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Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
By Roderick Heath
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.
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Director: Ridley Scott
By Roderick Heath
I can imagine opening a newspaper in 1979 and glancing at a review of Alien with its plot recounted in dry ink lines, or perhaps at a poster and beholding the infamous tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” I think one would have been forgiven if the thought didn’t cross your mind that it would one day this film might be considered a major cinematic classic. Even when you know much more about it, the improbability still stands. Sold to prospective studios in script form as “Jaws in space” by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, a pair of young screenwriters who had happily looted the sci-fi B-movies and creature features they had loved as boys, Alien might have seemed something like a garish throwback in abstract, to the days when many a monstrous beast from space went on the loose was all the rage in drive-in fodder. After all, cinematic sci-fi in the late 1960s and ‘70s had generally taken on a more serious cast in keeping with the literary genre, complete with heightened social commentary and philosophical metaphors. Star Wars and Close Encounter of the Third Kind (both 1977) made studios everywhere enthusiastic for the genre for the first time since the ‘50s, however, because suddenly it was making giant piles of cash. O’Bannon had one claim to fame before helping pen the script originally called “Star Beast.” He had co-written, acted in, and helped make the world’s best-known student film, 1974’s Dark Star. But John Carpenter had gained most of the credit for that, leaving the high-strung O’Bannon chagrined and on the hunt for his own success. O’Bannon was particularly taken with the idea of returning to Dark Star’s sub-plot involving a rampaging alien stowaway, visualised in that comic film by a beach ball with talons, and playing this notion straight as a 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.
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Director/Screenwriter: John Boorman
By Roderick Heath
The success of Deliverance (1972) turned John Boorman into a major figure on the cinematic landscape and gave him the opportunity to do almost anything he wanted. Almost. He first tried to realise an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and after the potential expense scuppered that project, Boorman remained excited by the idea of tackling an invented, fantastical world. An idea had come to him for a tale set in a distant future where extreme science fiction ideas could commingle with motifs and atmosphere out of mythology, the realm to which his thoughts were increasingly turning as he contemplated the unease of humanity with itself and the world. The result, Zardoz, has been an extremely divisive work since it was released.
There’s no doubting that if Boorman had set out to make a film that would dazzle and provoke some and strike others as bewildering and absurd, he could not have done better than what he managed with Zardoz. Aspects of the film, like the mantra “The gun is good, the penis is evil” and the sight of Sean Connery in a red loincloth, have even retained a kind of decontextualized fame, still eternally provocative to the adolescent mindset often pervading the internet. From its very first moments, Zardoz announces its strangeness, its odd humour, and its sly understanding of itself as a postmodern trip through the idea of myth-making. A man’s face hovers in the darkness, drifting closer to the screen, playing the chorus to the tale he himself is author of, protagonist in, and creation for. He is Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), made up like a Renaissance actor’s take on an alchemist or a pharaoh, confessing quickly that he, too, is just another made-up character for a tale before asking the audience, “And you, poor creature—who conjured you out of the clay? Is God in show business too?”
Frayn has many secrets to be unveiled in the course of Zardoz, not least of which is that he is the title character, or at least pretends to be. As in any good myth, the death of a god is the pivotal act. In the postapocalyptic wastes of 2293, Zardoz floats high above the desolate Earth, a giant, floating carving, a fearsome godhead worshipped by the remnant human population known as Brutals. Zardoz preaches a grim testament, encouraging his followers to take up the creed as anointed holy warriors who call themselves Exterminators and wear masks based on Zardoz. These adherents have been charged with killing their fellow humans to wipe the infesting remnant of their species from the face of the world. Zardoz delivers them loads of guns for this purpose. But one of the loyal Exterminators, Zed (Connery), sneaks into the godhead when it lands and discovers it’s actually a kind of hovering aircraft loaded with goods and stores and people in suspended animation, and captained by Frayn. Zed shoots Frayn, who falls from the craft. The Zardoz head lands in an enclosed commune, one of several scattered about the countryside, called the Vortex. Shielded by invisible force fields, the Vortex is an oasis of green and summery pleasantness in the otherwise forsaken land. Zed explores the Vortex and enters one of the houses, a seemingly ordinary country house littered with keepsakes and relics from a forgotten world. He discovers a miraculous crystal on a ring that projects Frayn’s image and links to a supercomputer that answers all of Zed’s questions—except for the truly important ones. Zed is soon discovered and apprehended by the inhabitants of the Vortex, dubbed the Eternals, a collective of humans who have, thanks to advanced science, achieved life stasis, effectively making them immortal. Even Frayn, dead at Zed’s hand, is already being regrown, his foetus suspended in plastic in the laboratories of the Vortex.
Zed finds himself the object of both curiosity and fear amongst the Eternals, representing as he does everything the Eternals have managed to reject or suborn—death, danger, sexuality, extreme feeling. The imperious Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) wants him quickly disposed of, but inquisitive scientist May (Sara Kestelman) wants to study him and learn what changes have been wrought on ordinary humans by the two centuries of struggle and privation that have passed since the Eternals last deigned to study them. May gets her way when the question is put to a vote, and is given three weeks to study him before he’s terminated.
Zed soon begins to discover that the Vortex is hardly the model of fraternity and tranquillity the Eternals like to pretend it is. One Eternal, Friend (John Alderton), takes charge of Zed and introduces him to some of the more chilling aspects of life in this hippy commune of the damned. Immortality torments many of the Eternals. Petty acts of rebellion and dissent are common—mostly just to break up the atmosphere of noble boredom—and are punished with forced ageing. Some of the most extreme cases, labelled Renegades, have been doomed to permanent old age and senility. Others, robbed of the natural drives of sex and sleep, which have been replaced by group trances and meditation, have become walking near-catatonics called Apathetics. One Eternal is tried and sentenced to be aged five years after he confesses to loathing everyone and the world around them, and Friend himself is soon also weeded out when he refuses to join the others in a trance. Zed later finds him haggard and grey, banished with the other reprobates.
The Eternals can’t govern their own life and death cycles because they deliberately erased the knowledge of how to disable the supercomputer that runs the Vortex, referred to as the Tabernacle. The computer controls the processes that regenerate them, and to which they are linked through crystalline devices implanted in their foreheads that also give them strong psychic powers. In return, the Tabernacle has absorbed aspects of all their personalities and has taken on something like a will of its own.
Zardoz remains one of the most original, bold, and heady of science fiction films, a dense and wilfully eccentric piece of movemaking made in the dying of a moment in popular cinema when a filmmaker could create something like this on a relatively big budget with one of the biggest acting stars in the world. It occasionally feels like a punch aimed right at 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) frigid, Apollonian, faux-deistic crotch; stands as the frantically onanistic, Borges-reading father to The Matrix (1999); makes a little sport of Planet of the Apes (1968) along the way; and grazes territory staked out by TV’s The Prisoner (1967-68). Boorman’s fixations and mature style, bubbling under the surface of his earlier works, broke out in the most vivid and personal fashion. The dark underworlds and beckoning islets of eternity and paradises begging to be gate-crashed glimpsed in Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific, and Deliverance here became Boorman’s focal points, looking forward to the oddball mythopoeic stuff of The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Excalibur (1981), and The Emerald Forest (1984). Whilst themes of apocalyptic adaptation and cordoned-off lifestyle management concurred with a host of works in the same period and point forward to many more, Zardoz is more purposefully abstracted and spreads its roots farther and more deeply. Boorman tackles many an essential scifi concern and field of intellectual battle, from the underpinnings of religion to the purpose of free will and the battle between brute impulses and higher intelligence, and studying them with fierce concentration until all merge and blur, revealed as facets of the same Ouroboroslike concern of death and life entwined.
Zed’s role is analogous with the corn gods of pagan Europe, making the film something of a riposte to the sarcastic use of the old religion in The Wicker Man (1973), as Boorman’s fascination with pantheistic ideas and practices began to dominate his thinking. Not for nothing does Zed emerge from corn inside Frayn’s craft. Death and rebirth as constant cycle is taken as the inescapable fact of existence in Zardoz, a fact the Eternals, whose yearning towards transcendence of time has become a self-crucifying joke, deny. In this fashion, Zed is introduced as the death urge incarnate, but his person bespeaks the crude virility of an eternal frontier, fostered apparently by Frayn in the guise of Zardoz as a warden culling the last of a benighted species. But more is going on than any one character understands, even Frayn, who has recently taken to teaching the Brutals how to farm and using the Exterminators to capture, enslave, and manage others for this end. The nominal purpose for this was to provide extra food for the increasing number of Apathetics and Renegades in the Vortex, but Frayn’s deeper game is uncovered as May looks closely at Zed’s physique and genetic structure. She learns, with no small amount of unease as well as yearning, that Frayn had deliberately fostered Zed’s birth with selective breeding during his excursions into the wilds. Zed is the product of that breeding, a stable third-generation mutant, a new stage in evolution with perfect memory recall and other talents who only requires correct stimulus to bound past the Eternals in an evolutionary sense. But the power of the Tabernacle must be overcome if Zed can deliver what so many of the Eternals really want—death. Meanwhile, Consuella whips up a jihad after she catches May and Zed together in an embrace, inciting the other like-minded Eternals who want to fend off the doom Zed might bring. Zed’s fellow Exterminators wait patiently beyond the border force field for the chance to move in.
For all its teeming, trippy images conjured by a genuine cinematic talent, Zardoz’s essentials have much in common with a brand of sparely illustrated, pseudo-naïf, idea-driven scifi very common on the page, but usually confined to TV. Boorman, armed with a solid budget and a formidable battery of technical collaborators, including cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, was able to film with the sweep, colour, and class usually withheld from this brand. Boorman’s signal influences manifest throughout. Fellini is there in the use of masks and the atavistic evocations reminiscent of Satyricon (1969). Orson Welles registers in the final confrontation between Zed and the Tabernacle with a hall of mirrors sequence a la The Lady From Shanghai (1946), whilst other aspects are reminiscent of Welles’ similarly out-of-time take on Macbeth (1948). Like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1969), Zardoz finds new context for the hirsute machismo loose on Daliesque plains that defined Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western in a surrealist frieze, with Connery’s Zed cast as a gunslinger Neanderthal kicking in the door of the temple and ushering in a posthuman age.
Perhaps it’s a sign of Boorman’s essential Englishness that even as he seems to be exacerbating science fiction’s tendencies towards portentous self-seriousness he’s also making a glorified sex comedy movie, a Carry On film with pleasant delusions of grandeur. Certainly it’s a cinephile’s joke that echoes throughout Zardoz, as it reveals roots in that evergreen work of popular mythology, The Wizard of Oz (1939), Boorman mocking himself as magic lantern artiste via Frayn’s facetious sorcery and showmanship. Boorman also confessed to making the film when he was using hallucinogenic drugs, the kind of admission that seems too perfect in the face of the film’s liquidinous textures and distorting visuals redolent of the psychedelic style at its ripest in feature film. Yet Zardoz is entirely coherent on a narrative level, if also unusually structured, delaying significant revelations and honouring many classic mythical texts with an in medias res gambit.
Right from the opening shots of the floating head descending on the flocking Exterminators, Zardoz strikes and sustains a feeling of having been plucked out of any readily accessible reality and plunged into a zone far in the future or way back in the past, something out of shared Jungian dream-memory. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is crossbred with L. Frank Baum’s intelligibly childlike and most assuredly American popular fairy tales, whose title gives the clue to the nature of the false god he dares to meet and then kill. This proves one of Frayn’s mirthful but focused ploys, as he lures Zed into the experiential realm of reading and learning, only then to hand him the bitterness of disillusion through a copy of Baum’s book, revealing not just the source of the name Zardoz, but also Frayn’s method in posing as a god, offering the punch line to a tragically funny gag. The quality of political allegory Baum worked in his tale, warning everyone to beware seemingly awesome leaders with big voices, is reproduced and amplified by Boorman whilst also exploring the familiar scifi notion that technology looked at by someone without understanding would seem like magic. Frayn stirs the urge to rebel in Zed by forcing him and the other Exterminators to betray their creed before leading him through a series of tests and provocations designed to awaken the intellectual gifts Frayn’s breeding efforts instilled in them. The sting of betrayal Zed carries with him even as he progresses through levels of being and understanding, from near-animal to superman, continues to define him, counterbalancing the torment of the Eternals, who have attempted to make themselves gods and found themselves instead permanently tethered to their own mortal impotence. “Another dead end,” Friend reports to Zed when recalling their attempts to explore deep space. The chief scientist who led the mission to create the Vortex is now a withered and ancient being balanced perpetually on the edge of easeful death but never able to fall off.
Zardoz’s associations skid every which way, commenting as much on the fate of the counterculture intelligentsia of the 1970s as it does on scifi concepts, lampooning the era’s utopian impulses and the evergreen human longing for a panacea against mortality, and a dark-tinted emotional autobiography from its writer-director, an extended jeremiad against attempts to deny the darker side of human nature and against that eternal target of British artists, the class system. Some of Zardoz’s impulses, like the geriatric renegades being forced to dodder around a ballroom floor in ruffled formal dress in a gruesome caricature of a retirement home at Christmas time, have the quality of surreal but recognisable musing on contemporary denial of mortality. There’s also the allusive sense Boorman was trying to grasp of the nature of nostalgia, planted in a waning memory of a different age of parents and grandparents and his own youth in a hermetic suburban environment he described as “comfortably smug.” The final shot of Zed and Consuella evokes the same flavour, at once mimicking a Renaissance artwork and a late-Victorian wedding photo, marking them out as both holy family and ghostly forebears. Boorman depicts the Eternals as a mob of immortal yet morally and emotionally phthisic Bloomsbury Set rejects acting out a genre transcription of a D. H. Lawrence parable and Zed roped in as a Webley-wielding Mellors to boff and beat some life into these stiffs. It might even be fair to call Zardoz a variation on H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine told from the Morlock point of view: what use these Eloi anyway? A crucial flashback reveals the ranks of Eternals who have retained their sense of identity and purpose were all the youngest members of the commune, children of the scientists who created the Vortex and the Tabernacle: with less reference to the old way of life, the younger ones were able to adapt more readily.
Of course, one reason Zardoz still has to fight for its place at the table is the way it puts sexuality front and centre: scifi is one genre where the Id and Eros are usually channelled into solidly delineated forms, but Zardoz, as well as exemplifying a certain blithe, very ’70s approach to nudity, is deeply concerned with the place of sex in human identity and its future and as the essence of the life urge wound inextricably with death. Boorman’s defiantly eroticised approach manifests also in his sexualisation of his lead actor. This culminates in a hilarious and erotically potent moment when Connery is presented swathed in bridal dress and veil as the geriatrics smuggle him past the marauding Eternals, and later, when the great phallic monster becomes whore to a bevy of seed-seeking, would-be witch queens and lady madonnas. Zed’s sweat is an elixir that stirs the Apathetics to life and group snogging. The Eternals are gelded in their immortal state, but still fascinated by Zed’s sexuality, as his memories constantly refer back to adventures in rape and rutting out in the wilds. When Consuella tries to provoke erotic reactions in Zed with pornographic images, she finds he’s more aroused by her immediate person. S&M motifs bubble up as Zed becomes Friend’s ponyboy and finds himself uninterested in the wealth of utterly blasé sex objects presented by the Apathetics. Consuella is one part Vestal priestess guarding a forbidden zone from all but a touch of the divine, one part snooty princess in need of a good rogering as she proclaims sexuality the force that “so degraded woman and so betrayed men,” and glares icily at Zed’s erection. She accidentally breaks her own cage and finds she has transformed herself into her enemy. When she finds Zed under her knife, a claiming of potency that ironically destroys the very point of what she was fighting for, she stirs the newly enlightened Zed to quote Nietzsche’s famous epigram about the fate of those who fight monsters too long.
Connery supports Zardoz on his shoulders in the same way Charlton Heston used to prop up historical epics, with the film in part simply transposing the dichotomous mystique of James Bond as both ultimate lover and ultimate killer, the pure primitive man wrapped in the complete civilised man, and throwing the twinned image into heightened contrast. Connery, happily tossing away the wig that dogged his later turns as the spy yet still possessed of formidable physical presence, gives one of his best performances, conceding to Boorman’s exploitation of him as both irrepressible in his masculinity and also the constant subversion and mockery of it. Zed is, alternately, a shy beast, a natural titan, a flailing thing, and, finally, a human being or better. Connery’s presence also fills in a Lee Marvin-shaped hole in Boorman’s vision, as Zed recalls Walker of Point Blank, a similarly primeval power who nonetheless constantly finds himself battered and bewildered by the forces of civilisation (although I can’t help but wonder if Boorman might even have liked to cast a black actor in the role; put Jim Brown or the like in the part and imagine the fur that would’ve flown). Zed speaks wistfully of losing his innocence when his mind was activated, and finally finds himself notably impotent in one way by the end, when he can no longer use his gun: intelligence has given him morality, but removed pure will. Consuella’s war against Zed conceals her own powerful desire for him with a hunger that transcends not merely the social demarcations after she describes May’s interest in him as bestiality, but also the powerful death wish that has overcome the other Eternals, and at the very moment when she has the chance to kill Zed finds instant, transfiguring accord with him (another recurring Boorman motif, the couple that falls in love at the drop of a hat). Rampling’s lethal jade gaze was never better-suited to a role.
Boorman’s answer to Kubrick’s stargate trip is an equally magisterial, but even more deeply strange and gaudily colourful sequence in which Zed agrees to impregnate May and her cadre of like-minded women in the Vortex so they can carry away the next generation of humanity and repopulate the world; in exchange, they agree to use a teaching technique employing touch, psychic induction, and the crystals that allow them to tap the Tabernacle’s resources. Insemination of womb is rhymed to insemination of mind, illustrated in projections cast upon rutting bodies and naked frames and philosophies and poesy dropping from lips, an inheritance of intellect entwined with the flesh. Boorman attempts nothing less than an affirmation of the virility of one in terms of the other, an attempt to punch through the mind-spirit-body schism that has often defined and afflicted the western mindset. Here, too, Boorman’s influence also makes itself plainest, aspects of his creativity echoing through later works by filmmakers as diverse as Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Ben Wheatley, Terrence Malick, Terence Davies, and particularly, Terry Gilliam, all of whom would try in diverse ways to explore similarly the perpetually uneasy relationship between the immediacy of experience and the inescapability of physical being and the inheritance of culture, teasing the edges of abstraction in the process. Meanwhile, the anointed messiah figure has found a new life in many a more soothing setting, from Star Wars (1977) to Superman (1978) to The Matrix and the Marvel superhero roster, mostly robbed not just of sexuality, but of simple connection to other human beings.
Zed arrives near the end of his journey and takes on the Tabernacle, which torments him with the fragments of the people who form part of its makeup and, finally, Zed’s own doppelganger, which he kills in symbolic defeat of the machine. Zed emerges from the battle with authentic psychic power. Confronted by the Eternals whipped into a frenzy that has turned self-consuming as they smash the cultural inheritance they’re supposed to be protecting, Zed is able to shunt them from his path and telekinetically repair the statues they’ve vandalised—the capstone for Zed’s shift from destroyer to restorer. Zed and Consuella flee to the wilds and mate in the felled Zardoz head whilst the Eternals finally meet their fates at the hands of invading Exterminators, who are all too happy to answer their gleeful demands for death in an orgy of killing, including the newly restored Frayn and Friend, revealed as collaborators in the project of creating a force strong enough to break the Vortex.
The film’s coda is at once peculiarly funny and deeply sad as Boorman summarises the last/first family’s future in a fixed shot lapping through time, Zed and Consuella ageing and withering as their son is born, grows, and leaves them. Their biological function fulfilled, they remain until they are only a pair of ragged skeletons holding hands. One of Boorman’s major points here is one that we’re never easy with, particularly in this day and age, and yet can never deny—that we are all momentary vessels of life and that individual identities ultimately mean much less than what we pass on. The very last image zeroes in on Zed and Consuella’s hand prints on the wall of the cavern where they made their life, juxtaposed by Zed’s gun. Humanity arose from Stone Age to Space Age and back, and now a new pivot has taken place. All that’s ever left of anyone is the shape of their hand, outlined by paint on the stone.
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Director: Alan J. Pakula
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As I pick through the daily helpings of mainstream-media-bashing, liberal- and conservative-bias-shaming and all the other pleasantries that instantly greet all the news that’s fit to tweet, I find myself longing for some remnant of truth, justice, and the American Way the way I used to know. I find one bright spot in the journalism conducted under the auspices of First Look, a self-described “new-model media company devoted to supporting independent voices” that coproduced the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight, which chronicles the Boston Globe’s 2001 exposé of the decades-long sexual abuse of children by scores of priests and the Boston Archdiocese’s attempts to cover it up. As you can imagine, movies about heroic journalists are rare as hen’s teeth these days, so whatever the merits of Spotlight—and I can argue that it has many—its appearance and relatively high profile at a time when lies and propaganda are degrading freedoms throughout the world are a blessing and a balm to me.
The newspaper movie, however, has had a long run in motion pictures, chronicling both the cynicism that characterized the early years of yellow journalism (Chicago ), as well as Fifth Estate crusading, both helpful (Deadline U.S.A. ) and harmful (Try and Get Me! [aka The Sound of Fury, 1950]). The inherent drama of headline news provides filmmakers with a constant supply of riveting material that offers audiences more bang for their buck for being at least partially true.
Arguably the most acclaimed and enduring of newspaper movies is Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), based on the best-selling book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then reporters for the Washington Post, whose investigative reporting on the 1972 burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. , revealed a vast dirty-tricks conspiracy that eventually ended the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. I remember very fondly volunteering at my local PBS station to answer phones and take pledges during its rebroadcasts of the 319 hours of U.S. Senate Watergate Committee hearings, shown and aired live on the three major networks and NPR beginning May 17, 1973. An estimated 85 percent of the American public watched or listened to at least part of the hearings, and many people called in to express their thanks to PBS for giving them access to information about which they cared deeply. I don’t remember a single caller who attacked the effort, phoned in a bomb or death threat, or called me or PBS functionaries libtards. A lot of young people may not understand why “–gate” is appended to most public scandals these days, but for my generation, the Watergate scandal left a permanent mark and continues to reverberate, as extremists double-down to secure the power and national prestige lost following Nixon’s disgrace.
Just as Watergate changed the American political landscape, so, too, did Pakula’s film spread its influence far beyond the newspaper or political thriller. On TV, there has been a steady succession of small cells of true believers trying to right wrongs and uncover truths by any means necessary (“The X-Files,” “Person of Interest,” “Leverage,” “Burn Notice”). On the big screen, John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) does a pretty good job of recreating the conspiracies and meticulous fact-finding of President’s Men in a western setting, and director Shane Carruth said his knockout scifi film Primer (2004) was directly influenced by the newspaper drama. Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015) not only continues that director’s themes of outsiders combating power, but also appears to take inspiration from Pakula’s vision of a depopulated maze of streets and buildings that look, precomputer age, ever so much like Blackhat’s opening volley of digital circuitry. I might even go so far as to say that many of the superhero/comic book films would be nowhere without their “origin story”—newspaper funnies—and their focus on the courage of a few against the oppressions of the powerful.
All the President’s Men is, too, a product and exemplar of its time. The 1970s witnessed one of the greatest flowerings of American film culture, with more realistic, director-driven movies that mixed spectacle, elegance, and old-fashioned star power with a raw immediacy and violence for audiences weaned on the televised Vietnam War who wanted their entertainment to draw blood. Pakula avoids histrionics, but amps up the tension of his film, borrowing from Antonioni’s urban alienation and George Romero’s paranoia to paint a portrait of ultimate power as both dangerous and deeply stupid.
The opening sequence, the break-in itself, offers us a voyeuristic thrill reminiscent of Hitchcock’s tableau in Rear Window (1954), but more for stroking our own egos at observing how hopelessly inept the burglars were in planning their crime—drab men in ugly clothes duct-taping a door catch open and rifling through offices awash in light and open windows. Their tracks are detected easily by a lone security guard, who handily dispatches police to catch the burglars in the act. The only thing about this sordid event that catches Metro Editor Harry Rosenfeld’s (Jack Warden) attention is that the bust-in occurred at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters. Rookie reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Reford) is dispatched to attend the arraignment.
The burglary might have been buried for good inside the pages of the Post had Woodward not chatted up a white-shoe attorney (Nicolas Coster) observing the public defenders assigned to the case. The five men, four Cuban-Americans from Miami and James McCord, Jr., all testify to having ties to the CIA. The trail starts to warm up as former CIA worker and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt and Charles Colson, special counsel to the President, work into the chain of events. The National Desk starts angling to take over the story, and Metro reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) worms his way onto the investigation by doctoring Woodward’s copy as soon as he turns it over to the copy desk. This scene—Bernstein’s underhanded, but skillful assistance and Woodward’s forthright approach in calling him on it—sets up the bad cop/good cop routine “Woodstein” will marshall when trying to get information out of reluctant informants.
Pakula offers the dynamics of the competitive news business as the pair watch the New York Times covering similar ground and finding new leads. Bernstein flies to Miami to follow up a NYT-prompted lead that payoffs from the Committee to Reelect the President were made to the Watergate burglars, waiting all day for Martin Dardis (Ned Beatty), chief investigator for the Dade County state attorney’s office, to show him a check written to one of the burglars. The scene shows the dogged determination of Bernstein to reach his goal, including making a phony call to Dardis’ honey-tongued watchdog (Polly Holliday) to get her off her guard station in front of Dardis’ office.
Pakula uses a sort of Shakespearean construction of deep drama alternating with comic moments to keep the audience on a rollercoaster of tension and release, an effective strategy for a story whose momentous outcome was known years before. Foremost is the character of Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), now known to be W. Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI at the time of the break-in. He had been an occasional deep background source to Woodward and kept him on track with Watergate, meeting with him in a parking garage to talk. The archetype of the oracle is an ancient one, and cinematographer Gordon Willis’ shadowy underlair suggests a plot born from Hell, pulling the film out of the everyday and marking it with mythic dimensions. Holbrook’s Deep Throat gives up his secrets grudgingly, dismissing Woodward with vague aphorisms like “follow the money” to avoid more pointed information that would lead to some deep damnation or other. Eventually, he reveals that lives are at risk, giving Pakula an opportunity to release audience tension by shooting Woodward rather comically whiplashing around to look over his shoulder as he walks away.
Pakula will raise and lower tensions again as Bernstein interviews a frightened bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) who oversaw payments to the network of dirty tricksters taking orders from Attorney General John Mitchell and Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. The scene is an understated cat-and-mouse game, beginning with the bookkeeper standing behind a prisonlike banister in a corner of a room and moving to a different corner, this time created by Bernstein and her own desire to tell the truth. Bernstein approaches her as though she were a coiled cobra, moving slowly to “refresh” his memory with his notebook and accepting her offers of coffee. The scene ends in antic merriment when Bernstein goes to Woodward’s apartment with his notes after consuming 20 cups of coffee from his six-hour marathon interview.
Spotlight took a clear inspiration from President’s Men in its depiction of churches as part of the Boston landscape through which the Globe reporters pounded the pavement. Here, there are numerous shots of Woodward and Bernstein driving past the White House, the endpoint of their inquiry, though they didn’t know it from the start. Willis favors high overhead shots to emphasize the informational maze through which the heroes must travel. One famous shot shows the pair in the mandala that is the Library of Congress, rifling through stacks of library slips. Willis also likes long shots of the wide-open city room, often nearly empty, as though to emphasize the egalitarian and transparent nature of news reporting. In retrospect, it also emphasizes how reporters were always out in the community and how news-gathering has shifted today to online research conducted in remote fashion.
Of particular note is the movie’s Oscar-winning sound design, which emphasizes a strong, muscular, determined group of professionals plying their trade with machines whose metal keys punch ink onto paper. It’s a distinctive and percussive sound, and emphasizes why I find so annoying the anemic, plastic clicking of the computer keyboards that have taken over from the typewriters and teletype machines in life—and especially in the movies. Coins ring into pay phones, telephone dials spin and click, stereo knobs click on and off—there are a whole range of sounds that are nearly lost to us today that make a more direct connection between the characters and their actions, and that immediacy also quickens the heart of the moviegoer.
So, too, does the thoroughness of the reporters. Today, lies are reported more routinely that facts in some circles—we live in an age of the gossip rag—but corner-cutting was not Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s style. Jason Robards, as Bradlee, tells his reporters that their verifications (at least two) feel thin, he checks their desire to run with what they’ve got. It’s no good if it isn’t true, can’t be proven to be true. Predictably, one of their stories brings a denial from a high-profile source—even though the facts are right, the circumstances of their discovery were not reported properly—and a dramatic dressing-down from Bradlee. Can you imagine that happening today?
Hoffman and Redford are iconic in these roles, but they really did seem born to play these men. Scrappy, energetic Hoffman channels just a bit of his Ratso Rizzo sleaze from Midnight Cowboy (1969), marrying it to ambition and the good sense to let Woodward take the high ground when needed. Redford has us on his side all the way, his blond good looks and low-pressure style encouraging people to volunteer information they initially refused to divulge. A vast supporting cast keeps the film moving in a dizzying, but never incoherent way. One performance of note is Robert Walden as Donald Segretti, a “ratfucker,” that is, a dirty-tricks purveyor who was, no doubt, the idol of the king of the ratfuckers, Lee Atwater. I found his story of giving up on a law career for something more lucrative and, to him, the equivalent of moral mischief, an interesting and always timely one. Walden would go on to play a wily Bernsteinesque reporter teamed with a sensitive Woodwardlike journalist in the TV series “Lou Grant” (1977-1982), another great work that must have owed its very existence to All the President’s Men.
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Directors: George Seaton, Jack Smight, Jerry Jameson, David Lowell Rich
By Roderick Heath
For several decades, Bedfordshire-born Arthur Hailey was the popular definition of a successful, immensely popular author. Hailey purportedly sold more than 170 million books with his patented brand of turning stringent research on spheres of life charged with yearning fascination for the public at large—politics, five-star hotels, high finance, and most enticingly, the new age of jet travel. One of Hailey’s earliest successes was a teleplay written for Canadian TV, Flight Into Danger, depicting the chaotic results of an outbreak of food poisoning on a transcontinental airliner; it was quickly adapted into a 1957 feature film called Zero Hour. Hailey revisited this territory with his 1968 novel Airport, which became a colossal bestseller, informing his readers about a scene quickly becoming mundane and yet still imbued with an aura of romance and exclusivity, thrilling them with the privilege of seeing that world’s inner workings mixed with racy glimpses into the burgeoning sexual revolution as it affected not just the dashing wayfarers of the sky, but also the earthbound functionaries of airport administration. Airport was brought to the big screen in 1970 in the midst of what is seen today as a transformative moment in cinema history, as the old studios were teetering and a new breed of filmmaker was beginning to make headway in the industry.
Airport’s success in its time stood as a reminder that even in the days of Easy Rider (1969) and MASH (1970), old-fashioned Hollywood values still held power. The project was shepherded with Selznickian ambition by producer Ross Hunter, backed up by high production values and, most importantly, a battery of strong stars cultivated from several generations of Hollywood actor. The recent death of George Kennedy at a very ripe old age put the Airport films back in my mind. Kennedy, big, burly, and balding, was nobody’s idea of a traditional leading man, and yet he and his character, Joe Patroni, became the linchpin for this, one of the first true modern film franchises. Kennedy, well known to filmgoers after his Oscar-winning turn in Cool Hand Luke (1967), was cast as Patroni, initially a TWA mechanical troubleshooter, but soon, in the course of the series, to be kicked upstairs as an airline executive, and later, barnstorming pilot, still bringing arch masculinity and cussed grit to any situation.
The setting of Airport is Lincoln International Airport, based on Chicago’s O’Hare International, beset by Christmas traffic and a powerful blizzard. During the opening scenes, a pilot bringing a 707 into the airport manages to get the plane bogged in snow when trying to taxi, effectively blocking Runway 29 and forcing airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) to close it down. This stirs up manifold troubles for Mel: holiday passengers complain, as do citizens of a suburb right under the alternate runway, as Mel has broken his promise not to use that runway after dark. As the night progresses, Mel sets Patroni on the job of moving the ditched aircraft, fends off angry protesters and airport trustees, deals with an elderly habitual stowaway, Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes), and is forced to manage an ever-escalating crisis involving a passenger, Guerrero (Van Heflin), who wants to blow himself up along with Rome-bound flight The Golden Argosy for insurance money.
Meanwhile everybody’s private life is in a state of flux. Mel’s marriage to Cindy (Dana Wynter) is falling apart because of his dedication to his job, a process sped up by one of their daughters, tired of their fights, running off from home. Cindy eventually admits to having an affair, and Mel himself is increasingly drawn to indefatigable airline customer relations honcho Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg). Mel’s sister, Sarah (Barbara Hale), is married to pilot Vernon Demarest (Dean Martin), a serial romancer who’s currently having an affair with flight attendant Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset): Gwen reveals to Vernon she’s pregnant, and in spite of Sarah’s confident expectations that Vernon will always come back to her, he is seriously affected by Gwen’s news and begins contemplating a life with her. Meanwhile Guerrero’s distraught wife, Inez (Maureen Stapleton), comes into the airport looking for her husband. Alerted to his plan, Vernon, Gwen, and Quonsett, who escaped her minders and boarded the Argosy, use a ruse to snatch Guerrero’s dynamite-filled briefcase away from him, but they’re foiled by another passenger. Guerrero detonates the bomb, leaving Gwen badly injured and forcing the plane’s pilot, Anson Harris (Barry Nelson), to turn back and make a dangerous landing—a landing that can only take place if Patroni can get Runway 29 cleared in time.
Hailey’s disaster narrative owed a lot to Ernest K. Gann’s The High and the Mighty, which had been filmed by William Wellman to great effect in 1956. Writer-director George Seaton whittled down a lot of the discursions into the business and politicking of Mel’s job, as well as the sidelong lunges into soft-core territory that helped make Hailey’s book so popular, to concentrate on the major drama of Guerrero’s crazed mission. In the process, Seaton gave real impetus to a film genre for which The High and the Mighty had been ür-text: the disaster movie in which a number of motley types are placed into a situation of common danger from a deus-ex-machina calamity. Film screens in the next decade would be clogged with these films in both the subsequent Airport films and the more extravagant productions of Irwin Allen. Common to most was the emphasis on the “all-star cast,” ensembles combining dependable headliners, good-looking ingénues, fashionable faces of the moment, and a smattering of older, once very famous actors to lend a touch of class and nostalgic pep. There was an irony built into this formula, as the appeal of these films depended on employing veteran actors, only to kill them off per the demands of the narratives, as if Hollywood, in perpetuating itself, was employing its old troupers and hardy survivors as a kind of spiritual Soylent Green. Hayes’ witty, scene-stealing performance in Airport helped create this template and perhaps created something of an archetype familiar today—the geriatric who refuses to conform to type, happily indulging herself and using her age as a weapon to stave off prosecution and punishment.
Hunter and Seaton were both old Hollywood pros, exactly the sorts of people who were supposed to be irrelevant by this time. Seaton had worked on A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1936) for the Marx Brothers and later made the perennial Miracle on 34th Street (1947). With Airport, Hunter saw the ultimate proof of his own thesis, offered earlier when he produced Douglas Sirk’s lush melodramas, that the vicarious thrills of luxury and flash still had enormous appeal for filmgoers amidst all the washed-out denim of the period. It was also the final project for composer Alfred Newman, whose achievements included writing the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare. The overlit interiors and rather bland colour palette, as well as the often cheap look of sets, recalls similar faults with a lot of studio filmmaking of the period, one reason many said that in spite of the budgets and assembly-line production arts Hollywood still wielded at the time, the quality of its craftsmanship was slipping. Seaton’s direction imported some modish tricks to jazz the film up, like some split-screen effects that work well, although when he uses this style during Mel’s conversations with his family over the phone, the effect echoes rather amusingly of The Brady Bunch.
The thing that differentiates Airport from something that could have been made 15 years earlier was its reflection on shifting social mores. The first film wields an essentially nonmoralistic take on characters whose sex and emotional lives are becoming increasingly unconventional. The relatively calm, even auspicious sense that comes upon Mel and Cindy when they finally agree to divorce and pursue more satisfying relationships still has a faintly radical ring, even though the fact Cindy’s characterised as a shrieking, glassy harpy cops out a bit. This also goes for Vernon and Gwen’s relationship, although there’s a slight taste of something retrograde when gorgeous, spunky, quick-witted Gwen gets mangled by the bomb. The conscious equation of aircraft with sexuality is taken to amusingly hyperbolic lengths by the finale, as Patroni, desperate to gun the 707 out of the way, bellows at the plane “Either way, she’s gonna get it,” like a frustrated, but determined man trying to get a particularly uncooperative G-spot off. As the series unfolded, the embrace of a louche, glossy magazine adlike take on adult sexuality would become increasingly goofy. The film’s punch line, with Mel grinning at Tanya and essentially proposing they dive straight in the sack with the deathless line, “You’ve been bragging about your scrambled eggs,” sets the seal. The official message of the Airport series is that though the age of mass commercial flight can be an aggravating and occasionally dangerous business, a whole infrastructure of human and mechanical resource will be brought to bear if and when things go wrong. The unofficial message is that everyone should stop fretting and just get down with it.
Airport is still very entertaining and dramatically solid, for all its plastic-fantastic points, barrelling along with Seaton’s real storytelling savvy and utilising its excellent cast with a finite sense of what they bring to the table, particularly Hayes’ perky, elfin humour, Stapleton’s clammy panic, Bisset’s foxy poise, and Kennedy’s macho heft. Others don’t work so well, like Martin, who seems rather fuzzy throughout playing a character seemingly perfect for him. Occasionally the film lurches into real silliness, like a priest slapping an annoying passenger during landing, laying the seeds for some of the intense goofiness to come in the sequels. Airport grossed more than $100 million, a staggering sum for 1970, and small wonder every producer and his dog got busy imitating it. Hunter crash-landed making 1973’s atrocious Lost Horizon remake, and the series was handled from then on by Jennings Lang and William Frye, who provided a follow-up on the relative cheap four years after the original under the hopeful title of Airport 1975. It’s worth noting at this point that despite incredible popularity of the Airport films, now they’re probably known far less well than one of their cultural by-products, Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker’s send-up, Airplane! (1980), which borrowed tropes from all of the films and Zero Hour for a merciless ribbing. Airport 1975 serves up several of the most memorable elements Airplane! spoofed—the wonder of it is that the original might actually be sillier.
Airport 1975, the second entry in the series, feels more like the 15th in the way it takes only essential elements from the original and riffs on them with a tone that can’t be called self-satirising, but certainly with a rather puckish, can-you-believe-we’re-pulling-this-trick? smirk. Screenwriter Don Ingalls sets up the most bare-boned take on the series’ basic plot: placing a raft of quickly sketched characters played by assorted well-known faces in danger during a mid-air emergency. Some aspects of the original film are recycled studiously. The theme of romance between a pilot and his sturdy, but nettled stewardess is as compulsory as Patroni’s presence in the series, here in the form of Charlton Heston’s executive swashbuckler Alan Murdock and Karen Black’s indefatigable Nancy Pryor. Near-disaster is again caused by someone trying to keep up in the rat race, although Dana Andrews’ hapless salesman only accidentally collides his light plane with a 747, killing flight crew members Roy Thinnes and Erik Estrada and severely injuring captain Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Passengers on this troubled flight include Linda Blair, fresh off The Exorcist (1973), as a deathly ill transplant candidate, Myrna Loy as a wandering widow fond of boilermakers, Sid Caesar as an easily startled would-be romancer, Norman Fell and Jerry Stiller as a couple of stewed prunes, and, most bewilderingly, Gloria Swanson playing herself in the process of narrating her memoirs to a writer played by Heston’s former Planet of the Apes costar, Linda Harrison. Swanson reportedly wrote all her own dialogue, which sadly results in some of the worst screen dialogue ever uttered.
Blair’s character, Janice, becomes the object of empathy for two nuns on board. One, a guitar-wielding, pop-friendly songstress played by Australian singer Helen Reddy, regales her with smooth melodies. Reddy, in spite of her excruciatingly fey performance, was nominated for a Golden Globe at the time (and you think the Globes are corrupt now!). The director for this entry was Jack Smight, a former TV hand who made some good films in the 1960s, including Harper (1966) and The Illustrated Man (1968), but by the mid-’70s was turning increasingly mercenary on lazily assembled projects where his ability to give a veneer of gloss whilst keeping costs down was the chief appeal for the studios that hired him. The first 40 minutes of Airport 1975 are really bad, stilted and flimsy. The film improves considerably, however, thanks to Smight’s solid technique and raw dramatic impetus once disaster strikes. Nancy is forced to take control of the 747 and is coached over the radio by Murdock and colleague Patroni in basic manoeuvring. Patroni has a personal stake in the crisis, because his wife (Susan Clark) and son (Brian Morrison) are also on the damaged plane. Nancy gains enough control to avoid crashing into the Rocky Mountains, but to land the plane at Salt Lake City, a real pilot has to get on board. This leads to a riveting sequence as an Air Force pilot (Guy Stockwell) dangles from a military plane over the 747; he dies in the attempt, but Murdock dares the same feat and manages to get aboard.
Philip Lathrop’s aerial photography of the grand 747 flying over the mountains and the stunt work here is so good, it quickly quells the shoddiness of the set-up. Murdock lands the plane, but malfunctioning brakes mean he has to careen around the airfield before finally grinding to a halt. The original film’s concentration on relationship dilemmas had by this time given way to disco-era sleaziness, as Thinnes and Estrada oil up flight attendants with eyes and quips, particularly neophyte Bette (Christopher Norris), in displays of cringe-inducing sexism. This does, however, distract from another theme percolating here—a dawning contemplation of the difficulties of more equal partnerships glimmering in the way Black’s servile stewardess, introduced arguing with Murdock, then has to step up to the plate in a deadly situation and keep her head. The series kept up its habit of inventing airlines for nasty things to befall; for the original, a fictional Trans Global Airways and Trans America had been created, and in Airport 1975, Columbia Air Lines. This was an inevitable nicety when dealing with this sort of thing, although the films also notably bend over backwards to emphasise just how durable and tough the aircraft are in bad expository dialogue.
For all its silliness Airport 1975, although not as big a hit as the first film, brought back an amazing budget-to-box office ratio, making another entry inevitable. Airport ’77 is, by contrast, more polished and solidly conceived, easily sporting the best special effects of the series, as if the studio realised they needed to nurture this cash cow a bit more tenderly. Perhaps they also took a cue from Allen’s disaster films, making plot more important and putting greater emphasis on the mechanics of survival. Rather than just shoehorning someone like Swanson in, here the Old Hollywood star is James Stewart, cast as billionaire entrepreneur Philip Stevens, whose privately owned, specially built 747 is central to the storyline. For the sake of media coverage, Stevens has his chosen pilot, Capt. Don Gallagher (Jack Lemmon), fly the plane to his estate at Palm Beach with a load of celebrities and part of his valuable art collection. A number of thieves, colluding with Gallagher’s copilot, Chambers (Robert Foxworth), set out to hijack the plane mid-flight and abscond with the art: they knock out everyone aboard with gas, and Chambers steers for a remote island. On the way, he clips the top of an oil rig and crashes into the sea. Because of the plane’s special fittings, several compartments remain watertight, and the plane sinks to the shallow Caribbean floor with most of the people on board unharmed, but trapped. Gallagher has to work out some way of alerting rescuers to their position, and then just how to get them out of a tin can on the ocean floor becomes the concern of navy personnel, whilst Joe Patroni advises at Stevens’ side.
Airport ’77 proceeds with a more serious tone and tackles its slightly ridiculous central situation in a way that makes it feel tolerably believable, but still offers up some glorious hunks of cheese, chasing pathos in the form of blind lounge pianist Steve (Tom Sullivan) and adoring fan Julie (Kathleen Quinlan). Also on board are one of Stevens’ underlings, Stan Buchek (Darren McGavin); Stevens’ daughter, Lisa (Pamela Bellwood), and her son, who have established life out of the tycoon’s shadow; slick barman Eddie (Robert Hooks); and arts patron Emily Livingston (Olivia de Havilland), who finds herself flung back into the company of an old beau, Nicholas St. Downs (Joseph Cotton). The most vital characters here are Christopher Lee as Martin Wallace, an intensely committed underwater engineer and humanitarian, and his alcoholic wife, Karen (Lee Grant), who goads and insults her husband and has even slept with his assistant (Gil Gerard), but still, in her odd way, loves him obsessively. When the only option for escape seems to be a risky venture into the plane’s cargo hold to find and float a rescue beacon, Martin joins Gallagher, but drowns in the attempt when he opens a door to the sea, leaving Karen distraught. Grant’s magnificent overacting and Lee’s terse, earnest performance make for a heightened, highly entertaining study in contrasts, whilst their characters return to the motifs of unhappy couples in the original, playing what the Bakersfields’ marriage might have looked like if, instead of drifting apart, they’d been locked together in a perverse, even masochistic brand of affection. The problem here is that once Martin kicks the bucket and Karen zones out, Airport ’77 lacks anyone else interesting to focus on, as the other characters are too thinly sketched and played.
Casting Lemmon as Gallagher was a potentially interesting move in creating a hero in a different mould to the fantasy portraits in alpha masculinity hitherto seen, and his relationship with Eve Clayton (Brenda Vaccaro), another of Stevens’ aides, does feel distinctly warmer and more adult than most of the other couplings in the series. But Lemmon basically walks through the film when he’s not scuba diving, and I’d bet even money the chance to do something physical like that is the reason he accepted the role. Meanwhile, the old stars on show here—Stewart, De Havilland, and Cotton—basically get nothing to do. Even the screaming camp of Steve and Julie doesn’t sing as loudly as it should. It’s a sign of how lacking in pep the script is that it barely includes Patroni and can’t even provide anything for him to swear at. The director, Jerry Jameson, was another former TV hand who had also worked as an editor, but like his earlier horror film, Bat People (1974), and his later nautical project, Raise the Titanic (1979), he scarcely seems aware of how to dramatically shape a film, happy instead to offer up lots of B-roll footage of navy ships and scuba divers at work. This leaves Airport ’77 in a curious limbo: it’s better on almost all levels than Airport 1975, and yet, finally, much less entertaining. After the long, laborious finale when the navy does show up and sets about floating the plane to the surface, we’re assured the rescue techniques are all realistic, and indeed it does have the feel of watching someone’s manual acted out.
Nonetheless, Airport ’77 was still another substantial hit, and Jennings Lang eventually mustered the gall to produce one last episode. The Concorde… Airport ’79 came out in the waning months of the decade these films so exemplified. By this time, all hint of Hailey’s systemological and sociological interests were gone, but Patroni was still around, and finally comes into his own as central protagonist, albeit a little late. The Concorde bombed and brought the official series to an ignominious end. This swan song is incredibly silly, stretching several of the series’ regulation tropes to the point of cartoonishness. But it also has freewheeling pulp-novel jauntiness and a willingness to indulge its inanest ideas that makes it often riotously entertaining, if not always in a positive manner. The plot here strays into territory reminiscent of Hailey’s rival pop writers, Robert Ludlum and Alistair MacLean, revolving around tycoon arms manufacturer Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner), who’s been selling weapons illegally. One of his minions, Carl Parker (Macon McCalman), approaches Harrison’s sometime girlfriend and TV journalist Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely) with his collected evidence for Harrison’s activities, but a hired assassin guns down Carl and pursues Maggie around her house, eventually giving up and running away.
Maggie, scheduled to cover the inaugural run of a Concorde purchased by the airline owned by Eli Sands (Eddie Albert), embarks on the flight, but is given Carl’s evidence at the airport by his widow. Harrison, knowing this, immediately makes several attempts to destroy the flight in mid-air, including launching an experimental missile system at it, hiring a mercenary jet pilot to shoot it down, and finally, having agents sabotage the plane. Battling Harrison’s machinations are Patroni, who, looking for a challenge after his wife’s death, has returned to flying for Sands, and French copilot Paul Metrand (Alain Delon), who delivered the plane to the U.S. He partners with Patroni as they steer the plane to Moscow via Paris. On board this time are a bunch of Russian athletes bound for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, including champion gymnast Alicia Rogov (Andrea Marcovicci), who’s in love with one of Maggie’s colleagues, Robert Palmer (John Davidson), and Mercedes McCambridge playing her hard-bitten coach. Monica Lewis and Jimmie Walker appear as jazz musicians heading to a cultural festival before the Olympics, with Walker’s character, Boise, fond of getting high in the bathroom. Also in the cast for no particular reason are David Warner rounding out the flight crew, Cicely Tyson as an anxious mother escorting not a whole sick child but just the intended organ for a transplant, and Martha Raye and Charo adding comic relief, which is much less funny than the film’s serious stuff. Metrand is a dashing lothario contending with his own impending choice of continuing his wayward ways or settling down with stewardess Isabelle (Sylvia Kristel).
If the earlier entries in the series exemplified the apparent fantasy lives and yearnings of the era’s mass American audience, The Concorde tries to export the brand and lasso Delon and Kristel as avatars of an even more louche, free-and-easy continental lifestyle. The intended ooh-la-la jazz is lessened as Delon looks bewildered throughout and Kristel, well, can’t act. The filmmakers take this lifestyle target to the point where Metrand hires a hooker, Francine (Bibi Andersson), to pose as a perfect date for Patroni and help him get his mojo back, leading to an unforgettable scene with Kennedy and Andersson lounging in the buff under a lambs-wool blanket before an open fire. The experience leaves Patroni fired up again and cements his friendship with Metrand as they contend with Harrison’s attempts to kill them. Those attempts include a dizzyingly hilarious sequence in which Metrand flies the Concorde upside down whilst Patroni fires flares out the cockpit windows to distract heat-seeking missiles. To disassemble all the improbabilities in this scene would take a while; suffice to say that our heroes succeed and manage to land in Paris, although the Concorde is damaged and can’t brake, so the plane has to be caught in giant nets.
In spite of this mechanical complication, a couple of quick repairs later, the plane takes off again with Maggie still aboard, even though there’s a psychopathic tycoon trying to kill her. But everybody’s dedicated, dammit, and they’re going to finish the job they signed on for. Maggie is also friends with Patroni, and it’s signalled he could be a good fallback boyfriend after the prissy megalomaniac. The Concorde’s director was David Lowell Rich, another filmmaker who was jobbing around Hollywood for a long time and had staked his claim to taking on the series with the franchise imitation SST: Death Flight (1977). More interestingly and bewilderingly, the script was penned by Eric Roth, who would go on to pen Forrest Gump (1994), Ali (2001), and Munich (2005). Rich and Roth build to their climax, as sabotage causes a cargo bay door to fly off, forcing Mertrand and Patroni to land the ailing Concorde on a snow field. Mostly everyone escapes, and the film ends rather suddenly. The collection of good actors here picking up a quick paycheque is rather astounding. Blakely, in particular, deserved better, and where else can you see Delon, Kennedy, and Warner locked together in a small space?
Still, The Concorde is so magnificently dumb, it’s a near-endless pleasure to me. But it was certainly a bridge too far for the series, which died here. History wasn’t on its side, with the oncoming Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics, both of which made its lighthearted take on détente chic instantly dated. The flop of several competitors, including Irwin Allen’s The Swarm (1978) and When Time Ran Out… (1980), helped kill off the disaster movie craze, and Airplane! raked dirt over the grave. I also suspect a change of culture played a part, as the ’80s with Reaganism and AIDS saw the Me Decade fantasies at play here become recherché. But perhaps the biggest change that spelt the doom of this breed was cinematic. The arrival of Star Wars in 1977 has been blamed for helping kill the ambitious and personal cinema of the era, but, in fact, it was far more lethal to rival blockbuster films like the Airport series, which maintained their peculiar faith in those old cinema values like star power, no matter how they misused it. Although visual action in the Airport films is important to their plots, it’s obvious the filmmakers would always prefer to hire a name than spend the dime on an effect, and the effects in The Concorde are spectacular only in their lameness. But Star Wars filled theatres with special effects, not movie stars. I call it a slight pity, if only because maybe if there had been an Airport ’81, the filmmakers’ twinning urges towards trendiness and cliché might have finally given us a female pilot and her steward lover. The Airport films certainly don’t transcend their era, but as relics they still are fun.
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Director: Jim Sharman
By Roderick Heath
Incredible as this will sound, this week I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show from beginning to end for the first time. Oh, sure, I’d seen most of it in bits and pieces before going right back to when I was a kid. Thanks to growing up in a pop-culture world inflected with its legacy, I was long familiar with its characters, plot, and, of course, its soundtrack—who hasn’t heard “The Time Warp” or “Sweet Transvestite” in our day and age? This very familiarity made seeing the whole thing seem a bit superfluous, but finally, I made myself sit down and take it all in.
Rocky Horror was, of course, struggling English actor Richard O’Brien’s brainchild, composed, he said, to keep himself busy on long winter evenings of unemployment. O’Brien’s off-the-wall musical play mashed up his fetish for classic scifi and B horror movies, the trappings of the faded ethos of showmanship and glitzy-tacky Hollywood pizzazz, and the milieu of post-Swinging London and the age of sexual liberation—all entirely in keeping with a music scene ruled over by Mick Jagger and Ziggy Stardust. Australian theatrical director Jim Sharman, who had gained some respect for his staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, knew O’Brien from his one-night stint playing Herod in the show, and O’Brien snagged his interest with his kooky project.
Sharman’s showbiz pedigree was unquestionable. His father had been famous in Oz for running a travelling boxing show and carnival, and he grasped the potential in O’Brien’s project. He had already directed a film in Australia, 1972’s Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens, built around much the same mix of nostalgia, camp, music, and satirical reference. Sharman staged O’Brien’s show in the 64-seat Royal Court Upstairs Theatre with a cast of virtual unknowns, including star Tim Curry, an actor O’Brien knew from around his neighbourhood, and Sharman’s pal from down under, “Little” Nell Campbell. The show was an instant success, and soon became the fixture it essentially still is. Two years later, Sharman brought it to the big screen for 20th Century Fox, importing for the sake of a larger budget two American actors, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, to play the nominal leads, as well as one talent who had made an impression in the LA production, Marvin “Meat Loaf” Aday. The film version initially failed to find an audience, and was written off as a misbegotten flop, but this was the golden age of cult films, with midnight screenings of cinematic oddities attracting large audiences of college kids and hipsters. An enterprising distributor saw the potential in marketing the film to the same audience, and soon a whole subculture formed around the movie, with audiences creating a ritualised script of comment and response and live performers mimicking onscreen action.
It’s easy to see Rocky Horror’s specific appeal, particularly in the milieu of the mid-1970s. Above all, the rock ’n’ roll score accomplished something nothing, not even Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar, had quite pulled off so effervescently and effectively before (or, really, since, perhaps not until the recent Hamilton)—contextualising the stage musical in the pop era in a way that made it fit. O’Brien tapped into an audience steeped in both a love of flimsy fantasy and New Age mores, creating a variation on a niche of gay culture just acceptable enough to lodge itself in the mainstream. The plotline, whilst strutting through a mocking pastiche of B movies, essentially describes a mass cultural experience, portraying a pair of hopeless squares being exposed to the stranger side of life and finding themselves, if not necessarily better off, certainly wiser—a Sadean narrative rendered in a light, fun, mostly harmless manner. At the same time, Rocky Horror has undoubtedly helped a lot of gay, bisexual, and just plain fabulous people come out of the closet and wield its fantasy as a weapon.
All that said, though, is The Rocky Horror Picture Show any good?
As a record of this peculiar cultural artefact, certainly. The movie, like the stage version, opens with the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” an ode to the pleasures of cinema from yesteryear, the stuff of O’Brien’s youth, referencing the likes of Tarantula (1955) and Day of the Triffids (1962). The film is littered with references to the glory days of Hollywood filmmaking, and there’s an interesting contradiction in there somewhere, this creation of fringe art celebrating a lost Eden of commercial art—although in the context of the mid-’70s, that legacy had faded and the same studios were trying to reinvent themselves by making stuff like, well, stuff like Rocky Horror. Moreover, such referential gambits feel like a miscue to me, as the project never really settles for pastiche or lampooning, and, least of all, for straight-up genre thrills, but instead subjects those tropes to a transmutation, turning subtext inside out and exploring less the ideas of classic genre cinema than camp culture’s take on it. Sharman’s expanded cinematic scope and the production circumstances allowed him to directly evoke the glory days of British cinefantastique, particularly Hammer horror, which was in its death throes at the time. Much of the film was shot around the decaying Oakley Court mansion, a popular location for horror film shoots. The central scene of monstrous creation directly references the laboratory scenes of Fisher’s Frankenstein films.
One of the cleverest touches of the film adaptation was casting Charles Gray, consummate player of villains in such films as Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971), as a “Criminologist” whose introductions and narration evoke the likes of Edgar Lustgarden, the crime writer famous for hosting true crime TV series in the ’50s, and Boris Karloff’s hosting of the anthology show Thriller. Some of the film’s truly killer vignettes include the cutaways to him lecturing on how to do the Time Warp, and casting away his dryly portentous dignity to dance on a table top. Drive-in movie fare isn’t the only subject for satirical mirth: Brad and Janet overhear Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, symbolic fall of the establishment about to be mirrored by the young couple’s impending date with subversive elements.
An early sight gag unsubtly, but pertinently lampoons the couple representing middle American values, as Grant Wood’s famous “American Gothic” painting looms over protagonists Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) and their friends at a wedding. The inference is obvious, the lurking spectre of parched, repressed, cheerless conformity the legacy behind their white-bread, upright, uptightness, and several of the church congregants watching the wedding revels with parsimonious intensity are, in fact, the very same perverts who will later turn the couple’s lives upside down. Brad and Janet are citizens of the Texas town of Denton. After they bid farewell to their just-married friends, Brad finally confesses his love for Janet via the song “Dammit Janet,” and they set off for a night of celebrating their smouldering blandness. But the couple’s journey is complicated by a storm and strange motorcyclists, and their car busts a tyre after they take a wrong turn. Luckily for them, there’s a castle nearby where they can ask for help.
Brad and Janet immediately stumble into an asylum of weirdness, greeted by a cabal of partying oddballs attending the “Annual Transylvanian Convention,” overlorded by pansexual, transvestite scientist Frank-N-Furter (Curry) and his fake servants, hunchbacked butler Riff Raff (O’Brien) and his sister and maid Magenta (Patricia Quinn), as well as hanger-on and former lover Columbia (Campbell). Frank has gathered the cabal together to celebrate the culmination of a great experiment: he is about to bring life to a man he’s constructed, dubbed Rocky (Peter Hinwood). Frank’s creation emerges from the vat as a perfect Aryan vision, ready and willing to flex his physique to the amazement of the audience even as he wonders what strange situation he’s been plunged into. But Frank’s road to triumph has been paved with his sins, including frozen biker Eddie (Meat Loaf), who busts out of cold storage in a dizzy rage. A delivery boy who was ensnared by Frank’s lustful attentions but who gravitated to Columbia, Eddie’s been partly harvested to provide Rocky’s brain, and he careens through Frank’s lab on his motorcycle until the vengeful host dispatches him gorily with an ice pick. Having disposed of this momentary distraction, Frank sets Rocky to building up his body to ever greater heights of masculine glory before chaining him to his bed. Rocky Horror revolves around this one central, inarguably brilliant premise—though the film doesn’t do much interesting with it—turning the classic Frankenstein figure into a freak who wants to create not just a human being, but a perfect male love object and then doubling down on this joke by having the monster’s traditional rebellion be that he is resolutely and helplessly heterosexual.
Curry inhabits the role of Frank-N-Furter with such total ease and charismatic verve that it seems like he was born in his lofty stilettoes and garters, credibly locating jolts of pathos and flickers of melancholy under the surface of a creature otherwise defined by totally shameless hedonism and dedication to his own outsized talent and ego. From the moment he enters the film dressed like Dracula, only to throw off his cape and reveal his very masculine body swathed in burlesque-ready underwear, Frank-N-Furter commands the proceedings. Later, as he acts as impresario mad scientist at Rocky’s revival, he sports the pink triangle of gay pride (adapted and reversed from a Nazi designation), but doesn’t stop at any polite or merely political limits of gender orientation. The figuration of Frank and Rocky could well have been originally inspired by Z-Man and his lust object, Lance Rocke, in another hugely popular camp relic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970); Frank very strongly recalls Z-Man as the imperious host of debauched revels and jealous creator with not-so-secret peccadilloes. There’s also a strong whiff of Cabaret’s (1972) Emcee to him, and Bob Fosse’s sleazy-sexy sensibility pervades the film as an influence.
Sharman’s theatrical talent mostly works once Brad and Janet reach Frank’s castle and are confronted by an the alternate-universe rock’n’roll party as a moment of revelation. The Transylvanians line-dance, and Riff-Raff, Magenta, and Columbia regale them with “The Time Warp,” that most insistently catchy and seemingly nonsensical of songs with lyrics that bespeak a defining obsession with nihilism countered with a sense of freedom and release found in remembered pleasures. Frank enters from a cage elevator and struts through the scene with carelessly convivial enthusiasm laced with erotic potency. The movements here obey their own warped logic, the mood of having stumbled through veil into a strange zone of reality, true in its way to many a classic horror film with the twist of discovering not horror and madness—although there is some of that—but rather the strangely alluring invite of a secret society dedicated entirely to making life a trifle less dull. Of course, it’s the songs here that tie this act together: “The Time Warp” segues into “Sweet Transvestite,” and, a little later, “Hot Patootie,” all musical bits that roll on with driving force, the first and the last perfect floor-fillers and the middle song an impudently sexy declaration of Frank’s wont that burrows deeply into the ear.
The stage is set for wild and shaggy times, and some do actually happen. Very much the pivotal sequence of Rocky Horror and its mystique comes at the halfway mark in a sequence that plays as an omnivorous replay of the health clinic scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), except whereas James Bond was fox in the henhouse with a bunch of horny ladies, here Frank-N-Furter revels in having a couple of ripe, young dweebs to make a tilt at. Frank first pretends to be Brad visiting Janet and then Janet visiting Brad, with both squares letting him have his way with them on the assurance the other won’t find out about it, climaxing, literally and figuratively, with the silhouetted, but still declarative shot of Frank fellating Brad, a moment that does still feel gutsy and unique in the context of such a work of broad appeal.
Riff Raff and Magenta’s general program of torment and sabotage sees them drive Rocky crazy with fire and cause him to escape, and then make sure Janet can see through the house’s TV monitors that Brad and Frank are together. Janet stumbles out in an anguished delirium and meets Rocky. She succumbs immediately to his boy-man virility, a spectacle that, in turn, shocks both Frank and Brad. Eddie’s father, a scientist named Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams) and a rival of Frank’s, reaches the castle in search of his son, necessitating a very uncomfortable dinner that climaxes with Eddie’s dismembered body being revealed in a glass coffin under the banquet table.
Unfortunately, Rocky Horror leaves itself no particular place to go after Frank’s bout of bed-hopping, and in the above-described scenes, retreats into shtick that, frankly, could be in any average dinner theatre show (“Or should I say Von Scott?” Gimme a break). The odd witty line does drop throughout the film—I got a good laugh from Brad’s question, “So, do you any of you guys know how to do the Madison?” after “The Time Warp”—but too often there’s a surfeit of true wit or even good wisecracks. A late swerve for a note of pseudo-pathos as Frank-N-Furter faces his downfall doesn’t come off in part because his divaish final song is the dullest tune in the film, and besides, who wants to take Frank seriously? His wonderful line, “It’s not easy having a good time—even smiling makes my face ache,” gives the character a signature facet that doesn’t need underlining. Such flailing probably didn’t matter so much on the stage, where the compulsive energy of the performers and the tunes can carry the material along, but the film finally suffers from a lack of a real cinematic invention. Part of this surely stems from the general decision to make the film as a road-show version of the stage production rather than striking out as a genuinely expanded vision. It’s tempting to wonder what a real filmmaker would make of the material. Ken Russell, who had made The Boy Friend (1971) a genuine cornucopia out of the same kind of material, and released Tommy (1975) the same year as Rocky Horror, could perhaps have conjured something really extraordinary. Ditto Fosse or Richard Lester, filmmakers who might have developed a real visual counterpoint to the material’s obsession with movie history. Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which the film was paired with on a double bill for a time, lacks Rocky Horror’s hoofer bravado, but far excels it for originality and vigour in filmmaking.
In this regard, Rocky Horror ran upon a reef that often lies in wait for stage-to-screen adaptations: how far can you go in revising a project before it ceases to be the thing people liked in the first place? Not that the film lacks cinematic values. Cinematographer Peter Suschitsky, who had worked with Kevin Brownlow early in both their careers and would go on to shoot The Empire Strikes Back (1980), gives the film a rich, vivid palette of colour and lensing, one that cranks up the loopy garishness of the material to 11 in places, particularly during Eddie’s madcap terrorisation of the assembled on his motorcycle, and gives the sequence when Brad and Janet approach the castle singing “Over at the Frankenstein Place” a strange, elegiac beauty. But frankly Sharman, whatever his gifts as a stage director and his real hand in creating Rocky Horror as a theatrical entity, was an annoying filmmaker. A couple of years later he tried to film Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White’s The Night, The Prowler, a story with a not-dissimilar theme to Rocky Horror of a repressed young women being assaulted and finding a certain sick liberation in the experience, but the film is just as leeringly overacted and unsubtle as this one. At least here, overacting and unsubtlety are part of the point. But the superficial energy of the filmmaking and performing can’t ultimately cover up the fact that Rocky Horror loses its mojo badly by the end. Scott’s arrival at the castle sets the scene for some really lame slapstick comedy, with Scott’s wheelchair being attracted up a staircase with a giant magnet and the rebellious guests and flesh toys being zapped with a “Medusa” ray that turns them to stone. The finale is particularly weak and feels like a missed opportunity, as Frank forces his posse of lovers to join in a kick-line chorus in front of the old RKO Radio Pictures logo.
Here Sharman could have gone nuts and expanded the staging and conceptualism, but settles merely for replaying the stage show’s climax with Rocky going nuts and carrying Frank on his back in a limp King Kong (1933) spoof. In spite of the overt desire to pay tribute to the cheesy glories of classic scifi and horror, Rocky Horror never really gets a chance to engage with them. Maybe it’s because the previous year’s Young Frankenstein had already beat it to the punch on so many jokes. At least there is a gaudy nod to Busby Berkeley as the camera surveys Frank floating in a life ring from the Titanic in a swimming pool with Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” at the bottom. Moreover—and now we’re edging into the realm of pure personal taste here, I admit—Sharman’s work presented a blueprint of freaky style not just to the burgeoning Punk and New Wave scenes (particularly Sue Blane’s costuming), but also to every terrible fringe theatre group and art-pop wanker around for the next two decades, and what was fresh was quickly beaten into the ground; just looking at the chorus line of Transylvanians makes me feel a little stabby as a result. Of course, it’s churlish to critique such a project for a lack of story cohesion or dramatic heft; in fact, the lack of both probably explains the popularity of Rocky Horror, its ultimate rejection of deep meaning as well as the kind of rigour that might have made for a more genuinely funny, tighter experience, which then wouldn’t have allowed the same room for an audience of adherents to write in their own amusement.
Admirably, too, Rocky Horror never backs down from its joy in transgression even as it tries half-heartedly to locate a deeper meaning. The shots of Frank, Rocky, Columbia, Brad, and Janet exulting in a moment of orgiastic sexuality in the pool weirdly echoes the climax of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, also released that year, purveying a similar sense of the blurred distinction between the elatedly liberated and the genuinely freakish. Frank-N-Furter is soon delivered a comeuppance by Riff Raff and Magenta, two fellow aliens who have been oppressed playing his servants and now take command, but far from being representatives of any controlling order, they’re an incestuous couple who just want Frank’s foot off their necks. Curry’s extravagance, matched to his character, tends to drown out rivals, but just about everyone still brings something great to the table: O’Brien’s bug-eyed, yawing-lipped rock’n’roll face, Quinn’s plummy pseudo-Lugosi accent, Campbell’s look of irritation after falling over at the end of her “Time Warp” tap dance, Bostwick’s shows of facetious charm, and Sarandon right at the beginning of her career, with her big eyes and ditzy-lustful smile suggesting Betty Boop before she reached for the hair dye and went to the dark side. By its end, it must be said, I was left frustrated, even disappointed by Rocky Horror, as its moments of invention, even genius, are balanced by just as many that don’t work or run in circles. Yet I’m still glad I finally watched it, and moreover, I’m glad that it exists, if just for the sake of the fabulous.
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Directors: Richard C. Sarafian / Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
The story of Hugh Glass contains the essence of American frontier mythology—the cruelty of nature met with the indomitable grit and resolve of the frontiersman. It’s the sort of story breathlessly reported in pulp novellas and pseudohistories, and more recently, of course, movies. Glass, born in Pennsylvania in 1780, found his place in legend as a member of a fur-trading expedition led by General William Henry Ashley, setting out in 1822 with a force of about a hundred men, including other figures that would become vital in pioneering annals, like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John Fitzgerald. The expedition had a rough time over the course of the following year, often battling warriors from the Arikara nation. Near the forks of the Grand River in what is today South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a bear and terribly mauled, and his party on the expedition believed his death was inevitable. Fitzgerald and some other men, perhaps including Bridger, were left behind to watch over Glass. For whatever reason, they departed before Glass had actually expired, taking his rifle with them. But far from dying conveniently, Glass, alone in an inhospitable wilderness, instead began to recover. Living off the land and at first literally crawling his way cross country, Glass headed for the nearest sure outpost of western civilisation, Fort Kiowa, about 200 miles away. He was helped by friendlier Native-Americans tribes and eventually made it to the Cheyenne River, where he built a raft and floated downstream to the fort. He later confronted and recovered his rifle from Fitzgerald.
Glass found only temporary reprieve from the violent death that would eventually come 10 years later, when his luck ran out and the Arikara caught up. But the account of his ordeal has been told and retold, lending him a kind of immortality. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest work, The Revenant, takes on Glass’s story via the highly fictionalised novel by Michael Punke, and Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith embellished the tale further to illustrate not merely a great vignette of trial and suffering, but also a panoramic experience of a time and place that’s less than two centuries in the past and yet seems near-fantastical. It’s not the first film to take direct inspiration from Glass. Man in the Wilderness was the second of two films Richard C. Sarafian released in 1971, the other being his most famous work, Vanishing Point. Man in the Wilderness fell into obscurity by comparison, perhaps because it was overshadowed by a host of similar films at the time, including A Man Called Horse (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Man in the Wilderness is, after a fashion, also a product of a legendary time of pioneers and radicals impossible to recapture in an age of more insipid labours, except this time the disparity is merely one of artistic modes. Sarafian’s film is a totem for the fresh, sun-dappled, smoky-grainy stylistics of American New Wave cinema, whilst Iñárritu’s comes with a hefty, technically demanding contemporary production with a massive budget trying to recapture the same feeling of extreme experience and offer that peculiarly contemporary aesthetic, high-powered moodiness. Both films are nonetheless fascinatingly unified, and divided, by their approaches to Glass’s tale, and by their stature as products of filmmakers at the height of their respective powers.
Man in the Wilderness imposes pseudonyms on its characters for the sake of independence and portrays its main character, redubbed Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), as an Englishman, whilst also introducing an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision right at the outset: his “Captain Henry” (John Huston) commands from the deck of a boat that has been repurposed as a huge cart dragged overland by a team of horses, allowing his expedition to tackle both water and land as he aims his team toward the nearest big river to catch the spring melt. Immediately, Man in the Wilderness recasts Glass’s narrative as a variation on a theme by Melville, a tale of hubris on land rather than sea: Huston, who adapted Moby Dick into a film in 1956, here takes on the Ahab-esque master role, one which also fits neatly into the run of such corrupt overlord figures Huston would play in this period, most famously in Chinatown (1974). Iñárritu is less fanciful if not less referential or less preoccupied with symbolic dimensions, as his version of Ashley, also called Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is forced to leave behind his river barge as well as all the furs the team has obtained after a devastating attack by the Arikara that leaves most of the party dead. Iñárritu quickly reveals his own points of adherence as his camera drifts through eerie, sunray-speared forests straight out of some imagined cinematic handbook of Terrence Malick’s (suggested title: “How to Be a Transcendentalist Filmmaker in 2,346 Easy Lessons”), with a strong dash of Herzog as Iñárritu’s camera roams restlessly around his characters on their small raft. Iñárritu creates a jittery, incessantly neurotic mood that suggests that, far from finding limitless freedom and romantic self-reliance in the wilderness, these pioneers are lurching into a bleeding sore in the Earth partly of their own making. Iñárritu and cowriter Mark L. Smith also quickly introduce fictional aspects of Glass’s story, as they portray Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as accompanied by Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his teenage son by his native wife.
Glass’s life before he joined the Henry expedition was by all reports already amazing. His adventures included a stint of piracy under Jean Lafitte and a spell living with a Pawnee tribe. He married a woman of the tribe and helped represent them in a delegation to the U.S. government. So Hawk isn’t at all an improbable invention, underlining both Glass’s attachment to and affinity for the land and its inhabitants, an affinity too few of his fellows share, as well as lending grim consequence to his character’s preoccupations and the odyssey ahead of him. Iñárritu’s Glass is haunted by the memory of Hawk’s mother, killed in an army raid on their camp, and Glass is marked with enigmatic infamy by his fellows for having killed one of the army soldiers who threatened his son. Fitzgerald, called Fogarty in Sarafian’s film (played there by Percy Herbert, whilst Tom Hardy takes the role in Iñárritu’s), is portrayed in both films as an antsy, truculent, paranoid exemplar of the white pioneer, with a side order of racism and a dose of fear-and-trembling religiosity in The Revenant. Iñárritu makes sure we know whose side to take when his Fitzgerald keeps insistently calling local Indians “tree-niggers.” To a certain extent, Sarafian’s Bass combines aspects of Iñárritu’s Glass and Fitzgerald, presenting a man stripped out of his world and adapted to a new one, solitary and haunted, motivated by almost inchoate need and sometimes seeing the mother of the child he left in Britain, Grace (Prunella Ransome), in foggy memory. Sarafian’s film is a sprawl of hazy browns, yellows, and pale greys, whereas Iñárritu paints with blue filters just occasionally relieved by the touch of the sun.
Early in The Revenant, Fitzgerald tries to spark a fight with Glass and Hawk in his anxiety and boiling anger following their battle with the Arikara and their looming cross-country hike, a gruelling journey made all the more bitter by their lost fortune. Fitzgerald takes out his resentment on Glass as the man who knows the land and has the cool mastery over it and himself that Fitzgerald lacks. Fate puts Glass at Fitzgerald’s mercy, although Fitzgerald only accepts the sorry and dangerous task because Henry offers him a bonus. He, Bridger, and Hawk remain to keep vigil, but Fitzgerald, who once survived a scalping by Indians—he has the semibald patch on his pate to prove it—is so afraid of being caught again by the war party on their trail that he knifes the protesting Hawk to death, dumps Glass in a shallow grave, and lies to Bridger about an imminent native attack to get him to flee with him. In Man in the Wilderness, Fogarty and the avatar for Bridger, Lowrie (Dennis Waterman), flee when they really do when seeing Indians close by, and, when they meet up with Henry, the commander acquiesces to their decision with a pep talk: “Man is expendable. We’re exploring new frontier – we must always push on and give our lives if need be.” Henry all but invites becoming Bass’s nemesis, not just by not going back for him, but also by anointing himself as representative of all the forces and powers by which Bass has felt persecuted. As the film unfolds, the two men fight long-range psychic warfare, Bass making a spear and aiming it with gritted teeth at the distant mountains Henry is trying to cross, Henry firing his guns into the whirling snow behind his wagon train at the invisible opponent. But Henry has his own bewildered feeling for Bass, as he gave the runaway a place on his ship when he was a youth and wanted to be his father figure; instead, he remained locked out by the coldly self-reliant exile.
The Revenant’s title comes from a nickname attached to Glass, a French word meaning to come back or be reborn, and both Sarafian and Iñárritu emphasise Glass/Bass’s story as one of both literal and mystical resurgence. Sarafian’s Bass emerges from his rough grave with some piece of his spirit now infused with the land, and his former fellows begin to see the landscape as charged with portents of his survival. Visions of the stalking revenger torment Captain Henry and Fogarty, to the point where Fogarty accidentally guns down Lowrie, thinking he’s Bass back from the dead. The meaning and import of Bass’s experience isn’t discussed or turned into images as literal as The Revenant’s, but rather diffused throughout the textures of the film. Both Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant wrestle with Glass/Bass’s journey as a tale replete with religious, or at least spiritual, overtones, but also present the hero himself in a state of deep crisis about his belief systems, an insistence that suggests just why Glass’s story fascinates them, as Glass travels as far, physically and in terms of life force, from other men as it’s possible to get and then begins his return. Iñárritu loads his take with images of both shamanic and Catholic concepts of rebirth, as Glass crawls out of the grave, emerges from a ritual hut after surviving a bout of sickness, and later is disgorged from the belly of a horse he climbed into to keep warm. He also enters the (possibly imagined) ruins of an abandoned frontier church replete with faded murals depicting devils and angels. “God made the world!” a hand-lashing, Bible-bashing teacher instructs bewildered and smouldering young Bass, and Sarafian’s film studies the divergent tug between the call of the sublime hidden somewhere in the landscape and his hatred of abusive powers claiming to work in the name of an almighty.
By contrast, Iñárritu’s take on Glass, whilst offering a similarly ecumenical view of spiritual impulses, nonetheless offers what is essentially a passion play, a Catholicised fetish tale of suffering as the way to truth. Both films also depict Glass/Bass’s revenge-seeking journey with a sense of anticipation over whether he’ll actually carry it through. The question of whether to take revenge is couched in terms of maintaining something like an ethical system in the face of a nihilistically indifferent land and a focal point for Bass’s already deep-set sense of alienation and aggrieved fury in the face of humanity’s contemptible side. Iñárritu’s Glass, on the other hand, has a more obvious spur to chase down and confront his enemy—the murderer of his son. Hikuc strikes up a woozy amity with Glass in part because they’re both bereft wanderers, but it’s Hikuc who conveniently spells out the message that vengeance is God’s province, not man’s, and the question becomes whether Glass will heed the credo of vengeance belonging to the Lord and bring mercy to the terrible reaches of the Earth. Meanwhile, authority as represented by Henry is, in very 1971 fashion, posturing, despotic, and grave in Man in the Wilderness; authority, in very 2015 fashion, is callow, well-meaning, and barely competent in The Revenant. “Zach fought against life all his life,” Captain Henry says of Bass, who is presented as a classic prickly antihero of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a self-reliant misfit who can’t handle domesticity, has contempt for standard religion as plied by figures like Henry as representative of the self-righteous, hierarchical world, and who only finally begins to regain a reason to engage with humanity, ironically, because of his betrayal and abandonment. Shortly after he’s left to die, Bass is found by a band of Arikara on the warpath, whose chief (veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) gives him a blessing, an act that arms him spiritually on the way to recovery.
Sarafian’s world is happenstance, gritty and eerie. Iñárritu’s is enormous, but also reaches incessantly through the nightmarish for the ethereal. Iñárritu, although not universally admired, comes to the material right off the Oscar-garlanded success of Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), and he’s been lauded as a major talent since the release of Amores Perros in 2000. By comparison, Sarafian’s vision didn’t get much time to mature: a former TV director, he seemed poised for a major career with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness and produced a handful of other cultish films, including Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (both 1973), few of which were successes at the time, forcing him back into TV and very occasional features. Nonetheless, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness stand as one of the most coherent units of filmmaking of the ’70s, complimentary mythical takes on the death and resurrection of the American spirit in that age of great national questioning. Vanishing Point’s hero, Kowalski, is contemporary man, riding his chrome horse across the landscape towards his inevitable date with death; Bass is both his ancestor and spiritual counterpart, clawing out of the Earth and relearning how to live in an Ouroboros-like chain. Man in the Wilderness is as shaggy, earthy, and fecund as Vanishing Point is shiny, modern, and solipsistic. Both films start in the present but explore their heroes’ lives via interpolated flashbacks: we see Grace, who had to contend with his restless incapacity to live a normal life and his decision to leave their son in her mother’s care after Grace died, whilst moments of dreamy, proto-Malickian beauty drift by, including Bass, lying tattered and agonised, staring up at autumnal trees dropping their leaves on him in languorous slow-motion, his lost lover’s face fading in and out of focus over maps of autumn detritus.
Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose script referenced a peculiarly Latin-American brand of symbolic journey also reflected in Iñárritu’s comprehension of his material, which amplifies to the point of overloudness many of the ideas already present in Man in the Wilderness. Iñárritu has plainly long been fascinated by characters on the edge of the mortal precipice, whether explored in personal experiences fending off death or desperation in the likes of 21 Grams (2004) and Biutiful (2009), and caught between worlds, as evinced in Babel (2006). Iñárritu’s Glass is equally at odds with his nominal civilisation but has his place in a new one, again in a manner familiar from a lot of post-Dances With Wolves (1990) westerns. Iñárritu’s visual approach to The Revenant varies the one he proffered in Birdman, often punctuating the film with virtuoso linked camera movements, at once drifting and propulsive, and including staging several violent action sequences in seemingly unblinking single takes. In Birdman, the visual scheme emphasised both theatrical unity and the transformative power of its protagonist’s vision, as well as the impelling intensity of his neurosis. In The Revenant, Iñárritu regards the landscape as a sprawling system and a much larger stage through which his characters wander, apparently both free, but also locked in by the scale and indifference of the land and, even more unavoidably, the brutality of other humans and the wilderness of one’s own mind. But dreams and reveries have just as much import for Iñárritu as Sarafian, interpolating throughout Glass’s visions of his dead wife and other awesome, terrible sights around the west, like a mountain of buffalo bones and the smoking ruins of his village.
Iñárritu’s narrative incorporates a motif that suggests a tribute-cum-inversion of John Ford’s canonical western, The Searchers (1956), as he weaves in a rival storyline with Glass’s. The Arikara band’s leader, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), scours the landscape because his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), has been kidnapped, and his belief that Henry’s party took her sparked the initial assault on them. At one point, he trades Henry’s recovered furs to a band of French trappers led by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) in exchange for some horses, unaware that this party is the one holding Powaqa captive as a sex slave. Glass finds succour when he encounters a Pawnee loner, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who shares offal from a felled bison with him, and later, recognising Glass is in danger of dying from infection, seals him up in a hut and plants maggots on his wounds to clean them. Glass emerges from this ordeal greatly recovered, but finds in the meantime that the French trappers have murdered Hikuc. He comes across them as Toussaint is raping Powaqa, intervenes, and lets Powaqa kill Toussaint before distracting his fellows whilst she runs away. Glass now has two gangs of incensed enemies on his trail. By contrast, Sarafian’s Bass remains much more of an onlooker, witness to the often surreal on the wilderness. He watches helpless as a small party comprising a white mountain man and his Indian family and companions are assaulted and wiped out by others on the warpath, but the funerary pyres the war party light near the dead bodies gives Bass the gift of warmth for the first time in weeks; he is also able to salvage spearheads and other tools from the attack. Later, he watches as a native woman gives birth in the midst of the woods whilst her man waits beyond a cordon of taboo, a spectacle of pain and exposure that nonetheless communicates an overwhelming charge of life’s unruly beginning and power, forcing Bass to think at last about the son he left behind and marking his own, genuine moment of spiritual rebirth.
The Revenant comes pouncing out of the underbrush, a careening, unstoppable beast of a film, much like the bear that gives its hero a very hard time. Iñárritu’s film is a visual experience of great verve and occasionally astonishing invention, utilising cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s incredible talent and turning his eye on terrains of grand mountains, snows, rivers, blood, filth, fire, night and day and, most zealously, the sepulchral beauty of magic hour. Iñárritu unveils a vision of nature as hell and cathedral, forge and fire. The director’s new obsession with plying his tricky extended shots and wowing the audience with how’d-they-do-that-isms conjures at least one great sequence, when Glass is awakened by the arrival of the Arikara war party and forced to flee on his horse only to ride over the edge of a cliff, pitching himself and his mount into an abyss. Lubezki’s recent shooting style, which he pioneered to mighty effect on The Tree of Life (2011), has brought to modern cinema something of a panoramic effect, utilising extreme wide-angle lenses, but with looming, lunging actions in the foreground, imbuing even simple actions with epic stature and lucid beauty. Iñárritu leans on this effect like a crutch throughout, when the camera is roaming. Unlike on Birdman, though, this incessant movement here seems to foil the energy and effects of his actors, who are often reduced to filling in unnecessary spaces. The more sophisticated Iñárritu becomes in terms of his filmmaking, the more scanty and heavy-handed his and Smith’s screenplay seems, the more repetitive in its action and straining in its search for significance the film becomes. The second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film concentrates on Glass’s recovery and agonised journey, but ultimately gives less convincing a sense of his method than Man in the Wilderness. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to have his motif of death and rebirth or stage one sweeping chase sequence—he gives variations on both several times.
DiCaprio’s genuinely good performance does far more to put flesh on Glass than the script ever does, presenting a man who’s in deep, soul-twisting pain long before the bear gets him, a being used to the laws by which frontier life is lived: it’s there in his eyes as he polishes his gun and keeps a firm lid on his son’s mouth. By the end, he’s suffered so much he enters a kind of rhapsody, and the thirst for revenge cannot be sated; it can only be transmuted into a different kind of rhapsody. But Hardy, who stops just this side of broad, has the juicier part as the half-mad Fitzgerald. The film desperately needs more of the eccentric character power of the scene where Fitzgerald tells Bridger about a revelation that a duck he came across was God and had a vision of the interconnectedness of things, just before he shot and killed it. Even this scene, though, doesn’t seem to have a point to make other than to underline Fitzgerald’s already underlined mixture of weird conviction and cynicism. Dialogue in early scenes is so awkward-sounding like it might well have been translated from Spanish. But to be fair, Iñárritu is making his first true epic film, perhaps the first since Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) that tries to mate the worship of expanse and macrocosmic survey that defines the epic with a volatile, near-experimental aesthetic. At the core is an appropriately epic purpose, an attempt to invoke the breadth of the American historical experience as crucible of trial, suffering, and violence, of contention with nature as an alternately brutal and sublime passage of arms, and with human nature, the bitterest of wildernesses. A point of reference here could well be D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death worship at the heart of so much formative American mythology and an attempt to move beyond it, to explore the emergence of new faiths, binding ideas, and crossbreeds of culture created in such a time and place. But Iñárritu doesn’t give enough of that, and it’s also hard to shake the feeling after a while that he just adores all the handsome gore and portent as some kind of art. Sarafian includes the birth scene to give a pungent, urgent image of life counterbalancing death, down to the mother biting through her babe’s umbilical cord. Iñárritu, on the other hand, can handle manly suffering by the bushel, but can’t handle its opposite. His art only exists in a hysterical flux.
Sarafian’s film is far more becalmed and classical, though in many ways, its approach is not only similar but, in its early ’70s manner, more sensible, balladlike in moments of wistfulness and muscular in action. It’s also much shorter, but still manages to conjure a mythic tone through the force of its images and the surging drama of Johnny Harris’ score, whose old-fashioned romanticism directly contrasts The Revenant’s surging atonal drones and thuds from a battery of composers. Wielding a sense of nature untouched both by human hands and CGI tweaking, Sarafian actually explores his hero’s mindset via flashbacks and the utilisation of the landscape as mimetic space, where Iñárritu rather merely states it: we know what the world means to Bass in a way that’s much richer, and less sentimental, than Glass’s pining for his wife. Indeed, Sarafian’s structure is more successful here than in Vanishing Point, where some of the flashback vignettes laid on formative crises a bit thickly. Richard Harris, an actor who could be sublime or a colossal hambone depending on his mood, was at his best for Sarafian as DiCaprio is for Iñárritu: both actors seem to revel in simply inhabiting their roles with a minimum of dialogue, their reactions to the shock of cold water, the feel of the earth, and the texture of blood entirely real. It could also be said that Sarafian does a slyer job inverting the audience’s viewpoints, as he offers a vignette depicting the Indians recording the sight of Henry’s land-boat in a painting, a glimpse of the strangeness of western enterprise through native eyes. Sarafian presents his Native Americans in their tribal contexts, in their fully formed social life, so starkly contrasting the bizarre, lumbering, unnatural expedition they make several attempts to wipe out.
Sarafian’s film could well have had significant influence, or at least psychic anticipation, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which revolve around similarly absurdist adventures of western world-builders seen in stark remove. By contrast, in spite of the powerful technical accomplishment of The Revenant and the often extraordinary beauty of its images, its aesthetic seems mostly second-hand, marrying long-take machinations in competition with Alfonso Cuaron to Malick and Herzog’s visual habits, with hints of a dark, wilfully odd brand of historical filmmaking that bobbed to the surface now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1984) and Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), and a rather large dab of Chuck Norris. Both Sarafian and Iñárritu build to action climaxes that underline the hero’s development of a new sense of moral compulsion, albeit here, at last, in notably different ways. In Man in the Wilderness, Captain Henry and his compatriots find the river they’ve been making for has dropped and the cart-ship literally finishes up stuck in the mud, forcing the party to stand and fight off a massed Indian attack. The Indian chief, seeing Bass approaching, clearly believes he’s been spared by cosmic forces to gain his righteous reward, and gives him the opportunity of taking his revenge with the trapping party entirely at his mercy. In The Revenant, catching wind that Glass might be alive, Henry leads men out to find him, and they bring him back to Fort Kiowa, whilst Fitzgerald tries to rob Henry’s safe and runs off, ahead of approaching justice. Henry and Glass ride after him.
Man in the Wilderness ends stirringly with Bass finally refusing to take revenge, instead simply vowing to return home to his son with a look of weary gratitude and uninterest in Henry and then tramping on. The rest of Henry’s party start trailing after Bass, abandoning their quest and likewise starting off, humbled and delivered from their own baggage, physical and mental. By contrast, the addition of Hawk and his murder to Iñárritu’s narrative has created a more immediate melodramatic spur that Iñárritu feels bound to satisfy at least partway, and so we get Glass and Fitzgerald fighting it out in a savage death match in the snowy wilds, knifing each other and biting off body parts with hateful gusto before Glass has a last-minute attack of morality and instead kindly sends Fitzgerald floating off to be scalped by Elk Dog, who happens along with the recovered Powaqa and the war party and are watching the fight with bewildered interest. Glass’s act of mercy towards Powaqa saves his life here, but the mechanics of this sequence are so clumsy and thudding that Iñárritu fails to deliver the moral lesson he wants to. Sarafian’s finale is the consummation of his work; Iñárritu’s is a bridge too far, an underlining of the director’s habits of unsubtlety and fondness for chasing down the obvious. Finally, the two films stand as ironic avatars of their filmmaking periods. If Man in the Wilderness is an underrated classic that was virtually ignored because of the wealth of such works in its time, The Revenant is a failed attempt to make a masterpiece in a time when Iñárritu will be praised for his ambition to drive cinema into new territory.
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Director/Screenwriter: Bill Gunn
By Roderick Heath
In the early 1970s, films about black protagonists erupted in popularity, in mostly urban tales laced with gritty realism and high-powered action, bracketed ever since under the memorably pithy name of blaxploitation. Some enterprising producers went a step further and set out to blend one popular, cheap cinematic brand with another—horror movies. Strange generic crossbreeds, some with infamous titles that evoke cinematic trash-fetish at its purist, like Blacula (1972), Blackenstein (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976), traipsed onto drive-in and grindhouse theatre screens. These films triangulated commercial impulse, cheerful camp appeal, and, sometimes, clever and socially mindful attempts to upend familiar tropes and remix the symbolic values of horror tales.
When he was approached to make cash in on Blacula’s success, Bill Gunn cringed at the proposition. Gunn was gaining repute at the time as an artist, writer, and stage director: his play Johnnas, first performed in 1968, had just been adapted into an Emmy-winning TV film in 1972, and he had worked on the screenplays of Hal Ashby’s The Landlord and Jan Kadar’s adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s The Angel Levine (both 1970). Gunn’s entry into horror cinema annals echoed Val Lewton’s 30 years earlier, as he set out to make a mercenary assignment in a disreputable genre serve his personal vision. Gunn realised he could use the motif of vampirism to create a metaphor for drug addiction, and then, in the act of creating it, found dimensions far broader and more original. The result, even amidst the proliferation of strange and original low-budget works both in genre cinema and arthouse fare in the early ’70s, was hailed as one of the most exciting, and showcased at the Cannes Film Festival. But Gunn’s work proved far too uncommercial, even in a truncated version released under the title Blood Couple, to satisfy its producers and the audience they were targeting. For a long time Ganja & Hess remained a legendary obscurity.
Ganja & Hess’s revival owes much to Spike Lee’s remake, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), an act that can easily be likened to Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (1979) as a labour of cultural tribute and postmodern ventriloquism. Gunn’s work crucially anticipates much of Lee’s aesthetic, as Lee has often tried to accomplish what Gunn does in pushing beyond the dictates of familiar Hollywood forms to create something like a cultural artefact: this movie works on the level of essayistic enquiry and museum curation as well as narrative. The great ferment of the black American cultural scene at the time too rarely found expression on cinema screens at the time. The unalloyed statement of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) helped create the blaxploitation gerne, but Gunn’s work creates a bridging point between the genre and the arrival of more determinedly artistic filmmakers like Charles Burnett and Lee. Ganja & Hess has a Godardian streak, as it privileges musical, painterly, and literary embellishments within its form whilst remaining, above all, powerfully filmic, pausing to listen to characters reading or giving account, offering frames replete with compositions inspired by the static methods of visual art, and crowding the soundtrack with spirituals, blues songs, and tribal chants overlapping and soaking into the psychic patina the film leaves in the mind. Many films from that time played about with cinematic structure and flow to create weird and artistically yearning effects, and Gunn’s work, though sometimes weakly paced and uncertainly assembled (exacerbated by the partially restored, but still choppy state of the remnant film), creates a cumulatively disorientating effect as he begins with a reasonably straightforward story that steadily spirals into an increasingly dreamlike, near-symbolic state of representation and happening.
Ganja & Hess is narrated at the outset by Luther Williams (Sam Waymon), a church preacher who moonlights as a chauffeur for Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones). Hess is an anthropologist and college professor, and Williams describes him in retrospect as “an addict…he’s not a criminal—he’s a victim.” Hess is at the height of worldly success, a wealthy, respected intellectual with a ready command of a panoply of cultural references and ensconced in a balloon of privilege. Gunn announces his intention to play about with the clichés of both horror cinema and black identity in this way, depicting Hess’s devolution into carnal bloodsucker as an investigation into that identity. Most ambitious vampire sagas look for primal urges underlying civilised mores, a pattern Gunn follows whilst taking it a logical step further in terms of his theme.
Hess is researching a long-vanished African nation called Myrthia, and his new assistant, George Meda (played by Gunn himself), has recently returned from Africa with relics of the Myrthians, including a ceremonial dagger. The decline of Myrthia, according to mythology, was thanks to the spread of a mysterious blood disease that turned its citizens into parasitic wraiths, and the dagger plays a part in that transformation, as a victim must be stabbed three times with it, invoking the Holy Trinity despite the ritual’s pagan roots, before being reborn. Meda, like Hess, is an erudite scholar, but uneasy and disturbed by recent experiences to the point where after a night of boozy conversation, Hess finds him sitting in a tree with a noose tied and dangling, ready for suicide. Hess talks him down. The following day, Meda writes a poetic missive and reads it outloud to himself, and then attacks Hess, stabbing him with the Myrthian dagger. Meda then bathes and shoots himself through the chest. Hess arises from the dead and desperately guzzles up the blood leaking from Meda’s corpse: he has been resurrected as a Myrthian vampire.
At first, Hess maintains his upright academic veneer, attending fancy garden parties and conversing easily in French with his son Enrico (Enrico Fales) who’s off at boarding school. He subsists on supplies of blood he steals from the hospital, downing glasses of it in his house, whilst Meda’s body turns stiff and grey in the wine cellar. Hess soon starts cruising for sex and blood on the town, driven by an intensifying hunger that Gunn inscribes on the soundtrack through weird, maddening sound effects and the lapping refrains of a tribal chant, the call of ancient blood tormenting Hess during the day. Hess begins preying on prostitutes and other women he picks up. On one occasion, he picks up a hooker in a bar (Candece Tarpley), and her pimp (Tommy Lane) tries to ambush and knife him in an attempted robbery. Hess, not hurt, battles the man. The prostitute hysterically fires off a gun, accidentally killing the pimp, and Hess drags her into the bathroom and kills her to drink her blood.
Hess’s new life pattern is shaken up when he gets a phone call from Meda’s wife Ganja (Marilyn Clark), who’s been searching fruitlessly for her husband around the world and has now returned to the States broke. When Hess responds to her aggressive queries with “I have had a very difficult morning,” she retorts, “I have had a very difficult fucking six months!” Ganja breezes into Hess’s life, a volcanic personality with an honest, me-first attitude, and she shares an instant arc of attraction with him that threatens to combust sexually and emotionally in spite of what is, to Ganja, Meda’s ambiguous fate. Ganja sets up in Hess’s house and happily bosses around his manservant Archie (Leonard Jackson). Ganja’s happy patronisation of Archie has a satirical note, in observing the readiness of some black folk to readily adopt the hierarchism of white society imposed on them. But the inevitable moment when Ganja heads down into the wine cellar draws nearer.
The almost negligible surface narrative isn’t what makes Gunn’s achievement fascinating. The bluntest interpretation of Ganja & Hess is that it’s a parable about rediscovering the fecundity of African cultural roots and black male virility, with Hess as a denatured and assimilated being flung back into raw and primal realities. This is undoubtedly accurate, though Gunn’s themes and his way of communicating them are more complex and ambiguous than this may sound; Ganja & Hess works most profoundly on the level of meditation, iridescent with the shifting tides of its ideas and aesthetics. Gunn created distinctive characters in the eponymous couple, giving Jones and Clark, two excellent, but underutilised actors, clear space to construct vivid individuals even as Gunn’s covert narrative suggests anti-individualism, a sense of communal identity, as the only recourse for their quandaries.
Jones, who, like Gunn had roots in the burgeoning black theatre scene of the 1960s, had crucially found his place in film history playing the lead in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and returned here in an equally radical and ambitious low-budget horror film, anchoring the film with a performance that captures a difficult person: Hess is by turns brilliant, righteous, cool, imperious, pathetic, anguished, childlike, and quite often detached in the face of his problems. One of the film’s strongest vignettes focuses on Clark’s Ganja as she narrates a tale from her childhood, a moment of pungent disillusionment by her mother over an imagined sexual transgression that set her on the path of self-liberation and self-protection. She retains an aspirational fire that eludes Hess, who seems at first like the ideal modern man, but is revealed as tortured and limited by that very sophistication.
As in many vampirism tales, transformation proves double-edged: like the habit of drug use as a means of fleeing reality or society, the effect is isolating and cumulatively deadening. Hess is ultimately as castrated by his addiction as he is liberated, at least until he strikes upon the idea of making Ganja like himself. When Hess forces himself to retreat from sex with Ganja as the blood lust comes upon him and hides in the attic to down a glass of blood, Gunn shoots it like an act of guilty masturbation, until Ganja tracks him down, drawn to his body like planetary gravity, and makes love to him.
Gunn signals the schismatic and apprehensive nature of Hess’s interior world early in the film when he sleeps, clutching the Myrthian dagger in his hand, and dreams of divergent experiences of being inducted: in one, he and Meda are greeted by a masked white man in evening dress and led through a cavernous mansion, with an interesting note of anticipation of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and in the other, he glimpses the ancient queen of Myrthia (played by Mabel King, whose singing is heard throughout the film) leading tribal initiates through long grass somewhere in the veldt. An essay Meda writes and reads is a manifesto, poetry, and epitaph all at once, a stab at expressing the fraught mindset of a conscientious black man at the fringe of a new age at once hopeful and hazardous. Gunn uses the metaphorical power of the underlying unease created in Meda by his unholy contraction in his exchanges with Hess to underline a less metaphorical sense of their unease as avatars of multiple identities often caricatured as antipathetic— African-American men, artists, thinkers, potential political leaders—and as renegades within those identities, a psychic map of a shared mindset. Meda’s suicidal fixation seems like some lost, romantic revolutionary from a classic Russian novel, whilst his writing recalls James Baldwin. The scene where Hess tries to talk him down is played as dark comedy: Gunn shoots the whole sequence in one shot framed so it sarcastically cuts off Meda’s head, and when Meda contemplates drowning himself instead, Hess notes with pungent cynicism that if a dead body is found anywhere in his neighbourhood, the cops will come straight to his house.
With surprising richness and originality for a first-time filmmaker with a literary and theatrical background, Gunn evokes different cultural dimensions through his film’s form. Luther’s early voiceover suggests a cinema verite account of an addict’s life, with documentary-style footage of Luther leading his flock in prayer, and spacy, washed-out footage of Luther in his chauffeuring guise driving Hess about while he is in the throes of his private suffering, before the timeframe shifts and we see Hess as he was before his addiction. Gunn here grazes the edges of the later craze for “found footage” horror with its glaze of false authenticity as a swift means of both baiting the audience into accepting events it might not otherwise and suggesting dimensions of understanding created by the foregrounding of technique. But Gunn soon moves through cinematic modes, from deadpan realism to outright surrealism. Hess’s adventures on the town as he hunts for blood suggest an ironic assault on the precepts of blaxploitation, as Hess bestrides nightlife looking quite the cool mofo, but preying on, rather than helping out, the black demimonde: Shaft has become Jaws.
Meanwhile, Gunn litters his film with baroque compositions until it feels like the limits of his frames might bust open, often crowding those frames with signifiers and nature and fecund beauty whilst evoking different art styles, from still lifes to the tangled geometrics of art nouveau. He zeroes in on decaying statues and works of art, a panoply of cultural inheritance, mostly Old World European, including icons by Andrei Rublev, intimating Hess’s obsession with mortality and the sustenance of the spirit, even as Gunn scrutinises the thorny relationship between traditional black identity and the Christian church, whose power Hess eventually turns to. Hess’s home is a zone of cultural inheritance, both European and African-American, replete with photos of Sonny Rollins, African statuary, and jazz singers constantly snaking out of his sound system, as well as Victoriana bric-a-brac and neoclassical art. Gunn may well have been playing a joke on the concept of the vampire’s haunted castle, usually tied to the monster’s immortality in signifying the pernicious power of ancient creeds in the modern world, but here suggesting a different brand of troubled, persisting inheritance. Gunn also emphasises the decay of all these artefacts, whilst contemplating the raw and cyclical potency of the living form during sex and acts of violence, death, and resurrection. One of Gunn’s recurring motifs is acts of immersion and bathing, starting with Meda almost ritualistically washing before fatally shooting himself, and circling back to this in the finale when a dead man leaps out of Hess’s swimming pool and runs towards the camera, stark naked, manhood flying like a battle flag.
As the film travels more deeply into the sense of folie-a-deux between the titular lovers, the narrative increasingly breaks down, entering a welter of randomly strange, but vividly illustrative vignettes, like Ganja biting into a rose and finding it floods her mouth with blood and a stone face weeping tears of blood. Ganja’s response to finding her husband’s frigid corpse in the wine cellar leads to a fraught confrontation, but also a peculiar confession from her that amounts to an admission she’s done concerning herself with any problem that doesn’t affect her own fate, and obeying that logic Ganja quietly forgets the all-but-literal skeleton in the closet to get on with life with Hess. The couple marries in front of their polyglot group of friends before Hess initiates the half-willing, ultimately terrified Ganja into sharing his condition, stabbing her and resurrecting her.
It’s a plunge into an ugly state of being at first, and Ganja writhes in bed during her transformation and finds herself feeling cold constantly. When she asks Hess if he feels the same way, he answers that he does, but he’s gotten used to it. Uniting in undead passion, however, fails to cure the anguish that possesses Hess, particularly as it reduces him after a fashion to a cuckold. The couple invites a young man (Richard Harrow) over for dinner, and then Ganja seduces him with the intent of making him her first living victim. Gunn shoots their sexual encounter as a mad flux of images in an erotic-sanguinary frenzy, leaving the young man’s body caked in gleaming blood and Ganja, who had been greedily lapping blood from his dripping wounds moments before, aghast at her own behaviour. Hess helps her wrap the body in plastic and dump it in a field, where Ganja hysterically cries that he’s still alive as Hess drags her away.
It’s tempting to detach Ganja & Hess, with its arty filmmaking, lack of suspense, and overtly symbolic approach to loaded subjects, from horror cinema altogether and regard it as closer in nature to the spacy, interiorised state of mind communicated in many “art” movie works of the period like Zabriskie Point (1970) or The Last Movie (1971). But it fits in with some other horror works of its time with surprising alacrity. As well as tweaking the basic themes of the well-established vampire film for its own purposes, the visual texture is as dense and tangled, if less well-organised, as the same year’s more celebrated Don’t Look Now. Jones’ connection with Romero strengthens the similarity with Romero’s own early work, like Season of the Witch (1971), with its similar focus on shifting sociological mores visualised as a mix of bland modernity and underlying estrangement. Gunn shares a mesmeric fascination with blurred time and psychic dislocation, a tactile sense of nostalgia and association in objects, and a vision of a physical world through which humans move lost and ephemeral, with John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1972). But it’s Gunn’s fixation with the body itself as a vessel of fascination, discontent, and political meaning that feels most vital and prognosticative. Gunn most immediately anticipated David Cronenberg’s feature debut Shivers (1975), which, like Ganja & Hess, interrogates the basic metaphor and travels through zones of weird revulsion before arriving at a perverse heroism in the prospect of emancipation from the sickness of civilisation brought about via biological reassignment. Claire Denis, whose debts to Cronenberg are readily apparent, may also have been remembering Gunn’s film with Trouble Every Day (2001), which posits itself essentially as the tale of Ganja and Meda if they hadn’t been separated.
The last act of Ganja & Hess depicts Hess’s attempt to release himself by turning to religion after reading a passage in a book that explains Myrthian sufferers found release in the shadow of the cross. He attends a sermon given by Luther and then builds a shrine in his house where he sits gazing at a crucifix, beset by visions of running through open fields as if liberated, before he finally dies. Gunn portrays this fate ambiguously, as if pondering whether Hess has found release in sanctification or has annihilated himself trying to cling to a creed that brings only self-destructive. Throughout Ganja & Hess, Gunn suggests a version of the Christ tale absorbed and retranslated, invoking Catholic rituals and the African-American Christian tradition but searching for the primal mythic force and meaning behind it all, a tale of blood, suffering, and rebirth. Either way, Hess finds escape but abandons Ganja, beset with his condition and left alone and bereft—except that Gunn leaves off with the image of the young man Ganja killed earlier springing out of Hess’s pool and running toward the house, caught in a freeze-frame leaping over Archie’s corpse. Ganja smiles enigmatically at the camera. She has her new partner, one perhaps better fitted for her anyway, and the overwhelming impression of this astonishing final flourish is one of survival—black survival, perhaps, but certainly the power as well as fragility of the life spirit.
Ganja & Hess has longeurs, and Gunn’s effects are often uneven, perhaps an inevitability when he’s experimenting as extensively as he was here, but the ultimate effect of Ganja & Hess is rare and powerful. Sadly, the film’s lack of commercial impact meant Gunn never got to develop his talent in film, and both he and Jones would die tragically young within a year of each other in the late 1980s. At least they left behind a worthy totem for their talents.
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Director: William Friedkin
By Roderick Heath
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, released in 1953, is one of those classics of non-English-language cinema that can easily transcend barriers and speak to just about any audience. That’s largely because of its subject, the lives of four working men so desperate to escape their circumstances that they take on the absurdly dangerous task of trucking loads of nitroglycerine along a crude road for a petroleum company: it is as precisely appealing to the first world’s labourer as to the third world’s, a Homeric effort attempted by ordinary guys capped by a blindsiding downer of an ending that still asserts its heroes’ liveliness as an overpowering force. Clouzot’s film, adapted from a short, but substantial, novel by Georges Arnaud, helped define a certain brand of modernist angst in its portrait of the men at such extremes, something that would soon look like a form of pop existentialism. It also probed a peculiarly French brand of blue-collar machismo, taking care to question ideas of what constitutes courage: the gutsiness of gangster Jo (Charles Vanet), so authoritative in intimidating his fellow men, is revealed as a sham in the face of a different kind of fear, one the experienced labourers who join him on the deadly mission take in their stride.
In the mid-1970s, William Friedkin, whose career was white-hot after the success of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), chose to remake Clouzot’s film as his next project, with a screenplay by Walon Green, who had penned Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969)—but something went badly wrong. Production in the Dominican Republic under Friedkin’s customarily gruelling and combative helming was drawn out and expensive. Critics skewered Friedkin and the film, released in the summer of 1977 with Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever, and Sorcerer proved to be the first of several major flops that would slowly end Hollywood’s interest in promoting director-stars. After directing the divisive Cruising (1980), Friedkin began a long career tailspin, yet, once again, time has proven kind, as Sorcerer has become an object of cult acclaim.
Both Sorcerer’s initial failure and slow rehabilitation probably stem equally from the film’s specific and spiky nature, a thrilling adventure film that is nonetheless notably defined by a downbeat attitude. The film’s political bite, a couple of years too late for the Watergate malaise, might not have helped its initial prospects. Like the original which was severely edited for U.S. release, Sorcerer reveals no love for the footprints left by first-world corporate interests in developing world zones, and explicitly defines the protagonists as pawns bribed with a larger-than-usual reward for a larger-than-usual risk that’s still the cheapest option for their paymasters. Moreover, Friedkin explicitly reordered and redesignated his main characters, who are no longer noble proletarians saddled with one gangster, but all men who have been driven to the edges of society by their criminal acts.
The early scenes of Sorcerer do precisely what Clouzot avoided, and depict the events that drive or contribute to each fated driver’s fall from grace, plotting a graph of types of crime and worldviews that are nullified outside of context by sending them all to the same void that is life in a Latin-American shithole called Porvenir. In Vera Cruz, Mexico, assassin Nilo (Francisco Rabal) enters the apartment of a man and guns him down. In Jerusalem, Palestinian radical Kassem (Amidou) bombs an Israeli police station with a cell of comrades, only to bring swift retribution as soldiers swoop down on their hideout; only Kassem slips the net. In Paris, Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is forced to go on the lam after financial irregularities with the trading firm he runs bring on tragedy. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, a small gang of Irish-American hoods take a chance on robbing the profits of a church’s bingo game run by a priest whose brother is Mafia boss Carlo Ricci (Gus Allegretti). One member of the gang shoots the priest, and arguments between the thieves in the car whilst fleeing the scene cause the driver, Jackie Scanlon (Roy Scheider), to crash into a truck. Badly injured, Scanlon stumbles away from the scene, leaving behind his dead and mangled companions, but soon finds the mob are after him.
Friedkin opens the film with scarcely a line of relevant dialogue spoken for nearly 10 minutes, and nothing in English for nearly 20, grasping his viewers by the scruff of the neck and submerging them in visual storytelling. He references both the early scenes of The French Connection in opening with long shots scanning a city before zeroing in to depict a brutal killing, and of The Exorcist, in noting events in one part of the world that will conclude far away, conveyed with a sense of vibrating disquiet and enigmatic purpose. Nilo’s murder is the initial shock, but unlike the shooting of the informant at the start of The French Connection, Sorcerer never explains why it occurs: the reasons are much less important than the act in this consequential, even karmic universe. Friedkin is describing courses of action already reaching their climaxes, and then sending the protagonists on to fates that in many narratives would be left as a postscript.
The terrorist bombing is first an obscure bloom of flame in the back of a frame, and then a screen-filling deluge, churning the world into nihilistic furor. Tangerine Dream’s throbbing electronic scoring rises for the first time to accompany shots of armed vehicles stalking the streets and massive machine guns stabbing across the frame. Docudrama stylistics are in evidence. Faces in the crowd are plucked out and studied in their carefully nonchalant interest in the business of internecine warfare, and jerking, juddering, handheld shots made of soldiers launching into action, whilst the terrorists debate over what routes to take to leave the city, prefiguring a later choice of consequence in the very different drama Kassem will play a part in later. He escapes the raid, plunging into a disorienting camera whirl whilst dashing through a crowded market, and then is glimpsed as two frightened, pained eyes amidst the sea of jostling, impassioned faces, watching as his pals are loaded onto trucks and dragged away to prison.
Manzon’s situation couldn’t be more different, and Friedkin shoots these scenes more subtly, only cranking up his signature handheld camerawork as this tragic little movement climaxes. Beforehand, he emphasises the lush civility that is Manzon’s life with his wife, Blanche (Anne-Marie Deschodt), an aristocratic book editor. Ornate Old World interiors, the product of ages of successful colonialism, surround these prim, culturally ordained winners (at one point, Blanche puts down the “second-rate” lobsters from Vera Cruz), though it’s revealed Manzon is actually the son of a fisherman who, like The French Connection’s Charnier, has elevated himself by both talent and a willingness to break rules. Blanche is working on the memoir of a former soldier whom she describes as something of a philosopher, reading out to her husband a passage where he describes preparing to order a cannon barrage that will inevitably kill civilians, and pondering what hand of fate might be doing the same to him. Manzon listens whilst dressing and putting on his wife’s anniversary present, a watch carved with the words, “In the tenth year of Forever.” At a meeting with a state prosecutor, who believes Manzon misrepresented his firm’s collateral, Manzon manages to talk him into holding off preferring charges if he can cover the shortfall. Manzon’s secret weapons are his father-in-law and brother-in-law Pascal (Jean-Luc Bideau), a baron whom he hopes will forward the money to defend the family name and firm. But the baron won’t help, and Pascal shoots himself in his car outside a ritzy restaurant (a favourite Friedkin locale for depicting class distinctions, recalling Popeye Doyle glaring through the windows of a similarly expensive dining place at his nemeses). Manzon, cut off from the momentary indulgence by the ruling class of his ambition, is left utterly alone, unable to return to his wife inside or seek recourse, left only with the choice of imprisonment and disgrace or flight.
Scanlon’s lot is even less enviable, having been drawn into a seemingly easy robbery that turns disastrous thanks to unstable and violent partners. Broken time—the blurring of past, present, and future—is a repeating motif in the movie, and the moments of Scanlon’s crash and its aftermath, amidst jets of water from a busted hydrant, broken glass, and bright crimson blood caking his dead companions’ faces, recur in jagged, random fashion in Scanlon’s posttrauma daze and his wrestling with his very sanity and mortality in the jungle. Tellingly, apart from the mysterious motives of Nilo, the drivers all have been pursuing some ideal or dream that’s gone agonisingly sour, which allows Nilo to take the same place as Jo in The Wages of Fear, distinct from his companions. But unlike the otherwise ordinary men of Clouzot’s film, these guys are all exiled and faced with no future: it’s heavily implied they have entered a worldly limbo and that this is the tale of a “voyage of the damned.”
Each man is eking out a living and an identity, and taken a Latino pseudonym. Scanlon is “Dominguez,” Kassem is ”Martinou,” and Manzon is “Serrano,” whilst Nilo, the latest arrival, bribes his way through customs. Kassem and Manzon work for the oil company laying pipe, whilst Scanlon handles cargo at the airport. This is a tide pool of misery: the manager of the local bar and flophouse, “Carlos” (grand old character actor Fredrick Ledebur in his last role), is a former Nazi Reichsmarschal, and Kassem’s contact “Marquez” (Karl John) is another German fugitive. Friedkin emphasises political oppression as a personal experience, as the local cops take delight in shaking down and humiliating undocumented, obviously troubled aliens, particularly Scanlon, a defenceless Yankee, to grind under their heels just as the American oil company is exploiting the local workers and landscape.
An explosion at a well drilling in the distant mountains kills several labourers and destroys the infrastructure; the wounded and the dead are trucked back to Porvenir. Corlette (Ramon Bieri), the local site manager for the oil company, is faced with the necessity of quickly and cheaply extinguishing the fire and getting the well producing or it could mean the company’s collapse: he and his advisor Del Rios (Chico Martinez) decide to risk blowing the fire out with explosives. The only nearby supply of gelignite is dangerously degraded and sweating, and so Corlette decides to hire drivers to take the chance of transporting it to the fire site. In a late scene of The Wages of Fear, Jo and Mario (Yves Montand) chat about high old fence both remember from the old neighbourhood in Paris: the dying Jo is shocked to learn from Mario that the fence only concealed a vacant lot, and his last words, “There’s nothing there!”, point to the realisation that there is nothing waiting on the other side of death, bringing the film’s existential edge to the foreground. The note of spiritual menace and oblivion inherent in this moment briefly concerns Clouzot in the midst of a drama that is otherwise tethered entirely to a highly physical, entirely material sensibility. For Friedkin, on the other hand, this moment informed his annexation of the material and gave space to escape the shadow of Clouzot’s work with an individual artistic vision. Most remakes dally with minor, ineffectual reshufflings of plot and incident to justify themselves, but Friedkin, like John Carpenter using the shape-shifting motif of “Who Goes There?” to similarly distinguish his take on The Thing (1981), found a way to make a vibrantly different experience out of the same stuff. Friedkin turns the unfolding drama into a teeming, even grimier, more physically evocative and hallucinatory dive into the heart of darkness.
Sorcerer becomes a spiritual sequel to both The French Connection and The Exorcist in contemplating its heroes as bodies of both good and evil, with porous identities, a notion Friedkin had pushed to even more stygian extremes with Cruising. Clouzot’s film had already been remade, uncredited, as Howard W. Koch’s Violent Road and strongly influenced Cy Endfield’s Hell Drivers (both 1958), and would later influence a generation of flashier thrillers with similar plot gimmicks, including Jan De Bont’s Speed (1994) and Martin Campbell’s Vertical Limit (2000): the latter paid homage by recreating one of Clouzot’s most famous shots—loose tobacco being blown off a cigarette paper from the shockwave sent out by an explosion well before the sound is heard. Clouzot’s own influences include the romantic fatalism of prewar French Poetic Realist cinema, mixed with tough plebeian melodramas like Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night (1940) and John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (Friedkin costumed Scheider after Humphrey Bogart in Huston’s film), with dashes of Anthony Mann’s hard-boiled noirs added for flavour. The inimitable tractor sequence of Mann’s Border Incident (1949) prefigures Clouzot’s gruelling sequence in which Mario is forced to drive over the top of Jo, evoked here, too. Sorcerer’s visual textures, replete with fetid colours and underexposed graininess, recall some then-recent Hollywood films with similar ideas and settings including John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Franklin J. Schaffner’s Papillon (1973), a semblance Friedkin tweaks with a sensibility that recalls and anticipates some of Werner Herzog, most evident in his eerily detached helicopter shots discovering surreal blazes in the middle of the jungle.
Sorcerer is also filled with curious anticipations of stylistic cues that would define later cinema, like a fascination with the play of light on surfaces and the effects of backlighting, and using the ground-breaking electronic score to give his work an aural texture at once intensifying and defamiliarising that looks forward to the work of Ridley Scott and Michael Mann. Mann took much from Friedkin, an influence particularly evident during the lengthy montage depicting the men reconstructing vehicles with a sense of tactile, even anthropomorphic synergy between man and machine that Mann would remix in his debut film Thief (1981). Friedkin would then ironically and problematically return the compliment with To Live and Die in LA (1986).
Clouzot suggested alternatives for his men, particularly Mario, who had the beautiful Linda (Vera Clouzot) begging him not to risk his life. He pushed her out of his truck in part because he wanted to live up to his own masculine ideals. Friedkin strips away alternatives: his men are trapped in every conceivable way, and the only woman seen in Porvenir is the old, sagely mocking barmaid in Carlos’s tavern, who also may be the local shamanka overseeing life and death. The men are forced to move forward constantly like sharks, and prey on each other to get their chance, but are eventually forced to work together as their problems pile up. Whereas in The Wages of Fear, Jo may have been involved in the suicide of a driver chosen ahead of him or killed him to gain his spot, here Nilo does the same thing, less ambiguously: Kassem wants to kill him, but Scanlon decides they need the fourth driver more than revenge. Friedkin again recalls The Exorcist, and he notes stone-carved idols leering at them from the roadside, but whereas Friedkin conveyed religious-accented forces from beyond in his adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s tale, his horror-movie-accented take on Arnaud and Clouzot suggests more an attempt to dig into the irrational centres of the human mind and its problematic place in the face of a creation that produced it but doesn’t care for it. The greed and violence of modern society is merely a projection of the primal self found in the jungle, and each man falls from civilisation into the wild to battle more directly the forces of evil with which they’ve made compacts.
Friedkin illustrates his ideas too stridently at points, like emphasising the church as a money-making operation fraternal to the Mob, and zeroing in on sights like one of Scanlon’s companions covered in blood and water with bank notes he robbed sticking to his clothes and the bride at a wedding sporting a big blotchy shiner. It could also be argued that the essentials of the plot were looking dated in the mid-’70s setting, where it would surely have been an easier, safer, and possibly cheaper option to use the oil company’s helicopter to fly in some fresh explosives. But the film’s quality of indictment, whilst pungent, is not oversimplified. “No one is ‘just’ anything,” Blanche admonishes her husband early on when he dismisses the author of the book she’s editing as “just a soldier” because he did not allow his humane scruples to interrupt his duty. This notion of necessity overpowering will is a constant throughout the film, as well as the fine line between life and death. Bieri’s Corlette is characterised as much the same working stiff as those he hires for a deadly job, rather than a caricatured corporate type, and his hard, cynical edge shown when he sets the men on the mission reveals the impulsive strength of a survivor that has elevated him slightly: life in the world often demands indifference to its cruelties. Similarly, Sorcerer forces the viewer to temper identification with the heroes, who are all various forms of lowlife but who also all have their reasons, ranging from political idealism to a mere hope for a better life, and noting how their individual crimes are woven into a landscape of such crimes committed by people better at covering their asses. Friedkin’s prognosticating gifts pushed him to make one of his quartet a felonious banker and a terrorist, who in the context of today stand in many minds as the twin existential threats of the current age.
Friedkin depicts the rage of the locals as a truckload of their dead is brought into town, gruesomely charred and ruined, sparking a riot even soldiers can’t quell. Later, Friedkin interestingly contrasts the Conradian presumptions of the story’s concept of inherent brutalism with a tribal man who walks the highway and happily teases Scanlon by running alongside and in front of his truck, oblivious to Scanlon’s alarm at the potential danger he’s causing in his gleeful attitude. Meanwhile Corlette learns the ubiquitous El Presidente, whose image stares out from the many political posters plastered about Porvenir, fancies himself too much of a liberal to shut down the protests and aid the company. Another original touch of Green’s script was to make the explosion that devastates the oil well in the first place an act of sabotage, committed by a guerrilla army haunting the forests. When the drivers later encounter a band of the guerrillas, they prove uninterested in the lives of the kinds of people they should theoretically be fighting for, planning only to rob and kill them and forcing Scanlon and Nilo to fight for their lives. But just as the drivers piece together two working vehicles out of a range of abandoned company vehicles, the men are given new life by their desperate chance, and Manzon shows the skills that elevated him as he coolly presents their case to Corlette for more money and for identity proofs that will give them status. The four anxious, untrusting, antagonistic men are forced to band together and find something like comradeship as they take on the obstacles fate places in their way. They name their trucks “Lazaro” and “Sorcerer”—tilts at fate evoking powers over life and death—and let others cover them with magic symbols.
Once the trucks hit the road, Sorcerer unveils its full, hypnotic power as its assailed protagonists traverse narrow mountain roads and plunge through dark, enclosing jungle, photographed with astonishing verve by fired first cinematographer Dick Bush and his replacement John M. Stephens. A storm rises, churning the world into a maelstrom of blinding water. When Scanlon and Nilo reach an almost metaphysically charged fork in the road, they find the direction sign toppled. When they ask an old man for directions to the town of Poza Rica, he answers, “Poza Rica is dead,” invoking the old meaning of the lyrics of the song “Loch Lomond,” where the low road means death. The film’s justifiably most famous sequence is an epic passage where both trucks are forced to cross an aged, crumbling suspension bridge made from rope and wooden planks. The spectacle of the heavy, grunting trucks trying to cross this rickety structure resembles a hippopotamus trying to tightrope walk, the threat of every jolt nauseating. The drenching rain, swirling waters, and sickening swaying of the bridge make it seem as if the whole earth has come alive to try to shake these persistent fools off its shoulder. The feeling becomes all the stronger when a broken tree branch suddenly crashes into the bridge and rips into Manzon’s body like some suddenly rearing witch’s claws; Kassem barely manages to hang onto the bridge as he falls through a gap whilst directing Manzon across. The bridge gives way literally at the last second, and Freidkin jump cuts to the following day, the fate of the duo momentarily ambiguous until they pull in behind Scanlon and Nilo’s truck, which has been halted by a less intimidating, but even more problematic barrier: a gigantic felled tree lying across the road.
Nilo laughs in hearty hopelessness whilst Scanlon furiously, hysterically tries to chop a new path. Kassem, however, has the idea to rig up a device to set off one of the dynamite boxes and blow the tree to matchsticks, the apotheosis of the four men’s assertion of their intelligence and teamwork. Fate, however, is a real bitch: as they bond over the sentimental value of Manzon’s watch, the keepsake of another life, Manzon and Kassem are blown to smithereens when their truck busts a tyre and careens off the road, setting off their load. The guerrillas, attracted by the blast, hold up Scanlon and Nilo. Scanlon bluffs for time, pretending they carry supplies, whilst Nilo pretends to be sick, whilst nursing his revolver. Nilo guns down several soldiers whilst Scanlon bashes another to death with a shovel, only for Nilo to get a bullet in his own gut for his pains. Nilo slowly bleeds to death on the floor of the cab as Scanlon traverses the remaining distance to the well: the two men, each bitterly aware of the other’s hostility at the outset, rave about their intention to take their newfound riches to Managua and shack up with whores, but Nilo dies, leaving Scanlon alone. Although less spectacular than the bridge sequence, the film’s most stunning moments come as Scanlon drives the last few lonely miles, and has an agonisingly surreal freak-out at the very outer limits of liminal experience. Scanlon’s psyche disintegrates as he drives saddled with a corpse and a load of death across high mountain reaches, a lunarlike plane of perverse rock forms and spectral white dust in sickly blue moonlight.
The flurrying edits here negate time and space, fragments of memory and hallucination blending in chaotic dialogue. Double-exposures render Scanlon a ghost in his own life, dissolving into the lightning boiling in a cloud as if about to join the natural elements, or into the perverse forms of rock around him, as if exploring an alien planet. Blood gushes over Manzon’s watch in the rubble of his death site in rhyme with his dead criminal partners under the rain of the busted fire hydrant. Nilo’s wretched laugh echoes over shots of his dead white face. Finally Scanlon runs out of petrol short of his goal, and so makes the rest of the distance carrying a box of the gelignite in his hand, collapsing like a puppet once he reaches the glow of the firelight, the blazing well a squiggle of infernal power leading him on. Scanlon has made it, but the victory has cost him too much.
Clouzot was reputed for his unexpected and often jarringly bleak endings, and The Wages of Fear came readymade with one. Mario, driving home in triumph, swerves his truck on the road as if dancing in joy, only to lose control and crash. Friedkin and Green’s take on the same ending is quieter and, in some ways, even darker, though possibly also less shocking and wrenching in its inferences as a result. As Scanlon sits in the bar in Porvenir with Corlette, rich with the shares of his dead fellows and armed with a local passport, a taxi pulls up outside bringing the assassins hired by Ricci to extract his debt. Clouzot’s last image was of Mario’s bloodied hand, still gripping his ticket from the Paris Metro line: he at least died with the future still before him. Friedkin slowly zooms in on Scanlon’s face as he realises forlornly that all his efforts have not bought him a new beginning after all—and stands to start a sadly dignifying dance with the withered barmaid. The arrival of death at the door only confirms what he knows: Scanlon has realised that for all his triumph, he still has nowhere to go.
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Director: Ivan Dixon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
For the past few months, the United States has been convulsing through an historic moment, and I mean that statement with what is for me unaccustomed irony. The sometimes violent clashes between the black communities in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and, most recently, in Baltimore are historic, as in déjà vu all over again. Despite mind-boggling advances in technology that have reshaped our world in many ways, the needle toward racial harmony has hardly moved at all. If you don’t believe me, I hold The Spook Who Sat by the Door up as Exhibit A that we haven’t come a long way, baby. This 1973 film, cowritten and coproduced by Sam Greenlee from his 1969 novel of the same name, includes scenes that could have been footage from dozens of news reports made within the past week.
The film chronicles the activities of the portentously named Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook), a black civil rights activist in school who has decided to go the mainstream route to success. He is one of a cohort of black applicants to a CIA affirmative action program foisted upon the agency by the U.S. Senate—hardly a scenario we could imagine today, but also not a sincere effort by the movie senators, who are more worried about approval ratings than equality. The all-male cohort of black hopefuls don’t realize that their white trainers will use every opportunity to eliminate them from contention; they don’t even seem to suspect that the trainers are observing them via a closed-circuit camera while they enjoy cocktails and plot how to land these cushy jobs—not a terribly good recommendation for their fitness to become agents.
By the end of the comprehensive training and testing, Freeman is the only one to have made the grade. He is appointed section chief of reproduction services, aka photocopying, and remains with the agency for five years before returning to his native Chicago to take a higher-paying job as a social worker. There, the real purpose of his CIA stint becomes clear—to use the skills he acquired to recruit and train guerrilla freedom fighters in all the major urban centers in the country to battle Whitey to a standstill and force the Establishment to grant black Americans freedom in exchange for safe and peaceful streets.
Greenlee, a native Chicagoan who died in 2014 at the age of 83, was a firebrand and committed Marxist to the end. His book and screenplay provide a graphic depiction of the lumpenproletariat rising up in a people’s revolution against their bourgeois oppressors. After first establishing Freeman as a charismatic leader who can win respect with his muscles as well as his brains, the film shows him recruiting his former gang, the Cobras, to be his first platoon of revolutionaries. Director Dixon shoots parallel scenes and dialogue of Freeman training his men as he was trained at The Farm, a still-relevant example of American forces opportunistically training people who just as opportunistically will turn on them some day. Relying on the invisibility subservient blacks have in white America, Dixon shoots a humorous scene of one of Freeman’s men, dressed like a window washer, going into the mayor’s office and stealing his carousel of pipes right off his desk while the mayor talks on the phone. Conversely, Freeman uses the “high yellow” members of the gang to stage a bank robbery; dressed in business suits, with slicked-down hair, they are assumed to be white not only because of their appearance, but also because blacks are assumed not to have the cunning to pull off such a daring, daylight raid.
The bourgeoisie and their protectors are represented by Freeman’s lover Joy (Janet League), who leaves him to marry a successful doctor, and his best friend Dawson (J.A. Preston), a Chicago cop. Showing the bourgeoisie selling out their proletarian brothers and sisters to maintain a respectable, comfortable place in society, both Joy and Dawson are quick to turn on Freeman when they realize he is the mysterious “Uncle Tom” who is broadcasting revolutionary messages and organizing the insurrection, beginning with bombing the mayor’s office. The film has no real place for women as active fighters, but Dahomey Queen (Paula Kelly), a black prostitute Freeman hooks up with during his CIA training, becomes an invaluable informer when she overhears the General (Byron Morrow), her white steady “date,” lay plans to go after Freeman—cutting off the head of the snake, as military types put it.
The most harrowing and resonate part of the film occurs after Shorty (Anthony Ray), a young penny-ante drug dealer Freeman tries to help, is shot in the back by police. The ensuing standoff between riot police and angry members of the community is an all-too-familiar sight these days, one that looks like it will end peacefully until some cops bring German shepherds to the scene. This potent symbol of violence from the 1963 Birmingham civil rights demonstrations inflames the crowd, who tear into the police and torch a car and an apartment building. The handheld camera work gets into the chaos, offering some truly frightening, heart-stopping moments that linger long after the final fade. Faced with the violence that we know is absolutely real from recent events, Freeman’s desperate actions “to be free,” as he puts it, are likely to be met with a good deal of sympathy from a larger portion of today’s audiences.
Spook has been lumped into the category of blaxplotation films inaugurated by Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), and it does share some common aspects of the genre. There are extended shots of a belly dancer undulating for the camera at a nightclub, thrilling action sequences and explosions, and a judo match that roughly correlates to martial arts sequences in these films. The film was also made independent of studio backing; after cobbling together just under $1 million, the producers had to shut down production after they ran out of money, which may account for some sketchy sequences, particularly at the beginning of the film. In a 2013 radio interview of Greenlee, the writer said the production stole some shots in Chicago when the city refused to issue permits for the production, but that Gary, Ind., welcomed them with open arms, even to the extent of lending them a helicopter free of charge to get overhead shots and one impressive shot moving down the middle of a street.
What Spook does is extend the struggle begun in Sweet Sweetback. Sweetback is a put-upon, ignorant man who struggles to survive. Van Peebles suggests that when next we see Sweetback, he will be coming back to revenge himself on white America. Freeman represents the next step in the struggle for freedom and equality. He’s not scared. He’s both streetwise and worldwise, and he has a philosophy to guide him. The character speaks poignantly about discovering that his grandmother couldn’t read but admonished him to get his education, and how he taught her while pretending that she was teaching him. To Freeman, seeing the light come on in his grandmother’s mind also flipped a switch in him.
The film has no real resolution, with Freeman wearing his African colors but facing a doubtful, possibly short future. In his day, so-called gangs like the Black Panthers were benevolent forces in their communities; recruiting gangs to be revolutionaries was a plausible plotline in 1969 and even 1973, so hope might have lived in its contemporary audiences. Today, gangs are as ruthlessly self-serving as the many other sectors of American society, and the current assault on the credibility of teachers and public education are undermining the hope and possibilities of those in the underclass. In 2012, “Spook” was added to the National Film Registry as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American film—nonetheless, its relative obscurity and the currency of its vision would have made Freeman very disappointed.
The film is viewable in its entirety on YouTube.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Vladimir Motyl
By Roderick Heath
White Sun of the Desert has a stature with Russian moviegoers that can only be likened to the cultural currency The Godfather, Star Wars, or Gone with the Wind hold for western viewers. Lines of dialogue from the film have become everyday catch phrases. Statues have been erected to honour the lead character. Legend has it that to this day, Russian cosmonauts watch it as a ritual before going into space. Craters on Venus have been named after members of the gaggle of Muslim wives who feature in the film. Yet it’s a good bet most movie aficionados outside the limits of the old Soviet Union, even those with a taste for the exotic, haven’t heard of it. There’s nothing terribly unusual about this. Almost every national and regional film industry can boast this kind of big, native hit that, for whatever reason, just couldn’t be exported.
White Sun of the Desert wasn’t adopted as a lofty, arty darling of foreign critics, though some notable filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky, were approached as prospective directors. Konchalovsky later described the screenplay by Valentin Yezhov and Rustam Ibragimbekov as a masterpiece, though it was largely rewritten by Motyl and others during filming. Meanwhile, the breed of movie fan that readily adopted spaghetti westerns and martial arts films around this time would surely have been bewildered if confronted by such an oddity, a work that extends the mood of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s (1966) eerie, surrealist-tinged desert sequence into an entire feature. For a work of such renown and popular affection, even on such a localised scale, White Sun of the Desert defies expectations. Less than 90 minutes long, it’s not a grand and swaggering epic, intense action tale, or laugh-a-minute comedy, though it resembles all of these at various points, as well as a kind of chaste sex farce and portrait of existential absurdity essayed with an almost ambient, peculiarly Slavic brand of melancholic romanticism. If you can get onto the film’s specific wavelength, it reveals itself a rare treasure.
White Sun of the Desert is certainly full of familiar motifs of a good pulp yarn. A frontier setting. A charming and robust protagonist. A wicked villain. Damsels in distress. Helpmates to the hero who waver but reappear in time to save the day. And yet the way director Vladimir Motyl lays out his material is highly eccentric and peculiarly fashioned. White Sun of the Desert belongs to a popular but mostly bygone brand of Russian cinema, usually referred to as the “ostern” or sometimes as a “Red western” or “borscht western.” This was a genre readily comparable to the American western, crowd-pleasing, adventurous dramas set on the fringes of civilisation filled with action, horse riding and gunplay, but set in the wilds beyond the Urals and the fringes of the Caspian Sea, or amongst Cossack tribes. Osterns were usually set during the raucous and violent years of the Bolshevik revolution and subsequent civil war, and a consequential similarity of the western and ostern is the depiction of primal dramas unfolding in the context of upheaval and social flux, a shift in modes of life that will soon settle into a new civilisation. The traditions of the folk tale and folk song are also often invoked to describe Motyl’s work, and the tension between the immediacy of genre storytelling and the baleful meaning of a cultural relic is apparent in the film’s tone, which seems to be both merrily enacted and woozily remembered.
The early scenes of White Sun depict Red Army soldier Fyodor Ivanovich Sukhov (Anatoly Kuznetsov) wandering in the desert sands close to the Caspian seashore. Animated lines appear around him during the opening credits, blocked to trace out the geometry of the sand dunes, as if mocking the hero’s attempts to impose linear intentions on his entirely wayward fate. The lazily picked music on the soundtrack softly builds the mood of isolation, languor, and laconic attitude that defines the film. Sukhov has been away from home several years fighting for the revolution, but now he’s been mustered out, and is trudging his way home across the deserts of Central Asia. Sukhov passes the time by mentally composing letters to his wife, all of which begin with “Dear Katerina Matveyevna.” These mental missives are crammed with a mixture of pedantic and obfuscating detail, statements of po-faced patriotism, and workaday acceptance of the way great events mean a billion petty irritations, interruptions, frustrations, and dangers for him. Sukhov always envisions Katerina (Galina Luchai), in the midst of green and fertile fields for utmost contrast to his current surrounds, as an idyll of Russian homeyness, stout, stern, milky-skinned and rosy-cheeked.
Sukhov’s nature, as an easy-going, helpful-minded guy, and his reputation as a terrific soldier prove his own undoing, because life keeps throwing people who need or seek his aid in his path. In the middle of nowhere, Sukhov encounters a man buried up to his neck in the desert sand, as per local traditions in harsh punishment. Sukhov digs him out whilst noting that he’s already dug out two more like him, and the last one attacked and robbed him. His latest charity case, Sayid (Spartak Mishulin), was seeking revenge on his father’s murderer, the bandit Dzhavdet, but was instead caught by him and left to die. “I’ll have no peace as long as Dzhavdet is alive,” Sayid grumbles, and then, “Why did you dig me up?” “Sure, a dead man has no worries,” Sukhov retorts, “but it’s so boring.” The two men separate, but Sayid continues to shadow Sukhov, torn between resuming the hunt for his enemy and repaying Sukhov for his helpfulness. Soon, Sukhov is stopped by a unit of Soviet troops led by an officer named Rakhimov. The commander is eager to divest himself of a strange burden: nine wives of “Black” Abdullah (Kakhi Kavsadze), another, more formidable and active local bandit who also has pretences to being a guerilla warrior in the rebellion of the Basmachi. As the Soviets chased him, Abdullah was forced to abandon his harem because they were slowing him down: intending to execute them all to save them becoming other men’s wives, Abdullah shot two before the soldiers forced him to flee.
Sukhov is determined not to get caught up in any more adventures and won’t join the hunt for Abdullah. Rakhimov instead convinces him to take charge of the women and get them to a nearby coastal village, and assigns the very young soldier Petrukha (Nikolai Godovikov) to help. Sukhov leads the women, dressed in their utterly depersonalising, full-body burqas and only identifiable by height, across the sands to the coast. There they enter a tiny village distinguished by some oil tanks, a thatch of houses, and proximity to some ancient ruins that have been made into a museum (actually the old Silk Road city of Merv, a fascinating real-life location). Sukhov and Petrukha set up camp in the museum, but don’t know some of Abdullah’s men have remained behind. The bandits knock Petrukha out when he’s left behind with the women and ambush Sukhov whilst he’s bathing in the sea. Sukhov gives a display of why he’s famous and lasted so long: he snatches a gun from the hand of a bandit and shoots down two, whilst a third is lassoed by Sayid, who’s trailed his saviour. Sukhov realises that Abdullah is planning to return to the village, because a ship beached on the coast near the oil tanks is the only form of transport on hand that can get himself, his men, and his plunder away. The closest thing to authority in the town is the former Tsarist customs officer Pavel Vereschagin (Pavel Luspekaev), who used to battle the area’s copious bandits and smugglers, but now is an aging drunkard, mourning the son he lost in World War I with his wife Nastasia (Raisa Kurkina) and sitting on an arsenal of weapons that makes his house a matter of interest to both sides of the local conflict. When Sukhov sends Petrukha to find out if Vereschagin is still living in his house, Vereschagin literally drags the young soldier inside via an open window. Charmed by Petrukha, who reminds him of his own dead boy, Vereschagin sings songs for him until Sukhov turns up. Sukhov passes Vereschagin’s odd test of nerve when the old man responds to Sukhov’s request for a light for his cigar by throwing out a burning stick of dynamite; Sukhov lights his smoke and tosses the bomb further along without demur. Vereschagin is initially happy to join Sukhov in defending the ship and the women from Abdullah, but his wife begs him not to risk his life.
Like most seemingly simple, but vital things, White Sun of the Desert’s great popularity is surely bound up with the slippery and surprising density of its layering. The film swings between poles of drama and comedy with a spacey, sunstruck (or perhaps a vodka-glazed) head. The quiet, indolently catchy song Vereschagin sings to himself while plucking at a guitar and laying on his back with a bellyful of liquor, offers a fatalistic paean to the whims of “Your Honour Lady Luck.” The song by composer Isaak Schwarz and Bulat Okudzhava, which became a huge hit, is the only scoring, pervading many scenes like the crash of waves on the shoreline and the desert winds. When it was released in the United States, a critic dismissed the film as an escapist tale, and it is that. White Sun of the Desert is as light as a summer breeze, though dark and tragic moments punctuate the story, sustaining a truly unique blend of dogging nostalgia and idyllic optimism. Within its airy frame, White Sun of the Desert describes a sense of life as broad as a John Ford film; indeed Ford was one of Moytl’s singular influences, through the contrast of vast space and enclosed interpersonal drama in films like Stagecoach (1939) and 7 Women (1966), and perhaps the desolate situation of The Lost Patrol (1934), though that film’s feeling of nightmarish, assailed existential crisis is transmuted into blithe absurdity. Here, drama is elemental, the tone dreamlike, albeit mostly a daydream, the strange and jagged sense of locale and behaviour touched with just the faintest edge of surrealism as Motyl depicts as an array of boxes jutting out of the otherwise barren earth, a tiny space of civilisation wedged between zones of inhospitable elements, fought over by perverse emissaries of clashing societies. A light dusting of the otherworldly is apparent in the way Motyl films the actors treading the desert sand as if dissolving in and out of the earth, the way the nine faceless women strut in the sands, and the sight of Sukhov climbing the crest of a dune and being confronted with the endless blue of the sea.
Moments of slapstick comedy occasionally punctuate the more wry comedic texture, from a trio of aged Arabs having their caps blown off by an explosion to young Petrukha being told by an unseen voice to raise his hands and then being promptly grabbed by Vereschagin from out of the frame and hauled into a window above. Later, one of Abdullah’s villainous compadres, a White faction exile, is hurled bodily out of another of Vereschagin’s windows when he comes looking to steal some weapons: “His grenades are the wrong calibre,” the soldier tells a comrade after picking himself up by way of face-saving explanation. The Arabs have been sitting against a wall for so long that none of them can remember why, and one of them can’t be awakened by even the loudest blast. Far from the overpowering postures of Soviet Realism, Motyl surely found his audience’s heart with both the fondness and the lightly satiric attitude he turns on Sukhov and his sense of cause, as well as appealing through a story that evokes generations of Orientalist adventures.
Sukhov is undoubtedly an ideal Soviet hero, happily proletarian but blessed with good manners, down to earth, pure of heart, resourceful, and indefatigable. He has many of the qualities of a mythic hero in spite of his personal modesty, including a weapon with a suggestive backstory—his revolver is a personal gift from his commander—and his status as eternal wanderer, Odysseus with a Red Army badge. Sukhov also wields a terse sense of humour even at the most awkward moments: when a villain asks him if he wants to die or be tortured first and then die, Sukhov, ever a pragmatist, replies ever so coolly, “I’d like to be tortured.” Time is time, and even the slight delay Sukhov buys by annoying his captors through such glib gambits gives him a chance. When he springs into action, he blends speed and guile as well as innate survival skill, as when he guns down the bandits who bail him up with a show of agility and gunplay that would make a John Woo hero proud.
But Sukhov still needs help to win, because he is also a faintly hapless, occasionally flummoxed, very human figure who makes some costly mistakes. He’s reminiscent of the heroes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), his closest Hollywood relatives of the time, and in some ways looks forward to characters like Indiana Jones and John McClane, rugged, exceptionally competent action heroes who nonetheless definitely feel pain and often look at the dangers facing them with bedraggled, ridiculous incredulity. Yet he’s far more average and lackadaisical than either of those guys. He’s more like somebody crossbred Casablanca’s Rick Blaine with Andy Griffith. Surely much of the film’s appeal to the hometown crowd lies in the crucial dialectic it offers, one of the generations and the concepts of Russia. Sukhov appeals to Vereschagin for aid, a touch that echoes another of Motyl’s models, High Noon (1952). The old Tsarist officer reclines detached from the world in his house, with its walls clad in mementos of his youth and the world of the Belle Époque. Vereschagin wants to go out like a man, but he’s stopped at first by his wife’s desperate appeals. Vereschagin’s immobilised distraction and Sukhov’s forthright ethic seem directly opposed but are obviously two sides of the same coin. The two men are united by the cool, stoical attitude they wield, casually batting aside the irritations of life and getting on with their own business. Both can also sink a shot of vodka with aplomb. The spirits represented by Vereschagin and Sukhov permeate the very fabric of the film – the tensions of old and new, the haunted being and the hopeful, commitment and carelessness. As Sukhov contends with the problem of his nine female charges, Motyl makes a joke with more depth than it seems to have at first, contemplating the problem of bringing new ideas to people who don’t necessarily see what’s so great about them, and very lightly basting the officious creeds spreading them.
White Sun of the Desert is indeed partly a film about clashing cultures and values, though the avatars of these systems seem to collide rather than interact. Early in the film Sukhov notes that “The East is a delicate matter” (one of the film’s most consequential, and popular, lines), and Sukhov is still as fallible as any in this context. Ignorant of any other lifestyle, the wives immediately decide that, having been abandoned by Abdullah, Sukhov is their new husband. Sukhov is a good Soviet soldier and tells the ladies they are now free according to the gospel of Bolshevik liberation. “These nine liberated women of the East are precious things, too!” he tells the museum curator, who doesn’t want anyone upsetting the exhibits. Sukhov is fazed when he walks in on the ladies whilst washing, and they all impulsively grab their skirts and lift them over their faces, preferring to bare their lovely midriffs to him rather than their visages before deciding that as their new husband, he has the right. Their faces do indeed have more power than their bodies (except for one who has a thicker moustache than Clark Gable), sending Sukhov’s mind reeling, all hot coals in comparison to Katerina’s stolid creaminess. Sukhov houses them in a room of the museum and hangs a banner from the ceiling that reads, “Down with prejudice — Women are human beings. too!” The notion that the male hero is more of a feminist than the women he’s aiding is grand wit, but Motyl also disassembles this precept as Sukhov chooses the youngest of the women, 15-year-old Gyulchatai (Tamara Fedotova), who is also the most animated and easily distracted member of the harem, to be his official interlocutor with the other wives.
Gyulchatai interprets this as being appointed favourite, which gives her status over the others, but also make her the target of blame when Sukhov shows no interest in them. They suggest Gyulchatai dance before him and inflame his passions, but she succeeds only in bewildering the warrior. Sukhov tries to explain that the women can now cast aside their veils and each take a husband. Gyulchatai, working through this proposition, retorts that this means she would have to do all the work for one man that the wives currently share between them. “That’s the way things are,” Sukhov replies, breezily confirming the limits of his own revolutionary outlook. Contrasting both Sukhov and Vereschagin is the adolescent romanticism of Petrukha, the boy soldier, who notices Gyulchatai’s unruly side in spite of her correctness. He finds opportunities to talk to her, urging her to “Show your sweet face!” in a certain amount of hope, as he’s fascinated initially by a walking bag. The influence of the dreaded Eastern decadence insinuates its way into Sukhov’s thoughts, and he eventually indulges a daydream whilst lazing in the heat of the sun on guard duty imagining Katerina Matveyevna joining him and his new bevy of females as he lounges in a potentate’s costume. He immediately pays the price for this lapse, as a small army sneaks under his nose.
Motyl uses the setting as an organic stage, as enclosed and acausal as the settings of Beckett’s dramas, the plains of Dali’s paintings, the Zone of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and the people wandering through it as hardboiled avatars of their mutual, intensely insular, cultural sensibilities. Motyl expertly mines this situation for its simultaneous openness and treacherousness: the vistas are vast and seem wide open, and yet the smallest sand dune can hide something nasty lying in wait, a curve in the shape of reality that can swallow you. Something of Sergei Paradjanov’s anthropological and folkloric sensibility, which also often called back to the blank, two-dimensional display of early cinema and photography, permeates Motyl’s palette, whilst the way Motyl uses the natural elements even recalls the theatrical machinery of Georges Méliès. Although the necessary sparseness of Motyl’s shots couldn’t be more different to the baroquely crammed images of filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Josef von Sternberg, he does nonetheless evoke them in the way his frames, even as they’re depicting moments of urgent action, retain a fragmented, pictographic quality, flowing by in momentary islets of vivid, oblique strangeness, from Sayid’s head suddenly revealed jutting from the sand like some lost Easter Island statue, to the frieze-like depictions of Katerina in her natural habitat. Motyl mimics Vereschagin’s collection of postcards, photographs, the squared-off display of such vintage keepsakes pinned to the walls of his house to evoke the cultural memory of a lost era. The viewer is forced to assume the same attitude as Sukhov, knowing something utterly odd might be just around the corner, and forced to take it as it comes.
Motyl, Belarussian by birth, had gotten into trouble with Soviet authorities with his previous film, Zhenya, Zhenechka, and ‘Katyusha’ (1967), for its “disrespectful” take on the Great Patriotic War, clearly identified with the displaced state of Sukhov and his pining for a place in the world. His setting and time frame here, as well as the delicacy of the humour he employed, allowed him to bring just the hint of a scallywag attitude to onerous official creeds whilst also earnestly celebrating his hero as an exemplar, and proved here at least that he understood his audience exactly. The film changes radically in emotional key if not in apparent style once Abdullah turns up, trailing a force including Sayid, who, after shooting down three of Abdullah’s men when they seemed to be attacking him, is convinced by the bandit to join his party for a better chance of avoiding being buried to his chin again. Whilst Sukhov snoozes with dreams of harem comfort, Abdullah and his force enter the museum, and Abdullah first sneaks into the women’s quarters and strangles Gyulchatai, and then uses her veil to surprise Petrukha and kill him with his own rifle’s bayonet. The key image of slaughtered youth, scanned in a high shot by Motyl’s camera affecting a godlike blend of dispassion and awareness, drives Vereschagin to rouse himself and help Sukhov in fighting off Abdullah. Abdullah is an immediately persuasive and eye-catching villain, as Motyl cast Kavsadze, a good-looking hulk of an actor who threatens to outweigh Sukhov not just in size but as a potent screen presence, one whose sadistic violence is just as offhand and unfussy as Sukhov’s heroism. Abdullah’s sense of entitled authority immediately manifests in his ugly killing of Gyulchatai and then asking his remaining wives why they haven’t saved him the trouble of killing them by doing it themselves in obedience to his will.
Fortunately, Sukhov manages to bail up Abdullah before he can kill anymore, holding a gun on him and forcing him to send his men off to prepare the ship for departure. This gives Sukhov time to spirit the women off via a secret, hidden tunnel out of the ruins shown to him by the museum curator. Abdullah avenges himself by shooting the curator dead. Sukhov and the wives are forced to take refuge in the only hiding place available, one of the large empty oil tanks on the shore, but the bandits quickly locate them there. Abdullah has his men pump oil from a rail tanker to pool around the hideout and prepares to casually roast them all alive within, but Sayid intervenes and blows up the tanker and some of Abdullah’s men with it. Meanwhile, Vereschagin enlists his wife to dispose of the arsenal, and then sneaks aboard the bandits’ ship and battles the villains aboard. He kills or throws them all overboard before taking command in a cheer-along display of grit and prowess, one made more affecting by the off-screen story of Luspekaev, a WWII veteran and experienced stage actor who acted in the film in spite of having both feet amputated because of war injuries; Luspekaev died not long after the film was completed. The bitter kicker here is that Vereschagin is unaware that Sukhov and Petrukha have booby-trapped the boat, and he inadvertently blows himself and the boat sky high in the moment of his triumph, disappearing in a plume of white water.
Inadvertent tragedy gives Sukhov the chance to elude and defeat his besiegers, climaxing in a memorable comeuppance for Abdullah that evokes the finale of White Heat (1949), as Sukhov guns Abdullah down on the oil tanker. The villain slides down the tank’s ladder, gripping onto rails, his death signed with fearsome, mythic display of his grip on life. Motyl winnows his drama down to a succession of finalising images of great power. When Sukhov plugs him, Abdullah’s fingers reflexively tighten on the trigger of his machine pistol, firing off shots one by one, his aggression suddenly impotent, possibly an even more directly phallic joke considering that the entire story has revolved around Abdullah’s sexual domain. Vereschagin’s wife walks the beach alone, approaching a solitary horse in the dusk as “Your Honour Lady Luck” returns to the soundtrack, soulfully underscoring the notion that in violent conflicts, each victory is another’s loss. The note repeats as Sukhov bids farewell to the wives but pauses when he reaches the missing space where Gyulchatai would have stood, the meaningful end to Motyl’s repeated tracking shock along the row, stricken through with a tragicomic awareness that the surface interchangeableness of the women was illusory, and a hole is left in the world precisely by Sukhov’s efforts to call them into individual consciousness. As for Sukhov himself, like many a legendary hero and western gunslinger, he disappears into the wastes he came from, sad but not disheartened. He’s heading for home once more, but of course in spirit, he’s still wandering out in the wilderness, where people will inevitably need his help again.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Cimino
By Roderick Heath
Michael Cimino made a name for himself as a bright young thing working in New York advertising before turning to screenwriting in the early 1970s, joining the ranks of fresh and eager talents the “New Hollywood” was embracing in an effort to rejuvenate the industry. After working on the science fiction film Silent Running (1971) and the second Dirty Harry film Magnum Force (1974), Cimino broke into directing with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), a modest but beautifully made movie about a pair of buddy criminals on the road, straddling several of the early decade’s popular genres and thematic terrains. Cimino seemed like a perfectly evolved organism for New Hollywood, fresh, smart, driven, volatile, and a hopeless fabulist. In particular, he had that trait most prized by the age’s cinema scene: vision, that overwhelming sense of aesthetic aim that could conquer the cynical senses of an audience burned out by Old Hollywood’s tricks.
For his second film, Cimino aimed much higher, envisaging an epic film about the most controversial subject of his age: the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Funding for such a project was all-but-impossible to come by in the climate of mid-’70s Hollywood, so he braved the L.A. office of British record company EMI instead and spent two hours pitching executives his vision for the film. He must have done something right, because even with no script, actors, or production elements ready, he was still ordered to start shooting in five months. With the aid of Deric Washburn, who converted Cimino’s concept into a workable script, and Robert De Niro, a hot property after The Godfather Part II (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), Cimino’s unlikely project came to fruition.
The resulting film, The Deer Hunter, stoked hyperbolic responses from viewers. Greeted by some as the cinematic equivalent of Tolstoy and embraced by the industry and mainstream audiences alike to become a big hit, Cimino’s film went on to capture the 1978 Best Picture Oscar. The Deer Hunter bothered others with its viewpoint on the conflict, told entirely through American eyes, where Vietnam becomes an alien and stygian zone filled with sadists and wretches and random horrors. Seemingly uninterested in the political dimensions of the war, Cimino preferred to portray its young protagonists as people to whom war happens as a cruel and random imposition, rather than making them agents of a wider, conceptual approach to war, like the following year’s Apocalypse Now, or as radicalised avatars of shifting tides of social identity, like Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, which was one of its big rivals at that year’s Oscars. Actually, The Deer Hunter does have a bleak and accusatory political side, portraying as it does the war as an event that invited the best from citizens who are then dumped back into the world variously mangled or bereft. Cimino had endeavoured to make a film purely about the experience of young men doing their bit according to their communal ideals, sense of patriotism, and personal ethics, and being deeply wounded in many forms and unable to make any sense of what they have experienced beyond the whirlpool of carnage. Some objected to Cimino’s signature flight of fancy, the central scene of forced Russian roulette-playing, as not just a symbolic invention and effective horror sequence, but as pernicious falsity; Cimino was awkwardly caught up in trying to defend its legitimacy. Yet, in the context of the late ’70s, the film represented a ballsy project all the same. Films of epic length were conspicuously out of favour. The situation of many Vietnam veterans socially and personally wasn’t good, and in spite of a small spate of Vietnam films released around this time, official catharsis wasn’t reached until around the time of Platoon (1986) and the opening of the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a project The Deer Hunter helped inspire.
Cimino’s ambitious scale belied to a certain extent the intimate and simple focus of his film, depicting the entwined fates of three pals, steel mill workers from the Pennsylvania town of Clairton drafted to fight in Vietnam sometime around 1970. Cimino employed a narrative approach here that he would revisit in his follow-up Heaven’s Gate, packing multiple strands of story set-up and asides that compile into a detailed portraiture of place as well as people. The film’s first third details how a trio of young heroes engage in a series of ritual events that comprise their farewell to the life they know. The trio, Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Nick Cevatolavic (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage), along with their other pals and coworkers Stan (John Cazale) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren), complete their last shift at the steel mill, and emerge to a rare solar phenomenon, “sundogs”, which Mike, referring to Native-American folklore, declares a good omen for his favourite pursuit of deer hunting. They retreat for a farewell chill-out session in their local bar, run by pal John (George Dzundza). Steven is about to marry his girlfriend Angela (Rutanya Alda) over his mother’s (Shirley Stoller) objections, which she is glimpsed weepily confessing to her priest (Father Stephen Kopestonsky), before coming to drag Steven out of the bar to prepare for the wedding.
Both a source of power and a difficulty for the film lay in Cimino’s blend of filmic techniques, coalescing into a style difficult to pin down, at once uniquely earthy, authentic, and realistic in a way anyone could grasp, and yet also floridly artistic and deeply stylised, even mythic in reach and resonance. What it definitely wasn’t, however, was documentary. How Cimino illustrated his stark, cumulatively gruelling tale was what made it so arresting. His technique, notably confident for a second film, represented a rich polyglot of influences that seemed for a moment to represent a new paradigm for popular art, equal to what Francis Coppola had managed with The Godfather a few years earlier. Cimino borrowed technique from classical Hollywood epics: the vistas of John Ford and David Lean enfold and lend background to the drama, dwarfing the humans and their concerns and yet offering elusive promises of transcendence and communion, too. The fascination for behavioural minutiae recalls the eccentric genre cinema of Howard Hawks and Phil Karlson, crossbred with the new wave filmmaking of guys like Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Jerry Schatzberg, emphasising improvisation in his performances and careful attentiveness to the rhythms of actors. Cimino also added into the mix the dramatic approach of Italian post-neorealism, particularly the work of Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, and their spacious, allusive approach to narrative and characterisation, where characters seem to float through the landscapes they inhabit on a deceptively open and yet carefully choreographed fashion. Cimino’s credo was that films came alive because of their “shadows and spaces,” like classic Dutch art.
Another quality of The Deer Hunter that makes it relatively rare among major American films, even in the milieu of the 1970s, is the dignity it gives to working-class lives, the feel for the environs they live in: only a handful of Warner Bros. blue-collar melodramas from the 1930s and ’40s, like They Drive By Night (1940) and Manpower (1941), had a similar acuity. One close relative in the era’s cinema was 1976’s Slap-Shot, an out-and-out comedy that nonetheless depicted the same milieu with similarly gamy insight. The Deer Hunter hit a vein Bruce Springsteen was starting to mine profitably in rock music, casting the denim-clad worker as the essence of Americana, providing the national backbone, but also acting as the canary in the coalmine for its economic, social, and political upheavals. The evocation of Clairton is one of the best portraits of a small industrial town ever, speaking as a person who grew up in one. Clairton is a town hunkered under mist and melting snow, subsisting beneath the gothic mass of the steel mill, blotches of light and colour hovering amidst drenching blues and greens. It’s inhabited by callow, energetic, shallowly naughty young men and thwarted elders, a place of deep amity and pockets of abuse. Clairton interestingly is also portrayed as a specific ethnic enclave, with the Russian Orthodox Church at the centre of the local culture. Several of Cimino’s recurring notions are immediately in evidence here; the immigrant’s place in American life, blue-collar heroes with chips on their shoulders, violence as plague and crucible, and rituals social and private that define individuals in relation to the whole.
The Deer Hunter‘s early scenes are defined by the ebb and flow of detail, offering oblique characterisation and context, often underscoring the tale’s evolving themes. Bridesmaids trying to keep their dresses from getting soiled whilst dashing to the wedding. The boys drinking beer, playing pool, and singing along to Frankie Valli. The special technique for opening the boot on Mike’s Chevy. Linda (Meryl Streep) trying to help her drunken father (Richard Kuss) into bed and getting a black eye for her pains. Steven and and Angela’s wedding scene is close to an ideal litmus test for the different ways people experience movies; pointless and rambling to some, enriching and endlessly fascinating to others. Cimino offers a vision of celebration that’s more than a mere party, but a communal rite. Nick’s life-of-the-party joie de vivre counterbalances Mike’s social awkwardness, as both make a play for Linda’s affections; Mike misses his chance downing too much liquid courage, and Nick gets in a marriage proposal that Linda accepts. The supermarket manager doubles as wedding singer, crooning ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” and cuts in to dance with Stan’s girlfriend. Stan’s buffoonish antics are plied with a mix of obliviousness and try-hard desperation, apparent in his posturing as ladies man and pistol-packing tough guy, and he provides slapstick humour with an appalling edge as he gets angry, stamps into the cotillion, and throws a punch that knocks his girlfriend out. Amid the humour and working social observation thread hints of fate. The ominous presence of a returned Green Beret sergeant with the proverbial thousand-yard stare who threads his way through the wedding party to throw back shots with declarations of “Fuck it!” has the quality of fateful visitation, the Red Death arriving at the ball, eventually riling Mike with his reserve.
Underlying the frivolity of the wedding is the intensity of fear: the young men are being feted for their honourable commitment to duty and because maybe they won’t come back. The blown-up pictures of them festooned on the wall of the reception hall have turned them into icons as sacrificial venerated. Mike performs a hysterical nude run through the streets of Clairton. His subsequent bleary chat with Nick resolves with Nick’s confession of a love for the primal grandeur of the trees during the hunt: where Mike sees the unifying crux of the single shot, Nick sees the enveloping glory of nature, “the colours in the trees,” something to sink into and fade among. Leaving Steven to his honeymoon, Mike, Nick, Stan, Axel, and John go on a last hunting expedition: Cimino sarcastically plays off a grand David Lean landscape with the humour and bickering of the young men, as John finds himself abandoned by the roadside and clueless Stan gazes about him at mountains that haven’t changed in millennia and swears that somehow they have. Mike declares the shift from one phase of life to another has begun when he refuses to furnish Stan with his spare pair of boots, and berates Stan for his complete lack of preparation, and his habit of constantly carrying a pistol “like John Wayne,” the archetypal macho posturer without the expertise or concision of habit to back it up. Nick intervenes as the confrontation becomes heated, and Mike heads off into the hills to track in a moment staged like a holy rite, complete with Russian church chorus chanting on the soundtrack. There he bring downs a monarch of the glen with single-minded precision, a sense of craft and purity of intent that prove to have prepared him, semi-consciously, for war.
Cimino executes a smash cut from the victorious, elated, exhausted hunters listening to John play his barroom piano with startling art to napalm blasts erupting in the jungle, swinging from the edge of the sublime to the infernal precincts—it’s one of the great scene changes of cinema history. Mike is depicted awakening on the battlefield, the drowsy reverie of the previous scene giving way to the immediacy of the first hour as though it is only remembered dreaming, a state of grace before damning. Mike is quickly stirred to action as a stray NVA solider kills civilians, and righteously roasts his enemy with a flame-thrower. Helicopters spirit in reinforcements, including Nick and Steven, who are amazed to encounter their pal in the grip of berserker fixation, only for a sudden VC attack to lead to their capture and imprisonment in a remote and makeshift lock-up. The guards apparently can’t hold their captives long in such a place and so have hit upon the novel idea of letting chance kill them off slowly by forcing them to play Russian roulette until they’re all dead. Steven narrowly survives and is tossed into a cage in the river where he’ll quickly lose strength and drown. Forced to take a great chance for even the slightest hope of escape, Mike, under the guise of trying to belittle their captors, cajoles them into putting three bullets into the gun for the game. He and Nick pass the gun between them for two agonising plays to make the VC lower their guard before Mike sparks a stunningly fast and successful insurrection.
This scene was surely the reason for The Deer Hunter’s success at the time and its continuing reputation as a classic of violent intensity. Mike’s heroic retention of nerve holds the situation together, and the scene builds with incredible force to the moment of punitive exactness when Mike gives the Vietnamese ringleader (Somsak Sengvilai) a third eye. This is thriller stuff as much as it is representation of war’s randomness, but this sequence undoubtedly conveys a powerful extra dimension, the spectacle of ordinary men passing through the outer limits of human trial in some septic circle of hell, where gnawing rats and other men’s life blood dripping on you are the least unpleasant aspects, and the confrontation with mortality becomes a state without past or future, only perfect being and non-being. The superlative acting, particularly from De Niro, captures the spectacle of men being stripped down to their rawest nerve, with wild swings from bowel-emptying fear to hysterical jollity and howls of vengeful abuse. Importantly, apart from the flash cuts depicting the climactic crucible of violence, Cimino generally films in the same way he shot the same men dancing and carousing—in long, intent sequences where behaviour unfolds frantic, flailing, relentless, until the viewer is all but wrapped in their clammy terror and fight-for-life imperative.
Mike’s plan works against the odds, or rather according to the fifty-fifty odds his three-bullet plan entails. He, Nick, and Steven, though battered and bloodied and near-unhinged, make their escape down river. But Steven falls from a helicopter during the rescue and shatters his legs, forcing Mike to fall after him and carry him across country. In the midst of a convoy of refugees, he’s able to get a South Vietnamese officer to drive Steven to help. In Saigon, traumatised Nick heads off into the Saigon night to dedicate his life to reliving his moment of existential crisis under the gun when a remnant French colonial, Julien (Pierre Segui), introduces him to the underground craze for betting on Russian roulette. South Vietnam is a corrupt fleshpot where everyone has essentially become an organism, living and dying without moral limits: Nick has a sleazy encounter with a prostitute with a kid in her room, but he’s enticed away by a street vendor selling statues of elephants. Mike returns home alone and haunted.
The third part of the film depicts Mike’s return and his efforts to take up his life, but finding that impossible not only because of his physical and mental injuries, but also because the social contract between him and his friends is still standing. Here, The Deer Hunter shifts into another storytelling mode, perhaps the more familiar, as its evident structural debt is to generations of panoramic, off-to-war-and-back tales like The Big Parade (1926) and Wings (1927), and more specific dramas about damaged veterans like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Men (1950). But Cimino is exacting in specific details as he contemplates the odd lot of the modern soldier, hooked out of the midst of turmoil and dumped back into the mundane world. Particularly good and real-feeling is Mike’s initial return, his squirming discomfort when, ferried by a taxi toward his old home, he sees a banner of welcome. Rather than face the party waiting for him, Mike instead heads to a motel where he crouches against the wall, wrapped in tension and pain. The next morning, as the last of the party flitters away, leaving only Linda, Mike spies upon friends and the unchanged signifiers of his own life, outside of them and touched with inescapable longing to both run away and reach out.
Mike, escorted by Linda through town, is hailed as the returned hero, and Linda’s hapless idea of succor is to offer to go to bed with Mike, only for him to fall asleep for the first time since returning. The gentle, toey romance of Mike and Linda is haunted by the awareness that Mike has stepped into Nick’s shoes, and Mike is privileged to learn quickly that the women waiting for the men have been through their own ordeal. He happens upon Linda quietly weeping whilst marking prices on supermarket items, and Angela, reduced to an almost catatonic wreck by Steven’s injury and refusal to come home, can only communicate through hand-written notes. Mike’s attempts to reconnect with his remaining pals eventually sees his anger boil over at Stan, who threatens Axel with his pistol: Mike gives him a coarse lesson in the sort of truth he accosted Stan with earlier by taking his gun, emptying out all but one bullet, and then pressing it to his forehead: lucky for Stan, this time he gets an empty chamber.
One notable influence hiding within The Deer Hunter is the writings of Ernest Hemingway, who similarly dealt in virtually mythic stories told through accumulations of realist detail, and many of whose themes and images percolate through the film, and also Hemingway’s influences, James Fenimore Cooper and A.E.W. Mason. But Cimino reconfigures some of their essential notions. Whereas Hemingway often depicted survivors of conflict who found themselves recreating the tragedy of life and death on the small and controllable scale of man versus animal and finding existential surety there, Cimino depicts Nick as doomed to keep experiencing the moment of his own death/life—the click of the firing pin in Russian roulette—enacted on his own self. Nick descends into anti-personhood, his past erased with drugs and only able to survive like a goldfish between contests.
Meanwhile Mike’s reawakening sees him resist killing a deer when he returns to the mountains: his scream of “Okay!” to the mountains smacks of a mysterious and personal surrender that also brings relief. Although the hunt gave him the skills to survive the battle, Mike can no longer rely on such gifts and ethics to keep him sustained: in such a fashion, Cimino evokes a classical ideal of heroism only to undercut it and show up its greatest weakness. The American frontier hero has failed to survive Vietnam. Mike instead begins to turn into a different man, coupling with Linda and taking charge, at first half-madly when he subjects Stan to the ordeal, and then with more focus as he locates Steven, who’s hiding away in a veteran’s hospital, and drags him back to Angela, before heading back to Vietnam to find Nick. The climactic rite of the wedding sees Steven and Angela drinking from a twinned cup, invoking corny superstition: “If you don’t spill a drop, it means good luck for the rest of your life”—except that two red drops fall fatefully on the white lace of Angela’s dress. Such vignettes of mythopoeic flavour hint that for all its surface realism, The Deer Hunter is actually a form of myth-making. Indeed, under the surface, it has more in common with classical tragedy and myth than the precepts of Victorian realist writing. Cimino and Washburn offer a Sophoclean tragedy where earthly, communal lessons and the invocation of fate repeatedly enfold the young heroes. The pure trio of youth, Mike, Nick, and Steven could readily have stumbled out of any point in history for an anthem of doomed youth and gone off to fight in any war.
Mike’s odd, Zenlike sense as the hunter puts him readily into a legendary mould, whilst Nick gains mastery over death, one of the most hallowed mythic themes, at the cost of his humanity. Mike’s private trip—his obsession with the perfect hunt and the ethic of the “one shot” kill—echoes heroes from Siegfried to Natty Bumppo, right down to his implied celibacy: professional sleaze Stan rebukes Mike over his gruff and strict attitude toward him by bringing up his apparent sexual failures. Mike’s mastery of the hunt gives him a worldly power, as his focus and determination help him keep his head during a scene of Dante-worthy torment. But perhaps more important is the ethereal power it gives him. “This is this!” Mike rants at Stan, holding up a bullet, utterly bemusing Stan but revealing his own sensibility, at once atavistic and materialistic, perceiving the concrete nature of the bullet as the singular essence of reality, the separator of living and dead. Yet when faced with the bullet and the Russian roulette wheel, he tells Nick to put an empty chamber in the gun with the force of his will. Nick emerges from this with a magic power: when Mike returns and locates him, he has become “the famous American” who has survived innumerable tussles with death.
I’ve often felt that Cimino’s chief misstep with The Deer Hunter was his insistence on giving it a semblance of a plot. Mike’s mission to find Nick in the midst of a collapsing Saigon and the end of the war strains to fulfil the old-fashioned epic credentials of the story, contrary to the “shit happens” art of the movie’s bulk. Nonetheless, the furor of the illicit dens Mike finds Nick in evokes the visions of Bosch, as do the sideways glimpses of a pocket of existence crumbling, a place where small gestures like the pathetic stab by Julien at regaining a gasp of honour by eventually refusing Mike’s money, and Mike’s appeals to Nick’s drug-sodden memory, are doomed, yet ennobled. Notably, Mike only succeeds in breaking the spell that has kept Nick alive: Nick ambiguously seeming to finally recognise Mike, but then puts gun to head and shoots himself, the magic protection gone, perhaps deliberately willed away. Nick is sacrificed innocence, and his funeral marks the end of the film. Cimino’s fascination with ritual as communal conducer comes full circle as Nick is buried and his friends gather for a wake where a ragged, plaintive, rendition of “God Bless America” sets the seal: the duty is done, the cost great, the flow of life about to begin again. Cimino played his cards right. He had proven that a film on a painful subject with an angry streak could be made in a way that communicated to more than ideologues of either side. Cimino was lauded, famous, at the height of his powers as an artist and a force in the American film industry. What could possibly go wrong?
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Tobe Hooper
Few film titles have ever reaped such totemic power or attention-getting frisson as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. With bold, tabloid headline-style of hype and impact, such a title remained an easy reference point for both horror fans and haters for years after the film’s release in 1974. Every syllable seemed to usher in the age of depraved gore cinema, the quintessence of the slasher film, bathing perverts of all stripes in a sea of vicarious nastiness. Co-star Gunnar Hansen recalled Johnny Carson deriding the film’s very existence. Censorship troubles were universal. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was banned three times in Britain, wasn’t released in Australia until nearly ten years had passed, and remained verboten in places like Germany and Finland for decades. You can’t buy that sort of credibility as a horror filmmaker. This was the perfect product for the time of the Video Nasty as they were called in Britain, as films that had once been limited to select cinemas suddenly could be brought right into your living room via VHS. And yet, in some ways Tobe Hooper’s debut feature film was mild even for 1974. His work offered barely any on-screen bloodletting or dismemberment, and even had a pretty low body count: only three murders are committed in the course of the film. In spite of the title, the only time we actually see a chainsaw come in contact with the human body is when a killer drops it on his own leg. Compared to what guys like Lucio Fulci, Adrian Hoven, and even Ken Russell had done already, Hooper’s violence was clean and restrained. Indeed, Hooper had wanted to make a “PG” horror film, with the low budget forbidding gore spectacle anyway.
So, were those politicians, protectors of public morals and censors merely responding to that potent title? Yes and no. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre still packs an unholy wallop for its intensity as well as the potency of its suggestion, the force with which it invokes horror as a primal experience rather than a metaphoric one, an engulfing plunge from mundanity into nightmarish antiverse. In this regard, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might well have been the truly definitive modern horror film, the culmination itself of a movement started by Psycho (1960) now finding crystallisation, predating Halloween (1978) and accompanying Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) in defining the traits of the slasher film. A rampaging, all-too-corporeal homicidal maniac rather than a supernatural ghoul, with a mask and a memorable nickname. Young people as protagonists, vulnerable out of their urban enclaves, rendered both as identification figures for the generally, equally young audience, and also as deliberate victim-ciphers. A powerhouse approach to narrative after a deceptively calm start. The absence of any traditional heroic figure, substituted by the survival instinct of a single, helpless woman. Beyond specific impact on the genre, there is, indeed, the concept of film as total plunge into experiential spectacle here – thus, ironically, helping invent the ideal of the contemporary blockbuster in the most unlikely context.
The film’s slow passage from reviled underground myth to commonly acknowledged classic available for sale in your suburban DVD store was unlikely. Like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead six years earlier, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was pieced together by a hardy team of regional filmmakers, even further afield in the American showbiz universe, and yet the peculiarly egalitarian appeal of their product, plus the distribution muscle of a Mafia-connected guy enriched by receipts from Deep Throat (1972), let their product be sold internationally in the greatly changed movie universe of the 1970s. The gruelling, low-budget shoot and its circumstances were written into the film’s eventual texture, infusing it with an air of heat-frazzled, sweat-sodden hysteria, physical strain, and simmering aggression. The hostility the film received as a product beyond the pale ironically echoed the film’s thesis of economic disadvantage driving people to extreme acts and perversities. Hooper and Henkel’s debut work had been a film about life in a hippie commune, Eggshells (1969), Following the killer yokels of Easy Rider (1969) and Deliverance (1972), moreover, Massacre exploited a similar fear of social atomisation, a modern landscape breaking into obliquely composed camps but arranged along roughly similar fault lines – urban/technological/liberated versus rural/labouring/traditional. What had been funny and pathetic in John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941), with its gap-toothed sons of the soil acting like Barbary apes, had become a source of anxiety, the devolution of humankind in the midst of a nation that prided itself on progress turned heart of darkness.
Hooper’s inspiration, which reputedly struck in a hardware store, turned the implements of proletarian labouring into murder devices, also mixed in impudent reflections and inspired twists on the native culture Hooper had grown up with: cattle, cottage foodstuff industries, Texas barbecue, folk art, and the ethic of freedom and clannish self-reliance. The film’s most clearly defined characters, Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin Hardesty (Paul A. Partain), have roots in precisely the rural area where they find their special Hades, rather than total outsiders, and the plot is motivated by little more than their attempts to revisit those roots on a Sunday drive with their cool pals from town, drawn out by news that a remote rural graveyard where the Hardestys’ grandfather is buried has been desecrated. Hooper’s disquieting early images offer flash bulbs briefly illuminating shrivelled corpses, giving way then to the grotesque, starkly artistic image of a corpse tethered to the top of a gravestone, with another’s severed head in his lap.
The theme of morbid artistry offered as a bleak confirmation of a remnant expressive intent in the Sawyer clan even as they seem to indulge the most depraved outlets for it percolates with strange power throughout The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The Sawyers are not, unlike Jason Voorhees in the early Friday the 13th movies, mere bestial morons, or emblems of evil like Michael Myers, but people who clearly retain identities and even a type of ethic, but whose complete rejection of their worth by the values of their society has inspired a similar, complete rejection. By contrast, in spite of their light veneer of countercultural identity, the interloping young people around Sally and Franklin, Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn), seem hopelessly bland and insulated.
The quintet of youths in their Volkswagen van, iconic vehicle of hippie adventuring, traverse the Texan landscape on a stinking hot afternoon and find their attempts to live up to the On The Road creed immediately turns into disturbing self-satire, as they pick up a weird, dim-witted Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), near a slaughterhouse. The Hitchhiker quickly bemuses and appals the youths as he slices open his own hand with Franklin’s pocket knife, takes a polaroid photo of Franklin he doesn’t want to pay for, sets fire to the photo in a kind of folk magic ritual, and finally loses his temper and slices Franklin’s arm with his own straight-razor. He’s chased out of the van and he runs alongside, kicking the vehicle and smearing his own blood on the side as if trying to mark a hex. The slaughterhouse, hub of the local economy, repels Pam, but the old method of killing the cattle, with a hammer blow to the head, morbidly fascinates Franklin and the Hitchhiker, who explains that it was “better” than air guns because it employed more people.
The gritty, visceral contact with harsh facts of life celebrated by decades of westerns is farcically inverted throughout Massacre; it’s a film for the oncoming age in modern western society when nobody who counts works with their hands, or, indeed, does anything real. And yet corporeal reality actively afflicts the characters. The heat. Hunger. Fuel. The youths are first introduced to the audience when wheelchair-dependant Franklin has to take a stop to pee, necessitating a laborious process of Kirk laying down boards for him to descend in his chair and pee in a can. A passing cattle truck sprays Kirk with dirt and sends Franklin tumbling down a hill, the first in a mounting litany of exhausting and then cruel attacks on the physical stamina of these people. Franklin’s trials continue as he fights to enter his old family home, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence’s excruciating metaphor for broken-down modern humanity in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, also a man in a wheelchair, whilst his memorable angry, bratty meltdown, “If I have any more fun today I don’t think I can take it!”, becomes the film’s sarcastic motto.
One of Hooper and co-screenwriter Kim Henkel’s most cunning touches in this regard was to make their characters human to the edge of insufferable: aggravation slowly mounts as the whiny, needy Franklin feels no need to play stoic, Pam prefers reading horoscopes to actuality, Jerry slowly detaches irritably from his companions, and Sally becomes increasingly exasperated with her brother’s wheedling. Except for the Hitchhiker’s wild behaviour, it would just be a rotten outing. Sally and Franklin’s old family house, when they find it, is infested with insects and slowly disintegrating: clearly their family abandoned it as rural prosperity waned. Franklin has no survival capacity, and is fused in a mix of affection and frustration to Sally, whose possible romance with Jerry is strained and thwarted by sibling responsibilities. Franklin can barely even get into his old family home, and ruptures in childish tantrums as he’s left behind his thoughtlessly mobile companions. Immobility was, by the cold standards of ancient hunter-gatherer societies and the colonising wave of Europeans both, death, and the threat of being stuck afflicts both Franklin in particular and the quintet generally: worry about running out of petrol. Hints here of the social Darwinism that flowed through the writings of signal western writers like Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Edna Ferber. The youths visit a small gas station close to the old family house, where the owner (Jim Siedow, billed only as playing “Old Man”) sells them barbecue but can’t give them fuel.
When Kirk and Pam try to salvage their day by going to the mythical spot of childhood adventure Franklin remembers, a swimming hole, they are instead distracted by a distant puttering motor: Kirk is inspired to track down the owner and buy some petrol. They soon find the motor is a generator, providing power for a nearby farm house. Kirk ventures inside, searching for an owner, only for a large man, masked and clad in a butcher’s smock, to emerge from a back room and smack him over the head with a hammer. Kirk collapses and fits like a dying, damaged animal on the floor, before the assailant whacks him again, pulls him inside, and slams shut a sliding steel door. Pam, outside, waits and then ventures in after him, only to stumble into another room littered with moulted poultry feathers – from a chicken that’s kept, obscenely, in a bird cage – and pieces of human bone. The hulking man reappears and grabs Pam and takes her into the back room, which proves to be a makeshift slaughterhouse in itself, and hangs her on a meat hook, to dangle in agony whilst he fires up and chainsaw and starts to carve up Kirk’s body like a steer carcass. Such is our introduction to Leatherface (Hansen), the youngest and weirdest of the three Sawyer brothers, slaughterman and butcher whose livestock is you.
Hooper’s brutally mordant sense of humour is exposed more clearly amidst the carefully delayed eruption of horror, as the inevitable punch-line to themes set up earlier arrives: humans turned into food by a clan that can’t get work providing food by other means. Later, when Jerry comes in search of his friends and penetrates the slaughter room, he finds Pam locked in a meat freezer still alive, before Leatherface again dashes in and bashes him to death. One quality that gives the violence in Massacre a rare potency by comparison to more flashily shot horror deaths is the complete absence of artifice and indeed the speed of the killings. One moment there are characters, the next, lumps of dead meat. Leatherface himself, although a figure of dread of a brand never quite put on screen before, has a hapless, almost childish quality to him, stomping about in fretful anxiety after his home has been repeatedly invaded by quickly swatted pests. Like Franklin, he’s the family member who’s “special,” with a sibling charged with his care: the Old Man slaps the Hitchhiker for leaving Leatherface alone like they’re lost siblings of Moe and Curly Joe De Rita. The mirroring of the Hardestys and the Sawyers is smartly asymmetrical: the cannibal clan are old-fashioned insofar as they include members of more than one generation and live by attendant retrograde values, whereas the two Hardestys have lost roots and gained generational loyalties; and yet family still ties them together just as doggedly.
One of the qualities that makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seem such a pivotal moment in the genre cinema is its realism – not realism in the sense of being strictly believable, for there’s still those strong undercurrents of absurdism, surrealism, and black humour throughout – but realism in the way it posits its sense of horror in worldly terms. No supernatural forces are evinced here; the force of the irrational that breaks down the fabric of the presumed is here rather partly mental, partly social. The fear here is generated by the kinds of menaces newspapers and TV news reports propagated and indeed which lots of people, particularly women, faced and do face every day. Plenty of other horror films had been set in the present day, amidst the trappings and social, technological, and psychological givens of the commonplace in modern western society, and quite a few had engaged the social scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre however looks like a hatchling that had not quite escaped the egg before, but was now all too free. Massacre was released amidst a handful of works that set off another great shift in the preoccupations and popularity of horror films, including See No Evil (1971), Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973), The Wicker Man (1973), and Black Christmas. Although the supernatural figures in some of these, and would remain a fixture in the genre, tonally all had moved into the utterly present-tense, leaving behind the traditions of Gothic horror in all but some remnant style.
Much like Deliverance again, Massacre tackles a common concern of the time, the worry of the lack of authenticity in the face of an increasingly coddling and insulated society, only for the shock of immersion in true primal tests, represented both by the landscape and by humans who have somehow devolved, to prove overwhelming. Where John Boorman and James Dickey had implicitly constructed a parable about changing modes of manhood in Deliverance, Hooper and Henkel went a step further in essentially erasing a masculine hero figure and instead putting the plight of the victimised woman at the centre. The undercurrent of glum misogyny starting to infiltrate some parts of the horror genre arose from the new room to depict hitherto forbidden fantasies, soon to bloom in the overt invitations to ogle and then sublimate in watching the butchery of young women offered in many slasher films. There is a touch of that predicted here as Hopper lets the audience have a good eyeful of McMinn’s lovely back and butt in short-shorts moments before she’s hung up on a meat hook. There is also, however, a certain sly and bitter cinematic wit apparent there, as well as a brutal simplicity that cuts through that kind of blather; Hooper skirts outright gore with clever effect, as the viewer knows implicitly that when Leatherface hangs Pam up, the viewer knows she’s quite skewered, not dangling from clothing, with repulsive but frank effect. Mostly the film is strikingly non-exploitative although it deals with the relentless brutalisation of Sally: indeed, Hooper’s intent seems to have been mostly push into a realm beyond sexuality to depict the Freudian death-romance at an extreme.
Of course, the horror film is a genre that is predicated around exploiting the anxieties of its audience, a risky endeavour not everyone wants to cede power to, and one often worked in balance with the time-honoured purpose of the campfire tale, which was to literally keep the kids close to the campfire and not wander off into the dangerous dark. The shift in genre obsession around this time clearly invoked the shifts in society where young women were officially “liberated” and now had to face a sink-or-swim world that was once a manly preserve. The explosive popularity of the slasher film, with its diptych of sex-as-death and final girl’s survival battle, was precisely attuned to this zeitgeist. Massacre’s main contribution to this was the idea of making the victim protagonist, purely by dint of her efforts to survive. For their part, Hooper and Henkel were satirising and transmuting the social tension they were familiar with from their recent days in the Texas college counterculture, and following Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick’s sublimation of the era’s churning tensions and violent backdrops into cinematic snarls.
Hooper and Henkel applied their grounded experience to the mythology that had sprung up around that most infamous, specifically American of killers, Ed Gein, the Wisconsin Ghoul whose escapades with grave robbing, necrophilia, taxidermy, and cannibalism had also inspired Psycho and also 1974’s much less-known, but in many ways equally interesting, docudrama-like Deranged. Why was Gein’s legend such perfect fare for filmmakers? The oppositions it invokes – dank insanity and Oedipal dissolution amidst settings redolent of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting – are undoubtedly powerful, the spectacle of taciturn, stoic self-reliance championed in the pioneer ideal turned septic, whilst the Sawyers take the “don’t tread on me” independent creed to its ultimate extreme. Some critics have noted the implicit similarity of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, one of the names of Natty Bumppo the Hawkeyed hunter, to Leatherface, the annihilator who’s run out of frontiers and been forced into regression rather than movement. Like the classic western hero, strangely, the Sawyers are sexless. Even Sally’s hapless, pleading offer to “do anything you want” is met with sneering disinterest by the brothers, who can only plan to kill her. Unlike the eventual codification of the slasher killer, though, they’re not punishing transgressions, but the mere existence of the kind of fecundity they’re cut off from.
Sally and Franklin’s doomed attempt to track down their friends as night falls is both the real start of the film, in a way, and also apogee and climax of the everyday aggravation they suffer through, as Franklin’s whininess and Sally’s increasing irritation are pushed to extremes in the tense situation, with Franklin’s caution ironically proving wise. Sally endeavours to push Franklin through the woods, only for Leatherface to spring out of the dark and kill Franklin by hacking him to pieces, sending Sally scurrying off into the dark in terror. Sally’s desperate attempts to survive take up the remainder of Massacre, and yet the structure inverts as Sally becomes the outsider and the dynamics of the Sawyer family (not actually named as such until Hooper’s oddball 1986 sequel) sweep to the fore.
The last third of the film is indeed, if not actually one sequence, then certainly can be described as a single, extended set-piece, as Sally flees Leatherface through the woods, which conspire as much against would-be killer as well as prey, until Sally reaches the shelter of the gas station, the threat seeming to halt at the threshold of the Old Man’s door just like the Headless Horseman is supposed to stop at the bridge in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But where Ichabod Crane found that the Horseman could still strike from a distance, Sally quickly finds her sanctuary illusory, signalled in a weird visual discursion to study the paraphernalia of the Old Man’s barbecuing business, which conceals infinite cynicism and degeneracy in the guise of good ole home cooking. The young siblings resentful of the Old Man’s standing apart from the actual business of killing, in spite of his evident sadism displayed when he enjoys poking the bound and trussed Sally, and dismiss him as “a cook” whilst they do all the work. And yet the Old Man keeps his brothers in line with a stick.
Sally thus reaches the ninth circle of hell in a calculated travesty of down-home family values, tied to a chair made out of human bones at a clan dinner where the three brother alternate sarcastic hospitality with mockery and jeering in a symphony of cruelty. Hooper’s filmmaking evolves with his subject, lucid, calm, and distant at the outset, then pushing increasingly close and invasive, with insinuating tracking shots and long zoom shots, alternating with low angles that subtly magnify the gestures of his actors. At last, in these climactic scenes, the technique erupts in gruelling close-ups of the cast’s faces, pushing in to Burns’ eyes in ultra-close shots, as the visual language of the film closely matches the sensation of incipient madness and the ultimate descent into irrationality, at the outermost limits of narrative containment. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Massacre lies in how the film offers glimpses of extreme and utterly grotesque depravity, and yet somehow manages to invest it with a sense of humour so dark it’s subterranean, finding existentially pitiless humour in the sight of the Sawyer’s Grandpa (John Dugan), a leathery old husk brought down to join in the family festivities, greedily and gleefully sucking blood from Sally’s finger, and the yowls of the family in response to her waking screams.
The careful travesty of family rituals, inspired by Gein’s craziest ideas but taken a step further, evinced around the house, likewise radiate a twisted sense of comic commentary – chairs made of bones and cured limbs; Grandpa set up in his attic abode with a corpse filling in for grandmother, and dog skeleton wrapped in a fur propped up for company; and a dinner table laden with skulls under a light shaded by a human face. What is ultimately so beggaring about the world the Sawyers have built around themselves lies in this complete subversion of the excised place of death in modern suburbanised society. As repellent as Hooper makes them, therefore, nonetheless they stand for a powerful notion taken to a reductio ad absurdum, whilst the film’s sense of black humour feeds rather than retards the spiralling sense of madness and suffering. The Sawyers eventually, happily decide the honour of butchering Sally should go to Grandpa, whose past as slaughterman is legendary: “Old Grandpa’s the best killer there ever was,” Old Man tells Sally by way of trying to reassure her that her end will be merciful, “He did sixty in five minutes once – they say he could’ve done more if the hook and pull gangs coulda gotten the beeves outta the way faster.”
But Grandpa can’t even hold the hammer, and keeps dropping it with dull, gut-wrenching thuds into the metal pan the Hitchhiker tries to hold Sally over. This resort to a bizarre variety of sentiment on the part of the Sawyers proves their undoing, as it gives Sally the chance, in her hysterical will to survive, to throw off the Hitchhiker and make a break, crashing through a window for the second time and plunging into disorientating daylight. The very finale of Massacre, much like the earlier eruptions of action, is startling for its speed and compressed, wild energy, as Sally tries to flee from her tormentors although she’s cut and bruised and can barely walk, the Hitchhiker crazedly slashing at Sally with his razor as he catches her, but he’s taken a step too far, and the Sawyers’ pursuit of Sally retains a farcical edge in spite of the pulse-pounding intensity of the sequence.
The degree to which the youths were out of their depth the moment they turned off the main road, so the Sawyers find themselves thwarted as they chase their recalcitrant prey out onto the highway that passes their little kingdom. Within moments the Hitchhiker is crushed by a cattle truck, a deus ex machina loaded with multiple ironies, emblem of the bigger, mechanised food industry that displace them, driven by a black man (Ed Guinn) whose bulk and invocations of hearty fertility – his truck is named “Black Maria” – instantly mocks and subverts the rotten presumptions of the film’s arch reduction of white conservative self-interest. The driver saves Sally’s life again, and his own, by knocking Leatherface down with a wrench thrown in his face, causing Leatherface to fall down and be sliced by his own petard, before both run for dear life. Sally just manages to scramble into the back of a passing pick-up truck, leaving behind Leatherface on the road, still poised in a strange zone between primal terror and peevishly frustrated child.
Sally’s giddy, maniacal laughter of triumph and relief as Leatherface disappears in the distance is definitely one of the great moments in cinema, as is the last image of Leatherface spinning in maniacal anger with his weapon in the dawn light: the dance of death is over, the last survivor escaped alone to tell thee, echoing another great American art work about hunting and death, “Moby-Dick”. Like The Wicker Man, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ends at dawn with its emblem of horror silhouetted against the rising sun. The final seconds belong to Leatherface, dancing as if engaging in pagan rite of the dawn stumbled of an atavistic time warp, letting his chainsaw scream in fury for him like the howl of the repressed, oppressed subconscious that might have been thwarted but will never be erased.
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Director: Dennis Hopper
By Roderick Heath
Before 1969, Dennis Hopper was one of many talented, young Method actors to drift west from the Actor’s Studio to Hollywood, if a flagrantly offbeat and arresting example of the breed. His blue eyes seemed to radiate an almost spiritual, romantic dissociation, as well as a potentially manic ferocity—Viking berserker and Celtic saint in one volatile package. At first he often played introverted characters, reciting dialogue with a halting, almost doleful style that could make each word sound like it was being pulled out of his mouth with pliers, or scraggly losers and reprobates, cannon fodder for he-men in many a western. Later he became famous for his jittery, showy rants and depictions of livewire souls. His pal James Dean had brought him into film work, and Hopper’s reputation for on-set insubordination almost ruined his career before it got going; after Dean’s death he was all but blackballed by the industry.
Indie filmmaker and long-time bohemian Curtis Harrington gave Hopper a lead role in the wonderful horror film Night Tide (1961), and his friend John Wayne eventually revived his acting career by insisting Henry Hathaway hire him for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Whilst keeping one foot planted in mainstream labours, Hopper was a driving force in the annexation of Hollywood’s hinterlands by the new bohemia. After he starred alongside friend Peter Fonda in a film written by another pal, Jack Nicholson, the psychedelic paean The Trip (1967) directed by Roger Corman, Hopper and Fonda developed their take on the zeitgeist. Fonda produced and Hopper directed the singularly successful film of and about the era, Easy Rider (1969). Low budget, rough and ready, a combination of Voltaire parable and satire with an essayistic exploration of alternative Americana, Easy Rider channelled diverse aspects of the European and American film styles to make a counterculture document with some credibility.
Easy Rider was a colossal success, making Hopper a cause célèbre and Hollywood’s official hippie. But Hopper all but invited being set up as public sacrifice and cautionary example. He feuded with Fonda over royalties, slipped in and out of a marriage to The Mamas & The Papas singer Michelle Phillips in two weeks, and let his indulgence in drugs go off the deep end. He was given $1 million by Universal to make his next film at a time when studios were throwing money at films about counterculture youth hoping some of it would stick. Hopper, however, couldn’t have been less interested in returning to that subject, and moved onto new, equally provocative territory. The result was an infamous debacle that once again sent Hopper into exile, branded an addict, nuisance, and professional madcap. He managed to turn this persona to his own ends when, against all predictions, he rehabilitated his career again in the 1980s. Hopper’s directorial legacy is scant, but, except for a largely dismissed final comedy Chasers (1994), it is also one of the strongest and most unique in American cinema.
Hopper had been kicking around the idea for The Last Movie since his experiences making a western at a foreign location in the mid ’60s, and he developed a script with Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern. At first, he shot and edited togather a rudely expressive but essentially linear film. Legend has it that his pal the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky then mocked his straitlaced structure, and encouraged him to attack the film like an Abstract Expressionist slashing at his own canvas. That anecdote sounds a touch arch, however, as The Last Movie was clearly intended from the start to expand on the form- and mind-bending elements of Easy Rider, while essentially telling fans of that film to fuck off.
Such a radical take was an inspired, if doomed, enterprise. The Last Movie is a weird, loping, visceral work, an ill-starred fate already written into its texture. The Last Movie feels deeply personal for Hopper, as it depicts the movie world in a manner so alienated and troubled, so concerned with the effects of cinema fantasy on real life, it was transmuted into a monument to the desecration of cinematic form. The opening immediately immerses the viewer in a mystic ceremony studded with strange portents with a context that will only be revealed via looping cinematic time. The conclusion seems carefully contrived to appear like funding ran out before the filmmakers quite finished making their film. And yet The Last Movie’s conceits feel far less jarring than they might have at the time, certainly not nearly so much after the likes of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s and Christopher Nolan’s taxing experiments in film structuring, although Hopper’s work is deliberately more ragged than such later films, as it maintains an associative rather than merely rearranged visual logic. The Last Movie is a portrait of shambling wash-ups, existential angst, and the protean zones of culture, filled with some of Hopper’s most accomplished images and highly self-critical themes. Hopper works again with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose special visual tones on Easy Rider became the signature of the Hollywood New Wave, to fashion an artefact that alternates lyricism, immediacy, disorientation, and estrangement. Hopper doesn’t give himself an easy part to play either, embodying a troubled, even swinish character—a stuntman and fallen cowboy named Kansas.
Kansas is, at the outset, working on a western partly about Billy the Kid, being filmed in Peru by Samuel Fuller. Fuller appears as himself in the film’s most sublime and resonant in-joke, as Fuller had been shown the door by Hollywood by this time in much the same way Hopper had been and was about to be again. The film Fuller’s making seems to be a mixture of the kind of shambolic post-western Robert Altman was making in Canada at the same time, (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971), with glimpses of mockingly awful vaudeville routines featuring gartered dancing girls, and Sam Peckinpah’s savagery, as a giant, comically brutal shoot-out sequence sees the two sides in a clannish range war exterminate each other, even gunning down the handsome deputy sheriff (Fonda) and his sweetheart. Early in the film, one of the stunt sequences of Fuller’s western is depicted, with another stuntman pulling off an impressively gruelling fall from a rooftop and through some scaffolding. Later, this scene is revealed as important in more than incidental fashion, as the stuntman who performed it died. Kansas stumbles through the early scenes dissociated, traumatised, and emotionally volatile. His troubled, scrambled inner world will dictate the outer reality depicted.
The spectacle of real death on the movie set gives impetus to a strange fantasia. At the very outset Kansas is glimpsed as a bloodied and shameful penitent amidst a crowd at a local religious festival, whilst an imperious, would-be Peruvian director wearing a U.S. Cavalry hat searches for a beauty to star in his “film.” This director-cum-warlord will claim and take over the abandoned sets of the Hollywood shoot, making these into a place of religious fervour for the locals. The district priest (Tomas Milian) has to perform his masses in the set’s fake church to reach his congregation. Hopper then loops the film back to a few weeks earlier, when the Hollywood crew was still working. Kansas hovers around the shoot, still dazed by death and irritating Fuller. The film crew successfully wraps up their production after depicting the death of Billy the Kid, which Fuller announces he wants done different and better than any previous version. At the wrap party, Kansas wanders through a tangled crowd of performers and revellers and finds amongst them various tableaux vivants unfolding before his eyes. Narrative alienation blends fascinatingly with the sense that Hopper is documenting his own dissociation from his apparent place as Hollywood’s king of hipsters, as he reduces the apparatus of stardom to cameo fodder: Kovacs’ gliding camera, surveying a world of cool film folk, with a lot of Hopper’s own friends and fellows dotting the crowd, engage in drop-of-a-hat sing-alongs, mini-happenings, and strange rituals.
A man is transformed into a woman by a group of masked faux-shamans in a glimpsed moment that seems to come right out of some Carlos Castenada-esque fever dream, and indeed, the influence of Latin American magic realism and spiritual writing traditions pervades The Last Movie as narratives of false life and false death segue hazily into abnormal rituals of real life and real death. Kansas retreats into the shadows and weeps, but tries to fend off solicitous interest from a friend. Hopper suggests an approach close to that of Easy Rider in early scenes where songs play like commentary on the soundtrack, but Hopper quickly fragments and then disposes of this refrain. He casts Kris Kristofferson and others as musically inclined crewmen on the film who play Greek chorus, and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” scores footage of Hopper in character as Kansas roving on horseback like the Marlboro Man, the ideal, self-reliant frontiersman, only to have Kansas accidentally crash Fuller’s set in the middle of filming, stirring a torrent of abuse from the director.
Kansas is soon called on to participate in stunts himself, glimpses of which are interpolated throughout the film. The stunts require him to take the place of the dead man in jarring and difficult movements, like being jerked off a horse by a tether or swinging in on a guy rope, causing alarm and concern in one local extra working on the film, recognisable as the man later directing the fake movie. Once the film shoot concludes and the company disbands to return home, Kansas decides to stay behind and live in the mountain town with his local girlfriend Maria (Stella Garcia) in a house he starts building above the town. Their union is deeply carnal, and when they have sex in a waterfall pool, it proves embarrassingly close to a popular path along which the priest escorts children.
Islets of quintessential hippie romanticism early in the film see the pair framed against beautiful mountain vistas in flowered fields and other such pastoral refrains. But Kansas and Maria are far from being dippy young lovers, as Maria is happy to have hooked up with a rich gringo, and Kansas regards her as useful appliance. Emerging from his depression high on the spirit and beauty of his new home, but detached from the poverty around it, Kansas thinks big, dreaming up schemes to create a ski resort on snow-clad peaks. Kansas’ only local pal, Neville Robey (Don Gordon), claims to have a lead on a potential gold mine, and wants to dig up an investor to help him extract it. Kansas becomes his partner as the film productions he was expecting to exploit in the now-established location don’t come. One afternoon in a café where they play chequers, Neville gets Kansas to help him flirt with a pair of women who enter, Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams) and her daughter (Donna Baccala), the family of prominent American businessman Harry Anderson (Roy Engel). Kansas has the wherewithal to charm Mrs. Anderson, and manages to get them invited to dinner with the family, where Neville can lobby Mr. Anderson to fund their mine.
Here The Last Movie shifts into territory reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ studies in behaviour amongst the emotionally thwarted and morally bankrupt, as Hopper’s collective of exiled Americans get drunk, tell filthy jokes, flirt, and go out in search of a racy good time that will shock their stagnant nerves and fetid blood back into action. Neville drunkenly burbles sexy shockers like suggesting mother and daughter make out, whilst both Anderson and Maria carefully ignore Kansas’ increasingly overt moves on Mrs. Anderson and her all-too-eager appreciation of them. Hopper notes with a cold alacrity the mutuality of Anderson and Maria’s blind eyes, the former acquiescing for the sake of keeping his attractive wife happy and the latter for the sake of not rocking her fiscal boat as multiple forms of prostitution collide. The booze-sodden evening moves on to a local brothel, which Neville reckons is the town’s best entertainment venue, and they listen to a soaring-voiced folk warbler (Poupée Bocar) before retiring for more obscene delights as Kansas pays a couple of hookers to put on a sex act as floor show. Mrs. Anderson plainly wants to join the couple on the floor whilst lolling in autoerotic delight, framed between two pin-ups of a muscle man and a starved African child–the film’s bitterest, most direct portrait of first-world anomie in perfect symbiosis with exploitation. Kansas has to fend off the attentions of Maria’s former boyfriend/pimp who threatens him with a gun. Maria leaps up to intervene and rushes the man away, but Kansas is still drunkenly infuriated and he beats the hell out of her when she returns.
The sobered, chagrined Kansas tries to make it up to Maria, who demands a fur coat like Mrs. Anderson’s. Kansas goes to the Andersons to buy one, and Mrs Anderson, who confesses to her own sadomasochistic fantasies stirred by Kansas’ guilty confessions and the night’s pornography, agrees to give him her daughter’s. But she extracts her own price from Kansas, insisting he submit to her sadistic fantasies of abuse and control, making him kneel and receive slaps in the face. This movement of the film is so odd, mordant, and perversely fascinating that I would sing the whole’s praises even if the rest of it had been mere footage of Hopper pissing against a wall—which is just about what Hollywood and a lot of critics thought he did.
Colonialism is certainly a part-hidden target of the film as it regards the gravitational effect of American cultural apparatchiks and their infrastructure distorting the minds and lives of anyone with whom they come in contact. Money matters to Hopper’s characters, for, as in Easy Rider, a quixotic attempt to make money to buy “freedom” comes to the fore, swapping the previous film’s original sin drug deal for Kansas and Neville’s attempt to ascertain if the gold mine can really pay off for them. They head into the wilderness to check out the mine, in a story segue that explicitly references to Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): in fact, in a scene close to the end of the film, which seems to be a non sequitur flashback to this journey, Kansas and Neville are depicted arguing comically about details from Sierra Madre, which might be Neville’s only actual source of knowledge about gold mining.
Earlier in the film, the priest alerted Kansas to a novel and disturbing phenomenon that seems to have gripped his parishioners, and led him to the fake film village to see them “shooting” their own version of the film with equipment made of out of wicker, complete with fistfights that result in real blood and bruises. Kansas tries to show them how it’s done in the trade, but the director complains that “isn’t real!” Exactly what the fake shoot is supposed to be Hopper leaves ambiguous, but he makes clear he feels guilty for his participation in the hypnotic, reality-bending force of the movies and correlates them with other forms of imperial power. Kansas requests absolution from the Priest for playing his part in this. This activity seems initially a simplistic piece of monkey-see-monkey-do on the behalf of the locals, but soon comes to look rather more like a determined, ritualistic subsuming of the power of the invaders, a Promethean project of stealing the movie gods’ fire and also a religious festival. The finale invokes two different forms of such ritualised theatre, as film production and passion play meet in perfect mirroring.
Satires on the movie industry are plentiful, but very few are as brutally logical, original, and funny as The Last Movie. The Cavalry-hatted director combines the archetype of the filmmaker as authoritarian visionary with the canard of the Mexican bandit as well as the military overlord. He handles his “cast” and “crew” with great collaborative zest, but when someone doesn’t stick with the programme he takes action. Kansas tries to flee from their clutches, busting out of the prison he’s locked in because he realises that it is of course not a real prison. The director, however, pulls out a very real pistol and starts shooting at him as he rides away, clipping Kansas in the shoulder. The injured cowboy, dizzy from blood loss and hysterical, tries to find Maria in the brothel, where he starts a fight with bouncers and gets himself thrown out. He limps through empty, debris-filled buildings in perhaps the film’s most surreal-feeling sequence, filled with jump cuts and oblique framings that fragment perception, as the structures become dreamlike traps where past, present, and future become liquid and Kansas’ cognisance splinters, glimpsed in agony in mirrors in the midst of stone-walled, half-finished, or half-demolished structures, stumbling amidst piled and ruined coffins and religious paraphernalia. He recovers, ministered to by the priest and the director and found by Maria, who nonetheless falls under the influence of the director and announces she’s off to participate in a beauty pageant designed to pick a star for the film. Kansas stumbles back into the midst of the “film” as he searches for Maria and is swept up in the culmination of the strange rite, with the priest now playing along with his flock in uniting the worship of movies and Christianity. Kansas is imprisoned again, and Maria tetchily mocks Kansas’ appeals for help, believing the director won’t go so far as to actually kill him.
During his first exile, Hopper fostered a serious interest in photography and found traction in the field. Whilst the formal beauty and experimental élan of Kovacs’ photography is readily apparent, and many scenes play out in a coherent enough manner, Hopper’s photographic experience had given him a highly tactile, expressive sense of film as a tool to be used or abused. The Last Movie plays out in a high state of flux that occasionally stabilises, reality and film deliberately fragmented and confused. Hopper offers some obvious pokes at familiar structuring, like having his “A film by Dennis Hopper” title card appear 10 minutes into the film, and then the actual film title another 10 minutes later, and “scene missing” cards inserted in a manner that anticipates the fascination of recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Andrew Bujalski with the film as an artefact. The Last Movie, as its title might well threaten, is a constant, boiling mass of cinematic style and antistyle, as Kovacs works in wild lensing effects and a jagged lexicon of film language. Godard’s Week-End (1967) seems to have been a specific influence, borrowing not just its name from that film’s baleful final title card, but much of Godard’s deliberately anarchic aesthetic. But whereas Godard emphasised theatricality and falseness in his mise-en-scene to mock the idea of verisimilitude, The Last Movie is more attentive to the immediate reality of its setting, capturing the weird atmosphere of its Peruvian setting with an often documentary immediacy: nature and place, if nothing else, still wield a transformative power over human dreams in Hopper’s vision.
Classically graceful tracking shots alternate with analytical, extended, meandering zoom shots, or handheld documentary-style shots with fish-eye lensing that create a mood of happenstance, overheated authenticity. One motif of the film lies in repeated, startlingly wide, long-angle panorama shots that seem to be trying to rupture the limitations of the frame and that often include someone sprawled dead or injured (or playing dead or injured) in the foreground. There seems to be an almost religious meaning behind this recurring shot of earth, sky, and fallen being in one vast arc of communion. Certainly there is such meaning in the recurring vision of a man stretched out either dead or being transformed, from the drag queen at the wrap party to the shots that conjoin Kansas and the soon-to-be-dead stuntman as both go through the rope stunt and finish up flat on their backs, and a later shot where an injured Kansas lies prone and agonised, time and space breaking up into barely liminal flashes. Christ-like postures are one of the signal clichés of male movie actors seeking to become the auteurs of their movies, whether directing or not, and Hopper certainly indulges that posture here, as Kansas fears he’s going to be the human sacrifice to set the seal on the movie-ritual. But the strangely beautiful refrain that represents the ultimate break-up of narrative in The Last Movie, showing Kansas running and falling as if shot but then getting up again. The resurrection that is so crucial to the Christ mythos is readily coherent in film where (nearly) every death is fake and resurrection immediate, and Kansas’ ritualised reengagement with the death that ended the “real” film restores the order.
Or does it? Hopper makes fun of the parable and his apparent irony, or rather reduces it to absurdist statement, offering up repeated takes of his “death,” each filmed in languorous slow motion. Hopper then lets the film trail off in shots as elusive as the early ones, noting bored-looking extras waiting for the star to enter the frame, and Hopper, Milian, and the “director” stumbling through abortive takes or halting, improvised comedy. A return to Kansas and Neville on their gold hunt calls back to the gently spacy humour of Easy Rider’s famous grass-and-firelight scene, before Hopper closes on one of his repeated shots, of a tree on fire in the midst of the film set—a shout-out to Cecil B. DeMille’s burning bush?—with an unidentified man hanging in the branches. The Last Movie is a supremely uneasy work, one that transmits both its filmmaker’s lack of faith in his art, but also his dynamic involvement with it. The Last Movie was dismissed and buried for a long time, and yet what’s striking is how much influence, or at least anticipation, it had. Francis Coppola revealed his affinity by borrowing the seamy nightlife venture for The Godfather Part II (1974) and then casting Hopper in the thematically, crucially similar Apocalypse Now (1979), whilst elements of the later cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Alex Cox, and some Latin American filmmakers are predicted with fascinating alacrity. Hopper himself finally returned from directorial exile via the work some regard as his best, the troubled-youth flick Out of the Blue (1980), which posited former easy rider as child-abusing drunk and progeny as apocalyptic punkette.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Don Siegel
By Roderick Heath
Few filmmakers more than 20 years into their careers can be said to have just come into their own—indeed, by that time, many have burned out or lapse into mere competence. Even fewer whose careers started in Hollywood’s classic studio era could have claimed such inspiration in the tumult of the mid 1960s, when audience and business shifts had left many familiar talents high and dry. Don Siegel defied the odds as he suddenly found himself a venerated hit-maker by the early ‘70s who eventually was elevated from B-movie craftsman to master and auteur. Having made the leap from Warner Bros’ in-house expert of montage cutting, Siegel directed terrific films from his debut film, The Verdict (1946), including The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Line-Up (1958) and Hell Is for Heroes (1961), and his reputation amongst peers was strong—Ida Lupino, herself no slouch at directing, once confessed she hoped to be counted as a decent second-string Siegel. Siegel’s vertiginous visual sensibility, filled with alternations between godlike high angles and all-too-human, bruising closeness, a feel for both primal and urban landscapes as spaces that shape human action, a grip on both the studious grammar of classical filmmaking and expressive reflexes that could readily bend or break those rules armed him with tools that could absorb what he needed from New Wave filmmaking, ignore the rest, and still seem authoritative.
Siegel’s grouchy cynicism directed at the counterculture resulted in scabrous portraits in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971), but then he could pivot and reveal a sheer delight in bratty anti-authoritarianism and rejection of communal rules—key to Two Mules for Sister Sara. His most consistent theme was more subtle, however, one of individuals at odds with their milieu, unable to comprehend the niceties of coexistence with radically different viewpoints and social doctrines that try to force acquiescence on his instinctually, rather than politically rebellious heroes. This is one reason that the theme of a lone wolf working within a larger system or cause was one of his favourites, an attitudinal linchpin that would have a profound influence, particularly on Quentin Tarantino.
He wrestled with modernity’s teeming, contradictory emotions in a way mainstream audiences could understand and coalesce without feeling like they were being preached at by a message movie. Siegel could offer a cop or a criminal empathy at any given moment. He could provoke liberals by transferring a frontier law ethos to modern cities, and then pivot to anatomise contemporary urges to agitation and shifting social mores in contexts like scifi with Body Snatchers, or historical, as in Hell Is for Heroes, with its proto-beatnik hero adrift in the war zone, or even further back with anxiety over emerging feminism in The Beguiled (1971) in a Civil War landscape. Two Mules for Sister Sara, like its immediate follow-up The Beguiled, bespeaks of Siegel’s inherent love of such paradox, prefiguring the next film’s dark, eerie take on sexual and social dislocation in a playful fashion that resembles The African Queen (1951) remade by Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, Peckinpah was Siegel’s first major protégé, whilst Sister Sara stars his second, Clint Eastwood.
Like Peckinpah, Siegel’s oeuvre seems intricately macho, but could embrace femininity and lyricism at unexpected moments. Again, like Peckinpah, he found an ideal thematic landscape in the open zones of culture between the U.S. and Mexico. But whereas for Peckinpah that landscape offered a schism between worlds that held the possibility of continued romantic freedom on the one hand and familiar but encroaching control on the other, for Siegel it was closer to Shakespeare’s forests, a zone of anarchy where his heroes could roam free and where familiar demarcations become porous, not a no-man’s-land but any-man’s-land. Siegel could also make fun of himself more convincingly. Sister Sara, written by Albert Maltz, was based on a story by Budd Boetticher, himself a major director who had hit a career doldrum by this time, is even more explicitly Shakespearean in its use of disguise and uncertain identity, as well as gender comedy to entertain and tease.
Antihero Hogan (Clint Eastwood) is a mercenary and a former soldier in his country’s Civil War—what side isn’t mentioned. He’s looking to make a quick fortune and buy perpetual personal independence by aiding a community in the same process, in this case the Mexican Juarista revolt against French imperialism in the 1860s. Hogan’s intentions are hampered when he comes across a nun about to be sexually assaulted in the borderland wilderness by three ruffians, whom Hogan kills in quick order with both direct and cunning means. The nun calls herself Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), and Hogan is forced to carry on as her protector when she reveals she must not be found by patrolling French dragoons because she, too, is aiding the revolution.
When she learns that Hogan has been hired to help destroy a French fortress in Chihuahua, Sister Sara reveals intimate knowledge of the place because her church was next door. She suggests a raid on the fortress when the garrison celebrates its traditional Bastille Day bacchanal. Sara proceeds to drive Hogan batty with a mixture of basic physical appeal that he cannot move upon, and her dedicated plying of her religious calling, such as insisting on proper burial and prayers for her assaulters, and a dozen other daily impositions. Hogan’s general credulity for Sara’s vocational steadfastness is thus sustained even when she reveals some strange knowledge, as when she reassures him that God will forgive him for putting his hands on her ass in a good cause. She soon reveals stranger habits, as when she absconds with one of Hogan’s half-smoked cigars to indulge a few furtive puffs with the relief of a showgirl between matinees, and a surprising tolerance, nay, thirst for strong liquor. She’s no nun, of course, and he’s no knight in shining armour, so the interplay of deception and ignoble intention between her and Eastwood, and the tongue-in-cheek approach to sex and religion, ambles with an off-kilter pep. Eastwood rarely played a proper romantic lead, and he doesn’t exactly play one here either, as Hogan is a sensually crude being who has no thought for settling down. The film draws much entertainment value from forcing one of his taciturn warriors to deal with a disturbing female form that is, at first, painfully off-limits, and then his increasingly perturbed reactions to Sara’s provocations.
It’s not very surprising when late in the film Sara is revealed to be a prostitute well known by certain members of the army she’s declared war on. Sara’s act, however, is more than mere camouflage and not exactly a play for false veneration. It is certainly a good-humoured mockery of the theoretical disparity of the classic madonna-whore figuration as it’s pitted against Hogan’s arch masculinity, her habit merely exacerbating Hogan’s confusion before femininity whilst also calling into question his—and the audience’s—understanding of it. Sara makes theatrical displays of playing the good Christian, blessing her buried attackers with water and infuriating Hogan with the waste. Yet Sister Sara intriguingly conflates what is usually perceived as two different kinds of tolerance, that of the woman who’s so familiar with life’s rough side that a near-rape is just another day at the office, and that of the committed religious idealist who forgives her enemies out of divine assurance, and suggests there’s no essential difference as both stem from a degree of character slightly beyond the more reactive male. Likewise, the independence of the prostitute is conflated with that of the nun, defined by their communal life in an overtly feminine space (to wit, the conflation of nunnery and bawdyhouse in Shakespearean humour) that also renders them autonomous in many ways. But Sara remains something distinct from Howard Hawks’ famous tough women because, unlike them, she reveals herself not as above the usual portrait of femininity surviving in a macho world, but readily hewing to both sides of stereotype and proving herself more than able in both.
Sister Sara represents a fascinating intersection point for several approaches to the western, although its setting and scope of action partly elide more exact definitions of the genre, almost a final point of correlation before the genre started its decline through the ’70s. In the late ‘60s, the genre had been schismatically redefined by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and then by the ferocity of Peckinpah, unified by their emphasis on tactile, visual realism and harsher violence than oatsers had known in the past, but separated on deeper levels by their ways of conceiving the genre’s heroes and social inferences. Leone’s grand, archetypal approach was reacting to the “adult western” of the ’50s, uninterested in its psychological and truthful reflexes, whilst Peckinpah accused the older genre of naiveté and aimed right for its sanctities. Boetticher had been, along with Anthony Mann, the adult western’s most persistent auteur, and Boetticher’s intimacy with his material was always a great strength. He was fascinated by the way individuals paint their own internal hopes or neuroses upon the neutral landscape. Boetticher wrote Sister Sara, whilst Siegel borrowed Leone’s composer Ennio Morricone to lend his film some of the weird, perfervid atmosphere of the Italian style. He also annexed aspects of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and set about stitching together disparate influences with his own viewpoint in satirising the disparity between the individualist, macho hero and the woman who is in some ways tougher and more determined than him. To a certain extent, the film’s portrait of Hogan’s dizziness before Sara’s independence was reproduced on set as the practiced survivor MacLaine intimidated both Siegel and Eastwood, who finished up billed second for the last time until The Bridges of Madison County (1994), giving the finished film an amusing subtext.
Sara and Hogan’s voyage through the wilderness has a multiplicity of resonances, not just to thematically similar predecessors, like The African Queen, Black Narcissus (1947), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958). There’s a playful take on Samuel Beckett in Sara and Hogan’s droll meandering through a blank and depopulated landscape, bickering half-romantically, half-irascibly. There’s a hint of Luis Buñuel in Siegel’s wry, schoolboy delight in profane conceits, where a whore is holy and holiness is whoring out to anyone on the side of the angels, as well as the general atmosphere of Mexico Buñuel perhaps grasped better than anyone else as an ideal stage for surrealist disparities. The film’s title points to a particularly Buñuel-esque joke: Sara’s mule has an injured foot, giving Hogan a chance to finally leave her behind in a small village, but Sara immediately kneels to pray before a roadside shrine, whereupon a farmer rides by with an another mule for which she’s able to arrange a swap. Morricone’s droll choral chants confirm divine intervention, though the result is an extremely uneven trade. Siegel borrowed Buñuel’s former cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and he aided in creating a film that exemplifies the visual pleasures of early ’70s cinema. Figueroa captures the sun-burnished, raw, earthy hues of the Mexican landscape, dotted with the vivid colours humans drape themselves in or discharge, be it sweat or blood, and even the porcelain tint of MacLaine’s naked back, all with a sense of pungent physicality, immediacy, and crucial beauty.
Of course, if you don’t want to think much about what a film means deep down, Sister Sara is, first and foremost, a rollicking entertainment built around Siegel and Boetticher’s cleverness and exactitude as storytellers and painters of circumstance and event. Early in the film, as Hogan helps Sara elude the French, he takes her into a ruined hacienda where he might stand a chance in a firelight shootout and kills a lurking rattlesnake. Hogan sets up an ambush, placing loaded guns in old loopholes, ready to move from one to the other to maintain rapid fire, whilst the hidden Sara dissuades a searching soldier by grabbing up the tail of the dead snake and shaking it to make the man think there’s a lurking serpent. The ploy works, and the soldiers depart. Later, when the two are bunked down for the night in a small copse, Hogan hears strange scuffling sounds in the night, so he hoists Sara into a tree, pours out some gunpowder, and lights it to catch a glimpse of the intruding presence like a camera flash, only to find a group of refugees from the war. Sara’s garb gives her rare abilities to cross barriers and move unmolested through social contexts, if not the wilderness. This advantage backfires when she tries to collect information in a garrison town, only to be waylaid by some officers looking for anyone who can give last rites to their dying commander. The commander proves to be a man Sara herself helped assassinate, and she has to silence him before he can shout out at her in rage. Fortunately, he dies right away, and Sara takes comfort in a long swig of Hogan’s whiskey once she returns.
The film’s centrepiece is a long, superbly constructed and sustained sequence in which Hogan is skewered by an arrow from a roving Indian band when he and Sara set out to blow up a troop train. Sara again successfully wields the power of her fake religiosity by warding off the Indians by holding her crucifix up in the hope some might recognise it, and then sets about obeying Hogan’s instructions for getting the arrow out of him. The shaft has pierced him through, and the point is jutting from his back, so the best way to extract the arrow is to bash it right through. Hogan gets drunk to dull the pain as he makes her meticulously prepare the arrow with a groove filled with gunpowder to be lit at the moment she strikes so that the burning powder will cauterize the wound even as it slides through his body. This excruciating piece of frontier doctoring works a treat, but it leaves Hogan too drunk and too crippled to prepare to blow the train. Instead he makes Sara plant dynamite under a trestle bridge (never mind that dynamite wasn’t patented until a year after the end of the Juarista War), necessitating a perilous climb for the woozy lady. Hogan, who can only shoot with his left hand, must try to detonate the explosive with a bullet. He muffs it repeatedly until Sara lets loose in a tirade of furious, salty insults and slaps, whereupon he finally manages to hit the dynamite and wreck the train in spectacular fashion. Their shared achievement in wounding the enemy proves to be partly self-defeating, as the French garrison in Chihuahua is put on the alert, so that the easy victory over a mob of drunkards Sara promised the Juaristas becomes instead an assault on a highly alert stronghold.
There’s a terrifically involved, logical and convincing layering of story. Siegel steps easily between comic and serious notes because they’re both allowed to flow with naturalness from the circumstances. Sara isn’t pretending to be a nun just because it’s funny, but because she’s genuinely afraid for her safety and it’s a practical, useful disguise, albeit one that creates problems as well as solutions. Frankly, Sister Sara makes a lot of contemporary genre filmmaking seem, by comparison, plastic and detached from reality, however much more fire and blood they might toss at the screen. Hogan and Sara eventually rejoin society as they make it to the encampment of a Juarista band led by Colonel Beltrán (Manolo Fábregas), another alpha male held in axial partnership with Hogan by Sara as they venture into town to check over their target and find the soldiers on the defensive, demanding a new plan. Siegel’s dynamic sense of staging turns a throwaway sequence like the Juaristas sneaking into town and ascending to the rooftops overlooking the fort into an epic moment of communal action in the offing.
Hogan travels back to the States to buy more dynamite, giving him time to heal, and when he returns, he is faced with Sara’s actual identity. Boetticher was quite mad at Siegel for making it too obvious that Sara wasn’t what she was supposed to be before the reveal, but it’s still a splendidly funny moment when Sara leads Hogan and the freedom fighters to the “church,” and the madame (Rosa Furman) greets Sara gleefully by grabbing her backside. When Hogan protests that her church is actually a cathouse, she replies, “Oh no, this is no cathouse. This is the best damn whorehouse in town.” Sara rattles off an airy explanation, wraps a red shawl about her head, steals a cigar, and bingo, she’s anything Hogan could ever need and maybe more than he can handle.
When an underground passage that offers a secret way into the fortress proves to be locked from above, the only way for the army to penetrate the fort is for Hogan to pose as a bounty hunter bringing the wanted Sara back for punishment. The fort’s commander, Gen. LeClaire (Alberto Morin), is a gentlemanly creep who pleasantly offers Sara a last indulgence of a snoot full of wine before being shoved before a firing squad still in her habit. Hogan’s quick draw sees the CO and his roomful of brass-buttoned officers blown to kingdom come in a blink, and red-blooded characters can finally get down to the proper business of fighting and fucking. The final battle scene was criticised by some, and it is at odds with the rest of the film to a certain degree, as Siegel visualises the ferocious battle as a murderous whirlwind that plays as Siegel’s riposte-cum-tribute to the climax of his former protégé’s The Wild Bunch. Forty-odd years later, though, it just seems like a damn great action climax—indeed, one of my favourites—in keeping with the determinedly gritty vicissitudes of its time. Hogan finally gets to prove his action chops, tossing dynamite like an arsenal of thunder and letting galloping horses drag him past the French guns so that he can let Beltrán and his renegades into the fort. Flames boil and limbs are severed as Siegel’s camerawork switches from rocketing tracking shots to handheld immersion in the midst of furious hand-to-hand melees.
Hogan reenters the brothel with the fort’s cashbox in a wheelbarrow and bashes his way into Sara’s room to find her in a bathtub: he climbs in fully clothed, explaining “I don’t have time!” when she comments he might at least take off his hat. The film’s last, great visual joke shows Hogan back on horseback and heading home, tetchily waving for his lady to catch up. Sister Sara is just as much his essential pain in the ass as before, dressed in all her finery as a woman of easy virtue, crossing the desert with her rough-hewn beau in dainty defiance of good sense.
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The White Elephant Blogathon
Director/Coscreenwriter: Neal Israel
By Roderick Heath
I’m sure you can imagine my pride and excitement in being asked to participate in the White Elephant Blogathon. How I’ve longed to be ennobled by this most cherished of institutions for the online film scholar. For this auspicious event, I was, of course, expecting half-fearfully, half-excitedly, the films I would be assigned to watch, wondering what peculiar depth of cinematic atrocity or weird and mysterious lode of forgotten peculiarity might be assigned to me. Of the little list of films I received, one, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), is a film I’m already familiar with, and besides Marilyn had already written it up in her inimitable fashion. The first and most interesting-sounding one I was able to obtain from my other choices was the all-but-forgotten 1979 comedy Americathon. Directed by Neal Israel, who had previously made the fairly well-regarded speculative satire about the future of TV, Tunnelvision (1976), Americathon is not a film with a good reputation. In fact, it is considered an absolute abomination. One of my online friends told me it was the first film he ever walked out on—he was 8 years old. But still I could hope that whoever had chosen it for the blogathon wished some attentive and open-minded person could rehabilitate what they felt had been wrongly designated an infamous stinkburger.
There is perhaps no form of bad film more troubling than the bad comedy. The bad comedy resists the usual dialogue of viewer and filmmaker that other bad movies allow, which can sometimes make them fascinating, compelling, or just plain hilarious. When someone makes a bad horror film or scifi film, the viewer has the privilege of enjoying the disparity between intent and result—they can laugh at it. Whereas bad comedy is bad precisely because you cannot laugh at it. This failure inspires instead a sense of personal desperation. As jokes are mistimed and pratfalls land with a thud, bad comedy shames us. Why? Because it’s so closely related to good comedy. We wince with a sense of recognition at how before we’ve laughed at hoary gags, dusty joke set-ups, try-hard comedians desperate to be liked, and clichéd punchlines. We cringe in perceiving how thin the line is between cheeky deflation and juvenile nastiness, familiar mockery and snide impertinence. The experience stokes the worst possible association for us, making us remember those jokes we’ve told that no one laughed at, and worse, made people snort derisively at our lameness. A bad monster movie inspires a sense of fun, of camaraderie with the filmmakers who couldn’t do that much better than you under the circumstances. A bad drama thrills us with the spectacle of seriousness turned camp, the fine art of portraying raw humanity turned into the kabuki of ham glory-seeking. A bad comedy makes you want to hide from humanity.
And yet Americathon gave me some real laughs.
For about 15 minutes.
Americathon was adapted from a stage production written by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, who had earlier collaborated on the script of Zachariah (1971), a more admired genre mash-up. Americathon has a central comic idea that could have yielded comedic dividends, and fits in quite neatly amongst a mode of screen comedy that was pretty common in the ’70s and early ’80s, a mode that seemed aimed to create the cinematic equivalent of an animated Mort Drucker cartoon, teeming with excess detail in painting vast panoramas of general zaniness. This style required brash and vivid execution, exceptional comic timing, and lashings of satire, cynicism, and a knowing, encompassing attitude to pop culture driven by a freewheeling, carnival-like sense of Americana in fecund decline. This comedy style had roots in disparate influences of ’50s and ’60s hip comedy—MAD magazine, Terry Southern, Lenny Bruce, Gary Trudeau, Richard Lester, student stage revues and improv theatre, Frank Tashlin, Buster Keaton, Luis Buñuel, Woody Allen, Tom Lehrer, Yippie street theatre, Mel Brooks, etc. The great days of this style were certainly not in the past when Americathon was released: Steven Spielberg’s 1941 came out the same year, David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ Airplane! and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers a year later. The fact that a lot of these were made by Jewish filmmakers isn’t coincidental. Jewishness was cool in the ’70s, as if all America had suddenly caught up with the Jewish take on things (that’s director Israel there with the sign in the above picture).
The quality that makes a film like Airplane! hallowed and one like Americathon dispatched to ignominy is one of those mysteries of culture that if someone could distil and package it, would make them rich beyond Jack Benny’s wildest dreams. Americathon sets out to a bouncy soundtrack by the Beach Boys and quickly lays out a vision for America’s near-future from a perspective that acutely reflects the worries and fashions of 1979. It opens with scenes that are played for jaunty humour but that are clearly, in context, supposed to represent a mordant dystopian future: without petrol, cars have become homes, and hero Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert) sets off to work surrounded by bicyclists and joggers on highways turned into communal tides—only now does it look like a green-left dream come true.
George Carlin narrates the film, supposedly the voice of Eric when he’s older and looking back on these events: Carlin’s wry delivery is very much the reason why I found the early part of the film amusing. Thus, according to Carlin, Jimmy Carter is quickly lynched for giving one of his infamously uninspiring TV speeches, “along with two or three of his snootier cabinet members,” in contemplating yet another energy crisis, and his successor, David Eisenhower (Robert Beer), abandons his post in favour of cavorting with a girlfriend on the beach. The country runs out of petrol in the mid-1980s and money not long thereafter. By 1998, the U.S. is bankrupt and has maxed out its credit from Native American magnate Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George) to the tune of $400 billion, who is finally calling in the bill.
The new president has one thing in common with Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt—his name. Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) is, as Eric tells us, a graduate of “ECT, Scientology, TM, and Primal Grope Therapy,” a blissed-out New Age dim bulb who’s has moved the seat of the presidency into a rented Californian house now referred to as the West White House. Chet’s campaign promise was, “I’m not a schmuck,” but he’s having trouble keeping it. One of Chet’s cabinet members resigns to protest his awful ideas for revenue-raising, like a raffle to sell off public monuments and national treasures, only for his protest to be met with a smarmy kiss-off from Chet. “Fear is just a boogeyman of your mind,” Chet retorts to warnings of the dire situation, “I believe in taking responsibility.”
Eric, an academic who specialises in understanding TV demographics, is called to the West White House to consult on the raffle, but Eric protests that raffles work badly on TV, comparing it to the effectiveness of telethons. Chet’s bright-eyed girlfriend Lucy Beth (Nancy Morgan) suggests that the government hold exactly that. Chet is, of course, delighted and sets the wheels in motion, giving Eric a cabinet position to run the event he dubs “Americathon.” But Chet’s advisor Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard) tries to sabotage the project at every turn because he’s plotting with ambassadors from the Hebrab Republic, an Arab-Israeli superstate, to take over the foreclosed U.S. Failing that, they have an attack squad ready to wipe out the government leaders.
Americathon’s foresight is extremely patchy, but often notable, accurately conceiving a future China gone raving capitalist, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reconstruction of Vietnam as a resort destination, the emergence of vastly wealthy Native Americans, the further debasement of high office by the telegenic, reality TV, aspects of modern environmentalism, and even the once-unthinkable longevity of ’60s rock bands like the Beach Boys. The future China isn’t just capitalistic—it defeated the Soviet Union “in table tennis and a nuclear war,” and has become a fast-food empire. Its most popular export is the Chang Kai Chef Restaurant chain with its biggest seller, the Mao Tse Tongue on Rye. Sam Birdwater’s repeated crying-poor protests that “I have to eat, too!” in apologetically insisting on loan repayment have a ring that’s become ever more familiar in recent years from plutocrats. Nike’s greatest days were still ahead of it, but it was already well known enough for the film to spin a joke around, for Birdwater’s mighty conglomerate is called “National Indian Knitting Enterprises,” specialising in a raft of fashionable industries like running shoes and tracksuits. Whilst the popularity of sportswear and casual clothes hasn’t quite reached the point that Americathon suggests it would, where everyone wears it all the time (even the Americathon host wears a kind of evening dress tracksuit), this is one of the film’s subtler and more pervasive gags. And there are some other, rather less acute anticipations, like its vision of a great Jewish-Islamic imperial power, and its fascinating, very ’70s myopia when it comes to race and sex—the film’s reflexion of a crass and sexist future is inextricable from its own era’s fully subsumed crassness and sexism. Example: the Hebrab Republic is described as having been founded on the recognition of the Jews and Arabs of their common trait—“the hots for anything blonde with a tush.” The film’s vision of debased future TV culture involves a drag queen father (I think that one was ticked off somewhere around 1987).
Amusingly, Americathon was part-financed by West German investors looking for a tax shelter, which sounds like a plot point from the film, and gives some accidental substance to its theme of the American bodies politic, corporate, and cultural consuming each other to the enrichment of foreigners. One underlying theme of the drama is a basic, perpetual, peculiarly American anxiety that’s coexisted with the officially optimistic national spirit since the earliest days of the republic—the conviction that it’s all going to fall apart one day, undone by sloth, decadence, and hubris. Here that half-submerged, apocalyptic quality to the American outlook is filtered through common late ’70s concerns, some of them based in quite clear and present realities, like the oil embargoes, energy crises, and the near-bankruptcy of New York, that fed general disillusionment in the wake of Watergate. Post-apocalyptic scifi and futuristic dystopias were common sights on cinema screens in the period; Americathon merely takes the same building blocks and turn them into comedy, in much the same fashion as Dr. Strangelove (1964), to which it pays homage via Eric’s last name, which calls out to Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley. Moreover, the film’s absurdism certainly has likenesses to more recent variations on the same ideas, including Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) and “The Simpsons,” especially the episode which casts a grown-up Lisa as an assailed President. Americathon then doesn’t lack for a premise with potential.
Nor does it lack for conceits that could readily become black comedy gold, like the performance by a superstar thrown up by the newfound fortune and popularity of Vietnam, Mouling Jackson (Zane Buzby), who specialises in songs crammed with sadistic come-ons to Yankee running dogs, performed in front of a colossal Viet Cong recruiting poster. This sequence exemplifies the film’s apparent aspiration to match Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers (1967) for transcendently provocative bad taste, or a monument to insta-camp as aesthetic value like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). However, even early Brooks had more directorial skill for that sort of thing than Israel, whose TV sketch technique exacerbates the already lingering structural weaknesses apparent in the slipshod and unfinished transposition from the stage. The songs, which I presume are also imported from the stage version, are charmless. One reason the “Springtime for Hitler” or “Time Walk” episodes in their respective films work well is because they’re great tunes, whilst the songs in Americathon are third-rate pastiche. Vanderhoff ensures that the only acts Eric is supposedly allowed to put on stage are terrible—ancient vaudevillians, most of them ventriloquists. So not only are we facing unfunny comedy in these stretches, we’re also dealing with unfunny comedy about unfunny comedy.
Americathon’s narrative is supposed to spin out of control along with television programming as it reaches unforeseen levels of grotesquery once Eric, allowed by Chet to slip Vanderhoff’s leash, starts going for the jugular with ever more outlandish, attention-getting acts, debasing the audience even as it saves their country. But the potency here is frittered away even in the film’s already curtailed running time. Any real telethon contains more moments of lethal smarm, dropped guards, self-congratulation, exposed pathos, performative desperation, and self-satire than this film manages. Nor does it make much sense that such an outrageous and popular foreign act as Mouling is booked when the rest of the bill is supposed to be mind-numbing slop. Whilst Israel is happy enough with the free-roaming, vignette-laden silliness of the early scenes, enjoying regulation ’70s jokes like a bicycle ridden by a quartet of nuns, his capacity to film performance is atrocious, missing all the details provided by the choreographers by constantly having his camera or edits in the wrong place, as if someone has half-heartedly filmed a live stage performance. The film as a whole has a blank, dull, cluttered look, one that exemplifies the mercenary quality of lesser ’70s filmmaking, an aspect that accords well with the air of glorified television much of it has. The cinematographer was Gerald Hirschfeld, who did such a good job shooting Young Frankenstein (1974) that for a moment, Mel Brooks looked like a film aesthete. Here, Hirschfeld doesn’t seem able to assert any kind of discipline on Israel.
Once Eric does start playing for the cheap seats, he stages the destruction of the last working car in America, a spectacle of consumer outrage perpetrated by loony daredevil Roy Budnitz (Meat Loaf), and a boxing match between a mother and a son (May Boss and Jay Leno). But he balks when the chosen host of the telethon, Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman), suggests an onscreen killing, and becomes increasingly detached from the show. Monty himself is a flailing ham who’s sunk from major film stardom to starring in that drag-queen sitcom: Vanderhoff signs off on him because he has a heart ailment and a major drug problem (he has a suitcase full of pills in every shade of the rainbow) and is likely to drop dead before the 30-day event is over. But Monty is determined to revitalise his career and power through, bitchily accosting Eric and molesting anything in a skirt on stage. Korman, so terrific for Brooks in Blazing Saddles (1974), is the arrhythmic palpitation at the heart of this film, struggling with lines that have pretences to hilarity but no actual wit, trying to invest his caricature with an edge of pathetic anti-heroism it cannot sustain. Worse, the film seems to think he has actual pathos. It’s a little like someone decided to play the Emcee of Cabaret (1972) as the empathic spirit of declining Weimar Germany rather than its septic id, or Gig Young’s Emcee from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) as comic foil. Similarly, the film can’t decide if Eric is a growing voice of wisdom and conscience, the wily nerd hero who saves the day with brains, or just another stooge, whilst his romantic subplot—Lucy, spurned by Chet, who falls instantly in lust with Mouling, gravitates instead to Eric—is mere window dressing.
This points to one of the biggest problems with Americathon: it sets up a semblance of traditional plot and character arcs, but fails to utilise them effectively. A major “plot” point like Chet and Mouling being kidnapped by Hebrab agents is resolved via voiceover in the concluding montage, whatever comedic or thematic value it was supposed to convey unfulfilled. Such sloppiness is not necessarily a great crime in comedy, which can thrive on narrative chaos, but in a film as hard-up for coherent focal points and genuinely inspired situations as that one, it really hurts. What few laughs the film wrings out of its later sections comes from throwaway vignettes, like the kid Chris Broder (Geno Andrews) who sets out to skateboard across America to raise funds, accompanied by his strict father (“On the fourteenth day, his father finally allowed Chris to stop for lunch”), and arrives to a heroic welcome on the Americathon stage, only to get a slapping and a shove back off by Monty when Chris announces he’s collected the grand total of $32.12. Other vignettes just seem a bit desperate, like a glimpse of the now U.S.-controlled United Kingdom where Number 10 Downing Street is now “Thatch’s Disco,” and Elvis Costello is the Earl of Manchester. Costello’s brief appearance is utterly random (although snatches of the guitar hook from his “Chelsea” constantly punctuate the film at unexpected moments), as if someone kidnapped him from the airport pretending to be a chauffeur, took him to the film set, and forced him to film a cameo for the sake of giving the film some actual cool. Costello tries to compensate for his limply patched-in status by lip-synching energetically to another of his songs before some apparently entertained tourists.
Whatever interest this film might hold today for most viewers would probably lie in its truly odd assortment of stars, many of whom are billed in TV fashion as making special appearances, like serious veteran thespian Opatashu, cunningly cast nonactor Chief Dan, a reputed Native American activist and tribal leader who had appeared in Little Big Man (1970), future faces like Leno, and stars of the moment like Costello and Meat Loaf, Cybill Shepherd as the gold-painted girl who appeals to the audience in Monty’s opening production, and the ill-fated Dorothy Stratten in a blink-or-miss role as a Playboy bunny. Riegert, on his way to becoming one of the quintessential “oh, him” faces of ’80s and ’90s movies, registers a general blank as Eric, though that’s equally the fault of what he’s given to work with. Ritter, once and future sitcom king, fares much better as the dimwit President, though his character is generally rendered too passive to be anything but a foil for others, like Buzby’s Mouling.
I’m not really sure if Buzby is great or awful playing a pop star who comes across a bit like young Marlon Brando playing a street punk stuffed into the body of a vaguely Asian woman. But she is fun, and certainly brings the biggest and most committed comedic performance by far to the film. She all but wrestles bodily with the celluloid to wring some humour from her one-note role as a lunatic who was voted “Most Likely to Take a Life” in her high school year book, insulting and humiliating the President before eagerly becoming his lover, and karate kicking the Hebrab agents who come to kidnap her. One last gag informs us that Chet and Vanderhoff settled their differences after Mouling left Chet for Warren Beatty, and both moved to Vietnam themselves where they founded a religion around the songs of Donna Summer. Now there’s a religion I could embrace.
So is Americathon as godawful as its reputation? Yes and no. The other tricky thing about humour is that it’s often so subjective. The flatly reductive definition many have of good comedy is, did it make me laugh? Well, I’ve seen other films that made me laugh less: on a laughs-to-running-time ratio, or even moreso on a laughs-to-budget ratio, I’d say, for instance, that several recent films, like Your Highness (2011) or The Lone Ranger (2013), delivered less. But comedy is subject to the same rules as other cinema genres: is it well made, well shot, well acted, vigorous in its use of form? In this regard, Americathon is a weak and shoddy work, a by-product from the end of a period when Hollywood was so desperate for galvanising talents, it took risks on hiring rank amateurs. Either way, the time for such cynicism was over: Reagan was a year away, and film critics were already doing some of his work by purposefully attacking dark and negative films—that sort of thing was so 1976.
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Director: Mike Nichols
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s hard to think of two people more suited to team up on Carnal Knowledge than its director, Mike Nichols, and Jules Feiffer, who wrote the screenplay. Both men are often savage social critics, though more frequently through sardonic humor than penetrating takedown, and Carnal Knowledge is a dart aimed squarely at the confusions and conceits of the hairy ape that was the bourgeois American male during the 1950s and ’60s. While I admit that this brand of masculinity is on the wane, it is hardly on the endangered species list, with people like Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) keeping hope alive for this offshoot of Neanderthal by arguing in his book that wives should “voluntarily submit” to their husbands, comparing marriage to the military chain of command he experienced during his Vietnam War service.
Feiffer has expressed his disgust with the military command-control he witnessed as a private: “Nobody did it better and more harmfully than the United States Army, where you saw mindless authority run amok, and proudly run amok.” Nichols spent the first part of his career lampooning the mating rituals and pretensions of the bourgeois intelligentsia with his comedy partner, Elaine May. With Carnal Knowledge, the two men ridicule male immaturity and expose the quiet tragedy of the stereotypes about women their protagonists accept and act upon without question.
Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) are best friends and incoming freshman at Amherst. The film opens with them speaking in voiceover as the Glenn Miller instrumental version of “Moonlight Serenade” plays softly, pulling us into the nostalgic innocence of an earlier time, that is, until we focus on the conversation itself. Both Jonathan and Sandy are talking about what they want in a woman, with Sandy yearning for understanding and, of course, sex, but it’s not the most important thing, and Jonathan wanting a woman, preferably with big tits, to go all the way with him while admitting he would lose respect for her if she does.
Jonathan has bought into the cocksman role, while Sandy is the proto-emo man. When they attend a mixer, Smith freshman Susan (Candice Bergen) walks past them, drawing their attention. Jonathan “gives” her to Sandy, so sure that if he has first crack at her, he’ll score. Sandy fluffs his first attempt to chat her up, and is only saved in his second try when Susan breaks the ice first. They engage in the kind of pseudo-intellectual b.s. college students can’t seem to resist, testing their intellectual muscles around the sensitive topic of emotional honesty.
Susan starts seeing Sandy, but balks at his attempts to get sexual. She finally gives him a hand job out of pity, a dubious triumph Sandy shares with his best friend. Jonathan instantly jumps at the chance for a piece of ass and calls Susan up. That she goes out with him shows she’s pretty typical in wanting to appear nice but actually break the rules, and that she’s as attracted to bad boys as most women are. Jonathan takes her virginity outside on the leaf-strewn ground. Nichols films her move abruptly out of the frame, and we think she’s appalled by what happened. Instead, Susan cuddles lovingly with Jonathan, and their affair is off and running. Despite Jonathan’s pleas and declaration of love, Susan refuses to hurt Sandy by telling him about Jonathan. Instead, the film takes a leap in time, and we learn that Susan and Sandy, now a physician, are married with children, and Jonathan is a businessman whose madonna/whore complex has transformed into thinking that all females are ballbusters.
Carnal Knowledge put me in mind of an anthropological study by Margaret Mead, say, Coming of Age in Samoa or Male and Female. Many of the shots are static, framing a scene or a face full on, taking advantage of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno’s lush eye, as though photographing an exotic subculture, but also his clinical distance, both characteristics he displayed to perfection in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). One rather unnerving scene shows Bergen laughing almost uncontrollably, her aristocratic cool shattered, as Nicholson and Garfunkel speak out of frame on either side of her. Bergen is heartbreaking in showing how trapped she is between these two men, unable to reconcile her physical desires with her intellectual and material needs. The corollary for this scene comes later in the film when Sandy tells Jonathan all the things he and Susan do to try to spice up their sex life, ending sadly with “maybe you’re not supposed to like it with someone you love.”
At times, the shooting style is simultaneously elegant and tawdry. For example, when Jonathan and Bobbie (Ann-Margret), the passive sex object he has taken to dinner, have sex for the first time in his apartment, Nichols directs the camera smoothly through Jonathan’s apartment, going from room to room and up hallways until we are in earshot of the couple’s sex noises and ending with a shadowy shot of them in bed just as they both climax. He goes for the money shot he knows audiences want—Ann-Margret naked—but lets us pretend that, like children, we just happened to stumble in on the primal scene.
Much has been said about Ann-Margret’s touching performance in this film, one that turns her happy sex kitten act on its head by revealing the vulnerability of a woman who has bought into the stay-at-home wife/mother role society has determined for her and who uses her physical gifts to snare someone to take care of her. In a cute scene of seduction in which Jonathan tries to guess Bobbie’s age, Feiffer gets at the underlying cruelty—Bobbie is 29, a desperate age for women seeking respectability in family life. The contempt both men and women have for Bobbie is exemplified by Cindy (Cynthia O’Neal), the haute-bitch Sandy hooks up with after his divorce from Susan. Nichols frames the two women side by side as they watch Jonathan and Sandy play tennis, showing the class contrast between the two. Later, Cindy calls Bobbie “that tub of lard” when Sandy and Jonathan cravenly cook up a partner swap, repudiating not only Bobbie’s ’50s brand of femininity, but Jonathan’s attraction to it. In fact, Jonathan is not so different from Bobbie, as women out of his league emotionally use him for sex and then drop him back at his metaphorical corner.
Whether you find Carnal Knowledge absorbing or alienating may depend on your age and how well you recognize men like Jonathan and Sandy. Sandy is the more common male these days, interested in being in love and moving, however superficially, with the times. Garfunkel has a certain geeky air that has become chic in 2014, and his searching for himself in traditional and counterculture ways—taking up with a much-younger hippie chick (Carol Kane, in her first big-screen appearance)—certainly continues to resonate. Today, men like Jonathan are hounded individuals—every time one says something predictably outrageous in the public sphere, the petitions and denunciations come flying out of cyberspace. There must have been something prescient in Feiffer and Nichols’ approach to this character, who ultimately ends up impotent unless a gypsy-like prostitute (Rita Morena) performs a magic incantation word for word over his dick.
The sardonic imp that Nicholson would play in many of his films blooms to its fullest in Carnal Knowledge, the perfect arch of his eyebrows matching his wiseacre speech. He uncorks his patented tantrum with barely controlled intensity; it seems a tired device now, but when I first saw this film in a theatre, it really made an impression. Nichols tries to imbue Jonathan with some pathos early in the film, training the camera on his dejected face as an oblivious Sandy and Susan bustle and chatter in the margins of the screen. Sadly, Jonathan just ends up being really creepy, inserting a picture of his daughter into the slideshow of his love life, “Ballbusters on Parade.”
In some ways, I wanted to feel sympathetic toward Sandy and Jonathan, but Feiffer and Nichols were having none of that. This is a look at the dark soul of masculinity that saves its heart for its women.
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Director: William Friedkin
By Roderick Heath
Few films have ever scored such a bullseye with the zeitgeist as The Exorcist did in the early 1970s. Whilst its reputation as a classic of the horror genre has only grown stronger in the intervening 40 years, the impact it had in its day seems practically unreproducible now, as it’s hard to imagine a modern horror movie driving as deep into the secret anxieties and wrenching such phobic reactions from such a large audience. Apart from the genre borderline case Psycho (1960), it was the first horror film since Universal Studio’s colossal one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) to provide a genuine blockbuster, and became, along with The Godfather (1972) and Jaws (1975) one of three record-shattering hits adapted from popular novels in the early decade that restored Hollywood’s confidence as arbiter of global entertainment. Notably, all three were comparatively harsh, violent movies revolving around threat to the family. The Exorcist, in spite of a censorship rating that today would hamstring its chances of being a big hit (witness this year’s bloodless World War Z), became that movie everybody saw.
Disliking The Exorcist should be easy for some of the same reasons it was so successful. The film cunningly exploits the post-’60s anxiety over permissiveness, the fear of disintegrating social and familial bonds, the fading role of binding institutions and patriarchal controls, and the uprise of the conservative reaction: indeed it might be argued that it helped foster that reaction, as Moral Majoritarians ranting about demonic influence and satanic sacrifice became a pseudo-political fixture in the next 20 years. Teeming rip-offs and imitations have followed it and indeed still populate theatre screens, diluting the film’s individuality and impact. The Exorcist moreover shattered nearly as many taboos of popular entertainment as young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) ruptures in the course of her possession. How does a film with a scene in which a teenage girl gouges her own vagina raw with a crucifix and then tries to make her mother lick off the blood, a scene of pathological force much in accord with Jesus Franco’s and John Waters’ no-budget exercises in provocation, become such a giant hit? By being as hypocritical, in a way, as Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics filled with the stark pleasures of the flesh and the profane.
The Exorcist gets off on the spectacle of the transgressive, the nascent punk spirit of the demon’s mockeries of all settled structures, whilst contriving to box them in and redefine them as forbidden, in turning the liberationist urges of the previous decade into a leering caricature of adolescent anarchic impulse. And yet The Exorcist resists being belittled by such objections. William Peter Blatty’s tawdry but surprisingly skilful novel provided a solid basis. Blatty was himself a successful screenwriter and literary entrepreneur who had written several movies, most notably A Shot in the Dark (1964), and shepherded the film version as screenwriter and producer with proprietorial attitude. The director, however, was William Friedkin, making a follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit The French Connection (1971), handling a production laced with surprising prestige for such lurid material. Friedkin, both still a flashy wunderkind but also already an experienced professional, was at the height of success and artistry with his gift for melding slick filmmaking with various New Wave and Neo-Realist principles, and he tackled Blatty’s material with an individual purpose.
The opening sequence, filmed in the ruins of Hatra in Iraq, introduces the title protagonist, Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow), and is effective in the way it capitalises on refinements of sound technique as visual flourishes in a sequence that’s purposefully enigmatic, but filled with charged intimations of arcane dread and mysterious signs. Merrin, engaged in an archaeological dig, is called with peculiar urgency to come and take a look at some relics that have been uncovered, including a medallion that seems out of place, and Merrin himself finds a dirt-crusted idol that seems to stir some latent fear in the aging minister. Merrin’s wanderings in the nearby town are filled with off-hand yet portentous omens like a one-eyed blacksmith, a clock that stops by itself, and an old woman in a coach who nearly barrels down the priest, all shot by Friedkin in a fashion that combines documentary matter-of-factness and deceptive stylisation. The rhythmic pulse of workers digging on the ruins segues into the clamour of blacksmiths and the thunder of horses’ hooves, as Merrin seems to follow signs like breadcrumbs until he encounters a statue of the Mesopotamian wind demon Pazuzu, standing watch over the primal, blasted landscape. The very air vibrates with spiritual threat as armed guards watch and a pair of dogs start madly fight, droning dissonance and savage tussling on sound. The way Friedkin builds this sequence, with what’s really going on left unstated but tangibly momentous, manages to promise the audience a real ride is commencing even though virtually nothing happens, essayed with care fitting for the tradition of genre masters like Jacques Tourneur, Terence Fisher, and Mario Bava.
Friedkin shifts scene through a series of dissolves that bind an image of confrontation, between Merrin and the demon statue, and the setting sun, and disparate landscapes, that of the Iraq desert and the American city of Georgetown, rendered in reverse zooms (out and then in) to confirm the as-yet mysterious relationship of the two places and events. As opposed to the blinding clarity and warm tones of the desert, Georgetown is a smear of cold blues and autumnal hues. The university town was an inspired choice of location, a place where old brownstones and modern architecture clash in the street. Blatty’s choice to set his tale partly in the film world gives the film a flavour of insider satire at points, although he and Friedkin also consciously wring the extra dimension it offers to the background of Chris and Regan MacNeil: Regan is caught at one point reading a gossip magazine with their photo, clandestinely shot, on the cover, as if to hint the cult of celebrity is another insidious force in their lives, and giving aspects of what follows the feeling of a particularly twisted type of celebrity-offspring cautionary tale. The essence of The Exorcist, in portraying a young girl from a modern, irreligious, liberal, broken home possessed by an opportunistic devil, is on its crudest level bigoted nonsense. And yet the writing and directing avoid shallow reductions, and there’s coherence to the work on both a dramatic and human level that both contradicts and powers the film’s core themes.
One contradiction is the emphasis on maternal love that refuses to accept faltering authorities’ bleating failures, and a strong mutual reliance between Chris and her secretary Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn), who along with old housekeepers Karl (Rudolf Schündler) and Willi (Gina Petrushka) provide a kind of makeshift family, exacerbating the film’s surprisingly close relationship to the “Women’s Picture” genre, one aspect that confirms the canny operator and film buff as well as screenwriter Blatty was. It’s also a peculiar reminder that the ’70s cinema that has become popularly hallowed is very much a masculine realm. There’s no traditional love story in The Exorcist, a telling elision. The major male characters are necessarily sexless. It’s also in part a tale of teenage alienation and fallout of rupturing family securities. The MacNeil household is established early on as a broken one: Regan’s celebrity mag happens to dish the gossip on why her father left. An almost Bergman-esque shot early in the film sees Friedkin’s camera peering through an open doorway as Chris gets more and more frantically angry trying to contact her ex-husband to get him to speak to his daughter on her birthday, and then dollying back to reveal that Regan is listening. A pervasive note of hushed melancholy and both physical and moral exhaustion flows through most of The Exorcist, which gives coherence to feeling that hero Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and victim Regan have become spiritual garbage cans for a swiftly altering world’s toxic emotional waste and confusion.
Notably, the first manifestation of possession that grips Regan comes when she prods her mother with nascent awareness, in suggesting that Chris can bring the director of the movie she’s been filming, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), to her birthday celebrations, discomforting Chris even as she laughingly dismisses the notion. Oh, how many parents would like to be able to put such signs of emerging independence and viewpoint in their cute and cuddly children down to demonic influence? The notion that Regan’s behaviour is a heightened version of a jaundiced idea of then-modern youth remains, with the film revelling in transgressive behaviour: swearing at authority figures, pissing on the carpet, grabbing a psychiatrist by the balls, using a crucifix as a sex toy, and vomiting bile on a priest when he tries to get too clever, all plied like some relentlessly puerile, satirical work of performance art. Friedkin exacerbates this tone by making each stage of Regan’s transformation into a blackout gag.
The notion, suggested in Regan’s probing Chris about her relationship with Burke, that the possessing demon whispers like the serpent of Eden in Regan’s ear, prodding her to act on dark impulses and observations about her world, is not taken anywhere, disappointingly; rather the demon’s complete separation from Regan is rammed home with force, but less complication. The film’s most malicious coup is the way it makes relentless fun of the modern world’s new priests, medical practitioners, to score a victory for the older brand. The Exorcist inverts familiar assumptions by making the forces of rationalism into the cold, foolish, scarcely capable bumblers who have to finally bite the bullet and hand things over to the “witch doctors.” A parade of know-it-alls, from Chris’s first consultant, Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman), onwards try to mollify the situation with drugs and tests to diagnose the problem. The tests become, under Friedkin’s eye, essentially modern versions of witch trials, with the body of a small girl who has shown aggression and disobedience, tethered, jabbed, probed, scanned, irradiated, and bled with a gruelling exactitude that would make Witchfinder General’s (1968) Matthew Hopkins smile in recognition.
This great joke is acute to a degree and also disingenuous on several levels, but certainly key to The Exorcist’s atypical, Janus-faced power and popularity. Friedkin’s film both exploits the popular mindset of the early ’70s with its distrust of institutions and experts, a New Age-type dislike of the over-powerful ministers of official truth and well-being, whilst also catering to an anxiety over rejecting other institutions and their teachings. The call of a deeper, darker, more primal truth is the constant keynote of the story, albeit framed safely by the religious structure, with the pre-Christian horror of Pazuzu representing the threat of devolution to a world that abandons Judeo-Christian values. Regan, initially glimpsed as an apple-cheeked cutey pie, devolves into a scarred, pale, suppurating mess tied to her bed and yet waiting in malign pleasure to join battle with the forces of good. It soon becomes plain that Pazuzu wants a return bout with Merrin, who famously conducted an exorcism that lasted a month and nearly killed him whilst working as a missionary in Africa. The demon also hopes to claim the soul of Karras, a Jesuit priest who’s also a psychiatrist and rationalist who is failing to cope with the schism.
Karras seems to present a protagonist in the Van Helsing tradition of heroes who have both secular and spiritual skill. And yet Karras’ susceptibility is the ticking time bomb, providing a mirror to Merrin, who’s confident in his faith but aware that his body is failing. Karras is further dogged by his mother’s (Vasiliki Maliaros) decline and death, contorted by guilt and frustration at his dedication to his calling, rather than pursing his potential as a boxer or secular headshrinker. Tellingly, Friedkin emphasises Karras’ frustration as a an intelligent man with poor, plebeian roots who takes out his rage on a punching bag and feels oppressed by his inability to come to grips with evil, calling to mind Popeye Doyle and other Friedkin heroes. Amusingly, Karras’s neuroses reveal Blatty’s pleasure in cherry-picking marketable story elements. It’s even acknowledged, as the film introduces interested detective Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), a movie nut who tries to charm the priest by comparing him to John Garfield in Body and Soul (1947) and then diss him by amending this to Sal Mineo, who, in The Gene Krupa Story (1959), went through similar angst as guilty son to immigrant mama. Kinderman is essentially superfluous to The Exorcist in terms of story progression, except that he offers a Columbo-esque comic relief in his apparently digressive jokes and film buff quirks – he begs Chris for her autograph moments after suggesting a man was murdered in her daughter’s bedroom – and helps keep the film rooted in the real world where too many genre smiths would have been content to let the drama play out in a conveniently law-free zone.
Karras’ initial scepticism over the possession is soon quelled by the demon’s blackly humorous mockeries, including the famous, rather hilarious pea soup regurgitation, and finally by the film’s most genuinely effective, yet one of its more subtle, horror fillips. Sharon fetches Karras away from his neurotically fascinated studies of Regan’s ravings in backward-English to show the mangled girl’s belly, which displays the words “Help Me” written in her own hand from the inside of her own body, as if trapped deep within, flesh turned into a blackboard of pain. Whereas a lot of the other special-effects moments in the film now look pretty ropy, even tacky, this one retains power, as does the first time Regan’s head seems to turn far beyond human capacity, to deliver, in Burke’s voice, a cruel missive to a beaten and despairing Chris. Blatty’s script was certainly strong, but much of The Exorcist’s ultimate success was due to Friedkin’s skill as a filmmaker, in spite of the work’s many moments of excessive, showy literalness. Just as The French Connection adopted a docudrama approach and cast people really involved with the case it described, Friedkin builds in The Exorcist, layer by layer, an intimately depicted, finely detailed context for the drama, a pseudo-realistic approach mixed with traditional genre style elements. Friedkin went back to Blatty’s original inspiration, the 1949 exorcism of Roland Doe, to try to wring out every detail and feed it into the overall texture, to give the unlikely tale a feeling of veracity.
A hallmark of his great ’70s run of films was Friedkin’s feeling for environment as dramatic element, his capacity to both exploit the shape location imposes on a film and also manipulate it to his ends. Karras’ trip to see his mother in the dilapidated neighbourhood she still clings to kicks off with a shot down the length of a street where skyscrapers soar in the background, but the blight that is the old immigrant ghetto cuts like a black scar in the cityscape, an almost Manichaean contrast that expresses the film’s repeated creed that Earth already has heavens and hells on its face. The evocation of crowded student bars and dorm rooms, the crowd of onlookers watching with delight the troubled film shoot, the swanky party Chris throws, and the wryly businesslike, post-Second Vatican Council attitudes of the religious characters all help imbue a sense of a larger, busy, bustling universe around the core drama. The eventual reduction of the drama to a few specific people engaged in microcosmic struggle packs greater punch for this, too, as every other alternative and respite is stripped away.
Friedkin often breaks scenes, particularly climactic ones, off at unexpected moments that give the narrative a jerky, yet compulsive, almost concussive tempo. Regan’s assault on the psychiatrist breaks off with her maddened scream still echoing in a jump-cut to a seemingly benign, autumnal landscape as Karras takes his morning jog. Concerted quiet and sudden, infernal action alternate as the story gains pace, at least until the thunderous finale, and even that is broken up and filled with delays. Stunned silences, reverent hushes, dazed introversion grip the characters. Each time Regan’s bedroom is approached, a new, ever-heightening act of atrocity occurs, setting the scene for the finale in which all laws of nature are perverted, and yet end with clamour resolving back into quiet.
Friedkin was never, however, a proper realist. Just as he turned New York with The French Connection and Cruising (1980) and the jungle of Sorcerer (1977) into stygian stages, and plugged into the overheated theatricality of The Boys in the Band (1970), The Exorcist veers close to the genre’s traditions of stylised Expressionism. This is obvious particularly, of course, in the shot that provided the movie poster image, a world of chiaroscuro shadows and vividly contrasted light that emphasises the infernal realm the characters shift into, and Karras’ dream sequence, with its desaturated colour, discursive sound, and near-subliminal glimpses of the demon’s face. But it’s just as marked in a less obvious scene like the one in which Karras visits his mother, injured and senile, in a public hospital ward where dazed, drugged, and frantic remnants of human beings are kept, like Bedlam (1946) restaged in Bellevue, where Karras’ mother can only make her borderline camp appeal, “Why you do this to me, Dimmy?”
Another uncommon element of The Exorcist, especially considering how sensational elements of it are, is how few of the narrative’s most consequential acts are depicted. In comparison to the body count porn the horror movie was soon to become, only one death is directly attributable to the demon’s actions, that of Burke. Regan’s initial games with the Ouija board that presumably attract Pazuzu are not shown, only a kind of comic coda. Mrs. Karras, Burke, and Merrin all die off screen. Often, the main characters, and the audience with them, are reduced to confused onlookers, glimpsing moments of grotesquery and unnatural occurrence, but what exactly is seen is kept on the edges of the subliminal, like that first head spin, and the flash-cuts of Pazuzu’s leering, demonic face. Anxiety over the film’s shock value forced Friedkin to curb his original intent to use subliminal images more. In spite of the barrage of effects and the finale’s eventual embrace of the blatant, neither the sense of ambiguity in unknowable aspects of the tale nor the sense of potent spiritual and corporeal threat are ever entirely discharged. The original closing shot, of Karras’ fellow priest and friend, the jovial, larcenous, show-tune-loving Father Dyer (Rev. William O’Malley), standing above the stairs contemplating all things in heaven and hell, leaves off with a vertiginous sense of mystical questioning and urgency even in closing. Indeed Blatty, who wanted “the point” that good won made more obvious, pushed for this shot to be changed in the clumsy 2000 recut.
The quality of the cast is another enormously important strength, for they sell this folderol to us with sublime conviction. Miller, a stage actor and playwright who had never been in a film before, and Burstyn, scarcely a household name, hold up the film with their detailed, physically committed performances. Committed is the right word, as Friedkin puts his cast through the wringer in a fashion bordering on harsh. The film’s high count of Oscar nominations, including for Burstyn, Miller, and Blair, signals how large the cast’s role was in breaking down prejudices against the genre. Burstyn is particularly excellent in the scene in which she fakes her way through an interview with Kinderman even as the realisation that her daughter killed Burke takes root in her mind. The great Irish actor MacGowran gave a peach of a comedic performance despite playing an abusive drunk: sadly it was his last role. Von Sydow gained perhaps his most iconic role after Antonius Block, albeit a problematic one for the Swedish actor, as Dick Smith’s makeup to make him appear old and frail was so successful the 40-something never quite shook off the image. His casting was clever, however, insofar as after The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1966), Von Sydow was largely associated with theological matters, though most his characters for Ingmar Bergman had been closer to Karras.
Ultimately what makes The Exorcist work is the insistence that it’s a genuine, dramatic human story with a purposeful narrative progression. The build-up to the finale is, in its way, as well-arranged and inexorable as the movement of Star Wars (1977) towards the Death Star assault, and like that film, it keeps the story in rigorous contention until a breathlessly climactic rupture lays the narrative waste. As risible as moments of the finale become, like Regan’s 360° head-spin and the two priests bellowing “The power of Christ compels you!”, the sequence retains power in the relentlessness of the audio-visual assault and the spectacle of the two men, who seem almost powerless with only the invisible and waning strength of faith they wield, trying to contend with a force that bends nature to its will. The tension about whether Merrin still can successfully intervene, whether Karras can withstand the demon’s assaults on his psyche, and whether Regan can possibly survive the ordeal all screws relentlessly to a breaking point, as Merrin drops dead, the demon laughs in triumph, and Karras is reduced to wrestling quite literally with the devil whilst also, incidentally, punching a small girl. The sting of the tale is that the demon gets what it wants, but so does Karras, a true proof of faith and redemption for himself. He resists the urge of the demon to consummate his possession by killing Regan, and instead hurls himself to redemptive death. All unfolds in a blindingly brief, yet indelible whirl of images, and concludes with the brilliantly staged vision of Karras’ death-plunge down the fateful stairs.
Inevitably for such a popular film, The Exorcist produced sequels, but the series has always been perceived as particularly benighted in that regard, not entirely fairly. John Boorman’s severely uneven Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) took Regan and the underpinning ideas to some fascinating new places, filled with lush images and perverse inspiration whilst awkwardly incorporating some of the original’s blood and thunder. Blatty himself tried to make a sequel with more fidelity, The Exorcist III (1990), based on his follow-up novel, Legion, revolving around Kinderman and Dyer and the possessed body of Karras. Blatty’s moody direction and the cast were remarkably strong, but a studio-mandated reshoot of the finale almost completely sabotages an otherwise impressive piece of work: similarly ill-fated was Paul Schrader’s attempt to do a prequel, which was deemed too heady and revised by Renny Harlin, with largely awful results. None of this dimmed the original’s status as a rare beast: a genuinely satisfying mainstream horror film.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Robert Clouse
By Roderick Heath
Enter the Dragon provokes one of those questions that can never be answered: if tragedy had not intervened to claim Bruce Lee’s life at just 32 years of age, what kind of career might he have forged? Lee died during the post-production of Enter the Dragon, seemingly on the cusp of enormous stardom. His image and mythology still reverberate like those of James Dean, another movie star to die young with a small body of work just sufficient to achieve icon status. The film and this question came inevitably back to mind after the death of Lee’s Enter the Dragon co-star Jim Kelly a few weeks ago. Kelly, a martial arts champion and the first black film star with such a background, displayed charisma and cool in Enter the Dragon and earned himself a decade-long movie career, albeit in mostly forgettable vehicles. Whether Lee himself could have become a true global film star, and stayed one through the ’70s and into the ’80s, is a fascinating enigma.
Lee is perhaps the most famous Asian movie actor for international audiences. The son of a Hong Kong opera star, Lee moved to the United States in his teens, where he studied at university and became an actor and martial arts teacher. He evolved into a fascinatingly multifaceted figure, with interests in philosophy and poetry as well as the more physical disciplines that gained him fame. He shattered stereotypes of Asian men in the popular mindset of the West even as he inadvertently created another.
Enter the Dragon served the function for which it was intended—an icon-forging showcase for Lee’s skills and screen presence. In the process, it became a classic of the movie-going underworld, a genuine, top-shelf cult film—the kind of movie that had its sold-out screenings in fleapit cinemas in shady city districts, and a reason home video was invented, its VHS box swiftly becoming tattered by innumerable rentals. It’s the most successful movie of its type ever made, parlaying a budget of $850,000 into an eventual gross of more than $200 million. I recall when I was a young teen, going to a friend’s house, where his father was watching it on tape recorded off television and pointing out to me all the bits that had been censored, recalling with loving zest the sounds of cracking bone that were supposed to accompany certain moments. It’s still hard to believe that the seemingly robust man on screen would be dead within a few months of shooting so many amazing feats. Lee, like Fred Astaire, had a sense of theatre to his physical craft that contributed to his talent; he acted like the world’s most fearsome fighter, and so he was. His incredible speed and athletic ability were quite genuine, and the camera loved it. The fact that Lee was a canny actor helped. His affectation of taciturn confidence bends and gives way only at appropriate times but leaves you in little doubt he was more than just another good athlete who could look tough and attractive on screen.
Enter the Dragon represented an attempt, both commercially and aesthetically, to create a pan-Pacific film. Warner Bros. coproduced it with the Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest studio, and American director Robert Clouse handled the mostly Chinese crew. The film fused aesthetics laid out by the films of King Hu and other wu xia experts in the late ’60s with a flashy plot and tone reminiscent of many a sub-James Bond franchise. Indeed, Enter the Dragon bears far more resemblance to Ian Fleming’s novel You Only Live Twice than the film of it did. Like the Steve Reeves Hercules films 15 years earlier, Enter the Dragon accompanied the TV show Kung Fu in helping to kick off a craze for another film culture’s product in the United States, but this time, the gulf breached was broader. Suddenly, cinema and TV screens were filled with the sham-exotic delight of crudely dubbed Shaolin monks and warriors for peace and freedom in the time of the Manchus, worlds far outside the familiar points of reference for Eurocentric cultures. Lee’s prowess became, by proxy, heroic symbol, exacerbated in Enter the Dragon by Kelly’s presence and characterisation, confirming the close link of the growing popularity of the kung fu flick to the Blaxploitation genre’s celebration of personally empowered non-Caucasians—or to put it more concisely, brothers who kick ass.
Lee’s character, named Lee as if to further the conflation of the hero with the actor, is seen at the outset as a Shaolin disciple, battling another disciple (Sammo Hung), receiving the advice of a sage abbot (Roy Chiao), and becoming a teacher of younger would-be warriors. He’s quickly recruited by British spy boss Braithwaite (one-time-only actor Geoffrey Weeks) to infiltrate the island controlled by Han (Shih Kien), who, Lee learns from the abbot, was himself once a Shaolin disciple but who chose to use his gifts to gain wealth and power through evil. Han now controls a small army of martial arts adherents, and holds an occasional martial arts tournament that entices men seeking fortune and glory to compete. Lee soon learns that he has another, even more immediate reason to take on Han: several of his henchmen, including the senior thug Oharra (Robert Wall), attacked Lee’s sister Su Lin (Angela Mao) and caused her to commit suicide rather than be gang-raped. Lee signs up for the tournament. Clouse offers a neat formal device here as the three main protagonists, Lee, Williams (Kelly), and Roper (John Saxon) join the party embarking by junk for the island, their particular motives for venturing into this viper’s nest revealed in flashbacks as they’re ferried through the floating world of Hong Kong’s harbour. Williams and Roper are Vietnam veterans who fought together: where Roper has skipped from the U.S. ahead of mob loan sharks, Williams has beaten up a couple of racist cops.
Enter the Dragon’s style is quintessentially early ’70s, from Lalo Schifrin’s throbbing, propulsive jazz-funk score similar to his superlative work on Dirty Harry (1971), to Gilbert Hubbs’ zoom-patched cinematography. The New Wave-lite visual flourishes, like those zooms and the expositional flashbacks, help synthesise, on a visual level, the same mood of syncopated flashiness as the music, and this finds perfect accord with the film’s contemporaneous themes and fetishes. Director Clouse had previously made a well-received adaptation of a John D. MacDonald novel, Darker than Amber (1970), which had impressed Lee and co-producer Fred Weintraub. They took visual inspiration from comic books, particularly the popular Terry and the Pirates with its pseudo-oriental colouring to create the film’s specific ambience, which envisions the subsistence of a kind of Chinese warlord-chic into the second half of the 20th century. Williams, the self-empowered black hero, cuts a striking figure on the streets of Hong Kong, picked out on the prowl with energetic zooms in the same manner that John Shaft was in Gordon Parks’ 1971 trendsetter Shaft, evoking a kind of worldly man at once streetwise and fit for his environment but also without a natural harbour, giving potency to his pithy reckoning: “Ghettoes are the same the world over. They stink.”
Whilst both Roper and Williams were planning to attend the tournament either way, both are on the run from themselves. Williams’ conscientiousness balances the far glibber Roper, a compulsive gambler who tries to live the playboy lifestyle but finds the bill’s always bigger than his resources and is shocked to be confronted with evil of a kind he cannot make peace with. Roper’s the sort of character Burt Lancaster might have played 10 years earlier—a life-loving, appetite-indulging trickster with real skill to back up his braggart zest. The semblance to Lancaster’s characters in films like The Professionals (1966) is particularly keen when Roper claps eyes on Han’s head courtesan Tania (Ahna Capri) and murmurs, “A woman like that could teach you a lot about yourself.”
Clouse’s use of the Hong Kong location is attentive and flavourful, zeroing in on structures that mark the peculiar texture of the city—ultramodern and virtual shanty town, particularly in the harbour’s floating ghetto, coexisting with a peculiar tension that defines the storyline with its many twinning opposites. Michael Allin’s script doubles up motivation for Lee’s vengeance, in haphazard manner, whilst the dramatic development is generally only functional. But the flashback sequence to Su Lin’s death is great stuff, as Mao gives a terrific display of her own kung fu prowess, decimating henchmen left and right, as fate presses in. Su Lin is chased into the recesses of the waterfront until she’s trapped in a warehouse, surrounded by Han’s men as they bash their way in through doors and windows, and the sequence screws inwards towards its climactic point-of-view shot of Su Lin clutching a hunk of broken glass with Oharra glaring down at her, death or dishonour reduced to a singularly powerful picture that resolves with the plunge of the deadly edge of glass towards the camera.
Oharra and Bolo (Bolo Yeung) are Han’s main henchmen, enforcing tyrannical discipline on their adherents, many of whom have been harvested from a ruthlessly whittled assortment of social rejects and the desperate of Hong Kong. Bolo, in particular, represents the cruel side of Han’s regime, snapping the spines of lesser henchmen who prove inadequate. Han offers his competitors a kind of Playboy-spread macho fantasy, where readiness to engage in primal struggle is countered by a boyish reward of plenty. But Han’s Island becomes a variation on the place in Pinocchio (1940) where the children are indulged with fantastic plenty until they’re turned into donkeys for labour. Han greets his guests with a buffet of easy living and sex, which proves to be a seductive entrée to a process of elimination, weeding out weaklings and dissenters and absorbing talents into his criminal organisation of heroin dealing and forced prostitution.
Lee’s inevitable battle of retribution with Oharra comes, surprisingly in terms of the film’s structure, half-way through Enter the Dragon, as he comes up against the colossal brute in the course of the tournament and sees the Shaolin master easily and steadily clobbering the heavy. (Wall was another martial arts champion at the time and a pal of Lee’s: their ethos was one of full commitment to the fighting on screen, and a lot of filmed clobbering is undoubtedly and wince-inducingly real, though Lee was occasionally replaced by stuntman Yuen Wah for the more gymnastic shots.) Oharra, infuriated, tries to attack Lee from behind with broken bottles, but he’s still beaten, and Lee jumps on him and breaks his back, cueing the film’s most remarkable shot, a slow-motion close-up of Lee’s face, contorting with warrior rage and grief. This tremendous shot confirms Lee really was an actor, as his façade of stoic intensity melts for a moment, and becomes a fulcrum of the action genre: the immediate moral and psychic impact of killing is apparent on a hero’s face with specificity redolent of the films of Anthony Mann. The audience is aware that Lee, as both a Shaolin adherent and son of pacifists, is painfully violating many codes that are important to him, but won’t let them stand in the way of justice. Enter the Dragon is not built, like many classic Asian martial arts cinema (e.g., Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata , The One-Armed Swordsman , The 36th Chamber of Shaolin , or Clan of the White Lotus ) around the acquiring of gifts in confluence with spiritual and conscientious growth; rather the hero is utilising his gifts for righteousness having long since learned where his sense of that lies, but it’s still a burden for him to wage such intimate war.
Nonetheless, Lee doesn’t seem too beset by soul-searching otherwise, preferring to give the audience the kind of unabashed good guy that fell out of fashion in Hollywood in the early ’70s. Lee is fun to watch even when he’s not hitting people, which, considering that he’s playing such a clean-cut character, is doubly admirable. There’s wit in Lee’s performance, in his sarcastic eye rolls when listening to Roper’s jive, or his patiently bored expression as he waits for the cobra he’s foisted on a couple of Han’s guards. Most importantly, Lee’s sense of gestural effect, the quality that made him indelible to so many viewers, is easily apparent and unmistakeable: his high, loud screeches before leaping into battle, his habit of widening his eyes and giving a savagely gleeful, tigerlike loll of his jaw after he’s bested an opponent.
Lee infiltrates Han’s underground operation because he needs to use the only radio on the island, and discovers the depravities within, including women going mad from being pumped full of drugs to make them pliable slaves. When his presence is detected, he rips his way through a small army of henchmen, one of whom is 19-year-old Jackie Chan, in a whirlwind of physical dexterity and badass moves, including kicking two men in the face in one leap. Not the least of Enter the Dragon’s gifts to film posterity was in providing early proving grounds for the talents of Yeung, Hung, and Chan. One clever touch that allows the film to play out as an exercise in pure martial artistry is the fact that Han has banned guns on his island—it’s implied that he lost his hand thanks to one—completely freeing the drama from that usual bugbear of the modern-day martial-arts flick, “Why don’t they just shoot him?”
Much of Enter the Dragon’s punch is thanks to Clouse’s sense of slick, illustrative style, quoting liberally from various Western film masters as well as mimicking the Hong Kong industry’s templates. Much like Don Sharp’s terrific Fu Manchu films of the mid-’60s, Clouse creates a conversant mix of retro style and sharp modernity in turning pulp-fiction Orientalist tropes into compelling contemporary action fare, with the telling difference that now an Asian could also be the hero and kick Fu Manchu in the face. As with the Bond films, Fritz Lang’s early serials and expressionist thrillers cast a long shadow here. Han has a Rotwang-esque gloved hand that hides the fake he wears, the bones of his real hand mounted in his private sanctuary (“A souvenir!” is how he describes it to Roper). Of course, the fake hand comes off and is replaced by claws and blades in the climactic scenes, a touch that perfectly channels both the traditions of wu xia and the Lang-Bond influence. Clouse belongs in a category with some other American filmmakers to emerge from the matrix of late ’60s industry upheavals, like Tom Gries, Richard C. Sarafian, Hal Needham, and Ted Post, who are always left out of accounts of the decade’s official auteurist sagas, but who made a mark reconfiguring populist filmmaking with an influx of lightly contoured post-New Wave effects and successfully blending the slick, playful expectations of genre cinema with a patina of pseudo-realism. For Clouse, Enter the Dragon proved a problematic success, as he was pigeonholed as a martial arts filmmaker, handling the likes of the infamous Gymkata (1985).
Lee’s brief oeuvre, which had also included The Big Boss, about a kung fu hero who becomes a unionist warrior, and Lee’s self-directed Way of the Dragon (1973), where he was defending immigrants in Rome from the mob, concentrated on the ideal of accomplished physical champion of the weak, a compulsory aspect of the genre, of course, but also with a level of discomfort and introspection inherent in contemplating a globalising world where exploitation was nascent. Clouse and Allin bypass that anxiety for the most part, aiming rather, in spite of the background notes of racial angst and Vietnam fallout, for a kind of pan-cultural atmosphere. If I’d pick a major weakness of the film, it’s that it could have fleshed out the roles of Capri and Betty Chung, who plays Mei Ling, an undercover agent who has infiltrated Han’s operation. Mei Ling is largely superfluous, used only to set up action scenes. Tania’s peculiar status as Han’s right-hand woman, who nonetheless succumbs quite easily to Roper’s charms, is interesting, but left sadly underdeveloped, particularly in relation to the bittersweet climax. Lee, like a lot of action stars who would follow him, seemed sadly wary of romance on screen, preferring to project a monkish persona in that regard.
The main characters are well-delineated and enjoyable, however, with Roper and Williams well-used as worldly foils to the fixated brilliance of Lee, in trying to scam Han’s tournament. When Han tries to impress Williams into his operation, the radical resists, of course, prompting Han to murder him. He then tries the same offer with Roper, whose affectation of glib acquiescence to business is shattered finally when he’s confronted with Williams’ mangled, bloody body; in an act of moral decision, he refuses to fight Lee in the ring. Interestingly, only Saxon’s clout as a marketable name resulted in the plot developing this way, as Williams and Roper’s functions were swapped. What the film lost in potential radical clout by having Williams and Lee team up, it gained in entertainment value: Saxon is fun as Roper, with a swaggering, smarmy charm and some surprisingly deft martial arts moves, and his move from comic relief to full-on hero is neatly handled. Roper is forced to battle Bolo after refusing to fight Lee, and bests the hulking henchman at last with a kick in the balls, whereupon all hell breaks loose as the battle lines are drawn between the visitors and prisoners against Han’s army.
The climactic battle between Lee and Han is a great set-piece, and indeed any showing of Enter the Dragon on TV can arrest me in anticipation of it. Khan, who was cast in spite of his poor English precisely because he could offer Lee a strong foe, slashes our hero repeatedly with his razor-fingered fake hand, leading to one of Lee’s most amusingly tough-guy gestures: licking his own blood from his fingers after touching a wound, before clobbering Han in the face with a flying leap and kick, moves that were Lee signatures.
Han finally takes refuge in his mirror-lined bathroom, where reflection upon reflection mangles all sense of space and sense. This gives Clouse a chance to work a variation on the climax of Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1946). As in Welles’ films, this hall of mirrors presents an electrifying visual metaphor for the hero’s destruction of duplicitous images, as Lee recalls the advice of his mentor to smash the illusions his adversary presents and begins breaking the mirrors. Clouse’s visual control in this sequence is genuinely impressive, extracting tremendous visual jazz and excitement from a simple device, with the inevitable pay-off of Han finishing up skewered on one of his own weapons. The final shots of Enter the Dragon find a bloodied and frayed Roper scanning a battlefield of fallen warriors, with Tania amongst them, but still offering a thumbs-up of comradeship to Lee. There’s a rich sense of both the pleasure and cost of victory over evil here, an avoidance of heroic bombast, and a sense of humanity that enriches Enter the Dragon, in spite of its sketchy story, to a point far beyond the usual mercenary reflexes of action films, and marks it as something special.
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Director: Herbert Ross
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Is comedy dead as an American film genre? Some people might think I’m being facetious, but for me, 2000’s Zoolander was my high watermark for modern comedies, and even that film was showing the signs that I believe have proven near fatal to American comedies. In general, the kind of wit that is based in human experience and cultural literacy and not in unexpected outrageousness, that is, OMG comedy that makes one feel uneasy rather than carefree, is a highly endangered species. Sadly, too, the wonderful comedians who were in vaudeville or were mentored by vaudevillians are dead or retired. Whenever I see a film that taps into the rich tradition of vaudeville entertainment, it is a sad reminder of a much richer world of entertainment that will never come again.
The Sunshine Boys is both a paean to the vaudeville era and a revival of the humor that entertained generations of Americans during the 20th century. Neil Simon, the author of the play on which the film is based, was born in 1927, near the end of the vaudeville era, when the actors and dancers, singers and specialty performers who trod the boards in vaudeville houses across the country were either retiring or trying to transition into motion pictures and radio. Despite the decline of vaudeville on the stage, movies were still liberally seasoned with the stories and acts of the era. For example, a veritable history of vaudeville can be found in the films of James Cagney, from the depiction of the prologue business that provided live entertainment in between movie showings in Footlight Parade (1933) to the career of the ultimate showman, George M. Cohan, in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). In the latter film, there is a reference to an acrobat act called Lewis and Clark; I wonder whether Simon might have remembered that reference when he christened the comedy team of Al Lewis and Willy Clark, the title characters of The Sunshine Boys.
For me, Neil Simon tends a bit to the sentimental and superficial, but The Sunshine Boys is neither. Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) is a demanding, unhappy man who refuses to acknowledge his failing memory or the herculean efforts of his nephew-manager Ben (Richard Benjamin) to get him work. The opening sequence shows a nervous Ben waiting for Willy to show up for an audition for a Frumpy’s potato chip commercial. On his way to the audition, Willy zigs when he should have zagged, and winds up venting his spleen to an auto mechanic (F. Murray Abraham) at the address he has mistaken for the right one. When he realizes his mistake, he heads out, again in the wrong direction, only to be corrected by the mechanic. He gets a chance to read for the commercial well after the last minute due to Ben’s persistence, but forgets his lines and insults the director (Howard Hesseman) and the product. Matthau’s air of entitled irritation sets the tone perfectly for his crucial confrontation with his old partner Al Lewis (George Burns), which comes about when Ben secures a major television appearance for Willy, but only if he and Al perform their famous doctor routine as part of a retrospective of American comedy.
Simon retreads his Odd Couple theme, with Willy a perfect slob and Al, his orderly, slightly prissy opposite. When he learns Al will be at his apartment in a matter of minutes, Willy hastily tries to clean up or cover over the dirty dishes, cast-off clothes, and other debris—a scene we can imagine happening many times over the course of their 43 years as a team. Burns, however, doesn’t play Al as neurotically tidy as Felix Unger was. He has the understated, disapproving Jewish mother down pat as he indicates his distaste with a terse “you live like this?” and a quiet, dismayed look around the room. Willy is much more vocal about his hatred of Al’s sprayed speech and finger jabs. The contrast between the emotionally volatile Willy and the maddeningly even-keeled Al is a formula that has worked beautifully for comedy teams through the ages—just consider how George Burns’ straight-man routine set off his wife Gracie Allen’s ditzy comedy perfectly—but highlights how difficult it can be to mesh such differing temperaments.
The rehearsal for the television show is a fascinating and surprisingly intense scene. Al and Willy don some funny wigs, make-up, and costumes and perform the routine. Full of corny jokes and a blonde bombshell of a nurse (Lee Meredith) as the butt of sexist and sexual gags, the doctor routine is nonetheless wildly entertaining and enthralling. These two showmen have the timing of a fine Swiss watch and somehow make the material feel fresh and involving. When the routine eventually blows up before the finish as Willy attacks Al, his irritation with Al’s spitting and finger poking past reason, I was heartbroken. The magic stopped, with a crucial moment of table-turning—Al broke Willy’s heart by quitting the act abruptly without a word—evening the score between the two men. Ross’ camerawork, getting close to the actors as the tension mounts, forms a satisfying climax to a symphony of bickering.
In general, Ross does a remarkable job of opening this play up for the screen, choosing locations and images that amuse as much as the snappy dialogue. The opening shot shows the fabled Palace Theatre, the goal of every vaudevillian, fronted by a statue of the legendary George M. Cohan with a pigeon perched on his head. Even just watching one of the boats people used to drive crossing a bridge from New Jersey to New York, with Burn’s disembodied voice whining along with the wheels of the car, was visual hilarity. Ross’ fluid camera works as well in elevators and offices as it does on the streets of Manhattan.
It is hard to fault the work of Burns and Matthau, both brilliant comic actors. Nonetheless, the much-younger Matthau—54 to Burns’ 80 years—could not suppress his physical vigor and seemed a mismatch for Burns. Watching his gangly form smoothly chasing a slow and stiff Burns around a couch is very funny, but highlights the degree to which Matthau does not play older than his years. Yes, he is great at sneaking cigars and eating the salty foods his doctor warned him against, but the infirmities of old age never really come from the bone.
Richard Benjamin is a bit of the unsung hero of this film, just as he is with his fictional uncle. His work as a go-between, however, is crucial to humanizing Willy and keeping him in contact with the world around him. He clearly loves and admires his uncle, and is proud of the legacy of Lewis and Clark. Willy has not adjusted to being an old man, nor has he moved with the times. He claims to be more in touch than Al, who lives with his daughter in New Jersey (“I see everything that’s going on in the world. Look! I see old people, I see young people, nice people, bad people. I see hold-ups! I see drug addicts! Ambulances! Car crashes! Jumpers from buildings! I see everything!”), but, in fact, he has withdrawn. Benjamin hits all the right notes as the comic scapegoat for Willy, but he also brings an emotional heart to the relationship that gives us a reason to care.
One thing vaudevillians could do that today’s comic talents seem unable to grasp is take a performance to its proper conclusion. Instead of starting a joke and developing it, modern comedies tend to flounder and spin out of control. The Sunshine Boys shows how even the most time-worn material can be spun gold in the hands of veteran entertainers who understand how to tell a story—beginning, middle, and end.
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