venturesome romanticism because it’s a frontier where cultures are meeting and ricocheting in manifold new forms.
McGuigan and screenwriter David Boursa are able to dramatize this idea precisely through the mechanics of their story, which hinges on people with all their differing gifts and traits working against or in conjunction with each other. Each power tends to complement another, but can also jam things up. The setting and the essential theme are noirish, the nature of fate unfolding in an urban labyrinth. But the mood is far too ebullient to nudge noir fatalism, and besides, Hong Kong is also a setting of action films, and the thematic lexicon can skew close to the traditions of manga and anime radiating from Japan—one of the Pop brothers has Astro Boy tattooed on his arm—and genre fusion mimics cultural fusion.
Appropriately for a film where a jostling breadth of humanity bestrides the landscape and the many modes of sensing evinced in the storyline, McGuigan’s trippy, tricky fantasia is a filtered, audio-visually layered experience laced with the jazziness of experimental films and music videos, but always plied with measured effect: freaky lensing, uses of contrasting film stocks and grains, careful use of décor and subdivisions of the frame that recall Wong’s assimilation of Matisselike visual textures and putting them into a more dynamic context, judicious slow-motion and time-lapse photography courtesy of DP David Sova. These flourishes are used with particular vividness in sequences illustrating the superhumans’ powers, like the fast-forward visions the Sniffs have when fondling Nick’s cup, visualising their analysis in reducing months of Nick’s life to a blur of action, and vertiginously edited fantasies the Pushers install in people’s heads.
Nick and Cassie, trying to work out where Cassie’s visions are leading, enlist the help of some other paranormal ronin, including Shifter Hook Waters (Cliff Curtis), Sniff Emily Hu (Ming Na Wen), and Shadow Pinkie Stein (Nate Mooney), who all have their reasons for hating Division and joining the fight even if their good sense tells them to stay out of the way of Carver and his hand-picked goon squad. Meanwhile Kira awakens on a boat in Hong Kong harbour with no memory of how she got there, looked over by the gaunt stranger who owns the boat and a message written with her own lipstick on a mirror simply spelling out Nick’s name and a number: Kira has had her memory of the recent past erased by the boatman, Wo Chiang (Paul Car). She’s soon captured by the two Sniffs but is able to push Agent Mack into killing his partner by convincing him that he murdered his brother, creating an entire alternative existence for Mack in a few blinks of her black-swelling eyes. Kira then manages to defeat Mack in a scrambling melee in a rest stop toilet and flees back to Hong Kong. Following clues given by both Cassie’s visions and Emily’s detection, Nick tries to rendezvous with the mysterious girl who everyone’s looking for. It proves to be Kira, who first response is to take a few potshots at him with Mack’s appropriated gun. Turns out Nick and Kira were lovers back in the States, a romance that ended suddenly when Kira was kidnapped by Division, leaving Nick clueless as to her whereabouts. Or were they? Believing they have to keep Kira out of Carver’s hands and find where she’s stashed the drug, they hole up in a hotel room using Pinkie’s gifts to hide Kira.
Another good quality of Push is the strength of its cast and the sharpness of its characters. Evans, post-Fantastic Four, first got to move away from Johnny Storm’s dude-bro tediousness and work out the charmingly chilled-out, white bread hero he’d soon purvey to much more money and popularity as Captain America, but also with a scruffy, more asocial quality, anticipating his next foray into Asiatic scifi, Snowpiercer (2013). Hounsou, always a great screen presence, makes for a formidable opponent, one who wears Division’s imperial arrogance like a suit: it feels like a manifestation of McGuigan’s raspy wit that the one-time oppressed hero of Amistad (1997) is now the ultimate manipulator of destinies and identities. Belle, who gained notice in Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2004), has an oddly delicate screen presence that helps draw out the contradictions of her character, who is at once powerful and near-fatally malleable.
One of screenwriter Boula’s better tweaks of the familiar plot pattern here is the way Nick is presented less as a singular hero than merely one in a group of pan-ethnic characters. Nick’s neglect of his talents means that he’s nearly constantly outmatched in his various encounters throughout the film, ending up battered, tormented, and tossed about like a plaything, as when he tries to confront Carver and his Mover bodyguard Victor (Neil Jackson). His lack of savvy as a hero recalls one of the film’s influences, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), though his lacks aren’t played for as many laughs as Jack Burton’s. His essential decency is noted early on when, whilst being tortured by Bleeders, he uses his powers to push Cassie to safety, and he does finally start to bring his real talents to the fore as the story unfolds. Chief amongst these is not his telekinetic gifts, but his mind for strategy, with which he works out a way to avoid the seemingly unstoppable fate barrelling down on him and his pals.
Young Fanning, though, taking her first step from child star to adult actor, is the one who walks off with the proceedings, playing Cassie as a precocious punkette with dashes of delirious pink dye in her hair (“Lose a bet with your hairdresser?” Nick prods her) and who draws pictures illustrating her visions in an art book, despite her complete lack of artistic ability: her pictures of the futures she sees are essays in childish style, all too crudely contrasting her precocious projections. Cassie is, in many ways, the film’s proper protagonist, as she’s desperate to save her mother from Division’s clutches. She is partially wizened beyond her years by her gift and also trying to play the grown-up living in her mother’s near-legendary shadow, a person who has touched the lives of almost everyone in the narrative with reverberations that eventually prove anything but accidental. Rattled by her own constant premonitions of death and the taunts of her lollypop-sucking sister-adversary, Cassie tries to focus her gifts and see her way through to another future by trying her mother’s favourite device to improve her seer powers—alcohol. Cassie, roaring drunk, bursts into the hotel room where the ragtag gang are holed up and accosts Kira as the one who’ll get them all killed: “I’m 13, and I’m powering my use!” she declares with truculent bravado.
Her encounters with Pop Girl are charged with peculiarly personal antipathy as well as a sense of their similarities, both prodigies competing directly on the behalf of family with the obligation to use the prodigal gifts they possess to further the ends of their kin, but with very different ultimate purposes. Where Cassie’s mother lives in a tranquilised void in Division’s headquarter—she’s only briefly glimpsed being led around by guards and dropping the fateful marble that helps Kira escape—and becomes something like a younger sister to Nick, Pop Girl represents a vicious and egomaniacal patriarch and a clan of carefully groomed thugs. When Pop Girl reports a failure to her father, he slaps her around. Later, when she presents her brothers with a more successful insight, it prompts them to ask whether that will make their father love them.
Push vibrates with unexpected fragments of emotional and thematic depth like these, decorating McGuigan’s framework like the neon that blazes over Hong Kong, never overplayed to bog things down. The emotional tenor here is wound together with the way the Watchers predict the future, becoming, in essence, like film viewers anticipating certain outcomes: “I like how this future ends,” Carver tells Cassie at one point when fate seems to be dooming the outsiders’ revolt to a grim end. The film’s audience, meanwhile, have their expectations constantly switched around, holding fast to the faith certain things will come out right even in the face of mounting contradictions and seemingly impossible knots of fate. Push’s approach to fate is one of its cleverest aspects. The idea that precognition is an ability affected by choices and potentials rather than being perfect insight into the inevitable isn’t a new one—Frank Herbert’s Dune posited a similar concept—and Push presents it as a psychic gift derived from people’s trains of thought, which means it’s vulnerable to temporary disruption. Kira took advantage of this by having her own memory wiped, and Nick eventually formulates a way to outwit the enemy Watchers by piecing together a plan and then having his own mind wiped by Wo Chiang, his instructions written down and parcelled out to his comrades in arms. I’m not sure if all this holds water logically, but it’s damn fun to watch play out. Nick is forced to take such drastic measures after Kira falls sick from the drug she was injected with and has to be handed over to Carver to save her life. This makes her vulnerable to Carver’s Pusher talents: he convinces her that she’s an agent in his employ who is suffering from amnesia.
Nick’s ploy works, sending both Carver and the Pops scrambling to keep up with the seemingly random twists and turns of their quarries, whilst they follow a chain of clues to locate the suitcase containing the drug sample in a skyscraper under construction, with a super-talented Shadow hired to mask the location. Our heroes still have run a gauntlet of challenges and dangers. The Pops try to zero in on the drug, but are instead fooled by a substitute Nick contrives to deliver to them. He then has a literally bruising encounter with Teresa, who has sided with Carver and has a sadistic streak her healing gifts are weirdly wound in with: she can restore injuries she fixes, and does just this to Nick, planning to torment him further, but his rapidly evolving Mover gifts allows him to outwit her. Cassie, constantly dogged throughout the film by visions of herself dead with a tiger above her, lets herself be bounced randomly around the Hong Kong underground, but still seems doomed to meet her ordained fate when she’s cornered by Pop Girl in a storeroom. But it turns out to be Pop Girl’s body splayed under one of the tiger symbol-emblazoned shipping boxes, her mind wiped by the lurking Wo Chiang. With Kira’s Pusher abilities magnified, Carver keeps her under his control once she’s stabilised and uses her take on the Pop clan’s army of gunmen, leading to a climactic battle within the half-finished skyscraper between the three vying factions.
I suspect that if Push had been made a decade earlier, it would have been a major cult hit, and not because superpowers weren’t so common on screen then. McGuigan’s sensibility cuts against the increasingly parochial and bombastic flavour of a lot of similar filmmaking, with its focus on international drifters in a polycultural nexus fighting the powers that be harking back to the ’90s milieu, rather than the post-9/11 mindset that rewarded Michael Bay’s fascist chic with big bucks, and the far more conventional and baggy filmmaking of the now exhaustingly dominant superhero movie. McGuigan signals a deliberate note of needling satire about the dark side of Bush-era politics, as he has Carver note, “We’re not ones for diplomacy anymore.” The final battle is a terrifically organised free-for-all during which Carver and Kira turn enemies on each other, Kira orchestrating a battery of killers under her influence like a particularly freaky line-dance choreographer, whilst Nick battles Victor, their powers becoming so well-balanced that they’re essentially reduced to a fist-fight, at least until the Pop Bleeder boys try to squelch them both. McGuigan tips another nod to Big Trouble in Little China when the Pop patriarch releases his Bleeder scream in uncontrolled furore after one of his sons dies, bringing down a heap of scaffolding on him and Victor.
Nick finishes up carrying the elaborate triple-bluff through to its end when he injects himself with the drug, which by this time has been substituted for soy sauce, and pretends to die under Carver’s contemptuous gaze. The very last few moments confirm that an even more elaborate plot than anyone except Cassie had originally realised has just been pulled off, and though Kira is still in Carver’s clutches, Nick has arranged for her to recover the truth, setting the scene for a most satisfying blackout moment of poetic justice. I’m inclined to call Push a kind of pop masterpiece, but too few heard this tree fall in the woods. A few months after its release, many of the same people who dissed it were calling the equally tricky but comparatively dour and pompous Inception (2010) a major event, which goes to show what a funny world we live in.
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Director: George Dunning
By Roderick Heath
Amidst the relics of the high psychedelic era, Yellow Submarine is one of the most instantly recognisable, a jokey and absurdist adventure tale built around one of pop culture’s singular creative wellsprings, the music and artistic personae of The Beatles. The film has become an iconic work encapsulating the Beatles’ oeuvre and mystique and indeed the era of its making. Any still from the film could be used as an emblem and summation of the psychedelic creed. Ironically, Yellow Submarine was a byproduct of the band’s uninterest in appearing in another film: their contractual obligation to United Artists forced them to develop a new movie project, and they decided producing an animated film through their newly formed recording and production company, Apple, seemed a good way to discharge the obligation. (Later, UA eventually declared they hadn’t met that obligation, requiring them to make the 1970 documentary Let It Be.)
I was moved to revisit Yellow Submarine in part because of the passing of Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ illustrious producer and facilitator. Martin, as well as helping to create the Beatles songs heard on the film’s soundtrack, also composed the orchestral score that gives the movie some of its gorgeous, jaunty, romantic gloss. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr kept their distance from the project, which was handled by George Dunning, an animator who had a lot of experience working on a playful, animated children’s show about the band that ran during the second half of the ’60s. The film Dunning was assigned was something very different in concept and style, and only when the film was nearing the end of production did the band members realise something marvellous had been created. Nonetheless, their creative lexicon was key to the vision Dunning and his animation team realised, which extrapolates images and ideas from their songs, as well as builds sequences for their music to play over to create a uniquely textured film.
Considering that animation opens up to filmmakers a form of expression seemingly without limits, most animated features are amazingly conservative, mainly tethered to realistic precepts and slight fantasies meant for kids. If you look at a recent, lauded, smart, but very anodyne kind of animated film, Inside Out (2015), you can see very similar ideas to those in Yellow Submarine, but bound by neat chains of cause and effect in painting the workings of the psyche in total contradiction to the protean delights of the surrealist wellspring both films reference. Yellow Submarine takes its title and core imagery from one of the most deliberately lightweight, yet naggingly catchy tunes Lennon and McCartney ever wrote, a burlesque-cum-tribute to singalong shanties of the Liverpool docklands surely familiar to any son of that port city, given a new paint job in hallucinogenic hues. In Dunning’s film, thanks to a screenplay penned by a small battery of writers, including original story scribe Al Brodax and future Love Story hitmaker Erich Segal, that jaunty number becomes the basis of an oddball, highly unserious take on a Tolkienesque fantasy quest tale. It starts off in a magical kingdom called Pepperland, where free and easy creativity and benign good cheer reign, only to be targeted by an army of nasty creatures called the Blue Meanies who, with their henchmen, want to destroy this last corner of the nonblue universe.
Pepperland is reminiscent of an Edwardian bohemian fantasia of polite relaxation and gentlemanly recline, where the mayor of the town plays in a string quartet and the champions of the land are a foursome of bardic heroes called, inevitably, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The invasion of the Blue Meanies, led by a chief (voiced by Paul Angelis, who also does voice work for Ringo and George) who declares angrily to his underling, Max, that Blue Meanies never take “yes” for an answer owing to their dedicated negativity. Their invading army includes a huge, flying glove and shock troops who bonk enemies with giant green apples (making sport of the symbol of the Beatles’ own label). Their bombardments petrify the inhabitants of Pepperland. One citizen, Fred (Lance Percival) is an old man (although the mayor is so ancient he calls him “Young Fred”) who wears a sailor suit but has no actual naval knowledge whom the mayor assigns the task of taking the Yellow Submarine, the vehicle that first brought Pepper’s band to the land, out into the world to find help. His search brings him to a street in Liverpool where Ringo, kicking about the streets bored and frustrated, senses he’s being followed and tries to get the attention of a policeman who’s too absorbed in trying to charm a cat. Finally, Ringo heads back to The Pier, the house he shares with the other band members, and Fred pops out of the submarine to make his appeal for aid, recounting the attack and his adventures in a babbling torrent.
Yellow Submarine blends many of the contradictory imaginative and cultural reflexes that nestled close to the Beatles’ hearts and energised their art—a faith in electrifying vision and a frontierlike sense of art as a vehicle for life, jostling against a wistful nostalgia for half-remembered ages and semi-mythical qualities of bygone days. The first post-credits sequence, built around “Eleanor Rigby,” envisions decaying industrial Britain through the detritus of its own cultural memory, a monochromatic space populated by figures that appear culled from historical photographs, illustrations, and other bricoleur discoveries, with the jutting, grimy chimneys of the city’s rowed terraces suddenly exhaling like ship’s horns. The sequence doesn’t illustrate the song’s tragic narrative, but underscores its evocation of a blasted, lovelorn corner of the world. Spots of colour, like the Union Jack waistcoat on a very British bulldog overlooking the scene, the periscopes of Fred’s lurking submarine, or the butterfly wings jutting from the back of a meditating philosopher, appear as islets of bliss and invention amidst a landscape dominated by characters who try to do things—footballers warming up on a field, a man trying to get out of a phone booth, a motorcyclist with an anarchic swath of regalia on his helmet but tears leaking from his eyes—but whose motions simply loop. Here the artistic influences hew close to the effects of pop art, particularly Warhol’s obsession with silk-screen derivations of photos and utilising collected, pasted-together images. The images coalesce to evoke a kind of dream-memory in the British psyche where it’s always a chill and depressing day in 1931. The air of melancholy stasis and the soul-grinding side of this dream-memory is countered with images of absurdity and florid mind-over-matter invention as Fred follows Ringo home, who immediately turns the sorrow of the song into theatricality as he laments that “compared to my life, Eleanor Rigby’s was a gay mad whirl.”
The motifs here reproduce those already well established in Richard Lester’s two films featuring the band, depicting the musical foursome as founts of inspiring anarchy in a dreary and clapped-out world. Lester presented a gag in Help! (1965) where the band members arrived at their homes adjoining terrace houses in the midst of Liverpool, only to reveal spacious, conjoined, luxurious environs within. Here Dunning and his animators take that gag a step further and portray the interior of The Pier as a cavernous expanse that blends a Borgesian dream-labyrinth with Looney Tunes gagsmithing; Fred enters the house and disappears through one of hundreds of ranked, identical doors, as behind his back flit fairytale characters, id creatures, and icons out of Dadaist art. The influence of Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show, a radio programme that left a powerful imprint on Lennon and many other British talents of his generation, including the Monty Python squad, is in constant evidence in both the stock characters and the random jokes, including George’s refrain of “It’s all in the mind”.
Fred manages to interest Ringo in his incomprehensible pleas, and they round up the other members of the band, each of whom is glimpsed retreating in some bubble of their own self-perception in a house littered with psychitecture zones adapted to their personalities. Ringo drives a vintage sports car down a grand art-deco staircase. John (John Clive) is first seen in a room littered with pop culture iconography, managing to be both Frankenstein and his own monster as he lurches off a laboratory table as a stitched-up hulk before swallowing a potion to shock himself back into normal state. George stands atop a psychedelic mountain riddled with portals into other realities, communing with the sky–although he’s also in two places at once, the mystic strains of the sitar ringing out all the while. Paul (Geoff Hughes) emerges from his rooms dressed as a strutting dandy to a round of orgiastic applause.
The lads quickly agree, in confused fashion, to join Fred in his quest to retake Pepperland, and they depart in the submarine. “Right, then, let’s get this vessel shipshape,” Fred commands happily, to Ringo’s droning dissent, “I kind of like the way it is—submarine-shape.” Their journey to Pepperland is chiefly an excuse to string together a succession of weird places, each of which is associated with a different artistic style and Beatles song. Yellow Submarine is encyclopaedic in the breadth of its references and appropriations, a freeform surge of artistic modes culled from art nouveau, art deco, fauvism, op art, cubism, comic book art and children’s book illustrations. Filmic technique runs from classic animation to rotoscoping (particularly during a sequence of dancing girls matched to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), whilst the submarine’s departure on its journey back to Pepperland is portrayed in a stroboscopic array of photos set to the famous rising, atonal crescendo from the finale of “A Day in the Life.” Through it all runs a streak of comedy that alternates total surrealism and visionary largesse on the visual level—trains racing out of rooms and halted by a slamming door, a colossal monster that sucks in anything in its path through a giant nozzlelike nose, a hole that can be folded up and kept in a pocket for later use—and verbal humour that runs in an opposite vein, replete with throwaway, non sequitur, sarcastic deflations wielded by the Liverpudlian heroes used to negotiate all kinds of bizarre situations and scarcely fazed by time warps, flying neon piranha, and trotting monsters in Wellington boots.
It’s rather beside the point to critique Yellow Submarine on a narrative level, although the story holds together in its own, specific, shaggy way. The film acts more like a total immersion in a way of seeing the world, inflected by two seemingly opposite terms of reference. It’s both a sophisticated arrangement of artistic modes, metaphors, and mythic motifs that rarely pauses for the slow members of the class to catch up, but also a deft approximation of a childlike sensibility, a place of multitudinous colours, transforming beings, and amorphous possibility seeking joy in the universe, boiling down to a simple message: all you need is love. This suits the band’s peculiar grip on the pop culture zeitgeist at the time, one sustained by their ready ability to shift their official personas slightly to become something different, depending on the angle from which they were viewed: as happy-go-lucky types living something close to a kid’s ideal of what adult life might be like, as counterculture swashbucklers deriving world-shaping ideas from exotic religions and pharmaceutical enhancements, as roguish bon vivants and barely reformed likely lads out of Liverpool with a pleasant line of blarney just out for a good time, or as the moment’s manifestation of an ancient force, the eternal troubadours, bringers of colour and life, with a dash of messianic messaging.
All of these facets are present in the film, which amplifies a central joke from the famous cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s album, where the Beatles are presented in the guise of the fake band with their own, earlier, canonical selves standing next to them. Here the Beatles are required, once they reach Pepperland, to pretend to be Sgt. Pepper and his band to step into the ancient and foundational role of the land of pure imagination. To get to that pure land, they have to travel through places of fragmented nature, places where strange animals roam, where time becomes a fluid entity, where the usually invisible geometries of scientific law suddenly become manifest, sound and vision can be interchangeable, and even the absence of form itself can be entered and contended with on the way to shaping a world. Along the way, the band members and Fred have to contend with an engine that breaks down, Ringo being carried off on the back of a bizarre animal, an attack by Indians requiring a secret weapon consisting of a fully bedecked cavalry unit to be loosed by the submarine, the great horn-nosed monster sucking everything including itself into a white void known as the Sea of Nothing, and getting caught in a time eddy where the submarine’s crew rapidly age both backwards and forwards and catch sight of themselves on the way around.
There are strong affinities between Yellow Submarine and the same year’s science fiction treatment of many of the same themes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, sporting adventurers who journey through a dazzling, trippy-coloured acausal portal through different zones of reality, contending with zones of the Einsteinian universe where time breaks down and they’re old and young at once, and are eventually confronted in the void by a singular being who represents the psyche in all its multifarious, ridiculous aspects. Tonally, of course, they’re completely opposed: Kubrick’s deadly serious contemplation of the transcendent urge via a blend of hard tech and soft psychedelia is viewed in the funhouse mirror here, as the other Beatles give smirks and groans of boredom when John starts extemporising on theoretical physics in the midst of a rupturing watercolour world that embodies the elusive freedom of the psyche’s brighter frontier. Meanwhile, during the Sea of Time sequence, Paul leads the lads in a performance of “When I’m 64” whilst they’re sprouting long, white beards, whilst on screen the animators try to illustrate the possibilities inherent in a mere minute of time, counting off the seconds with elaborately illustrated numbers, a jokey version of the same idea presented with a more fearsome and clammy attitude in another film of the same year, Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. In the Sea of Science, scored by the draggy, druggy, glittering sounds of “It’s Only a Northern Song,” the film skirts total dissolution into abstraction, where the film’s soundtrack becomes an animated squiggle and our heroes spin around in convoluted geometries.
In the Sea of Nothing, the submariners encounter a weird being with a hairy, dextrous body and a face like a Commedia dell’arte mask, who calls himself Jeremy Hillary Boob PhD (or “Phud” as Ringo reads it on his business card), engaged furiously in creativity and learning without any apparent purpose. He’s the embodiment of the hapless hero of “Nowhere Man,” which John leads the band in singing, bringing sworls of colour and form to the void as Jeremy weeps in self-recognition. Jeremy nonetheless starts converting book smarts into real-world practice as he fixes the submarine’s troublesome motor, and Ringo, recognising a fellow misfit, invites Jeremy along on the journey. The submariners then enter what John calls “the foothills of the Headlands,” a place filled with colossal, see-through heads alight with thought-images and coated in a fine dusting of pepper, which when disturbed causes all the big giant heads to sneeze and blow our heroes down a deep pit into the Sea of Holes. There, Jeremy is kidnapped by a stray Blue Meanie, but the Beatles manage to find the way out into Pepperland itself and are soon followed by Fred. They’re greeted by a panorama of petrified Pepperlandians, with Blue Meanies constantly patrolling to refreeze anyone who’s waking up. Told by the mayor they have to stir the populace by pretending to be the Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles sneak into a bandstand surrounded by sleeping Meanies, retrieve their instruments and uniforms, and launch a musical assault on the forces of bad vibes.
Yellow Submarine purposefully resists, after the “Eleanor Rigby” scene, traversing the more perverse and melancholy aspects of the Beatles’ music, or the darker, more toxic strands to psychedelia captured by other bands essaying the form, like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Nice, and King Crimson. Yellow Submarine is dedicated to being a good trip: even Lennon’s biting self-satire in “Nowhere Man” is given a jolly and positive spin. And yet there is a sneaky, almost subliminal aura of strangeness and distance to the whole project, the style of humour and the textures of the visuals charged with an eliding, cheeky, diminuendoish quality, never quite building to obvious punch lines or the kinds of patronising joke-delivery systems and metaphors too much animated cinema, even the wildly praised Pixar films, still offer. There’s potency to the Blue Meanies as adversaries (my mother, who was 20 when the film came out, still can’t abide them), sibilant, fey and ambisexual in just the wrong manner, the ever-so-faint shudder of the molester’s insidious grinning evil to them, and their oppression of Pepperland, which is at once playful and unpleasant. The bonks of the green apples are comic, but some of the images, like a line of their shock troops, grinning evilly behind dark glasses and giving Nazi salutes, like Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove given a pop makeover, have a charge of lunacy behind them.
Good triumphs, of course, as a few good licks of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “All You Need Is Love” shake Pepperland back to life and empower the citizens to chase out the Blue Meanies. The chief Meanie, after seeing his flying glove and multiheaded guard dog defeated, is rendered utterly helpless and humiliated by Jeremy, who causes flowers to break out all over his furry form. This leads to a climax set to Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much,” a triumphant procession of the populace of Pepperland, their saviours, and their defeated, yet accepted, enemies celebrating. Here the film pays its last nod to both the kinds of courtly sagas its narrative resembles, but also the final cast call of the musical traditions it extends. The real Beatles finally make a brief appearance right at the end, showing off their souvenirs of the journey and leading the audience in another of their schoolyard, dittylike numbers “All Together Now,” going out with a last blast of the overall, inclusive idealism Yellow Submarine embodies, the refrain of the song spelt out in a dozen languages. Of course, the love trip went sour by the decade’s end, and this kind of wilful naivete went right out of fashion. But Yellow Submarine’s impact, if not its best lesson, has echoed through animated film after it. And in an age of random terrorist attacks and the seeming willingness of far too many people to buy into the politics and philosophy of hate and resentment, watching a film that preaches acceptance, love, and peace without a drop of sarcasm suddenly feels revolutionary again.
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Director: Karl Freund
By Roderick Heath
The series of horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s has long carried a specific mystique. The epoch of Expressionist horror that ushered the genre’s true arrival on screen had flowered in Germany but was waning by the time of the talkies. Whilst serious horror films were made in Hollywood throughout the silent period, jokey horrors were the most popular, lampooning the same dark and miasmic fantasias that the German filmmakers were revelling in. Many of the talented artistic progenitors of the Expressionist style, like directors F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Paul Leni, and camera wizard Karl Freund, decamped to Hollywood, which had already absorbed a lot of their style. A Hollywood horror revolution was officially kick-started by a native son, Tod Browning with Dracula (1931). Actually an adaptation of John L. Balderstone’s play taken from Bram Stoker’s novel, the film was charged with an enfolding sense of sonorous evil, and expertly exploited Béla Lugosi’s iconic charisma. Freund, who shot the film and helped meld the Expressionist ethic to the theatrical demands of early sound cinema,, emerged from the production with standing, as some felt he saved the difficult shoot, often filling in for the distracted Browning. Although more concrete than the intensely psychologised and symbolic Expressionist films, the specific power Universal’s approach was a dedication to making their horror films densely atmospheric and rarefied, close to cinematic mood poems and fables.
The great movies of their brand, including Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and a few others, defined the horror film in many minds, and still influence how many envision the classic roster of genre ghouls. Universal eventually turned successes into franchises and hammered those into the ground, although even their silliest later monster pile-ups like House of Dracula (1946) are exceedingly well-made and entertaining. But the earlier Universal work is far more powerful and still works even as many of the films show their age. Dracula proved a gigantic hit, and was quickly followed by James Whale’s brilliant take on Frankenstein, which although very different to Mary Shelley’s source novel, touched on a kind of fairy tale beauty and menace. Perhaps after a few years of the Depression, American audiences were in a mood not all that different to the struggling early days of Weimar; either way, dark, eerie, perverse and violent visions suddenly became wildly popular, an id to accompany the ego warriors of the gangster films soaring in popularity at the same time.
Universal, searching for another realm of the fantastic to explore, next produced The Mummy. It was an inspired and obvious recourse. Since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb ten years earlier, things Ancient Egyptian held great cultural power. The Mummy was an original property rather than a well-worn literary classic, albeit strongly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth” and “Lot 249” as well much of H. Rider Haggard’s writing. Keeping recent success in mind, the studio gave Boris Karloff, who had rocketed to stardom in Frankenstein, the title role, and had Balderstone pen the screenplay. Barely days before the shoot was to start, the studio pressed Freund to direct. When Universal returned to the idea of the mummy as monster in the Kharis series, kicked off by The Mummy’s Hand (1940), the more familiar version was created, that of a lurching, raggedly bandaged zombie slowly and remorselessly tracking victims. In this regard the original The Mummy can be a surprise, as the notion of a walking mummy is only briefly touched on in the film’s famous opening sequence.
That scene sees respected Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), his friend and colleague Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), and young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) inspecting their latest discoveries on their 1921 field expedition. Sir Joseph, an old and wise hand, wants to carry on cataloguing in the order of discover as per usual practice, but Norton is too distracted by their big finds, a casket that proves to house a mummy, a high priest named Imhotep, and a box containing a hieroglyphic scroll. Muller, inspecting the casket, deduces the mummy was in fact a man buried alive, for treason or, more likely, sacrilege. “Maybe he got too gay with the Vestal virgins in the temple,” Norton theorises cheekily, getting closer to the mark than he thinks. Sir Joseph is momentarily shocked by the terrible curse inscribed on the box containing the scroll, which proves on inspection to be the mythical Scroll of Toth, inscribed with a spell for raising the dead. Muller, an occult expert, and Sir Joseph head out to argue the wisdom of prying any further into their find, leaving Norton alone, where curiosity proves far too powerful for him: he removes the scroll, transcribes and translates it, and reads the words quietly to himself. As he does so, the eyes of the mummy behind him slowly flicker open, its desiccated hands twitch and shift. The poor archaeologist is unaware until suddenly one mouldering hand reaches into the frame and lifts the scroll.
The walking dead disappears out the door, still only glimpsed only as a few trailing bandages, leaving behind the instantly mentally shattered Norton, who bursts into hysterical laughter and reports to Sir Joseph when he comes running, “He went for a little walk – you should’ve seen his face!” This opening is so arresting and memorable that it has long overshadowed the rest of the film. The technical limitations of early sound cinema, including sparing use of music, actually helped imbue the early Universal horrors with their power – these films work like stepping into some quieter, sinister antechamber of reality, in spite of the fact Dracula and The Mummy are both set in a contemporary world of motor cars and other noisy paraphernalia (even Frankenstein was set about 1900). Freund turns a static, all but eventless scene into a little minuet of delicate camera movements and judicious cuts. He privileges the viewer at first to the manifestations of something extraordinary occurring, but then cuts the viewer out from seeing the climax of the moment. He concentrates instead on Norton’s transgressive act as something nudging the edges of an unseen world as he silently recites the crucial text, and then his confrontation with something from beyond the bounds of human experience and sanity. The narrative jumps forward ten years and takes up again with Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) working with Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie), on a new expedition on behalf of the British Museum that’s had a total flop of a digging season.
The events of ten years before are an enigma for these men, as Pearson ponders why David’s father vowed never to return to Egypt and David himself glibly theorises the boredom of digging in the desert broke Norton’s mind. A knock at the door of their base hut proves to be the strange, stalk-thin, brittle-skinned man claiming to be Ardeth Bey, who is of course is Imhotep himself, having cast off his grave wrappings and spent ten years practising Osiris knows what acts of dark magic to set himself up in the twentieth century and pass as a living being. Ardeth entices David and Pearson into facilitating his secret plan, by giving a clue to the location of the tomb of the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Intrigued by this seemingly wild surmise and anxious for anything resembling a find, the archaeologists set their diggers to the task and locate the tomb, fully intact with a bounty of untouched relics. So sensational is the find that Sir Joseph breaks his pledge and comes to oversee the removal of the treasure, which is then shipped to the Cairo Museum as prize exhibit. Freund offers another brilliant pirouette of style here as his camera explores the museum like a restless, hungry spirit, eventually zeroing in on the face on Anck-es-en-Amon’s casket. Freund then transitions via a whip-pan and an odd, delightful effect using a scrolling, illustrated cityscape as if the camera is racing across the city, to then halt on the face of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), gazing out at the pyramids as if staring into the past – the subliminal connection between her and the dead princess instantly stated.
The scrolling effect is deliberately artificial; a nod to the roots of fantastic cinema in magic lantern shows and theatrical effects, with an echo of Freund’s work for Murnau. It also reinforces an idea in the dialogue, a sense of disconnection from the reality of “this dreadful modern Cairo.” Helen is the daughter of the English governor of Sudan and an Egyptian woman “with a family tree a mile long,” and is the repository for a memory of nations and wandering spirits. Helen is being watched over by Muller and his wife (Kathryn Byron), but can’t concentrate on the “nice English boys” because something’s stirring in the night. That something is Imhotep, who breaks into the museum with the Scroll of Thoth and begins chanting her name in a ritual to bring her soul back to her body. Helen is the one who obeys the call as the Princess’s reincarnation, and Frank and his father come across her in a daze banging on the museum door. They take her to her apartment after she faints whilst Imhotep is chased by a museum guard who meets an ugly end in the shadows.
One distinctive quality of the Universal horror brand was that it upheld the notion that horror as a genre was essentially tragic, by concentrating on monsters and antiheroes who are often essentially cursed with existence, doomed to exist outside of the world and often prey on it. This idea stands in complete opposition to the tendency that emerged in the 1960s and still dominates the genre where the forces of evil have become increasingly one-dimensional and symbolic. Whale’s Frankenstein monster captured this idea with such power that it became a recurring motif, whilst Imhotep, in his desperate, eon-long search for his great love, exemplifies it. Appearing like a sun-dried praying mantis in kaftan and fez, Imhotep proceeds with Mandarin cool, alternately effete and concerted, afraid of being touched (“An Eastern prejudice,” he tells Sir Joseph by way of explanation after asking him not to) in case his skin comes off in mouldy flakes. But his parched and brittle body is belied by the power emanating from his eyes and the fixity of his desires. Universal’s make-up wiz Pierce created both the overtly gnarled and desiccated look of the mummy when first discovered and a subtler look for the revived and rejuvenated Ardeth, who looks just normal enough to pass but whose face bears a thousand tiny wrinkles as if someone tried to shrink his head.
Freund returns more than once to a single, stunning shot of Karloff’s face, every rut in Pierce’s make-up inscribed by the lighting and his eyes in shadow, only for his eyes to suddenly light up and reveal a dread, piercing stare. It’s a very simple effect, and yet it turns the idea of Imhotep’s deathless passion and innate force into a singular visual. The Mummy also helped codify a now-common form of morbid romanticism popular in the horror genre. Nowadays even Dracula, a human-shaped leech originally, has become a deathless romancer in search of his reincarnated darling in many recent takes on his story. Freund’s channelling of the Germanic liebestod tradition into a Hollywood movie was still a relatively new and powerful notion, and even segues into a perverse joke when Frank, half-jokingly and half-honestly, confesses to Helen that he fell in love with Anck-es-en-Amon’s mummified body after rifling through her personal effects. Archaeology as pick-up art by way of stalking and necrophilia.
The Mummy’s mood of subliminal obsession is mediated through intensely rhythmic visual and editing patterns, particularly the recurring images of Imhotep, swathed in shadow, chanting Anck-es-en-Amon’s name or reciting killing curses, alternately pathetic in his longing or terrible in his malevolence. Music and image build to crescendos as Imhotep screws up a fist to drive home his maledictions like lances. He kills Sir Joseph this way and also almost kills Frank, who is saved only by clasping onto a charm given to him by Muller, who serves as the de facto Van Helsing character. Van Sloan gets to display even more impressive pith as Muller than he did as Stoker’s savant, as he proclaims his desire to “get my hands on you – I’d break your dried flesh to pieces!”, but knows he can’t even approach the deadly magician. That’s another unusual aspect of The Mummy, too, as most horror films invoke the supernatural but very few place so much emphasis on mysticism as a form of power to be invoked and resisted. Every character in the film feels or wields an invisible influence, locked as they are within patterns of fate, from Sir Joseph’s Sudanese servant (Noble Johnson) who falls under the influence of Imhotep like one his ancestors did to that fallen but still potent empire, to Anck-es-en-Amon whose spirit continues to wander and find new bodies eternally for having broken her vows as a priestess of Isis.
The Mummy is perhaps the most overtly dreamlike and ethereal of horror films made between the coming of sound and the work of Georges Franju. An otherworldly quality is sustained throughout, a quality glimpsed at its strongest in moments like when Imhotep shows Helen their shared past in a shimmering pool of sacred water, or when Helen, swathed in white nightgown, stalks a corridor in a trance-state, leaving behind Frank’s crumped form on the floor. One the film’s most genuinely weird and jarring asides comes when Helen’s dog, nervous in Ardeth’s house of dark magic overseen by the cat goddess of evil sendings, Bast, is killed off-screen with a horrible wail. Most mummy tales exemplify, and indeed are today the most recognisable version, of a story pattern popular in a lot of Victorian-era fantastic fiction (also crime fiction, a la The Moonstone and The Sign of Four). In that pattern, exotic, mysterious objects from alien cultures come into the possession of hapless westerners, who find out just how much deadly power there is in the taboo objects of ransacked cultures. The forbidden object stood for a certain suppressed, half-conscious anxiety at the possible surge of forces stirred by colonialism, and reminded of the necessity of a certain stoic acceptance of foreign customs and rules.
This The Mummy has an aspect of this but moves in different directions. Imhotep re-emerges to torment the despoilers of a cultural heritage but also uses them to accomplish his ends. He lets Frank and Pearson commit the heresy he won’t, for he himself is a rebel against the demarcations of the sacred. He also happily reclaims ancient status when he mesmerically suborns the “Nubian” servant: the bath ain’t big enough for two imperialist powers. Karloff played Fu Manchu the same year in The Mask of Fu Manchu, and there’s a distinctly similar note of paranoia over the possibility of an aristocratic man from a non-Caucasian society creating a different, if no less oppressive, power paradigm. Here that pattern is complicated by Helen’s status as inheritor of dual legacies and existing in multiple ages. A deleted addendum to the lengthy flashback followed Anck-es-en-Amon’s spirit through many ages and places, disseminating the flow of civilisation out of Egypt and into Europe as well as the progress of her spirit. Imhotep is the power of things past but not forgotten; Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon is the life force that graces and never dies.
The vision of their shared history, including his own downfall and terrible death, Imhotep shows to Helen in his mystic pool, glimpsing how Anck-es-en-Amon died and Imhotep, the high priest to her priestess who had fallen in love with her against all taboos, tried to use the Scroll of Toth to revive her, only to be caught and sentenced to be buried alive. This sequence, which was recycled several times in Universal’s later mummy films, is a delight as a throwback to the fast-receding ideals of silent cinema, like a lost reel from some lost Cecil B. DeMille historical epic. Freund, like DeMille, takes the rectilinear styles of Ancient Egyptian art as a basis for stylising compositions and the movements of the actors within them, creating a ritualised form to evoke the distant past. More interestingly, though, Freund also utilises silent film acting styles to suggest the bygone and archaic – Freund both tipping his hat to the art form that had defined him and other filmmakers but which was already fading into legend. The close-up of Imhotep being wrapped in bandages before burial is excruciating, as Karloff communicates his unutterable fear and suffering even as he submits to his fate: this is, in its way, one of the most violent images ever committed to film. Imhotep’s pathos as a lover and antihero, where before he was merely a menacing ghoul, emerges here and gives context to the priest’s incredible defiance, even of his own death, a character who triangulates the dominating stature of Dracula, the victimised pathos of The Wolf Man‘s Larry Talbot, and the Promethean arrogance of Dr Frankenstein.
The Mummy hinges on Karloff’s ability to paint tortured depths in unlikely figures as well as sepulchral menace, his depictions of the alternations of hate, pain, longing, and a wry and haughty authority that drive the character making Imhotep one of the most genuinely interesting horror film villains. To have seen the film is to have his plangent chant of “Anck-es-en-Amon” forever in mind, reminiscent of that scene in Hour of the Wolf (1968) when the similar chant of “Pamina” in The Magic Flute is explored, the name as spell, love as transfiguring force. Indeed, Ingmar Bergman made that film in part as a tribute to his love for Universal’s horror films. Johann, a stage actress who was showcased as a potential movie star for a brief time but then retreated to Broadway and married John Houseman, is a fascinating presence. With her deep, silky voice and large-eyed beauty, she was at once able at once to seem the perfect flapper-age woman but also evoked a timeless quality. Her Helen looks and sounds like a being detached from the hoi-polloi of the twentieth century, and it’s easy to imagine her adrift on the rivers of time. Indeed, by the finale Imhotep has regressed her until she is once again Anck-es-en-Amon. Johann projects an easy sensuality and an aura of emotional maturity that belies her standing as damsel in distress, and she constantly nudges the viewer to remember this is a pre-Code film we’re watching. “What girl could fail to make a conquest who collapsed at a man’s feet in the moonlight?” she prods Frank amusedly when he professes instant passion for her, before adding: “Don’t you think I’ve had enough excitement for one evening without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?”
Manners, who had played a drippy Jonathan Harker in Dracula, is similarly outmatched here in a way that points to the way familiar romantic heroes were all but incidental in this kind of film long before the days of final girls. But Manners also fares better in playing Frank, who’s a rather oddball hero, a handsome nerd, albeit one whose romantic nerve once touched is impressively ardent: “You can tell me to go to the devil – but you can’t laugh at me,” as he proclaims with impressive determination as he declares his instant obsession to Helen. The Mummy is a flawed film for all its qualities. Balderstone’s script betrays something of the same stagy thinking that weighed down Dracula. Many scenes unfolds in the theatrical-like environs of the Whemples’ apartment, whilst Manners has deal with the lion’s share of unspeakable lines as romantic ingénue (“How I love you so!”). Freund’s last-minute hiring means that the filmmaking is flatly functional as often as it’s inspired. Freund was a profoundly gifted technician but only directed two horror films, this and Mad Love (1935). The degree to which he could take charge of material remained in question after the second film in particular was badly hampered by an unfocused narrative and excessive comic relief, and he stopped directing after that.
But The Mummy remains almost sui generis in its delicate sense of horror and tension, and resolves with a climax where the heroes, rushing to rescue Helen from Imhotep’s impending sacrifice and resurrection of her mortal form to remake her like himself, find themselves still outmatched by Imhotep’s power. Instead, aptly, it is up to Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon to defeat him by an act of prayer and contrition, calling on Isis to save her. Whereupon the statue of the goddess looking over the scene lifts a stony arm and strikes down the unruly priest with a curse that causes him to crumble to dust and skeletal remains, and Frank is left to try and drag Helen’s persona back from the murk of the past. This may well have influenced the similar deus ex machina punchline of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Although the staging of the finale is a bit awkward and rushed, it retains power for respecting the strange logic of this tale, where forces beyond rule all and love is an immutable force that distorts and rewrites reality. In celebrating this idea, The Mummy moves beyond Expressionist ideas into the realm of the authentically surreal.
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Director: George Miller
By Roderick Heath
Mad Max (1979) was a weird and unexpectedly popular film made by George Miller, a young doctor who turned to filmmaking in his spare time during his residency training. Miller had already revealed an antic talent and gory sense of humour with his short film Violence in the Cinema, Part 1 (1971). His first feature evidently aimed to transplant the ’70s craze for car chase movies into the Aussie landscape, a smart commercial move considering that adulation of the car was and is one of the nation’s major religious movements. Miller and his initial cowriter James McCausland went a step further than the usual run of car chase flicks pitting redneck cops against raffish criminals. Perhaps borrowing a little from A Clockwork Orange (1971), Damnation Alley (1976), and Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), Miller set the film in a hazily futuristic time of a decayed social order where the roads were battlegrounds for marauders. His cops were badass neo-knights battling rampaging scum, and his hero, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), was that popular figure of ’70s genre cinema, the good man pushed too far by lowlifes. The film was a hit both at home and overseas, albeit after a dub job for U.S. distribution. Miller expanded the series with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), which pushed the concept into the realm of myth and depicted a properly post-apocalyptic landscape, and then Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Each film was exponentially more expensive and ambitious than the one before, and Gibson became an international star. Miller’s love of a bygone brand of big, sweeping, elemental cinema was laced with visual and thematic overtones borrowed from John Ford, Howard Hawks, David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, and especially Sergio Leone, whose offbeat, proto-punkish spaghetti westerns became a particular touchstone.
The Mad Max films have been remembered with rare fondness, particularly the middle episode, for their kinetic force, their exotic creativity, and specific, instantly influential roster of ideas and images. These films were quintessential artefacts of the early days of video, providing an easy bridging point between the drive-ins and home entertainment. Imitations exploded, at first in cheap Italian knock-offs and eventually in big-budget riffs like Waterworld (1995). In their native land, the Mad Max films were admired in themselves, and considered just about the only salvageable relics of Aussie cinema’s flirtation with genre filmmaking until the reawakened interest in Ozploitation in the 2000s; indeed, there is a serious case to be made for The Road Warrior as the best film ever made Down Under. Beyond Thunderdome, an attempt to take the series upmarket and give it Spielbergian appeal, was a great-looking and thoughtful entry that nonetheless skimped terribly on action, and many felt Miller had pulled his creation’s teeth. Ever since Miller, a truly talented filmmaker, has, like George Lucas, wasted a lot of that talent trying to be a one-man film industry.
Miller had been mooting a fourth episode since the mid-1990s, and now, finally, it has arrived with rising star Tom Hardy slotted into the lead role. Fury Road has been greeted with an enthusiasm bordering on the orgiastic by critics and fans. That’s not so surprising. The appeal of the series was always based on the outlandish and the disreputable, and the new film, armed with a blockbuster budget, has on the face of it at least the jagged, thumping appeal of a heavy-metal album in a sea of autotune pop. One unique quirk of the Mad Max series was that each episode, although linked by certain elements, represented a partial reboot rather than mere sequel to the previous one, remixing certain ideas and characterisations, thus lending itself rather neatly to recomposition 30 years down the track. Fury Road quickly reveals itself determined to a fault not to repeat the perceived mistakes of Beyond Thunderdome.
Just how deeply Australian the Mad Max films were is necessary to note outright, most particularly their sense of the landscape as both a limitlessly boding expanse and a harsh and withholding thing where paucity dictates adaptation, and their vision of civilisation as a crude assemblage of spare parts left lying about by other cultures. Miller took the Oz-gothic vision of Ted Kotcheff’s seminal Wake in Fright (1971), which contemplated the ugly, unstable tone of devolved aggression that can be seen in some pockets of the continent, and gave it a purpose. He also quoted the wild, frenetic, purposefully crude inventiveness coming out of the nation’s pop cultural quarters in the late ’70s: in the weird panoply of grotesques that form the human world of Miller’s early vision lies the grubby energy welling out of grungy pub rock scenes, art schools, and the burgeoning gay and punk scenes. At the time this was cutting edge; now it’s all rather retro. Miller went to town mimicking the sweeping widescreen visions and strident, epic-sounding music associated with a brand of big movie-making that was fallow for most of the ‘70s: Miller made blockbusters on a budget. Mad Max: Fury Road, which cost $150 million, can’t argue such handmade pizzazz, and Miller had to work his fascination with creating weird little worlds and exploring their sensibilities with a near-constant barrage of thrills and spills.
Hardy’s Max is glimpsed at the outset framed against the horizon, gazing into the distance, before stamping on a two-headed mutant lizard in an attempt to quell the semi-psychotic buzzing in his head—the voices of the people he tried and failed to save in the past, including his daughter. No time to stand around, however; Max quickly gets into his battered, old Interceptor and flees ahead of a squadron of hunter hotrods. They manage to wreck his vehicle, drag him out, and take him to the Citadel controlled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a hulking aged warlord. Many citizens of the Citadel suffer from “half-life,” or a congenital anaemia usually accompanied by cancerous tumours that cause early death, and one half of Joe’s power rests on his ability to find strong donors to keep the others alive; the other half is control of an underground water supply. The culture of the Citadel includes his army of “War Boys,” young half-lifes kept functioning by blood donors, or “blood-bags” as they’re called, and controlled through promises of an afterlife in Valhalla if they die in combat for him. Joe also has a coterie of beautiful young woman kept as a concubines in a vault. Max is tethered, and his back is tattooed with his status as a universal donor. Before his captors can brand him, Max breaks free and nearly escapes, only to be recaptured. He’s given to one waning War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as a blood-bag. Meanwhile Joe’s top “Imperator” Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads men out on a supply run to the nearby cities that produce fuel oil and weapons Behind the wheel of her war-rig, an armed and armoured long-range fuel truck, Furiosa drives off the beaten path into the wastelands, stringing along her soldiers and plunging them into a battle with wasteland marauders. Joe soon realises what’s happened: Furiosa is helping the concubines escape.
Characterising Immortan Joe as a primitive tyrant with a taste for harem flesh might be seen as Miller having a sly dig at one of the basic appeals of his creation: the possibility that future civilisation decline would return humankind to barbarism and the unrestrained indulgence of primal appetites and discourteous sexuality, a notion exploited all too enthusiastically by the not-so-different Gor novels by John Norman. Some of the ugliest moments in Miller’s first two films in the series involved the pansexual rape habits of its villains, so Miller may be issuing a mea culpa as he takes on the theme of liberating sex slaves. The storyline mildly upbraids such a fantasy landscape’s appeal in repeatedly noting the stripping away of dignity and agency, something inflicted on Max as well as the young concubines, as he spends many scenes strapped to the front of Nux’s car as he gives chase, feeding him lifeblood. Easy enough, too, to read Joe as a caricature of just about any arbiter of social control, as he keeps his War Boys’ heads screwed with religion and his populace on a leash with carefully rationed water: he warns his populace as he pours water upon them not to become addicted to it, lest they resent its general absence.
Nux has the strongest, most interesting character arc in the film—point of fact, the only character arc. He charges into battle with fellow berserker Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), mouth spray-painted with silvery gloss to evoke the chrome-plated bumper bar of Death, desperate to live up to his creed only to be jolted out of the death-hungry obsession by his own failures. He slowly changes loyalty to the ragged team of heroes whilst Erectus becomes his personal nemesis in the pursuing armada. Hoult, usually cast as cupid-lipped young romantics, has a blast playing such a loose-screw, physical character.
Meanwhile the coterie of pulchritudinous fugitives—heavily pregnant favourite The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), flame-locked Capable (Riley Keough), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton)—are characterised not as feyly naïve or absurdly tough, but as a pack of sarcastically articulate waifs out of their depth and yet committed to their Quixotic mission, tucked under Furiosa’s wing and doing their best to operate in the ferocity of the moment. I’m not quite sure if anything about their characterisations makes sense in context, though. They’re children of the post-apocalyptic world but say they don’t want their children to be warlords. What else are they going to be? Conceptual artists? Miller should have gone back to Kurosawa to remind himself of how characters set in worlds run by different rules should act.
Max’s first proper glimpse of this coterie of bounteous female forms has them arrayed against the desert sand and sky in diaphanous silks and chastity belts like some particularly collectable Sports Illustrated foldout. Furiosa herself likes to shave her head and rub engine grease on her forehead as war paint, and has a mechanical left arm. Theron proves again she’s a performer of sneaky craft as she finds depth in a swiftly sketched character with real art, moving supply and convincingly from steely war face to shows of pathos and personal longing and anguish. Her Monster (2003) Oscar notwithstanding, I can’t help but wonder if Theron hasn’t finally found her metier here as a rudely charismatic bruiser. That Furiosa is in many ways the real protagonist of the film is Fury Road’s open secret. Max is at first frantic to the point of, yes, madness—understandable considering the indignities he suffers in the film’s opening scenes. He finally breaks free when Nux crashes his vehicle chasing Furiosa’s war-rig into a sandstorm, and his initial meeting with the cabal of females is a tense and coercive standoff, as he’s initially obsessed only with survival. Standoff turns into a three-way punch-up, as Nux, still chained to his escaped blood-bag, leaps into the fray, and Max alternates between fighting off Furiosa and stopping Nux from killing her. Max at first tries to leave them all behind, but finds the war-rig won’t go because Furiosa’s kill switches have to be cleared in an order only she knows. Furiosa convinces him to take her and the other women aboard, and, of course, uneasy partnership soon becomes unshakeable alliance.
The basic story of Fury Road reminded me more than a little of Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert (1970) with way more action, blended with a solid B-western like Charge at Feather River (1953). Miller sprinkles stirringly bizarre, funny-appalling flourishes throughout Fury Road, proving something of his old, wicked sense of humour remains. Joe has a battery farm of tubby ladies having their breast siphoned as foodstuff that Joe trades as a delicacy. The escaped concubines pause to rid themselves of their detested chastity belts, which have barbed spikes protecting them from penetration. A remote patch of bog is home to a tribe of weirdoes living on stilts. Joe’s armada comes equipped with one vehicle carrying multiple drummers and electric guitarist for mobile war music, a touch that represents Fury Road’s most inspired nod to the rock ’n roll spirit that lurked within the original series’ texture, as well as providing perhaps this entry’s keenest example of the series’ habit of melding ancient ideas with the new. If Fury Road was nothing but such moments, it might have added up to a gonzo classic of crazy-trashy inspiration. But there’s not nearly enough humour to the film, nor enough real inspiration to its running set-pieces.
Here we get into the greater problems with this entry. The price Miller has paid to make such an inflated reboot has been to do like a lot of modern action directors and essentially turn the last act—the climactic chases from the second two original Mad Max films—and inflate them into an entire movie. The first half-hour sets a hard-charging pace the film can’t sustain but damn well tries, what with Max’s attempted escape through the labyrinth of the Citadel whilst besieged by flash-cut memories of his past failures quickly segueing into Furiosa’s escape. I was near being put off the film right from get-go: Miller over-directs to an absurd degree as he sets the film racing, starting with that annoying CGI lizard and the tumult of psychic ghosts tormenting Max that reduce the necessary reintroduction of the character to a barrage of cheesy camera effects. The very opening suggests a dialogue of intense, meditative quiet and thunderous action might begin, but instead there’s only thunder.
Miller’s most inspired touches of world-building are steamrollered into the tar along with everything else. The illogic that’s often leaked out the edges of Miller’s world—the amount of petrol the villains wasted in The Road Warrior was about the same as what they were chasing—here returned in watching Immortan Joe piss water away on desert sands. Apparently none of his subject populace of human flotsam have thought to put in some kind of collecting basin or sink. Miller has his image of mock-beneficent tyrant’s egotism and human pathos, and goes no further in setting us up with either a social metaphor of real force or a villain of great stature. In spite of the film’s thematic evocations, it’s as simplistic on the level of metaphor as can be, and the raving about the film’s feminist angles in some quarters ignores the fact that the “hero saves evil king’s sex-slaves” plot is one of the oldest in pulp adventuring. Of course, we live in a time where crude and basic lip-service to political themes in movies is popular for painting our Rorschach sensibilities onto (see also The Hunger Games films), so Fury Road is quite on trend in that regard. For all the faults of Beyond Thunderdome and its big, shameless debts to Lord of the Flies and Riddley Walker, it had a depth and a wistful poetry that completely eludes Fury Road, in moments like the haunting scene where Max is treated to a creation-myth-cum-history via a relic Viewmaster where random images from a vanished civilisation have been patched together to illustrate it. There’s a hint of this in the recurring phrase asked by the concubines, “Who killed the world?”, indicting the warmongers of the future with the warmongers of the past, but without pausing to note the irony of trying to touch on pacifistic themes whilst dancing the audience giddily into a sea of carnage.
Once the action kicks into gear, the early battles and the finale are the strongest, but in the middle comes some well-staged but uninspired stuff, including an attempt to get the war-rig unstuck from the mud, whilst one of Joe’s allies, the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), randomly and stupidly fires off his guns into murk. It begs the question: how did any of these halfwits survive the apocalypse? Miller can think up a lot of things, but not a nonviolent action set-piece for his truckers that can hold a candle to the sequence in Ice Cold in Alex (1959) where the heroes have to hand-crank their vehicle up a hill, or the bridge crossing in Sorcerer (1977).
In spite of the film’s efforts to honour the force of the original trilogy’s realistic action sequences, here swathes of CGI still must paint the skies. Still, Miller’s respect for landscape and physical context emerges throughout. Production problems meant that Fury Road had to be shot in Namibia rather than the hallowed turf of the Aussie outback, but the vistas are just as powerfully barren and stunningly vast (if also heavily digitally tweaked), and many of the best, though relatively few, moments of the film come when Miller draws back to behold this grand arena for perpetual human foolishness. One touch that did tickle me was Miller basing some of the wasteland marauders’ vehicles on the famous spiky Volkswagen Beetle from The Cars that Ate Paris.
Dramatically speaking, Fury Road is a near-total bust however, often reducing the honourable creed of the junk action flick to moving wallpaper of bangs and booms and crashes. They’re damn well done bangs and booms and crashes, make no mistake: Fury Road is a magnificent movie production, one that clearly demanded inspiring levels of commitment to put together, and it doesn’t feel cynical in its technical grandiosity and enervated on the level of real creation like this year’s Jupiter Ascending or like the subtle, but definite defeat of an auteur by studio forces as Avengers: Age of Ultron did. But like last year’s John Wick, which also gained many plaudits from critics I’d expect to know better, Fury Road frustrated me with the presumption that an action flick can and should just be a series of Pavlovian set-pieces. Miller has a talent for fitting vignettes of humanity into the sprawl of excess, and the ones that come are interesting, like Furiosa admitting she wants “redemption” for aiding Joe for so long, and Nux connecting with Capable, the least cynical of the escapees; Keough gives a quietly luminous performance that stands out amongst her fellows, though that might be because she actually has a proper interaction with another character. But the character reflexes are astonishingly clipped and basic. Nux changes side with barely a blink, and Max and Furiosa shift from trying to kill each other to palsy-walsy in a couple of minutes.
The bad guys particularly suffer from this thinness. Part of the force of the first two Mad Max entries lay in the fact that Miller was willing to contemplate, horror-movielike, the dread of characters failing in their personal missions of protection and the loss of loved ones to the new barbarians, and his ability to think up cool avatars of evil. Here Miller reduces that element to backstory visualised in the worst way possible. Keays-Byrne’s velvet-voiced, charismatic, if often overripe, presence was one of the most entertaining in Aussie TV and film of the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s great to see him restored to his rightful place as overlord of villains. Yet he’s completely wasted as Immortan Joe, who’s just a weak retread of Lord Humungus, lacking his real physical menace, mixed with traits from Dune’s Baron Harkonnen, and he remains a mere action figure in place of a villain. Perhaps it’s admirable we don’t get scenes of the concubines being raped or mistreated, but the film lacks basic melodramatic spurs and thus the delight in seeing evil regime churned into scrap metal. Moreover, Joe’s actual comeuppance is so clumsy and helter-skelter that I almost wondered why Miller bothered.
Furiosa, finding her beloved childhood birthplace no longer exists and sinking to her knees to scream in fury to the desert, is supposed to register as an emotional highpoint, but doesn’t really cut it, considering the character’s had about 15 lines of dialogue and the hoped-for Eden has only ever registered before as a tossed-off McGuffin. Late in the film, Miller introduces a new set of protagonists to add to the band of heroes—the Vuvalini, a small remnant tribe of women ranging from young and dashing “Valkyrie” (Megan Gale) to aged matriarchs, including “Keeper of the Seeds” (the always wonderful Melissa Jaffer). Like so much else in the film, these ladies deserve and demand far more time to impress themselves upon us, and the notion of a pack of gun-wielding grannies on choppers is delightful, but they’re tossed into the drama moments before the big finish revs up. Thus, moments like the Valkyries’ eruption into battle don’t carry much weight: it’s just more stuff happening.
Frankly, although the final chase sequence represents a breathless piece of cinema construction and risky filming, I didn’t enjoy it half as much as the jungle chase of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which emphasised fluid lines of camera motion to better read complex action using moving vehicles as mobile platforms in a running battle. Miller tries to do the same thing here, but changes camera positions and edits the stunt work too frenetically, with no sense of rhythm for the daring and the interplay of elements to register. But perhaps the biggest void in Fury Road is Max himself. Hardy seemed on paper like perfect casting as Max redux: he’s an actor of great sensitivity who has powerful star presence and also can look convincingly tough. His performances in Warrior (2011) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) elevated both: the mordant humour as well as threat he invested in Bane has proven over time to be one of the latter film’s coups. But here he proves startlingly weak. At first he makes a stab at an Aussie brogue, but his accent skids about like slick tyres on an oily road, and he sometimes barely seems present in the movie. Trapped behind the mask he wears for much of the film, Hardy looks vaguely like some downmarket Daniel Craig clone. This isn’t entirely his fault. If I didn’t know better I’d suspect the screenplay was, like the second two Die Hard movies, one of those blockbuster imitation spec scripts that someone thought might as well be repurposed as a sequel for the model, so disposable is Max’s presence throughout much of the film. Max has been robbed of all of his mythic stature and specific gravitas.
I have suspected one of the reasons the series lay fallow for so long was because by the end of Beyond Thunderdome , Max as a character had reached a point in stasis. For all the alarum and affray here, it’s still rather obvious that Miller is unwilling to nudge him even slightly past the pose of eternal wanderer. That’s not necessarily a problem—after all, Zatoichi clocked up 20-odd films in his rootless wanderings and remained entertaining—but Max here just never feels particularly important, vital, or distinctive. The man who “carries Mr. Death in his pocket” has become just another player in a busy landscape. What Fury Road does well is just about the only thing it does: stage fast-paced road action. Fury Road is a triumph of high-powered editing masquerading as awesome swashbuckling fun, but much of the soul of this creation has been left by the roadside like so many burnt-out spark plugs: it’s an almost complete dud on an emotional level—and this kind of filmmaking runs on emotion. Yes, it is a good action movie. But it could have, and should have, aimed higher.
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Director/Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
They’re back – Marvel’s all-star line-up, marshalled by nerd overlord Joss Whedon. It’s been a long three years since the last episode came out, and Marvel’s endless diversification of its fictional universe had, for me at least, begun to take rub of the shine from the brand even as it’s confirmed again and again its box office potency. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK, to pacify fans of John Steed and Emma Peel), uneven as it was, was a difficult act to follow, surpassing Kenneth Branagh’s grandiose Thor (2011) as the best Marvel movie in ebulliently bringing together a cast of epic-scaled characters and delighting in watching (and listening to) them cut loose. The standalone adventures since then, Iron Man Three, Thor: The Dark World (both 2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the tangentially related Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), whilst all entertaining to various degrees, inflated their production elements for spectacle but grazed one of the major problems with bigger-is-better storytelling: they felt smaller. That, plus the fact that The Avengers, via Whedon’s pithy, zippy writing style, proved these characters, once introduced with origins explored, actually work best when pitched against other characters like them, forcing them again to jostle for the pre-eminence and respect lesser folk automatically cede to them, and treating the audience to super-friends camaraderie.
In spite of his stature as a major professional fabulist, Whedon is not a particularly original or deep inventor when it comes to the tropes of fantastic fiction. His specific gift rather has been an understanding that the fantasy in that fiction works best when inseparable from the dramatic and emotional impact it has on characters, and through them the audience. The great passage in his TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that depicted the transformation of nice-girl witch Willow into a psychotic killer and sorcerer after the murder of her lover, or the “Gifted” storyline he wrote for the X-Men comics, that inspired X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), illustrate that understanding well. The Winter Soldier, which I admit to underrating last year, left the franchise in interesting disarray, with SHIELD broken and Hydra, the evil organisation of fascist futurists founded by Captain America’s old Nazi antagonist Red Skull, stripped of its cover.
Age of Ultron commences with the Avengers having stepped into the gap left by SHIELD’s demise, tracking down Hydra’s secret basis and destroying them. Whedon’s greatest coup in his first entry was a single “shot” that moved from Avenger to Avenger along the course of downtown New York, locating each one in the midst of a tussle that fulfilled both Whedon’s delight in connected cinema space that underlined the dramatic democracy of his sensibility, and brought the fluency of comic book illustration onto the screen. Here he offers the same stunt very early on as the Avengers fall upon a castle somewhere in the Mittel Europa enclave of Sokovia, the Avengers charging out of the snowy woods and raining thunder and wrath upon their enemies, in a more focused zone of action where the battle is like a colossal game of tag: Whedon resolves on a slow-motion sprawl with his cast flying en masse across the screen. The once-individualist warriors are now a weathered team: Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers (Chris Evans) leading Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jnr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner). Former SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulers), now officially working for Tony, provides support, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lurks in the wilderness, ready to help with the odd deus ex machina.
This Hydra base, administrated by improbably monocle-clad Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), holds secrets beyond the Avengers’ ken, including the fruits of a mysterious experiment in artificial intelligence, the sceptre of unbelievable power brought to Earth by Loki in the previous instalment and filched from the SHIELD vaults, and two siblings, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). They are, of course, mutants (or “enhanced” as Whedon calls them, to avoid stepping on turf currently locked down by Fox): Pietro, better known as Quicksilver, provided the best scene in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, albeit with a different actor in the part. Pietro and Wanda in Whedon’s take are a pair of orphaned Russians with a gripe against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) because some of his weaponry killed their parents. Now their talents have been honed to a dangerous edge by Hydra. Pietro attacks the Avengers and leaves Hawkeye injured, whilst Wanda unleashes her psychic power to give Tony a vision of what he fears is the future, where all his pals are dead and the Earth decimated. Disturbed by this vision, Tony, retrieving Hydra’s experiments, resolves to use the recovered tech to complete one of his brainwaves: Ultron, an AI system more advanced than Jarvis (Paul Bettany), Tony’s digital manservant, to control a system of weapons to defend against alien attacks and allow the Avengers to stand down.
Tony convinces Bruce to help get the system working with the sceptre as power source. Whilst their experiments seem at first to fail, Ultron (voiced by James Spader, whose mordant purr remains immensely entertaining) awakens whilst the Avengers are partying, and, swiftly parsing his mission as programmed by Tony. Quicker than you can say “Colossus: The Forbin Project”, Ultron almost immediately decides in light of Tony’s desire for “peace”, the only way to achieve it is to annihilate human kind in general. Ultron seems to attack and virtually “kill” Jarvis, takes over Tony’s robotic support team and builds himself a crude body. Although that form is quickly destroyed in the melee that follows, Ultron escapes via the internet to rebuild himself more impressively elsewhere. Ultron invites Pietro and Wanda to help him under the guise of payback against Tony and the Avengers, and begins building a doomsday device utilising Vibranium, the same rare element that Cap’s shield is made from. Ultron also hopes to construct himself a perfect form combining human and metallic elements and powered by the core of the sceptre. To do this he takes control of Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), a medical tech wizard who has built a machine that fashions flesh, already demonstrated in repairing Hawkeye’s injury. The Avengers track down black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), who’s stockpiled Vibranium, to prevent Ultron getting his hands on the metal, but the team is split and driven into frantic disarray by Wanda’s psychic powers, each member sent spiralling down the rabbit hole of their own inner turmoil – most disastrously, Bruce’s alter ego the Hulk goes rampaging through a city, demanding Tony stop him with his latest, Hulk-sized Iron Man suit.
Already this synopsis should make plain how busy Age of Ultron will get. That busyness may well disorientate and even infuriate a lot of viewers, particularly those not terribly well-versed in this fictional universe or who missed a couple of instalments out of the previous ten movies in Marvel’s unfolding project. Whedon assumes, perhaps fairly by this point, that all of these faces are familiar and so can simply be let out the starting gate at full gallop. Despite being nearly two-and-a-half hours long, a lot of that run-time is spent in breathless motion. Whedon’s versing in the density of the Marvel universe as it’s developed over the past 60 years on the page is plain, and Age of Ultron revels in that richness with authentic passion: this is, for better or worse, is one of the most authentically comic book-esque of comic book movies. The storytelling style achieves the perfervid power of grand pulp fiction, harking back to days of print when villains and heroes chase each-other from page to page with scarcely a concern for anything but the next consequence of their mutual efforts in endlessly metastasising circumstances.
This does mean however that Whedon’s conceptual interests are flattened nearly into irrelevance. He imbues Ultron with Frankensteinian anger at his flawed creator, and makes Ultron himself into something of a cracked mirror of Tony himself, assimilating his flip speech patterns and plaintive neediness for companionship under the guise of gruff egotism. He accidentally cuts off Klaw’s arm in a tantrum when Klaw notes the similarities. Like just about everything else in the film, this fount of a theme is tightly wound into a narrative that can’t do much more than state an idea, rather than explore it. But Whedon does manage to imbue even a relatively second-string villain like Ultron with a distinctiveness that makes him interesting when he’s around, unlike the flat and dutiful villainy provided by several recent Marvel antagonists.
The Maximoffs are one of the big new items on this ticket, with Wanda about to evolve into Scarlet Witch, one of the key Avengers and also one of the most fractious. It’s an old adage about genre fiction, and action cinema above all, that character should be revealed in action, and the intensely mutually reliant nature of the Maximoffs defines them repeatedly throughout the film without requiring much dialogue to underline – and also provides a tragic jolt late in the film. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen, who played husband and wife in the tepid Godzilla (2014), have more chance here to show off their charisma even in more limited roles. Olsen is particularly good, plummy Slavic accent and all, in handling the switchbacks of her character, bringing something new to this panoply of heroes, insofar as she suggests a vengeful, dead-eyed confidence in her powers and the lurking spur of neurotic pain (and indeed, given the character’s instability in the comic books, menacingly so). Wanda and Pietro change sides in the conflict according to an essential, bitterly imposed awareness of the brutality in the world and their own motivation to counter it.
Ultron’s insistence on giving himself a human-like form means giving up the pure sanctity and detachment of a merely digital existence, and allows Wanda to see into his mind, which proves not a pretty place to be. The Avengers swing into battle with Ultron for control of this new, potentially unstoppable cybernetic organism he’s prepared as a shell, and once the body is captured, Tony has the brainwave of installing Jarvis, found tattered but still extant in a pocket of cyberspace, into the body to keep Ultron out and potentially give the team extraordinarily strong new ally. When Wanda, who can see deeply enough into Tony’s mind to know exactly how he thinks, warns Cap and some of the other Avengers what he wants to do, they dash back to stop him, but Thor casts the deciding vote rather literally by powering the new being up with lightning. The being that emerges, Vision (Bettany again, finally gracing the franchise with his physical presence), proves neither human nor machine and can’t even assure the Avengers that he’s not a threat, but instead proves a new and independent life form, who declares himself on the side of life and thus against whoever’s threatening it.
Whedon tries to make his storyline as organically specific to this universe as possible. But regardless of whether Ultron uses Vibranium in his doomsday machine or not, it’s still a doomsday machine, and the actual plot is, again like Whedon’s first instalment, quite simple in spite of the multiplicity of moving parts. Whedon does cleverly suggest that Ultron’s unresolved filial issues drive his desire to reproduce a human form rather than simply disseminate himself into the fabric of the electronic universe: he strives to reproduce and then evolve the human form into something new, but confirms his divided psyche. Like Michael Mann’s Blackhat earlier this year, Whedon tries to depict the digital world as a microcosmic zone of cause and effect, a new frontier of existence. An important subplot here sees Thor, disturbed by the implications of the vision Wanda stirs in him, daring to enter a mystical pool to commune with “water spirits” (cue compulsory Hemsworth shirtless scene), and emerges with the knowledge that the sceptre, the Tasseract, and the Aether, are all kin to the Infinity Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, part of a fabled set of powerful objects that can be combined to imbue godlike power. And, what’s more, someone has been manipulating all of the events that have beset the Avengers recently, probably even having deliberately placed the double-edge blade that is Ultron where it would best tempt Tony, for precisely the purpose of making them do the work of rounding up the Infinity Stones. That manipulator is revealed in the now-traditional end credits teaser, and their identity is not actually surprising if you’ve been paying attention, but this element does suggest a degree of planning that’s formed a hidden substructure to the Marvel movies in spite of their occasionally wayward surfaces.
Inevitably, with so much lore and action to wade through, Age of Ultron can’t spare much time for more than cursory interaction between some of his Avengers: Whedon assumes Tony, Thor, and Cap, all of whom benefit from their own standalone movies, have been dealt with enough, and they mostly fill out the margins – but given those guys form the core of the fan following, that will probably leave more than a few feeling gypped. Downey Jr.’s art with a smart-aleck quip and Hemsworth’s ever-growing poise and ability to self-satirise in particular give the movie a sturdy support it doesn’t treat too well. Whedon instead concentrates on two character elements to give Age of Ultron a heart amidst the furore. He makes Hawkeye, the least well-served Avenger in the first instalment, the focus for the emotional journey of the episode just as Natasha was for the first. Chastened, bedraggled, and possibly outlawed after their first battle with Ultron and the Maximoffs has resulted in the Hulk decimating a city, the Avengers let Hawkeye take them to a safe house, which proves to be his own, a small farmhouse where Hawkeye has a wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini, always a welcome presence) and two children, with another baby on the way. This unexpected interlude of top-secret domestic bliss leaves the other Avengers toey in the face of their least “remarkable” member’s suddenly revealed settlement and success in keeping his work and life separate, and they move uneasily between rooms in this space, too large for it and too small for their own gifts.
Hawkeye’s specific gift as an Avenger, in contrast to the overwhelming force of the others, is one of precision, a gentleness of touch that eludes the galumphers around him. Whedon gives Hawkeye a crucial scene late in the film as he appeals to the momentarily overwhelmed Wanda to either stand clear of trouble or engage it wholeheartedly as a warrior. This vignette is a little wonder, referring to crucial backstory – Hawkeye also brought Black Widow over from the darkside – and also illuminating the present, suddenly making Hawkeye perhaps the most vital Avenger as well as the most human, and giving the film the kind of surprising emotional kick that is Whedon’s forte. Meanwhile romance is blossoming between a most unlikely couple, as Natasha is smitten with Bruce: in The Avengers Natasha had an intensely phobic reaction to the terrible spectacle of the Hulk, one that only seemed to infuriate the id-beast all the more. Now she has become the Hulk’s calming salve, able to draw the green guy out of his rages with nothing more than offering her hand, leading to the gently erotic sight of small woman’s palm in giant green mitt. But Bruce, whilst plainly equally taken, denies the attraction at first, and feels too conscious of his potential destructiveness to let the romance run its course.
Johansson, who ironically after several years floundering in stardom finally defined her screen persona playing Natasha, gets to work new levels to the character in love. Ruffalo, long a charm machine, is wonderful portraying Bruce’s befuddled delight. Whedon’s problematic but amiable film of Much Ado About Nothing (2013) was a long study in the dynamics of intimate staging for a roundelay of character expressed through quick-fire humour and effervescent emotion. Here that model is reproduced as haiku: Whedon even uses Hawkeye’s house as multilevelled stage in the same manner as he used his own house in that predecessor. I noted in my commentary on the first film that it represented a revival of an old Hollywood tradition, the all-star extravaganza, a genre that is distinct from the more prosaic style of the ensemble drama. Whedon was rightly praised for modelling the original like a Howard Hawks ensemble flick, like Rio Bravo (1959), watching fractious personalities bump against each-other in a pressure cooker situation and enjoy the process of watching them knit together. Whedon had a chance to make his El Dorado (1966) here, the semi-remake that’s possibly even better. The long, casually comic party sequence that follows the raucous opening does provide an islet of Hawksian interaction between the many different players, laced with appearances by supporting characters from the various sub-branches – James ‘War Machine’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson (Anthony Mackie) – and vignettes, from Thor treating some old veterans to some of his potent Asgardian booze, to the various Avengers trying and failing to lift his hammer – except for Cap, who manages to move it ever so slightly, bringing a momentarily worried look to Thor’s face (this also sets up a joke that pays off later on).
But the simultaneous blend of firm genre structure with free-flowing behavioural study that was Hawks’ forte eludes Whedon here, who’s been forced to contend with a teetering superstructure of franchise business. Wanda’s mind-games with the team destabilises them and allows Whedon to offer some trippy sequences that expose the hang-ups of the characters, based so often in the same experiences that have given them their superlative talents, a notion that particularly intrigues Whedon for reasons already noted. Age of Ultron tries here to annex the same territory so well-handled by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), where the hero was confronted by his own internal chaos, confirming how little distance there was between his heroic side and dark one, but then emerging as purified righteous ass-kicker. In this regard, Whedon fails, rather badly. He can’t linger on the psychological trauma of his individual heroes long enough to make it seem more than another piece of plot hocus-pocus, nor can he leaven even the faintest feeling of anxiety that the team won’t reform and resurge. Age of Ultron is so jam-packed, so overflowing at the margins with throwaway details that it starts to resemble the pages of Mad Magazine, with tiny illustrative flourishes dotted between panels often providing the bulk of fun. Such a stuffed narrative would defeat many filmmakers. And frankly I think it’s defeated Whedon too.
Whedon’s sense of throwaway humour in marginalia makes this work for the most part however; the audience I saw the film with had most of its audible fun with such tossed-off touches, like Thor explaining his hammer-swinging technique to Vision, or Natasha shouting “Sorry!” as she pummels through a crowd on a motorcycle. One of my own favourite moments sees Ultron flying a jet whilst singing a ditty that signals just how cuckoo, and how human, he is. There’s a strong dash of the old James Bond spirit to this instalment, littered with rapid shifts between exotic locales to wreak havoc and look good doing it. The ship graveyard of Chittagong, Bangladesh provides the backdrop for an early battle (albeit supposedly in Africa), a location Whedon disappointingly doesn’t make much of, instead shifting focus for the battle between Iron Man and Hulk in a Michael Bay-esque wreck-the-city sequence – a well-staged, spectacular interlude that nonetheless represents screen time that could have been better spent on something else. The very end credits scan a grand Grecian-style monument depicting the Avengers in the midst of battle, well aware these are our neo-Olympians. There’s an odd and effective little moment that suggests again the breadth of cultural reference Whedon can make, as he offers a glimpse of Wanda retreating in a scuttling, stop-motion manner like a J-horror ghoul. Sadly, that kind of effective lo-fi trick can’t live long in a film with so many digital effects artists on the case.
Whedon’s visual sensibility is also still often surprisingly cramped, staging a major action sequence in a confined metallic chamber that looks like a set left over from City of Lost Children (1995), and offering up a climactic final image of a whole city floating above the Earth, and yet barely registering the surreal intensity of the moment: it’s just more cool stuff happening. Whedon’s visual syntax doesn’t break down, and yet the finale is such a whirlwind of events that his efforts to give every hero their clear ground for individual heroism, something Whedon did extremely well in his first instalment, here become more than a little ineffectual, offering, for instance, just a few blink-and-miss shots of Fury and Hill gunning down baddie robots. There is one grand moment when the heroes form together in Zukovia’s central church to protect the controls for the doomsday device and face a storm of steel and violence, a moment that evokes the most beautiful cover-wrapping comic book illustrations. But such moments of visual power are scarce. One reason I liked Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) more than many was precisely because Snyder was alive to the visual impact of such ideas, achieving an almost DeMille-like grandeur and beauty in his city-levelling battles and doomsday machines, and also wrestled with the notion of god-like entities battling as something perhaps frighteningly inimical to the rest of us. Whedon probably won’t be keelhauled for doing exactly the same thing like that film was because he’s got credit Snyder doesn’t have. In the lengthy, gigantic, overstretched finale, he bends over backwards to depict the Avengers trying to save the civilian populace of Sokovia as Ultron turns their city into a gigantic battering ram.
Apart from Scarlet Witch’s rousing entry into battle after Hawkeye’s pep-talk, however, Whedon never builds the same elating thrill as his first entry in studying all of his heroes defining themselves through battle, simply because he seems to feel unable to pause long enough to do so, nor the same impact in the face of self-sacrifice. The script promises that the battle will certainly prove deadly for at least some of the Avengers, and one significant character does die, albeit one carefully cross-indexed for relative value. But if Whedon was hoping that his second instalment would annex the mythic gravitas of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), all I can say is he doesn’t make it. There is another problem the superhero genre faces and Marvel might soon find the ride becoming considerably bumpier soon because of it: the moment when it starts to become a feedback loop that refers to scarcely anything outside itself, an phase that will delight the long-haul fans but eventually detach the casual aficionados. A large part of the impact of the first Iron Man in 2008 came from its deliberate, naïve but effective tapping of the fantasy of many of finding an impervious shield to the cruelty of the times, worked via a very basic story and easy-going sense of humour. The Winter Soldier brought that to up to date as it depicted the modern American sense of self in vivid conflict: Marvel has traced the history of the War on Terror incidentally. The trouble with Age of Ultron is that it can barely refer outside itself, unless it’s to anxiety over the AI future, which ain’t a new anxiety. Now the brand is brushing the edges of a cosmology, and still uninterested in sacrificing broad entertainment to acknowledge the genuinely deeper streams of its mythos.
Even Whedon proves caged by this: to put it bluntly, Age of Ultron, like the much-abused superhero films Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Iron Man 2 (2010), is haplessly overstuffed, and like the latter, is forced to bear the burden of expanding this fictional world, which seems a bit ridiculous at this point, eleven films into a series. And yet it coheres more than those likenesses, if only because Whedon is talented enough to do big things with the smallest flourish. My criticisms of Age of Ultron might sound a bit more impassioned than they’re really intended to be: Whedon’s made another enjoyable movie here, fashioned with verve and working the rollercoaster intensity that the modern blockbuster movie aspires to. Many of them these days can’t really manage it: such intensity demands a movie offer the capacity to make the audience feel the ride as well as gawk in bemused amazement. Age of Ultron will undoubtedly frustrate many with its sheer too-muchness, and will riotously entertain as many or more, because it retains honour in that too-muchness. Avengers: Age of Ultron is as determined to entertain to the limit as an old vaudeville act. For the sake of the show it tap-dances whilst juggling, singing, and balancing a chair on its nose. I would have settled for just the tap-dance done well.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Peter Jackson
By Roderick Heath
When Peter Jackson left off his first round of J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations with 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the world was his. The series was a smash hit crowned by Oscar garlands, and the Kiwi auteur had gained a reputation as an illustrator and orchestrator of the fantastic of the highest level. Jackson’s brand has taken some concussive hits since then. The Lovely Bones (2009), an attempt to revisit a mode of everyday melodrama Jackson pulled off so well with Beautiful Creatures (1994), was a fascinating example of a type of disaster only somebody with great talent can conjure, a forsaken mess that nonetheless contained remarkable patches. King Kong (2005) was majestic and quite undervalued, but Skull Island could never be really turned into another Middle-earth, and the film vibrated with such personalised élan that it made one wonder why Jackson felt the need to tether himself to mimicking such a well-worn model. Jackson’s return to Tolkien with 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, wasn’t supposed to happen. Guillermo del Toro was primed to take over the reins under Jackson’s aegis and gave the material a fresh vision. But then scheduling, the grind of the production process, and the perhaps inevitable question of ultimate authority pushed Del Toro out.
The Hobbit, published by Tolkien in 1936, was initially marketed and met as a children’s adventure tale, was the seed for the grandeur of Tolkien’s fictional universe that comprises The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet, out of studio urgings and the whim of the creators to sate a vast and still-enthusiastic audience, The Hobbit was inflated into an epic as stately, expensive, and lengthy as its predecessor trilogy. This, on top of a glut of weak fantasy films trying to recapture Jackson’s success in the intervening decade, combined to generate a generally sniffy reception for the new trilogy. I’m generally happy to disagree with the received wisdom on The Hobbit trilogy. The strain and inflation have shown at times, where the flow of picaresque vignettes has threatened to devolve into Middle-earth tourism and theme-park rides, particularly with such superfluities as the dimwit trolls in An Unfinished Journey and the battle with the spiders in The Desolation of Smaug. Yet Jackson and his battery of writers—regular collaborators Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens, plus Del Toro—have found scope and room to manoeuvre, and above all, allow the viewer to relax and revel in this invented world, less colourful than James Cameron’s Pandora, but far more diverse and substantial. It is easy and largely fair to turn up one’s nose at the recent predilection of movie studios for wringing franchise properties for maximum value, as evinced by the ridiculous splitting of the last books of the Twilight and The Hunger Games series. But that doesn’t really count for much on a case-by-case basis. The Harry Potter filmmakers pulled off something of a coup by splitting the last novel, and the idea that Jackson has engaged in anything beyond the pale by inflating a short book into an expansive adaptation is bunkum: long-running TV shows and film series have long been spun off from scant sources. The story had eminent scope for an epic telling, and for the most part, Jackson has told it with a depth of detail, affection, and intensity. Even Tolkien revised and suggested deeper resonances of his playful debut novel when his follow-up eclipsed it.
One of the problematic elements of Jackson’s approach has been making them not as individual units, but as connected parts of what is essentially one distinct project: all of them gain from being viewed in quick succession, making them artefacts perfectly attuned to the age of home viewing. Viewers long used to the vicissitudes of serialisation through TV and the habits of binge-viewing that the DVD/streaming age ushered in can easily negotiate this, but many film critics retain an old-fashioned belief in the integrity of the individual work. The Battle of the Five Armies is the last part of the Hobbit and demands reasonably fresh memory of the first two films to really make sense and seem rhythmically correct. Such expansive labours recall the days of Abel Gance and Fritz Lang’s multihour wonders, and Jackson’s conceptual spirit and visual sensibility contain more than a little of the spirit of silent cinema’s most ebulliently illustrative instincts, that joyful sense early filmmakers had in telling stories in whatever fashion they wanted via the medium’s horn of plenty.
The Battle of the Five Armies, as the title readily promises, is a study in scale and motion. From the very opening seconds, there is the relentless tug of imminent action, even in the quieter moments, as the characters and events set in motion in the early scenes finally collide, a formidable array of moving parts snapping into place. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was a breezy work, laced with puckish yeoman humour, with a hero knocked unconscious for most of the climactic battle; Jackson’s is far more imposing, and yet the essential spirit is still apparent. Interestingly, what distinguishes The Hobbit trilogy in the end from The Lord of the Rings is its far more human-level story.That might sound like an odd comment in the face of the film’s large swaths of CGI demon armies and fire-belching dragons. But The Lord of the Rings series inflates the stakes of its tale to consider the very fate of the entire world and the shifting balance of the natural order between warring poles of perfection and nihilism; the stakes, fought for by individuals and communities, were colossal beyond everyday reference. In The Hobbit, on the contrary, the issues are far more essential. Home. Property. Prosperity. Ambition. Revenge. Greed. Middle-earth is a place of incredulity-stirring dangers, but Jackson knows that the danger is there to give meaning to the security the characters long for.
Perhaps one reason why Jackson’s prelude trilogy hasn’t been as lauded as his first might lie in its similarities to the even more reviled Star Wars prequels: to a certain extent, both sets of prequels question and deconstruct the cosier presumptions of the series they follow. Jackson and his cowriters have carefully shuffled events to offer mirroring contrasts. The return of the King, such an idealised moment in the original trilogy as the restoration and apotheosis of order, is here subverted, as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) finally regains his homeland and birthright, only to plunge immediately into one-eyed rapacity. We are told this is the “dragon sickness,” the evil of Smaug the dragon having sunk into the enormous treasure horde in the Dwarf city of Erebor, a fitting mythical metaphor that has been carefully woven in with effective psychology and foreshadowing. Thorin’s smouldering rage at dispossession and the allies who couldn’t or wouldn’t help finds more than sufficient indulgence in Erebor to enable his egomaniacal delusions. The heroic conjunctions of armies that save the day repeatedly in The Lord of the Rings give way here to competing camps motivated variously by desperation and prerogative, obligated to join forces only when something evil and impending demands it. The Shakespearean pathos of mad Denethor’s false regime is contrasted by the mere vanity and avarice of Laketown’s Master (Stephen Fry); the nobility of Elf leaders Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gives way to the haughty postures and self-regard of Thranduil (Lee Pace).
The opening scenes of The Battle of the Five Armies take up where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with the terrible dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) breaking his way out of Erebor and, in a fit of saurian pique, attacking the commune of Laketown as a reprisal for its aid to the dwarf band that had tried to take back Erebor from him. Jackson’s gift for complex interactions, one part Rube Goldberg and one part Chuck Jones, is quickly revealed again describing calamity in vistas that evoke Cecil B. DeMille and Fritz Lang. The fleeing Master, boat loaded with gold, accidentally gives Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) his chance to break out of prison. Bard makes his way across the city rooftops to take on Smaug with his paltry weapons. Bard’s son brings him the Dwarf-made black arrow that is the only effective chance against the malevolent creature, and in the midst of a churning inferno of blazing buildings and seemingly hopeless odds, Bard makes his stand with his son serving as a human bow. Jackson executes all of this with astonishing panache—the sweeping, vigorous camerawork, the ingenuity of the effects and vividness of the colour, and most particularly, the careful twinning of different scales, as monumental events crowd in upon individuals, from an old woman left haplessly alive in the midst of fellows turned to black ash as tidal waves of flame dash upon them to Bard’s slight, slowly stretching smile as he sees his chance to kill the monster, a tiny registration that signals the turning of worlds. Most directors would be happy to pull off such a sequence once in their careers; compare, indeed, to Gareth Edwards’ laborious Godzilla (2014), which couldn’t get anywhere near such clarity, intricacy, and high drama. For Jackson, it’s just an opening scene.
This moment is such naturally climactic stuff that almost anything that comes after it runs the risk of anticlimax. But Smaug’s death must come to facilitate what happens next, with Erebor freed and reclaimed by Thorin and his Dwarvish band, Laketown decimated and its citizens needing a home and sustenance. The citizens of Laketown would gladly make Bard, already a popular and populist figure, their new chieftain, with the Master, in a grandly comic coup de grace, killed by Smaug’s colossal corpse plunging from the sky to land on his fleeing barge. The Master’s sleazy aide Alfrid (Ryan Gage), faced with the unleashed contempt of the townsfolk, even tries to hitch his wagon to Bard’s success, but quickly finds that Bard’s ideal of civil service is uncomfortably different to his predecessor’s. Bard decides the citizenry should reclaim the ruins of Dale, the formerly prosperous human city outside Erebor laid waste by Smaug, as well as the share of Erebor’s treasure Thorin offered Laketown. But when he presses the claim, Thorin contemptuously refuses him, infected with the greed for the gold whose endless lustre promises to place him “beyond sorrow or grief” and granted all the power his will might use to humiliate everyone he once had to bargain with, plea to, or outwit in his days surviving as exiled king and freebooter. He has his band seal up the great gap Smaug left in the gate of the city and prepares for an assault by the coalition of Bard’s humans and the Elvish army of Thranduil, who seek the return of a collection of ancestral heirlooms. Meanwhile, Thorin’s arch foe, Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), leads an army of Orcs sent by the resurgent Sauron to capture Erebor as a strategic position. The Manichaeism that renders the moral schema of The Lord of the Rings so blissfully, uncomplicatedly heroic, but also thematically bombastic, is thus tempered with irony throughout Jackson’s take on The Hobbit.
The death of the singularly terrifying monstrous beast, rather than liberating, proves to be an act that merely uncovers the lack of faith between the factions and races and sets them picking at one another, the various leaders exposed in their chauvinism. Lee’s arrogant Thranduil happily provokes the Dwarves, and they, in turn, jeer and insult him, as Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connolly, having a ball) turns up with an army to support him and vows to cut off Thranduil’s head and see if he still smirking then. Jackson and company elide Bard’s royal heritage to better bolster him as a figure of everyman sense and heroism in contrast to Thorin, but even Bard feels obliged to engage in battle if Thorin won’t respect his claim. Bilbo maintains the incorruptible streak that distinguishes his Hobbit breed: his great prize for the venture is an acorn he’s carried hoping to plant it at home. Yet, even he is seduced by the mysterious and magical gold ring he carries. Bilbo, having found the precious Arkenstone that is the symbol of kingship and sovereignty in the domain of Erebor, withholds the stone from Thorin, as his increasingly unreasonable instability frightens Bilbo and the rest of the hapless party. Thorin’s fear of a cursed lineage echoes Aragorn’s, but whereas Aragorn never seriously seemed in danger of his dark side, Thorin’s nearly consumes him. Thus the moral crux of the film comes when Bilbo sneaks out of Erebor to give the Arkenstone to Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who has come to warn all of the approach of an Orc army, in the hope the claimants can use it to leverage Thorin out of his intransigence: Bard attempts to make a deal, but Thorin instead almost throttles Bilbo for his perceived betrayal and then refuses to help Dain when the Orcs turn the confrontation into a savage battle for survival. It’s all a lot like Ran (1985) with monsters.
The Hobbits, as little folk in a big world, are ideal audience avatars, but problematic protagonists. Their peaceable homelands and instincts insulate them from the scale of threat that actually lives in their world, and thus our surprise is theirs, too. But Bilbo is as much viewpoint as protagonist in this tale, in spite of the title; his naïve charm counters Thorin’s tragic hero status and his attempts to stand up for right are important precisely because Bilbo is not a great force, but the representative of humble virtues. Freeman’s quietly excellent performance as Bilbo has deserved more attention than it has generally received or demanded, perhaps because his role necessarily lacks big gestures, except for his leap to save Thorin in An Unexpected Journey. Freeman’s Bilbo, surviving by the grace of his quick wits and dodging a thousand forms of death, is all the more engaging a hero—compared to Elijah Wood’s Frodo, who remained a little too much of a big-eyed blank slate—because he sounds like a neurotic Sussex accountant tossed into the centre of a Wagner opera, his small bleating voice competing with the roars of monsters and overlords, quietly offering “Sorry” to Thranduil when the Elf king notes Bilbo broke the whole Dwarf party out of his jail. His expert way with a character forced to negotiate his path in the world contrasts Armitage’s showier role, playing a figure of grand melodrama, including having to mouth most of the trailer dialogue—you know, those breathy, momentous lines like “Welcome to such-and-such!” before the cut to a wide shot of some rad-looking place. But Armitage, as well as wielding fervent, dark charisma, readily swings between Thorin’s schizoid poles without feeling affected.
The biggest outright invention for The Hobbit trilogy on Jackson’s part was the Elf warrior-woman Tauriel (Evangeline Lily, who wins the award for cast member whose name sounds most like a Tolkien character), and her triangular romance with Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom). This fresh aspect hasn’t always been too elegantly woven into the straight-ahead flow of the original narrative, but it pays off here, placing a stronger emotional stake amidst the battle, particularly as Kili and Tauriel try desperately to save each other’s lives whilst battling Azog’s hulking brute of a son Bolg (John Tui). Jackson and company’s efforts to flesh out the background drama and give the tale a denser sense of connection and import in the light of The Lord of the Rings has been honourably attempted, but hasn’t really added up to much, in spite of their efforts to try and synthesise the multiple plot strands that made the predecessor trilogy so gripping. In the earlier works, Jackson might cut away from a giant battle to Frodo and Sam climbing into the lair of Shelob, with the promise that something cool and scary would soon happen to make up for the segue. Here he has Legolas and Tauriel go scouting the ancient Goblin stronghold of Gondobar to see what’s going on. They see lots of Goblins and run off, mission accomplished. In The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf was caught by Sauron and Azog and caged; here Elrond, Galdriel, and Saruman (Christopher Lee) turn up and rescue him without any resolution or revelation much greater than confirming Sauron is alive and well and living in Middle-earth.
At least with Jackson, his ready indulgence of fan service–that is, inclusion of tropes and actions designed to delight those already familiar with this fare–has always felt honest and part of his own enthusiasm. Even at their most erratic, these films feel generous, especially compared to the increasingly parsimonious franchise-wringing displayed by some recent blockbuster rivals, like the Marvel superhero films that have become a perpetual game of promise without payment. The rescue of Gandalf pays off in an entertaining, if brief, display of bad-ass skills from the trio whose aura of power and accomplishment was always suggested in the previous films but scarcely enlarged upon. Galadriel, in particular, has long been a frustrating figure, the image of beatific Celtic wisdom, but here at last she gets to do the routine where she turns into a blue, glowing transsexual last seen in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) to send the resurging evil spirits running.
One of Jackson’s special talents is particularly apparent here: most directors would have been readily overwhelmed by the mere action business, but Jackson throws in details of near-operatic intensity, as the bedraggled and injured Gandalf begs Galadriel to flee with him, finally giving more than a hint that there’s something romantic in their relationship, and Galdriel instead uses the arc of emotion to spur her attack on Sauron and the Nazgul in a desperate and self-destructive use of her powers. Many apparently found Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), who spirits Gandalf away, another annoying addition, but perhaps because of my own youthful fondness for McCoy and his stint as Doctor Who, I’ve had no problem with him as a figure of the kind of whimsical battiness Tolkien was very fond of, but that Jackson and company usually suppressed in the material to communicate to an audience in a much less whimsy-friendly age. I wish Radagast had gotten to do more here, as he and Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) turn up with the last-act deus ex machine to join battle.
There is, yes, the slight feeling that Jackson, perhaps pushed to deliver a more ruthless cut for this last chapter, has forced to treat some of his competing elements scantly in favour of putting over his action pay-off; whereas the last two chapters were baggy, The Battle of the Five Armies is almost a little too focused on bringing the action. At least Jackson’s sense of humour has never been entirely buried amidst all the epic pomp and portent, though never as recklessly impudent as in his rowdy early fare like Bad Taste (1987) and Brain Dead (1992). In The Desolation of Smaug it seemed to me that with Laketown, a fascinating polyglot (particularly notable in the usually lily-white Middle-earth precincts) and crossroads dominated by a corrupt oligarchy, Jackson was actually trying to make some satiric capital. This sense rises again as Jackson references The Simpsons, with Alfrid squealing, “Think of the children!” annexes that show’s special talent for mocking bleating self-interest dressed up as civic virtue; indeed, this jokey dissection of rotten leadership prefigures the more serious versions driving the storyline. One of Bilbo’s lines has a stealthy, Monty Python-esque absurdity as he points out to Thorin that “there’s an army of Elves out there, not to mention several hundred angry fishermen!” The Looney Tunes sort of sensibility tends to bob up more, however, in such dazzlingly goofy vignettes as when the Orcs send trolls with rocks tied to their heads dashing at walls as living battering rams, knocking themselves stone cold in the process, and Alfrid, like a blend of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, dresses up as a woman and tries to escape the warfare with “breasts” filled out with filched gold coins, so gaudy in his puerile selfishness that he’s almost lovable.
A brief vignette in the book, with Bilbo’s return home to find his house and possessions being auctioned off, serves a neat narrative function, as Jackson tweaks it into the mordant punchline of Bilbo’s journey. The great drama of dispossession and reclamation he’s just been through giving way to this petty variation, with the quiet, throat-catching codicil that the only way he can prove who he is is to show the original contract he signed with Thorin and the company—the mission has become his only identity. In this manner, mirth and darkness in this fictional universe are constantly in dialogue, and the touches that keep it recognisable sometimes surprising: Jackson depicts the entrance of the Laketowners into Dale, where they’re confronted by a blackened public sculpture that clearly evoke photos of the blasted ruins of Stalingrad. Such a different, grimmer zone of reference plugs into the undertone of personal World War I reminiscence some critics have found in Tolkien’s writing. The impact of broadened horizons and fighting for one’s life always provides an undercurrent of melancholy to these tales: you can go home again, but never as the same person. Moreover, as thrilling, expansive, and deliriously well-staged as the eponymous battle is, The Hobbit, unlike The Lord of the Rings, is essentially a tragedy, building as it does to the deaths of Thorin and Kili.
Jackson’s approach to the fantastic hasn’t entirely met with approval beyond immediate issues with his individual works. For the most part, Jackson has taken Tolkien’s creation literally, and some critics have accused him of sucking out the protean symbolic power of fantasy, with its Freudian and folkloric dimensions (and with them all but the most vaguely metaphoric or chaste sexuality). There is an accurate facet to this, though perhaps a similar dynamic can be observed in Tolkien’s own work, even with its grand cosmology and constant underlying spiritual parable. From his first published work, Tolkien has represented a strange kind of faith in the legitimacy of world-building, a creator of fixed points for the unconscious’ formless stuff, as opposed to the destabilised whims of surrealism. But one of Jackson’s most integral aesthetic touches has been to infuse his images with those underlying thematic urges toward transcendence, purity, and communication with the ethereal, as well as the fulsome, earthy, tangled nature of the organic universe and its blazing malefic zones beneath: the characters are constantly tugged between such poles. The films are thus constantly touched by a Zoroastrian sense of light.
In the original trilogy, this urge was most clearly sublimated into human Aragon’s love for Arwen, embodiment of the ethereal whose fate is connected with both the stars and the sustenance of the earth, first appearing in a blaze of white light to Frodo, who is healed by her touch. Here, romance is worldly; Tauriel, like Arwen, is an Elf but is draw closer to the corporeal by her love for Kili, and finally left distraught with very real tears pouring down her face. In the film, Jackson stages the climactic battle on Ravenhill in the midst of fairytale reaches of frozen waterfalls and billowing snow on ruins, augmented by the Melvillian touch of making Azog, Thorin’s nemesis, white as Moby-Dick. Transcendence here in The Hobbit is bound together with death. Thorin’s romance is with death; it’s the only form of greatness he’s ultimately made for.
The film’s most powerful and distinctive moment touches the same woozy, ethereal zone of communion between life and death, heaven and earth, in a landscape of enchanted ice, Azog seems to float dead under the ice that has become a zone of slaughter, and the rigid, white waterfall becomes a torrent of blood. The final duels on Ravenhill reference the battle on the ice of Alexander Nevsky (1938) and its manifold children, like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the ebullient wire-fu of Tsui Hark: the influence of the Asian fantasy film style Hark and others initiated, with its fast pace, lunging camerawork, and easy sense of how to blend the corporeal and the mystical, has been powerful on all of Jackson’s Tolkien films, and particularly marked in the barrel ride of The Desolation of Smaug and the climactic battle here of Legolas with Bolg, staged on a toppled tower jammed between two cliffs in a breathless whirl of action. Another film that’s surely often lurked in Jackson’s mind throughout the series has been John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), and here Jackson tips it an explicit nod as Thorin and Azog’s fight climaxes in a similar fashion to Boorman’s depiction of Arthur and Mordred’s last embrace, which was itself inspired by the most influential of fantasy illustrators, Arthur Rackham.
Most admirable is the final scenes’ surprising sense of gentle diminuendo rather than overt triumph. Bilbo’s urgings for Thorin to look at the Eagles soaring in the sky as he dies is close to the best thing Jackson’s accomplished in this universe, as is Tauriel’s desperate appeal to a regretful Thranduil that he take away her grief, and the simplicity of the moment when Gandalf sits himself beside the battered, already haunted Hobbit and starts cleaning his pipe, ludicrously small and yet utterly beguiling gestures in the face of such experience. “You’re a good fellow, and I wish you well,” Gandalf says when taking his leave of Bilbo, “But you’re only a little thing in a great big world after all.” Somehow, it’s a testimony, a warning, and a benediction all at once: would you actually want to live in Middle-earth after all?
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
Most filmmakers portion out what talent they have in small, polite courses. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu throws messy, teetering banquets every time. Since his debut with 2000’s Amores Perros, Iñárritu has made technically bravura, deeply felt and seriously intended works that push at the edges of narrative cinema, sometimes to the limits of credulity and patience. His second film, 21 Grams (2003), was radically told soap opera. His Oscar-nominated Babel (2006) displayed all of his best and worst traits—intense and vibrant portraiture of characters and the worlds they live in, conveyed with powerhouse cinema, tied together with threadbare contrivances and inchoate emotional connections and impulses. Iñárritu has been quiet for some time since his bruising break-up with his screenwriting collaborator Guillermo Arriaga—only the exhausting, Spanish-made drug-addiction drama Biutiful (2010) was released in the interval. Now he’s come roaring back to prestige-clad attention again with Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film that seems intended to give Iñárritu’s rival in the Latin-American wunderkind stakes, Alfonso Cuaron, some more competition. Following Cuaron’s showy technical extravaganza Gravity (2013), with its epic-length shots and special effects, Iñárritu ripostes with a more earthbound drama that nonetheless one-ups Cuaron by offering a film that affects to be composed of one, constant, driving shot.
Iñárritu uses this device to illustrate the drowning wave of anxiety and detail that threatens to swamp his protagonist, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who’s directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan is a former movie star, famed for his part in the “Birdman” franchise of nearly 20 years earlier, and he feels like he sacrificed too much of his credibility and talent for a paycheque. Now he is dogged by the alter ego by which too much of the public knows him, constantly hearing a droning, mordant voice mocking his efforts to reinvent himself as an artist, his Birdman characterisation become his personal daemon.
Riggan has managed to pull together the theatrical production and steered it to the very threshold of opening in the St. James Theatre on Broadway, but has just realised how bad his supporting male star Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) is. By serendipitous fortune, or perhaps contrivance, a lighting rig falls on Ralph’s head during a rehearsal, badly injuring him. Riggan has to find another actor quickly. He consults with his lawyer and confidant Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and rattles off a list of potentials, like Woody Harrelson and Jeremy Renner (“Who?”), but they’re all busy playing the current wave of superhero films. Costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an actor of the stage who has great critical favour and a reputation for uncompromising artistry—that is, he’s a pain in the ass.
Because he knows Riggan’s play inside out from helping Lesley rehearse, Mike is able not just to slip quickly into the role, but also immediately coax Riggan to make improvements. Riggan is delighted at first with his new costar, but soon Mike’s loose-cannon ethic starts to make Riggan’s situation feel even more nightmarish. Iñárritu has described himself as a frustrated musician, and he once composed scores for Mexican films before he broke through as a director. The intimate flow and relentless tug of music is clearly what he’s after here, translated into visual terms. The constant sense of headlong movement created by his tracking shots is matched to a syncopated jazz drum beat, lending a neurotically arrhythmic yet propelling heartbeat—at one point, the drummer is even glimpsed as a busker outside the theatre and then, later, inside, playing merrily in the theatre’s kitchen. The cumulative effect of this scoring suggests just such a nerveless, neurotic beat has invaded Riggan’s ear and won’t leave it. Iñárritu’s camera aims to transform his chosen setting into a multi-levelled, pan-dimensional stage, sweeping up and down stairwells, in and out of the most cramped confines of the theatre, and out into the expanse of the Manhattan night where crowds reel and neon blazes.
Iñárritu records the teeming, electrified ambience of this location in a way that few recent films have managed, recalling classic works whose grungy-glamorous portraits of urban gods captured both the city’s boiling, stygian ferocity and vigour, a crucible of possibility—movies like Sweet Smell of Success (1957), as well as the specific canon of Broadway films like A Double Life (1947), All About Eve (1950), and The Country Girl (1956). In Birdman, powerful theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) sits in a solitary vigil with pusillanimous pen poised for takedowns in a nearby bar, recalling Sweet Smell’s savage columnist J. J. Hunsecker, whilst Riggan seems to be threatened with a schizoid breakdown along the fault lines of the real and fictional persona like Ronald Colman’s Anthony John in A Double Life. Riggan keeps moving because, like a shark, he’ll die if he stops—he’s invested all his money into the production. His actors share and amplify his brittle, egocentric, dedicated gusto, particularly Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who’s also his girlfriend. He recounts to Mike his “origin story” and its connection to this obsessive venture: as a young performer in a school play, Riggan impressed Raymond Carver, who sent a congratulatory message backstage to him written on a bar coaster, inspiring Riggan to choose acting as his career. Mike ripostes by noting this clearly indicates Carver was drunk at the time.
Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who’s just of out of rehab and is working as Riggan’s PA, stands outside of the stream. She’s angry at her father for his false promises as a parent and has been inoculated with a raw and cynical understanding of this niche world, plainly contemptuous of her father’s hoped-for redemption via art in a scene that’s scarcely relevant beyond a few city blocks. She lets loose this contempt on Riggan after he confronts her about smoking dope. Mike, on the other hand, is deeply impressed with his own integrity as anointed artist-hero who brings edge and danger to the stage, and constantly tests the limits of Stanislavskian realism. He erupts in a fury during a preview performance when the real liquor he’s been drinking proves to have been replaced with water. During another preview, when he and Lesley are being wheeled on stage in a prop bed, Mike, in the thrill of imminent performance and momentarily overcoming the impotence that’s been besetting him, attempts to ravage Lesley there and then. Lesley, appalled and infuriated, promptly breaks up with him, and when Laura consoles her, they lock lips, caught up in the whirl of passion. Mike further antagonises Riggan by giving an interview where he steals Riggan’s Carver anecdote, and postures as the saviour of the show.
Mike is often insufferable in this manner, but also candid and committed in his bullshit artiste way. He tries to warn Riggan that he’s headed for a fall, locked on the wrong side of a perceived opposition between artist and mere celebrity. Mike reveals a far less aggravating side as he forms a bond with Sam, whom he encounters at her favourite hideaway, perched on the edge of a balcony high above Broadway, ironically calling to mind the similarly poised, detached yet omnipotent Batman that Keaton played a quarter-century ago. Mike is drawn to the damaged and sceptical young woman, and seems almost like a different person when calmly admitting his fears and faults to her, though his attempts to convince her of her worth are met with good-humoured derision. Nonetheless, the sideways-glimpsed romance between Mike and his daughter adds another worry to Riggan’s already overloaded psyche. Riggan is having semi-hallucinatory experiences, introduced at the start when we see him floating like a bodhisattva in his dressing room, and then seeming to use superpowers to move objects and, eventually, trash that dressing room—except that when the camera steps back and takes on a more objective viewpoint, he’s revealed to be smashing things the old-fashioned way. Finally, the mocking voice is revealed to be Riggan in his Birdman guise, sweeping down through the city streets to preach like Mephistopheles the gospel of entertainment and the security of low expectations with high pay.
Casting Keaton as Riggan was a coup of uncommon fortune for Iñárritu, giving him as it does a legitimate hinge not just of performing ability but potential satiric and thematic impact. Keaton’s stint as Batman was his apotheosis as a movie star and also the start of a long wane, though he’s long been a difficult actor to contain, too impish and odd to make a standard leading man, too self-contained and nonchalant to behave as comic fount. In a similar way, Iñárritu’s other actors are cast to play off associated roles; Watts’ pash with Riseborough clearly is a skit based on Watts’ breakthrough role in Mulholland Drive (2000), whilst Norton plays a variation on his public persona. Such conceits are entirely understandable in a film that is both about theatricality and possessed by it. The way Iñárritu films his actors and lets them combust in big, showy spiels and set-piece rants may only indulge rather than critique that theatricality, but there’s nothing much wrong with that, especially as it all contributes to the hothouse atmosphere and, moreover, delights in acting, raw and untrammelled, as the ultimate source of spectacle, both on stage and screen. Iñárritu lets his actors go wild with their tools just as he’s doing with his camera.
Meanwhile, Iñárritu manages a cunning and sinuous control of tonal shifts whilst never seeming to demarcate his moves officially, leading from farce to drama to elegy through virtuoso manipulation of elements and the connective sinew of Antonio Sánchez’s score. Riggan’s encounter with a hot-to-trot Laura in the lowest hallways of the theatre sees her transformed by lighting into a sultry and beckoning sylph in the labyrinth, then the camera follows her up to the stage, segueing into the first preview performance where a tone of elegy dominates, the tone Riggan wants for it, until Mike suddenly violates the mood with an outburst. Iñárritu cues a shift from hyped-up intensity to punch-drunk eeriness after the dispiriting impact of Sam’s excoriation of her father and his bleary, defeated suck on her worn reefer: the camera slides out and across the stage in the midst of dry ice and blue light, picking out Laura as a ghostly figure in mid-flight of elegiac speech in one of Riggan’s stylised dream sequences. A trip out the door of the theatre plunges first from exhausting claustrophobia to the mad tumult of the street to the shadowy and sheltering refuge of the bar. A quick recourse to a salving cigarette shimmers with a sense of relief and relaxation. Mike and Sam making love on a catwalk high above the stage sees camera hover and then float out above the actors at work below with swooning romanticism falling into gentle diminuendo. Iñárritu almost wills style into substance in such pirouettes, lending his vision of this hothouse of creation the quicksilver changeableness of creative vision and dramatic mood.
As a statement about the soul of the actor and the eternally tendentious nature of creative endeavour, Birdman works best through such epiphanies and flourishes of stagecraft, transforming mundane realities into mimetic canvas where Riggan’s terrors and inspirations collide and crossbreed. The problem here is that when one examines each facet, the film seems composed of a great mass of clichés. The washed-up star striving for a second chance. The sassy, irate, burn-out celebrity’s daughter. The young tyro prick. The nutty, oversexed actress. The vituperative critic who has appointed herself as guardian of culture determined to cut down our hero. It’s worth noting that 2014 has seen a small glut of films that seem like obvious metaphors for their makers’ troubled relationship with the business of art, the demands of family, and the pundits who approve or dismiss their work; there’s a strong undercurrent of this in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, John Carney’s Begin Again, and Jon Favreau’s lightly comic Chef, which strained to transfer the theme onto the world of celebrity cooking. Birdman shares with the last two films the figure of the unruly, ageing male talent and his efforts to balance a relationship with a child against renewing artistic success. Yet Chef was more sophisticated and accepting than any of the more self-righteous and noisy versions, particular when it came to the hero’s relationship with his critic-antagonist, who curiously pointed out that their battles on Twitter were “theatre.” Iñárritu, bluntly and ridiculously, portrays Dickinson as an outright creep who announces her intention to destroy Riggan’s project for even daring to try.
The best defence one can offer is that Birdman is an exercise in cut-up aesthetics, an extended jazzlike improvisation based in stirring, familiar melodies and refrains that reflect the distorting intensity of such a feat as Riggan is intending. We could accept the film’s stereotypes and cornball ideas as mere extensions of his enthused, but not terribly original mind—and I would, except Iñárritu’s technique, wonderful as it is, subtly foils his excuse, as he readily leaves behind Riggan’s viewpoint when he feels like it. This isn’t exactly a deal breaker in terms of the film’s worth, especially as Iñárritu and his cast make the characters vibrate with such energy and offer many segues of contradiction and surprise. More problematic is the film’s approach to the art it portrays. Unlike the makers of such stalwart works of artist-meltdown portraiture as 8½ (1963) and All That Jazz (1979), Iñárritu doesn’t suggest much deep knowledge or interest in the art form he’s portraying, and scarce interest in whether Riggan’s boondoggle project is worthwhile; reasonable questions about just how worthwhile this project is are subordinated to an imposed desire to see Riggan win through. The snatches we see and hear of Riggan’s adaptation may strike one as effectively stylised and lyrical or stilted and graven, and there are dancing reindeer in his dream sequences, which, in spite of what Laura says, isn’t a good idea.
In terms of artistic commentary and perspective, Birdman poses as specially relevant to the moment: it mentions superhero movies. But its cultural presumptions are actually passé. Iñárritu’s idea of cutting-edge satire of actor vanity is to show Riggan pulling off his wig. Appearing in superhero movies might have hurt the careers of some actors in the past, but the idea that it’s some sort of ticket to serious career oblivion is dated. Perhaps if Iñárritu had cast a more obviously limited actor than Keaton, some classically bland leading man crumpled by time and anxiety, his points might have landed with more urgency and specificity. When Tim Burton cast Keaton as Batman, he did so precisely to avoid cliché about square-jawed heroes, a subtlety that seems lost on Iñárritu, who plays up the presumed entrenched dichotomy between capital-A Art and lowbrow fantasy with thudding simplicity as food for the sorts of self-congratulatory pseuds Riggan’s supposed to be battling. Theatre critics line up to bathe in the aura of celebrity like everybody else these days, and Hollywood stars regularly use the Great White Way to give their careers a retooling.
Iñárritu does fruitfully use his dichotomy at one interval, when Riggan’s Birdman alter ego finally appears and unleashes a wave of blockbuster destruction, offering the balm of such regressive but buoyant destruction fantasy as a cure for the terror of “seriousness,” an eruption of Michael Bayisms that scarcely feel out of place in this work’s sturm und drang. Riggan responds with his own, stripped-back fantasy of flight, evoking Marcello Mastroianni’s escapades as a kite in 8½. Birdman needed to embrace its inner Robert Altman film more, given flesh to the potential in Riseborough and Watts’ characters, and kept the film a grand extravaganza of comic types crashing against one another. Because Birdman steadily loses steam in spite of its propulsive method, as the conflicts of ego and temperament that pop and fizz so well in the first half give way to more sustained contemplation of Riggan’s hapless state. This doesn’t work very well as Riggan isn’t that detailed or empathetic a protagonist: there’s no sense of who Riggan was before Birdman—did anyone ever take him seriously as an actor?—and his major failings, including infidelities and neglecting of Sam and his warily understanding ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), are all safely vague and past. Also bordering on inane is the subplot where one of Riggan’s antics makes him an online superstar, with Sam translating and exploiting for the social media sceptic the power he doesn’t yet understand. This element feels shoehorned in (again, Chef actually did this better), perhaps to make sure we know the film is set in the present rather than in 1965.
The constantly unstable sense of reality certainly invokes the Latin-American traditions of magic-realism, with which Iñárritu, a fan of Borges and Cortazar, is clearly conversant: most every moment tingles with the mysterious, transformative energy of the imagination, or maybe lunacy. Time folds in upon itself, reality bends to one’s will, invented personae torment their creators, and dream states infuse and upend all certainty. But Birdman may be viewed best as a screwball farce, as much a lampoon on the idea of artistic endeavour as anything else, sharing more in common with the Marx Brothers of A Night at the Opera (1935) and Room Service (1938), the early scenes of Some Like It Hot (1959), and Looney Tunes than Fellini or those old Broadway films. The script is littered with good lines, like Riggan’s furious self-description as Birdman prods him to return to the cape: “I look like a turkey with leukaemia!” Even if Iñárritu isn’t a comic filmmaker of great finesse or originality yet, he still manages to pay off with some sequences of slapstick zest as well done as anything I can think of recently, particularly when the infuriated Riggan drags the supposedly ascetic Mike out of his sunbed in a rage over the newspaper interview and starts a fight. Norton reveals surprising comic grace as Mike scrambles and flails like Jerry Lewis cast as hapless henchman. One sustained sequence varies a very old bit of comic business, as Riggan steps outside of the theatre’s rear entrance for a smoke during his break, only for the door to swing shut and catch his bathrobe: Riggan is stranded outside, and forced to dash in his underwear through Times Square and back in through the front entrance of the theatre, with enthused tourists and gabby New Yorkers taking photos of him all the way. Inside, he has to dodge Ralph and his lawyer who have come to try and squeeze money out of him, and once he gets back into the theatre, has to start acting a scene from the aisle, a disaster that becomes gold as the audience is wowed by the unique staging and Riggan’s seemingly raw and risky playing.
Fittingly, the film’s climax is based on another old showbiz joke, one memorably used by the Looney Tunes cartoon “Show Biz Bugs,” with its immortal punch line “I can only do it once!” as the artist self-conflagrates on stage, totally breaking down the barrier between act and deed. Frustratingly, though, Iñárritu can’t quite commit to the joke and its black comedy triumph and gives a coda that offers instead triumph through going above and beyond in a not-too-costly fashion. In a crowning visual joke, Riggan, masked by dressings that resemble his Birdman guise, has become the hero at last, but only in the most ironic and self-punishing of fashions. Although farce is the official frame here, on another level none of this is a joke, but rather an attempt to articulate flurrying artistic worry and ecstasy with deadly, transcendental seriousness. Riggan’s climactic gesture is offered as an ingenious as well as tragicomic solution to his quandary, an act of daring that can wow even the most jaded or hateful. Except that it would fairly be taken as a sign of deep mental illness in real life, and indeed Riggan may well be ill. Either way, Birdman‘s very end obfuscates too much. The film’s weak and shop-worn ideas can’t be entirely forgiven when it yearns so badly to say something of substance. Yet Birdman still counts as a major work of cinema purely because it loves cinema so much, and evokes that line of Orson Welles’ about a movie studio being the greatest toy train set a kid ever had.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gunn
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers:
The US summer blockbuster season has just passed, and what a dismal time it was for critics, audiences, and studios alike. A parade of banal sequels and listless franchise expansion have meant that some are seriously questioning just what Hollywood is good for right at the time when the mass cinema industry’s basic presumptions are being challenged. Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest in Marvel’s world-conquering, epoch-defining hits, was one of the few real critical and commercial bright spots of the season— an industry surprise considering the source comic’s lack of legacy and its deliberately volatile, tongue-in-cheek take on fantastic fare. The building blocks of Guardians seems at first glance to be quite a distance from Captain America’s boy scout decency or the PG naughtiness of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, offering a hero who seems to have nothing more going for him than the vocabulary, horniness, and general attitude problem of an ’80s movie delinquent and a talking racoon who likes taking out his confusion with a Gatling gun set in distant climes of classic space opera. But audiences seem to have been hungry for a little more bite and jollity in the genre, and Guardians has been generally received as a genuine throwback to the kind of goofy, audience-delighting hit that made the 1980s a rather good time to be a kid—or at least, that’s what the hype reported.
Director and cowriter James Gunn was not, at first glance, the kind of filmmaker one expected to score such a hit, as his biggest claim to fame prior to this was his dark, unstable farce Super (2011). That work subjected the superhero genre to aggressive deconstruction, exposing its heroes as stymied vigilante wingnuts and sexual fetishists out of their depth, essayed with a blunt and rather obvious method but managed with a spirit that made the film as entertaining as what it was satirising. Gunn emerged from the infamous, outrageous exploitation studio Troma and entered Hollywood writing Scooby-Doo (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) before making his directing debut with Slither (2006). Undoubtedly Gunn’s clear understanding of what he was kidding made Marvel hire him. The studio’s product has been, in the past two years since The Avengers (2012), devolving into bland and shapeless pablum, and new ingredients have definitely been required. Gunn’s writing partner on this film, Nicole Perlman, did script-doctor work on Thor (2011), still my favourite Marvel movie. The hope that something of Super’s corrosive spirit could be blended with Thor’s grandeur to create something as simultaneously wry and spectacular, knowing and unfettered as, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Flash Gordon (1980) rose in my heart.
Guardians kicks off with an unabashedly Spielbergian touch, in a prologue set in 1988: a young boy, Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff), is called in to his dying mother’s (Laura Haddock) hospital room to say goodbye to her. She leaves him a specific and peculiar gift: a mix-tape filled with all her favourite oddball pop hits. When she expires, Peter runs outside to grieve, only for a mysterious UFO to fly over and pick him up in a tractor beam. Twenty-odd years later, Quill (played as a grown-up by sitcom star Chris Pratt) is now a low-rent corsair and space stud zipping about the galaxy using the dodgy nom-de-guerre of Star Lord. He’s trying to escape the influence of his adopted father, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), leader of a band of pirates called Ravagers who picked up young Quill on a contract to deliver him to his real, mysterious father, but kept the kid and raised him as one of their band (sadly, no Pirates of Penzance jokes are forthcoming).
Quill snatches a chance to make himself rich when he locates a mysterious orb in a wrecked spaceship on a remote planet that every other goon and chancer in the galaxy is after. Yondu is incensed that Quill beat him to it and doesn’t plan cutting him in, whilst warrior Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and his henchmen fight Quill for it. Peter gives Korath the slip and heads to Xandar, a squeaky-clean intergalactic imperial hub that recently signed a peace treaty with the phlegmatic Kree race, after a protracted and bloody war. But once there, he’s immediately attacked by three rivals, one of whom, Gamora (Zoë Saldana), is after the orb. The other two, Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), are bounty hunters after Quill, but after a struggle in the streets of Xandar’s capital, all four are arrested by the peace-keeping Nova Corps, led by sarcastic Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and flung into a rough prison floating in space called the Kyln. Initially antagonistic and mutually contemptuous, Quill, Gamora, and the bounty hunters soon find themselves bound together by a mutual interest: money. Gamora hopes to make a fortune selling the orb to the omnivorous “Collector,” Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro) and offers the others a piece of the action, necessitating an escape plan.
The constituent parts of Guardians are interesting and occasionally spark, particularly the characterisation of Rocket, whose loyal companionship with Groot stems from their background as products of crimes against nature committed in some genetics lab. Rocket’s unstable, resentful, acidic take on the world around him is used to cover up some major existential pain that leads him at one point to nearly shoot up a bar full of people just to release his anger. Groot has a vocabulary limited to three words, “I am Groot,” with variations of intonation that only Rocket can understand in a ready jest on similarly opaque utterances by Chewbacca and R2D2 in the Star Wars films. Groot tends to express himself more through the language of his “body,” like when he releases glowing buds to swim in the air for both lighting purposes and a little symbolic commentary, and, most strikingly towards the end, when he sprouts a thicket of lush foliage to enfold and protect his friends from harm. For a more dramatic thicket of backstory, we have Gamora, whose body is a literal lethal weapon, trained since childhood along with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) by their adoptive father, intergalactic harbinger of doom Thanos (Josh Brolin), who destroyed their civilisations.
Somewhere along the line, however, Gamora rebelled. She pretends to be in the service of her father and chief bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) but actually intends to foil them. Nebula chases after her sister in an inevitable, quasi-sibling feud of mythic proportions. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a hulking alien Quill and the others meet in the Kyln who seeks revenge on Ronan for killing his family and signs up for any business that might lead him to his foe. Gunn’s referential framework here, likeably enough, can be seen as encompassing not just obvious touchstones like Star Wars and such predecessors in the space opera realm like Lensman and Buck Rogers, but also John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and some of its pop culture children, most of which have appeared on TV—Red Dwarf, Lexx, and Futurama. There’s also some kinship with much more disreputable ’80s fare like Ice Pirates, The Last Starfighter, Night of the Comet (all 1984), and My Science Project (1986), half-clever, scrappy, rascally movies that blended genre fare with a pop spirit that ironically contrasted the traditionally weird and epic zones of scifi with characters still locked in mundane, earthly zones of understanding. Guardians has clear ambitions to annexing that tradition.
Well, that’s what Guardians of the Galaxy’s ambitions are. The film’s actual achievement is, by contrast, so minor that it counts as the biggest disappointment from a big movie I’ve had since Gravity (2013). How could I fail to like what’s clearly entertained audiences so fully? I don’t know. I’m desperate for good space opera. Perhaps therein in lies some of the problem. Guardians threw my mind back to the Pirates of the Caribbean films insofar as that, like those works, it’s overloaded with raw material that could make for truly great, weird, original adventure films—perhaps, indeed, too many because neither Pirates nor Guardians have any idea how to put them together. Guardians isn’t a traditional superhero story; in fact, it’s Marvel’s first work that, though based on a comic series and linked via plot elements like Thanos to other strands of the Marvel universe, represents new genre turf. Yet Guardians fails to escape the template Marvel has established of superfluous motivations and static characterisations, without any place of real interest to take its stories. The early films the studio put out had the advantage of being origin stories, a necessity in setting up superhero franchises that frustrates some comic book fans but helps make the phenomenon coherent for the rest of us. A maxim often bandied about in reference to the comic book genre is that second films are the best, because the business of setting up character and situation has been done and the sequel can hit the ground running.
But Marvel has been proving that maxim untrue, because their sequels have tended to be ramshackle hunks of fan service with plotting that is painfully superfluous. Even this year’s superior, but still highly overrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which tried to shift into new territory by borrowing a veneer of hard-boiled cynicism from ’70s thrillers, still readily descended into info-dump explanations and bland, bloodless action. Guardians is technically an origin story but tries to behave like a swinging sequel. Similarly, although Gunn makes many gestures toward placing his work in a grand tradition of zippy fun, the actual product he ends up with is a by-rote work with occasional touches of impertinence that fail to add up to anything substantial. Rather than a flow of loopy, inspired humour and madcap action, Guardians offers up zany ideas harvested from its source material and then lets them sit around serving no function. Guardians wants to act like the usual epic claptrap of its genre is mere background whilst playing up the idiosyncrasies of it heroes, but it remains enslaved to a banal edition of its genre as it overcompensates by stuffing in more plot elements and antagonists than it knows what to do with.
The biggest lack of Guardians is any faith—or even real interest—in storytelling. The early fight between Rocket, Groot, Quill, and Gamora on the streets of Xandar is a good example, simply allowing the three different plot strands/character groups to collide on the street. The prologue sets in motion a theoretical sense of longing for family that Quill gains through his new compadres and invests plentiful melodramatic thrusts to give the story some charge. Yet Guardians’ attempts to get emotional and exciting flounder without ever feeling urgent or convincing. The team comes together and becomes inseparable mostly because that’s what the story demands they do, without much effort put in to developing convincing camaraderie: we go from Rocket drunkenly threatening to kill everyone to superfriends real fast and a couple of low-rent group bickering sessions. The closest we get to a scene of real emotional bonding, touching almost on a love scene (that verboten thing in this perpetually preadolescent genre), comes when Quill and Gamora take a timeout so they can share backstory, delivered in lumpen stare-into-the-middle-distance manner. Guardians lopes from scene to scene without a clear sense of direction. Drax summons up Ronan and his legions for no better reason than the film needs a bit more banging and blasting at that juncture. We spend ages waiting for our heroes to encounter the perverse Collector. The moment they reach his lair, the film swerves ridiculously as one of Tivan’s servants (Ophelia Lovibond) tries to master the infinity stone to escape his influence and instead causes a big bang in a twist that feels less like a radical blindsiding to keep us on our feet than a clumsy waste of time and money.
Imagine getting an actor of Del Toro’s calibre and wasting him like that. In fact, Guardians stands as an incidental monument to the decadent lack of interest in the talent Hollywood has at its disposal in the age of the FX blockbuster. Fine actors—Glenn Close! John C. Reilly! Benecio del Toro! Josh Brolin! Djimon Hounsou!—are hurled into the mix and then given absolutely nothing to do. The film even makes a show of this by casting Vin Diesel as a tree that only speaks three words. Quill’s status as intergalactic lady’s man and arrested-development miscreant might have been funnier if J. J. Abrams’ take on James T. Kirk hadn’t already done basically the same thing. Having him flip the bird to the Nova Corps whilst getting a mug shot taken scarcely constitutes investing him with a lode of real character and comes across like a rebellious gesture that’s been relentlessly examined and finally approved by a corporate strategy meeting that thinks it’s being edgy.
Similarly, Gunn throws up the comic’s wacky ideas—a crazy anthropomorphic racoon! a space hero who’s a total scrub!—and expects us to find them outrageously entertaining and not pay any attention to how little invention has gone into the stuff that surrounds them. For instance, in Ice Pirates, a film usually written off today as an example of what could go wrong with the ’80s fantasy template, there’s a genuinely inspired aspect to the final battle, which takes place in the midst of a time warp where the heroes pass through a lifespan’s worth of events in a few minutes even as they charge about trying to defeat the bad guys. Even the ramshackle charms of Flash Gordon sported more real wit, like the impromptu football match in Ming’s throne room that entwined a great, specific joke about culture shock with slapstick humour. By comparison, Guardians has a dismaying lack of cleverness for all its enhanced budget and technical advantages.
Gunn and Perlman’s script does throw up some wisecracks that are pretty funny: the most edgy and unexpected comes when Quill, responding to Gamora’s peevish complaint that his spaceship is filthy, tells his other new friends, “Oh she has no idea. If I had a black light this’d look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” But the humour doesn’t add up to much. There are great long patches without anything particularly amusing going on, and really only the fanciful effects that give us Groot and Rocket distinguish them from comic-relief characters in decades worth of second-string westerns. Drax comes from a race that speaks in vaguely medieval fashion but has no understanding of metaphor, a potentially fertile idea for comedy, but the script develops the idea lazily (apparently though Drax can’t comprehend figures of speech like “over your head,” he has no problem using simile). Pace’s Ronan is supposed to be a fearsome figure of genocidal intent and deep wells of resentment behind his status as a vengeful extremist, but he arrives on screen as basically the same glowing-eyed, hooded bad guy Christopher Ecclestone played in Thor: The Dark World (2013). At the outset, we see Gamora close to Ronan, but what side she’s really on isn’t questioned for any narrative intrigue, whilst the relationships are spat at us by the movie without much care for impact or how we connect them, such as who Thanos is, what his connection to Ronan is motivated by, what Gamora and Nebula’s relationship was before Gamora’s treachery.
The film’s simultaneously flippant yet somehow witless take on employing generic niceties keeps the story from ever seeming important, and thus there’s no vitality to the inevitable wham-bam climax. Guardians makes an outright joke of the obvious McGuffin status of the object that motivates the plot, the orb which holds an “infinity stone,” a source of immense, primeval power. As Quill says, “It’s got a real shining-blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.” Rather than amusing me with the plain cheek of this self-referential jive, though, this line highlighted how fed up I am with blockbusters that can’t sustain a proper storyline or be bothered investing real stakes in a plot that connects convincingly to the heroes’ predicaments. Similarly, the film’s soundtrack is replete with the hits that feature on Quill’s inheritance, his mix-tape, utilised as an ironically jaunty soundtrack in place of the usual blaring Wagnerian stuff. There is inherent fun to watching Quill dance across an alien landscape to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” or planning battle to the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” But again I felt after a while that the music was being used to disguise the film’s lack of imagination and skill: the songs are patched over the sequences rather than carefully wound into them, unlike, for recent example, the ingenious deployment of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” during the best scene in the otherwise insipid X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). The film tosses out what it sets up as a clever escape sequence in the Kyln, as Rocket lists required objects, only for Groot to almost sabotage it by casually snatching one object and setting off anarchy, and the would-be clever sequence dissolves into so much visual white noise.
What Gunn is trying to do here is actually quite difficult, certainly more difficult than he seems to have realised. It’s certainly not impossible: the action-adventure film that satirises itself as it goes along whilst not deflating the excitement. Look at a really great predecessor that did this sort of thing: the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The careful deployment of information, the steadily constructed tension, hints of character, unfolding of incident. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) nailed exactly the mix this film is after, veering blithely between high myth and low comedy, timeless thrills and fleeting insouciance, as did just about any Hong Kong action of the ’80s. Gunn’s work isn’t particularly interesting visually, zipping by its alien landscapes as just so much more CGI fodder without a sign of wonder or investment in the fantastic, betraying the film’s references to Star Wars and the like as the smarmy pretensions of a second-rate jokester. The film’s action scenes are big and expensive and noisy, and yet remarkably dull, failures as cinematic spectacle just as the script fails at satiric comedy. There’s an odd moment in the final battle when a bunch of spaceships join together like a giant Lego set to form a kind of net to catch Ronan’s ship. This is another striking idea, one that comes out of nowhere, performed by a bunch of characters whose presence in the film has been vague at best. Guardians tries to have its cake and eat it, but doesn’t know how to bake and can’t chew.
To me, the film’s one real flash of excitement came when Gamora and Nebula finally meet in battle, a conflict where, for all the weaknesses in its set-up, at last showed a buzz of emotional investment in the fight and the sight of physical dynamism in the actresses and their stunt stand-ins that is the essence of this type of cinema. But even this doesn’t count for much because it’s over before you know it and only ends with a set-up for a sequel (isn’t everything?), and it’s thrown into the mix with about 15 other vignettes pieced together without much intelligent scene grammar. Finally, right at the end, something of Guardians’ ambitions came to fruition in Groot’s final sacrificial action, and the borderline-mystical joining of the ragtag team who become the eponymous Guardians by virtue of their exceptional weirdness, as well as pith, to defeat Ronan with the infinity stone. Pratt does give Star Lord his all, and he could well be a promising action-comedy star. This and the black-out gag featuring a dancing baby groot almost convinced me that I hadn’t wasted my time. And yet, it is easy to understand why Guardians been such a big hit, and I can’t even discount the possibility that some day it will be as big an object of cult veneration as the ones it invokes. Either way, my personal, dismal movie-going year continues unabated.
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Director/Screenwriter: Pablo Berger
By Roderick Heath
Silent cinema seems to be making a comeback. Not to the extent that it’s likely to take over the multiplexes, of course, but as a niche of playful experimentation by adventurous filmmakers. Recent works scattered across the zones of international cinema like The Call of Cthulhu (2005), Dr. Plonk (2007), The Artist (2011), and the second half of Tabu (2012), have dared rewardingly to drop the crutch of dialogue. And now we have Blancanieves, a hymn to the beauty of the antiquated and to things that never were, but which retain the palpable texture of shared memory through their totemic qualities. Filmmaker Pablo Berger takes the bare bones of the Grimm Brothers’ transcription of the old European fairy tale Snow White, based in one arcane yet doggedly popular and weirdly powerful art form, and feeds it through the distorting lens of another, the silent film.
Blancanieves is a lush, dreamy, deliriously cinematic work. Following in the footsteps of last year’s diptych of Hollywood takes on the Grimm tale, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, Blancanieves dwarfs them (pun intended), not just in artistry but in the simple joy in telling the story and delight in the texture of the poetic. Unlike The Artist, Berger’s film is more than mere jokey pastiche; it is an aesthetically engaged and solidly dramatic work that recreates the texture of early 20th century filmic art without reducing it to mimicry. Blancanieves, which swept the Goya Awards in Spain, is Berger’s second film. His previous work, the playful Torremolinos 73 (2003), also was fascinated by the vicissitudes of period cinema, except the period was the early ’70s and the cinema was pornographic; Torremolinos 73 captured the national mood on the cusp of the death of Franco and an eruption of a suppressed bawdiness. Blancanieves is far more thorough in its immersive purpose, as Berger gives the material a specifically Iberian tilt not only in recomposing the story to revolve around a world of bullfighters and mantilla-clad doñas, but in the specifically parochial qualities of its black humour and tragedian reflexes.
Berger’s fascination for the plight of a child at the mercy of the world, and its sense of an underlying meditation on historical suffering, are aspects his work shares with Guillermo del Toro’s diptych of Spanish horror films, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2007), whilst also harkening back to Victor Erice’s starkly suggestive The Secret of the Beehive (1973), as a distinct native strand in Spanish cinema. There are also enough hints in the mischievous humour, oddball sexuality, and wry take on class and gender battles flickering through the material to suggest the latter-day influence of Pedro Almodovar. Fittingly, Berger evokes one faded world of heroic entertainers and obsessive audiences, that of film, by focusing on another, bullfighting, as opening frames of the film find a city almost deserted because the great toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is going to duel six bulls in one day, an apotheosis for his sanguinary art. Villalta takes out five bulls, but the sixth proves his undoing, and he’s gored before his watching, pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta).
Berger cross-cuts between Villalta splayed and bloody on the operating table whilst his wife goes into labour: fatefully, Villalta lives, but emerges as a quadriplegic, but Carmen dies, leaving a small daughter who inherits her name. Before his surgery, Villalta hallucinates, projecting the face of his wife onto the nurse passing anaesthetic, Encarna (Maribel Verdú). Encarna is all too willing and eager to take advantage of this transference as she aids him in his recovery, and when he emerges from hospital, confined to a wheelchair, he and Encarna are married. The newlyweds promptly disappear behind the gates of Villalta’s country estate Monte Olvido, whilst young Carmen is raised by her grandmother, Doña Concha (Ángela Molina), and watched over by Villalta’s former manager Don (Ramón Barea).
Carmen never sees her father, pining for a visit and drawing his imagined face in flour. On her birthday, her grandmother draws her into a flamenco dance, but suffers a heart attack and dies. Finally, Carmen is taken into the care of Encarna, but far from proving a homecoming, she finds herself the target of Encarna’s sadistic degradations: Encarna cuts off her hair and makes her labour around the house, with only the pet rooster, Pepe, she brought with her and the kitchen maid as companions. With Villalta trapped upstairs in his chair, Encarna has complete control of the estate and the family fortune, and carries on an affair with her chauffeur Genaro (Pere Ponce). Carmen, chasing after her Pepe who sneaks inside the mansion, pursues him upstairs, where she’s been told never to go, and discovers her father, sad, imprisoned, and haunted. Carmen and Villalta connect, and she manages to visit him many times, even doing a flamenco dance for him on his birthday, before Encarna catches them. Villalta is doomed to spend the rest of his days jammed in a corner, whilst Encarna punishes Carmen by cooking and eating Pepe, before returning her to her life of drudgery.
Berger’s clever translation of the story’s motifs into a ’20s milieu, removing magic, but playing up melodrama, accords perfectly with the nature of silent cinema, which always thrived in depicting powerful emotions and rested best on a bedrock of simple, but not simplistic, plot mechanics and character reflexes, which could then drive a synergistic flow of images. One of Berger’s smartest choices was to film a tale that could very well have been an actual silent movie: Carmen is the sort of victimised waif in which Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish specialized, except that Berger then twists the story in a direction that pays a fair sop to a modern audience’s perspective, albeit one not entirely beyond the imagination of early filmmakers.
On the surface, Blancanieves has much in common with aspects of other retro-fetishist works of fantastical cinema, including the likes of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1991) and the oeuvres of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Guy Maddin, in trying to recreate the ebulliently oneiric qualities of high expressionist filmmaking. But Berger enters entirely into the silent film world’s lexicon and also its populist sensibility, the sense that movie-going is, above all, an inclusive experience, one of the more sadly faded assumptions of cinema. Of course, Berger isn’t trying to proffer exacting pastiche: aspects of the story wouldn’t have flown in 1926, nor the gore and overt sexuality, and Berger happily indulges editing flourishes that would have been radical at the time. Blancanieves pays obvious homage to the world of European cinema before 1930, but resists the trap of referential obsession or film school appropriation: the aesthetics of filmmakers like Murnau, Buñuel, Pabst, Von Stroheim, Tod Browning, and many others are suggested without being specifically mimicked.
The attentiveness to lighting effects, the vivid contrast between textures of flesh and wood and metal and those vibrant rays of luminosity that invested early cinema with its visualised sense of the ethereal and the earthy in close contact, is recreated by Kiko de la Rica’s cinematography. The mystical chintz of show-business crucibles like circuses and bullfight arenas, the hazy, numinous mood of foggy forests and misted rivers, the lancing strangeness of the trappings of modernity in worlds poised on the edge of transformation, and the monolithic power of wealth in largely poverty-stricken and gritty environ—all are familiar images and contrasts in silent cinema, recreated sparingly but consequentially. In this fashion, Berger places his narrative as a whole on the edge of a kind of dream-memory of the past, filled with iconography and commencing with deliriously spiritual overtones of Villalta praying before his bullfight, hanging his locket photo of his wife on a statue of the Virgin. His wife and her mother wait in the crowd, idealised images of Spanish womanhood, just as Villalta is the male equivalent, fronting up to the bulls in spectacularly confident and lissom postures. Pride inevitably presages Villalta’s fall, as he goes from superman to trapped wreck and loses everything except his daughter’s love, which survives years of longing and forced separation. Genetic links prove strong: Carmen has inherited her parents’ talents as well as character. Blancanieves isn’t a film for children, though it’s easy to imagine it being compelling for a young audience, especially considering that like the famously gruelling Pickford vehicle Sparrows (1926) or even Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), it captures the unabashedly dark, phobic qualities one associates with folk tales that tap the genuine fears of emotional abandonment, isolation, and being left to fend for oneself children often have. Berger doesn’t shy away from the often fervent emotional violence in fairy tales, whilst also extracting overdrawn, blackly comic humour, like in the scene in which Encarna gloatingly devours a drumstick ripped from Pepe’s cooked cadaver to Carmen’s revulsion.
Berger’s approach hints at subtext that simmers unobtrusively, but insistently. Historical dimensions suggest historical severance and deposed hierarchies, as well as hints of a quiet commentary on the dread age of the celebrity. Villalta’s calamitous injury is induced by a photographer using a flash just as he’s readying the death-stroke for the last bull. When he’s released from hospital under Encarna’s nominal care, those photographers return to illuminate his ruination. Finally when he’s died, his family and friends have their pictures taken with his dressed corpse, a folk custom transformed into a cruel image of destroyed patriarchy, laced with political and satirical overtones. Carmen later faces grave danger, engineered by a friend turned madly envious by having the spotlight stolen from him.
The Evil Queen of the Snow White tales is defined by pathological intent to destroy a potential sexual rival, but Encarna is motivated less by immediate jealousy than by a determination to entirely assimilate the Villalta legacy, to obtain rather than retain exceptional status. Encarna is the worst kind of talentless parasite, one who attaches herself to the ruined Villalta to achieve wealth and fame. She is glimpsed leafing through fashion magazines, and desiring transformation into one of the glamorous beings she sees, poses for a magazine photo spread ensconced in haute couture—a super-bitch with a Joan Crawford-ish aspect; the film often plays like Crawford swapped parts with Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1964).
The reconstruction of the Evil Queen as Encarna is one of the most inspired touches: entirely egotistical, deeply sadistic, Encarna is a delightfully unrestrained baddie. What works about the characterisation, and Verdú’s mischievous performance, is how adroitly it connects the emblematic evil of the story’s villain with genuinely troubling real-life phenomenon: her grasping greed, exploitation of her disabled husband, and humiliating treatment of her stepdaughter are all acts of evil all too easy to believe in, even as they’re pushed to absurd extremes. True to the fashion of fairy tales, too, Carmen resists being brutalised by her experiences, remaining a good-natured, if haunted girl who grows into a steadfast woman. The happy, but tragically brief reunion Carmen has with her father sees her entertain him by dancing and practising cape-swirling under his tutelage. Encarna inflicts gender reassignment on Carmen by cutting her hair, a consequential act that bends Carmen towards moving into the masculine arts of her father rather than her mother and grandmother, though the nifty footwork and postural awareness flamenco dancing imbue in her fuse perfectly with the flourishes her father instructs her in for bullfighting. Young Carmen finds herself destined to try to live up to the stature of her parents, a union of both emblematic cultural institutions—toreador and flamenco dancer—talents that combine fruitfully once Carmen grows up, and finds herself plunged into the arena.
Berger moves between the first and second parts of his tale in a beguiling sequence, as young Carmen practises her toreador moves mixed with dancing with laundry, using pegs like banderillas, suddenly moving from girl to grown woman (the luminous Macarena García takes over), whereupon she’s informed of her father’s death. Encarna, tired of pretences, has pushed him down the stairs. The minion, who, in the story, is entrusted with Snow White’s murder, was a secretly good-natured figure. Here, it’s Encarna’s chauffeur-lover Genaro, glimpsed by Carmen playing the submissive boy-toy. One hilarious vignette depicts Encarna in the act of having her portrait painted as the image of imperious fashion-plate femininity, getting Genaro to take the place of the dog she’s being depicted as holding on a chain, to the painter’s nonplussed continued labour. Of course, his willingness to be Encarna’s dog belies his own viciousness, which emerges when given the task of taking Carmen to her death. He tries to rape her, and when she manages to knee him in the crotch and make a break, he catches her and drowns her in the river, leaving her for dead—except he didn’t quite finish the job, and she finds refuge with a band of six dwarfs, who work as travelling clowns and bullfighters called Los Enanitos Toreros.
Rafita (Sergio Dorado), the best-looking and most romantic of the band, was the one who plucked her from the river on a misty bank and took her to their caravan. The others in his band, including the nominal chief, the grouchy and jealous Jesusin (Emilio Gavira) and the cross-dressing Josefa (Alberto Martínez), are introduced with their names flashing on screen. When, during their next exhibition in a small town, Jesusin is charged by a bull and knocked about, the other dwarfs won’t intervene because the audience finds it hysterically funny. So Carmen leaps into the fray and astonishes all with a superlative display of cape work. Carmen, who hides her identity more to escape the past, it seems, than concern about Encarna’s wrath, nonetheless finds herself bound to close the family circle, though the fact that she’s dubbed “Blancanieves” by her new friends in recognition her plight is right out of the hoary old story. Berger’s revisions to the original story’s patterns as well as setting have a contemporary flavour, as Carmen casually shatters rigid gender barriers to gain credibility as a toreador, whilst handsome prince and dwarf are no longer exclusive figures, but conflated in the ardent Rafita. Yet such tweaks only seem to solidify the fairytale texture of Blancanieves, for dramatic transformations and protean forms are so vital to such storytelling and part of the way they still capture a unique essence of human existence. The Mephistophelean promoter Carlos de Montoya (José María Pou), complete with forked beard, brings the spectre of Faustian bargains to Carmen, as the girl, who can’t read is talked into signing a lifetime contract. Montoya gets her booked in the same arena where her father met his fate, and the circular narrative is matched by circular imagery, as the same ritualised stations on the way to a duel with fate and death are counted off.
Blancanieves is a gorgeous-looking film, replete with allusive visuals and well-used silent film devices, which range from the broad, like Carmen hallucinating Pepé’s head on a boiled sparrow she’s fed for dinner, to the wittily precise. Berger uses the iris shot, one of those devices associated most insistently with silent cinema, but matches it by literally projecting one on an actual iris, as Carmen is informed of her father’s death, with the flashback dialling in and out from her eye. Berger’s vertiginous framing often adopts violently low or high angles, lending his shots requisite drama and pictorial zest, whilst also invoking the violent state of fortune of his characters. But these gruelling shifts are encapsulated most precisely in an early shot, as Carmen’s communion dress is dyed black after her grandmother dies, streams of inky blighting black flowing from the pristine gown, signalling Carmen’s oncoming date with the devil Encarna. The same note and visual motif are mirrored in a lovingly executed crane shot that later retreats from Encarna’s silvery-draped form standing over a pristine white pool, in which the corpse of Genaro, whom she batters to death after learning Carmen survived, drifts in a cloud of blood.
Carmen proves triumphant in the ring, facing down the colossal bull the infuriated Jesusin has substituted for her smaller intended opponent, proving so invigorating to the audience that they vote for the bull’s pardon. Encarna, however, has taken what was her mother’s place in the crowd, swathed in black lace in perfect Manichaean contrast, proffering the inevitable poisoned apple, a glistening orb that Jesusin recognises after he’s accidentally knocked it from Encarna’s hands. Carmen collapses in a coma after taking a bite during her victory salute, and whilst the stricken Rafita clutches her body, Jesusin leads the others in trying to chase down Encarna, who tries to elude them in the bullpens. Her beautifully dark comeuppance arrives as she finds she’s locked herself in with a monstrous bull, its huge silhouetted horns falling upon her quivering, collapsing form.
As ebullient as his film often is, Berger takes a swerve back to tragedy in his final passage. Carmen, still in a coma and exhibited by Montoya in a circus sideshow as a freak of nature. “Miracle or curse?” Montoya asks repeatedly while sideshow patrons line up for the pleasure of trying to rouse her. Rafita works for Montoya, and wheels her out for the show to lovingly tends to her backstage. The mood here moves into a zone at once ethereal and pathetic, with hints of kink in the morbid sensuality everyone invests in Carmen’s form, with Rafita tenderly kissing her goodnight before bedding down with her, and infinitely sad frustration, as the very last shot reveals a single tear flowing from her eye. The sensibility here suggests the influence not just of silent cinema but later directors’ stylised tributes to the sawdust-and-tinsel mysticism and pathos of the peripatetic entertainer’s world, whilst reconfiguring the Sleeping Beauty image to something close to James B. Harris’ Some Call It Loving (1973), the image of imperishable mystery and beauty of life found even in the seamiest and most degraded exhibition. Even flat on her back, Carmen is beholden to the crowd. That last shot, of Carmen’s tear, encapsulates everything Berger aims for, emotionally and aesthetically.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Directors: Nathan Juran, Gordon Hessler
By Roderick Heath
Ray Harryhausen’s death this past May genuinely pained me, like so many fellow film lovers who had grown up with his works. Harryhausen’s work kept the faith in cinema’s capacity to make the illusory and the impossible come to life on the big screen. Whilst the grand old man of movie magic hadn’t done any new work of note since 1981, his life provided a link with the golden age of studio cinema, and beyond that, through his mentors, to the pioneering roots of film. Nerds of many stripes loved Harryhausen, not just for fashioning images that fuelled their imaginations and brightened up the dolour of existence, but also because he seemed one of us. Like a much later generation of filmmakers who would try conjuring epic cinema through backyard thrift and wit, Harryhausen began as an adolescent enthusiast and tinkerer, one who watched King Kong (1933) one too many times.
Harryhausen sought out the mentorship of Kong’s effects maestro, Willis H. O’Brien, who had forged his famous stop-motion techniques, a version of animation working with malleable figures rather than drawn cells. In 1949, having worked under Frank Capra and George Pal, Harryhausen gained his first feature film credit alongside O’Brien with Mighty Joe Young. Four years later, after crafting a handful of shorts, he helped make The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, partly inspired by a story by his boyhood friend Ray Bradbury, but really a variant on King Kong, albeit one that dragged the mythos into the Atomic Age. Harryhausen’s effects immediately became a kind of film star in their own right.
Harryhausen followed up Beast with It Came from Beneath the Sea (1954), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), all produced on tight Columbia Pictures budgets that severely limited their scope and drama. Nonetheless, they were highly profitable and are still huge fun, quintessential experiences of the era’s scifi craze, shot full of imagery that helped create a lexicon of the fantastic in cinema that’s more powerful than ever. Harryhausen forged a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer that would hold until Harryhausen’s retirement. The team first paired with Nathan Juran on Twenty Million Miles to Earth, a former art director who had won an Oscar on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and had moved into fantastic cinema with the weak Beast rip-off The Deadly Mantis (1957). Looking for a more expansive and spectacular field in which to exercise his gifts, Harryhausen spearheaded a turn from scifi monsters to mythology and adventure for the first time with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, crossbreeding special-effects-based spectacle with traditional swashbuckling heroics. For the first time, Harryhausen got to make a feature in colour, and he debuted his new technique, called Dynamation, which allowed more sophisticated, layered interaction between photographic elements.
Harryhausen was always deeply involved with developing his projects and the aesthetics of his films, writing storylines and often dictating their visuals. This was one reason he became identified as their essential auteur over the credited director, on top of the fact that he was often accused of picking journeymen over greater directors to make sure the spotlight remained on his work. This wasn’t exactly true: amongst the directors Harryhausen worked with were Juran, Cy Endfield, Don Chaffey, Gordon Hessler, and Desmond Davis, all talented and engaged smiths of genre cinema who had a way with arresting imagery. Harryhausen and Juran meshed particularly well, as Juran had a sense of decorative colour and design that fleshed out Harryhausen’s worlds, as well as a strong sense of craft. 7th Voyage and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) stand as Harryhausen’s best films, both triumphs of a particularly lustrous and stylised, yet also earthy and robust, brand of adventure filmmaking.
Harryhausen’s material was cleverly pitched on a level that appealed both to the youth audience, which loved the colour and fantastic intricacy of his work, and to older filmgoers. His films stood fairly lonely throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, when it was widely assumed that to be hip, fantastic films had to be either self-mocking or else loaded with loud satiric or allegoric import: Harryhausen stuck mostly to a tone of bare-boned, unself-conscious intensity, but with suggestions of a deeper awareness. One of the most memorable sequences in 7th Voyage comes when evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), for the sake of entertaining the Caliph of Baghdad and his court, transforms a princess’s middle-aged, uptight handmaiden Sadi (Nana DeHerrera) into a bizarrely erotic, blue-skinned snake woman who dances with liberated, but deeply disturbing joy, until she almost strangles herself with the new tail she’s not quite aware of. The undercurrents of this scene exemplify the sensibility behind the Harryhausen brand, distilling suggestive and polymorphic ideas into a colourful and deceptive sequence, and also presenting a perfect unity of the special effects and Bernard Herrmann’s scoring.
In 7th Voyage, Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) is transporting his fiancé, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), whose marriage to Sinbad will seal a peace between Baghdad and her native kingdom Chandra. On the way, he rescues Sokurah from the rampaging assault of a cyclops when his ship anchors off the mysterious island of Colossa. In the process of escaping the cyclops and protecting Sinbad’s crew, Sokurah loses the magic lamp that is his most prized possession. Sokurah is desperate to return to Colossa to recover his lamp, which contains a genie in the shape of a boy, Burani (Richard Eyer), who can emerge to perform feats of wondrous magic. He tries to charm the caliph (Alec Mango) into granting him the ship he needs with displays of sorcery, but Sinbad convinces the caliph it’s too dangerous. Sokurah forces their hands, however, by shrinking Princess Parisa to the size of a small doll: the princess’s father threatens war on Baghdad if they can’t restore her, and they have to accept Sokurah’s word that the princess can be restored with ingredients only found on Colossa. Because so few regular sailors will dare the voyage, Sinbad hires a crew of criminals, who naturally prove mutinous; they are tamed by the terror of encountering Sirens that drive them mad off the Colossa coast. Landing on the island, Sinbad takes a party inland to search for the nests of the fabled Roc, a bird whose shell is a necessary ingredient for Sokurah’s potion. But the island proves a relentlessly dangerous place where Rocs and the Cyclops decimate Sinbad’s crew.
7th Voyage starts with a motif that would recur throughout Harryhausen’s subsequent fantasy works and that helped mark a new phase in Hollywood’s approach to historical cinema—engaging with the past through approximations of period aesthetics. The credits unfurl over illustrations that mimic the style of the art of the from which cultures the stories are drawn, introducing the audience to the iconography and traditional background of the stories before the narrative proper begins, and grounding the material in a sense of the arcane suddenly brought to life, in much the same way that Harryhausen shocks lumps of latex and metal to life. Juran’s sense of colour and design balances the lustrous location shooting, which, like many epics of the period, was done in Spain. The candy-coloured costuming of the court scenes treads close to pantomime, but the use of old Moorish structures as stand-ins for Baghdad helps give the film a sense of solid physicality, one that pays dividends as it moves to the Colossa coastline, a place filled with genuinely interesting and odd-feeling locations that give lustre to the sense of transportation: Harryhausen’s effects conjure a colossal carved face through which the adventurers must move to penetrate the inland of Colossa, with suggestions of lost civilisations and daemonic power.
Juran’s direction is canny in his sense of event: knowing a character like Sinbad doesn’t really need an introduction or an origin story, he can simply leap into the narrative, with Sinbad’s ship crawling through the dense fog near Colossa, and dissolving to a inward tracking shot that finds the good captain himself at the wheel of his ship, face stricken with keen attention and electric curiosity as well as concern as he ventures into a new unknown, thus immediately identifying the hero’s perspective with that of the audience. 7th Voyage actually strip-mines a couple of different Sinbad stories from the tales of Scheherazade, freely mixed with touches from The Odyssey, notably the Cyclops and the Sirens off Colossa, whose hideous screeching drives Sinbad’s mutinous crew mad but that he, Sokurah, and loyal mate Harufa (Alfred Brown) block out with waxed cloth in their ears. And again, King Kong’s influence is apparent in the motif of a lost world where monsters weird and fantastical stomp, visited by a ship penetrating a veil of fog.
The first time I ever saw 7th Voyage, I was struck by the unnerving predication of the film’s being partly set in Baghdad—this was around 1990, I was a kid, and the Gulf War was brewing, lending dark immediacy to the threat of the Sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket) to reduce the city to “rubble and bleached bones.” Of course, being a kid, I still had an occasionally confused sense of film chronology: I recall exclaiming during the finale, when Sinbad and Parisa swing across a chasm on a rope, “Hey, they ripped that off from Star Wars!” Of course, it was the other way around. Indeed George Lucas’ love of referencing Harryhausen’s works was a recurring motif in his glitzy series.
The beauty of Harryhausen’s work always lay in the exacting sense of behaviour, the articulation and physicality of his figures, and the mischievous qualities of humour and sensitivity so often invested in them. It’s this aspect, difficult to describe, which helped them transcend the realm of mere effects and become creative visions. The Cyclops, great two-legged beasts with horned heads and centaur legs to match their singular eyes, seem like cruel mistakes of nature trapped by being too large to be agile and too dumb to think logically, but with their cages for prey, spits for roasting game, and cumbersome, spiked clubs seem barely less civilised and intelligent than the creeps who comprise most of Sinbad’s crew, and with whom they engage in a battle of brute force and arrogance. When the crew come across a hatching Roc, they promptly spear the huge, fluffy chick and roast it, the newborn’s thigh offering a hunk of meat the size of a buffalo leg. When the chick’s mother, a far larger, two-headed, eagle-like bird, returns and finds what’s happened, she understandably ravages the remnants of Sinbad’s crew and plucks Sinbad himself away to devour at her convenience. This was a quality Harryhausen had partly learnt from O’Brien, who offered such touches as his prehistoric birds scratching behind their ears and an often jarring sense of detail, like the broken-jawed Tyrannosaur King Kong defeated lying prone, dying but still breathing. Harryhausen followed O’Brien in this, his monsters often displaying wrenching, surprising emotion, peculiarly sensitising an audience to their plight: you feel sorry for the Ymir of Twenty Million Years and the Cyclops of these films even as they rampage, often because their human persecutors seem much less lively and individual: so often in Harryhausen there’s a sort of ecological spirit underlying the message. The overt violation of a tenuous balance of a rarefied natural order wrought by Sinbad’s crewmen is replicated less crassly but more dangerously by Sokurah’s alchemist arrogance, having gone so far as to chain a colossal dragon outside his cave laboratory as a watchdog.
The colour of 7th Voyage, the vivacity of its pace and the mutually complementary power of Harryhausen’s effects and Herrmann’s music rest on the bedrock of a well-shaped narrative, with a kind of simple but rigorous care that’s even rarer in modern equivalents than the exacting personality of Harryhausen’s effects. Characterisations are, of course, one-dimensional in an authentically mythic fashion: Sinbad is brave and honest, Sokurah is evil and wily, Parisa is sweet and plucky, Harufa is loyal and doomed. The younger audience gets a figure to empathise with in Burani, who is essential to the narrative and whose desire to escape his supernatural life accords with Sinbad and Parisa’s tragic frustration in her plight, and contrasts Sokurah’s merciless hunger for power and the threat of war hanging over their respective cities. The clarity of the plotting in Kenneth Kolb’s script, which borders on the naïve but retains integrity, keeps its flow of cause and effect surprisingly precise, even elegant, each element informing another. Parisa’s plight is not just a plot motivator, but a superbly utilised device: with her tiny stature, she can help spring the lock of the cage where the cyclops puts the crew. There’s a lovely sequence of chintzy fantasy in which Parisa realises she can slide down the spout of the lamp to visit Burani within and learn the phrase that calls him out. She finds a pellucid space where fog flows out a tablet and a poem-puzzle that holds the key to freeing Burani, and the boy himself in solitary imprisonment, delighted by the Princess’s visitation but melancholy in his fate as a slave to the will of men: the film aptly fades out on the lad, now human, gleefully taking the helm of Sinbad’s ship. The cyclical rebirth of Burani is echoed by the self-induced destruction of Sokurah. The amusingly literal device he provides for Sinbad’s crew to defend themselves from the Cyclops, a huge crossbow that takes a dozen men to load, is finally used on Sokurah’s pet dragon, which then promptly falls in death on its master.
The finale, in which Parisa drops the lamp into lava according to the rhyme, looks forward to Peter Jackson’s finale for his The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Jackson, of course, being another contemporary movie wizard much influenced by O’Brien and Harryhausen. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) betrayed the influence in its Mines of Moria scenes that mirrored the environs of Sokurah’s underground castle, whilst its dragon protector surely inspired the one guarding Gringotts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its film version. It’s not just the ingenuity of Harryhausen’s effects and Juran’s design here that made their work so powerfully formative, but its genuine artistry, the care of the lighting and framing, the gift for capturing the flavour of the arcane with ruins of civilisations and lost lore rediscovered, in the midst of primal terrors and alchemic nightmares. Juran’s fondness for high and low angles turn every element in the film into an aspect of a drama built around size in a dialectic of relative strength. Sokurah appears as a silhouetted figure sneaking into Parisa’s palace bedchamber to curse her, her arm seen getting smaller and smaller on the bed, whilst later he looms over her as colossally as the Cyclops do over the others. The taboo is evoked throughout, from Sinbad’s initial knock on Parisa’s cabin door, rebuked by Sadi, to Sokurah warning crewmen he leads not to drink from a stream he claims is poisoned, but they soon find tastes like wine, a different kind of poison in the context of a dangerous land.
The finale’s eye-popping set-piece is Sinbad’s battle with a skeleton animated to glowering, ferocious life, armed with sword and shield and duelling the hero in the midst of Sokurah’s castle. Sinbad, faced with the impossibility of killing such an enemy, tricks the skeleton into following him up a spiral staircase from which it falls and breaks to pieces. Over a half-century later, this sequence is still astounding, and perhaps more so for knowing that the choreography wasn’t being exactingly mapped out with computers, but rather by Harryhausen’s hand and eye. Of course, Harryhausen tried to top this in the climax of Jason and the Argonauts with a small army of such skeletons battling the heroes. If there’s a dated aspect to 7th Voyage now, it lies only in the blandly American presences of Matthews and Grant, whereas British character actor Thatcher’s magnificent hambone zeal is hugely entertaining. Juran went on to make with Matthews the more overtly juvenile Jack the Giant Killer (1961), almost a remake of 7th Voyage that also featured Matthews and Thatcher, and the horror movie The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1972).
Harryhausen did not return to Sinbad as a subject for 15 years. The changes that went on in the world and the film industry in that time were enormous, and Harryhausen relocated to England, joining a small band of American filmmakers who were finding a more rewarding production base there. The interval between 7th Voyage and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is telling, less in the look and quality of Harryhausen’s work and the film, which does a great job of evoking the saturated colour and epic craft of the earlier film, but in the approach it takes to the same basic story: where 7th Voyage is bouncy and comic book, Golden Voyage is terser in dialogue and storyline, tougher and less primly naïve, if also less spectacular and vibrant. The success of One Million Years B.C. (1966), largely owing to the incandescent sex appeal of Raquel Welch, was followed by the nearly ignored The Valley of Gwangi (1968), and a five-year gap intervened before Golden Voyage’s release. Harryhausen’s product had been battered by inconsistent commercial performance, and he had learnt one lesson: Golden Voyage puts the busty beauty of English starlet Caroline Munro front and centre. Director Hessler, fated like too many other interesting directors to spring out of British genre cinema in the late ’60s to essentially disappear, had done striking work in horror films before this, and his subtly oneiric take on Harryhausen’s visions is loving and rich.
Although it’s often suggested that Harryhausen’s brand was ultimately rendered obsolete by the explosion of fantastic cinema at the end of the ’70s, I think it’s also true that explosion was largely due to the success of Golden Voyage, which revealed there was a new audience hungry for old-fashioned thrills. Sinbad was played this time by John Philip Law, the most conspicuously Aryan of movie stars appearing with dyed-black hair, an American who had become a stalwart in European cinema. His Sinbad is a touch more roguish, if no less ultimately good, in a fashion that looks forward to Indiana Jones as a gritty soldier of fortune leaping into the unknown for good and glory. Like its predecessor, Golden Voyage pits Sinbad against an evil sorcerer and sends him to a mysterious land filled with atavistic peril: Tom Baker earned his epochal run as Doctor Who by playing Prince Koura, the magician with designs to ruling an Arabian city-state, trying to unite the three pieces of a wrought-gold dial that will give him unlimited power, anticipating the plot of Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), by another Harryhausen acolyte, Guillermo del Toro. One of the pieces of the crown falls fortuitously into Sinbad’s hands via a Coleridge allusion—the piece is dropped by a tiny winged homunculus created by Koura. The finger of fate is on Sinbad, as he’s visited by that dream of a mysterious dancer with a tattooed eye on her hand and visions of Koura. He finds the dancer, Margiana (Munro), is a slave in a merchant’s house, and, seeing the tattoo and recognising her import, manages to extract her at the price of also accepting the merchant’s bohemian son Haroun (Kurt Christian) as a crewman. Sinbad is enlisted by the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who has been so disfigured by Koura’s magic in his efforts to resist that usurper that he has to wear a mask. The Vizier gives Sinbad clues that point to the lost continent of Lemuria in the Indian Ocean as the location of a fountain of divine power, and he accompanies Sinbad in the adventure to retrieve the relic.
Harryhausen often turned his own showmanship into a subtext of his films: Sokurah’s malefic delight in exhibiting the transformed Sadi in 7th Voyage—“Behold!” he cries before shattering the urn that contains herr transformed self—is the cinema magician’s sneaky avatar, whilst Golden Voyage more darkly suggests the exhaustion as well as the thrill involved in conjuring life from clay. In one of the most fiendishly achieved, but subtle moments of Harryhausen’s craft, Koura is shown resuscitating one of the homunculi, patient and delighted father to an unholy, yet charming beast rising from a lump of artificial flesh to alert, scampering life ready to do mischief. Koura is slowly being aged to the point of wizened collapse by working his magic, a note that accords with Harryhausen’s explanation of his eventual retirement as owing to his wearying of labouring so long and hard on single projects when other filmmakers could make many more. Elsewhere in the film, Harryhausen proffers two sterling scenes of combat by the heroes with animated statues, the first with the figurehead of Sinbad’s own ship, brought to life by Koura to steal a map, and later a figure of Kali, the Indian goddess of cyclical destruction and rebirth, whose six arms present Harryhausen with one of his greatest challenges of articulation, solved with superlative skill.
Golden Voyage romps gleefully through its essentialist plot: screenwriter Brian Clemens, a stalwart hero of British film and TV genre writing at the time, is mischievous in developing some familiar themes but then distorting them, like orphaned Margiana’s anointed status by the eye tattoo that proves to mark her not, as usual in pulp fare, as a lost heir to a kingdom, but actually a chosen sacrifice/mate to a centaur worshipped as a god by the devolved inhabitants of Lemuria. The film moves through the crucial motifs of the mythic quest, a reminder that Harryhausen and Clemens had a grip on the innate structural sense Joseph Campbell identified. Such motifs come complete with riddle prophecy, delivered by the “Oracle of All Knowledge,” a horned spirit (played by an uncredited, marvellously weird Robert Shaw) that appears in a sacred flame like an eruption of the secret id of humankind. Although the narrative is determinedly traditional, it laces contemporary ideas as well as classical references throughout: whereas 7th Voyage is concerned with frustrated mating rituals, perfect for the repressed ’50s, here Haroun is a coded stoner-slacker needing some advanced application, whilst Margiana offers unabashed cheesecake in a role ironically defined by nascent emancipationist reflexes, as Sinbad, after glimpsing her delirious dancing form in a prophetic dream, liberates her from slavery and makes her one of his crew. There are hints of perverse metaphor as Margiana encounters her intended fate as bride of the centaur, whilst Haroun offers some comic relief redolent of Willie Best: “My heart is full of bravery!…But I have very cowardly legs.” Of course, Haroun mans up enough to become a possible successor to Sinbad, giving the Kali statue a shove over a precipice to save his master.
“There’s an old proverb I choose to believe in,” Sinbad says at one point, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.” This becomes a running gag, and also reintroduces a thematic strand that runs through so many of Harryhausen’s works—counterbalancing the seriousness with which they question the nature of what’s alive with a belief in human audacity in the face of primal forces. Just as Jason in Jason in the Argonauts tells Zeus to his face that he wants to prove men can challenge the infinite, Sinbad repeatedly proves the value of his blend of guts and caution in taking on the mystical. The polycultural wonderland that Hessler, Harryhausen, and Clemens evoke here encompasses a variety of mythological traditions, keeping its hero in focus as a figure of early cross-cultural outreach and dynamism. The usual climactic battle of monsters takes on overtly symbolic aspects, as the Oracle predicts good and evil battling at the edge of eternity, fulfilled when the centaur is attacked by a griffin. Golden Voyage could have used a little more story complication, but the feel for storytelling minutiae is still strong, in Harryhausen’s effects, like the displays of fear on the homunculus’ face and the bewildered aggression of the centaur, and the production, particularly the excellent sound design that gives corporeal conviction and dread to moments like the figurehead tearing itself loose from its place with the crack of splintering wood. Care and vision are also apparent in the directing, culminating in the finale in which Koura becomes invisible, only to be caught out standing in the waters of the magic fountain, his shadow revealed; Sinbad stabs him, and the fountain turns blood red.
The success of Golden Voyage gave Harryhausen renewed vigour and clout, but fate proved unkind, as his next film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), was released in the same summer as the first Star Wars hit. Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects themselves weren’t yet outmoded: inspired to take up the form by 7th Voyage, Phil Tippett would work on the likes of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Robocop (1987), and use his knowledge to help make the first CGI blockbuster Jurassic Park (1992) more convincing. What did become immediately passé was Harryhausen’s effort to produce special-effects-driven cinema without blockbuster budgeting, that could have added greater artisanal vigour and input to the almost cottage industry approach he had to his work. Eye of the Tiger, whilst not as bad as often painted, is still badly hampered by the sluggish, shapeless direction of Sam Wanamaker. Harryhausen bounced back for his final film, the glorious if camped-up Clash of the Titans (1981), but it was the end of an era.
It’s too tempting to turn a tribute to Harryhausen into another excuse to bash the era of CGI. CGI special effects’ crimes have been exaggerated, as many who work with the form are spurred by the same spirit as Harryhausen’s, but often without that crucial sense of personality and sparing approach to detail and problem-solving that invested his creations with unique life. One doesn’t have to be a luddite to see the difference between, say, the engagement with these creatures as entities with, say, the whirling robots of the Transformers movies or, indeed more aptly, the Kraken of the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), which become amorphous, characterless blotches of pixels by comparison with Harryhausen’s creatures. More importantly, too many of the movies around them are, compared to these voyages of Sinbad, equally amorphous and dreary successors. Harryhausen did not specialise in cinematic realism: he specialised in cinematic dreams.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Georges Franju
By Roderick Heath
Amongst early pioneers in film, Louis Feuillade, who made his famous serials between the lead-up to World War I and his early death in 1925, produced ür-texts of almost incalculable impact on subsequent architectonics of film and popular culture. For many French and German directors, in particular, his style is almost endlessly resonant: his example gave immediate birth to Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. Feuillade’s style moved beyond the theatrical wonderment of Georges Méliès to embrace a perfervid blend of realism and make-believe, utilising the realities of the then-contemporary Parisian landscape and filling it with bizarre emanations of the fantastic, populated by figures accumulated from tropes of gothic fiction and stage melodrama, and the evolving science fiction and detective genres. He did so with a deadpan grace that made him an immediate ancestor for the surrealist movement, which would bloom in the following few years, and captured, in several senses, the birth of modernity. More than that, the tensions within Feuillade’s work seem to capture an innate dissonance in the nature of film, poised to be both a tool for capturing the world as it is, and yet ripe for subverting reality and delighting the eye with wonders and perversities that take on totemic power. The images and driving ideas of his serials have been sustained and transmitted through innumerable tributes and imitations, both drawing from and contributing to the common lore of pulp heroism and comic-book super-heroism. As such, it’s arguable something of Feuillade’s spirit trickles down to us even in such contemporary product as V for Vendetta (2005) or The Dark Knight Rises (2012), where the source material owes its definite debts, however distant, to Feuillade’s fantasias of masked avengers and cat-suited femme fatales dancing over rooftops and reigning over a cityscape transformed into a psychic playground.
Georges Franju, for his part, had been making short documentaries since the 1930s, most famously, his 1945 exploration of an urban charnel house, Les Sang Des Bêtes, but he retained links to the cinema avant garde, and his own surrealist sensibility remained in evidence even in explicating strange and terrible textures, constantly locating the charge of the unearthly in the seemingly harshly realistic. His fascination with cinema history became apparent when he made a short documentary about Méliès not long before he made a successful entrance into feature cinema. After his seminal horror film, Eyes Without a Face (1959), named after a Feuillade work and remixing themes from fairy tales and 1930s horror films, he decided to remake the silent master’s 1916 serial Judex. Some New Wavers made fun of him for crawling back into historical daydreams, and yet Franju has been proven smartly anticipatory of where popular fantasies were heading. Within a few years, a surge of pop-art-hued superhero mockeries would hit screens big and small, long before comic-book progeny would begin to invade multiplexes. In turn Franju would provide some inspiration to other filmmakers, especially horror directors like Don Sharp, whose The Kiss of the Vampire (1964) was immediately indebted, and French underground gothic auteur Jean Rollin. Franju’s touch is far more delicate, however, than most of his followers, and certainly more so than the blockbuster fare he anticipated. His film’s closing title reads, “Dedicated to Louis Feuillade – In Memory of an Unhappy Time: 1916,” a reminder that many of the lightest fantasias well out of the most troubled of eras. Franju’s take on Feuillade’s material both looked back to the hazy dawn of modernism and anticipated an oncoming age of moral destabilisation, rebellious countercultures, and anarchic subcultures.
For Franju the mocking, pseudo-surrealist possibilities of this material became paramount. Compressing the five-hour serial into a 90-minute feature, Franju dashes through narrative with a troubadour’s rollicking wit, refashioning the tale as a display of subversive surfaces and magic-realist artifice. His protagonist Judex (Channing Pollock) struts through the proceedings in black cape and hat, playing the vigilante avenger. Yet, he often seems less a force of traditional heroic potency, usually expressed through rock-solid fists and guns, than a bringer of graces, karmic balance, and atonement: he offers bleak but symmetrical punishments without violence. The film’s thematic stresses also take up where Eyes Without a Face left off in extending Franju’s insidious disassembly of the old French patriarchy through motifs torn from fairy tales and genre yarns and pasted back together in his own pattern. Like his successor as a Feuillade fan and natural cinematic rebel, Jacques Rivette, Franju was fascinated by the cinema as an assembly of carefully textured surfaces whose surface order and frippery always contain the seed of the mysterious and the chaotic.
The film offers up tycoon Favraux (Michel Vitold) as a corrupt and oppressive overlord, and as per Balzac’s great maxim, he’s a former bank clerk who’s built a fortune and become a capitalist titan through criminal acts. The first few minutes witness him contemptuously dismissing an old vagabond, Pierre Kerjean (René Génin), who took the rap for him years before for a criminal act and now has lost contact with the wife and child Favraux was supposed to protect. Favraux patronises his daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob), introduced looking shocked into immobility by haute-bourgeois conformity as inescapable as the sunlight she lounges in, with her father; having forced her into one marriage, he now plans to force her into a second with a wastrel aristocrat. But justice is already looming over Favraux: he’s received a threat of death in the form a letter from the mysterious Judex, and he calls in oddball private detective Alfred Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau). Whilst driving into town along a country lane, Favraux sees Kerjean walking and takes the opportunity to rid himself of this potential pest by running him down.
The crimes of high society will soon encounter both the reaction of repressed and degraded classes, represented by the devilish Diana Monti (Francine Bergé) and the vigilante actions of Judex, a shape-shifting, self-appointed knight. A key joke is that both of these characters are posing as people close to Favraux. Diana pretends to be Marie Verdier, a governess for Jacqueline’s daughter: Favraux asks her to marry him after she refuses to be his mistress, spurning him because of his great fortune, the perfect hook. Judex poses as his trusted elderly aide Vallieres, a benevolent guardian hovering over the otherwise blighted Favraux household. With a typical sleight of hand, Judex is, then, secretly present in the narrative even before he makes his official entrance in one of the most amusingly bizarre and iconic introductions in film history: Franju’s camera slowly tilting up from his feet, revealing a well-formed masculine body in an elegant suit, before revealing a head encased in a bird mask, gazing with an implacable raptor’s intensity at the camera. In the same year as Hitchcock’s The Birds, Franju peppers his film with constant avian images utilising them, like Hitchcock, as emblems of emotion and the inexplicable, except here they’re the tools and symbols of benevolent forces rather than the underlying chaos in nature. This imagery is also based partly in justifying one major tool at Franju’s disposal, Pollock’s gifts as a magician: the American-born performer was world-famous for his conjuring of doves.
Judex’s most famous scene follows this first sight of the hero as he proceeds through a masked ball held by Favraux to announce his daughter’s engagement with an apparently dead dove in his hand, held out before him like a pagan offering and symbol of the damage Favraux has done to others. As he reaches the stage with the eyes of the guests on him, the bird suddenly flutters to life, and the masked magician begins to release more birds that flit above the society guests. He closes in on Jacqueline, herself wearing a dove mask, and charms her with his pets, before her father, clad aptly in a vulture mask, takes the stage to announce the engagement at midnight—the time when Judex has promised he will die. Just after the clock finishes striking the hour, Favraux immediately falls to the floor and is pronounced dead by a doctor (André Méliès) who is amongst the guests.
Franju reconstructs Judex into a kind of artist-hero, an Orpheus figure standing at the gates and wielding powers of life, death, and resurrection through his artful execution, a figure with an otherworldly quality that stands in stark contrast to the equally multitudinous, yet deeply, deliciously corporeal Diana. This is partly a side effect of the fact that Franju had originally wanted to remake Fantômas (1914), and was more interested in the villains Musidora had played for Feuillade, with her potent eroticism and air of ungoverned radicalism, than in traditional hero figures, and this tension contributes to the peculiar texture of Judex. Franju clearly doesn’t care about the usual rules that are supposed to preoccupy filmmakers engaging with such material, like trying to make the flimflam logically or psychologically convincing, opting for uncovering an animating spirit of transformative delight.
Caught between the two masked protagonists is Scob’s Jacqueline, an ironic touch considering she played the disfigured, perpetually masked and imprisoned heroine in Eyes Without a Face. Scob is here just as angelic and victimised, but this time she’s just about the only major character who is not adopting some kind of disguise. She is rather the character who is the most integral being, needing nothing more than what she possesses, and for whom all decency is a private epiphany. Jacqueline is initially dominated and pinioned by her father’s prerogative; his “death” comes as both an aggrieving shock and an opportunity to declare autonomy, rejecting the poisoned chalice that is his estate in favour of raising her daughter Alice on her income as a piano teacher, and seeing off her loser fiancé with passing delight. Scob, rather resembling a blonde Audrey Hepburn with her swanlike neck and large, expressive eyes, inhabits the role of nominal damsel in distress with an ethereal grace, relentlessly hunted, snatched, drugged, and nearly murdered by Diana and her coterie of dimwit thugs. Yet, she also is the moral light of the film: after she spurns the estate, Judex changes his original plan to execute her father, who was merely paralysed with a drug, for his crimes, and instead keep him prisoner.
Judex and his band of warriors unearth Favraux from his tomb and transport him to their abode, a super-futuristic hideout underneath an ancient, perhaps Roman ruin (felicitous, given the Roman roots of his adopted name and creed), an abode reminiscent of Cocteau’s Hades in Orpheé (1949) translated into proto-science fiction, as seemingly solid brick walls slide apart, ceilings become panels upon which written words appear delivering messages of almost deistic judgement, and Judex keeps an eye on his captive with the sorcery of technology—television. Judex, like some other films of the late ’50s and early ’60s, including a small rash of period-dress Jules Verne adaptations, offers a prototypical version of the spirit that drives the more recent Steampunk movement: a delight in modern and futuristic technology viewed through the sensibility and conceptualism of the past, coupled with an effervescent, yet quietly meaningful reflection on the subtler transformations of society. Franju coats the film with a veneer of the comedic and the ethereal that don’t entirely hide its awareness of the fluidic moment it depicts, with characters, particularly the female ones, shaking off the dead weight of Victorianism to claw their way into a new era. Judex already seems to live in that new era, like a time traveller, or perhaps a Merlin, who was said to age in reverse: fittingly, then, one key image of perverse sensuality arrives when Jacqueline is shocked to discover Judex in the act of transforming himself into the elderly Vallieres, mantle of snowy white hair over his young face, her aged protector revealed as dramatically handsome potential lover/persecutor/saviour.
Judex is filled with such deft shifts of emphasis and perception, as it moves from incident to incident borrowed from Feuillade with diversions into moments of private wit and invention. Franju constantly gleans strange humour from tropes of melodrama: Jacqueline, dumped in a river by the notorious criminals, floats blithely into the arms of fishermen whilst her tormentors look on in frustration; Morales with a hand caught in a trap on Favraux’s desk, trying to hide long enough for Diana to sneak up on the interloping Jacqueline, who screams on seeing the apparently disembodied limb; Diana, pretending to be a nurse with a voluminous wimple perched on her head, checks herself out in her compact to make sure her makeup hasn’t been despoiled by lying on the ground to spring a trap on an another unsuspecting victim. The sight of Judex’s men scaling a sheer wall like so many four-limbed spiders is both physically impressive and yet, somehow, hilarious, as is the heroes’ appearance in costume dashing about in full daylight, which ought to get them arrested on general principal. The two roving bands of mysterious heroes and villains chase each other around the landscape in a roundelay of costumes and roles, both infiltrating and slipping outside the confines of society, before finally reverting to their purified roles as emblems of good and evil.
Franju rigorously contrasts environs, shifting slowly from the old-world mystique of the country mansion to the rundown Parisian suburb where the finale takes place, with the building Diana’s gang holes up in turned into a lonely castle in a gloomy waste ground at the very frontiers of a bleak and bottomless modernism, with stygian factories burning away in the background as Diana dangles above a void. Judex’s presumption in labouring according to a desire for essential human justice to be upheld is based in a sense that society is, on the level of villainy that Favraux has worked, corrupt beyond the possibility of real justice. Favraux himself is so scared of the powerful men he has done business with or has dirt on that he doubts he could ever return safely to his former life even after Diana and her cohort rescue him from Judex’s prison. This news only makes Diana happier: even better to feed off the dark secrets of high society than to steal its trinkets. The spirit of fin-de-siècle anarchist movements and proto-revolutionary zeal lie underneath both sides, whilst the lone figure of even vaguely official justice, Cocantin, is a comical figure given to excitedly flipping the pages of the original Fantômas novel.
An sly sensuality charges Judex throughout, most obviously with Bergé dancing about in tights, culminating in a delirious moment in which she strips off her nurse’s garb down to her basic bodystocking, with that absurd wimple still on her head, before finally tossing that aside, too, and plunging through a trap door into a river to elude Judex and his men. The erotic edge is, however, equally manifest in the undertones of Judex’s and Jacqueline’s encounters, crystallising in images of symbolist power, like a doped-up Jacqueline left splayed in the driveway of the mansion by Morales and Diana when they’re faced with guard dogs, one of the hounds placing one paw protectively over the girl moments before the equally watchful, beneficent Judex strolls out of the woods and carries Jacqueline back home, her white clad form aglow in moonlight and seeming to float in the arms of the nocturnal-cloaked hero.
Aided by Bergé’s mischievous, but never winking, performance, Franju delights in Diana’s displays of sexy evil and rapid alterations of attire, playing the prim Madonna for Favraux’s benefit, the sister of mercy, the urban coquette, the mannishly garbed leader of her cell of rebels, and most indelibly, slinking through the night in her form-hugging black bodysuit with silver dagger at the hip a la Musidora’s Irma Vep and many a Catwoman after her. Diana is not merely a naughty anti-heroine, however, but a cold-blooded killer constantly poking lethally sharp objects in Jacqueline’s face, as if she’s seized hold of phallocratic power, but can only fashion an intent to violate her feminine opposite with it. Diana lives with a boyfriend and partner in crime Morales (Théo Sarapo), first glimpsed lounging on his bed and looking very like Jean-Paul Belmondo, as if Franju’s making a wry link between the older fantasies and Godard’s contemporary brand of eroticised, rough-trade criminal. Turns out that Morales is actually the missing son of Kerjean, progeny of a family unit torn asunder by Favraux’s malfeasance: his father wasn’t actually killed by Favraux’s attempt to run him over, but is, in fact, another of Judex’s operatives, and father and son recognise each other when locked in a deadly battle.
Cocantin’s return to the fray late in the film comes when a village boy, a pal of Alice’s who, having recognised Diana in her nurse costume as the fake Marie Verdier, approaches the detective to succeed where Judex has momentarily failed in tracking her down. Cocantin’s childlike spirit has already been confirmed when he was glimpsed gleefully relating blood and thunder tales and stories of her namesake to the delighted Alice; now, he and the kid form a fairly effective crime-fighting duo, allowing Franju to offer a nod in the direction of Chaplin’s The Kid (1921) and further undermining any pretences to seriousness. Yet, the film’s very last act is a brilliant whirl of reversals, as Judex is captured by his enemies, and fends off Diana’s attempt at sadomasochistic-hued seduction as she tries to kiss him while he’s tied up. Franju performs another pirouette in offering surprising sympathy for Favraux as a man who’s alive and yet might as well be dead, now wanting only peace. He still falls for Diana’s pretence to being the kindly Marie who will marry him now that he’s no longer rich, for she still hopes to use his knowledge. Favraux trusts her completely and understandably fears Judex, so much so that when the hero arrives to save him from the villains, Favraux knocks him out, and shoots himself rather than be retaken by his rescuers, lending of note of tragedy to the story, but also saving him from the disillusionment of learning Diana’s real nature.
Meanwhile, of course, a gentleman like Judex can’t be seen to hurt a lady, so to deliver Diana a comeuppance and save Judex from his apparently inescapable death, a deus ex machina arrives in the form of Cocantin’s gorgeous acrobat girlfriend Daisy (Sylva Koscina), whose circus caravan just happens to trundle past as Cocantin and the kid are watching the enemy hideout. Daisy reports to Cocantin that her own domineering uncle is now dead (“The lions ate him!”), so she’s a free agent now. A perfect equal and opposite to Diana, she wears a dashing white bodysuit for her act, initially entering wearing a spangled cape and tiara that she hands over to Cocantin for the duration. She is the one who will climb up the wall of the house and spring Judex, allowing him to turn the tables on Diana and Morales by substituting the criminal male for his bound and hooded form; Diana unknowingly plunges a knife into her lover’s heart, in a typically inspired, vicious twist. Diana’s own comeuppance comes as Daisy chases her onto the roof, where the mirror opposites battle to the death. Franju even offers a gleefully sexy and exciting shot showing only their legs, clad in leotards of contrasting black and white, entwining and tangling in the dance of combat. Diana loses, and finishes up sliding down the roof to dangle from the drain pipe as Judex’s men try to reach her, to no avail. That she was as much of a life force as a destroyer is suggested when her end comes, falling to her death and lying open-eyed amidst rubble and flowers, wept over by the young boy, with a mournful taps blown by one of the circus musicians: for Franju, even a villain’s end is something to be mourned. The very end belongs again to Judex and Jacqueline, who, leaving behind the past, are seen on a beach with the lady love now dressed in a sailor suit and the avenger reverted to magician, producing flapping totems of love from thin air. It’s a glorious end to a film that’s made an instant leap into the ranks of my personal favourites.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey Through Adventure Film
Director: Fritz Lang
By Roderick Heath
The ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tales of Siegfried or Sigurd were vital building blocks for much middle and northern European folk culture. This was true long before Richard Wagner conflated them for his delirious, impossibly long, musically ostentatious opera cycle, and certainly long before J.R.R. Tolkien absorbed them into his The Lord of the Rings tales. Tolkien’s variation, in repositioning the material as a battle against tyrannical evil, tried to present a completely opposite contemporary tilt on the stories to that assumed by Hitler and the Nazis, who annexed aspects of them through Wagner as lynchpins for their own mythology. Siegfried, the pure, anointed hero who defeated the dragon and yet fell to a spear in the back, presented to post-WW1 German nationalists a powerful metaphor for what they saw as the betrayal of their great struggle by politicians. The possibly apocryphal story of director Fritz Lang’s encounter with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who as Lang later recounted asked him to become their master filmmaker, is today known by just about anyone with pretences to film scholarship. It’s one of those singular moments, as with Eisenstein’s contretemps with Stalin or Ronald Reagan’s co-opting a popular sci-fi adventure for a planned weapons system, where cinema history and political history suddenly unite with genuine import. In Lang’s account, he was approached on the back of their adoration of his two-part 1924 film of the epic poem Die Nibelungenlied, and its science-fiction follow-up Metropolis (1926), works riven with Lang’s malleable sense of human masses and colossal design bound together as expressive instruments that seem to dwarf individualism in the face of historic forces. The fact that Lang’s wife and collaborating screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, became a Nazi (albeit, so she said, to protect Indians, like her later lover, living in Germany), and that many of his cast and crew would be doomed, like or not, to keep working in a Goebbels-run film industry, deepened the seeming surety of Lang’s links to the new regime.
However, there were dimensions of Lang, half-Jewish and Austrian-born, and his aesthetics that the Nazis had not understood or had wilfully ignored, and this was one dragon he decided not to cuddle up to. Lang left Germany, arrived in Hollywood as an artistic hero, and finished up as a near-forgotten B-movie helmsman, albeit one who would be rediscovered just as his career was ending. Such is the lay of Lang’s fall from his pinnacle as the world-shaking cinema titan who bankrupted UFA and inspired the likes of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock to become filmmakers. It’s neither fair nor entirely apt that the original mythology or Lang’s film of it should have to withstand such evil cultural and historical associations, but they still remain. Made nine years before Hitler’s rise to power, Die Nibelungen’s dedication “To the German People” in the earlier context reads as encomium to a beaten and deeply depressed nation trying to struggle its way out of a dreadful collapse in political structures, economic terrors, and appalling loss, whilst the film depicts the pre-war neo-classical movement’s love for mythology and fantasy now scratching beneath the fanciful veneer of the iconography, and finding the real emotion and hard lessons such surviving tales still contained. The tale’s depiction of a maddened clash not only of individuals and peoples, but also values and world-views, fighting each-other to a bloodily apocalyptic nullity, reflects the still sharp memory of the Great War as noble yet incoherent tragedy.
Lang himself hated Wagner’s chauvinistic mash-up, and based his films squarely on the saga written by an anonymous poet who was probably part of the court of the Bishop of Passau at the turn of the thirteenth century. The poem was a product of a phase in European history when rulers were attempting synthesise new loyalties and codes of behaviour, as well as put the burgeoning numbers of poets and troubadours to some use, through formalising national mythologies in the pattern of Homer’s epics: most of the Arthurian tales came out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court a little earlier. Like such works, Die Nibelungenlied, which obviously combined transmissions of Greek myth, passed on from hazy sources, with folk memories and legends, was a study in medieval ethics and social constructs, which stressed ambiguity on a human level by presenting cast-iron order and morality imbued on a cosmic level: heroes fall because of their blind spots, and the righteous often appear to be uglier than the villainous in attempting to assert an absolute ethic, and finally history, or fate, or society, wins over the individuals even as each venerate the fallen. The poem also neglected most of the oversized mythological details associated with other versions of the story, like Siegfried’s descent from the Norse gods, and instead presented a story squarely set in an historical context. In spite of fantastical touches like the dragon Siegfried kills and the magical helmet he wears, the tone is largely that of this earth.
The first part of Lang’s work thus kicks off, rather than climaxes with, Siegfried’s greatest mythical hits and, in the total scheme of the films, moves through them at lightning speed. Lang’s film preserves the feudal flavour and fearsome, atavistic sensations of the poem, and yet is also a prototypical version of the same modern moral universe, inflated in scale and resonance but still recognisable, as that Lang explored through less distant prisms in subsequent films as diverse as M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Such was a universe where a daemonic quality in human nature wreaks havoc, and mankind on a social level is often disturbingly mindless and reactive. The nobility and ethical strength of the individual barely keeps afloat when such forces are unleashed, the heroes’ loving impulses often transmuting into a hard and unforgiving vengefulness, one that risks becoming monstrous and inhuman in the name of maintaining a human, moral shape to the universe. Lang’s sensibility thus intuitively grasps some of the subtler inferences of the original myth and many like it. In the immediate context of Lang’s run of ‘20s work, where the Dr Mabuse films explored the paranoid mindset of the contemporary and Metropolis posited fables in the future, Die Nibelungen looked to the distant past. In each, a similar, sinister sense of plots laid and hatching evil is facilitated by borrowed guises as the means to insidious ends: Siegfried’s use of his magic helmet equates with Mabuse’s use of disguise and the robotic Maria in Metropolis. Lang’s personal art was perhaps most strongly defined in and contained by Die Nibelungen, because, as has been noted, the essential figurations of the tale recur again and again in Lang’s films. Clearly, for Lang, Die Nibelungen was more than a national myth: it was his own.
The early stages recount how Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of the king of Xanten, has been residing for years with bedraggled old blacksmith, Mime (Georg John), of a race of barely-human mountain men, learning hardiness and craft in a lofty cave. Siegfried is introduced forging a sword sharp enough to cut a feather that falls upon its edge, impressing Mime, who tells his charge that his apprenticeship is over, and that he can return to his father. But another mountain man speaks of the castle at Worms, seat of the king of Burgundy, and of the beauty of the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Siegfried decides instead to do deeds mighty enough to win Kriemhild. Fate gives him his chance right away, as he encounters, on his way, a colossal dragon that rules a mountain grove. Siegfried ventures into battle with the monster in order to present to the world his own vision for mankind’s conquest of death and terror. He kills the dragon and showers under the blood that runs from its carcass, making him impervious to physical wounding, except at one spot on his back where a leaf from a lime tree falls and sticks. This is the first and most overt moment in the film which seems like a progenitor with endless resonance through subsequent fantasy cinema, perhaps the first great leap forward from Georges Méliès’ rough sketches, with the proto-animatronic dragon moved by steam-powered puppetry, glimpsed drinking from a pool and lashing out at the miniscule but dogged attacker with tail and fire: just about every special-effects driven movie made subsequently owes something conceptually or technically to this scene, from King Kong (1933) through to Jurassic Park (1992) and on to the present.
Siegfried’s legend begins to precede his approach, as his deeds are recounted in Worms to Kriemhild, her mother Queen Ute (Gertrud Arnold), and her brothers, the King Gunther (Theodor Loos), and the younger Gernot (Hans Carl Mueller) and Giselher (Erwin Biswanger), by court troubadour Volker of Alzey (Bernhard Goetzke). Meanwhile Siegfried, continuing his journey, encounters Alberich (John again), a Nibelung or goblin metal-smith, who possesses a fabulous treasure as well as the magic helmet called the Tarnhelm, which confers invisibility. Alberich assaults Siegfried whilst wearing the helmet, but Siegfried overpowers and kills him, leaving Siegfried with his treasure and the great sword Balmung. Now, invincible and able to command the loyalty and needs of men, Siegfried conquers and then commands twelve petty kings, and brings them as his followers to Worms. Siegfried, a king in his own right, hopes to forge stronger bonds between the various European kingdoms. Whilst Siegfried and Gunther become friends, and the court’s band of fraternal warriors are dubbed ‘Nibelungen’ to celebrate the new compact, at the insistence of Gunther’s truculent advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Siegfried won’t be allowed to marry Kriemhild until he helps Gunther marry too. For Hagen has convinced Gunther to expand his realm by wedding the Queen of Iceland, Brünhild (Hanna Ralph), who lives in a fire-ringed castle with an army of shield-maidens. The prodigious Queen has set no easy requirements for suitors: they have to beat her in three tests of strength, on pain of death. Gunther is anything but a champion, and he prevails upon Siegfried, donning his magic helmet, first to invisibly guide his actions in the joust, and then to take his own guise to subdue her on the wedding night when she continues to reject him. In gratitude, Gunther not only lets Siegfried marry Kriemhild, but also goes through a ceremony of blood brotherhood with him.
Lang’s eye, with the tools of the amazing set design and decoration by Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, and Erich Kettelhut, and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian and Aenne Willkomm, allows the essential conflicts and thematic tensions of the early stages of this drama accumulate through distilled signifiers. The initial sight of Worms as described by the mountain men appears like a dream vision, rising above the primal landscape of craggy mountains and colossal forest trees, tangles of wilderness and stygian depths of the unknown, through which Siegfried makes his heroic advance. It’s impossible to miss the similarity of imagery in the moment in which Siegfried follows Albrecht into his cavern to the scene in Metropolis where Fredersen follows Rotwang into the catacombs, although the journey is closer in spirit to that of Freder in the latter film, a trek into the underworld where the hero risks his life but emerges with riches. Siegfried, simultaneously, moves from the very fringes of the world, through the midst of the forest via the dragon and various semi-human races he encounters, to Worms, which, with its soaring battlements and radiating aura of centrifugal power and gravitas, seems like a bastion of all humans can achieve.
The formalistic world of the Burgundian court sees the characters and architecture arrayed in geometric precision, revealing the increasing influence of modern art styles like Cubism infiltrating Lang’s visuals, whilst also channelling the simple precepts of medieval heraldic decoration: such motifs do not however merely look impressive, but communicate ancient assumptions of hierarchy and power, encoded in the very scenery of the drama. Individuals are dwarfed by the might of the church and the palace, and they move into place with precision in obedience to feudal hierarchy at the court. When Siegfried, pretending to be Gunther, overwhelmed Brünhild, he did not actually deflower her, but he took her armlet, a symbol of chastity, and kept it as a trophy. When Kriemhild finds it and innocently sports it, Siegfried confesses his loyal act of deception. Meanwhile, Brünhild, still harbouring misgivings and gnawed at by her actual ardour for Siegfried, starts throwing her weight around in preferring to destroy what she can’t have. She describes Siegfried as a vassal and claims pre-eminence over Kriemhild upon entering the church, an act of contempt that angers Kriemhild so much she retaliates by telling Brünhild the truth about her wedding. Brünhild, maddened to mania, lies to Gunther that Siegfried actually slept with her when pretending to be him. Hagen, who has wanted an excuse to pilfer the Nibelungen treasure, sides with Brünhild when she demands Siegfried’s assassination.
The dialectic of values that permeates Die Nibelungen is reflected not only in the visuals, but in the opposition of characters. Siegfried, whilst embodying classical ideals of Germanic tribal youth, is also imbued with the nascent patina of Christian idealism in borrowing St George’s mantle (although some have also suggested, interestingly, that this aspect of the myth could have roots in the infamous defeat of the Romans by the Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when the Romans wore scaled armour), penetrating the stygian depths of the forest and extending the bulwarks of civilisation, but utterly at a loss when drawn into the orbit of the political, human world. Defined against his virtue is Gunther, whose essential lack of personal direction and strength contrasts Siegfried’s meritocratic gifts carefully imbued by experience and upbringing, a warning against the dangers of mere inherited power. Even more polarised is Hagen, the unrefined old Teutonic, virile, amoral, fearless, shameless, and loyal to the interests of his nation and the improvement of his king, whether the king likes it or not. The demure Kriemhild seems, at first, the polar opposite of the awesome Brünhild: Kriemhild, quiet, eyes constantly downcast, appears the perfectly deferential, decorous medieval maid, whereas Brünhild is a more ancient kind of women, physically dynamic and wildly tribal, carrying associations with Greek mythical heroines and huntresses like Diana and the champion Atalanta, given superpowers by her intractable chasteness, and Lang and von Harbou stack her portrayal heavily towards hues of misanthropic lesbianism. Initial appearances are partly deceiving, as Brünhild proves increasingly volatile and vindictive once her virginity and sovereignty are surrendered, whilst Kriemhild, who early in the film interrupts a violent quarrel between Siegfried and Hagen with a pacific gesture, grows after marrying Siegfried exponentially in character and stature, until she becomes an all-powerful engine of wrath.
Siegfried and Kriemhild embody the persistence of idealism in civilisation, being reconstituted as the Roman world, distant and increasingly irrelevant, is assailed by Attila and his Huns. But idealism is not necessarily positivist in such a realm: it invokes justice and order as well as liberty and socialisation, and the occasional harshness of those concepts. Hagen and Brünhild, who are both, tellingly, constantly sporting helmets with winged crests that evoke more distant tribal roots and totemistic meaning, are refrains from older times, potent and powerful, but also destructive and self-defeating in their extreme sensibilities. Upon her arrival in Worms, Brünhild, who has before clearly been pagan, consulting an old völva who cast the runes, must kiss the cross in the first act of domestication. This historical world depends utterly on codes of behaviour and ritual that enforce and allow assumptions of trust. The gullibility of Siegfried and Kriemhild and the weakness of Gunther are heightened to amusing extremes, and yet of course it’s actually about demonstrating the level of trust invested in those one fights with and lives with. Hagen violates those presumptions in the most profound manner possible, as he tricks Kriemhild into sewing a cross on the back of Siegfried’s robe that marks out exactly where the leaf that despoiled his invincibility stuck, under the pretext of wanting to protect Siegfried in battle. Out on a hunt, whilst Siegfried drinks from a pool, Hagen spears him in the back.
Die Nibelungen is very long – the two chapters in their full-length cuts take five hours to unspool – in part because Lang plays every scene with a smouldering, slow-mounting intensity that registers with electric fixation and precise weightiness the characters’ actions and reactions. In the sequence of Kriemhild’s confrontation with her dead husband, the slow burn pays off for one of Lang’s brilliant little pirouettes of style, as Kriemhild awakens in the night and wanders from her bedroom, the castle now suddenly a trap of voluminous, haunted space, the hunting party returning from the stygian night with Siegfried’s body on his shield. When Kriemhild comes upon Siegfried laid out, she bends over his body in utter devastation. Whilst there’s much less of the overtly experimental and symbolic technique Lang would use in Metropolis here, Lang employs such elements sparingly and exactingly, and here interpolates a livid piece of imagery as Kriemhild envisions Siegfried standing before the blossoming tree where he was kissing her earlier, the tree of spring then waning in wintry fashion to take on the aspect of a glowing skull. Violent tragedy has been prefigured by an earlier dream Kriemhild had as Siegfried first entered her life, of a white bird being torn apart by black ones, rendered in abstracted animation. Kriemhild’s squall of shock soon segues into realisation that Hagen is the murderer, and she rises from Siegfried’s corpse pointing her finger at the warlord with abysses behind her electric eyes, demanding he be punished. But Gunther, who acquiesced to the crime, his brothers, and Volker all, for the sake of the loyalty that is their own, absolute value, step in front of Hagen, announcing their intention to stand by him. Kriemhild vows revenge, and later finds, when Siegfried’s body has been laid out in the cathedral, that Brünhild, having already revealed to her husband that she had lied about Siegfried’s actions, has killed herself there with a dagger in her heart, and rests bent over his corpse, bringing the curtain down on the first chapter.
The bipolar swing from the transcendental adventure of dragon-slaying to this ugly scene seems to chart a grimmer side to the evolution of human civilisation, out of the forest’s shadows and into the different shadows of human emotional and societal conflict. Kriemhild must evolve further and find a way to slay this entirely different kind of dragon. Like her dead husband, she embarks on a single-minded pilgrimage through the forests to fulfil a vow that will change the shape of the world. Strong female characters in Lang’s work were remarkably common even after his marriage to the imperious Von Harbou broke up, and although at first the drama is driven ironically by a clash of intemperate ladies, Kriemhild and Brünhild, later Kriemhild, like the diptych of Marias in Metropolis but contained within one body, is both goddess and succubus, saviour and annihilator, lording over men as she commits unremittingly to her programme no matter the horror that ensues. Whilst Brünhild comes to resemble a femme fatale of the order of Joan Bennett’s Kitty March in Scarlet Street, Kriemhild, like Spencer Tracy’s Joe Wilson in Fury, Henry Fonda’s title character in The Return of Frank James (1940), and Glenn Ford’s Dan Bannion and Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat, is slowly transformed by her dedication to vengeance into a merciless, inhumane force.
If that dedication is held far higher than the mob mentality, here presented in the form of the Huns, invoked throughout Lang’s films, it’s because it retains a fearful kind of beauty, a singular force that stands rigidly opposed to nihilism and defeatism, and thus constitutes as sure a bulwark against utter moral chaos as Worms’ battlements, but which in any other setting but this demands better answers. The formerly demure, ultra-feminine Kriemhild now becomes the baleful icon, resembling Klimt’s vision of Pallas Athena, cowering grown men with her gaze, her brothers downcast and ashamedly tentative before her, as she accepts an offer from Attila (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to become his new wife, as he promises to avenge any offence done to her: Kriemhild forces first Attila’s envoy, Rüdiger von Bechlarn (Rudolf Rittner), a Germanic vassal of the Asian conqueror, to swear this oath. She demands it again when she reaches Attila’s keep, in a spellbindingly intense sequence that sees the magnificently ugly Hun warlord and the beautifully icy German widow find a deep understanding in unflinching gazes and oaths of binding import. Attila is later so nervous about the well-being of his wife and his child she’s giving birth to, he can’t prosecute the siege of Rome he’s started, and when news comes of the baby’s safe delivery, he charges with his men back to his stronghold to cradle his babe with childish glee, and grants Kriemhild’s request to invite her brothers for a stay. Along the way he passes by the film’s oddest piece of symbolism, a gaggle of naked children dancing around the one tree in an otherwise blasted plain, emblems of the endangered but growing state of civilisation in this age.
Whilst Metropolis, with its genetic heritage passed on through so much of science fiction that followed and its giddy, frenetic sense of technique, is the most famous of Lang’s films, Die Nibelungen has all of its virtues and none of its faults, not simply in telling a more lucid story – it is admittedly easier to transcribe a work of great classical literature than compose one’s own parables – but also in conceptual depth, narrative integrity, and consistency of acting. The performing is practically cabalistic in its concentration, particularly from Schön, who does some of the most operatic eye-acting in the history of silent cinema, and that’s saying something. As Metropolis is to science fiction, watching Die Nibelungen feels very much like encountering the ür-text of just about the entire canon of historical fantasy-adventure cinema. Whilst many entries in these genres had been made before, Lang’s boldly composed visions seem to have sunk the deepest roots in the imagination of filmmakers, even those who have never seen them, but rather seen the films they inflected. Beyond the impact of his use of special effects, Lang’s visual alchemy presented an indelible model for anyone working with such material. The temptation to completely reinvent the world presented in a movie according to aesthetic choice and artistic desire is always theoretically open to filmmakers, but as it’s so often a realistic medium, few feel free to do so with material set in the modern world, a choice that is however less fraught in fantastic and historical settings. Thus Lang’s holistic sensibility, turning everything within the scope of his camera into an expressive instrument, could find free reign here, and gave to followers an expressive palate that could be used in endless and intricate variations. The influence spreads over a vast spectrum of cinematic icons: the compositions and stylisation of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1946-58), the historical swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz and epics of Cecil B. DeMille, the visual motifs of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, and Orson Welles, through to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (over and above the poem’s influence on Tolkien), John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur (1981), and historical dramas like Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Even sci-fi like Star Wars (1977) bears its imprint; Hagen – or is it Kriemhild? – can be called the absolute original Darth Vader. Lang’s way of settling his camera down to absorb a set composed in precise, static geometry prefigures the self-conscious reproduction of such effects by Sergei Paradjanov. The finale seems to have particularly inspired the core battle sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).
Die Nibelungen moves with the relentless stateliness of classical tragedy, which is indeed a genre into which the story finally moves, even as the narrative finally erupts with action in an hour-long final sequence of transfixing force. Structurally, it is broken, like an epic poem, into “Cantos” that commence with brief explanatory, pre-empting notes. Kriemhild’s determination to uphold the values she considers sacred – justice and oaths of loyalty – runs headlong into Attila’s own specific absolutes, in this case the nomadic leader’s insistence that an offer of hospitality cannot be violated, so that even whilst he puts the Burgundians in his wife’s lap, he won’t prosecute the vengeance she wants. So, she carefully whips up the Hun warriors, who, wanting to aid the woman whose beauty and statuesque strength seems to them practically god-like, will do anything she asks, so that when the Burgundians arrive, a fight erupts between the partying soldiers of both sides. When a Burgundian soldier runs into Attila’s banquet hall in the keep, shouting, “Treason!”, Hagen promptly, punitively slaughters Attila and Kriemhild’s baby. At the pleading of another of Attila’s German vassals, Dietrich of Bern (Fritz Alberti), he’s allowed to lead Attila, Kriemhild, Rüdiger and others out of the keep, before the Nibelungen close the doors and defend themselves against the waves of Huns who try to hack through the doors and invade via ladders to the roof. The Nibelungen, with their shields and mail as well as fighting prowess, prove near-invincible for the unarmoured, swarming Huns, and so Kriemhild invokes Rüdiger’s oath and demands he lead his own men in, an act which entails the worst possible crisis of conscience: Rüdiger has promised his daughter in marriage to Giselher. But the power of the oath wins out, and Rüdiger moves ominously in to attack. When he tries to strike down Hagen, Giselher leaps in front of the villain in trying to plead with his would-be father-in-law, and dies instead. In the battle that follows, Volker kills Rüdiger, whilst the Huns swarm over Gernot as he pleads with his sister to call them off. Hagen mocks Kriemhild from the keep’s steps after another wave of attackers is beaten off, and finally Kriemhild gives the order to burn the keep to the ground with the remnant Nibelungen inside.
The power of these scenes is virtually indescribable in the infernal concision of the images, especially as the end comes for the Nibelungen, Volker defiantly playing his instrument – in pointed contrast to an earlier scene where he smashed another after Kriemhild left Worms without making peace with any of them – and leading the warriors in song. Attila, outside, in a maniacal trance, rocks his hands to the time of the song, and Kriemhild, at the suggestion from another German vassal that’s she’s been consumed by hate, gestures to the keep and states, “I’ve never been more filled with love,” in admiration for her brothers’ fidelity to their principles. They won’t even let Hagen go out to hand himself over when he proposes to do this. Finally, Dietrich, who, like Attila, is another real historical personage brought into the drama (his real-life analogue was Theodoric the Great, the Visigoth king who conquered Italy), ventures into the keep and overpowers Hagen, dragging him and the king, the last left alive, out to meet the final act of the tragedy. The bleak and dizzying beauty and emotional force of this ending come not simply from the feelings evoked within it and by it, but from the moral ambiguity of it all, as characters one despises suddenly prove themselves heroic beyond measure and true to their private code. Even Gunther gets himself wounded in trying desperately to pluck the fiery arrows from the roof, and Hagen tries to protect the prone king by standing over him with his shield as blocks of masonry crash upon it. The various postures of the characters, their world-ordering sensibilities, finally meet in a mutually annihilating showdown where each major character is forced, one way or another, to destroy what they love most. It’s the darkest possible ending in many ways, and yet bizarrely elating, and it makes, by comparison, most modern descendants of this truly great film experience look childish.
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Director/Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
By Roderick Heath
The Avengers could well be the most hyped movie ever made, surpassing the likes of Gone with the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), and other singular icons of globe-conquering audience awareness, if you consider that some of the predecessors in the series of Marvel Comics adaptations were basically teasers, primers, and set-ups for the cast of superheroes it features. The task of living up to such hype would be unenviable for any director, let alone one with only a single, middlingly successful feature to his credit, but the job of tethering together a dizzying sprawl of characters and plot gimmicks from other films into a single, grandiose bash-‘em-up finally fell to such a man: Joss Whedon. Whedon, who has long been known as the nerd’s nerd thanks to his engaging TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Dollhouse, and stints writing storylines for some of the proper source comic books, inspires cultish devotion from many and an equal detestation from others. I confess to considering him rather a talent with great but hitherto unfulfilled potential. Whedon’s actual filmography is slight, having directed the cinematic conclusion for Firefly, Serenity (2005). Serenity suggested that Whedon’s talent for creating interesting characters in a stylised genre milieu, and witty, if occasionally gratingly arch, dialogue could be transferred to the compressed demands of a feature film, and that he could mount an exciting adventure story.
But it also frustrated with its lack of visual imagination and blandly TV-shaped sense of staging, and faltered in clarifying the whirl of storylines being resolved from the show for a new audience. Neither lack in Whedon’s touch was a good sign in approaching The Avengers. The first 20 minutes or so of The Avengers could be switchback-inducing for anyone who hasn’t watched the earlier Marvel films, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Thor (2011) in particular, and, indeed, for those who didn’t wait through the end credits of those films to see their hidden kickers. Whedon also has to revive a rather different kind of film, one with deep roots in Hollywood but which has been fairly quiescent for a long time now: the all-star extravaganza, a form not simply defined by featuring a number of famous faces, but by having to sustain and balance them in parts that suit their aptitudes, fans, and dramatic necessity. Yes, this is the Grand Hotel of superhero flicks.
Thus The Avengers hits the ground running with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the clandestine SHIELD security service, and scientist Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), trying to deal with the sudden coming to life of a powerful alien artefact, the Tesseract, which was retrieved along with the frozen Captain America from a watery Arctic grave. For a few minutes even I, who did watch those earlier movies, felt a little riled at such a headlong introduction, and the film takes a while to settle down, as it reintroduces the characters and sets the story into motion: because we already “know” the team, Whedon only goes through the motions of the Seven Samurai-esque gathering of the heroes. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), exiled brother of “god” Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and former usurping king of the alien realm of Asgard, has hooked up with a race of mysterious and very ugly extra-terrestrials who control a galaxy-crossing portal, and the Tesseract, as it happens, is the other end of that portal. Loki, having successfully sold the aliens on invading Earth and installing him as ruler, teleports into the SHIELD headquarters and takes psychic control of Selvig and Agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), dubbed “Hawkeye” thanks to his awe-inspiring prowess with bow and arrow, and Fury fails to prevent the Tesseract’s theft by bringing down the headquarters about their ears. Fury, recognising that the sort of situation he’s been preparing for has arrived, calls in his sinuous superspy Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff and sets about tracking down the various powerful weirdoes who will comprise his Avengers team.
Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is tracked down to where he’s working as a medic in an Indian slum. Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is still trying to adjust to life in the new millennium. Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) has just built a New York skyscraper powered entirely by his miraculous arc reactor and resents being called away from the arms of his lover-assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Thor is still apparently trapped on Asgard, having demolished the portal between the two worlds. Whedon’s rush of opening action betrays an uncertainty, perhaps inevitable, about how to get this contraption off the ground: still, I don’t think David Lean could have taken on such a burden and managed to make it flow perfectly. The opening offers a little tough-gal action with Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, a cool and sturdy SHIELD agent who continues to bob up distractingly throughout the rest of the film, but whilst Whedon does snap into focus, unsurprisingly, when he can focus on a kick-ass female hero, it is in this case Johansson, who, after enlivening the torturous Iron Man 2 (2010), maintains her form as Natasha in a droll introduction. In the middle of being tortured by sleazy Slavic arms dealers, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) calls Natasha’s mobile phone and she irritably resists having her mission cancelled now that the “interrogators” are inadvertently telling her everything she needs to know, but, obediently, she clobbers her captors whilst still tied to a chair and makes her escape. She is sent to track down Banner, whose Hulk alter ego, although he’s been keeping a lid on it successfully of late, is regarded as an unreasonable danger; it’s Banner’s scientific knowledge SHIELD wants.
Ruffalo, taking over a seemingly cursed role after Eric Bana and Edward Norton, far outshines them for grasping Banner’s essence, not having the physical presence of Bana and more convincingly anxious than Norton; he instead pitches his performance as a savant gnawed at by the beast within, his skin sallow and his soul seeming to droop nearly as much as his purposefully oversized wardrobe, and so the Hulk stands as the Most Improved Superhero in this movie. Loki makes his presence known in Stuttgart, Germany, where he tries to browbeat a crowd into kneeling before him, only for an old man (Kenneth Tigar), having seen all this before, to resist. Before Loki can blast him away, Captain America arrives to block the exterminating bolt with his shield: he too has seen this sort of thing before. Such a scene is a punchy reminder that Whedon grasps not only the essence of good melodrama but also the powerful underlying thematic ties of this material to the anxieties of the last century. Whereas Stark’s Iron Man, who arrives to give Rogers some needed aid, constantly trails the association of the Cold War his father fought and the American hegemony and embodies the cognitive dissonance of this age, Rogers is still the WW2 fascist-fighter, and recognises Loki’s übermensch mentality. Interestingly, as the least colourful and the most old-fashioned of the heroes, Rogers emerges as the film’s axiom, all the more surprising as Captain America was saddled with the least inspired of introduction films. But Rogers’ air of faintly forlorn, antiquated idealism is compelling as Fury states apologetically that “we’ve made mistakes…some very recently”, and inevitably grazes against the post-modern wise-assed diva act of Stark.
Evans, a surprisingly restrained and grounded actor considering that he first came to attention playing the insufferable Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies, absorbs Downey’s stream of flip with a shield of earnestness far more impressive than the metallic one he carries. Whedon aptly makes Coulson a closet Captain America fanboy, and wants his childhood hero to sign the trading cards he’s collected. Rogers offers Whedon an obvious avatar for exploring not simply the boyish fantasies at the heart of the superhero mythology, but also the powerful pull of nostalgia, and the sense of being a devotee to any creation with a legacy, not just seventy-year-old comic book heroes, which means living both in the past and the present. Rogers searches for something, anything, to give him purpose and direction: when, having sat through a stream of modern techno and military babble, someone’s crack about “flying monkeys” makes him shout with joy that he recognises the reference. Rogers however instantly adapts to crisis situations, and emerges in the finale as the team’s natural leader, as an experienced soldier and strategist, barking out a stream of instructions to the team to take up positions, ending with the immortal last order to his least sophisticated warrior: “Hulk…smash!” That said, Downey, so beleaguered in Iron Man 2, is in fine form here, especially as he mocks Thor’s initial appearance as “Shakespeare in the park,” (“Doth your mother know that you weareth her drapes?”) and later dubbing him “Point Break”, and, surprised to recognise in Banner a fellow genius, taking pause to praise him for his work, including turning into an “enormous green rage monster.”
Hemsworth’s Thor, still charmingly arcane in speech and unsubtle in method, arrives trailing fraternal issues, and makes several ill-advised attempts to talk his brother into ending his campaign of violence. Loki’s familial status is key to one of the film’s funniest lines, as Thor demands respect for the villain from the humans because he’s part of the Asgard royalty: when Natasha points out he’s killed eighty people, Thor can only bleat, “He’s adopted.” Whilst it would be easy to make The Avengers sound like a stream of Whedon-speak, the erstwhile writer-director actually for the most part contours his style into the material, which demands a more consistently classical sense of weight than Whedon’s usual pitch offers, with success. Somehow, he manages to squeeze in the great Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, an early sign that Whedon’s aiming higher than usual, as the leader of the baddies Natasha bests at the start, and Jenny Agutter and Harry Dean Stanton also make some wryly stirring cameos for the movie fan with more than the goldfish memory of current pop culture. The Avengers takes some time to find its groove, in part because there’s so much going on, usually the opposite problem to what comic book adaptations have to deal with, and Whedon’s experience at smoothly drawing together story elements as an audio-visual as well as literary entity still isn’t that strong. Whedon instead feels his way along through what is for him the much more comfortable device of making The Avengers, in essence, a TV episode about forty minutes long, getting his characters into a small space, in this case on SHIELD’s amusing new command base, an aircraft carrier that turns into a near-invisible flying fortress, and listening to them argue, snipe, quip, cajole, threaten, butt heads, and bond. Rather than hurting the film, this segment gives the film its traction and the vitally needed human element, as Whedon carefully exposes the raw nerves of the team, their isolation, traumas, guilty legacies, and potential weakness. This puts The Avengers unshakeably on track for the first of the film’s two genuinely epic-scaled action sequences.
Before they start working as a team, in time honoured tradition the heroes clash incessantly, even violently, as they first come into close proximity, as when Thor first appears on the scene, manifesting on the back of a plane and snatching the captured Loki away from Stark and Rogers, sparking a forest-levelling tussle between the demi-god and the mechanical man, which finally the thawed-out ‘40s square has to quell like a teacher interrupting a schoolyard brawl. Later, as it turns out that Loki is plotting to destroy the Avengers before they even really get going by exploiting their fractiousness and unleashing the supposedly uncontrollable Hulk, Hulk rampages first after Natasha, who, although tough as nails, finishes up a quivering foetal ball in hiding at the spectacle of the green monster, and Thor finishes up having to take him in a ship-shaking brawl. In terms of story structure and imagery, it wouldn’t be too inaccurate to call The Avengers a cross between The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). Like the former, there’s a team of famous if conflicted and volatile personalities drawn together to fight a nefarious villain, and they initially prove their mettle by saving a super-futuristic craft from sabotage, a craft which looks like something out of the latter movie, as do the flying alien invaders they take on in the finale. Perhaps that merely reflects the relatively limited lexicon of the supposedly endless permutations of such fantasy material. It does however behove me to point out that Whedon’s film does everything bigger and, more importantly, better: better detail, better effects, better characterisation, better drama.
Most vitally, Whedon knows that this sort of tale has to reach a moment of iconic power where the heroes click as a team, and he offers this as the heroes gather in a circle with their enemies about them, but also that the heroes have to all have their distinctive moment of glory, which requires coherence in the style and saves the finale from being a singular mass of tedious action. And everyone gets one, from Natasha pulling off an astounding hijack of an alien flying craft thanks to her gymnastic skills, to the Hulk, irritated by Loki’s mockery, grasping him and slapping him about like a rag, finally reducing the sneering hunk of malevolence to a groaning wreck in a moment that could well come out of a Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoon. Loki isn’t as interesting a villain as he was in Kenneth Branagh’s terrific Thor, where his pathos and pathetic neediness underscored his treachery; now he’s a mad and unrepentant would-be dictator, but Hiddleston still serves him well, playing him as the most vicious English boarding school bully imaginable, with a strut archer than Ziggie Stardust-era Bowie and a nice line in antique insults. Renner has the most thankless task in the film, playing the one team member who hasn’t had a substantial prior introduction, and he spends half of it under Loki’s mind control to boot. Hints of his and Natasha’s connection through a personal debt and perhaps, although she denies it, something deeper, does nonetheless clear the way for some emotional urgency in Hawkeye’s return to the fold. Renner projects the same taciturn sensibility of a warrior wit honed to the finest edge that caught the eye in The Hurt Locker (2008), with an added hint of reserved gallantry: thus Hawkeye seems, in his way, the most “real” character in the film.
Of course, whilst the outlay of story elements is busy, the actual plot, once in motion, is actually very simple, even scanty, an excuse to give the Avengers a decent threat to go up against – not always an element these films remember to provide, as Superman Returns (2006) sadly forgot. The real stress is on character conflict, and Whedon smartly makes this the essence of Loki’s plans as well as the general story dynamic: he pricks the heroes, especially Natasha, with their own hang-ups, in his attempts to divide and conquer. The team comes close to disintegrating when they learn Fury and SHIELD have been trying to create new weapons with the Tasseract’s power, the act which alerted the aliens to its presence in the first place. But when Coulson is fatally wounded by Loki, Fury gives them a little propagandist push by soaking Coulson’s trading cards in his blood and presenting them to the team as a spur, an interesting stab at trying to complicate the film’s morality, and consider how such spurs can be both manipulative and dishonest, but perhaps sometimes also necessary. Fury himself has to defy unscrupulous masters in trying to hold off a shadow World Security Council from using the nuclear option on Manhattan, something he fails in, demanding a final sacrificial effort from Stark. On a purely incidental level, it’s cool to see Jackson’s Fury finally get to do some proper badass work, and I kind of wish someone would make a “Young Nick Fury” movie: surely there’s room for a black superhero with ‘70s Blaxploitation motifs in his background and atomic-age power in his hands in the modern pantheon.
When it comes to the crunch, The Avengers provides a properly spectacular and visually well-organised special effects extravaganza, in production terms one of the best ever done, staged with ebullient energy: it’s certainly trying to be such, although it can’t reach the level of imperative Peter Jackson managed in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), where there’s a dizzying sensation in the action of multiple elements long in the setting up colliding head on, or the finale of George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith (2005), where the settings and the effects ebulliently describe the emotions being enacted. This is more spectacle for spectacle’s sake, turning a basic punch-up into something like three-dimensional chess using a city as a playing board, but damn, what spectacle. Whedon, or at least the special effects team provided him, invokes the dreaded Transformers movies at points, especially as the final battle in a cityscape superficially resembles the climax of the first of Michael Bay’s series. The always unpleasant sensation Bay’s films radiate, with their unreconstructed militarist fetishism and sense-contorting editing styles, has been seen by many as transmitting a kind of covert fascism; Whedon answers this by not simply emphasising democratic themes in his tale, but by making his film entirely fluent and thrilling through access, not assault, for eye and mind. I don’t know if it can yet be said that Whedon has any kind of definable visual style, but he does have a fondness for long-take sequences as a way of facilitating that democratic spirit, and this strategy culminates in one utterly bravura shot that seems to move along the breadth of Manhattan, finding each of his individualist heroes engaged in their station of battle in a fashion that unites them strategically and emotionally, from Captain America brawling on street level to Hawkeye atop a skyscraper to Thor and the Hulk riding the back of one of the grotesque mechanical leviathans the aliens employ.
The sight of Thor’s red cape swirling as he rides a colossal beast of dull grey steel over the equally dull grey New York skyline catches the eye like the essence of some secret genre poetry, in which both fantastic invaders and familiar urban architecture are equally complicit in a war against the unrelieved colour and power of the primal individual, and both lose big time. Whedon shoots for some of the supercharged emotion glimpsed once upon a time in the climaxes of the early Superman films or Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) as Stark tries to call an oblivious Pepper for a goodbye as he prepares to sacrifice himself for humankind, an act Rogers earlier said he could never consider: Whedon doesn’t quite hit those heights, but it’s nice that he tried. Some touches do become repetitive, especially characters falling from great heights for bruising landings, but all in all this is a brilliantly made sequence that dwarfs almost all rivals. The Avengers doesn’t escape all the familiar blind spots of this kind of filmmaking. In addition to the stuttering start, it sadly forgets to include a satisfying ending where the characters have a proper farewell, there’s a tacked on promise for another sequel, and a certain amount of fragmentation sets in with Whedon’s need to keep all his elements in some sort of focus.
There’s a constant, uncomfortable reminder with these Marvel movies that they can never just be movies sufficient unto themselves. Romance is mere theory, and sexuality is expressed through the tight pants of its heroines. It’s these lacks that repeatedly stand in the way of the superhero genre truly becoming the heir of the swashbuckler, which was always defined not only by its basis in the immediate reality of the athleticism of its actors, but also by the incision of personal concerns that are definably adult – looking forward to the future, trying to reproduce, and reshape nominal barriers of gender and class to find a place in a society worth living in – rather than the kind of pouting angst, detached from such concerns, so often found in modern superheroes and which makes them so relatable for teens; the reasonably strong romantic element of Thor was one reason it stood head and shoulders above most of the recent pack, and Tony Stark’s former playful licentiousness is down for the count. But it feels a bit churlish to stress such lacks considering that The Avengers as a whole really does hit the mark as surely as one of Hawkeye’s arrows. It has to be said that between this and the fiscally ill-fated but still glorious John Carter, 2012 has seen the blockbuster bar raised pretty darn high for the next few years.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Gary Ross
By Roderick Heath
Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful novel and its follow-ups about Katniss Everdeen, teenage huntress at war with a futuristic dystopia, were obviously written with the hope they would become major motion pictures. With their driving plots, experiential style, and unremitting forward-march pacing, The Hunger Games cunningly condense a host of popular hooks and iconographic-ready ideas, and crafts them into an attractive package for our era. Chief amongst these is Katniss, the tough, skilful, emotionally discursive heroine, of a breed far more common today than they used to be but still sufficiently unique to earn plentiful encomiums in critical commentary. She is coupled with a plot that, like similar recent cult hits, including the Japanese novel Battle Royale and its 2000 film version by Kinji Fukasaku, the Australian novel and film Tomorrow, When the War Began (2010), and even the Triwizard Tournament of the Harry Potter tales, evokes the darker sides of modern teenage existence. The joyless competitiveness forced on it by adult social expectations and the cruelty asserted within itself, as well its very familiar fantasies and hopes, are placed in heightened situations that sharpen the metaphors to melodramatic points.
If I’m sounding a little jaded about Collins’ creation, which I enjoyed reading, it’s because the more I thought about The Hunger Games, the less and less satisfied I was. It’s a novel that carefully sets up a situation that is, by definition, a zone of moral nullification, and yet contrives to have our heroine emerge smelling like a rose without ever having to make a genuinely hard choice, in a tale that counts finally as neither effectively elemental nor symbolically rich, but rather as efficiently marketable: In fairness, the second two novels do amass genuine complexity, and admittedly, there’s only so far one can go in engaging with moral ambiguity and depth in a book aimed squarely for a young adult readership. But Katniss remains such a clean-cut moral avatar for her audience, in high contrast to a hellish scenario, that its starts to feel somehow dishonest.
There are many things that seem right about Gary Ross’s film adaptation, especially most of the cast. Jennifer Lawrence, so strong in Winter’s Bone (2010) and so dispensable in X-Men: First Class (2011), returns to form as Katniss, the prematurely hardened lass who’s become an excellent archer thanks to years of having to provide for her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) and shell-shocked mother (Paula Malcomson) following her father’s death in a mine explosion. Katniss is a citizen of the poor, retrograde District 12, a mining commune that forms one of the dozen oppressed fiefdoms of Panem, a future state that has risen from the ashes of a North America wrecked by various, fleetingly described calamities. Katniss enjoys hunting in the woods outside the boundaries of the district with her hunky guy-pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but fate, and the peculiarly vicious futuristic version of the social contract, has nasty things in store for Katniss.
Since a rebellion many years before against Panem’s ruling elite in the Capitol, a sacrificial tournament is held every year in which a boy and girl tribute from each district has to engage in a gladiatorial fight to the death in a carefully prepared natural environment. At “The Reaping,” the lots are drawn for the District 12’s anointed duo; in spite of the stacked decks of economic necessity that mean Katniss and Gale are far more likely to have their names drawn, it’s Prim who is chosen. Katniss frantically volunteers to take her place, and she and male pick Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the son of local bakers who once did Katniss a good turn, are initiated, albeit briefly, into the decadent lifestyle of the Capitol, where they’re manufactured into fitting media idols for the duration of the Games. You see, it’s not simply one’s survival skills that can affect the outcome, but one’s direct appeal to an audience of potential sponsors who can pay to have desperately needed items dropped into the battle zone. Katniss and Peeta are prepared, in varying styles, for their oncoming ordeal by their appointed mentor, District 12’s only living Games winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and the surprisingly empathetic Capitolian stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).
Ross was clearly chosen for this project on the back of his previous works as director, the obvious fantasy satire Pleasantville (1998), where the destruction of oppressive regimes is relayed through media images, and Seabiscuit (2003), where scrappy underdogs triumph in a time of privation. Ross’s direction, as with those previous films, is often facetious in its cinematic techniques, if also well-calibrated in places. Such is true of an hallucinatory sequence where, affected by the sting of genetically engineered wasps, Katniss dreams of her father’s death, and a patch of raw impressionism in the first moments of the games: the well-trained Tributes from richer districts for whom competition is an honour brutally exterminate as many competitors as possible, scored to an eerie piece of ’70s experimental music. Both of these scenes hit the right note of apocalyptic dread.
But elsewhere, Ross reveals an inability to create a truly textured mise-en-scène or sustain real tension, badly corroding the story’s basic strengths. What’s supposed to be the acerbic portrait of the Capitolians as a race who have taken plastic surgery and body modification to infinitely more ludicrous levels is poorly rendered: Ross’s Capitolians look more like art students attending a New Wave dance club circa 1982. Where a cleverer director with a stronger sense of staging might have presented a jarring intrusion of super-technology into what is otherwise a 1920s mining town, Ross casually tosses it at the screen, much like he does with the disorienting contrast of the ludicrously dolled-up Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the drab environs and populace of District 12. It’s a warning that the kind of superficial realism Ross tries to invoke with his jittery hand-held camerawork doesn’t always suit tales where the need to absorb surface contrasts is part of the dramatic texture, never mind futuristic fantasy-action-satires. By contrast with the environs of District 12, smartly utilising the real detritus of modern industrialism, the Capitol is a hunk of unspecific CGI, and flatly derived contemporary televisions graphics are proffered to fill out this curious future brand of reality TV. Characterisation of the archly artificial Capitolians that ought to blend with supple anxiety and personal insufficiencies, like Effie and Stanley Tucci’s smarmy TV host, are steamrollered into mere theory.
Ross is a “serious” filmmaker, and he puts his broadly successful main effort into taking Katniss’ terror and bravery earnestly, but the film deals with her background and history in District 12 is such cursory terms that Katniss is reduced to little more than a pretty, bland protagonist: her nominal toughness and strength of character are barely troubled by any depth, only a kind of blank stoicism, and her love for her sister is signalled with tepid devices. Ross leans entirely on Lawrence to flesh out Katniss, a reasonably smart move as Lawrence delivers, but not therefore a forgivable one. Her attitude is conveniently laid out for us when she retorts to Peeta’s stated desire that he find a way to remain an autonomous moral unit in the Games, “I can’t afford to think like that.” Of course, the film will constantly undercut Katniss’ expedient sensibility first by making sure that the only deaths she has a hand in are mercy killings or entirely deserved in the name of self-defence against creeps. The set-piece of grim, wrenching loss in both book and film is the death of Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the youngest of the Tributes who reminds Katniss of her sister and who is impaled with a spear by another tribute trying to kill Katniss. The film’s most interesting addition follows: because Ross can’t quite get across how Katniss deliberately turns her funeral for Rue into an act of political theatre because he cannot offer any technique that gets into her headspace, he provides instead a literal result, a riot in Rue’s home district sparked by fury over the girl’s death and Katniss’ gesture of solidarity.
Collins’ novel, whilst many miles from being a literary masterpiece, utilises its first-person, present-tense style cleverly to lay out a tale that engages with a modern phenomenon, the layering of media that’s pervasive in a world where it’s possible to experience, record, and critique experience all at once, and where internal and exterior realities can be disconnected in some puzzling and alienating ways. This is accomplished through Katniss’ constant meditations on the opacity of Peeta’s motives as well as her own, and the necessity of playing up to the crowd before, during, and after the Games. The idea is deepened in the follow-up novels, in which Katniss is constructed in variations of media idol as required by the moment and the authorities laying claim to her. This is the new element Collins brought to the basic story, which has roots in prehistory but which comes to us most clearly from models like Richard Connell’s oft-filmed story The Most Dangerous Game and Cornel Wilde’s rough-hewn classic The Naked Prey (1966): the basic point of such tales is that if you strip down the average human and place them in a situation of animalistic, life-and-death struggle, you find something both frightening and pure, even noble.
More recent works with similar motifs, like Rollerball (1975) and The Running Man (1986), added the idea of such battles being media events, taking place under an incessant, totalitarian scrutiny. Collins’ tale, through the way the Games are constructed as instant media artefacts, moves beyond such templates, as even in situations of ruthless combat and mortal struggle, there’s an element of psychological duplicity, of unreality: even a battle to the death can still be punctuated by worrying about achieving the right pose and losing your audience appeal. When I, like many others, first heard of the Collins tales, the likeness to Battle Royale seemed inescapable, but upon actually reading The Hunger Games, I immediately realised there’s little actual similarity—ironically, to The Hunger Games’ detriment. Battle Royale presented a ruthlessly cunning metaphor for the pressure placed upon students to conform and perform, and dug with insidious brilliance into the dark side of being adolescent—the operatic emotional intensity, the protean fluctuations between pure ardour and utter hate, the way petty social interactions and competitions can stir outsized reactions.
The Hunger Games, by contrast, essentially treats its central conceit like an interschool sporting event, tossing people who don’t know each other into a cauldron. The film barely introduces the other Tributes, most of whom are just glowering, smug hunks of threat. That was egregious in the book, too, but at least the first-person perspective made it acceptable. Ross violates that perspective at any opportunity, chiefly so he can use the Games commentators as exposition spouters. The sight of the most skilled and ruthless Tributes, who form a unit to pick off Katniss, calls to mind a pack of prefects hounding the solitary misfit on a school excursion and has some punch in evoking true high school dynamics, but this is throwaway. Whatever relevance The Hunger Games has to its target audience is all but surgically removed beyond obvious placards like “rely on yourself” whilst “sometimes working together is good.”
Also banished is any real political significance, as Panem is left such a vague and specious dystopia as to make the film’s pretences to commentary on haves and have-nots (or the 1% and 99% to put it in laboured contemporary slogans) thin to the point of meaninglessness, especially considering that the film cops out of implicating its audience in the acts of watching thrilling blood sports for entertainment. In the novel, the social structure of Panem is left fairly vague, and therefore the situation of Katniss and fellow Tributes has a faintly Kafkaesque quality of random victimisation by unseen forces; here the villainy is given specific shape by fleshing out the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the chief of the “Gamemakers,” Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). Sutherland, who’s as sublimely menacing in his leonine fashion as he’s ever been, aptly links the film to a cinematic history of anti-establishment films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and MASH (1970), which is odd, because otherwise, The Hunger Games represents the franchise film without specific history or future, only the necessity of the moment’s dollar.
Collins’ novel offered a fascinating take of the ambiguity of some youthful rites of passage: Katniss’ engaging in a play-act with Peeta that may or may not be a play-act, for the benefit of success in the Games and also because Katniss is still essentially learning who she is. By going through the motions of certain experiences, she channels a common way young people engage in self-discovery, more common than is often noted. This theme is completely lost on screen. The film even sucks away some of the book’s wryer touches that offer thematic heft, like the way Katniss begins to feel the pull of the hated exceptionalism and decadence of the Capitol’s lifestyle as she’s waylaid by plentiful food and the beautifying treatments and styling Cinna gives her. Cinna’s own most memorable line of self-assessment that offers the hint that not all is well amongst the Capitol’s citizenry, “How despicable we must seem to you,” fails to make the cut, too. It’s no wonder pundits of both left and right have been able to lay claim to the film, because it’s so equivocal as to be practically a Rorschach test for the viewer’s specific viewpoint. The Hunger Games has and undoubtedly will continue to inspire a suitable welter of articles in magazines and term papers about empowerment for young women, metaphors for the global financial crisis and third-world poverty, reflections on social networking and reality television, and blah blah fricking blah. This is the perfect material for our era where subtext has become, well, text, the theoretical turned into pedagogic narrative literalism without real entertainment value.
Ross and Billy Ray cowrote the script with Collins herself, and the film follows the novel with a painstaking refusal of new imagination, and yet it still manages to leave out much that made Collins’ work specific and original, and rushes not only the scene-setting opening but also the interestingly off-beat, melancholy conclusion. After decades of complaints about filmmakers ruining novels by changing them, today filmmakers ruin novels by adapting them with scrupulously lead-footed fidelity, as if there’s no essential difference between literary and cinematic narrative techniques. Rather than intelligent synergy, what we get is rote extrapolation of the good bits (Katniss shooting the apple from the roast pig’s mouth to shock the Gamemakers; dropping the hive of mutant wasps to see off her persecutors) without any care for narrative sophistication or novelty, leaving only a glorified TV pilot. There’s so little nimbleness, wit, concision, and visual pleasure in this film that it begins to feel like a chore to get to the end of it. There’s something about these carefully packaged franchises based on hit novels that’s becoming increasingly stultifying, being as they are essentially two hours of moving fan service rather than independent-minded cinema. Whereas that was acceptable with the Harry Potter novels, which, with their intricate plots and their overflowing delight in a fantasy world, both enabling and offering relief from mere plot, a neat correlation is now established: Hollywood gets to milk every last dime in exchange for fans, that ever-nebulous body that is today regarded as a body of sacred worshippers, especially if they’re young.
Perhaps all this wouldn’t mean too much if The Hunger Games, which is basically an action-adventure tale in spite of its pretensions, was actually any good as an action-adventure movie, but it’s simply passable in that regard. Whilst the moment of Rue’s death is leveraged for maximum impact, it’s so carefully arranged to leave Katniss free of any implicit guilt and absent any sense of physical pain that the effect is calculated and mawkish, as if the filmmakers have no sense of the irony implicit in the scene. The film’s best moment of violent epiphany comes when Katniss is defeated by one of her more evil opponents, a knife-hurling girl named Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), who, taunting Katniss about the death of Rue, earns the wrath of Rue’s district fellow Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi). He beats her to death, her wide-eyed corpse falling to the earth besides Katniss in the sort of moment that carries the authentic jolt of supercharged emotion blending with the sudden switch between villain and victim such a situation must entail. But the moment doesn’t count for much—a flaw shared with the book—because the other Tributes are all functional cyphers who give shows of wickedness, emotion, and mercy precisely when it’s required for our heroine’s sake, whose nominal qualities are, again, constantly undercut by external chance and happenstance when it comes to staying alive. Even the moment when Katniss decides to defy the Gamemakers in their final cheat, and proposes that she and Peeta poison themselves, is clearly signalled to be her cunning plan, assured to end positively. Lawrence shares barely any chemistry with her unremarkable young costars, so any proto-erotic frisson is irrelevant. I began to find myself, heaven forbid, actually missing that gauche, girly, campy enthusiasm that drives the Twilight tales, where at least there’s supposed to be some pleasure in the fantasy.
The novel’s bizarre climax, when the remnant Tributes are hunted by dogs genetically engineered with DNA from their dead fellows, a concept and image with truly Sadean ramifications, is rendered dead on arrival because Ross shoots it in the dark. Which made me newly conscious about one aspect of this type of movie: whilst The Hunger Games goes through the paces of making itself coherent to an audience of newbies, for people who know the book, it essentially relies on them to fill in all the blanks it leaves. Of course, none of this is to say that The Hunger Games is bad: and no, it’s not bad. But it still manages to amplify the faults of its source material and add more of its own. In the end, it is competent and sufficient, and, all things considered, that’s what’s truly, dismayingly disappointing about it. Still, it’s not just Lawrence who emerges with dignity intact: Kravitz is surprisingly good as the commanding, yet gentle Cinna, and Stenberg is unforced in her embodiment of plucky, doomed youth. On the other hand, Harrelson and Banks, often amongst the better things in movies they appear on, get barely any chance to suggest pathos for their characters. Perhaps this series will improve in its later chapters, especially the dark, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” kicker in the last episode, but only if it learns the same lesson as Katniss does: it’s not enough to merely turn up and act tough; you need a good stylist, too.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Andrew Stanton
By Roderick Heath
I take the popular dismissal of John Carter a little bit personally. When I was young, I loved films based on Edgar Rice Burroughs novels—any version of Tarzan, of course, but also the lively battery of Burroughs-derived films made by British director Kevin Connor in the mid ’70s. I owe a considerable amount of the growth of my love for the fantastic genres to those movies, and therefore to Burroughs. Yet I’ve read a lot of commentaries blaming the relatively poor box-office performance of John Carter, the new Disney-produced, $250 million movie taken from Burroughs’ beloved, much-imitated Barsoom series, on its being adapted from esoteric material, as if a great bulk of what is popularly thought of as science fiction doesn’t derive specifically from Burroughs’ ideas, and as if his tales don’t offer a wealth of interest for the fantastic filmmaker and filmgoer. Of course, those ropy old flicks I loved didn’t cost such colossal sums of money, but attaching discussions of the decadence of modern Hollywood to its less successful products is, in a strange way, still playing Hollywood’s game, considering the way the industry and its pseudo-populist champions wield the successful ones, even the ones that are terrible, with bludgeoning contempt.
When Hollywood is starved for strong stories to tell, as it certainly is now, one way to get out of that slump is to dig back into the vast trove of great material provided by scifi, fantasy, and other genre writers over the past century, most of it largely ignored in favour of shallow appropriations and constant recycling. John Carter’s failure to connect is especially bitter, from this film viewer’s perspective, as blockbuster cinema has stooped to adapting board games and fun park rides rather than solidly conceived tales. John Carter is weighed down with a painfully bland and obfuscating title, one which hardly solves the presumed problem of esoteric material and betrays the real sensibility of pulp thrills and soaring space opera that the film itself communicates, in what is nonetheless one of the most purely enjoyable, rousing, and dashing examples of big-budget cinema I’ve seen lately, perhaps indeed the best since the last The Lord of the Rings film. It’s Avatar without the new-age ponderousness, Star Wars with more ideas and strangeness, Flash Gordon with a deeper hero. Although it lasts more than two hours, it moves with the rapidity of a serial from the 1930s.
Director Andrew Stanton does not defeat all of the familiar problems of modern blockbuster cinema, which resists that personal sense of the mythic that made, say, the early Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Superman movies so particular for their makers and audiences. The first half-hour of John Carter, whilst doing nothing especially wrong, does nonetheless wrestle with problems of exposition and locating the emotional gateway into the tale—vital elements of the fantastic drama that many modern franchise flicks treat increasingly like chores, tossing them away in rushed, voiceover-laden prologues. Star Taylor Kitsch, who made his name in the TV show Friday Night Lights, is a competent and mildly likable but also frustratingly unspecific leading man, in a role that needs wit, gumption, and a real air of both grievous hurt and eccentric heroism. Kitsch just seems like a knock-off James Franco with a buffer body.
But John Carter sports a screenplay cowritten by Stanton and novelist Michael Chabon, who has long burrowed into the serious underside of the pulp pantheon. They infuse John Carter, as it evolves along with the world it portrays, with a depth of feeling and crowded panoply of detail that soon takes on a feverishly enjoyable aura. The script expands on and conflates Burroughs’ original tales in numerous ways, particularly in the wraparound narrative that frames A Princess of Mars, the first of Burroughs’ novels set on the red planet its inhabitants call Barsoom. The film conflates the young first-person narrator whose uncle John Carter is in the book with Burroughs himself, and he becomes party not merely to Carter’s supposedly posthumous tale, but also to a clever plot that pays off in the very conclusion. Carter’s experiences gold prospecting and his attempts to survive frontier dangers are, likewise, recast to reflect the more exotic, off-world scenes he will encounter as he shifts from ethnic conflict here on Earth to those on Barsoom.
Stanton, who, of course, has come to features after several hugely successful animated films and moves immediately in the footsteps of Brad Bird’s success with Mission: Impossible 4 (2010), retains an animator’s necessary sense of pace and humour: indeed, an early series of gags that Stanton pulls, as Carter keeps trying to escape the custody of army officer Powell (Bryan Cranston), would be funnier if rendered in the quicksilver technique of animation rather than in bruising three dimensions. Stanton does, however, display a remarkably fleet-footed capacity to keep his story and visuals in motion, with a narrative that threatens at times to be top-heavy, and after that initial uncertainty, Stanton nimbly keeps pace with our hero’s efforts to keep an even keel as he’s presented with multifarious strangeness. As Burroughs learns through the journal Carter leaves him along with his whole, vast estate, Carter survived the Civil War where, serving for the Confederates, he emerged as a hero, only to find his wife and child had been killed in raids. To make his fortune and leave behind the humanity he now detests, he goes prospecting for gold in Arizona, where he is picked up by the bullying Powell, who wants to force him to help fight against the Apaches. John resists and escapes. When Powell and his men give chase, they instead earn the wrath of an Apache band, and in the ensuing fight, Powell is wounded. John drags him to the cave, known as the Spider cave because of a motif carved within, where he’s been finding gold. As John ventures into the recess, a mysterious being beams into the cavern, and John shoots him. An amulet about the dead man’s neck is actually the control device for the wormhole that opens and sends John, or rather a kind of facsimile of John, across space to the Martian hinterland.
John finds himself in the midst of a knotty civil war that’s been engulfing Barsoom for centuries, between the kingdoms of reddish-skinned humans, Helium and Zodanga, and the green-skinned, horn-faced, four-armed Tharks, amongst whom John first finds himself captive. The Tharks, formerly a sophisticated civilisation, are now violent and degenerate. John soon discovers he has great strength and a talent for leaping incredible distances because of Mars’ low gravity, traits that endear him to the Thark king Tars Tarkas (voice of Willem Dafoe). Tars, more emotional and open-minded than the other Tharks, knows that the much-victimised Sola (Samantha Morton), to whom John is mockingly given as a baby to raise, is actually his daughter, unusual knowledge when most Tharks are adopted indiscriminately after hatching from eggs. When circumstances force Tars to take John and Sola’s side, he is toppled by nasty warrior Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church). Meanwhile, Helium is at risk of finally losing to Zodanga because its king, Sab Than (Dominic West), possesses an incredible new weapon that fires the elusive and powerful “ninth ray” given to him by a race called the Therns, one of whom John killed in the cave. The Therns pose as immortal and priestly, but they actually control fantastic technology, and they’re really stage-managing a victory for Zodanga which will lead to the final deterioration of Barsoom, an act of entropy which the Therns feed off. For a cruelly exact final victory, the lead Thern, Matai Shang (Mark Strong), instructs Sab to marry the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), scientist daughter of Helium’s king Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), and then kill her, an act that will both cement his hegemony and, with Dejah’s attempts to master the ninth ray coming too close for the Therns’ comfort, eliminating her dangerous intelligence. When Dejah tries to escape Sab, his flying ship catches hers above the Thark city.
It’s in the action sequence that follows that John Carter truly snaps into full working order. John, enraged to see a human woman being terrorised, springs into action and devastates Sab’s warriors and ships with his unbound earthly talents like Errol Flynn slipped free of earthbound laws, ripping loose in sheer spectacle with dashes of physical comedy and surrealist absurdity, as John’s sudden superhuman prowess swings between awesome competence and jarring clumsiness, and Sab nettles under Shang’s restraining influence. Again, Stanton’s background in animation, where the laws of physics can be bent easily, comes out here to more perfect effect, and the film retains a visual fluidity that makes sense of crowded scenes of action. Likewise Stanton, in a fashion familiar for animators, has a gift for finding the appealing quality in seemingly grotesque things, like the wailing, slimy Thark babies who cuddle up to John lovingly in their lair, and a super-fast creature that looks like a lump of silly putty with legs, placed menacingly on guard outside the Thark nursery, but which proves to be essentially a weird kind of dog. When John defends it from being beaten by the Tharks, it becomes his inseparable companion.
Stanton and his production team seem to have carefully parsed old comics, book covers, and illustrations for the conceptual universe, combining elements of steampunk and retro-futurist wonder with the edge of oriental exoticism so common in that old artwork—Mameluke guns, neo-Trojan armour, and Scheherazade dresses. Zadonga, a mobile city that moves along on gigantic crawling mechanics, is an almost casually employed wonder of design and execution teeming with detail, and so is the great cathedral of Helium where gigantic rotating lens and arcane religious ritual converge. But perhaps Stanton’s most impressive sequence of visual control comes when Matai Shang, having taken John prisoner, leads him through the city’s crowds and explains his plans with casual arrogance, whilst changing forms, forcing John and the audience to move with the flow of convenient guises.
Keeping a plot that is complicated less by intricacies of action than by an array of competing sides is difficult, but John Carter is never less than entirely coherent, even in the multilayered battle that wraps it up, something like genius compared with the dizzying incomprehensibility of the Transformers films, where even simple brawls are impossible to follow. The greatest fantasy-adventure films tend to have an elegiac sensibility, a sense of space that allows time to breathe in the landscapes and drama with hues of awe and tragedy, but John Carter largely moves too fast for that. Such films also usually tend to have a breath of the otherworldly, the exotic, and the erotic, for example, the gleefully perverse scene in The Thief of Baghdad (1940) where the narrative takes time out to portray the seedy old sultan stabbed to death by the alluring facsimile of id-filtered femininity provided by the evil sorcerer. The erotic only gets a look in here in the alluring fleshiness of Dejah’s apparel, and even that’s pushing it for a Disney film, but there’s an underpinning of emotional seriousness to the tale that means that it never descends into shallow pictorial splendour. This quality is especially embodied by Collins’ breathy earnestness as Dejah in a strong performance that elegantly and effortlessly bestrides the schism of luscious physicality and intelligent conscientiousness so well she subverts any notion of a disparity. Her radiant humanity contrasts the coldly calculating Matai Shang, well-played by Strong, a figure whose affectation of incorporeal imperative and godlike power hides a cynical program of profit by exploitation and degradation, an idea with interesting resonances. Stanton admirably tries to wield a certain amount of darkness of the kind that Disney have usually tried to keep out of their movies since the bad old days of The Black Hole (1979) and Dragonslayer (1982), from the sorry spectacle of Sola being branded—she has so many brand marks there’s no room left on her body—for her perceived transgressions, to the marks of visceral tragedy John carries upon his soul.
Whilst the pitch of the depressed and disillusioned war veteran has become a tired motif in action-adventure movies, like the pseudo-historical variation on this theme, The Last Samurai (2003), Stanton wrings it until it pays off in a legitimately great sequence in which John, refusing to be chased further by an army of evil Tharks called up by Shang, and to give Dejah and Sola a chance to get away, launches himself into the alien horde and hacks it to pieces with astounding fury. Stanton presents a dialectic montage, cutting between the action and John’s memory of coming home and finding his house destroyed and his wife’s corpse, and then burying her; Stanton aims here for the furthermost reaches of emotive grandeur, coalescing old trauma, new love, and innate heroism into a singular whirlwind of expressive carnage. One distinct pleasure of John Carter is indeed that it looks and sounds like all that money finished up on screen: the film’s special effects have a rich, beautiful intricacy that suggest that CGI-based cinema might only now be starting to come into its own, particularly wondrous when John, escaping Shang’s clutches, flees in one of the Zadonga flying machines that look like sculptures of large insects fashioned out of Victoriana crystal and brass, avoiding the city’s colossal motivators.
The fact that the Barsoom tales have been so endlessly filched by moviemakers over the years, including, yes, Avatar, Star Wars, and Flash Gordon, and the fact that the film sticks firmly to some familiar templates—the scenes where hero John and Dejah wander in the desert bickering resemble the dreaded Prince of Persia (2009), for instance—do mean that to a large extent it can never feel entirely fresh. But John Carter outdoes the many films it resembles simply by doing such things better and by keeping its feet planted firmly in the legitimate quality of its source material. Burroughs’ stories, like most prototypes, were joyous in having few set rules for how they should proceed; thus, they could be both romantic adventures and speculative fiction all at once, and something of their fulminating strangeness makes it into the movie, with its breathless procession of alien customs and reproduction habits and intricate religious sensibility. Just as The Land that Time Forgot and its 1974 film version offers up an old canard—a lost island populated with dinosaurs—but adds a notional interest in evolution and presented a microcosmic version of it that proves to have a strange, deistic motivation behind it, so, too, is there substance under all John Carter’s freewheeling invention. There’s an environmental message, most obviously, as the wicked Zardongans consume endlessly and contribute to their planet’s decay, but also an engaging amount of space for probing the nature of emotion in species that do not reproduce like humans, as in the Tharks, and a note of poetically opposite senses of wonder for John and Dejah, whose different kinds of ships sail different kinds of oceans, both equally strange and impossible for them to imagine. John trails faintly religious associations, as a messiah with the initials JC prone to resurrections and stepping in and out his corporeal form, but his enemies are false deists who visit people and guide them on to a destiny which is designed to be self-destructive to suit the Therns’ needs. And perhaps that’s the real reason why nobody knew what to do with John Carter: it doesn’t carefully and neatly beat one essential theme into the ground like most of these colossal blockbusters, but serves as a big, tottering, server platter for a truly complex universe.
It helps that Stanton avoids belabouring things that other directors might stretch out, with an occasional anticlimactic flourish, as when John challenges Tal Hajus for the kingship of the Tharks: Tal Hajus hurls himself down from on high, John leaps up, and in the next moment Tal’s head is rolling away on the sand. Similarly near-satirical is a subsequent sequence where the Tharks make a grand charge to the rescue of Dejah, only to arrive in Zadonga and find the wedding is taking place in Helium, and Tars Tarkas can only express frustration by slapping John in the back of the head. Later, when the Tharks have to do something they fear and loathe—trying to fly—the inevitable last-minute arrival sees Tars Tarkus crash-land through the cathedral wall and groan his pleasure that’s over with. But the film’s set-piece action scenes are doozies, like the aforementioned flying chase, and John, in space opera’s compulsory arena battle, taking on colossal blind white apes, swinging huge chunks of stone on the end of chain to pulverise them, and Sola, finally angered to breaking point, tossing her constant foe Sarkoja (Polly Walker) into the arena for the fleeting pleasure of seeing her stomped. The climax is a wild melee as both John and Sab are targeted for assassination by Matai in the midst of a grand battle, and John tries to stop the Thern villain from escaping. Even after the story seems to be over, and John marries and beds Dejah, Matai’s traps ensnare him and exile him back to Earth, which seems now a cold and dreary exile for which his only answer is an intricately woven plan that involves his young nephew. John Carter, or John Carter of Mars as finally and properly amended, is one of the most satisfying rides I’ve had in a movie theatre in recent years. I do hope more of you go to see it, not because Disney needs the money, but because of a selfish personal motive: I want to see more movies like this one.
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Director: Richard Donner
By Roderick Heath
Love them, hate them, or prefer Jane Austen movies as your cup of escapism, the superhero tale has evolved from ephemeral, junky, adolescent power fantasy into the major mode for expressing distillations of the mythic sensibility in modern Western pop culture. Perhaps this is due as much to a dearth of alternative sources as to the evolution of postmodern literary theory and the maturation of geek culture. Since we’ve mostly lost what were once the common resources of classical mythology, and where it was once a great communal act to sit down and listen to stories of Achilles or Roland or Beowulf or Heracles, today, tales of Spider-Man and Batman and X-Men bring us in for that shared love of figures who can resist the limits of mortality and find the larger-than-life quality in everyday moral quandaries. So comic book adaptations and superhero flicks are everywhere these days, to the partly justified exasperation of many, the steady employment of large special-effects teams, and the generally consistent ring of cash registers. With most of them, it’s not hard to admit that few really bear the weight of such elevated references. Even the best ones, like Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), Bryan Singer’s X-Men 2 (2003), and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2003), lack in some degree the internal integrity and willingness to stretch their generic and fiscal reasons for being to become truly great fantastic cinema.
For me, still standing high above the pack of superhero movies is Richard Donner’s 1978 film of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s fabled, definitive superhero. Donner, a director who had served a long apprenticeship in television and who debuted in films with the tacky war movie Submarine X-1 (1968) and weird jailbait romance Twinky (1970), emerged most properly with the hysterical, stylish, deliciously pulpy 1976 horror movie The Omen, where Donner’s peculiar capacity to tap, through dynamic staging and care of craftsmanship, the passionate force of even the trashiest material, proved the saving grace. Donner showed in the next quarter-century that he could invest a lot of apparently factotum Hollywood product with integrity by his storytelling and cinematic shaping: his was not a fan’s indulgent touch, but that of a professional willing to invest anything with rigour, even if finally too many Lethal Weapon movies and other third-rate action flicks fill up the latter part of his oeuvre. Superman was also certainly the product of many cooks, and it displays the divergent impulses and creative touches that went into it, with a script initially penned by ’70s epic specialist Mario Puzo but refurbished by other hands, including seasoned writing team David Newman and Robert Benton and Newman’s wife Leslie, and Tom Mankiewicz, who though uncredited, provided, so Donner testified, most of the final screenplay. For the most part these many influences keep each other in check and even work to facilitate the film’s richness, and Donner’s overall instinctive solidity resists fragmenting under pressure.
The idea of a superhero film taking itself seriously in 1978 was a pretty wild one: comic books and superheros had been the ’60s emblems of pop art and camp, evinced by movies like Barbarella (1967) and the Batman TV series. But the success of Star Wars (1977) gave an impetus to the notion that there was something larger and deeper—emotionally, if not intellectually—behind the old pulp pantheon. So Donner, in taking command of the colossal budget and all-star cast handed to him by the cantankerous, abrasive, but certainly effective father and son producing team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, fashioned Superman not simply into a dynamic adventure yarn, but as an honest-to-god mythopoeic saga of the birth and maturation of a demigod that Homer would have understood.
Superman is also a calculated hymn to the pleasure of rediscovering half-forgotten heroes of youth and naïve fantasies long cast off, a note immediately established with the first shot, of a movie theatre’s curtains opening and a child’s voice recounting the roots of the comic book in the 1930s: the miseries of the Depression and the world of New York publishing emblemised by the Daily Planet building with its iconic globe logo, filmed in black and white. What follows is a plunge into the depths of space over which the swooping credits and John Williams’ heroic score unfurl in what might count as the longest travelling shot in movie history, resolving at last on the planet Krypton under its red sun, the sun that will soon explode and take Krypton and its people with it. The true first scene is nominally just a set-up for a sequel, but it also serves a deft thematic function, as it depicts Jor-El (Marlon Brando) trying and condemning a trio of destructive Kryptonians (Terence Stamp, Sara Douglas, and Jack O’Halloran) to a grim imprisonment in a “Phantom Zone.” Superman’s father, we see, is the embodiment of all patriarchal authority, and a crime fighter, just as his son will be. Brando was paid a ludicrously large sum of money for his few minutes of screen time, but if anyone was worth it, he was, because he fills the part with a gravitas very few actors could have wielded.
Jor-El is also a scientist, and with overtones that now seem distinctly familiar from real life, his warnings of planetary endangerment are dismissed by his fellow Kryptonian overlords (including Trevor Howard, who still hadn’t forgiven Brando for acting up whilst making 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty), who force his silence and cooperation by threats to him and his family. Jor-El, bound to remain on Krypton with his wife Lara (Susannah York), loads his infant son Kal-El into a spaceship and sends him to Earth in a dazzlingly staged sequence that sees the spaceship crack through the ceiling just as the last act of planetary disintegration starts; Krypton’s icy civilisation crumbles in a scene of apocalypse that evokes De Mille in its gusto. Donner’s reach for the unapologetically fabled fully invokes the original comic’s basis in half-digested versions of the Moses and Samson myths, and images of the infant within the capsule evoke Buddhist depictions of infant bodhisattvas absorbing all the knowledge of the world, cross-bred with imagery right out of old Amazing Stories covers.
When young Kal-El crash-lands on earth, he moves directly into a different mythology: that of a Middle America that’s vast and big-hearted and reassuring in its simplicity. Jonathan and Martha Kent (Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), visions straight out of an Edward Saroyan tale, adopt the amazing youngster who crawls out of a smoking pit and immediately lifts a car over his head. Dubbed Clark, he grows into an awkward teenager (Jeff East), albeit one defined by astounding gifts he has to hide, crippling him in his attempts to communicate properly with the world around him, in other words, exactly like every teenager sees themselves. Flirting with cheerleader Lana Lang (Diane Sherry) but dismissed by the football-playing jocks he can easily best, Clark wears off his frustration by indulging his hidden brilliance alone.
It’s telling that many subsequent superhero tales, including both the comic books that followed Siegel and Shuster’s creation and the films that followed this one, are always in Superman’s thrall. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie couldn’t help but recreate nearly note for note the scenes depicting Clark’s fateful last interaction with Jonathan, with wise, doomed father figures played by suitably august movie stars. The moment of Jonathan’s death—realising he’s having a heart attack and releasing a plaintiff “Oh no!” before collapsing—is one of the two remarkable moments of mortality that define the film, and the keenest in the genre; the subsequent scene of his funeral evokes no lesser figures of film than John Ford and George Stevens in the employment of careful contrasts of the homey little church ground and the small collective of grieving humans framed against colossal vistas. That’s the world Donner wants us to feel Superman is staked in, that world of grandiose Americana and a cinematic tradition from before that damned New Wave. He gets even cornier, and even more effective, when Clark says farewell to Martha amidst the wheat fields that sway in Andrew Wyeth-esque beauty above their house.
Donner’s sense of the epic, of course, invokes many other filmic references, with the early scenes nodding to the Bauhaus-era fantasias of Fritz Lang and William Cameron Menzies. Finally, heading into the Arctic wastes and using the green crystal that is the last totem of his inheritance to build from the ice a recreation of Krypton that will become the Fortress of Solitude, Clark encounters the ghostly image of his father, who takes him through an epic schooling from which he finally emerges in his full regalia, reborn as Superman, in the body of Christopher Reeve.
Superman makes a radical mood shift at this point, as the pitch of classicism and mythology collide headlong with a version of Metropolis that’s indivisible from New York circa 1978, a heady, hectic, skeptical, grubby place. Whilst the familiar figures of the Daily Planet, like puppyish young photographer Jimmy Olsen (Mark McClure) and gruff editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper), step directly out of their corny comic book origins, the world about them is contemporary, and that’s the film’s most inspired idea. In opposition to later variations where superheroes are made “darker” and more “believable” a la the endless reinventions of Batman, Superman mainly leaves the hero as exactly the same overgrown Boy Scout he always was and updates the world around him, making him initially a self-conscious ambassador of embattled ethics and retro values in a world of cynics, swingers, fads, and women’s lib, and where only a fly black guy is capable of appreciating Superman’s fashion sense. Thus, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane is cleverly pitched as an audience avatar, utterly up to date in her blithely overeager savvy, delighting in the horrors she types up with fiendish energy (“There’s only one ‘p’ in rapist,” White says as he corrects her spelling when looking over her latest story) and pondering with Cosmopolitan-era shamelessness whether Superman’s anatomy is as righteous as his decorum. Yet she harbors a secret longing for a world that’s more romantic, a longing answered when Superman turns up. The humour in the film is mostly knowing rather than satiric, which is its other good idea, as when first called into action, Superman is momentarily confronted with a lack of phone booths and uses a revolving door instead.
Superman’s first adventure in character—saving Lois from a crashed helicopter hanging over the edge of the Daily Planet building’s roof—is a terrific action set piece in which Donner and editors Stuart Baird and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth work painstakingly to create a realistic sense of danger. No matter how many times you watch the film, it’s impossible not to feel the flicker of exhilaration when the man in the bright red cape swoops up against all sense to catch the falling Lois and easily fend off the falling helicopter to boot, the essence of childish fantasy made solid.
It’s interesting to note that the crash sequence utilises the same building blocks as the accidental butcheries of The Omen, as trivial physical incidents cause a calamity that leaves Lois hanging by a seatbelt high above a crowd of horrified spectators. Indeed, Superman is entirely the logical antithesis to The Omen, where the excesses of the ’70s give birth to unseen Satanic forces and an Antichrist who will exploit and avenge all sins: Donner’s Superman is, by that logic, the returned Messiah. Some critics have stated that the revival of the Superman figure at precisely this juncture was a perfectly timed exploitation of an audience exhausted by the relentless savagery of the horror and disaster movies that had preceded it. Conscious or not, these parallels work their way into the film on a production level, as Donner had insisted on a credo of “verisimilitude,” a feeling of solidity, immediacy, and engagement with the world as is. Into this landscape, Superman bursts with special effects that have been, for once, carefully employed to evoke the spirit of the original comic books and the absurdist visions of the early TV series but in a more dynamic, convincing fashion. Keen examples of this spirit occurs when Superman digs through the city sidewalk and into the earth by spinning around like a drill, and when he stretches himself out as a replacement for a missing hunk of railway track.
Donner offers halfway through the film a sequence where Superman takes the ardent Lois for a flight far above Metropolis, and the style takes a turn towards outright theatricality, befitting a scene that nods to depictions of Peter Pan and Wendy; the film also treads awfully close to risibility as Lois recounts in voiceover what sounds like a bad schoolgirl poem (actually what was originally going to be a song), though in its own way, it adds to the effect of otherworldly romanticism. Debatably, Superman falters when it introduces the true foil of the movie, Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), and his half-witted comic-relief assistants Otis (Ned Beatty) and Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine). Luthor, always the most potent of Superman’s human enemies, is here a strutting egomaniac often at the mercy of his assistants’ clumsiness, though the maliciousness under his archness is signalled early on when he casually ejects a policeman in front of a train. More than anything else in the film, Luthor’s team come closest to evoking the reflexes of self-satire in the genre, somewhat at odds with Donner’s hitherto carefully constructed fantasy. But it’s hard to get too upset about it largely because the trio of actors are so much fun, with Hackman delivering a peach of a comic performance, and because it takes a lot of the sting out of Luthor’s plan, which if played too straight would seem grotesquely psychopathic. Obsessed with owning real estate, Luthor wants to direct a nuclear warhead into the San Andreas fault to make California fall into the sea and make him the new king of the West Coast, with another warhead casually programmed to fall on New Jersey just for the hell of it. Luthor’s hideout, a forgotten wing of Grand Central Station refitted into the perfect Park Avenue pad, is a brilliant visual gag, and Perrine’s Eve is pitched as another woman who, like Lois, is tired of negotiating modern New York—er, Metropolis—and acts as crypto-fag hag to Luthor’s queeny villainy, moaning sadly that she can never get it on with the goody guys when the time comes for her to save Superman’s life. No wonder Perrine later turned up in Can’t Stop the Music (1980), which deliberately patterned one of its protagonists after Clark’s milquetoast masculinity.
Of course, a great deal of what makes Superman work so well is the cast. As Bryan Singer discovered with his attempt to recreate the Donner aesthetic with Superman Returns (2005), his roll call of good-looking, fairly talented young actors somehow still seemed horribly callow in comparison with the spiky, lively personages Donner employed from all over the ‘70s film world. The tragic Reeve will always be associated with this role, which is certainly fair, though he was possessed of real acting chops that were often ignored. Reeve, who was completely unknown when he landed the role, finished up third-billed behind Brando and Hackman, but he sustains the film with such ease you almost don’t notice it. His Clark Kent is a hunky bumbler whose guise recalls Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938), whilst his Superman is a charming, dashing mensch capable of both good-humour and a little risqué by-play with Lois, but really a frustrated romantic with an arsenal of deep moral seriousness that seems to be the true source of his physical prowess. Reeve’s best moment comes after Superman has an entrancing first date/interview with Lois, and then returns in his guise as Clark to take her out, barely noticed by the dazzled Lois. When she’s out of the room, he suddenly gets an idea to tell her the truth. He takes off his glasses, rises to his full height and seems to inflate within his clothes, voice dropping a half-octave in new confidence, before thinking the better of it and sagging back into his human character again. Reeve was uncannily good in the role, and managed to effectively expand on the characterisation in Richard Lester’s two sequels. Similarly, Kidder made the best of a role cast not for whichever starlet was hot at the moment but for real aptness: her Lois combines adult spunk and an independent vigour that isn’t facile or undercut, but with a dash of winsome girlishness under the surface.
Lester’s first sequel, Superman II (1980), is a tighter film than Donner’s, and arguably a more urgent one, partly because the villains are more threatening and because the more comic-minded Lester’s sense of humour and depiction of the threat to a Superman suddenly prone to human weaknesses—physical, emotional, and moral—blends in a volatile mixture. But Donner’s film sustains a far greater scope and a deeper emotionalism that really seems in touch with the essence of the fabulous. The sweep of action is formidable in the lengthy finale as Superman chases down Luthor’s rogue rockets and tries to singlehandedly patch up a rapidly disintegrating California. Here the ’70s special effects are often strained to breaking point, but Donner’s sense of rapid, illustrative action glosses over the occasional tackiness. It’s also here where Superman does something that’s still remarkable in the history of the comic book movie genre: it kills the heroine. Yes, The Dark Knight did that, too, but there was something remarkably affected about that, a stunt designed to impress the audience but without any real emotional investment. For Donner and company, it’s a moment of real confrontation when Superman finds Lois dead in her car, falling earth having suffocated her, and his scream of rage and denial is, again, gut-wrenching no matter how many times you see it. All superhero stories are about defying the laws of mortality we have to live by, but this moment jabs right at the heart of the way the fantasy and the fear coincide with an intensity that flattens the competition.
Despite his father’s injunction not to change human history, Superman does just that to save one woman, obeying, ironically, the words of his human father, not his Kryptonian one. It could be the most forceful portrayal of the myth of the demigod who literally wrestles with death and saves the unfairly claimed woman since Euripides’ Alcestis. And that’s what finally makes Donner’s Superman legitimately great: it is, in its own peculiar fashion, fearless in courting primal parts of ourselves. The grin Superman flashes the audience right at the end is a shattering of the fourth wall that works perfectly, confirming that Superman is one of the singular examples of a mega-budget special-effects flick that radiates a feeling that the people who made it really wanted to make it the best way they could, purely for the audience’s sake.
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Director/Screenwriter: Lars von Trier
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Melancholia, the film that garnered for its star, Kirsten Dunst, the award for best leading actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, has been finding both appreciative praise for its beauty and depth and indifferent and openly hostile reactions from audiences and critics alike for being slow, impenetrable, and just another uninspired investigation into Lars von Trier’s depression. While Melancholia is a quieter and more ordinary film in many respects than much of von Trier’s output, it shows a certain maturity in the way the director treats his twin obsessions of depression and the sorry lot of women in this world. He seems finally to have been able to put his bag of cherry bombs away and find a narrative that deals with these problems realistically.
Realistically? The film invents a planet called Melancholia that moves cometlike through our solar system and threatens to collide with Earth; it and its “dance of death” are “authenticated” by coming up in a Google search. However, if you accept von Trier’s statement that this is not really a scifi film about the end of the world, but rather a film about a state of mind, it’s easier to see this as a sensitive gestalt exercise by the director to locate the sources of his problems and attempt to exorcise them.
For von Trier, the bond between mother and child is the most beautiful and sacred, and disruptions to that bond have catastrophic consequences, often as the result of that love. We all know what happened to the children of Medea (1988) as a result of the ruthlessness of her husband Jason. In The Kingdom (1994/1997), Judith’s love for her bizarre baby, the product of impregnation by the devil, displaces any fear she might have of her baby’s physical repulsiveness and supernatural growth. In Dancer in the Dark (2000), a mother sacrifices her life for her son, perhaps without needing to.
And now we have Melancholia, which shows us both the positive and negative aspects of motherhood, and tellingly, of fatherhood as well, and how painful they each can be for children. In Part 1: Justine, the stunningly beautiful Justine (Dunst) has just gotten married. She is late getting to her wedding reception at her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) massive estate because the stretch limo that carries her and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is having trouble navigating the snaking approach road. With this symbol of a difficult birth at the outset, we are then confronted at the reception by Justine’s feckless father Dexter (John Hurt) and her mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), a version of Sleeping Beauty’s wicked witch who basically lays a curse on the marriage in her crazed hatred of her ex-husband and the institution of marriage. Justine starts to unravel, her father takes a powder, and by the end of the evening, her union with Michael is over.
Part 2: Claire focuses on the approach of Melancholia in its “fly-by” of Earth. John, an amateur astronomer, is thrilled by this celestial phenomenon and shares his excitement with his young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Claire is frightened that the planet will strike the Earth, a notion John dismisses with the full weight of scientific calculations behind him. Into this tenuous situation comes Justine, dull-eyed, mousey, and so depressed she can barely walk. She hopes that Melancholia destroys the “evil” Earth, thus wiping out all life in the universe—Justine claims she “knows” things and that Earth alone is inhabited. Claire, trembling with fright, buys pills she can use to overdose the entire family, while at the same time wondering where Leo will grow up if their planet is pulverized. When it does indeed appear that Melancholia is not “friendly,” which Claire first thought of the planet when the crisis appeared to be over, she discovers that John has taken all the pills, leaving nothing for her and Leo. She frightens Leo by saying there is no escape, but Justine gives him back a ray of hope by building with him a magic cave of tree branches under which she, Leo, and Claire sit holding hands, waiting for their heavenly kiss.
What, then, is Melancholia? Von Trier offers a hallucinatory synopsis of the film to come with an ultra-slo-mo preamble of Claire holding Leo and sinking into the golf course their home overlooks, of Justine tangled in heavy yarn and skimming the surface of water in her wedding gown, of birds falling from the sky, of worlds crashing. It is as though the director were offering up a dream he had at the very beginning of the film, and then presenting us with his corporealization of his unconscious material—the gestalt of his anxieties and preoccupations. As such, both halves of his film constellate his concerns about families, showing the damage inadequate parents do to their children, and both the terrorizing and seductive aspects of depression itself.
For example, when Michael leaves the estate, Justine sends him off coldly with, “What did you expect?” Indeed, what did he expect from someone whose parents never gave her a positive image of marriage and who actively worked to destroy her happiness on this day? Her fragile ego was absolutely no match for them, and Michael wisely packed it in before he got caught in the maelstrom of their messed-up lives. Justine identifies with Leo, an only child in a house so large and isolated that he could be lost in it for days; there don’t seem to be more than a couple of servants to tend to the vast estate or the lives inside it. In dream psychology, the house is the symbol for the self, and this self is beautiful, but largely empty of life.
Claire is a loving mother, but she, too, came from the same damaged family as Justine. It is entirely possible that the approach of Melancholia is, in fact, her plunge into a soul-crushing depression. Notice that as she walks across one of the greens of the golf course, the pin flag reads “19,” a telling detail that picks up John’s repeated questioning of Justine about how many holes are on his golf course—18. Thus, we can’t take the events of Part 2 at face value even if we were to see this film as science fiction. And so, the Justine who tells Claire that her plan to go out nicely with a glass of wine on the terrace is shit could very well be a projection, and the horses who were nervously bucking in the stable suddenly going quiet as Melancholia looms at its largest in the sky could be Claire deciding to let go and fall down the rabbit hole. In a previous scene, she saw a naked Justine laying in a beautiful, forested area, looking at Melancholia in erotic bliss; could depression really be this beautiful and fulfilling? Most reviewers of this film have commented on the use of the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde throughout the film. The music is mournful, in keeping with the tragic love of the title characters, and Wagner preferred to refer to the prelude as the “liebestod,” or love-death. It’s certain that love and death are intimately connected in this film, whether of the body or the spirit, and Claire is flirting dangerously with it.
Von Trier isn’t the subtlest of filmmakers, but some people’s dreams are fairly straightforward (mine, for example). To prevent his vision from seeming trite, he surrounds himself with the best actors and knows how to get them to inhabit their roles with preternatural ferocity. I honestly don’t know what or how Kirsten Dunst made Justine breathe with the kind of magnetism mentally ill people generate, but she is astonishing and mesmerizing, by turns hateful, pitiable, sweet, and morose. It was interesting to see the father-son team of Stellan and Alexander Skarsgård fight for Justine’s attention, the former as her overbearing boss, the latter as her hunky, simple husband, but it did add a dimension of familial dysfunction to the proceedings. Gainsbourg did a nice job of falling to pieces, her more controlled facade to Justine’s angry intemperance an easily breachable wall, her anger limited to a simple “sometimes I really hate you, Justine.”
Melancholia is a long day’s journey into night that merges the beauty and horror of depression through its committed point of view, full-bodied performances, and precise visual sensibility. In backing away from his usual histrionics, Lars von Trier shows his serious and sincere desire to engage thoughtfully with his subject. My hat’s off to him.
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Director/Screenwriter: Mitch Glazer
By Roderick Heath
Good and bad movies are supposed to be easy things to tell apart, but I’ll never pretend to know why some movies are taken seriously in the critical and popular zeitgeist, and why some others are cast into oblivion. Passion Play, a labour of love for Mitch Glazer and sporting an interesting array of technical and acting talent, is a variation on a distinctive American strand of magic-realism: it seems a little like a Bob Dylan or Tom Waits song translated into images, which are in themselves reminiscent of movies over the years by the likes of David Lynch, Francis Coppola, Wim Wenders, and Alan Rudolph, but without feeling excessively imitative. This film was brutally dismissed earlier this year, whilst stuff like, oh, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Black Swan, two other recent films in a similar mould, get a pass mark for of technical swagger and You Tube-ready pandering. The problem with a lot of such films is that their weight tends to dispel the delicate frosting of strangeness and pathos which makes such tall tales work at their best, and so they tend to blunder through realms that require a sense of personal sentiment, and a deeper sense of the canonical traditions they draw their cultural pastiche from. The pleasures of Passion Play are, especially in comparison with such heavy-footed fare, a little like its angelic yet fragile heroine: you’re constantly afraid they’ll flit away in the breeze or be brutalised beyond repair. And yet Glazer, whilst clearly a beginner filmmaker, reveals a substantial knack for creating and sustaining an atmosphere of dusky regret and threadbare emotional fibre, as Passion Play captures an elegiac, somnolently humane atmosphere that retains a happy patina long after the film is finished. He also successfully steers three of Hollywood’s most infamously big-mouthed actors, Mickey Rourke, Megan Fox, and Bill Murray, and gives them some of their best roles.
Rourke plays Nate Poole, a frazzled dinosaur of a jazz trumpeter with real glory days long behind him. In the dreamy prologue, he’s glimpsed playing on stage as accompanist of a strip act, never a good sign. He’s soon taken prisoner by lurking thugs, and driven by out into the desert, where it’s immediately plain he’s going to be shot and left to feed the buzzards. Just as Nate’s about to be plugged in the back of the head, though, his assassin is himself gunned down by a band of white-clad Native American warriors, who dash off as soon as they’ve done Nate this service. Nate stumbles through the desert until he comes across a seamy circus run by emperor of sleaze Sam Adamo (Rhys Ifans). It’s a place where little wonders must be found to justify their existence, and Nate catches a glimpse of one when he goes into a peepshow booth: a young woman, Lily Luster (Fox), who displays bird’s wings on her back for the paying clientele. Sam claims to have found her in a garbage pail when she was a baby and has brought her up. Nate, fascinated, tentatively introduces himself to Lily in her trailer after the circus shuts down, and she says her wings are just a prop she can’t be bothered taking off, in a role that was all she could do: “I’m not an angel, I’m a bird woman…I couldn’t get fat enough, I can’t grow a beard, and I hate snakes.” She also claims not to know who Nate is, yet once he leaves she unfurls her very real appendages and finds a copy of one of his records in her collection of old LPs. Sam, worried for the secrecy and security of his most peculiar possession, has his carny goons catch Nate and makes to kill with a rattlesnake’s bite, but Lily, having commandeered a pick-up truck, drives it into Sam’s tent and rescues Nate, fleeing back to the city.
On the way, when they pause at a gas station, Nate sees Lily, who claims to be unable to fly, managing to glide a little on a gusting breeze. Completely entranced, Nate nonetheless sees a chance to extricate himself from the lethal situation he’s in: his near-murder was because he slept with the wife of a powerful gangster, Happy Shannon (Murray, tweaking his trademark deadpan into something bleakly foreboding and pathetically nasty). Nate formulates a plan whereby he can cut Happy a percentage for showing off Lily to the world, whilst contriving to keep her out of the gangster’s hands. The glaze of hazy daylight and midnight somnolence, leavened by the evanescence of Lily’s aura of goodness, permeates Glazer’s film with surprising grace, and grace, after a fashion, is the subject. Passion Play plays, interestingly, as a mirror to Jesus Franco’s Venus in Furs (1969) with its similar tropes – otherworldly femme, rich possessive creeps, trumpet-playing anti-hero, and circular finale. Except that Lily is not an object of vengeance but aspiration, which the glumly vicious Happy recognises with more immediacy than Nate. Nate, a former drug addict, is branded as a perpetual loser not only because he makes mistakes but because he keeps making the same mistakes, and his plan to make peace with Happy and exploit Lily at the same time without exposing her to danger is sublime self-delusion. In a languorous yet quietly entrancing section of the film, Passion Play is essentially a two-person show portraying Lily and Nate’s growing bond. Lily tries to overcome her feeling of being a gruesome misfit who needs to be corrected: when she sneaks off to visit a plastic surgeon to get her wings cut off, Nate tracks her down and retrieves her, his defence of her right to be a beautiful freak sullied ever so subtly by an undertone of proprietary worry.
Lily and Nate fall into a nervous pas-de-deux as he, to please her, takes her to an empty theatre where a painted stage background suffices as her first glimpse of the sea, and after a little coaxing plays a tune on his trumpet, in a scene lightly gilded with a sense of drowsy romanticism and effervescent celebration of the way artists remake the world around them in tolerable terms. Rourke and Fox could well be the oddest romantic coupling of the year, and in some ways they’re by far the most soulful, each a garish oddity who nonetheless weaves beauties around them. Rourke, with his face these days looking like a pummelled side of corned beef, nonetheless still radiates the low-burning charisma he possessed in the ‘80s, and Fox, who’s only played arch bitch-queens and teenage lust-objects before this, is remarkably tantalising in playing the soft-spoken Lily, who has internalised years of being gawked at as a freak in an inability to look anyone in the eye, and who shrinks before the world’s gaze as if it’s an iron maiden bristling with spikes. Rourke proves that for all the predations of time he’s still one of the most innately charismatic actors in Hollywood, and Passion Play makes a fine bookend for The Wrestler as a portrait of a man heavy loaded with regret over what he’s done to others and to himself; indeed it wouldn’t work one-tenth as well if a less burdened and time-trammelled actor was in the role. Yet he’s still got his awesome physique from the Aronofsky film, which makes him cut it sufficiently in spite of his head as guy who can bed Megan Fox. When Happy finally catches up with Nate, he’s not to be easily fobbed off: Nate arranges a fashion of letting Happy see her with wings unfurled through binoculars. Happy instantly recognises Lily as a miracle, and being the man he is, he wants it for himself. He catches Nate and Lily in bed, and, planning to kill Nate, is dissuaded when Lily promises to go with him if he lets Nate live.
Happy instead has his goons beat the hell out of him and has him blackballed by all the nightspots in town, and after an attempt to extract Lily from Happy’s mansion ends up with her telling him to stop trying, Nate spirals deep into despair, hocking his saxophone and contemplating returning to his drug habit. He gets a break, however, when a fellow musician takes him on for a gig playing at local museum – at a charity soiree being bankrolled by Happy on a theme of angels, and Happy shows up with Lily on his arm: Nate stalks her through the museum, but she retreats from him in hopelessness. Nate’s limbo spirals into the genuinely stygian when he picks up a serpentine tattooed punk chick, who shoots him full of junk, except that she proves to be an agent of Sam, lurking and looking for a chance to avenge himself on Nate and take Lily back, and the woman has pumped with a hot dose. Nate is only saved when his friend Harriet (Kelly Lynch) finds him and revives him. When Sam tries to extract Lily from Happy’s house, the gangster shoots him and, suddenly fed up with all of the men vying for his beautiful captive, loses interest in her and turns her again into an exhibit for leering at, albeit this time an up-market crowd.
Passion Play‘s title is a bit of a double-entendre, as the film is both about multiple forms of passion, but there is finally a peculiar kind of fable being offered here, where Nate does battle with devils and serpents, and tries to rescue his angel and his own wayward soul with her. Glazer manages to offer his wilfully fantastical figurations less as overtly religious overtones than as permeating mythopoeic imagery, a jazz-like solo riff on a Jungian fever dream where private desperation and yearning are externalised through visions of cherubs and demons. Glazer also has to avoid tipping off the viewer too clearly about the nature of the story, taking place as it is in a zone between life and death. Promises of infernal fire and redemption swirl implicitly in the textures of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, in the uterine warmth of velvety, theatrical reds and speckles of gilt infusing the otherwise bleary blues and noir-y shadows in the denuded city- and desert-scapes of New Mexico. Passion Play is reminiscent, in its melding of fantasy with noir, of Ben Hecht’s oddball classic Angels Over Broadway (1940), whilst a fragment of Brute Force (1947) is glimpsed on a movie screen – Happy screens old movies for Lily to please her, as she grew up watching such films on television – with its similar figuration of a disgraced and scruffy Burt Lancaster with the crippled, beatific Ann Blyth to offset the defeated Nate before Happy and Lily. Indeed, Passion Play was the second of two films I watched in quick succession – the other was Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, a film with a not dissimilar mood and references, if also with much deeper layers of narrative complexity – where the tropes of classic noir are seized upon and inverted, rendered instead of punchy and hardboiled, as dreamy, melancholy, and with their sense of reality indefinably porous. Passion Play also has qualities in common with two more films maudit, Larry Charles’ under-rated, if lumpy, attempt to film Dylan with Masked and Anonymous (2003) and Johnny Depp’s nigh-unseen, yet weirdly, naggingly memorable The Brave (1997), in trying to articulate that American branch of fantasy where civilisation peters out at the fringes of the desertscape, and the islets of humanity glimpsed there are stricken through with cruelty, wonder, and alien beauty, as if the cultural centrifuges toss out all the colourful and perverse refuse there, amidst heavily metaphoric contemplations of the state of the personal and national psyche.
Sam’s remote, lively yet subtly strange circus is then reminiscent of something out of Ray Bradbury or Jack Finney, cross-bred with the word-pictures of the aforementioned songwriters, whilst the moment of Nate’s first glimpse of Lily calls to mind the finale of Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) where a similarly ruined remnant of a man confronted his great love in a peepshow booth, whilst both films share an atmosphere of crushed romanticism. When Nate peeks in on Lily in her trailer and sees her with unfolded wings, the film takes on the quality of folk-myth, as he sees something extraordinary in the remote female figure in violating the taboo of her sanctuary, but here with a grim masochistic overtone, as he watches Lily ripping out her feathers in anguish, giving substance to the sense that permeates the film of the worthy beautiful strange things ripping themselves to pieces or subjecting themselves to degradations for the sake of small redeeming beauties. Yet Glazer, who wrote Murray’s ill-famed Scrooged (1988) as well as the interesting if finally problematic Three of Hearts (1993) and Great Expectations (1997), seems to be reflecting as much on the nature of his own trade as any metaphysical concerns here: it’s impossible to ignore how Passion Play is really about show business, and the motifs of the film, constantly circling back to performing stages and acts, and life-art rhymes, emphasises this.
The artist protagonist has wasted his potential in drugs and betraying his talent, a crime he repeats in selling out Lily, and pissing off the wrong people through licentious missteps. Happy and Sam, satanic forces of temptation, are also readily identifiable as exclusive and exploitative exhibitors, with a capacity to turn any rare and rich talent and trait into another commodity. For Fox, famously booted off her signature franchise for telling the truth about the director who served her up with toxic contempt in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Passion Play’s dismissive reception would hardly seem like vindication, but her role might have still felt like that, in it seems to conflate much truth about the way Hollywood treats its beauties. Lily wants to tear and distort her flesh to render it more perfect; Nate wants to show it off; Happy when he realises that he’ll never entirely possess her instead settles for sticking her in a glass booth virtually naked so that people can pay for an eyeful. This curious yet lucid fable’s finale sees Nate crashing one of Happy’s private peep shows for his rich friends to come and gawk at Lily in a glass box, resembling a fantasia out of a renaissance painting and weeping like a martyr. Here Glazer brings the motif of the power to look as a form of dominance to a head as well as achieving a real emotional kick in evoking the way the world’s beauties are so often corralled and controlled by men like Happy. Maybe in the very climax Glazer pushes finally too far towards the obvious, but his work still retains a charge as Nate rescues Lily and spurs her to finally spread her wings as a last act of faith. Such an act proves crucial for Nate as he makes a discovery that puts everything he’s been doing into perspective: saving his soul.
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