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Director/Coscreenwriter: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Most filmmakers portion out what talent they have in small, polite courses, but 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 it’s as if his nerveless beat has invaded Riggan’s ear and won’t leave it; and then, later, inside, playing merrily in the theatre’s kitchen. Iñárritu’s camera aims to bind everything into a multileveled, pan-dimensional stage, sweeping up and down stairwells, around rooms, 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 captures the teeming, electric sense of the location in a way that few recent films have managed, recalling classic films 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 rehab and is working as Riggan’s PA, stands outside of the stream, angry at her father for his false promises as a parent and left with a raw and mordant 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 some stalwarts of artist-meltdown portraiture like 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; the project is subordinated by force to the desire to see him 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 extra-relevant: 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 serious art and adolescent 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 adolescent, 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 cliché 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, which is indeed when the movie’s presumptions as a whole would’ve been more believable.
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 visual joke, Riggan, masked by dressings that resemble his Birdman guise, has become a hero, but only in the most ironic and self-punishing of fashions. On one level, none of this is a joke, but rather an attempt to articulate flurrying artistic worry and ecstasy with deadly, transcendental seriousness, and Riggan’s climactic gesture is meant also partly as a real solution to his quandary, an act of daring that can wow even the most jaded or hateful—except that it would actually be taken as a sign of deep mental illness, which is indeed a possible interpretation, but the 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 U.S. 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 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 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 engaged rewardingly with taking away 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, the film dumps 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 lost 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 was rendered passé was Harryhausen’s attempt to make 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, like Siegfried’s descent from the Norse gods, and instead presented a story squarely set in an historical context, and 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 for same in 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 Nibelungen or goblin metal-smith, who possesses a fabulous treasure, as well as the magic helmet, 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 draps?”) 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 consistent 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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Director: David Yates
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A fantasy 10 years in execution, wildly popular as both a book series and film-adaptation franchise, can bear a multitude of commentary. So, while my colleague Rod has tackled the finale of the Harry Potter saga with his usual brilliant description and analysis, I thought I might give it a go myself.
In contrast with Rod’s comment that adult Potter fans were generally in the closet when the series began, I found myself knowing several very enthusiastic adult readers of the series. My generation, especially in the United States, was characterized by a search for the kingdom of heaven within ourselves; if you hadn’t read Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy when you were in your teens or early 20s, you were out of it, living in a backwater away from popular culture and consciousness. Consequently, although I did not read J. K. Rowling’s books, I was more than up for seeing the films, hoping Harry’s lightning bolt Mark of Cain would strike me the same way Star Wars did when I saw it in 1977.
I was not disappointed. The tale the Harry Potter films tells is perhaps the most extraordinary coming-of-age story in cinematic history. A baby orphaned and marked for a dramatic destiny while still in the crib, Harry would have a relatively miserable childhood with his Muggle (human) aunt and uncle, constantly being put down in favor of the smallest accomplishment by his atrocious cousin Dudley, and always feeling out of place. Hasn’t every child felt this way, felt like they were kidnapped at birth from their rightful home where surely they would be appreciated as the extraordinary person they really are? The first Potter film, which many people think superficial and light, is, to my mind, the perfect world for a young audience looking to escape from the torments of family and school and travel to a place where they are special. I was personally enchanted by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a very special English public school familiar in many ways from books and films like Tom Brown’s School Days and The Browning Version, but filled with the kind of wonder children have when they learn how to unlock the mysteries of their own potential.
Of course, children grow up, and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) start to discover what hurts in their world, what betrayals await them—from a carelessly obtuse Ron failing to notice Hermione’s major crush on him to Harry betraying himself and his entire cause by allowing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to enter his thoughts and discover his plans. Destruction, repression, and death—not a magical future for kids whose ability to cast spells and make their wands an extension of their wishes would seem to mark them out for a charmed life. I admit to being a bit disappointed as the dark clouds descended, preferring to extend the buoyant feeling of the first film ad infinitum, but the progression better serves the young readers and viewers who are looking for the signposts that match their own lives. Unsurprisingly, adults like me watching the Potter films were perhaps served less well than adolescent audiences because there are certainly more relevant, mature films to help us deal with the vagaries of life, and a certain amount of tedium with the plot set in for me, though the fine filmcraft and performances kept me highly engaged to the bitterly triumphant end.
As it turns out, Harry’s lightning bolt truly was the Mark of Cain, though not one involving a blood tie. Harry’s strange link with Voldemort was finally accounted for in the finale: Harry had a piece of Voldemort’s soul locked inside him in infancy from the rebound of the hex the Dark Lord used to kill Harry’s mother. Alien though this fragment might have been, Harry was marked from the beginning as the slayer of a part of himself. Unlike the followers of the dark arts or even the good guys in Dumbledore’s army, Harry recognized Voldemort as the Buddha in the road and killed him in good New Age, if not Buddhist, fashion.
But, of course, philosophies are never simple in modern mythologies, exposed as we are now to influences from around the world that become grafted on to our established belief systems. Harry Potter is inflected with the concerns of a religiously conflicted Christian woman growing up in a country whose memories of the Blitz and Hitler were alive for years after the end of the war. Voldemort and his minions are certainly an embodiment of the maniacal thirst for absolute power and racial purity of Nazism, including the destruction of any impure (half-human) wizards and witches and the general enslavement of the human race to the needs of the elite. Harry’s discovery that his death is needed to render Voldemort mortal certainly smacks of the passion of the Christ, yet resurrection requires Harry only to believe in himself.
It is perhaps this egotism that bothers me the most about the Harry Potter finale and that points to the mediocrity awaiting Harry and his loyal friends 19 years after their defeat of Voldemort, a development Rod took issue with as well. Satisfied with revenge and the preservation of Hogswarts and its generally sunny way of life, Harry, famous and extraordinary during his entire youth, abandons the greater good. He settles into middle-class normalcy with his witch wife, Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), and assures his Hogwarts-bound, hellbent-to-be-a Gryffindor son that even if the Sorting Hat thinks he belongs in Slytherin, it offers some wiggle room by taking the wishes of the student into consideration. Not much, mind you—England is as trapped in its class distinctions as ever, and I have to wonder if billionaire Rowling has discovered that money will never buy her the privilege of respect a blueblood automatically achieves, and thus written about geneology as destiny in more ways than one. Harry could have ended the clannishness of the system—he united all to the cause of defeating Voldemort—but he seems content to ride out his days in the quiet comfort of tradition.
From a cinematic perspective, my druthers for this final film would have included the epic struggle the trio of friends experienced in finding and destroying the “horcruxes” that contained fractions of Voldemort’s soul—present in the penultimate film, but not in this one. Simply stabbing the generally compliant horcruxes with a snake tooth was so perfunctory as to make the task seem hardly worth the effort. Generally speaking, if the filmmakers knew they were going to split the ending into two parts before production, why not make a full movie at the end? Even if they didn’t, surely there must have been ample opportunity to flesh out some of the more interesting aspects of the narrative, from the horcrux hunt to how the battle might have affected the Muggle world. While some scenes work beautifully, for example, the infiltration of Gringott’s and the climbing, crashing escape of the captive dragon that guarded its vaults, the feeling of sprinting to the finish line dropped this film a bit below the high watermark of careful, full-bodied construction I have associated with other entries in the series.
The appearance of Dumbledore’s brother (Ciaran Hinds) leaves me trembling with trepidation that Warner Bros. may try to spin off another series featuring Potter fils and Ron and Hermione’s youngsters. Certainly the battle between good and evil will never end, but as for Harry Potter, this ending was well done, fitting, and conclusive.
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Director: David Yates
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
A decade and many dollars later, the Harry Potter saga comes to an end, and I found myself looking back on why I even got interested in the series in the first place. I can actually pinpoint it to a TV ad for the first film, a glimpse of the inside of Gringott’s, the goblin bank, with John Williams’ inspired drunken-waltz theme ringing out. There was something about the mix of sound and vision that hooked me and the satiric strangeness of the image, and the promise of a revival of the spit-polish Spielbergian production style I had grown up with powerful enough to draw me into a movie theatre at a time when adult Harry Potter fans were still mostly in the closet. When I partook of this last installment, three-quarters of the audience were over 20. All of us, the kids and adults who first went to see that film, and especially the actors portraying the young heroes—Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, Matthew Lewis, Bonnie Wright, and many others—are different people to those of a decade ago, and what a 10 years it has been. I felt gratified that a major set-piece returns to Gringott’s with a vision of those malevolent little goblin bureaucrats now having their world turned upside down by a rampaging dragon. If that’s not a metaphor for the current global financial crisis, it might as well be.
Looking back on it, the early ’00s were something of a promising golden age for fans of the cinefantastique, for we had the mighty Lord of the Rings films, the second Star Wars trilogy, the early and better X-Men and Spider-Man films, and hell, even the middle installment of The Matrix series; all promised good things ahead, even if crushing disappointment sometimes resulted. The Potter series is pretty well the last of them, the dark horse that might have remained the overdrawn gee-whiz kid’s stuff Chris Columbus served up in his first two films. But the series has more than paid off the initial promise to grow up along with its audience and up the stakes of the drama. With these films gone, I suppose we’ll have to grit our teeth and get used to being pulverised by Michael Bay, Guy Ritchie, and the other cinematic Voldemorts.
Recently, when I sat down and watched the series right through again, I had to give the filmmakers their propers. Even given the pudgy, overdrawn aspects of Columbus’ entries and the sometimes fragmented narratives of later ones, very few film series have sustained such a level of intricacy blended with scale over such a canvas. That’s partly enabled by the relatively stolid, parochial values they espouse—when boiled, down these films are just about friends sticking together and fighting threats from without. I couldn’t help but notice the disparity between Helena Bonham Carter’s brilliance as Bellatrix Lestrange, clad like a neo-Victorian goth sweeping all before her, and Emma Watson, who finishes up clad in the same get-up while disguised as Bellatrix. This makes an unexpected comment on the final vision of our heroes at the end of the saga, settled comfortably into bland, parental middle age and looking entirely like normal suburbanites, sexless and paunchy—suddenly my empathy for the Death Eaters, who seem to genuinely enjoy being bizarre, brilliant outsiders, skyrocketed. After years of bloodcurdling battle, was it really only so our hero could turn into David Brent? The Harry Potter stories do seem just a little too determined to lull their fans into a sense of comfortable normalcy rather than celebrating uniqueness, and the damage the heroes continually wreak on the settled order is generally only to ensure it’s pieced back together properly. I’m being churlish, I know, but still I feel it’s worth interrogating the material on this level, if only because it’s so damn good in so many other respects.
I wasn’t one of those who disliked the first half of the adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s final novel, party because I dug its dark, eerie, forlorn tone and appreciated how much heavy lifting Yates had done in clearing the decks surrounding character relationships, which pays off in spades here. Part Two begins in the same bleak, shell-shocked key as its predecessor precisely where we left off: Harry, Ron, and Hermione are hunting down the horcruxes in which villain Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has hidden portions of his soul to ensure his survival. They enlist the aid of Gringott’s employee Griphook (Warwick Davis, splendidly mordant, who does double duty as Professor Flitwick) to break into the bank to steal away a horcrux kept in Bellatrix’s vault. This requires penetrating the elaborate defences of Gringott’s and then getting out again. Hermione has the lunatic, brilliant idea of fleeing on the back of a dragon kept as watchdog, which thrashes its way across the rooftops of London before the heroes leap from its back into a Scottish loch. They sneak into Hogwarts School with the aid of Aberforth (Ciaran Hinds), the bitter, peevish brother of the late headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), and when they meet up again with their friends from Dumbledore’s army, including Harry’s current flame Ginny (Wright), former flame Cho (Katie Leung), the awkward, good-natured Neville Longbottom (Lewis), serenely daffy Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and all the others, the mood of loss and alienation that so permeated Part One instantly melts away. The young folk of Hogwarts finally get to make good on all that education.
It’s almost impossible, then, with the weight of emotion and ballet of stories that have built up to this moment, not to be carried away with the thrill of the Hogwarts staff and student body revolting against the grimly fascistic regime that has descended on the school. Neville sports black eyes because he refused to participate in the new school training method of practising torture curses on first-year students. Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, offering a marvelous capper to his series-long turn full of arch aggression and sullen feeling), the new headmaster and secret triple agent, flees rather than face the furious magic unleashed on him by McGonagall (Maggie Smith), only to die treacherously at the hands of Voldemort. Voldemort by now has recognised the threat to his peculiar life insurance scheme, and musters an army of followers to smash through the defences of Hogwarts and battle the determined resisters within as if this is some fantasy lovechild of If… (1968) and the school sequences in Pink Floyd The Wall (1982). Harry and Co. search for the remaining horcruxes, only to learn through Snape’s siphoned memories that Harry is one himself and must die.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that, but here the overt Christ parables snap into focus as death and resurrection result. Fortunately, muscular Christianity is the point here. Thrilling snatched visions and apocalyptic anarchy sprawl across Yates’ expertly controlled widescreen framing: there’s none of Bay’s flagrant visual bullshit here. Neville actually becomes the most compelling figure in the battle, bravely luring Voldemort’s soldiers into a trap on a disintegrating bridge, and standing up with a Churchillian speech and show of defiance to heckling bad guys about to get the shock of their lives.
If there’s a loss with this incident-packed grand finale, it’s of those dryly funny little set-pieces that have come to truly mark Yates’ contributions to the series, offering nothing quite as weirdly funny as the spider funeral in The Half-Blood Prince (2009) and the Nick Cave dance in The Deathly Hallows: Part One, and few of the more intimate character moments that had featured since Alfonso Cuaron’s The Prisoner of Azkaban (2003). There is, however, a last-minute breath of the wispy sensuality that has often pervaded the series, as Harry attempts to appease the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw (Kelly Macdonald, along with Hinds, the only major new blood), a vision of angry, melancholic beauty guarding the permeable gates of life, love, and death. This mood floats up again in a flashback revealing the tragic history of Snape’s love for Harry’s mother, when he delighted her with levitating flowers and bawled in pain over her dead body. Such is a timely reminder of the moral and emotional cost of Voldemort’s predations that echo on through generations and inspire depths of hatred and determination of quite supernatural intensity. There’s an action set-piece in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione battle Draco Malfoy (Felton) and his goons in the Room of Requirement, concluding in a firestorm that is spectacular, but gilds the lily a bit. The same can be said, though in a different sense, for a scene in which Harry, before offering himself up Christ-like for Voldemort, chats with the shades of his parents (Adrian Rawlins and Geraldine Somerville), Lupin (David Thewlis), and Sirius (Gary Oldman): the point of the scene has been endlessly reiterated throughout the series, and seems more an excuse just to squeeze those actors in again.
But Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves successfully patch up some of the awkward narrative motion of Rowling’s book. Her familiar structural motif—to limit most of the drama to the immediate viewpoint of Harry—which she manipulated so well in the early novels, proved more than a bit clunky on the epic canvas of the finale. Yates and Kloves even manage to make the crucial sequence of Harry learning of Snape’s (Alan Rickman) motivations and the terrible truth about himself in the process seem a grimly beautiful narrative switchback, rather than an awkward bit of storytelling. The incredible sprawl of British character actors sees some greats reduced to a few scant lines of dialogue, but those can be made to count: Jim Broadbent’s Horace Slughorn seemed able to wring belly-laughs from audience members around me with every wheezy exclamation. Michael Gambon comes back for a few salutary moments in the afterlife, which resembles King’s Cross railway station. In general, this climax is, and I say this with all due diligence and restraint as a sober film critic, pretty damn awesome. It’s just as intense, heroic, bloodthirsty, and wildly cinematic as you want it to be. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie audience go as quiet as during the scene in which Harry marches towards his doom under his eternal foil Voldemort’s wand, and at the end they were clapping—it’s been years since I’ve seen an audience applaud a movie outside a festival setting.
Yates has successfully maintained continuity in the series with a vivid tradition of British fantasy. Big finishes to huge movie series are notoriously difficult to pull off. Even the points where it stops for breath and stock-taking become part of a genuinely tense anticipation. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) is, in spite of its longuers, pretty much the gold standard of that sort of thing, though I tended to think back more to Return of the Jedi (1983), the underrated series closer of the Star Wars saga, as one of the better examples that, in spite of the Ewoks and lazy plotting, managed to sustain and contrast three different levels and types of conflict. It’s in this regard that Yates stumbles a bit in moving between focal points in his colossal final battles, which lack the sorts of varied, rapidly intercut vignettes that make for great battle scenes. I had expected Yates to expand upon the snippets Rowling provided, but he rather disappointingly doesn’t. Molly Weasley’s (Julie Walters) death duel with Bellatrix, perhaps the most relishable and unexpected scene in the novel, makes the cut, but it’s poorly set-up and weirdly jagged, as if Yates sensed everyone would be ticked off if he didn’t include it. This appears to be evidence that the constant pressure to keep everything moving makes the editing occasionally too tight. But still, these are fairly minor quibbles.
I recall an acquaintance predicting half of the cast would be dead by the time this film rolled around, which has thankfully not come true. As much as I love Gambon as an actor, he never quite erased the memory of Richard Harris’ pitch-perfect turn as Dumbledore, but Harris has been, thankfully, the only major loss. I suspect Smith, Rickman, and a few others, however, will be glad to kick back now. If some of the familiar series stalwarts fade into the background, like Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid, it’s because, appropriately, Harry is characterised through his firm moments of newly adult, genuine leader’s resolve, keeping his eye on the prize no matter what injury befalls those around him, a sadly necessary evolution. The quality of these films’ cast has always been a secret weapon, even if sometimes the weapons go fizz. Here Fiennes’ villainy finally gets some space to strut. If there’s a problem with Voldemort, it’s that he’s so completely and utterly a bad guy, treating even his suppliant first lady Bellatrix with rampant contempt, that he doesn’t quite infuriate as much as, say, the cutesy-poo sadist Dolores Umbridge, so reminiscent of bad schoolteachers the world over. But Fiennes knows how to play bad guys, and he manages to give Voldemort cheerless, numbingly arrogant grandeur, and a kind of pathos, thanks to the void in his soul that his relentless efforts never fill. This is cruelly exposed when he tries to hug Draco in a congratulatory moment—the Charles Montgomery Burns of dark wizards.
It’s apt then that Yates compensates for his other hesitations in offering a bristling, thrilling, proper duel between Harry and Voldemort, something Rowling didn’t quite deliver on. This is especially gratifying in that it involves the clear spectacle of Voldemort not simply being outsmarted, as on the page, but taken down not just a few pegs, but every peg. Here Harry evokes Shakespearean grit as he grabs hold of Voldemort and hurls them both from the Hogwarts battlements, hand in hand to hell, only to streak through the sky before crashing into the courtyard for a final duel that results in the villain disintegrating into a shower of gossamer ash flakes, a fascinatingly delicate dissolution for a supervillain. Yates’ sense of the grandeur in stillness finally resolves in a moving moment of exhausted quiet, as Harry, Ron, and Hermione stand with the flaming ruins of Hogwarts behind them, filled with the quiet elation of survival.
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Directors: Bryan Singer/Brett Ratner
By Roderick Heath
The recent release of Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men: First Class has tried to capitalize on not just the 50-year-old comic book source, but also the intricate allure of the franchise first built by Bryan Singer. Aficionado as I am of fantastic cinema, willing to take a bet on most any example of it, I still avoided the series at first. That’s partly because I had little investment in the source material, and I also because I was uneasy at Singer’s premature canonisation as director because of The Usual Suspects (1995), a fine film that nonetheless seems to have kicked off an insufferable Hollywood obsession with trick narratives, and to a certain extent the feeling I had that Singer was essentially a slick professional with a thin veneer of post-Tarantino indie chic has been proven essentially true over the years. But when I finally did sit down and watch the X-Men films, I was pleasantly surprised at how much character and class Singer managed to transfer to them.
The first two films were imbued by Singer with a definitively chic, minimalist visual style and a correspondingly nimble sense of their characters and ideas. They were also exceptionally well-cast, possessing a balance of both character-based and satiric humour, and emotive and symbolic awareness. Moreover, since I caught up with Singer’s debut, the little-seen, interesting and curiously affecting, if pretty slapdash parable Public Access (1992), I started appreciating his growth, which is both obvious and coherent. His consistent interests are apparent in the effervescent frosting of elegance and abstraction in the visual design, his acute thematic awareness of outsider angst and interest in political diatribes that mask hidden agendas, and his fondness for vividly chiselled leading men. As such, the X-Men films are one of the most successful examples of a former independent director negotiating his way through broad-appeal fare.
Moreover, Singer and screenwriter David Hayter established a series rather unique among comic book adaptations, by taking them seriously as worlds unto themselves, in which the powers of the heroes are not merely devices used in otherwise relatively conventional action, but as intrinsic to the story on all levels: the question of mutation is both the starting point and the consistent motivator. This makes the films close to legitimate science fiction. Another challenge for Singer and McQuarrie was to develop a coherent and intimate story out of the over-busy Marvel comic book series they were adapting. They did it chiefly by focusing on characters, and the series is essentially driven by three of them, Magneto (Ian McKellen), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), around who swirl other interesting personas whose gifts and faults complement and contrast each other.
X-Men commences portentously with a nadir of humanity: Jewish victims being led into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. One of the young men panics as he’s separated from his parents, and, as he’s wrestling with guards in a screaming frenzy, the gates of the camp seem to buckle spontaneously in obedience to his gestures. The boy is Eric Lensherr, who survives and grows into Magneto, a ferociously talented and brilliant manipulator of metal, and one of the emerging class of mutant people with the so-called X gene that gives them extraordinary, but unpredictably diverse, powers. In “the not too distant future,” Magneto determines to resist a growing push to track down and register mutants. He believes, not without some good cause, that a war is brewing, and he decides to push it along. He’s opposed by his former colleague and fellow defender of the oft-abused and outcast mutant population, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who runs a school that takes in mutants to educate them and train them to master their powers.
Some were offended by the use of the Holocaust for grounding this free-flowing fantasy, but can such fantasies be easily separated from the intense, real-world anxieties that fuel them? In any event, Singer and McQuarrie obviously stress such realistic likenesses for the material, apt considering the series was begun as a parable for the Civil Rights movement, and evolved to take in any disaffected social faction, including the gay experience. Such a point is repeatedly stressed by the need for rejected youths with problems that first manifest at puberty to find a home with den father Professor X and his understanding community.
Into that community stumble two new figures. Marie (Anna Paquin) finds herself afflicted with a particularly alienating mutation, the capacity to draw energy from anyone who touches her; she can absorb the gifts of any mutant, but if she touches them for too long they die, meaning she can’t have any kind of physical relationship. As per mutant custom, she gives herself a new name, Rogue, and flees from her suburban home to Canada, where she falls into the company of Logan, or Wolverine, a bristling tough guy who makes money winning cage fights. Wolverine and Rogue are attacked by a fearsome mutant, Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), who seems to want to capture one of them, but they are saved by two of Xavier’s teachers, Jean, a potentially powerful but fretful, unstable telepath and psychic, and her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), whose eyes emit powerful rays that have to be controlled with special glasses. The mutant school’s staff is rounded out by Ororo “Storm” Munro (Halle Berry), who can control weather.
The asocial Wolverine flits about the edges of this stable world: he possesses incredible healing capacities and an artificial metal skeleton with deadly claws that spring from his hands for battle, but no memory of how he got these claws. The story of their origin is crucial to X2, where Magneto’s worst nightmare is embodied by William Stryker (Brian Cox), an army bigwig who has sought to control and utilize mutants. He exploited Wolverine’s healing gifts to try to create a perfect soldier, and lobotomised his own mutant son, who killed his mother with psychic projections. Stryker blames the mutation for this, but father and son are both cut from the same psychopathic cloth. Magneto’s efforts in the first film mirror Stryker’s in the second—to exterminate the species they fear and detest with electronic augmentation. Stryker gains traction for his extermination plans by brainwashing lone German mutant Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Alan Cumming) into attacking the U.S. President (Cotter Smith).
The running confrontation of ideals, perspectives, and methods between Magneto and Xavier, backed up by the relish the two stalwarts bring to their parts, is a great part of the fun of the films, which put surprisingly little emphasis on spectacle and special effects except in controlled bursts. The emphasis on Xavier and Magneto’s former friendship and shared ideals lends a proper dramatic tension to their conflict, rather existing for simple generic necessity. Both possess the same traits in different mixtures, as Magneto’s genuine, empathetic angst is immediately established, underpinning his rage and contempt for the human world, and Xavier’s expedient choices in regards to Jean eventually lead to a grandiose tragedy. McKellen’s knowing, yet fierce playing of Magneto’s dramatic self-importance, which is entirely justified by his increasingly godlike powers, sees the actor transfer his persona from Richard III (1995) intact into a blockbuster.
The good casting extends right down the line, as various subplots and percolating themes evolve, such as Wolverine’s attraction to Jean, and hers to his hunky bad-boy appeal, in spite of her relationship with the cool, but too well-adjusted team player Cyclops. Jackman and Marsden’s mutual loathing is nearly as good as Stewart and McKellen’s, enacted in tossed-off insults and catty confrontations. Interestingly, and rare in such fare, it’s the female characters who keep the drama grounded, thanks largely to the restrained, mature performances, particularly Janssen, who makes her difficult character work well. Storm, signalled eventually as Xavier’s successor, maintains an intense slow burn that counterbalances Jean’s unsure brilliance. Berry’s Storm possesses a subtle, but noticeable African accent in the first film, as per the character’s Kenyan origin in the comics, but Berry drops this as well as Storm’s early glaze of weirdness in the second film, and her characterisation consequentially becomes less original. Still, I was more persuaded as to Berry’s acting talents by her here than by all the sweaty acrobatics of Monster’s Ball (2001).
On the opposite side of the camp is Rebecca Romijn’s lithesome Mystique, a shape-shifter and Magneto’s perpetual aide-cum-concubine who constantly overwhelms and surprises opponents with her capacity to change appearance and kick ass. As Brian de Palma did with Romijn in Femme Fatale (2002), Singer amusingly exploits her ability to imbue a sinuous wet-dream-incarnate sexuality with potent anger and predatory grace. It’s Mystique who really throws down the gauntlet of outsider rage when she kidnaps pompous Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), the main proponent of the Mutant Registration Act in the first film, spitting, “It’s people like you who made me afraid to go to school,” before knocking him out with her talented feet.
Simultaneously, the younger generation is developing its own hang-ups. Although the series never really works out what to do with her, Paquin’s Rogue is the character who seems most mythic (at least until Jean turns into a goddess of wrath), and reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Dr. Rappacini’s Daughter in possessing a physique that is inimical to all erotic experience. Like a gorgon, her cursed nature is suggested by her hair, as is Storm’s. Rogue’s relationship with Bobby “Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore), who can freeze anything, is inevitably frigid, and he seems to fall under the sway of Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (well-played by Ellen Page in the third film, after brief appearances of other actresses in the first two films). Meanwhile, their mutual friend John “Pyro” Allerdyce, who, naturally, wields fire, eventually gives into his aggressive streak and joins Magneto’s team.
If there’s a problem with Singer’s X-Men diptych, it’s curiously indivisible from its strengths: Singer’s too-cool handling and spare action means he never approaches the overheated delights of Guillermo del Toro’s glorious Hellboy films, and doesn’t quite possess the personal warmth that lit up Sam Raimi’s erratic Spider-Man series. None of the episodes is entirely satisfying on its own, demanding to be watched in close proximity with the others. On the other hand, this franchise was more complex and dramatically integrated than its many rivals, and where Raimi’s studied naiveté eventually grew excessive and repetitive, here the characters and their interactions grow more interesting the more familiar they become. It helps that the series went back to the original comic books for their best storylines. The chief source for the third film, X-Men: The Last Stand was the Phoenix cycle of the late ’70s, regarded as one of the greatest in comic book history. X-Men, on the other hand, feels limited by its very standard save-the-prestigious-event climax: the first film falls into the trap of basically setting things up to be knocked into the hole later.
Fittingly, X2 is the series highpoint, introducing the likeable, if fierce-looking Nightcrawler, and building to a lengthy, well-sustained finale, as the heroes try to save Professor Xavier from Stryker’s plot to fool him into psychically killing every mutant on Earth. X2 is full of excellent little set-pieces, particularly Magneto’s escape from his all-plastic prison, accomplished because Mystique injected tiny metal fragments into one of his guards during what he thought was a drunken hook-up, which Magneto is then able to suck out of his body and use to smash his cell. Wolverine’s discovery of his origin as part of a grotesque experiment and his shady personal history lead him into a battle with Stryker’s second, more obedient super-warrior, Yuriko “Lady Deathstrike” Oyama (Kelly Hu). Lady Deathstrike sprouts long, mandarinlike fingernails of steel, and the two well-matched animals slash and hack each other in a mean tussle that could theoretically last forever.
Singer sets up an elegant visual contrast for Stryker’s son, now a crippled, obedient, yet still obscene monster, with the little girl he projects into people’s heads to get them to do what he wants, and switches between reality and false vision. The episode concludes with Jean sacrificing herself to save her friends from being washed away by the waters of a collapsed dam; Singer pays obvious stylistic and thematic tributes to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), including having the familiar introductory quote by Xavier read by Jean before the final fade-out. Jean is reborn in X-Men: The Last Stand as a schizoid monster called “Phoenix,” an escapee from Xavier’s attempt to compartmentalise the unstable part of her personality and its awesome power. She returns from her watery grave at the mercy of this alternate personality and kills Cyclops in a lover’s embrace, a moment that finally fulfils the theme of deadly intimacy introduced by Rogue.
Singer’s interest in excoriating demagogues, rhetorical fear-mongers, false visionaries, and his penchant for wandering antiheroes, in evidence since Public Access, likewise recurs through the series, though no longer all packed into the same person. The series is worth comparing to the thematically similar Harry Potter series: in the latter, the unusually talented kids are accepted into a school that disciplines them and immediately normalises them, at least on a social level, whereas in the former, the emphasis remains clearly on the consequences and the immutable nature of their exceptionalism. Even the most successful and open-minded adults, like Storm and Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), are beset by a gnawing mix of resentment and alienation, even when trying their best to be proactive. One of the series’ best sequences comes in X2 when Stryker’s goons invade the school, shattering the cosiness of that environment, falling foul of some unusual mutant gifts, and forcing Wolverine to take up the mantle of defending the children in lieu of the absent teachers. As predictable as it is, the evolution of Wolverine from a fierce, somewhat masochistic, crude and brutal rebel into a functioning, responsible, but still lovably gruff member of the team, is an affecting and amusing strand throughout the films, until the unhinged Phoenix can taunt him with the observation that Xavier has tamed him.
Singer jumped ship on the franchise after this to try his hand at reviving another great superhero franchise with Superman Returns (2005), with very mixed results: whilst his ability to handle the infrastructure of a big action series had grown, his sense of what he wanted to achieve seemed to have disappeared. The third X-Men film was handed first to Matthew Vaughan, who, distressed by the studio’s rush to production, passed it on to Brett Ratner, whose name was already supplanting that of Joel Schumacher as an emblematic Hollywood hack. Ratner had made that claim for himself with his Rush Hour films and his unnecessary (and how!) remake of Manhunter (1987), Red Dragon (2002). Ratner kept most of the cast together however much some of them seemed to be going through the motions in virtual cameos, and did a passable job of sustaining Singer’s style. The result is somewhat better than it’s often regarded, but it’s hard not to notice that Ratner swapped Singer’s visual concision and ear for dry dialogue for a lot of clichéd bombast, trailer-ready dialogue, and a much less refined sense of pace and style. X-Men: The Last Stand also casually tosses away some of its by-now iconic characters, which does at least give it an unpredictable edge, and sports some overly obvious in-jokes.
Whereas Singer employed his outsider parable adroitly, here Ratner embraces it with cartoonish obviousness by introducing a young mutant, “Angel” (Ben Foster), who sports wings. His father, Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), has developed a “mutant cure” with his pharmaceutical company, hoping to save his son. Angel is glimpsed in a prologue as a kid, desperately trying to saw off his wings in the bathroom whilst his father bangs on the door, an admittedly cunning conflation of the theme of protean adolescent shame with the fantastic. But Angel finishes up flying away in a tribute to Tony Kushner by way of Melissa Etheridge.
The third film does, at least, accomplish the job of bringing the many strands of the first two episodes to a head and leading to a suitably epic showdown. Jean/Phoenix falls under Magneto’s sway as he leads resistance to Worthington’s cure made possible by culling the genes of a young mutant, Leech (Cameron Bright), whose immediate presence completely nullifies mutations. Both Leech and the infrastructure for making the cure are housed on Alcatraz Island. Magneto, after putting together an army of disaffected mutants, decides to assault the island, and pulls off the trick, impressive by any standard, of levitating the Golden Gate Bridge and planting it between the island and San Francisco. This sequence is fun to watch, but less impressive than an earlier one in which Phoenix, enraged, turns her powers on Xavier when he and Magneto track her to her family house. She causes the entire structure to levitate, and, amidst a blizzard of debris and with Wolverine crawling across the ceiling, Xavier disintegrates, and the house crashes back to earth. It’s one of the most exciting and dramatic special-effects set-pieces of recent years.
Indeed, for all his bad choices, I can’t help but feel Ratner wielded his effects with more confidence than Singer. The big action climax, for once, delivers, too, as Iceman and Pyro duel, Magneto falls prey to the cure and faces (horror!) life as a normal human, and Kitty saves Leech from one of Magneto’s goons, the Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), in a very funny little vignette that finishes up with the iron-clad villain, taunted by Kitty, knocking himself out cold when he tries to bash his way through a wall in the vicinity of Leech. Finally, Phoenix is let off the leash by a suddenly regretful Magneto, who bleatingly quotes Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai as Phoenix starts annihilating everything in sight. Wolverine has to shoulder the duty of taking on Phoenix, being the only one who can survive her pulverising telekinetic powers long enough to kill her, a coup de grace that Jean, momentarily back in control of her psyche, begs for. This ending offers proof that delirious melodrama and extraordinary colour aren’t only the province of Hong Kong cinema.
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Director: Peter Yates
By Roderick Heath
The early 1980s saw a brief, but admirable flowering in pure fantasy filmmaking. Sailing on the zephyr of the Star Wars cash cow, the fantasy genre, which had previously been a province of tacky productions, suddenly gained larger budgets and loving labour, and a new gloss of prestige. Not that some admirably cheap, elemental examples, like Hawk the Slayer (1980) and The Beastmaster (1982), didn’t sneak through, but others, like John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1981), Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), and Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story (1985), offered dazzling landscapes, thematic heft, and creative filmmaking. With Krull, Peter Yates, one of a wave of creative British directors who had emerged in the glory years of the mid ’60s, took a stab at the genre in one of the many attempts to duplicate the Star Wars magic.
Yates, who died last year at age 85, has been chiefly associated with his tough, soulful crime films like the modish classic Bullitt (1968) and the dryly brilliant The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1974), and more character-based dramas like Breaking Away (1979) and The Dresser (1982). He wasn’t averse to tackling the odd blockbuster-wannabe, as he had done so with his enjoyable 1977 adaptation of Peter Benchley’s schlock novel The Deep. But he had not tried a film like Krull before, which is surprising because Yates’ sense of style really makes Krull worthwhile. Nonetheless, despite its ingenious visual design, fluency of motion, and depth of feeling that make it more than another formulaic adventure flick, Krull was nowhere near as big a hit as it was supposed to be. Criticised upon release for its lack of imagination, today it looks more eminently classical.
I use the word classical advisedly: the greater part of the pleasure Krull offers now is that it was essayed in the polished, spectacular ’80s style of large-budget studio filmmaking, with a marvelously oversized score by James Horner and crisp, painterly, widescreen cinematography by Peter Suschitzky. It is the product of a cinematic sensibility that valued a sense of grandeur and physical vitality over today’s CGI, wobbly camerawork, and attention-deficit editing. The old-school set design and costuming-based style of fantasy filmmaking can look a bit stodgy at times, especially in the lumbering Slayers, who are villainous soldiers who look nearly as slow and unthreatening as the old Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons. But Krull positively glows with care in the filmmaking, with a firmly achieved mise-en-scène and some very clever special effects, most notably some stop-motion animation in a sequence with a giant crystal spider.
Krull’s first half moves in fits and starts: the title refers to a faraway planet where a kind of medievalism is still the mode of life, and preternatural mysticism is part of its texture. Out of the depths of space comes a gigantic ship piloted by the Beast, a monstrously powerful, shape-shifting creature determined to subdue the galaxy. After the ship, known as the Black Fortress because of its castle-like appearance, lands on Krull, the Beast sends out his army of Slayers to wipe out all human civilisation on the planet. To combat the Beast, Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Lyssa (Lysette Anthony), the heirs of two Krull realms, agree to marry and unite their strength, setting aside the ancient feud between their fathers, Eirig (Bernard Archard) and Turold (Tony Church). “Great fighters make bad husbands!” Eirig warns Lyssa. During the wedding ceremony, Slayers invade Eirig’s castle and kill everyone except for Colwyn, who’s wounded and left for dead, and Lyssa, who’s carried away to the Beast, who wants to marry her himself.
Colwyn is found amongst the dead and revived by Ynyr (Freddie Jones), the “old man of the mountains” (“Not that old,” he insists), a retired sage who is initially sickened by the young man’s indulgence in despair. But Colwyn gets over his grief quickly and asks for the sage’s aid in finding the Beast’s lair and rescuing Lyssa. The great problem facing them is not merely in breaking into the Black Fortress and battling the Beast, but in finding the place, because it changes location every day at dawn, disappearing and reappearing thousands of miles distant. Much of the subsequent story revolves around their attempts to find someone who can guide them to the Fortress’s present locale. Ynyr takes Colwyn to a priestly, green-robed seer (John Welsh), who can’t penetrate the Beast’s magic, so they take a detour to a sacred place in the midst of a swamp where the seer believes he’ll have more power. Along the way, Colwyn recruits the only talented fighting men he can find to aid him—a gang of criminals led by Torquil (Alun Armstrong) and including Kegan (Liam Neeson) and Rhun (Robbie Coltrane)—on the promise they’ll be pardoned if he ever manages to restore his kingdom. Also along for the ride are the seer’s boy apprentice Titch (Graham McGrath) and a boastful, but inept wizard named Ergo (David Battley). But the Beast’s agents and lurking Slayers prove competent in eliminating the seer and almost killing Colwyn; only the intervention of a Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw), member of a cursed race with a deep grudge against the Beast, saves Colwyn from assassination.
At this point in the film, Krull shifts gears, from awkwardly trying to tick off the compulsory elements for a fantasy adventure, to employing them with verve. Whilst some of the humour and by-play are a bit twee, Yates conjures an appropriate edge of gothic horror to give the film some menace and atmosphere. A xenomorphic assassin with black eyes and sprouting claws kills the seer and takes his place. The Beast’s disembodied hand appears out of a crystal ball to shatter it when the seer tries to find him. The Slayers are creepier when they die than when they’re menacing the heroes—when killed, their brainstems rip themselves out like escaping parasites with shrill screams and burrow into the ground. The best fantasies tend to have not necessarily a moral to them, but certainly an engagement with some vital fact of life mediated through extreme metaphors. Here it’s the struggle with accepting death and defining one’s life that haunt the Cyclops, Ynyr, and the other members of the heroic party, many of whom fall in battle trying to work out what they’ve let themselves be killed for. The Cyclops, like his entire race, had been betrayed by the Beast, which had promised them the gift of foresight, but only gave them the ability to predict the time of their own demise, and left them all with one eye to boot. The Cyclops aids the heroes right up until the threshold of the time he’s supposed to die, knowing that to go on will cost him great pain. In the finale, he, of course, makes the last-minute charge to the rescue of his friends, and ends up getting crushed in the sliding stone doorway he props open to let them by. Talk about cruel fate!
After the murder of the seer, Ynyr has to venture into the lair of another sorcerer in order to track the Fortress. He seeks the “Widow of the Web” (Francesca Annis), a woman who lives in a chamber at the centre of a gigantic web watched over by that huge spider. The widow’s real name is Lyssa, too, and long ago she and Ynyr were lovers; he abandoned her for court duties and she, in her bereavement, murdered their infant son. This murder is the reason for her cocooned, haggard entrapment, offering oracle services for anyone who can brave the spider, but nobody ever escapes it. When Ynyr manages, with the Widow’s help, to reach her, he sees her as miraculously rejuvenated, the years of shame falling away. After she tells him where to find the Fortress, to help him escape, she shatters an hourglass and gives him the sand to carry; he’ll live only as long as it takes for the last grains to flow through his fingers, and he manages to escape the web as the spider consumes the Widow. Ynyr makes it back to Colwyn before expiring as the last sands escape his grasp. It’s a surprisingly weighty, beautifully filmed, and well-conceived sequence, and the intriguing suggestion of a kind of circularity of time and experience encapsulated in the shared name of the aged and young women and the shared quest of the old and young men, not to mention the history of rage and sorrow and the metaphors for emotional damage and awareness of mortality, deepens the film immeasurably in the dovetailing of plot, theme, and special effects.
Meanwhile, Lyssa is prettily menaced by the Beast, who offers to transform himself into the likeness of Colwyn if that will make her likelier to accept him. But he’s really a grotesque alien, looking a bit like the creature from Xtro (1980). Whilst Krull doesn’t toy anywhere near as interestingly as Legend with the efforts of the gruesome villain to seduce the innocent heroine, the stylisation of the interior of the Black Fortress, with its shifting walls, organic coiling corridors, and facades and features shaped like eyes and hands, is excellent, as the Fortress is a suggestively eroticised space indivisible from the thing that inhabits it. The Beast assails Lyssa with visions of a giant, grotesque hand that morphs into a burning rose of love. The design here has a quality reminiscent of a lot of ’60s psychedelia-influenced fantasy, including the set design of Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1967) and even the animated film Yellow Submarine (1968), as well as the recognisable influence of the fantasy scenes in Powell and Pressburger’s The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and The Red Shoes (1948) in the shots of Lyssa dashing through cavernous, hallucinogenic spaces.
Whilst the filmmaking is, overall, straightforward and linear, Yates manages to employ some of the New Wave gimmicks he offered in his earlier films in a sequence where Lyssa and her father’s conversation is heard on sound whilst the vision offers shots of Colwyn and his retinue journeying across the grandiose Krull landscape. Yates’ work is however best distinguished by his lack of tricks, and his sense of how to shoot those landscapes and the effects in such a way as to make them seem awesome. A good example is a strong early sequence in which Colwyn performs a regulation mythic task—climb a mountain and retrieve an object called the Glave, a boomerang-like bladed wheel that’s a traditional symbol of lordly authority, hidden within molten rock. Yates films his tiny body traversing colossal ridges and cliffs, situating his camera far away from his character and framing his actions obliquely.
The supporting cast of Krull is much more interesting than its leads; Marshall is merely upright and good-looking in a fashion reminiscent of Kerwin Matthews and Todd Armstrong, stars in Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion fantasies. Anthony, who went on to become a familiar face in TV movies, was actually dubbed by Lindsay Crouse. But stalwarts like Jones and Armstrong, and the tantalising cameo by Annis, really make the film. It goes to show that sometimes star quality is an elusive thing to pin; where Marshall was plucked from obscurity and went back to it, dashing, but less conventionally handsome young Neeson plays a criminal with a girl in every village. Whilst Battley might as well spend the movie with a sign on his forehead reading “comic relief,” he does it well, as Ergo stumbles through the film, constantly attempting to turn antagonists into animals and usually only doing it to himself. In the finale, he works this to his advantage and turns into a tiger, tearing Slayers to pieces.
Yates delivers another scene invoking both pure fantasy thrills with an edge of almost poetic beauty as the heroes, needing to reach the Black Fortress before it relocates again, muster a herd of wild “fire-mares,” which can gallop at such great speeds that their hooves blaze and they can fly over great gorges: it’s a scene of pure boyish wonder when the flying horses make arcs of fire through the night sky and along vast landscapes. Once the band manages to break into the Fortress thanks to the Cyclops’s self-sacrifice, most of Torquil’s criminal entourage die in battling the Slayers and the Fortress’s living defences. Colwyn, finding Lyssa trapped in a chamber, uses the Glave for the first time to cut her out, only to attract and do battle with the Beast. The Beast proves less vulnerable to the Glave than the magical fire Colwyn can wield, due to an aspect of his marriage rite with Lyssa. The couple are finally invincible when united against the tyrannical intruder, a fitting closing point for the film’s motif of violated rites and pairings, and Yates closes with the awesome sight of the fortress crumbling bit by bit, the rubble falling up into the air, as if Krull’s very atmosphere is rejecting it. The swashbuckling, yet poignant pleasures of Krull’s second half make up for the faults of the first, and the film might have been truly great if it could have sustained the synthesising qualities of its best scenes. As it is, Krull sings visually with the essence of the genre, and remains a fun ride.
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Directors: Ronnie Yu and David Wu
By Roderick Heath
Yusheng Liang, who died in 2009, is credited as one of the writers who modernised the wu xia novel, the imperishably popular Chinese mythological pulp genre. One of his most iconic works, The Bride with White Hair (1958), has been adapted several times for the big and small screens, but never more famously than with the two-part epic made by Ronnie Yu and David Wu, who split directorial duties but shared writing credits on both films. Both directors parlayed their success with this movie into disappointing Hollywood careers, but The Bride with White Hair diptych is one of the most eye-catching and dramatically inventive examples of the evolving modern Hong Kong genre cinema. It was made when the classic wire-fu style defined by directors like King Hu and Tsui Hark had not yet been corrupted by CGI, but it is vividly modern in other respects. The aesthetics of the Hong Kong genre school both recall Hollywood’s all-but-lost enthusiasm for raw storytelling and cinematic action panache, whilst retaining its own peculiarities, and The Bride with White Hair pushed the boundaries of the school. Its relatively unsheathed erotic edge and its modern thematic concerns pick at the surface the generic conceits and traditional assumptions, and present wild variations on its central issue of masculinity and femininity in fatal conflict.
The Bride with White Hair’s unusual structure offers a prologue that depicts a party of Imperial soldiers travelling to a distant, enchanted mountain where they’ve heard grows a rare flower with amazing healing properties that blooms only once every 10 years. They need the flowers to cure the Emperor’s health, but when they reach the peak, they’re astounded to find a man seated in the billowing snow, watching over the flowers. He slaughters them, declaring that there is only one person the flowers are for. This guardian is Zhuo Yihang, whose life story is recounted in flashback.
Zhuo was an orphan adopted into and raised with the values and fighting techniques of the Wu-Tang clan, one of eight syndicated sects that form the Chung Yuan. Zhuo proved to be a problematic student because of his innate individualism and discomfort with a life lived according to strict hierarchies, but he was also clearly the most talented. In spite of the efforts of one of the teachers, Bai Yun (Law Lok-lam), to promote his daughter Ho Lu-Hua (Yammie Lam) as a potential chieftain for the Wu-Tang, Zhuo, after clearing himself of charges of assault and battery against some young men from rival clans, is nominated to lead a coalition of their forces against the forces of Ji Wushuang. This enemy gang is named after its leaders, conjoined male and female twins (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) who are evil sorcerers, once expelled from China by the Chung Yuan clans. Now the twins have returned at the head of a cult of followers who practice human sacrifice and erotic rituals.
Their chief warrior and strong right fist is the whip-wielding Devil Wolf Girl (Brigitte Lin), so dubbed because she was raised from infancy by wolves and retained a devilish relish for battle after being trained in the deadly arts by Ji. But Zhuo, seeing her at war, remembers her when she was still living with the wolves and playing her pipe under the moonlight. He tracks her down after a battle to a ruined city where she bathes in a sacred spring. In spite of her fury at his intransigence, she has to return to her overlord before she can kill him. Such a sequence has echoes through to Western mythology, like the tale of Artemis and Actaeon, with its coded relationship of voyeurism and the inviolable female space. Later, when the Chung Yuan army advances into Wushuang’s territory, Lian and the cultists ambush the coalition encampment, and she and Zhuo square off. Zhuo challenges her to a weaponless fight, but Lian is struck by an arrow shot by Lu-Hua, and Zhuo protectively rushes her away to the ancient city, where he helps her recover and becomes her lover. He gives her the name Lian Nichang, and during his absence, he’s written off as a traitor by the clans. The male Ji Wushuang desperately desires Nichang, and is stoked to heights of jealousy; when she returns to the cult to ask for release so she can live with Zhuo, the male insists she sleep with him first. When she fails to please him, she’s forced to undergo a punishing ritual humiliation.
The Bride with White Hair films share common traits with Hong Kong cinema, from the style of humour and character interaction that seem distinctly more naïve than what we’re used to in Western cinema, to the fluent, utterly confident sense of storytelling that seems at once beautifully simple and irreducibly sophisticated, moving at a pace that forces the viewer to keep up. Both episodes soar to rare heights of stoked emotion and drenched décor effects, but it’s the way their inflated set-pieces revolve around metaphorical versions of everyday travails that really drives them. It’s most marked in Nichang’s singular insistence that Zhuo trust her, a key component of any adult relationship, made here to hinge on an act of mass murder and magical shape-shifting. But likewise, Zhuo’s chafing against the authoritarianism and clannish narrowness of Chung Yuan life evokes any kind of discomfort in imposed social roles.
Yu was most interested in taking a Romeo and Juliet angle on Yusheng’s novel, emphasising its heroes as struggling with the deterministic forces that have created them. Throughout the two films also flows a richly transformative investigation into extreme visions of gender conflict and emotional violence. Nichang, in particular, lives on a balancing point between transcendent epiphany and infernal rage in the first film, linked to the natural world and primal forces, whereas fellow orphan Zhuo is associated with human, hierarchical society and its entrapping concepts. But both are characterised as exceptional rebels who cause terrible destruction because of their wayward identities. In the sequel, Nichang relentlessly pummels a young woman almost to death to save her the lesson never to trust a man. The conjoined male and female villains of the first film, who, with their magic powers, can beat up people without touching them, also embody the story’s twisted take on heterosexual relations, and add immeasurably to the perversity and drama of the action. The his/her arguments between the twins, sister perpetually mocking her brother for his agonised lust for Nichang, which proves to be their Achilles’ heel, builds to the amazingly pathological images of the brother stabbing his own arm in masochistic frustration, the sister screaming and begging him to stop, and later, when he’s trying to have sex with a willfully passionless Nichang, his sister, “lying” on his back mocking him, building to eruptive frustration that causes him to smash Nichang’s head repeatedly against the bed frame. It’s the sort of scene where you wonder why David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven didn’t come up with it first.
Dashes of Spielbergian ambition dot The Bride with White Hair’s visual texture, with the Indian styling of Ji’s infernal cult, massed in a chanting relish of evil, suggesting the influence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), as well as a hint of Bollywood flavouring. But with its colour-drenched frames, dramatically tilted camera angles, and the eerily beautiful, yet lightning-paced images of the warriors bounding through fog-shrouded forests, Yu, like Johnny To’s wild The Heroic Trio from the same year, effectively synthesises Hollywood high style with the traditional effects of wu xia cinema. Yu also employs a headlong rush of narrative clearly learnt from Tsui Hark, and he’s not terribly interested in developing with clarity a political subplot involving General Wu San-Kuei (Eddy Ko), an officer Zhuo had known since childhood who sets out to become Emperor, adding to a slightly diffuse quality to the narrative that is the film’s biggest fault. But the blend of fantasy imagery, and a coherent use of that imagery’s protean possibilities for investigating complex aspects of the psyche, help the film earn comparison with the classical mythology it evokes.
The blend of the utterly fantastic and the emotionally overwrought builds to two brilliant sequences. The gauntlet Nichang has to walk in leaving Ji’s cult sees her walking upon hot coals, and shards of jagged glass while being mercilessly beaten by the cultists. She emerges, bloodied and near collapse, but still manages enough pride and power to walk out. But when she returns to the ancient city, she finds Zhuo has left. Fellow members of the Wu-Tang, including Lu-Hua, have tracked him down and convinced him to return to explain himself to the head priest, but on arrival, they find the other Wu-Tang have all been massacred, the head priest’s severed head dangling from the ceiling, and one wounded man reporting that the Wolf Girl attacked them. When Nichang arrives looking for Zhuo, the remnants of the cult attack her, and even Zhuo believes she’s guilty thanks to the dying man’s testimony. Nichang is deeply offended and heartbroken at the distrust, especially after what she’s been through for Zhuo, and when Lu-Hua manages to stab her with a sword, rather than dying, she’s transmogrified into a white-haired demon. She skewers Lu-Hua with a sword, tears off her red wedding gown to reveal a white one, and slaughters the rest of the Wu-Tang in a supernatural fury. The first massacre proves to have been the work of Ji, having used their power to assume Nichang’s form, and she and Zhuo join forces long enough to slice the evil sorcerer in half, allowing the male to release a sigh of relief before dying: “Such a relief to sleep this way!”
Yu’s film concludes on a bravely unresolved note with the haunted Zhuo on his mountaintop vigil, transfixed by his failures, and Nichang having disappeared into the underworld, now a spirit of purified wrath. Wu’s follow-up takes the story well beyond the limits of Yusheng’s novel: it’s 10 years later, and Zhou continues his vigil as the time of the flower’s blooming comes near. The Wu-Tang is struggling to rebuild after the massacre, but Nichang has entirely embraced her dark side and is relentlessly killing off all the sects of the Chung Yuan. The Wu-Tang tradition has come down to its last heir, Fung Chun-Kit (Sunny Chan), who’s marrying Yu Qin or “Lyre” (Joey Mann), daughter of another clan, taking the risk of incurring Nichang’s wrathful efforts to destroy all marriages within the clan. The image of the severed Ji twins presages a theme developed here of gender war, as Nichang has become a declared misanthropist, saving wronged and dishonoured women and bringing them into her cult, including her chief henchwoman and crypto-lesbian lover Chen Yuanyuan (Ruth Winona Tao), inculcating them with powers to become ruthless killers whilst giving them each a taste of revenge on their specific male abusers. On Kit and Lyre’s wedding night, Nichang breaks into the temple and savagely beats the couple, but when one of Feng’s friends manages to help him escape, Nichang spirits Ling to her hidden fortress and brainwashes her into becoming a psychotic assassin of men. Feng is nursed back to health by tomboy Wu-Tang adherent Moon (Christy Chung), who’s in love with him and sad that he married Ling, but sets out with him and a band of other young Chung Yuan warriors to seek out and storm Nichang’s fortress.
Wu’s half of the story presents several mirroring images of both the first film’s characters and their travails: where Zhuo and Nichang’s schism was something they tried to resolve in spite of their disparate worlds, Kit and Ling’s split is artificially imposed. The original’s core love triangle is reconfigured into a proliferation of grazing, inchoate relationships. Moon pines for Kit and is admired in turn by his determined but less good-looking fellow warrior Liu Hang (Richard Suen), who proves nonetheless a determined and able helpmate. Moon, with her mannish affectations—she’s seen constantly chewing on a cigarette—but thoroughly heterosexual ambitions stand in contrast to the cult Nichang runs with her collective of female assassins and their hideout’s air of lush sensuality. The clan warriors are placed under the command of the aged “Granny” of the Au Mei clan (Lily Chung), whose own mane of white hair sees her momentarily mistaken for the witch when she comes to take command. Moon fires off arrows at her, but she’s so good, she catches the arrows between her teeth. She’s also a disarmingly unaffected, calm, and wise person who prefers acting in defence and delegates to Kit when the time to attack arrives. Nichang in her transmogrified witch state can throw out her long white hair in tentacle-like coils that pierce the skin and drip poison. Moon is riddled with strands of the hair, and she’s left on death’s door, forbidden from attempting any kung fu; but she still leaps into the fray to save her friends with tragic results.
A lot of credit for the heft of the films is owed to its terrific pairing of Cheung and Lin, two of the best actors in Hong Kong cinema (though Cheung’s contribution to the second film is disappointingly brief), and especially Lin, who commands the films like an empress. They both considerably overshadow the younger actors in the sequel. There’s a touch of tribute to John Carpenter as the languorous, suggestive sequences of Lyre being ritually subsumed into the cult by Chen Yuanyuan echo the similar scenes of heroines in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), whilst the scene in which Kit dances before his wedding, blindfolded and playing a lyre given as a wedding present, has a quality similar to the rapturous little touches with which Zhang Yimou would decorate his wu xia films. After one fight scene, Wu cuts to observe the glittering drops of a slain man’s blood drip from the fronds of a silvery bush, a poetic flourish of a kind that dots both films, and it’s worth noting the intensity of the design element to the films, with the great costume design by Emi Wada and the set decoration, especially in the recurring contrast between the livid whiteness of Nichang and setting rendered either in red, the same as the red blood that spits out of so many bodies, or rich nocturnal blue. Wu, a long-time editor who also served in that capacity on the first episode, offers direction slightly more prosaic than Yu’s, and the initial Seven Samurai-like story set-up more familiar, failing to ruffle the settled rhythms and naïve humour of the genre as much.
But the story arc again echoes with fidelity a familiar mythic tale, and proceeds with wildly eccentric energy, building to even more floridly grandiose climaxes. When the Chung Yuan war party is all but wiped out infiltrating Nichang’s citadel, Kit and Liu are advised by Granny to seek out Zhuo Yuhang, as she’s one of the few who knows where’s he’s been hiding all these years. Wu obfuscates whether they find him in the chilly extremes of the sacred mountain, cutting from them stumbling away in a blizzard with Zhou watching them from his pinnacle, to the determined young duo deciding to attack the fortress again with planted explosives. It’s in the last few minutes that Wu’s installment goes for broke as his heroes give battle, Lei dying in combat with one of female cultists, dynamiting both himself and her after giving her a kiss to show her what a “real man” is like, and Zhuo turning up in time to forestall Nichang from killing Kit and Lyre. The confrontation of the two former lovers, long delayed, pays off in the delirious image of Zhuo, once again dropping his arms before Nichang, being skewered by her long tendrils of hair, proffering the magical flowers that get burnt to a crisp by a falling cinder. Zhuo’s proof of his still-smouldering ardour and contrition brings Nichang back from a homicidal rage, only to gain a sword in the back from the jealous Chen Yuanyuan, and all three die as the fortress falls flaming about their ears. It’s the sort of giddy, Wagnerian climax that one so often expects from fantasy-action tales, but so rarely gets.
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Director: Ridley Scott
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Even in its early stages, Tom Cruise’s career has been marked by risk taking. Not long after his star-making turn as the privileged teen having a wild weekend in Risky Business (1983), and just before his Air Force recruitment film Top Gun (1986), Cruise appeared in a smallish fantasy film that might have changed perceptions of him among casting directors and fans alike. In it he plays a Puckish forest child whose love for a princess imperils all that is good in the world, though admittedly, he does go on an heroic quest to fight the forces of darkness. That he made this film certainly must be down to his desire to work with the best directors—in this case, Ridley Scott, whose stylish Blade Runner (1982), his last film before Legend, was in a class by itself.
Scott’s earlier scifi/fantasy films, including the highly popular Alien (1979), focused on a menacing near-future. With Legend, Scott turned his gaze toward a pre-Judeo-Christian world. With its emphasis on enchantment, the primacy of true love, and violence without blood and death, this simple story, briskly told, was obviously made primarily for tweens and teens. Yet such is Scott’s skill that this tale is richly embellished with the power of myth for people of all ages via the mythmaking vehicle of the 20th century—film.
Simply, Darkness (Tim Curry) is bothered to learn that two unicorns still roam the earth. No longer content to simply be half of existence, he sends his goblins out to kill the creatures, without which Light will be banished forever. An innocent princess named Lily (Mia Sara), the beloved of Jack (Cruise), is used to lure the unicorns within range of the goblins’ poisoned darts. One is hit, but the other escapes. After the goblins cut off his horn, the world is plunged into darkness, with snow and ice covering the formerly verdant landscape. Lily sets off to right her wrong, and Jack and several elves follow to rescue her and the female unicorn, which has been captured and awaits execution.
Legend honors the era of the Goddess like few mythological works I’ve seen. Some associate the feminine with night, but it is actually the moon, which brings light to darkness, that is feminine. Lily is no silver-spoon princess who looks down on the beings of Mother Earth—its peasants and the embodied spirits of nature represented by elves and sprites. Indeed, when she visits the home of Nell (Tina Martin), a rosy-cheeked peasant woman, she waxes rhapsodic on the riches to be found in the humble cottage and surrounding forest. She loves Jack, whose spritely appearance makes him seem a cross between mortal and enchanted—an earthly man and proper male opposite who is at home in the feminine. When she realizes that she helped the minions of Darkness attack the unicorns, she decides to take action on her own.
Jack is an interesting character. Looking like Peter Pan (traditionally played by a woman), he is mortal, but has crossed over into the semi-deified world. Gump (David Bennent, the wonderful star of The Tin Drum), who seems to be the lead elf, has accepted him completely as a forest being, and let Jack in on all the forests’ secrets, including the location of the unicorns and, when he must fight Darkness, the cache of armor and weaponry he will need for his hero’s quest. He berates Jack for letting Lily touch the sacred unicorn, but recognizes that Jack’s love trumps such rules. In this, Legend is much more forgiving than the deity who expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Scott’s film shares some elements in common with his earlier works, particularly Blade Runner. The underground palace in which Darkness lives is reminiscent of Blade Runner in its dark, claustrophobic, semi-fascistic look. Yet it also exists on a scale of grandeur that fits not only the physical size, but also the importance of Darkness in the universe. Earth inscribes a perfect circle not only around the sun, but also on its axis, the latter action giving equal time to darkness and light. “What is light without dark,” says Darkness, a simple lesson for the physical life of our world that Scott honors and showcases. Jack’s ambiguous status also echoes the uncertainty about Deckard’s status as a human.
Scott also creates some wonderful images. When Lily looks at a clock with moving figures in Nell’s cottage, a portend of her future emerges when she sees snow covering the figure of the young girl being chased by the carving of death. The image of the male unicorn prostrate under a tree, snow swirling to cover him as his mate paces and bucks frantically around him is beautiful and poignant. A dancing black dress Darkness presents to Lily as her wedding gown (Liz Gilbert, whose face is covered in black gauze) is macabre and beautifully lit by leaping flames from his enormous fireplace. Scott’s dazzling palette of colors in the early sequences is a splendid tribute to nature.
I quite admired the make-up and costume designs, but alas, some of the masks were ill-constructed and rather laughable, and whatever was used to keep them affixed to the actors’ flesh didn’t work very well. Nonetheless, a green creature arising from the moat around Darkness’ castle to eat Jack was quite impressive-looking, as was Darkness himself. Annabelle Lanyon, who plays the sprite Oona, has an elfin face as it is, and her otherworldliness is accentuated by intense blue contact lenses and pale, wispy hair. I was transfixed whenever she was on screen.
It’s hard to really talk about performances in this film, since the dialogue is so basic and little complexity is required of the actors. Nonetheless, Bennent is an enormously gifted actor who projects gravity and strength despite his diminutive size. Cruise and Sara make an appealing couple who really do seem to be in love. And well, Tim Curry is at his Tim Curryest.
We’ve grown used to filmed myths and legends of the most bloated proportions these days. It’s nice to reflect on a film that infuses our hearts with the same kind of magic with economy and simplicity.
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Director/Screenwriter: Catherine Breillat
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I think it’s very interesting that Catherine Breillat has continued her recently begun survey of female-centric fairy tales (the first, Bluebeard, premiered in 2009) with a film made for French television. Only in France, perhaps, could a controversial director with a penchant for filming explicit sex make a film certain to be watched by millions of girls—and that is certainly good news for the future women of France. For Breillat brings her feminist sensibilities to the story, borrowing freely from other fairy tales (mainly Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”), to create a hero’s journey for girls and both subtly and directly confronting male audiences with the damage they do to women.
The film opens with an old woman (Rosine Favey) laughing wickedly while holding in her arms a baby who looks only minutes old. She is a powerful fairy who intends to curse the child, a princess named Anastasia, to die at age 16 after pricking herself on a spindle made from a yew tree standing in the graveyard. Three young fairies (Douina Sichov, Leslie Lipkins, and Camille Chalon) arrive too late to prevent the old fairy’s curse because they stopped to bathe in a nearby pond. After a comic scene in which the fairies peck at each other about their boasts to more power than they have, each nonetheless is able to mitigate the sentence when they arrive to bestow their blessings on the princess: one says the girl will sleep rather than die, the next says she will fall under the spell at age 6 and dream a full life for 100 years, and the third offers her the gift of awakening at the age of 16 because “childhood lasts too long.”
The film moves immediately to a 6-year-old Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) who strains at the restrictions of being a girl and even proclaims she is really a boy named Vladimir. Perhaps in a fitting punishment for rejecting her gender, she is stricken with the spindle prick while dressed in a ridiculous pink kimono over a short, lacey tutu as she prepares to dance en pointe among a flock of similarly garbed girls. She finds herself in an underground cavern filled with skeletons and ruled over by a boil-covered man who says he is a reflection of her rotting flesh. She wins her way out of the cavern by bowling down some bones and goes into the wider world.
Anastasia is whisked by an empty train to a country of dwarves, who eject her. Her next and most important stop is a trackside cottage, where she is taken in by a woman (Anne-Lise Kedvès) and her son Peter (Kerian Mayan), and becomes Peter’s sister. She is delighted to shed her ballet costume and dress in Peter’s clothes, and the pair becomes inseparable. From this point on, the film moves forward in a faithful rendering of most of the parts of “The Snow Queen.” Peter looks into the face of the Snow Queen (Romane Portail) one snowy night. His heart is pierced with ice and his eye is tainted with a snowflake; his subsequent rejection of Anastasia and desire to break free is diagnosed by his mother as Peter reaching that Awkward Age. But one night, he leaves with the Snow Queen, and Anastasia sets off on her hero’s quest to find him and melt his heart. Her quest will take her back to the country of dwarves and a meeting with their albino king and queen, onto an encounter with the bandit maiden (Luna Charpentier) and her gang when they attack her coach, and finally on a doe-back ride to Lapland before we return to the castle where the story began. The 16-year-old Anastasia (Julia Artamonov) awakens to the sight of Johan (David Chausse), a handsome descendent of Peter, looking down upon her. If you’re waiting for a title card that says “They lived happily ever after,” you haven’t taken the lesson of the quest to heart.
Although the film is titled The Sleeping Beauty, all the action really occurs in “The Snow Queen” section of the film. This, I think, is Breillat’s strategy for turning the negative images of women Charles Perrault set to paper right on their head. First, Anastasia is no passive beauty who falls asleep just as she is awakening to sexual feelings. She may be a princess whose wish is others’ command, but she knows that she belongs to a second-class gender. The evil fairy is old, an image of a woman deformed by the self-loathing patriarchy engenders in women. The young fairies know they aren’t strong enough to fight the power, but it seems that the 100-year dormancy is a prayer that things will be better for women in the future.
Anastasia’s journey resembles Dorothy’s in Oz, right down to the little people, and ends with the shaman telling her that she has always had the power to defeat the Snow Queen, as evidenced by the fact that she won over many powerful and dangerous people and got them to help her. But the journey offers additional lessons. For example, Anastasia tells Peter he is being cruel by cutting back the rose bushes outside their home. Peter explains that brambles benefit from a cutting back, sending more shoots out during the growing season and producing flowers of many colors for all eternity. Anastasia answers that there is no eternity. Is it best to please ourselves by making the rose bushes produce abundant blooms, or might it be better to let them grow their own way, even if they stop looking beautiful or spread their prickly branches widely? Anastasia has an instinctive feeling toward the roses, but trusts in Peter’s love—a trust he will betray by falling for a projection of the feminine rather than the real thing.
When the film reaches past the traditional ending of “Sleeping Beauty,” Breillat brings Anastasia into the present. Anastasia flirts with Johan, letting him unbutton only a few of the many buttons running down the back of her old-fashioned dress. Her desire awakened, she imagines a mature version of the bandit maiden (Rhizlaine El Cohen) has returned. The young bandit excited Anastasia during her adventure by threatening to stab her, and their mutual excitement erupts again in a fantasy of lesbian love. Now prepared, Anastasia is ready to consummate her passion with Johan, but honestly tells him that her true love is Peter, that all men must understand that women stay true to their idealized lover. The next time Johan comes to see her, he finds only her dress. Heartbroken, he does not see her again until a few months later, walking down the street dressed provocatively in modern garb. She’s pregnant but rejects him nonetheless to live on her own terms, saying that she entered his world alone. The world of fairy tales, it seems, has nothing to offer modern women, a condition Breillat’s films might begin to repair if only she didn’t express so much pessimism about the possibility of gender equality and mutual support.
Breillat’s visual lyricism creates magic and whimsy. Watching Anastasia riding on the back of a doe across a snowswept vista is positively breathtaking, and the cast creates weirdly compelling tableaux awash in color and grandeur. The switch to the flat, unadorned world of today is a rude awakening that is perhaps a bit too bleak and heartless. Breillat has done much to explicate the feminine world to itself and to astute male viewers, but perhaps she is getting impatient at the lack of progress. I can only send words of encouragement to her and those who find so much inspiration in her work.
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Director/Screenwriter/Animator: Lotte Reiniger
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When films were born, the inventiveness of the many, many film production companies that sprung up all over the world boggles the mind. In Berlin alone, in addition to the state-sponsored studio, there were nearly 300 independent film producers jostling for a place in front of a public eager to consume this new form of entertainment. Among them was a well-off fellow named Louis Hagen, who bought literal tons of film stock at a low price believing that his investment, a hedge against rising inflation, would grow exponentially as the demand for movies continued to grow. Lotte Reiniger, a gifted silhouette artist who ran in avant-garde art circles in Berlin, taught art to Hagen’s children and benefited from his largesse by being given film stock and a place in his attic to film what became The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving, feature-length animated film.
Reiniger apparently could create intricate silhouettes out of paper in nothing flat, and this ability gave her the confidence to create an entire Arabian Nights world, inspired by the fantasy novels she loved to read, using paper characters that had up to 50 hinged components. She and her small crew, including Carl Koch, her cinematographer and husband, bent for hours in the cramped attic, exposing 300,000 frames of stop action with the fragile and easily disturbed silhouettes and sets. Filming and editing took three years, and at first, no one would book the film. It took many years to earn back its investment, but there was no doubt that it eventually would when the standing-room-only audience for the first screening left the theatre dumbstruck at the marvel they had just seen. Some 84 years later, I and the hubby joined their ranks after we were privileged to attend a live-music screening of this important and awe-inspiring film at the Portage Theater, a surviving movie palace on Chicago’s Northwest Side that has done more than its part to keep vintage films alive and on display.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed tells interrelated stories, though they are mainly centered on Prince Achmed. He, his sister Princess Dinarzade, and their father The Caliph of Persia, hold a great reception on the palace grounds at which visiting dignitaries pay tribute with fine gifts. The finest of them all is a horse that can fly, offered by the scheming African Sorcerer. The Caliph offers bags of gold to buy the horse, but the Sorcerer will only accept Princess Dinarzade as his wife in exchange. When Achmed runs to her side to defend her, the Sorcerer has him mount the horse and sends him up in the air—without telling him how to return to Earth. The Sorcerer is imprisoned, but Achmed is set free to have the adventures he always dreamed of.
Achmed’s ascent is beautifully shot, with dark clouds obscuring his form as he rises higher and higher, then snow to reflect the cold outer atmosphere, and finally a blanket of stars. He discovers how to descend only after he has traveled far from his home—as the Sorcerer intended—and lands on the island of Wak Wak, home to spirits, including their beautiful ruler Pari Banu. They make him a warm welcome and fight for his attention in a scene of comic bawdiness, but once he sees their queen, he will have no other.
Interestingly, Achmed becomes a Peeping Tom when Pari Banu and her attendants fly with the aid of their bird-shaped cloaks to a pond where he is hiding and strip nude to bathe. Achmed is one of the few characters who has eyes, and they very expressively suggest his lust; the nude figures of the women even have nipples. It’s actually quite an erotic scene, and one that ends in outrage when Achmed steals Pari Banu’s cloak and forces her to leave with him on his flying horse.
The pair ends up in China, and Pari Banu must be rescued from being married off to the Emperor’s Fool. Achmed and Pari Banu meet the Witch of the Fiery Mountains. We marvel along with them as fire explodes from the mountain scenery, and the witch becomes their ally against her sworn enemy, the African Sorcerer. But the spirits return to recapture Pari Banu and bring her back to Wak Wak, where they intend to punish her for agreeing to leave them because she has fallen for Achmed. At this point, the story of Aladdin intrudes, as only the one who possesses the lamp may enter the spirits’ lair. We learn how he found the lamp and won Princess Dinarzade by created a palace and riches for her, but how the Sorcerer then stole the lamp, the palace, and the Princess in one fell swoop. An epic battle between Achmed, Aladdin, the Mountain Witch, and the Sorcerer ensues that’s really quite thrilling, and soon all is made right again.
The silhouettes themselves and the multiplane settings in which they interact are highly detailed and absolutely beautiful. For example, elaborate star-decorated robes, amazing in their cut-out detail, clothe Pari Banu and Princess Dinarzade, and set pieces such as the stolen palace floating on a cloud back to Persia have mystery and wonder written all over them. But I was most impressed by the amount of personality Reiniger was able to infuse through posture and natural-looking actions. When Pari Banu and Achmed kiss, it looks more real than many of the Hollywood kisses I’ve seen in countless movies of the Golden Era. Her attention to detail, not only in the forms but also in the actions the characters take, is astonishing. For example, Achmed is fighting a hydra-like demon summoned by the Sorcerer. Every time he cuts off one of its heads, it grows back. The Mountain Witch comes to help him by cauterizing each neck that has lost its head, thereby preventing it from growing a new one. This attention to a small plot point shows more care than many of the CGI action films we see today. And the color tints, restored to this film in 1998, give a jewel-like brilliance to this fantastical tale.
Reinigier, we were told before the screening, was a product of Victorian-era thinking, and her silhouette art comes from that era. Yet she was embraced by the avant garde and created a work that looks startlingly modern even today. Perhaps not coincidentally, animator Nina Paley used hinged forms (though they were not animated via stop action) and shadow puppets in her film Sita Sings the Blues, another tale of the exotic Orient that many consider ground-breaking for another reason—it is under a Creative Commons license. These two women showed the future the way, and I, for one, am thrilled and grateful.
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