Back in the 11th hour of the American Century, the now-extinct species called the American intellectual spoke not only in lecture halls, but also in printed newspapers and magazines, on television programs of all stripes, and especially in books that landed regularly on bestseller lists. James Baldwin, a true American intellectual from the most humble of circumstances, left a long, self-imposed exile in France to witness and become a part of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, writing articles for such periodicals as The Partisan Review, Mademoiselle, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker and befriending Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He started a memoir in 1979 whose working title was “Remember This House” that was to revolve around those three slain civil rights leaders and his relationship to his native land. Although it was abandoned after 30 pages, the book has been brought to life by black Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck as the script for I Am Not Your Negro. Through a combination of film clips of Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson voicing Baldwin’s words from his unfinished book, Peck cogently resurrects Baldwin’s personality and vibrant intellect, showing his words to be not only powerful, but also prophetic.
I’m going to start at the end of the movie, with a taped interview of Baldwin during which he poses a question:
The question the white population of this country has got to ask itself is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.
You’ll note that the title of this documentary avoids the very word Baldwin, a writer deeply concerned with the effects of language, asked us to consider. Think about that. Putting the word “nigger” in the title likely would have offended African Americans and shocked liberals of all kinds. It may even have hurt the advertising and distribution plans for the film. Yet if we don’t grapple with the implications of that word, but more important, that construct, as Baldwin asks us to do, this film will have been an exercise in futility.
Peck establishes that Baldwin may have left the United States voluntarily, but that the country never left him and that he has the communal connections, memories, and above all, the right to call himself an American and stake his rightful claim to full citizenship. He even rejects the concept of a civil rights movement, diagnosing instead “failure of the private life . . . the role of the guilty and constricted white imagination” with “white people . . . endlessly demanding that Birmingham is on Mars.” He says that “the Negro has never been happy in his place. When you stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world. Forget the Negro problem. It’s not a racial problem,” he says, “but whether you’re willing to be responsible for your life.”
I have watched this film three times and am still not done with it. I looked at the angrily contorted faces of white people terrorizing painfully isolated black children trying to go to school, “heroic” movie stars shooting down marauding Indians (or more likely, white men in “red” face), and a final, shocking sequence of Doris Day looking her most angelic as she sings about whether to be “bad” and go all the way with Rock Hudson, followed by black bodies hanging from a tree as white onlookers smile their satisfaction. This sickness, this segregation not only of our physical beings, but also of our lived experiences, has turned many white people into what Baldwin calls “moral monsters.”
Am I a moral monster? I don’t think so, yet I can’t deny that my life rarely intersects with those of African Americans. I used to have black friends—real friends—but there were still gulfs of understanding between us. I was relatively poor, living paycheck to paycheck when I was friends with Bernadette, yet I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a safe, white neighborhood, and she lived in the projects. I even gave her my space heater after she had a baby so she and her son would not freeze; I never much used it, as the heat in my home was generally adequate. My friend Jacqui and I went everywhere together. We went to a disco in the Loop, which we had to exit quickly when two black men started fighting over who would dance with me. Why was I so important? She spoke with me in a real panic about her hair falling out—I knew nothing about how important hair is to a black woman and offered little in the way of comfort. Then she fell on hard times I couldn’t share with her and vanished. I don’t know where she is today.
I became aware of black anger as a daily condition for some people when I visited the headquarters of my employer in Alexandria, Virginia. The black/white divide was an open wound in this state that had once contained the capital of the Confederacy. Suspicious self-segregation was the order of the day at the office; I was oblivious to the tensions most of the time because I worked remotely, and I blithely sat with my black colleagues when we did team-building exercises during my visits east. I danced in a Soul Train line at one of our Christmas parties, proud that I watched the show and not American Bandstand, vaguely aware that my black coworkers were probably laughing at me.
The most defining moment of my personal education in the ways in which white supremacy operates came during a taxi ride. The cabbie was telling me a story about how he hit a black boy who rode his bike into the car’s path. The cabbie was guilt-stricken at the damage he did to the boy’s legs and spoke about it with real distress. Suddenly, his tone changed. His voice took a sarcastic tone as he came round to blaming the boy for causing his own injuries, almost implying that the boy deserved to have his legs broken. The mental whiplash this strange encounter caused me has never healed; I have no idea what it did to the cabbie.
White Americans, particularly those who are liberal-minded, seem to think we can get past race if we just ignore it. Baldwin, a guest on The Dick Cavett Show, is shown confronting a white academic who complains that Baldwin needs to stop talking about race and argues that what we have in common in terms of our interests and personalities should be the guidepost for future interactions. Baldwin, who says he fled to Paris so that he could continue his work without fear of violent attack, roundly slams him: “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life . . . on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.” In a similar vein, I interviewed Harry Lennix in 2013. I asked him about colorblind casting, which seems designed by simpletons to level the playing field for people of all races and ethnicities. He said, “I just saw “The Hollow Crown” on Great Performances, with Jeremy Irons, the other day, and they had a very good actor by the name of Paterson Joseph playing Henry V’s cousin York. But he was black! I’m not aware, in the 14th century in England, of any black person walking around in the court of the king as a fully functional, empowered official of the court. ‘So who is this guy?’ I wanted to know. It took me out just long enough for me to say, I applaud the effort, that’s nice, it’s good that they want to include people, but that is not indicative of an actual experience.”
It is, as Baldwin says, our failure of imagination, our simplicity, that offers such tepid, inconsequential attacks on the construct of the nigger. Baldwin says, “Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue, along with sincerity. One of the results is that immaturity is taken to be a virtue, too, with no necessity to grow up.” Peck inserts a litany of apologies coming from everyone from Ronald Reagan to the Clintons and Eliot Spitzer. Like my cabbie’s fleetingly expressed shame, these apologies were given with fingers crossed; these temporarily humbled leaders would commit their crimes, both large and small, again, and would never be made to take responsibility for them. Tellingly, the opposition white establishments take turns playing Parent and Child, with each calling the other out and demanding an apology. In 2017, given the individuals in charge of our country, no one expects to get even the smallest of apologies, black Americans least of all.
Baldwin asserts that “it’s an absolute miracle that the black population has not given into rage and paranoia,” as footage and images of white brutality from Birmingham to Ferguson fill the screen. This miracle, however, has a reason, which Baldwin himself offers in a television interview: “The Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish—every white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death—and the entire white world applauds. But if a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”
And, of course, the film, spends time on the three martyrs Baldwin wrote about, none of whom lived to see 40. I’m particularly embarrassed by a popular 1968 song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” written by a white man and introduced by white teen idol Dion, and note how it lionizes the peaceful black man, and how the song was amended later to include the fallen Bobby Kennedy, a man whom Baldwin asserts was insulted when writer Lorraine Hansberry asked him, as then-U.S. Attorney General, to make a moral commitment to black progress at a 1963 meeting also attended by Baldwin and other black leaders. I’m also embarrassed that 2017 was the first year since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a federal holiday in 1986 that my employer gave its employees the day off. I’m quite sure I will not live to see the federal government declare a Medgar Evers or Malcolm X Day; they did not preach respectability politics or nonviolence, even though Baldwin says that Martin and Malcolm were coming closer to a meeting of the minds that would have been less threatening to white people.
So, have African Americans come as far as white people think they have? Consider that black men were elected to office during Reconstruction; Joe Gans and Jack Johnson won world boxing titles against white opponents in 1902 and 1908, respectively; Madame C. J. Walker became a business scion in America in the 1910s; and integrated schools were known in the 1840s, before the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. These achievements have been more normalized in 2017, and, of course, we’ve had a black president, just about when Bobby Kennedy predicted in 1963 we would, outraging Baldwin with his arrogance as an Irish johnny-come-lately to America.
But I understand Bobby. His ancestors were hated and rejected, and so were mine. But he was and I am white. We eventually assimilate because our difference doesn’t show. As a Jew, I know I feel safer because someone else is targeted. I didn’t participate in slavery, nor did my ancestors in this country, but that doesn’t make me innocent of accepting the protections my skin color affords me. I move with relative ease and have absorbed some of the fear of black people I’ve been taught. When I was in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, it was the whites who were afraid of reprisals for their heinous behavior toward the black majority. Today, in America, I believe that white fear of facing our insanely cruel history in the name of commerce and comfort has allowed the worst elements of our society to run amok. I fervently hope we take a page out of recent South African history and set up our own truth and reconciliation commission to tour our country and pay more than lip service to our collective guilt, before widespread violence becomes the only recourse.
Almost since the day it was released, The Manchurian Candidate has known an aura of perceptiveness bordering on the prophetic. This quality extends from its alarming anticipations of the spate of assassinations of high-profile American political figures in the 1960s, to the dogging accusations of conspiracy and corrupting influence of Russia behind Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, which sent political journalists scurrying to use the film’s title for an appropriate likeness. This, if nothing else, proved that The Manchurian Candidate remains a touchstone, in spite of the fact that John Frankenheimer’s fourth and greatest film is hardly a cool, analytical, realistic take on the exalted spheres of power and policy at the height of the Cold War. It is, rather, a wild, perverse, near-surreal study in personal and political horror, a look into a point in the modern psyche where all opposites blur together and evolve far faster than our ability to comprehend them. Perhaps, indeed, only such a film could really hope to encompass the schizoid extremes of the age. Cinematically and generically, the film is just as unique. The Manchurian Candidate plays out one level as straightforward and gripping tale, and indeed could well be the first truly modern political thriller, replete with the usual paraphernalia of the style–conspiracy by cabals within government, the lurking sniper, and the relentless, almost outmatched lone hero. Generations of such films, from Alan Pakula’s tense 1970s conspiracy dramas to the Bourne series, owe it something. But on another level, it’s a madcap fever dream that captures the tone of the most hysterical conspiracy theory, and on yet another, a bleak and epic revision of the Greek tragic mode for a malign epoch, one where the entities on high playing infinitely cruel games with people’s fates are no longer gods, but nations and ideologies, with the fixtures of identity that hold us to fate remaining unchanged.
Like many of his generation’s talents, Frankenheimer emerged not from the studio system or direct from the stage as before, but from television in the late 1950s, ranks that also included the likes of Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann, Franklin J. Schaffner, Martin Ritt, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet. Frankenheimer had learned how to deal with the straitened productions and how to put across the intimate, often socially conscious vicissitudes of early television drama. He gained particular credit for shooting a Rod Serling script for The Comedian, which established Frankenheimer’s interest in tales about difficult and obnoxious characters, whilst his first two films, The Young Stranger (1957) and The Young Savages (1961), both wore their civic ethics on their sleeves and boasted titles concerned with teen misfits whose resentments and short fuses put them at the mercy of hypocritical power or leave them stranded between communities and afflicted by alienation and troubled states of mind. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) was a portrait of dogged humanism persisting in a man totally removed, for good reason, from humanity. Such straightforward studies set Frankenheimer neatly amidst the likes of Mann and Ritt as a maker of solid, adult, if rather middlebrow dramas. But his third film, All Fall Down (1962), whilst still revolving around a young man’s attempts to make sense of the world and people around him, signalled a shift into more complex and pensive dramatic concerns, and also made him acquainted with the potential of Angela Lansbury, largely untapped in her time as an ingénue in Hollywood. With The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer was handed a doozy of a script by George Axelrod, adapted from Richard Condon’s novel, which took as its starting point an eerie and widespread legend thrown up in the early years of the Korean War that captured GIs and allied soldiers were being subjected to “brainwashing” techniques of intense indoctrination induced under stress to make them mouthpieces for propaganda. Condon’s concept went several steps further in proposing that some might well have been programmed as unwitting sleeper agents waiting to be pressed into some covert action.
The Manchurian Candidate’s antihero, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is glimpsed at the outset as a barking martinet, rounding up his unit for a night patrol to their sneering contempt and dutiful obedience, as he’s forcing them to abandon their off-duty boozing and whoring to go hump around enemy territory in the dark. But the squad, under the command of Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), is lured quickly into the hands of a waiting Communist outfit by their double-agent guide Chunjin (Henry Silva). The enemy leap out of the dark, successfully knock out the entire squad, and take them to waiting helicopters to be spirited away. The opening credits set the seal on this brief and creepy opening (in a way, not so coincidentally, reminiscent of the prologue commercial break as used in TV), and when the film recommences, Raymond is being met on his return home by saluting senior officers and wildly enthusiastic crowds celebrating his homecoming as a hero and Medal of Honor recipient. The return of Raymond and his fellow soldiers sees all apparently easily reabsorbed into everyday life. Even Raymond, who lives under the thumb of his archly political and vicious mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Lansbury), uses his new status to get a job working for a political journalist, Holborn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), and break out on his own. But a gruelling, terrifying, recurring dream begins to afflict the former squad members, including Marco and Cpl. Allen Melvin (James Edwards), in which they remember their time in captivity. Russian and Chinese military leaders and scientists have gathered to listen to Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who boasts of the effectiveness of his new hypnotic controls over them, and even demonstrates this control by having Raymond murder two of his squad mates. The terrible immediacy of these dreams is enough to have Marco and Melvin awakening in the night in blind terror and muck sweats. Ironically, only Raymond seems not to be afflicted by such dreams, but this proves to be because he’s the special object of these machinations, deeply implanted with a series of controls and commands, chosen specifically as a programmed weapon that can be switched on and off on cue, and destined for an ultimate goal that will shake the world.
It’s easy to imagine that if The Manchurian Candidate had been made today (not discounting Jonathan Demme’s solid remake from 2004) it would have hinged much more on the question of whether Marco’s obsessive dream-memories are real or imagined. Frankenheimer’s opening offers outright depiction of the unit’s entrapment and capture, giving the game away right off the bat. But it’s actually a very clever move, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s similar ploy in Vertigo (1958), one that stops the audience from wasting energy asking if all this is real to watch instead to see what’s going to give the game away, thus building tension and dread about what will happen when the veils drop. The missing time during which the squad was in Communist hands is slowly revealed in two dream sequences replete with virtuoso cinema work and brazen wit. Frankenheimer’s camera pivots in long, deadpan revolutions that see the apparently anodyne surrounds of a hotel lobby filled with lady flower fanciers turn into a technocratic amphitheatre where Soviet and Chinese bigwigs listen whilst the hypnotised soldiers lounge in various states of attention and boredom, and the chirpy chairlady of the flower fanciers (Maye Henderson) transforms into Yen Lo explaining he’s given the soldiers the suggestion they’re being forced to wait out a rainy day in New Jersey in their company; African-American Melvin sees the women as black. “Always a little humour,” is Yen Lo’s motto, and Frankenheimer’s, too: the funny aspect to all this both introduces the film’s key motif of bottomless evil wearing an everyday face and also mediates the slow pivot from humorous disbelief and strangeness to a horrifying understanding of what is actually happening. Intimate displays of violence result, as Raymond shoots the squad’s young “mascot” member through the head, his brain matter spurting with iconographic precision across a giant poster of Stalin’s face.
The creed of the surrealists is made manifest with uncanny cleverness in The Manchurian Candidate as dreams point the way to reality, knitting connections that would seem otherwise ridiculous or tendentious with startling alacrity. It’s true both within the story and in contemplating how the film’s ideas work. At its heart, though, is a simple observation, that the so-called extremists of modern life need their opposites to gain definition, to provide meaning, feeding off them and gaining strength, even finding common ground of outlook in the desire to shatter the status quo. In this regard there’s nothing fantastical about The Manchurian Candidate: it simply exacerbates and provides a thrillingly strange metaphor to illustrate this point. Undoubtedly, in 1962, the aspect of Condon’s satire that would have seemed most timely was its biting portrayal of McCarthyism: Tailgunner Joe is transmuted into Raymond’s stepfather, John Yerkes Iselin (a pearl of a comedic performance from James Gregory), who breaks into the press conferences of the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) and gives fiery speeches on the Senate floor denouncing Communist infiltration. Iselin is quickly revealed as an alcoholic twit whose gift for theatrical display is manipulated and pushed along by Eleanor. One of the film’s broader (if still very funny) gags comes when Iselin, frustrated by trying to remember the number of communists that are supposed to be in the State Department, begs Eleanor to give him one that’s easy to remember: Frankenheimer cuts from her staring at the bottle of Heinz steak sauce he’s shaking to him announcing to the U.S. Senate that 57 Commies infect the department (indeed, given the recent outbreak of “alternative facts,” this also feels weirdly timely again). The droll depiction of Iselin as stooge and feckless puppet of the imperious and ruthless Eleanor, again like the dream sequences, soon shades a comic element into something much more foreboding and terrible, as Eleanor soon proves to be connected with the plot that has turned Raymond into an unwitting puppet himself.
Whilst the plot takes the paranoid essence of the fear of Communism to a reductio ad absurdum–they really are trying to take over our minds–central to The Manchurian Candidate’s impudent take on Cold War politics is its exploitation of the suspicion that the far wings of both sides of politics at the time, and perhaps in any time, are essentially the same, with motivations that seem completely opposed but often hide mirroring wants. This note is sounded both comically here, as Yen Lo takes the chance to go to Macy’s when in New York whilst the manager of the local cover operation takes pride in turning a profit, and with daunting seriousness, as Eleanor plots a scheme wherein she uses the Communists to stage a coup that give Iselin, and thus her, powers that will “make martial law look like anarchy” as prelude to a savage and possibly cataclysmic war of revenge. The essence of the Marxist view of history, that it is driven by impersonal forces, is embodied in Raymond’s loss of identity and control, and sublimated into greater causes; but so, too, is the faith in the individualistic and the entrepreneurial in American capitalism, as Eleanor carefully crafts her ascent to absolute power, complete with studious brand-building. Another biting observation here is the way republics fosters a peculiar but extremely potent aristocracy, to which Eleanor and Raymond belong–Raymond’s horror for sentimentality and other common pursuits (“Twelve days of Christmas one day of Christmas is loathsome enough”) stem both from his schooling in such snobbery and his attempts to rebel against the precepts of slogans and officially prescribed feelings.
Not mentioned in the film is a telling touch from the novel, in which some of Eleanor’s monstrosity is revealed to be the product of sexual abuse by her own father, a deeply buried mandragora root of evil based in the desire, like that of the ancient pharaohs of Egypt, to keep power entirely within a gene line through incest: this last aspect, constantly lurking under the dense Freudian-mythical matter at the heart of the human drama, does come out when Eleanor, with her son seemingly under perfect slavish control, kisses him in definite erotic prelude. There’s scarcely a taboo untouched in The Manchurian Candidate, befitting a film about the utter perversion of contemporary communal life by forces within it and working upon it. Thanks in part to Harvey’s dynamic if, unavoidably, often unpleasantly phlegmatic performance, “lovable Sergeant Shaw” is one of the great cinematic characters, so uncommon in his barely suppressed fury layered over a very deeply repressed sexuality, his stringent honesty and astringent snobbery, his detachment from and contempt for the usual signifiers of healthy all-American identity, as well as his mother’s relentless perversion of the bodies both politic and familial. He has much in common with the tortured young heroes of Frankenheimer’s early films, with his feelings of exclusion from the run of everyday life, his bitterness towards his parents, and his status as puppet being manipulated for other people’s ends. Sometimes he seems like the barely human cyborg he’s been programmed to be, except that a constant undercurrent of virulent trauma and raw feeling sometimes slips his façade, as when he drunkenly narrates to Marco the story of his one busted romance, with Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), the good-natured daughter of her mother’s political enemy, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver).
Raymond is privileged a flashback that seems initially much less gruelling than Marco and Melvin’s dreams, a recollection of romantic happiness in which he met the energetic and outgoing Jocelyn and her upright liberal father, only for Eleanor’s swift action in killing the romance to present a spectacle of coercion and emotional violence that makes being captured and brainwashed seem almost preferable. Slowly but surely, the deep humanity of Raymond emerges, even as his helplessness before his programmed state constantly asserts itself when he’s triggered into his mesmeric state, marching out with calm, detached demeanour to kill. Raymond is pushed to kill both of the positive father figures he gains in the course of the film, his mentor Gaines and then Senator Jordan, whilst his actual father is a ghost supplanted by the grotesque Iselin. His only connections are with Marco, who grudgingly becomes something like a friend with the underlying understanding that Marco’s path to salvation is probably Raymond’s way to hell, and Jocelyn, who, after marrying Raymond when she’s reunited with him thanks to a contrived but backfired attempt by Eleanor to make an ally of her father, convinces Marco she can help repair him, inspiring a moment of sentiment that has utterly hideous results. Eleanor, heading off the new danger such an improvement in Raymond’s life portends as well as his own anger, suddenly takes control of him and sends him back to his new family, shooting down Jordan and then Jocelyn when she tries to intervene, just as he’s been ordered to. There are few scenes as heartbreaking in cinema, particularly in Harvey’s use of body language, his languid heavy limbs and attitude of a sleepwalker as he leaves the scene, reminiscent of Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, another misbegotten son.
Moments like this point to the paradox at the heart of The Manchurian Candidate’s almost sui generis status. As rich with ideas and as clever in its machinery as it is, it’s the film’s strong grasp on the human level that makes it so powerful, the urgency with which it telegraphs the way its characters experience life and the torturous travails they’re subjected to, with the added irony that the qualities of the inhuman are seen as politically valuable. Only Eleanor seems excepted from the normal roundelay of suffering and confusion everyone else knows, and even she’s trapped to a certain extent, her carefully cultivated plots and ties having been turned around on her by the deliberate use of her son rather than some anonymous patsy as the perfect killer she wanted. Eleanor’s psychic twin in American cinema is Psycho’s Mrs. Bates (never actually seen, but also a monster who manages to infest her son’s body and mind), and her ancestor Livia, the relentless force of imperial tree pruning in Robert Graves’ I Claudius, from which Condon might have taken possibly a little too much licence. Lansbury’s bravura performance communicates the degree to which Eleanor is the nonartificial version of the thing her son has become, a series of guises and gestures, clasping, wheedling, crassly self-promoting, all hiding a will to power that would make Stalin wince.
Although the science fiction element in it is only very slight, nonetheless the film constantly nudges more psychologically into the genre with the feeling that it is depicting the birth of a bastardised race of mutants (interestingly, Frankenheimer would tackle that theme more directly decades later on the debacle The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1996). Paul Frees’ voiceover near the film’s beginning signals the latent connection with George Pal’s scifi, posthuman myths like The War of the Worlds (1953). Yet the film’s structural influence is ancient, borrowing motifs from Greek myth and theatre and dressing them in such contemporary drag. “It’s like listening to Orestes gripe about Clytemnestra,” Marco quips to Raymond during a bout of drinking and maudlin reflection, as the latter explains his hatred for Eleanor. It’s a knowing line that underlines the already-percolating atmosphere of something primeval lurking below the surface of all the atom-age angst, as well as nodding towards the narrative’s sarcastic approach to that vital populariser of Greek myth, Freud. Has humanity changed at all in the intervening millennia since Sophocles and Euripides? Are even the new theatre of mass media and the arts of mind control still subject to principles laid out in the infancy of rational contemplation? It is ancient, it is the future, and everything flows to and from the great Oedipal swamp. Frankenheimer’s image-play leads into the epic climactic scene in which Marco tries to tap Raymond’s programming and a false card deck of queens of diamonds, their faces bleeding sweat, glowing-eyed in states of extraordinary awareness, Marco finally emerging as conjure master and Raymond’s buried alternate identity plumbed. The vital aspect lacked by Frankenheimer’s otherwise superlative follow-up, Seven Days in May (1964), was this edge of the fantastic, the super-theatrical, of taking the theme of malfeasance in power and placing it into the nightmare realm where it proves endlessly metamorphic.
The Manchurian Candidate is deeply involved with the new age not just of politics and technology, but also of mass media. Frankenheimer’s background in television both equipped him with technical smarts so that he was able to startle many when he was able to use TV pictures on film and also a deep awareness of the medium’s new role in civic discourse and the creation of shared reality. During a scene in which Iselin makes a ruckus during the Defense Secretary’s press conference, which Marco haplessly tries to orchestrate, Frankenheimer makes a show of the duel of faces as seen through television screens, elucidating the new arena of battle. The mantra programmed into Marco and the rest of the squad attesting that Raymond Shaw is “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I ever met in my life,” feels comically reminiscent of both smile-and-be-damned political endorsement and advertising spin, a ready-made catchphrase coined all the better to sell Raymond as the perfect American hero. Again, a joke mediates the deepening of the theme, as Raymond quips after Jocelyn turns on a TV that the world is split into those who turn them on and those who turn them off. The war of iconography glimpsed throughout the film stretches out onto a more classical field of combat as Raymond’s programming is switched on by playing cards, in particular the queen of diamonds, perfect avatar for the brittle and glittering empress Eleanor but also, in a brilliantly visualised twist, leading him back to Jocelyn, who turns up at a fancy dress party dressed as that oh-so-totemic suit. Frankenheimer makes a constant motif of Lincoln’s image throughout as the inverse of meaning but mirror of use in terms of political iconography as the Communist heroes blown up to titanic size. Iselin and people at the climactic political convention dress as him, busts of the president festoon Iselin’s house, and Honest Abe’s noble nose and beard seem to jutting everywhere in solemn, silent mockery of the republic’s stagger into the atomic age, constantly ripe for a slide into anarchy or authoritarianism.
Sinatra, although a producer, took the less showy role of Marco, and it served him well, as although Harvey and Lansbury dominate much of the film, he plays river guide on the trip up to Hades. Sinatra’s persona as the knight of cool purveyed as a singer almost always gave way in his mature screen career to far more thoughtful and ambivalent characters, perhaps as a way of mediating the intense discomfort that made him such an infamously dichotomous character. Either way, Marco as a role plays on his bulletproof aura to lend power to the spectacle of him as sweltering crack-up. Marco’s recovery and return to able and persistent hero cuts across the increasingly neurotic and fraying tone of the story. In an early scene, Marco is visited by an army pal, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson), who surveys the great piles of unhealthily intellectual reading matter Marco’s been consuming in his insomniac hours, reading which, ironically, has equipped Marco, in the mould of the perfect Kennedy-Camelot-era hero, for a new frontier of struggle, one for control of the mind (one reason why in spite of its abyssal cynicism, I still often think of this as the exemplary Camelot-era film), and Marco listlessly explains his reading habits, giving himself away as a closet intellectual, not the muscular man of action the military needs. Sinatra’s punch-drunk performance sells the scene and invests the first half of the film in particular, with a sense of aching, fraying anxiety, one that begins to ease once he meets kind-hearted hipster Eugenie Rose ‘Rosie’ Chaney (Janet Leigh), who readily falls into an exchange of brittle punning and queasy humour to ease him out of his panic attack.
Once again there’s a mirroring aspect in the appearance of female saviours for the busted heroes–Jocelyn’s rescue of the snake-bitten Raymond in flashback rhymes with Marco’s freak-out on a train attracting the Rosie’s attention, except the two romances lead in gruellingly diverse directions. Parrish does a particularly good job inhabiting the role of knife through mouldy cheese, a force dispelling miasma (better than Leigh manages, frankly, one reason perhaps why many see ulterior motives in her, however unsupported by script or source); in the moments when she’s on screen and Raymond’s repression vanishes, replaced by a fervent if stunted romanticism, everything seems possible. The film’s purposefully dissonant tone is perhaps most strongly illustrated when Raymond is accidentally triggered into his dissociative state by a yammering barkeeper rattling off an anecdote about his brother-in-law, with the punch line, a suggestion to go jump in Central Park Lake, sending Raymond off to do just that, chased by a bewildered Marco, who deduces important details from the ridiculous incident. This scene is both driven by and resembles a barroom joke, whilst also elucidating an aspect of the film and all its fanciful paraphernalia, a tale of generations of men gone off to war and returning only to find themselves plunged back into again by casual jests and everyday moments. The Manchurian Candidate could be regarded as a study in what would eventually be called PTSD, with Raymond’s periodic shift into another persona and Marco and Melvin’s traumas the manifestation of broken psyches urgently trying to tell them something is wrong, something hidden by the official resumption of peace and the even flow of history.
The narrative’s roots in the Korean War, so often called the Forgotten War, gives this aspect particular piquancy: Raymond anointment as official hero carries with it symbolic power, a desire to find a perfect icon in the midst of a very imperfect situation, and for that reason has been willingly and calculatingly supplied. Also, like Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) and Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959) (the best combat dramas set during the conflict; Edwards had been in both, embodying the new, smart, forthright black soldier in the desegregated army), the landscape of a new America is in play and in contention, with African-American characters, including Melvin and Marco’s major sounding board, a wry black army psychiatrist (Joe Adams), playing distinctive new roles. Even the Fu Manchu-esque quality to the theme of wicked Chinese brainwashers is purveyed with jabs of burlesque drollery, particularly in Yen Lo’s talkative, pleasant demeanour and his shots of weird humour, like quoting an advertising line (that connection again) when noting he has the captured Yankees smoking yak dung just for kicks, and the protests of a Russian delegate to his presentation over the necessity of sacrificing a whole imaginary company for the sake of Raymond’s heroic cover story. Chunjin turns up posing as a would-be lackey begging Raymond for a job, all the better to actually oversee his control, at least until Marco turns up seeking answers and, on first sight of the supposed minion, launches into a balls-and-all karate fight that sees them lay waste to Raymond’s apartment in a sequence that might well have inspired the tussles between Clouseau and Kato in the Pink Panther films.
Like many an eager young American director before him and after, Frankenheimer’s style was powerfully influenced by Orson Welles. The influence is obvious in Frankenheimer’s forced-perspective shots bristling with Hogarthian energy and looming faces, people turning into aspects of the landscape or relics of ages and objects turning faintly animate. Canted camera angles illustrate moments of nauseous disorientation, as when Marco confronts Rosie with a newspaper revealing the murder of Jocelyn and her father, and desperate action, during Marco’s final rush to try to head off the final act in the long and torturous plot. Hitchcock’s influence is also certainly in the mix, in the punch-at-the-camera shot that commences Marco’s fight with Chunjin, in the brutalist jump cuts conveying the sleep-rupturing power of the awful dreams taken from Vertigo, and The Man Who Knew Too Much’s (1934/56) imprint on the carefully orchestrated climax in a bustling forum. But there’s also the incipient influence of new wave and TV news techniques informing the creeping super-modernity of the story, handheld camerawork suddenly and vibrantly creeping into the lexicon of mainstream Hollywood during moments of furor in public places like the press conference and the political rally. Indeed, as prejudicial as it sounds, Frankenheimer’s use of handheld technique probably planted the seeds for the eventual evolution of the pseudo-realist habits that would later grip mainstream cinema. Certainly the most famous flourish Frankenheimer conjures, one he’d revisit in variations in later films, comes when Raymond shoots Senator Jordan, his bullet passing through the milk bottle he’s holding, the white liquid spitting out in sickly simulacrum of blood.
Just as Frankenheimer appropriates Hitchcockian gamesmanship and relocates Vertigo’s swooning sense of dissolving reality where, nonetheless, hidden facts scuttle into the light, in a political realm, he also drags the frames of reference of Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) into the post-WWII world, one where the thwarted American aristocracy has sought new ways to control a metastasising body politic. That world’s saturnine scion is pulled into the game of representation called democracy by an apparatus far beyond the relatively straightforward and easy comeuppance Charles Foster Kane received: no singers in love nests can derail this train, and consent will be manufactured with Hollywood bravura. Jordan’s determination to resist Eleanor is easily dealt with by the simple expedience of having him killed, and the pompous, central-casting-delivered presidential nominee, Benjamin K. Arthur (Robert Riordan), is set up in the crosshairs to be a prop in a piece of political theatre that’s been crafted with all the exacting showmanship of any showbiz extravaganza. Marco’s attempt to return autonomy to Raymond is a dangerous act of faith that the machine can be smashed and that Raymond’s will is strong enough to withstand the truth.
The riveting finale, endlessly ripped off, is still charged with an ambiguity and a surprise pay-off that most imitations never think to offer, as Marco tries to track down Raymond amidst the clamour and excitement of a national convention where the frenetic excitement of American politics at a zenith rages on but the crosshairs of Raymond’s sniper scope zeroes in on the nominee, blending newsreel and staged footage. Raymond’s final gesture, gunning down not his assigned target but his mother and stepfather, is both a cracking good comeuppance and last-second twist, and also designated importantly not merely as personal revenge but Raymond’s ultimate act of self-liberation, a feat of self-sacrifice and faith in the thing he was supposed to destroy. The superfluous, but affecting epilogue underlines the symbolism of Raymond’s last act of pinning on his Medal of Honor before shooting himself: he had earned it at last. Surely Raymond’s act of faith will be lost, unprovable, in the swirl of conventional understanding, with only Marco left to bear witness. Raymond’s tragedy is everyone’s, every citizen brought up in our world where words of no worth feed us, and all of us do without knowing why. His triumph is that he needs no applause for standing up for himself and everyone else.
“Babel loved life. He believed that people are born to enjoy life.” –Antonina Pirojkova, mathematician, construction engineer, and second wife of Isaac Babel
Isaac Babel, the acclaimed Jewish writer from Odessa, Ukraine, enjoyed a momentous life—two wives, two children, numerous lovers, an international literary reputation, and an adoring public. But it was not a long one. He was arrested on May 15, 1939, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Eventually, he was transferred to nearby Butyrka Prison, where he was tried for treason and executed in secret on January 27, 1940, at the age of 45. Soviet agents seized 24 folders that may have contained nearly 80 of Babel’s writings; they have never been recovered.
Andrei Malaev-Babel, an acting teacher at the theatre conservatory of Florida State University, was moved to uncover the history and retrace the steps of the grandfather he never knew upon the 2010 death of Pirojkova, his grandmother and still grieving widow of Babel. The odyssey took him to Polish Galicia, Odessa, Paris, and Moscow, to the places where Babel lived, was detained, died, and was interred. Along the way, he samples Babel’s works as a progression of the things the writer saw and felt compelled to comment upon, even though it meant his death.
Finding Babel, directed and cowritten by award-winning documentarian David Novack, offers viewers a look at a perhaps unfamiliar literary giant in a way that illuminates just how great a writer and chronicler he was. Malaev-Babel and he approach Babel’s story chronologically, linking key writings with the places and people they visit.
The film opens with a sculptor burnishing a giant, bronze sculpture of Babel that is to grace an Odessa square in front of a new museum dedicated to the writer. This polishing process, which makes the sculpture shine like gold, is an evocative metaphor for bringing Babel out of the shadows of Soviet oppression and his secret fate and into the light of a new age.
To emphasize the point, the film launches immediately into Liev Schreiber reading from Babel’s Red Cavalry, based on eyewitness reportage of his time riding with the Cossacks, the traditional enemies of the Jews. The music is mournful, and the image on screen mimics the location where Babel stood, posterized to distinguish it as heightened reality. The language is rich and voluptuous, the descriptions horrifyingly vivid:
“A dead old man lay there on his back. His throat had been torn out and his face cleft in two. In his beard, blue blood cloated like a lump of lead.
“‘Sir,’ said the Jewess, shaking the feather bed. ‘Poles cut his throat.’”
This is what it means to be a witness to history.
The film jumps to New York’s Brighton Beach, with lively klezmer music invigorating what was, and is, Russian Jewish life. Malaev-Babel is being interviewed on Russian-language radio about his pending trip to trace Babel’s footsteps. Next stop is what is now western Ukraine, where he meets a guide in Lviv who helps him find the places Babel wrote about in Red Cavalry. During his travels in Ukraine, he meets a group of tourists from Israel who are likewise interested in Babel, confirming to Malaev-Babel that Babel is more than remembered—he is revered. He visits a large Jewish cemetery Babel mentions in his 1920 Diary, one of the few not destroyed by the Nazis or the Soviets and an image that will form a bookend with Babel’s final resting place, a mass grave marked only by a single monument festooned with nameplates and flowers.
From his teens until his 30s, Babel lived in Odessa’s Jewish Moldavanka section, where he may have been born. His famous Odessa Stories put the area on the map, infusing it with the lively chatter of the courtyard buildings, streets, and shops before the pogroms began. Malaev-Babel is escorted by two history professors, who comment that the cobblestones that still line the streets are the same as in Babel’s time. Following a reception at the Babel museum and the unveiling of the statue, Malaev-Babel visits the apartment where Babel lived, a crowd of journalists and onlookers documenting this historic meeting of past and present.
Novack offers excerpts of Benya Krik (Benny the Howl), a 1926 silent film by director Vladimir Vilner of one of Babel’s Odessa stories about a master criminal of whom Babel says, “He is the king while you give people the finger with your hand in your pocket.” Novack cleverly superimposes images of the films on present-day structures, again working very deftly to bring Babel’s words to life.
Malaev-Babel moves on to Paris, where Babel lived for a time with his first wife and three-year-old child, both of whom he abandoned to return to his homeland, soon meeting Malaev-Babel’s grandmother. In Paris, his grandson stretches his professional muscles by rehearsing a production of Babel’s 1935 play Maria. The play was never produced in Babel’s lifetime; it was shut down during rehearsals because of its very dangerous message that human nature will devour the utopian ideal of the Soviet Union and that all the people who died during the Russian Revolution were sacrificed for nothing.
A final, chilling moment comes when Malaev-Babel tries to visit the place where Babel was arrested. It is now in a gated community, and when Malaev-Babel tries to enter, he is roughed up by two security guards. The past, of course, is still present in Putin’s authoritarian Russia. As French actress Marina Vlady, the daughter of Russian immigrants to France, told him in Paris, “We have no Stalin, but we have a great many little Stalins.”
I’ve largely given a precis of this documentary because I fear many people will not be able to see it, but if you have a chance, do not miss it! Novack is a master imagist, creating filmic paintings of wonderfully chosen excerpts from Babel’s works that reveal the writer’s sensuality, keen eye, and vivid understanding of events he thought, in his idealism about the Revolution, would never happen. Malaev-Babel exhibits a lot of the charisma and intelligence that must have adhered from Babel, and thus, is a compelling and engaging guide. The horrors of Stalin’s Great Terror are everywhere apparent, from our tour through the monastery that was built above former torture chambers and cells to the ruins of barracks that housed the murderous Cossacks and their horses, the latter a strong symbol in Babel’s writing.
Babel met his fate, but remains a passionate voice in our world today. Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center, explains it this way: “Tyrants fear the poet, and people fear the writer, because they tell the truth. They tell a much deeper truth.”
Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, screens Finding Babel January 29 at 2 p.m. David Novack will introduce the film and lead a postshow discussion. Finding Babel is the first of four films showing at Spertus in its Sunday Cinema film festival, January 29–February 19, 2017.
Paul Leni’s name might not be as instantly recognisable to movie lovers as his fellows in the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of the major creative figures of that style, of the budding horror film genre, and of the great mature phase of silent cinema in general. Leni beat both directors to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he did vital work fusing the concerted visual effects of the UFA approach with the steady, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so perhaps had the most immediate impact on a generation of directors emerging at the time, including Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein. Like Murnau, he would die tragically young and at the peak of his talents, in his case from blood poisoning resulting from an abscessed tooth, a sad and ridiculous fate somehow in keeping with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s initial work in cinema came as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt in the theatres of Berlin, and soon plied for directors including Joe May and E. A. Dupont. He continued to provide art direction for other filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was however to be Waxworks, one of the near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German film.
Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks similarly offers an early take on the anthology film, composed of short, distinct but stylistically and thematically related stories. His screenwriter on the project was Henrik Galeen, who penned several Expressionist classics including Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a young poet, played by William Dieterle, later to become a significant director himself, invited to visit a waxworks show that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into town: the carnival is popular but the waxworks is ignored. The poet speaks to the manager of the show (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they want someone to write entertaining stories to lend mythos to the major figures in the show, which are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, who is conflated here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London in the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ offer, and even quickly and amusedly amends a proposed tale when the owner accidentally breaks a limb off the Harun figure; thus the poet begins to tell the story of how the Caliph lost his arm. Leni then begins to illustrate the poet’s historical fantasia, with Harun personified as a corpulent autocrat, played by Emil Jannings. Harun plays chess with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his castle, only to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour. Angry because he was losing the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to track down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The source of the pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle again), who is married to the most beautiful woman in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff again). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts with her husband and then him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious duty and instead returns to tell the Caliph of this desirable jewel.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal as the founding work of the film Expressionist style, had a cunning metafictional device to frame it, as the protagonists in the central drama of mesmerism and murder were revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparison, Waxwork’s frame has a lighter, humorous quality, as the poet’s fancies are devices for flirting with Eva. Except that Waxworks’ chapters essentially tell the same story over in variances, becoming increasingly direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the deadly threat. Woven in with this is an equal and increasingly nervous contemplation of the individual vulnerable in the face of ravening power, couched first social and political terms, in Harun and Ivan, and then in the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper. This first episode offers the theme in a mildly comedic manner, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to claim what the other one has: Harun wants the baker’s wife and the baker, trying to appease her stoked desire for worldly rewards, decides to break into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s visit has stoked awareness in both baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments break out afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I am a man!” This talismanic phrase recurs with more specific force in Leni’s later film, The Man Who Laughs, but its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the individual echoes throughout Waxworks. It’s not hard to look for its relevance to real-world circumstances at the time – Germany was deep in the grip of the post-war reparations-induced economic crisis. Murnau’s The Last Laugh the same year tackled, again with Jannings, the same theme of desperation and dehumanisation through fiscal crisis.
In the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, locating what he thinks is the Caliph but is actually a dummy he leaves in his bed when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures. Believing the dummy is the real Caliph, the baker slices off the figure’s arm and flees, dodging guards and finally escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his home, as his wife hurriedly hides the Caliph in the only secret place available – the oven. The baker’s venture to steal a fake version of the seemingly mystical jewel proves just as vainglorious as the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous end for all concerned as she pretends to use the stolen jewel to wish the Caliph to appear alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, covered in soot but saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a final image of the Caliph embracing both partners, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois in the offing. This chapter of Waxworks somewhat belies the film’s reputation as a classic specifically of horror cinema, instead signalling a link between the performative professionalism and flimflammer art of the carnival and the stage pantomime, as well as reaching back to the portmanteau storytelling tradition as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, as well as the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers.
This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging point is important in itself. The major “characters” of the waxworks are introduced with the actors who embody them noted at the same time, reducing the great historical figures and the big stars to rigid figures, powerless without poets to animate them. Meanwhile the narrative performs a similar function, turning these real beings into functions of a private mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist style, aims not for realism but for a brand of minimalist, almost symbolic representation. Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse together the dreamlike aspect of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, here Leni pushes in the opposite direction, reducing his setting and backdrop as close towards the insubstantial as he can without quite going entirely abstract. The curving minarets and bowing walls of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The awesome yet almost melting halls of the palace interior, where minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is definitely a place of the mind, an inner sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s home is almost a cave, curved and womb-like. The second chapter, shorter than the first, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and death imposing himself on a pair of young lovers. This time, however, the theme is Ivan the Terrible, presented as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, almost childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on just about anyone he pleases. Where Jannings’ bluff, hammy performance was suited for the take on Harun as corpulent, casually murderous but actually easily tamed potentate, this chapter offers Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest part of the id, glimpsed moving in a stiff crouch along a dank passage that connects his apartments with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.
This tale, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and power. Leni presents Ivan as a monster governed and, to a degree, held in check by an elaborate network of irrational devices. In particular, a giant hourglass is used to measure how long his victims will be tortured, their names written on the glass, and when she sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, inspires suspicions in the tyrant’s mind over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested. The poisoner, in turn, vengefully writes Ivan’s name on the hourglass before he’s arrested. Ivan’s dubious pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s wedding. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the old man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, but then agrees to be a guest, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar dress in his clothes, and vice versa. The Tsar’s instincts prove right, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides through Moscow, but their bolt, aimed at the regally-dressed figure, kills the boyar instead. Ivan arrives at the boyar’s house and triumphantly announces his arrival, forgetting the detail that the bride’s father is dead. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his body and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury at the Tsar, for which he is instantly imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar also has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop instead, so he drags her down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is however cut short as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked with his name, believing it means the poisoner successfully dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into complete insanity as he thinks he’s dying, and he keeps turning the hourglass over, believing this will stay the moment of his death. A title card explains he kept doing this until the day he died.
Here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly power becomes more distinctly maniacal and driving, whilst the watch-like parts of the story tick on with swift, precise effect. This chapter of Waxworks seems to have had an almost endless influence on many who have followed, most especially Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his similarly arch take on the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular sets and equally angular performances. Leni himself would build upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on both, surely, for his own visit to the realm of the historical fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934). The last chapter of Waxworks is very short, almost an appendix, but it’s also the most bizarre and remarkable sequence. Here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked around the carnival and town by Jack the Ripper, who seems to disappear like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in many places at once, as the world becomes increasingly strange and distorted. Finally the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Here Leni slips all bonds of narrative precept and essentially offers a visualised nightmare, a plunge into a formless state of irrationality, where the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all forms to become a blank, implacable engine of erotic threat. Here is both the seed for the image of the slasher killer who would later maraud his way across many a movie screen in the next century, a psychological conception of threat stripped out of all zone of actual human interest – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. But Leni’s flourishes of style here also veer into virtually experimental film style in his madly proliferating double exposures and increasingly formless sense of space, used to evoke the complete inward spiral of the psyche towards an ultimate confrontation with that dark character within. Here too is kinship with the lawless effects of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.
Waxworks made Leni’s name, and within a couple of years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour as well as style and menace might well have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American project was to film Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That film proved a big hit, laying down a template that would soon resolve into Universal’s house style of horror and offering fillips of style that still recur in horror films today, like its restless, entity-suggesting camerawork. Leni’s third Hollywood film, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre today, in part because of its pop cultural influence, particularly on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, as the eponymous hero of Leni’s film, adapted from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be more different to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s other, more famous protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Laugh’s central figure Gwynplaine represents a politically abused but potentially powerful underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his fine, tortuously sensitive humanity. The film also reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a long prologue where, although the settings are more tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Terrible episode of Waxworks as it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon at the news his soldiers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his young son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies known as comprachico, who specialise in creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the instructions to carve his son’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool father.”
The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a remarkable string of images and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking out of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing around Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore where the comprachicos, sent into exile by James after they’ve done his gruesome bidding, flock onto a boat but abandon young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the elements. The mutilated child gropes his way through a blizzard studded with hanged bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes across a woman, frozen to death but with her infant child still clutched to her breast. He saves the baby and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the baby is blind and demands of the boy, “Stop that laughing!” before he realises he cannot. Ursus takes both youngsters in and they make a living travelling between country fairs. By the time Gwynplaine (Veidt again) and the girl, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folk heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Along with a band of fellow players, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus called “The Man Who Laughs.” But fate has a mean gag in store when they roll into Southwark Fair in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one of William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but also viciously satiric engravings. Here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his remarkable countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now living under a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the current holder of the Clancharlie estate, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the current ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message however is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the court and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this strange and potentially propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne with her wilfully arrogant behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat device of punishment is now open to her.
Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly critical writings on the national authorities, and he wrote it to serve as much as an oddball political parable as a standard historical romance. Leni keeps intact both its nominal setting in English history but also its weird, Ruritanian aspect, using this just as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his weird fancies. Although the sorts of things they’re depicted as doing had been real practices in times much further past, the comprachicos were just the first of Hugo’s inventions. After the gruesome, outsized fairytale flourishes of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into something more like a melodrama, if one still laced with dimensions of perversity. Those dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no right to impose someone of his grotesque stature on her, although she can’t see the affliction. He sees some hope, however, when Josiana visits the fair where he’s performing and, compelled by his strange appearance, invites him to her manor. Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if someone can actually love him in spite of his deformity than he has the right to love Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the object of a fetishist’s electric, potently erotic blend of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick way that Gwynplaine correctly senses is merely the flipside of the more familiar horror and mockery he receives rather than a negation of it. But then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been found, he will be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she will be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling awareness she’s about to nailed to this particular point of her character as her cross just as surely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine running.
This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine finally allowing Dea to feel the nature of his disfigurement, a moment that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the real Gwynplaine!” Both Philbin and Baclanova featured in two other, quite different yet pertinent takes on the fundamental dichotomy presented here, as Philbin had previously played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), opposite Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to again be the figure of taunting sensuality before the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar trap that is identity: he’s arrested by royal soldiers and taken to prison, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he mistakes a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage remarkable sequences, as when the players pretend to be putting on a normal show to keep Dea from learning of his apparent death, and the lengthy finale in which Gwynplaine is presented to the House of Lords whilst Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to find her way to him. For all its facets of brilliance, however, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy experience dramatically speaking, splitting the difference between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and sentimental melodrama, before resolving in a manner fit for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot never quite builds to any sequences as memorable as those in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, interestingly, Waxworks star Dieterle would film in 1939), whilst the attempt to go for a crowd-pleasing tone in the final lap is underlined when Barkilphedro gets his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal dog.
That such a mixture doesn’t entirely blend isn’t surprising, as Laemmle’s determination to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera saw a few too many cooks adding to the broth on the script level. But The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless because of the fervour Leni and Veidt invest in it. Here was the perfect role for Veidt and the perfect mythology for Leni. Veidt’s appearance, a dental plate used to make his permanent smile-snarl seem all the more unnatural, offers a face turned into a kabuki mask, rigid and lunatic. And yet watching how Veidt sketches emotions around the edges of this offers a master class in expressive performing. Perhaps the high point of the film, at once hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first appears on stage at one of his shows. The smile he turns on his audiences gains delirious power, sending the crowd into convulsions and bringing Josiana under the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a series of superimpositions and dissolves, beautiful (but ugly) man and ugly (but beautiful) man bound together, a visual etude of awareness that one must exist to give meaning the other. His hideousness sparks merriment, becomes a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the common folk suggesting the dark side of the society they live in, and finally locating an accord with them, on the level of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity. To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential crisis that can only be resolved in laughter, whilst the man himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being satisfied, and exultation in his rare fame.
The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme surely was to echo on through Universal’s subsequent horror films with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine eventually rises from the status of clown to lord, he manages the more important evolution, finally voiced when bellows with righteous fury at the stunned toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! But God made me a man!” It’s the climactic moment of the film and of the revealing thread of interest that runs through from Waxworks to this film, the depiction of brutal power: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is every bit as totemic, and instantly punishable, as the baker and bridegroom’s invective against their tyrants and the evils forced by life in the earlier film. Fortunately, Gwynplaine’s new status cuts a swathe through the stunned lords, giving him a brief window of escape before the Queen’s heavies move in, and he stages a successful flight across the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s gifts at the free rush of action as well in creating the tangled moods of psychic anxiety. In spite of the never-never setting of both films, or perhaps because of it, a genuine charge of palpable meaning emerges from such flourishes. Leni’s world is a place of wandering, rootless but free artists and yearning poets, twisted beings full of humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social power. But, most fundamentally, for both the poet and Gwynplaine, the man himself is his own enemy. Leni’s small but still vital oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.
Creator/Writer: Abi Morgan
Directors: Tim Fywell, Jessica Hobbs, and Richard Laxton
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the crowded field of television homicide detectives, the British have offered rabid fans like me their fair share of talented, quirky sleuths. From David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot and John Thaw’s Inspector Morse to Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison and Robson Green as, well, just about everyone, there’s no shortage of obsessive coppers dedicated to bringing murderers to justice for our viewing pleasure.
The latest of this breed is John River, the title character of the miniseries River, played by Stellan Skarsgård. The brilliant Swedish actor, who would have been a natural for the Swedish detective of the Wallander series instead of Irish actor Kenneth Branagh, has largely avoided cop roles since his riveting turn as detective Jonas Engström in the original Swedish version of Insomnia (1997). Perhaps he was avoiding typecasting, as his pale, worried face is a natural fit for the kind of damaged souls writers imagine homicide detectives to be.
That he took the role of River, a taciturn Swedish immigrant who works for London’s Metropolitan Police Service, is perhaps due to the efforts of its creator and writer, Abi Morgan, who brought us such polished British features as Shame (2011), The Iron Lady (2011), and Suffragette (2015). I like to think Morgan might have heard a suggestion James Cagney made about the dime-a-dozen gangster he was asked to play in White Heat (1949): “Let’s make him crazy.” Most TV homicide detectives flirt with the edges of sanity as an occupational hazard; River went off the deep end long ago. He regularly talks to and fights with a bevy of dead apparitions; only his 80 percent clear rate and the protective ministrations of his buoyant partner, Jacqueline “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker), have kept him on the police force.
We meet River and Stevie as they are driving around their precinct. Stevie sings and hand jives to Tina Charles’ uber-catchy disco tune, “I Love to Love,” as River smiles his approval. The pair grows quiet as River spots a car with a dented panel, a clue to his current investigation. He spots the driver in a mini mart and spooks the young man with a hard, penetrating stare. A long chase on foot ensues, with tragic results. River is pulled off the case, ordered into counseling, and assigned a new partner, Ira King (Adeel Akhtar). You see, the case he was working on was Stevie’s murder.
River is shattered by Stevie’s death. Even though he and Ira are reassigned to the electrocution of a construction worker who is hovering near death, he keeps on the hunt for her killer and persuades Ira to help him. Everything he says and does, including advising the construction worker’s wife to tell him what she needs to before his inevitable death in a move judged callous by Ira, is self-reproach for withholding what is plain to viewers: he was deeply in love with Stevie.
Love, trust, and the betrayal of both form the slippery undercarriage of this otherwise fairly standard mystery drama. Morgan assembles a familiar cast of characters: a cop who can’t stand River (Owen Teale); psychiatrist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich), who just happens to run a therapy group for people who hallucinate; and River’s sympathetic superior, Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville), who keeps reminding everyone that she lost a friend, too. Morgan also trots out the usual tropes for murdered cops—working on a side case, keeping her investigation secret from the partner who thought he knew everything about her, locating corruption inside the legal system.
Stevie’s Irish family draws instant scrutiny from the seasoned murder mystery fan, particularly when we learn Stevie turned in her older brother, Jimmy (Steve Nicolson), for murder and that he has just returned to the family fold after 16 years behind bars. Her uncle, Michael Bennigan (Jim Norton), has the oily, cheery veneer of all TV Irish patriarchs. Stevie’s mother, Bridie (Sorcha Cusack, of the Father Brown mystery series), is the typical, no-nonsense, blustery Irish matriarch that’s become a cliché, and Stevie’s doughy younger brother, Frankie (Turlough Convery), seems strangely wounded and in need of the protective shield the whole family throws around him.
Other suspects—one might even say the usual suspects in these xenophobic times—emerge as River zeroes in on a Somali man with whom Stevie seems to have been involved. His probing uncovers a small community of immigrants who don’t understand the obstacles and hatred they face from their adopted land. It’s quite a poignant moment when River imagines the voice of his quarry, Haider Jamal Abdi (Peter Bankole), speaking to his wife in a letter Ira has only partly translated; River’s feelings of loneliness and isolation are given voice in the imagined end of Haider’s letter; his emotional projections are the true source of his ghostly visitors.
One projection is hard to decipher: Thomas Neill Cream, a 19th-century serial killer known as the Lambeth Poisoner, the subject of a true crime book River is reading. Cream, played by always reliably creepy Eddie Marsan, announces that he is the anger, rage, and darkest place inside River and urges him to come over to the dark side. Now, it’s true that in the game of cops and robbers, the players can change roles quite easily, but River isn’t playing a game. Cream seems more a device to shoot scenes of River shadow-boxing with a wall or strangling the air than something motivated from within, and I found these scenes incongruous and annoying.
Opposing these are the heartbreaking scenes he shares with the memory of Stevie. Nicola Walker fully embodies the enormous life force that was Stevie, making her murder all the more tragic for us as well as those who knew her. She provides River with intuitive clues to follow, probably much like she did in life. As he circles closer to the solution, she taunts him to really see her, know her—certainly an inner longing River has to be as close to her as possible, a conjoining he could only approximate by laying in her empty bed. His fixation on Rosa, who we think River may be using as a Stevie substitute, actually turns out to be River’s desire to break through his fear of intimacy and love.
Stevie was bringing River to life, and he is blessed to have another partner, Ira, who accepts his mental derangement and tries to befriend him. We very well might wonder why so many people stand by River, but that is all down to Skarsgård’s stunning ability to convey deep pain, shame, and loss while simultaneously trying to reach beyond his limitations to embrace life. We’ve seen detectives like him before, but never one who refuses so mightily to give up on himself. He gets the ending he has earned.
Directors: Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A lot of notable events occurred in 2016, not many of them pleasant. Fortunately, one of them delighted me all year long. Kartemquin Films, the Chicago film collective that makes thought-provoking documentaries that “seek to foster a more engaged and empowered society,” celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Kartemquin offered a free film every week from its online archive and then finished the year with a month of all-access free streaming. The most popular film streamed during the year was Life Itself (2014), star Kartemquin filmmaker Steve James’ compassionate portrait of Roger Ebert during the last months of the critic’s life. I joined others in making Inquiring Nuns (1967) the Number 3 viewing choice. As two nuns asked random Chicagoans in various parts of the city the question “Are you happy?” I was struck by how many people mentioned the Vietnam War as a source—sometimes the only source—of unhappiness in their lives.
I was moved by the concern ordinary people out of the line of fire felt for the horrors facing Americans and Vietnamese at the center of the conflict, an empathy that seems much harder to come by these days. And that is the beauty and value of Kartemquin films: they take circumstances that are largely abstractions to many people and help us empathize by bearing witness to other people’s lives. Vietnam, Long Time Coming is a brilliant example of their particular kind of filmcraft.
The documentary deals with an historic event—the first postwar American-Vietnamese athletics event. A group of 45 able-bodied and disabled Americans, plus support crew, staff, and board members of World T.E.A.M. Sports, joined a group of 20 Vietnamese to complete a 1,200-mile bike trek from the northern Vietnamese city of Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Veterans from both sides of what narrator Joe Mantegna sensitively refers to as the “Vietnam-American War” took part in the ride and form the core of the documentary. Framing the war this way helps American viewers with received notions about it enter a more nuanced space, one that the war veterans enter on their literal journey through their own past.
The film opens as the plane carrying the Americans begins its descent into Nội Bài International Airport. The veterans are visibly nervous, and older viewers may flash back to the helicopters, battles, and broken bodies they could view most every night on television. This was a shared national trauma as vivid as 9/11, and the directors know how to evoke memories that will help viewers face their own fears as well.
As the team members are introduced to each other and the paralyzed Vietnamese riders get used to their hand-pedaled bicycles, the struggles of the veterans start to reveal themselves. A 2-year-old Vietnamese girl runs over to Duane Wagner, a Marine sergeant from 1965 to 1968. He gives her a hug and then tells us he killed a girl just like her who emerged from her home carrying a couple of grenades. Tears form in his eyes as he rues “the fucked-up things I did.”
There are more tears when, as part of the team’s mission of medical and educational outreach, the group goes to Bạch Mai Hospital, which was bombed during the war. Bob Connors, who served in Vietnam as a sergeant in the U.S Air Force, muses that he could very well have dropped a bomb on Bạch Mai. “I want to go up to everyone here and apologize,” he says as his brave demeanor crumbles. Still, the mood lightens considerably when the announcement of a $200,000 check from World T.E.A.M. Sports to the hospital for a new, state-of-the-art orthotics unit has the interpreter do a double-take to see if she heard the amount right.
After a few too many shots of professional cyclist and Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, the directors drop their celebrity ogling and just get on with it. They turn the somewhat hackneyed device of a road picture into a meaningful metaphor for the rhythms of grieving and the slow return to life for the emotionally maimed, and improve upon many war documentaries and feature films by providing a 360-degree, balanced view from both sides of the complicated and emotionally charged conflict while maintaining a lively pace and narrative. The directors film a solemn rite at the Vietnamese Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with burning incense sticks seeming to represent the lives the war torched. They follow it later with a buoyant orgy of shopping in Huế’s colorful markets.
Liberal helpings of the bike ride, including crashes and flat tires, scored to bright music by Ben Sidran continue the forward progress as the participants and viewers return to some famous touchpoints—the demilitarized zone, China Beach, Da Nang, My Lai—that make us and the veterans pause and reflect. The directors get marvelous landscape shots and scenes of everyday life that reflect what one vet says late in the film: “Vietnam is not a war, it’s a country. A beautiful country with beautiful people.” Peacetime and the filmmakers’ discerning choices allow us to appreciate what fear, anger, and war coverage could not.
What I found most touching and valuable were the veterans’ memories and how they related to their surroundings. A Vietnamese rider in his 30s recalls being evacuated from his home in Hanoi and watching from a distance as the city was bombed repeatedly. Another spoke about the My Lai massacre that claimed 504 people, including 153 children, recalling that “Our hatred for the enemy boiled over” and transformed into campaigns of revenge.
To a person, the American vets suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. They talk with the team psychologist and among themselves as their trip south through rice paddies and Agent Orange-scorched fields that were once deadly traps for them unnerved them more and more. A bucolic afternoon at China Beach, where soldiers went for R&R with the war raging only a few kilometers away, gives way to a painful memory for Diane Carlson Evans, an Army nurse who founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., of another nurse who was killed nearby by a piece of shrapnel. The humor of the lifeguard at the beach waving long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad away from the rough surf transitions to a late-night rap session during which Carlson Evans reveals her abiding shame: “We feel we did something very bad.” A rainy day conjures memories of being soaked, trudging through mud, and then drying in the hot sun, only to be soaked again, this time with sweat, and covered with the biting red ants that were everywhere.
Nonetheless, struggle is sometimes its own reward. The climb up the steep Hải Vân Pass marks a turning point for some of the riders, as a policeman who discouraged the attempt comes to understand how much succeeding, particularly for the hand-pedal riders, means to them. Amputees Dan Jensen and Tran Van Son hit it off like gangbusters and give their artificial limbs a workout in an impromptu footrace; in the film’s postscript, Jensen brings Tran to his home in Sioux Falls, S.D., to get a proper artificial leg and run in a rematch.
All of the veterans found that the ride, the contact with Vietnam and the Vietnamese in a safe and comradely context helped them calm their demons. This seemingly happy ending, however, poses nagging questions to viewers by simultaneously offering a chilling indictment of the war and America in its aftermath. As the crowds cheer the riders as they enter Ho Chi Minh City, the American veterans contrast it with the brutal cold shoulder they received and continue to receive in the States. Jose Ramos, who developed drug and alcohol problems and made multiple suicide atempts after his return home, says “What America could not give me in 30 years, I have found in Vietnam in a matter of days.” Jerry Stadtmiller, disfigured and half-blinded, thought he would be defending freedom, but found out that “freedom had nothing to do with it.”
Directors Blumenthal, Gilbert, and Quinn made a record of a small, but successful attempt to bring peace to warring minds and hearts, and further understanding and friendship between former enemies. In the United States and in other restless countries, ideology has turned people against each other again in ugly, often violent ways. Vietnam, Long Time Coming has something to teach us in this crucible moment in time, if we choose to listen.
A clogged LA freeway on a winter’s day, “Another Day of Sun,” cars backed up for miles on either side. Suddenly a spasm of frustration manifests itself not as shouting or horn-blowing, but as song, and the traffic jam erupts momentarily into carnivale, the humans caged in their rolling steel egoverses momentarily joining in shared celebration of the dreams and less glamorous reality that defines their lives. It’s the sort of absurdist set-piece I’m sure that has occurred to just about anyone who’s ever been stuck in such a traffic jam, and it retains a certain spiritual connection to the early dream sequence in that eternal touchstone of artistic self-appraisal in cinema, 8½ (1963), and even to the music video for REM’s “Everybody Hurts.” Damien Chazelle ultimately follows those models arcs towards melancholy reckonings with the gap between private passion and the dismay of modern living, but for the moment goes for big, raucous this-is-going-to-be-a-ride showmanship. It’s the sort of opening gambit that will surely split an audience right down the middle, between those who will be instantly swept up in the cued excitement and those who might uneasily gird themselves for what’s coming. I was amongst the latter. Not because ebullient outdoors production numbers annoy me per se, but this one did. Chazelle’s camera spins and twists and cranes with showy, athletic mobility. But the showiness of the camerawork is overtly strenuous, technique without actual purpose, distracting from the fact that what it’s filming isn’t actually very well staged or choreographed; it is in fact rather a hymn to its own existence, a “wow, can you believe I’m pulling this in 2016?” statement. People stand on their car bonnets and throw their hands up and down and fling themselves about in conga lines. This immediately lays down a template that the rest of La La Land follows studiously: approximation of classic musical style served up like the coup of the century, but which on close examination proves to be all sizzle and no steak.
Chazelle believes that the school of hard knocks is the path to greatness. This thesis he already explored in his scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash (both 2014), which purveyed the gym-coach mentality to artistic development: no pain, no gain, and never mind your pantywaist sensitivities. La La Land, his latest, depicts the exasperated romance of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), two Los Angeles wannabes. Grazing each other on the freeway at the start – he blasts his horn at her, she flips the bird at him – they soon find their paths repeatedly crossing, not always in the best of circumstances. Mia wants to be an actress, and works as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot. As such, she’s surrounded by the legends of filmmaking past but entrapped within early 21st century economic impositions, pecked at by her boss and forced to watch actual famous people parade by whilst she develops contempt for the roundelay of fruitless auditions that is the rest of her life. Encouraged to attend a party by her roommate friends, Mia finishes up departing the disappointment and is forced to walk home when she finds her car has been towed. A salve for such sorrows comes as she passes by a restaurant and hears a beautiful tune being played, drawing her inside. The player is Sebastian, a talented pianist, whose love of classic jazz approaches religion: unfortunately he’s just violated the restaurant manager’s (J.K. Simmons) injunction to only play strictly timed Christmas tunes, and he’s fired summarily for this, leading Sebastian to furiously barge past Mia as she tries to thank him for the beautiful performance. Some weeks later, she runs into him again, this time playing keys in a ’80s pop cover band. Her chosen method of revenge is to request the band play A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.” The duo’s grazing, sniping humour and Sebastian’s tendency to turn most encounters into some kind of confrontation gives way to sparks of attraction.
This moment was the only one in La La Land that really entertained me, although it treads terribly close to Saturday Night Live-style shtick, in large part because it’s one of the few vignettes that taps both Stone and Gosling’s ability to play comedy, and also because it offers a combination of joke and character moment that revolves around the cultural attitudes of the two characters, the disparity between Seb’s semi-messianic sense of duty by his chosen art form and the pop culture around him, and the infuriating way his and Mia’s attraction continues to manifest through apposite impulses. Stone and Gosling are both accomplished neo-wiseacres, and Chazelle arms them with a small arsenal of zingers and prickles to make them convincing as representatives of a knowing and chitinous modern breed. But once their surfaces are scratched, both characters are revealed as deeply, almost suffocatingly earnest. Sebastian’s dedication is seen first as monklike as he subsists in an apartment barely furnished, with a stool once owned by Hoagy Carmichael as object of veneration or seating depending on the moment’s need. His sister (I think) Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) appears for one scene, offering La La Land a jolt of call-bullshit sarcasm that cuts through the single-mindedness of Seb and Mia’s obsessions. One quality La La Land badly lacks is a major secondary voice or voices to lend depth to the palette, the kind they used to get people like Oscar Levant or Thelma Ritter to offer, pipes of sarcasm to put some smog in the airiness. When the few alternate voices that do come in Chazelle’s script, they’re nearly strictly pitched as rhetorical devices to push our characters about, like Simmons’ cameo as the asshole manager who prevails upon Seb not to play “the free jazz,” and, later, John Legend’s Keith, a successful band leader who seduces Seb into playing with his band with a get-behind-me-Satan spiel about the need for jazz to evolve.
Part of this might be explained by the fact that both Seb and Mia bring their own snark, but only long enough to be halfway convincing as contemporary types before we get into more traditional romanticism. But the course of true love and successful lifestyle maintenance never does run smooth. Mia lives with three other young women (Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, and Sonoya Mizuno) at the start who form both her posse and chorus line, dragging her into action at the Hollywood party where the stage seems set for a good production number. Except no real production number arrives, just more of Chazelle’s spinning camerawork and background dancers throwing their hands in the air again. After a certain point, Mia’s pals vanish from the party, and then from the film. Her moment of transcendent bliss overhearing Seb’s playing, is his moment of self-indulgence for which he pays an instant price. I can handle the notion of a restaurant manager so oblivious that anything but straight-up tunes to wheedle diners’ ears will piss him off, even if I don’t really believe it, and I sense it’s just a device to set up Seb’s humiliation; what I can’t quite buy is the interaction of writing and vision we get here, the manager’s quip about free jazz and the slightly pompous but pretty anodyne piece of improvisation that costs Seb his job but charms Mia. It’s like the music supervisor had a slightly different copy of the script to the director and actors. Mia is suddenly seen to be saddled with a Chad Cliché yuppie boyfriend who turns up just in time for her to run out on him, heading instead to meet up with Seb at a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a venture that segues into a tour of the Griffith Observatory where rapture blooms and the heavens open, a lovely moment that nonetheless seems to come out of a different film. Later, Seb tries to explain to Mia the value of jazz as active expression of America’s melting pot brilliance, the product of the constant shunt and shove of multiple voices.
This vignette is irksome on several levels, not least because Chazelle makes Mia the easily schooled avatar of an audience he presumes associates this beloved musical style with smooth jazz bilge, not the rocky, high-stakes art form he worships. And it’s not just the fact that the film turns into an NPR essay here. It’s that Chazelle backs away from finding any interesting conceptual way of exploring Seb’s love cinematically. In the end, the movie that proposes to revitalise certain classical precepts in the musical is just another contemporary film where someone talks too much. And it’s on this level that La La Land repeatedly and conspicuously fails, in weaving its use of the form with its subject, until one climactic sequence towards the end, in which Mia’s audition for a crucial role becomes a song number. There’s no pervading sense of jazz as the informing art here, nor of any other strong contemporary pop music form, although Chazelle evidently sees a connection between his understanding of jazz and his pursuit of giving new meaning to an old aesthetic in the musical form. His visual approach offers sublimation of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1966) insistently, aiming to recreate Demy’s skilful, deceptively rich blend of casual realism and stylisation, usually accomplished through careful redressing of real locations and employment of strong, colour-coded costuming and lighting. Sometimes, Chazelle succeeds, particularly in the shots of Mia and her gal-pals striding out to battle in their coloured frocks, her and Seb’s tentative shuffle before the mauve-hued sunset in the Hollywood hills, and a nicely quiet diminuendo scene where Seb sings to himself and dances on a pier at sunset, stealing away an old man’s wife for a moment of bewildered, good-natured dancing. Chazelle at least suggests schooling in the musical and its craft, avoiding the cut-on-the-beat style informed by music videos that’s infected the form since the early ’80s, instead going for long, lateral shots in the traditional musical manner to drink in physical context and the performers’ actions. And Linus Sandgren’s photography really is excellent.
Demy’s approach had hardly been forgotten to film history; in fact it was rather quickly assimilated and built upon by an array of American New Wave and Movie Brat filmmakers, many of whom tried their hand at fusing together the outsized fantasias of musicals with the kind of ragged, woozy, rough-and-tumble authenticity of their ethos. The 1970s and early ’80s produced a sprawl of gutsy crossbreeds in the wake of the musical genre’s official collapse as a mode following a string of huge-budget bombs. Some of these were deliberately frothy, like Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), but more often these were sharper, grittier critiques of the genre’s usual detachment from the reality of love and coupling as well as society. Hence Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) and Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart (1981) focused on fractious romances raddled by human feeling in all its livewire anxiety, and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) turned Fosse’s own life and experiences as a choreographer into the subject of a superlatively sarcastic variation on the genre. One thing all of these had in common was their spiky, anti-populist emotional intensity, which made them the opposite of what musicals have come to be considered as the genre languishing in a permanent pop culture demimonde. In the past 20 years or so, every now and then we get a film that’s going to make the musical great again, be it synthetic pizazz like Chicago (2002) or full-on blazing shit like Les Miserables (2012). And if one apostatises with any of these, one will be told one just doesn’t like musicals. Or not as much as another person, who wants the form reborn in all its old glory and will greet any new, major, proper version of it as manna. In the same way, the new-wave musicals aren’t real musicals, because they’re not pretty and escapist and nostalgic. And of course, let us not speak of what happened to the disco musical.
Never mind the far more interesting examples of the oddball explorations of the genre in recent years, from the Outkast-scored and starring vehicle Idlewild (2006) to John Turturro’s suburban karaoke tragedy Romance and Cigarettes (2005), Jacob Krupnick’s On the Town rewrite Girl Walk // All Day (2011) and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015), which commit the sins of using pop music and foregrounding artifice, and have moments your grandmother won’t like. La La Land has been quickly celebrated as a new-age musical blending frivolity and melancholy, but I find on many crucial levels it hit me as a betrayal of the legacy of the gritty musical, one that quietly gelds this movement even whilst proposing to revive it. Particularly considering that its storyline and basic themes represent a filch not on Demy but on Scorsese. In La La Land, as in New York, New York, the theme is the fractious love of a couple joined by mutual admiration but torn apart by diverging career intentions, revolving around the disparity between jazz performance and mainstream pop celebrity, climaxing with an extended restaging of the basic plot as a stylised, more pure kind of old Hollywood fantasy designed to illustrate the contrast between the way things turn out and the way we’d like them to. La La Land is squeaky clean in spite of its attempt to talk about some mildly distressing things as relationships that don’t work out and the pressures of money that make people do things they don’t want to, as opposed to the classic musical where, as Gilda Radner once memorably phrased it, people never had to work or buy food.
La La Land’s moments of bruising, disillusioning conflict are entirely contrived – the set-piece dinner table sequence where Mia and Seb first fight over Seb’s compromised artistry and Mia’s looming date with destiny, where mild peevishness substitutes for unforgivable words, and the subsequent scene where Seb misses her show, a moment that could have been avoided with the newfangled invention call the telephone. Compared to the scene in New York, New York when Robert De Niro gets dragged out of the club in a rage of stoked jealousy, this is so wet it would barely pass muster as dramatic development on a Chuck Lorre sitcom. Chazelle’s nominal assault on musical tradition is not to give a traditional happy ending where love conquers all. But he leavens the experience by giving his characters everything else they want, which just happens to be a successful LA nightclub, a period recording and touring with a popular musical outfit, and becoming an international movie star. Wow, some takedown of the Hollywood dream. Instead, La La Land is an ode to hermetic qualities. Chazelle turns the urbane strangeness and sprawl of modern LA into a depopulated stage for weak song-and-dance numbers featuring two cute but underutilised white-bread stars, replete with odes to bygone pleasures that often reveal a crucial misunderstanding about what those pleasures work. There’s nothing witty or sly or sublime or even particularly sexy about Chazelle’s approach, in spite of his mimicry of the styles he sets out to recreate. La La Land is a bright neon sign describing its own facetious charm.
This wouldn’t count for much if the film was successful simply on the level of musical experience, but this is where it’s most disappointing. The music score for La La Land is so brain-numbingly banal that apart from Gosling’s oft-repeated refrain (“City of stars, are you shining just for me?”) I couldn’t remember two notes from the film minutes after it finished. It bears no inflection of any musical style apart from the most flat-rate off-Broadway stuff—least of all the sinuosity and rhythmic complexity of jazz. Perhaps La La Land represents the total victory of the last decade or so of shows like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, shows that have carefully trained audiences to whoop and holler wildly when blandly talented neophytes and familiar celebrities who can barely sing or dance make a show of their mastery of a few soft-shoe steps. I felt a certain empathy for Sebastian in many regards: like him, I’m a jazz fan, particularly of the genre’s heights from the 1940s to the early 1970s, and I have violently mixed feelings about what’s happened to it since then. Seb however never feels like a real person – neither does Mia, but for slightly different reasons. Even the more interesting modern branches of jazz fusion don’t seem to have registered with Chazelle – Euro electroswing for instance, which, with practitioners like Caravan Palace, is a vibrant and utterly danceable wing of the genre, and would have made a great pedestal for this project. Whilst the indictments of Seb as some kind of white saviour figure with his obsession with putting his talents to best use sustaining and helping reinvigorate jazz very quickly reach the end of credulity (the limit of his ambition in this regard is to open a jazz club, and thus provide a platform for artists like himself, rather than to become the king of all jazz musicians), it’s hard to ignore the strident, rather strained aspect to the dramatic development whereby he becomes a member of Keith’s ensemble and finds roaring success in a band that offers a squishy melange of pop, soul, and jazz.
Chazelle offers one major performance scene for this outfit, during which Mia glances about in bewilderment over the crowd’s enjoyment and Seb’s apparent selling out. Although this song isn’t anything particularly special either, it reminded me a little of the scene in Dreamgirls (2006) when “One Night Only,” the unctuously meaningful ballad, was restaged as disco schlock: the “bad” song is more entertaining than the “good” ones. Which might even be Chazelle’s point — I just don’t know. La La Land drops hints to a cultural thesis that it then keeps swerving to avoid stating in any depth. What it is officially is a bittersweet romance where Seb and Mia are pulled together and then apart by their aspirations, their mutual understanding of each other as artists who feed on creation and fade when caged but also knowing that life means compromise. Seb’s commitment to Keith’s band sees him forced to hang about for a publicity photo shoot whilst Mia performs the one-woman stage show he encouraged her to write, which seems to bomb badly, leaving Mia distraught enough with the state of her life to flee back to her home town. Seb tracks her there when he learns a casting agent saw her show and wants her to audition for a major part: Seb’s coaxing draws her back into action, and her audition piece is a testimony to the example of her bohemian relative whose life in Paris has inspired her ambition to be an actress. It’s a big-ticket moment that goes for all the feels and finally seems to flesh out aspects of Mia as a character even as it actually underlines how generic she is, and how carefully calculated this scene is.
Gosling and Stone’s chemistry, which first manifested in the otherwise dreadful Gangster Squad (2012), here at least gets some space to stretch its legs: they’re both very good at making you like them even when playing faintly insufferable parts, a gift that’s vital in selling Seb and Mia, particularly from Stone in her portrait of Mia’s squall of apocalyptic feeling following her seeming humiliation in staging her play. Whatever else it does, La La Land understands what movie stardom is about, its facility in transmuting loose ideas and assortments of emotional reflexes into creations of great power on screen. And yet I’ve seen other films that make far better use of both stars – take for interest Gosling’s other film of 2016, The Nice Guys, which allowed him to reference a host of classic comedic actors whilst also stitching together a dynamic portrait of a man lagging slightly out of reality’s time frame from a mixture of grief and booze. By comparison Seb never moves out of the status of a kind of human placard. The issue at the heart of the film, one that’s relatively original and specific, is slightly removed from the more familiar making-it concerns; it’s actually the attempt to delve into the problems that beset many show business relationships, the time spent apart enforced by asymmetric professional demands. This is the one theme attacked by Chazelle that doesn’t feel done to death. What’s interesting is that La La Land offers a kind of calculus to the modern audience about what it would find the hardest to deal with – career failure or romantic failure. The answer is given as both Mia and Seb gain everything they want except each other. So Chazelle skips forward a few years to when Mia is a success and married to some dude and has kids, and one night fate directs them into a club that proves to be Seb’s, his apparently very successful showcase for old-school jazz. Seb, spotting Mia in the crowd, plays the same piece that enticed her into the restaurant all that time ago, thus sending the film off into an extended fantasia that re-enacts their relationship more perfectly, to the point where they’re married with kids themselves.
This sequence finally blew my tolerance fuse with this film, as Chazelle here rips off the “Happy Endings” sequence at the end of New York, New York, in offering an upbeat restaging of the narrative as a full-bore, total-style facsimile of classic musical method. Except it’s been shorn of all the ironic meaning Scorsese offered his climax with, for “Happy Endings” converted the messy stuff of life into a vision that would seem joyful to some and a sour mockery to others, and also commented on the way Hollywood mines and distorts life, questioning the ways and reasons why we tolerate convenient lies. There’s no such subtext to what La La Land offers, in part because it’s avoided any dialectic between the false and real. For Chazelle, this is just another facet of his showmanship, sleight of hand pulled to suggest there was actually some depth to this coupling and to work his audience over. Meanwhile La La Land ultimately has nothing actually bad to say about Hollywood, the cult of celebrity or the problems of dreams deferred, except for the fact that the film industry tends to be so forward-looking that it has no time for the past – not a fault I’ve noticed besetting the Academy voters lately. Somewhat amazingly, although not a word was spoken in it, Girl Walk // All Day managed to say far more about the uneasy relationship between personal art and joy and capitalism and society, building to the wonderful moment when its heroine realised her seduction by consumerism was erasing her identity and she kicked off her store-bought finery, all scored to music that captured the vibrant clamour of modern pop culture’s manifold dimensions. By comparison, La La Land remains wedged in its comfortable, rather smug niche, challenging nothing, reinventing nothing.
Around the middle of this year, I found myself awake late at night watching the oldest films ever made on YouTube—that place where everything resides now, the whole memory of the technological age of art. I watched Thomas Edison’s first stuttering shorts with their subjects dancing or fighting or simply being, against depthless black backgrounds. It felt like an act of cabalism, looking beyond the fringe of living memory at people recalled from the dead, hovering in a void. By comparison the Lumiere brothers’ escape into the light and discovery of the world at large was like returning to the land of the living. What genius of the day it took to create such an art form. What genius lets me watch it today with a click of a button.
Around the same time, I went to a cinema to see Suicide Squad. The experience was an ordeal, from the film itself, a work that might have been fun but which had been rendered close to intolerable by poor editing and witless handling, to the multiple irritations of the screening itself–the overly dark picture, the teenage jerks in front of me insisting on filming part of the movie and uploading it to the vague interest of their friends. It was hard not to feel like I’d stumbled upon cinema’s death throes, done in by an age in which the idea of a movie has devolved into a series of delivery systems, feeding fragments of incoherent but striking information to be channelled into instant iconography, detached from any pleasure of narrative or shared experience. But by year’s end I had also had radically different filmgoing experiences: regardless of what I thought of the movies in question, I knew when sitting in the theatre with crowds watching the likes of Rogue One and La La Land that the communal dream of cinema is hardly dead. In fact, it might be more vital, in both senses of the word, than ever. 2016 has felt like a year of gearing for hard knocks and rude awakenings. But it’s also had its bright lagoons and blooming promises.
Make no mistake—2016 has been a rough year, that’s for sure. Cultural heroes have departed us with dismaying regularity, and the less said about certain political twists the better. Hollywood definitely hasn’t been immune. The US summer blockbuster season saw film after film ring big loud gongs both critically and at the box office, and the laziest assumptions of filmmaking’s Mecca seemed set to be ransacked right at a time when it can least afford it. Apart from Disney and its many octopoidal limbs, it’s hard to shake the feeling much of Hollywood has almost forgotten what its business is. But what seemed like a train-wreck in July steadily resolved instead into a phase of quiet strength and achievement and signs of a shifting pop zeitgeist; audiences hungry for fresher, sharper thrills have been gravitating towards mid-budget thrillers, and for attentive cinephiles there’s been a constant flow of fascinating, worthwhile movies. Which is, of course, not to say that the age of franchise filmmaking is at an end, not when Marvel and Lucasfilm are raking in cash hand over fist. We still want great sagas and epics. But we want them done well, and finally audiences seem to be voting with their feet more effectively.
Suitably, a certain battered, whatever-it-takes terseness has defined many protagonists this year, with most keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. The themes of besiegement, whether literal or spiritual or psychological, and of the fraught gathering of tribes only to find their axis has broken, have been obsessively touched upon. Following last year’s parade of collapsing systems, this year was all about getting through. A few mighty drama queens still made their presences felt, a la the damaged, frenetically needy mothers of the homecoming diptych Krisha and Little Sister, Ralph Fiennes’ gabby, sybaritic rogue in A Bigger Splash, and, more quietly but perhaps the most insistent of the lot, Toni Erdmann’s insinuating farceur father. But the year belonged more to the soldiers of extreme necessity, even in the year’s big, “fun” films. Roland Emmerich’s would-be throwback to ’90s pop jauntiness Independence Day: Resurgence, emphasised the damage and premature gravitas imbued by survival. The Star Wars franchise dug more deeply into the die-or-die grimness of the war film, offering up damaged and doomed heroes who finish up as backstory to someone else’s triumph. The very last scenes, a madcap, enthralling depiction of self-sacrifice whilst Darth Vader returned to his rightful place in the collective unconscious as emblem of marauding evil, came loaded with such symbolic and imagistic power that it seemed to capture something undefined about the year’s mood of dread. The Legend of Tarzan presented its never particularly talkative hero in battle with historical evil and deeply personal threat. Marvel came close to its finest moment in pitting its roguish gallery of heroes not against a great enemy but against each other, in Captain America: Civil War, which dramatized the very process of larkish venture shading into bleak and hateful interpersonal combat over deeply personal definitions of pain and history. The clash of titans in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice employed the same motif but with a different slant, presenting a battle of id and superego allowing ego to run rampant—a motif relevant in its own way. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room managed in a few quick, dense cinematic ideograms to sum up the extreme poles of political and civic discourse this year: idealistic but clueless hipsters, convinced a few blunt “fuck offs” to their enemies would dispel all opposition and carefully cultivate their dissident status, run headlong into potent, eagerly violent Nazis, whose downfall is that they’re not half as smart as they think they are.
Hell Or High Water
Tom Hanks’ eponymous hero of Sully was the epitome of the year’s heroes, a professional who brings utter cool and a cellular-level marriage of craft and intuition to a high-pressure situation, only visited with doubt under the scrutiny of a scourging public eye. Meanwhile the pilgrims of Paths of the Soul engaged in their arduous, infinitely repetitive journey to try to redeem the whole world. The couple at the heart of a pivot in law and culture in Loving stayed loyal and true in the midst of the world’s cacophony. Chris Pine’s heroes in The Finest Hours and Hell or High Water dealt with life’s storms with stern resolve, counterbalancing Ben Foster’s part in the latter, as the man who brings his own storms. Pine and his familiar compatriots of Star Trek Beyond couldn’t mourn their own defeat and the loss of their ship, instead forced to keep moving by any means possible to keep up the fight. The patriots of Anthropoid set out to kill a monster with the fixated nihilism of the intensely dedicated; those of Allied found themselves forced to question whether the profoundest loyalty is political or personal. The hero of Hacksaw Ridge endures ostracism, disdain, and finally war at its most savage without protection. Nat Turner offered himself as incantatory engine of revenge in The Birth of a Nation whilst Free State of Jones came under the domain of Matthew McConaughey’s glowing-eyed honky beneficence. Elle’s elegantly untraditional heroine refused to be reduced to victimhood, instead entrapping her rapist’s desire and perversity within her own until it is shrunken enough to conquer. The certain women of Certain Women coolly and patiently waited out the gnawing winters of the heart and the hapless Little Sister and her family fronted up to things that could be changed and things that couldn’t, its heroine fulfilling both sides of her titular role on the field of care and responsibility by any means on hand. The inhabitants of the Cemetery of Splendour contended with randomly cruel illnesses and multiple zones of reality. Amy Adams’ epitome of the human race in Arrival even had to put up with having her brain rewired and her future mapped out in excruciating detail, and learned to accept it.
Perhaps it’s apt that the western has been sputtering to life this year, evinced in Hell Or High Water, In a Valley of Violence, The Magnificent Seven, and Jane Got a Gun, being as it is a genre where hard-bitten, squinting antiheroes live wild and die free. Results differed. Hell or High Water, a Texas excursion for Scots director David Mackenzie, who has been made the sort of vexing films that illustrate the maxim “good is the enemy of great” for over a decade now, was a Peckinpah-esque exploration of the legacies of dispossession and violence past and present. The film struggled to find its feet with (sometimes literal) big signs announcing its themes and some familiar chestnuts of the Euro-director-goes-US mode, but the last half-hour sang with its eruptions of violence and genuinely ambivalent coda. In a Valley of Violence brought a similar blend of referential exactitude and shrewd dissection of the tropes of its chosen genre that defined Ti West’s earlier horror films, restaging the basic revenge drama in many a western as tale of mirroring misanthropy and brutal reckoning. The result was foiled only by West’s already familiar tendency to take refuge in formula when his ideas run out. Antoine Fuqua’s visit to the trail blazed by Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges occasionally caught the breeze of straightforward, cheery, bloodthirsty entertainment that once made the western so popular, giving Chris Pratt a death scene to die for. But Fuqua’s lead-footed filmmaking squelched any hope this film could live up to its models—that, and a fascinating refusal to engage with the same themes of class and race so important to those predecessors. Jane Got a Gun tried to bring a feminist tilt to the table, but failed to also offer an effective story or any pulse of excitement, playing out on all levels with strenuous inevitability. Suicide Squad was the grunge-tinted, contemporary variant on The Magnificent Seven, as a mob of variously low-rent, half-mad villains were pressganged to fight for…well, something or other. Whatever potential the film had was lost in a shit-storm of studio second-guessing and tired “fun” gimmickry.
Independence Day: Resurgence
Nonetheless, the superhero genre is definitely the modern-dress version of the western, following very similar templates—heroes with an edge over ordinary folk forced to answer their questions of the nature of justice and the meaning of community whilst fighting variations of the same essential moral dramas over and over. Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was met with merciless brickbats for trying to expand and deepen the superhero film’s palette. Whilst it did deserve some of the criticism, Snyder’s superior director’s cut restored heft and solidity, and it finally emerged as a work of real gravitas. And yet for all the huffing and puffing, the movie it wanted to be still only finally emerges in the last few fleeting minutes. Dawn of Justice isn’t the only one of this year’s whipping boys for which I found a little fondness. Independence Day: Resurgence was interminable when trying to outdo the original’s wholesale destruction porn, but curiously likeable elsewhere, particularly as it gave old pros Jeff Goldblum and Brent Spiner a chance to make me chuckle and offered Maika Monroe one of the year’s better action heroine roles. David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan was weighed down by an extremely lazy chase plot and a script that seemed determined to foil all its own impending climaxes. And yet Yates’ eye for epic filmmaking was evident, and his film offered an intelligently revisionist approach to its hero. Yates’ other film for the year, an extension of J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, renewed the franchise by backtracking. The result was at its best when simply having larkish fun and fell flat with the big picture game. Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was doomed to languish in its shadow as its frizz-haired auteur tried his hand at juvenile franchise cultivation. Burton couldn’t break out of the bland rhythms of slickly CGI-crusted Harry Potter wannabes, but his strong imagery, furtive understanding of adolescent proto-eroticism, and episodes of slyly nasty humour (like introducing Judi Dench only to feed her to a monster) made it a reasonably honourable discursion.
Star Trek Beyond
Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’ entry of the now rapidly expanding Star Wars mythos, was only serviceable on a dramatic level, but was jolted to life by the force of Edwards’ visuals and the sheer whatever-it-takes verve of his and his filmmaking team’s love of the material. Eternal rival Star Trek also had an entry this year: Star Trek Beyond was a similarly mixed bag but ranked as one of the year’s better FX blockbusters. The script, co-written by cast member Simon Pegg, actually understood how to pace and shape an adventure story and grasped the essence of the Trek brand, particularly as it pitched its heroes into amusingly generic Trekian locations. But it was also weighed down by a plot that bashed together concepts from the last four Trek films, including yet another quasi-terrorist villain with a grudge against the Federation. Justin Lin’s direction embodied the schism, drinking in scifi spectacle with an eye that easily dwarfed that of J.J. Abrams, but also offered jarringly hard-to-read action scenes. The film’s weak box office was undeserved but perhaps inevitable given how much air Abrams had let out of the tyre. X-Men: Apocalypse’s weak box office was, on the other hand, entirely deserved. Rarely has a once-noble franchise come to such an underpowered, apathetically written, acted, and directed turn, lumbering through the motions of killing off Magneto’s family yet again, and setting up Oscar Isaac as a villain of cosmic menace only to have him stand around waiting for the big gang-up finale—a sequence that did finally deliver some entertainment, but not sufficiently to redeem it. Marvel rival Doctor Strange was a splashy but entirely hacky entry in the superhero stakes from Scott Derrickson. The film was dotted with moments of cleverness, some vivid visuals and fun performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, but it foundered on its derivative and tony annexation of a more mystical wing of the Marvel realm, and failed that most basic of tests for this genre: it’s not in the slightest bit exciting. Tim Miller’s Deadpool, meanwhile, aimed at upending all familiar rules for this filmmaking mode, offering up a potty-mouthed antiheroic jerkwad as protagonist and making sport of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s self-seriousness. And yet it was the kind of curative that hurts more than the disease, a wad of collected internet memes passed off as antic cool.
The Neon Demon
Horror and thriller cinema proved extremely lively this year, benefiting from the disenchantment with the laborious parade of “big” movies. The second instalment of James Wan’s happily ridiculous The Conjuring series maintained the brand’s defining contrast between the loving, lively, generous impulses of its heroic, central married couple, and their line of work, which brings them into contact with forces of cosmic nihilism, this time around with a great supporting turn from Madison Wolfe as the victim of a demon’s possessive streak. Fede Alvarerz’s Don’t Breathe was a tolerable but trite and mechanical entry, depicting a home invasion with a nasty twist. Don’t Breathe desperately needed some of the hallucinatory gusto of the late Wes Craven’s similar The People Under the Stairs, but was faintly redeemed by its coal-black sarcasm in handling the idea of identity as fate—who could forget the turkey baster of doom? Jason Zada’s The Forest had an interesting setting, the “suicide” forest of Aokigahara by Mount Fuji, and a cool star, Natalie Dormer, but misused both in a half-hearted spookfest. Karyn Kusama bounced back from lacklustre blockbuster experiences to make the tense and smart The Invitation, which imagined the touchy-feely precepts of La La Land encounter culture as prelude to cathartic mass carnage. Perhaps the film I most anticipated this year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and it became conversely perhaps my biggest disappointment, though I still liked it in some ways. Refn’s craft, at once languorously aestheticized and patiently nasty, managed to tether together a raft of referential peccadilloes—classic Hollywood’s imperial egotisms and the mythology of its sacrificial young, the horny, id-welling chic of ’70s Euro-horror, the totemic force of Greek legend and the airy gloss of high-class consumer culture—into a heady stew replete with magnificent images. But it went on far, far too long and went down so many blind alleys before reaching its true reckoning that much of its minatory power evaporated.
Under The Shadow
Although more thriller than horror movie and technically really not even that, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals touched on similar territory to The Neon Demon in studying LA’s exalted spheres (and sharing cast member Jena Malone) counterpointed with harsh and menacing evocations of ambition falling foul of the nation’s dark heart. Ford evinced surprising gifts for generating suspense and envisioning pivots of horror to a degree that suggests he might eventually make a good noir director. But whereas Refn’s quotes of fashion art were satiric, Ford’s are merely displays of brand affectation, and his better work here dissolves amidst dumb ideas, like a pair of murdered bodies rhymed with a couple in bed, and a finale when revenge literally costs an eye for an eye, before the narrative cuts off in a place that reduces the whole affair to a sick joke. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow was similar to 2014’s The Bababook in portraying a mother’s claustrophobic haunting by a demon, set not in anodyne suburbia, but in Tehran during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war and its stifling, paranoid, reactionary zeitgeist: Anvari’s cool direction only occasionally let slip visions of strangeness, sustained an eerie mood right to the end, and held its own metaphorical inferences tightly leashed until nearly the end. Meanwhile, Robert Eggers’ The Witch gained plaudits as a horror film that took on the foundational struggles of European colonisation in America and its lingering credos. For myself, I’m still not sure how much I like it. Eggers’ eye is undoubtedly excellent, some of his images sear, and his sustained mood of dread was deeply effective. But the film’s supposedly radical tilt is actually pretty familiar for horror fans.
10 Cloverfield Lane
One of the year’s more surprising winners was Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, triangulating scifi and psychological thriller, sustaining a genuinely intense and unsettling note of dislocation and apocalyptic mystery until nearly the end, whilst maintaining a gloss of pop cinema fun. Terrific performances from the perpetually underrated John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead helped. And I can’t help but admit a little, sneaky enjoyment of one of the year’s bigger critical and commercial failures, Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a work that tried to combine Regency manners and Romero splatter with a certain clunky, goofy zest. Jeremy Saulnier, whose Blue Ruin didn’t quite live up to its hype for me even as it marked an interesting debut, returned with the superb Green Room, a film with a genuinely Carpenter-esque sense of efficiency and drive. On top of its political inferences, it’s a film that offers sympathy for everyone by the end and actually manages to restore some of the fear of death and mutilation to a genre that too often treats both as playful pyrotechnics. Kudos in particular to the late Anton Yelchin and the marvellous Imogen Poots.
The Jungle Book
Making account of this year’s bad and mediocre films does require some time and effort. Timur Bekmambetov’s remake of Ben-Hur broke my personal record for turning off a film, when its opening frames insisted on taking me to the start of the chariot race, with Morgan Freeman’s stentorian voice delivering nonsensical narration, and the actors playing Judah and Messalah swapping lines of dialogue with all the conviction of two high schoolers who get involved with theatre club to meet girls. Jack Huston, one of those actors, has been a promising talent, but probably won’t get another leading role until 2033. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was another fascinating example in how, if one can master certain arts of high-pressuring an audience through relentless use of editing and audio stunts, one can be taken as a genius even if the raw material of one’s art is tepid schlock. The climactic scene of a Chinese general explaining the plot by way of a supposedly casual encounter remembered/foreseen by its heroine was the stuff of broad lampooning, whilst the movie as a whole bested Interstellar for reducing the apparatus of cosmic awe to the meal of TV melodrama. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book was one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial hits, a real display of Disney’s regal force of production values. But although it was entertaining, there was something pleasantly trite about its glossy, photorealistic but essentially nondescript CGI animals, duly solid depiction of Rudyard Kipling’s fantasia, and half-hearted annexation of the 1964 film’s musical aspect. Also the attempts to beef up the mythic and heroic side of Kipling’s story proved awkward, as in the finale when young Mowgli, marked for death by intolerant Shere Khan for his kind’s carelessly destructive ways, proves his point by behaving in a carelessly destructive way—but he’s the hero, so it’s okay.
Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War trod arduously through their mythic-heroic guff composed of utterly flavourless drama and purely rote, appropriated scenes. Even Steven Spielberg couldn’t entirely escape the air of enervation that hovered around so much of this stuff this year. Although his The BFG was clearly personal and intriguingly muted, it felt weirdly flimsy and miscalculated, a gigantic project couched in intimate whimsy that desperately lacked a meaty story and compelling, detailed characters. Whilst by no means bad, it stands as the director’s biggest bust since the not-so-dissimilar Hook. The year’s most disgraceful entry from a major director was Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, a staggeringly bad romp through a fantasy realm carefully wrought to evoke the computer game it was based on whilst obeying no laws of aesthetics, physical logic, or storytelling sense. Far from legitimising such adaptations, Warcraft instead described just about everything wrong with modern filmmaking, from pulverising its good cast into a lump of indistinguishable blandness to failing utterly to convey any feel for fantasy cinema, offering something more like a gamer convention promo reel gone berserk. Paul Feig’s remake of Ghostbusters, meanwhile, became a cause celebre for all the wrong reasons. For all the hype and hate, the actual movie proved about as thrilling as a bucket of warm spit, a total failure of wit and invention sporting an array of tepid pseudo-improv comedy, weak heroes and villains, and empty, characterless special effects. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth did more for the film than it did for them. Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows started intriguingly as a gap-year take on Jaws with an emphasis on minimalist menace, promising a rock-solid thrill ride. But it quickly sank amidst clichés and contrivances before revealing itself as the most elaborate game of hot lava ever played, with added Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue appeal. Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen was the shit-smeared caboose of the long post-Die Hard action movie train.
J. Blakeson, whose debut, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, was so impressive a few years ago, returned at last, helming the eye-twistingly silly YA actioner The 5th Wave. The Divergent series went belly-up with the incident-free Allegiant, proving you can push the “let’s split the last book in two” adaptation process way too far. Tate Taylor, who at the moment is a serious candidate for the worst director in Hollywood, took on this year’s bestselling blockbuster adaptation, The Girl on the Train, and managed to waste Emily Blunt’s customarily good lead performance by shooting a supposedly creepy and intense thriller with all the propulsion and authority of a feminine hygiene commercial. There was some real bullshit amongst the year’s well-reviewed, classy fare too. Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship was Suicide Squad for people frustrated they never went to Oxford. Jeff Nichols’ first of two films for the year, Midnight Special, was an initially intriguing attempt to blend Nichols’ moody, big-things-happen-to-small-people motif first mooted on Take Shelter with tributes to ’80s Spielberg and Carpenter, but finished up boring me silly with its fuzzy, hole-ridden plot, unearned emotional ploys, and banal visualisations of the miraculous: the finale offered a magic, invisible city that looked disturbingly like the one in Tomorrowland, a place no one should have to return to. Rufus Norris’ London Road was an intriguing, radical-sounding project, adapted from a stage musical that used real interviews of the inhabitants of the title street where a serial killer lived as the libretto for its stuttering tunes, but the result was revealing only in how little such heavy lifting achieved. Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s return to profitable stomping grounds, Jason Bourne, had one fine set-piece, a chase staged in the midst of an Athens riot, but proved so listless and unoriginal as a whole that it didn’t just bore me, but also made me wonder if I’d actually enjoyed the earlier films in the series.
Ben Stiller also tried to revive a beloved character engaged in international assassinations and conspiracy for Zoolander 2, and blimey if I didn’t get a few chuckles out of the resulting stew, even if it lacked the blindsiding nerve that made the original memorable, instead memorialising its own formula. On the other hand, Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army revived the loveable old TV show but expended a perfect cast on hoary shenanigans and made the canonical mistake of such revivals by imposing an unfunny major character and resulting new dynamics on the classic template. Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows exasperated me last year, returned with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a tribute to bygone days of New Zealand’s comic outlaw movies and the wider pantheon of ’80s genre film: here Waititi’s true chops emerged, adroitly mixing authentic sentiment and pop culture-inflected waggishness. Abe Forsyth’s Down Under took on a disturbing major event of recent Australian history, the ethnically charged 2005 Cronulla Riots, and offered shots of effectively weird humour, but its attempt to segue from broad, caricatured satire to violent, darkly telling parable was ultimately laboured. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man tried to mate hipster philosophical concerns—the nature of life and how to meet girls—with body humour, and got a surprisingly long way on that odd mixture, only to fall foul of a near-inevitable exhaustion of inspiration well before it ended. Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s Sausage Party tackled a similar mixture of authentically heady themes and raunchy humour and worked rather better, in part because as well as a spicy parable in favour of hedonism and against prescribed blinkering, it was also a much-needed burlesque of the now well-worn Pixar animation formula.
Shane Black’s The Nice Guys was doomed to be cited as the kind of great nonspecial-effect-driven film everybody claims to want more of but then doesn’t go to see, as, in spite of its top-line cast and strong reviews and crowd-pleasing tilt, it bombed hard at the box office. For me, Black’s raucous blend of black humour and retro action was often great fun and enabled an array of terrific performances from stars familiar (Russell Crowe), maturing (Ryan Gosling), and fresh (Margaret Qualley, Angourie Rice, Yaya DaCosta). But it also played the same hand one or two times too many, and wasn’t always so sharp at telling its great ideas from the ordinary. Gosling also featured in the film that will probably win all of this year’s Oscars, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film that seeks to wrap its audience in a fervent recreation of musical aesthetics past whilst telling a mildly bittersweet tale about love going awry whilst careers catch fire. The pretty photography and Gosling’s chemistry with Emma Stone distracted from the fact it’s a neutered New York, New York (1977) knock-off that does precious little that’s genuinely creative or incisive, littered with utterly forgettable songs and choreography. Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle blended drollery and bloodletting but in a very different fashion to The Nice Guys, applying the fuzzily realist aesthetics of contemporary indie cinema to a Civil War-era tale of two brothers sent along different paths with the thesis that people back then were just as confused, listless, and hapless as we are today—only the tides pushing them around were stronger. Jim Jarmusch’s charming, ambling Paterson was an ode to creativity as a life-force for ordinary people, couched in typically timeless, oddball terms by its writer-director and littered with lovely performances. But as a whole I didn’t enjoy it as much as its immediate predecessor Only Lovers Left Alive, for whilst Jarmusch’s feel for neurasthenic cool is undeniable, I doubt he could find actual normality with a road map.
Don’t Think Twice
Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice was a film about comedy and the kinds of people who create it, exploring the tension between public artistic idealism and private expectation that eventually it had better start paying off: the film’s rueful portrait of the resulting crisis was affecting but never really proved as compelling, or funny, or insightful, as it wanted us to find it. Robert Edwards’ One More Time also depicted the pleasures and pains of a life in show business, offering Christopher Walken and Amber Heard a diverting if unmemorable vehicle as a waned crooner and his shambolic wannabe daughter. Two entries in the very familiar indie film subgenre depicting tense reunions of dysfunctional families gained strong plaudits this year. Zach Clark’s Little Sister was the lighter in spite of dealing with suicidal tendencies and gruesome disfigurement, whilst Trey Edward Shults’ stylistically harder-edged Krisha portrayed the fallout of addiction. Both films revolved around the impact of a self-destructive mother steeped in countercultural cool but now just a wash-up with ironically square kids (a theme also echoed in Toni Erdmann). Clark’s film offered rather too many cute ironies left insufficiently explored, and political themes that never came into focus beyond indicting the smugness of the bourgeois lefty style many felt the Trumpista victory was comeuppance for. But it had a fine touch for the ways people who love each other find ways both oblique and direct to make contact.
A Bigger Splash
Krisha, by contrast, came on strong but also blunt, laying on pathos and cinematic manipulation with a trowel, held together mostly by the deeply convincing portrait of fraying human will at its heart: its suggestion that some people can’t help laying waste to everything even when they don’t want to was fittingly cruel, but Shults’ tricky direction kept bad faith with the audience and struck one note for 80-odd minutes. Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash sprawled out with glorious energy and eccentric humour with underlying menace for its first two-thirds as it explored the lives of the variously careless and rapaciously sensual, but then, after segueing into a fateful act of violence, left itself painfully beached without any idea where to go next. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women was rapturously received by many. I liked it, although I can’t quite see what the big deal here is—stepping back from the genuinely original, cryptic indie-noir of Night Moves, Reichardt here offered a triptych of suggestive portraits where all the details feel as a carefully arranged as your grandmother’s crystal collection. Excellent performances and a great last 20 minutes did make the film worthy, however. Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, on the other hand, gripped from the get-go with its enigmatic but almost physically exciting portrait of isolation within community, taking up a conceit similar to last year’s The Falling but more effectively, respecting the mystery it invoked but clearly understanding the unruly heart of youth.
Simon Stone’s The Daughter likewise revolved around the power and fragility of youth on the cusp, transposing Henryk Ibsen’s The Wild Duck to Tasmania’s drizzly heartland with respectable if sometimes heavy-footed results, swapping Ibsen’s cool tragedy for soap operatics on occasion, but retaining an architectural solidity. I preferred it all in all to the film that overshadowed it on Aussie award nights, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. That film was a big, bristling, very broad tribute to the clichés of war films past and a celebration of Gibson’s overwrought but curiously compulsive worldview, his happily boldfaced, confessional purging, his storytelling savvy, and his love of thrilling butchery—all peculiarly enjoyable when taken as pure theatre. Allied saw Robert Zemeckis similarly delving into classic movie lore with a less personal but more peculiar, intriguing bent, starting off with obvious touchstones—a spy romance set initially in Casablanca, of all places, replete with we-saw-Inglourious Basterds-isms—before turning into a darkly romantic portrait of marital distrust and sacrifice in the context of onerous official duty and collective paranoia, spiralling in towards intimate reckoning rather than explosive theatrics. It could well be Zemeckis’s best film, and certainly his determination to unmask the mobile orgy the war obliged might count as a historical duty. Another director who started, like Zemeckis, as a screenwriter in the heady days of New Wave Hollywood, is Terrence Malick. Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups, received an indifferent reception upon release early in the year. Understandable, I suppose—after all, it was just another magnificently shot, feverishly edited, astonishingly acted visionary confession-cum-tone-poem exploring a deeply personal zone of experience through a universalised lens.
As usual, the major yardstick for would-be seriousness in this year’s high-end fare was a basis in some suitable real-life tale. That most esteemed of Hollywood veterans, Clint Eastwood, returned with Sully, another study in the ambivalence of myth-making as backdrop to the reality of valour. Few films of recent years have been so efficient, so concerted, and even the somewhat overworked bureaucrat bashing aspect was kept contained by Eastwood’s complex yet entirely lucid assemblage. Meanwhile eternal try-hard Peter Berg released two based-on-a-true-story fob-jobs this year, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day. Deepwater Horizon was the only one I saw: bolstered by a strong supporting performance from Kurt Russell, who proved he still commands the screen like an ageing but still ornery beast of the veldt, this one built to an impressive but curiously, cumulatively pointless recreation of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Good thing dramatic niceties and a nick-of-time fade-out relieved the film of the responsibility of noting one of the worst environmental catastrophes of all time resulted from these events, which were all apparently the fault of nasty, weirdly accented John Malkovich. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was a similarly pumped-up take on recent headlines, inflating controversial events that cost the life of a US diplomat and military personnel as a kind of neo-Alamo, but at least Bay’s showmanship was sufficiently madcap to serve as an end in itself. Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, unlike Berg and Bay’s films, was not officially based on a true story but lightly fictionalised some familiar aspects of the War on Terror and its strange new battlefields into the texture of its drama for the purpose of introducing the audience to the simultaneously detached and nightmarishly intimate world of drone warfare. Whilst not quite wielding the same bleak and alien power, it could be counted as a modern-day take on something like Fail-Safe (1964) as a chamber drama of conscience versus necessity.
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa returned to the kind of preposterous yet fact-based story they cut their teeth on with I Love You, Phillip J. Morris in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film that offered Tina Fey and Martin Freeman welcome breaks from their more familiar parts, playing nerds transformed into wild cards in the midst of Afghanistan war reporting, but the film which could have been the MASH of the ’10s proved rather a few swear words away from being Private Benjamin instead. Natalie Portman had a much better time impersonating Jacqueline Kennedy and finding a lode of determination under her bob and Nob Hill accent in Jackie, the first of a superlative one-two punch from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, the other being Neruda, an inspired poetic twist on the usual hagiography. Don Cheadle suggested some real directorial chops in the snappy, colourful frames of Miles Ahead, a portrait-biography of Miles Davis, and Cheadle’s impersonation of the jazz great was suitably exact. But the facetious script eventually proved the opposite of Sully in that its showy structure led nowhere whilst its insights remained skin-deep. Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid, depicting the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the heroically futile battle for survival by his patriot killers, confused recreating scenes from generations of spy thrillers for noble filmmaking, and the results just serviceable. Mick Jackson’s Denial explored a moment of subtle but consequential import in the history of history, depicting the slow skewering of Holocaust denier David Irving, but David Hare’s script proved a textbook for study of now-familiar screenwriting tricks for this sort of thing—convenient conflict here! contrived misunderstanding there!—and Rachel Weisz’s annoyingly broad lead performance didn’t help matters. Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert depicted the life of Gertrude Bell, architect of nations and fool of fortune. Although generally dismissed and dumped on the home viewing market, I found this one quietly rapturous in recreating the brand of stoic, yet often blindingly intense romanticism at the crux of war, peace, man, woman, east and west: only James Franco’s miscasting proved a drag.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation looked set to be one of the films of the year, with director-star Parker receiving ovations at Sundance with his project which, in theory, sounded inspired—recounting the tale of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion and stealing the title of D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-glorifying epic, aiming to angry up the blood. But something went wrong: Parker’s dubious past became, perhaps unfairly, a sticking point for easy acceptance. More to the point, the film was a troubling chimera, with its best traits, a sense of moral torpor and lurking unease blooming into outright horror, owing too much to 12 Years a Slave (2013), and its lesser to a well-thumbed playbook of righteous avenger movies resolving in clumsily staged action scenes whilst suggesting, dismayingly, that laundered, manipulative history was the answer to the same. Jeff Nichols’ Loving ventured to explore the marrow-deep malignity of racist legacies and the challenge to it via the experiences of the so-aptly named Lovings and their consequential victory for marriage freedom in the late 1960s. Nichols’ feel for place and lifestyle was truly evocative here, but as it went along, the usual lapses of Nichols’ style manifested, particularly over-length, whilst the central, essential portrayal of the couple strained to celebrate them as quiet and decent but proved on closer inspection sentimentalised and vacant instead, offering plaster saints rather than real people, with the cumulative effect of locking all potential dramatic power in amber. Still, Ruth Negga, who also gave Warcraft its sole flicker of life, maintained dignity. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures played a more populist key in recounting the stories of black women mathematicians working for NASA in the early 1960s: there’s a more serious and memorable movie lurking somewhere within, but the one around it has its moments.
Radu Jude’s Aferim! trod a sneakier path towards a truer depiction of human absurdity and cruelty as it roamed around historical Romania, a place hovering on the threshold of modernity’s transformations whilst still subsisting in a medieval past, showing how we all learn to acquiesce to wrong and injustice when it’s painted as eternal truth and if our paycheque depends on it. Jacques Audiard’s Cannes winner from last year, Dheepan, finally surfaced this year in English-speaking markets. Audiard’s usually riveting gifts for blending raw sociology and dramatic daring with genre filmmaking proclivities here failed to fuse properly, but the result was still intriguing in its depiction of total personal and social dislocation and the peculiar malleability of identity, trying to wedge itself into the grey zone between Kafka and De Palma’s Scarface. Chan-Wook Park’s The Handmaiden, which appeared at this year’s festival, was much hailed as a lush and loopy transposition of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith to Korea in the 1930s. This was another one everyone seems to have loved but me: I find Park’s filmmaking, eager as it is to claim the mantle of great cinematic sensualists and impresarios, to be a big hollow gong, his themes announced in unmistakeable brass booms, his eroticism slick and cold even (or especially) when it’s trying to be celebratory. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s follow-up to her great Attenberg was Chevalier, a would-be droll parable lampooning male anxieties and power games with a hint of political inference: some of its arrows landed deep and true and some images were sharp and funny. But the film, like its characters, kept going long after it had forgotten what the point was, if there ever was one.
Tsangari’s fellow Greek tyro Gyorgos Lanthimos made his English-language debut with The Lobster, one of the year’s arthouse hits. Offering a twisted exacerbation of contemporary life’s obsession with sex and coupling as a retro-futurist dystopia, Lanthimos mixed comedy, horror, even romanticism in his stylised, deliberately (?) stilted context. At its best, it was jarring and disturbing in confronting human nature, but on other levels it was also just an inflated Monty Python sketch, and I absorbed it more in dazed fascination than real enjoyment or deep contemplation. Meanwhile in Germany, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann found general acclaim blending chilly realism and deadpan absurdity in depicting a mischievous father trying to prod his grown daughter, a serf to corporate life, to make some needed displays of undisciplined behaviour. Although the film had its fitful comic coups, and in spite of a nearly three-hour running time, it remained evasive in its characterisations and hackneyed in its supposedly biting critique of high capitalist behaviour, dressing up what was essentially an inflated Neil Simon three-act in the full regalia of Euro-cinema provocation. By comparison with such fastidious quirk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour was so delicate and sublimely well-fashioned, it barely seemed to be there, and yet it accumulated like summer mist on leaves until the finest patina of brilliance appeared as it drifted through ages and states of being with wry and melancholy grace. Yang Zhang’s Paths of the Soul, the first mainland Chinese film to deal with Tibetan Buddhism, engaged in spiritual themes in a more worldly yet no less mesmeric fashion, lifting the spirits by studying the unyielding dedication of the truly faithful and its more secular celebration of teamwork and trust. Way over in France, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle proved a tour de force for the filmmaker even as he ceded so much of its intent and effect to star Isabelle Huppert, who responded by giving a performance made of vulcanised rubber. The harder she was hit, the faster and straighter she flew.
Performances of Note:
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Luke Evans, High-Rise
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Taissa Farmiga, In A Valley of Violence
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Sienna Guillory, High-Rise
Tom Hanks, Sully
Amber Heard, One More Time
Royalty Hightower, The Fits
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon
Ruth Negga, Loving
Sam Neill, Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Daughter
Chris Pine, The Finest Hours; Hell or High Water
Jenjira Pongpas, Cemetery of Splendour
Imogen Poots, Green Room
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie
Addison Timlin, Little Sister
John Travolta, In a Valley of Violence
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Madison Wolfe, The Conjuring 2
Odessa Young, The Daughter
Ensemble: Knight of Cups
Ensemble: Paths of the Soul
A blackly comic yet casually tragic journey through Romanian history, Aferim! viewed the past through black and white photography to present a remembrance that refused to offer monochrome morality, an attempt to diagnose national ills and deliver a finale that succeeds as sad pivot for a young man’s maturation and a study of the blend of arbitrary human constructs we call reality.
Thai filmmaker Weerasethakul’s latest was nominally slighter and even less overtly fantastical compared to his earlier work, but his vision has arguably never been more lucid or imaginative. When so many films struggle to pinion us in our seats with vistas of soporific spectacle, Weerasethakul here evokes multiple planes and states of being with pure language of mouth and eye, and, like the hospital that is his film’s setting, provides an islet of enigma and contemplation in the midst of a modern world bellowing in our faces.
Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Signalling that Verhoeven’s cinema has become cooler and more insidiously methodical in his late phase, Elle shows he’s lost none of his characteristic provocation, the taste of arsenic under the heady aroma of this stew. Isabelle Huppert’s effortlessly commanding performance is the linchpin of a study that both totally fulfils and makes ruthless sport of the cultural grail that is the Strong Female Character, portraying a heroine who refuses to be judged by anyone’s standards but her own.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
Sparse, cryptic, finally ecstatic, an American descendent of such bastions of European social cinema as The 400 Blows and the Dardennes that nonetheless feels original, this study in a young black girl’s desire for acceptance and communal identity amidst a mysterious outbreak of paroxysms amongst a team of talented dancers provided one of the best portraits of inner-city life ever put on screen.
The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie)
Nobody but me seemed to like this, but I found this throwback to an old-fashioned kind of adventure film a tonic amongst so many lumbering, bludgeoning big movie misfires, unabashedly corny but heartfelt and ravishingly shot. With its populace of hearty seafarers and flinty New Englanders, it was like an old Saturday Evening Post cover brought to life, and more successfully Spielbergian than the real Spielberg film of this year.
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
Straddling zones of horror, thriller, even western, Green Room quickly proved that Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier has his ear to the ground in ways I couldn’t anticipate, depicting the political schisms manifest this year in the manner of all great genre cinema—by enacting them at wild extremes. The result was hard, fast, and beautiful in the precision of its ugliness.
A portrait of Western civilisation’s crack-up as viewed through a lens of retro perversion, High Rise is the companion piece to Green Room’s diagram of 2016’s grotesqueness, contemplating the breakdown of a human and technological system that lays bare the workings of the social organism and suggests the strange, hideous, thrilling things that might take place.
A tawdry wing of current prestige cinema, the week-in-the-life biopic, is annexed by Latin America’s most dynamic current talent and transformed into something thrilling in Jackie, a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her President husband’s assassination. The result is intelligent, investigative, and pungently unsentimental in its portrait of both intense personal horror and grief, and the construction of political mythology. Meanwhile, companion piece Neruda more quietly but just as radically dissects the role of the artist in society. Both films encompass the process turning life into fiction and fiction into the template of a new reality.
Knight of Cups offered the third and least celebrated of Malick’s unofficial trilogy exploring the state of modern life, coming on like a natural force in the relentlessness of its images and associations, replete with wide-eyed good humour as well as tragic force and fatalistic awe in its consideration of the manifold ways of humans being. Someday, it will be counted as a great shame no one was interested when such filmmaking was still being made.
Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang)
The first Chinese film to deal with contemporary Buddhist faith blends documentary with gentle drama for a hypnotic experiential work depicting the quest of a small band of the faithful from a small Tibetan town who undertake a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, kowtowing all the way, for the sake of not just their own souls but the whole world. In a year of massive shows of wilful ignorance and collective sparring, this experience made me sad for wondering whether we are worth such dedication.
Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog)
Another dismissed artefact by an ageing auteur, Queen of the Desert set out to be the anti-Lawrence of Arabia in style and substance, its lensing immediate rather than grandiose, desert surveys dusty and grey rather than radiantly expansive, its depictions of people and cultures intimate rather than mythic. Apt, for a tale that envisions the life of its heroine Gertrude Bell as moments of fleeting grace and escape and the desert an ocean of peace but only a respite from civilisation’s perversities. The result is that most contradictory of propositions: a romantic Werner Herzog movie.
Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time: (to be updated)
10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder) Captain America: Civil War(Anthony & Joe Russo) Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt) Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi) In a Valley of Violence (Ti West) Little Sister (Zach Clark) The Lobster (Gyorgos Lanthimos) Men Go To Battle (Zachary Treitz) Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) Rogue One (Gareth Edwards) Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin)
Disappointing, Overrated, & Underwhelming
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve) Deadpool (Tim Miller) Free State of Jones (Gary Ross) The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook) La La Land (Damien Chazelle) Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman) Loving (Jeff Nichols) Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols) The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn) Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
The Fifth Wave (J. Blakeson) Ghostbusters (Paul Feig) The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor) X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer) Warcraft (Duncan Jones)
20th Century Women ∙ Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk ∙ Captain Fantastic ∙ Christine ∙ Cosmos ∙ Fences ∙ Gold ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ Indignation ∙ Julieta ∙ Live By Night ∙ Louder Than Bombs ∙ The Mermaid ∙ Neon Bull ∙ Passengers ∙ Personal Shopper ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ Silence ∙ The Treasure ∙ A War ∙
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2016:
Bird of Paradise (King Vidor) The Cat O’Nine Tails (Dario Argento) The Edge of the World (Michael Powell) A Hatful of Rain (Fred Zinneman) Marooned (John Sturges) Nazarin / The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel) Outrage (Ida Lupino) Phantasm (Don Coscarelli) Rapture (John Guillermin) Road Games (Richard Franklin) Rodan / Mothra (Ishiro Honda) They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray) Transylvania (Tony Gatlif) The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman) The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg)
Compared to the electric expectation stirred by last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the build-up to the release of Rogue One has felt comparatively muted. Or at least it has to me, because I felt particularly uneasy about what to expect. J.J. Abrams’ reboot for the Star Wars brand was a lovingly-made mediocrity, and seemed to presage a revived Disney-steered series without any boldness or fresh ideas, a bracing new trio of heroes surrounded by efficient but hollow mimicry and Pavlovian responses wrung out through careful employment of beloved fixtures. Rogue One, set between the first two trilogies in George Lucas’s deathless fantasy universe, sports a director and star I felt unsure about and rehashes old territory. Gareth Edwards, a special effects expert turned director, is the helmsman here: Edwards’ Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2014) were ambitious, impressively mounted attempts to bring anxiety and artistry back to the monster movie genre, but both movies were foiled by Edwards’ unpersuasive dramatic touch. Rogue One had the potential to simply finish up a pile of good-looking spare parts and cheap call-backs for the fan base. Given that I’ve expended a lot of time and effort in the past defining my appreciation for Lucas’ much-derided but substantial and waywardly fascinating, romantically outsized prequel trilogy, I also felt a little threatened by this entry, which seemed poised to be the kind of film those works refused to be. This entry is determined to slavishly recapitulate aspects of Lucas’ 1977 inaugural blockbuster Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, as Rogue One’s narrative quite literally brings us back to the opening seconds of A New Hope. As such it’s an overt work of retro ventriloquism, cloaked in borrowed finery, fan fiction with multimillion dollar heft.
Early signs aren’t greatly encouraging either. Edwards and his duo of very professional, almost overly-competent screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz, insist on recreating familiar beats for the series barely a year after Abrams did the same on The Force Awakens: thus at the beginning we have another wounded, vengeful young tyro created as the Empire’s violence costs her family members, and leaves her forced to fend for herself. In this case the aggrieved character is young Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon), who loses her family as a child, as Imperial commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives on the remote planet to which her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) and mother Lyra (Valene Kane) have fled to lead quiet lives as farmers. Galen, a former Imperial officer and scientific genius who was working on the construction of the Death Star, had renounced his work, but Krennic is determined to pressgang him back into service and use his family as leverage. But Lyra is gunned down as she tries to shoot Krennic and the Stormtroopers fail to track down Jyn, who, recalling a foreboding plea of her father’s to remember all his actions are intended to protect her, hides out until located by a friend of her father, the dissident warrior Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whittaker). Years later, Jyn, having grown into the big-eyed, puffy-lipped form of Felicity Jones, is in an Imperial forced labour camp for incorrigible types. She was raised by Saw but then was suddenly abandoned to drift on the winds of fate, and now she’s an embittered, apolitical survivor and all-round tough cookie. But the Rebel Alliance busts her out of prison and offers her a chance to escape the yoke of law and history.
Thanks to the intelligence gathering of hardened Alliance spymaster Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Alliance knows that Saw has received a message from Galen, delivered by a former Imperial pilot turned defector, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who is currently being brutally interrogated by Saw to ascertain whether he’s a fake or not. Because the Alliance broke off ties with Saw as he drifted into extremism and obsession, they want Jyn to approach him to find out what’s going on. They team her with Cassian and send them to the city of Jedah on a remote planet where the crystals used to power Jedi lightsabers were once extracted: the place has been strip-mined by the Empire for fuel for the Death Star. A Jedi temple used to be located here, and now its scattered caretakers subsist and stir trouble whilst Saw’s adherents fight a guerrilla war with the Imperial soldiers. Jyn and Cassian gain helpmates in two of the former temple caretakers, Chirrut Ïmwe (Donnie Yen), and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). They’re also aided by a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). After ambushes and skirmishes in the streets of Jedah, this ragged band is captured by Saw’s fighters and brought to him. In Saw’s company, Jyn is privy to a holographic message from her father brought by Bodhi, in which he explains the flaw he’s laboured to install in the Death Star’s seemingly invincible defences. But Krennic, in command of the now complete and utterly deadly space station, annihilates Jedah and surrounding territory with a shot from its mighty energy weapon, forcing our heroes to flee, except for Saw, who, seeing his labours have found a fitting point of handover, remains to be swept away in the blast. With the proof of her father’s plan lost in the chaos, Jyn immediately faces the problem of attesting Galen’s good faith, a problem that becomes urgent as the Alliance orders Cassian to go to the planet of Eadu where Galen works at an Imperial research facility, and kill him.
I find Rogue One a tricky movie to critique because it stirred many, contradictory reactions in me, simultaneously annoying my critical faculties and getting my blood pumping. Although it bends over backwards to recreate familiar sights and sounds from A New Hope, it also uses that template as an excuse to shift ground just a few inches and avoids leaning too much on the regulation touchstones of the series, like John Williams’ inimitable theme, and the familiar structural conceits like the Star Wars title appearing abruptly on screen, only incorporating such touches when dramatically necessary. Rogue One instead suddenly and jaggedly announces its title, and Michael Giacchino’s score disassembles and refashions elements of Williams’ compositions whilst maintaining their spirit. Aspects of Rogue One that fail to live up to the Star Wars legacy also help to make it a slightly more galvanising and vital take on the saga than The Force Awakens. It’s a straightforward war film on most levels, fast-paced, refreshingly hard-edged and ready to go to places on a thematic level the series hasn’t touched on much before, as it emphasises the cumulatively taxing and degrading nature not just of life under tyranny but also of the fight against it. Instead it draws out one aspect of Lucas’s foundational inspirations, the side of Star Wars that was rooted in action-adventure films set during World War 2, particularly adaptations of Alistair Maclean like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) and some older models like The Adventures of Tartu (1942), Secret Mission (1943), and The Dam Busters (1956). Aspects of the plot are so hallowed in the history of spy adventures that David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ great 1984 genre lampoon Top Secret! had basically the same storyline. The zesty, fairytale aspect of Lucas’ original creation has been largely suppressed here; so to has its greater conceptual scope and mythopoeic edge.
The stolidness of Gilroy and Weitz’s script isn’t entirely papered over by Edwards’ pacing and graphics, either. Gilroy’s a master of modern Hollywood’s programmatic story beats and a crinkle-browed idea of pop seriousness – witness his overrated thriller Michael Clayton (2007), which gave a coat of varnish to a mass of old furniture – whilst Weitz, though better known for comedies, directed the poky but weirdly likeable steampunk fantasy The Golden Compass (2007). That film’s bombing still seems to rankle Weitz, as he’s tellingly named his spunky heroine’s mother after its spunky heroine. Their script is much safer in affect than the archly stylised ye-olde-speak of Lucas’s prequels, so many will probably think it’s good, but it’s actually littered with thudding lines, and major characters remain fuzzily defined and lacking memorable traits. It serves, in a strange way, to highlight just how classically constructed and patient the original was, with its slam-bang opening quickly segueing into a long, almost shambling first act that put together its story and gave a feel for the predicament of its characters in the face of a galactic-sized struggle: archetypes though they be, one knew exactly who Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the other characters of A New Hope were by the time they left Tatooine and rooted for them, warts and all. Here by contrast Rogue One’s first third is a stuttering engine that takes a long time to get up to speed even as it tries to drive us along breathlessly.
We set up not one but two father figures for Jyn, good actors Whittaker and Mikkelsen turning up for a few scant minutes where they provide grizzled gravitas, only then to kill them off for teary pathos. Whereas in A New Hope such losses were ritual rites of passage that mimicked familiar life processes in melodramatic terms, here they serve rather another, blunter purpose, as Jyn’s fate inevitably takes a different turn to Anakin and Luke’s. Similarly, there’s a lack of creativity in the storyline that betrays the filmmakers’ lack of any real immersion in the process of inventing science fiction and fantasy concepts for themselves. Instead, they build up to a big, brash edition one of the essential, tiresome clichés of recent blockbuster filmmaking: the big fight around a great tall structure to try and stop or send some kind of all-important signal. Another telling lack, one carried over from The Force Awakens, is a lack of interest in or delight for the alien, the sense of mischievous invention in creating life forms and worlds. Most of what we get here is just slightly transformed familiarities and a couple of hairy moppets and tentacular things given the odd cutaway shot. Perhaps Lucasfilm’s Disney paymasters are still to antsy about the bombardment Jar-Jar Binks received, and that’s fair enough, but we’re also being cheated of sequences as great and witty as the tavern sequence of A New Hope or characters as vivid as Yoda, Jabba, and Watto. On-screen casting diversity has become a mantra, and that’s something this entry does well, but diversity of personality and species is drying up quicker than the Salton Sea.
And yet, and yet. To a certain extent the problems of Rogue One cheer me more than The Force Awakens’ relentlessly considered, empty, focus-group-parsed idea of swashbuckling fun. It’s a work fashioned with both finicky attention and messy energy, one that finally gains and maintains real force in spite of all its hoary and lumbering elements. If the Star Wars saga has hitherto represented some surviving stem of the Homeric instinct in western art’s pop culture age, Rogue One is an authentically Euripedean discursion from it – touching base with all the familiar aspects of the mythology but also offering a considered takedown of some of its cherished motifs and a weighing up of what you could call the story behind the myth. Thus what becomes the great stage of heroism for Luke, Han, and Leia is seen to be built on the unstinting determination and sacrifice of others, and whose dedication somewhat ironically contrasts the faltering, Johnny-come-lately attitude of our more familiar champions. Our protagonists here are all battered outcasts looking for a way to hurt the forces of terror and iniquity as they in turn have been hurt, with Edwards emphasising the atmosphere of the Imperial control as one of general rundown, depression, deprivation and exploitation – notes repeatedly sounded in early scenes as Edwards darts between settings, particularly the grimy, packed, vertiginous environs of a city where Cassian meets with a jittery spy (Daniel Mays). Krennic’s motives are interesting if only sketched, sourced in his faith that the Death Star will finally bring about peace, echoing Anakin Skywalker’s reasons for turning Sith. Rogue One effectively links the original trilogies in both depicting the fallout of one set of events, the breakdown of a society, and setting the stage for a new pivot. Jimmy Smits makes a welcome if unfortunately brief reappearance as Bail Organa, Leia’s adoptive father, alongside Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma, both in parts they inherited in the prequels as leaders of the Rebels, giving the film a sense of continuity that feels genuinely necessary and cheering.
Much less necessary, even rather ghastly in fact, is the digital simulacrum of Peter Cushing used to represent his role in A New Hope, Grand Moff Tarkin, and, towards the end, of young Carrie Fisher’s Leia. These crappy animations, nominally employed to maintain a sense of immediate continuity, look like something out of a second-rate video game. It’s not even necessary, as O’Reilly’s ease demonstrates. Edwards’ exactitude also stretches less offensively to inserting shots of the some of the actors who play ill-fated X-Wing pilots in the original still in their heyday as hotshots in the Rebel fleet, a much better and salutary touch. Even Darth Vader returns for a couple of scenes to great effect, all his unholy stature, sardonic charisma, and psychopathic force undimmed, initially glimpsed in his private castle set amidst the landscape suggestively reminiscent of the place where he came undone at Obi-Wan’s hands at the end of Revenge of the Sith (2005). Tarkin attempts to lever command of the Death Star out of Krennic’s hands with the justification that Krennic has failed to keep tight security. Krennic visits Vader asking him for assurance his achievement will be credited to him and left in his hands, but the Dark Lord is barely interested in Krennic’s egotisms. Krennic also confronts Galen on Eadu, as he perceives Galen’s betrayal. This confrontation coincides with the urgent moment when Jyn tries to reach her father, whilst Cassian wrestles with the choice of obeying orders or helping Jyn to rescue Galen. A flight of X-Wings sent in by the Alliance to make sure of the question unfortunately decides for them, pulverising the facility.
The gloss and tactile quality of production that distinguished The Force Awakens has been carried over to this film and perhaps even bettered: Rogue One’s production values are always magnificent, and its special effects never less than persuasive. Better still, Edwards shows that he understands the sense of atmosphere, at once concrete and dreamlike, that is the great saga calling card. This is particularly true during the Eadu attack, filmed in a primal landscape of jutting stony mountains, drenching rain, and glowing technological outposts, the visit to Vader’s castle, places of and bleakly beautiful gothic scale and artisanal intricacy, and the sight of the Death Star in the sky like dawning doom. Edwards’ gifts at handling his cinematic canvasses in relation to human-level drama have strengthened, too. On the other hand, so much of the film is dismally underlit and shadowy, just like a few too many recent extravaganzas, affecting moodiness but actually simply trying to cover up any flaws in the effects. It’s telling that the first scene to shock Rogue One to life is one built around a display of physical rather than special effect showmanship, as Yen’s Ïmwe flattens a brace of Stormtroopers armed only with a quarterstaff. Yen’s dashing, lightning-fast moves and good-humoured incarnation of a character obviously inspired by the great Japanese movie hero Zatoichi, and Wiang’s equally fun incarnation of a common type of tough, big-barrel-wielding yeoman common in Chinese action films, gives Rogue One a jolt of authenticity both in the legerdemain on display and the connection to Asian genre film that’s also one of the more notable skeletons in the Star Wars closet. Ïmwe invokes the force throughout and uses it although not with a real Jedi’s competence, but otherwise Rogue One stays true to theme of mystic and spiritual depletion both internal and external that defines the Empire’s reign.
The film’s core dramatic moment comes when Jyn confronts Cassian over his willingness to assassinate her father, and his terse rejection of her harangue, as he’s suffered as much as she has and committed far worse crimes in the name of the Rebellion whilst she’s settled for subsisting on the sidelines. It’s really only here that Jyn and Cassian feel particularly lively as characters, defined by their grazing, mutual sense of righteous anger and defining loss which is of course also complicated by flickers of attraction. Jyn is interchangeable with The Force Awakens’ Rey in too many ways (with dashes of Katniss Everdeen too), to the point where she likewise sets a male counterpart’s eyebrows on high by taking down a few opponents with a stick (c’mon guys, it’s 2016). I don’t much like Jones as an actor and she trades on the same perpetual look of bee-stung hurt that got her through The Theory of Everything (2014) here: Jyn could have been a galvanising heroine but between the non-committal writing and Jones’ lack of effective pith or convincing aggression she remains essentially a placeholder protagonist in spite of the wrenching defining trauma she’s burdened with. Cassian isn’t much more noteworthy, not given any signature moment or quality, although Luna inhabits him with an effective blend of wiry intensity and quiet unease. In this regard Rogue One is something of an inverse of The Force Awakens, which had fun heroes but too often left them without really cool and interesting things to do. It’s more the characters that surround the central duo that keep things lively – Ïmwe and Malbus, the abused and apprehensive yet determined Bodhi, and the droll comic relief of K-2SO, whose shtick isn’t terribly original – the obliviously inappropriate sidekick business was already covered in a different key by Guardians of the Galaxy’s (2014) Drax – but it’s still pretty good, thanks to one-time Serenity costar Alan Tudyk’s vocal delivery.
The earthy aspect to the action and the insistent edge of reckoning with the cost of great and calamitous warfare also gives the film ballast painfully lacking from The Force Awakens even as it retards the high spirits and breadth of vision Star Wars calls to mind. The film has an idea, that violence even in the service of a good cause isn’t great for the soul and that some causes are nonetheless more important than individual expectations, which means that it has something its predecessor didn’t have. That idea is also rooted in contradictory impulses and views of the same urge, which makes it similar to the conceptual schism that defines Lucas’s prequels: what if the thing you most want to do, nay, must do, is also the thing that destroys you? Rogue One emphasises the Rebel Alliance not as unstinting paladins but as a coalition of not-quite-aligned interests in a state of flux trying to elide outright confrontational warfare for good reason, engaged in a down-and-dirty conflict played out through more personal acts of violence over pieces of information. The reality of the Death Star suddenly and dramatically changes the landscape, forcing decisions and forging new alliances. In turn, Jyn and her new companions, including more Rebels eager for a chance to make a real difference, go, err, rogue and force their leaders’ hands by making a bold incursion at the Imperial archive centre to steal the Death Star’s plans on the planet Scarif.
Another lack apparent here, shared with The Force Awakens, is a failure to understand what made the action sequences in the original series work. As well as opportunities to incorporate the way-cool, they were structured as little stories in themselves – an aspect they had in common with Lucas’ other great pulp series, the Indiana Jones films, as chains of cause and effect pushed along by the characters’ objectives. Before one memorable aspect of the finale, there’s no ingenuity to the staging of action. There are not one but two scenes here that hinge on Jyn’s ability to climb really high ladders. Excitement! Ïmwe’s first display of prowess is both invigorating but also, frustratingly, connects to nothing else – he doesn’t even fight much in such a manner again. Perhaps that’s why the climb-the-tall-thing finale is so beloved of hack screenwriters at the moment: it entwines stake and endangerment in an obvious manner. But – and this is a major but – once Rogue One finally cuts footloose it offers a grand finale that, for all the hesitations, is still tremendous. Here the film finally gains the lucid sense of grand happenings entwined with acts of personal valiantness that make for a good epic. Edwards doesn’t have Lucas’ sense of widescreen sweep and spectacle, his scene grammar and punctuation more standard and jittery in the modern fashion, but he’s a much better director of action and visual artisan than Abrams. The rogue team’s assault on the Imperial archives draws a portion of the Rebel fleet in their wake for aid, led by Admiral Raddus (Paul Kasey and Stephen Stanton), a spacefaring fighter of the same species as Admiral Ackbar, wielding bravado as he tries to smash through the shield system around the planet to let Jyn transmit the Death Star plans.
This sequence is replete with contrivances and clichés, from absurdly placed controls for important pieces of infrastructure to weirdly unsophisticated defence systems for same. But, hell, so are most war films, and at least Edwards and company go for broke and admirably keep to the film’s brief of putting the war in Star Wars, a harum-scarum episode of wildly winging space ships and battling soldiers. Characters die one by one in suitably noble fashions, especially K-2SO, whose act of self-sacrifice is more moving than any of the humans’ deaths, and one which indeed highlights the peculiar approach of the saga to its droid characters, so deeply human as they tend to be in spite of their mechanical and digital natures – indeed, almost hyper-human in their sensitivities and loyalties. A late shot in the film of two people kissing before an apocalyptic plume about to sweep them away steals a vital image from Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii (2014). There’s great fun in the actual method Raddus and his warriors use to knock out the shield. Best of all, right at the very end, Vader’s return to action, glimpsed a figure of nightmarish evil chasing after the vital copy of pilfered plans and cutting his way through Rebel fighters to get them, the red glow of his lightsaber and his remorseless, unstoppable swathe of violence restoring the unique aura of frightening potency and mystery he wielded when first he advanced into view way back in 1977. Rogue One is definitely a mixed bag and a frustrating experience. But I can at least offer it this much praise: in these scenes, Edwards gets Star Wars thrillingly, uncannily right, and the film’s smash-cut punch-line is perfect.
The biopic has become the most reliably rancid of contemporary prestige film genres. It’s supposed to be a mode for exploring vital cultural and historical touchstones in stirring, dramatic, thought-provoking fashion, and nothing should be as rich and strange as the life of a great man or woman explored in all its implications. But the biopic has instead become excruciatingly formulaic and facetious even as it reliably captures awards for actors. Pablo Larraín, one of the most interesting talents to emerge on the world film scene in the past decade, has turned his hand to not one but two biopics this year, with the implicit promise to shock the form back to life. He comes mighty close with a diptych of smart, epic, often electrifying filmmaking. Larraín’s cinema has thus far been strongly rooted in his native Chile’s tumultuous modern political and cultural history, explored through films like Tony Manero (2008) and No (2012), works particularly concerned with the lingering ghosts of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a tyranny initially backed by the CIA and defined by the inescapable gravitas of the modern epoch’s dichotomies. But Larraín’s concurrent, more particular interest is with the way we perceive such history and culture, the way they feed and distort each other. Particularly in an age of mass media, that great fount of mutual reference and levelling messaging so often sourced in the United States, the king of the heap in the Americas, the place where butterflies of intrigue and reaction have so often flapped their wings to cause earthquakes in Latin America during the fierce social and ideological ructions and sometimes outright conflict that defined the Cold War.
Neruda explores relatively familiar territory for Larraín in this regard, taking on an episode in the life of arguably Chile’s most famous cultural figure, the poet and political activist Pablo Neruda, whose experiences and career were forever inflected by the repressive tilt his country took in the 1940s and who died just as the Pinochet regime was ascending in the 1970s. That episode is turned by Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón into a Shakespearean pastoral comedy-drama like The Tempest, where banishment and eternal searching are the prices paid for honesty and the use of magic. Jackie, on the other hand, sends Larraín on a trip north to adapt a script by Noah Oppenheim and stage a shift of perspective, one located right at the great axis of power in second half of the 20th century at its most dazzling and frightening pivot: the end of the Kennedy administration, a grotesque play of blood and toppled power on just about the only modern stage Shakespeare’s tragedies could unfold without diminution. The two films offer a wealth of binaries contemplated in opposition – North America and South America, man and woman, communist vs. capitalist, political vs. creative power. Both films do, to a certain extent, exemplify a tendency in recent biopics to engage in portraiture through deliberately limited focus on the lives of their subjects. Neruda depicts only the few months in 1948 during which the poet attempted to remain hidden in Chile even whilst being declared verboten and hunted by the police, whilst Jackie concentrates almost entirely on the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy and his widow Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Kennedy’s attempts to define his legacy and her own life through the process of arranging his burial.
Neruda is inflected by a peculiar evanescence, at once elated and melancholic, and the use of arch literary tropes to reorganise the reality of the event into something befitting a memoriam to an artist who belonged unashamedly to the age of literary modernism, whilst Jackie depicts an attempt to turn violent, messy reality into a form of art itself. Neruda’s most overt conceit is to offer a viewpoint not through its title character but through his nemesis. This fictional antagonist is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a fatherless by-product of the nation’s whorehouses and slums who has ennobled himself relatively by claiming the name and heritage of a founder of Chile’s police – a happy bastard, identifying himself with the state and its hard, disdainful fist. His narration, mordant and cynical and casually lyrical as we’d like the poet’s voice to be, drags the film along, offering a constant counterpoint to things seen on screen, delivering witty and withering putdowns of the nominal hero Neruda from the very start, when the Neruda (regular Larraín face Luis Gnecco) is enjoying the last moments of the gleefully feted, decadent artistic-bohemian life he leads even as a Senator of the nation and hero of both the Communist intelligentsia and proletariat. Thus we see Neruda, dolled up in drag amidst his amigos in their orgiastic revels, reciting his most popular poem for the billionth time, as the detective sardonically notes this mob of well-off, well-travelled, oversexed elitists claim to stand up for the ordinary people. But Neruda’s downfall is already nigh. He breaks with the President whose election he supported, González Videla (equally regular Larraín face Alfredo Castro), because Videla has imprisoned union leaders and striking miners in a concentration camp, as prelude to banning the Communist Party.
Neruda and his wife, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), try to cross the border into Argentina as they sense the heat rising, but are turned back on a technicality, and soon they’re forced to hide out in the apartment of a glum ally. So begins a game of hide and seek between artist and persecutor where Neruda lives books and missives to taunt and intrigue his unseen opponent, whilst the detective relishes the thought of the prestigious, high-living superstar forced to live a life of drudgery: “By now the poet must be chopping onions for his repugnant fish stew.” But the period sees Neruda more productive than ever, writing the poetic history Canto General and other works taking aim at the government, foiling the government through simple but effective devices for getting his words out. Neruda is blunt about its hero’s failings, his rampant priapic needs, his hunger for attention, his occasionally piggish treatment of his wife as their exile tests and finally nullifies their nonconformist union. But it also carefully teases out his ardent connection with Chileans of all stripes, the real fibre of his conscientiousness, and the peculiar place of the artist in their culture, so often barely detectable and yet equally so vital. Larraín illustrates such moments of genuine connection, as when Neruda visits a brothel and recites a poem for the prostitutes, including a transvestite chanteuse, who later recounts to Peluchonneau the sheer uplifting delight in the candidness of Neruda’s amity in contrast to the contempt and reproach of the law, and the power of his art to elevate. Neruda tries to assure a fellow Communist and hotel maid that the revolution when it comes will make everyone a project of glory rather than diminution to the lowly status she’s always known. Later, when Neruda’s exile is biting more sharply, he weepily hugs a street beggar and gives her his jacket as if his own problems are a mere irritation.
The detective’s hunt becomes all the more frustrating as he is constantly presented with the problem of the detachment of the people from the power he represents and their tendency to identify with the mercurial poet rather than the adamantine lawman. In a hilarious sequence, Peluchonneau has Neruda’s Dutch first wife invited on a radio show for the sake of character assassination, only for her to rhapsodise about his qualities, apart from the fact he owes her money. Meanwhile Neruda tests the limits of power with delight in the occasions he gets to treat his travails like a freeform artistic act, delighting in disguise – he dresses up as one of the prostitutes in the brothel to elude Peluchonneau, and later poses as a Mexican tourist in splendid white suit – and turning the act of the hunt into a game of signs and obtuse communication, a pursuit where the detective is trying to gain the measure of a system of thought and approach to life he’s purposefully rejected. Larraín employs some devices similar to Michael Almereyda’s equally eccentric biographical study Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (2015), particularly in the deliberately archaic and unconvincing scenes of characters riding in cars before back-projected landscapes. This calls back to both familiar classic Hollywood film technique but also recognises it as a vehicle of surrealist strangeness, a method of the poetic easily found in the supposedly stolid methods of old-fashioned moviemaking. The photography is reminiscent to that of No, which was shot on an old camcorder; the textures of digital cinema here, preternaturally sharp in stillness and fuzzy in motion, refuse sentimentality about the past whilst still sometimes isolating vistas of great beauty and capturing the feel of Chile, particularly during the final phase of the film. That portion depicts Neruda’s escape from Chile, a move sponsored by his Communist fellows as it seems increasingly inevitable he’ll be captured, whilst Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) is whipping up international interest in his plight in Paris.
Little of Neruda’s actual poetry is heard in the film, in part because of a recurring tragicomic joke that most people only want to hear the one poem over and over anyway – Neruda’s greatest hit – and because the film proposes to alchemise it into the texture of cinema itself, as Larraín dances through expressive refrains and motifs, alternating realism and hyperrealism, grit and romanticism, solid historical account and flight of metaphoric fancy. Peluchonneau is nominated as the poetic persona through which Neruda’s self-accosting, sometimes scornful, sometimes alienated contemplation of his place in the world is interrogated. Fillips of airy dialogue drop on the voiceover, as the detective calls the Andes “a wave that never breaks,” and evokes the ghosts of future past as Larraín’s camera explores the hellhole the dissident miners are exiled to in the midst of the Atacama Desert’s aptly desolate reaches. “Those who try to escape turn to pillars of salt,” Peluchonneau recites: “But no-one ever escapes, because the prison captain is a blue-eyed fox. His name is Augusto Pinochet.” The process of mythologising is contemplated as anyone who comes into contact with Neruda in the course of this adventure becomes subject to two layers of transformation, via Neruda’s artistic perspective and Larraín’s filmmaking, in both of which Neruda is the pole of all action. Neruda himself is a kind of artistic act: his real name is Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, a fact that’s used by the government as an excuse to prevent him leaving the country. When Peluchonneau encounters Delia after Neruda has taken his leave of her, heading for the border, she informs him that they’re not real people who have become woven into Neruda’s legend, but rather his creations who are struggling towards life.
The counterpoint of sound and vision in this manner, the restless, roaming quality of Larraín’s imagery and the ambient commentary by the voiceover, contrasts the game of motion with an increasingly contemplative, transformative perspective, a rite of passage for the innermost soul of the Chilean character, pulled by the unremitting gravitas of stern authoritarian nationalism on one hand and the expansive dreamscapes of the Latin American inheritance. The finale works as both sarcastic, antiheroic replay of such epic journeys in tales of dissidence and exile as those found in movies like Doctor Zhivago (1965), Cry Freedom (1987), and Kundun (1997), with hints of the Homeric grandiosity of westerns like The Searchers (1956) too, as Neruda and his entourage and Peluchonneau and his underlings venture into Chile’s rainy, mountainous, finally mystically-tinged southern regions. Here the detective discovers the limits of authority as a rich local man aids Neruda just for the anarchic pleasure of it, and Peluchonneau’s own henchmen knock him out and foil his mission, as they too don’t want him to succeed, or at least can’t be bothered venturing into danger’s way for his sake. But this is also the scene of a peculiarly rapturous movement towards apotheosis and rebirth. Peluchonneau, dazedly stumbling after his quarry into the snow-capped mountain peaks, “dies” but gains new existence as the emblem of his nation’s confused heart and avatar of the poet’s ability to redefine the national character, the sprout from a seed of awareness and possibility planted by Neruda’s art.
Jackie similarly deals with a person close to the political epicentre of a nation but also set at a tantalising, frustrating remove from it, forced to settle for becoming a psychological lodestone, and learning to work through the soft power of culture. It envisions Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) as a woman who tried to turn the seemingly supernal role of first lady into the post of national historical conscience, a mission described in recreating her famous television tour of the white house with all its wooden, tentative charm. The murder of her husband John (Caspar Phillipson), an act at once terrifyingly intimate and personal and also instantly the stuff of morbid public obsession, also provides the catalyst for her to take this effort to a larger, more consequential level, in the attempt set the appropriate seal on an epoch suddenly and violently curtailed without any apparent, natural climax. The film’s first third is a headlong experiential event with jarring contrasts between past and present, the present being Jackie’s private, one-and-one interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) one week after the assassination, and the event itself, pieced together in shards of gruelling detail. It’s made immediately clear that the interview Jackie is submitting to is intended as no purgative of raw emotion or the type of confessional we adore so much today, but a ruthlessly controlled exercise in directing and defining the face Jackie is showing to the world: the journalist has agreed to let her check and edit his notes. Jackie, with her preppie lisp suggesting a delicacy her spiky eyes belie, is still engaged in a campaign that began the instant her husband died, or perhaps has been waged since she married him.
Jackie shifts into flashback and recounts the immediate aftermath of the President’s death, an almost moment-by-moment recreation except for the crucial moment of the assassination itself, which instead comes in brief, ugly snatches, befitting Jackie’s own confused memory of it and emphasising the moment as something so fast and awful that it can be parsed and probed but never properly known – Jackie’s memories of her husband’s shattered head rolling on her lap, her flailing desperation on the limousine trunk, trying haplessly to collect piece of John’s skull, and the limousine’s flight for safety along a motorway like a headlong rush into a great white void, are just as mysterious to her as to any observer. The passage from downtown Dallas back to the White House is described in exacting terms and clinical detail, stations of the cross visited as Jackie watches Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) get sworn in whilst still wearing her blood-soaked Chanel suit, waits through his autopsy, and rides with his coffin along with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). Just as Neruda notes the seeds of later history, so here too we glimpse defining moments in the midst of seemingly chaotic events, as Bobby casually sparks Johnson’s feud with him by bossing him around even though he is now in command. These scenes are a tour-de-force for Larraín in conjuring the sensation, at once intense yet detached, of intense shock and grief, and for Portman in capturing those feelings. Her Jackie fumbles for clarity and necessary detail, making plans and declarations of intent and defiance, amidst friends and figures of import, their stunned, patient solicitude in stark contrast to her hyper-intense grappling for focus. Jackie reenters the White House still in that suit, a figure out of Greek drama, the queen suddenly without king or kingdom, dressed in rags of primal violence.
The sharp contrasts of Neruda and Jackie’s backdrops, the neo-imperial glamour of the Kennedy White House and the earthy environs of post-war Chile where Neruda must hide out, are nonetheless defined by a common sense of space as a form of meaning. The constriction of the poetic impulses Peluchonneau relishes imposed on Neruda contrasts the stage for realising a grand vision of a newly mature sense of power and prestige the White House offered Jackie, as backdrop for high statecraft and meaningful action. Bobby roams its space dogged and taunted by the memories of great acts, particularly a room that was formerly Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet room and the place where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, now the nursery for the Kennedy kids, where Jackie registers the same atmosphere as one of beneficent calm. But this stage turns into a trap for Jackie, filled with the detritus of an irrevocably ended life – the antiques she laboured to restore now have arguably more substance to them. The nature of the battle ahead of her, clearly in her mind even in the frantic moments after John’s death, is how to ensure that his tenure in the office doesn’t get instantly lost in the flow of events and the indignities of history. The Kennedy family wants to claim John’s body and spirit it back to the family plot, but Jackie, with her awareness of history and the role of purposeful theatricality in it, instead lays down a plan to see John entombed as poet-king with pomp patterned after that of Lincoln’s funeral. She picks out a space in Arlington for his grave, braving the sucking mud and rain that lap at her high heels as she finds the perfect spot for the fallen Cincinnatus. But her orchestrations are threatened by possible turf wars as Johnson’s new administration takes charge and with the lingering anxiety that John’s accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald might not have been acting alone. Other conspirators might try to strike at the funeral procession.
Jackie extends the concerns of Neruda but also more urgently those of No in contemplation of political theatre and its meaning – the use of artifice in defining a common sense of reality. The purposefully poppy, sugary flavour of the advertising at the heart of No, wielded as part of a successful campaign to unseat Pinochet’s government, is here contrasted by the grim and grand business of mourning and memorialising. Jackie finds both an accomplice and a cynical check in this project in Bobby, who, equally angry and frustrated, rails against the amount of work left unfinished, without a firm foundation of achievement except for the double-edged sword that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie on the other hand sees this as precisely what lends mythos to her project, the image of the hero cut down midst-battle. Sarsgaard’s casting as Bobby is cunning – not quite as All-American handsome or perma-boyish as the original, he nonetheless readily wields the sharp, critical, hard-bitten intelligence of a foiled and internally injured princeling, matched by Portman’s equal evocation of a similarly unsentimental, but determined spark. Jackie and Bobby’s shared scenes crackle from the mutual awareness of their status as pieces still on the board of political chess but stripped of offensive power and protection, both of them leaking anger and resentment, whilst also riven by powerful, squalid emotion and trying to play appropriate roles as grieving loved ones. “History’s harsh,” Bobby hisses in a squall of bitter pathos as he beholds his sister-in-law as she counsels him not to second-guess himself: “We’re ridiculous. Look at you.” Meanwhile Jackie struggles with the necessity of telling her two children they’ve lost their father, as well as perhaps the grim necessity of using them as props in the theatre of grief. And there’s the looming inevitability of being turfed out of the White House to find whatever life remains for her.
Jackie is a study in grief and grieving, whilst also analysing how such a figure as the wife of the President of the United States, and indeed any major figure, is so often obligated to find ways to express private and personal feeling in public and discernible ways. Left alone, briefly, in the great sepulchre that is the presidential mansion, she drinks, dresses up, and listens to the soundtrack of that fateful musical Camelot, Richard Burton’s stentorian grandeur scoring as she revisits the yardsticks of a high-life all the while aware that already the living reality of that tenure and the man she shared it with is rapidly slipping into abstraction. Jackie’s true emotional furore, her anger at John’s infidelities and feeling of being pathetically abandoned, she admits to a priest (John Hurt) the White House staffers find for her. The latter part of Jackie rhymes and counterpoints fleeting moments in free-flowing, Malickian snatches. The islet of graceful success that was a performance by Pablo Casals (Roland Pidoux), representing the “Camelot” dream for Jackie versus the heady pomp of John’s actual funeral. The admissions of dark and inchoate feeling Jackie offers the priest versus the carefully crafted but perhaps no less honest descriptions she offers the reporter. The central, irreducible urgency of John’s death and the moments of delirium that followed it, and the moments of pleasure and frivolity that defined the Kennedys’ marriage at its best, still perhaps to be plucked from the fire.
Though Jackie lacks a device as clever as Neruda’s fictionalised antagonist to tether its ideas together, the same motif is present in Jackie, as the priest and the journalist are both known only by those blank job descriptions, functions of its heroine’s designs, the two faces of the human project, private and public, chorus to her life. The priest sees the anger, sorrow, and desperation, the reporter witnesses Jackie’s thinly veiled contempt as a Yankee aristocrat for media hype and frosty, wilful self-composure in the face of desolation and solitude, but both men are only ever seeing a facet of a person. Portman’s performance is both refined enough not to mute the intense emotion of the character but also detached enough to remind us it’s all an act on some level. The one moment of unmediated feeling comes fairly early in the film, as Jackie wipes her husband’s gore from her face, a distraught mess. It’s a sight difficult to countenance and stands as a biting corrective to the semi-pornographic quality of emotive insight we so often seem to demand in this mode of biography. So here’s a great woman with her husband’s blood splashed over her face. Are you not entertained? For the most part, Jackie counters this, via its lead character’s frost intransigence, with a determined look instead at the sublimation of emotion into creation. We see, bit by bit, the legend of JFK and Camelot fashioned to make sense of a terrible moment and to offer a new locus of political meaning.
It’s possible to read the film as reclamation and a riposte to Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), a film named for the man but which also utterly erased him and the horror inherent in his demise from its focus, chasing the echo of bewilderment and derangement that followed his death through an endless house of mirrors. Jackie by contrast depicts the paranoia squirming under the surface of the days following the President’s death, the fear of guns and madmen and conspirators in every shadow, but also dedicates itself to studying the acts that rob such spectres of power, as well as the utterly intimate, corporeal reality of such a death. The flaws of both Larraín’s films are as complimentary as their qualities. Neruda has a subtle but cumulatively telling difficulty finding a powerful end-point for its cleverness, in part because there is no natural and obvious climax for a story about the unseen influence of literature. The second half of Jackie maintains its stylistic intensity, but cannot entirely hide the rhythm of the familiar portrait biopic blueprint in Oppenheim’s script – here’s the scene where she reaches a crisis point, here’s the scene where she stands up for herself against a usurper (Max Casella’s Jack Valenti), here’s the scene where she shows spunk and challenges Charles de Gaulle to join her in marching through the streets, jolts of tinny hype in a film that needs none.
Jackie’s authority remains on a visual level, as it zeroes in for a climactic emphasis on the point where private and public experience coalesce, and Jackie, wreathed in black veil, triumphant in her desolation, becomes martyr. Through Larraín’s eye, the empress of the Yankees becomes, both fittingly and sarcastically, an incarnation of that most Latin American of mythical figures, La Llorona, the spectral mother who cries for her lost children but who also mediates all the grief in the world. But she’s also suddenly a fashion plate, as Jackie sees from a car her personal style on sale in storefronts – pop icon, avatar of chic and grace under pressure. Two such personas could be considered a form of insanity or a fulfilment of a yin-yang view of existence, the withered branch and green leaf. It would be easy to interpret Jacqueline Kennedy as Larraín’s avatar as both student and sceptic of the arts of political myth, disgusted by its necessity. But Larraín’s fascination is more than merely cynical, signalled in No through his ability to see both the absurd and important facets of such arts. The innermost thesis of both Neruda and Jackie is the necessity of such construction, the need to create ways of seeing to counteract the spasmodic absurdity of communal life, which so often seems to take random swerves from the best and worst sides of natures. Even as the fact of that absurdity remains impossible to deny.
In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a reporter at a small TV station in Sarasota, Fla., became a national news story when she shot herself on camera. I was in college at the time and must have heard about her suicide, yet I have no memory of it, and despite its purported influence on Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), Chubbuck’s story has all but faded away. Strange then, that in 2016, we have not one, but two movies about her. Kate Plays Christine, a documentary about Kate Lyn Shiel preparing to play Chubbuck in an unspecified production, continues its writer/director Robert Greene’s fascination with people who play roles (e.g., Actress , about a housewife planning to return to acting, and Fake It So Real , about pro wrestling). Christine, the film under consideration here, is a fictionalized version of the last couple of weeks of her life.
Christine was an attractive, intelligent, ambitious woman with a seriousness of purpose about her profession and a history of chronic, sometimes acute, depression. She died just before her 30th birthday, still a virgin whose chances of having much-wanted children of her own were dimmed by the loss of a cystic ovary and her seeming inability to get a date, let alone form a lasting relationship with a man. Thwarted in love, dismayed by the trend toward “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism, her live-broadcasted suicide was, as she said when she “signed off,” “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color.”
Christine, like its subject, seems oddly subdued and awkward, a slice of a life that has no real drama to it until Christine’s final act. Straight-laced Christine argues with her live-in mother, Peg (J. Smith Cameron), whom she scornfully calls a hippie for smoking dope, mooching off her, and bringing home men. Christine argues with her boss, Michael (Tracy Letts), who keeps bumping her public affairs pieces and favoring sensationalism and her pretty coworker, Andrea (Kim Shaw), for on-camera assignments. Christine turns down offers to hang out from her best friend at the station, Jean (Maria Dizzia), and Steve (Timothy Simons), the weatherman. Christine interviews a strawberry grower and hosts a chicken breeder on her show, “Suncoast Digest.”
True to Christine’s dedication to serious news, the film eschews sensationalism in favor of helping us get under the skin of a troubled woman through the accumulation of detail in a way that doesn’t condescend to her or turn her into a caricature. The immersive performance of Rebecca Hall, whose Christine is physically gawky and emotionally guileless, withdrawn, and argumentative all at once, is, of course, key to the success of the film. Her Christine monitors her movements on camera for ways to improve. She buys a police scanner so she can get the sensational stories Michael wants, but when she gets a hot lead, films the owner of a home destroyed by fire instead of capturing the blaze itself. She just doesn’t seem to understand her visual medium, nor the cues she gets from others that could help her achieve her personal and professional goals. In sweet, but sad scenes, Christine writes and presents puppet shows at a children’s hospital that teach children life lessons that she herself seems to be discovering along with them. If not magnetic and compelling, at least she is painfully real.
Hall gets extraordinary support from the rest of the cast. Tracy Letts does nothing to hide Michael’s contempt for Christine, making her repeated confrontations and attempts to sell him on her ideas wince-inducing acts of courage. Her crush on George (Michael C. Hall), the station’s anchorman, seems to be rewarded one night when he suggests they go out for dinner, that is, until he maneuvers her into a group transactional analysis (TA) meeting. Even small parts that would be throwaways in other films, like Peg’s boyfriend, Mitch (Jayson Warner Smith), add substance to how Christine is perceived.
The period costuming by Emma Potter and set design by Jess Royal couldn’t be better, recreating a context for the action without seeming to gawk at its otherness; if these women don’t each garner an Oscar nomination for their work on this film, they will have been seriously robbed. The script, contrary to director Campos’ assertion in an interview that it is very accurate, gets everything about TA wrong—screenwriter Craig Shilowich seems to have confused it with EST or deliberately misrepresented games theory to create some deadpan comedy as Christine is encouraged to, rather than discouraged from, playing “Why Don’t You, Yes But.” I also think it would have helped if the real Christine’s interviews with the police about suicide were dramatized rather than have her investigate a somewhat seedy dealer of guns, a slightly political angle that I felt was misleading.
What motivated director Antonio Campos (Afterschool , Simon Killer ) to make the film, he says, is that he liked the script Shilowich wrote and thought Christine as a character was interesting. Campos has been quoted as saying, “I think dark characters are fun to explore in films. And the reality is we want to make these movies. We’re having fun making them. Some scenes are fucking hard and uncomfortable, but most of the time between we’re having a really good time making them. It’s interesting exploring scary characters, they’re so far away from you, but they’re still human. Trying to find monsters among us in that kind of way, but people that are seemingly normal. We’re all kind of drawn to that kind of character.” Now I can’t say for sure that Campos thought of Christine as a monster, but I certainly don’t. Her sad life is not really a byproduct of existential angst, but rather the result of an illness that left her overwhelmingly vulnerable to the hard knocks life metes out to us all.
I’ve grappled with why Chubbuck’s story is resonating at the moment, and I really don’t have an answer. Christine was a woman who, like many of us, couldn’t have it all, but was told by commercials and media that she could, and should. The film ends with Jean sitting at home doing what she told Christine she always does when she’s down—eating ice cream and singing along to whatever song is on the TV or radio. The song?
Regardless of the self-evident motives Warner Bros have, the return of J.K. Rowling’s fantastical world to the big screen doesn’t just feel like a promise of welcome revisit, but close to an act of civic duty: man, do we ever need some real invention and fun at the moment, given the tawdriness of current political life and the dismal survey that has been this year’s blockbuster “entertainment.” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them proposes to fill the void. The title, as fans of Rowling’s original novels surely know, comes from the standard-issue textbook given to Hogwarts students in magizoology, a guide to the various species of magic animal written by one Newt Scamander. Some years ago, before finishing the original novel cycle, Rowling, produced a mock version purporting to be Harry Potter’s personal edition of the standard handbook as a charity project. Although it includes no plot or characters, that book provides the seed for a revisit and expansion of Rowling’s imaginary universe, five years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 set the seal on the original series of adaptations. The setting signals a reorientation of expectations and makes room to introduce some new elements to the rich, but already well-exploited zones of Rowling’s fantasy, like Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, and the general Dickensian pokiness of her magic Britain. So, the scene has shifted to New York in the 1920s, a realm of melting-pot energy and soaring art-deco ambition.
Oscar-winning It-boy Eddie Redmayne is cast as Scamander himself, who steps off a passenger liner in the New World carrying a battered piece of luggage with dodgy locks. Thanks to a magic device that makes the suitcase interior seem utterly humdrum, Newt passes through customs and arrives in a city straining from the wealth of human life it contains and now wracked by manifestations of some unseen, but very potently destructive entity. Very quickly, Newt’s propensity for collecting strange creatures and his hazy, eccentric, dismissive attitude for official mores starts to get him in trouble. His suitcase, much like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, is almost a world unto itself on the inside, a voluminous mobile zoo where he keeps the many magical animals he studies and nurtures. One of the creatures kept there, a Niffler, resembles an anthropomorphic, kleptomaniacal platypus. This critter slips out whilst Newt is distracted and causes havoc in a bank, forcing Newt to hunt for him high and low. On the search, Newt encounters a portly factory worker and veteran, Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who’s in the bank to petition for a loan to open a bakery. Kowalski is swept up in Newt’s attempt to corner the Niffler in the vault and freaks out as he’s subjected to the stomach-churning, physics-twisting arts of apparating.
Meanwhile, Newt’s haphazard tracking techniques attract the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who works for the local equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA). She arrests him and drags him in to be judged by the MACUSA President, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). But Tina has recently been demoted from her former rank of Auror, a hunter of malign wizards, to mere functionary. Picquery promptly ejects her and Newt, as more important matters are troubling the city. Europe has been rocked by the disappearance of Grindelwald, the dark wizard whose campaign to assert the superiority of magic kind and destabilise the old solution of remaining hidden within the larger human world is sending shockwaves through the whole wizarding community. A MACUSA operative, Graves (Colin Farrell), is taking an increasingly strict, even ruthless line against any dangers. On the opposite side, a street preacher and campaigner, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), leads an organisation called the New Salemites, dedicated to making people at large aware of the existence of magic folk and their danger as unholy beings. Newt soon finds that his suitcase has been accidentally swapped for Kowalski’s, as he finds the one he carries is loaded up with the would-be baker’s pastry samples.
Fantastic Beasts sees Rowling debuting as a screenwriter, and David Yates, who handled the last four Harry Potter films, returning to maintain the brand standard. This is his second big-budget film for the year, after The Legend of Tarzan, another attempt to revive a franchise hallowed in pop culture, albeit a much older one. Rowling here is adapting her familiar talents as a fount of such lore and the elegant sprawl of her plotting from the leisurely pace of the printed page to the chop-chop wont of big cinema, but not without hesitations. Rowling’s talents at setting up complex story elements and making them rebound off each other like a pinball game are still in evidence in the early sequences, as Newt is first distracted from his ultimate goal in New York by one of Barebone’s speeches, which Tina is also watching, as keeping an eye on the witch hunter was her job and the cause of her losing it. Newt and Kowalski both serve to a degree as audience surrogates confronted with a fresh dimension of experience, as Kowalski is drawn into working with Newt to recapture the animals he accidentally sets loose. Newt and Kowalski soon bond, as both are outsiders defined by difficult pasts and an alienated present. Both men served in the Great War, if in radically different ways—Kowalski as doughboy and Newt fighting with dragons on the Russian front. Kowalski feels cut off from the general flow of life because he wasn’t able to come home until 1924, and he wants to pursue his personal, attentive craft-art for people in the face of industrialism’s new impersonal plenty. Newt is uneasy around people and distracted, possibly even damaged, borderline dismissive of not just wizarding bureaucracy but also of humans in general, whom he describes as the most vicious animals on the planet.
The men also find themselves taken under the wing of Tina, who starts to feel a responsibility to keep Newt out of trouble, and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). The sisters give the men a place to stay, in their pokey shared apartment. Queenie, who has the ability to read minds, is drawn to Kowalski, who, in spite of his unprepossessing exterior, quickly proves to be one of the most forthright men she’s ever met. Although sworn to remain in the sisters’ apartment, Newt soon leads Kowalski out into the New York night to track down the animals that escaped the suitcase, including Niffler for the second time, a gigantic rhinoceroslike creature called an Erumpent that’s searching for a mate, and a snakelike creature that grows and shrinks according to the available space in which it finds itself. The Niffler likes to steal any kind of shiny object, filling up a pouch with endless amounts of bright baubles, and Newt finds it trying to hide in plain sight in a jeweller’s window, striking a pose like a stuffed mascot. Chasing down the Erumpent proves a more arduous task. Newt tries to entice it away from impending union with a bewildered hippo in the Central Park Zoo by daubing himself with scent and performing a mating dance, only for Kowalski to spill some of the scent on himself. The beast chases after him instead, resulting in a chaotic dance upon the frozen lake as Newt tries to restore it into his own zoo inside the suitcase. That place, Kowalski learns from the inside, contains many more of Newt’s rare friends, including a colossal flying birdlike creature that is the real reason he’s come to America—he wants to release it in the wilds of Arizona. He also has a strange, amorphous ball of dark, parasitical energy called an Obscurus, something he warns Kowalski to stay away from.
When sticking to this stuff, Fantastic Beasts is great fun. Yates bridges the ingenuity of Rowling’s conceptual imagination and stages the realisation of it as the hapless humans, magic and nonmagic alike, chase after these creatures. Here, Fantastic Beasts locates the spirit of the likes of Looney Tunes and classic slapstick comedy, a percussive physicality and wiseacre absurdity that gives an unmistakably New World inflection to the traditionally English basis of Rowling’s work, in the ethos of the Great British Eccentric and the traditions of pantomime, Victoriana fantasy fiction, and the comedy of manners in the Ealing style. Perhaps the clearest conflation of the two is apparent during the sequence when Newt tries to seduce the Erumpent, performing his mating dance in a series of ridiculous ritual gestures, moving with the total self-seriousness of a scientific nerd who has dedicated his life to learning the communication of species everyone else recoils from, Doctor Doolittle and Jane Goodall and Harpo Marx colluding in one body. Setting this sequence in Central Park, that islet of nature with its not-so-faint whisper of the wild amidst modernity’s first supercity, gives the film a note of unexpected kinship with a host of works—the big-city hauntings of Cat People (1941) and Portrait of Jennie (1945), the juvenile adventures of Madeline and the heroines of The World of Henry Orient (1964) and even Snoopy’s dance upon the Central Park ice in A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). Newt’s problems with human sociability and preference for animals weirdly, but aptly echoes Paul Schrader’s bizarre remake of Cat People (1982), and that’s the only concept that’s strayed in from the darker wing of fantastic fiction, as the thrust of the real plot, which takes time to come into focus, has a certain kinship with both Carrie (1976) and The Brood (1978).
Rowling’s gift for conjuring characters who appeal in spite of, and because of, their difficulty in presenting a pleasing face to the world is thankfully still strong here, as well as her ability to generate an effervescent emotional tone. There’s a quality of innocence to our heroes, in spite of their grown-up emotions and psyches, a connection with the classic protagonists of this universe: Kowalski is reminiscent of Ron Weasley in his awkward desire to prove himself and natural awe in the presence of femininity, whilst Newt suggests Harry if he’d emerged from his adventures with a bout of PTSD. Redmayne, fresh off winning laurels for his portrait of Stephen Hawking in the execrable The Theory of Everything (2014), thankfully judges his performance as Newt well, throwing in a dash of Hugh Grant’s signature hem-haw charm along with signs of a deeper estrangement, wincing and averting his gaze even as he converses with people with whom he seems to feel accord, but charged with purpose and energy when engaged with his creatures. Waterston, who gained deserved appreciation for her breakthrough performance in Inherent Vice (2014), is even better as Tina, who, with floppy flapper hat perched above button nose and lanky limbs, is a talent whose enthusiasm and conscientiousness sometimes outpace her good sense, not as shaky in society as Newt, but not quite a good fit either. But it’s Sudol who steals the film with her witty melange of period types, a chatty flirt and good-natured open book who, ironically, has everyone else’s thoughts open to her, awaiting the right person nice enough for her to be nice to: the way Sudol says the line, “But we made them cocoa!” is almost enough to paper over many a fault.
Fantastic Beasts runs into trouble, however, when it tries to broaden its scope beyond the knockabout adventures of Newt and his hapless team. The naming of certain phenomenon suggests an awareness of the American style of such things—muggles are called no-majs in a clipped, contemptuous abbreviation rather than allusive wordplay, and MACUSA, befitting a land in love with acronyms and hinting at a parable about McCarthyism in the offing. The background of Grindelwald’s campaign to stir the magic folk to vengeful pride and force a schism between the magical and ordinary populaces meanwhile evokes the spectre of Nazism, whilst the pall of harsh authoritarianism descend as Graves, MACUSA’s chief Auror hunts the entity attacking the city and coldly sentences Newt and Tina to death when it’s believed the marauding force might be one of Newt’s escaped creatures and played a part in causing a no-maj death. That fatality comes during a political banquet, as newspaper tycoon Henry Shaw (Jon Voight!) promotes his elder son Henry Jnr.’s presidential aspirations, only for the invisible entity to invade the banquet and kill the younger Shaw. Meanwhile Shaw’s second son Langdon (Ronan Raftery) tries to interest his father, without success, in the machinations of Barebone and the New Salemists. This stuff is all important in a way, but the problem is the narrative can’t work out how to arrange it all, partly because the essence of this entry is essentially a goofball frolic. The original series was defined by the tugging gravity of its date-with-destiny storyline, something this film’s busy outlay of elements doesn’t ever feel like recreating.
One seemingly minor but cumulatively revealing problem Fantastic Beasts offers is that the Harry Potter tales understood the tidal psyche of modern Britain, constantly beset by a longing for the past and a guttering hunger to prove itself in the present, and also reaching beyond mere parochial charm to stir the same emotions on a universal scale. Whereas nothing here suggests such a keen understanding of the Americas, particularly in the go-go ’20s, even as surveys of the MACUSA headquarters offer a refreshingly multicultural sprawl. A metaphor for the colour bar is suggested in a ban between wizard and no-maj marriage, one that Queenie’s percolating romance with Kowalski seems poised to violate. Although the film suggests a likeable breadth to its cultural references rooted in the era, most disappointingly for me is that it does little to exploit the period setting with any specific sense of flavour. One of the few moments when it does comes in a brief visit to a hidden goblin tavern, a sequence that cannily conflates wizarding secrecy with speakeasy mores, where green-skinned chanteuses warble the blues and gigglewater stirs bewildering sounds from Kowalski when he downs a glass. Otherwise, the landscape of the magical new world is painted as rather busy, but never entirely coherent, and the superstructure intended to support a long story arc through subsequent instalments comes across as dashed off and flimsy. The America of the 1920s was the polar opposite in motivating spirit to the one that lingered inside the Harry Potter series—it was all about ravening, relentless progress. This might have been manifested by bringing a cleverer, Steampunkish approach to the New World’s magic. But apart from an upgrade in vacuum tube technology, there’s nothing like that.
Rowling’s method of mediating broad statements about individuals within and at odds with society is certainly in play here, but it lacks the spice of familiarity that informed the ruthless caricaturing of New Town fascists like the Dursleys, sociopaths in knitwear like Dolores Umbridge, or the related types noted in Rowling’s expansion of her palate with the partly satirical, partly tragic social panorama The Casual Vacancy. Fantastic Beasts tries to make up for this by quoting a certain brand of bygone melodrama, one that often also strayed over the boundaries into the kind of silent comedy the film tries to evoke—the dens of stern despotism and civic-moralist dominion that provided many an iniquitous prison in D.W. Griffith or G.W. Pabst films, as well as dogged Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Morton’s chilly, ardent, vicious, matriarch is an interesting creation, and introduces a subplot that further expands Rowling’s fascination with the right and wrong way to be an adult and foster children (as well as extending Morton’s scary inhabitation of the same type, after John McNaughton’s The Harvest, 2015). She raises orphans and schools them in her brand of paranoid suspicion and hatred for any sign of peculiarity, forcibly punishing and repressing any sign of such peculiarity in them, including her glum-looking ward Credence (Ezra Miller, who has been carefully made up to look eerily like Buster Keaton). Credence is contacted by Graves, who seems to believe another of Barebone’s charges, Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove), might be a fearsomely powerful wizard, and Graves seems intent on fostering and winning over such power to his own enigmatic cause. Tina’s own downfall as an Auror came about when she tried to confront Barebone about her abuse of Credence in her determination to keep his magic at bay.
Perhaps the best idea in Fantastic Beasts is also the most disappointingly handled—the concept of the Obscurus. This is an inversion of the Patronus, a manifestation not of shielding inner strength, but of the kind of inchoate rage that builds up inside young people when their real nature is denied. The Obscurus is a kind of projection that was once common in the wizarding world back when their kind was being hunted constantly by ordinary people. It’s now considered an extinct phenomenon by the wizarding mainstream, but Newt has discovered its persistence and recognises that an Obscurus is being manifested in the city. Sadly, the film’s second half, as Fantastic Beasts tries to bring its plotlines to an intersection and then a climax, begins to resolve in a way that feels like far, far too many other blockbusters of the moment, with city-levelling special effects and clumsy orchestrations of human elements. Yates is a fine director, but his work here lacks much distinction: the staging is often merely efficient rather than inspired, the bouts of action, comical and serious, never quite becoming as clever and intricate as they ought to be, although he does manage to invest some moments, particularly the capture of the Erumpent, with a sense of balletic motion. One distinctive touch Yates brought to the Harry Potter series was manifest in his magical action sequences—magic happened so quickly in his entries that it suggested levels of perception and wielded talent right at the edge of liminal awareness and thus, gave a clue as the difference between the great magicians and the merely good. Here, though, the same ploy just feels weirdly clumsy, and the visualisations of the Obscurus too clichéd as far as contemporary digital effects go, offering just another cloud of black tendrillar smoke, like something Marvel’s house of CGI hacks might have turned out.
All this actually made me appreciate a little better the job Chris Columbus did on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) in introducing a legendarium and the dramatic essentials that would power the next seven entries, for all the juvenile flatness in his approach. Ironically, although The Legend of Tarzan’s script was almost painfully uninventive, Yates’ eye was more confident on that film, as he offered an eerie, almost abstracted vision of a mythical Africa where heroes and monsters roam. And as far as adventures in magical realms goes, and as verboten as this might be in current critical appreciation, I think I may have preferred Tim Burton’s lumpy, but often weirdly personal romp in similar territory this year, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a work that embraced weirdness as a perfectly respectable trait much more vitally than Fantastic Beasts manages. By the finale of this, I was cringing a little at the sloppiness of the exposition, particularly as Graves is unmasked by Newt as Grindelwald in disguise; played by Johnny Depp in one of his customary oddball guises, this one suggesting an escapee from a prison for sadistic Oompah band members. That said, Fantastic Beasts admirably refuses to give too much satisfaction, as Newt and Tina’s efforts to prevent a tragedy fail, signalling that although Fantastic Beasts retreats into the past for setting, whatever new series will spring from this is going to continue playing to the more mature awareness of its longtime fans.
Moreover, the movie recovers its savoir faire beautifully in its concluding scenes, particularly in its visions of Kowalski, faced with having his memory of his extraordinary adventures and new lady love erased by MACUSA order, accepting with grace and receiving a farewell kiss from Queenie in the midst of a falling rain that will rob him of such splendours, whilst all about him magicians repair the broken city. It seems fitting for a work in Rowling’s universe that the real visual set-piece celebrated here is not the destruction of the city, but its restoration—buildings and train lines and urban infrastructure reforming with both awesome power and delicate precision, restoring all the inhabitants to their lives and spaces. Here, the little touches of grace continue and remind one of the best spirit of this marque, like Tina’s little skip after Newt takes his leave but suggests he’ll return, and the final smile the supposedly oblivious Kowalski gives Queenie when she turns up in his new bakery. Frankly, Rowling and the cinematic creative team will need to spend a little more time at the drawing board before offering another entry in this renascent series. But the new elements that work here are sufficiently charming to make me willing to stick with it.
Coming-of-age films strike a nostalgic chord with many adults. These films work a kind of magic by awakening the adolescent within, letting us run the tapes of our own coming-of-age saga alongside the story on screen. But what if you could actually feel as though you are inside the experience of the person on screen, perhaps a person wholly unlike yourself? What if you could actually feel the emotions of a difficult transition, not just hitch your trailer of memories and feelings to a familiar tune? Somehow, Moonlight, a miracle that shouldn’t exist but does, accomplishes just that, and it is sweeping over audiences like the lapping ocean that forms a powerful symbol throughout the film.
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” when he was an undergraduate theatre student. He was trying to work through some issues in his life, most particularly, coming to terms with his relationship with his late mother, a drug addict. The elliptical, unproduced play was semiautobiographical, set in his home neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, with its main character, Chiron, existing simultaneously on stage at ages 10, 16, and 25. McCraney created this structure to comment on how all versions of ourselves reside within us throughout our lives. He considered the play unproducible and more a personal exercise than anything else.
The miracle that birthed the movie began when Barry Jenkins got his hands on the play. Providentially, he had grown up in Liberty City with a drug-addicted mother at almost the same time as McCraney, though the two didn’t know each other; McCraney’s house stood across the street from Jenkins’ high school. Jenkins wrote the script, preserving some of the language and all of the spirit of the play, and fusing his own experiences with McCraney’s to create a piece that sings with emotional truth.
Jenkins jettisoned the play’s structure and created a linear screenplay in three acts: Little, Chiron, and Black. He cast Alex R. Hibbert as young Chiron (“Little”), Ashton Sanders as teenage Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as adult Chiron (“Black”). These actors don’t physically resemble each other, but they and Jenkins somehow find the immutable essence of Chiron; the many close-ups Jenkins employs allow us to capture all of the nuances of performance that connect each of these Chirons to each other, convincing us that we are looking at the same person over time.
Chiron’s world sounds like a ghetto cliché—absent father, beaten-down mother dragged under by a crack addiction, surrounded by bullies and burglar bars, destined for prison. Yet like a dandelion that somehow lifts itself up through the concrete sidewalk, Chiron finds grace and connection in singular, almost blindingly beautiful moments. His father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), is the neighborhood drug dealer, a do-ragged brother from Cuba who wears a gold front over his bottom teeth and sucks his tongue reflexively. Jenkins spins this unpromising character into an almost mythic figure when we first meet him by directing his camera in a swirling, background-obscuring, 360-degree turn around him as though conjuring a genie from a bottle.
Juan may be all things bad to the outside world, but he and his kindly girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) provide what little is good for Chiron. Cinematographer James Laxton puts us right in the water when Juan introduces Chiron to the wonders of the ocean, teaching him to swim and applauding with pride when the boy dog-paddles through the gentle swells. Jenkins offers moments of dark psychological violence when Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron’s mother, dressed and lit in shades of red, screams something at him that we are not allowed to hear. Only later do we understand what everyone but Chiron himself seems to know: “What’s a faggot?” he asks Juan and Teresa. “Am I a faggot?” Juan’s answer is a model of decency and love. Sadly, the fragile relationship between them is lost when Juan again answers truthfully when Chiron asks, “Do you sell drugs? Do you sell drugs to my mom?”
The second important male in Chiron’s life is his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), who stands by him even when the other boys are bullying and excluding him. In a poignant scene, the boys in Chiron’s grade school are playing ball, with Chiron hanging on the fringes trying to get into the game. It’s heartbreaking, but then comes one of those breath-catching grace notes: Kevin comes over to him and the two walk off talking as friends do. In act two, a lanky, reticent Chiron is wound like a top, dodging the bullying that has taken a more savage turn and negotiating homelife with a ghostly Paula who only comes to life to demand money from him. Once again, Kevin, now played by Jharrel Jerome, validates Chiron with an act of sexual love, this time on a moonlit beach they learn one aimless, restless night that they both like to visit. And as with Juan, Chiron’s connection with Kevin is shattered when Terrel (Patrick Decile), the toughest of the bullies, forces him to give Chiron a beatdown. In a sad overhead shot, we see Chiron bury his face in a sink full of ice and emerge with a bloodied, emotionally frozen face.
Act three shows that Chiron is still in thrall to these two men. Buffed out and living in Atlanta, where his mother lives and works in a rehab facility, Chiron has become a drug dealer just like Juan, emulating his style, driving his car, and bringing young men along in the business, but with a bit more teasing cruelty than Juan ever displayed. He calls himself Black, a nickname Kevin gave him when they were boys, a name he still does not understand. Then, out of the blue, Kevin (André Holland) calls him—a song on the jukebox in the restaurant where Kevin works as a cook reminded him of his long-ago friend. Chiron drives from Atlanta to Miami to see him. Their nighttime reunion recalls their night on the beach, and though Kevin surprises Chiron with the picture of his child by a woman he no longer sees, this final act is filled with romantic possibility.
In act one, Juan says to Chiron, “At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.” Moonlight actually gives us the time, space, and scope to watch someone decide what it will take to become his authentic self. As a boy, Chiron is buffeted by forces he’s too young and uneducated to comprehend, but he understands the connections between his pain and the people around him. His mother, whom he says he hates, is still his “only,” as Paula puts it; Paula puts a lot of stock in being “blood,” so it’s hard to imagine Chiron hasn’t internalized that lesson, too. He still visits her, if infrequently, as a grown man. His anger at being bullied, but moreso at having his connection to Kevin ruined by Terrel, brings him to violence and a stretch in prison, so he is sufficiently self-aware to know what is in his heart of hearts. But his persona, mimicking Juan, reveals a stuckness that all too many people never defeat. Kevin’s phone call is as providential as our first meeting with Juan, a message from the universe that Chiron’s time has come. The final image of the film has a somewhat mystical quality to it, not so much love’s fulfillment as life’s promise for Chiron now that he knows what Kevin asked: “Where’s you, Chiron?”
Jenkins and Laxton have created a visual tone poem awash in the dreamy colors and the natural beauty of Miami. It’s refreshing to see a film that deals with a poor, black neighborhood not punt to the regulation burned-out wasteland that many filmmakers, particularly slumming white ones, imagine. The cast is beyond good, making themselves vulnerable in ways that I find absolutely stunning. Ali has a strong, etched face that nonetheless is soft; when Paula moves Chiron away from him as though he had the plague, the surprised hurt on his face is heartbreaking. Young Alex Hibbert, in his first screen role, lays the strong foundation on which Sanders and Rhodes build an indelible portrait of a confused, painfully shy manchild, and Jerome and Holland are especially good at depicting an endearing, astute observer whose love for his friend breaks down all of Chiron’s near-implacable barriers. Harris plays a woman almost completely unlike herself and somehow manages to show incredible need—for crack, for her son—without making Paula a monster.
The script is a bit sketchy—it’s really more of a poem than a screenplay—but by leaving some blanks, like Juan’s disappearance from the film, it actually feels more like real life. This film is utterly mesmerizing—I was aware that I was falling under a spell from which I probably should have kept a small distance, but I couldn’t help but float along on this vast ocean of feeling, merging with the characters and their surroundings in rare communion. Moonlight is a prayer for humanity; let’s hope we can all find it in our hearts to listen.
It began when a short filmmaker and production aide working for host Fred ‘Mr’ Rogers’ Pittsburgh-based children’s TV show decided to make a horror movie. 27-year-old George A. Romero and his friends, bored with making anodyne entertainment and looking to make a splash, pooled resources financial and technical and formed a production company called Image Ten. The company set out to film a script Romero had written with pal John A. Russo, drawing on a short story Romero had penned, strongly inspired by Richard Matheson’s 1958 novella I Am Legend. With a budget trickling in from several sources that eventually added up to just over $100,000 dollars, the film shoot was largely restricted to weekends over a seven month period when cast and crew were free, out in the Pennsylvania hinterland. The best audition for the lead role the filmmakers saw was that of former academic turned performer Duane Jones, making the film one of the few of its kind to that date with an African-American leading man. Members of the crew and production staff doubled as cast members. Rogers supported Romero’s efforts but wouldn’t let him use a member of his cast star in the project, which seemed destined to exemplify the phrase “cheap and nasty.” Romero and his team, shooting on cheap 16mm black and white stock, fashioned their artisanal epic until they had a real film in the can, but then had a hard time selling it to a distributor because of the visceral gore and bleak ending. Even the estimable schlock palace AIP wouldn’t touch it. Their work, first entitled Night of the Flesh Eaters, was finally taken on by a low-rent New York company, the Walter Reade Organization, and premiered in 1968. Reviewers like Roger Ebert and moviegoers promptly freaked out, as the film was being shown without a censor classification, so children were being admitted to a film that features cannibalism and murder. The distributor had also retitled it Night of the Living Dead whilst forgetting to update the copyright, meaning that the movie slipped into the public domain almost immediately.
Why are people still talking about this forlorn labour a half-century later?
To be sure, Night of the Living Dead is no perfect artefact. But it’s the blend of cinematic intelligence and homespun crudity enforced by the circumstances of its production that made it instantly galvanising: the result vibrates with pitiless gall and insolent power, a statement from the fringe that hits right at the axis. Night of the Living Dead exemplified several new trends already in motion when it was released. The old Hollywood was splintering and a void had opened, where there were huge sums of money to be made from an audience TV and mainstream cinema couldn’t touch. The likes of no-budget goreteur Herschell Gordon Lewis had already proven the potential punch of low-budget horror movies made by filmmakers not just outside of the studio cinema system but also labouring away in what seemed to be backwaters of American cultural life. The low budget of Night of the Living Dead gave it a quality that money would have spoilt, a sense of closeness to genuine experience and a brusque countercultural authority. That latter quality was given a steroidal boost by the cruelly sarcastic finale, so similar to the one that would follow a year later in another legendary low-budget film, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider. Romero’s thumb was feeling for the pulse of the zeitgeist, trying to say something about the psychic life of America in the late 1960s. Riots and protests were everywhere, institutions were rocked, the fabric of modern Western life tested in all quarters. Somehow, Night of the Living Dead records that landscape for us now more effectively than just about any other product of the age, even though it never tries to be overtly political, for it hit upon a near-endlessly malleable metaphorical framework to explore what’s happened to the modern body politic.
Surely that’s part of the reason why today Night of the Living Dead has conquered the world. A vast swathe of the entertainment industry today owes Romero and his ragged band royalties and suitable celebration. The explosion of zombie-themed entertainment that’s cropped up in the past decade or so, from the comic book and TV series The Walking Dead to films like World War Z (2013), only offer slight variations on Romero and Russo’s basic concept and Romero’s subsequent variations on it, in his follow-ups Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Then again, what Romero owed Matheson and Alfred Hitchcock and the sci-fi monster flicks of the 1950s is not so negligible either. Romero had worked on the set of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) but it’s The Birds (1963) that Night of the Living Dead picks apart and stitches back together, a tale of besiegement by savage beasts featuring a blonde heroine who goes largely catatonic after peering grim fate in the eye. But where Hitchcock leaves off is where Romero starts, a point made obvious in the fate of initial, apparent protagonist, Barbra (Judith O’Dea), whose blindsiding experience of world-cracking terror and loss comes scant minutes into the film and leaves her ruined and near-mute for most of the next hour and a quarter. Hitchcock’s film used his inexplicable outbreak of hostility for a lesson that he not busy being born is busy dying, whereas Romero sees a point where everyone might just be dying. Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as the next way station on a trail blazed by Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in creating the modern horror film, both in their approach to intimate violence as the new barometer of horrific effect and also in the way they look at the landscape, literal and figurative, we have lived in since the post-World War 2 settlement.
The film’s opening scene also incorporates a commentary on horror film history, as Barbra and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) arrive in a cemetery out in rural spaces, on their ritual yearly visit performed on behalf of their incapacitated mother to their father’s grave. Johnny employs an impression of a Boris Karloff-like creep to scare Barbra. Like the same year’s Targets, which actually employed Karloff for the same end, Romero here zeroes in on the way the argot of classical horror represented by the venerable English star had become campy and passé, but still possessed an unsettling quality needing a new context to find effect: Johnny’s jokey evocation of horror immediately sets the scene for the real thing. But it’s daytime, in the quiet expanses of the Pennsylvania countryside – surely nothing bad can happen here. The mood is one of tolerance and tested nerves and banal frustration. The string tethering the siblings to this show of familial loyalty is perilously thin, and Johnny keeps testing it, claiming to barely remember his father. He cynically notes that they might as well have bought the same memorial wreath for the grave a few dozen times – mourning is another tacky industry. The toey, distracted tone of this opening suggests disquiet and discomfort already roiling under the surface – Johnny’s irritable distaste for the business he’s been forced to perform is all but tangible as he clearly wants to leave behind his past, with his affectations of hipster playboy, whilst the nervy, already suggestively fragile Barbra can’t escape it and perhaps doesn’t want to. They’re chicks who have clawed their way out of the shell of the classic nuclear family variably well. Johnny can still send Barbra spiralling back into childhood with his sardonic mockery. But the shambling figure Johnny takes for a roaming wino and nominates as one of the looming monsters (“They’re coming to get you, Bar-bra!”) proves to actually be a brute, attacking Barbra and stirring a show of actual brotherly feeling from Johnny, who immediately pays the price as he gets his head bashed in against a gravestone. Barbra flees back to the car but doesn’t have any keys, so tries to escape the ravening stranger by freewheeling down a slope. This gives her enough space to flee on foot towards a nearby house.
The qualities of Night of the Living Dead that distinguished it from the pack are made instantly apparent in this opening movement. The deceptively calm and tepid atmosphere, loaned a sombre unease by the black and white photography, gives way to a sudden ferocity that’s still remarkable, conveyed by the actors and Romero’s intense camerawork and editing. Most low-budget and independent horror films before this were laborious in their use of the camera; now suddenly the limitations of the form became an asset, in the free and kinetic deployment of the camera matched to the urgency of the action in a manner that’s never exactly documentary-like – Romero’s framings and use of canted angles are far too careful for that – but has something like the same immediacy. The mean jolts of irony that underpin the narrative as a whole first are first felt here. It’s in the switchback from sardonic calm to survival scramble, in the actualisation of Barbra’s unease in the graveyard, in Johnny’s swift demise springing to defend the sister he was teasing seconds before, joining the father he can’t remember as a corpse in a cemetery in Nowheresville. Barbra’s flight from the pursuing zombie takes her to a refuge that proves a trap, the contradiction that defines the rest of the narrative. She finds the farmhouse apparently empty, with only a gruesomely mutilated corpse lying on the stairs for company. The phone is out. The solitude is terrible. She runs for the door only to be pinioned by the glare of headlights: a pick-up truck pulls up and its driver, Ben (Jones), leaps out to urge her back into the house. Ben has just barely survived his own encounter with more of the mysteriously animated corpses lurching around the countryside, and with the fuel in the truck he appropriated nearly exhausted, sees no choice but to make a stand in the farmhouse.
Ben’s appearance, suddenly thrusting his face into frame, at first an apparent threat swooping out of the dark to grab Barbra, is a brief but notable rupture in the otherwise crisp visual textures: the nominal hero arrives in a blur, a shock to Barbra’s already fried sensory organs. Like one of the film’s spiritual descendants, Alien (1979), the apparently random choice of lead performer loaned potent subtext that isn’t acknowledged in the script or surface drama, but still inflects what we see. Barbra’s shrinking, quaking behaviour as Ben enlists her in his survival efforts could be the fear of someone out of her depth and thrust into an intense situation with a total stranger, and also that of a prim suburban white girl who’s never been so close to a black man in her life. Ben’s got-his-shit-together coolness under pressure seems to contrast Barbra’s rapidly fraying nerves – her rapid spiral into almost disembodied hysteria as she makes account of what happened to her contrasts Ben’s curious, bewildered but cooler narrative, and his implorations “I think you should just stay calm,” voiced as he goes about his business. But this is in part a miscue, as Ben’s experience replays Barbra’s at greater length. Soon, after Ben battles and kills several of the ghouls and begins makeshift barricades, they’re joined by more survivors, revealed to have been hiding in the basement: middle-aged, balding Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and the younger couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). A fault-line quickly splits these would-be survivors as they’re faced with weathering this storm, as Harry advocates holing up in the basement where they only have a single door to worry about, whilst Ben wants to continue barricading the house, to have open ground to fight in or flee to. Tom mediates between the two men’s heated exchanges, whilst Ben declares himself in charge of anyone who wants to remain upstairs with him.
It goes almost without saying that most of the nascent power and specific inspiration of Night of the Living Dead lies in the way it constantly looks past the zombie horde, whose appetites are basic and instinctual and whose threat is close to abstract, to consider the living instead. But the zombies deserve appreciation. Romero didn’t think of them as zombies, a name with roots lie in specific religious traditions, black magic, and spell-casting, as beings under the will of manipulators or influenced by curses. Romero’s zombies are described here as mutations, animated by a mysterious radiation cloud released when an experimental deep-space probe rocket was destroyed before it could land on Earth, an idea that connects Night of the Living Dead less with precursors in zombie cinema like Victor Helperin’s White Zombie (1932) or John Gilling’s Plague of the Zombies (1966) than with sci-fi like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and atomic monster flicks in the Godzilla (1954) tradition, as well as strong similarities to Terence Fisher’s cheap but creepy The Earth Dies Screaming (1964). The idea of making the living dead cannibalistic killers was drawn from the source myth behind the word ghoul. But zombie is such a cool word. Romero would drop this explanation in later instalments, in part because it was unnecessary. The zombies are the ultimate Other, a tabula rasa of terror, possessing no motive, no will, no identity, beyond what natural drive dictates, gruesome shells of being that both defy and embody death. This helps explain their easy popularity today. Moreover, the basic narrative of Night of the Living Dead has many echoes not just from earlier sci-fi and horror films but also Westerns and colonialist adventure stories with the zombies subbing for Indians or tribal Africans laying siege to a microcosmic collective, but allowing those narratives to be sustained without socio-political and racial specifics, which can then be suggested at will. Romero’s undead lurch around dazedly, seeking out any form of sustenance with the appetite of the damned, advancing not with great speed or force but relentless intent, and turning on like ravening animals when they have what they want in their sights.
By contrast, the humans want above all to survive their ordeal. The will to survival, a trait usually granted respect in the types of narrative Night of the Living Dead takes inspiration from and depicted as informing noble efforts to band together and act selflessly, here is probed at with a ruthless sense of the way character and outlook affect the way we approach situations, finding the opposite tendency. When alone, Ben’s activity seems entirely sensible, as he boards up the house’s doors and windows, seeks out weaponry, and prepares for siege, but the emergence of others in the house instead of relieving tension only provokes a concurrent conflict. The clash between Ben and Harry doesn’t just polarise the movie but still feels like the basic archetype of modern communal quandary, interpretable on several levels – black fight versus white flight, communal action versus self-interest, internationalism versus isolationism, on and on. The microcosmic conceit sees Ben and Harry taking on their separate kingdoms, barking orders and warnings at each-other, with Tom trying to mediate for an outcome. The women are by and large relegated to staying out of the way (in his interesting if comparatively saggy remake in 1990, Tom Savini revised this element smartly so that Barbra, instead of going catatonic, turns into a killing machine, detaching from humanity in a different way) or settling for commentary, as Marilyn acerbically cuts her husband down to size (“That’s important isn’t it – to be right.”) in miniature Albee scenes, paving the way for Romero’s more overt and pointed engagement with feminist themes on Season of the Witch (1971) and the later Dead movies.
Ben has the gun, retrieved from a cupboard in the house; Harry’s overwhelming need becomes to gain possession of this symbol of male power over his antagonist, who is in turn determined not to be reduced to passively waiting to see if the monsters break in on him or not. But none of these people are absolutely right or wrong, or entirely competent. Harry’s clammy, truculent yet actually timorous demeanour is based in part in concern for his family, particularly his daughter, who’s wasting away from an injury, whilst Ben has no-one he must be personally responsible for. He’s the kind of guy you want in the trenches with you, but his instinct to get away from the house and make for a rescue station pushes him to advocate a risky and eventually catastrophic venture. This sense of human frailty is another aspect of Night of the Living Dead’s adroitness, perhaps indeed its greatest aspect. Romero refuses to stroke our egos and present the usual avatars of our best imagined selves, but provides instead figures desperately improvising, spiralling into panic or thrusting themselves into risks for the sake of action in the belief it must be preferable to inaction. Barbra’s instincts work beautifully in fighting for her life but then collapse once necessity wanes and she’s left to ponder just what happened, and in a similar way Ben’s own attempt to rationally solve his problem proves self-destructive. Ben’s attempt to lead an escape from the house, with Tom’s help and Judy’s fearful imposition, by obtaining petrol for the truck from a locked pump near the house devolves into a comedy of errors and then hideous tragedy. Nothing quite goes right, and the end result is the truck exploding in flames, killing Tom and Judy, and Ben, running back to the house, finds himself locked out by Harry. Harry does eventually let him in, only to get a beating from Ben. Another jagged irony is thrown up, that the ultimate as Harry’s belief the basement is the safest place is proven correct.
Part of the mystique of Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s early films in general lies in their pungent sense of time and place, their genuineness in evoking the lives of suburbanites and the citizens of out-of-the-way places – the lives of quiet desperation in There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and Season of the Witch, the decimated small town of The Crazies (1973), and the blasted urban drear of Martin (1977), films that locate a zone somewhere between genre film and neorealism. Romero’s unknown, sometimes amateur casts and location shooting informed this authenticity that often also shades into awkwardness in acting. But his characters are deftly sketched, arriving as people who seem to have walked right into the films from life. Nobody in Night of the Living Dead is particularly special – that’s why their fate is compelling, the sense this is happening to anyone and everyone. The film’s novelty as horror lay not just in the graphic depictions of cannibalism that comes as the zombies feast on the nicely cooked remains of Tom and Judy, but in its extension of a note sounded in Psycho. Horror is now based in the utterly humdrum modern world, welling out of septic psyches, the effluence of scientific-industrial progress, and decaying bodies, clinging like a faint, indefinable, yet certainly noxious aroma to things formerly thought of as clean and upstanding and mundane, from noble old houses to quaint churchyards and open country spaces, as well infesting the good old family unit.
Night of the Living Dead is preoccupied with both the bonds that tie people together and also the forces that hold them at odds and foil best intentions. In its way, then, it’s a profoundly neighbourly film – perhaps Romero hadn’t come so far from Mr Rogers perhaps after all. You can imagine the dull potpourri-scented parlours at home and the bus rides Barbra takes back in the city, something Jonny has declared independence from with his flashy sports car. And what’s he doing on the weekend? Ferrying his sister out to place a plastic memorial wreath on his father’s grave on the behest of a senescent elder. Ben tries to create a safe zone and invites everyone to share it even as he and Harry take “my way or the highway” attitudes. The film’s survivalist theme plugs into a system of anxiety that had begun buzzing in the early nuclear age and was starting to go into overdrive in the context of the late ‘60s: Harry is the archetypal white suburban father anxiously shepherding his family into a bunker and hoping to get hold of a weapon in case he needs to hold off social collapse. In this regard Night of the Living Dead can also be seen as an extension of Ray Milland’s little-known but intriguing attempt to portray post-atomic war straits engulfing a normal family, Panic in the Year Zero (1962), and looking forward to a generation of films like Damnation Alley (1977) and Mad Max (1979), obsessed with the post-apocalyptic landscape. Romero also drew on the lone film work of another director from well beyond the pale, Herk Harvey, who like Romero had roots in making pedagogic shorts and helmed the shoestring classic Carnival of Souls (1962). Quite apart from Harvey’s example as a low-budget filmmaker for Romero, his ashen-faced, black-eyed ghouls stalked locations that evoked corners of the American landscape left vacant and decaying in changing times grasped the same mood of blasted alienation and parochial anxiety.
Romero’s background in regional television and his interest in the way communal infrastructure is both erected to handle calamity and is disturbingly vulnerable to it is constantly evinced throughout the film. The characters in the house urgently try to tune into radio and TV to glean understanding of the situation and find what they should do: Romero understands the modern world as a zone of networks people rely on scarcely without thinking. Night of the Living Dead evokes the eerie, paranoid sensation of tuning into some emergency broadcast station in the middle of the night, beaming out test pattern in boding readiness for the moment when it might be needed. It’s chiefly access to communication devices that entices Harry and his fellows out of the basement for any length of time. The news anchors trying to fill people in on apparently incoherent and unbelievable events contextualise the impossible in familiar terms: the zombie revolution will be televised. Ben and the others make their ill-fated venture out of the house partly in hope of heading to one of the rescue stations advertised on the TV. Tellingly, at the outset of Dawn of the Dead, Romero depicts behind the scenes at a TV station with an argument about beaming out details about rescue stations that might have been overwhelmed by ghouls already. Romero’s follow-ups became increasingly apocalyptic in tenor, each one less a sequel in the usual sense than a revision that ups the scale of the problem each time, reflecting the metastasizing nature of Romero’s concerns. As it’s made clear here, the best method of handling the zombies is quickly established and the roaming National Guard and militias out in the countryside are having no particular problem cleaning up the fiends. This suggestion of possible containment of the problem makes this sharper as a drama of personal endurance on one level and perhaps more sardonic too as it throws more emphasis onto the failings of the heroes rather than the inevitability of their predicament, even if it robs the tale of the biblical scale touched on in Romero’s later takes.
The word “taboo” is often employed when discussing Night of the Living Dead, and for good reason, as it’s a work dedicated to demolishing them on both the dramatic and thematic levels. In a film driven by its contemplation of the tenuousness of human relations, Romero resolves this motif by locating dark, nihilistic revelry in the worst possible permutation of those relations with the cold, unremitting aim of an Enlightenment satirist like Swift, De Sade, or Voltaire, sharing with their ilk an unfettered readiness to unravel just about any presumption of Western civilisation from Homer on. With the bonus of gleefully trashing just about every nicety of genre storytelling and the presumptions of commercial storytelling. So, the handsome, innocent young couple are roasted alive and then eaten. The two alpha males, far from learning to work together and respect each-other, devolve into primal battle for control of a weapon, resulting in Ben shooting Harry like a commander in the field executing a mutinous officer. Marilyn and Barbra all die at the hands of loved-ones, as Barbra is snatched by the revived and zombified Johnny and fed to the horde of ghouls he’s joined, whilst dying Harry becomes dinner for his daughter who has succumbed to the malady too, before she stabs her horrified mother to death with a trowel. One of Romero’s finer gifts as a filmmaker was his ability to shoot physical action in a manner that invests it with a voluble sense of physical immediacy (at least in his early films – his more recent work is ordinary in this regard), and this is particularly vital in the film’s climactic scenes as the defence of the house swiftly and brutally collapses when the ghoul horde becomes large enough to bash through the barricades – death comes at the protagonists from every direction. Barbra finally snaps out of her daze right at the moment of crisis and leaps into action with surprising energy, to no avail.
Most pungently and infamously, Ben, suddenly alone and faced with a seemingly unstoppable tide of the marauders, is forced to take refuge in the basement with two half-eaten bodies that revive, forcing him to shoot them, and await the dawn. At long last daylight creeps in, the militia arrive gunning down ghouls all about, and Ben ventures out of his hiding place to cautiously investigate his rescuers – only to get a bullet in the forehead in the presumption he’s just another zombie. Ben’s body is dragged out with hooks to join the ghouls on the bonfire under the opening credits. Jones would go on to star in Bill Gunn’s black cultural riposte, Ganja & Hess (1973). This chilling, utterly deadpan final act exacerbates the film’s political dimensions of course, but also plays in part as a MAD Magazine-like lampoon extending Romero’s attack on narrative clichés. The cavalry has arrived to rescue our hero from siege by the savages, but just a little too late, and he’s just another moving target for a mob of trigger-happy hicks. In a year that had seen Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy gunned down by reactionaries, in which racial and countercultural action constantly nudged the edges of overt insurrection and in which the potential looming spectre of a whole race of angry Harrys emerging from their basements now armed and eager to blast anything dissenting and threatening, Ben’s death didn’t just feel ironic, or tragic, but inevitable. I particularly like the leader of the militia’s jaunty cockaded hat, a touch that gives him a spiritual link to the burgomasters leading mobs in Universal horror films, and with the suspicious undercurrent of lynch mob justice in those films suddenly brought out into the open. But what seems most chilling about watching Night of the Living Dead today is the revelation just how deep Romero’s insight into his culture went. On many levels, the film seems to be just as true about 2016 as it was about 1968.
Directors/Co-screenwriters: Konstantin Ershov, Georgi Kropachyov
By Roderick Heath
Nikolai Gogol’s story “Viy” was included in a volume of his story collection Tales of Mirgorod. Like his most famous tale, the historical novella “Tara Bulba” included in the same collection, “Viy” was a tribute to the wealth of history and traditions of rural Ukraine and southern Russia and the people who live there, particularly the Cossack nations. Gogol nominally based his story in real myths he harvested in the region, but the tale’s basic underpinnings have a vital similarity to ghost story traditions from right around the world, those stories in which a callow young man on the road encounters an evil spirit in the form of a woman. Gogol essentially invented his variation however, including the title character, a troll king who appears in the climax of the tale, whilst trying to capture the flavour of the parochial traditions he was steeped in and was trying to convey fervently, in an age when literature was often urgently engaged with trying to define the supposed ethereal quintessence of national cultures. Although his literature was often devoted to excoriating the absurd and backward aspects of his time and its culture, Gogol was a committed Slavophile, and eventually finished up subscribing to a brand of fervent religious nationalism that first pushed him to try and extend his novel Dead Souls into a parable exploring the whole Russian character, before burning the new material he had written, depression and ill-health reinforcing his new conviction that art was profane. In the following century, the Soviet government was notoriously averse to morbid and mystical themes in art. When Viy was filmed in 1967, it was the first horror film ever produced in the Soviet Union.
Writer and filmmaker Konstantin Ershov and production designer Georgi Kropachyov joined forces to create a more faithful adaptation and shared directing credits on the result. Another filmmaker contributing to the script was Aleksandr Ptushko, known at the time in Soviet cinema for his special effects work and for directing fantasy films, including a 1935 version of Gulliver’s Travels, and the 1956 epic Ilya Muromets (which Mystery Science Theatre 3000 aficionados might recall under the title The Sword and the Dragon). Ptushko also provided Viy’s simple yet ebullient, ingeniously deployed visual effects. Perhaps to clear ground for a work in a genre held in such opprobrium by the authorities, Viy offers a wry, even comic take on horror film, albeit one that also works up a peculiar intensity in its second half. Gogol’s story was an ideal subject to break the moratorium. A work resting squarely in the classic canon of Russian literature, it was based in safely historical, distant regional traditions and without any suggestion of psychological metaphor or transgressive meaning. Viy is rife with black humour mediating the onslaughts of supernatural menace, with a streak of anti-clerical and socially critical humour that squarely mocks institutions of Russian society held as old, decrepit, and outmoded under the Soviets. “Viy” had already served as inspiration for Mario Bava’s great debut film La Maschera del Demonio (1960), although that story had taken the setting, a Slavic backwater, and the theme of an evil witch tormenting men of learning, and married it to a more traditional type of vampire story and Bava’s potent brand of erotically charged evil. Viy, on the other hand, is closer to “The Wurdalak” episode in Bava’s I Tre Volti della Paura (1963), in conjuring a sense of blasted, paranoid anxiety in the sharp opposition of the great expanses of the Steppes and a claustrophobic outpost under supernatural siege.
The opening scenes hit a note of raucous good-humour as it depicts a mob of young seminarians in a Kiev monastery being released into the unsuspecting world for vacation, molesting washer women, lampooning their rector by trying to make a goat read, stealing food from vendors, and generally running riot. The distinctly unholy behaviour of the religious students, told off by the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) for their wild ways before they flee into the countryside, sets off a tale where the vital tension lies between the way things are supposed to be and the unruly reality beneath, where the ultimate evil is a creature that can see all, as long as it can keep its eyes open. The seminarians travel on foot in gradually shrinking groups as they split and head towards their home towns. Three of the students, theologian Khaliava (Vadim Zakharchenko), rhetorician Tibery Gorobets (Vladimir Salnikov), and philosopher Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), are eventually all that is left of one of these travelling bands, and, as night falls, they get lost in the hinterland. Balking at camping under the stars, they keep groping in the dark until eventually they come across a farmhouse. They beg the old woman who seems to be the householder (actually played by a man, Nikolay Kutuzov) for a place to sleep for the night. The crone replies her house is already full of guests, but eventually agrees to stash them in different places. Khoma gets his bed in the stable on a pile of straw.
During the night, the crone enters the stable and advances on him with an apparently lustful look: “No, it’s Lent,” Khoma exclaims: “And you couldn’t tempt me for all the gold in the world!” But the crone picks him and up with peculiar strength, manipulates him like a toy, and climbs on his back, making him carry her like a horse. Once she gets him outside, she grabs a broom and levitates, carrying him under her legs, for a flight across the countryside reminiscent of Faust’s journey with Mephistopheles in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film of that story. Khoma realises he’s in the clutches of a witch, and when the crone lands, Khoma grabs up a stick and furiously beats her. Suddenly, the crone turns into a beautiful young woman who gasps that he’s killing her, and Khoma recoils in shock. Leaving the battered and bleeding girl in the field, Khoma dashes off through the reed-choked swamps and eventually makes his way back to the seminary. But there he finds that his peculiar destiny is not going to let go of him. A gang of Cossacks from an outlying village has arrived in search of him, and arranged with the Rector to ensure he goes with them back to their village, to say prayers for a girl who has died. All Khoma is told is that he was specifically insisted upon by the girl’s father, and that he’s going to attend whether he likes it or not, as the Rector feels he needs a good punishment for his rowdy ways. When they reach the village, Khoma learns that the dead girl, Pannochka (Natalya Varley), named him as the man to pray for her, and her father is local boyar. He demands that Khoma pray in the church over his daughter’s body for the prescribed three night period on the promise of 1,000 gold coins if he fulfils the task or 1,000 lashes if he doesn’t. And, of course, Pannochka proves to be the witch he killed.
Viy has a strain of sly, even cruel irony underlying its playful surface that slowly emerges, as it studies a situation Khoma falls into and realises he has no way out of save death or triumph. To triumph means he must draw on resources he, as a man officially studying to become a religious and philosophical luminary, knows he doesn’t have. The tumult of the raucous, randy, hungry students fleeing the seminary at the outset gives way to glorious surveys of the open Russian countryside, a place of seemingly endless bounties. Only then does the scope of the drama compress, the trio of pompous scholars promptly getting lost in a field as the sun goes down. Khoma finds his world reduced first to the village he is brought to, a septic little kingdom where the boyar rules, and then to the confines of the village church, a place cordoned off from the normal rules of reality, where elemental battles will take place. Khoma however is a citizen of a grey zone that permits him no easy identity: unwilling to devote himself to religious strictures but, as an intellectual in a theocratic society, having no other recourse but the church, he’s been ripped from his roots in the Cossack village: he can still sing along with his fellows from the region, but is left an object of curiosity mixed with contempt. Much of which Khoma deserves. He is, by his own confession, a slovenly student and potential clergyman. Whilst trying to talk the boyar out of forcing him to make his vigil, Khoma denies he’s known for his piety: “I visited a baker’s wife on Maundy Thursday!” He’s better at carousing and eating, but these prove futile escapes from the duty he is obligated to perform. His attempts to escape the village constantly prove embarrassing jokes, as the boyar’s men easily corral him.
This aspect of Viy has a certain thematic similarity to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964), as an outsider finds himself trapped and pressganged into meeting the needs of a tiny, virtually forgotten community on the fringes of civilisation. A quality in Gogol’s writing that anticipated the later emergence of surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and the peculiar imaginings of Franz Kafka is also detectable. Khoma’s situation plays like an inversion of Kafka’s The Castle, in which the protagonist can’t escape being locked in rather than locked out (Dead Souls pivots on a similarly surreal notion, a plot to make money from serfs who are literally dead, but alive in a bureaucratic and financial sense). Meanwhile, the ritualistic structure of the churchman repeatedly going into battle with an evil force that possesses a young girl anticipates The Exorcist (1973), although that film’s iron-cast moral certainties are mocked well beforehand as the representative of holy certitude here is hardly an ideal avatar, and his battle against evil is more like an extended, drunken attempt to simply weather the storm. Ershov and Kropachyov play up the sardonic side of Gogol’s tale in regards to religion and also social power evinced by various forms of elder, be it the Rector who sends Khoma off gruffly to his fate, or the boyar who forces Khoma to do his bidding. In the style of the morality-play quality apparent in many a real folk tale, Khoma represents hypocrisy, drunkenness, and self-indulgence.
Under pressure, Khoma’s roots in the hard-drinking, hard-living Cossack way are swiftly revealed, whilst to the villagers he represents a momentary insight into a way of life usually cordoned off from their own: “Just what are you seminarians taught?” one demands to know: “What the deacon says when he’s in church, or other things?” Khoma, hardly paying attention, performs an expert trick with his vodka cup, making his drinking companions coo in wonderment, “What a great scholar! I want to be a seminarian too!” The filmmakers inject a visual joke as Khoma, thoroughly soused, sees three different versions of the same man emerging from three tavern doors. For all his faults, though, once Khoma feels the heavy hand on his shoulder the smiling face only briefly distracts from, and is forced to go through with his terrifying vigil, he has our sympathy, for his reactions are only to a strange, arbitrary, humiliating world only slightly more coherent than the manifestations of the supernatural that dog him. The sight of the old witch turning Khoma into her personal pony-boy, laced with perverse erotic suggestions even as it’s played for laughs, is echoed later when one of the villagers recounts how Pannochka ran off with one of the young men of the village, who carried her out on his shoulders. The villagers were well aware Pannochka was a witch; only her father had no clue, and although he senses something strange in her dying wish to receive holy rites from this specific, unworthy representative of religion, nonetheless he commits grimly to the task.
Although very different in style with its breezy, straightforward storytelling to the more esoteric aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov, two of Soviet cinema’s highest-profile talents of the day, Viy shares a spirit in common with their works nonetheless, for it tries to convey an authentically folkloric vision and a quintessence of one corner of the cultural inheritance. That’s the part of the psychic landscape within that inheritance, where the collective memory has hazy fringes, the place where ancestors lived and the things they took to be trye still takes on a type of reality, if only in the freakish fancies lurk and the monstrosities parents use to keep their children in line in grimly prophetic parables. The Viy itself, although made up by Gogol, has exactly that quality of something plucked out of a bedtime boogeyman tale. The actual root for the creation is, perhaps ironically, thought to be the Christian Saint John Cassian the Unmerciful, a religious hero who strangely gained a quality close to demonic in later folklore because of his reputation of extremely harsh judgement, and who had similarly incisive, excoriating vision that nonetheless was only selectively uncovered when he brushed back his long hair. Fittingly, Ershov and Kropachyov’s aesthetic in Viy’s fantasy sequences is rooted in stage pantomime and magic-lantern shows, rejecting the realism that was just starting to become dominant in Western horror cinema. Ershov, Kropachyov, and Ptushko utilise the space of the village church as a theatrical space where illusionism reigns. The old wooden carvings and creepy icons painted on the walls and carefully manipulated candle lighting sets the scene, surveyed upon first entrance by the slowly pivoting camera movements, like a bullring or battleground in a Sergio Leone film, ideal for the basic spiritual conflict all the infrastructure of the settled, Christian world is supposed to hold at bay. Stray cats and birds suddenly scuttle through the old, creepy space.
The mounting spectacle of Khoma’s vigils starts with the witch girl climbing out of her coffin and searching for him, whilst Khoma has, in obedience to Ukrainian folk ritual, drawn a magic chalk circle about the lectern from which he reads Bible quotes. The witch is blind to him and held out of the circle, meaning she can only frantically slaw at the invisible barricade, before the cock’s crow drives her back into her coffin. The second night sees the witch levitating her coffin and trying to use it to bash her way through the circle, flying around the church as if in her own personal zero-gravity dodgem car, whilst Khoma bellows panicky prayers and tosses boots at her. When she fails she curses him, leaving him momentarily blind and also with his hair turned snowy white. Moments of pure fairytale strangeness flit by, like a tear of blood sliding down Pannochka’s face as she lies on her bier. The staging in these scenes conveys both a sense of absurdist humour in the confrontations between terrified churchman and vengeful witch, and crescendo of the beguiling strangeness of the supernatural as envisioned here, with the camerawork suddenly turning frantic and aggressive, as when Pannochka furiously stalks around the limits of Khoma’s protective circle, and the sight of her trying to bash through the barrier with her flying coffin. These scenes also get a kick out of the peculiar manifestation of evil in the form of Varley’s pale-faced, dark-eyed teenage witch, a lovely visage possessed of a wilful desire to destroy Khoma. She anticipates Linda Hayden’s flower-decked pagan priestess in The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) in embodying malevolence with the most seemingly innocent, beguiling surface imaginable.
The special effects are lovable for their refusal of complex artifice, and retain that magic-lantern show quality. When the witch levitates with Khoma under her, it’s obvious that they’re on a rotating stage as if in some theatrical production. Khoma’s attempt to flee the village, charging through underbrush, is depicted through looping reversals of film stock, his complete inability get anywhere dictated by the film technique. The finale goes for broke as the filmmakers offer pantomime monsters and skeletal hydras whilst playing games with the visuals – Khoma remains in colour whilst the arising army of the night loom and leer around him in sepulchral black and white. Each of Khoma’s nights of vigil leaves him increasingly fraught and desperate to escape his lot, alternating with vodka-brave pronunciations. When he’s brought out of the church after the second night, he starts into a bizarre dance, an attempt to convince himself he’s just spent a brief, hair-raising time-out from the more important business of carousing, but succeeding only in testifying to his own fraying nerves and sanity. His dance is a pathetic but also vigorous sight, the only likeness I can think of being the infamous “Flashdance” scene in Dogtooth (2010), in depicting someone who knows they’re about to go mad if they don’t escape but also knows they can’t escape and so converts raw panic into a furious proof of life. Kuravlyov’s performance hits grand heights here.
The film reaches a riotous climax as Khoma ventures into the church for his third night with airy, drunken hopes for his future, only to face the final onslaught of the witch’s efforts to break him, as she calls up all manner of ghouls and goblins to attack him. The final monster she conjures is the Viy itself, a monstrous, misshapen troll with outsized droopy eyelids that conceal crystalline eyes that can see through the mystical protective barrier protecting Khoma: the Viy has to get other ghouls to lift its eyelids back so it can see, but then is able to point out their prey and the monsters attack Khoma just as the cock crows for dawn again. Khoma loses his battle with fate, dying from fright as he’s assaulted. But this proves the downfall of the witch and her minions too, as they perish dashing for the shadows because they’ve lingered into the dawn, the witch reverting to her crone’s appearance and her coffin disintegrating, leaving her exposed as a monstrosity. The sarcastic punch-line for all this sees Khoma’s two friends Khaliava and Gorobets back at the seminary, working on restoring artworks and supping vodka on the sly as they try to work out why Khoma failed in his vigil, eventually deciding he didn’t believe in his own spiritual authority enough to fight off the evil, when a true holy man would have simply commanded the monsters to go. Talk about Monday morning quarter-backing. Viy certainly never exactly goes for pulse-pounding horror, more a spry and mordant frisson that evokes the way you get scared when you’re six years old. It’s a delightful annex of the horror genre nonetheless.
Frank Wisbar is today a fairly obscure name in the roll of classic film directors, and yet lovers of horror cinema still remember him for making two of the genre’s finer deep cuts, each film a variation of the same story, made ten years and continents apart. Born in Tilsit, Wisbar (or Wysbar as his name was originally spelt) was conscripted in World War I and stayed in the army until the mid-1920s, before he went into the film industry. He served as production manager on Leontine Sagan’s legendary lesbian-themed drama Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a success that gave him a shot at directing, debuting with the adventure-comedy Im Bann des Eulenspiegels (1932). Wisbar quickly earned the ire of the oncoming Nazi authority by making Anna und Elisabeth (1933), a follow-up to Mädchen in Uniform with the same stars and gay subtext. To play nice with Goebbels’ new Ministry of Propaganda, Wisbar’s next film, Flag of the Righteous Seven (1934), was an adaptation of German-language Swiss writer Gottfried Keller about romance, bourgeois mores, and regional life in the 1800s. The film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Wisbar’s career struggled on for a few more years. Wisbar was however to remain deeply at odds with the Nazis, in part because his wife Eva was Jewish: the state stripped him of his passport and forced the couple to divorce, and after he was finally blacklisted in 1938, Wisbar fled the country. He became an American citizen and found a niche making low-budget features and then TV shows in Hollywood. Eventually returning to West Germany in the 1950s, Wisbar found new but strictly domestic success there again with works about dark chapters in the war like the Battle of Stalingrad and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an adaptation of Wolfgang Ott’s grim precursor to Das Boot, Sharks and Little Fish (1957), as well as post-war issue movies, before his death in 1967.
Fährmann Maria, or Ferryman Maria, could well stand as the last authentic product of the classic German cinema age, that time when the national industry that stood so tall between the Great War and doomed by the rise of Hitler. The great, endlessly influential German Expressionist movement in film kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) represented the kind of dark, sombre, highly psychologised drama the Nazis instinctively hated, and Fährmann Maria kept something of that style’s essence alive in a time when it had become verboten, although carefully mediated through a nominally more realistic, folksy approach, exploring a supernatural tale in a manner that also evokes a bygone sense of the Germanic landscape and communal identity: the word heimat, homeland, which was for the Nazis a talismanic phrase becomes a mystically tinged destination in the film. One supporting character, a boozy but good-natured fiddle-player (Carl de Vogt), evokes a cheery, open ideal of the parochial character as he’s constantly held up in his desire to return to his home by his love of the jug and a good time playing for people. And yet an undercurrent of intense unease and dislocation defines Fährmann Maria as it takes on a classic motif in German storytelling, the encounter of a young woman with Death personified in a battle between love and nihilism. That motif of Death and the Maiden was born in Renaissance art and transmitted through music like Schubert’s pieces of that title and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fritz Lang had used it as the basis of his omnibus film The Weary Death (1921), and F.W. Murnau had transformed Dracula into a variant on it in his Nosferatu (1922). Fährmann Maria’s exceptionally simple dramatic landscape, which isn’t actually based on any specific folk tale but evokes many, nonetheless aims to synthesise an ideal variant on this basic conflict that could well have dropped from the lips of some grandmother around the campfire some starlit walpurgisnacht.
The setting is a small village and the nearby ferry crossing that traverses a wide river, the few landmarks in the midst of a landscape of wavering, wind-ruffled pines and twitching reeds, and patches of sucking marshland. The rope-guided ferryboat is tended by an old man (Karl Platen), who maintains the service day in and day out, shuttling people from one bank to the other. The river is borderland between two unidentified regions. A mournful song about a ferry crossing resounds under the opening credits: in the transposition into the first proper scene this song is revealed this song is being performed by the fiddler as he’s shuttled across the river by the old ferryman. The ferryman mocks the fiddler for the ease with which he gets waylaid by his appetites and his rootless habits, and explains that the fiddler’s very coin represents the last payment he has to make to own the ferry outright. That night, the old ferryman is awakened by the dull ring of the ploughshare that serves as the gong for service on the far side of the bank, and he hauls himself out of bed to answer it. When he reaches the far shore, he is intimidated by the grim-faced, black-clad man (Peter Voß) he picks up, and as he labours to get the ferry back to the other side, his tugs on the guide rope become increasingly laborious and strained, until he keels over dead from heart failure, and the mysterious man in black begins to pull the ferry back the other way. The old man has been claimed by Death.
This early sequence is a superb display of technique from Wisbar. Having established the eerie, somnolent, exposed mood of the ferry’s surrounds, he intensifies for physical effect as he cuts between the old man’s face, his hands on the rope, and the implacable visage of Death, the lateral movement of the camera obeying a rigorous left-to-right viewpoint on the ferry’s motion, capturing the sense of strain and the failing pulse of the old man, matched to a shimmering, atonal score, until his hands cease to work properly. Death catches him and lays him down gently, a peaceful fate met at the very apotheosis of the old labourer’s life, his death at the moment of his triumph both a stinging irony but also a deliverance from any form of disappointment. Enter Maria (Sybille Schmitz), every bit the old man’s opposite, a young woman without a home or community, but destined to step into his shoes and face a rather different confrontation with Death. She wakes up after spending a night sleeping in the barn, pausing to listen to children singing in their school house, the pleasure and impossible distance of such inclusivity written on Maria’s face. Wisbar constantly evokes the folk tradition he’s burrowing into here through song and music, arts that bind together communities but also transcend such boundaries – the indolent fiddler is always half-heartedly trying to get home but is just as happy and seemingly more successful out of his native land – as a form of cultural currency people exchange. Maria enters the village and ducks the local policeman, long used as she is to trouble from such earthly powers. The mayor sees her doing this and makes light fun of her, before challenging her to take over the ferry, a job no-one else wants because “the Evil One haunts the far bank,” to prove she can make her stand.
Maria takes on the job, and quickly becomes an object of fascination for some, including a local landowner (Gerhard Bienert) who regards her and questions her brusquely, but soon proves to be establishing romantic rights over her. One night Maria, like her predecessor, hears the ploughshare ring on the far bank, and goes over to fetch her fare. At first she sees no-one, but then spots a man (Aribert Mog) crumpled on the ground: he mutters something fearful about being pursued, and she speeds him to the other bank as a squad of black-clad men on horseback dash through the neighbouring woods and line up on the shore, watching their quarry glide to safety. Maria stashes the young man in her hut and looks after him as he’s badly injured. The man recovers and they fall in love, but then he lapses into a fever and she’s forced to tend to him during his raving dissociation. She must also keep him hidden from locals like the fiddler, who, drunk and boisterous, wants to cross the river, and then the landowner when he comes around to invite her to a village dance. But during the night, Maria answers the gong and picks up the man in black, whose unnerving visage Maria instantly recognises as bringing evil intent for her lover, and the man quickly announces the fugitive is the object of his search. Trying to lead him astray, Maria escorts him into town and becomes his partner in the dance. This infuriates the farmer, who had deduced Maria had a man in her house, and, believing the man in black is him, publically brands her a slut whilst also inadvertently informing Death his prey is back in her abode.
Wisbar seems to have been chiefly under the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with this film, adapting aspects of its aesthetic, like Dreyer’s use of carefully stylised location shooting to create a different brand of crepuscular atmosphere to the heavy stylisation more typical of the Expressionist mode, and utilising Schmitz, who had played a woman suffering a vampire’s attention in Dreyer’s film. The troubled Schmitz had difficulty landing lead roles in the Nazi-run film industry in spite of her talent because she hardly looked the Aryan heroine, but Wisbar’s casting of her here turned this into a strong subtext lurking behind her character’s yearning for a place and role in the world, whilst also exploiting her specific, wounded beauty in a manner that perfectly suits her character. Maria is caught in the void straddling zones cultural, political, sexual, even life and death. Her tentative smile and large, melancholy eyes describe the strain of her life even as she goes about her work with stoic resolve and tries to keep a flame alight in her spirit. It’s clear she’s fended off a hundred men of the landowner’s ilk, but lets a real smile appear like a spring dawn on her face as she falls for the handsome stranger who embodies all the things she has never had but is forced to join her in this psychic no-man’s-land. Maria, usually dressed in gypsy-like garb that suggest the reason why she’s such an outsider, appears before her lover clad in a new dress, albeit a piece of garb that, with its ruffled collar, seems almost anachronistic even for the film’s vaguely nineteenth century setting, as if casting herself in a role outside of time. And that’s exactly where she is: Maria, whose name instantly evokes religious dimensions, takes over from Charon, shuttling souls between worlds across the Styx, giving her some unspoken form of power that lets her challenge Death himself.
Wisbar’s off-screen troubles lend credence to the hints constantly given throughout Fährmann Maria that he’s not just describing some historical fantasia, however. Although possessed of some lightly used supernatural powers, Death is personified as a resolutely tangible force kept at bay by the rules of the physical world he manifests in, an implacable agent for a dark and oppressive realm. Maria’s lover is specifically characterised as fleeing a repressive government, hazily defined as an imposition of invaders he and his patriotic friends want to drive out, whilst the citizens of the village regard the far shore as a place where the Devil has made dominion. The film’s most powerful images, of the horsemen pursuing the young man ride out of the forest and perch on the shoreline staring at the couple in the ferry, and the first appearance of Death in his trim, black, semi-military uniform, regarding Maria with blood-freezing severity, evoke a definite sensation of totalitarian menace lurking just beyond the limits of the frame and definition. In one scene the young man, in his fever state, begins to enthusiastically sing one of the patriotic songs he and his fellows use as an anthem, suggesting the Nazi love of such anthems twisted into a grotesque dirge that drives Maria into weeping despair. Maria is left cut off from all communal aid as Death realises her deception, even muffling the sound of the church bell she tries to ring to rouse the villagers to the deadly being in their midst with his power, literalising the feeling of being stranded in the midst of a country suddenly wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to the new predations of power quickly becoming everyday fact. Maria is compelled by Death to lead him through the swamp between the village and the ferry. Maria makes the self-sacrificing gesture that is always the key to the Death-and-the-Maiden tale, and as she prays that her gesture protect her lover, she leads Death along the treacherous path through the swamp, tricking him into falling into the black mud, where he sinks silently into the murk, whilst she manages to keep her footing and escape.
The final shots of Fährmann Maria see Maria and her lover crossing the river along with the fiddler and gazing out upon Maria’s new country, a grace note that seems a fulfilment of the patriotic dream of reclaiming the homeland, but with the vital, sneaky corollary that it’s a victory of the exiles and outcasts over the forces that oppress it. Wisbar’s visual sensibility is attuned to the horizontal in landscape and movement, a particularly tricky art to master for filmmakers working with the boxy classic Academy ratio, and fitted specifically to the environs Wisbar deals with here, the flat, semi-desolate spaces around the village and the glassy waters of the river, the to-and-fro motions of the boat and of Maria’s queasy dance with Death at the village dance filmed alike, the camera’s very range of movement communicating the stark, transfixing linearity of life in this space that finally, towards the end, gives way to the promise of gold sunlight on rolling mountains. Wisbar’s journey, at least for the time being, went in the opposite direction to his two heroic lovers, going into exile and soon finding his real reunion with his wife impossible. A decade later, Wisbar found a niche in the so-called “Poverty Row” studio PRC after a long period on the beach trying to get residency and a work permit. His first American film had been a teen crime potboiler, Secrets of a Sorority Girl (1945). For his second, he leveraged the notion of remaking his best-known work, and the result was entitled Strangler of the Swamp.
The basic plot remained the same: after the death of a ferryman serving a remote town, a young woman named Maria takes over his job and finds herself battling a malign spirit for the life of the man she loves. Working with one of PRC’s famously stringent budgets – none of their films, supposedly, cost more than $100,000 – Wisbar transposed the story into a much more overtly theatrical and classically spooky setting, a bayou swamp choked with reeds and vines traversed by the ferry. Strangler of the Swamp strongly contrasts Fährmann Maria in its approach even as its mood of dislocation and morbid romanticism is retained, whilst the alterations to the story point to a different set of animating concerns for this take. Here, the spectral figure isn’t Death itself but the shade of a man killed by his community, and the death he brings serves a programme of retribution. At the outset, the dead body of a villager who has died in the swamp is brought back to town, where the townsfolk begin to argue frantically about their circumstances: several similar deaths have taken place, all seemingly strangled by vines or reeds wrapped around their necks in grotesque approximation of a hangman’s noose. Many think they’ve been living under a curse ever since the former ferryman, Douglas (Charles Middleton), was lynched as a murderer.
Most of the men involved, including the mayor, Sanders (Robert Barratt), anxiously repudiate the notion even as they clearly live in fear of whatever lurks out in the bayou awaiting them, whilst the women of the village form a determined front, heading out into the swamp to strip down the noose that was used to kill Douglas. Joseph the ferryman (Frank Conlan), whose testimony was vital to identifying Douglas as a killer and who stepped into his post eagerly, sheepishly objects to the women’s proposals that he offers himself as sacrifice to the spectre to mollify its rage: “I’m only seventy! That’s not old for a man! I have plans for the future.” But soon enough, responding to the clang of the gong on the far side of the swamp, he encounters Douglas, a hollow-eyed wraith emanating from the shadows to deliver up stern pronouncements of waiting punishment: Joseph tries to toss the noose the women left on the ferry overboard, only for it to snare on a log, wrap around his neck, and strangle him, thus fulfilling Douglas’ design without any actual violent act. Amongst Joseph’s papers is discovered his written confession to the murder Douglas committed, as well as his admission that he framed Douglas to get his job. But the wraith is hardly satisfied with his death, and continues to await chances to kill off the rest of his lynch mob and their descendants. Joseph’s granddaughter Maria (Rosemary La Planche) arrives in town, hoping to find a place to settle after leaving a life of toil and alienation in the big city. Shocked to learn of her grandfather’s death, she nonetheless determines to take over his job as ferryman. She soon meets Sanders’ son Chris (Blake Edwards – yes, that Blake Edwards) and falls for him, but the curse is hardly averse to tormenting a pair of young lovers.
Wisbar had joined Edgar G. Ulmer in productive exile at PRC. Like another émigré Fritz Lang’s Hollywood debut, Fury (1936), Strangler reads in part as a condemnation of lynch culture in the US, whilst the decision to locate the story in one of his new country’s more primal backwaters echoes Jean Renoir’s venture into similar climes for his American debut, Swamp Water (1942). Strangler of the Swamp might also have represented an attempt by Wisbar and PRC to tap the same well Val Lewton’s horror films had so lucratively drilled for RKO, with a similarly literate, carefully stylised script to the kind Lewton liked, although Wisbar’s concrete approach to the supernatural stands somewhat at odds with the airier, more suggestive Lewton touch. The style here is also quite different to the restrained, deceptively naturalistic approach of Fährmann Maria, here turning the limitations of PRC’s productions into an asset by employing one spectacularly dreamlike, claustrophobic locale, where the totemic hangman’s noose dangles in the wind from an old gnarled tree, the rickety docks for the ferry jut into misty waters, an old, ruined church looms skeletally in the distance, and the town huddles on the fringes. Wisbar’s fluidic camerawork is still in evidence, tracking the course of the ferry across the swamp with cool regard, if not as carefully tailored to fit the geography physical and mental of the story. The guilt and paranoia experienced by the townsfolk has infected the land about them, and Wisbar goes more a sense of gothic entanglement befitting a dense and miasmic sense of corruption, the overgrown weeds of the psychic landscape. He often uses superimpositions to obscure the images, the appearances of Middleton’s withered, eyeless ghost masked by haze, the reeds and foliage of the bayou crowding the frame, as if animated and determined to invade the human world that clings to this landscape.
The result makes Strangler of the Swamp something like the platonic ideal of a dankly atmospheric, low-budget horror film. Severed from the culture and place that informed Fährmann Maria’s folkloric lustre, Strangler refits the story for a place that seems to hover right at the edge of liminal reality, a psychological neverland. That said, the story fits with surprising ease into the dramatic landscape of America’s backwood regions and the stark, moralistic, often supernatural flavour of songwriting in those areas – Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, or Robert Johnson could readily have sung of a similarly elemental tale. Perhaps a seed was planted here for the later burgeoning of backwoods horror as a permanent sub-branch of Hollywood horror cinema. Thematically, Strangler of the Swamp diverges tellingly from its predecessor. Wisbar’s PRC stablemate Ulmer had made his statement of utter moral exhaustion with his famous noir Detour a few months earlier, and Strangler, although ultimately not as nihilistic, seems similarly like a meditation on the psychic landscape left by the war: by the time Strangler was made, the Nazis had fallen and their crimes had stained the soul of humanity. Whereas the community in Fährmann Maria is essentially ignorant and innocent of the uncanny drama unfolding in its midst, Strangler in the Swamp is about vengeance reaching out from beyond the grave to attack a communal guilt – the evil is no longer an invasive one but internal, and the theme of the sins of the father is introduced as Maria and Chris must fight to escape the debt of their parents.
In the climax, Wisbar revisits the moment from the original when Maria finds she can’t make a sound ringing the church bell and stages it more expressly as sequence depicting social exclusion, as Maria dashes through the village trying to find aid, only to have doors and windows slam shut and curtains drawn by the vengeful spirit’s power, shutting off all recourse for his outsider heroine. Both films obviously share a female protagonist who proves that love is stronger than death and offers her own life in place of her man’s, and in Strangler Wisbar takes this theme of feminine strength further. Maria here meets initial doubts she can do her job but readily adapts to it, but the menfolk of the town are variously foolish, self-deluding, and corrupt, where the women are generally wiser and try to act against the curse where their men obfuscate and deny the problem. Chris’s father objects to his relationship with Maria because he knows she’s the granddaughter of a killer, where his mother (Effie Parnell) recognises her character and encourages the match. When Sanders tells his son he can’t marry Maria, Chris retorts that his own father took just as big a part in murdering Douglas, setting in motion the first rumblings of the generational conflict that would define so much of the post-war age. The town lost its church to fire, the ruins standing in moody isolation out in the swamp embodying the wreckage of the local culture’s ethical standing, and Sanders proposes, instead of rebuilding it with the money the town has collected for the purpose, that they use the funds to drain the swamp instead, his onwards-and-upwards rhetoric exposed as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the past.
One significant disparity between Wisbar’s two films is that La Planche, although fairly good in the lead, isn’t nearly as enticingly enigmatic or camera-fixating a presence as Schmitz (sadly, both women also died young), and the standard of acting in Strangler, although competent, is merely customary for a low-budget film of the time and place – even the very young Edwards is too callow to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Strangler isn’t weighed down by the smarmy folksiness of the earlier film’s fiddler character. The finale suffers from the hampered staging dictated by the limited setting, involving a lot of stumbling around in dry ice-clogged corners of the set trying to make it look like action is happening. Nonetheless Strangler of the Swamp stands as an example of what a real director could manage with even the most cynically straitened production of the day, a delicious visual experience that offers a real jolt of Wisbar’s poetic streak, and one of the few major horror films of the ‘40s not to have Lewton’s name attached. As in Fährmann Maria, Strangler’s Maria, exhausted by her frantic and desperate efforts to help Sanders in protecting his injured son from the wraith, offers herself in her lover’s place fends off dark fate amidst the sanctified ruins of the church. But Strangler pushes the import of the sacrificial gesture more strongly than Fährmann Maria, in a narrative shaped by a more personal and urgent sense of responsibility: where in the earlier film Death is outwitted by a touch of native guile as well as the ardent honesty of Maria’s prayers, Douglas is mollified by the gesture and dissolves in the night as Maria gives a benediction for his aggrieved soul. In Strangler, the victory feels quite different, as Maria must redeem the whole community through a selfless act, receiving a forgiveness that cannot be asked for, only granted by the aggrieved dead. Maria triumphs over entropy in her personification, however straggly and assailed she seems, of the finer elements of human nature and of woman herself, a detail that points up the irony in her job title. She is the being who encompasses life, death, and rebirth, who spans both shores.
The title resolves amidst intersecting geometries that coalesce and create a cityscape, ranged with neo-Babylonian techno-ziggurats: Metropolis, instantly a statement worthy of Ozymandias. A super-city where trains and cars shuttle along spanning bridges and aircraft buzz between sky-nudging structures. A great machine that explodes and morphs into a dark god of ages past, accepting human sacrifice into a greedy, fiery maw. A great dial of switches becomes a massive clock crushing its operator. A dark and twisted fairytale abode left like a seed of corruption in the midst of this empire of the will. The outpost of an ancient brand of faith discovered underground, to where the beaten and exhausted tread in search of hope. A beam of light in the midst of a dank, labyrinthine catacomb, terrorising and pinioning a saintly young woman. A robot fashioned in the likeness of a human, all art-deco brass curves and blank features, wreathed by electric arcs, slowly taking on the likeness of the same young woman. The robotic simulacrum dancing like Salome reborn, stirring the lusts of men until their eyes join together in a great mass of rapacious gazing. Statues of the seven deadly sins lurching out of their stalls in a Gothic cathedral, announcing the coming of calamity and death. A mass of desperate children all reaching out for their saviours in the midst of surging flood waters. A rooftop struggle between hero and villain for the life of the heroine, the battle of good and evil staged as vertiginous graph written on the face of a civilisation.
These are some of the lodestone images of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and it’s still easy to feel their power even after intervening decades where their genetic material is woven into pop culture at large. If A Trip to the Moon was the seed of science fiction on screen, Metropolis is its green stem, and much more too. The floodtide of Fritz Lang’s visual techniques and the expanse of the film’s evocation of the future might have met resistance of mind and eye in its day, but even in an abused and truncated form enough of his vision remained to stun the eye and light the creative spark.
Director Lang and his creative and personal partner Thea Von Harbou had climbed swiftly to the peak of the German film industry thanks to highly ambitious, stylistically radical films that provided basic engineering for cinema as it found maturity and began to branch into different streams of genre and style. Lang, working under the influence of Louis Feuillade, had taken his template and pushed it into stranger places with his rollicking action-adventure diptych The Spiders (1919), and had written the script for the film that kicked off the Expressionist cinema style, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). Lang’s first great opus, Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), embodied the shock of the new in cinema, telling in the mode of epic melodrama a tale of crisis in modernity by depicting someone capable of manipulating its many aspects, and then his follow-up Die Nibelungen (1924) had delved into the foundational myth of Germany to explore the ructions that cause tragedy and the ideals and fidelities that make civilisations. Metropolis was destined to be the third chapter in this survey, a myth of the future if still based in the pressing quandaries of the present and articulated through a vast array of concepts from the cultural inheritance. Von Harbou wrote a novel specifically to use as the basis of the script, and the production took over Germany’s flagship film studio UFA in the midst of the national inflation travails that helped shake what little confidence there was in the Weimar republic. Lang’s lordly vision took a toll on cast and crew, fortunes were spent, and the reaction to the film’s initial was like cold water hitting hot metal, warping all perception of Lang’s achievement. Metropolis’s sniffy reception sounds familiar today, as many called it a giant would-be blockbuster that is all visual bluster and no substance. A film hated by no lesser personage in the budding science fiction genre than H.G. Wells. A film Lang himself later disowned, perhaps feeling that well had been too badly poisoned.
After barely recouping Metropolis’s massive expense upon release, UFA was compelled to let Paramount Pictures buy it out. Metropolis spent much of the next thirty years being cut down and reshaped, until what was left was so confused many thought it had always been that way. It was adopted as fetish object and style guide by the Nazis, who wanted to emulate its monumental aesthetic and absorb its message system into their own, and Von Harbou herself became an active party member. The film eventually became a pop art moveable feast, including being appropriated as a music video by Giorgio Moroder. Only in the past couple of decades has Metropolis been mostly restored to the point where it can be properly judged and studied according to Lang’s original intention. And yet, in spite of such manhandling, Metropolis still stands as one of the most influential films ever made. Metropolis provided a blueprint for envisioning a wing of the imagination encompassing dreamlike horizons, conjoining both the imminently possible and the ages of humankind so far into a grandiose survey of conceptual iconography. Much like the space opera that formed much of science fiction’s first popular phase on the page and which still survives chiefly thanks to Star Wars, Metropolis tries to comprehend the future and the present in terms of the past, envisioning an age of technical marvel and scientific miracle as a new version of the old alchemistic fantasia and the greatest dreams of imperial domain, whilst asking on what foundations such superstructures grow.
Metropolis is, of course, like most variations on the utopia-dystopia scale, actually an account of the moment of its making, thrown into sharp relief on a mimetic map. The tensions that termite Metropolis are the tensions lurking under the brittle façade of Weimar Germany, where, in the wake of World War I’s calamity, far left and far right agitators had clashed on the streets and nearly seized the machinery of government. The entire apparatus of state had been shaken, and reconstruction, the surge of newness pushing the nation forward, presented a political and social landscape few understood and felt at ease with. Even money wasn’t worth anything. The essential theme of labour versus management was more universal, and the new reality of much work in the early twentieth century, which turned humans into parts in huge assemblies, was taken into Metropolis to its logical conclusion, envisioning a carefully stratified human populace where some live in regimented, downcast, utterly slavish existences, doomed to run the infrastructure that allows more comfortable lives for the rest. Metropolis is the future itself, situated in no identified nation or age. Captain of this great project is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), architect of the city and its Tyrant in the original sense, oligarchic master and civic administrator. Fredersen lives in the “New Tower of Babel,” a skyscraper at the city’s lofty hub.
Metropolis isn’t just a city he has been elected to run or master but his own brainchild, his ego-empire, the expression of human will essayed on the greatest scale. Metropolis is also in part a variation on a familiar conflict between fathers and sons, the stern and acquiescing pragmatism of age versus the idealism of youth, another universal topic also bound to gain impetus in the coming years. Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the child of privilege, anointed amongst the rich and blessed, free to train body and mind to maximum potential in his days before taking his ease with the procured lovelies invited to the pleasure gardens of the city’s rooftop expanses. But his life is set to be changed by the intrusion of a woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who ushers in a collective of urchins gathered from the lower reaches, to give them a look at the closest thing to heaven, the world Freder inhabits thoughtlessly. This gives the princeling his first sight of inequity and of the woman who becomes the instant lynchpin of his existence. Maria and her charges are quickly ushered out of this exalted sphere but Freder becomes determined both to find Maria and acquaint himself with the lives of Metropolis’s workers. The realm he ventures into proves to be a scene out of a fantasia where Dante co-authors with Dickens and Picasso. Here cowed and regimented workers trudge through blank, institutional corridors and take up work stations at hulking machines where they perform repetitive, arduous tasks for ten hour shifts.
An explosion in a massive machine inspires the horrified Freder to think of Moloch, the wicked god of Biblical lore. Seeing a young worker collapse at a station where he works a dial-like switching control, Freder rushes to take his place. The worker, whose name is Georgy but is snidely affixed merely with the title 11811 by the bosses, swaps clothes with Freder, who sends him to take refuge in his apartment. Freder struggles through the rest of his shift, almost broken trying to keep up with the vital task. Another worker, mistaking him for Georgy, whispers to him about a meeting Maria has called, and Freder joins the workers who descend into the ancient catacombs under the city to listen to Maria give a sermon. Fredersen, wishing to split Freder from Maria and to break her moral influence over the workers and gain an excuse to establish martial law, visits scientist and inventor C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has constructed a perfect humanoid robot, a Machine Man: Fredersen wants Rotwang to give it Maria’s appearance, and use it to stir up trouble.
Lang explained that the root of Metropolis lay in a visit he made to New York in 1924, confronted by the looming grandeur of the city’s skyscrapers, floating like a dream fashioned from glass and steel, erected with all the promise of the age’s new possibilities but also stirring some profound anxiety, a fear of being dwarfed and pinioned by the weight of such achievements. The novel version of Metropolis was then written by Von Harbou as a parable about winners and losers in the modern world and Metropolis still feels strikingly relevant in choosing this as subject matter, as it remains the basic, ever-urgent matter at the heart of the modern dream. The first target of criticism of Metropolis is usually its storyline, which is usually judged not just simple but simplistic and naïve to boot in its treatment of social schisms. And that’s undoubtedly true on some levels. The film’s recurring motto, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart,” is on the face of it a purely humanistic, essentialist slogan. But it’s not such a great stretch of the imagination to link the magical thinking behind it in regards to social philosophy with openness to similarly trite thought that would soon seduce the screenwriter along with millions of others to the Nazi cause. The solution at the end of Metropolis indicts the troublemaker and presents rapprochement between upper and lower classes as a matter simply of mutual respect and good-heartedness. Fredersen, who has built a city on iniquity and laboured to find an excuse to permanently and violently oppress his working class, is let off the hook because he gets anxious over his own son.
Metropolis is in part an attack on a worker’s revolt as an aim, seeing it as prone to demagoguery and manipulation and destructive in it results. On the other hand, it’s also a fervent attack on capitalist power as self-perpetuating, blinding, and dehumanising. Metropolis proceeds with a plot that is certainly close to comic book. To comment on Metropolis on this level, though, is to misunderstand it crucially. Metropolis invokes a vast sprawl of mythopoeic associations, and represents a clear and direct continuation of Die Nibelungen’s obsessive attempts to grapple with social identity and construction, using the language of mythology as starting point for a work of conjuring that unfolds on levels not just of story and action but in design, costuming, lighting, the entire texture sprawling across the screen. Metropolis betrays an ambition towards creating a total work of art, the gesamtkunstwerk which had been Wagner’s ideal and also had become the credo of the Bauhaus movement, whose cultural vitality and concepts Lang surely had in mind whilst making the film. Metropolis sometimes recalls nothing less momentous than the religious paintings of Ravenna or the sculptures of the Parthenon: we are looking into a way of conceiving the world from side-on, as an illustrative, holistic sprawl. Many of these mythical refrains are biblical, including the parable of the prodigal son and the captivity in Babylon.
Both Maria and Fredersen conceive the world in terms of legend, each employing the tale of Babel to make their own statement: Fredersen’s New Tower, with his gleaming citadel, announces to man and heaven his lordship over all, whilst Maria recalls the calumny and division implied at the root of such mammoth human projects. The speech she gives to the gathered workers is not a literal political tract but a parable recalling the original myth of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, tweaking it into a tract where in the destruction of the great human project came about because the visionaries designing the tower could not speak the same language, literally and figuratively, as the people hired to build it, causing riot and destruction. She casts Freder in the role of mediator, the man who can link above and below both personally and symbolically. Maria herself recalls the history of early Christianity’s practice in the catacombs of Rome, with similarities to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s much-filmed novel Quo Vadis?, casting Maria as voice of Christian charity and brotherhood. Freder discovers her in her underground church amidst the dark and twisted reaches of the catacomb, the sacred an island in the nightmarish space.
Other aspects recall the mythology Lang and Von Harbou had examined on Die Nibelungen, as faces and identities are swapped. Freder cast as a young Siegfried-like hero who ventures out to battle with dragons and finds himself swiftly engaged in a much more profound battle for the future of a society where covert designs and mysterious doppelgangers manipulate events. And of course, that other great Germanic myth, Faust, could be the overarching frame – all this represents what happens when mankind sells its soul for progress. The subplot of the twin Marias echo of one variation of classical Greek legend, one that Euripides utilised in his play Helen, in which the real Helen was duplicated by the gods, with the real Helen being whisked away to Egypt where she lived in captivity and incognito whilst her malicious double caused the Trojan War. The way the Trojan myths entwine the cultural and political with the personal and in particular the sexual points to the similar ambition propelling Metropolis, which was in part designed by Von Harbou as a lampooning of the liberated Weimar “new woman” in the figure of the provocative, sensual, carelessly destructive cyborg Maria, a chimera created by the denizens of the new age to enact their not-so-secret desires. Whereas for Lang, this element fits rather into his career-long fascination with the power of the irrational to warp the sturdiest superstructure of ethics and security, of which sexual desire is the most readily apparent and eternally vexing manifestations.
The crux for the atavistic and futuristic is Rotwang, the archetype of the mad scientist with his wild hair and gloved cybernetic hand whose persona was set to echo on and on through pop culture to come. But he’s also a projection of the ancient figure of the dark magician into a contemporary realm, the alchemist who rewrites laws of nature and steals the power of gods and demons and who worships idols, having turned the visage of his great love into a monument and has pentagrams festooned around his laboratory. Rotwang lives in a twisted, ancient building at the centre of Metropolis. He is linked to Fredersen not just in rivalry as radically different versions of the same titan-genius, but through a very personal link: the lost love was a woman named Hel, who married Fredersen rather than him and died giving birth to Freder. Fredersen’s request of him to aid his designs in regaining total control present Rotwang with a way to destroy him instead, by attacking the city he has built and the son who is the living link to Hel. Rotwang’s name – red wing in English – invokes both satanic stature and political danger. Like Faust, he conjures the Hel(en) figure as incarnation of taunting desirability and illusory object of yearning. His house is a hangover of Gothic fantasia clinging like a weed to the flank of the supercity, but also sits atop a well that leads into the dank labyrinth below the city. Rotwang is the jilted and obsessive lover who has castrated himself in surrendering his hand in creating a facsimile of woman. He knows too well the dark drives of humankind, which allows him to occupy this place, the gateway into secret human motives and the power of the illogical white-anting Fredersen’s ego-empire.
Lang’s obsession with underworlds, first evinced in The Spiders which conceived of a Chinese colony lurking underneath San Francisco and recurring again and again in his cinema, here has bloomed into something close to a form of psychic architecture that conceives of the whole of Metropolis as a mind, complete with id, ego, and superego, rational stretches and irrational depths, its holy and profane women, its young crusader torn between three father figures, one mad but powerful in mind and emotion, one timid and entrapped, the last seemingly dead in all nerves but will. Similar ideas are evinced in a very different setting in Von Harbou’s The Indian Tomb, a novel set in an Indian city (which Lang would film much later) where the progressive Maharajah’s stirred erotic jealousy turns his world into a repressive state and the shiny bastions of the exterior conceal basements where zombie-like lepers. Rotwang chases down Maria after the workers depart, stalking her through the labyrinth and terrorising her with a torch beam, ironically inverts the image of light in darkness as the bringing of terror and the pitiless of eye of technology (the movie camera?) to the subterranean realm where emotion is truth, to torment the holy innocent.
Maria and Freder’s journey is linked with two men Freder helps release from their slots in the great machine, Georgy and Josaphat (Theodor Loos). The latter works as aide to Fredersen but gets fired for not being prompt enough in reports, a devastating act that will doom Josaphat to a degrading existence as unemployable pariah. But Freder, as he did with Georgy, throws him a lifeline by letting him take refuge in his apartment and taking him on as a partner in his venture to change Metropolis. Just as Georgy is a near-double for Freder, his less lucky, anointed brother in look and soul, Josaphat has been Freder’s more human surrogate father almost incidentally as the man who took care of his needs on his father’s behalf. Josaphat’s growth from toady to hero is one of the film’s most entertaining elements. But Georgy has been sidetracked by the allure of the high life, and, fuelled by the cash in the clothes Freder loaned him, he goes for a night on the town in the Yoshiwara Club, the favourite night spot for the city elite. Both Georgy and Josaphat come under the thumb of one of Fredersen’s agents, known only as the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who bullies and blackmails both men into retreating into the underworld. Freder himself is imprisoned in Rotwang’s house when he hears, by chance, Maria’s screams coming from inside. Entering the abode, he finds himself duelling with the automated doors that steadily shepherd him into the attic and lock him in. Rotwang places the unconscious Maria in a mechanism in his laboratory that steadily reconstructs the Machine Man’s exterior into a perfect double of Maria.
The resulting creation is a demonically sensual and taunting succubus operating under Rotwang’s command, and even Fredersen, who knows well what it is, can’t resist when it visits him. Freder breaks out of Rotwang’s house and arrives back at his father’s office in time to see what looks like his father and his lover embracing. The crisis of disillusion on top of his agonised and exhausting adventures is so great Freder collapses in a delirium. The Robot-Maria, sent out by Rotwang to stir up anarchy, performs before the uptown folk at the Yoshiwara Club, Whore of Babylon going jazz age burlesque priestess. The cyborg’s starkly erotic, physically frenetic performance stokes the ritzy crowd, all milk-fed whelps produced by the idealistic, Olympian reaches of the city like Freder, into a grotesque mass of lust. The veneer of civilisation is peeled off like a chrysalis, and soon they’re duelling each-other and staging mass orgies, distracting the scions of the governing class from the chaos about to be unleashed by Robot-Maria’s more pertinent campaign. It takes the place of the still-imprisoned Maria and now preaches destruction of Metropolis’s utility systems, to bring the oppressors low. Freder, Josaphat, and Georgy try to calm the crowd but the workers try to assault Freder, and Georgy is stabbed to death when he throws himself in front of him. Led by Robot-Maria, the workers swarm to assault the Metropolis systems, finally destroying the great “Heart Machine” that coordinates the utilities, paralysing the city. But the workers’ actions unleash a flood that begins to fill their own city with water, threatening to drown their children who have remained behind.
Metropolis would be remarkable enough for the beauty and ingenuity put into what Lang puts in front of his camera, the sets by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Volbrecht, Eugen Schüfftan’s radically innovative model photography, and Walter Schulze-Mittendorff’s totemic design for the Machine Man. But the cinematic textures of Metropolis in cutting, shooting, and use of the camera are equally impressive and represent silent cinema at its most innovative, amassing into an artefact that proves, scarcely a decade after the crude yet sufficiently significant grammar of Birth of a Nation (1915) helped officially open up the true cinematic age, just how vigorous the new medium had become, and looking forward to the ebullient freedoms of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Lang had Hollywood’s spectacles his sights, the colossi fashioned by Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille and laid out for stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney, hoping to prove European cinema could not just match such production heft but outdo it for artistry. Lang and his brilliant technical team, which also included cinematography greats Karl Freund and Günther Rittau, explored almost every facet of the medium possible in the time.
The surveys of Metropolis demanded the creation of a landscape through huge mock-ups and complex model work. The scenes of Robot-Maria’s creation and the destruction of the Heart Machine interpolation of photographic elements in a combination familiar in many respects now but still startling in their eye-filling beauty and inventiveness in context. Midway through the film, Lang launches into an astonishing movement after Freder’s discovery of his father with Robot-Maria. Freder’s mental disintegration is depicted in flourishes of abstract animation and herky-jerky editing that resembles the labours of experimental filmmakers. Robot-Maria’s dance is then intercut with Freder’s raving fantasies, in which he sees the Thin Man as evil priest repeating Maria’s sermon as rhapsodic incantation that stirs the forces of death and destruction into motion. The allegorical pantheon of the deadly sins and Death in Metropolis’s cathedral is seen jerking to life and striding out of their stalls. The film is split not into chapters or cantos like Die Nibelungen but into musical signatures – Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso.
Lang’s original concept was to have Rotwang literally conjure up magic forces to attack the modern, scientifically enabled world of Metropolis. This idea was mostly dropped but here something of this eruption of the irrational is still present, climaxing in the image out of medieval nightmare of Death slicing the air before Lang’s camera. Lang edges into the realm of outright surrealism here, and does again as he builds to a climactic shot during Robot-Maria’s dance when the screen is filled with that mass of eyes – the male gaze literalised as one great amorphous, greedy force, a shot reminiscent in execution of experimental photography. More subtly, perhaps, Lang’s filmmaking conveys a constant awareness of power relations throughout, befitting a film where the synergies of social relations, positive and negative, are translated throughout into concrete expressions. It’s quietly but surely present in conversational scenes like Freder’s first conversation with his father or the Thin Man’s confrontation of Josaphat, where attitudes of body and expressions define the characters (the latter scene building to the Thin Man’s physical as well as mental domination of Josaphat) in terms of their potency and the regard they show others – the hard line of Fredersen’s tilted jaw as he son appeals to him, only for the young man to realise his father is something like a monster. This aspect is illustrated more explicitly and spectacularly with Lang’s arrangements of human elements in the sequences where workers tread in close, robotic ranks.
The opening scenes depict the workers changing shifts in obedience to horns that blare out around the city, moving between their underground, near-featureless, pseudo-Berber city, the intermediary stage before Wells’ Morlock evolves and start eating the Eloi above, all scored to an unheard yet definite musical rhythm (no wonder musicians like Moroder have been drawn to the film). There are even moments of hand-held camerawork during Maria’s flight from Rotwang in the underground. One of Lang’s most insistent traits during the German phase of his career was the way he turned his awareness of and fascination for contemporary art styles and his utilisation of them to create cinematic effect. This trait had first made itself known in his plan for Dr Caligari’s Expressionistic effects, and in Die Nibelungen had seen him annexing Cubism and art nouveau for decorative and conceptual import. Here, the entire universe has become, on one level, a form of installation art, the marching ranks of workers elements arrayed in harmonies of line and form. Spaces are carefully diagrammed to open up vistas even within the boxy Academy ratio frame of the day, through use of height – Metropolis is a hierarchical tale on both the thematic and visual levels. The linear clarity and rigid control inherent in such stylisation is ironic considering that Metropolis’s concerns are closer to rather different European artists of the day, including the photomontage satire of John Hartfield and the bleak panoramas of Hans Baluschek.
Both Fröhlich and Helm were thrust into stardom specifically for this film, but whilst Fröhlich merely looks the part of ardent young hero, Helm, still a teenager during the shoot and yet attacking the role with astonishing gusto as she inhabits the Madonna-whore schism, is remarkable. Klein-Rogge, the hydra-headed star of Lang’s early films, wrote himself into film legend as Rotwang with his wild hair, gloved hand, and imperious gestures. His role is hurt by scenes still missing from the film, including a violent confrontation with Fredersen that gives Maria the chance to escape his house. The workers lay waste to the machinery that oppresses them but in a self-defeating way. Tellingly, Freder’s other self from the worker populace, Georgy, is defined by his dedication to his work, his understanding that he is in a way necessary to the survival of Metropolis even as it uses him up like an replaceable part. The shattering of order, celebrated by the workers who dance around the toppled idols of technocracy, soon gives way to panic as they realise their children are in danger, and they’re impotent to intervene. Fredersen, who has ordered the Heart Machine’s foreman and worker representative Grot (Heinrich George) to stand down and let the workers do their worst, is stricken himself with the seemingly imminent death of Freder in the flood. By this stage his machinations have even cost him the loyalty of the Thin Man, who responds to his desperate demand to know where his son is with the memorable retort, “Tomorrow thousands will ask in fury and desperation, ‘Joh Fredersen, where is my son?’” Meanwhile Robot-Maria is unbound, leading the frenetic, equally nihilistic revelry of the upper class out of the nightclubs and into the streets. Once the ambitions and pretences of Metropolis work themselves out, it becomes, in essence, a Boy’s Own adventure tale not that far from The Spiders’ cliffhanger suspense set-pieces. This is particularly plain in the finale as Freder, Maria, and Josaphat try desperately to save the workers’ children from the flooding, with Maria wrestling with the mechanism to set off the alarm gong in the town square, and the two men making arduous climbs up a shaft to reach her.
Lang’s acerbic perspective is still in constant evidence, as the climactic scenes hinge upon ideas that would preoccupy Lang in the next decade of his career or so are in play here in the likes of M (1931), The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), Fury (1936), and You Only Live Once (1937) – the terror of lynch mob justice, the accusation of the innocent, the reactive and self-consuming rage of the oppressed, the sinister manipulator of events, the rogue villain whose actions show up uneasy relationship of various social strata. The meeting of those strata is literalised almost comically here as the revelling scions of Metropolis’s upper levels, with Robot-Maria lifted shoulder high as their champion, collide with the mass of enraged workers, chasing the real Maria in the belief she is a witch who has led them to ruin. Somewhere amidst this is an eerie anticipating echo of the grim love affair that would soon come upon Nazi Germany with the almost ritualised, orgiastic invitation of destruction. Metropolis remains tantalising and enigmatic in this regard to this day, in spite of its optimistic depiction of a balance less restored than at last properly achieved. Robot-Maria is the film’s dancing Kali, whipping up the passions of the crowd as a brilliant mouthpiece for an insidious force and then leads the people rejoicing in the moment of pointless and delicious vandalism. In spite of the official message of Metropolis, the power of Robot-Maria’s wild, sexualised, anarchic insurrection feels more heroic than anything the nominal good guys accomplish here even if the result is the old conservative nightmare of such actions, the unleashing of uncontainable forces and unintended horrors. In a different time and different social mood, many a hero in the science fiction genre, from Logan to THX-1138 to Luke Skywalker to Neo, takes up the robot’s iconoclastic mantle rather than Freder’s even whilst stepping into his messianic shoes.
Luckily, the workers chasing the real Maria instead mistake the robot for her, tie her to an improvised pyre, and burnt. The skin is peeled by licking flame, the Machine-Man under the human guise revealed and with it not just the tricks of Rotwang and Fredersen but also the queasy face of the next stage of evolution. Rotwang’s degeneration from evil genius to lecher trying to escape Freder with Maria under arm across the rooftops is comparatively unconvincing and a nudge too far in the direction of gothic melodrama, perhaps inspired by the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1922) and surely laying ground for dozens of variations to come. But the staging of this sequence is impeccable, particularly in the moment when Maria falls over a railing and snatches onto a bell rope to dangle over a dizzying drop, the clang of the bell alerting Freder and others to this new drama. Like Rotwang’s house the cathedral is an island of the ancient amidst the city, and the sole place where the schizoid facets of Metropolis can still come together, crux of old and new, high and low, the bleak memento mori of medieval religious imagery gaining new potency in the context of Metropolis’s collapse. Rotwang falls to his death, Freder and Maria are reunited, and Freder literally becomes the mediator in showing Grot and his father how to overcome their pride and make piece. Again, certainly weak sociology, but also a perfect thumbnail for the fairy tale essence of Metropolis as a whole. Both the greatness and the difficulty of Metropolis lie in that essence, as a film that animates the dark and strident fantasies of its age without quite knowing how to critique or contain them. But even the most casual of glances around us at the world today shows that, where most films of its era have joined the ranks of playful relics, Metropolis still has something potent to say. And therein lies some of the deepest brilliance of Metropolis in tethering science fiction, the art of anticipation, with the method of myth, the primal storytelling form—both speak to that moment just over the horizon of experience and foresight. It is never; it is ever.
An implicit faith in most science fiction is encoded in that name. It is the art of science, the act of understanding, comprehending, grappling with the real. But also an act of creation, of imagination applied to zones of the mysterious and the obscure, tethering the known, the possible, and the imaginable in brief harmony. It is still usually a bastion of a Victorian kind of faith that anything can be penetrated, broken down, conquered. Solaris, as written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, is remarkable as a rebellious work in the genre, a rejection of this basic precept as a way of seeing and thinking. Lem, like so many Europeans of his generation, had lived through the worst of World War 2 and the grimmest of lessons in the limitations of the human spirit. After the war he studied medicine whilst forging a name as a writer, concentrating on science fiction in part because it drew less censorship at the time. Lem’s fiction became reputed for its stringent and stimulating conceptual and intellectual gravity, and he became one of the most widely-read sci-fi writers of the day. Solaris, his most famous work, was an attempt to sketch that most vital of sci-fi themes, contact between humans and aliens, with the title referring to a possibly sentient planet at the heart of the mystery. But Lem set out to avoid the usual presumption of the theme, that such a meeting, for good or ill, would nonetheless be between mutually coherent entities, in a universe that, however vast and unexpected, is so often envisioned by we poor Earthlings as a realm that will contain beings like ourselves, or at least variations on things familiar, obeying similar rules in the spree that leads from protozoa to sentience. Lem often tackled this idea, from his early novel The Man From Mars on, and with Solaris Lem took on not just the problem of imagining a form of alien life entirely incomprehensible to us, but also wrestled with this human tendency to look for our own image in the aeons, the simultaneous yearning for enigma but also the urge to subordinate it.
Legend has it Andrei Tarkovsky vowed to make a film to counter what he perceived as the chilly, detached, unfeeling streak in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and chose Lem’s book as the right project to examine what Kubrick had left out of his vision. This was an odd move considering Lem’s preference for the heady, theoretical side of his writing, and Lem didn’t much appreciate Tarkovsky’s adaptation, which has since overshadowed the book by focusing squarely and unapologetically on precisely the human aspect of the tale. Tarkovsky wasn’t the first to tackle Lem’s book. Boris Nirenburg’s 1968 version made for TV is sometimes described as the most faithful to the author’s conception, insofar as it focused more on the attempt to understand the planet itself rather than on the human quandaries provoked by the planet’s habit of actualising their psychological preoccupations. Amongst Tarkovsky’s specific inventions was a lengthy first act establishing central character Kris Kelvin and the mystery of Solaris as viewed from the earthbound perspective, in which Kelvin is described as a man outwardly maintaining a forced attitude of rationalism but who Tarkovsky’s visuals suggest is actually a meditative, introspective, mournful nostalgic, a fitting non-hero for Tarkovsky’s annexation of sci-fi as another realm for the poet. The opening shot, of weeds waving slowly under the glassy surface of the lake neighbouring Kelvin’s family home, instantly immerses the viewer in Tarkovsky’s lexicon of obsessive imagistic refrains and establishes the mood of languorous submergence that defines Solaris as a film.
Kelvin (Donatas Banionis, who suggests a Russian Marcello Mastroianni) is a scientist and mathematician who is the latest brave soul to agree to travel to a space station orbiting around the distant planet of Solaris. An entire discipline of science, dubbed Solaristics, has evolved in trying to grapple with this enigmatic object, which seems to be a form of living or at least reactive entity, but no-one has been able to establish anything concrete about it. In the uneasy time before he’s due to be launched into space, Kelvin is visited at his house by a former astronaut who had spent time at Solaris, Henri Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), who arrives with his young son. Kelvin, his parents (Nikolai Grinko and Olga Barnet), and Burton watch an old recording of the testimony Burton gave to the international body administrating the Solarist mission. Burton recounted how, during a search for two scientists who crash-landed on the planet, saw a mind-bendingly strange manifestation – what appeared to be a massively oversized human child, standing upon the oceanic surface of Solaris, gesturing up into the sky. Burton’s account was written off and mocked because of its unlikeliness and also because recordings of the flight offered no sight of the apparition. Burton, visibly aged and crushed by his dismissal, is still touchy but also anxious to communicate to Kelvin the reality of what he saw and the problems looming ahead for him. At the first sign of Kelvin’s disbelief he angrily leaves and journeys back to the city, only to phone him back and tell him an aspect of his tale he had not shared before: after returning to Earth he encountered the small son of one of the lost scientists, a boy who was the smaller but otherwise exact image of the mysterious child-giant. Kelvin, boding over this strange news and his own unstated anxieties, burns his belongings in a farewell to his past and his world, and speaks with his father, both knowing the elder probably won’t be alive if and when Kelvin returns.
This lengthy first movement is a slow and often cryptic introduction not just to the story but to Kelvin in elliptical fashion, looking at the world he has been rooted in, the sensual richness of the green Earth and and his fecund but decaying family, as a way of sounding out the quality of his mind. This is vital to getting at what Tarkovsky is delving into with Solaris, but also the film’s most frustrating facet. Usually Tarkovsky’s sense of pacing, deceptively slow and yet building a steady intensity and a system of images that become overwhelming, was masterful, but something seems off about this segment. The scenes of Burton’s drive back to town (with a district of Tokyo filling in for this vision of high futuristic human hive life), often provokes the feeling this is stretched out pedantically rather than artfully. Nonetheless the mysteries set in play here and sketched with cobweb-like fineness soon find their place as Kelvin is confronted with the great unknown in the guise of his own interior life. Sublime rhyme is suggested as Burton’s son encounters a girl in Kelvin’s garden – he looks at her, she regards him with preternatural scepticism and interest, and they dash off to play, first act in the eternal human roundelay, one that will preoccupy the rest of Kelvin’s journey even as he tries to reach out and touch the infinite. The gruelling, ritualised humiliation of Burton in front of the international space agency is depicted, with the contrast between Burton’s younger self and the dilapidated remnant actually present in the Kelvins’ house a before and after diptych warning Kris of the subtler dangers of the mission he’s undertaking. Tarkovsky employs a specific stylistic touch here in portraying the old footage in black-and-white to contrast the lustrous colour of the immediate (this was Tarkovsky’s first colour work), a cineaste’s format joke that also introduces a recurring motif for where past bleeds into present and certain realities seem to become blurred. Shots of the “futuristic” city violently contrast the natural landscape Kris takes refuge in, suggesting one hardly needs go to space to find environs alien and perturbing.
Meanwhile Kris tries to drink in every sensation of nature possible, including the rain gushing down upon his face, for the sake of memory for when he’s exiled to a distant and sterile bauble in space above an alien world that betrays no sign of land or substance, where, to fall asleep at night, the inhabitants tape slivers of paper to exhaust events to mimic the sound of leaves in the wind. Burton’s road trip serves to symbolise not just the looming journey through space but also provides a key into Burton’s pensive train of thought as he rides with his son and his thoughts turn to the most disturbing manifestation on Solaris and the suggested possibility of mysterious union between the mind and the physical possible on Solaris. Kris is forcibly sceptical, and speaks of the looming choice he might have to make, to either withdraw the orbiting satellite, and thus conceded defeat, or making an aggressive attack upon Solaris with heavy radiation, and finally conquer the mystery at the cost of creating a Roman desert. Burton is shocked by the possibility, setting in motion at least the shell of dialectic between scientific curiosity as transcendent and overriding value, or an act of ignorant immorality aiming to destroy what can’t be understood. His father berates him for offending Burton and notes that “the Earth has become used to dealing with people like you,” and indeed Kris is eventually revealed as a man who has habitually broken whatever he’s come into contact with. “I don’t have the right to make decisions based on impulses of the heart,” Kris warns Burton in deflecting his appeals: “I’m not a poet.” Kris’s fate is instantly set, to be forced to do make just those sorts of decisions, and become the instinctive poet of Solaris, a force of total ambiguity that nonetheless proves to have a function that Kris eventually learns to treasure, as it can make real what is lost or desired.
Kris’s arrival at the Solaris station is a terrifying tumble as he momentarily goes out of control. He eventually docks and disembarks safely, only to find the station, far from being a hive of scientific industry, has become a near-deserted husk, sterile and littered with rubbish. Only two fellows still inhabit it, the haughty, critical, nervously serious astrobiologist Dr Sartorius (Tarkovsky regular Anatoli Solonitsyn) and the shambling, distracted, philosophical cyberneticist Dr Snaut (Jüri Järvet). Kris is shocked to learn of the recent death by suicide by a third crewmember, the physiologist Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), who had been the brave intellectual leader figure in what’s left of the Solarist field. Now his body lies icy in a cold room on the satellite, to be taken back to Earth per his wishes. At first both remaining men seem anxious to fend Kris off, and Snaut advises him to take things slowly and carefully. Kris however witnesses inexplicable things, including a man sleeping in a hammock in Snaut’s room, and a dwarf trying to escape Sartorius’ containment. Kris watches a recording of Gibarian’s final moments, and sees flinching at the presence of a young girl, almost like a dogging familiar out of superstition. “Fechner died a magnificent death,” Sartorius declares, referring to the scientist Burton was looking for, but that “Gibarian was a coward.” But in his last message, Gibarian stated, “I am my own judge…It has something to do with conscience.” Soon enough, Kris awakens to find himself now supplied with his own miraculously conjured companion, this one taking the shape of former wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). Somehow, Solaris has the capacity to read minds and reproduce people from the storehouse of memory, with their remade bodies made of neutrinos. But such a visitation is as painful for Kris as it is disorientating and joyful, as the original Hari committed suicide years earlier, after he left her.
Tarkovsky’s approach to Lem’s source material realised the latent power of the idea of Solaris as a lodestone that can realise any aspect of the human thought patterns made for the perfect poetic metaphor, a mimetic tool that communicates the world of dreams, impressions, dynamic thought, but not actual, direct language, a notion that crystallises towards the end with the suggestion that Solaris mistranslates a vital aspect of Kris’s memories into a surrealist but emotionally exact manifestation with rain inside his old family house. Solaris sets in play an attempt to understand memory as a function of life Tarkovsky would return to with a more personal frame on The Mirror (1975), whilst also echoing back to the very sources of poetry in the western tradition in the myths of Orpheus, casting Kris as half-pathetic inheritor of the mantle of seer-hero who gets to resurrect his Eurydice during his visit to a zone of existence that’s over the threshold of reality’s normal demarcations – Kris’s space journey is his venture across the Styx. Solaris both indicts and celebrates the human mind that can only comprehend things that operate like itself. The magic spell Solaris weaves is double-edged, diagnosing the limitations of human perception, but also highlighting anew for Kris as he ventures deeper into this new realm just what that perception is and what has given birth to it. Tellingly, he loves the remade Hari far more than he was capable of loving the original. This simulacrum of Hari is like her in every way, or at least like the version of her that was alive in Kris’s memory, carefully tailored by selective memory and his own emotional responses to be a more perfect edition.
Kris is soon confronted by the fact that not only is Hari redux a sentient, entirely lucid being although she can’t recall her own grim end, but that she has astounding powers of healing and re-composition. At first she needs to maintain close proximity to him – she tears her way through the metal door of his cabin, leaving herself a bloody heap, only for the gashes and wounds to swiftly close up again. When she first appears there’s a telling flaw in the manifestation: the dress she wears isn’t quite right, so Kris has to cut it off. Kris at first tries to dispose of the companion Solaris has provided him with, luring the unsuspecting Hari into a rocket stored aboard the satellite and firing her off into space. This effort, which sees Kris almost burning himself up in the process, is envisioned akin to an elaborate act of self-mutilation or amputation, and Solaris immediately supplies him with another Hari, in full awareness that the first simulacrum is still drifting around in the rocket. He doesn’t try this again, and falls completely in love with the latest Hari. The second simulacrum eventually evolves into a fully-formed woman, capable of arguing for her own existence and autonomy with Snaut and Sartorius in spite of their sniffy, semi-wilful need to dismiss her. Their own embodied burdens are only suggested, although the tiny grotesque that harasses Sartorius seems like the projection of his own stunted emotional self. The way Kris talks early in the film, trying to talk himself into the role of cool rationalist and cordoned empiricist fighting the good fight for science and state, is Sartorius’ full-time persona. He describes Kris’s connection with Hari, half-disparagingly, half-jealously, as a form of “emotional contact” with Solaris. Ageing, gnomic Snaut is more open to the experience Kris and Hari are going through but retains his own brand of scepticism, noting, in the film’s most specific line of dialogue, that what humankind really wants wherever it goes is a mirror, a system that reflects our own obsessions.
Like works in the science fiction genre ranging from Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein through to Alien (1979), Solaris deals in its own way with the same theme of a man giving birth. Such a notion speaks not just of ructions in modernity’s constructions of gender and social role, but cuts to the quick of the entire scientific project in which science, so often characterised as a highly masculine business, tries to impose and rewrite the rules of natural order: all sci-fi might, on this level, be exactly that – a man giving birth. But Solaris squarely preoccupies itself with the most fundamental aspects of humanity; particularly love in all its infinite strangeness, territory sci-fi usually goes weak-kneed in, with Kris inadvertently conjuring a mate, that gate Frankenstein finally stalled before, at least until James Whale took charge of him. Kris rummages through the stages in his life and contemplates not just the manufactured reality of reborn Hari but also the memory of his mother, glimpsed as a loving yet ambivalent woman who used to hide behind the shed and smoke cigarettes whilst he wandered the snowy landscape, and whose youthful shade he calls on to coach him through a moment of interiorised crisis. Hari has vague memories of Kris’s mother disliking her, but for him of course they’re the eternal diptych of the cosmic feminine, alpha and omega to his lifespan. Kris and Hari’s renascent marriage seems to defy all limitations of time and nature, but can’t overcome the fundamental flaws of the human way of knowing, a flaw that echoes the problem with understanding Solaris. The human consciousness is locked within itself but reaches out to others, and what we know is always left incomplete by the limits of perception.
Remade Hari, although just as “real” as her model, is a perfect reproduction of Kris’s understanding of her, tailored, so to speak, by his own psyche to suit his nostalgic ideal. At first Hari is weak, passive, bewildered, unable to stand life without her lover at hand – a veritable caricature of a certain sentimental view of femininity. She gains independence and identity, but also crippling awareness of herself as a construct, experiencing the ultimate existential crisis: humans can deal with the vagaries of existence because of the myriad layers of experience that make us, whereas Hari is forced to confront her direct and inexplicable creation by an incoherent deity, realising the dream of millennia of would-be saints and prophets to know their creator but gaining only suicidal depression from the privilege. The images of Hari’s physical suffering, sliced up after she tears through the cabin door and later when she attempts suicide, reproduce in unnervingly visual terms the interior suffering of a woman who doesn’t seem to have been quite properly constructed in the first place for life in a mean world, now brought back to life and unable to find peace. Like 2001, Solaris is also about the hunt for god, or something like it. Where 2001 essentially presented a myth that made evolution a path leading to its own form of angelic transcendence, the novel of Solaris concluded with something more like an existential despair that god, actualised by Solaris, is an evolving creature as well, and therefore not omnipotent or all-wise. Lem also concluded with the suggestion that the transcendent love that becomes Kris’s refuge was an illusion. But for Kris and Tarkovsky the difference is moot – the fact that mankind yearns for a safe harbour from the ravages and transformations of time and whether it comes in the form of heaven or an alien planet that can offer such a perfect refuge makes for no difference at all. For Kris, encountering love through Solaris offers him a new form of the feeling that borders on divine revelation: “Maybe we’re here to experience other people as a reason for love.”
Tarkovsky’s debut feature, My Name is Ivan (1962), already set in motion many of the concepts and imagined landscapes depicted Solaris but in a more familiar context. Ivan depicted a cast of characters trying to fight the good fight for their identity and culture, adventuring in zones rendered near-abstract and dreamlike, as well as introducing one of Tarkovsky’s prize themes, the collision of innocence and faith with a violent, entropic world. The elusive search by a contemplative hero for a proof of faith and his attempts to understand systems of life at odds with his own understanding echoes his second film, Andrei Rublev (1969). Solaris stripped back much of the spectacle and baroque expansiveness in those films as Tarkovsky continued to search for new ways to tell stories and utilise the cinematic space, and offers a fantastic drama that purposefully avoids most manifestation of the fantastic. And yet Solaris is often held up as Tarkovsky’s most accessible and popular work, chiefly because of its lucid and powerful romanticism. That quality ironically can only be conjured in a remembered, mediated state. Some have noted that Solaris really bears more resemblance to Vertigo (1958) than to 2001 in depicting a man resurrecting a lover only to find the reproduction duplicitous, and in both the legends of Orpheus and Pygmalion are the deep roots.
The myth of Orpheus ties the artist to an eternal attempt to conquer death and conjure the ideal, something Solaris makes possible for Kris. The very act of creation is a constant refrain for Tarkovsky, and Solaris also takes up an unstated but self-evident concern in Andrei Rublev about how art is indeed all that is left of any one artist, their culture, their age, to speak to any receptive ear in the future, if often contradicting or denying the facts of the world that produced it. Rublev’s real, decaying, stylised and idealised artworks, surveyed by Tarkovsky’s camera in the end of that film, here give way to Kris burning his own share of the cultural inheritance, his books and artworks, in a scene that anticipates another variation on the same idea, in Stalker (1979), where a similar panoply of the human reliquary is surveyed left like rubbish in a stream. Tarkovsky is always trying to get at the preciousness and vulnerability of such inheritance as well as the urge of human kind to make such icons, to conquer death and time with such keepsakes but also the vulnerability of such an inheritance to the forces time brings – decay, neglect, the ravages exacted by humanity’s destructive impulses, always in a dance with the creative urge. A reproduction of Brueghel’s “The Hunters in the Snow” hangs on the wall of the space station’s library room, surveyed by Tarkovsky with its depiction, at once lively and haunting, of seekers returning to their community frustrated. This picture both echoes scenes Kris recalls from childhood when his family property lay under blankets of snow and his mother in her solitary, boding mystery, and also comments sarcastically on the enterprise he and his fellow scientists are engaged upon. The work is of art is no one thing, and that is its power and purpose. Solaris offers a device of perfect retention and transmutation, both the ultimate artistic device and a tool that renders art obsolete.
Tarkovsky’s drifting, tentative approach in the film’s first act, in his attempt to depict a state of mind and a way of seeing detached from immediacy even as Kris tries to luxuriate in the physical, gives way to the peculiarly visualised sequence of Kris’s brief, dangerous, almost disastrous shuttle flight from the ship that carts him across the void to the orbiting station. Space travel is represented by a bubble speeding out of the dark, with only Kris’s face, eyes highlighted by pencil spots, spinning before the camera, as if Tarkovsky is deliberately breaking down the distance between the hard and technocratic concepts of space travel and some Carlos Casteneda-like interiorised journey or a yogi’s ideal of astral projection. Solaris itself is glimpsed as a vast ocean that shimmers and teems with hallucinogenic hues, suggesting movement without cause or effect, a search for form in need of design, and sometimes even resembling the wrinkly matter of a brain. The footage recorded on Burton’s fateful rescue flight only seems to capture roiling fluids and white cloud, a survey of dreamy voids (a common visual refrain for Russian filmmakers of the period, transfixing Larisa Shepitko and Sergei Bondarchuk as well, in the search for the sensation of pure release in flight). The planet does seem to react to the interactions between Kris and Hari, the churning of its liquids speeding up and producing curious patterns that mottle the planet’s surface. The environs of the space station might well have influenced the later efforts of filmmakers like George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and Peter Hyams to lend their sci-fi visions the grungy quality that is today much more of a norm, as Tarkovsky surveys this place, clearly designed as the sci-fi magazine ideal of a space station, like some big city bus station at the end of a long day – near-deserted, littered with rubbish, exposed wiring and circuitry. Such a dead space is a self-imposition created by the human need for wonder but also represents the failure of human imagination, created by a way of thinking that has a curious contempt for the roots of aesthetic in nature.
The aridness of the space station and the blank, protean canvas that is Solaris’s surface seem to offer no purchase for human feeling, and yet both are actually stages for just that, as Solaris the film ultimately becomes transfixed by the spectacle of feeling, the needful couple of Kris and Hari. Kris is eventually left feverish and nearly broken by the intertwined fear of losing Hari again, his awareness her continued existence is an egotistical dream made flesh and pain for her, and that they can have no future away from the zone of Solaris’s influence. Tarkovsky’s infinitely patient method builds to three extraordinary scenes late in the film. The first comes at the end of a lengthy scene in which Kris, Hari, Snaut, and Sartorius debate whether Hari can be considered alive, with Sartorius insisting she’s still only a figment in spite of her apparent self-awareness. A change in the station’s rotation sets everything on board, for a precious, transitory moment, completely weightless, untethered from all earthbound laws – a tray of candles and the hapless couple themselves all dancing through air to the inaudible music of the spheres. Hard upon this moment of incantatory beauty however comes Kris discovering Hari dead, having drunk a vial of liquid oxygen. She lies sprawled across the corridor, draped in frost and blood, victim of some forgotten piece of coding in her makeup that drives her towards self-destruction as well as the very real cues her impossible situation give her. The image of her in such a state seems to echo high Romantic poetry and Pre-Raphaelite art in its weirdly eroticised depiction of perfection in death –Wallis’ “The Death of Chatterton” or Millais’ “Ophelia.” Tarkovsky then turns exacting in its evocation of the corporeal as Hari, doomed to eternal life by her alien makeup that does not respect the roots of the human being in our ephemerality, revives, convulsing and shaking as her mangled flesh reorganises itself. This pivots again to recall another Brueghel painting, that of the dead Christ, which so fascinated another Russian artist, Dostoyevsky: the resurrection is only a miracle in the face of death in all its raw and ugly reality.
Kris collapses himself soon after in febrile need to withdraw from this perversion of his idyll, retreating into fantasies of speaking to his mother. When he revives, it’s to learn Hari has again killed herself, this time successfully, utilising a device Snaut and Sartorius built specifically for dispelling the neutrinos these free-radical beings are made from. They’ve also attempted communication with Solaris by beaming an encephalogram of Kris’s brain patterns down at it: now Solaris’s surface is rearranging and throwing up apparent land forms. Kris meditates on the question of whether he should return to Earth and resume his life even if he is haunted by the vast new possible he has grazed, or continue to try and make contact with Solaris. A plant that has sprouted in soil he brought with him from his home suggests new life is possible. But at first it seems that Kris does go back home, as he is next seen back in his old yard, albeit in winter’s icy glaze. A sentimental homecoming seems nascent as he nears his house only to be bewildered by the disturbing sight of a rain falling inside his house, his father contending with the damage to his books. The film’s epic last shot, retreating from high overhead, reveals the house and the grounds exist on one of the new islands formed on Solaris. Has Solaris understood Kris sufficiently to try and provide what he can’t return to as he’s attempted to commune with it in person, or still just mimicking the contents of his mind on a larger scale? Has the Kris we’ve been following been real at all, or just another simulacrum, a retained piece of code absorbed by Solaris and kept with a slight corruption in the file? All are possible explanations for what we see here. But it could also be that Tarkovsky thinks that in the end everyone longs for our own Solaris – that place where nothing ever dies, and we can find everything we ever left, just where we last saw it.
I can imagine opening a newspaper in 1979 and glancing at a review of Alien with its plot recounted in dry ink lines, or perhaps at a poster and beholding the infamous tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” I think one would have been forgiven if the thought didn’t cross your mind that it would one day this film might be considered a major cinematic classic. Even when you know much more about it, the improbability still stands. Sold to prospective studios in script form as “Jaws in space” by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, a pair of young screenwriters who had happily looted the sci-fi B-movies and creature features they had loved as boys, Alien might have seemed something like a garish throwback in abstract, to the days when many a monstrous beast from space went on the loose was all the rage in drive-in fodder. After all, cinematic sci-fi in the late 1960s and ‘70s had generally taken on a more serious cast in keeping with the literary genre, complete with heightened social commentary and philosophical metaphors. Star Wars and Close Encounter of the Third Kind (both 1977) made studios everywhere enthusiastic for the genre for the first time since the ‘50s, however, because suddenly it was making giant piles of cash. O’Bannon had one claim to fame before helping pen the script originally called “Star Beast.” He had co-written, acted in, and helped make the world’s best-known student film, 1974’s Dark Star. But John Carpenter had gained most of the credit for that, leaving the high-strung O’Bannon chagrined and on the hunt for his own success. O’Bannon was particularly taken with the idea of returning to Dark Star’s sub-plot involving a rampaging alien stowaway, visualised in that comic film by a beach ball with talons, and playing this notion straight as a horror movie in space.
At first the script seemed doomed to finish up as feedstuff for Roger Corman’s low-budget production farm, because its gore and perverse aspects turned off big studios. But when sci-fi properties suddenly turned hot, the duo sold it to producer-director Walter Hill and business partner David Giler, who had Twentieth Century Fox at their backs. Hill and Giler worked the material over, adding major subplots and changing character names. But they retained one notable corollary of the original script – the parts were “unisex,” and could be filled by any actors, male or female. Hill decided not to direct the property himself, as he was too busy and inexperienced in special effects work. Picking the right filmmaker was the real trick, as they knew the wrong director might play it as schlock, whilst the right one would have to prove equal mastery over both the hard-edged, hi-tech realism and the mysterious, eerie, virtually surrealistic qualities the story offered. They found their man in a 42-year-old former TV commercial director from South Shields at the mouth of the Tyne named Ridley Scott. Scott had gained a reputation for turning simple advertisements into great visual artefacts, and had just made an impression with his Cannes-screened debut film, The Duellists (1977). He grabbed this opportunity with both hands. Scott and his ideas impressed the studio so much Fox doubled his budget. The result, far from being just another creature feature, is today regarded as one of the major classics of sci-fi filmmaking and indeed modern commercial filmmaking.
O’Bannon and Shusett happily acknowledged remixing the futuristic terrors and beauties of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Forbidden Planet (1956), This Island Earth (1955), and even the far-flung alien graveyards and body-invading spectres of Mario Bava’s signal sci-fi/horror cross-breed Planet of the Vampires (1966). There was also some similarity to the creatures that menaced their way through the pages of A.E. Van Vogt’s stories “Black Destroyer” and “Moonbeast.” Although not based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, Alien remains perhaps the most effective channelling of Lovecraft’s imaginative palette on film, conjuring a universe of infinite mystery and threat, replete with glimpses of things and places beyond human reference. This is a realm of things that squirm and ooze and move perversely and seem engineered for climes beyond any natural reference point, glowering with infinite disdain for precious human individualism and acumen. Here there is only the terrible beauty of survival talent and the cold equations of necessity. The purity of Alien as a narrative lies in the way it pits instinct versus intelligence. The self-propagating concept in the title of Scott’s first film is taken immediately to reductio ad absurdum: this is the duel at the edge of the universe, the perfect opposition. Alien as a metaphorical work is in its way as extreme as Solaris (1972) in exploring the essence of humanity through conceiving its opposite, with similar precepts – isolation and a manifestation of the incomprehensibly other. It’s another film that straddles the blurry genre midground with horror, essentially positing a haunted house movie in space mixed with no minor similarity to the slasher movie style that was just gaining real traction thanks to Carpenter’s Halloween, released the year before – a small cast stalked and killed one by one by a roaming killer.
The story is exceptionally simple on the face of it. The spaceship Nostromo, towing a combined bulk ore carrier and refinery through deep space back to Earth, is brought out of hyperspace and rerouted towards a remote and unexplored planetoid, source of a mysterious generated signal presumed to be a distress beacon. Captain Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and his crew, comprising flight officers Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Kane (John Hurt), and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), science officer Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), are awoken from their cryogenic sleep. After confusion and some argument, they follow the protocol mandated by the ship’s owner company (unnamed in this film, later dubbed Weyland-Yutani in James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, 1986) and land on the planet. The Nostromo is lightly damaged during landing and Brett and Parker set about fixing it whilst Dallas, Lambert, and Kane venture out onto the stormy, hostile surface of the planet to track down the source of the signal. They come across a ruined spaceship clearly not built by humans, with the fossilised remains of an ancient pilot with a ruptured ribcage still installed in a kind of cockpit, and a collection of seed-like pods in the hull. Kane gets close to one, intrigued by signs of life within, only for the crab-like thing inside to spring out suddenly and burn through the visor of his helmet. The organism clamps itself over his face, holding him in a comatose state whilst keeping him alive. Ripley, acting commander of the ship, refuses to let Dallas and Lambert bring Kane through the airlock for fear of biological contamination, but Ash ignores her and lets them aboard.
The creature (again unnamed here but usually called a “facehugger”) on Kane proves to have deadly acid for blood and is impossible to remove without killing its host, but eventually it falls off by itself and dies. Kane awakens, seemingly fine, but as he and the rest of the crew settle down for a meal, Kane suddenly starts to spasm in agony. Something tears its way out of his chest – the larval stage of new creature that will grow to human size and begin killing or utilising rival life forms. The greatest question before Scott and the filmmaking team was what the title creature should look like. Reputedly, it was O’Bannon who suggested to Scott that he take a look at the artwork of Swiss painter H.R. Giger. Both men fell under the spell of Giger’s painting “Necronomicon IV”, which portrayed a bizarre demonic entity with a tubular head, spiny back, and penile tail. Giger’s disturbing, distorted, perversely eroticised pictures tried to render aspects of the subconscious and the surreal, murky and obscure and protean, and provided a vital catalyst not just for the alien’s design but for the aesthetic of the film as a whole. Alien certainly belongs to both the sci-fi and horror genres, rooted in the solid conceptualism of the former but using it to annex the id-shaped atmosphere of the latter. If the film had been painstakingly created to reflect a certain academic shift in the basic imagery and concerns of genre storytelling it could not have been more precise, as the usually solid Freudian forms of sci-fi – all jutting phallic rockets matched to neo-colonialist visions written on the tabula rasa of space – gives way to a nightmarish zone filled with gaping holes and hideous babies that sprout from a man’s body. In this simple yet ruthlessly clever concept lies the aspect of Alien that instantly announced itself as contemporary, compared to the older genre works that inspired it. The alien monster is no simple, clean beast that stows away and rampages, but as a monster insidious and infesting, predatory and parasitic, instinctual and apparently not interesting in anything more than self-propagation but also possessed of a jarring, baleful brand of intelligence.
This aspect fit into a phase in sci-fi-and horror cinema where anxiety over the human body was becoming a driving concern. David Cronenberg’s early works like Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), and The Brood (1979) had helped define and polarise this new, queasy style. The alternate title of Shivers, They Came From Within, perfectly reflected this motif, twisting the fear of the alien other expressed in titles of 1950s films like It Came From Outer Space (1953) into a motif of internal disorder and rebellion, evoking both the bodies corporeal and politic. Emerging even before the spectre of the AIDS epidemic, this new unease with disease derived from the strange new anxieties of the modern world, one where suddenly awareness of aspects of human life that had normally not been talked about in the post-Enlightenment age were suddenly common currency, many of them sexual, bound up with a time of rapid revision in understanding of gender and desire (also, notably, the superhero movie made its first real impact around this time with Superman, 1978, providing an antithesis). Alien announced this style, dubbed “body horror,” in big-budget, mainstream cinema, as Kane is impregnated and torn to shreds by his own nominal progeny. This vision of perverted birth transplanted onto the male body comes after intimations of oral rape. The intensely sexual aspect of this was already encoded in a series of visual evocations and design refrains. The waking of the ship’s crew in the opening scenes is gently birth-like, guided by the ships supercomputer which is called, mischievously, MUTHR. The coddled human creatures nicely cocooned in the Nostromo and tended to by the maternal computer soon offered up as fodder for the sustenance of a creation that faintly resembles a human but also swiftly grows to blend into the interior of the Nostromo itself, with limbs and skin resembling the tubes and conduits and metal forms of an industrial zone. The human, soft flesh, red blood, is at the mercy of a thing that seems both monster and machine, something that evolves too quickly to be contained and too aptly to be positioned anywhere but at the top of the food chain.
Sci-fi had generally been a realm of gleaming newness and minimalist chic ever since Things to Come (1936) posited the future as a gigantic shopping mall with a slight Bauhaus edge. This presumption often (though not always) went unchallenged in sci-fi cinema until Star Wars intrigued and impressed genre creators with its “lived-in” vision of a futuristic age (albeit past) that looked functional, busy, often banged-up and dirty. The script for Alien envisioned a future of space travel that has devolved into something much more familiar than cosmic swashbuckling, one where working stiffs ride the highways of deep space hauling around loads of resources, worrying about pay and bills and getting home to loved-ones. This was taken up not just as a background detail but an entire holistic mission by Scott and his designers. Surely Scott’s background, his intimate familiarity with the reverse face of the age of industry and technology, told him something different about what a spacefaring future might look and sound like, gleaned from a youth staring out at the ships on the Tyne and the decaying industrial landscape of England’s midlands, sights that told him how little some spacefaring future was likely to look like the brochures. Aspects of Alien’s look retain the sleek and clean aesthetic of high futurism – the womb-like confines of the stasis pod room and MUTHR’s control room. But these abut the factory-like interiors of the rest of the ship, grimy, functional, and cluttered. The alien planetoid itself – once again dubbed LV-426 in Aliens but left nameless here – is a place straight out of the dark places of the psyche, with its roiling volcanic forms. The horseshoe-shaped space wreck is perched atop a peak like Dracula’s castle gone Analog Magazine, with an interior that is a polymorphous zone of strangeness. Such contrasted landscapes chart both the psychic and physical realities of contrasting life forms.
O’Bannon’s collaboration with Carpenter on Dark Star had envisioned men on a mission wandering listlessly through space destroying rogue planets in a deadpan satire on the Domino theory, with its main characters so bored and alienated they’ve swapped personalities several times. It made for a sci-fi landscape virtually unheard-of before. Similarly, the humans inhabiting the Nostromo are there purely to ensure the smooth running of the machinery and deliver the load of processed ore to Earth, casually observed, highly ordinary people. Even Ripley, eventually to be canonised as one of the great action heroes, is here just a woman with a slight edge of competence, intuition, and coolness under pressure that lets her survive where all her fellows eventually fall. One common concern of the diverse filmmakers involved in creating Alien, particularly Scott and O’Bannon, was this awareness of social and class conflict and also the individuals perpetrating such schisms. Dallas as captain (and the most Dark Star-esque character) knows his job and can do it virtually in his sleep, preferring to bliss out alone with some classical music and escape the bolshy niggling of Parker and Brett and Ripley’s by-the-book sternness. Of course, that streak had the potential to save the whole situation, as her refusal to let Kane and the facehugger aboard is correct both according to the book and instinct, if not sheer reactive empathy. Ripley is first really defined by this act, an attitude of caution that seems unfeeling whereas Ash does the “humane” thing, although it will eventually be revealed that he’s not only obeying the company’s agenda but is also a more literal tool of a distant but still consequential power, as an android posing as human.
Ripley’s adherence to principle as well as rules and Ash’s actions in countermanding her seems at first merely a moment of tension in outlook and a road-bump in the chain of command on an already lackadaisical hierarchy – Ripley confronts Ash over the point and pushes Dallas for action but he simply wants to go home and avoid more headaches. But it proves instead the pivotal action that unleashes disaster, and Ripley’s cold act is proven the wise one. This aspect, the human capacity to act both rationally and instinctually according to given situations, is pointedly contrasted with what Ash celebrates it for, its “purity” as a creature of raw survivalist nerve and shark-like purpose that sustains its life cycle through other creatures, a form of exploitation equated with the business of business that motivates all that befalls the Nostromo. The crew themselves are defined by their mixture of camaraderie and interpersonal tension, and also by their varying levels of interest and complicity in that system, from Dallas, the man in charge who’s all too aware how little power he really has, to Parker and Brett constantly bringing the “bonus situation,” their own concerns purely mercenary, a mode of realistic cynicism adapted neatly to the exigencies of a job that demands spending years in forced sleep drifting through the ether. Alien is littered with sharp vignettes, like Parker insistently stealing back “his” chair and brushing it off after Ash has occupied it, Brett’s half-interested parroting of Parker (“Right.”), and Ripley telling them both to fuck off as they try to jerk her around as member of the superior flight crew. The film’s pivotal, immortal sequence when the crew settle down for dinner with the revived, apparently well Kane is a rare moment when the crew are all relaxed, happy, and on level ground, a seeming resumption of normality shot through with relief that gives way to epic horror and tragedy.
Alien’s defining quality is rooted not simply in its thrills or its vivid imaginative palette, but in its slow, patient, nerveless storytelling, so different from the mad rush of images in much contemporary filmmaking. Scott’s return to this fount, Prometheus (2011), although fine in and of itself, was disappointing for those of us hoping for a stylistic rather than thematic extension, a project revelling in the creation of miasmic atmosphere and slow-ratcheting dread. The normally propulsive Cameron honoured the model with his follow-up in its deceptive blend of quiet and intensity with Aliens before hitting the gas. The opening shot of Alien, a slow, abyssal scan of the dark planetoid silhouetted against the rays of its sun, with barely audible music and the slowly compositing title of the film across the width of screen, immediately roots what follows in a mode of interstellar gothic. There’s a powerful echo of William Blake’s “The Ancient of Days Setting a Compass to the Earth” in its image of a dark sun and the evocation of cosmic powers gathering, as Scott primes the viewer for a dive into an age where the dark, satanic mills and apocalyptic dragons of Blakeian verse have become universal state (and Blakeian ideas and images recur constantly through many of Scott’s subsequent films). This gives way to the Nostromo making its way through space, and much is made, in a manner reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; doubtlessly deliberate as per Scott’s avowed Kubrickian fetish), of the sheer mechanical intricacy of the ship’s efforts to get from space onto the planet, at once ungainly and majestic. Jerry Goldsmith’s seafarer scoring reinforces the way this moment seems at once a super-technological event and a throwback to a days of laborious transport on the whims of the wind and tide. Goldsmith’s scoring, which was subject to conflicts with both Scott and the studio, is nonetheless one of the film’s less-appreciated achievements, defining the eerie, sonorous mood at the outset before swelling to offer overtones of not just menace but also elegy, even romanticism, as these far-out labourers find themselves cast however incidentally as pioneers and adventurers. His music rises to crescendo during the attack on Lambert and Parker where the dramatic furore of the scoring offsets the almost languid, slow-motion quality of the horror, this death-dance where you can do nothing but watch as a grotesque hell-beast sizes you up and prepares to lunch on your brain. And then, no music at all – only the sounds of unimaginable terror, piped through to Ripley as she rushes to a rescue that only come too late. All of it, a master class in the use of film’s sonic textures as well as visual.
The film’s opening minutes, similarly, say much about what can be done even when nothing is happening. Tracking shots through the ship’s interior, resolving eventually on the forms of the crew in perfect stasis, computers clicking to life before humans, toy baubles bobbing up and down according to the thrum of the constant engines: Scott evokes presence by absence, the eerie chill of a haunted house, the crew already dead but not yet knowing it. The ship’s name of course was taken from Joseph Conrad’s novel, a tale of an ordinary but great man ruined by greed, and a step removed from the heart of darkness. The hunt for the creature commences after its gruesome birth, with the crew at first assuming they’re only dealing with a small, nasty vermin. But soon Brett, assigned to track down the ship’s cat and mascot Jones, encounters the alien, having grown into a gangly, man-sized monstrosity that rips his forehead open with a recessed, springing jaw. Dallas ventures into the ship’s air duct system to track it down, only to be outwitted and attacked, his fate ambiguous (in the later director’s cut, revealed to have been cocooned alive as a meal or host body for another alien). Brett’s ill-fated hunt for Jones and its jolting climax makes for one of the film’s best scenes, in part because of Stanton’s shambling, ineffably hangdog refusal to act like he’s in a horror movie, perfectly depicting a man worn comically ragged by a lifetime of bullshit work suddenly reaching its end in a way no-one could ever see coming, seen as a series of eliding yet hideously suggestive glimpses of obscene creation and violence. Scott uses his search as an excuse to shoot the Nostromo’s darkest reaches with its filth and dripping water in a way that evokes the feeling of such an environment not just as a tactile space but a way of life and a working world that somehow also spills over into the dreamlike. The alien is first glimpsed dangling from some hanging chains and yet the plain sight of it doesn’t register for several viewings precisely because it looks like so much of the mechanical.
Dallas’ hunt for the alien is a more traditional horror sequence in which tension is built not just by the carefully utilised claustrophobic space Dallas scrambles about in, but the register of the tracking sensor that shows something zeroing in on him, yet remaining chillingly unseen and elusive until it appears at the least expected moment in one of cinema’s greatest ever pure “boo!” moments. Ripley is next in command, and is left the one who has to make a call on what to do now, cueing my favourite moment in Weaver’s performance. This scene depicts Ripley, shaken and grieving after two severe shocks but at the same time coolly taking charge, pacifying Parker and registering her disbelief with Ash’s responses, contrasting the increasingly brittle Parker and Lambert and Ash’s inhuman cool. Suspicious of Ash’s reticence with ideas for catching or killing the monster, Ripley consults with MUTHR only to learn the company has instructed that the alien be returned to Earth with the crew considered expendable to this end. Ripley angrily strikes Ash, only for Ash to chase her down and try to murder her, starting to leak not blood from a graze on his head but milky white fluid – the sign he’s actually an android. Although it displeased O’Bannon, Hill and Giler’s decision to introduce Ash as an android was inspired, as it gave the film a jolt of narrative complexity and surprise, as well as one of Scott’s best whisper-to-a-scream sequences, particularly when Ash is revealed, having silently entered the control room and now standing next to Ripley when she’s just read the shocking orders in MUTHR, to tell her that, in spite of the evidence of her eyes and mind, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of it.
Ash plays a very similar role to HAL 9000 in 2001 as the electronic entity on board who proves nearly as dangerous as any other threat, and he introduces another common conceptual wing of the sci-fi genre alongside space travel and alien life – the artificial human. But where HAL was a proto-consciousness destroyed by its own confusion born of being perched between states of being, there is nothing confused about Ash or his role, as simulacrum contrived to be indistinguishable and as a proxy to carry out dirty work, a sleeper agent representing both the interests of the company and his own fascination for the alien. Scott would of course return to the theme of the cynically created android being in Blade Runner (1982) and push several ideas nascent here to a limit, particularly the question of how moral in the human sense one could expect such a sentient creation to be when given life to by entirely different creative forces. Ash intellectually votes a kind of loyalty to the alien precisely because it’s more like him than the humans around him, with the keynote word of “purity” signifying something both fascistic and atavistic in that loyalty, with the hint that there’s always something machine-like to any lifeform, in compulsion to survive in itself and to reproduce to extend its genome.
The alien is a sophisticated but also utterly simple expression of this essence. Parker and Lambert must stop Ash killing Ripley, with Parker decapitating him with a blow. But the android still deadly, until Lambert finally fries him with an electrified prod. The physicality of this sequence is tremendous, particularly as it serves in part as a repeat-cum-revision of Kane’s earlier demise, echoed in the ripping apart of Ash and the exposure of his vitals, except now the human form is substituted for something else – the company man revealed as unholy chimera of literal milk for blood and circuitry, the strength and wicked concision of the android physique suggested as Ash rips Ripley’s curls from her head, forms his fingers like a vice on Parker’s chest, and tries to choke Ripley with a rolled-up magazine. The image of headless Ash still trying to kill is as vital in its way as the alien itself in depicting the maniacal heart of this tale, animating the essential notion of a universe turned animate and hostile, of creation turned insane. When they briefly revive Ash to glean information from him, his mocking smile and cold humour (“I can’t lie to you about your chances but…you have my sympathies.”) give cold comfort but also a fire to the last three crewmembers. They resolve to abandon the ship and blow it up, ensuring there’s nothing left of the alien to pose a threat, or a boon, to anyone else. The climactic scenes see Alien’s pitiless logic still in play even as everything seems to spiral towards incandescent terminus. Parker and Lambert’s scrambling eagerness to survive creates a racket that attracts their nemesis. Ripley finds herself trapped on the ship she instructed to turn off, the intelligent but insensate MUTHR now calmly counting off minutes to self-destruction regardless of Ripley’s screams for awareness.
Only Ripley is fated to live, to become the emblematic survivor, the eternal neo-Odysseus voyaging home and battling demons of the underworld at every turn. Scott and company had the guts to take up that original notion of O’Bannon and Shusett’s and even take it a step further in a way, making her the film’s pivotal figure without rhetoric or cliché: she became the great archetype of a modern heroine because she simply is. Ripley’s force and character are made apparent long before she has to take up the mantle of command and then the face the axis that will make her either titan or afterthought lunchmeat. To a certain extent this idea wasn’t so radical, particularly as Ripley serves the role of “final girl” already being codified in horror movie terminology. She would become as the archetypal warrior mother in Aliens, Boudica with a pulse rifle. Here she’s just another member of the crew, blessed only with a slight advantage in muscle of body, mind, and spirit that allows her to survive. And even that may be in part due to the alien, as it’s heavily suggested, being canny is enough to use her to so what it can’t—fly the Nostromo’s shuttle away from the dying vessel. Weaver’s performance is both excellent but also less stand-out than the star-driven sequels, as Alien retains something of the Howard Hawks ethic of the ensemble as star, but also because Ripley is becoming, evolving, just as surely as the alien is, switched on by crisis and forced to work every cell in her frame to live. Still Weaver catches the eye at first with the blend of amusement and attitude she turns on Parker and Brett, and comes into focus as she interrogates Ash over his breach of discipline and, later, his seemingly negligent lack of urgency. “You’re still collating?” Ripley asks Ash, with Weaver’s reading at once emotional and beggared and exacting in her refusal to be bullshitted, before announcing a course of action to her fellows that signals both her emotional genuineness and her unfurling strength. It’s the moment Weaver became a movie star and Ripley becomes not just a character but a hero.
The breathless climactic scenes, as the formerly becalmed corridors of the Nostromo become a labyrinth of din and smoke, do graze the edge of impressive but empty hullabaloo on repeat viewings. But the sneakily appended final act is a perfect islet that repeats the film in miniature and punishes anyone who thought defeating such evil it would be so easy. Tough, resilient, almost androgynous Ripley strips down to her panties, suddenly, almost discomfortingly vulnerable, takes a deep breath, and prepares for sleep, only to find she’s trapped with the ultimate boogeyman. Much like Laurie Strode in Halloween Ripley is terrorised into a cupboard and forced into her make-or-break stand there, adapting tools and formulating a quick plan that needs profound courage to pull off and circumstances allow no other end. The cunning of this sequence lies not just in staging a great twist that the entire film has, in retrospect, been conditioning the viewer for – is it just more quiet and methodical observation, or leading to something? – but in the way it underlines both human and alien as creatures refusing to surrender or abandon their essence. Ripley finds her warrior pith, fusion of dragon killers like St George and Perseus with the princesses they saved, as befitting a modern myth, and the incredibly resilient alien manages to survive in space, still trying to find a way back into the shuttle after Ripley blows it out the airlock, will still not give up the game until Ripley gives it a roasting with the shuttle engines. The last image, of Ripley returned to sleep, is sublime in its sense of circularity, the waking life a nightmare that must contended with, and sleep the place where everyone is safe.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus is a foundation text of both the science fiction and horror genres. Born of a dull, rainy summer by Lake Geneva by the brilliant young bride in the company of her famous husband Percy, his even more famous friend George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his physician Dr John Polidori, Frankenstein still makes Mary’s name familiar to people for whom Romantic poetry might as well be Klingon. Frankenstein, a text that referenced ancient mythology, was destined to be the legend of an age still busy bring born, the industrial and scientific eras. Shelley was herself product of a revolutionary age, daughter to the feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft and immersed in the burgeoning Romantic movement’s spiritual and symbolic conceptualism as well as radical thinking. Many both thrilled at and recoiled from the consequences of that time, the ancient regimes falling and new concepts and hierarchies rifling their way through every familiarity, as the French Revolution had devolved from florid optimism to a grim and concerted mobile slaughter consuming Europe, and that happy, elegant party in Switzerland were contemplating what it all meant via art. Ninety-four years after it was written, Frankenstein was filmed for the first time, by Thomas Edison’s film company. But it was the 1931 film version that was to permanently transform Frankenstein into a byword, and throw up an image of the monstrous still instantly recognisable to most people.
The most famous transposition to the screen, one that threw up an image still instantly familiar to most people eighty years after it was made, came in 1931, when Universal Studios wanted an appropriate property to follow up a smash hit, Tod Browning’s Dracula. As with that success, they chose an intermediary work, Peggy Webling’s theatrical adaptation, and hired a director who had proven himself gifted at traversing the gap between stage and screen, James Whale. Whale had come to Hollywood to adapt R.C. Sheriff’s play about the fatalism of World War I aviators Journey’s End for the movies. That film’s substantial success made Whale a major director, and he followed it up with the wartime melodrama Waterloo Road (1931). Dracula had suddenly made gothic horror popular after years when, in spite of the genre’s popularity in Europe, both Broadway and Hollywood had largely preferred jokey horrors like the semi-satirical The Cat and the Canary (1928): several years of the Depression and the harsh mood attendant in the early ‘30s had suddenly transformed the zeitgeist. With Frankenstein Whale, in spite of his comparative newness to the medium, fashioned a far more powerful work of cinema than Browning had managed, a dark fairy-tale painted in shades of grey and dusty light. Whale cast his Journey’s End star Colin Clive as the monomaniacal scientist, rechristened Henry rather than the novel’s Victor, and cast a relatively unknown English actor as his creation: the one-time William Pratt, who had rechristened himself Boris Karloff for an aura of the exotic and the sinister.
Whale’s Frankenstein emerged as a rather different beast to Shelley’s, however. Updated to around the turn of the twentieth century, Whale’s film stepped back from the poetic grandiosity of Shelley’s concepts, which traversed the distance from Alpine peaks to frozen Arctic and pitted creator and creation against each-other each as mutually tortured poet-kings, to present a tight morality play with an atmosphere derived not from the elemental reaches of high Romanticism but from the fetid, id-like realms of Expressionism in art. The monster was conceived not as Shelley’s misbegotten but entirely articulate demi-titan, but a mute, hulking, ugly, instinctual being, both childlike and animalistic in its simplicity, even innocence, and its savagery. This choice, disloyal as it was to Shelley, was the key to the nigh-unshakeable impact Whale’s take has had on popular culture. The monster, in being rendered something less nobly post-human, had become more relevant, a being onto which so much could be projected. Everything different, troubled, outcast, reviled—other—lay behind Karloff’s limpid eyes and misshapen brow. Whale’s fulminating anger at his poverty-stricken childhood, status as a gay man in a hostile world, and the trauma of his wartime service, found just as much accord in the monster as the audience who, suffering through the Depression, surely saw so many of themselves, cast off by a system that had pretended to care for them only to leave them stranded and bewildered by forces beyond control. Any black man scared for his life in Jim Crow south or migrating Oakie trying to find a place of refuge would recognise the mob that chases down and annihilates the hapless creature for its supposed sins, some of which were only the sin of circumstance and others natural response to mistreatment and cold regard.
Frankenstein’s stark seriousness as a parable had defined it, but Whale’s own sensibility was distinctly less solemn when let off the leash, particularly when it came to generic material he would resist being ghettoised in. With his next ventures into fantastic material, The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), he revealed that mischievous streak, interpolating overt humour and eccentricities of style in a way that still feels unexpected and bizarre, offering flashes of a new cultural argot that didn’t have a name then – camp. As Universal clamoured for a sequel to Frankenstein, Whale eventually caved in and agreed to helm it, and produced a film more suited to his personal humour. In spite of its eventual classic status, Bride of Frankenstein was beset by a troubled production, with endless revisions of plot and intent that lasted from initial story proposals to post-production edits designed to pacify the new production code. Whale ran through several screenwriters in searching for a persuasive concept and eventually found one when John L. Balderston, the dramatist who had written Dracula’s source play, hit upon the idea of using a vignette from Shelley’s novel, in which Frankenstein starts building a bride for his monster, and taking this to the logical end Shelley shied away from. The result is almost certainly the greatest of the storied Universal horror films, and also perhaps the strangest, a freewheeling romp through the landscape Whale had created for the first film that manages at once to mock and enlarge that landscape, and the already quickly calcifying clichés of the style Whale helped define.
Aptly for a film whose title promises new frontiers of sexuality, Bride of Frankenstein grazes downright perverse invocations of the erotic and the abnormal, one that actually gathers impetus and power from Whale’s pitch-black humour and self-satirising impulses. Laughter and dread have long been twinned opposites but are also notoriously difficult to combine effectively. Whale pulled it off in part by rendering the vividly stylised, eerie, shadow-sodden landscapes he had created for Frankenstein even more bleakly beautiful and momentous: Bride of Frankenstein is the height of the gothic horror style on the visual level. Yet Whale populates it with characters who seem rather bewildered to realise they’re in a horror film, like Una O’Connor’s screeching, teetering servant Minnie, and Ernest Thesiger’s villainous Dr Pretorious, who, in spite of his repulsive practices and sinister ends, is also a perversely cheerful bon vivant. Whale’s sensibility is in play right from the opening frames as he segues from a classic horror landscape of a fearsome storm raging above a grim Swiss castle to his take on the pretensions of Byron (Gavin Gordon) and the Shelleys, with Mary (Elsa Lanchester) characterise as a delicate drawing room darner who writes tales about unfathomable horrors but can’t stand the sight of her own blood when she pricks herself with a needle, and Byron as a prototypical fanboy who delights in recounting her own nightmares to Mary’s protest that no-one can see she was trying to tell a serious metaphysical parable.
The metafictional aspect to this opening – another idea that hadn’t been codified yet – ingeniously allows Whale to continue his narrative under the guise of a natural expansion on Shelley’s idea and lend it a quality rooted in a knowing sense of being told for its own sake, an extension of the parlour game roots of the original story. The scenes of Shelley’s story Byron recounts are also not those of the book but Whale’s film, allowing a recapitulation of that film in a manner close to a highlights reel before a new TV episode. Meanwhile the deliberately artificial acting of the three actors signals Whale’s wry approach to the effete aristocratic fantasies he’s engaging with and his smirking take on the heightened essence of melodrama, taken soon to extremes in Valerie Hobson’s hilarious overacting as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s fiancé, and Clive’s own raw-nerved performance, which nudges the scientist from thoughtful rebel towards hysterical patsy. Frankenstein, left gravely injured after being thrown from the top of the windmill where the monster apparently met its end at the climax of the first film, is taken home, believed to be dying, but he shows signs of pulling through. Meanwhile at the scorched and crumbled ruins of the mill the Burgomaster (E.E. Clive, splendidly pompous) tries to assert authority over the flocking villagers proud of their handiwork and hoping the monster is dead, including the Frankensteins’ servant Minnie and the parents of the girl the monster drowned, Hans (Reginald Barlow) and his wife (Mary Gordon). Hans, in his distraught desire to see the monster’s body, accidentally falls into the mill’s flooded cellar, and finds the monster scorched and wounded but still very much alive and vengeful. The monster throttles Hans and climbs out, and the near-sighted hausfrau doesn’t realise she’s helping the monster out of the pit until it’s too late: he pitches her down after her husband, before encountering Minnie, whose squawking panic bewilders even him.
Minnie finds herself frustrated when no-one believes her about the monster’s survival, and the misshapen creature subsists in the forest, terrifying unfortunates he encounters even as he repeatedly tries to reach out to them, including a shepherdess (Ann Darling) who faints and falls into a pond. Although he saves her from drowning, she believes he’s attacking her, and a passing hunter wings him with a bullet. The monster finally finds refuge and fellowship with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), whose melancholy violin playing entices and pacifies the creature’s pained ferocity. Meanwhile, as he recovers, Frankenstein is visited by Pretorius, a former teacher at Frankenstein’s university who was “booted out” for pursuing similar forbidden pursuits in trying to create life. Pretorius talks Frankenstein, who has become a Baron since his father’s death during his convalescence, into taking a look at his creations. The Baron is revolted by Pretorius’s pint-sized homunculi, which he grows “like cultures” rather than stitches together and keeps living in jars, but Pretorius does pique Frankenstein’s curiosity when he proposes creating a second, female creature with a combination of their techniques. When a pair of lost hikers walks in upon the creature and the hermit, they spark a fight that results in the burning down of the hermit’s house, leaving the creature homeless and hunted again. Taking refuge in a graveyard, he encounters Pretorius who, with his murderous fugitive helpmates Karl (Dwight Frye) and Ludwig (Ted Billings), is robbing the tombs for body parts. Pretorius takes the monster under his wing and uses him to force the reluctant Frankenstein to complete their project, finally having the creature kidnap Elizabeth to force his hand.
One of the trickiest aspects of Bride of Frankenstein to appreciate is the blithe way it steps between outright absurdity and total sincerity in treating its themes. Whale’s insistent religious imagery correlates the monster’s suffering with Christ’s, tethered to a pole and raised up as if on the cross, and the eerily highlighted crucifix on the hermit’s wall that lingers in a glowing image even after a fade to black. Whale pushes this element with fervent clarity, like a blazing insight into a core of real, irate, transcendental feeling that is otherwise purposefully contrasted with the absurdity of most human behaviour when backed up by feelings of security and self-satisfaction. At the same time, there’s also a hint of lampooning of the parochial side of this value system, particularly in the down-home church organ that drones under the same scene where the hermit and monster find each-other like a pair of hapless lovers. Minnie embodies this idea most directly for Whale, acting like a firebrand when she thinks the monster is down and screaming and running off when he proves impossible to suppress for long. In the first film Whale portrayed the monster as embittered and reactive after being tormented by Frankenstein’s assistant; here this element becomes something close to behavioural theory, as the reactions of the ostracised and the differentiated result in maladaptation in the face of the ignorant reflexes of others, often forming a tragic roundelay of victimhood. The reactions of people to the monster usually create situations that result in violence and harm. This idea is most vividly illustrated in the sequence when he saves the shepherdess, as he tries to suppress her panicky screams only to make things worse, Whale alternating between viewpoints with electric intensity conveying both the fear of the girl and the alarm of the monster, erasing the apparent line between appeal and assault.
For a film as long-hailed as it is, Bride of Frankenstein is nonetheless nearly as stitched-together as the monster itself, chiefly because the new, strict censorship regime just gaining traction in Hollywood at the time, added to the tumultuous development, meant that aspects of the film were left choppy and unclear. These include a midsection in which a number of dead bodies are found scattered around town, killings for which the monster is blamed but which were supposed to have been committed by Fritz and Hans on Pretorius’s business. Whale changed the finale at the last minute, letting Frankenstein escape the final conflagration, although he’s still visible amidst tumbling rubble at the end. Despite this raggedness, the film comes on with astonishing pace and power. One bravura sequence follows another, but perhaps the two most brilliantly composed come half-way through and right at the end. The first sees the monster chased down once more by torch-wielding, pitchfork-trusting villagers through a forest until he’s captured by the mass, in a sequence that represents nigh-perfect interplay of editing, music, camerawork, and directorial thrust. The monster is bound, carted back to town, and trussed up in the old dungeon below the police station, held down with chains and bonds. The threat has been contained completely and utterly, the Burgomaster is happy to get back to work (“And leave us to ours,” mutters one of the gendarmes in bolshy manner), assuring the townsfolk everything is now taken care off. Except that the monster tears himself free and smashes his way out again with ludicrous ease once the weight of society is off him – the tormented alien has grown too strong to be held by such forces, and can henceforth only be destroyed by his own yearnings.
Karloff initially objected to one of the biggest changes to his role, which had made him one of horror cinema’s most everlasting stars, was that the creature learns to speak in the course of the movie. Karloff’s brilliant mime work had given the creature qualities of pathos and terror more intense than most actors could manage with pages of dialogue. But the monster’s halting, grunting vocal deliveries, built around the basic words the hermit and Pretorius teach him, is one of the most memorable aspects of Bride of Frankenstein. His speech quickly evolves in spite of his small vocabulary from identification and association (“Bread!”) to value judgement (“Bad!”) to philosophy (“Love dead. Hate living.”). The two films form a tale of the creature moving from newborn to nihilistic experience, with stages of bratty, tantrum-throwing murderousness and clasping adolescent neediness in between, leading to a finale when he apportions life and death according to his own will. The moment of ultimate confrontation comes when Pretorius opens a door and lets the monster into Frankenstein’s parlour, the baleful gaze of the rejected creation above a mouth that now has mastered the broken syllables of his creator’s name – an act in legend that gives mortals powers over gods. Appropriately, from this point on the creature controls Frankenstein’s fate.
The note of mutual fulfilment that sparks under the monster’s relationship with the hermit (“A friend – to be a light to mine eyes and a comfort in time of trouble – amen!”) is cunning for the way Whale universalises it, a perfect picture of Christian fellowship that can also be read as an idealised gay relationship, in a way that shoots for the cosmic by way of the purely personal, all we misbegotten creations of a dubiously competent deity clinging to each-other in the night. If the hermit is the angel on the monster’s shoulder, Pretorius is presented as a jaunty yet phthisic, queeny devil on the shoulder of Frankenstein, who spends most of the film clinging to his bed, bride, and Baronetcy as a desperate closet, trying to resist the thrill of creating life in forbidden rites. Pretorius, whose unlikely name baffles Minnie (“There ain’t no such name!”), struts into the film providing both its arsenic heart and its impudent instant critique, contrasting both the stricken conscientiousness of Frankenstein and the haplessness of the monster with his eager embrace of his own immorality. He plays the puppet-master creator mischievously arranging the world according to his acerbic understanding of the way it works and the stories it tells itself to make sense of its perversity, as he outfits his homunculi as travesties of social roles and essential identities – a king, a queen, an archbishop, a ballerina, a devil. He encourages Frankenstein to follow “the lead of nature – or God if you like your Bible stories,” although he also happily quotes the Bible when enticing the good doctor to join in his project: “Male and female created he them – be fruitful and multiply.” Pretorius is a happy inhabitant of the twilight world. When he leads his assistants in breaking into the tomb looking for harvestable bodies, he eyes a girl’s corpse with an assessing, physiologically and erotically incisive eye. “Pretty little thing in her way wasn’t she?” Karl notes with hesitant ghoulish interest, but Pretorius more directly states with gleaming eyes, “I hope her bones are firm!”
Pretorius arranges bones as a centrepiece for an impromptu party he holds for himself, toasting monsters until the real thing lurches out of the shadows: “Oh – I thought I was alone,” he notes unflappably. Thesiger’s inimitable delivery and persona had already been exploited brilliantly by Whale on The Old Dark House, but Pretorius gave him an even more perfect vehicle, with his gift for lending any line the quality of some alien and malignant invocation, down to his “only weakness,” of which there are at least two. By comparison, Clive’s Frankenstein is marginalised for much of the film, perhaps a result of Whale working around Clive’s worsening drinking problem which would claim his life within two years, and also more definitely a by-product of the film’s waggish take on the pivotal myth, which makes Pretorius the core figure illustrating what Frankenstein would act like if every remnant trace of humanism was removed, the Baron stuck as wishy-washy moderate in the face of Pretorius’ embraced extremism. Still, although bullied and blackmailed against all his best impulses throughout the film, and appalled by realisation that Pretorius has his minions happily murder women to furnish their laboratory-born chimera with body parts, Frankenstein also falls under the spell of the promethean act again as the project gathers pace: what greater drug than the thrill of defying natural law and creating life, without any fussy intermediaries? The orgasmic charge of the final creation scenes, where Whale cuts loose in a riot of canted camera angles, vertiginous shots and sparking machines and faces turned to chiaroscuro death masks as the great phallic tower lifted to sky awaits electric insemination, pays off in new birth.
The original film, like many early sound films, lacked an incidental music score. By 1935 that was quickly changing and Whale hired recent immigrant Franz Waxman to write music for the sequel. Waxman responded with a work of oversized bravado that instantly made his name in Hollywood and also expanded concepts of what a film score could do at the time. It also showed how much he understood Whale’s oddball sensibility by interpolating, amidst the rollicking drums and deep-throbbing strings that invoke the crepuscular epic, a faux-Polynesian love theme, a whine of sardonic yet plaintive feeling constantly nudging the film towards perverse romanticism even as the chiaroscuro visuals sketch out dread spaces of the mind. Whale, like a vast number of filmmakers in Hollywood and elsewhere, was a great admirer of the recent trend of German Expressionist filmmaking and its core creators, and took direct license from them. Their ranks included Paul Leni, Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, and Paul Wegener, whose Der Golem: Wie er in der Welt Kam (1920) had offered an obvious template for the concept of the daemonic creation as limpid-eyed yet glowering monstrosity pulverising the human world yet beset by simple and childlike things, whilst Leni’s gift for weaving in humour with horror undoubtedly appealed to Whale.
Whale took this a step further as he tested the idea that the comedy of manners could exist within the heightened removes of such bizarre fare, and his understanding that the root of both the comedy and the horror was the fear and desire for others, with society as monster in its own right that torments and afflicts what appals it. Like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man’s Frank Griffin, Pretorius crosses the invisible but all too consequential barrier of what’s done and finds the thrill of transgressive power even as the forces of reaction snap into action and begin to fence them back in. The monster on the other hand is always unwillingly trapped beyond the fringes of the human world. The search for companionship, in all its forms, preoccupies all the characters, particularly the creature, whose train of thought, set in motion by Pretorius, moves inexorably through stages of relation – “Woman. Friend. Wife.” The film’s final, most ingenious and ruthless touch takes the comedy of manners theme to its logical end with the bride’s rejection of the monster as hideous, a punch-line that cynically splices the theme of the search for perfection and for fellowship – the human brain Pretorius grew, the perfect tabula rasa of social behaviour, still knows instinctively what is beautiful and what is ugly.
Like Orson Welles who would similarly make a leap from stage to screen, Whale’s style was at once floridly theatrical and inimitably cinematic, compensating for the lack of open space he was used to in the theatre with energetic, sweeping camerawork and jagged cutting. His work here came with invaluable aid from the team of technical experts at Universal, including the inimitable work of makeup man Jack Pierce, special effects maestro Jack Fulton, and John J. Mescall’s photography. The evocations of cavernous ancient chambers and rude stonework, the dense forests of jutting trees, the soaring battlements of castles and old mills where creativity unfolds jealously guarded from the snooping hoi polloi (both the scientists and the poets), the glowing homey windows of the hermit’s hut, the stark statuary and blasted loneliness of the cemetery, the frosty sprawl of Hobson’s nightgown across the Frankenstein’s plush bed – all come close to the platonic ideal of this wing of the genre. One great technical and expressive moment comes when the monster watches from a hiding place as Pretorius and his goons invade the tomb where he’s hiding, their lanterns appearing in the distance and then advancing in an intricate play of light, the three gruesome intruders squabbling and fussing all the way whilst the alienated creature recoils in bewildered fear. Another, truly spectacular and visually ambitious moment comes later when the infuriated monster stalks Karl on the mill roof, the monster assaulting up the sleazy henchmen and throwing him from the roof amidst a wild survey of thunderous clouds, roaring winds, guttering fires, and the wind-rocked cradle of the bride’s body about to be fired with life. And this is just one vignette in the riot of images that is the climax. Such trappings still pack their oneiric power even when Whale makes sport of it, or perhaps especially when he does so, as when Frankenstein, Pretorius and his crew enter the old mill where Frankenstein does his experiments, all twisted, mimetic proto-Escher shapes and grimy hues, the Baron advising “Mind the steps” whist Pretorius noting, “I think it’s a charming house.”
If Frankenstein still readily springs to mind when it comes to any variation on the misbegotten creation myth today, Bride’s imprint could be subtler, but just as definite, as it asked a question about such creations about where the lines can be drawn between life and technology and what we can invent to sate our needs. Recent films like Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2015) are similarly dedicated to exactly the same unpredictable notion of synthetic consciousnesses becoming erotically and emotionally enticing only to reject their would-be creator-controllers. Whilst the notion of a synthetic love object had been mooted in cinema before the Bride, particularly in Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and Henrik Galeen’s Alraune (1928), those tale posited the ancient figure of the demon temptress, where the Bride that Frankenstein and Pretorius make is actually the opposite, a creature that naturally refuses to be a mere passive creation and recoils from being objectified. Many years later when the film as partly remade by Franc Roddam in 1985 as The Bride, things had changed enough that the monster and mate find each-other whilst the creator goes mad and dies trying to rape his creation. Under Whale’s gaze this element takes on an extra dimension of bizarreness as he turns Pretorius and Frankenstein into mad makeover artists, swathing the bride with her jutting mane of frizzed Egyptian-styled hair in gown of white. This is Whale’s piece de resistance in mocking social and mating rituals and the game of love and the eternal conflict between flesh and soul: the bride’s hissing horror is a most normal reaction but also is rooted in something primal, something alien to the empathic self that defines humanism – and is thus anti-human. The bride’s rejection her proposed mate sets in motion the monster’s final, enraged auto-da-fe as he cordons off himself, the bride and Pretorius whilst, moved by the escaped Elizabeth’s show of loyalty to Frankenstein, commands them to depart before blowing up the mill. Whale’s last, most sublime irony is there in the spectacle of the weeping monster. Too human to cope with the world, he is finally gifted the power of the gods his own creator snatched but could never bear, deciding who should live and who belong dead.