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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, but for whatever reason, departed before he 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 to safety, 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 made 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 immediately an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision: 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, including 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 leaves himself open to making himself the object of Bass’s ire, 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, so that suddenly to his former fellows the landscape suddenly seems charged with portents of his survival, and imagined visions of him 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—he has to revisit it three times. It’s not enough for him to stage one sweeping chase scene—he gives variations on the same scene 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: Karl Freund
By Roderick Heath
The series of horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s has long carried a specific mystique. The epoch of Expressionist horror that ushered the genre’s true arrival on screen had flowered in Germany but was waning by the time of the talkies. Whilst serious horror films were made in Hollywood throughout the silent period, jokey horrors were the most popular, lampooning the same dark and miasmic fantasias that the German filmmakers were revelling in. Many of the talented artistic progenitors of the Expressionist style, like directors F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Paul Leni, and camera wizard Karl Freund, decamped to Hollywood, which had already absorbed a lot of their style. A Hollywood horror revolution was officially kick-started by a native son, Tod Browning with Dracula (1931). Actually an adaptation of John L. Balderstone’s play taken from Bram Stoker’s novel, the film was charged with an enfolding sense of sonorous evil, and expertly exploited Béla Lugosi’s iconic charisma. Freund, who shot the film and helped meld the Expressionist ethic to the theatrical demands of early sound cinema,, emerged from the production with standing, as some felt he saved the difficult shoot, often filling in for the distracted Browning. Although more concrete than the intensely psychologised and symbolic Expressionist films, the specific power Universal’s approach was a dedication to making their horror films densely atmospheric and rarefied, close to cinematic mood poems and fables.
The great movies of their brand, including Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and a few others, defined the horror film in many minds, and still influence how many envision the classic roster of genre ghouls. Universal eventually turned successes into franchises and hammered those into the ground, although even their silliest later monster pile-ups like House of Dracula (1946) are exceedingly well-made and entertaining. But the earlier Universal work is far more powerful and still works even as many of the films show their age. Dracula proved a gigantic hit, and was quickly followed by James Whale’s brilliant take on Frankenstein, which although very different to Mary Shelley’s source novel, touched on a kind of fairy tale beauty and menace. Perhaps after a few years of the Depression, American audiences were in a mood not all that different to the struggling early days of Weimar; either way, dark, eerie, perverse and violent visions suddenly became wildly popular, an id to accompany the ego warriors of the gangster films soaring in popularity at the same time.
Universal, searching for another realm of the fantastic to explore, next produced The Mummy. It was an inspired and obvious recourse. Since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb ten years earlier, things Ancient Egyptian held great cultural power. The Mummy was an original property rather than a well-worn literary classic, albeit strongly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth” and “Lot 249” as well much of H. Rider Haggard’s writing. Keeping recent success in mind, the studio gave Boris Karloff, who had rocketed to stardom in Frankenstein, the title role, and had Balderstone pen the screenplay. Barely days before the shoot was to start, the studio pressed Freund to direct. When Universal returned to the idea of the mummy as monster in the Kharis series, kicked off by The Mummy’s Hand (1940), the more familiar version was created, that of a lurching, raggedly bandaged zombie slowly and remorselessly tracking victims. In this regard the original The Mummy can be a surprise, as the notion of a walking mummy is only briefly touched on in the film’s famous opening sequence.
That scene sees respected Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), his friend and colleague Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), and young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) inspecting their latest discoveries on their 1921 field expedition. Sir Joseph, an old and wise hand, wants to carry on cataloguing in the order of discover as per usual practice, but Norton is too distracted by their big finds, a casket that proves to house a mummy, a high priest named Imhotep, and a box containing a hieroglyphic scroll. Muller, inspecting the casket, deduces the mummy was in fact a man buried alive, for treason or, more likely, sacrilege. “Maybe he got too gay with the Vestal virgins in the temple,” Norton theorises cheekily, getting closer to the mark than he thinks. Sir Joseph is momentarily shocked by the terrible curse inscribed on the box containing the scroll, which proves on inspection to be the mythical Scroll of Toth, inscribed with a spell for raising the dead. Muller, an occult expert, and Sir Joseph head out to argue the wisdom of prying any further into their find, leaving Norton alone, where curiosity proves far too powerful for him: he removes the scroll, transcribes and translates it, and reads the words quietly to himself. As he does so, the eyes of the mummy behind him slowly flicker open, its desiccated hands twitch and shift. The poor archaeologist is unaware until suddenly one mouldering hand reaches into the frame and lifts the scroll.
The walking dead disappears out the door, still only glimpsed only as a few trailing bandages, leaving behind the instantly mentally shattered Norton, who bursts into hysterical laughter and reports to Sir Joseph when he comes running, “He went for a little walk – you should’ve seen his face!” This opening is so arresting and memorable that it has long overshadowed the rest of the film. The technical limitations of early sound cinema, including sparing use of music, actually helped imbue the early Universal horrors with their power – these films work like stepping into some quieter, sinister antechamber of reality, in spite of the fact Dracula and The Mummy are both set in a contemporary world of motor cars and other noisy paraphernalia (even Frankenstein was set about 1900). Freund turns a static, all but eventless scene into a little minuet of delicate camera movements and judicious cuts. He privileges the viewer at first to the manifestations of something extraordinary occurring, but then cuts the viewer out from seeing the climax of the moment. He concentrates instead on Norton’s transgressive act as something nudging the edges of an unseen world as he silently recites the crucial text, and then his confrontation with something from beyond the bounds of human experience and sanity. The narrative jumps forward ten years and takes up again with Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) working with Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie), on a new expedition on behalf of the British Museum that’s had a total flop of a digging season.
The events of ten years before are an enigma for these men, as Pearson ponders why David’s father vowed never to return to Egypt and David himself glibly theorises the boredom of digging in the desert broke Norton’s mind. A knock at the door of their base hut proves to be the strange, stalk-thin, brittle-skinned man claiming to be Ardeth Bey, who is of course is Imhotep himself, having cast off his grave wrappings and spent ten years practising Osiris knows what acts of dark magic to set himself up in the twentieth century and pass as a living being. Ardeth entices David and Pearson into facilitating his secret plan, by giving a clue to the location of the tomb of the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Intrigued by this seemingly wild surmise and anxious for anything resembling a find, the archaeologists set their diggers to the task and locate the tomb, fully intact with a bounty of untouched relics. So sensational is the find that Sir Joseph breaks his pledge and comes to oversee the removal of the treasure, which is then shipped to the Cairo Museum as prize exhibit. Freund offers another brilliant pirouette of style here as his camera explores the museum like a restless, hungry spirit, eventually zeroing in on the face on Anck-es-en-Amon’s casket. Freund then transitions via a whip-pan and an odd, delightful effect using a scrolling, illustrated cityscape as if the camera is racing across the city, to then halt on the face of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), gazing out at the pyramids as if staring into the past – the subliminal connection between her and the dead princess instantly stated.
The scrolling effect is deliberately artificial; a nod to the roots of fantastic cinema in magic lantern shows and theatrical effects, with an echo of Freund’s work for Murnau. It also reinforces an idea in the dialogue, a sense of disconnection from the reality of “this dreadful modern Cairo.” Helen is the daughter of the English governor of Sudan and an Egyptian woman “with a family tree a mile long,” and is the repository for a memory of nations and wandering spirits. Helen is being watched over by Muller and his wife (Kathryn Byron), but can’t concentrate on the “nice English boys” because something’s stirring in the night. That something is Imhotep, who breaks into the museum with the Scroll of Thoth and begins chanting her name in a ritual to bring her soul back to her body. Helen is the one who obeys the call as the Princess’s reincarnation, and Frank and his father come across her in a daze banging on the museum door. They take her to her apartment after she faints whilst Imhotep is chased by a museum guard who meets an ugly end in the shadows.
One distinctive quality of the Universal horror brand was that it upheld the notion that horror as a genre was essentially tragic, by concentrating on monsters and antiheroes who are often essentially cursed with existence, doomed to exist outside of the world and often prey on it. This idea stands in complete opposition to the tendency that emerged in the 1960s and still dominates the genre where the forces of evil have become increasingly one-dimensional and symbolic. Whale’s Frankenstein monster captured this idea with such power that it became a recurring motif, whilst Imhotep, in his desperate, eon-long search for his great love, exemplifies it. Appearing like a sun-dried praying mantis in kaftan and fez, Imhotep proceeds with Mandarin cool, alternately effete and concerted, afraid of being touched (“An Eastern prejudice,” he tells Sir Joseph by way of explanation after asking him not to) in case his skin comes off in mouldy flakes. But his parched and brittle body is belied by the power emanating from his eyes and the fixity of his desires. Universal’s make-up wiz Pierce created both the overtly gnarled and desiccated look of the mummy when first discovered and a subtler look for the revived and rejuvenated Ardeth, who looks just normal enough to pass but whose face bears a thousand tiny wrinkles as if someone tried to shrink his head.
Freund returns more than once to a single, stunning shot of Karloff’s face, every rut in Pierce’s make-up inscribed by the lighting and his eyes in shadow, only for his eyes to suddenly light up and reveal a dread, piercing stare. It’s a very simple effect, and yet it turns the idea of Imhotep’s deathless passion and innate force into a singular visual. The Mummy also helped codify a now-common form of morbid romanticism popular in the horror genre. Nowadays even Dracula, a human-shaped leech originally, has become a deathless romancer in search of his reincarnated darling in many recent takes on his story. Freund’s channelling of the Germanic liebestod tradition into a Hollywood movie was still a relatively new and powerful notion, and even segues into a perverse joke when Frank, half-jokingly and half-honestly, confesses to Helen that he fell in love with Anck-es-en-Amon’s mummified body after rifling through her personal effects. Archaeology as pick-up art by way of stalking and necrophilia.
The Mummy’s mood of subliminal obsession is mediated through intensely rhythmic visual and editing patterns, particularly the recurring images of Imhotep, swathed in shadow, chanting Anck-es-en-Amon’s name or reciting killing curses, alternately pathetic in his longing or terrible in his malevolence. Music and image build to crescendos as Imhotep screws up a fist to drive home his maledictions like lances. He kills Sir Joseph this way and also almost kills Frank, who is saved only by clasping onto a charm given to him by Muller, who serves as the de facto Van Helsing character. Van Sloan gets to display even more impressive pith as Muller than he did as Stoker’s savant, as he proclaims his desire to “get my hands on you – I’d break your dried flesh to pieces!”, but knows he can’t even approach the deadly magician. That’s another unusual aspect of The Mummy, too, as most horror films invoke the supernatural but very few place so much emphasis on mysticism as a form of power to be invoked and resisted. Every character in the film feels or wields an invisible influence, locked as they are within patterns of fate, from Sir Joseph’s Sudanese servant (Noble Johnson) who falls under the influence of Imhotep like one his ancestors did to that fallen but still potent empire, to Anck-es-en-Amon whose spirit continues to wander and find new bodies eternally for having broken her vows as a priestess of Isis.
The Mummy is perhaps the most overtly dreamlike and ethereal of horror films made between the coming of sound and the work of Georges Franju. An otherworldly quality is sustained throughout, a quality glimpsed at its strongest in moments like when Imhotep shows Helen their shared past in a shimmering pool of sacred water, or when Helen, swathed in white nightgown, stalks a corridor in a trance-state, leaving behind Frank’s crumped form on the floor. One the film’s most genuinely weird and jarring asides comes when Helen’s dog, nervous in Ardeth’s house of dark magic overseen by the cat goddess of evil sendings, Bast, is killed off-screen with a horrible wail. Most mummy tales exemplify, and indeed are today the most recognisable version, of a story pattern popular in a lot of Victorian-era fantastic fiction (also crime fiction, a la The Moonstone and The Sign of Four). In that pattern, exotic, mysterious objects from alien cultures come into the possession of hapless westerners, who find out just how much deadly power there is in the taboo objects of ransacked cultures. The forbidden object stood for a certain suppressed, half-conscious anxiety at the possible surge of forces stirred by colonialism, and reminded of the necessity of a certain stoic acceptance of foreign customs and rules.
This The Mummy has an aspect of this but moves in different directions. Imhotep re-emerges to torment the despoilers of a cultural heritage but also uses them to accomplish his ends. He lets Frank and Pearson commit the heresy he won’t, for he himself is a rebel against the demarcations of the sacred. He also happily reclaims ancient status when he mesmerically suborns the “Nubian” servant: the bath ain’t big enough for two imperialist powers. Karloff played Fu Manchu the same year in The Mask of Fu Manchu, and there’s a distinctly similar note of paranoia over the possibility of an aristocratic man from a non-Caucasian society creating a different, if no less oppressive, power paradigm. Here that pattern is complicated by Helen’s status as inheritor of dual legacies and existing in multiple ages. A deleted addendum to the lengthy flashback followed Anck-es-en-Amon’s spirit through many ages and places, disseminating the flow of civilisation out of Egypt and into Europe as well as the progress of her spirit. Imhotep is the power of things past but not forgotten; Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon is the life force that graces and never dies.
The vision of their shared history, including his own downfall and terrible death, Imhotep shows to Helen in his mystic pool, glimpsing how Anck-es-en-Amon died and Imhotep, the high priest to her priestess who had fallen in love with her against all taboos, tried to use the Scroll of Toth to revive her, only to be caught and sentenced to be buried alive. This sequence, which was recycled several times in Universal’s later mummy films, is a delight as a throwback to the fast-receding ideals of silent cinema, like a lost reel from some lost Cecil B. DeMille historical epic. Freund, like DeMille, takes the rectilinear styles of Ancient Egyptian art as a basis for stylising compositions and the movements of the actors within them, creating a ritualised form to evoke the distant past. More interestingly, though, Freund also utilises silent film acting styles to suggest the bygone and archaic – Freund both tipping his hat to the art form that had defined him and other filmmakers but which was already fading into legend. The close-up of Imhotep being wrapped in bandages before burial is excruciating, as Karloff communicates his unutterable fear and suffering even as he submits to his fate: this is, in its way, one of the most violent images ever committed to film. Imhotep’s pathos as a lover and antihero, where before he was merely a menacing ghoul, emerges here and gives context to the priest’s incredible defiance, even of his own death, a character who triangulates the dominating stature of Dracula, the victimised pathos of The Wolf Man‘s Larry Talbot, and the Promethean arrogance of Dr Frankenstein.
The Mummy hinges on Karloff’s ability to paint tortured depths in unlikely figures as well as sepulchral menace, his depictions of the alternations of hate, pain, longing, and a wry and haughty authority that drive the character making Imhotep one of the most genuinely interesting horror film villains. To have seen the film is to have his plangent chant of “Anck-es-en-Amon” forever in mind, reminiscent of that scene in Hour of the Wolf (1968) when the similar chant of “Pamina” in The Magic Flute is explored, the name as spell, love as transfiguring force. Indeed, Ingmar Bergman made that film in part as a tribute to his love for Universal’s horror films. Johann, a stage actress who was showcased as a potential movie star for a brief time but then retreated to Broadway and married John Houseman, is a fascinating presence. With her deep, silky voice and large-eyed beauty, she was at once able at once to seem the perfect flapper-age woman but also evoked a timeless quality. Her Helen looks and sounds like a being detached from the hoi-polloi of the twentieth century, and it’s easy to imagine her adrift on the rivers of time. Indeed, by the finale Imhotep has regressed her until she is once again Anck-es-en-Amon. Johann projects an easy sensuality and an aura of emotional maturity that belies her standing as damsel in distress, and she constantly nudges the viewer to remember this is a pre-Code film we’re watching. “What girl could fail to make a conquest who collapsed at a man’s feet in the moonlight?” she prods Frank amusedly when he professes instant passion for her, before adding: “Don’t you think I’ve had enough excitement for one evening without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?”
Manners, who had played a drippy Jonathan Harker in Dracula, is similarly outmatched here in a way that points to the way familiar romantic heroes were all but incidental in this kind of film long before the days of final girls. But Manners also fares better in playing Frank, who’s a rather oddball hero, a handsome nerd, albeit one whose romantic nerve once touched is impressively ardent: “You can tell me to go to the devil – but you can’t laugh at me,” as he proclaims with impressive determination as he declares his instant obsession to Helen. The Mummy is a flawed film for all its qualities. Balderstone’s script betrays something of the same stagy thinking that weighed down Dracula. Many scenes unfolds in the theatrical-like environs of the Whemples’ apartment, whilst Manners has deal with the lion’s share of unspeakable lines as romantic ingénue (“How I love you so!”). Freund’s last-minute hiring means that the filmmaking is flatly functional as often as it’s inspired. Freund was a profoundly gifted technician but only directed two horror films, this and Mad Love (1935). The degree to which he could take charge of material remained in question after the second film in particular was badly hampered by an unfocused narrative and excessive comic relief, and he stopped directing after that.
But The Mummy remains almost sui generis in its delicate sense of horror and tension, and resolves with a climax where the heroes, rushing to rescue Helen from Imhotep’s impending sacrifice and resurrection of her mortal form to remake her like himself, find themselves still outmatched by Imhotep’s power. Instead, aptly, it is up to Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon to defeat him by an act of prayer and contrition, calling on Isis to save her. Whereupon the statue of the goddess looking over the scene lifts a stony arm and strikes down the unruly priest with a curse that causes him to crumble to dust and skeletal remains, and Frank is left to try and drag Helen’s persona back from the murk of the past. This may well have influenced the similar deus ex machina punchline of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Although the staging of the finale is a bit awkward and rushed, it retains power for respecting the strange logic of this tale, where forces beyond rule all and love is an immutable force that distorts and rewrites reality. In celebrating this idea, The Mummy moves beyond Expressionist ideas into the realm of the authentically surreal.
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Director/Screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu
2015 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the brightest stars of the Romanian New Wave is Corneliu Porumboiu. His 2006 feature debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest, is a dead-on comic critique of finger-pointing at the dawn of Romania’s release from communist oppression and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. In the years since, Romania joined the European Union, in fact, only one year before the economic meltdown of 2008. The EU and financial hardships that afflict modern Romanians and their response to them are the themes Porumboiu examines in The Treasure.
Costi (Toma Cuzin) is a hard-working civil servant living in Bucharest with his wife Raluca (Cristina Cuzin Toma) and 6-year-old son Alin (Nicodim Toma). As the film opens, Alin is sitting alongside Costi in the family car scolding his father for being late to pick him up. Although he acknowledges that Costi is almost never late and that heavy traffic delayed him, Alin is still upset because he thought Costi did it on purpose and that he told Alin a story about trying to save people like Robin Hood, Alin’s favorite fictional character, to try to smooth things over. Costi apologizes.
That evening, Costi is reading The Adventures of Robin Hood to Alin for the umpteenth time when his neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcaresco), asks to see him. Adrian, recently unemployed from a lucrative job, is far behind on his mortgage interest payments and about to lose his house. In desperation, he wants Costi to loan him 800 euros so that he can hire a metal detector to locate treasure said to have been buried by his great-grandfather on the grounds of his family’s country estate in Islaz; Adrian offers to split the take 50/50. Costi has to manage his money carefully to pay his bills each month and tells Adrian that he can’t help. However, the idea worms its way into his mind, and with Raluca’s belief that the story could be true—Islaz was the site of the Wallachian Revolution of 1848 that was bankrolled by some wealthy families—he scrapes together enough money to hire Cornel (Corneliu Cozemi) to scan the grounds.
The Treasure is a sly little film that says a lot, especially about the European Union, without doing a lot. The golden dream of a democratic, capitalistic society to which Romanians clung while they were part of the Eastern Bloc tarnished in the oxygen of reality. Usurious interest rates combined with economic instability in the new Romania have our characters, Adrian and Costi, dreaming a different dream—in fact, a fairytale. Hilariously, Costi’s boss (Florin Kevorkian) learns that Costi used a work excuse to sneak out of the office. When Costi tells him truthfully that he left to meet with a metal detection firm to scan for treasure on a friend’s property, the boss nearly fires him for trying to play him for a fool. He insists Costi must be having an affair, and Costi, fearful of losing his job, complies with a made-up mistress and promises to end the affair to save his family.
The actual search for the treasure is about as true to life as it gets. Cornel moves back and forth inside the ramshackle remains of the once-grand estate and the acreage surrounding it, has trouble with his sophisticated, deep-imaging scanner, switches to a screeching surface scanner until Costi effects a repair, and argues off and on with Adrian as the tedium of the long day grows more acute. It’s odd to share the experience of standing around doing nothing; it’s a little boring and causes one’s mind to wander, but the anticipation that Cornel will turn up something exciting underlies the experience. When he finally thinks he’s found something, in the spot Adrian predicted, the men must then set to the hard work of digging two meters below ground. It’s almost cartoonish to watch, through Porumboiu’s steady, clinical gaze, as the dirt flies out of a hole lit only by a set of headlights and a single bulb flung over a tree branch.
Porumboiu introduces us to a rich cast of supporting characters, from minor functionaries at the Islaz police department to a resourceful thief and some larcenous country neighbors. Adrian doesn’t seem trustworthy, with his tales of family riches, but the country home he split with his brother as their inheritance is real enough. Costi is a kind, law-abiding man in a happy marriage, and we want the best for him. In the end, I felt quite happy with the behavior of all involved. Despite the looming threat of state seizure and only a small finder’s fee should a treasure of cultural significance be found, Adrian and Costi pursue their dream fairly. The film comes full circle, back to the magic of Robin Hood, the fantasy of buried treasure, and a father’s desire to be a hero in his son’s eyes—in part, thanks to the EU and the prosperity of a former enemy. The Treasure is a funny, human delight for the whole family.
There are no more screenings of The Treasure. It may be shown during Best of the Fest on Wednesday, October 28 at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
Motley’s Law: Informative and inspiring documentary about Kimberley Motley, the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. (Denmark)
The Emperor in August: Fascinating, beautifully shot historical drama of the final days before Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II. (Japan)
Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)
Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)
Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)
Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)
How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
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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 film fans 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. 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 define 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 mentally composes letters to his wife, which all begin with “Dear Katerina Matveyevna,” and become missives crammed with a mixture of pedantic and obfuscating detail, and 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, pale, 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 tradition for 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. This man, on the other hand, is Sayid (Spartak Mishulin), who 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, though Sayid continues to shadow Sukhov, torn between hunting his enemy and repaying Sukhov. 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 guerrilla 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 and even intended to kill them all, shooting two before the soldiers forced Abdullah to run.
Sukhov is determined not to get caught up in any more adventures and won’t join the hunt for Abdullah, so Rakhimov instead convinces him to take charge of the women and get them to a nearby coastal village. He 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 strikingly weird and remote old Silk Road city of Merv). 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, responding 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. 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, like somebody crossbred Casablanca’s Rick Blaine with Andy Griffith. Equally appealing to the hometown audience would have been the crucial, figurative joining of the generations and the concepts of Russia, as 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 maintain, 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 are in constant dialogue and battle within the very fabric of the film, the tensions of old and new, haunted and 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, however, 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 an idea of 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 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 and keeps finding opportunities and talk to her, urging her, “Show your sweet face!” in a certain amount of hope, as he’s falling in love with 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.
In spite of the deadpan nature of much of the film, closer examination reveals an intelligent and layered cinematic sensibility that 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, thus 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 original, intricate blend of filmic techniques, seeming at once to be 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 a 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, and emphasising improvisation in his performances and acuity 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. 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, riddled with 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; its closest relative in the era’s cinema was 1976’s Slap-Shot, an out-and-out comedy that nonetheless captured the same milieu. 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 wedding scene is often an ideal litmus test for the different ways people watch movies; pointless to some, endlessly fascinating to others. Cimino offers a vision of the celebration that’s more than a mere party, but rather a communal ritual laced with an ebb and flow of detail that offers oblique characterisation and underscores 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. 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 screenwriter and successful 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 cryptic, 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 vague 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 teenaged 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, and an almost Bergman-esque shot early in the film peers through an open doorway in the capacious house 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 Friedkin’s camera dollies back to reveal that Regan’s 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, with the relentlessly puerile, satirical bent of a 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, in that it 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 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), who’s also 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. Alternations of 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: what kind of career might Bruce Lee have had if he had lived? Lee died during the post-production of this film, 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, but just enough to achieve iconic status. The film and the 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 to counter the pumped-up übermensch dominant in that time, is a fascinating proposition.
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 if 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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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Directors: Nathan Juran, Gordon Hessler
By Roderick Heath
Ray Harryhausen’s death this past May genuinely pained me, like so many fellow film lovers who had grown up with his works. Harryhausen’s work kept the faith in cinema’s capacity to make the illusory and the impossible come to life on the big screen. Whilst the grand old man of movie magic hadn’t done any new work of note since 1981, his life provided a link with the golden age of studio cinema, and beyond that, through his mentors, to the pioneering roots of film. Nerds of many stripes loved Harryhausen, not just for fashioning images that fuelled their imaginations and brightened up the dolour of existence, but also because he seemed one of us. Like a much later generation of filmmakers who would try conjuring epic cinema through backyard thrift and wit, Harryhausen began as an adolescent enthusiast and tinkerer, one who watched King Kong (1933) one too many times.
Harryhausen sought out the mentorship of Kong’s effects maestro, Willis H. O’Brien, who had forged his famous stop-motion techniques, a version of animation working with malleable figures rather than drawn cells. In 1949, having worked under Frank Capra and George Pal, Harryhausen gained his first feature film credit alongside O’Brien with Mighty Joe Young. Four years later, after crafting a handful of shorts, he helped make The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, partly inspired by a story by his boyhood friend Ray Bradbury, but really a variant on King Kong, albeit one that dragged the mythos into the Atomic Age. Harryhausen’s effects immediately became a kind of film star in their own right.
Harryhausen followed up Beast with It Came from Beneath the Sea (1954), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), and Twenty Million Miles to Earth (1957), all produced on tight Columbia Pictures budgets that severely limited their scope and drama. Nonetheless, they were highly profitable and are still huge fun, quintessential experiences of the era’s scifi craze, shot full of imagery that helped create a lexicon of the fantastic in cinema that’s more powerful than ever. Harryhausen forged a partnership with producer Charles H. Schneer that would hold until Harryhausen’s retirement. The team first paired with Nathan Juran on Twenty Million Miles to Earth, a former art director who had won an Oscar on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) and had moved into fantastic cinema with the weak Beast rip-off The Deadly Mantis (1957). Looking for a more expansive and spectacular field in which to exercise his gifts, Harryhausen spearheaded a turn from scifi monsters to mythology and adventure for the first time with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, crossbreeding special-effects-based spectacle with traditional swashbuckling heroics. For the first time, Harryhausen got to make a feature in colour, and he debuted his new technique, called Dynamation, which allowed more sophisticated, layered interaction between photographic elements.
Harryhausen was always deeply involved with developing his projects and the aesthetics of his films, writing storylines and often dictating their visuals. This was one reason he became identified as their essential auteur over the credited director, on top of the fact that he was often accused of picking journeymen over greater directors to make sure the spotlight remained on his work. This wasn’t exactly true: amongst the directors Harryhausen worked with were Juran, Cy Endfield, Don Chaffey, Gordon Hessler, and Desmond Davis, all talented and engaged smiths of genre cinema who had a way with arresting imagery. Harryhausen and Juran meshed particularly well, as Juran had a sense of decorative colour and design that fleshed out Harryhausen’s worlds, as well as a strong sense of craft. 7th Voyage and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) stand as Harryhausen’s best films, both triumphs of a particularly lustrous and stylised, yet also earthy and robust, brand of adventure filmmaking.
Harryhausen’s material was cleverly pitched on a level that appealed both to the youth audience, which loved the colour and fantastic intricacy of his work, and to older filmgoers. His films stood fairly lonely throughout the ’60s and early ’70s, when it was widely assumed that to be hip, fantastic films had to be either self-mocking or else loaded with loud satiric or allegoric import: Harryhausen stuck mostly to a tone of bare-boned, unself-conscious intensity, but with suggestions of a deeper awareness. One of the most memorable sequences in 7th Voyage comes when evil magician Sokurah (Torin Thatcher), for the sake of entertaining the Caliph of Baghdad and his court, transforms a princess’s middle-aged, uptight handmaiden Sadi (Nana DeHerrera) into a bizarrely erotic, blue-skinned snake woman who dances with liberated, but deeply disturbing joy, until she almost strangles herself with the new tail she’s not quite aware of. The undercurrents of this scene exemplify the sensibility behind the Harryhausen brand, distilling suggestive and polymorphic ideas into a colourful and deceptive sequence, and also presenting a perfect unity of the special effects and Bernard Herrmann’s scoring.
In 7th Voyage, Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews) is transporting his fiancé, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), whose marriage to Sinbad will seal a peace between Baghdad and her native kingdom Chandra. On the way, he rescues Sokurah from the rampaging assault of a cyclops when his ship anchors off the mysterious island of Colossa. In the process of escaping the cyclops and protecting Sinbad’s crew, Sokurah loses the magic lamp that is his most prized possession. Sokurah is desperate to return to Colossa to recover his lamp, which contains a genie in the shape of a boy, Burani (Richard Eyer), who can emerge to perform feats of wondrous magic. He tries to charm the caliph (Alec Mango) into granting him the ship he needs with displays of sorcery, but Sinbad convinces the caliph it’s too dangerous. Sokurah forces their hands, however, by shrinking Princess Parisa to the size of a small doll: the princess’s father threatens war on Baghdad if they can’t restore her, and they have to accept Sokurah’s word that the princess can be restored with ingredients only found on Colossa. Because so few regular sailors will dare the voyage, Sinbad hires a crew of criminals, who naturally prove mutinous; they are tamed by the terror of encountering Sirens that drive them mad off the Colossa coast. Landing on the island, Sinbad takes a party inland to search for the nests of the fabled Roc, a bird whose shell is a necessary ingredient for Sokurah’s potion. But the island proves a relentlessly dangerous place where Rocs and the Cyclops decimate Sinbad’s crew.
7th Voyage starts with a motif that would recur throughout Harryhausen’s subsequent fantasy works and that helped mark a new phase in Hollywood’s approach to historical cinema—engaging with the past through approximations of period aesthetics. The credits unfurl over illustrations that mimic the style of the art of the from which cultures the stories are drawn, introducing the audience to the iconography and traditional background of the stories before the narrative proper begins, and grounding the material in a sense of the arcane suddenly brought to life, in much the same way that Harryhausen shocks lumps of latex and metal to life. Juran’s sense of colour and design balances the lustrous location shooting, which, like many epics of the period, was done in Spain. The candy-coloured costuming of the court scenes treads close to pantomime, but the use of old Moorish structures as stand-ins for Baghdad helps give the film a sense of solid physicality, one that pays dividends as it moves to the Colossa coastline, a place filled with genuinely interesting and odd-feeling locations that give lustre to the sense of transportation: Harryhausen’s effects conjure a colossal carved face through which the adventurers must move to penetrate the inland of Colossa, with suggestions of lost civilisations and daemonic power.
Juran’s direction is canny in his sense of event: knowing a character like Sinbad doesn’t really need an introduction or an origin story, he can simply leap into the narrative, with Sinbad’s ship crawling through the dense fog near Colossa, and dissolving to a inward tracking shot that finds the good captain himself at the wheel of his ship, face stricken with keen attention and electric curiosity as well as concern as he ventures into a new unknown, thus immediately identifying the hero’s perspective with that of the audience. 7th Voyage actually strip-mines a couple of different Sinbad stories from the tales of Scheherazade, freely mixed with touches from The Odyssey, notably the Cyclops and the Sirens off Colossa, whose hideous screeching drives Sinbad’s mutinous crew mad but that he, Sokurah, and loyal mate Harufa (Alfred Brown) block out with waxed cloth in their ears. And again, King Kong’s influence is apparent in the motif of a lost world where monsters weird and fantastical stomp, visited by a ship penetrating a veil of fog.
The first time I ever saw 7th Voyage, I was struck by the unnerving predication of the film’s being partly set in Baghdad—this was around 1990, I was a kid, and the Gulf War was brewing, lending dark immediacy to the threat of the Sultan of Chandra (Harold Kasket) to reduce the city to “rubble and bleached bones.” Of course, being a kid, I still had an occasionally confused sense of film chronology: I recall exclaiming during the finale, when Sinbad and Parisa swing across a chasm on a rope, “Hey, they ripped that off from Star Wars!” Of course, it was the other way around. Indeed George Lucas’ love of referencing Harryhausen’s works was a recurring motif in his glitzy series.
The beauty of Harryhausen’s work always lay in the exacting sense of behaviour, the articulation and physicality of his figures, and the mischievous qualities of humour and sensitivity so often invested in them. It’s this aspect, difficult to describe, which helped them transcend the realm of mere effects and become creative visions. The Cyclops, great two-legged beasts with horned heads and centaur legs to match their singular eyes, seem like cruel mistakes of nature trapped by being too large to be agile and too dumb to think logically, but with their cages for prey, spits for roasting game, and cumbersome, spiked clubs seem barely less civilised and intelligent than the creeps who comprise most of Sinbad’s crew, and with whom they engage in a battle of brute force and arrogance. When the crew come across a hatching Roc, they promptly spear the huge, fluffy chick and roast it, the newborn’s thigh offering a hunk of meat the size of a buffalo leg. When the chick’s mother, a far larger, two-headed, eagle-like bird, returns and finds what’s happened, she understandably ravages the remnants of Sinbad’s crew and plucks Sinbad himself away to devour at her convenience. This was a quality Harryhausen had partly learnt from O’Brien, who offered such touches as his prehistoric birds scratching behind their ears and an often jarring sense of detail, like the broken-jawed Tyrannosaur King Kong defeated lying prone, dying but still breathing. Harryhausen followed O’Brien in this, his monsters often displaying wrenching, surprising emotion, peculiarly sensitising an audience to their plight: you feel sorry for the Ymir of Twenty Million Years and the Cyclops of these films even as they rampage, often because their human persecutors seem much less lively and individual: so often in Harryhausen there’s a sort of ecological spirit underlying the message. The overt violation of a tenuous balance of a rarefied natural order wrought by Sinbad’s crewmen is replicated less crassly but more dangerously by Sokurah’s alchemist arrogance, having gone so far as to chain a colossal dragon outside his cave laboratory as a watchdog.
The colour of 7th Voyage, the vivacity of its pace and the mutually complementary power of Harryhausen’s effects and Herrmann’s music rest on the bedrock of a well-shaped narrative, with a kind of simple but rigorous care that’s even rarer in modern equivalents than the exacting personality of Harryhausen’s effects. Characterisations are, of course, one-dimensional in an authentically mythic fashion: Sinbad is brave and honest, Sokurah is evil and wily, Parisa is sweet and plucky, Harufa is loyal and doomed. The younger audience gets a figure to empathise with in Burani, who is essential to the narrative and whose desire to escape his supernatural life accords with Sinbad and Parisa’s tragic frustration in her plight, and contrasts Sokurah’s merciless hunger for power and the threat of war hanging over their respective cities. The clarity of the plotting in Kenneth Kolb’s script, which borders on the naïve but retains integrity, keeps its flow of cause and effect surprisingly precise, even elegant, each element informing another. Parisa’s plight is not just a plot motivator, but a superbly utilised device: with her tiny stature, she can help spring the lock of the cage where the cyclops puts the crew. There’s a lovely sequence of chintzy fantasy in which Parisa realises she can slide down the spout of the lamp to visit Burani within and learn the phrase that calls him out. She finds a pellucid space where fog flows out a tablet and a poem-puzzle that holds the key to freeing Burani, and the boy himself in solitary imprisonment, delighted by the Princess’s visitation but melancholy in his fate as a slave to the will of men: the film aptly fades out on the lad, now human, gleefully taking the helm of Sinbad’s ship. The cyclical rebirth of Burani is echoed by the self-induced destruction of Sokurah. The amusingly literal device he provides for Sinbad’s crew to defend themselves from the Cyclops, a huge crossbow that takes a dozen men to load, is finally used on Sokurah’s pet dragon, which then promptly falls in death on its master.
The finale, in which Parisa drops the lamp into lava according to the rhyme, looks forward to Peter Jackson’s finale for his The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Jackson, of course, being another contemporary movie wizard much influenced by O’Brien and Harryhausen. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) betrayed the influence in its Mines of Moria scenes that mirrored the environs of Sokurah’s underground castle, whilst its dragon protector surely inspired the one guarding Gringotts in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its film version. It’s not just the ingenuity of Harryhausen’s effects and Juran’s design here that made their work so powerfully formative, but its genuine artistry, the care of the lighting and framing, the gift for capturing the flavour of the arcane with ruins of civilisations and lost lore rediscovered, in the midst of primal terrors and alchemic nightmares. Juran’s fondness for high and low angles turn every element in the film into an aspect of a drama built around size in a dialectic of relative strength. Sokurah appears as a silhouetted figure sneaking into Parisa’s palace bedchamber to curse her, her arm seen getting smaller and smaller on the bed, whilst later he looms over her as colossally as the Cyclops do over the others. The taboo is evoked throughout, from Sinbad’s initial knock on Parisa’s cabin door, rebuked by Sadi, to Sokurah warning crewmen he leads not to drink from a stream he claims is poisoned, but they soon find tastes like wine, a different kind of poison in the context of a dangerous land.
The finale’s eye-popping set-piece is Sinbad’s battle with a skeleton animated to glowering, ferocious life, armed with sword and shield and duelling the hero in the midst of Sokurah’s castle. Sinbad, faced with the impossibility of killing such an enemy, tricks the skeleton into following him up a spiral staircase from which it falls and breaks to pieces. Over a half-century later, this sequence is still astounding, and perhaps more so for knowing that the choreography wasn’t being exactingly mapped out with computers, but rather by Harryhausen’s hand and eye. Of course, Harryhausen tried to top this in the climax of Jason and the Argonauts with a small army of such skeletons battling the heroes. If there’s a dated aspect to 7th Voyage now, it lies only in the blandly American presences of Matthews and Grant, whereas British character actor Thatcher’s magnificent hambone zeal is hugely entertaining. Juran went on to make with Matthews the more overtly juvenile Jack the Giant Killer (1961), almost a remake of 7th Voyage that also featured Matthews and Thatcher, and the horror movie The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1972).
Harryhausen did not return to Sinbad as a subject for 15 years. The changes that went on in the world and the film industry in that time were enormous, and Harryhausen relocated to England, joining a small band of American filmmakers who were finding a more rewarding production base there. The interval between 7th Voyage and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is telling, less in the look and quality of Harryhausen’s work and the film, which does a great job of evoking the saturated colour and epic craft of the earlier film, but in the approach it takes to the same basic story: where 7th Voyage is bouncy and comic book, Golden Voyage is terser in dialogue and storyline, tougher and less primly naïve, if also less spectacular and vibrant. The success of One Million Years B.C. (1966), largely owing to the incandescent sex appeal of Raquel Welch, was followed by the nearly ignored The Valley of Gwangi (1968), and a five-year gap intervened before Golden Voyage’s release. Harryhausen’s product had been battered by inconsistent commercial performance, and he had learnt one lesson: Golden Voyage puts the busty beauty of English starlet Caroline Munro front and centre. Director Hessler, fated like too many other interesting directors to spring out of British genre cinema in the late ’60s to essentially disappear, had done striking work in horror films before this, and his subtly oneiric take on Harryhausen’s visions is loving and rich.
Although it’s often suggested that Harryhausen’s brand was ultimately rendered obsolete by the explosion of fantastic cinema at the end of the ’70s, I think it’s also true that explosion was largely due to the success of Golden Voyage, which revealed there was a new audience hungry for old-fashioned thrills. Sinbad was played this time by John Philip Law, the most conspicuously Aryan of movie stars appearing with dyed-black hair, an American who had become a stalwart in European cinema. His Sinbad is a touch more roguish, if no less ultimately good, in a fashion that looks forward to Indiana Jones as a gritty soldier of fortune leaping into the unknown for good and glory. Like its predecessor, Golden Voyage pits Sinbad against an evil sorcerer and sends him to a mysterious land filled with atavistic peril: Tom Baker earned his epochal run as Doctor Who by playing Prince Koura, the magician with designs to ruling an Arabian city-state, trying to unite the three pieces of a wrought-gold dial that will give him unlimited power, anticipating the plot of Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), by another Harryhausen acolyte, Guillermo del Toro. One of the pieces of the crown falls fortuitously into Sinbad’s hands via a Coleridge allusion—the piece is dropped by a tiny winged homunculus created by Koura. The finger of fate is on Sinbad, as he’s visited by that dream of a mysterious dancer with a tattooed eye on her hand and visions of Koura. He finds the dancer, Margiana (Munro), is a slave in a merchant’s house, and, seeing the tattoo and recognising her import, manages to extract her at the price of also accepting the merchant’s bohemian son Haroun (Kurt Christian) as a crewman. Sinbad is enlisted by the Vizier (Douglas Wilmer), who has been so disfigured by Koura’s magic in his efforts to resist that usurper that he has to wear a mask. The Vizier gives Sinbad clues that point to the lost continent of Lemuria in the Indian Ocean as the location of a fountain of divine power, and he accompanies Sinbad in the adventure to retrieve the relic.
Harryhausen often turned his own showmanship into a subtext of his films: Sokurah’s malefic delight in exhibiting the transformed Sadi in 7th Voyage—“Behold!” he cries before shattering the urn that contains herr transformed self—is the cinema magician’s sneaky avatar, whilst Golden Voyage more darkly suggests the exhaustion as well as the thrill involved in conjuring life from clay. In one of the most fiendishly achieved, but subtle moments of Harryhausen’s craft, Koura is shown resuscitating one of the homunculi, patient and delighted father to an unholy, yet charming beast rising from a lump of artificial flesh to alert, scampering life ready to do mischief. Koura is slowly being aged to the point of wizened collapse by working his magic, a note that accords with Harryhausen’s explanation of his eventual retirement as owing to his wearying of labouring so long and hard on single projects when other filmmakers could make many more. Elsewhere in the film, Harryhausen proffers two sterling scenes of combat by the heroes with animated statues, the first with the figurehead of Sinbad’s own ship, brought to life by Koura to steal a map, and later a figure of Kali, the Indian goddess of cyclical destruction and rebirth, whose six arms present Harryhausen with one of his greatest challenges of articulation, solved with superlative skill.
Golden Voyage romps gleefully through its essentialist plot: screenwriter Brian Clemens, a stalwart hero of British film and TV genre writing at the time, is mischievous in developing some familiar themes but then distorting them, like orphaned Margiana’s anointed status by the eye tattoo that proves to mark her not, as usual in pulp fare, as a lost heir to a kingdom, but actually a chosen sacrifice/mate to a centaur worshipped as a god by the devolved inhabitants of Lemuria. The film moves through the crucial motifs of the mythic quest, a reminder that Harryhausen and Clemens had a grip on the innate structural sense Joseph Campbell identified. Such motifs come complete with riddle prophecy, delivered by the “Oracle of All Knowledge,” a horned spirit (played by an uncredited, marvellously weird Robert Shaw) that appears in a sacred flame like an eruption of the secret id of humankind. Although the narrative is determinedly traditional, it laces contemporary ideas as well as classical references throughout: whereas 7th Voyage is concerned with frustrated mating rituals, perfect for the repressed ’50s, here Haroun is a coded stoner-slacker needing some advanced application, whilst Margiana offers unabashed cheesecake in a role ironically defined by nascent emancipationist reflexes, as Sinbad, after glimpsing her delirious dancing form in a prophetic dream, liberates her from slavery and makes her one of his crew. There are hints of perverse metaphor as Margiana encounters her intended fate as bride of the centaur, whilst Haroun offers some comic relief redolent of Willie Best: “My heart is full of bravery!…But I have very cowardly legs.” Of course, Haroun mans up enough to become a possible successor to Sinbad, giving the Kali statue a shove over a precipice to save his master.
“There’s an old proverb I choose to believe in,” Sinbad says at one point, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.” This becomes a running gag, and also reintroduces a thematic strand that runs through so many of Harryhausen’s works—counterbalancing the seriousness with which they question the nature of what’s alive with a belief in human audacity in the face of primal forces. Just as Jason in Jason in the Argonauts tells Zeus to his face that he wants to prove men can challenge the infinite, Sinbad repeatedly proves the value of his blend of guts and caution in taking on the mystical. The polycultural wonderland that Hessler, Harryhausen, and Clemens evoke here encompasses a variety of mythological traditions, keeping its hero in focus as a figure of early cross-cultural outreach and dynamism. The usual climactic battle of monsters takes on overtly symbolic aspects, as the Oracle predicts good and evil battling at the edge of eternity, fulfilled when the centaur is attacked by a griffin. Golden Voyage could have used a little more story complication, but the feel for storytelling minutiae is still strong, in Harryhausen’s effects, like the displays of fear on the homunculus’ face and the bewildered aggression of the centaur, and the production, particularly the excellent sound design that gives corporeal conviction and dread to moments like the figurehead tearing itself loose from its place with the crack of splintering wood. Care and vision are also apparent in the directing, culminating in the finale in which Koura becomes invisible, only to be caught out standing in the waters of the magic fountain, his shadow revealed; Sinbad stabs him, and the fountain turns blood red.
The success of Golden Voyage gave Harryhausen renewed vigour and clout, but fate proved unkind, as his next film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), was released in the same summer as the first Star Wars hit. Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects themselves weren’t yet outmoded: inspired to take up the form by 7th Voyage, Phil Tippett would work on the likes of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Robocop (1987), and use his knowledge to help make the first CGI blockbuster Jurassic Park (1992) more convincing. What did become immediately passé was Harryhausen’s effort to produce special-effects-driven cinema without blockbuster budgeting, that could have added greater artisanal vigour and input to the almost cottage industry approach he had to his work. Eye of the Tiger, whilst not as bad as often painted, is still badly hampered by the sluggish, shapeless direction of Sam Wanamaker. Harryhausen bounced back for his final film, the glorious if camped-up Clash of the Titans (1981), but it was the end of an era.
It’s too tempting to turn a tribute to Harryhausen into another excuse to bash the era of CGI. CGI special effects’ crimes have been exaggerated, as many who work with the form are spurred by the same spirit as Harryhausen’s, but often without that crucial sense of personality and sparing approach to detail and problem-solving that invested his creations with unique life. One doesn’t have to be a luddite to see the difference between, say, the engagement with these creatures as entities with, say, the whirling robots of the Transformers movies or, indeed more aptly, the Kraken of the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), which become amorphous, characterless blotches of pixels by comparison with Harryhausen’s creatures. More importantly, too many of the movies around them are, compared to these voyages of Sinbad, equally amorphous and dreary successors. Harryhausen did not specialise in cinematic realism: he specialised in cinematic dreams.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Richard Lester
By Roderick Heath
Few filmmakers have experienced such jarring switchbacks of fortune as Richard Lester. Largely neglected now, Lester’s career arc was unusual as an American who found his niche and breaks in Britain, and who was only intermittently able to communicate with his native land, which found his sensibility inimical. But for a time, Lester’s influence on mainstream cinema and television was pervasive thanks to the two films he made as vehicles for some rock band, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), works that largely invented the visual lexicon of the new youth-oriented, visually flashy pop culture, and the music video in particular. Lester’s style fused ideas from the French and British New Waves with flourishes borrowed from silent cinema, surrealist-accented pop art, and advertising. The free-flowing absurdism of Lester’s early films still casts a long shadow on comedy film and television—Zoolander (2001) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) stand amongst many recent films that owe much to the Lester aesthetic—but riles many more classically minded cinema cognoscenti. That’s partly understandable, for as well as exemplifying their era, Lester’s films often revelled in acerbic humour laced with satirical overtones and post-modern disrespect.
But such attitudes worked in a constant binary with underlying earnestness, conveyed in filmic terms through a deliberate scorn for certain formal qualities that disguises diligent adherence to deeper principles, at once abrasive and romantic, even poetic, culminating in his dreamy, tragicomic masterpiece Petulia (1968). The increasingly bitter flavour of Lester’s ’60s films, including How I Won the War (1967), Petulia, and The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), saw his brand wane, however, as he tried to ask more pointed questions of a zeitgeist he had fostered, but found no one yet in the mood to answer. Lester shifted gears in the ‘70s by moving into the kind of genre cinema he was inclined to send up and yet for which he also had deep affection. The retrospective disdain in which fanboys hold his splendid Superman II (1980) notwithstanding, that film actually represents a climax to Lester’s witty ransacking of the heroic canon in the preceding decade in a series of films that tried to find the beating heart of that tradition even whilst subverting its mystique by looking for the far more earthy, gauche, even venal qualities of legendary protagonists.
Lester’s box office touch remained inconsistent, as did the quality of his produce, but he managed to make several superlative, still highly underregarded pictures, including his icily funny thriller Juggernaut (1974), the melancholy romanticism of Robin & Marian (1976), his deadpan Casablanca rewrite Cuba (1979), and his expansive two-part take on that most famous of historical adventure novels, Alexandre Dumas’ Les Trois Mousquetiers, perhaps the singular achievement of English-language adventure cinema in the ’70s before Star Wars changed the game. In spite of his vast impact on popular fiction and the traditions of swashbuckling later translated into cinema, Dumas has rarely had much luck on film: other English-language versions of The Three Musketeers have featured the Ritz Brothers, Gene Kelly, and Chris O’Donnell, with predictably messy results. Lester’s robustly comedic, antiheroic take seems at first glance as disrespectful as others, except that under the surface buoyancy, the love of adventure, humour, romance, fun, and delicious danger in his adaptations is as pronounced as in any Errol Flynn movie, only with different emphases. Working for the entrepreneurial but fiery Salkind clan who would later produce the Superman films, and with a script adapted by George Macdonald Fraser, whose pungent imperialist satire buoyed the Flashman novel series Lester would soon film, Lester had a large budget and a great cast at his disposal. He produced a diptych that works as a love letter to the merrier pleasures of film.
The opening credits of The Three Musketeers depict D’Artagnan (Michael York) and his father (Joss Ackland) engaging in combat, as father teaches son the specifics of his trade. The peculiar visual effects emphasize each movement as a study in effort and force by blurring remnants shimmering around the figures. The secret trick the elder D’Artagnan tries to pass on to his son later proves useless; rather than elegant fencers, Lester makes it plain in intricate, mischievous variations that the Musketeer heroes and the people they fight are hardly nobly refined fighters. Rather they’re full-body battlers who will fight with anything they can get their hands on—wine jugs, sheets, flower pots, rakes; you name it, someone clobbers someone else over the head with it. Lester similarly extracts historically acute humour from the length of time it takes to load a flintlock pistol, or the difficulty in bringing to bear a 17th century rifle. Warfare great and small in Lester’s eyes is mostly a clumsy business engaged in by the unwillingly incompetent or the professionally practical, with talent in its arts defined less by refined skill practiced by everyone from martial artists to Jedi masters than by the physical wit of a monkey and durability of a farm horse.
In this way, Lester looked for the submerged link between slapstick comedy and swashbuckler action, but in a different manner to earlier films that tried such a crossbreed, like the George Sidney version of The Three Musketeers (1948), which featured Kelly, or The Crimson Pirate (1952). Lester adds a ruder physical edge to the rough and tumble that’s actually quite authentic to the rhythms and methods of street fighting from the period, part of an overall texture that suggests this was a far less elegant and gentlemanly time than commonly depicted, for all its fertile aesthetics. Lester’s approach is also at odds with the way blockbuster action would increasingly take on the essential mechanics of slapstick cinema and replace laughs with suspense (at least theoretically) generated by ridiculous destruction of infrastructure and unlikely physical robustness: Lester rather looks for the humour in ridiculous situations that action films usually encourage us to accept straight-faced. This fits well with Lester’s sinuous blend of selectively deromanticised derision and boisterous comedic energy. As such, though Lester’s take on the adventure canon would be supplanted by the more earnest stylings of Lucas, Spielberg, Milius et al. within a few years, the sensibility of Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) isn’t actually that different: the marketplace kidnapping in Raiders is actually a riff on a similar scene in the second episode of Lester’s epic. The constantly misjudged or overstretched legerdemain of its characters is the great source of Lester’s visual humour. For example, early in the diptych, D’Artagnan tries to take out Count Rochefort (Christopher Lee), the snotty, one-eyed villain he encounters whilst travelling to Paris, by swinging on a crane rope to knock him off his mount; where Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks would’ve succeeded effortlessly, D’Artagnan misses and finishes up lolling in the mud.
In spite of all this mischief, Lester and Fraser follow Dumas’ tale faithfully and capture its essence. Like his distant descendant in adventuring, Luke Skywalker, D’Artagnan journeys from bumpkin to knight of the realm, leaving home with romantic ideals and paternal advice that soon prove inadequate to reality’s shifting mores. With his family sword smashed and his head battered by Rochefort’s goons, he faces up to the Musketeers’ commander Treville (Georges Wilson) weaponless and penniless. Forced to find a way to prove himself up to membership in the Musketeer corps, he quickly earns himself three duels in a row with the scabrous trio of Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), and Porthos (Frank Finlay) during an attempt to chase down Rochefort. Before he can fight Athos in the courtyard of a convent, however, the quartet are interrupted by members of the personal guard of Cardinal Richelieu, who, seeking a chance to bust Musketeer heads and increase the Cardinal’s power under the cover of enforcing an anti-duelling edict, assault them. The Musketeers and D’Artagnan win against the larger force, however, and, accepted as a new friend by the loyal trio, D’Artagnan gets a share of money taken from a defeated enemy’s pocket.
D’Artagnan is able to set himself up as a cadet with a servant, Planchet (Roy Kinnear), and he chooses to live in the house of geriatric weirdo Bonacieux (Spike Milligan), less for the quality of lodgings than for the presence of Bonacieux’s young, buxom, haplessly clumsy wife Constance (Raquel Welch). D’Artagnan falls immediately in lust with Constance, whose day job as dressmaker to Queen Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) proves the surprising ticket to great affairs of state, as Constance is confidant to the Queen’s romance with the English Prime Minister, Lord Buckingham (Simon Ward). Richelieu (Charlton Heston) hopes to tighten his grip on the malleable dimwit, King Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and seeks to disgrace the Queen through this illicit romance. Richelieu turns to his operative Rochefort, who has his lover and partner in crime, Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway), pilfer studs from a diamond necklace the Queen gave to Buckingham, whilst Richelieu manipulates the King into revealing the affair. D’Artagnan volunteers his and his friends’ aid when he overhears Constance asking her husband to help, and the foursome dash to the Channel. Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are wounded by the Cardinal’s many assassins, but D’Artagnan gets to England and regains the rebuilt necklace from Buckingham. D’Artagnan makes it back in time, and the Musketeers, still alive, if tattered, help as he breaks into the palace and gives the necklace to the Queen. Seeking revenge, Milady seduces D’Artagnan whilst Rochefort kidnaps Constance: D’Artagnan discovers Milady’s secret shame whilst the Musketeers rescue Constance, and when Richelieu sends Milady to arrange for Buckingham’s assassination to prevent him helping Protestant rebels, she demands payment in the blood of the two lovers.
It was almost inevitable that Lester would take on Dumas, having already channelled his influence in the cinematic concept for The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night: four sharply contrasting, yet ultimately loyal friends who are most effective when together. The Salkinds provided Lester with an amazing cast of ’70s notables, befitting a drama in which every character requires a larger-than-life vivacity and charisma. Of course, of the three Musketeers, only Athos is a real character. Aramis, with his smooth ladies’ man style and religious affectations, and Porthos, a poseur who’s really a blunt instrument, are there for entertainment in the margins. In particular, Finlay delights in depicting Porthos’ efforts to maintain a respectable front whilst always giving in with disgust and gusto to the necessity of the moment.
Reed was cleverly cast as Athos, a boozy warrior-poet with secret sensitivity and half-quelled demons: it’s hard not to see it as the actor’s most perfect character avatar. Athos’ crucial revelation of his background and the romantic tragedy that caused him to leave behind his aristocratic life waits until the second film. The revelation cues both a fine piece of acting from Reed and one of Lester’s most splendid, visual epiphanies, a flashback that reveals Milady was his wife, branded with the mark of criminality, fairy-tale beauty in stained glass and flooding sunshine giving way to pungent physical horror as Milady’s branding is shown. York, at the height of his boyish Aryan beauty, is suitably dashing, with the correct amount of callow blitheness. Lester finds the embryonic James Bond aspect of D’Artagnan as he greedily, but essentially innocently, seduces married women and hops beds with impunity according to the bawdy precepts of the day. Nonetheless, under the colourful surface of Lester’s films they are, in following Dumas, a chronicle of D’Artagnan’s coming of age.
There’s a bildungsroman secreted somewhere in this tale, in spite of Dumas’ avoidance of most moral lessons, except the final, blunt one D’Artagnan learns through Constance and Milady. He takes what life offers as shamelessly as the Musketeers loot felled opponents’ purses and steal from a tavern under the guise of a brawl when money’s low. Lester is hip to the proto-existential lives of the Musketeers critic Terence Rafferty once acutely diagnosed in Dumas, as men who regard the political quandaries whirling around their heads with complete disinterest, caring only about their own small corner of history. “Y’know it strikes me we’d be better employed wringing Milady’s pretty neck than shooting these poor devils of Protestants,” Porthos declaims in one of the few moments of macrocosmic contemplation, “I mean, what are we killing them for? Because they sing Psalms in French, and we sing them in Latin?” To which Aramis ripostes, “Porthos, have you no education? What do you think religious wars are all about?” In a modern setting Porthos’ qualms would be the stuff of great drama in a moral struggle, but in the period context, Lester and Fraser follow Dumas in making them essentially absurd: life is generally short and brutal anyway, so who cares? The machinations of Richelieu take place on a plane far above the roundelay of eating, drinking, fighting, and fornicating that is the life of the Musketeers.
Lester’s improvisational sketches on the framework of Dumas’ tale elaborate this blithely cynical attitude to period society into a veritable systematology. The films’ surfaces are rendered in dazzlingly lacquered colours, gorging the eye with lush framings of lovingly wrought costuming and décor evoking all the pretences of this past, enabled by David Watkin’s graceful photography. Washer women labour, soldiers drill, markets bustle, fine ladies entertain themselves, and eminences strut in showy apparel amidst scenes of gritty commotion or refined leisure in shots that could have been culled from Tintoretto or Rembrandt. But scratching those surfaces is an insidious humour that eats away at the historicism with scabrous modernity and bolshy perspective in contemplating the human reality of a hierarchical society, and the marginal people in historical dramas suddenly gain voice. Lester’s familiar device, pioneered in the likes of The Knack…and How to Get It (1966) of using multitracked sound and post-dubbing to fill out the aural margins of his films with onlookers and bit players whose under-the-breath mutterings, bellyaching, quips, and insights offset and comment on the main action, here is used to eat at the material, termite-like, in Lester’s extended piece of film self-criticism. One classic example of this comes in The Four Musketeers when Milady’s litter bearers, after setting their employer on terra firma, turn away and start grousing: “Bloody arm…she’s put on weight.” “Yeah, why don’t she buy a horse?” Or a mob of washer women waving farewell to a departing army, with cries including “Y’better come back and pay – I’ll find ya if y’don’t!” and “Nice to see the back of them then.”
The offhand quality of Dumas’ drama, with the Musketeers serving less the rather unimpressive humans who fill the great roles of state than the ideal of those roles and their own honour and desire for action, is drawn out in this fashion by Lester to become a sneaky kind of substance under the gallivanting. Perhaps taking cues from Ken Russell’s hellish historical satire The Devils (1971), he presents the King and Queen as airheaded layabouts playing about with human toys: the Queen gaily rotating on a hand-cranked merry-go-round and the King playing chess with trained, costumed dogs on a giant chessboard. Richelieu casually demonstrates his strategic mastery by making a move that sets the dogs to chaotic rebellion. Landscapes of teeming beauty are crossed by whining Planchet barely hanging onto his horse, perfectly arranged cotillions in beautifully appointed circumstances whirl around a boob of a king who can’t dance at all, and thunderous cannons blast wide of fortresses as the artillery officer kicks the dirt in frustration for his terrible aim.
The tone becomes even more acidic in the second half when the lunching royals dine blithely in front of trees festooned with hanged criminals. Kinnear, a terrific comic actor who tragically died when recreating this role in Lester’s The Return of the Musketeers (1989), is the engine of much of the diptych’s humour and sarcastic perspective, as Planchet is lumped with every thankless task, from dashing across continents to deliver vital messages to carrying the picnic basket and weapons under enemy fire whilst the others dart off and leave him to it. He’s offset by a female equivalent, de Winter’s servant Kitty (Nicole Calfan): both of them get slapped in the face by their employers and blurt out “Thank you” in return. But Kitty gets the better end of it when she’s able to seduce D’Artagnan while her mistress is out, whereas Planchet’s efforts to play the swashbuckling hero in fights inevitably turn into disasters, as when he tries to uproot a tree to use in bashing Rochefort, or tries to swing into a fray on a rope and crashes straight into the floor.
Although Lester channels elements of the long history of cinematic adventuring in Hollywood and European cinema into his Musketeer films, in many ways, these movies feel closer to Chinese and Japanese historical action cinema, in the conceptual approach to action scenes, the intense, almost otherworldly colours of their period visions, and the carefree blend of comedy and action. Set-piece duels between D’Artagnan and Rochefort, one where they battle in the dark with lanterns that can be closed off, each trying to surprise the other in a dance of dark and light, and another where they try to keep their balance whilst fencing on a frozen lake, certainly feel close to wu xia, though they deliberately lack the physical grace of their Asian counterparts. In a similar vein is Milady’s fondness for exotic and concealed weapons, like glass daggers filled with acid and a hair ornament that doubles as a piercing weapon with which she tries to kill a frantically improvising Constance.
Moreover, Lester revels in his prototypical Steampunk imagination, presenting anachronistic versions of modern machines, gadgets, and gimmicks, from a prehistoric pinball machine to an experimental submarine, all run by gears and muscle, and often contributing to his larger point about the nature of this pre-consumer society where the work of many makes fun for a very few. When D’Artagnan visits Buckingham in London, Lester has a group of Native American warriors gathered in the hallway just outside the Prime Minister’s gorgeously furnished study, as if there’s a Terrence Malick film being shot in the next room (and, figuratively speaking, there is), another sign, like the machines and the griping servants, that the modern world is being born whilst no one is looking. Later, the Indians shock Milady when she tries to assassinate Buckingham and spoil her plan, the oblivious, amused faces of the New World bemused by the beautiful evil of the Old.
Dunaway, at the height of her career and beauty, played many antiheroines in the ’70s, and Milady fits right in, with her trademark neurotically icy glare sharpened to a point where it seems she can disembowel a man at 30 paces with just a look. One of the few great villainesses and a distinctive prefiguring of the femme fatale figure in pulp fiction, Dumas’ creation of de Winter is perfectly embodied, and the one character in The Three/Four Musketeers who is almost entirely in command throughout, both physically and mentally. Dunaway has the wit to play the part deadly straight, the right physical as well as emotive intelligence in her playing apparent in her pause to hitch up her skirts whilst engaging in a murderous cobra-and-mongoose dance with D’Artagnan; her all-in catfight with Welch is actually the most genuinely brutal battle in the diptych. De Winter’s plague-like evil has roots in misogyny and reactionary disgust—Athos, really the Comte de la Faire, almost strangled her dead after discovering she was not the unspoilt gem he thought her—which hints at the motives that drive her even as she becomes pathological in her determined hate for D’Artagnan and Constance, whom she finally strangles to death in a suitably jarring moment of mortal savagery that marks the end of the boyish malarkey.
The Four Musketeers has a touch less drive than The Three Musketeers, but its darker, artier tone and genuinely intense finale mark it as superior, where the overflow of the first episode is a bit like a chocolate buffet at times. Lester displays a finite judgement—not always one he wielded effectively in other films—on when to cool the hijinks and let the story’s compulsion grow. He brings out richer hues and undertones to the adventurers in the second episode in Athos’ guilt and hate, Rochefort’s perverse ardour for and control over Milady, and Milady’s ruthless behaviour. One salient scene shows Milady, after seeing of D’Artagnan from her boudoir, stripping down and preparing for a bath, only to find the water’s been stained red by dripping blood from Rochefort’s hand, wounded in an earlier scuffle with D’Artagnan. Rochefort spitefully regards Milady and forces her to kiss him to reclaim his potency in a moment that reminds me of James Woods’ sleazy pimp mind-fucking his similarly, professionally immoral prostitute-protégé Sharon Stone in Casino (1995), and with similar psychosexual aspects apparent in the relationship. Lester turns the camera back to the bloody bath to visualise the morbid underpinnings and innate hatefulness of the partnership.
Later, de Winter reverses the roles in her way in a superbly orchestrated sequence in which Buckingham has her imprisoned with his Puritan valet Felton (Michael Gothard) as her guard, figuring the rigid religiose won’t be affected by her charms. But Milady goes to work with her insidiously manipulative genius in pretending to be a secret Protestant, and seduces Felton. The white-clad Milady is rendered suitably angelic in shafts of painterly light in her cell, a fetish figure of suffering that releases the Puritan’s erotic nature as he sneaks glances down her corset. Lester borrowed Gothard from Russell for his capacity to project deeply twisted erotic repression, and his utter capitulation to Milady sees him assassinate Buckingham in the belief his boss has betrayed the La Rochelle rebels—Milady has successfully destroyed another two men.
Milady and Rochefort’s coldly programmatic amorality offsets the Musketeers’ simple immorality and inevitably demands a more engaged reaction to evil from them. The finale set-piece has the Musketeers do battle on convent grounds with Rochefort and his men whilst Milady, now rendered almost hallucinogenically pure in a nun’s habit and bathed in light in her ironic ascension to new heights of villainy, penetrates the interior and kills Constance before being caught by Athos. D’Artagnan, shocked and desolated by Constance’s death, does battle with Rochefort in the convent chapel and skewers him with a broken sword that piquantly sprouts out of his back and into a Bible. Milady is sentenced to be executed by Athos himself, and Lester pulls off a final moment of strange beauty as she’s rowed across a river, emblematic of death, to be beheaded. It’s sad that Welch’s Constance has to meet such an end, of course, but the role gave Welch the chance to send up her own sexpot image whilst showing off surprising skill as a farceur; the result is hardly as empowering as Welch’s badass in 100 Rifles (1969), but it still provides a terrific twist on the stock figure of the victimised lady fair. Everyone else in the cast is noteworthy, particularly Kinnear and Lee, the latter of whom extracts notes of erotic evil, mordant world-weariness (“Perhaps I’ll die of old age,” Rochefort mutters before an incompetent firing squad), and slavish loathing of his master the Cardinal. “I also hate you,” Rochefort tells Richelieu, who replies calmly, in priestly metre, “I love you, my son.” Heston, for his part, extracts every inch of theatrical grandiosity from his role, one of the few real character turns of his career.
“One for all and all for one, which loosely translated means 10 for him, 10 for him, 10 for you, and 10 for me.”
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Director: Russ Meyer
By Roderick Heath
Roger Ebert’s death last week at the age of 70 brought on a wealth of lionising appreciations and articles, most of which celebrated the obvious and salient fact that he was a dean of mainstream American film criticism. There was another Ebert, however, a side the renowned critic was half-embarrassed by later in life, and one that his one-time partner in critical volleying Gene Siskel often used as a punch-line. Ebert had been a gaudily talented, furtively scurrilous dilettante screenwriter who collaborated with, of all people, Russ Meyer, the closest thing American cinema has ever had to a Rabelais. Ebert wrote three films for Meyer, two under pseudonyms: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! (1976), and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), all frenetic, comedic, deliriously eroticised satires that contemplate the sheer randy zest of the American populace in filmmaking that moves as if demonically possessed. This collaboration between Meyer, who had risen slowly from independent sexploitation productions to signing a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox, and Ebert, a Midwestern film nerd with a literate intelligence blended with hip, ruthless wit that was carefully leavened by his later persona as cuddly advocate, could only have happened in 1970. This, of course, was when Hollywood was desperate to connect with youth audiences who, even then, were the life blood of cinema attendance, but whose tastes were notoriously hard to cater to. Asked to create a follow-up for Mark Robson’s famously awful, enormously successful 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls, adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller, Meyer and Ebert transformed the project into their own freewheeling satire on both the Hollywood scene, which had been infected by the counterculture but still offered excess par excellence, and the Hollywood product itself.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls traces essentially the same arc of morality play about talented, pretty youngsters who hit Los Angeles hoping for fame and fortune but find the seedy underbelly of the Dream Factory. Susann’s story had the appeal of both waggling illicit and vicarious thrills under the nose whilst reinforcing prejudices for the receptive. Meyer and Ebert provide thrills illicit and vicarious alright, through the veil of mimicking the forms and platitudes of soap operas, magazine editorials, talk radio shows, and parochial moralists. The cast’s uncertainty as to whether they were in a comedy or not, an uncertainty enforced by their fear of embarrassing Ebert by having to ask, explains and surely contributed to the film’s volatile temperament: the motifs are authentic, the style ridiculous, the vulgarity supreme, and the emotions often strangely real. Indeed, that uncertainty says a lot about how silly much of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter output is. Funny thing is, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has a perversely acute prognosticative streak under its cheeky leer: Ebert’s script riffed on the then still-reverberating shock and notoriety of the Manson murders, and chose as his villain a figure based loosely on Phil Spector, who much later would reveal a genuine homicidal side to his outsized eccentricity. At a time when all-female rock bands were practically unheard of, Meyer, a professional libertine, and Ebert, dipping his toe in that pond, drummed up a film about one that became a sort of incidental founding text: watching Floria Sigismondi’s much undervalued The Runaways (2011) about that breakthrough act feels like art imitating life imitating art. Similarly, Beyond the Valley helped to invent a subgenre making fun of the licentious fantasies the explosion of the pop music scene in the ’60s engendered in the public consciousness, to be followed by films like Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and creating in such a film an ironic touchstone for people who really aspired to success in music.
Beyond the Valley begins with The Kelly Affair, an all-girl rock band composed of ballsy but cute singer Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), doe-eyed bassist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and sassy black drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), playing for a high school dance. Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) is their manager and Kelly’s boyfriend. Fed up with such paltry scenes, they decide to drive out to L.A. to pursue major success, where Kelly visits her aunt and last remaining family member, Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), a successful fashion designer and sole inheritor of the large family estate, because Kelly’s mother had been disowned as a single mother. Susan, charmed by Kelly, wants to give her a cut of the inheritance, but her scheming, square lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) objects, calling Kelly a fraud. Success proves instantaneous for The Kelly Affair, thanks to their introduction by Susan and Porter to flamboyant music promoter Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar), whose nightly parties, explosions of hip debauchery, are infamous.
Z-Man is immediately taken with Kelly and, after changing the band’s name to The Carrie Nations in reference to the saloon-smashing suffragette, he turns them into a sensation. But the shadow of success and all its evils now falls upon the band, as the cornucopia of sex, drugs, and money they now have access to puts them at the mercy of vampires of many kinds. Kelly is pulled away from Harris, who regards Z-Man and his world dubiously, and thrust into the arms of muscly Aryan gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett). Harris then gives in to the attentions of greedily sensual porn starlet Ashley St. Ives (Edy William). Petronella falls for a law student moonlighting as a waiter at Z-Man’s parties, Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), but in a distraught mood, sleeps with hot-blooded boxing champ Randy Black (Jim Iglehart). Casey, disaffected with men, heads into a lesbian affair with Susan’s collaborator Roxanne (Erica Gavin).
What follows is a remorseless burlesque on the tropes and conceits of trashy melodramas, inflected with Meyer and Ebert’s determined indulgence of that trash. Meyer was a contradictory figure: an extremely talented filmmaker with one of the best eyes for shot and cut in American cinema at the time, he was nonetheless extremely happy to celebrate the niche he found for himself as Hollywood’s greatest sex fiend, whilst playing the waggish commentator on the state of the nation’s bedroom life and psyche. Ebert’s film nerd streak comes out in some fairly obvious touches, like naming Porter Hall after the ubiquitous player of craven roles in ’30s films. A weird flourish that kicks the movie off suggests an immediate and forceful attempt to jam the film’s excessive and gaudy aesthetic in the audience’s faces, and also doubles as another film freak joke, as the climactic scenes unspool under the opening credit. Thus, the film plays the noir game of setting up a shift into flashback (and it should be remembered that Beyond the Valley, like most of Meyer’s films, becomes a noir tale, filtered through a distorting prism), but with the added gag of the credits being styled like the closing credits, as if the projectionist has messed up the reels. The utter bizarreness of what’s glimpsed on screen in this opening does eventually make sense later—well, sort of.
The riotous cornucopia of pansexual and pharmaceutical indulgence that is Z-Man’s abode provides a gladiatorial arena for much of the drama, with Z-Man its deliciously weird master of ceremonies. Kelly’s first entrance to his house is a brilliant display of both Meyer’s visual technique and Ebert’s cheekily loquacious writing, with Z-Man introducing Kelly to each of the vital figures of the upcoming drama with a stream of airily literate descriptions: “Languid Roxanne finds beauty, that delicate pinch of feminine spice with which she often flavours her interludes. Ah, look there, Lance Rocke! Greek god and part-time actor. See how well he performs? The golden hair, the bedroom eyes, the firm young body, all are available for a price!” Z-Man’s ornate word flow and status as unofficial narrator anticipates the more sustained experiment in narration in Ultra-Vixens, and also, weirdly, has a certain rhythm in common with Ebert’s speaking style in his later TV days. Meyer does spectacular work here as he leaps from character to character, interaction to interaction, entwining conversations, many between dancing people, into a rhythmically pulsing visual music, as it is in an earlier montage where his images and the arguments of the band over heading to L.A. turn into a kind of audio-visual beat poetry.
A certain loopy, sarcastic poetry does indeed inflect Ebert’s script, especially through the fount of verbose entertainment that is Z-Man. His declaration about his own party, “This is my Happening and it freaks me out!”, turns ephemeral hipster slang into Shakespearean epigram, whilst he later admonishes Lance, “I accept your fealty and do nobly return it, and beseech you to get thine ass in gear and gird thine angry loins,” and segues into his immortal cry of lunatic offence, “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Reminiscent of Jay Robinson’s fey Caligula in The Robe (1954) whilst anticipating Joel Grey’s pansexual emcee in Cabaret (1972) but more fundamental to the drama, Z-Man is the singular brilliant creation of Beyond the Valley. The spirit and embodiment of an unfettered, polymorphous age, Z-Man fancies himself as Virgil, the orchestrator of tours through Hades, as well as the seductive Mephistopheles dangling temptation, and finally succumbing to it himself, as his own bizarre secret is exposed in the course of sexual humiliation—he’s a hermaphrodite, or a transvestite, or something (Lance calls him “a really ugly broad”) a twist made up almost at the last minute by Ebert, but anyway he runs about for the rest of the film with dinky little tits out—sending him spiralling into a homicidal delirium.
If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s that it mimics the structure of what it’s sending up a little too faithfully (a common fault of such send-ups; 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a recent example), laying out the separate travails of the band and the people they know in overdrawn but not always hugely funny terms. Kelly is manipulated by Lance and abused by Porter, whom she seduces although he’s so uptight he won’t even take off his socks before getting into bed, in a sequence that can best be described as slightly amusing. Emerson catches Petronella and Randy in bed and then gets run down by the boxer when he refuses to budge from in front of his car. Like many of the professional women in the melodramas exemplified Douglas Sirk’s camp works, Susan is rescued from the sterility of success when her former boyfriend Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier) comes back into her life. Harris, increasingly addled and made impotent by narcotics, is soon given the boot by Ashley, who contemptuously suggests he might be gay, and in steaming humiliation he assaults the lippy Lance in Z-Man’s house. Badly beaten, he retreats to Casey’s house where they get stoned and sleep together, only for Casey to awaken the next morning without remembering how it went down, and throw Harris out in horror. But Beyond the Valley’s wicked streak finally crystallises when the story lines collide in a hospital waiting room after Harris has attempted suicide by throwing himself from the rafters of a TV studio where the band was performing. A stream of shocking revelations, including the fact Casey is pregnant by Harris, who’s feared to be paralysed, is accompanied by a droning organ score of the type endemic to soap opera. A kind of critical mass of absurd tropes is reached, and the only place for the narrative to go is into orgiastic self-destruction, something Z-Man is happy to provide.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls bemused and delighted many critics and viewers upon release and ever since for largely the same reasons: through its unabashed willingness to pander precisely the things it was sending up, its an excessiveness of style and attitude, and its eruptive, declarative embrace of what was supposed to be, in more familiar style, winking or happenstance pleasures for stoned collegians and raincoat-clad weirdoes. In this fashion, the director and screenwriter helped to erect something that others had tried but without the cred or the contempt for boundaries: studied, self-reflexive camp (one that pays tribute to an earlier effort by having Casey and Roxanne dress as Batman and Robin, famously camped up on TV in the 1960s).
The peculiar achievement of Beyond the Valley lies therefore in its capacity to strike one viewer as very obviously a lampoon and leave another uncertain, even appalled. The director and writer’s sensibilities are beautifully simpatico, particularly at the very end where Ebert serviced Meyer’s “sick sense of humour” by providing a ridiculous run-through of the characters’ fates in a plummy voiceover that points out the moral of each of their stories, underlining the vapid veneer of moralising assumed by much popular entertainment that actually appeals to base instinct. But there’s an undercurrent that keeps one mindful that Meyer really was the trash auteur where Ebert was a talented dilettante: where you can hear Ebert cackling with laughter bent over his typewriter, Meyer’s lower, debauched chuckle is also audible, as he always finds the money shot, throwing random huge-breasted starlets at the screen and going for broke with a startling moment when a woman is shot in the mouth to a rapidly edited but still spectacularly gruesome glimpse of spurting blood.
Meyer was definitely a director well-schooled in the perverted arts, but he also had a unique, sinuous grasp on the shifting tides of his public, sneaking observations and provocations with strange and disorienting punch into his sex farces. Ebert approached the affair as a mocking pastiche of everything he found silly in popular entertainment and our receptivity to them; for Meyer carnal forces lay deeper, less separable from more proper forms of entertainment, eating away at surface stabilities. A hint of meta self-satire is introduced as Meyer casts his then-wife William as the man-eating porn star (Meyer would close the circle with Ultra-Vixens, turning his own directing into part of the film) who, like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), inverts sexist prerogatives as an aggressively Amazonian libertine who humiliates Harris for his inability to perform. One of Meyer’s most sublime cinematic gags comes when Ashley first seduces Harris, enticing him into the back seat of her luxury car after Harris says he’s never made love in a Rolls-Royce and inspiring her orgasmic reverie, intercut with shots of gleaming hood ornaments: “There’s nothing like a Rolls – not even a Bentley! – Bentley! – Bentley!” Conspicuous consumption indeed, in a scene that beautifully condenses both Meyer’s contemplation of the relationship of sex and money in American society and his own love of the jump cut with sexual technique. The swanky photography by Fred Koenekamp buries the fairly low budget with gloriously overheated hues and worshipful studies of flesh, particularly in a brilliant late montage the depicts Z-Man’s fateful last bacchanal where he, Lance, Casey, and Roxanne take drugs and spiral into ecstatic tactile passion, bathed in sensual hues of green, blue, and red, in a riotous succession of off-kilter angles, geometric figure studies, and jammed-tight close-ups, orgiastic indulgence about to transmute into onanistic rampage.
Where Faster, Pussycat! had diagnosed repression and obsessive, degenerative machismo as secretly crippling atomic-age America and predicting an age of Amazonian superwomen rising out of its ashes, Meyer here, with Ebert’s help, reconnoiters the fallout of the breakdown he predicted. Norms collapsed, generations split, genders melted into a primordial chaos, and alternative and mainstream cultures each sought to exploit the other—late ’60s hip culture crashing headlong into haute capitalist power games. Both men readily admitted they knew little about the counterculture, but that didn’t matter: in fact, it became their secret strength. “Come on, man. I doubt if you’d recognise a hippie,” Kelly jabs at Porter: “I’m a capitalist, baby. I work for my living, not suck off somebody else.” If there’s a “serious’ aspect to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s in its evocation of a very specific moment in popular culture where social and sexual givens were cracking open: Meyer and Ebert give us an upwardly mobile, seriously conceived black couple and an ardent lesbian pairing, amidst the already familiar squares versus cool kids drama that pits Kelly against Hall, an uptight prig who upbraids the young hipsters around Z-Man and attacks Kelly with special viciousness in his efforts to send her packing before Susan endows her with the money he hopes to bilk. But unlike the many attempts to capture the counterculture zeitgeist in films before it, Beyond the Valley has already moved into a vantage of intense irony regarding that schism. It’s clear in retrospect that Ebert and Meyer recognised that youth revolution had already become theatre, and that the Me Decade was about to begin, presaged by Z-Man’s monstrous formlessness.
The open-minded aspect of the moment was still celebrated and perhaps indeed furthered by this film’s boldness. But it’s quite obvious that the clash between the candy-coloured hippies represented by Kelly and the effete, venal establishment embodied by Porter has already become a cartoonish trope as corny as anything in the soap operas the filmmakers repeatedly reference, fitting in perfectly with the film’s overall R-rated proto-Scooby Doo aesthetic. This is not to say the film is cynical about liberation, but it does have a wryly observant take on some aspects of it: the tendency of modern fashion toward androgynous skinniness is diagnosed in an exchange between Susan and one of her gay designers who keeps complaining about a model’s capacious bust, to which Susan retorts that “you must reconcile yourself to the fact that Cynthia is not a boy.” (If boob-happy Meyer was bound to find anything objectionable in contemporary gender revisions, that was it.) Still, the transposition of a fairly familiar brain-vs.-body romantic choice onto a black woman, who is caught between Randy, who posits himself as a sensitive warrior-poet but is actually a lunatic macho, and the smoother aspirational charm of Emerson, whose path to success is slower and more exacting, captures the “which way now?” question hanging over the post-civil rights era in the African-American community more incisively than many more earnest mainstream takes on the matter. More problematic is the approach to Casey and Roxanne’s affair, which offers up some canards about lesbians—Casey is weepily misanthropic whilst Roxanne is manipulative—but is essentially generous, if only because, in a note that pays off with a gloriously shameless make-out scene that affirms the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure but also critiques it again through excess, Meyer’s affectionately rubbernecking way of saying that liberation is a win/win situation, folks.
By this time, Meyer has given us “Stranger in Paradise” as a musical cue when Z-Man grabs Lance’s cock. The film’s last phase explodes with visions of disintegrating reality and pansexuality segueing into body-in-pieces Freudian fantasy, complete with distraught Z-Man asserting phallocratic power over Roxanne by jamming a gun in her mouth and blowing her brains out, and hacking off the head of Lance, reducing him to a purer lust object. Thus, Z-man brings to a consummating explosion the breakdown of forms into constituent bloody pieces. He also shoots Casey and stabs to death his household servant Otto (Henry Rowland), who’s actually Nazi bigwig Martin Boorman, a weird recurring trope in Meyer and Ebert’s collaborations: in Ultra-Vixens it’s Hitler himself spending his declining years finding fulfilment in erotic dalliance in the American Midwest. The readiness of the rest of the band and their now settled partners to leap to Casey’s rescue, albeit too late, is itself hilarious, as Harris saves the day by crashing into Z-Man with his wheelchair and thereby regaining his ability to walk.
The whole show concludes with a triple wedding for Harris and Kelly, Petronella and Emerson, and Susan and Baxter, whilst Porter watches from outside, ruined by his machinations, the final gloating satire on the moral neatness of melodrama but also linking the story back to Shakespearean pastoral, from which this mode of storytelling draws much of its spirit. If Z-Man’s rampage is surprisingly potent, this scene, and the exposition of the narrator giving us the lowdown on the meaning of it all, concludes the film again on a note of giddy, laugh-yourself-sick excess. But it’s hard not to notice that with Casey and Roxanne sacrificed as victims to Moloch’s twisted breeding with Pan embodied in Z-Man and the remaining couples joined in wedded bliss, the party is surely over. All that’s left after dissolution is reconstitution: reenter the squares, stage right.
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Director: Walter Salles
By Roderick Heath
Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road, published in 1957, bears a weight of cultural resonance that few modern texts can claim. Kerouac’s freewheeling ode to being young, energetic, irresponsible, and constantly on the hunt for new dimensions of experience brought the Beat clique’s artistic sensibility to a wide public consciousness, or at least one that didn’t involve obscenity trials, and helped animate the fantasies of footloose youth amidst successive generations. Kerouac had strived to create a specific kind of art, based in a celebration of movement and the moment, an artefact that resisted analytical introspection, but which also tried to turn reportage into a quest tale, that’s part Arthurian Grail saga, part John Bunyan-esque pilgrim’s tale, and part Walt Whitman-derived national poem. It’s a novel commonly, easily reduced to a basic celebration of a particular feeling and a rite of passage, a founding myth for modern youth culture. Many of the criticisms levelled at Kerouac’s writing are accurate, and yet few ever contend with the actual point of his labours, a point that was sharply at odds with the increasingly pompous, intellectualised state of the literary novel and its arbiters, which was to reject, or at least reconstruct, familiar literary values and try to drag the novel back to a state of experiential transmission: in an art form best known for its appeal to the introspective, he wrote about the specific thrill of doing stuff – dancing, driving, necking, jesting, raving on – as well as any writer ever has. Filming Kerouac’s novel had proved an elusive goal ever since. Transforming the “ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being”, as Kerouac described it, into artifice was the singular success of his labours, and trying to retransmit that as the recreated collection of sounds and images called a film, is doubly perverse.
A peculiar form of nostalgia possibly inflects the way the book is perceived now, as a wistful look back over the shoulder to when bohemian life and artistic expression weren’t bound up with pseud posturing, referential awareness, and politically correct touchiness, let alone the intervening age of reactionary schism that has toned the American social landscape, as Kerouac’s efforts to describe the openness and communality he encountered feels now more like the calm before the storm. By the time Easy Rider (1969), cinema’s fittest analogue to Kerouac’s novel, came along, the adventure ends with tragic, bigoted murder, and nobody doubted its plausibility. Kerouac, for his part, was trying to cast off cultural deadweight too, the staleness of pre-war politics, the immediate hangover of the militarisation of Western society, and the oncoming age of corporate-consumerist triumphalism. Perhaps for this reason, Kerouac’s message, and his method, could be therefore newly relevant; Kerouac’s attitude of aestheticized reportage lies behind a vast swathe of contemporary cinema. Brazilian director Walter Salles comes to the material after The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) similarly turned Che Guevara’s youthful peregrinations into a study in transformative revelation for the future revolutionary. In that film, Salles, to the irritation of some, avoided polemics and overt constructions of context, in favour of descriptive acuity, preferring to allow the meaning, or indeed the ambiguity, of situations speak for themselves. Guevara’s trip was one of growing radicalisation, something Salles described as based in direct encounters with the world, but he also allowed room for observations of the sorts of forces that would contradict and finally defeat Guevara’s efforts. Salles takes a similar approach to On The Road, avoiding commentaries on the Beat scene and its meaning to inheritors, instead offering it as a series of unvarnished personal observations that amass into not so much a narrative as a description of a life phase, and a journey of necessary growth for an artist.
Salles’ film can be described as a tonal betrayal of Kerouac’s book, in order to get at its own sense of the book’s truth. Where the novel is feverishly ebullient in its descriptions and expression, and the faiths it expresses overtly and implicitly, Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera are more restrained and, in a deadpan fashion, ironic and interrogative. They peer into Kerouac’s blind spots and finger the sore spots he placed Band-Aids over. The script was based not on the finished, polished novel but on the famous “scroll” draft that Kerouac pounded out on sheets of paper taped together, so as to let his tale flow out and recreate artistically the immediacy of the events he inscribed. The tone is closer to being an overt portrait of the real-life figures Kerouac was writing of, including himself, with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) less the gorgeous holy fool he is in the novel than the bad lot his model, Neal Cassady, could often be. This brings it closer in tone to an established, still proliferating body of film works looking at the Beats, including Heart Beat (1980), Naked Lunch (1990), The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), and Howl (2011). Some of these are fine, others are actively terrible: I still shudder when I recall the cut-rate 2000 film Beat, which starred Courtney Love as Joan Burroughs, uttering the line, “I’m staring into the abyss.” The cultish quality of Beat has often been its own worst enemy. Salles’ approach avoids that sort of thing, and also the hallucinogenic illustration of Cronenberg on Naked Lunch. Unlike in the finished novel, this version commences not with Kerouac avatar Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) having just been divorced, but just after his father died: Sal of the novel is a more mature figure, more sexually and socially formed, than the one we get here.
Salles and Rivera suggest squarely that the accord between Sal and Dean is, thusly, rooted firmly in their mutual search for a missing father figure, a father figure lost somewhere amidst, and perhaps indivisible from, the land around them. Dean’s father is a vagrant he’s long lost track of, only believing he’s somewhere around his home town of Denver, Colorado. Dean was born to the kind of rootless, perpetually yearning, fragmented lifestyle that Sal and his pals lean towards by choice and desire. Sal, a blocked young scribe hovering fretfully over his typewriter with nothing to say, is introduced to Dean when he blows into New York by Chad King (Patrick John Costello), mutual friend of Sal and poet pal Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), analogue for Allen Ginsberg. Carlo is quickly besotted with Dean, a recalcitrant but charismatic, fearless misfit, and has his first properly sexual affair with the young gadabout, although Dean has recently married teenage lovely Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Sal and Dean strike up a fast and solid friendship based not merely in that hunt for a father, but also in “intellectual” Sal’s desire for the kind of openness to life’s vagaries that Dean seems to wield so fearlessly, and Dean’s aspirations to the kind of artistic, ennobled non-conformist lifestyle that Sal, Carlo, and others in their social circle maintain. Dean soon departs the city, but later invites Sal to come to Denver, where Carlo has already followed him, and he finds that Dean has already divorced Marylou and taken up with the more centred, conservative Camille (Kirsten Dunst). Dean soon flees Denver for some solo adventuring, shacking up with Latino agricultural worker Terry (Sonia Braga) and sharing in her exhausting but simple lifestyle for a time, before returning to New York.
Salles has a gift for inscribing a sense of time and place in fresh and atmospheric fashion, and capturing behaviour in a way that feels at once acute and happenstance, avoiding the familiar indulgences of a lot Method-inflected improvisatory cinema and also the fussiness of many period films. Salles’ talents in this regard were particularly important to filming a book like this: the recreation of the late ‘40s atmosphere in On The Road is gorgeous, accurate to the argot and the tactile realism of the age without coming across like a bohemian dress-up party. Salles’ visuals, via the brilliant photography of Eric Gautier, capture landscape with a blend of stateliness and veracity. It’s in this regard that Salles’ film is most successful, his evocation of a grittier, fresher American landscape that’s been colonised by humans who share a language and a sensibility, but not yet invaded by mass market culture, a place where both joyous fellowship and dwarfing solitude, plenty and desolation are all easy to find. The opening sequence is a particular beauty, an in media res introduction that finds Sal stalking a lonely highway before explaining how he got to be there: he’s picked up by a truck carrying some other itinerants, and they share cigarettes, liquor, and ragged singing in the dull gloom of a dawn filled with outsized wonder and mystery. The bulk of the film is filled with moments of such beauty, the unexpected grandeur of dawn over a strange mountain range, the mystical lustre of a fog, the bleary beatitude of the distant New York horizon as Sal returns to the fold, raw desert, bleak snows, the outskirts of a town you’re leaving – familiar for any attentive traveller and conveying the world Kerouac tried to capture.
A film of the novel, rather than another straight biography of the Beat heroes, could, arguably, properly look like what Antonioni managed with Zabriskie Point (1970), or the best moments of Easy Rider or Alice’s Restaurant (1969), perhaps even, in the depressive counterbalance to Kerouac’s mania, the likes of Two-Lane Blacktop (1972) or The Brown Bunny (2003). If Oliver Stone or Francis Coppola – who was going to make the movie at one point and served as executive producer – had made this, in all likelihood they would have reproduced on an audio-visual level the indulgence of the characters and their world views, where Salles is more sceptical, evoking these elements without abandoning observational realism. Kerouac certainly wrote prose, a living, rambling creature drunk of pure sensatory overload in the American landscape, as a way of communicating the crypto-spiritualism of Kerouac’s sensibility, and yet On The Road is really more a kind of lyric poem that flows with words like a swollen river. The necessity of this is that without it, Kerouac’s tale can be taken for one of mere youthful hijinks. Salles’ approach is more literal and less encompassing, and his poeticism prefers to find constant minatory epiphanies, from the dull glow of a last cigarette smoked on a desolate morning to the fog wreathing the temple-like pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the weird blend of alienation and fellowship glimpsed when a young cowboy hitchhiker sings a mournful ballad, listened to with melancholy fascination by his hosts. Lyrics of hellfire and damnation accord quietly with the bubbling unease and neurosis that lies beneath the fracturing threesome’s jaunty exterior, as Marylou contemplates the oncoming end of the journey and her affair with Dean, and Sal studies her simultaneous youthful promise and sphinx-like self-containment.
Salles and Rivera contour Kerouac’s mystical pretences into the drama and visuals, depicting these young men’s journey as a tightrope dance between saintliness and damnation in their search for transcendent states of being. The filmmakers also contend objectively with it, offering up Kerouac’s avatar for William Burroughs, “Old Bull” Lee (Viggo Mortensen), as a corrective who probes Sal’s description of Dean. Where Sal sees him as a kind of Benzedrine-imbibing St Francis, Lee writes him off as a selfish sociopath: “So he’s a holy man now, a religious figure in your eyes?” Lee asks with disdain. It’s a strange film indeed that offers up William Burroughs as the voice of wisdom, although Salles tempers it by having Lee describe Dean as potentially violent and then resume his own hair-raising habit of blasting away at bottles with a handgun in between sentences. He also shows off one of his pseudo-inventions, really a piece of installation art, which supposedly cleans out cancer-causing agents in his body. Meanwhile his wife Jane (Amy Adams), frazzled and possibly mildly psychotic, beats at trees trying keep small lizards from climbing all over them and advises Galatea Dunkel (Elizabeth Moss) in the arts of fellatio. The seriocomic concision of this sequence does point to how Salles’ approach draws out an element of the novel which is partly buried underneath the rollicking surfaces of Kerouac’s novel, that it was also a series of situational portraits, depicting his artistic, bohemian, and happenstance friends in islets of individual crises, eccentricities, and striving labours to create a new and better American art and life. And Salles is brilliant in laying bare the dark, manic-depressive, exiled underbelly of the frenetic, rhapsodic side of Kerouac’s writing. The lizards that infest Jane’s trees which she bats at fearsomely emerge as a superlative visualisation at the forces already eating away at the homey settlement of post-war America and enacted by these anti-heroes, wilful guerilla warriors against boredom and time who also represent the Id of the modern age cracking out of a chrome-plated skull.
And yet Salles evokes the religious core of Kerouac’s perspective ironically through characters like Lee himself: when the voyagers first arrive in Lee’s house, they find their friend sprawled in an armchair, clutching his infant son with his track-mark riddled arm exposed, a blend of Madonna and Jesus icon, a Dostoyevskian figure of beatification found through raw and debasing experience. Kerouac’s novel is plotless, and so is the movie, rightly if not promisingly for many viwers. Whereas with The Motorcycle Diaries there was a “…and now you know the rest of the story” aspect to lend weight to the meandering, here the ultimate goal, beyond Sal’s finally finding his muse, is more opaque, but what emerges is, rather than the youth culture Mahabharata, is a portrait in individual growth. Stripping away the mythos of this material leaves this aspect most crucially exposed: On The Road is not simply about the joys of being immature and yearning, but also about the moments in which youth, or at least the naïve, all-embracing mood of youth, passes and is reconfigured into wisdom, with Dean as one of those great friends you eventually realise isn’t a person you want to be, and eventually you never want to see again, but still the days of freewheeling kicks linger with the patina of a lost Eden. Sal’s evolution, both in the company of his friends and during an adventure alone, is the point if there needs to be one, his passage through his country and discovering it as a place of both cruel realities and raptures.
The minutiae, the day to day details of trying to survive such a lifestyle, are perfectly observed, like Sal collecting cigarette butts to make his own, and moving on with scowling impotence when paid a pittance for a day’s labouring. Whilst Rivera trimmed several excursions from the narrative, my favourite passage made the cut, that in which Sal hooks up with Terry and joins her Latino kith and kin as a wandering harvest labourer for a time. This interlude is at once grim, as Sal perceives his own lacks baldly in picking cotton and being introduced to the rude truth of working class life, staring exhaustedly at his pitiful profit for a day working in the sun placed in his damaged hands, and yet also experiencing a rare time of gritty, simple, erotic fecundity with Terry, before they part, Terry grinning to herself in immediate nostalgia for a relationship they both know ends with him returning to New York even as he calls for her to follow him later. The sequence is alive to the transitory beauty and sadness of this brief yet crucial relationship.
Likewise homosexual elements elided in the book and yet crucial to the Beat scene are given their due. Sturridge’s Carlo, with his airy verbal rhapsodies and charming pretence, captures something of Ginsberg’s talent, charm, and warmth even as he could easily seem like a colossal poseur, going through an extended internal wrestling bout with his psycho-sexual confusion, vowing to go off to Africa and smoke himself into opiated ecstasies and later recounting a failed suicide attempt with good-humoured dejection. Sal and Dean’s friendship is always charged with an element of attraction, culminating in a scene in which Sal is disquieted by catching sight of Dean hustling money by screwing a middle-aged businessman (Steve Buscemi). Hedlund, previously best known to me as the heroic void of Tron Legacy (2010), is surprisingly effective as Dean. Dean’s bold eccentricity manifests upon his first meeting with Carlo and Sal, coming to answer the door stark naked, Marylou lolling in bed in their flat, the fetid atmosphere of sex and booze and poverty belied by the glamorous rawness of the duo. Hedlund’s Dean surveys Carlo and Sal with a wide stare that seems at once open and somehow fathomless, blank, eternally hungry and unfillable. Dean is at once deeply egocentric and rapacious in his drives, qualities that will lead him to eventually hurt those close to him, and also a genuine misfit, anxiously generous, for whom the niceties of everyday life in modern, suburban America are a confounding trial. He also collects interesting people, mostly female, including the innocently, raucously randy Marylou, and the knowingly wicked Rita Bettancourt (Kaniehtiio Horn) who sucks down coffee laced with Benzedrine with a self-administered catechism, “Bless me Father for I will sin,” and whilst she and Dean rut, Carlo’s cries of complaint about the noise inspire Dean to march out and drag him into bed with them.
Sal and Dean’s relationship, and their mutual, strange one with Marylou deepens when Dean turns up unexpectedly at a house of Sal’s sister’s house where his family has gathered on Thanksgiving, with Dean having dumped Camille and their child off in the hinterland and taken up with Marylou again, in the company of another accidental wanderer, Ed Dunkel (Danny Morgan), whose wife Galatea has turned up at the Lees’ house outside New Orleans trying to locate her wayward spouse. After Dean volunteers to ferry Sal’s francophonic mother (Marie-Ginette Guay) to New York, he then sets out with Sal and Ed to rescue Galatea from the eccentric care of the Lees, rolling on their five-finger-discount way after they’re harassed by a cop who takes exception to these freaks and have to pay a steep fine — a rare moment in which the nettling force of authority descends on these escapees from normality. Sal’s already been invited into bed with Dean and Marylou at her behest, a threesome that stalled thanks to Sal’s self-consciousness that drives Dean irritably from the room, and their simmering mutual attraction and Dean’s determined adventuring manifests most amusingly when, after they’ve managed to divest themselves of the Dunkels and are driving across the Midwest, he has them all strip off and drive with Marylou between the two men, pulling them both off in a scene reminiscent of the mediated pan-sexuality glimpsed in Bertolucci’s 1900 (1977).
It’s hard to think of a more exact fashion for Stewart to shake off her Twilight-ingenue phase than this scene which amusingly, incidentally, trashes the prim love triangle of her famous franchise. Stewart’s best moment in the film is earlier, however, as Marylou and Dean dance with proto-raver abandon to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” to the delight of the New York bohemians, emissaries of liberation. When they turn up at the door of Sal’s sister’s and crash the family gathering, they’re more like envoys from an alien planet. Dean charms his way through dinner and then confesses to Sal of having recently passed through a bout of suicidal despair, having sat alone for hours with a gun trying to work up the will to kill himself. The characters are only half-willingly trapped on the outside, with Marylou surveying even the Lees’ fetid house in search of signs of domestic contentment, and Sal later peering through a department store window, studying televisions like these are the true artefacts of an alien landing.
Sal and Marylou’s relationship finds fulfilment in one night of ragged passion after Dean essentially dumps them both off so he can continue with Camille and his kid, Marylou chasing him off with a well-worded missive and then retreats to a corner to don her battle gear for a life of survival without him –- blood red lipstick all the better for seductively handling a hotel clerk. Salles repeats this motif after Camille in turn kicks Dean out after he and Sal come back from a night of fun, returning to a suburban house with the pitch of sullen fury mixes with baby screams into a symphony of nerve-shredding, Dean kissing his child goodbye and exiting with sullen grace, whilst Camille takes a long hard look at herself in the mirror and then steels herself in her nurse’s uniform, getting on with the business of living with a child. Salles’ quiet toughness on the sexism of Dean and others of this world is bracing. Galatea Dunkel’s tough, ruthlessly honest, if also priggish and self-important centrist values and unwavering criticality of these wayward lads is beautifully communicated by the ever-excellent Moss in a too-brief appearance. Dean’s hopeless inability to settle is however finally revealed as a pitiable curse rather than a mere convenience. The film’s final passage is majestic, a hallucinatory, Peckinpah-esque depiction of the pair’s final trip, a drive into Mexico where the pair finally find the orgiastic, consciousness-drowning experience – an indulgence of the carnal so immediate it liberates the spirit in a moment of rhapsodic lunacy – which they’ve hunted high and low for.
The duo meet up with young scallywag Victor (Joel Figueroa) hungry for US currency, with whom they share a joint the size of a stick of dynamite, before he leads them to a whorehouse where they find eruptive release, Dean shaking from stem to crown like a whirling dervish in communion with godheads as he fucks and vibrates to jazz. So exciting are these carnal cavaliers that the whores and their town farewell them as they continue to Mexico City, where a romp through the streets at night, passing through the very gut of a teeming organism of human life, becomes another dance between devils and enlightenment, Salles’ lenses highlighting Madonna statues and skull-masked children dancing around the duo. This is prelude to Sal falling desperately ill, lying sweating and tortured by visions of his lost friends, and finally abandoned by Dean who leaves him to recover whilst continuing to chase whatever the hell it is he’s after. Sal and Dean’s last encounter on a frigid New York street with Sal heading off for a concert sees Dean appearing out the darkness, at last fully transformed into the frazzled, glowing-eyed, hollowed-out demon-beset saint Sal had always suspected he was, begging Sal silently for forgiveness whilst bearing the marks of damage that his continued journey left him with, as if Sal in fact got off easy whilst Dean’s continuing the quest took him to a bleak and ecstatic place that left him with no future, only more road.
Sal soon after finally begins creating the work we’ve been watching, creating the scroll draft in an explosion of creative self-exorcism that leaves off with Dean’s name repeated like a catechism, their search for unfound fathers still haunting them and Dean now a roaming spirit somewhere in the west, transmuted by Sal’s imagination into the personification of all things strange and off-kilter in an America starting to worship the television and the washing machine. Riley, after his wobbly work in Brighton Rock (2011), returns to best form in playing Sal, who is always two people, the fawnish young romantic on screen and the croaky narrator whose experience is written in his vocal chords whilst his face transforms as the film unfolds until he’s lined and hairy and the hurt as well as blessings of his life on the road pools in his eyes. Like Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago (1965), he’s the dreamy but increasingly battle-scarred conduit for the drama as much as protagonist. On The Road as a whole doesn’t always sustain the intensity of Kerouac’s writing or its own best passages, and on some levels I can understand the problems some have with it: rather than a tale of great moment, this is a grace note, a recreation of time past that asks less, what can be, but rather, what happened? Rather then presenting a road map for modern hipsters, the final thesis of the film suggests that for all the philosophy and life hunger Kerouac tried to present, he also succeeded in painting a portrait of people permanently cut off from their world and their moment, aliens in their own society, no matter how many funky kids tried to emulate their example. But it’s this slightly bitter realism, the acute reflection of the dark and downside of life in bohemia in any era as well as its ephemeral joys, that I liked. And the film is, especially in its concluding passages, true to the Roman candle vividness and floundering yet desirous spirit of Kerouac’s work, a rich and marvel-studded misfire, whilst resisting being another classic illustrated, a demystification that finds raw humanity under the sainted prose.
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