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Directors: Elia Kazan/John Erman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
During an interview about her recent appearance on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Gillian Anderson said that for actresses, the character of Blanche DuBois is the equivalent of King Lear for actors—the most demanding of roles. Vivien Leigh, who put an indelible stamp on the role in the 1951 movie version, said Blanche “tipped me over into madness.” Ann-Margret, who played Blanche in a 1984 television movie version, acknowledged it as the hardest role of her career, commenting rather drolly: “I play a character who is a nymphomaniac, an alcoholic, and a psychotic. It’s not a musical.”
A musical it certainly is not. A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the bleakest, most primal works ever created, pits the illusory world of a desperate, half-crazed Southern belle against the brutal reality of a modern-day caveman in the heat-drenched squalor of a New Orleans slum. And yet it teems with a kind of music—the lyrical dialog of Williams, the great modern poet of the stage descended from a grand Tennessee family as reduced in circumstances in the 20th century as the fictional DuBois clan that spun Blanche and her sister Stella out as its tired, last remains.
Streetcar is my favorite play, one I’ve seen several times on stage and in two film productions—the famous Oscar-winning prestige picture from Warner Bros. and a made-for-TV production that aired on the ABC Movie of the Week. The former earned its lead actress, Vivien Leigh, an Oscar, and the latter garnered Ann-Margret a Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination. Comparison may be beside the point, as it is, I believe, the text itself that indelibly brands everyone who comes to Streetcar for the first time and colors their view of the best interpretation. Nonetheless, although many people may think I’m crazy to class a TV movie with a film made by the mighty Elia Kazan and starring two bonafide movie stars—as uneven a boxing card, they may think, as that between Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois—Ann-Margret, Treat Williams and their director, John Erman, more than hold their own.
Little is different in the set design and costuming from one version to the other, though the TV version eliminates the wrought-iron elegance from the Kowalskis’ apartment building, helping to identify it more properly as a tenement. A basic, but not insignificant, difference between the two productions is that the earlier one is shot in black-and-white and the later in color. Harry Stradling, a cinematographer whose career began in the silent era and who could shoot anything from musicals (Easter Parade , My Fair Lady ) to high drama (Suspicion , A Face in the Crowd ), opens Kazan’s film in a bustling train terminal that tees off a gritty, restless style that has more than a hint of Manhattan to it. Bill Butler, whose major claim to fame is lensing Jaws (1975), shot the color Streetcar with a gauzy, nostalgic look that opens with Blanche’s sun-dappled trip through the genteel Garden District and gradually dims as she moves into the heart of darkness that is Elysian Fields, the rough quarter where Stella and Stanley live. There is a languid, moist quality to the look that suggests the damp heat of a New Orleans summer and more closely matches the action and dialog indicated in the script.
Both films take liberties with the script. Both are shortened, but choose different elements to eliminate. Importantly, Williams collaborated on the Kazan screenplay with Oscar Saul, so the choices were largely his; the TV movie credits the adaptation to Oscar Saul alone. I love that the Kazan version retains Stella’s revealing and image-rich speech about Stanley’s first act on their wedding night (“Why, on our wedding night—soon as we came in here—he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs with it. … I was—sort of—thrilled by it.”), but the Production Code demanded that the reason for Blanche’s disgust with her young husband was his lack of ambition, not the discovery of him having sex with a man. Stanley’s rape of Blanche is represented by her face reflected in a suddenly smashed mirror. In Erman’s version, the homosexual text is restored and the rape made explicit as Stanley straddles Blanche on the bed and tears her clothes.
Of course, the most important differences can be found in the performances of the actors as guided by their directors. It is here that I will part company to a large degree with the consensus opinion that Leigh, Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Karl Malden as Mitch comprise the ultimate dream team for this work. In many ways, I prefer Ann-Margret, Treat Williams as Stanley, Beverly D’Angelo as Stella, and Randy Quaid as Mitch. Here’s why.
Let’s start with Kazan’s version. Brando originated the role of Stanley on Broadway, under Kazan’s direction, to great acclaim, so it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the film version employing both men is the definitive version. Brando, of course, was one of the most electrifying actors of any generation, and his beauty and physicality work perfectly to explain why the refined Stella DuBois would throw over her aristocratic, but impractical heritage when offered the reality of the best sex of her life for the duration of her life. It seems, however, that Brando has taken literally Blanche’s description of Stanley’s animalism: “There’s even something sub-human—something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Maybe he’ll strike or maybe grunt and kiss you!” For much of his performance, he mumbles flatly, crossing other players’ dialog in a jumble of semi-coherence. Brando’s early confrontations with Blanche seem disconnected; he has far more to say to Stella about Blanche’s wardrobe than to Blanche herself, reflecting the strong connection between the pair.
Leigh plays Blanche as a hysteric from the get-go. She talks so fast that no one statement gets more emphasis than any other. Now, I have known mentally unstable people with logorrhea, and so this choice is not out of place. It renders Blanche something of a ghost, drained in many ways of personality, a waif we really can believe has to depend on the kindness of strangers. As the hard knocks continue, especially living with the contemptuous Stanley, Blanche’s desperation and growing lunacy overtake more everyday matters. It is in these latter stages of the film that Leigh really shines. She embodies Blanche’s delusions with the conviction that it’s a blessing to tell “what ought to be real.” The weariness of facing the world and her fading fortunes—“God love you for a liar,” is her ironic retort when Stella tells her how well she looks—slips briefly during her last hurrah as she attacks Stanley with a broken bottle, but crumbles immediately in his grip.
My favorite line reading from Leigh is during her flirtation with the young newspaper boy (Wright King) who comes to the door when Stella and Stanley are out. She has flattered him by guessing he was smart enough to avoid being rained on by ducking into a drugstore for a soda. “Chocolate?” “No, ma’am. Cherry.” “Cherry! You make my mouth water.” The sly double entendre of that last line hits the ear like a bell because of the fleetingly expressive, somewhat offhand delivery of someone who is trying to keep control of herself and assert her power and desire at the same time—very fitting for a schoolteacher turned sexual predator. In this instance, she completely bests Ann-Margret’s nakedly sexual line reading.
Kim Hunter has to play Stella like a cockeyed optimist to give weight to her relationship with Blanche. I was struck by her upbeat offer to put a shot of whiskey in a glass of Coke when Blanche asks, “Is it just Coke?” By this point in the drama, it’s clear that Blanche has been hitting the bottle pretty hard, but Hunter’s Stella seems utterly unconcerned, perhaps lost in the delusions Blanche spins to maintain her tenuous grip on a home, a future, and her sanity. Nonetheless, if this was Hunter’s and Kazan’s intention, it undermines the “happy” ending when Stella chooses to face reality and leaves Stanley (perhaps to return?). Otherwise, Hunter works extremely well with Brando—it can’t have been hard to express desire for a man as charismatic as Brando, but she is also very convincing as a wife who loves her husband and isn’t afraid of him or of expressing her opinions.
Karl Malden is, in my opinion, almost a complete misfire as Mitch, Blanche’s awkward, mama’s boy of a suitor. He seems to have entered the quarter by way of Hell’s Kitchen, adopting neither a proper Southern accent nor bearing. He looks like he’s trying to compete with Leigh when he should be overwhelmed by Blanche’s practiced seduction. Oddly, when it’s time for him to hold his own with her after learning of Blanche’s sordid past, he just seems to fall out of the scene as Leigh reflects back at Mitch with pride and venom his own fantasies of Blanche as a spider luring her victims to the Hotel Tarantula.
This brings us to the John Erman production. Erman directed some of the best older actresses in the business in TV movies, including Sylvia Sidney, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, and Lee Remick. In addition to Streetcar, he directed Ann-Margret in three other TV movies: Who Will Love My Children (1983), the marvelous The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987), and Our Sons (1991). Erman helps his leading lady harness her natural sensuousness and use it to give Blanche more grounding and substance than Vivien Leigh’s Blanche. Ann-Margret fills her line readings with meanings that reveal Blanche’s state of mind, from a subdued, quizzical “Can this be her home?” upon her first look at Stella’s building to her genteel, slightly coquettish response to Mitch asking to kiss her: “Why do you always ask me if you may? Why should you be so doubtful?” Indeed, she brings out the Southern gentleman in this quiet man who seems a very unlikely comrade of Stanley’s.
Ann-Margret’s physicality works in her favor as well. When she emerges from Blanche’s frequent hot baths, she luxuriates in a sense of refreshment and a reinvigorated body. She puts on a dress like a woman caressing her beloved: “Clothes are my passion,” she says as she flicks and examines a fur on her arm. Ann-Margret said that when she went at Williams with the broken bottle, she told him to be prepared for a real fight. Blanche makes several passes at him, with Williams making an interesting game of pretending to take her threat seriously. She never had a chance, of course, but her determination makes her madness in the final scene all the more heartbreaking.
Quaid is, to my mind, the perfect Mitch, soft-spoken and kind when allowed to be himself, driven to rash and cruel behavior when he’s drunk and disillusioned. He’s like the male version of Blanche with less breeding. Beverly D’Angelo is a terrific Stella. Her performance shows the troubled relationship she has had with Blanche and the DuBois clan, deflecting Blanche’s criticism of the way she left the family and Belle Reve with a firm, “The best I could do was make my own living, Blanche.” Later, her response to Blanche’s “Is it just Coke?” is a resigned and slightly disgusted “You mean you want a shot in it.” I didn’t feel the connection between D’Angelo and Williams as strongly as with Hunter and Brando, but they had some nice, familiar moments, such as the girlish, wheedling way Stella asks Stanley for some money to take Blanche out during Stanley’s poker night and her playful greeting and full-bodied hug after he returns home the morning Blanche implores her sister to leave him.
Will Treat Williams make anyone forget Marlon Brando? Probably not, but he’s a sexy man in his own right who actually gets to bare his well-toned torso during his first encounter with Blanche, allowing viewers to share in her carnal stare. His violence doesn’t explode like an inferno the way Brando’s does, but he keeps an undercurrent of menace through most of his performance. To see him play a seducer and likely murderer of a teenager in 1985’s Smooth Talk is to understand this aspect of his persona at its most extreme, and I enjoyed that he didn’t make Stanley such a simian dolt, but rather invested him with an intelligence Blanche would like to ignore.
Erman maintains a leisurely pace, allowing us to sense the passing of time from Stella’s first revelation that she’s pregnant to her baby’s birth and imagine the building tension in the Kowalski home. He gives his actors room to explore their characters’ moods and actions in this way as well. While both versions of A Streetcar Named Desire are fine works, if you only know Kazan’s, you’re missing out on a real treasure.
The John Erman Streetcar is available here on YouTube.
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Director: Wes Craven
By Roderick Heath
Wes Craven’s career making horror films lasted over forty years, but he remained devilishly hard to contain or categorise. A former philosophy student and English professor, he often exhibited great conceptual intelligence in his work, utilising highbrow ideas like metatextuality and nested realities well before they became fashionable, as well as pursuing a definite satirical interest in confronting the violent and perverse impulses lurking under the surface of the modern world. But he also gleefully delivered the down-and-dirty pleasures of his chosen genre, and as he developed from the relatively straightforward rawness of his infamous debut, Last House on the Left (1972), he began to revel in a stylised, madcap, virtually slapstick version of horror. There was a strong dash of Looney Tunes to his horror – the villains reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in their braggart ferocity, the heroes fighting back with their Acme kit-like improvised methods. His sixth feature film, A Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), was the kind of hit every low-budget, ghettoised filmmaker dreams of, one that made mountains of lucre and impacted upon the genre significantly. And yet the director himself was forced to sell the rights to the film before its release, and could only stand and watch as his brainchild became a pop cultural phenomenon. Craven’s career would remain skittish, even after he finally found a degree of stature and mainstream success with the Scream series. In the phase following Elm Street, Craven did some of his best, most distinctive and vigorous work, but little of it was well-received at the time, including the would-be new franchise creator, Shocker (1989), the freakish, scabrous parable The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the ingeniously self-referential Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1993).
The Serpent and the Rainbow might have seemed at first glance a play for relative respectability. Craven took on a script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, adapted a memoir by researcher Wade Davis, recounting his investigations into tetrodotoxin, a chemical derived from puffer fish venom and used by Haitian voodoo practitioners in zombie creation rituals, with the hope of adapting it for medical use. Respectability seems the last thing on Craven’s mind when the viewer is confronted by the resulting film, however. Long before Charlie Kaufman made a joke out of trying to turn dry reportage into a popular genre movie in Adaptation. (2002), Craven beat him to the reality, creating one of his strangest, most defiantly individual films, as well as one of his best – ridiculous, weird, and riotously entertaining. The Serpent and the Rainbow arrived as a near-freeform assault on familiar narrative niceties, shifting through familiar modes at breakneck speed. It’s a travelogue, anthropological study, political thriller, surrealist fugue, blood-and-thunder horror yarn, and action blockbuster all at once. It looks back to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1942) in trying to seriously and even realistically encompass voodoo as a socio-religious tradition, with an aspect of a specific, very ‘80s brand of fashionable ethnographic study and Third World consciousness-raiser a la The Emerald Forest (1984) or Under Fire (1983). But it also shifts into utterly whacko B-movie shtick and haunted house ride-like showmanship when it feels like it.
Davis becomes Dennis Alan, played by Bill Pullman, a dashing young Harvard-trained ethnobotanist (!) who arrives deep in the Amazon forest hoping to find commercially exploitable herbal remedies amongst tribal shamans. One shaman (Evencio Mosquera Slaco) feeds him a hallucinogenic concoction as he thinks Dennis needs to perceive things beyond, because there’s some immensely evil force looming over him. Dennis, in his altered state, encounters a jaguar that terrifies him at first but proves to actually be his protective spirit animal. But the shaman is replaced in the fugue by a fearsomely leering sorcerer (Zakes Mokae), who torments Dennis with visions of being dragged down into the earth by dead and buried men. When he awakens from this grotesque trip, Dennis heads to his helicopter in relief but finds the pilot dead, killed by some malediction. Dennis is forced instead to hike out of the jungle, seemingly guided to safety by the jaguar spirit. When he gets back to the US, Dennis is hired by his mentor, Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough), who now works for pharmaceutical company boss Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle): Schoonbacher and Cassedy want him to go to Haiti, to investigate a seemingly authentic case of somebody having been made into a zombie. The first scenes of the film have already shown this, as the evil magician of Dennis’s dream, actually Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), oversaw the burial of the man pronounced dead but, Craven reveals, weeping in his coffin. The Captain works for the Tonton Macoute, the secret police force that did the dirty work for the government of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.
The unfortunate victim, Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), has since been disinterred and briefly sheltered for a time by psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (the ever-excellent Cathy Tyson), whose report attracted outside attention. Dennis meets up with Marielle but Christophe has long since left the run-down, grimy asylum Marielle tries to administrate: eventually they track him to where he now lives, the cemetery where he was buried, lurking in the shadows as a distraught and disorientated shell of his former self. Christophe was a schoolteacher who was fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, and Peytraud targeted him for destruction. Dennis tries to get on with his job, approaching braggart gambler and alchemist Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) to make some of the supposed zombiefying concoction he’s famous for, and Louis happily agrees for a few hundred dollars. Louis tries to cheat Dennis by giving him a batch of the bogus blend he sells to tourists, but Dennis spots the gag and forces Louis to put up the real thing. Louis eventually agrees but insists Dennis join him the long and complex preparation process for this mysterious concoction. Trouble is, the longer he spends in Haiti, the more deeply Dennis becomes involved with both the local culture and its marvels, and also the evil of the Duvalier regime, as represented by Peytraud, who uses both torture and voodoo to torment and terrorise anyone who attracts his sadistic interests.
Standing on the side of the just is Marielle’s friend, fellow resistance member, and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), who tries to use white magic to protect Dennis and Marielle as they tread on territory Peytraud jealously defends. In many ways Craven’s sense of style could hardly have been more different to the elegance and suggestiveness of the classic Universal and Val Lewton horror films: his camerawork, quite often utilising hand-held and steadicam shots that roam about his characters and vivid lensing effects that mimic the presence of unseen forces assailing them, is vigorous in a manner that suggests Werner Herzog’s work on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) on crack, the special effects unrestrained, and the manifestations of primal and supernatural terror visualised with gusto. And yet in other ways, particularly in Craven’s obsession with dreams and visions as the bridging point between the concrete and the fantastic, The Serpent and the Rainbow maintains links with an older, more ethereal brand of horror; reality and dream, worldly power and magic are in such a constant flux that they become inseparable. A richly visualised, otherworldly elegance pervades parts of the film, particularly a magical sequence in which Marielle takes Dennis on a trek along with thousands of worshippers on a religious festival. Streams of worshippers flow through the jungle to a rock pool high in the mountains where they carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, camping at night along the way in forests bedecked with jewels and totems and guttering candles, and Dennis and Marielle make love in a cave with a sense of ritualistic fervour, capping a movement of deliriously sensual textures.
In the midst of this movement, Craven offers an interlude when Dennis has another of his prophetic visions, seeing himself visited in the night in the forest by Christophe carrying the corpse of a voodoo priestess in a white grave dress, which then disgorges a snake for a tongue that bites Dennis on the face. Such are the breakneck shifts of mood and effect in this film, which come so often as to become their own, weird form of lucidity in creating a world where just about anything can and does happen. Dennis is constantly assailed with similarly strange and often spectacular dreams hallucinations and Craven uses these to give a more pyrotechnic brand of horror. Dennis’ early vision of being dragged down into the earth sees corpses thrusting rotting fingers at him before plunging into a black abyss, as if the dread sins of the past buried however deep are about to claim Dennis. Later, when he’s retreated from the villains to a small beachfront cabin, he sees a burning boat drifting to the shore, carrying the voodoo priestess, before the cabin closes up, shrinks down, and becomes a coffin, blood filling it up like a bathtub. The idea that villain Peytraud fights his battles on both a physical level and on the spiritual lets Craven go to town in portraying the totality of this form of warfare. Peytraud also represents for Craven one of several attempts to create another Freddy Krueger, a trickster villain who respects no usual limitations of physical law and logic to attack his enemies. Mokae was a South African actor who first found repute working with playwright Athol Fugard, and his later acting career was usually split between politically oriented dramas and horror films. Here he had a chance to combine those two, and he’s an unrestrained hoot in the role, with his rolling, bugging eyes and gold tooth flashing matched by rasping voice of cruel relish, as if someone recast Robert Newton’s Long John Silver as a Blaxploitation villain.
Most of Craven’s films had a powerful undercurrent sense of absurdist black comedy, and oftentimes entirely explicit. That streak is certainly present here, particularly apparent in just how much abuse Dennis receives throughout the film. It gets to the point where this all starts to feel like a lampoon on both the usual travails of venturesome heroes in pulp tales – young Pullman’s square-jawed, all-American visage needs only a pith helmet to complete the picture – and also of white western anxiety in the face of dangers beyond the safe limits of home, like Midnight Express (1978) gone troppo. In one sequence Craven reaches an apogee of discomfort in mainstream cinema whilst somehow avoiding depicting any actual gore. Peytraud seeks to terrify and punish Dennis by having him arrested, strapped to a chair naked in the secret police’s favourite torture chamber, and hammering a nail through his scrotum. Before striking his relished blow, Peytraud matches any Bond villain as he responds to Dennis’ desperate question “What do you want?” with, “I want to hear you scream!” This moment ranks with the “Squeal, piggy!” scene in Deliverance (1972) in literalising a protagonist’s emasculation by forces beyond his control. There is a disparity at the heart The Serpent and the Rainbow between the thesis Davis was arguing, that the apparent manifestations of the supernatural were actually the work of a complex, puzzling but actually rational work of nascent chemistry, and Craven’s casual demolition of that concept by embracing ooky-kooky magic. Voodoo as a religion and cultural phenomenon has been a constant source of interest for storytellers interested in the fantastic, but very few investigate it with much depth or seriousness as a genuine cultural phenomenon.
Whilst The Serpent and the Rainbow throws out any pretences to being seen as a strict tract on the subject, it does find Craven with an anthropological bent, truly fascinated by the sights, sounds, and lifestyle of Haiti, considering it as a fully-fledged society present amidst but also cordoned off from familiar definitions of modernity. The eruptions of irrationality in the storyline literalise this schism and also lets Craven show his own sensibility, associating political tyranny with forces of evil. There’s an appealing casualness to the interracial romance of Dennis and Marielle that looks forward to Craven’s embrace of black heroism in The People Under the Stairs and fusion of horror with Blaxploitation lampooning on Vampire in Brooklyn (1994). The pilgrimage scene is a highpoint of this bent, amidst an immersive sense of place (although the production was forced to leave Haiti mid-shoot and was finished in other locations including the Dominican Republic), as is a brief but fascinating depiction of Lucien performing a wedding. The Duvalier government and the Tonton Macoute really did use the paraphernalia of voodoo as part of their arsenal of repression, although ironically Wade Davis himself had little trouble from them. Marielle, a modern rationalist by profession, is also famed for her performances when possessed by spirits, and Dennis witnesses this transformation with bewilderment: “There is no conflict between my science and my faith,” as she states.
Craven’s pointed sense of humour makes itself apparent when a tourist-friendly display of local performers for a hotel crowd is portrayed as a festival of the strange with a male performer getting female guests to shove spikes through his cheeks, another chewing on glass, until finally Peytraud, who looks on, announces himself by mesmerically compelling one of the performers to attack Dennis. This scene is mirrored later in a vignette that counts amongst the most Cravenish of Craven moments, when Dennis returns to the States with the zombiefying powder and is treated to a swanky dinner by Cassedy and his wife Deborah (Dey Young) in their mansion as reward. Deborah, possessed by Peytraud in spite of the many miles and supposed barriers between these places, suddenly turns strange and sneering, begins chewing on a glass, and then launches herself across the dinner table in an attempt to stab Dennis, forcing her husband and Schoonbacher to drag her off. This makes for a disturbing/hilarious image of posh, lily-white insularity turned into funhouse for chaos and vengeful lunacy. There are seeds here for Craven’s later, equally wild and loopy The People Under the Stairs, which would turn the mirror back on Reaganite America and accuse it of being essentially the same thing. Craven didn’t help write the script here, which points to why some of Craven’s favourite themes are channelled in slightly different directions to his usual work, particularly his recurring motif of good and bad families and their avatars who, in the course of the tale, become increasingly blurred: Krug and his cohort and the bourgeois parents of Last House on the Left, the holidaying family and the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the suburbanites and their resurging tormentor/victim in Elm Street.
Here the oppositions are more political and national. The corollary to that theme, of the “normal”, “good” people becoming increasingly warlike and competent in facing their enemies, is more clearly present here too but it takes a long time before Dennis, reduced to a worm before the boot of Peytraud’s intent, finally turns. Peytraud frames Dennis for the murder of Christophe’s sister and uses it to ensure he’ll have him executed if he ever returns to the country, before sticking him on the next plane out. However Mozart sneaks aboard the plane and gives Dennis the batch of zombiefying powder for free, asking only that Dennis let people know about his talents. But Mozart is captured and executed by Peytraud, and after the incident at the Cassedys’ house Dennis feels compelled to return to Haiti as he senses Marielle will be in danger too. Lucien arranges to have Dennis brought to safety by some of his men disguised as cops, pre-empting the Tonton Macoute, so Peytraud has Marielle kidnapped, uses a hex to kill Lucien, and has an operative treat Dennis to a dose of the zombie powder. Dennis desperately begs bewildered people not to bury him as he folds him and seems to drop dead. In his paralysed state, Dennis is forced to experience his own burial.
This sequence sees Craven paying tribute to the famous dream of death and burial in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), shooting much of it subjectively from the view of the frozen Dennis as he passes under the eyes of friends and doctors, and his mocking enemy Peytraud. Just before he’s put into the ground, the Captain drops a tarantula into the coffin to keep him company, giving Craven a chance to stage a most iconically phobic horror image, the monstrous black arachnid crawling over Dennis’s stony face. Dennis is saved by Christophe, who knows very well what’s happened and digs Dennis out of his grave. The clash of aesthetic attitudes apparent in the texture of Craven’s filmmaking, and the ruthless way the original three-hour cut was pared down into a very peculiar 97 minutes, makes The Serpent and the Rainbow an experience that would probably seem to many perturbingly hectic. But it also finally exemplifies something rare about its maker and gives it force that refuses taming. The finale sees all hell break loose in both senses of the term, as the Duvalier government collapses, leading to scenes of explosive rage and rejoicing on the streets, through which threads the smaller but vital drama of Dennis taking on Peytraud for control of the nation’s spiritual as well as physical fate.
Here Craven goes all-out with a riotous assault of inspired, crazy images – the torture chair coming to life and chasing Dennis about the room, Dennis being assaulted by Lucien’s shade, his bashing his way through a door only to find gravity inverting as if he’s in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and dangling from the doorframe, and a nod to Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) as Dennis enters a hall of prison cells from which prisoners’ arms reach, unnaturally long, trying to grasp him. Craven connects Peytraud’s relish of holding the captured souls of his victims, including Lucien, with the political oppression, as Peytraud uses his control over the apparatus of terror to turn victims of that oppression into weapons. Except, naturally, this proves a double-edged sword, as Dennis and Marielle smash the pots containing the souls, letting loose the magical wrath of the repressed on their tormentor, spirits massing to drive Peytraud into a fire and burn him alive, whilst Lucien’s released shade passes on his powers to Dennis. Peytraud is defeated in the real world but there’s one fight left on the spiritual plane. Dennis, invested with Lucien’s magic and utilising the fierceness of his jaguar spirit, is able to overpower Peytraud here too, whereupon he hoists Peytraud by his own petard, psychically tethering him to the torture chair and punctured through the balls before being shunted off to hell, complete with reversal of the “I want to hear you scream!” line. The spirits of the dead arise in rainbow colours whilst the populace celebrates and Dennis and Marielle limp away, bloodied but triumphant. This climax goes so far over the top it all but hits orbit, and I dare say the film as a whole is a litmus test, either sweeping you up in its mad thrust or leaving you totally cold. But it’s also uproarious and casually flings brilliantly staged filmmaking at the audience, a perfect encapsulation of Craven’s delight in his art. Horror film will miss him.
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Director: Bill Forsyth
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the early years of Ebertfest, I never missed making the trip down to Champaign, Illinois, and the Virginia Theatre. Some of the great films I saw were Jan Troell’s 1996 film Hamsun, Bertrand Tavernier’s L.627 (1992), David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000), and Wu Tian-Ming’s King of Masks (1996). I could never attend the entire festival, as I worked on the weekdays during which it opened each year in April, and one film I missed at the 2008 Ebertfest was Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping. As a fan of the Scottish director’s comedy charmers Gregory’s Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983), and Comfort and Joy (1984), I made special note of Housekeeping as one to watch for. But I never did catch up with it, that is, not until this past week when the Northwest Chicago Film Society projected a vintage 35mm print of the film.
The love this film has engendered in those who have seen it approaches religious devotion. The catch in the throats of the audience members who spoke excitedly about this opportunity to see the film had me intrigued. Then, Chicago-based filmmaker Stephen Cone (The Wise Kids  and Black Box ), who provided the prescreening introduction, said over and over how much he loves the film and the book by Marilynne Robinson and Marilynne Robinson herself. Predisposed to like the film based on Forsyth’s other films, I started to grow both enthusiastic and nervous at this adulation, particularly when Cone asked us to turn off our critical faculties and just let ourselves go with the film. I had been asked by a filmmaker to do that once before, with rewarding results. Did Housekeeping live up to the hype? Yes, it mostly did.
The film centers on a highly impractical woman, Sylvie Fisher (Christine Lahti), the unconventional aunt of Ruthie (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), sisters whose father ran off long ago and whose mother, Sylvie’s sister Helen (Margot Pinvidic), drove them from their home in Seattle, dropped them at the isolated home of their grandmother (Georgie Collins) in Fingerbone, Idaho, and then drove herself off a cliff. The young girls were cared for by their grandmother until her death when the girls were in their teens. Their great-aunts Nona (Barbara Reese) and Lily (Anne Pitoniak) moved in to care for them—narrator Ruthie is convinced it was to save on rent and groceries—but could not accustom themselves to the cold and rugged living conditions. Thus, they tracked down the itinerant Sylvie and beckoned her back to her childhood home to look after the girls. Sylvie’s eccentricities enchant Ruthie but repel Lucille, who is very self-conscious about being ridiculed and only wants to fit in. The clash Lucille precipitates between Sylvie and the upstanding citizens of Fingerbone will end in a kind of reckoning no one anticipated.
Housekeeping strikes as delicate a balance in its storytelling as Sylvie maintains in her restless, preoccupied mind. While fashioning a rather clichéd story of conventionality versus free-spiritedness, Forsyth and his appealing and talented cast offer something more akin to fable. First, there is the remoteness of the time and setting—a small town in a mountainous region in the 1950s. Going even farther back in time is the legend of Ruthie and Lucille’s grandfather, a self-taught artist from the flatlands of Iowa whose enchantment with mountains compelled his geographic move and his fixation on painting them. His family’s notoriety in Fingerbone, however, centers on his being on a train that shot off the trestle above a frozen lake and plunged into the water, leaving nothing but a hole in the ice and a handful of personal effects that floated to the surface. The event shook the sleepy town with excitement, spawning winter picnics on the ice and legends about the snakelike train of the deep.
It’s hard to know whether the loss of her father caused Sylvie’s instability and her sister’s eventual suicide after living a fairly conventional life. But his loss, his absence is only one of the absences that inflect the characters in this film and set the stage for the imagination to move in both delightful and sinister ways, filling the screen with the kind of fanciful images and occurrences for which Forsyth is known, though laden with a good deal of pain and bewilderment along with comedy and celebration.
A sense of foreboding is cast from the very first, as Helen drives through rain and mist to her childhood home, her sing-a-long as the radio plays “Good Night, Irene” (“Sometimes I take a great notion to jump in the river and drown.”) a chilling secret she has kept to herself. The hole she creates in her daughters’ lives is every bit as dramatic and fathomless as the one created by the unfortunate train. Sylvie’s appearance gives them their first opportunity to try to learn about their mother and the man she married, though the sisters’ long separation gives Sylvie precious little to tell them. Like them, she can only look to her long-gone childhood for evidence of her life before she started to wander in body and mind; like many who have unstable lives, she gathers objects around her—piles of newspapers, cans, and eventually, cats—creating more unease as her absent-mindedness starts to shade with madness.
Yet, Sylvie’s seems like a divine madness to the lonely, awkward Ruthie. When Sylvie “borrows” a rowboat, outrunning the furious fisherman who owns it and keeps trying to hide it from her, she takes Ruthie to a wreck of a homestead in an unlikely spot in the foothills that is covered in frost all year long because of the lack of sunlight. Sylvie is sure she has seen children there, and has even set marshmallows on twigs to draw them out. Ruthie says she sees them, too, and is more than happy to sleep in the leaky boat with Sylvie under the train trestle, a glowing moon diffuse off the misty lake. There’s no question that this world seems enchanted, a place for pixies and elves and other supernatural beings who rule the natural world, and Sylvie is the siren who is pulling Ruthie into her orbit of restless wandering, riding the rails, and camping with hobos.
The clash of these two worlds can be quite funny, as when representatives of the ladies’ aid society (Betty Phillips, Karen Elizabeth Austin, and Dolores Drake) come to the door to determine whether Ruthie should be removed from the home for her own safety. They try to find suitable seating, but must move newspapers and even a pine cone, which one lady holds carefully on her lap. These women are not made into uncaring monsters, but their discomfort mixed with Sylvie’s nervous, Sunday manners makes for an awkwardly fun time. By contrast, the snub Lucille gives Ruthie at school and her eventual departure from the house to stay with some people in town reduce her sister to miserable tears of dejected abandonment. Another hole has opened up in her life and swallowed her closest friend up with it.
Most remarkable of all is the almost total absence of men in this film. The few who have speaking parts tend to cause trouble, however well-intentioned they may be: three boys free Helen’s car from the mud, only to watch her drive to her death; the sheriff (Bill Smillie) calls the ladies who will put Sylvie and Ruthie’s living arrangement at risk; and the school principal (Wayne Robson) catches up with the girls’ chronic truancy only when they are half-a-year behind. For better or worse, Housekeeping concentrates on the ways and means of women, eschewing cheap sentiment or pop psychology to show the multifaceted ways women and girls conduct their lives and dream their dreams.
All of the performances in the film are wonderful, but I hold particular affection for Walker and Burchill, who create characters of real complexity despite their youth. Their closeness and eventual estrangement feel bone deep and are very affecting. The hardness Burchill eventually adopts seems right for someone whose world was turned upside down three times in her short life. Walker’s painful shyness shows another path girls take in response to disruption.
Christine Lahti creates a very particular spine for Sylvie, with her deliberate, long walk and open arms that embrace the music of the spheres whether floating in a boat or standing on a trestle hoping to feel vibrations through the timbers. In a spectacular set-piece, the town is all but flooded out by four days of rain falling on frozen ground. Sylvie and the girls slosh through the foot of water in their home, rescuing half-drowned mice and trying to carry on with everyday life; Sylvie couldn’t be happier to welcome the water into her home, dancing with Ruthie with a big smile on her face. This joyful spirit is seductive, but is as lulling to the audience as it is to Ruthie as to the danger she poses. For example, the thought of disease never enters her mind, though sanitation and drinking water are at risk.
Not everything in this film works. At one point, Sylvie starts removing the labels from and washing the cans she has left all over the house. The gold and silver cans look just too clean and perfect, just as the piles of newspaper look too carefully placed, and the appearance of cats in the house crosses the border into cliché. One supposes that the inheritance from Sylvie’s mother is keeping the family afloat, but beautiful new clothes for Lucille appear as if from nowhere. Yes, this is a fable, but Forsyth’s habit of ignoring details of everyday life cheapens the film ever so slightly.
Nonetheless, there’s not much wrong with this film, and the finale is a bonafide work of genius. When her panic at the thought of losing Ruthie makes her as crazy as we’ll ever see her, Sylvie commits an irrational act as though it were the most normal thing in the world. She and Ruthie steal off into the night, a pied piper making off with at least one child down a treacherous causeway and into the night’s fathomless vanishing point.
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Director: Frederick Wiseman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among the documentarians whose films are hallowed by critics and audiences alike, perhaps none stand taller than Frederick Wiseman. A fly-on-the-wall chronicler of subjects as varied as the University of California at Berkeley, the New York City Ballet, the Panamanian Canal Zone, and Long Island’s Belmont Park racetrack, Wiseman demonstrates again and again that those entities we call institutions are, in fact, human expressions, organizing principles for social intercourse. At the perhaps not-incidental age of 60, Wiseman chose to spend several months filming the denizens of the medical intensive care unit (MICU) at Beth Israel Hospital in his home town of Boston. His interest was more specific than the workings of an MICU, however—he fixed his gaze only upon dying patients. Thus, Near Death looks at the modern approach to the end of life and the clinicians who work near death on a regular basis.
Health care has come a long way in less than 100 years. The discovery of penicillin in 1929 heralded an age of miracle drugs that eradicated the death sentences previously dealt by many infectious diseases. Further advances in medicine, medical technology, and surgery have increased the life expectancy and vigor of the aged; today, the United States has more centenarians than any other nation—53,364 reported in the 2010 census, or 17.3 per 100,000 people. Health care has become a consumer-driven industry from which we have come to expect a fix for every ailment from infertility to paralysis. The formerly unimaginable ability to prolong life after a person’s vital functions have failed is a particularly acute one for Beth Israel’s MICU clinicians.
Just what constitutes life and death had become a real muddle by the time Wiseman began this film. He shows MICU nurses participating in an ethics training group discuss the difficulty family members have understanding that “brain dead” means “dead” because they see their loved ones breathing with the aid of a respirator. The growth of the hospice care movement since the 1990s has eased this confusion and offered a real alternative to patients and families searching for a more consistent and peaceful end-of-life care plan. None of the clinicians in this film seem to think that prolonging life at any cost is humane, but Wiseman gives us room to consider whether they might sometimes be in too big a rush to throw in the towel.
Bernice Factor, a stroke victim who cannot speak, was admitted to the MICU after her breathing proved inadequate to sustain her. A tube was inserted down her windpipe through her nose and attached to a ventilator to support her breathing. This is the seventh time Mrs. Factor has undergone the painful procedure of temporary intubation, and the clinical staff discuss creating a permanent airway for their tubes via a tracheostomy in her neck. After telling a nurse and the attending physician, a pulmonary specialist named Dr. Weiss, that she doesn’t want a tracheostomy or further intubation should she stop breathing after the tube is removed—in effect, that she wants to be allowed to die naturally—her long-time physician, Dr. Curlin, goes to see her and finds her to have grown more ambivalent about her decision.
Mrs. Factor is not truly terminal in the sense that prolonging her life is pointless—she can still communicate and share time with her devoted husband—thus Dr. Weiss seems to have jumped too far forward in thinking that he understood the clear wishes of the patient. To further illustrate this point, Mrs. Factor’s story follows one in which a dying patient named Mr. Gavin and his family are told at least five times in exhaustive detail about treatment options and the consequences of a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order, even though the patient has a living will stating his wish to be allowed to die with dignity. Although these discussions get a bit tedious for the viewer, they are vitally important to include to illustrate how difficult it is to help people in crisis to reach a rational decision, particularly when the decision will lead to death.
At the time this film was made, Beth Israel’s policy of including patients and families in all treatment decisions was not routine in the medical community, and it’s clear that some of the clinicians find it frustrating. We hear Dr. Weiss say what many had long suspected—that lethal doses of morphine were administered to patients who were “imminent.” Behind this seemingly cold-blooded “angel of death” approach are philosophical questions that clinicians face every day and that society at large has yet to come to grips with: Are we managing patients’ lives or manipulating their deaths for our own emotional ends?
In the film, Dr. Taylor is the individual who provides a bridge for the audience between the clinicians and the patients and their families. A man who can speak frankly about death to his colleagues, he shows seemingly infinite patience as he listens carefully to Mrs. Sperazzo as she goes over the choices for her beloved husband Charlie. She is a sweet, old woman who breaks down in tears frequently as she contemplates life without Charlie, but she affirms to Dr. Taylor that she understands what he is saying about working not toward Charlie’s recovery, which is unlikely, but toward his comfort. Dr. Taylor, choosing his words carefully, never rules out the possibility of a miracle, never claims 100 percent certainty about Charlie’s prognosis, but helps ease Mrs. Sperazzo toward acceptance of the inevitable. Wiseman’s carefully tuned ear offers as much dignity to her in his edit of Near Death as he tries to offer to the gravely ill patients on the MICU—both are sometimes robbed of their humanity by the machines that engulf them and the medical professionals who dismiss their intelligence and emotional struggles.
Although the core of Near Death is death’s approach, the film inevitably spills into the after-death activities at Beth Israel, including showing nurses move a body discreetly through the hospital corridors and into a drawer in the morgue. We see only one of Wiseman’s subjects beyond death, Mr. Cabra, a 33-year-old Latino father of three who successfully fought testicular cancer. He returns to the hospital in rapidly failing health and is eventually found to have fibroids in his lungs, a rare side effect of gliomycin, the drug used to treat his cancer. He will never be able to breathe with his own lungs again, and his wife bravely agrees to a DNR order and donates his body to science. The end point of this tragedy, as an MICU nurse accurately describes it, is knowledge for a medical school class that has a chance to examine his lungs.
With a running time of 6 hours, Near Death is Wiseman’s longest film. Through his compassionate, unblinking gaze we become attuned to the rhythms of the MICU, the regular comings and goings of the orderlies appearing to pick up the trash and wipe down the rooms and floors, the nurses giving report on their patients’ status to the next shift, the meetings and grand rounds of clinicians, the beeps and displays of monitors and infusion devices. Wiseman gets exceedingly lucky in recording a snippet of diagetic music, the Nino Rota/Eugene Walter love song “What Is a Youth” from Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968). The lyrics provide a wistful commentary on the human drama unfolding on the screen:
What is a youth? Impetuous fire.
What is a maid? Ice and desire.
The world wags on,
a rose will bloom….
It then will fade:
so does a youth,
so does the fairest maid.
Death will come soon to hush us along.
Wiseman’s deep engagement with this most primal of subjects avoids the romance of Romeo and Juliet, but reveals the peculiar kind of love of humanity these sometimes brusque clinicians must have to face down death every day of their working lives. By escorting us through their world, Wiseman largely succeeds in getting us past the kind of morbidity that causes most of us to crane our necks toward a car accident and breathe an uneasy sigh of relief that it was someone else, not us, who was unlucky—this time.
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Director: Ridley Scott
For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon IV
By Roderick Heath
An eye, filmed in colossal close-up, surveys a vista of bleak and awesome grandeur, the smeared lights and spurting fire of a future age reflected upon the iris. The act of watching for Ridley Scott, as for so many filmmakers, is equated with the Torah of cinema—behold! Kubrick’s vistas of Olympian space reflected in Dave Bowman’s eye give way to a different kind of star child, looking out upon the human world, or how humans have rebuilt their world. Look upon his works, ye mortals, Ozymandias has gone hi-tech—futuristic Los Angeles, in some nightmarish alternate 2019, with pyramidal skyscrapers, refineries spitting filth and flame into a sky biblically black with pollution, and cars that fly and zip like the chariots of the new world high above streets churning with human flotsam.
The audience views all this just like the strange, dangerous, desperate creations that come to Earth in search of the makers view it, as something new and yet remembered, a reflection of their own time turned into a scene at once debased and romantically overwhelming. After decades of digression through mutant beasts and rockets, science fiction cinema suddenly reconnected with its oldest, strongest living nerve, the dark and exultant worship of modernity that Moloch first glimpsed in Metropolis (1927). The soaring adamantine structures, the gleaming chrome-and-glass obelisks, the monuments to hubris, the dense and tangled blend of Expressionism and Art Deco in Fritz Lang’s sepia dreaming now festooned by neon and colossal billboards. Scott’s electronic graffiti bit the hand that fed him: the director made ads and knows very well revenue makes the world go ’round. Product placement is a new religion.
The gods and kings are the genetic architects and their progeny; everyone else is now just there to make up the numbers. Nature has been exiled, killed off in fact. Animals have become so rare they’re only the impossible objects of a tycoon’s fancy. TV-studded zeppelins drift listlessly in the sky advertising exploitation of space as “opportunity and adventure” where the real work is done by synthetic beings cooked up by the not-too-distant future’s alchemy vats. Earth is a failed nation, a remnant ghetto, and L.A. is a pan-cultural massing point crammed full of people who cannot wait to abandon a sick planet for the Off-World colonies. Six “Replicants”—genetically engineered beings—have slaughtered the crew of a spaceship, commandeered the vessel, and piloted it to Earth, where their kind is outlawed. In space, they’re pimped out as warriors, whores, labourers, assassins—human simulacrums to take the edge off pioneering the cosmos. The Tyrell Corporation manufactures them; Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) lives above the squalor in neo-Roman splendour, designing minds for his quite literal brain children.
The Replicants have a built-in failure date—a four-year lifespan—to prevent their developing emotions. But they’re also supplied with patched-in memories to help cope with the absurdities of their existence, Tyrell’s brainwave to stave off inconvenient behaviour. His greatest creation, Rachael (Sean Young), employed as PA-cum-showroom model, has no idea at first that she’s a Replicant because she inherited her memories from Tyrell’s niece. Out of the returned progeny, two are reported killed trying to break into Tyrell Corporation headquarters. A third, Leon (Brion James), is uncovered by the “Voight-Kampff” empathy test administered by Holden (Morgan Paull), a cop posing as a middle manager: Leon knowing he’s rumbled, shoots the cop and flees to join his companions, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Darryl Hannah), and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). They hide out in the fetid and decaying fringes of the city. Leon snaps photos, trying to prove his reality real, his memories more than the installed pentimento of some other failed life form.
The cruelty of empathy is used to separate the Replicants from the other humans, so the opening of Blade Runner zeroes in from godlike heights to an interrogation, a manmade man trying desperately to understand questions that he can’t answer— no one can—except through memory. You come across a turtle. You flip in on its back. It lies there baking in the sun. You won’t help it. Why not, Leon? Of course Leon has no empathy for a turtle. Does anyone else? Turtles barely exist anymore. Humans have eradicated them. Empathy is part of the human soul, but the human soul is also murderous, the intelligent will to take possession of and conquer a living space. The Replicants, unmasked, are gunned down: they’re regarded as insensate homunculi programmed to survive but incapable of actual humanity—“skin-jobs” as the coppers call them in the easy parlance of street-level problem-solving.
Parables immediately proliferate. Roy is charismatic leader. Their team any band of noir losers on the loose, illegal immigrants, or gang of revolutionaries. Baader-Meinhoff of the Off-World. Or are they pilgrims, come to bellow their rage at God? Either way, now on they’re on Earth, dispersed in strip joints and cheap hotel rooms. “Let me tell you about my mother,” Leon says with a hint of vicious humour before blowing away his interrogator. The Voight-Kampff test is the grim joke at the heart of Blade Runner: how much empathy do actual humans have when they’ve done this to their world? Philip K. Dick, author of the source novel, had the deepest distrust for the works of modernity. His Replicants were empty vessels, things mimicking humanity, soulless by-products of human narcissism, that he used to prod his increasingly deadened and defeated humans for signs of life. Some scifi scholars and critics initially objected to Scott and screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples revising Dick’s most fundamental point.
Scott, a boy from South Shields, has no such New World certainty about the difference between product and producer. His childhood vistas were factories on the land and ships on the Tyne, promising new worlds of opportunity and adventure. Father Frank, a merchant marine, actually got to ride off in them, leaving young Ridley and brothers Frank and Tony trapped in the mundaneness of post-World War II Midlands England. Small wonder Sir Ridley’s films are littered with men driven by vision beyond the limits of their class and society, angry men and women pushing against snobs and fools, furious at being told constantly they are worth less than others, many doomed to create their own hells in reaching for their paradises. His Columbus reaches undiscovered countries and brings terror and slavery in his wake.
Scott had been vaulted from salesman to auteur by his famous Hovis Bread commercial, a vision of an England at once confidently industrial and homey, fading into memory and purveyed through an advertisement in a vision powerful enough to seduce a nation. Here he sarcastically turns that inside out for a future where some company’s branding might be on your cells. As with his previous film, Alien (1979), Scott’s take on scifi sneered at the pristine, sleek, near-abstract landscapes of most ’60s and ’70s predecessors in the dystopian stakes, and merged instead the many faces of ugly modernity circa 1982—the bristling industrial landscapes of the Midlands, the fecund tumult of Tokyo and Hong Kong, the decaying grandeur of New York and Los Angeles’ art-deco structures, relics of the near past’s hymns for the near future, and the memory of cinema itself. Vangelis’s audioscapes slip between vistas of synthesiser spectacle and Kenny G saxophony denoting soulful ennui. Scott’s street thrums with the buzz and bleep and footfall of urban life stretched to the nth degree; preachers and cooks and child gangs, nuns and goggled coots and hookers, every breed of humanity mashed together and gabbling a new patois born of confused necessity. Super-skyscrapers house jerry-built offices and the jumbled paraphernalia of decades past—America has finally learnt how to recycle. The streets border dens of vice and verve, where music video lighting meets the teeming types and romantic-desolate nooks of the old Warner Bros. backlot. Police hover high above in their “spinners,” keeping a lid on things. Scott’s city functions, it throbs with life even as its fringes falls into ruin and abandonment: it is, to use that modern cliché, immersive in a way Hollywood filmmaking had scarcely been since the last giant, historical films of the 1960s. Small wonder a generation of writers, filmmakers, artists, left relatively cold by the disco-fantastic Star Wars (1977), suddenly saw their metier or were nudged toward it (or simply fell in love with its smoke-and-backlight patinas). Burton and Batman, the Cyberpunks, the maestros of 2000AD and Watchmen and many another graphic novel, Gilliam and Proyas and the Wachowskis and more, all finding a church to worship in.
The slaves are returning here from the newer New Worlds, groping for their Creators. Hard and resentful progeny, their superiority is innate, übermenschen with disinterest in your well-being so long as they’re staring down the face of accelerated decrepitude. The Blade Runner is called into action: streetwise, whisky-sucking, gun-toting Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Blade Runner, a great title, not from Dick, but from Alan E. Nourse, whose work The Bladerunner concerned futuristic eugenics. Deckard, for all his Phil Marlowe-isms exacerbated by the voiceover prone theatrical cut, is no mere generic caricature, but rather possesses the same boding melancholy that dogged Raymond Chandler’s original (Robert Mitchum, who had recently played Marlowe, was the early casting choice), the same beggared spirit that occasionally could only crawl into a hole after seeing humans wreak havoc on each other and sink into boozy oblivion. The cop who hunts Replicants has to be damn sure whom or what he’s aiming at: he balances on a very thin edge. “If you’re not cop, you’re little people,” bullies his old boss Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh), something to be stepped on, and he’ll make a point of stepping on Deckard if doesn’t get back in the game for this most important piece of housekeeping.
Deckard is first glimpsed as member of the flotsam, reading the paper, waiting for his place at the dinner trough and arguing with the chef. Blade Runner takes on an old genre trope—the burning-out of a man who tries not to be brutalized by acting as society’s janitor—and justifies annexing another, bygone mode of storytelling with a similar concern with a world grown chaotically, frighteningly complex with an attendant loss of moral reference. In addition, Scott’s sense of the visual lexicon of cinema has pursued the common roots of Lang’s influence on scifi and noir back to the dark-rooted Germanic traditions of Grimm and Faust and Hans Heinz Ewer’s Alraune, as much as to the Olympian references of Frankenstein, whilst the mental and moral texture is Sein und Zeit strained through an opium trance and a leftover volume of Omni.
The powerful spell of Blade Runner—and also why it’s often proven so divisive over the years—can be attributed to the film’s prizing of atmosphere and textured emotion above suspense and action: in many ways it was cinema’s first multimillion-dollar mood piece. Until the film’s key actions sequences, the visual pacing is deliberate, almost sedate in places. Scenes ebb liquidly into the next. Dissolves slur time and distort process. Lighting and diffusion effects crumble the hard edges of technocracy into the flaking verdigris of hallucination. A surprising amount of Blade Runner is taken up contemplating Deckard in isolation—tired, melancholy, boozy, making a path through bustling, uninterested crowds, listlessly investigating, looking for connection in the midst of throngs—or else in refuge with Rachael (Sean Young), two lost souls trying to work out if they even have souls. One of the film’s quietest yet most thrillingly intense sequences merely depicts Deckard doing a little business in his apartment, using a computer to investigate one of Leon’s snaps. Deckard is displayed as intently for the audience as the photo is for him, Deckard’s need for the balm of scotch just after an encounter with Rachael on which Deckard’s clumsy attempt to adjust her to her new reality falls tragically flat. Deckard peers into an artefact that suggests dimensions to his prey he never conceived, a realisation provided by Rachael’s own pathetic attempts to proffer photos as proofs of existence. The mirroring qualities of his apartment and Leon’s hotel room are easy to read. Lurking somewhere in the photo is a tiny image, the face of Zhora, another target, an eerily beautiful woman captured in sleep and reflected through the play of mirrors: Blow-Up (1966) meets Laura (1946) in Edward Hopper land.
Deckard meets Rachael in Tyrell’s pyramid-palace, where she struts out of the shadows festooned in vintage Joan Crawford wear—ballooning pompadour and square shoulders. The hard edges of futurist ’30s fashion sarcastically declare Rachael’s robotic nature long before the Voight-Kampff test confirms it. Deckard’s first encounter with her, held at Tyrell’s whim, is part interrogation, part challenging flirtation. New frontiers in erotic contact await. Not that new; the Replicants have long been used as sex toys, but not with feeling. “Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” is the inevitable, needling, aggrieved question never answered. Deckard’s greatest moments of professional achievement will be shooting two automata that look and sound awfully like women. No matter the social value enforced by taking down Replicants, it’s a soul-killing business for the Blade Runner. Deckard schools Rachael in the dangerous intimacy of human sexuality, edged with threat and compulsion and brittle need and accomplished with language of desire dictated, recalling Marnie’s (1964) lessons in domesticity. Is the secret to the Blade Runner’s success dependent on the same quality he unearths in Replicants? Are Blade Runners in fact Replicants themselves, faux-cops given a mission, a memory, and pointed in the right direction? Gaff (Edward James Olmos), Bryant’s emissary, aging and stooped, watches Deckard go about his business with Mandarin remove, clad in fur coat and waistcoat and armed with a cane, the gruff sensei of some lost Kurosawa time-travel noir film. He twists bits of paper into origami sculptures that mimic the stuff of Deckard’s dreams, the artisanal, classical rhyme to the grander business of Tyrell, creating bodies and stuffing the minds of others into them. Does Gaff have access to Deckard’s memories, or is it merely the common lexicon of dreams, the stuff of human identity?
Are the human impulses in the Replicants the actual glimmerings of self-generating sentience, or are they the howls of their implanted memories, dictating behaviours, the ghosts of other beings crying out to make sense of their Frankenstein shells? Is there, in fact, a difference (pace fanboy logic and the disagreements of cast and crew) between the haphazard way they march toward sentience and the way people do? Deckard seems to feel everything, ink-pad for his age. Tyrell’s humanitarian brainwave, to supply the Replicants with transplanted human memories, is supposed to cushion the emotional agonies of his creations, but proves to be crueler; what more sadistic thing is there than establishing an identity for someone, only to be able to reveal it was fake? That’s the pain for Rachael, and also, eventually, for Deckard, for his own identity is questioned. The film’s most obvious irony is the lack of interest most people show when Deckard guns Replicants down in the street. Underlying this is a more interesting paradox: humans are at their most human when contemplating different life forms, in repulsion or joy. The innocence of animals stirs us more than the murderous extremes of homo sapiens. The Replicants, boy-man Leon with his quick panic, his grotesque child-sadist jokes (placing eyeballs on a frightened man’s shoulder), girl-woman Pris built to be a fantasy of vulnerable femininity and blessed with gifts of malevolent elegance, and the two beautiful warriors Roy and Zhora—all have been built to play parts, and they play them half-resentfully.
The great designers are as lacking as their progeny. J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), designer of eyes for Tyrell, has “Methuselah syndrome,” helping to make supermen but stricken by the body’s incurables, so he looks at once preciously boyish and wizened. Roy and Pris are touching in their precocious, harried need for each other; love is only a step away for these beings growing as fast as they are. But they are dangerous. Armed with adult bodies and minds, they are nonetheless governed by the eruptive, tantrum-throwing instability of children. Of course, they cannot become more than children, not with their life-span, so no wonder rage and frustration pulse under Roy’s sleek skin. Pris ensnares Sebastian, as doomed to die young and terminally lonely as the Replicants themselves, entering his cavernous enclave where he lives surrounded by perverse talking simulacra like some sickly Georgian princeling left to his toys and arcane arts, all too easy a mark for the Replicants in their ultimate goal of reaching God—Tyrell—and seeking extended life. Roy and Pris get along famously with J. F. because they can play with him, but beware these playmates when they find it’s time to leave the sandpit.
Blade Runner is a work with an unmistakable aura of heartbreak to it. Scott’s older brother Frank had died of skin cancer before production, and the feeling of the awful commute to and from his London hospital permeates the film’s unmistakable mix of pessimism and ephemeral sense of both pain and fleeting pleasures, a tactile understanding of existence that permeates the film. Scott’s ever-formidable sense of technique, sometimes purveyed without great interest in movies, here connects vitally with the material to give it one of the most uniquely poetic charges in any big-budget film. As per Elmore James, the sky is crying throughout the film. The first of the film’s two kinetic sequences, in which Deckard pursues Zhora through the city streets after finding her working in a cabaret, starts close to comedy. Deckard assumes a fey and nebbishy act a la Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) as an artist rights’ agent in order to approach her, and swerves into an extended, violent chase. Zhora attacks and nearly murders Deckard before fleeing into the night. Deckard pursues her and the scene becomes something of an epic travelogue describing life in Scott’s L.A. on its most fundamental level. The entire sequence is a masterful piece of cinematic composition and staging, but the very climax is perhaps the film’s high point and single greatest moment of Scott’s career: as Deckard’s bullets crash into Zhora’s body, ripping great holes in her, she stumbles heedlessly through plate-glass windows of the hermetic little worlds of department store displays, surrounded by mocking mannequins and through a cloud of fake snow, before collapsing. The swooning slow-motion photography and the squirming, mournful drones of Vangelis’ score mixed with a thudding heartbeat that throbs its way to a halt, finally concluding with Deckard standing in the midst of a fake snowstorm, contribute to this scene’s terrible, dreamlike power.
Hero and villain, Rick and Roy, swap places at intervals throughout the drama: by the end, hunter is hunted. We see Rick’s integrity and humanity, but when we see him do his job it’s jarring and distressing. Roy performs even crueler acts as he stalks this urban jungle because he is designed to be cruel, but we see he yearns to be more. He wants to save Pris, whom he loves like a boy, even as he contemplates his doomed love with a man’s despair. He is capable of relating to Sebastian and asking for his help rather than merely intimidating him. His confrontation with Tyrell, part angry teenage son, part avenging angel representing the misbegotten, reveals him to be enormously powerful, deeply conflicted, and filled with a rage that could crack worlds. Roy’s confrontation of Tyrell comes when he infiltrates the Creator’s apartment, thanks to J. F. and that metaphysically loaded pursuit, chess. Game coordinates and genetic science are each expostulated in rapid-fire shows of genius, the speed with which Roy cuts off Tyrell’s options in the game matched by the efficiency with which Tyrell explains how all attempts to reverse the Replicant death date fail, each process reduced to one of logical exegesis that leads to death. However, son has come to punish father if not learn from him, and after a moment of almost tender regard, Roy crushes Tyrell’s skull between his hands with exacting, punitive anger that cannot be expressed in mere impersonal killing: like Commodus in Gladiator (2000), Roy must reverse the act of creation in embracing his father and sucking away his life. This sequence sits at the heart of the film and of Scott’s oeuvre, love and hate in fearsome, consuming proximity, as is its opposite, seen in the film’s very conclusion, where an act of unexpected mercy preempts the murderous carousel.
Roy doesn’t accept Tyrell’s benediction, “You have burned so very, very brightly Roy,” though Tyrell’s statement is undeniable, because while Tyrell prescribes acceptance of death, Roy struggles like all living creatures against his limits and is particularly aggrieved when he knows how grave the limitations are, how filthy the requirements of him as an exiled warrior-whore. The alternation of hero-status between Rick and Roy resolves in Rick becoming the hunted, Roy, knowing he is dying, pursuing the little man who has robbed him of his only friend. Indeed, as he gives his crippled nemesis a chance to escape, perhaps Roy enjoys witnessing a creature’s frantic determination to live because he is experiencing life at its rawest. They are both soldiers exiled from normality by their jobs. Roy created specifically for such a purpose, has regrets having done “questionable things,” and Rick feels the same as skin-job assassin.
Blade Runner is the rare science fiction that, in spite of borrowing its structure from another genre, belongs entirely in its genre: the imaginative background and the tropes of world-building, the motivating McGuffins and their place in the story, can each only exist in the speculative frame it engineers. Yet Scott’s many past vistas lurk within the haute-futurism, and the film is, in the end, close to fairy tale, a small myth of life and death and being: small wonder Scott was to launch himself into the even more visually ambitious, and even less successful Legend (1985). Does Deckard’s unicorn dream signify that his memories are taken from Gaff, the seedy, lame, shadow-lurking cop who seems to resent his presence? Is Deckard an able-bodied replacement for that has-been? Again, does it matter? In Legend, the unicorns lurch out of the mist, embodiments of purity, the lost character of innocence and fecundity the characters in Blade Runner are all too cut off from: like Scott’s predecessor (rank nightmare) and follow-up (outright fantasy where light and dark war), Blade Runner is essentially mythos. Hues of poetic parable all but blaze as the film slips toward it conclusion.
The Bradbury Building, setting of storied noir myth DOA (1951) and the vital noir-scifi crossbreed in TV’s “The Outer Limits” episode ‘Demon with a Glass Hand,’ becomes the film’s hub, a decaying, septic trap of time and memory where the final, primal-accented battle will progress wildly through frames of culture, from Medieval gargoyles to Renaissance tangle to Georgian gilt to Art-Deco flare to punk grime. Roy, chasing Deckard through its bowls, similarly progresses from yowling wolf to hunter on the veldt to ironic sparring partner (“That’s the spirit!”), and finally, in his last moments, superman and then archangel. The finale again meshes references—Deckard’s dangling is Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), tötentanz starting point repurposed as awakening, whilst the chase through the Bradbury Building an explosion of Wellesian bravura while achieving its own singular, almost biblical gravitas. Roy must give himself stigmata to keep the game going, driving a nail through his hand to keep it operating, shutdown imminent but a revelation in the making.
We witness Roy transcend his programming, both Replicant and human, in saving Deckard, who in harming Roy, deserves to die more than any number of those Roy has killed. Roy demonstrates that he has learnt the value of life and has gained that elusive fire that has been eluding him and too many others: mercy. His famous final words, his personal poetry (honest-to-god science-fiction poetry) for the passing of a soul and all its witnessing, reports back on the wonders of the new frontier with the pride of a being who now sees his value. His vistas to behold are new, places beyond the reach of the squalid Earth. The best we can say about Deckard, and what Roy probably recognized in him, is that he is an understanding witness to transcendence, and now also a real man capable of love. Gaff acknowledges that he has “done a man’s job,” Gaff watching from the sidelines, presenting Rick with the gift of certainty that Rick, whatever his origins, is a man. But is it that Deckard fought valiantly that made him a man, or that, in the end, he saw its essential futility? In any event, he skips out with his synthetic lover to whatever future— be it in Lamborghini ad as in the verboten theatrical version or to the land of Nod—Gaff’s own, last totem of mercy is understood.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Michael Cimino
By Roderick Heath
Hollywood has never been kind to failure, but sometimes time is.
The real “Johnson County War” was a skirmish between cattle graziers and settlers in 1890s Wyoming, and had long been a cornerstone of western folklore. In the early 1970s, this true story was suggested as the subject for a potentially punchy, economical Western movie. The property kicked around United Artists studios for nearly a decade, with trash champion Michael Winner intending to shoot it at one point. Michael Cimino, still a rising screenwriter, was hired to polish Winner’s screenplay and found epic potential within the tale, and began fashioning the project into his personal take on the mythology of the West. Once Cimino was elevated to the status of artist-titan by the Oscar-garlanded success with The Deer Hunter (1978), United Artists gave the director carte blanche and hoped he could revive the studio’s fortunes, which had only been interrupted by success with Rocky (1976). Cimino went to work with the same feverish and gruelling perfectionism that attended his last film, this time turning a big budget on a bygone era and troublesome subject. The shoot lumbered on, with rising costs and on-set mishaps exacerbated by Cimino’s heedless and exacting execution of his vision. Not since the heyday of Von Stroheim and Von Sternberg had Hollywood been visited by the spirit of such a relentless force yearning for perfection—it was almost as if Cimino was wilfully trying to write himself a legend of doomed artistry to equal theirs.
The stars that smiled on The Deer Hunter now conspired to destroy his follow-up. The ’70s, and the taste for shaded, introspective artistry in American film associated with that decade, were over. UA, left penniless by this large production, negotiated a takeover by MGM at the cost of essentially writing off their $40 million prestige film. After a few abortive screenings of the full-length cut, a severely edited version geared to attract action fans was dumped in theatres, but the audience was bewildered and mainstream critics were helpful in draping a shroud over the remnant’s corpse. The marriage of convenience between Hollywood and auteurism throughout the ’70s was annulled, with Cimino cast first as poster child and then as cautionary example, destined to wander the world with a corporate mark of Cain.
Politics may also have played a part in Cimino’s fate. The material of Heaven’s Gate was not far removed from traditional Hollywood fare; indeed the real events had inspired decades’ worth of oatsers, including Shane (1953). But Cimino, who had successfully plied his political viewpoint amidst odes to patriotic duty in The Deer Hunter, now revealed a more scabrous sense of American identity, turning this frontier tussle into a first round of an ongoing fight between big capital and labour, melting-pot democracy versus ruthless oligarchy, and outsider, underclass, ethnic struggle against WASP pseudo-aristocracy. Cimino was criticised for recasting the immigrants of Johnson County as a vivid, multilingual polyglot, recalling the Russian-American heroes of The Deer Hunter and their generally easy place in the modern social sprawl, with an eye to comprehending just how jarring and tense the early days of such a blend must have been. Just as Heaven’s Gate is visually a vast, violent, yet near-spiritual evocation of both American roots and the cinematic lexicon of the most expansive epic directors, the film’s historical thesis was concurrently harsh and negative. Some have questioned whether, as an unabashedly radical work, the film was fatally out of step with the mood of the oncoming Reagan era, and perhaps this contributed to its swift and merciless interment.
Anyway, all of that comprises the legend of Heaven’s Gate. When I first encountered Heaven’s Gate, the full-length cut residing forgotten on VHS in my local video store, I was bewildered, impressed, and finally smitten. Today, Heaven’s Gate is one of my favourite films in a way that has little to do with the way it was received and everything to do with what Cimino was trying to achieve. The stories of Cimino’s unstable profligacy may well be true and galling, but to behold Heaven’s Gate today is to see everything Cimino fought for up on screen, an artefact of cinematic craftsmanship with few equals and an artwork near-unique in the modern pantheon. Cimino’s talent for orchestrating both the grand and the intimate, proven on The Deer Hunter, was plied with even greater rigour and quiet intensity on Heaven’s Gate, a fluttering, humanistic romanticism carefully wrapped into the fabric of the film rather than spelt out in sententious terms. The film is replete with asides as pleasurable and personable as The Deer Hunter’s best moments, like antihero Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) blending anxiety and charm in showing off his frontier cabin’s new wallpaper—pages of newspaper plastered over the bare wood floors. Editing Heaven’s Gate to make it shorter was a fraught act, because in cutting seemingly simple things, the observational and rhythmic qualities of the film, the gestural and behavioural intricacies that define how the characters relate to each other, were lost. Early scenes depict Graduation Day for the Harvard class of 1872, nearly nonfunctional on a story level but vital in establishing the film’s mood and themes, of the shift of eras and the people caught up in them and the way the reality of mortality sneaks up on us.
The prologue is a portrait of young scions as angels bound to fall in the heady eruptions of Gilded Age America. Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), college chums destined to find themselves on opposite sides of a violent struggle, are here still young and cheeky, their quirks and faults still charming as they celebrate coming of age in a time of peace and plenty. The ritualised rhetoric and celebration here contrast later, far more raucous and messy variations. The referenced spirit of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1941) is confirmed by a quoted shot sweeping into the halls of the Establishment’s hub through wide doors, and the presence of Joseph Cotton as the university chaplain, who gives a windy speech full of patrician sentiment, handing the graduates the responsibility of intellectual and moral leadership over the nation. Billy’s riposte, as anointed class genius and man of letters, is to give a superficially disrespectful and satirical poetic discourse that actually contains a conservative message: “We disdain all intention of making a change, in what we consider, on the whole, well-arranged.” Oratorical dances segue into Strauss waltzes on the lawn, battles over garlands, and candlelight choruses regaling lady friends on high with school anthems, completing a vision of an already nostalgic moment of genteel perfection: “My god Billy, have you ever felt ready to die?” Jim asks his pal amidst the singers.
The past is another country: the film leaps to frontier Wyoming 20 years later, and finds Jim, having not died at the peak of romantic splendour in his youth, instead scrambling about on the floor of a first-class train compartment, inebriated and searching for his boots. Reminiscent of the eponymous hero of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Jim is a warrior-poet without a war, his poetry squandered, haunted by the past and doomed to turn each woman he is drawn close to into an avatar for an image from lost youth. Still, having obeyed Horace Greeley and gone west, he has aged into a tough and boozy man trying to live up to peculiar ideals. Billy, who also styled himself a poet and perhaps even had hopes of dedicating himself to the art, has by this time reduced himself to a perpetually pickled yes-man to grotesque shows of moneyed power, having joined the Cattlemen’s Association, an oligarchy of businessmen angry at the influx of immigrants into grazing land. Jim’s return to Casper sees him quickly confronted by something ugly afoot, hinted by friendly Irish railway worker Cully (Richard Masur) and confirmed by the presence of dozens of loutish gunmen in town hired by the Association. They’re going to wage war on the immigrant farmers in Johnson County, a remote patch of frontier hard against the Rocky Mountains where Jim serves as sheriff.
When some of the gunmen assault an immigrant family, Jim intervenes, and then goes to a city club where the Association is meeting and its chairman, Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), is outlining the upcoming campaign. Jim extracts the truth from the drunk and shocked Billy and socks Canton in the mouth when he gets uppity before heading on to the county. On the way, he encounters another family—the father was gunned down on the road, and the mother is determined to keep leading her children to their new property and work it. But starvation is rife on the range: the Association is angry because the farmers, waiting to harvest their first crop, have been slaughtering their cattle for food or using them as currency. Prior to Jim’s arrival, Champion, himself an immigrant son who has become the chief enforcer for the Association, has gunned down a Slavic farmer who is in the middle of slaughtering a cow. When Jim reaches the county, he makes gifts to his friends—a Winchester rifle for bar owner and all-round entertainment promoter John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges, who co-starred in Cimino’s debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1974) and a carriage for Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), his girlfriend and madam of the local brothel. Jim, aware and terrified of what is coming, tries to get Ella to leave, but she interprets this as his rejection of her, and so she accepts Nate’s offer of marriage.
As with The Deer Hunter, Cimino relays this tale via a series of lengthy, unified sequences, realised with painterly vistas and balletic camera movements. The mid-section describes the unfolding of Jim, Nate, and Ella’s romantic triangle, a quiet, almost unspoken crisis for the trio, and the roiling, lively community of Johnson County. There is purposeful contrast between the rude, plebeian energy of the colonising immigrants, for whom the success of the project of the West is a life-and-death proposition, and Jim’s distracted, dreamy sense of impotence in the face of forces beyond his control, partly indicted as patrician indulgence and partly celebrated as hard-won wisdom in the face of reality. In many ways, Heaven’s Gate feels like an act of remembrance, a la Sergio Leone’s similarly eccentric, mistreated epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984), as Cimino and Leone’s heroes are both defined by a sense of nagging nostalgia in spite of stripped illusions. Just as Jim is revealed as remembering his graduation as the scene shifts to 1890, so, too, does the epilogue, set in 1904, find Jim again reminiscing: the effects of experience and time on an individual are both described in and woven through the fabric of the film. Jim is indeed as much viewpoint as protagonist. Heaven’s Gate is often criticised on the level of characterisation, but Cimino communicates as much through visual signposts as dialogue, like the ever-present photo of Jim with his college girlfriend that hints both at the power of Jim’s nostalgia and also the destructive effect it’s having on his present, one cause of his inability to commit to Ella.
The triangular romance of Jim, Nate, and Ella is thus viewed not through sweepingly romantic postures associated with the epic in cinema, as with Rhett and Scarlett against the red sky in Gone with the Wind (1939) or Jack and Rose on the bow of the Titanic (1997), but through a series of textured interludes of interaction and discursive details. Ella, who has a hard and shrewd businesswoman under her flirty, flighty surface, makes romantic decisions with her head as well as heart: “Do you think a woman can’t love two men?” she prods Jim, whilst he gets drunk and calls her a dumb whore after learning she’s chosen Nate, who’s made her a better offer. Cimino sarcastically depicts frontier life as a place of flux where property is in contention, be it livestock, land, or personal affection, and sees no contradiction in these gestures. A central seriocomic sequence sees Ella asking Nate to carry a pickled Jim back to his room before he can return and get into bed with her, unfolding with a hazy, inebriated grace that reveals the strange, but real affections that tie the trio together and also what keeps them all at subtle loggerheads. Nate takes up Jim’s hat once he deposits him in his bed and places it on his own head, studies himself in the mirror and says with the all rueful admiration of a man gunning to replace the wounded titan, “I’ll say this for ya Jim—you’ve got class.”
Cimino counterpoints such carefully wrought depictions of the interpersonal with pageant-like explosions of communal action. The film seethes with a sense of life in the margins, as Cimino notes a populace fighting, gambling, labouring, fucking—at once impersonal and gruelling, embracing and cheerful. Social conflicts exist within the county’s populace, running the gamut from would-be bourgeois stalwarts to radical firebrands. Ella shows off her new carriage by charging into the midst of the town to the cheers of the rowdy men and the disapproval of the church congregation trying to celebrate the opening of their new place of worship. The wonderfully odd, Fellini-esque sequences when the Johnson County folk, following the lead of Ella’s fiddle-sawing employee John DeCory (David Mansfield), celebrate on new-fangled roller skates, reveals how the rudely compiled ethnicities in Johnson County have already fused into a quintessentially American populace, in their love of novelty and group optimism.
Cimino imbues this sequence with a faintly unreal, particularly dreamy quality, via peculiar scene grammar that contrives to make the crowd suddenly vanish, leaving Jim and Ella alone to dance in their private islet of romance. It’s also here Heaven’s Gate that most clearly contemplates the John Ford Western style. In that style, the travails of heroes and villains are only aspects of a much larger project, where reference is consistently made to rites of life and death, weddings, dances, births and funerals as shared by a community, but viewed now as if through the wrong end of a telescope—fantastic, slightly absurd, and over like it never was. Later, as the Association’s army nears, the citizenry stage a noisy, chaotic, yet nascent democratic mass meeting where Jim reads out the Association’s death list: mild businessman Eggleston (Brad Dourif) emerges as an angry and effective political voice, rousing the populace with his declaration that the Association represents people who “think poor people should have no say in the affairs of this country!” The town’s timid mayor Charlie Lezak (Paul Koslo) wants to hand over all the accused people on the list, only for the widow of one murdered ranger to blow his ear off with a badly aimed shot.
Nate coexists as both progeny of the class he’s called on to victimise and hard edge of the one he works for. Inevitably, perhaps, his cabin is well outside the town, situated in a bucolic meadow, distinct from all the communities he cannot join yet. There he keeps a small coterie of oddball coots (Geoffrey Lewis and Mickey Rourke) for friends. Nate’s reputation for willingly using brute force keeps him safe and wards off challenges, though he has his limits, revealed when he chooses to scare off a young immigrant about to slaughter a captured cow rather than shoot him. Nate is called off the fence once he gets Ella to commit to him, however, and after Jim makes clear what’s about to happen. When he gets steamed about one of the evil acts that heralds the Association army’s arrival in the county, Jim storms into their camp and shoots one of Canton’s fellows in the forehead as a declaration of his new intentions. Nate’s change of allegiances demands that Canton shut him down as a potentially fearsome rival, and so has the army bombard Nate’s cabin with a hail of bullets. Cimino’s take on the real events of the Johnson County War mostly follows his own whim, but here he recreates one of the most striking anecdotes of the incident, as Nate pens a farewell missive to Ella and Jim as his cabin burns down, before charging out to be gunned down in absurd overkill. Jim has already tried to convince the commander of a local cavalry outpost, Captain Minardi (Terry O’Quinn), to help keep peace. Minardi tells Jim he has his hands tied, and resists Jim’s moral pressure by suggesting Jim’s background saves him from having to make the kinds of grimly pragmatic decisions others are forced to, but gives him the Association’s “death list.” The seriocomic tone of the film’s middle third is severed abruptly as Cully sees a train race through Casper and halt just outside of town, bringing Canton, his pet soldier Major Walcott (Ronnie Hawkins), and the gunmen to the fringe of the frontier. Cully leaps onto a horse and rides out to warn Jim, but is caught sleeping by an advance guard and gunned down, the wide-open spaces of the Wyoming landscape (albeit actually in Montana) suddenly ranged with killers sweeping in waves across the grand landscape.
Cimino’s thesis holds that modern America owes it birth directly to ordinary people, to group effort and a shared vision for life, rather than to its individuals, no matter heroic and impressive they were. Some critics, perhaps saying more about their own politics than Cimino’s, labelled this the first Marxist Western. Bridges’ warehouse-cum-domicile, in which Jim keeps a single room, contains hundreds of immigrants, a little world of folk desperate for shelter amidst the great expanses of the West. Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1980) and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2001), long-delayed but conceived around this time, tackled vitally similar themes of the forced evolution of America from a place run by a spiky western European enclave to heterogeneous society via seriously ugly birth pangs, with ethnic and class war abetted by the establishment. Depiction of the Association members treads close to melodrama in offering an array of fat cats with contempt for ordinary people, though there’s nothing greatly unusual in that. Waterston comes close to stealing the film with his imperiously hateful and arrogantly charismatic Canton, who casts himself as the embodiment of patrician right, playing the petty general, though Jim’s contempt for him (“You never were in my class Canton.”) hints that Canton is actually, like Nate, trying to leave behind humble roots by identifying with the forces of power and letting the centrifugal impetus that governs the nation sweep him to its pivot. Jim’s definition of aristocratic responsibility means protecting and sheltering his citizens against the baronial assumptions of the Association, but his and Billy’s gentlemanly, classically educated style looks increasingly irrelevant when compared to both the rapacious greed of Canton’s kind and the robust hunger of the immigrants. The aristocrats can no longer rule and mediate in this free-for-all modern world, this gilded America. Irvine, cheeky gadabout, becomes the emblem of befuddled privilege, incapable of separating himself in the way Jim has from the herd, even though the two men are both close in their overfondness for liquor and sense of waning and longing: Irvine’s fate is appropriately absurd, dying unnoticed in the riotous action, shot dead by Jim’s girlfriend whilst pining for Paris.
Heaven’s Gate was both an apotheosis and last stand for the gritty, eccentric, deromanticised style of Western film that emerged from the mid-1960s, often called the revisionist or “mud and blood” western. This brand was sustained by the western’s ongoing popularity, but doomed to help kill that popularity by assaulting the genre’s presumptions through bloody, anti-mythological takes on the underlying history and milieu. Kristofferson, who gives probably his best performance, had debuted as an actor playing Billy the Kid for Sam Peckinpah, recast by that director, who helped to found the movement, as avatar for the defeat of the wild outsider in a conformist society. For Cimino, he plays a man struggling to make a stand on a personal level, a struggle that coincides in semi-symmetry with the same struggle of the community he’s chosen as his home and lot. If Cimino’s intimate and inferring approach to his human level and radical historical viewpoint seem aimed to defile expectations of the style of moviemaking he’s engaged in, the visual expressiveness of Heaven’s Gate often looks back to a more classical form of moviemaking. Referring to the grandest vistas of John Ford and David Lean, George Stevens and Anthony Mann, Cimino’s West is a place of rolling golden grasslands, soaring, snow-capped peaks, country roads trod by columns of Soviet Realist peasants and dusty, thrumming frontier streets, an animate player in itself. But the way Cimino shoots landscape is ironic in a manner unfamiliar to those directors except perhaps Lean, as mountains and sky gaze down with implacable and illimitable beauty upon ugly human acts, and the diffused lighting and fuzzy-edged interior frames recall rather Robert Altman, the high sheriff of revisionism. Early on Cimino shoots Huppert bathing, totally and unself-consciously nude, in a clear mountain stream, and then settles by Kristofferson in a moment recalling Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” a vision of the West as place where complete abandonment of civilisation’s creeds is possible. This gives way to the tragedy of the liminal constantly unfolding within the embrace of the sublime, bloodied and mangled bodies constantly pictured lying amidst pristine beauty, creating an inherent tension that perceives the humans as infesting rather than claiming the land in a manner that recalls Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.
The slow-screwing tension of the film begins to break loose when some of the Association’s hitmen lie in wait for Ella in the brothel: Jim, hailed to the rescue, infiltrates the building through a top-floor window, only to discover all of the prostitutes butchered. He dispatches the killers with swift and brutal aplomb, and is left to upbraid Ella tearfully for refusing to heed his advice, his act of care for her infused with his still-present anger and heartbreak. This sequence portrays Jim in a traditionally heroic role, but Cimino undercuts it by having him fall into a well of self-pity, abetted by Mayor Lezak, who sacks Jim when he makes it plain he won’t intervene to make the increasingly warlike Johnson County folks stand down. Jim is drunk and sleeping when Nate’s assassination sparks general insurrection. Rather, Ella comes into her own here, and in some ways emerges as the actual hero of the film, the character whose sense of agency is essential. Huppert, whose English was poor at the time, occasionally struggles with the rhythms of her dialogue and yet ultimately delivers a terrific performance, first seen greeting Jim with pie and nudity, a nature child who knows her value in this little world and doesn’t give much of a damn what anyone thinks of her. But Huppert cleverly reveals the wise and hardened soul under Ella’s coquettish surface, and the insults and assaults she receives only stiffen her resistance. She tries first to rescue Nate in a thunderous piece of action, then returns to the town and calls out the arguing townsfolk to battle. The stunningly filmed sequence that follows sees the madly careening force of the immigrants, riding to combat on horseback and carts, assault the Association and surround the would-be invaders, who rapidly fortify themselves with toppled wagons. Utter chaos prevails as Ella charges wildly around the enemy shooting randomly, Bridges tries to get her to take cover. Shop-keepers and plough jockeys turn paladins to pound their persecutors, their enemies shoot back, and the scene devolves into a wild melee filled with bullet holes, broken bones, kicking hooves, shattered wagons, and whistling bullets. When the whirlwind dies down, Billy and dozens of others are dead, and Canton takes off on horseback, vowing to bring help for his trapped goons.
Jim emerges from his cocoon after Ella reads him Nate’s farewell note and finally puts his education to good use, directing the county folk in building mobile barricades based on Roman methods—Wolcott recognises the source. The attackers slowly close in on the Association guns, hurling bundles of dynamite to smash apart the defences. Jim provides a bridge between the Old World and the New, imparting to the immigrants a sense not just of fight, but of war, of applied education. Cimino’s sense of detail overflows as he notes the carnage wrought by the determination of the citizens even as they win their fight, like one woman shooting badly wounded men and then herself. Finally, Cimino’s bitterest anti-cliché: Canton rides back in with Minardi and the cavalry, who “arrest” the gunmen, essentially rescuing what’s left of them from the wrath of the citizens. Jim and Bridges are left to survey their field of victory, covered with bodies and shattered war machines: triumph and desolate horror coexist in one of the most fascinatingly ambivalent climaxes in any film—heroic, grassroots resistance has its grim cost. Peace seems to have been the prize obtained by the sacrifice, both sides having fought each other to a point of nullity. Shortly after, Bridges collects luggage for Jim and Ella as they prepare to leave the county together. Canton and a small band of killer lie in wait for them, set on revenge: Jim kills Canton in the melee, but only after Bridges and Ella are killed. Jim is left weeping over Ella’s bloodied body, last victim of this ridiculous war, red bullet holes like roses blooming on her blinding white dress.
The tragic effect of this moment is almost operatic, but Cimino contours it into a subtler variety, as he moves forward again 15 years. There, he find Jim, older but looking younger with his beard shaved off, a telling vanity as he’s ensconced on a yacht with a lovely young mistress. The first couple of times I watched this scene, it struck me as the film’s lone major gaffe, and yet now its essentialness seems obvious, all the more so for its communication of the vital sentiment with scarcely any words. The final vision of Jim, even more sadly nostalgic, but now cut off from his past by the death of just about everyone dear to him and fallen prey to the gravity of identity, suggests personal tragedy amidst all the political and social turmoil and clash of idealistic and nihilistic gestures. Even Jim, native son, golden boy, a titan on the range, is just another fool of fortune. Much like Welles’ great antiheroes Charlie Kane and George Amberson, he’s doomed to wonder what he might have been if he hadn’t been so rich. Cimino could probably have sympathised all too well. He made a comeback five years later with Year of the Dragon (1985), a white-hot cop flick invested with ornery, hyped-up energy and the strange intensity of a self-portrait, before Cimino’s worst traits started to dominate in his last three films, the bawdiness and ferocity turned cynical. Cimino left Hollywood seemingly for good, ironically finding success again, this time as an author.
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Director: John Carpenter
By Roderick Heath
I can remember when loving John Carpenter’s The Thing was still a rather lonely business. Carpenter’s remake was largely dismissed and derided upon release, chiefly for its gore, but also for its defiantly, disturbingly corporeal take on what had been a considered a very clean-cut alien invader fantasy when filmed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby in 1951. But the intensity and intelligence of the film’s revision of the original to speak to a new era slowly gained traction, to the point now where it’s widely considered Carpenter’s best film. In the 32 years since its release, it’s become a significant cult film and rite of passage for young fans of fantastic cinema, as well as something rare in motion picture history. Standing with the likes of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), The Thing proved that remakes could, in apt and imaginative hands, be taken seriously in their own right, not eclipsing a predecessor, but rather providing it with a potently evolved progeny.
Moreover, Carpenter’s take had claims to precedence over the original film as a more conceptually faithful adaptation of former Astounding Magazine editor John W. Campbell’s feted 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster, Burt Lancaster’s son, took Campbell’s original notion of a shape-shifting alien and made it their version’s reason for being, whilst maintaining the essential, classic set-up of a remote polar base under siege by a thing from another world. The result is as tough, harsh, and near-abstract in its elisions and uncertainty as any big-budget film ever made.
For Carpenter, The Thing was a troubled achievement. The young film student who, with some UCLA pals, had pieced together Dark Star (1974) with duct tape and hobby glue became the hugely successful hero of low-budget independent film with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1979), and Escape From New York (1981). Armed with millions of Universal Studios’ dollars, he made a film that has become both a fixed pole of excellence in his oeuvre, but was also the culmination of a seemingly inexorable career rise that was halted by the film’s weak financial performance and constantly frustrated thereafter.
The Thing was the first film for which Carpenter had not written either the script or the score, both provided instead by Lancaster and Ennio Morricone, respectively, and with defining contributions to the film made by special-effects wizards Rob Bottin and Dick Smith. And yet the film is marked on all levels by Carpenter’s innate sensibility: the salty, plebeian mood of its characters, the sense of isolation and besiegement by forces beyond human control, the sustained mood of eerie dislocation, the portrait of a flailing and threatened community. The unnerving electronic throb of Morricone’s scoring mimics and augments Carpenter’s familiar effects in music perfectly, spelling out lingering dread even as the viewer comprehends a stunning snow-crusted vista. Lancaster had previously penned The Bad News Bears (1976), and whilst The Thing proved to be his last screenplay, his dialogue is almost endlessly quotable, swiftly painting character and milieu. A brief prologue of a spaceship tearing out of the void and crashing into Earth’s atmosphere segues into Carpenter’s only direct nod to the original film, recreating the indelible image of the title seeming to burn or rip through a black field.
The concision of the original film’s metaphors for the paranoid new frontiers of the Cold War give way to something very different, an insidious process of breakdown and infiltration: whilst still “alien,” the Thing here is not a convenient Other, but a force lurking within familiar bodies, warping, perverting, and disassembling the given reality of the humans who contend with it. The conflict of cold science and hot militarism in the original has been reorganised and largely inverted in meaning: here, the scientist as in the original endangers the team, but with the very different purpose of protecting the rest of the world, whilst thinking about larger pictures than the mere frame of personal survival. Carpenter only offers a brief picture of his Antarctic explorers before chaos visits their midst, because that’s all he needs to paint the group and individual dynamics: the clashing temperaments, the huddled group and the self-exiled cowboy R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), black and white, rebels, bohemians, and company men—all echoes back to Dark Star and its portrait of men sent out on an absurd, isolating mission that has broken down not merely patterns of prescribed behaviour, but also individual personalities. Here there’s a subtle distinction between the hard-hat workers there to keep the machines running and the scientist nerds, but this soon dissipates in the face of individual responses to threat, as all characters are revealed, in their varying ways, to be both helpless in the face of such adversity but also often sneakily resilient. Leadership roles are eventually reassigned according to temperament and responsive ability rather than societally imposed standards.
Carpenter’s innate respect for individualism is clearly at play here, but also placed in telling conflict with other urges—herd instinct and mutual responsibility. The camp’s inhabitants are all men, isolated in the first week of winter, to keep watch upon the Antarctic ice seemingly for the sake of it: commander Garry (Donald Moffat), helicopter pilot MacReady, blasé radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites), camp cook Nauls (T. K. Carter), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), biologists Blair (Wilford Brimley) and Fuchs (Joel Polis), geologist Norris (Charles Hallahan), meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney), and mechanics Palmer (David Clennon) and Childs (Keith David). Vignettes of personal adaptation and maladaptation accumulate, from MacReady getting pissy with his computer’s chess programme and tipping a drink into it for revenge, to Nauls torturing Bennings by playing Stevie Wonder through the night, and Palmer and Childs getting high whilst watching VHS copies of old “Wheel of Fortune” episodes. This collective of men is already threatening at first appearance to break into distracted, preoccupied islets of coping with their isolation and the hell that is other people. But then they are shocked back into reality by new circumstances. The narrative is propelled by the threat of the loss of individuality, as members of the team are assimilated down to the finest detail, for the purpose of perfect chameleonic disguise. Yet the innate certainty of some of the characters, like MacReady, that they’re still human provides the closest thing to certainty in the often opaque narrative.
The film’s pitiless logic distinguishes it, and moreover, the very narrative is about that logic, from the moment the husky dog that is actually the Thing’s last vessel reaches the U.S. National Science Institute Base 4, relying on the inability of the humans to recognise it as a threat so that they kill the last person who might’ve stopped the monster—the apparently mad Norwegian who’s chased it in a helicopter from his own devastated base. One of the cleverest revisions of both short story and original film was this narrative remove, having the Thing discovered not by the characters at the centre of the tale but by their predecessors, in a chain of bleakly self-replicating events that mimic the Thing’s method of reproducing itself. The circumstances of its discovery, its thawing, and just what it originally looked like are all left to the imagination. There’s no causative immediacy for the American team, then, only an outlandish proliferation of mysteries and instabilities, the horror of a situation where, by the time they become properly aware of just what’s going on, they might be powerless to halt.
The confrontation with otherworldly forces finally comes when animal-loving Clark locks away the foreign dog in a kennel with the camp’s own, only for the arrival to split apart and reveal itself as a spidery mass of tissue that begins absorbing and replicating the other animals in a grotesque display of corporeal invasion and perversion. “I don’t know what it is,” Clark says to his campmates when they come running, “But it’s weird and pissed and off, whatever it is.” This is about the limit of what we come to learn about the Thing, apart from its relentless drive to survive in what fashion it can now that it’s found a new host world. Carpenter turned stomachs with his willingness to show the Thing going about some of its business, a rare segue into outright revulsion for the director. And yet it also came with the thrill of seeing something genuinely original and nightmarishly convincing, as well as viscerally intriguing in trying to capture just how a very different life form might behave, something most scifi cinema shies away from. This also sets up some of the best shocks in cinema history, like the infamous moment when the belly of a man apparently dying of heart failure suddenly opens like a massive pair of monstrous jaws, and the eruption of a dish full of blood that signals the crewman least you least suspect of being infected is, in fact, the Thing.
One of the greatest qualities of The Thing, however, is its embrace of ambiguity in the situation not merely to excite the audience with mystery but as a dramatic end—and not in that schematic manner of more gimmicky films. In spite of the endless attempts of fanboys to parse the film’s deliberate obscurities and unsolved mysteries, Carpenter’s filmmaking maintains teasing force. Characters disappear, their fates unclear, and one, famously, turns up again to leave the finale tingling with unanswerable angst. One of the disappointing aspects of Carpenter’s later work is his decreasing patience with setting up and deploying his effects, a surrender to adolescent glee in jokey violence and dime-store horrors, where the hallmark of his early work was the relentless control he wielded over camera and mood, that reached a height here. Camera movements analyse empty space in a manner reminiscent of Mario Bava, with some of Carpenter’s most memorable shots here depicting nothing, only wandering the halls of the station, suggesting unseen presences. Sometimes the camera takes on points of view in peering into corners and picking out patches of horror lit by torches with a sense of elision that gives a constant feeling of never quite seeing all.
Glimpses of things hellish are brief and stunning, like when Windows enters a storeroom where moments before Bennings had been working, and is confronted first by gruesome traces of blood and slime, and then looking over to where Bennings is in the grip of the monster, now a caricature of a human form swathed in tentacles. Carpenter sets this scene up with a deliberate nod to a similar scene in The Fog, which itself remixed another moment in Halloween. Whereas in Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, the threat was an Other clearly defined in nature but rendered close to abstract in concentrating on the reactions of his heroes to threat, here the film’s story offers the most perfect metaphorical reduction of Carpenter’s interest in this theme (barring perhaps the more comic, but equally sharp hypnotism of They Live, 1988) in that Other is now Us. Carpenter might have taken some licence from the flesh-twisting and rupturing of David Cronenberg and Alien (1979), but an equally close ancestor could be Salvador Dali’s “Landscape with Soft Beans,” with its famous image of a two-headed rock man trying to rip himself apart, often referred to as a premonition of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, civil war is what The Thing portrays, a disintegrating body politic, making the film at one with Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. But the microcosm serves Carpenter better than many of his more sprawling takes on the theme.
The care taken with lighting, shooting, and acting that the big budget allowed Carpenter undoubtedly helped bring all this to a fine edge, though his early films had no lack of such craft. The narrative and the characters accept a situation where the precise limitations of threat dissolve and leave only taunting vagaries about the degree to which any of them cannot only be sure they can kill a Thing that can reproduce to the smallest molecule, but be sure of being human themselves and of surviving. The tension between individual and group reflexes of survival is beautifully studied in contemplating the Thing and the Humans, where for each, the temptation to go it alone is exposing. Faced with the necessity of group action, MacReady comes in from the cold, but finds himself almost killed in a roundelay of mistrust and power plays in which who the best man to lead against the monster becomes a genuinely vexed question. Where earlier Palmer had mocked official leader Garry in pondering “when El Capitan was gonna get to use his pop gun,” Garry hands over that pop gun when he comes under suspicion of sabotaging a potential test for identifying the Thing. MacReady’s reaction to his computer beating him at chess seems almost bratty and childish, but is quietly rhymed later when Blair watches his own computer mapping out the Thing’s replication pattern, calculating that the entire Earth could be infected by it in 25,000 hours. Blair obeys the computer logic and reaches for his gun; MacReady rebels and leads. MacReady’s observations of the Thing during one of its rampages realises that the alien is just like the group of humans fighting it, composed of unruly components that react blindly when threatened. This realization gives him a tool to uncover it.
The Thing is a grinning death’s head of a film, coolly, relentlessly sarcastic and laced with cruel swerves of fate, from the opening scene where the Norwegian, played by producer Larry J. Franco, accidentally blows up his fellow survivor with a grenade meant for the infected dog and then getting shot after his warnings in his uncomprehended language are taken for lunatic ramblings. A similarly contradictory mania grips Blair, the camp’s biggest brain and the one everyone looks to for answers, who devolves into a ranting, axe-wielding madman is because he’s the first to comprehend the extent of the danger. Deciding that the entire camp must be quarantined, he smashes up MacReady’s helicopter and Windows’ radio, robbing both men of purpose, in effect, and then spurring them to opposite reactions. Windows makes a play for individual defence, running to get himself a gun but only precipitating a leadership crisis as Garry is implicated by circumstance, whilst MacReady takes up the mantle as “somebody more even-tempered” than the aggressively querulous Childs.
MacReady, in Campbell’s story a gnarled, elemental hunk likened to a bronze statue, is here a spiky, faintly asocial cowboy who possesses the right mixture of chilly readiness and native intelligence to take an effective stand against both the monster and his own crewmates. He’s the ideal hero for the circumstances, though Carpenter and Russell would later collaborate to disassemble his perfection for laughs in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). First contact, historically laced with devastating plagues—here, between man and alien—is no different as virtually from the moment the dog arrives at the station, the men are doomed. This is not to say their fight is worthless, as MacReady, the most genuine survivor amongst the crew recognises: just as Blair does half the job of closing off the men’s chances for escape, so the rest of them close off the Thing’s chances.
Dean Cundey’s widescreen photography aids inestimably in creating contrasts early on between hermetic exteriors and microcosmic interiors, shooting David Lean vistas in the unerringly crisp ratio, opening the film proper with a view of an ice-fringed cliff wall and the helicopter that appears as a tiny dot, like Omar Sharif’s appearance in the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Like Lawrence, such expanse becomes a prison. But the frames are often oblique. Scenes shift with dreamy dissolves. High-flying helicopter shots offer primal expanses that contain essential nothingness. Life is only possible within the fragile human abodes, which become temporal traps.
Beautifully unusual as exposition and tension-building, too, is the way backstory is drip-fed. MacReady and Copper venture out to the Norwegian camp in the hope of saving lives, instead finding a ghostly ruin littered with signs of violence, a huge, suggestively shaped block of ice that something has clearly broken out of, and piles of incinerated corpses that seem to have been warped together like the most perverse visions of surrealist art. Video footage purloined from the Norwegians gives clues to what they found, and Carpenter wittily reproduces the iconic shot from the original film of the men marking out the shape of a buried and frozen flying saucer, albeit once removed, glimpsed like the original film as a fuzzy relic on a black-and-white screen.
The actual spaceship, which MacReady, Norris, and Palmer seek out, proves to have been partly incinerated by the Norwegian attempt to extract it, and to have been frozen in the ice for 100,000 years, a nasty birthday present from the universe for whoever found it. That’s become a rather common motif of scifi cinema since this film, and perhaps marks out the long shadow of Nigel Kneale on Carpenter’s work with its obsession with primeval atavism, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) equal mark on the genre as a whole in looking to a distant past as key to present calamity. In any event, Carpenter’s precise use of quiet and space to create his nerve-jangling mood segues into scenes where all hell memorably breaks loose, particularly in the aforementioned sequence in which Norris is revealed to be a Thing by Copper’s cardiac shocks. The shocks stir the beast within to snap off the doctor’s arms before distorting and ripping apart, an id-beast with Copper’s face dangling from the ceiling whilst Norris’ head detaches, grows legs like a spider, and crawls away, stirring Palmer’s immortal motto, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” And, of course, the sustained tension of the scene in which MacReady puts his idea into practice whilst holding the crew at gunpoint—or, rather, flamethrower-point—by poking petri dishes filled with each man’s blood, having realised the Thing’s peculiar nature means that every part of it is, in essence, a separate entity, and the blood of a Thing ought to react. MacReady resorts to such measures after he falls under suspicion of being a Thing himself, locked out in the blizzard by Nauls and forced to shoot Clark when he tries to ambush MacReady with a scalpel.
The sequence that follows is a marvel not just of unerring construction, but also of dramatic byplay, as the specific characters react to each twist, from Childs taunting MacReady over Clark’s proving to be human after mocking the test as a crock of shit, to Nauls’ queasy expression as his test comes around and then his intense, hawkish look once he’s freed and holds the flamethrower himself, and Garry’s veneer of patience giving way to a hilarious final eruption of anger. In between, the startling revelation that Palmer, the classic least likely suspect, is a Thing, transmogrifying gruesomely, with skull splitting into toothsome halves that crunch on Windows and stumbling out into the polar dark whilst burning like a roman candle. At the point where victory seems possible for the men, however, new calamity forces them to contemplate extinction, as they venture out to test Blair, but find him vanished and a half-built alien spaceship under the tool hut, hinting that Blair’s been assimilated and their survival mission has literally been undermined. The simultaneous, mysterious venture of Blair into the snowy dark and the breakdown of the camp’s engine signal that the Thing now wants to refreeze and wait for a rescue party, demanding that MacReady, Garry, and Nauls burn their little world down to flush out the Thing at the inevitable cost of their own lives.
Arguably the film gives in to a less sophisticated brand of monster movie shtick in its climax, as the complete Thing, an obscene hodgepodge of assimilated animal and human parts, erupts from the floor to attack MacReady and release King Kong’s old roar. MacReady tosses dynamite at it with regulation action-hero pith and a sub-Bond kiss-off line. And yet the foreboding and disorientating effects extend right to the end, too, in the glimpse of more cringe-inducing corporeal invasion as the Blair-Thing assaults Garry, fingers sliding under the skin of his face and fusing solidly with it, whilst Nauls vanishes. Most memorable of all is the very coda, which embraces bleak, yet humorously deadpan stoicism of a brand that feels all too apt in the land of Scott and Shackleton. Childs and MacReady, on the edge of death and with one or both of them an alien by now, sit by their burning world, doing what a couple of working stiffs do when there’s nothing more to do—drink J&B. MacReady’s last line, “Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while…see what happens?”, ends the tale on the most low-key, yet utterly perfect note of exhausted acquiescence, MacReady’s tiny, appended laugh signaling he sees the cosmic joke in it all.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sergio Leone
By Roderick Heath
For Sergio Leone, making Once Upon a Time in America was a 15-year labour that consumed the bulk of his directorial career. By the mid-1970s, Leone seemed to be washed up. The genre he had done so much to codify and popularise, the spaghetti western, had burnt out. Leone’s tilt at making a defining western saga, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), was mutilated and dismissed in the US, and Duck, You Sucker (1972) was similarly lost in the shuffle. Although he continued to produce odd projects and stepped in to help direct some without credit throughout the ’70s, Leone was left perched between worlds. He rejected advances from Paramount Pictures to direct The Godfather (1972), as he was fascinated instead by a purportedly autobiographical novel called The Hoods by former gangster Harry Goldberg, who published under the name Harry Grey. Leone finally put together a big $30 million budget. His ambition seemed to pay off as the 4.5-hour epic earned a standing ovation upon its premiere at Cannes. Triumph quickly curdled, however, for such expansive vision was conspicuously out of favour. A hacked-down version of the film released in the U.S. was a colossal flop, and the calamity on top of an arduous shoot helped kill Leone 5 years later. The 229-minute European cut, however, retained a strong reputation for those who could see it, as I first did, on a brick-thick VHS set.
Aside from its length, Leone’s film is challenging and commercially tricky, as Leone created a deeply ambiguous work, an apogee of the director’s individual temperament. Contradiction was Leone’s defining quality: A high stylist with a gift for lowdown art. A realist with a love of mythology. A romantic with a fetish for brute violence and sexuality. An Italian with a predilection for American pop culture and a gift for creating synergy between the spacious, aestheticized approach of European film and the gritty sturdiness of American argot and actors. A revisionist and Socialist-tinted historian, picking at the scabs of worldly motives, always looking for the carnal and corruptible underpinnings of human impulses, and yet conjuring dreamlike, mythopoeic visions of that history shot through with quixotic longing and melancholy. Once Upon a Time in America is a film where the audience is faced with mirroring ironies that fold time and tale back in on itself.
Leone employed seven screenwriters to build upon his ideas, including an uncredited Ernesto Gastaldi and snappy English dialogue by Stuart Kaminsky, and yet each touch was subsumed into Leone’s, as the film is more visual than verbal. It also both extends and contrasts the methods of Leone’s westerns. The long, elliptical, carefully rhythmic and internally rhyming structuring of Leone’s direction, as small plays of character and power and build-ups to violence are detailed with nerveless intensity, were retained. But whereas Leone’s westerns were defined by space, both in the environs of the open range, and crisp widescreen compositions based on horizontal lines, …In America is dense and baroque, the blasted colours and sunstruck brightness swapped for saturated tones, deep-etched darks and opiated atmosphere.
…In America has been characterised by some as one long drug dream, taking place in the mind of antihero David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) as he lies in an opium den. The movie starts there and finishes there, moving in an Ouroboros sort of pattern. Noodles has retreated to the den behind a Chinese shadow-puppet theatre to forget the consequences of the pivotal act of his life, an act that’s communicated in impressionistic fragments of sound and vision. The first scene of the film depicts his girlfriend Eve (Darlanne Fluegel) being shot dead in their apartment by gunmen on the hunt for him, with the strains of Kate Smith’s operatic take on “God Bless America” echoing in the background. Noodles’ friend, restaurateur and bar owner Fat Moe Gelly (Larry Rapp), is beaten to a bloody pulp by the same mob enforcers until he gives them Noodles’ location. A telephone rings like a jackhammer, burrowing into Noodle’s consciousness through the blur of the drug, conflating a call warning Noodles to flee, and, in his dazed reveries, a phone call he seems to have made to a policeman and the ringing bell of a fire truck at the remembered scene of a conflagration where corpses are laid out, variously scorched and bullet-riddled: Noodle’s pals and partners in crime Max Bercovicz (James Woods), Patsy Goldberg (James Hayden), and Cockeye Stein (William Forsythe), killed, it seems, by some connivance of Noodles’.
This opening manages at once to be allusive and almost psychedelic, but intelligibly puts in play both the taunting mysteries of the oncoming drama and the urgency of the immediate danger to Noodles, who has to flee the den and save Moe. This he does, in a scene that recalls the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West. Where that film had a windmill and a steam train on a flat plain, here there’s an elevator and interior heights, appropriate for the vertiginous moral chasms and landscape of the city. The elevator works laboriously, motor grinding and mechanisms shaking, to the floor where Moe is laid out like a carcass and a waiting assassin patiently awaits its passenger to alight. Instead, a bullet explodes out his forehead, fired by Noodles, who took the stairs. As well as being a quintessential Leone moment of surprise violence, Noodles’ wiliness is revealed here, a gift the film recapitulates many times, but also repeatedly counterpoints with his endless capacity for self-sabotage.
A talismanic key is taken from Moe’s grandfather clock, a key that fits a locker in Grand Central Station, but to Noodles’ evident shock and disappointment, the suitcase within only contains a bundle of newspapers instead of the expected fortune. Noodles has no choice but to keep running from the vengeance he has set in motion. He steps out of the frame, the camera zeroes in on an art deco poster for Coney Island and a wall mirror. Noodles re-enters the shot, reflected in the mirror, balding, doleful, and tense. The artwork is now a pop art mural, a version of “Yesterday” rises to displace “Night and Day” on sound, and without a line of dialogue, we know Noodles has returned to New York in the late 1960s.
This cunning leap forward touches on one essential aspect of …In America, which is as much about time and what it does to people and what they do to themselves in the eye of it, as it is about individual circumstances. It’s also one of the greatest explorations of the transporting intensity of remembering. Leone and ever-attuned composer Ennio Morricone even twist the potentially cheesy idea of using “Yesterday” as a leitmotif for aging regret to work for them by pushing it to a limit with a muzak-flavoured cover: nostalgia is another pop value. Noodles and Moe meet again, tired and on the wane, defined by a past that went magnificently and seemingly irreparably wrong. Moe’s bar is an islet of the past in a former Jewish neighbourhood, now filled with the new wave of Puerto Rican immigrants. Moe certainly didn’t pilfer the million dollars in the locker, Noodles now sees, and he explains the ominous yet seemingly casual missive that’s brought him back to New York, a letter that confirms someone knows where he’s been hiding and has now summoned him back for a reckoning. Longing for a chance to repair the past and pining for the flare of youth’s energy and vision transfigures Noodles. But he was not a good man, not even one ennobled by the Corleones’ familial ethos. Rather Noodles was, as the idol of his life, Moe’s sister Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), once diagnosed, a guy always doomed to be a two-bit punk. Noodles’ return home sees objects take on transformative power, recalling distant times and people: in the back of Moe’s bar is a peephole, and looking through it like a cinema audience conjures a young Deborah (Jennifer Connolly) as a vision of youth’s hope.
That youth is revealed as hardly an idyll, however, as Noodles and his pubescent pals were dirty-minded, fun-loving, budding criminals. To make money off local standover man Bugsy (James Russo), Noodles (played young by Scott Tiler), Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curran), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi), burn down a newspaper stand. They also rob drunks and blackmail an obnoxious cop (Richard Foronjy) after they photograph him having sex with underaged sexpot Peggy (Julie Cohen). Leone’s young imps are little pishers, glimpsed squirting lighter fluid as if they’re pissing on the newspapers. The boys encounter Max (Rusty Jacobs), a junkman’s son who foils one of their criminal enterprises with cheeky humour and then joins them. Success continually raises the stakes for the boys’ misadventures: gaining control over the cop places them in the path of Bugsy, who has Noodles and Max beaten up. When Noodles and his pals outmanoeuvre Bugsy in ingratiating themselves with the mafia, the older punk sets after them with a gun.
These ’20s sequences are majestic in their blend of the hazy immigrant remembrance that was popular in the newly ethnic-conscious and historically attuned American cinema (The Godfather Part II, 1974; Hester Street, 1975; Ragtime, 1981), but far outstripping most for evocativeness and exactitude of milieu—Leone’s period worlds are characters in themselves. One of his keenest gifts lay in creating organic milieus in particular places where social forces are in constructive flux. Leone’s crack team of filmmakers—cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, editor Nino Baragli, art director Carlo Simi, costumer Gabriella Cespucci—helped to make his old New York a place of dirty wildernesses of brick and cobble where the criminal lads dash and dance like Our Gang turning into Dead End Kids. Rooftop empires of bird shit, flapping laundry, and illicit sex and empire-planning. Harbours flooded by fog, zones of mystery and adventure. Above all, nascent industrial might symbolised by the Manhattan Bridge, like living in the shadow of a pyramid, the New World’s expression of communal power and hubristic desire. The neighbourhood around Moe’s place evolves in obedience to the zeitgeist. The old kosher restaurant run by the Gellys where young Moe (Mike Monetti) labours is a popular community crossroads. It gives way to a speakeasy, popular with a panoply of the urban melting pot, housing both underworld and elite. Finally, it becomes the clapped out, run-of-the-mill bar where Moe has to pay protection to a Puerto Rican standover man. When Noodles is fatefully carted off to a juvenile prison, both the prison and the opposing warehouse wall against which his friends range to see him swallowed by the beast emphasises the impersonal scale and fetid, rotting atmosphere of the urban landscape in a fashion that feels the oncoming age of oppression.
The very American tale of the immigrant experience, defined by the simultaneous, wrenching, gravitational fields of ethnic community and eruptive New World mores (young Noodles refuses to go home because “my old man’s praying and my old lady’s crying and the light’s turned off”), is crossbred with the Italian cinematic tradition for looking back in pained wistfulness at the birth pangs of modernity in films as diverse as The Leopard (1963), The Voyage (1974), and 1900 (1976). There’s also the equally Italian delight in describing the raw side of entering adulthood: the young hoods are obsessed with sex, whilst wrestling angrily with their weaknesses and deeper desires. Although the protagonists of …In America are unusual in the ranks of screen hoods for being Jewish, they’re exceedingly Italian in spirit, calling to mind the libido-addled adolescents of Fellini’s 8½ (1963) and Amarcord (1973). There is also, of course, deliberate recapitulation of classic movie themes, specifically, the gangster film, laced with references: the rise-and-fall stories of Little Caesar (1930) and Scarface (1931); the immigrant angst and youth-to-nefarious age drama of The Public Enemy (1931); and remixes of those themes in the tempted street kids of Angels with Dirty Faces (1937) and the generation-tracing arc of The Roaring Twenties (1939). Also, the galvanic punch and sociological notation of Don Siegel, Roger Corman, and Sam Fuller in the ’50s and ’60s, and the political awareness and epic tone of The Godfather. One original aspect of the story, anticipating Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), is the way its narrative centres on a character who could be perceived as peripheral, even a loser. Whereas James Cagney’s and Paul Muni’s gangsters always fell eventually but became colossal in their defiance or their tragic qualities, Noodles becomes not a fallen warrior, cautionary example, criminal overlord, or even really a proper antihero. Rather, he remains something of a fool of fortune doomed to keep losing great chunks of his life to his antics and poor judgement.
Youth is brought to an end through a series of rolling events, and indeed all three epochs described in the film detail long plot arcs dotted with vignettes and climaxing in dramatic severances. The greatest moment of the lads’ youth comes when they convince a mafia overlord to try their invention, involving flotation balloons and counterweights of salt, which can refloat cargos of liquor dumped in the river to avoid patrols. Waiting on a boat in the harbour in a dreamy mist that slowly unpeels over a grimy industrial waterway, the boys see their invention work and celebrate, with Max and Noodles falling overboard: Max plays a prank on Noodles, pretending to drown, before reappearing in the boat, flashing his mocking grin. Much later, Noodles plays the same gag on Max. The two friends, closer than brothers, also constantly try to get one over on each other, treating life almost like a huge practical joke. The folie à deux aspect of their friendship defines the entire narrative. Deborah mockingly describes Max as Noodles’ mother, constantly calling him, but for criminal hijinks. Max first appears on a garbage cart, and steals a watch from a drunk the others wanted to roll, motifs that double and reverse in the finale. Bugs shoots Dominic, who dies with pathos in Noodles’ arms, his felling filmed in slow motion, severing youth from adulthood. Noodles, in a lunatic fury, knifes to death both Bugsy and a cop who tries to intervene, and is imprisoned. He’s released years later as an adult, when Max and the others have become successful bootleggers and entrepreneurial criminals.
Max greets Noodles upon release with a present that combines Leone’s love of bawdy sexuality and morbid humour: Max has a hooker (Ann Neville) laid out like a corpse, pretending to be dead, only to drag Noodles in to prove they’re both very much alive. As the famous quote from …In the West says, Leone’s heroes have “something to do with death,” yet sex and death are constantly correlated with insistent, Freudian power, particularly in this film, where both impulses are seen as the logical extremes of life, whilst most nebulous needs, like love and power, have a grip of religious insubstantiality to them. Whereas love was something Leone’s gunslingers spurned in pursuit of revenge, or had lost and spurred that revenge, Noodles is fatally split by his base instincts and higher aspirations. Carnality is its own strength: when he’s returned to Moe’s, Noodles encounters an older Peggy (Amy Ryder) who’s now a rotund madam-cum-earth mother who sells it profitably “by the pound.” Reunited with his pals, Noodles is brought in on a heist job shopped out to them by made man Frankie Manoldi (Joe Pesci) and his acquaintance Joe Minaldi (Burt Young), who’s got wind of a lucrative diamond shipment he wants them to rob. This turns out to be a double-cross, as the gang’s really been hired to kill Minaldi, and take the diamonds as pay by Manoldi.
Young’s hilariously grotesque cameo as a kind of simian throwback jammed into a suit, telling the story of how he got the tip-off about the diamonds via an anecdote involving insuring his penis, calls back to the shambling, ill-shaven untermenschen that dogged the heroes of Leone’s westerns. Those heroes are by contrast pre-modern but not uncivilised men who seem to share the distant bloodlines of Titans in their gifts that elevate above the common run. The double-cross assassination takes place in another peerlessly atmospheric setting, a foggy canalside littered with beached steamboats and industrial detritus, and plays out with deliriously intense staging. Cockeye shoots Minaldi point-blank through his jeweller’s glass, the gang rake his car with a tommy gun, and Noodles chases an escapee into an eiderdown factory, where he catches his prey and guns him down in a shower of whirling feathers. Noodles performs well, proving he’s still a man of action, but is irritated at having not been told what was going down. He vents his irritation at Max and the others with loopy humour by driving their car off a pier, suggesting that even now, with their extremely grown-up sex and violence, they’re still kids delighting in mayhem and tomfoolery. An aspect of this extends through a ribald subplot: during the robbery of the diamonds, Noodles was pulled into a play-act rape of the jeweller’s secretary, Carol (Tuesday Weld), actually the inside snout who tipped off Minaldi and a deeply kinky broad who gets off on illicit thrills. When she coincidentally turns up at Moe’s as a customer, the gang greet her wearing the handkerchief masks they used in the robbery, with their dicks out, so she can pick out her prior acquaintance. But Carol picks Max, and becomes his girlfriend.
The more “elevated” influence on Leone’s tale was The Great Gatsby, which informs the longing quality of Noodles’ attraction to Deborah and all that she represents, both in youth, as a creature of grace and purity in a mucky world, and in manhood, as a woman going places in the world legitimately. Unlike Daisy Buchanan, however, who was a gossamer idyll formed by an elusive precinct of aspiration, Deborah actively constructs herself, knowing full well the world she lives in and the nature of Noodles. She puts on airs and wheedles her way out of chores by dint of her exceptionalism, as she’s trained in arts that may take her places, including feminine arts both full of mystique and irritating power over Noodles. The childhood friends who take different roads is another old motif of the gangster film (Little Caesar, Manhattan Melodrama, Angels with Dirty Faces) crossbred here with romantic longing, but developed in highly unexpected ways because one of Leone’s darkest themes here is betrayal and the damage people who love each other can do. One of Deborah’s fateful acts, locking Noodles out of the restaurant and refusing to answer his cries for help after he and Max are beaten bloody by enemies, suggests that Noodles will always be on the outside, calling for Deborah, and also informs his later act of brutal revenge on her, inextricable from his erotic and emotional obsession. The film’s apogee of romanticism depicts Noodles trying finally to consummate his love for Deborah with his ill-gotten fortune, taking over an off-season hotel for the night in a show of spectacular courtly advance shot through with intimations of grandeur and sadness; this scene captures the essence of Fitzgerald’s book better than any straight adaptation has so far achieved.
Yet it also provokes and feeds into Leone’s own Janus-faced sensibility, as Deborah maintains her focus and tells Noodles she’s leaving for Hollywood in the morning. He, smouldering with anger whilst they’re being driven back to the city, viciously and punitively rapes Deborah on the backseat until the chauffeur pulls over and puts an end to it. A supremely disorienting and ugly scene (though fascinatingly undercut by the chauffeur’s agency, as he even refuses Noodles’ money; in most melodramas with a crime of this sort, the functionary would be assumed to be a moral null), is one of Leone’s singular accomplishments, as it so utterly debases the usual core of sentimentality found in the gangster film, forcing a radical audience reorientation of where its sympathies lie. Early in the film, Noodles’ hunters had shot Eve, Deborah’s worldly substitute, and, with electric provocation, one tweaked a society lush’s nipple in the opium den with his pistol. Sexual violence adds an uneasy, potent undercurrent to the film as a whole. With Noodles’ assault on Deborah, it becomes clear that Noodles’ lifestyle and milieu, far from being redeemed by Deborah, has instead poisoned him, his expectations of women and life in general. Indeed, what was pseudocomic and anticipatory in Noodles’ and friends earlier sexual encounters with Peggy and Carol becomes appalling.
Leone reaches for and achieves Dostoyevskian stature in his depiction of madly clashing impulses inside characters, as Noodles is at once exposed in his reactive cruelty: he essentially treats Deborah in the same way he did Bugsy, with the blind anger of a kid who feels he’s had something treasured stolen from him. He also defeats himself utterly, and feels immediate, crushing shame, as he watches Deborah leaving for Hollywood on a train the next day, amidst a swirl of steam on the platform, like he’s a phantom his own life, which indeed is what he becomes. There’s a moral precision to this even as Leone largely rejects simple moral readings—all his characters here are cruel to each other on some intimate level, of which physical violence is only one variant. Earlier, young Deborah had charmed Noodles and sustained his fantasies by reading to him from the Song of Solomon, but roughing up the sublime poetic metaphors by comparing the idealised creatures on the page with Noodles, hanging onto her words with increasing torment as she stated “he could never be my beloved.” Deborah’s ironic reading elucidates Leone’s art: alternations between lofty yearnings and expressions of sublime emotions jarringly interpolated with vulgar and cynical sophistication. Equally strong and just as auspicious as Noodles’ crush on Deborah is Noodles’ bromance with Max, whose enticingly wicked grin and humour casts a different spell. Max’s spying curtails Noodles’ one kiss with Deborah just before Bugsy’s beating, signalling Max’s impact on their fate, and also, as later events confirm, exploring the synchronicity of their identities.
Leone’s critical understanding of capitalism threads throughout the film, as it did in …In The West where Frank (Henry Fonda) gazed with admiration and frustration at the apparatus of fiscal power after he has done the work of annihilating the small-time speculator for the profit of the big operator. Here Noodles has the gift for creating and putting over a stratagem, but it takes evolving tycoon Max to utilise them as part of a larger project. One provides the labour and invention, the other exploits. This film deals with characters who are villains in Leone’s other films, though Cockeye, like Harmonica in …In The West, carries an instrument (a piccolo), and Noodles feels the righteous spur to revenge on Bugsy, an urge he will later, importantly, quell and reject. As in Leone’s westerns, community exists, but the heroes do not protect it, exemplify it, or even really blend into it, but are rather cordoned off in a way John Ford only did with final deliberation: when young, the boys are constantly filmed in empty streets at the fringes of activity, or on rooftops, whilst Deborah passes through the midst of crowds, both at one with them but moving against the tides. The beating Noodles and Max receive from Bugsy occurs after the rest of the street has deserted with the residents heading off to the synagogue. Even when Max finds security and insider status under an assumed identity and fortune, he cannot join the crowds in his house, and spies instead on his son as he greets his pretty girlfriend and enjoys all the joys of his aristocratic youth, bought with so much bloodshed and loss.
When Noodles first returns to his old street in 1968 and nears Moe’s, he is confronted by the momentarily surreal sight of a gravestone lifting into the air from behind a brick wall by a front-end loader, as the old immigrant graveyard is being disinterred. The motifs are trebled here, as both the memento mori hanging over Noodles is literalised, the notions that graves are opening and the dead walking is first hinted, and the unavoidable fact of the past being consumed by the present. Later, he finds his friends have been granted an ornate mausoleum, which, a sign says, was paid for by Noodles himself. There he finds another totemic key to the same old locker at the station containing a suitcase full of money: Noodles is being given one last job. A scandal is playing out on TV with a face Noodles recognises: union boss Jimmy Conway O’Donnell (Treat Williams), who the old gang once saved in their finest deed, supporting striking Teamsters, by using wit as well as weapons to combat a plutocratic manager, his goons, and his pet cop, Chief Vincent Aiello (Danny Aiello). Leone goes to town in a bright, relieving comic movement staged with impudent vivacity to “The Thieving Magpie,” as the gang swap babies in their hospital cribs, including Aiello’s, repeating their earlier act of blackmail to impress a cop. Leone pulls off a mirthful, technically superb overhead shot of a nurse frantically trying to calm the crying babies who have just been swapped, visualising the thematic notion spoken subsequently, that the gang have just played god and reapportioned destinies to each character. As Max says, “We’re better than fate. We give some the good life, give it to others right up the ass.”
The gang’s swashbuckling efforts on behalf of the unionist prove they still have emotional ties to the cause of working men. This proves a double-edged sword, as they put O’Donnell in debt to the mafia. Noodles rejects the oncoming age of corporatized criminality, which Max, O’Donnell’s political overlord, and Manoldi begin to build to carry them past the end of Prohibition. Indeed, the film examines a common point of fascination for modern gangster movies and popular history, digging into the complex relationship between organised labour, organised crime, and progressive politics. There’s the suggestion that in the formation of a new bloc of power out of divergent interests to counter settled oligarchies, helped define modern America. Max, alone amongst the gang, sees the possibilities, and he takes his chance to complete his own version of Deborah’s dream to completely transcend his roots and become a great American. Noodles’ rejection of the combination vision sets in motion Max’s master plan even as he seems to acquiesce, and his plot plays out under the guise of suicidal madness, as he proposes an impossible heist. Rather than let his friend push along with this seemingly mad intention, Noodles then counters with his own calculated betrayal, setting up the gang to be arrested on their last liquor run. But Noodles is absent, knocked out by Max seemingly in an unstable rage, and the story begins to catch up with itself, as the early glimpses of the aftermath of the set-up have already told us how this ended. Or did they?
The return at last to 1968 to play out the final stages, comes with the revelation that not only is Max alive, now known as Bailey, but he has wormed his way into the highest reaches of society and political life and seduced Deborah. This fact revealed to Noodles in his poignant, inevitably tentative reunion with her after a stage performance, or rather when the reunion concludes: Deborah’s face, swathed in stage make-up, is despoiled as she rubs it off, identity seemingly smudged as dimensions of her character Noodles never imagined are opened up. The face of her son (Rusty Jacobs), who arrives whilst they’re talking, instantly rewrites the past—he has Max’s young face, stamped by preppie innocence and confusion. Noodles’ contrition at what he did to Deborah is matched by her and Max’s guilt at having destroyed him to gain their own lives.
“Bailey” and his works are unravelling, however, thanks to the still-lingering ties to O’Donnell and the mob, and the final truth that emerges is that he only delayed, rather than avoided, the same reckoning that Noodles has long since made: finding Max heals rather than hurts Noodles, and he’s revealed in their final exchange as an almost monkish penitent, calmly and sadly refusing Max’s request for a friend to shoot him rather than some anonymous assassin, whilst recalling their shared youth, a time that involved and led to horrible things, and yet was still youth. The ambiguous, even surreal final moments of the film provoke both frustration and wonderment, and yet can be coherently read. Max seems to follow Noodles out from his house only to disappear into a passing, peculiarly menacing garbage truck, evoking one tale about Jimmy Hoffa. But does he kill himself, or is he killed? Either way, he goes out the way he came into Noodles’ life, in the back of a garbage mover, moments after he held up that watch, that talisman of the past.
The final images of the film circle back to the past, then, as Noodles is passed by ghostly, yet rowdy apparitions of parties past, as Jazz Age roadsters tear by, and then Noodles himself, a young man again, crawls into the opium den, returning to where we found him: indeed, did he ever actually leave? Was it all a dream of anticipation, a drug-enabled psychic fit? Or did, as I tend to think, Noodles realise on some level not unlocked until he got high, that Max had faked his death, and the practical joke was ongoing? Of course, Leone designed his narrative carefully to refuse exact explanations or interpretations, as so many of the film’s devices, scenes, and settings have recapitulated the notion that everything finally ends up back where it started.
As ever with a Leone film, the indispensable aesthetic capstone is Ennio Morricone’s scoring, which swings from florid, operatic feeling to jazzy jaunt. Just as Morricone’s scores for the westerns constantly nudged the atmosphere of Leone’s film toward both expressionist weirdness and the cultural gravity of Latin America through his instrumentations, so, too, does his work here, constantly punctuated by panpipes, give the film an exotic, haunted quality, as if ghosts are crowding the margins of the lives on screen. The cast is superlative. De Niro’s turn as Noodles is low-key, and yet represents one of the actor’s best achievements, in how concisely he portrays a man who ages 30-odd years, avoiding all of his familiar actor’s mannerisms whilst conveying deep, if taciturn emotion. By contrast, Woods is electric as Max, a less subtle role but one that requires the dash and indivisible mixture of charm and visceral scorn he’s invested with, whilst Weld is wickedly good as the masochistic, yet somehow dominating Carol. Even with its deliberate mysteries and the elisions, which may finally be partly plugged by longer forthcoming editions, Once Upon a Time in America is a cinematic pinnacle.
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Director: Ivan Reitman
By Roderick Heath
Ghostbusters is one of those quintessential films beloved by anyone who grew up in the ’80s, and now that it’s 30 years old, sure to make all of us feel old. It’s also one of those films whose cultural familiarity partly masks what a peculiar beast it is. Dozens of films since its release have mimicked and taken cues from its atypical mix of apparently disparate genres and impulses, as it practically gave birth to the “high concept,” self-aware blockbuster. What is Ghostbusters? A horror film? A screwball farce? A send-up? A blockbuster action flick? A self-reflexive, postmodern disassembly of popular moviemaking? A wild and self-mocking jaunt from a team of semi-outsider comics who found themselves armed with all the resources of powerful insiders? All of the above?
Just whose success it is likewise remains confusing. Director Ivan Reitman handled the film well, easily standing as his best work, and the screenplay concocted by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis is smart and original. But the film is more distinguished by the rare and elusive chemistry of its many constituents. Perhaps the most notable follow-up success by its participants is the Ramis-directed Groundhog Day (1992), which starred fellow Ghostbusters alumnus Bill Murray and represented a clear development on Ghostbusters’ heady side. Aykroyd’s efforts to delve into the same zone of satirical black comedy with his own debut directing effort, Nothing but Trouble (1990), is a delirious mess, whilst Reitman’s follow-ups were generally so commercially crass as to beggar belief.
Ghostbusters is also its own success story, and in that regard, it’s still an eccentric, subversive experience, encouraging the audience to cheer the heroes whilst also mocking Ghostbusters‘ own marketing iconography, incorporated within a hall of mirrors in which art reflects life and commerce. The basic theme, a ragtag pack of shonky savants eagerly practising alternative capitalism surprise everyone not only by becoming successes but also by saving the world, is inseparable from the film’s background. It was made by veterans from corners of show business leagues removed from the halls of Hollywood power who nonetheless gave popular cinema an urgently needed shot in the arm. Reitman had started as a no-budget filmmaker in Canada making the comedy horror film Cannibal Girls in 1972 with Eugene Levy, an alumnus of the Toronto branch of Second City, now an improv dynasty that was born in Chicago. Murray, Akyroyd, and Ramis were likewise Second City veterans, with Murray and Aykroyd initially finding bigger fame on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Murray was vaulted to minor movie stardom when he ventured north of the border to work with Reitman on the raunchy farce Meatballs (1979), one of those cheap, inglorious little movies that made people very rich. Ramis joined Reitman and Murray for the hugely successful Stripes (1981). Meanwhile, many of the artists from “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV,” a television spinoff of Second City Toronto, gained cinematic attention in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980) made Aykroyd and costar John Belushi major comedy stars. The joining of these two streams was perhaps inevitable, but it happened only after Belushi’s tragic death forced Aykroyd and Ramis to retool the script they had written for Murray to star.
Ghostbusters harked back to traditions older than the fringe comedy scene its creators came from, however. Comedy-horror had been a hugely popular genre in the 1920s and ’30s on Broadway and in the movies, as American entertainers made light of darker European-derived fantasies. Examples include the much-filmed play The Cat and the Canary, the 1939 version of which starred comedy titan Bob Hope, who followed it up with The Ghost Breakers (1940). The suggestive similarity of that title and Ghostbusters accords with their approach to the material: taking a genre gothic chiller that unfolds in a straightforward manner with all the usual paraphernalia, but sticking a comic bumbler in the foreground to strike sparks against the material. Likewise, Akyroyd and Ramis were witty enough to take a surprisingly rich and dramatic, H.P. Lovecraftish tale and populate it with characters who are variably functional even in the real world. Murray’s character, Peter Venkman, has elements of Hope and Groucho Marx to him, whilst also belonging to a comedy type just starting to wane but that had been the backbone of American film comedy since Robert Altman’s MASH (1970): the slightly boorish, horny, bratty goofball who’s only heroic in that he hates authority and pretension, a figuration that reached its reductio ad absurdum in Belushi’s Bluto in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978). The Ghostbusters are, indeed, very much like the Animal House or Meatballs characters a few years older and scarcely wiser, now growing off the body of academic culture like warts, but faced finally with sink-or-swim survival in the world of ’80s yuppiedom.
Venkman is introduced engaging in an experiment that spoofs the fuzzier end of ’60s and ’70s research, including the infamous Milgram experiment, as he nominally tests two volunteers for ESP abilities, delivering electric shocks when they get an answer wrong, except, natch, that he’s only shocking the nebbish guy (Steven Tash) and pretending that all of the gorgeous blonde’s (Jennifer Runyon, who is married to Roger Corman’s nephew Todd Corman) answers are right. Venkman works in the Dept. of Paranormal Research at Columbia University, along with the more efficacious lab rats Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Ramis). They interrupt his flirtation to drag him to the New York Public Library, where, as the pretitle sequence has shown, a mysterious entity has terrified a librarian (Alice Drummond). The trio encounter the entity, seemingly the shade of a dead librarian, but when they decide to tackle it, it morphs into a demonic grotesque that sends them running for their lives. The unexpected quality of this scene infuses the film as a whole although it never tries to top it. Venkman quips his way past supernatural manifestations (“No human being would stack books like this,” he mutters after Ray points out a pile of volumes that resemble an historically documented poltergeist incident) and then running into and then away from the spectre as something genuinely fierce and frightening, making a ploy of scaring the audience as well as the heroes, and then turning the fright into a joke.
And yet, although it quickly nullifies the power of the uncanny as a source of fright, Ghostbusters never entirely quells it as a source of lawless power. Tim Burton may well have felt encouraged to make his even odder mixture, Beetlejuice (1988), during the brief window when real weirdness was welcome in the realms of high box-office cinema. Although met back at the university by a snotty dean (Jordan Charney) who terminates their grant and evicts them from campus, the boys find their true path, as Peter encourages Ray and Egon, who have learnt from their encounter how to trap and contain a ghost, to start a ghost-catching business. By the end of the second reel, thanks to a crushing mortgage on Ray’s ancestral home, the trio have set themselves up in an old fire station in lower Manhattan (outfitted to tackle “all your paranormal investigation and elimination needs,” as their tacky TV ad puts it) and hired a wiseacre secretary, Janine (Annie Potts). The business of commercialism as the new inescapable paradigm in the go-go ’80s is a key conceit in Ghostbusters, echoing outwards into life, as the boys’ company logo is also the film’s advertising image and the idea of paranormal battle as just another home service industry gave the film’s inimitably bouncy theme tune, by Ray Parker Jr, its refrain. It feels like Aykroyd and Ramis’ cheeky way of admitting they’ve sold out the modest, DIY spirit that fuelled the old comedy scene, but doing so in the most cunning manner possible—getting busy with the ’80s special-effects blockbuster.
Murray’s act was tweaked to best effect in Ghostbusters as the closest of the trio to a romantic lead. Peter starts off as a cynical prick—the dean is right when he remarks that Peter regards science as “some sort of dodge or hustle”—but he grows up in the course of Ghostbusters without letting himself admit it nor disappointing the audience with corny reversals: rather, he contends with actual adult emotion and potential heartbreak with the same humour he offers to ghostly slobs and incidental aggravations. Venkman’s smart-ass smirk communicates his inability to care about the things everyone else cares about, and where Bob Hope’s heroes were hilariously craven, Venkman alternates between egocentric, on-the-make douchebaggery and an underlying attitude of careless disdain for reality, which makes him the ideal man to wade into battles with otherworldly entities, extradimensional deities, and possessed girlfriends, because they only strike him as being as weird as the petty authoritarians and “normal” people strewn in his path.
Ray and Egon, by contrast, are more traditionally nerdy, Ray rather boyishly earnest whilst Egon, with a jutting crown of Eraserhead hair, brings a quality of haughty, Euro-tinted cyberpunk cool to the team, seemingly the most serious of the trio, but also, as Peter’s anecdote about him trying to drill a hole in his head indicates, the most bizarre. Ramis is the film’s richest alternative to Murray for throwaway humour, given to grimly hilarious exhortations (“I think that could be unbelievably dangerous.”) to too-late warnings (“Don’t cross the streams.”) to esoteric interests (“I collect spores, moulds, and fungus.”). One reason, I think, why kids liked the characters so much, even as a lot of the humour and the concepts of the film went over our heads, lay in the essential boyishness of the Ghostbusters, especially their disdain for both “parent” figures like priggish EPA snoop Walter Peck (William Atherton) and for property. Their efforts to extricate a poltergeist from a ritzy hotel causes more damage than the spirit ever could, evoking the Marx Brothers destroying a place to save it; Venkman takes his chance on the old whip-the-tablecloth-off-the-set-table stunt just for the hell of it. There’s a flavour of Aykroyd’s writing on The Blues Brothers, as he sent his asocial heroes crashing through shopping malls and annihilating great swathes of consumerist folderol.
The hotel manager sniffs at paying the ridiculous bill Venkman hands him for their services, but, of course, the threat of releasing the monster again is all it takes to gain submission. The boys’ victory here is their first, though the hotel only represents their second client, after concert cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), who reports the startling appearance of demons uttering the name of an ancient Sumerian god in her refrigerator. Dana’s intrusion into the lives of the Ghostbusters prods Venkman to mature, albeit it unwillingly and with customary insouciance, as he tries to impress a woman not at all impressed by his smug shtick (“You seem more like a game show host,” she says in comparing him to other scientists) but who enjoys his energy and ironic charm. Unbeknownst to all, Dana and her neighbour in the building, accountant Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), have, because of their addresses, been chosen by mysterious forces to become the “Gatekeeper” and “Keymaster.” The sexual innuendo isn’t subtle and yet the layering of the humour is, as the film signals understanding of the erotic underpinnings of much symbolism in the horror genre, but doesn’t overplay this epiphany. Instead, it’s married to a style of comedy practiced by most of the cast in other venues, one based on well-observed social types. The garrulous, dorky, socially malformed Louis, who is Dana’s excessively attentive neighbour (and also constantly locks himself out of his own apartment) finds his ticket to getting it on with Dana as the Keymaster, albeit after being possessed by a dog-monster.
Louis’ party, to which he invites Dana, is one of the film’s quieter comic coups, as he raves to the gathered about throwing the bash “for clients instead of friends” so he can claim it as a business expense, shouts out the details of his guest’s financial problems, hurls coats carelessly out onto the balcony, and dances to disco (in that grey zone between when it was cool and when it became retro hip) with a buxom blonde, before the demon sent to claim him crashes in through the window. The film’s half-cynical, half-affectionate feel for New York emerges properly in the following scenes, as Louis flees the monster, only to be caught by it before a restaurant full of snooty diners, who momentarily pay attention to his desperate cries for help before turning back to their meals. Then the now-possessed Louis screams incoherently about obscure apocalypses before being picked up by the cops and taken to be interviewed by a cautiously fascinated Egon, where he unleashes an enthusiastic monologue about the grim fates that befell previous worlds that became victims of his overlord Gozer. Whereas Louis’ possession is played for comedy, Dana’s returns to a note of genuine weirdness, as, preparing for a date with Peter, she sees something terrible straining at the door to her kitchen. Monstrous arms sprout out of her chair to grip her and drag her to the beast.
One element of Ghostbusters I particularly admire today is the way it creates its own detailed, enriching, peculiarly straight-faced mythology and tropes (e.g., the eternally intriguing “Tobin’s Spirit Guide”), and plays the character-based comedy out against that background, only combining the two occasionally for judicious effect, particularly in the finale in the eventual form Gozer takes. There’s youthful indulgence and cleverness to the details of their Ghostbusting business, from the fire pole they slide down to leap into action, to their jazzed-up station wagon dubbed Ecto 1, like a down-market, second-hand Batmobile. The script profitably avoids mere supernaturalism as it takes the boys’ pseudo-science interests literally, presenting the ghostly outbreak as the result of an “interdimensional cross-rip.” The fantastic dimensions then breaks into the “real” world via a portal created for it by the mythical, insane architect and surgeon Ivor Sandor, a wonderfully Lovecraftian detail. It also reconfigures the basic plot of the stultifyingly bad The Sentinel (1976) and capitalises much more successfully than that film did on the notion of uptown glamour colliding with infernal underworlds; as with Cristina Raines’ heroine there, Dana is the quintessential classy lady confronted with eruptions of the uncontrollable and terrifying. The possessed Dana is transformed into a randy, transgender minx swathed in gossamer red, like the girl in a dance club you most regret going home with, levitating and finally driving Venkman to the most unusually disturbed and unguarded request to “please come down.” Weaver, hitherto best known for Alien (1979), got to revise her image and her career here.
Reitman’s sense of style is also unusually sleek, especially during the superbly composed sequence in which the Ghostbusters’ ghostly horde, released by Peck in his determination to establish the pecking order, floods out of their building in a thunderous light show and terrorises the city. The streams of ectoplasmic energy all converge on Dana’s building to the strains of Mick Smiley’s marvellously odd synth-pop epic “Magic,” as if the whole affair is some extraordinary new-wave art installation gone horribly right. Similarly good is an earlier montage sequence that portrays the Ghostbusters riding to fame and success whilst plying their trade, extending the film’s jokey, but incisive incorporation of modern celebrity as a reality unto itself. The boys’ adventures are reported by Larry King and Casey Kasem, and their images are plastered all over magazines, Egon’s ingenious, but dangerous proton-accelerating, ghost-busting packs shown off in the same fashion as the latest model iPhone.
Much of the film’s visual strength might be laid at the door of the high-class contributions of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and special-effects maestro Richard Edlund. Kovacs’ look for the film, sleek yet richly grained and filled with earthy hues, manages to combine a sense of urban grit with groves of romance and bizarreness, seeking out signs of an antique, even fantastic world coexisting with the decay and bustle. Emblematic of this approach are the stone lions outside the public library that prefigure the gargoyles in which Gozer’s demons slumber and the atmosphere of an older New York, represented by old quipsters lurking in hotel lobbies, encoded in the old panelling of the hotel and the art deco interior of Dana’s building.
The grounded feel in a time and place, as well as humour and characterisation, holds the movie together as it charges into zones of special-effects spectacle and informs its final, celebratory air as a hymn to rowdy all-American energy. The Ghostbusters have since gained an extra recruit, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), a blue-collar black dude who is no PhD, but gives the team their link to the ordinary world around them with his adaptable good-humour (in response to a series of woolly-minded questions on the application questionnaire, like “Do you believe in the Loch Ness Monster?”, he replies, “As long as there’s a steady pay cheque in it, I believe anything you say.”) and workaday attitude to utter insanity. Winston’s addition exacerbates the Ghostbusters as a gallery of types and increases their Dumas-esque cache as the three musketeers become four. He also provides the film with one of its most textured moments, the kind of moment that lifts the film to a much higher level than it might have, as he prods Ray about religious beliefs; he is the first to make the link between the exploding demand for their services with an oncoming event of “biblical proportions.” Although Atherton’s performance is effective (to an extent that made him a go-to guy for playing slick creeps), the conflict with Peck is easily the film’s most canned element. It bespeaks an irritatingly regulation ’80s contempt for bureaucrats in general and the EPA in specific, and exists chiefly to justify a plot point—the release of the captive ghosts, and a little pay-off for the guys when the Mayor (David Margulies), forced to rely on the Ghostbusters to save his city, has him bundled off, a pivot from their early humiliations.
The finale of Ghostbusters is almost unique in managing to proffer big, special-effects-enabled showmanship whilst maintaining its style of humour, refusing to devolve or divert tonally even as Zuul and Gozer finally arrive, whilst sustaining a self-mocking approach to its own blockbuster pretensions. The crowds hail the team’s arrival at the site of battle just like the viewing audience, and then Reitman cuts to the boys laboriously climbing up the stairs within Sandor’s building. Aptly, Zuul manifests as the most alien and threatening thing a team of ’80s working stiffs could imagine—an imperiously cocaine-chic, Eurotrash fashion model. Seeming to have stepped out of some particularly wacky Vanity Fair cover shoot, she asks the team if they’re gods, which, of course, they patently are not, not even by mere New York standards. She then tries to kill them with bolts of lightning, sparking Winston’s most inimitable advice, “If somebody asks you if you’re a god, you say YES!” Zuul’s otherworldly palace is a glorious Bauhaus hallucination of the swank nightspot you’re not cool enough or rich enough to get into. Gozer, smartly, is a total reversal, as the boys are bidden to choose the form their destroyer will take, and Ray, unable to make his mind a blank to avoid making a choice, chooses the most harmless, childish emblem he can, resulting in a 200-foot-tall advertising mascot, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, stomping his way in Godzilla-like glory down Broadway. This touch could have tilted the film towards silliness, and yet it works perfectly, as it both combines and crowns the twinned streams of plot and comedy.
Of course, even faced with imminent apocalypse, the boys’ ingenuity isn’t exhausted, and they step up to the challenge of shutting Gozer’s portal at the near-inevitable cost of their lives with a last show of stoic grace that’s quite moving in an almost throwaway fashion without losing the qualities that define them: “I love this plan, and I’m excited to be a part of it!” Peter cries with both genuine bravado and purest sarcasm. And that’s the deepest, most admirable quality of Ghostbusters, that it keeps its wit and humanity in focus even in the most absurd and extreme of circumstances.
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Director: Herbert Ross
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As a diehard fan of television playwright Dennis Potter, I have endeavored to view as many of his works as humanly possible. While some of his plays remain hard to secure, I had no explanation for the shamefully gaping hole in my Potter completism that comprised the TV and film versions of Pennies from Heaven. The 1978 miniseries starring Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Crawford as the marginalized losers trying to find happiness in 1930s London continues to elude me, but I don’t have to see the six-part, 450-minute miniseries from the BBC’s golden age of television drama to suspect that it is richer in story and characterization than the 108-minute film, even as adapted for the big screen by Potter himself. And thank heaven for that! Although MGM and Herbert Ross seem fairly obtuse about how Potter used pop music to increase the bitter irony of his plays, Potter’s story and sharp edges remain.
It’s not hard to imagine the meeting that led to the greenlighting of this project. Coming off the surprise success of the indie film The Jerk (1979), Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters must have attracted the bean counters at MGM. Executive producer Rick McCallum was relatively untested, though this first taste of Potter would lead to many more creative projects with the writer, including Dreamchild (1985) and the miniseries “The Singing Detective” (1986) and “Blackeyes,” (1989). Herbert Ross had had a string of successes working with material from playwrights, like Arthur Laurents (The Turning Point ) and Neil Simon (The Sunshine Boys , The Goodbye Girl , and California Suite ), so working with a TV playwright must have seemed a great fit. Finally, the musical aspects of Pennies from Heaven must have been irresistible to “house of musicals” MGM.
Whether or not you love the film Pennies from Heaven may depend upon your relative affinity with the Potter worldview. A man tormented by psoriatic arthritis, a condition that began in his 20s, Potter had an overweaning nostalgia for his childhood in the rural mining community of the Forest of Dean, in Glouchestershire, from which he was culturally separated by attending Oxford. He escaped from his physical pain and deforming condition through writing that drew on his life’s preoccupation with romantic fantasies surrounding women other than his wife, a longing for the idealized world portrayed in many popular songs from the 1930s, and a savage disappointment in the corruption and failures of those in whom he put his trust. Despite the particularity of Potter’s obsessions, his idealism and, as he put it, “tender contempt” for his naïve youth are touching, and his willingness to expose the sizeable warts on his own, as well as other people’s, bums offers an arresting honesty that’s fairly rare.
The Ross-MGM Pennies from Heaven doesn’t completely jettison Potter’s critique of an immoral, delusional, sheet music salesman and the corrupt society in which he lives. In a twist on the usual New York setting for such films, Chicago is the town where traveling salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) makes his home. This choice may have been a way to tap into Chicago’s “city on the make” image as well as the Midwestern provincialism that would cause Arthur’s wife Joan (Jessica Harper) to hate sex and his mistress Eileen Everson (Bernadette Peters) to be fired from her school-teaching job in the hinterland Arthur visits for becoming an unwed mother-to-be. Arthur being Arthur, he threatens Joan with an abandonment he would never consider due to her sizable inheritance and promises Eileen that they will be together forever while giving her a fake address to keep her from finding him. Arthur gets the money he wants to start his own music store, as well as the lipsticked nipples Joan reluctantly reveals to him, as her peace offerings. Eileen gets a new name (Lulu), an abortion, and a new career in prostitution in the big city, where she and Arthur eventually reconnect. Pile on a mentally disturbed religious fanatic listed only as the Accordion Man (Vernel Bagneris) and a blind girl who gets murdered (Eliska Krupka), and the stage is completely set for a cynical night at the movies.
That’s not what we get, however. Potter’s plays are not musicals; they only use musical interludes of lipsynching and simple dancing to suggest the state of mind of the characters—and usually only one character—that does not necessarily reflect the rosy lyrics of true love, prosperity or naughty flirtation contained in the period songs. The Ross-MGM Pennies from Heaven largely transforms Potter’s very dark tale into a literal homage to 1930s musicals, with 17 different musical numbers. It has the economic misery of the Great Depression in common with its most obvious model, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Ross stages numerous Busby-Berkeley-inspired production numbers; the title tune “Pennies from Heaven” is outlandishly choreographed, with the chorus girls sporting the penny hats from the “We’re in the Money” number in Gold Diggers of 1933. If only some of these production numbers approached the poignancy and bitterness of Gold Diggers’ “Remember My Forgotten Man.” Alas, the film adopts the strategy of using the lyrics to tell the story, a technique that postdates the period Ross is recreating.
I found the musical interludes confusing. In a modern musical, it makes sense for Arthur to lipsynch “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” when he first sees the beautiful Eileen. But whose fantasy is “Let’s Misbehave”? Is it Eileen’s, when she first meets Tom (Christopher Walken), a pimp who does a striptease to reveal a tattoo heart on his chest with “Lulu” scrawled across it? Or is it Tom’s, who might be trying to entice Eileen to come into his stable? Maybe it’s both, as when Arthur and Eileen mimic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” on the stage of the movie theatre where they are seeing Follow the Fleet (1936). Frankly, I don’t think it matters all that much to this film, and thus, the consequences Arthur faces for a crime he didn’t commit—or the sense that perhaps he deserves to be punished on general principle for his boorish, lying behavior and business failure—don’t come into focus. When Joan screams, “Cut his thing off and bury it,” we can’t share her sense of rage; indeed, by 1981, more people would be angry with Joan for being such a frigid bitch than would blame Arthur for cheating on her and pushing her to give in to his kinks and dreams.
I don’t think Steve Martin was ready to play this role. He has considerable acting chops, but he was still very new to dramatic acting when Pennies from Heaven was made, and was still afflicted with the comedians’ curse, the need to please, that kept the savage fires safely below the grate. There are moments when Arthur is cruel and dangerously lascivious, but Martin is helped neither by Ross nor the tame approach to the material to bring them roaring to life. Better cast are Bernadette Peters and Jessica Harper, who burrow deep to bring out some interesting shades in their characters. The scenes with the blind girl and the Accordion Man are confusing as to location and timing, and I blame these miscues on bad editing forced by the studio. The one completely unmitigated joy in the film is Christopher Walken. We all know he can play crazy mean, but who knew he could do a striptease that even Gypsy Rose Lee would envy. He is perfect, but with only one scene, the pleasure is short-lived.
I think it’s rather telling that the go-go 80s started with a mixed-message musical that seems prescient about how the socioeconomic fortunes of the country would go. The blind brutality of a narcissistic schemer, the moralizing vengeance of a rich woman, and the mostly willing descent into prostitution of a small-town girl are redeemed by lavish costumes and sets, perfectly executed production numbers, and a mandated happy ending—which, of course, Potter wrote himself as the measure of denial toward which we were heading. Even if the film had gotten everything right, it was destined to be the flop it was. We just didn’t want to know.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Paul Mazursky
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If anyone is interested in seeing films that successfully take on the male Jewish persona the Coens have been pursuing humorlessly in their recent films, A Serious Man (2009) and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), check out the works of Paul Mazursky. A Brooklyn Jew who changed his first name (Irwin), went to Hollywood, and has spent his career toggling between directing and acting, Mazursky has reflected the times he has lived through in his eight decades of life while maintaining a surprisingly consistent worldview. For Mazursky the screenwriter and director, the world is a disorienting place; his films are filled with people trying to find themselves both physically, following displacement (Harry and Tonto ), and spiritually (Tempest ). His debut feature film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) starts in group therapy, moves inexorably to a fumbled foursome, and ends in a parking lot with the title characters staring at each other, still searching for answers.
Based on a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies: A Love Story, made exactly 20 years after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, isn’t concerned with parodying the free love/therapy of the ’60s that Mazursky clearly saw through, but it could be considered something of a prequel. Set exactly 20 years before Bob & Carol, Enemies also involves a foursome of sorts, with Polish Jew Herman Broder (Ron Silver) running frantically on the outer edge of his wheel of fortune between three women—his first wife Tamara (Anjelica Huston), returned to him miraculously after eyewitness accounts of her execution at the hands of the Nazis; his second wife Yadwiga (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska), the Broders’ Catholic servant who hid Herman during the war; and Masha (Lena Olin), the concentration camp survivor whose edgy passion and longing for death have Herman helplessly entwined in a torrid affair.
Like Bob & Carol, this film opens with a therapeutic echo—a dream in which Herman is peering down from a hayloft as German soldiers drag Yadwiga into the barn where he is holed up and beat her to get his hiding place out of her. After Herman awakens from this nightmare in a cold sweat in his Brooklyn apartment, the endless fleeing from his past and himself begins. After rejecting the breakfast simple, trusting Yadwiga has made for him (“your favorite!”), he tells her he will be making a sales trip to Philadelphia to visit some booksellers. Instead, he goes to his real job with Rabbi Lembeck (Alan King), for whom he ghostwrites and does translations of religious texts, avoiding questions about where the rabbi can contact him, and then dashes off to Masha, who lives with her mother (Judith Malina). The three visit for a bit, and then Masha and Herman retreat to her bedroom for the intense sex they both crave as a salve for their battered souls.
Herman is a man who owes his survival in part to his ability to lie and evade. The truth of his life becomes unavoidable, however, when he comes face to face with Tamara, a woman who knew him well before the war and therefore represents someone to whom he cannot lie successfully. Tamara said she came to see Herman out of curiosity and has no interest in resuming their life together. To her question he confesses that of course he has a mistress—he’s married after all. When Tamara learns he married Yadwiga out of gratitude, she replies drolly, “Couldn’t you have found some other way to thank her?”
The truth is that Herman needs someone to look after him, and the literally servile Yadwiga fits the bill. When Yadwiga decides to become a Jew so that she can bear his children, she increases the demands on a man whose existential position is described in the game “Wooden Leg.” A woman with the presence of mind to crawl out of a trench of dead bodies after being shot and survive could certainly teach him something about perseverence, but Tamara becomes something like a Greek chorus to Herman’s fracturing life, watching him make the mistakes to which his character is prone and finally offering to become his life manager when she sees him falling down the rabbit hole.
We expect to feel sympathy for Holocaust survivors, but the genius of novelist Singer, as faithfully translated by Mazursky, is that he created no typical Holocaust survivors; the Holocaust is an important aspect of each life, but it is not the whole of that life. Herman lived in mortal fear during the war years and lost his beloved children, whose picture Mazursky movingly shows Silver kiss tenderly, yet he is the man he was born to be—a weak-willed shlemiel. His “enemy,” as Tamara calls her, is Masha, a strong-willed woman who wants Herman to marry her but who actually lives for her mother. Had she never had a number tattooed on her arm, she would still have the sexual charisma that makes all men fall under her spell, from Rabbi Lembeck to her estranged husband, played by Mazursky himself. Her death wish only amplifies her innate animal magnetism, a characteristic the actress who plays her has in abundance, but she only gets Herman to marry her in a Jewish ceremony when she says she is pregnant. I never once believed she was actually pregnant; her frequent references to already being dead suggested to me that she would never be able to harbor life.
Although Singer has a sense of the absurd, this film seems to owe its absurdity and sometimes antic humor more to Sholem Aleichem. The curses Herman’s women throw at him as he turns tail and runs have a bit of the Menahem-Mendl/Sheineh-Sheindl bickering to them, and Yadwiga’s burlesque of terror at seeing a ghost when Tamara comes to the apartment suggests Golde’s superstitious nature when Tevye the Milkman relates his manufactured nightmare to her. Mazursky even brings a bit of modern amusement to Herman and Masha’s trip to a Catskills resort, with loud-speaker announcements and fitness classes and other activities happening simultaneously on the grounds that have a whiff of Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) about them. There is something cartoonish about Herman; when we see him in the subway looking at the signs that direct travelers to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, each of which contains one of Herman’s women, it’s hard not to imagine Elmer Fudd at a crossroads with contradictory signs directing him to Bugs Bunny’s burrow. The period setting rendered in a soft sepia tone also conjures a certain distance and unreality, the neon lights of Coney Island just a bit too bright and cartoonish.
Ultimately, Herman is overwhelmed by those he sought out in his neediness and his longing for oblivion, if not annihilation. Having impregnated Yadwiga, he flees from both her and Masha, a woman he said he could not live without, when she suggests a double-suicide in the wake of her mother’s death. Herman, clueless about himself and caught like a fly in a web of pain, never understands any of it. He’s as hopelessly bourgeois as any Mazursky character, sending money to Yadwiga in an unsigned card every week as he evades reality once again. And while Herman isn’t innocent, he is far from guilty of anything but being himself.
My thanks to Amy Brown for asking for a review of this film and for being an enthusiastic Ferdy on Films reader.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Warren Beatty
By Roderick Heath
“No, I haven’t seen Commie Dearest,” filmmaker Paul Morrissey quipped when asked if he had seen Warren Beatty’s Reds. “The cult of the personality has claimed another victim,” critic John Walker said in his review of the film, referring to Beatty’s reinvention of radical history in terms of the Hollywood epic and focal character John Reed as an avatar for Beatty himself. Most hilariously, during the shoot of the film, Beatty, who had gained over $30 million in funding from Barclay’s Bank for the purposes of memorialising a Communist hero, gave a speech to a group of Arab extras brought to the film’s Spanish location shoot, explaining Reed’s philosophy and the subject of the movie. He was promptly faced with a strike by the extras for higher wages.
John Reed was a journalist and committed socialist who wrote the famous reportage from the frontline of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, but he was himself a controversial figure, his place in the scheme of early 20th century radicalism contested: Upton Sinclair labelled him a playboy revolutionary. Therein lies some hint as to why Beatty, a man massively successful at that most capitalistic of endeavours, Hollywood cinema, became obsessed with Reed and expended massive amounts of time and cash on bringing his story to the big screen: the kinship he sensed in a man who, like him, was often more famous for his torrid personal life than his singular professional accomplishments, and struggled with some valour and some conceit to claim both individual and collective stature. If nothing else, wrapping these ingredients in a multi-million dollar package and calling it Reds proved that Beatty had cojones the size of California.
Beatty began as a handsome ingénue and talented actor, discovered by Elia Kazan for his 1961 romantic melodrama Splendour in the Grass. He gained a reputation as an unruly, independent talent, one who got into awful rows with major directors through his fiery wilfulness. But he also gained status fighting to bring fresh vision to Hollywood as it entered the crisis of the second half of the 1960s, battling ossified studio chiefs and perceiving the new clout of the movie star. The perfect fruition of Beatty’s ambition was director Arthur Penn’s 1967 hit Bonnie & Clyde, a film which presaged a major cultural shift. Beatty continued to work with interesting directors and remained a hero of Hollywood’s relatively brief New Wave-hued, auteur-driven phase, but 1978’s successful and lauded Heaven Can Wait signalled his intention to became an auteur unto himself. Reds was a task Beatty had been toying with since the mid ’60s for which he collected what would become the film’s famous “witness” interviews over a decade. The zeitgeist that greeted Reds was, however, very different to that which greeted Bonnie & Clyde: Ronald Reagan was President, and radical was no longer chic. The film was mildly successful at the box office, but it was still perceived as a failure as it failed to earn the kind of cultural stature such a project seemed to crave. Admiration for Beatty was still pronounced enough to help him gain a Best Director Oscar for Reds, beating out a strong line-up of rivals for the award. Chariots of Fire was deemed a more apt Best Picture, ironic considering that although Chariots was thematically more conservative, it is more adventurous as filmmaking. Reds has maintained a shadowy kind of life since its release, neither eclipsing masterpiece nor easily dismissed vanity project.
Reds depicts the last few years of Reed’s life, commencing in 1915 when he encounters wife-to-be Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) during a visit to Portland, Oregon, where Reed had grown up in privileged circumstances. Bryant, who’s been playing the edgy bohemian in Portland and hopes to be a writer, quickly impresses and seduces the venturesome, reputed journalist. With her husband (Nicolas Coster) increasingly irritated by her provocations, including appearing nude in an artistic photo in a gallery exhibition she curates, Louise warily accepts Reed’s invitation to come live with him in New York. Bryant soon finds herself an uncertain, comparative provincial amidst the fast-talking, high-falutin’ world of Greenwich Village, where Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) is the tongue-lashing doyenne of revolutionary credibility, and racy eccentrics are a dime a dozen.
Reed circles the edges of radical commitment without yet taking the plunge beyond reporting on labor disputes and union repression for a small network of activist newspapers. Bryant’s combative, proto-feminist determination to carve a niche for herself has Reed, who shares her free-love and emancipationist views, often unbalanced, whilst his busy work life and renown belittle her struggle to find a voice and subject. Bryant acts on her ideals by accepting romantic overtures from the couple’s friend, playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), whilst Reed’s away covering politics. Upon Reed’s return, O’Neill skulks away, and Reed bashfully proposes marriage. The pair bust up, however, after Reed discovers a poem O’Neill wrote for Louise, and he admits to casual affairs of his own. Louise gets herself posted to Europe to cover the war. Reed follows her there with a proposal that they head on to Russia to report on the imminent revolution. There, they are caught up in the fervour of the Bolshevik success.
Reds is an impressive film in many respects, long and spacious and intelligent. There was certainly nothing wrong with Beatty’s eye for talent and collaborators. Vittorio Storaro’s photography, which utilised a then cutting-edge form of celluloid processing to help him gain uncommon control over colour effects, is superb, clear and sharp, yet expressive, capturing a sense of period without excessive artifice. Yet, Reds is built around a curious series of contradictions and limitations that hamper its impact, the most overt of which is a gap between method and subject. Beatty had clearly gone to school on cinema with depth and intensity, but sadly, not much theory. Like most filmmakers to take up the challenge of epic cinema after the 1950s, David Lean was an obvious touchstone for his efforts. Lean’s cinema provides a ready-made palette for filmmakers thinking on a big scale, with all those images of small figures starkly dwarfed by huge, appealing vistas. But Lean’s visual sensibility was informed by tethering the interior dramas of his characters to the world surrounding them so that the landscape is both counterpoint to their interior vistas and also mimetic canvas for them. Beatty has no such essential compass to guide his appropriations, even as he inevitably quotes from Doctor Zhivago (1965), for a film that’s mostly about the raw power of verbal communication, between men and women and between political debaters. Most of Reds takes place in rooms—small apartments, cosy domiciles, or large halls full of bristling contention. Apart from a couple of brief flourishes, there are few points in Reds where the filmmaking reflects the shattering of norms and the shock of the new (ironically, Beatty’s later Bulworth  comes closer to the kind of gonzo politico-aesthetic mash-up this could have been). Rather the film as a whole reveals Beatty trying to succeed largely within the terms set by a line of big-time, traditional moviemakers.
The docudrama immediacy of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965) or the dreamlike shock and ecstasy of Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (1964) are far outside of Beatty’s terms of reference for handling revolution as a subject. His imitative classicism mixes throughout with variations on both the squirrelly New Wave style of filmmaking, full of volatile performing and open-structured scenes executed with restlessly mobile camerawork, whilst other touches harken back to the cutest styles of Hollywood filmmaking. His debut work, a remake of a classic ’40s film, signalled Beatty’s fetish for evoking the spirit of a bygone age, and his methodology for depicting the more traditional reflexes of Reed and Bryant’s relationship feels like a compendium of movie approaches: sentimental scenes of cute dogs and unwrapped Christmas presents that seek to make the fiery, unconventional duo comprehensible to middle America, or Harlequin Romance-like visions of Louise struggling to cross the ices of Finland to find her lover that are pure bunk. Not to mention the heart-tugging reunion at the railway station that gives the film its climax, straight out of any number of classic weepies. Beatty struggles to find an argot that suits his attempt to suggest period social and personal revisionism through the prism of more contemporary versions. Keaton’s performance as Louise is the clearest example of such a prism, a performance in the same key as her work for Coppola and Woody Allen as a strong on-screen avatar for ’70s womanhood, only in period garb. Her approach to Louise’s defensive, glaring, big-talking truculence to cover her anxiety is reminiscent of Jane Campion’s heroines—smart women who approach romance like an argument in the offing, but not sure exactly what about—whilst suggesting a brighter, more brittle Annie Hall.
One of the film’s amusing, but also most problematic, refrains depicts Reed constantly at a loss in dealing with Louise, the motor-mouthed communicator suddenly reduced to screwball foil in his efforts to play house with her. The film hits a nadir when Beatty insists on including a slapstick scene of Reed bumbling in the kitchen, complete with a pot with a neatly burnt-out bottom. Reed spends an uncomfortable journey to Russia with Louise when they’re nominally broken up over mutual infidelities, where she’s far more responsive to the jokey charm of a travelling companion, Joe Volski (Joseph Buloff), turning the difficult task of crossing war-torn Europe at the time into a comedy routine. The real Bryant, who married a third time and then divorced after rumoured lesbian affairs before dying at 50, was probably the kind of dynamic period poseur whom the likes of Alan Rudolph and Philip Kaufman were better at recreating in The Moderns (1988) and Henry & June (1990), respectively. Keaton is nonetheless superlative in her specific way, particularly in the deadly wary glares she offers Beatty as Reed asks her to follow him to New York (“What as?”), and after receiving one of Goldman’s brute dismissals.
Beatty’s own performance, by comparison, whilst slick, never really seems to find focus, perhaps a result of the too-neat symbiosis of actor and role many sensed, to a point where the film often feels more like a portrait in Beatty’s befuddlement at the spectacle of ’70s feminism outpacing his own louche lover-boy antics. We don’t learn much about Reed’s background or progress towards radicalism, or, indeed, much about him at all. The journalist came from an upper-class family and conspicuously rebelled against it, but that background is only vaguely depicted. We hear what a great journalist he’s supposed to be, but precious little of his actual work gains any exposure. In a similar fashion, although politics is the lifeblood of the characters, the actual substance of their political thought is, apart from Goldman’s sharply amusing spiel about the place of birth control in the revolutionary movement, left vague.
Reds is however a study of the disparity between observation and action, and it’s this problem the film wrestles with substantively. Reed, a professional wordsmith and part-time poet, is drawn steadily into the drama and unique thrill of political commitment in a time when it seems the whole flow of history may pivot, and finds there’s a price to be paid for not remaining a spectator. Beatty’s attention to the history of U.S. leftist movements is detailed and immediate, but in a way that mostly avoids depictions of their purpose, emphasising instead long-forgotten schisms and fraternal politicking that suggest why their movements waned, as Reed clashes with Louis Fraina (Paul Sorvino) as the two form rival Communist parties when their radical cabal are forced out of the Socialist Party. Much of the last hour of the film is dedicated to depicting Reed’s squabbles with Grigory Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski) and his bureaucratic cadres as the revolution calcifies into expedient repression in a way that makes it all seem like the world’s most lovingly shot sheaf of committee meeting minutes. Still, Beatty was doing something admirable and risky, delving back into the half-mythical days of Goldman, Big Bill Haywood (Dolph Sweet), and the IWW, pointing out the one-time existence of a radical leftist American movement prior to the 1960s and heavily suggesting that the threat of sedition around the First World War was used as a pretext to destroy alternative political thought. Like many filmmakers of his age and era, Beatty consciously reflected the radical-chic bohemia of the ’60s, his own grounding, through depictions of historical parallels. Moreover, he aims with impudent ambition to demonstrate why Reed’s rise to status as a hero of Soviet history was a peculiarly American achievement, fuelled by bright-eyed zeal and hope for the future, and a certain love of pugnacious display and competitiveness.
The film’s best sequences, then, tend to be about volatile personalities in close contact, with the keen observational basis reflected amongst the witnesses, with particularly adroit insight by Henry Miller, of all people, that people who gravitate towards radicalism are often beset by intense personal difficulties, with drives and damage outside of the ordinary. Louise and John’s arguments have the kind of fire and brittle, half-savage/half-hysterical energy to them redolent of genuinely loving, contentious relationships. Keaton’s scenes with Nicholson are even better, as both are on their game, playing intriguing characters who have uncommon reactions to situations and emotions. Perhaps the best scene in the film comes when O’Neill turns up at the couple’s new house in Croton-on-Hudson, just after they’ve given into bourgeois propriety and married. O’Neill sullenly declares his love, which he says he doesn’t need returned, but proceeds to extract blood anyway, whilst Bryant worries Reed might return. O’Neill initially seduces Louise by taking the exact opposite pitch to her first husband, who had growled about her desire to be the centre of attention, which O’Neill says she should always be, an appeal to her ego Reed pointedly refuses to make. But of course Louise’s attraction to Reed remains stronger than to O’Neill because of this. O’Neill’s lacerating, obnoxious side is revealed, making him a fitting avatar for Beatty, the infamously demanding director, by bitching about the terrible acting in versions of his plays, including an amateur production in which Louise gives an awesomely awful performance. After his startling run of performances in the ‘70s, Nicholson’s work here forms a marvellous coda before his part in Terms of Endearment (1983) marked his transformation into more of a personality than an actor.
Beatty offers some obvious, but well-handled narrative ellipses and motifs with symbolic suggestions, and some fine, small flourishes that give the narrative hints of poeticism rather than a mere flow of tableaux it threatens to become. Reed returns from one of his sojourns with an IWW leaflet with a half-written love poem on the back, a neat actualisation of the flip side of these people’s lives. For example, when Reed is first glimpsed in a brief vision of his adventures in Mexico to covered the revolution there, he’s seen chasing a wagon fleeing battle, and makes it on board. Towards the end of Reds, he’s caught in the middle of a White attack on a Soviet train; he again tries to escape chasing after a cart, but is left behind this time, outpaced by history and left stranded amidst its casualties. Or, Goldman’s aggressive dismissal of Bryant is counterpointed when she’s surprised by Bryant coming to Russia in search of Reed, a subtler and, in its way, more emotional payoff than the later reunion of the couple. Indeed, one of the singular achievements of Reds is that it sustains a sense of human intimacy (almost to a fault) in spite of mega-production trappings and a continent-spanning story. The film’s script was cowritten by British playwright Trevor Griffiths, with some added wisecrackery from Elaine May, who would later direct Beatty in the infamous Ishtar (1987). May’s touch is apparent throughout the film, like Reed’s riposte to “What as?” with “It’s almost Thanksgiving. Why not come as a turkey?” and, when Reed’s problematic liver causes him to urinate blood whilst in jail for activism, and a fellow prisoner observes, “This one even pisses red.”
Perhaps some of the reason for the film’s curiously niggling sense of a lack at its core lies in how, in spite of the richness of Storaro’s photography and the sharpness of Dede Allen and Craig McKay’s editing, Beatty’s direction, like that of most actors turned filmmakers, remains rooted in an overriding delight in the performance and behavioural intricacies. Beatty expends rampant amounts of time and energy to tease out details that a more experienced artist might have painted in moments. Reed, Bryant, O’Neill and others are only defined by what they say and do in relation to each other, and anything that doesn’t relate to this is sped through. Beatty’s intelligent casting gives the film a lot of extra dimension. As well as bringing on board a lot of fellow heroes of the American New Wave, like Nicholson and Gene Hackman as one of Reed’s gregarious but mainstream editors, he also offers some old-Hollywood faces, like veteran character actors Ian Wolfe and Bessie Love as two aged relatives of Reed’s. Beatty fills out other roles with smartly employed nonactors like Oleg Kerensky as his own father Alexander and literary figures Kosinski and George Plimpton (above), who give the film a sense of genuine linkage to the intelligentsia it’s depicting.
The machine-tooled precision of some of these turns points to what a good handler of actors Beatty can be even as he gives himself and Keaton too much rope. Stapleton won an Oscar, and very well deserved it was, for capturing the essence of someone passionate right through to the bone and pitilessly intelligent at the same time. Goldman, a major figure in E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, was left out entirely from Milos Forman’s agreeable film version near-simultaneously released with Reds, but here she is, roaring with life, provoking Reed and Bryant’s pretences, aching at being deported for her politics even as she proclaims adoration for America, “its mountains and its forests,” and refusing unlike Reed to dismiss the early signs of authoritarianism in the Bolshevik regime. Thus, she is the constant moral centre of the film as well as a source of automatic entertainment, and as such, she’s not in the film half as much as she needs to be.
The most consistently praised aspect of Reds is Beatty’s use of documentary interviews of still-living witnesses of the era, few of whom actually knew Reed and Bryant but who heard about them or generally inhabited the same sort of world. These include Miller (above) with his insolent Brooklyn wisdom, writer and suffragette Rebecca West, patrician former congressman and Red hunter Hamilton Fish III, and various other leftists, artists, bohemians, and socialites of the 1910s and 1920s. The intelligence and sensitivity of this aspect is indeed tremendous, capturing these ancient but still fascinating, richly experienced personalities on the very edge of mortality and memory, casting their minds back to popular songs, ancient love affairs (including some that never were), observations of people and movements, and archaic rumour. Beatty sometimes uses the witnesses as a counterpoint to his fiction, sometimes as a kind of rough-and-ready narration for his story, and sometimes to justify his own artistic choices, for the point that emerges from the collective voices is often that the exact truth of the past is impossible to capture. Beatty’s habit of framing his interviewees slightly off-centre against a black background seems to have influenced the aesthetic of Ken Burns, and yet he never identifies the people, leaving them as sharply specific and yet anonymous contributors. This touch emphasises an egalitarian approach to the voices, but ultimately Beatty subsumes them to his own vision, even as their loose and unnecessary exposition contributes to the fragmentary nature of the film’s second half.
The most striking sequence in Reds is a particular ode to the talent of Beatty’s editor, Dede Allen. The stirring climax of the film’s first half sees Reed and Bryant’s affair rekindle in exact accord with the October Revolution, the couple swept up in the midst of epoch-altering excitement, all scored to a rousing rendition of “The Internationale.” This sequence stands out not just because of the vivacity and style with which it captures the peculiar thrill of being part of a great movement, but also because it’s one of the few parts of the film that’s inventive, expressive cinema. Yet, it also ironically dismisses the most interesting part of the story, indeed the very point and totemic import of Reed’s labours, in a few minutes’ whirl of images. The peculiarity of Beatty’s priorities here, that he can devote so much of his extreme running length to domestic squabbles and made-up odysseys and actually move so cavalierly through the Russian Revolution, becomes questionable. But Beatty still manages to provide a flow of powerful and affecting moments. The sequence in which Reed and comrades storm the Socialist Party meeting from which they’ve been barred, with the chairman (John Hillerman) wrestling with Reed for the megaphone he snatches, is dynamic and droll. Well-visualised, but curtailed is a sequence of Reed trying to leave Russia via a hand-cranked rail car into Finland, crossing a chilling and vast landscape only to run into border guards, and Louise, making the same journey from the opposite end, reeling in alarm at the sight of a herd of stampeding reindeer.
There’s a sense of real strangeness and exoticism to the sequence in which Zinoviev drags Reed out to the Eurasian wilds to preach to desert tribesmen, and Reed finds his speeches calling for Socialist revolution are being tweaked for the local audience into a call for holy jihad. The subsequent attack on Zinoviev’s train by White soldiers is a late, brief, but still welcome spurt of action. Beatty is a good enough actor to at least sell Reed and Bryant’s reunion as he pleads to her, “Please don’t leave me,” capturing the aching sensation of finding something you love in the middle of an alien and hostile land. Similarly good, and surprisingly subtle, is Reed’s subsequent death scene, as the man expires, his remaining kidney eaten up disease. Beatty captures it as a series of indirect cues Louise witnesses in a stygian Soviet hospital as she goes to fetch him some water—a woman praying over an icon, a tumbled water cup, and a young child who seems like Reed reborn—and her return to find him dead is not surprising. Even if Beatty finally ended up only making another movie where a devoted wife weeps over her famous husband’s body, he still brings it home with an eerie and poetic touch. Beatty’s suspicion, expressed in 2006 when the film was finally released on DVD, that the film plays better today with its conscientiously precise charting of the way individual fervour and state aggression grows and wanes during wars and social upheaval, feels accurate.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Tony Siu-Tung Ching
By Roderick Heath
Deep within the tangled growth of a dark forest lies an ancient ruin, a place where lost or weary travellers might find a place to rest for the night. But in the glow of moonlight, a mysterious and beautiful female emerges from the shadows. She approaches with seductive, otherworldly tenderness, and the traveller, stunned and smitten, can only submit, but at the peril of their soul, as they graze the boundaries of the liminal and fall in love with an emanation from beyond.
You know where this is going, because it’s the basic outline of dozens upon dozens of ghost stories. It’s a simple narrative that exploits a kind of idle masculine fantasy, charging it with warning and delineating the boundaries of taboo through the image of the death-dealing temptress and the evocation of evil in a place cordoned off by legend to commemorate some forgotten travesty of history and invested over time with fetid psychological symbolism. Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) are some Western film variations; Eastern takes include episodes in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964) and Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968).
Tony Siu-Tung Ching’s variation, based on a novel by Songling Pu, is something different—a crossbreed of this Gothic-flavoured nightmare scenario with the high-flying, reality-bending action of wu xia, the meat-and-potato genre of Chinese cinema. Blends of supernatural and mythical drama with swashbuckling exploits are fairly common in wu xia, and in the annals of Hong Kong action film. Tsui Hark’s canonical fantasy action work Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1982) and Lau Kun Wai’s nutty Mr. Vampire (1985) did it before Ching, as the Bride with White Hair diptych would afterwards. Ching is one of Hong Kong cinema’s most employed stunt and action choreographers, but he has maintained a directing career as well, with the three entries in his A Chinese Ghost Story series the most famous.
The grandmaster of Hong Kong cinema’s international emergence in the 1960s, King Hu, had experimented with melding spirituality and action and had filmed another Songling Pu story as the epic A Touch of Zen (1972). The first episode of Ching’s take was produced by Hark, and the imprint of that master’s rocket-paced, breathless sensibility is all over Ching’s work. But there is a delicate, but fervent romantic streak counterpointing the ebullience in Ching’s first two terrific films (the third is generally regarded as a flat retread of the first and lacks two important actors) helps to mark out A Chinese Ghost Story I & II as gems of 1980s Hong Kong cinema and that distinguishes Ching’s sensibility, even in later, blander work like The Empress and the Warriors (2008) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011). Ching’s cleverest tweaks to the old mythos was to transform the ghostly female figure from agent of death to pawn struggling for freedom, and uncover an element of dreamy longing and rebellion against the oppressive nature of social norms.
The intensely rhythmic opening evokes fetishistic, erotic qualities, a swooning succession of wind-driven autumnal leaves, drenched moonlight, dangling silks, burning candles, hazy nocturnal light, breathily suggested sensuality, and exposed flesh, as a young taxman is seduced by a spectral woman. The bells on the anklet of Tsiao-Tsing Nieh (Joey Tsu-hsien Wang) ring when locked in the folds of love, summoning an awful thing from the woods to launch itself upon the man she pretends to embrace but, in fact, holds as prey. Destined to encounter these supernatural emissaries is a young tax collector, Ning Choi Sin (the lamented, ever-charming Leslie Cheung), who passes through a regional city. Law and order there are kept by an incompetent, overeager gendarmerie who assume everyone running must be a wanted criminal. Ning is beset by multiple humiliations as a callow youth playing the one official everyone wants to avoid, without horse or funds to buy him a dry place to sleep for the night. When he tries to collect taxes from one tavern keeper, he finds that rain has rendered all of the entries in his record book illegible.
Penniless, Ning asks where he might spend a sheltered night. He is directed to the ruined Lan Ro Temple by townsfolk whose murmuring disquiet at his obliviousness evokes a trillion horror movie peasants. Ching turns canard into satirical coup as Ning keeps pausing and glancing back over his shoulder at the crowd, who all cease rhubarbing and play dumb until he starts off again. He reaches the long-abandoned temple deep in the woods and straddling a lake, bathed in blue moonlight and fog and swirling leaves. Ning is chased by wolves, which stop at the threshold, and is then caught between two super-talented martial arts warriors battling in the grounds of the temple. The frighteningly brilliant Taoist warrior-monk Yin Chek Hsia (Ma Wu) duels with his long-time challenger Hsia-hou (Wai Lam), who’s determined to best the monk but has never succeeded. Poised uncomfortably between their sword points, Ning spouts desperate pacifications: “Love will conquer the world! Love is a powerful weapon!” Hsia-hou stalks off whilst Yin, who’s holed up at the temple trying to hide from a world of such competitive men, tells Ning to leave him alone. Hsia-hou comes across Tsiao-Tsing bathing in a river and tries to seduce her, leading to his exsanguinating death by the mysterious monster. When Yin comes in search of him, he’s attacked by Hsia-hou’s withered zombie remnant.
The Taoist destroys the zombie with magic, whilst Ning spends the night in a temple wing filled with other zombies who, despite his proximity, keep failing in their attempts to catch the oblivious taxman. Ning is drawn out of the temple by the strains of an instrument being plucked in the temple grounds: he finds the musician is Tsiao-Tsing, lustrously beautiful and hauntingly melancholic. With his mixture of bumbling well-meaning and innocence, Ning makes the lady fall in love with him. Tsiao-Tsing has a secret, however, that is no small lover’s hindrance: she’s actually the ghost of a murdered woman whose father was also killed before he could properly bury her and perform the necessary rituals to help her become reincarnated. Now she’s in thrall to a demon that can alternate between the forms of a tree monster, with an enormously long tongue, and an androgynous human overlord with a retinue of malevolent ghost-women. The demon is planning to wed Tsiao-Tsing to its evil overlord, Lord Dark, in the netherworld because, as Yin says in the film’s most pertinent line, “Spirits use each other, just like people.” The centrality of the romantic passion between Ning and Tsiao-Tsing enriches A Chinese Ghost Story enormously without ever slowing the film’s breakneck pacing or giddy inventiveness.
A Chinese Ghost Story, a pinnacle of Hong Kong film, also represents in turn an exemplar of a showbiz ethic, one that aims to offer a variety of entertainment, shifting from thunderous action to scares to romantic melodrama to slapstick comedy to musical numbers, without fatal tonal uncertainty or narrative diffusion. This replicated a presumption which Hollywood filmmaking once accepted but since abandoned in favour of focus-grouped niche markets, kept alive rather in the mass-audience-serving style of Hong Kong film and Bollywood. A Chinese Ghost Story readily includes all these elements, including breaks for song numbers. Both episodes are loaded with horror-movie tropes, but Ching quickly reveals his love for silent comedy, channeling the influence of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, always well-remembered Hollywood icons in Hong Kong film, in Ning’s beleaguered but hardy approach to the hilariously overdrawn problems life keeps throwing his way. Ching’s intricate staging of comedy situations could become silly if they weren’t handled with deft invention and timing, qualities that work hand in hand with wu xia’s emphasis on precise physical skill and wit. In his first appearance, Ning tries to eat a dumpling that proves so hard it can crack rocks. A later comic bit turns into a miniature epic of taboo-grazing and suspense-mongering mixed with low comedy as Tsiao-Tsing hides Ning from the demon and her ghost-slaves when they come to visit her in the temple. She forces him into her bath to hide under the water, doing everything in her power to keep one of the more curious ghosts from looking into the bath, including breathing water into his lungs via a kiss and finally diving in and sitting on top of the increasingly breathless bureaucrat. Ching delights here in dodging around the usually prim behaviour in popular Chinese cinema whilst not breaking the rules. The comedic and suspense elements dovetail beautifully in a climactic moment as Ning tries to climb a ladder even as it’s being eaten by the monster, thus climbing frantically to nowhere.
A Chinese Ghost Story is, in familiar fashion, partly the tale of Ning’s maturation. As he begins to learn how to make his way in the world, he hits upon the bright idea of faking all of the erased entries in his ledger and successfully intimidates debtors into paying up. Ning’s true rite of passage is doing battle with evil, of course, a labour in which he’s not greatly talented or effective, but he transcends himself through the strength of his ardour. Tsiao-Tsing saves him several times with her supernatural powers, and she and Yin take on most of the action sequences. Deeply knowledgeable in the occult and supernatural warfare, Yin uses the paraphernalia of his religion and black magic as well as martial arts prowess to battle evil, and chases spirits through into the netherworld. Yin’s formidable gifts and cold capacity to recognise and take out ghost women makes him an oddball blend of the familiar variety of wu xia hero—a warrior who has mastered arts both physical and spiritual, giving them herculean skill and poise—mixed with the Van Helsing-esque variety of evil-battling savant, with overtones of a third tradition linked to both: the superhero. Yin is mistaken at first for a murderer by Ning, who sees him decapitate one of the tree demon’s ghostly underlings and glimpses his face on a wanted poster, which proves to be the image of Yin’s outlaw brother. The young bureaucrat tries to report Yin to the local magistrate, who is so timorous that he’s happy to take any excuse to ignore the problems posed by Lan Ro Temple, striking a note of satire over the ostriches and puppet masters of politics that extends more cogently into the sequel. Soon enough, however, Ning and Yin form a team, and Yin abruptly starts tearfully confessing how he’s let his anger over being confronted by challengers alienate him from humanity.
The very title A Chinese Ghost Story conflates parochial qualities with sarcasm. The story is grounded in the peculiarities of Chinese folklore and the accumulation of religious and spiritual concepts from multiple cultural influences, ineffably different to European precepts and yet subject to the same historical patterns. Ching presents a world where the incorporeal and earthly can meet and shift between states almost at will. The raw symbolic qualities of ghostliness, as embodiments of loss, of unfulfilled responsibility towards the dead, of fear of the unknown, and other permeable emotions that dog us, are considered as part of the texture of everyday existence. The narrative duel pits abstracted good against evil, but each is associated with different levels of religious belief and concomitant social ideas. The primal undertow of animism, associated with sacrifice and an oppressive, ancient, feudal/patriarchal hierarchism that subjugates Tsiao-Tsing to its power for despicable ends, is embodied by the ancient tree demon. This is pitted against the more enlightened religious creeds of Taoism and Buddhism, with their singular spiritual beneficence and capacity to meet chaos with order. Evil is battled not with crucifixes and holy water, but mantras and written sutras.
But the title’s cheekier quality is located in another dimension, that is, the manner in which it combines and coherently contrasts distinctive localised storytelling modes. The narrative sends horror story crashing headlong into comedy and freewheeling action, with the spirits and demons serving similar purposes to aliens for Hollywood blockbusters, a reminder that Ching followed Hark in trying to compete with and outdo the flash of Hollywood on a limited budget. Even fiends from hell prove fallible to the right bit of chop-socky know-how. It’s this hyped-up quality, the genre-hopping energy and gall of Ching’s films, that spur me to consider them adventure films, as they travel well beyond the psychological miasmas of horror tales as well as wu xia’s shared trait with Westerns, in that they both detail personality clashes and morality plays in terms of action. Here, as in Greek myth, battles with supernatural forces are merely part of the texture of a grand battle of humankind to dominate the earth around them and even venture into lands beyond, and, like many true adventure tales, the heroes engage in rebellion against repressive orders. And throughout it all, comedy and tragedy masks frame every gesture with an emotional directness that again feels like it belongs to a longer, older tradition.
The vivacity of Ching’s imagery and the compulsive drive of his filmmaking provide a centrifugal force that compels the various, usually quite distinct building blocks to form a coherent whole, a whole that overcomes the occasionally jarring shifts in approach, and finally dances on air as deftly as its heroes. Ching creates indelible visual impressions, like the grotesque sight of the tree demon’s colossal, tentacle-like tongue slashing through the undergrowth and writhing under the feet of the heroes. The penile invasive tip tries to dive into their mouths to drain their essences, enhances the already queasy erotic quality of the great tongue, an image of perverse evil that contrasts and manipulates the enticing feminine grace of Tsiao-Tsing. Ching wreathes shimmering mist and diffused light around the starkly atmospheric environs of Lan Ro, with the hauntingly lovely sight of Tsiao-Tsing’s white-and-red-clad form dashing through the misty trees, with sleeves of flowing silk that can become rescuing ropes and animated tendrils. This quality of unearthly beauty appended to the usual wire-fu shenanigans would show up again in the Bride with White Hair films and Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
The undertone of hazy eroticism and romantic languor is never entirely quelled by all the action, climaxing in a rapturous scene in which Tsiao-Tsing and Ning fulfil otherwise unquenchable longing by writing a poem together, creating a missive shot full of mysterious imagery that is so vague and affecting that in the sequel it’s mistaken for some kind of secret political message. The act of writing is imbued with the same romantic and totemic power it possesses in the climactic scenes of Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Hero (2002), and, in a way, the lovers’ penning of their poem is political, as it is a placard for their independence, with the films siding with young rebels against the malicious, life-sapping dictates of forced marriage. Whilst the Old Evil is bested in combat, the film resolves with Ning desperately attempting to keep exterminating light from falling on Tsiao-Tsien, who finally has to retreat into the urn with her ashes to protect herself. She cannot emerge again to see Ning, and he must perform the necessary rites to send her on in her reincarnation cycle.
Ching’s sequel lacks the romantic passion and the structure of the original, but in some other ways is superior. With a larger budget and zestier staging, he embraces an ever more madcap approach to his blend of action, comedy, and supernatural power. With Tsiao-Tsing freed from the bonds of the demon and hopefully allowed to gain reincarnation, Ning travels on his lonely way, only to be imprisoned, escape, and fall into the company of another warrior monk, this time a Buddhist called Autumn (Jacky Cheung): Autumn takes Ning for a thief when he rides off on Autumn’s horse, in the mistaken belief that it has been provided to facilitate his escape. Autumn, as well as possessing the same proficiency in white magic as Yin, can dig his way through the earth at great speed like some sort of mutant gopher.
The duo are attacked by spooks in the woods, which for some reason, do not set Autumn’s infallible nose for the supernatural tickling; in reality, they’re not spooks at all, but a band of freedom fighters in disguise. The band is led by sisters Windy (Joey Wang again) and Moon (Michelle Reis), who want to rescue their father, Lord Fu (Siu-Ming Lau), a former official who’s been arrested and charged with treason for trying to criticize the autocracy of the Imperial court. The fighters mistake a bearded Ning for Elder Chu Kot, the intellectual with whom Ning was imprisoned and whose writings inspired both the Lord’s arrest and his faction’s rebellion. Ning is transfixed by Windy’s amazing resemblance to Tsiao-Tsing, wondering if, against all seeming logic, she is her reincarnation. Both sisters in turn are love-struck by the man they believe to be their wise revolutionary guru.
Ching devotes a lot of the first half of A Chinese Ghost Story II to trying to top his first film’s physical comedy and action set-pieces, and succeeds, if at the expense of narrative contiguity, especially in two extended sequences of ribaldry. As in the first episode, the plot revolves around a haunted temple, except this time the locale is chosen by the freedom fighters as a place to ambush the convoy taking Lord Fu to the Emperor, and proves to be inhabited a large saurian demon that ponderously stalks potential victims in the temple. When Ning and Autumn first enter the temple, Autumn endeavours to teach Ning an incantation that can freeze anything in its tracks. Ning accidentally freezes Autumn while practising it at exactly the same time that the hulking demon bears down up them: Ning desperately tries to fend off the creature and communicate with Autumn through eye movements to learn the counter-curse. At one point all three become frozen in a pose with the beast, claws about to furl about the heroes, dribbling drool down on Ning’s cheek. The level of farceur skill shown here by the two Cheungs, and the way Ching cleverly weaves it in with the animatronics of the monster, is rare and splendid. A second, equally adroit if sillier scene enlarges upon the first film’s bathtub scene, as Ning tries to avoid compromising the two Wu sisters when he tries to alert a bathing Windy to the monster’s presence, and then tries to cover for Windy as she tries to get dressed without being seen by Moon and the other warriors and retreats to a loft, where the monster stalks her, in a dance of embarrassment and timorous sexuality.
Whilst both women are taken by Ning, he only has eyes for the one who looks like Hsiao-Hsien; when Moon gets the message, she transfers her affections to Autumn, an equally impossible fancy. But as in the first episode, the lingering shadow of arranged marriage holds Ning and his love at bay, for Windy’s father has promised her long ago to another lord, though fortunately such impediments prove rather more surmountable when both lovers are corporeal. Along the way, however, Windy is almost transformed into a demon herself when the monster in the temple is finally destroyed, albeit with its still-animated body parts flying in all directions to attack and latch onto the fighters. The girls’ father and his escorting jailers, led by the formidable, decent but rigidly dutiful soldier Hu (Waise Lee), finally pass by the temple, but the clash of arms between the two forces is stalled by the arrival of the official procession escorting the Imperial High Priest (Shun Lau). The High Priest proves to be the source of both the epidemic of demons and the political repression sweeping the land.
Political subtext is introduced during Ning’s early, mistaken imprisonment, learning quickly he has no hope of proving his innocence. Elder Chu (Feng Ku), who’s spent most of his life in jail, claims that every effort he’s made to find safe artistic ground has merely brought him some new variety of official persecution: “I analyse military strategy, they say I’m organising rebellion…I try to write fairy stories, they say I’m promoting superstition!” He’s spent so long in jail that he’s actually dug a hole through the wall and comes and goes when he feels like it, using his cell as a quiet place to work. Ching’s mischievous culmination of the theme comes when the heroes pursue the High Priest to his temple, where they find the entire Imperial court arranged in rigid ceremonial splendour—except they’re all hollow shells, their insides eaten out by the demon, a fake government fronting for monstrous power. Fortunately for Ning, he and Windy find themselves at the Lotus Temple, where Yin has holed up, and they’re able to call him to aid Autumn in a showdown with the High Priest.
Both episodes conclude with epic, utterly bizarre and visually startling leaps into special-effects set-pieces, as the heroes make journeys into the netherworld to do battle with the demons on their own turf, lands of abyssal dark and desolate plains where the demons sit on thrones and lord over dimensions beyond. In the first episode, Old Evil’s body proves to be composed of severed, animate flying heads that try to gnaw on the heroes like piranha, but the tag-team work of the three heroes finally helps defeat the monster. In the second, the High Priest proves to be a colossal juggernaut of a flying centipede, and Autumn and Yin, in a flourish unashamedly pinched by Men in Black (1998), are both swallowed by the beast, forcing them to destroy the beast by detaching the spirits from their bodies by reciting mantras, and then hacking their way out. This risky trick for the two savants of supernatural warfare proves tragic for Autumn, who can’t get back into his body. His spirit is swept away, with a distraught Moon chasing him–a last flourish for the rarefied melancholy that consistently underscores the series’ general joviality.
Ching’s visual style throughout the two films is a constant delight. Like Hark, who would eventually take the approach to excessive levels, Ching toys in the first episode with paring every shot to the bare minimum of time it takes to register, in a fashion that anticipates, but still remains distinct from, Hollywood filmmakers’ embrace of the hyperkinetic because basic rules of focus and editing rhythm are still obeyed. Nonetheless the racing pace of the films is startling and compulsive, whilst Ching’s photography, essayed in an argot of wide-focus lenses used in close-ups to give everything an overlarge, vertiginous immediacy, and zooming camera motions that constantly take on points of view or are used to add physicality to action shots, became deeply influential in a lot of subsequent filmmakers. Perhaps the western filmmaker most inflected with Ching’s example is Peter Jackson, whose photographic style and kinetic approach to fantasy, spectacularly in his early work and more measured in his Tolkien films, bears distinctive traces of Ching’s mighty fantasy-adventure diptych— at a zillion times the cost.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director/Screenwriter: John Milius
By Roderick Heath
John Milius, New Wave Hollywood’s wilfully wild, pseudo-shamanic antihero, was an anachronistic figure even as a crucial member of the vanguard of young filmmakers who helped reinvent commercial Hollywood cinema in the 1970s. A collaborator with Francis Coppola and George Lucas, reputedly lovingly caricatured by Lucas in American Graffiti (1973) and the Coen Brothers in The Big Lebowski (1997), Milius belonged to ranks of that also included Terrence Malick, Michael Cimino, Paul Schrader, Walter Hill, John Sayles, and Philip Kaufman, who laboured as screenwriters or script doctors whilst trying to get a directing career moving. Several of the films Milius helped pen, including Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Magnum Force (1973), and Apocalypse Now (1979), seem as or more powerfully under Milius’ influence as their directors. Milius found directing success with Dillinger (1973), The Wind and the Lion (1975), and Big Wednesday (1978), and with the big hits Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Red Dawn (1984), seemed poised to enter his major career phase.
Yet Milius soon after almost vanished from cinema screens, partly because two ignored films caused him, like some other failing ’80s heroes that include Joe Dante and John Carpenter, to take refuge in TV movies, and also because Milius, as a demonstrative conservative and gun freak, rendered himself fatally excluded from the mythology of modern Hollywood and critical sympathy. Milius’ wingnut sensibility has always seemed a rebellious outflowing of the transgressive, bullish streak of the self-described “Zen anarchist” (or Zen fascist, depending on which account you read), a streak that certainly informs his films, which reveal a depth of humanistic feeling, literate intelligence, and emotional veracity far greater than his image would suggest. It doesn’t feel like any particularly great contradiction to say that the hero of Farewell to the King, who describes himself boastfully as a Communist, still seems like a Milius self-portrait, as both contain the seeds of gleeful, provocative pride, and an awareness of their externality as instinctive battlers in a settled, pacified, and blandly centrist world.
Milius’ small but largely impressive directorial oeuvre encompasses a wealth of artistic contradiction and richness, and makes him stand alongside Steven Spielberg as the foremost practitioner of the adventure tale in modern cinema. Even Red Dawn, commonly caricatured as an apotheosis of mindless Reaganite aggression, is actually as often a darkly pensive and brutally ambivalent fantasia of war on a home front as it is a rousing, gleefully partisan action flick. Milius’ follow-up, which might have been expected after the popular success of his last two films to have been a big event, nonetheless sank practically without trace. To describe this as a pity is rather too weak, as Farewell to the King saw Milius produce his most self-analytical and contradictory work; indeed it could be one of the great modern American films. The experience wasn’t a happy one for the filmmaker, who felt that it was his best work but one compromised by studio editing. Adapted from a novel by French critical but empathetic war writer and filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer, Farewell to the King is Milius at his most high-flown and heroic, yet self-critical and fascinating in the contradictions of his instinctive humanism and admiration for warrior grit. Moreover, he follows Schoendoerffer’s intriguing and purposeful rewrite of Conradian tales like Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, which Milius helped to transform into Apocalypse Now, in a post-colonial fashion that plays some engaging and ironic games with the notion of a white man lording it over an aboriginal populace, as well as celebrating, as many of Milius’ works do, a contrapuntal, multicultural energy in cultures meeting and melding even in the course of clashing. The tone of Farewell to the King is established by an opening voiceover from British botanist and former soldier Fairbourne (Nigel Havers), who, looking back on his personal glory days as the film will detail, rhapsodises: “He was the last King of Borneo. It’s all right to tell his tale now. The wind has swept away the stench of the corpses. And all that we remember is the flare of our youth.”
Milius’ films are repeatedly defined by a quality of being at once immediate and nostalgic, alternately weirdly joyous and somberly elegiac in their sense of life and death. His titanic heroes are often deeply aware of their own mortality and the wane of their best days even as they best great enemies and elements: certainly this is true of the surfer-knights of Big Wednesday, and here again this mood dominates. The contradictory viewpoint defined by Fairbourne’s words sustains this sensation, as he looks back with a commingled sense of horror and moral reckoning, but also ecstatic longing for times of action and consequence. Fairbourne is parachuted into Borneo in early 1945 along with a sergeant, Tenga (Frank McRae), who’s African, under assignment to organise the mountain tribes into a guerrilla force to help kick out the Japanese. He finds that many of the tribes have already been united under a king, and more fantastically, the king is a former American Navy sailor named Learoyd (Nick Nolte). Shipwrecked on Borneo after fleeing the fall of the Philippines with some other sailors who were then killed by Japanese patrols under a colonel who rides a signature white horse, Learoyd struggled through the jungle and was found near death by villagers. They were fascinated by the totemic dragon tattoo on his chest and spared his life. Eventually, Learoyd grew strong again and learnt the local dialect, as prelude to his challenging for supremacy over the tribe that adopted him.
Learoyd’s narrative is filled with familiar refrains of an Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque tale, as he defeated the warrior Lian the Magnificent in single combat and won the overlordship of the tribe, romanced and married Yoo (Marilyn Tokuda), a princess and sister of Learoyd’s loyal friend Gwai (Gerry Lopez, a Milius regular). After becoming leader of one tribe, he then asserted leadership over many more, building a kingdom. Far from a petty dictator or warlord, however, Learoyd, a labor organizer and radical from before the war, has been working with the energised and receptive locals in building an almost idyllic communal existence, an existence threatened as much by Fairbourne’s call to join the outside world as by the Japanese: the liberalised modern world’s struggle to be born in the eye of World War II’s clash of military-industrial blocs is one Learoyd is already presaging, through living a retroactive dream of recreated chivalry. But one brings the other down upon their head: Fairbourne’s radio communications with his base bring Zeros to rain death upon the villagers, and Learoyd, infuriated, insists to Fairbourne that he will only aid the Allies if they give him and his people a guarantee of post-war independence. Fairbourne puts the proposal to his commanding officer, Col. Ferguson (James Fox), and in turn, Douglas MacArthur (John Bennett Perry). MacArthur, fascinated by the mystique of another man with affectations of the warlord like himself, signs the treaty. But Ferguson keeps Fairbourne mindful that the treaty will certainly be ignored after the war: “History will wash his hands,” he says of MacArthur, “Not yours.”
“How can a Communist be a king?” Fairbourne prods Learoyd, whose name is a Francophonic pun, to which the Yankee replies, “Only a Communist would’ve thought of it!” Learoyd, first encountered by Fairbourne and Tenga when they’re laid at his feet, seems at first a man who has passed through the gate of some immense experience that’s left him with a seer-like aspect, with an intense, bore-through-your-bones glare and a mastery of a rhapsodic, crypto-spiritual rhetoric expected of a great leader in a “primitive” culture, his blonde hair having grown into a lion’s mane. “He’s white!” Fairbourne gasps to Tenga, “As white as you or I!”, an exclamation to which the Kikuyu sergeant gives a suitably nonplussed expression. When the emissaries of the hated larger world are brought into a roundhouse that is Learoyd’s “palace,” it proves to have been built around a round table, upon which the King climbs and narrates his tale with formal, almost dancelike intensity and strutting showiness. Learoyd has been constructing a pan-cultural wonderland, having adopted the local religious sensibility and its cultural maxims of ritualised displays of power and mastery over unseen forces, which speaks purely to a streak of both dramatic flimflam in the erstwhile royal, and also to a more genuine streak of pantheism and ancestor worship that he grasps intuitively. Milius deliberately revisits a moment in Apocalypse Now when he has Learoyd appear in the night before a captive and trussed-up Fairbourne and Tenga, like Colonel Kurtz does at one point; where Kurtz was malefic in aspect, Learoyd resolves finally as good-natured and boisterous in his half-lunatic, half-genius life-love.
Learoyd has given to his “kingdom” a host of mismatched cultural tropes that nonetheless bespeak of the inheritance of the modern world in bonding traditions of communal strength, such as adopting an Arthurian roundtable as the basis of a new social discourse, and using the Irish ditty “The Rising of the Moon” as a marching song. In his narration of his rise as King, Learoyd recalls when his first tribe had wanted to make war on another because of a Romeo-and-Juliet love affair, he gave the woman advice out of Lysistrata that shut the war down immediately. His intelligent leadership eventually inspired a unification that grew to include many other tribes, even a practically Neolithic one living in a secret and idyllic glade in the mountains approachable only through a cave. Learoyd’s desire to protect his burgeoning kingdom is registered immediately as an impediment that must be cleared away by Fairbourne, whose adherence to his military and culturally prescribed role is finally unswerving even as he falls under the spell of Learoyd’s charisma and brilliance as a leader, a brilliance that is manifest most strikingly on a level of moral judgement and discernment. Learoyd is not so entirely earnest that he’s lost all sense of the irony of his situation, but he does nonetheless tackle his appointed role more seriously than Fairbourne can, at first, rightly believe. Farewell to the King quickly reveals itself as a piece of considered auteurist self-argument: the moment where Learoyd evoked Colonel Kurtz, who constructed a similar empire in the wilderness but defined by madness and destruction, signals Milius’ reconstruction of the figure into his mirror image, a bountifully intelligent and good-hearted natural leader whose works are destroyed by the evil of the world, the Heart of Darkness inverted.
Milius intriguingly comments on a scene from one of his favourite movies, Lawrence of Arabia (1962; Milius notably utilised Lawrence’s editor Anne V. Coates), in which Fairbourne, like Lawrence, recognises himself, as a neutral in a tribal setting, as capable of enacting a prickly law to satisfy both sides. But whereas Lawrence took a guilty but liberated, sadistic pleasure in acting like godlike judge of a murderer, Fairbourne is faced with a worse predicament: as per the custom of one tribe, the child of a recently dead mother must also die, but another of Learoyd’s tribes, from which the mother came, would then demand vengeance on the killers, thus evoking the spectre of another blood feud. Fairbourne volunteers to execute the child instead, and seems primed to do so before Learoyd suddenly interrupts and claims the child. “How could you do that?” Learoyd demands, appalled, of the Englishman, who retorts in relief, “How could you let me?”
Finally, once the threat of violence from the Japanese becomes unavoidable, and the Allies sign off however speciously to Learoyd’s demands, he begins planning for action, with Fairbourne bringing in a handful of Allied specialists, including South African explosives expert Conklin (Marius Weyers). Fairbourne, afflicted with malaria, nearly turns a scouting mission into a disaster, as he dizzily gets too close to Japanese guards while trying to take photos and provokes a gunfight. Fairbourne stumbles off into the jungle, and Learoyd has to track him down, managing to locate him at the same time as the white horse-riding Japanese colonel, forcing Learoyd to make a heroic dash carrying a limp and senseless Fairbourne across a rice paddy. The colonel, Mitamura (Aki Aleong), proves to be more than just an image of death and a symbolic antagonist, but the very real threat that hangs over Learoyd’s world.
The pantheistic urges in the works of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, two of Milius’ favourite filmmakers, become in his work overarching truths, perhaps indeed the only specific truth. The symbolic as well as physical force of the waves in Big Wednesday is again invoked here, the thundering, glittering surf from which Learoyd crawls twice in the course of the film. Just as the surfers of the earlier film are reborn through tackling the giant waves, here they presage Learoyd’s deliverance from the larger world’s predations and Arthurian anointment as the Once and Future King. Few would think of Milius in the same frames of reference as Terrence Malick, and yet Milius’ concerns here are strikingly similar to Malick’s meditation on modern war crashing into the idyll of Pacific tribes in The Thin Red Line (1998), rendered in altogether different but ultimately no less mythopoeic style, and indeed perhaps less naïve in its contemplation of tribal and modern civilisations less as conflicting realms of innocence and corruption, but in a dialectic of experience and impulse. The constant, nagging desire underlying modern Western civilisation best defined by Rousseau, to revert to a pre-technological state and regain the pleasures of the physically and morally simple ,is one Milius wrestles with in his films, hand in hand with his love of warrior nobility, a nobility he’s not above pondering critically. One of Farewell’s most affecting shots depicts Learoyd cradling Yoo, the light falling on her while he remains mostly in darkness, saying of war that it’s “the only good thing men can do.” To which he wife replies with sad scepticism, “Men dream.”
War indeed presages destruction of Learoyd’s loves as all conquest presages the absorption of the renegade by the greater force. Yet so appealing is the world that Learoyd has built that almost everyone who comes to it finishes up being absorbed into it—black African Tenga, white African Conklin, even Japanese soldiers—except for Fairbourne, who is kept tethered to his sense of duty less by philosophy than the fact he’s in love with Ferguson’s secretary Vivienne (Elan Oberon) and, more implicitly, to an awareness that reality cannot be circumvented; as a scientist, he understands the genesis of species. Ferguson himself, sensing the danger of Fairbourne’s admiration for Learoyd and his world, warns him to avoid going native for reasons that are as arbitrary as they are consequential: “It’s not contempt,” Ferguson tells Fairbourne with contemplative gravitas, “It’s a line of conduct.” Ferguson’s mutually exclusive worldview cannot, however, help but be defined by contempt, and jealousy for anyone who considers existence outside of a settled order, a dream Learoyd has tried to make true. Like all utopian dreams, Learoyd’s finally founders on reality, and yet his world is the dream of the world in small.
The contradictory character of Fairbourne’s reminiscences extend when the “days of peace” end and Learoyd’s band of warriors venture down through the jungle to do battle: “The death-agony of the Japanese Army in Borneo was as sad as the sinking of a great ship…hunger, men eating weeds, leeches, insects, and each other—despair—madness…for me, for us, the same period was as thrilling as a cavalry charge, may god forgive us.” This cues an ironically high-flown montage of Learoyd, Fairbourne, and the others exalting in triumphant battle against their crumbling foe, cueing even a nod by Milius to Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) as they destroy a bridge modelled on the one in Lean’s classic as Basil Poledouris’ score surges in heroic zest. But boyish triumphalism gives way to fathomless horror as their guerrilla army must contend with Mitamura’s elusive “phantom” column, which, fleeing the Allies on the coast, works its way inland apparently wiping out everyone in its path. Tracking this enemy, Tenga is the first to realise that Mitamura’s column has turned cannibalism into a survival method, and the realisation of the depths to which Mitamura’s men have sunk sparks a race to prevent the column from reaching the Comanche capital. Milius pulls off a bravura sequence with nightmarish overtones as Learoyd and his army try to set an ambush for the column in the moonlight, the eerie sight of the enemy marching silhouetted against the sky, only to vanish when the moon is swallowed by cloud; when Fairbourne fires off a flare, a strobing vision of yowling, demonic enemy soldiers charging their position are glimpsed before a chaotic melee is joined. As dawn comes over the battlefield Learoyd realises that the much of Mitamura’s force slipped through, and nothing now stands between it and the home village.
The escalation of war into blood-rage apocalypse reaches apotheosis as the column massacres the home village, including Yoo, who is last glimpsed facing the arriving army with a machine gun in hand like a stone standing against the tide. Learoyd’s heart-wrenching scream of despair erupts from the roundhouse where he finds the bodies of the slaughtered villagers. He sets alight roundhouse as their pyre, and then tracks down the column, trapped in a gorge, and slaughters the soldiers en masse in a moment of nihilistic vengeance that coincides, not coincidentally, with the bombing of Hiroshima: Learoyd’s attempts to remain separate from the tide of history have instead only led him to mimic its patterns precisely. Learoyd, once the wildness of grief is exculpated, throws away his gun and vows never to kill another man, leaving Fairbourne to continue the hunt for Mitamura. Fairbourne is injured in battle and crawls into a grotto where he desperately pleads with the shadows for Learoyd’s aid. But he awakens instead in a British Army hospital with Vivienne, and he learns that Mitamura finally surrendered to Learoyd, whose warriors have since fired upon the Allied soldiers trying to enter the highlands. Faced with either betraying Learoyd by giving Ferguson vital information on how to force Learoyd into surrender—he knows that the tribes can’t live without the supplies of salt they get from the sea, and can easily be cut off from obtaining it—or precipitating another military assault on the kingdom, Fairbourne chooses the lesser evil, and soon Learoyd and Mitamura hand themselves over in exchange for salt supplies. Learoyd is beaten to a bloody pulp by Australian soldiers angry at his resistance, whilst Mitamura is sentenced to be executed for war crimes.
The final irony of Farewell to the King comes as Mitamura proves hardly a monster, or even an effete psychopath, but rather a gentlemanly and magnanimous soldier with perfect English: whereas Learoyd and the tribal folk, who have personal reasons to hate this enemy, accept his surrender and absorb him into their number as a repentant, the larger world can only claim his head. He explains calmly to a stiffly inquisitive Fairbourne that he tried to obey his orders as long as possible. He accepts the consequences without dispute: thinking with genuine weight on Fairbourne’s questions, he essentially states that far from representing any degenerate tendency, he represents only a last recourse for the particular, world-shaping principles to which he was obedient, in this case imperialistic militarism. The peculiar beauty of Farewell to the King is finally highlighted in the care with which it complicates the seemingly Boy’s Own precepts of the tale to a point where villains and heroes, past and present, tribe and superpower are all hard to distinguish except in the push and pull of noble and bestial impulses in all of the characters. Learoyd, for his part, is sent home as a prisoner to be tried for desertion on the same ship that Fairbourne takes out of Borneo. When fate gives him the chance after the ship runs aground a reef, Fairbourne springs Learoyd from the brig, and Learoyd is able to leap overboard and swim to shore, vanishing into the unknown with a final surge of Poledouris’ scoring of “The Rising of the Moon.” Fairbourne salutes him, exultant at his first act of rebellion and truest act of loyalty.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Richard Marquand
By Roderick Heath
George Lucas’ Star Wars : Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) is, for better or worse, one of the defining films of the modern era. Splendiferously entertaining, it’s also a stylistically powerful film, one that rarely gets praise as such, as if it all sprang fully formed out of the head of the Zeus of nerds. Star Wars has been since its release the first step most any young film fan takes—including, yes, me—towards a love of the medium. It also is usually the first target for the budding film snob. I admit to having made both steps, and then come back again. The essential glee of the original trilogy is in its conceit of taking the kids from American Graffiti (1973) and sticking them in spaceships to go tearing about the galaxy fighting The Man, only to confront the ultimate terror: perhaps one day, they’ll be The Man. Watching the first film again recently, I was struck by how much Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo look and sound so very, very ’70s, and how strong the semi-satiric tint is. It’s not hard to imagine the whoop of good-humoured knowing in the first preview audience’s appreciation of this hunk of old-fashioned corn, invested with disco-era wit and pizzazz, purveyed for their entertainment, after having to pretend the likes of Airport (1970) and Earthquake (1974) were fun. Lucas tried to avoid that sort of specificity and self-mockery in his prequels, which have far more of the formalism of chivalric romance to them, and laid himself open to intense criticism in the process.
Return of the Jedi has consistently remained my favourite of the original trilogy. Don’t get me wrong: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), often cited as the best of the series, has some formidable qualities. With an eye for scenery and touch with actors, experienced filmmaker Irvin Kershner proved an uncannily good choice to lend deeper stylistic and thematic reflexes to Lucas’ Roy Lichtenstein-meets-Hugo Gernsback model. The sheer immensity and beauty of the scifi vistas on display in the second episode are indeed the most lovingly detailed and tactile, answering the gritty, technocratic zeal of the opener with a stylisation that blended vivid Technicolour Expressionism with Amazing Stories covers. Add to this the intelligent expansion of having Luke (Mark Hamill) trained as a Jedi by the diminutive Yoda (Frank Oz), and the genuinely brilliant twist of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones/David Prowse) proving to be his father, and you have a model middle episode. But I’ve always found the episode inert on a story level, and the subplot of Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the rest of the familiar Millennium Falcon crew, whilst witty, essentially treads water for most of the running time. In contrast to the impressively malefic vigour of Luke and Vader’s light saber duel, the action for the other characters sinks to a level close to lesser Doctor Who episodes where people run through corridors firing badly aimed rayguns. Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, is if anything almost too busy: it wraps up the outstanding plot strands, offers a final battle of tremendous scope, introduces the real villain of the saga, Ian McDiarmid’s palpable Emperor Palpatine, and fulfils the mythic overtone the series had strained to reach from the start.
Jedi also has Ewoks, a point usually counted against it as a sign Lucas was giving in to excessive juvenile appeal, planting seeds for his later total concession to it with Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). That knock is probably true, and yet the Ewoks have never bothered me. I have to admit that a certain amount of the charge this episode carries for me lies precisely in the simultaneously funny and slightly horrendous sight of the furry little beggars taking on the imperial forces, and giving a good enough account of themselves to make the victory of others a possibility. The Ewoks, superficially silly little furballs, actually prove to be jokers in the deck who help turn a well-laid trap into a double-edged blade. The Ewoks, almost unbearably endearing as they are, simply exacerbate the basic appeal of the series—the little guys take on the overwhelmingly powerful and come out on top.
It’s tempting to stress some of the peculiar, countercultural synergy invoked by the Ewoks’ place in the story as pseudo-indigenous warriors who use guerrilla tactics to bring down an unstoppable superpower: parallels with Vietnam and the shift of empathy around to Native Americans in the Western genre are not inappropriate, but could easily become laboured. Much more immediate credulity was given to the same “weird yet handy aliens as metaphorical version of aboriginal populaces” pitch when they were rendered as giant cat-people in Avatar (2009). Another major strike listed against the film, but again one that doesn’t bother me as much as it might, is the fact that the plot boils down to a replay of the first film, with the rebels trying to take out another Death Star. Perhaps it’s the fact that the script introduces some neat variations on the theme, as the Emperor deliberately suckers the rebels into trying to repeat the past, or the sheer scale and vivacity of the imagery in play, but Jedi succeeds in painting an equally enjoyable portrait of techno-fascist blitzkrieg versus outsider bravura.
The visual and aural drama achieved by Lucas and his design team, including concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, production designer Norman Reynolds, and cinematographer Alan Hume (replacing Gilbert Taylor and Peter Suschitzky), plus John Williams’ rich and inspired scoring and the teeming brilliance of the special effects, formed a large part of the film series’ capacity to rip a practically Pavlovian response from so many viewers. Yet, none of it would have mattered much if the sense of epic wonderment was not backed up on some level by a genuine love of story: the drama and characterisation of the series are always elemental, and yet always leavened by a care for detail, no matter how fleeting, even down to bits of throwaway humour that offer surprises, like the trainer weeping over his dead pet, which seemed to everyone else like a voracious hell-beast. The brightly coloured, but scuffed, tactile, even degenerating technocratic sheen of the first film shades into a darker, cleaner aesthetic, with the Nuremberg-via-Swedish-Moderne beauty of the Empire’s architecture. This contrasts vividly with the wastes of Tatooine and the forest purity of Endor, the name of which retains a biblical echo, and the look of the films echoes the thematic tensions based in the gap between technology and humanistic values, control and freedom, destruction and repression. The manichaeism of the conflict between the “dark” side of the Force and its counterpart is reductive, yet it also accounts for much of the nagging power of the series, in how it consistently invests the surface drama with an undertow of primal psychological anxiety, overt action always flowing in counterpoint to a nearly unseen battle for mastery over the forces of creation and annihilation themselves, the difference between them never farther apart than a choice.
The job of directing Return of the Jedi was actually offered to David Lynch before production, but he passed to do Dune (1984) instead: the thought of Lynch tackling Star Wars material is a fascinating what-if of cinema history. Coscreenwriter Lawrence Kasdan might have made a good choice to step up to the plate, but he was already moving off in his own direction. The job was eventually given to relatively unsung Welsh filmmaker Richard Marquand, who had displayed a talent for blending realism and theatrical passion in the context of pulp material and lending a contemporised edge to old-fashioned storytelling, in his spy thriller Eye of the Needle (1981). Marquand’s subsequent output was highly uneven, with the Joe Esterhasz-penned Basic Instinct prequel Jagged Edge (1985) notable between two weak pop romances, but his death just four years after making this film was still a sad loss. Marquand displayed formal gifts for keeping the elements of action on a colossal scale, which perhaps demand much more attention than they’ve ever been given. One telling aspect of Return of the Jedi’s influence is that it’s still pretty much the go-to point of reference for staging for franchise climaxes, with the likes of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (2011), all taking some cues in story and style from Marquand’s film. Also telling is how few of them manage to reproduce its economy and intricate, deceptive blend of complexity and naivete.
One element of the series that was commercially daring at the time, though it now seems relatively familiar, was the scruff-of-the-neck approach to hurling the audience back into the storylines, which the iconic opening explanatory scrawls only partly mitigated. There is only the plunge into stories already in motion, with a handful of expository remarks to give a context. Return of the Jedi relies on knowledge of previous episodes to make sense of it and also to give it power. Far from limiting its appeal, however, this touch helped make the series as pop-culturally pervasive as it is, engaging the audience in the serial-like dynamic (“Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of…!”) over a longer period of time than usual, but all the more intense for that reason, whilst also looking back to the ritualised, in media res structuring of classical epic poems. The oedipal death battle between Luke and Vader is gripping for having watched Luke’s evolution from a bright and eager farm boy to a baleful figure of fate, and supped on Vader’s blackly humorous poise as bringer of wrath and cruelty. The film’s first movement wraps up one of the major dangling threads of Empire, as Luke, Leia Organa, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2D2 (Kenny Baker), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) infiltrate the palace of grotesque Tatooine gangster Jabba the Hutt, where Han Solo, frozen in carbonite, is kept as a trophy on the wall.
One particular reason why I love Jedi is because it’s the episode that’s most in touch with its pulp forebears, quoting from a broader range of such models with humour and a solid, physically concrete lustre. The film’s first third is essentially an extended riff on pirate flicks and Orientalist adventure sagas, with Jabba as a particularly caricatured Sydney Greenstreet-esque sheikh, with his dancing girls and court of sycophants fugitives from some particularly overworked id. Those tropes are blended with some monster business, as Jabba drops those who displease him into a pit with the ferocious Rancor, in the most successful of the series’ many hat tips to Ray Harryhausen. The familiar, oversized grandiosity of the Fritz Lang-esque sets and the proliferation of bizarre alien faces here is invested with defiantly dark humour and an edge of weirdness more intense and psychological than anywhere else in the series: for example, C-3PO and R2D2 are ushered into a robot dungeon where unruly fellow droids are being tortured, and Jabba’s gremlin pet laughs in mockery at the humiliations doled out to those who incur his displeasure. The crypto-S&M edge reaches an apotheosis when Leia, caught in the act of trying to extract Han from his hibernation, is chained to Jabba’s throne as his latest harem girl, reduced from a heroine hitherto defined by independence and asexual power to a scantily-clad pet abutting the distinctly penile monster. It’s an image that provoked a million adolescent fantasies; rumour has it the whole concept was concocted in riposte to Fisher’s complaints she never looked like a woman in the earlier episodes. In the context of the series’ elemental logic, it’s practically a rape fantasy, and interesting as just about the only overt element of eroticism. The creative team leaven it by giving Jabba’s comeuppance to Leia herself, who strangles her would-be enslaver with her own chains, a surprisingly potent image of female self-reclamation riding on the back of soft-core sexploitation.
Meanwhile Luke’s appearance to rescue the crew from Jabba and annihilate his power takes the form of a sequence of pure, scifi-tinted swashbuckling. Gone are the postmodern quotation marks of Star Wars, when Luke and Leia made their swing across a vast airshaft. In Return of the Jedi, that self-doubt is gone, and pure adventure is in, as Luke and Leia flee Jabba’s sail-barge on a rope, and the barge crashes and erupts in fire, a climactic flourish and a promissory signature that the bad times are ending. Jedi is, indeed, distinguished structurally by the destruction of corrupt regimes, first Jabba’s, and then the Empire. Whilst moral shading of the enemy is hardly a priority of the series, in this case, there is a distinct and purposeful schism set up with the wickedness of Jabba, and the malignant, fascist-chic technocracy of the Empire. Whereas Jabba suggests a caricature of lascivious greed, an emanation from the subconscious, the Empire is a polar opposite, a projection of the superego and a deracinated obscenity on a cosmic scale. The eroticised domination Jabba assert over Leia and Han is rendered on a far more grandiose scale by the Empire over everything, but finally twinning back to the Emperor’s weirdly sexual desire to possess Luke, son of his own “seduced” underling Vader, a note the insistently underscores the final confrontation of Luke, Vader, and the Emperor and erupts when it becomes plain that Luke’s sister Leia could be similarly subsumed.
The mythic quality of the Star Wars series was apparent from the start, but perhaps more apparent in terms of its specific imagery and wide story arcs rather than in the serial-like zest of the actual storytelling. Lucas’ reading of Joseph Campbell had encouraged him to create a web not only generic but also of cultural influences, and the retro-futurist society he dreamt up blended elements of the Western, Asian wu xia and jidai geki genres (the word “Jedi” derives from the latter), Arthurian and Norse sagas, early scientifiction romps like Burroughs’ Barsoom tales, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and more sophisticated space operas like Lensman and Dune. In this episode, the fact that the films had evolved into an active expression of a mythological tradition, with roots in tribal campfire tales, acknowledged when C-3PO recounts the team’s adventures to a thrilled audience of Ewoks for whom C-3PO has become an ironic kind of god-shaman (with the real god-shaman Luke behind his apparent miracles), inculcating wisdom and stirring the tribes to action. The saga here takes a humorous meta-narrative glance at its own storytelling zest as a ritual of immeasurable legacy. Even the accidental edge of incestuous attraction that had flitted between Luke and Leia in the earlier episodes, before plot loops were closed by making them prove to have been siblings, links with a strange neatness to the way that theme is always linked to questions of mysterious roots and family, taboo and heritage, which constantly resurface in the mythic pantheon, from Oedipus and Jocasta to Siegmund and Sieglinde’s romance in Wagner’s version of the Nibelungen myth, whilst Luke’s battle with the father figure takes on Freudian overtones, hinted at in Empire, as Luke sees his own face in a decapitated Vader’s helmet, the paternal figure swathed in anonymous alienation.
In the previous episodes, and particularly in Empire, Vader’s faceless malevolence had been perhaps the series’ most remarkable coup, fearsome and alien, blackly comic in his casual violence and psychopathic wrath, and always weirdly charismatic in his towering, contemptuous brand of evil. Jedi does to a certain extent rob him of this stature, though that’s not incidental, as the Emperor wants and needs Vader to be beaten down in order to replace him. But it’s a peculiar sop to our sensibilities—the need to feel that anyone so attractively wicked has to be redeemable, even pathetic, on some level. Yet one of the sleights of Jedi is how the Emperor hardly seems paltry next to him. On the contrary, thanks to McDiarmid’s terrific performance (one that would withstand pressure in the prequels), he is even more insidiously, penetratingly effective, but crucially, without charm: he’s like a sleazy uncle just released from prison for unmentionable acts, now completely and utterly devoted to his own malicious pleasures, goading Luke with glee over the seeming cast-iron trap he’s set for the rebels. By comparison, the actual forces of the Empire, represented by the likes of Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), seem effetely castrated, in spite of wielding colossal starships, forever walking on eggshells with puckered anxiety over displeasing the almost godlike wrath of Vader and the Emperor.
The pseudo-spiritual edge with which Lucas imbued his tales—the mystique of the Force and the Jedi—was the most significant innovation he brought to the cinematic space opera, and taken most clearly from the element in those Asian genre films where the hero ascends on both a physical and metaphysical journey. The journey is here expressed through Luke’s slow development from callow farm boy to a new member of the resurgent breed to which his father once belonged. Marquand’s Eye of the Needle and Jagged Edge had both posited the fascinating attraction and repulsion of evil in immediate erotic terms, whereas here it’s slightly more distanced, though no less potent. In spite of the fairy tale politics and deliberately remote settings, the fundamental reflexes of the series always lay in specific post-1960s questions of personal liberty and identity. Easy enough to see in Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Yoda—the echo of the yearning of the counterculture era for enlightened figures of new-age mysticism—and the Emperor as their evil, Mansonesque flipside. But is Luke’s confrontation with his evil father an emblem of specific generational conflict over giving in to the compromises and cynicism of age, a by-product of the series’ flower-child underpinnings, or a confrontation with a Freudian nightmare of the self and the chain of creation that always binds together the sex and death urges? Both, more, and none.
Still, the evolving conflict that leads to the confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor is the touch that has proven the most fascinating element Lucas and his cadre of cocreators, including veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett and Kasdan, were to give to their take on the mythic form. The narrative impulse is strained by contradictory needs, between the urge toward grand action and the necessity of pacific self-control that finally moves, like the deepest heroic myths, into the realm of mysticism, even religion: a conquest of the interior duality that is a greater triumph than conquering a foe, and yet also key to besting that foe. Thus, Luke’s experience runs in counterpoint to such forebears as Siegfried/Sigurd who, in the Norse version of his mythology, defeats monsters but only learns fear in awakening the cursed Brunhilda; or Percival’s shedding of his armour to find the grail; or even Jacob’s wrestling with the angel who visits him. But Luke’s attainment of enlightenment, exemplified by the capacity to step back from wrath and prostrate himself before cruelty, is a Christlike gesture, and the only one that can liberate his father from the totality of evil. Whilst the battle continues, the real climax of Jedi is the moment of Vader’s confrontation by a choice, as the Emperor tortures Luke to death, his inhuman visage swinging between his son and his overlord with an intensity sharpened to Wagnerian heights by Williams’ scoring.
The smashing of the malignant machines of the Empire (Lang’s long shadow again?) is nothing compared to the simple act of Vader picking up the leathery old bastard who has perverted his life and hurling him into a pit. If the prequel trilogy achieved anything at all, it is that this action is even more palpable. Like much of the rest of the series, the power of this moment lies in its emotional directness and storytelling savvy: in spite of the wealth of special effects on hand, it’s achieved by the rapid alternations of close-ups between Luke’s agonised face, the Emperor’s sadistic glee, and between them, Vader’s unreadable mask covering emotional reflexes that are titanic. The journey from Luke’s discovery of his slaughtered foster parents in the first film by the forces Vader seems to represent most purely, to the moment in which Vader, so long the angel of death, expires in his arms as a wheezing, pathetic old ruin, finally disassembles the seemingly simplistic moral divides of the series. Luke attains manhood at last both by killing and redeeming his father, and whilst the other rebels get down with the Ewoks in a moment of goofy triumphalism, it’s Luke who stands out from the crowd, giving his father’s body a Viking pyre funeral, and gazing into the night and seeing the shades of the men who made him.
Otherwise, the action-adventure element of Jedi is beautifully straightforward, and the zest of the set-piece action scenes, including the speeder chase through forest trees at unnerving speeds, are still technically impressive and entertaining, all the moreso for not being belaboured. The series appeal to a delight in nerdish detail is likewise as strong as ever here: the exactly designated spacecraft, the fleetingly glimpsed characters with striking, weirdly memorable looks and names, including Jabba’s underling Bib Fortuna (Michael Carter), Lando’s blithely introduced sidekick for the final battle, and the much-loved Admiral Akbar (Tim Rose), the rebels’ crayfish-faced commander. Lando’s evolution from shifty corsair to swashbuckling hero, clearly taking cues from many an Errol Flynn forebear, is completed as he leads the seemingly doomed attack on the new Death Star and refuses to buckle in the face of impossible odds, convincing Akbar to stick it out in a space battle that rewrote the book on special-effects spectacle. It’s tempting to state that special-effects arts had reached a kind of perfect mean with this episode, rendered with intricacy and more sophisticated than almost anything seen before and yet retaining a physical, tactile quality that CGI, with all its fancifulness, would lose: it’s the fearsome beauty of the battle scenes that has always gripped me, the sense of real, gigantic hunks of metal smashing into each other, the wild, frantic battles that wend between the great ships, and the final race of Lando and Wedge (Dennis Lawson) into the heart of the Death Star to destroy it. The three-tiered struggle of the finale—the space fight, the forest guerrilla war where the Ewoks try to buy the rebels under Han and Leia time, and the multiplaned duel of wits and will between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor—is sustained with a use of dialectic montage that’s a long way from Griffith and Eisenstein and yet linked, and it’s achieved with a deceptive ease that demands admiration: in spite of the rapid shifts of focus and tone, the action retains a seamless, associative integrity, with no shot that’s incomprehensible, no action that is poorly linked with another.
Most gratifying perhaps to the cinephile’s eye are Marquand’s knowing quotes from the panoply of antecedents that always lurked in the series, quoting the landing of Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942) in the early scenes of Vader arriving in the Death Star, Chewbacca swinging into action with a Tarzan howl, and the Ewoks blowing their horns in the call to battle reproducing the calling together of the tribes of Israel in The Ten Commandments (1956). The mythic, aspiring tilt of the series and its roots in knowing pastiche are in constant, balanced dialogue throughout Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to forget the slacker-era cynicism well summarised by the characters in Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) in dismissing Return of the Jedi as empty triumphalism in comparison to the “real” crappiness of The Empire Strikes Back’s end. That sort of cynicism is, for me, a reminder of the political defeatism that was so popular, and has proven so corrosive, in the late twentieth century. Whilst I would hardly argue that the Star Wars films radicalised a generation, nonetheless in a fashion similar to the ’30s Errol Flynn films and their possible formative influence on ’50s and ’60s radicals, I suspect the spirit of Star Wars, often dismissed by some as reactionary, lurks behind many a contemporary rebel weaned on such fare. We all need to remember that some regimes can, should, and shall be brought down by the plucky outsiders.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey Through Adventure Film
Director: Nicholas Meyer
By Roderick Heath
It might seem like a leap from the earthbound historicism of The Sea Hawk to the second instalment of a 1980s TV-derived scifi franchise, and yet they’re both, essentially, pirate movies. Lately, pondering the synergy of elements necessary to create great adventure films, I had to admit that, in revisiting Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (the numerical was added after initial release), I saw it has just about all of them: wonder, action, character, myth, darkness, depth of concept and execution, originality and also noble cliché, a sense of fun, and a sense of legacy, both future and historical.
Gene Roddenberry’s adored TV series “Star Trek”, which ran from 1966 to 1968, ironically became a much bigger hit after cancellation, through syndication showings in the ’70s. The show possessed a ragged, trippy, perfervid energy and channelled scifi’s essential creeds and some fresh ideas into some generically familiar archetypes, stereotypes, and situations—not for nothing did Roddenberry label it “‘Wagon Train’ in space” when pitching it to execs. It survived in part because it channelled a post-counterculture hunger for New Age ideals and inclusivity into a futuristic context, and resulted in the birth of the Trekkie, still the emblematic scifi fan of a strong and obsessive breed. So strong was the series’ belated following that an animated series resulted, and then a push for a movie edition, which reached fruition after the success of Star Wars (1977). The initial result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), directed by that sturdiest of old pros, Robert Wise, modelled itself after the show’s more inquisitive episodes, whilst pinching liberally from Arthur C. Clarke. Wise’s sense of visual grandeur and the probing script partly made up for a stiff reintroduction for the old cast and a weak grip for the series’ familiar human element. The general feeling was that the result was a flabby disappointment. Roddenberry’s fussy creative control got the blame, and it’s clear in retrospect that he was trying to revive his creation with a tone anticipatory of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994), which, with its ponderously plastic air and drones for heroes, was still similarly curious in its best moments. The Motion Picture made enough money to warrant a sequel, but for the second spin around the galaxy, producer Harve Bennett hired a fresher director with a zippier understanding of the underpinnings of such feverishly followed cult works.
Nicholas Meyer started off as a writer, with the likes of the campy comedy Invasion of the Bee Girls (1972) and the novel The Seven-Percent-Solution, adapted by Herbert Ross for the screen in 1976, before he made a directorial debut with Time After Time (1979). Meyer revealed a grasp on the minutiae of figures like Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells, and understood the curious nostalgia that resided within the survival of those characters, revelling in the ironic contrast between the Victorian sensibility that spawned them and the modern perspective on their charm—a sensibility that was ironically similar to the inner, fantastical spirit of Star Trek. Certainly, the catchphrases of Star Trek, like Spock’s “Fascinating,” were becoming as specific as Holmes’ “Elementary,” and Meyer understood that. Meyer responded to his new job by going to school on the original series to carefully recreate its essentials, and did an uncredited overhaul on Jack B. Sowards’ script. The Wrath of Khan was perhaps the first film to provide a nominal sequel to a TV episode, 1967’s “Space Seed,” in which Ricardo Montalban had guest-starred as Khan, a genetically engineered superman exiled centuries before from Earth with his followers, who, when salvaged by the Enterprise on its five-year mission, tried to take it over. They were defeated and left to start a colony on a new planet. Whilst such continuity tickled series fans, having seen “Space Seed” was in no way necessary to understanding the plot of the movie. Indeed, it was slightly confusing, as Khan had never met Enterprise crewman Chekhov (Walter Koenig, who joined the old show after “Space Seed”) but recognises him here. Khan was reconstituted in the film as a phantom from the past of James T. Kirk (William Shatner) who emerges to torture and terrorise him precisely as he’s looking down the barrel of a dull and barren middle age, his swashbuckling days as a space captain behind him.
The Wrath of Khan is today often beloved for its moments of unfettered camp, and yet it’s actually a deftly balanced work: warm, funny, dashing, often tongue-in-cheek, and yet emotionally and intellectually quite earnest, filled with lush, spacious imagery and well-paced action. It’s a film that manages to do many different sorts of thing at once, and for very good reason, it’s become a kind of code word for a movie series highpoint. Meyer gave Wise’s stately approach a kick in the pants, and whilst the same elements of wonder and speculative intelligence that The Motion Picture belaboured are still in evidence, here they’re carefully dovetailed with the onrush of a plot that’s more than a little like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) in space.
Meyer’s most personal and effective touch was to remake Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForrest Kelly) into men reminiscent of his earlier takes on Holmes and Wells. They are men out of their time, aware of retro paraphernalia and culture, offering a continuity with the geeks of Earth past, and possessed of an energy and idealism that’s all the more vital in a future world. The film’s very opening depicts one of Kirk’s prize pupils, Saavik (a pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley), a humourless Vulcan neophyte who nettles under the painful lesson of the “Kobayashi Maru,” a test that places potential officers in a situation where they have to find their grace under the imminent inevitability of death. As well as offering up a memorable fillip of series lore, the fact that Kirk administers the test which he himself successfully subverted in his student days presents a thematic echo that rings out through the rest of the story up to its tragic climax. Kirk, with his recurring refusal to believe in the kind of no-win scenarios the test prescribes, must face the real cost of such a situation.
Meanwhile, Chekhov, working under Captain Terell (the late, great Paul Winfield) aboard the Reliant, is searching for a lifeless planet to conduct a vast new scientific experiment with the fantastic new Genesis Device. Beaming upon a planet they believe to be the lifeless Ceti Alpha 6, they fall into the hands of Khan and his fellow survivors, who had been left to form a colony on that planet’s neighbour by Kirk: the planet is, in fact, their former Eden, laid waste by cosmic calamity, and they have only just clung to existence. Now mad for vengeance for the suffering of their exile and the deaths of his wife and several crew from attacks by native animals, Khan takes control of Chekhov and Terell with brain-infesting slugs and sets out to trap Kirk and take control of the Genesis Device. The device has been developed by scientist Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), her son David (Merritt Butrick), and a team of researchers on a space station neighbouring the lifeless moon of Regula 1. The device is an incredibly powerful mechanism with the capacity to reshape planets into life-supporting spheres, albeit with the caveat that any life that exists there already would be obliterated, thus making it a work of terraforming wonder that could also be a terrible weapon. David is paranoid about possible military uses of the Device and interference by the Federation, and when Chekhov, under Khan’s control, messages the station ordering the Device to be handed over, pretending the order comes from Kirk, that paranoia seems justified. Carol tries to contact Kirk to demand an explanation, but her message fades out. The Enterprise, on a training mission for the young recruits, heads to Regula 1 to see what’s going on, only to fly headlong into Khan’s ambush.
The Wrath of Khan‘s reduced budget impacted the quality of production noticeably, as the film littered with rather pasteboard-looking sets and props. There are some clunker line readings redolent of a rushed shoot, and Khan’s crew, all strangely much younger than him, look like escapees from a futuristic roller disco musical. But that’s all part of the fun, and otherwise, the film retains the polished look of an A-grade saga. The film’s colour is fleshy and colourful in an aptly pulpy fashion, thanks to Gayne Rescher’s photography. The special effects were done by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic outfit, and included a ground-breaking use of computer-generated imagery for the demonstration film of the Genesis Device’s purpose. The effects are very uneven, and yet still possess an epic lustre. I can’t help but admire the suspense Meyer can wring out of scenes of grim-looking crewmen marching about with what look like vibrators with light globes attached: god knows what they’re going to do with them, but damn if doesn’t look important. Similarly, it’s fascinating how poetic the moment in which Carol brings Kirk into the cavern transformed into a paradise by the Genesis Device is, in spite of the obvious matte paintings, in a way that still dwarfs all the CGI landscapes of Avatar (2009). Much of the film’s impact, it has to be said, is due to composer James Horner, who two years earlier had been working on Roger Corman quickies before he gained notice for his mock-epic work on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Horner’s soaring, seafarer-like score permeates The Wrath of Khan with a sense of galloping excitement and swooning awe in such moments as the Enterprise’s sailing out from it space dry dock and Kirk’s first glimpse of the Genesis cave.
Whilst the series’ egalitarian, progressive ideals were certainly heartfelt, “Star Trek” simultaneously always sustained an element of retrograde, imperialist thinking in its assumptions, with a future universe where political stability is enforced by gunboat diplomacy. Khan’s name emphasises this aspect. Rather than revise the discrepancy, Meyer emphasises links with Victorian drama and an imperialist adventuring tradition. Kirk and Khan constantly quote favourite novels, Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities respectively, whilst the story and visuals make reference to a charming retention of seafaring codes in space. The Federation uniforms (redesigned from the hideous things sported in The Motion Picture) make the crew look awfully like Redcoats, and a crewwoman blows a futuristic version of a midshipman’s whistle when Kirk first boards the Enterprise. Simultaneously, The Wrath of Khan does something the series, with its limited budget and effects, and episodic style, could never do properly, which was offer, at last, a genuine space battle.
So perfectly does The Wrath of Khan lay out a form of a swashbuckler that the number of similarities in plot and theme between it and Master and Commander demand a few moments to list. In both, the heroes fight off a superior enemy who gets the jump on them in an initial ambush. The emphasis on the battle of wits between captains is all-important. Spock and McCoy are to Kirk as Maturin is to Aubrey, presenting the schism of man of action and man of thought in the context of the supposedly well-oiled machine of these ships of war. The Genesis Device and resulting planet are equivalent to the Galapagos Islands as cradles of wonderment and new potential that excite that scientific mind, a mind which is stifled in being merely obeisant to militaristic exigencies. In both, the physical maiming of a younger crew member is a major tragedy and spur to action. An ambush is facilitated through one ship pretending to be another: Aubrey’s ploy of disguising his ship as a whaler contrasts Khan’s use of a captured Federation ship to sucker in Kirk. Major acts of sacrifice are required to save the heroes’ ship: Spock’s fatal venturing into the reactor to repower the Enterprise matches Hollum’s suicide in belief he’s the Jonah that haunts his ship, and Aubrey’s hacking free a fallen mast, though its means a man must drown.
In spite of its interludes of cheese, The Wrath of Khan builds story and character with a novelistic intelligence, as individual scenes that often seem discursive and casual actually contribute to the thematic imperatives of the tale. The opening joke, where the revelation that the chaos that engulfs Saavik’s captaincy is, in fact, the Kobayashi Maru test—McCoy, sprawled on the floor, demands praise for his performance—will inexorably lead to a moment where such chaos erupts for real around Kirk. He’s the only candidate who ever beat the test, and did so by creative cheating, and, of course, has to stare down the barrel of exactly the situation it was supposed to depict. Mortality is already weighing on Kirk’s mind at the outset, as it’s his birthday. Spock’s and McCoy’s birthday presents to the aging admiral are both antiques for his collection, a leather-bound copy of A Tale of Two Cities and a pair of ancient reading spectacles, apt for Kirk’s retro sensibility, but also reminding him of the march of years. The film actually lets us see Kirk’s apartment in San Francisco, as McCoy breaks out a bottle of illegal Romulan ale—that’s the sort of throwaway touch that I love and that gives this phase in the franchise real personality. McCoy warns him against letting himself become an antique, too, and to get back to captaining, not training callow recruits.
Saavik is posited as a potential love interest for Kirk: she tries to flirt with him whilst trying to understand the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru test, but proves fatally unreceptive to his sense of humour. But she’s also a potential replacement for both him and Spock, an heir to both their legacies. Carol, Kirk’s former lover, and David, actually his son, albeit one he’s barely had any contact with before, present shades of alternative lives he gave up in his love for gallivanting through space, and give immediate, personal flesh to the film’s recurring motifs of existence as a chain of creation and destruction, birth and death. In spite of the futuristic setting, The Wrath of Khan feels intimately contemporary to the early ’80s, as David’s outright contempt and suspicion for Kirk and the Federation channels obvious hints of the ’60s Generation Gap, whilst Carol’s decision to keep David in her world suggests the impact of feminism and new parenting options, leaving alpha male Kirk in a slightly befuddled mid-life crisis.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary potential of the Genesis Device seems to invoke all of the characters’ essential quandaries and capacities, promising both apocalyptic destruction and miraculous creation. Carol, to cheer up Kirk when he’s feeling depressed about the carnage that’s struck his ship and his son’s ferocious antipathy for what he stands for, ushers him along to take stock of a miracle: the grand cave within the Regular moon that she’s turned into a slice of Eden with the Genesis Device, her gift of maternal beneficence to all. Spock and McCoy, upon first learning of the Device’s existence, swing immediately into one of their classic ethical debates. Spock’s coolly measured curiosity striking sparks against McCoy’s fiery, knee-jerk humanism. McCoy mocks the Genesis Device by channelling advertising speak: “According to myth, God created the Earth in six days. Now watch out! Here comes Genesis! We’ll do it for you in six minutes!’ The thematic conflict of the human and the destructive is even acted out on the level of the canonical texts that preoccupy the characters—the shamanistic nihilism of Moby-Dick and the humanistic idealism and sacrifice that defines A Tale of Two Cities. Spock is, of course, the tragic hero, the Sidney Carton of The Wrath of Khan. His logical and unemotive persona, which McCoy always assumes to be inimical to humane concerns, proves, as Kirk croaks in delivering a eulogy for his dead friend, redolent of the most human soul. Spock, now actually the captain of the Enterprise, hands over command to Kirk without concern when crisis is nigh, reminding his reluctant friend that “You proceed from a false assumption—I have no ego to bruise,” and giving Kirk exactly what everyone knows he needs at the same time. Spock becomes the paragon of selfless action and finds his fulfilment of logic in the act of giving his life to save the Enterprise’s crew from certain destruction.
Spock’s achievement of a kind of transcendence paves the way for a resurrection (though Nimoy was actually hoping to jump ship permanently), befitting his new status as demigod. He thus fulfils the religious imagery that he’s been associated with since the first film, which found him engaged in a rite to cleanse himself of feeling in primal landscape. Spock’s nirvana overtly contrasts Khan’s failed attempt to become the Destroyer of Worlds. Khan, genetically engineered and clearly associated with a remnant spirit of Nazi eugenics and an accompanying übermensch mentality, his own constantly stated superiority itself is a kind of godhead for his supporters—“Yours is a Superior Intellect,” as their salute to him goes, and one which his lieutenant Joachim can’t quite complete in dying as both salute and curse—proves weakened by exactly the egotism that Spock resists. Khan’s ruthless intelligence proves constantly susceptible to elements he can’t master, and his monomaniacal focus, like that of Ahab whom he constantly quotes, proves both infinitely destructive and yet quaintly impotent. “I shall avenge you!” he promises the dead Joachim, suggesting that in spite of his brilliance, he’s got all the capacity to learn from his mistakes of a goldfish.
The film’s booming moments of melodrama, such as Shatner’s immortal scream of “Khaaaaaaaaan!”, are either flaws or strengths depending on taste, but surely a helluva lot of fun either way. More to the point, such touches are part and parcel with the film’s resolutely nonironic, defiantly old-fashioned air. Meyer invests the film with an outsized quality that seems distinctly operatic: indeed, Kirk’s scream comes at the conclusion of a sequence that builds like an aria, as the two bull males gibe and wound each other with a spiritual ferocity that befits the talents of Shatner and Montalban, each capable of being both very good actors and colossal show-offs. Montalban, at the time a prime-time staple in “Fantasy Island” and still showing off his marvellous physique at 62, latched onto the role with gleefully outsized zest and finally gave Shatner a run for his money as the franchise’s biggest pork roast. That said, “Khaaaaaaaaan!” notwithstanding, Shatner’s at his best in the film, swinging from flip, sardonic good humour to introspection to larger-than-life heroism with a few well-judged bats of his eyelids and shifts of the inimitable Shatner voice. If Spock is the film’s tragic hero, Kirk here finally ascends to something like warrior-poet status, conjuring grace notes of wisdom hard-won from tragedy and gazing at the Genesis Planet with a truly affecting sense of wonder and rejuvenated spirit.
Whilst it would stretching things a little to call The Wrath of Khan an intellectual adventure movie, nonetheless, it is distinguished by the genuine intelligence that permeates through the various layers of its plot, character, and theme, and how the film plays them for dramatic value. The central, biblical invocations of the Genesis Device are then overlaid with the Christlike sacrifice of Spock, lending the film a mythopoeic quality of actual depth. Too many modern, action-oriented, scifi films today treat their specific genre’s basis, in science and inquisitive theory, as a source of glib MacGuffins. The contrast with J. J. Abrams’ entertaining yet comparatively shallow 2009 reboot of the series is constantly tempting: whereas that film treated its scifi gimmicks and pivots of plot with throwaway contempt or utilitarian purpose in the name of composing a straightforward adventure, Meyer wrings such flourishes and moments to heighten suspense. Thus, the key moments of the cleverness of the heroes are relishable in staging and impact: Kirk’s foiling of Khan’s apparently complete victory by taking advantage of his superior knowledge of the Federation ships, managing to remotely lower Khan’s shields and hit him with devastating and unexpected force; the rabbit-out-of-the-hat glee of the revelation that he and Spock have fooled Khan into thinking repairs that would take two hours would actually take two days by the simplest of ruses; and the final battle where, at Spock’s suggestion, Kirk taunts Khan into following him into the Mutara Nebula, where interference leaves the two ships blind and lacking shields. There, the greater experience of Kirk and Spock sees them best Khan by simply thinking in the three-dimensional terms that a spaceship offers, whereas Khan’s mind is stuck hopelessly in the 20th century, culminating at last when the nearly crippled and dying Enterprise can still sneak up behind the Reliant and pulverise it to a drifting ruin.
Even with Khan defeated, however, the danger is still not past, as he triggers the Genesis Device as his final apocalyptic stab at a pyrrhic victory: the device’s capacity to bring life means nothing to him, but it comes to mean everything for those left to behold it. In spite of the film’s wobbles, the contrivance of the finale, as the down-to-the-wire crisis demands Spock venture into a radiation-flooded room to restore the ship’s power, is nothing short of storytelling perfection. Meyer’s willingness to reach again for operatic heights is apparent in Kirk’s forlorn cry of “Spock!” as his hideously seared and dying friend makes his last salutary “Live long and prosper” sign through the Perspex that divides them. As his body is fired off in a photon torpedo tube in a scene inspired by a similar stellar funeral in Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), “Amazing Grace” surges on the soundtrack as his casket plummets onto the Genesis planet at the same moment a sun emerges from behind: it’s like Wagner in space by this stage. The final effect, ironically, wasn’t entirely what Meyer was after, presenting rather a sop to old Trekkies who couldn’t stand Spock’s death being taken too lightly, and yet it gives the film its truly grand final lustre. The Wrath of Khan fulfilled not only the best elements of Roddenberry’s original series, but connected it to the oldest and most complete forms of adventure mythology, positing the struggles of its sky-shaking heroes in the context of the birth and death of titans and worlds.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
A famed film studio’s logo dissolves into a real mountain, glowering like a primeval sentinel over the depths of Amazonian jungle. A team of searchers penetrates the unknown. A man with a shadowed face, hearing a gun cocked behind him, turns and lashes out with a bullwhip, disarming his would-be assassin. The killer flees, and the hero steps into the light. He immediately lays claim to both the ancient temple ruin that is his goal and to the cinema screen as a private stomping ground for him and all like him: the adventure movie hero.
It feels both apt and disingenuous to start this series with Steven Spielberg’s 1981 film which, following producer George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), paid tribute to pulp cinema past, whilst also severing the form from that past. Lucas and Spielberg’s startling run of success in the late ’70s and early ’80s turned the action-adventure genre into something new and increasingly problematic: the blockbuster. Yet it’s probably accurate to say that in the minds of nonfilm buffs today, the Indiana Jones films symbolise the adventure genre at its purest; “If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones,” as the trailer for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) put it. Raiders actually signalled the mainstreaming of a brand of neopulp percolating since the mid ’60s through the likes of Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and Don Sharp’s Fu Manchu movies, and continued throughout the ’70s by filmmakers like Kevin Connor and Robert Stevenson—deliberately retrograde and fast-paced tales contrasting the gritty, urban vicissitudes of the decade.
Encoded within the DNA of Raiders, a few thousand progenitors can be traced stretching back to Victorian fiction and sweeping on through the action cinema, serials, and war flicks of the mid-century, Fairbanks and Flynn, John Ford and Howard Hawks, Alistair MacLean and James Bond, with sidelong swerves into Conrad, DeMille, and Hammer Horror. Such filching is acknowledged with humour, gallant affection, and no shame at all. Yet Raiders of the Lost Ark is also a peculiar product of a brief window in mainstream cinema when there was more freedom to improvise. The neopulp template wasn’t as settled and exploited as it is now, and filmmakers could get away with things that would bring studio bureaucrats and a million parents’ groups down on their heads now. Raiders treads a fine line with such confidence that it erases it, being both a postmodern, semisatirical spin on the genre’s past, full of sarcastic jabs at its cliches and devices, and a lightning-paced, often darkly bodied thriller with a proper story that both links and justifies the action set-pieces.
Raiders, of course, is the story of American archaeologist and academic Indiana “Indy” Jones (Harrison Ford), who barely survives the opening adventure in South America where, after penetrating an ancient temple and retrieving the lost golden idol within, he was betrayed and left to almost die by porter Satipo (Alfred Molina) and then robbed of his prize by ruthless French rival René Belloq (Paul Freeman). Feeling distracted and riled after his escape from Belloq’s tribal warriors and lost in his return to the classroom, Indy is asked by his dean and friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) to talk to two FBI men (William Hootkins and Don Fellows) who are trying to find out why Indy’s old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, is mentioned in a German communiqué. Indy and Marcus swiftly deduce from the evidence that the Nazis, under the aegis of Hitler’s occultist fascination, are searching for the fabled Ark of the Covenant in Egypt. Supposedly buried thousands of years ago in the Well of the Souls, the only clue to the Ark’s whereabouts is a medallion that Abner possesses. The feds agree to bankroll Indy in an attempt to find the Ark first, but when he tracks Abner to Nepal, Indy learns he is dead, and the medallion has devolved upon Abner’s daughter Marion (Karen Allen), Indy’s truculent former flame. A Gestapo agent, Maj. Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) has followed Indy in the search for the medallion, and Indy and Marion have to fight off Toht’s thugs before Marion counts herself in as a partner in the quest. The uneasily aligned, but increasingly flirtatious duo head to Cairo where Indy learns his good friend, professional digger Salah (John-Rhys Davies), has been engaged by the Nazis; worse yet, they’ve hired Belloq as their archaeological expert, setting the scene for an epic rumble between good and evil.
The generic model Raiders was riffing on, by common usage, was “Republic serial,” meaning the cheap, episodic films churned out by that minor studio that used their basic plots to swerve from one cliffhanger to another. The idea of spending millions of dollars on recreating vintage C-movie thrills had the scent of a zany pop-art joke in the late ’70s context, a slightly more serious version of what Mel Brooks was doing. It’s striking to look back today at the earliest Star Wars and Raiders to see that joke is often quite visible, a great contrast to the weighty legacy both series were seen to be carrying and failing to live up to in their recent revivals. The jokiness is thoroughly contoured into the narrative, rather than employed to sunder its integrity, unlike in, say, Richard Lester’s series of anti-swashbucklers including The Three Musketeers (1973) and Royal Flash (1974), where action becomes slapstick, deflating heroism and generating an absurdist sensibility. Spielberg uses humour to give heroic action spice and extra compulsion, following Hitchcock’s understanding of the two. The key set-pieces of Raiders, like the desert road chase, the hilarious moment where Indy is confronted by a bazaar full of baskets like the one kidnapped Marion is in, and the barroom gunfight that sees all the spilt alcohol put to creatively pyrotechnic uses, resemble those serial models. Some directly reference John Ford’s action style, and they also display attentiveness to the technique of Buster Keaton, particularly in The General (1926), where the mechanical beasts are fully utilised as props, obstacles, and weapons in a rolling series of cause-and-effect gags. Yet an essential seriousness, a belief in the kinetic and emotional thrill of the story as being the important thing, is allowed to keep the comedy checked and measured.
Raiders still winks at the way the cliffhanger adventure narrative is constructed, full of narrative conveniences, elided explanations, and deliberate anticlimaxes. Much of the opening sequence is, on the face of it, nonsensical. The film provokes the audience to provide believable reasons why Indy has trekked inland with pack mules and criminal assistants when he’s got a floatplane waiting nearby, and why on earth that plane’s pilot would bring along his pet snake. Indy’s snake phobia, later a compulsory character trait, is here a wry punchline, as Jones is utterly distraught at having a harmless lizard crawl over him: “C’mon, show a little backbone, will ya?” the pilot (Fred Sorenson) mocks the man who just performed astounding acts of courage and endurance. Raiders is not always so far from Lester’s antiheroic spirit in moments like the famous “shooting of the swordsman,” a fiendish, knowing, almost MAD magazine-type gag, and it remains jolting, funny, and slightly appalling at each viewing. But such eccentricities are carefully dovetailed within a film that weaves integrity of style through such elements as Douglas Slocombe’s richly accomplished and technically brilliant photography, which sustains both a fresh, physically solid lustre whilst also recreating aspects of expressionism and the overtly stylised back lot tradition of Hollywood adventure.
Raiders also contrasts the more playful follow-ups as Indy shifts slowly from loner mercenary to father figure and elder statesman. The Jones of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is a proven patriot and war hero, if also still trailing his lousy track record in personal relationships. Jones of Raiders is one step away from becoming, as his antagonist Belloq puts it, “just like me…it would take only a nudge to push you out of the light.” He’s a lost, near-exiled figure like two of his clearest models from literary and screen history, Gary Cooper’s incarnation of Hemingway’s Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), and Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine from Casablanca (1942) and Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not (1944). When Jones walks into Marion’s gin-joint, he’s first rendered as a purely Curtiz-esque silhouette on the wall.
Jones is equally beset by weaknesses and lapses in character and judgment. His shifty associates in the opening who nearly get him killed and spoil his coup of discovery signal over-willingness to rely on expedience. He’s affected physically when a female student flirts with him, a temptation he’s clearly given in to, as he’s had a jailbait romance with Marion, which spoiled two of his best friendships. He’s “fallen from the pure faith” of archaeology in his adventuring and his engagement with a back-alley version of his scholarly craft. Jones was certainly an attempt to create a kind of ultimate adventurer as a centrepiece for an ultimate adventure yarn, with the implicit understanding that true adventurers are more than a little asocial. He’s the man with a past, with the zest of Flynn, the lethal cool of Bond, and the slightly frayed, intense humanity underlying the stoicism of Cooper and Bogart. Some of Jones’ traits surely reflect the influence of the other two Movie Brat auteurs who had a hand in creating him, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Philip Kaufman, who was also on the fabled Hawaiian holiday with Spielberg and Lucas that resulted in Jones’ genesis. Jones is closer to the often much less adamantine creatures of film noir and the more adult variety of melodrama by Hawks and Ford revered by Kasdan and Kaufman than the flatly iconic figures of pulp and the serials heroes. After Jones became Spielberg and Lucas’ baby, he softened and largely lost his darkness; indeed, it is first intensified and then scrubbed out of him in the nominal prequel, The Temple of Doom. In his first outing, Indy is a sometimes feckless, occasionally downright bloody-minded opponent. Indy’s rough-and-tumble sensibility is however first shaken when he thinks he’s accidentally gotten Marion killed, and he walks on a knife-edge of suicidal/homicidal anger when he meets an especially taunting Belloq.
Lucas, who had been reading Joseph Campbell, attempted not simply to use Campbell’s theories to build old-fashioned narratives, as he’d done with the Star Wars films, but to make them the conceptual linchpin of his film. This worked by deliberately creating a semi-contemporary character who traces ancient artefacts, and in the process, reproduces the experience of the most mythic heroes, seers, demigods and prophets—deciphering riddles, penetrating innermost mysteries to snatch totemic treasures, stealing fire from the gods. The links of past to present infuse the Indiana Jones series with a power well beyond most of its successors, at its most overt here, where the Ark is a prop nearly as important as the hero—the title mentions it, not Jones, and it, rather than he, delivers the villains their comeuppance.
The menace and power of the Ark run in counterpoint to the main business at hand, until finally taking over. A sense of biblical foreboding is established early in the film, the Ark’s mystique and fabled power eerily depicted as an illustration in a colossal tome (“Good God!” “Yes, that’s just what the Hebrews thought.”), and the haunted monologue of Brody, who describes it as “like nothing you’ve gone after before,” at which Indy initially scoffs, and says rather “that thing represents everything we got into archaeology for in the first place.” The tantalising power of the Ark as a symbol and enticement for the imaginations of the “raiders” pursuing it pushes the film’s central motif out of the realm of a MacGuffin—a mere object driving the plot—to become a genuine source of drama, a kind of enigmatic protagonist in the tale (working, in a way, not unlike the hotel in The Shining, 1981). Later, as Indy and Salah interview an aged imam (Tutte Lemkow) who translates key inscriptions on the headpiece, shadows and mysterious winds hint the import of the quest, and the foreshadowing intensifies in a deftly weird little scene where the Ark’s mysterious power makes rats tremble in fear and scorches away the swastika on the box around it. The talismanic sense of awe Jones half-unwittingly chases is matched by Belloq’s constant ability to hook Jones’ psyche with his own ability to invoke that awe, culminating in the moment he disarms Jones purely by pointing out their inconsequentiality in the face of the Ark’s embodiment of history. “It’s a transmitter for talking to God,” Belloq blasphemously characterises the Ark, revealing that his sense of faith is a blissfully utilitarian one.
Raiders’ historical setting didn’t just allow the filmmaker to play with retro tropes, but also offered a chance to escape the killjoy angst of the ’70s, though there’s still a definable edge of the mistrust of officialdom in the portrayal of the feds who commission Indy’s quest. The film’s final joke riffs on a main theme of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), where a source of inestimable wonder and dread is last seen being stashed away in a colossal warehouse under bureaucratic auspices so the world might forget such destabilising influences exist. This scene itself is almost a meta-commentary on the film’s own driving principle. Trucking in the Nazis as baddies and making Indy a premature antifascist, however, signals a less cynical sensibility. The results of Indy’s gallivanting through the streets of Cairo combating Egyptian goons initially skirts the endemic racism of much of the old pulp pantheon, but other aspects, like Indy’s dogged good friendship with Salah and the way the Egyptians who fill the background slowly shift from being Nazi tools to active supporters of Indy, give the film some links to the egalitarian spirit of WWII-era movies like Sahara (1943). Salah likes reclaiming the heroism stolen by imperialists for themselves, singing Gilbert and Sullivan’s anthems of official heroism but freeing them from nationalist specificity: he is the “monarch of the sea”; “A British man is a soaring soul” describes himself, Indy, and Marion. Moreover, as in subsequent episodes, the sense of underlying truths in the world’s mythical pantheons demands a slow adjustment to a deeper empathy and understanding of what those pantheons imply about the human condition and its origins.
Nazis, of course, offer the kinds of villains no one minds seeing get kicked around, and one of the most effective elements of Raiders is that is takes its bad guys seriously, rather than offering only knockabout stooges. The leading villains of Raiders are a troika of appalling traits: the sibilantly sadistic Toht, the stiff-necked Nazi minion Col. Dietrich (Wolf Kahler), and the intelligent, inquisitive Belloq. Toht has one of the most effective introductions of any movie villain, though he’s not the major enemy: within seconds of barging his way into Marion’s bar, he has his goons grab hold of her and plans to burn a hole in her face with a white-hot poker, an act only Indy’s fortuitous return forestalls. He’s quickly the butt of a malevolent joke that’s also a clever plot aspect, as his attempt to snatch Marion’s medallion from a fire results in him burning his hand, revealing he’s actually a physical coward, but the imprint scorched into his palm gives the Nazis some clue as the medallion’s vital, coded information.
Marion is, like Jones, an interesting contradiction. She’s one of the most vigorous ladies ever to grace adventure cinema, famously greeting Indy with a walloping blow to the chin for his past sins, a touch that betrays the influence of one of Spielberg’s early favourites, J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), in which Irene Papas greets her recalcitrant brother the same way. Marion is introduced scoffing down shots in a drinking contest she easily wins, a terrific little moment that serves a number of purposes, not simply for its immediate humour, but also in the way it establishes the highly exotic milieu as amicable and familiar. It also introduces a proper plot element that comes into play later when she tries to escape Belloq’s clutches by out-drinking him, a ploy that nearly succeeds. Marion isn’t, like Indy, physically very competent or athletic, and she offers a certain comic relief in the disconnect between her lippy attitude and the way she negotiates danger, improvising like Indy and trying to bring her strengths to the fore but without his physical confidence. Marion maintains the film’s links with Howard Hawks’ sensibility, but unlike some of Hawks’ sublimely confident women, Marion’s not a stoic, and her tough-gal ’tude only gets her so far, as when she orders a Nazi soldier, “Don’t you touch me!”, only to get shoved on anyway. One of the best scenes in the film is one with a tone that, sadly, none of the other Jones films offers: Marion contends with Belloq’s attempts to simultaneously seduce and interrogate her, getting her to change into a fanciful white dress (“It’s beautiful,” Marion declares, a marvellous little line reading from Allen in capturing Marion’s half-embarrassed, half-delighted tomboy reaction) and treating her with a gentlemanly aplomb. Belloq’s charm and aristocratic poise might seem rather more attractive than Indy’s brusque abandonment of her, if for good reason, to Nazi inquisitors, if not for the people Belloq associates with. The scene percolates with an amusing, insistently erotic verve that would barely resurface in Spielberg’s oeuvre until Catch Me If You Can (2002).
Stylistically, Raiders of the Lost Ark kept one eye constantly on the past of moviemaking even as it embraced cutting-edge ideas in others: the old-fashioned montages of Indy’s travels being marked out on maps, are reminiscent of the work Don Siegel did in his apprentice days at Warner Bros., often within films made by Curtiz and John Huston. This is one overt form of attentiveness to a lexicon of cinematic technique that permeates the film as a whole: as director Michael Sarne put it in his slightly snarky 1982 review of the film, it revealed that most film scholars were amateurs in comparison to Spielberg and Lucas, who had seen every movie ever made, and understood fundamentally how they worked and what should go in them without needing to think about it. Whilst at the time Raiders seemed to embody a new ethic of the adventure cinema as a roller coaster ride without lulls or narrative stock-taking, today it seems classically constructed by comparison with the blockbusters that has followed. It has characters, by-play, quicksilver thematic and narrative development, and a carefully machined sense of when and how to spring into action. It’s a constant, synergistic stream of clever bits of business and flourishes of storytelling art: when a touch doesn’t really work, the film moves so quickly it leaves it behind.
These characteristics are perhaps why Raiders still seems to me to be perhaps Spielberg’s only perfect film, for its sheer ruthless energy and intelligence mixed with a lean, compulsive lack of circumspection. Even in his flattest films, Spielberg builds sequences with care, and here, of course, he was at the absolute height of his game, turning what might have been a dull expositional sequence, that in which Indy uses Marion’s medallion to locate the Well of the Souls, into a moment of incantatory force. In that regard, he was, of course, helped by John Williams’ scoring, whose work here, at his most floridly Korngold-esque, set the seal on his status as the movie composer everyone knows. As well as the iconic “Raiders March,” the whole of Raiders pulsates with his deeply intuitive sense of how support Spielberg’s imagistic flow with music; thus the plangent strings and creepy choruses that rise throughout, evoking the constant presence of primeval powers, are as invaluable as the brass horns and drums that thunder in the action. My personal favourite moment where image and sound converge comes when Indy starts his horse pounding down a steep slope to intercept Dietrich’s road convoy as the Nazis flee with the Ark, as Williams’ drums are walloped with titanic verve: no matter how many times I watch it, the hairs on my neck still stand up, and it’s the purest distillation of the swashbuckling essence since Douglas Fairbanks slid down a ship’s sail on a knife.
The sequence that follows is the best action scene of the series and one of the best of all time, one which simultaneously sticks tongue in cheek and yet hews to a careful extrapolation of cause and effect, both absurd and yet done in just such a fashion that it remains corporeally believable. Indy turns the seeming advantages of the Nazis against them, swerving the truck to keep others from firing at it lest they hit the men in back, keeping the chase going at high speed so that everyone’s off-kilter, and shunting aside the pursuing vehicles with malicious, boyish glee. Liberated from all care about what havoc he wreaks, Indy cuts loose with a new relentlessness, stoked in him by these people trying to bury him and Marion alive, and refusing to be cheated again by Belloq. The climactic stunt of Indy’s climbing under the truck and then being dragged behind borrows directly from Stagecoach (1939), whilst others clearly reference the train climax of How the West Was Won (1962), and, as mentioned, there’s that Buster Keaton influence. The best moments of this scene, like when a bloodied Indy finally resurges to hurl the toughest German out through the windscreen to have the truck run over him, hands and legs splaying just into view in a pure Road Runner moment, are both comic and physically dynamic. But there’s a sense of actual physical pain in the scene, as when Indy cops a bullet in the shoulder that leaves his blood dripping down the glass, and when one enemy repeatedly pounds his wound to debilitate him. The subsequent vision of a badly hurt Indy wincing as Salah hugs him good-bye and seething in pain as Marion tries to minister to him is perhaps the film’s cleverest comic coup in subverting the familiar unbreakable action hero: this job hurts like a son of a bitch. In spite of the many films that owe a lot to the Raiders template—Tomb Raider (2000), Van Helsing (2002), the Pirates of the Caribbean film—it’s fascinating how few of them have actually grasped how this specific mixture of the ridiculous and the realistic made the model work.
When the ship Indy and Marion try to take home with the Ark is met by Dietrich’s U-boats, the crew cheer Indy as he still defiantly refuses to be defeated and swims out to piggyback aboard the sub to its destination. To me, it seems they’re cheering as much, by this time, for the return of the swashbuckling hero as a movie figure as for the man himself, stand-ins for a presumably hungry audience. As the film builds towards its climax, Spielberg’s cinematic keynotes shift from Ford, Hawks, and Republic to DeMille and Fisher. Spielberg had already referenced DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) in Close Encounters, but here the visual similes, from the boiling cloud that hovers over Indy and Salah uncovering the Well of the Souls to the bolts of heavenly fire that exterminate the Nazis in the finale, speak less of transcendent communions than the darkly atavistic side of the Old Testament. Oddly, for a film that concentrates almost entirely on the pleasure of pure, visceral emotions, Raiders was the first film Spielberg made where he began to look at the conflict between harsher historical realities and the fantastical world of movies in the context of his own Jewishness. Not surprisingly, Raiders is, in essence, pure revenge fantasy, as no lesser figure than Jehovah himself delivers a royal comeuppance to the Nazis: Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), a more self-reflective revenge fantasy, redeploys Spielberg’s climactic images of seething fire, Nazis being torn to shreds by raining death, and a beautiful woman’s face reconfigured as leering angel of death.
Belloq’s incredible arrogance and the Nazis who hunger for the power he offers find this god isn’t the god in the crystal chandelier spaceship of Close Encounters, but an angry god, and the gruesome images of the villains’ faces melting in the fire of god sees the film suddenly swerve towards the horror film, already threatened in the Well of the Souls sequence. This finale, offbeat for many reasons, redefines its heroes by their enforced passivity. Indy’s refusal to destroy the object that is driving men mad, and this bowing before a greater force and responsibility, means that he then must resist opening his eyes, resist looking, the very raison d’etre of both cinema and the scholar’s inquiry for the sake a religious taboo. For Spielberg, it’s also an exercise in show-stopping spectacle, veering in another genre and sensibility just for the hell of it, but more than that, it’s a scene that presents to the audience the double-bind of the taboo: the film viewers still watch, even as the sin of looking consumes the Nazis hideously, and Indy and Marion are left alive for their righteousness. Yet are they preserved for not looking, or actually being on the side of the angels, as the fact their bindings are burnt away once the storm has passed might prove? As a climax, it is, again, a commentary on its own spectacle. Jehovah proves an even greater showman than the Nazis, but not better than Spielberg.
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Director/Screenwriter: James Toback
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The past few days have been something of a cinephile’s paradise—at least for this cinephile. Australian film scholar and critic Adrian Martin made a very rare appearance in town to give a lecture at the University of Chicago entitled “Cinema Invents Ways of Dancing,” which this dance/dance-on-film enthusiast couldn’t wait to attend. The next night, Martin joined a panel composed of Girish Shambu, Elena Gorfinkel, and moderator Nick Davis at Northwestern University on film criticism and its relationship to academia. Both talks were interesting and illuminated the choice of film Martin made to follow the panel: James Toback’s little-seen, but often derided thriller Exposed. Martin is a big fan of Toback’s work, and puts him in his own pantheon of neglected American directors who deserve praise and study. He commented before the film that Toback projected his usual protagonist—a man attracted to adventure and danger, only to find himself in over his head—onto his female protagonist in Exposed, Elizabeth Carlson, played by Nastassja Kinski at the height of her fame.
Exposed is an engaging film that moves at a pace made brisk by the absence of the extraneous. Somewhat ironically, Exposed, a title that superficially refers to the fact that Elizabeth gains fame as a fashion model and cover girl, seems to me to be a snapshot of the American psyche circa 1983. It mixes overnight fame and fortune with very little sacrifice and no college degree; offers supermodel worship, including a cameo appearance by the self-proclaimed first supermodel, Janice Dickinson; and capitalizes on ripped-from-the-headlines topicality by involving Elizabeth in hunting European terrorists. Perhaps Exposed was too calculated for its own good because it was a big flop, but aside from some laughable performances, particularly by the director himself and trick-casted Rudolf Nureyev, the film deserves more attention and respect that it has gotten to date.
Elizabeth is the first-generation American daughter of Swedish parents (Ron Randell and Bibi Andersson) who is dying to get away from their Wisconsin dairy farm and become a classical pianist. She quits college, and with it, her affair with her controlling English professor (Toback), and heads to New York City, where she is almost immediately mugged. Economic necessity requires her to do what so many aspiring artists do in New York—she accepts a job as a waitress. Fortunately, she waits on Greg Miller (Ian McShane), a photographer out with a bevy of models (all of them real NYC models), who recognizes her potential. She soon becomes a famous model, and at an exhibition featuring Miller’s photos of her, Elizabeth meets a mystery man (Nureyev) who pursues her in a provocative way, which includes breaking into her apartment. The man, Daniel Jelline, is a classical violinist, and after dazzling her with his virtuosic playing, seduces her. When she awakens in the morning, Jelline is gone, replaced by a plane ticket to Paris. She flies there to meet him, only to learn he is actually a child of Holocaust victims who is seeking revenge against a terrorist named Rivas (Harvey Keitel), whose gang planted a bomb in a Paris cafe that killed Jelline’s mother. She joins his search, and the film revs to its inevitably violent conclusion.
Some of elements of the story traffic in cliché, except that behind some of these clichés is fact, lending more weight to the story. Toback’s English professor is, stereotypically, having an affair with the prettiest student in his classes. But Toback really did teach English at the university level, and his coded lecture, a hidden and irritating conceit that he is screwing Elizabeth, seems like something that would really happen. Elizabeth’s rise from farmer’s daughter to high-fashion model also seems clichéd, except that one of the models cast in the restaurant and photo shoot scenes is, much to my surprise, my college friend P. J. Shaffer, who was a cornfed daughter from rural Illinois. Falling quickly and passionately in love with a seemingly bad boy is another cliché, but the love takes on depth when his musical artistry, tragic past, and dedication to a mission answer an unfocused longing in Elizabeth. A final shoot-out of outlaws in an isolated street in Paris is the inevitable quote from films of the French New Wave, but the lingering realism of the violence makes the scene a sober meditation on vengeance and political terror.
Adrian Martin’s talk the night before the panel and screening helped me understand why he might be particularly attracted to Exposed. Elizabeth is a modern woman in touch with her sexuality, and expresses it in dance before she meets Jelline. Martin talked about the everyday movements and settings that many choreographers and filmmakers turn into dance, and in this scene, Toback creates a believable occurrence that illustrates Elizabeth’s life force. She is working out on an exercycle and talking to her mother on the phone. After she hangs up, she moves to her stereo and puts on a recording of Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song.” The lyrics, talking about how a girl can tell if a boy loves her by his kiss, inspire Elizabeth to dance with an imaginary man in the form of a chair, her exercycle, a wooden support in her apartment—a personal imitation of the self-conscious prop dancing Fred Astaire made iconic in film. Her dancing generates the heat she longs for with a man, and leaves her spent and a bit frustrated on the floor.
The sexuality in the film works on several levels. Elizabeth locks eyes with a blonde woman on a photo shoot in Paris whom she later encounters on her return trip to the city. This woman, Bridget (Marion Varella), is a member of Rivas’ gang and the woman who planted the bomb in the opening scene, and it is her lesbian attraction to Elizabeth that causes her unwise decision to take the model to the gang’s hideout. In addition, Kinski and Nureyev were both sex symbols, the latter particularly for gay men. So Toback ensures that there’s something titillating for everybody. Unfortunately, both foils for Kinski are terrible actors. In particular, Nureyev’s enunciation of English is atrocious, his lovemaking with a woman awkward, and his acting wooden. Because of his central role in Exposed, Nureyev seriously hampers the film with a performance that led to derisive laughter in our audience. If Toback had cast someone with the chops of Keitel and McShane in the role of Jelline, this film might have had a very different reception.
Kinski offers a decent performance, but as a former model and then-current sex symbol, she becomes more than a competent performer. She is the screen for our cultural projections, a symbol of restless youth, liberated women, easy money. Toback subverts all she represents in the final scene—surrounded by death, he desaturates the color until all is grey, like the photo of Jelline’s dead mother in a newspaper and the victims of the Holocaust Jelline shows Elizabeth. The hollowness of the terrorist aims, Jelline’s vengeance, and Elizabeth’s attraction to danger come through clearly on her ashen, sad face, and the film whimpers to a close.
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Director/Screenwriter: John Landis
By Roderick Heath
John Landis, who recently returned to cinema screens with the indifferent Burke and Hare after more than a decade’s absence, has been one of the most consistently unlucky and frustrating directors of the ‘70s generation. That’s partly his own damn fault, after the notoriety of his part in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child extras on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982), and partly the strange vicissitudes of the movie business. Landis had a talent which, like his close cinematic kin Joe Dante and John Carpenter, seemed to lose enthusiasm and precision of intent in the mid-‘90s, as studios became progressively less adventurous and consistent box office success proved elusive. The pain entailed by sitting through the likes of Innocent Blood (1994) and The Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) was all the more regrettable considering they were obvious, and obviously failed, attempts to recapture the distinctive blend of energy and poise he had wielded in his best films. Landis parlayed crass but witty early successes like The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) and National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) into a brief run of excellence, with the frenetic blend of satire, slapstick, and neo-musical in The Blues Brothers (1980), and the insomnia-hued comedy-thriller Into the Night (1985). Landis is chiefly a comedy director, and yet he started off with the no-budget monster movie send-up Schlock (1972), and his best work, An American Werewolf in London, was a return to such roots, one which still surprises in the confidence with which it combines unstable elements. The horror-comedy crossbreed is a notoriously difficult style to pull off, with antecedents in the likes of The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Old Dark House (1932), and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). The first thing a horror comedy has to keep in mind is that it is not a spoof, but should rather try to sustain an unease inherent in situations that spark both humor and horror. If done right, this sub-genre should make an audience giddy in violent switchbacks between laughting and cringing, and American Werewolf actually often achieves this.
As if deliberately trying to put aside the raucous excess of The Blues Brothers, whilst still invoking some that film’s sheer delight in anarchic forces upturning the status quo, American Werewolf is as tight a piece of moviemaking as any made by an ‘80s Hollywood figure: Landis wraps the whole thing up in an hour and half. Yet he makes that running time count in evoking powerful atmosphere, jolting brutality, strong characterisation, and a dualistic sensibility that swerves between blackly comic farce and gothic tragedy, in a film that works on several levels. Part of what makes it work is the rigour with which it employs the conceit of placing his haplessly charming, glib, very contemporary young protagonists David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), into a situation that reproduces knowingly familiar clichés of the genre. David and Jack wouldn’t have been out of place in Animal House, as Jack frets over his frustrated sexual desire for an old school friend. The opening credits behold sonorous visions of the Yorkshire moors at dusk, pure genre territory, except Landis signals his bipolar approach by playing a version of the old standard “Blue Moon”, first of a motif of moon-citing pop songs throughout. David and Jack are dropped off by a sheep farmer they’ve hitched a ride from, and they head into a tiny hamlet, East Proctor, where they’re ogled with surprise and discontent by the local yokels gathered in the town pub, fetchingly named “The Slaughtered Lamb”. With the Hammer-esque collection of rubes, including eye-catching Brit character actors like Brian Glover, Rik Mayall, Lila Kaye, and David Schofield in an inn, the film seems geared for satire with the traditional bug eyes, hard glances, and mysterious intonations.
When the ice momentarily breaks as one chess-playing patron (Glover) tells a silly joke at the expense of the young Americans, Jack freezes it over again by asking about a pentagram scratched into the pub wall. Ordered out and advised not to stray off the road, David and Jack nonetheless stumble off onto the moors in their amused distraction. As they’re stalked by an unseen thing on the moor wreathed in fog, humor curdles instantly into pitch-perfect tension; it’s one of the most dynamic little scenes in any horror film, building in a manner that has been aided, not defused, by the humor. The audience, like the characters, has been made off-guard and giddy, ripe for a sudden shift in tone. The scene resolves in a tremendous rush of action, violence, and rescue. Whilst the pub denizens argue in apprehension about whether they should chase them down and bring them back, the two students become aware of their endangerment and isolation. Before they can get back to the pub, a huge, fanged beast attacks them. Jack is torn gruesomely to pieces and David bitten, saved only by the timely intervention of the gun-wielding villagers. Before he fades into unconsciousness, David sees a shot-riddled man’s corpse lying beside him.
The way Landis alternates between drollery, suspense, and finally bloodcurdling gore seems the result of a curious artistic schism of impulses. On the one hand Landis is well aware of the silliness of the classic horror movies he’s referencing, something his comic side can’t resist lampooning a little, and yet he loves them too, and seeks to recharge their power and validity. He does this by first evoking classical tropes for building atmosphere – the blasted locale, the enveloping weather, the xenophobic tension of the villagers and the exaggeration of their alienating act, the roaming unseen beast – and contrasting it with the sceptical sensibility of the young Americans for whom everything is a bewildering, absurdist trial. Then we get a dose of modern movie violence far beyond the reach of George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) and Terence Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1960), both referenced in the course of Landis’ film. Humor is consistently used to anticipate and disarm our prior knowledge of the genre and the situations; to gain a deeper sympathy for the characters (their humorous reactions are ours); and to aid the anticipation of the reversion to violence. The jokey pop music alternates with an ornately swooning score by Elmer Bernstein. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Landis sustains it for the most part. Landis wasn’t actually the first to try it: the previous year’s The Howling, made by Dante and his screenwriter John Sayles, had made a similarly dualistic hash of the werewolf mythos. Where Dante’s film jokingly undermined psychiatry and New Age philosophy with its eruptive emanations of the primal, however, Landis uses the werewolf motif rather to evoke a distress based in ethnic identity and lingering anxieties of history, as well, of course, as the traditional fear that within a good man might dwell a destructive monster.
David, having survived the werewolf’s bite, awakens in a London hospital under the care of dry-witted surgeon Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine), an unflappable WW2 veteran, and cute nurse Alex Price (the wonderful Jenny Agutter). David tries to report his version of events when it’s been officially reported he and Jack were attacked by a lunatic, but he’s patronised by police inspector Villiers (Don McKillop) and US embassy official Collins (Frank Oz). David is beset by visions of himself running naked through the woods and feeding off deer, and, most bizarrely, of Nazi-uniformed werewolves breaking into his family house and machine-gunning his house to pieces, cutting his throat and slaughtering his family. He seems to awake from this dream only for one of the uniformed monsters to break through the window and stab Alex to death: only then does David really awaken and gasp, in perfect accord with the audience, “Holy shit!” It’s here that An American Werewolf in London gains an overtone that is all the more intriguing for the way Landis doesn’t push it. David and Jack are Jewish as well as Americans, and David has latent anxiety over holidaying in old Europe with its lingering, still-pungent spectres, which he has held back from by touring in England first. This background blends with the specific terrors David encounters, based in the guilty, clannish secret of the small town that has accepted a horror and done nothing about it until the issue is forced. David’s dream seems to encapsulate a dread of the human capacity to surrender to animalistic brutality, conflated in the image of the Nazi-werewolf, returning to explode into his comfortable bourgeois existence back in the States like a ticking time-bomb. It’s an idea that doesn’t take up more than a minute of screen time, and yet the disturbing, suggestive imagery permeates the entire film: Landis would return to it more crudely in his The Twilight Zone: The Movie episode.
Fortunately for David, if not so much for the rest of London, Alex proves eager for a little cultural outreach, inviting him to shack up with her once he’s released from hospital. Naughton and Agutter make a tremendously sexy couple (What the hell happened to Naughton? And Agutter, for that matter?), caught in bedroom antics scored to Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, and the romantic undercurrent on the film achieves a genuine consequence as David fears that a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves him. Landis’ comic sensibility actually serves to keep the film grounded in a skewed but solid realism, as Alex and David bitch about inflation and overworked hospital orderlies bellyache, and Dr Hirsch tells his wife that if he can survive Rommel, he can survive a boring dinner party. London is a bracingly lively contrast to the moody environs of East Proctor, Landis offering tourist board tropes only to reveal the seaminess cheek by jowl with them: homeless men encamped near Tower Bridge, flocks of punks on the tube trains, porn cinemas at the Piccadilly Circus. The film’s most original spin on the werewolf myth is also the most bizarre, and central to the two-faced take on the material, with Jack appearing to David as a wraith to warn him about his inevitable transformation into a marauding beast, begging him to kill himself and end the werewolf’s bloodline. The almost Monty Python-esque joke is that Jack is still Jack, witty, deprecating, and friendly, stewing over the fact his lust-object shacked up with another guy right after attending his funeral, and complaining that talking to other corpses is boring. But he’s also beset by existential desperation, the voice of baleful warning and grim fate, and seeming to decay just like his body, so that each time he appears to David he’s in worse and worse condition.
Although carefully built up to, David’s sudden, almost off-hand lurch into transformation comes after a montage in which he uneasily prowls Alex’s flat as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” dogs him and a brief, comic cutaway to Alex at the hospital – his transformation then arrives as a jagged surprise. The special effects are still, thirty years later, stunning and infinitely preferable to any CGI we’d inevitably get today, a genuine testimony to the brilliance of make-up man Rick Baker, who had worked with Landis on Schlock and would again on their groundbreaking video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But what makes the scene more than a bit of effects team show-offing is the tangible sense of existential desperation in David’s cries for help, as his very body rebels against his true character and contorts into a grotesque engine of destruction, one of the most acute presentations of this theme ever filmed. David’s first rampage as a werewolf takes in a panoply of types and initially hits notes of sick humor: first he attacks Harry and Judith (Geoffrey Burridge and Brenda Cavendish), a delectably dim pair of giggling middle class swots, whose dismembered parts are discovered by a brandy-sipping friend, and three bums (Sydney Bromley, Frank Singuineau, and Will Leighton).
Then the tone takes a swerve towards the genuinely nightmarish, as haughty city banker Gerald Bringsley (Michael Carter) is stalked in a deserted tube station. Class tension is a common theme in Landis’ works, and here there’s initially a temptation to chuckle at Bringsley’s attitude, at first thinking the growls he’s hearing are some miscreants playing tricks, only for the smile to fade as Landis plays the sequence deadly straight as Bringsley flees through the tunnels, chased by the POV monster in brilliantly fluid camerawork, and the beast is glimpsed at the very edge of a shot down an escalator well as Bringsley, having tripped and lying injured, watches the beast approach with implacable hunger. This tremendous set-piece retains a Val Lewton-esque flavour, as it successfully correlates the well-lit, clean, yet claustrophobic modernity of the station tunnels with the foggy moor at the start, as an empty, cheerless space: both keep the menace out of immediate sight and offer no quick sanctuary or sense of aid and fellowship.
Another of Landis’ cunning ideas is to make the werewolves, glimpsed in darting, rapidly edited lunges, properly terrible in their wildness, and indeed they remain, in my experience, the most genuinely ferocious lycanthropes ever glimpsed in a movie, with the innovative idea of rejecting anthropomorphism and rendering them instead as massive beasts utterly inimical to any human presence. This edge of the genuinely implacable gives the horror a frisson that properly offsets the comedy. After Were-David’s first rampage, the film quickly reverts back to comedy with a particular inspired touch, with a jump cut to a roaring, safely caged lion, as David awakens stark naked in a zoo, and has to evade being arrested and finds some sort of clothing and make it back to Alex’s. It’s the sort of sequence that deliberately violates a nicety observed by the earlier werewolf movies, where their monsters got about wearing pants, and answers a perfectly logical question about what happens when a wolf-man reverts. When David’s attempts to get himself arrested flop, and he can’t bring himself to cut his wrists, Jack appears and ushers him into a porn theater where he introduces David to the shades of his new victims, all perfectly in character, Harry and Judith impossibly chirpy as even as they drip gore, Bringsley angry and punitive, as if David has stumbled into an infernal intervention. Occasionally Landis’ humor collides with the piece instead of aiding it, as in the mock porno See You Next Wednesday (that title being a Landis running joke) that David and Jack partake of viewing in this scene, which is hilarious but plays like an outtake from The Kentucky Fried Movie. But it does again lead into a knowing crux, as David’s pleas to be left alone as he begins to transform again mistaken at first by an usher as the slightly exaggerated moans of a desperate onanist, therefore acknowledging with a smirk another variation on the man-as-beast theme, this one sourced in shame of sexuality. There’s also a certain thematic rhyme with Taxi Driver, a different kind of marauding beast in the big city still nonetheless feeding on a diet of porn and rage.
The acidic brilliance continues in the finale, as the dark space of the porn theatre becomes a charnel house, and Piccadilly Circus becomes a bloody circus indeed of crashing cars, crushed and torn bodies, and one very large freaky mutt stalking the streets. This dizzyingly orchestrated bit of chaos invokes the similar chaos in The Blues Brothers’ final phase, a careening dissolution in everyday order. The forces of reaction swing instantly into action, except where the previous film made ruthless fun of the SWAT team coming into the fray, here they’re cool considerate men ready to do a desperately needed job of work, a rare leavening of Landis’ distaste for authority figures, although he does make sure we see the fatuous Villiers get his head torn off. But Alex, having heard David’s movie-derived theory that a werewolf can only be killed by one who loves him, realises bullets can only give a coup-de-grace when that love is invoked, so she dashes into the alleyway where Were-David has holed up, and her cries coax the werewolf out, a glimmer of recognition in its eyes, to welcome the bullets of the police, in a moment that truly catches the romantic-tragic spirit of the best werewolf movies it’s paid tribute. Only right at the very end does Landis suddenly seem unsure what note he wants to hit, crashing immediately into The Marcel’s bop version of “Blue Moon”, as if afraid of leaving the audience with a real emotion. In spite of its hesitations, however, An American Werewolf in London holds up bloody well.
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Director: Herbert Wise
By Roderick Heath
I vividly recall the first time I saw this initial adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1982 novel. It was in high school, on one of those afternoons where for whatever reason we had no class. A substitute teacher stuck a VHS tape grabbed from the English staff room in the video to give us something to do with our eyes and less to do with our mouths. The film took its time getting our attention, but when it did, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a room full of teenagers go quite so quiet before or since. The Woman in Black is one of the few truly successful examples of pure mood-piece horror made in the past quarter century, all the more admirable for being a telemovie, made with the no-nonsense sense of functional craft that distinguished British television for so many years. The title is a deliberate play on Wilkie Collins’ famous Victorian-era mystery novel The Woman in White, as Hill’s narrative portrays the gnawing legacy of oppressive generational values and resurgent maternal vengeance roaring out from beyond the grave in the most insidious and crazed of guises, and the act of burrowing into forbidden enigmas only stirs the grimmest of retaliations.
The cult affection for both novel and telemovie has only grown over the years, and hopefully the telemovie’s reputation will hold strong when the flaccid feature film version, starring Daniel Radcliffe, is long forgotten. It is amusing to note that Radcliffe’s role is played in the original by his on-screen Harry Potter father, Adrian Rawlins. The screenplay for the ’89 version was composed by Nigel Kneale, and whilst he took liberties with Hill’s work, he had practically written the book on how to intrigue and scare the hell out of TV audiences with his Quatermass serials and excellent telemovies like The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) and The Stone Tape (1972), and he confirmed here he had lost none of his touch for weaving richly engaging supernatural mysteries. Set in the 1920s, The Woman in Black depicts a junior member of a London law firm, Arthur Kidd (Rawlins), a stolid but conscientious young professional pressured to take on the more fiddly, annoying, and time-consuming case work that stern senior partner Josiah Freston (David Daker) doesn’t deign to do, in spite of the fact that Arthur has a wife, Stella (Clare Holman), and two young children who take up all his spare time.
Arthur is thus easily compelled, for the sake of his career, to go to the seaside town of Crythin Gifford, to finalise the estate of a recently deceased woman, Alice Drablow. Upon arriving at the town, he soon begins perceiving odd phenomena. At the old lady’s funeral, Arthur observes only one mourner apart from himself and local solicitor Keckwick (William Simons), being a woman dressed in black, gazing balefully from the back of the church, and across the graveyard outside from amongst the tombstones. When Arthur tries to alert Keckwick to this, the solicitor refuses to look at her. Everyone, even the avuncular local landowner Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton) whom Arthur struck up a friendship with on the train from London, seems uneasy when he mentions Marsh House, Drablow’s home, which is perched on the far end of a long, perilous causeway stretching across a tidal plain. Amidst the tumult of the town’s market day, a young gypsy girl is pinned and injured when a load of wood falls off a cart: Arthur dashes in and snatches her out of the road before she’s crushed by a huge log.
When he’s taken out to Alice’s residence, Marsh House, to begin organising her papers and readying the house for sale, Arthur encounters the black-clad woman again, in an old family plot abutting the house. She glares at him with a feverish intensity so suggestively malevolent that she scares Arthur into fleeing inside, bolting the doors, and turning on every light in the house. Soon after, he experiences a torturous aural manifestation that documents a heartrending event: the sound of a carriage crashing into the water off the causeway, and a young child and his mother screaming in panic as they sink to their deaths. He hears this repeatedly during his time at the house, to the point where he can’t distinguish its early passages from the sound of a real carriage coming over the causeway, a detail the film then exploits for all it’s worth. Returning to town, Arthur begins to perceive the way these seemingly distinct incidents are part of a pattern, permeating the locale and all its inhabitants, as he recognises that both Keckwick and Toovey share similar tragedies in their recent past, as do many others in the vicinity, in having lost young children in accidents or illness. Arthur’s intervening to save the gypsy girl now takes on a new slant, for he has snatched another intended victim of the curse out of harm’s way, but possibly to no good end. Against Toovey’s advice and his own good sense, Arthur decides to move into Marsh House to complete his work and to delve into the mystery, which, thanks to Alice Drablow’s cylinder recordings, he begins to realise is sourced in a tragic series of events that consumed members of Alice’s family. Alone overnight with Toovey’s dog Spider as his only company, Arthur is lured upstairs to a perpetually locked room by a thumping sound and seems to perceive another haunting presence, that of a small laughing boy who plants a tiny tin soldier in Arthur’s hand.
In spite of some formidable competition from the likes of The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973), and The Others (2001), this first version of The Woman in Black is, alongside The Shining (1981) quite simply, the best “haunting” movie ever made, outstripping all other rivals for concisely sketched mood and slow-mounting tension. It’s very much the made-for-TV modesty of it that makes it so indelible, with no temptations to indulge in showy camerawork or special effects to distort narrative essentials. It’s also all the better for rarely trying to overtly frighten, being much more about generating tension and eeriness, making the film’s few moments of urgency and shock brilliantly effective. The story develops some familiar themes, yet expected narrative pay-offs are forestalled, only to rush in when least expected, with maximum, disorienting impact. Director Herbert Wise was a veteran television director whose very first work, ironically, was a TV version of The Woman in White (1957), and whose credits since the mid-‘50s had included stand-out telemovies like I, Claudius (1976) and Skokie (1981).
Here, Wise conjures an exactly honed sense of atmosphere, in the bustle of the law offices and the small town, the domestic warmth of Arthur’s home life, and, eventually, the mood of desolate loneliness in the remote location of Marsh House, where he alternates between agoraphobia-inducing external spaces and claustrophobic interiors, and a tingling sense of threat pervades. The film was shot almost entirely on location, and the resulting three-dimensional realism quality it credibility. The woman’s appearances are often simply matters of cunning framing as the camera dollies back and forth, her spindly figure casually appearing in the rear of shots she wasn’t in a few seconds before. In one particularly excellent moment, the one that first truly makes Arthur understand he’s in a situation beyond his ken, sees Arthur, sensing an alien presence, abruptly feel the hairs on his neck stand up, and he whips about to glimpse the woman only a few feet away, glowering at him with what he describes as a kind of hunger turned to hate, possessed of radiating power.
The paraphernalia of the superlative ghost story is expertly laid out in both script and direction: the eerie visitations of the female wraith with her faintly greenish pallor and red-rimmed eyes burning with prosecutorial loathing; the remote haunted house; the omnipresent fogs sweeping over the death-trap causeway and mysterious noises thudding out during the night; the air of secrecy weighing upon the populace of the backwater; and, lurking behind it all, a powerful source of emotional anguish that drives the ghost in her relentless program of punishing the living for her loss. The use of sound as a particular source of torment is felicitous, in the overt disquiet of the accident anguish, and also in the sound of Alice’s voice on the cylinders, giving its own tantalisingly ghostly hints, of years spent being haunted by a malignant phantom, of fending off her hate and persecution in the night, every night, for half a century. Arthur is an exemplary hero, likeable, generous, a good father and hardworking, gutsy, intelligent man.
All his qualities don’t mean a thing, however, as he’s completely outmatched in his battle with the supernatural force he unwittingly challenges and is victimised by, even as he musters an uncommon determination and bravery in venturing back to Marsh House and trying to unravel the mystery. His failure to respect the tenuous balance of the situation, rather than beginning, as in most such stories, a journey towards finding resolution for it, sees Arthur instead place himself directly in the sights of the woman’s vengeance. Arthur is steadily worn down by his experiences to a pale, feverish, hysterical wreck, as his most charming traits, his love of children and ready empathy, prove to be magnets for the ghost’s most sadistic impulses. In the final phases of the story he’s so desperate to rid himself of the last totems of Marsh House that he haphazardly piles up papers retrieved from the house in his office and sets fire to them with paraffin, nearly incinerating the law firm in the process. He also almost strangles Freston, in realising that his boss sent him to Marsh House because Freston knew about the haunting and was absolutely terrified of it.
Hill’s story essentially transfers the Latin American folk figure of La Llorona, the inconsolable weeping mother of a lost child whose appearance forebodes death and disaster, to an English setting, and invests her with a specific, wilful destructive authority. As such it represents a dark antithesis to the Victorian cult of motherhood and industry, and Hill knew it very well. This meshes with Kneale’s familiar fascination for locations that have become deeply invested by malefic influence, without his usual interest in exploring the edges of scientific credulity, except that Arthur’s pronouncement that the repetition of the accident resembles a recording calls to mind that motif in The Stone Tape. Arthur does uncover the wraith’s identity: she was Alice’s sister Jennet, who had a child out of wedlock. Alice and her husband had adopted the boy to cover up the disgrace, leaving Jennet to become increasingly unhinged. Toovey recalls her wandering the streets in anguish when he was young, and he murmurs with acidic knowing when he fingers a photo of the Drablows and the adopted boy, “Happy families!”
The horrible accident which Arthur is forced to continuously listen to on the marsh occurred when Jennet tried to snatch back her child, and then crashed whilst fleeing. The locked room was actually the boy’s bedroom. The real sting of this event, which Arthur recognises, is the taunting ambiguity of the boy’s cries for his mother: nobody, neither the living nor the dead Jennet, can know if he was calling for her or Alice, and this is the real spur to her venomous haunting. Now she is a living embodiment of rage against Victorian familial pretensions and veils of hypocrisy and lies, still maintaining a reign of terror against all family happiness in the town even as the twentieth century is slowly penetrating its environs. Marsh House has an electrical generator which has an unpleasant habit of conking out at the most hair-raising moments: Arthur’s frantic efforts to get it going, his diligence in trying to keep the house’s lights blazing, and use of the recording device, all indicate a desperate belief that the trappings of the modern world can stave off the miasma of evil and exile the phantom of past wrongs.
As suggestive as the drama of The Woman in Black is, what makes it riveting is the watchmaker’s sense of form and bastard cunning with which Kneale and Wise make it work on screen. Equally vital is the creepy music score by Rachel Portman, long before she became an Oscar-winner. Drama and music work in perfect accord at a crucial moment when Arthur is confronted with disturbing manifestations in the boy’s bedroom, the generator fails, and his panic to get the power back on again is palpable as Portman’s shrieking Psycho-esque strings blare. The film’s most memorable sequence comes when Arthur has been brought back from the house and is sleeping in a hotel, seemingly having dodged the lurking threat, except that he awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of the boy’s laughter, the tin soldier under his pillow. Arthur sits up and tries to communicate with the spirit, only for Jennet to loom over him as a shrieking, fire-eyed demon, implacable in her otherworldly abhorrence for anyone presumptuous enough to enter her domain. The primal scream Arthur releases as she swoops down on him recalls many moments in Kneale’s oeuvre.
When one is well prepared for this moment, it’s delicious and a little campy, but coming out of nowhere as it does on a first viewing it’s genuinely chilling and surprising: otherwise stalwart adults have reported being terrified by it. Similarly powerful is the very finale, when Arthur and his wife and baby take a weekend sojourn in a rowboat. Arthur finally seems to be regaining some peace of mind, only to spy the wraith standing upon the lake surface, smiling with queasy triumph as a tree breaks and crashes down upon the family, racking up three more sacrifices for her unquenchable, perverted sense of justice. It’s as bleak as conclusions come, but The Woman in Black is relishable to its last frame precisely because, like the title character, it plays a merciless game with a showman’s sense of timing.
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