6th 05 - 2012 | 3 comments »

Exposed (1983)

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.

28th 10 - 2011 | 15 comments »

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

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.

22nd 10 - 2011 | 11 comments »

The Woman in Black (TV, 1989)

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.

18th 08 - 2011 | 6 comments »

Ran (1985)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

By Roderick Heath

Akira Kurosawa’s plummet in the late ’60s from the pinnacle of Japanese cinema to a state of almost complete artistic annihilation was a near-fatal interlude in the great director’s life. His partnership with favourite actor Toshiro Mifune had collapsed, and after the painful flop of Dodes’ka-den (1970), he was forced to pass on directing duties for the Japanese sequences of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) to Kinji Fukusaku. Kurosawa eventually attempted suicide during this period of crisis. He made a slow, but heroic resurgence thanks to the seeds he had planted decades before in the fertile soil of the international film community, which eventually rallied to his aid as a variety of sources provided him with financing. This spurred a surprising rally of supreme creativity before fading with some lesser but fascinating grace-note works. As well as being the last grand spectacle of his career, Ran provided a closing chapter in his trilogy of loose Shakespeare adaptations—Throne of Blood (1959), spun from Macbeth, and The Bad Sleep Well (1960), a riff on Hamlet. Ran took the Bard’s King Lear and resituated it in the age of Japan’s brutal civil wars of the 1500s. The subject immediately evokes not only Kurosawa’s career-long fascination with attempting to meld Eastern and Western cultural styles, themes, and epic traditions, but also the man’s own travails in the previous 20 years, as the dazed and crushed former Lord wanders about a cruel landscape owned by the young upstarts. The result was possibly the greatest film of the 1980s.

Tatsuya Nakadai, long second-fiddle to Mifune in Kurosawa’s films, including losing fights to him in both Yojimbo (1960) and Sanjuro (1963), had emerged in Kagemusha as his new actor-star. Nakadai, insolently handsome and lethally cool as a young actor, evolved into a fine tragedian as middle age loaned him a worn and uneasy countenance. Here Nakadai took on the Lear role, redubbed Lord Hidetora Ichimonji. The former ruthless conqueror, still physically robust at 70 as proven in the opening as he kills a boar in a mounted hunt, is now succumbing to age’s predations—falling asleep in the middle of chatting with guests and prone to bouts of almost senile disorientation. Sensing, if not quite admitting, his waning powers, he decides to hand over the reins to his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao), whilst giving control of other portions of his fiefdom to second son Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and young Saburo (Daisuke Ryû).

The mood of the opening scenes is deceptive in their summery tranquillity, proving rather hypnotically tense. Kurosawa, the ever-great utiliser of ambient noise and weather harbingers, bathes the scene with the droning of insects and watches the seething clouds sweep in, perceiving something malevolent in nature and its barometric relationship with human behaviour. The insects are gnawing their way through this seemingly peaceful handover of power, as ritualised scenes of the two elder sons making their obsequious pronouncements of admiration and loyalty to their father proceed. The moment in which Hidetora hands an arrow to each of the brothers and has them snap them, and then gives them three, which two of them can’t break, has the precise flavour of something out of folk wisdom, as does Saburo’s lesson-altering decision to break the three on his knee. The devoted but unsentimental Saburo mocks and shows up the rhetoric of both father and brothers, and gets exiled for his pains, along with clan warrior Tango Hirayama (Masayuki Yui), who sticks up for him. Saburo’s behaviour, at least, impresses Hidetora’s guest Lord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki) sufficiently to offer him marriage to his daughter and a place in his clan, with generosity and also perhaps with an eye to the possibilities the course of events could offer him.

The evil mood lurking within the sun stupor of this opening is soon given tangibility. What Hidetora takes for peace and stability is merely a pause for breath, with all the old forces he only managed to cage after riding them without a pause or hesitation, ready to bust loose again and lay his world to waste. His sons, except for Saburo, have learnt well from the school of predatory behaviour Hidetora specialised in, but they’re not of the same calibre in character. Saburo’s disappearance from the scene clears the ground for an inevitable process whereby the elder brothers, the moment they have control of infrastructure and manpower of the clan, use it in a programme of conquest and back-stabbing. Hidetora is humiliated when Taro makes him sign an official renunciation of his power, and his sons use the pretext of the satirical boisterousness of Hidetora’s bodyguard and his Fool, Kyoami (Peter), to eject their father and Lord from their castles. Hidetora and his retinue, including his concubines, take shelter in a third castle that was to be Saburo’s, which Saburo’s own loyalists readily abandon so that they can go join their hero.

I’ve always had the greatest fondness for King Lear amongst Shakespeare’s tragedies: if Hamlet is the great myth of perplexed youthful conscience, Lear is the same for outraged elderly spite, fuelled by a folk-myth’s direct metaphorical force. I’ve seen, and I’m sure you have, too, real people hit their Lear phase in life, when everything they built, their accomplishments and labours crumble down around their ears: it’s not a pretty sight, and few have even the solace of such epic spectacle. Kurosawa’s screenplay, written with Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide, adapts and respects the Shakespearean original, but also adds a layer of relentless, more specific cynicism that subverts the usual, if often nominal, respect for hierarchical benevolence found in Shakespeare’s plays. By changing the wicked offspring to men—presumably the three daughters of the original would have been impossible to transpose convincingly to highly patriarchal, period Japan—Ran makes fierce and relentless sport of the values of the culture it portrays: the fetishising of war and respect only for power on all levels.

The film’s title means “chaos,” and chaos is not merely physical disaster here, but also the threat of existential disintegration of all standards and morals. Saburo’s and Tango’s urgent warnings to Hidetora of the way words mask violence falls on the deaf ears of the self-deluding old man whose one-time strength seems to have been his lack of self-delusion. Ghosts lurk behind the facades of family and fortress. In his family relationships, Hidetora is most fond and reverent of Jiro’s wife Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), who is the daughter of a rival lord he annihilated. Sue is a dedicated Buddhist who believes in forgiveness, an attitude that causes Hidetora more pain than abuse would. But Hidetora has instilled more than enough familiar emotion in Sue’s evil alter ego Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), Taro’s wife, also a survivor of an annihilated clan, but one who has no interest at all in forgiveness: she’s looking for ways to cause the Ichimonjis to collapse from within.

Kurosawa finally lets the film’s mask of concerted, grimacing reticence slip, and erupts into one of the most astoundingly staged, apocalyptic sequences ever committed to film, as Taro and Jiro’s forces combine and are let into the castle walls by two of Hidetora’s treacherous lieutenants. The castle is high on a volcanic mountainside, reminiscent of the setting of Throne of Blood, and as the enemy armies flow across the landscape, the wind assails them and matches their motions with ribbons of billowing ash. Primitive rifles bash great bloody holes in flesh, pummelled and curtailed humans loll about in pools of their own blood and crawl about whilst stuck with arrows until they look like porcupines. Hidetora descends a high staircase from the keep to do battle like a classical Kurosawa hero, only for his sword to break with the first soldier he strikes. Hidetora’s loyal concubines, the subject of a subtle but enormously meaningful clash of protocol forced early in the film by Kaede, now knife each other rather than be taken or hurl themselves in front of Hidetora to absorb the bullets being fired his way. Finally, as the castle goes up in flames about the lord, Taro dies from a bullet in the back fired by Jiro’s chief retainer Kurogane (Hisashi Igawa). Hidetora, unable to find a blade with which to commit seppuku, is suddenly engulfed in a dissociative daze and wanders out amongst the enemy soldiers who watch him pass by in bemusement; Jiro won’t actually kill the completely isolated patriarch, who wanders out into the wind-thrashed hills to go pick flowers.

This entire sequence is as disorientating and terrible as anything in the same year’s Come and See, Ran’s chief rival for the crown of the ’80s, as well as obviously a powerful influence on the famous Normandy opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998). The wonder of it is that it seems both brutally realistic and also highly stylised: Toru Takemitsu’s score here rises up from his familiar, near-ambient clicks and drones to infernal swarms of brass and strings. All other sound is blanked out, whilst blood and flame and the flags worn by the armies’ soldiers to differentiate them are rendered like swirls of calligraphic colour upon bleak, grey earth. In the first scenes of the film, the three sons are each designated by the coloured kimonos they wear—Taro yellow, Jiro red, and Saburo blue—and thereafter, each side is designated the same way, a simple device that makes the delirious rampages of the armies coherent.

Hidetora, once hurled out of the world of men, wanders in nature only be found by Tango, who has attempted to return to his Lord’s favour and is initially rebuffed, and Kyoami, who, seeing the state of Hidetora, erupts in a tragic-rhapsodic song and dance, instantly transmuting hard fact into artistic paean. Here, Kurosawa takes Kyoami, analogue of Shakespeare’s Fool, a character allowed to step outside the boundaries of medieval protocol to comment on both character and action with an almost meta-textual lenience, and combines him with the figure of the benshi, drawn from the traditions of kabuki and utilised to narrate and explain silent films. Fascination with the didactic art of the benshi, at odds with the ambiguity of narrative image-making, stayed with Kurosawa right through his career. Cinema owners in Japan had actually hired retired benshis to explain the complex cinematic layering of Rashomon (1951), and the benshi tradition flickers up throughout Kurosawa’s career, for example, in Princess Uehara’s prayer-rant in The Hidden Fortress (1958). The result is an outlandish, yet gripping moment, as Kyoami seems to occupy a nexus of art, life, death, nature, and humanity, wildly exultant at the spectacle of the disintegration of his Lord’s power and the certainties of the world he represented: for a moment there is only art, his art, standing between mankind and annihilation. Similar motifs would pepper Kurosawa’s impressive, if inevitably diffuse follow-up Dreams (1989).

Hidetora and his two hapless helpmates look for shelter in the storm and find instead only further icons of Hidetora’s own past mercilessness returning to mock him and drive him deeper into hysteria: the trio find shelter in a small shack, which proves to be the home of an ambisexual figure who first recalls Kurosawa’s figuration of the witch in Throne of Blood, but proves to be Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), Sue’s reclusive brother, blinded by Hidetora as a child to ensure he would never pose a threat. The world has inverted; Tango and Kyoami try to get Hidetora out of the wilderness and under shelter, but when enclosed with Tsurumaru, playing his haunting pipe, Hidetora scratches at the walls, desperate for release. Later, Hidetora stumbles around the ruins of the clan’s ruined castle in a helmet of reeds and flowers given to him by a playfully satiric Kyoami, who shrinks in shame under Tango’s gaze when he sees Hidetora. The hypnotically intense early sequences give way to an equally composed, yet increasingly frantic and existentially despairing Beckett-esque sense of directionless grief in the latter stages. A second storm looms as Saburo, hearing word of Hidetora’s isolation in the wilderness, brings his small party of soldiers onto Ichimonji territory, while Fujimaki and fellow warlord Ayabe (Jun Tazaki) hover on the hills behind: to watch Saburo, or take a chance to swoop down on Jiro’s forces?

Kurosawa and Nakadai invest Hidetora with the arrogant pride of a man used to ordering the world how he wants it, but which also suggests an unconscious desire to test the structure of the world he built. He takes as much part in the destruction of it as his sons do, through not only his pugnacious blindness to the likely results of his own acts, but also in his refusals to bend in situations until there can be no turning back. Hidetora’s waning physical mastery is still communicated in the opening boar hunt, and again in a mordant moment in which he saves Kyoami from one of Taro’s samurai, infuriated by the satiric song the Fool was singing about Taro: Hidetora plants an arrow in the back of the samurai from high on the keep with brilliant warrior art and startling, cold-blooded judgment. Such is the kind of authority he’s used to wielding and his signal to all and sundry that he’s still the Lord, master of life and death, but it’s a power he has given up, and this act proves catalyst for Kaede’s goading of Taro into removing the old man from the political equation.

Increasingly infuriated by his sons, Hidetora finally walks out on Jiro, keeping his back to him as his men close the castle door between them—a showy act of rejection even though he’s only dooming himself. Hidetora wants to leave behind a more just world, in truth, one in which bonds of fidelity, oaths, and family are powerful enough overcome the Ran; instead he courts the oncoming dissolution like a toreador taunting the bull, in an all-or-nothing bout with nihilism. The irony of the story is at least partly that not everything gives way to the Ran. The bond of Saburo’s respect for his father, like Sue’s pacific forgiveness, is unbearably painful to the old man, and Hidetora regains his lucidity sufficiently to have a genuine, if brief, reconciliation with Saburo; Kurogane, loyal to his master enough to become an assassin, nonetheless refuses to exterminate the innocent. But by story’s end, the vulnerability of these good things in the face of rampant chaos is chillingly recapitulated.

Amongst Kurosawa’s female characters, it tends to be his most desperate victims and his spidery femme fatales that hook most firmly into one’s memory. Isuzu Yamada’s transposed, kabuki-garbed Lady Macbeth in Throne of Blood was the most memorable and original aspect of Kurosawa’s cultural translations. Having turned Lear’s daughters into men here, Kurosawa fittingly alters the insidious bastard Edmund into the breathtaking Kaede, and slowly, but surely, Ran turns from the tragedy of Hidetora to the Jacobean saga of Kaede. Having manipulated her first husband into squeezing out Hidetora, she plays Jiro like a violin when he comes to her to take over the house of Ichimonji after arranging Taro’s assassination: having gotten him alone, Kaede slides in close, her dress scuffling in insidious motion, until she’s close enough to pounce on Jiro, steal his dagger, and cut slices in his neck until he begs her forgiveness. Laughing in gleeful mockery of the easily cowered warlord, she shuts all the doors to the room, straddles him, and licks the blood from his neck in an erotic frenzy. It’s a riveting scene that Harada pulls off incredibly well.

Kaede, working from the inside out rather than with armies, moves far beyond victim or even avenger to become a force of total destruction, pushing Jiro into a fatal final battle that sees the Ichimonji realm totally destroyed. Her seduction of Jiro is prelude to this total nihilism, which she seeks to make good by having Sue assassinated. She has Jiro commission Kurogane to do the deed, but in spite of having helped Jiro take over, the loyal warrior reveals a surprising moral streak, baulking at such a pointless killing. He instead plays a practical joke on Kaede, presenting her with the head of a fox sculpture from a shrine in place of Sue’s, and making an obvious allusion to Kaede being the secret fox devil eating away at the body politic from within for Jiro’s benefit. Kurogane instead gives Sue a chance to escape and take Tsurumaru away with her.

The interesting thing about Kaede is that she could easily be considered a tragic heroine, except that she’s given herself so completely to the violent world that she’s become rather a perfect incarnation of the monstrous spirit of the age. Her determination to kill Sue is just as wilful a courting of moral chaos as Hidetora’s and all the more conscious of its meaning: she determines that absolutely nothing will be left behind. In the whirl of slaughter and dissolution with which the film concludes, Saburo is shot dead by his brother’s assassins, leaving Hidetora, right on the brink of rescue, so contorted by grief that he flops dead upon him. Meanwhile Kurogane is handed Sue’s head by an assassin who got the job done, and the film enters the ninth circle of hell, a move Hidetora had already signalled in one of his mad cries. Kurosawa cuts violently from the midst of war to the sight of Sue and her handmaiden lying beheaded outside Tsurumaru’s hut, the pastoral beauty of the scene making the juxtaposition all the more grotesque. It’s impossible not to relish Kurogane’s swift retaliation in confronting Kaede, who stonily declares the success of her efforts: Kurogane hacks off her head with a single stroke of his sword, as well-deserved and dizzying as movie deaths come. And yet it’s a hopeless gesture in another fashion, simply finishing off Kaede without doing a thing to save the world from what she accomplished.

Kurosawa’s brilliance as an artist of the plastic space of the cinema screen is in constant evidence throughout Ran, including, of course, the symphonic way he shoots the battle scenes, but also in the jarring simplicity of Kaede’s assault on Jiro. Her death is even more startling: Kurosawa’s camera quick-reframes away from where Harada sits at centre frame, craning up slightly, so that she’s sitting just beneath the edge of the frame: when Kurogane swings his weapon, he abruptly paints the wall behind with a geyser of blood like some abstract expressionist hurling paint about. So firm is the impression of this moment you’d swear afterwards, as I did for a long time, that you actually see her head cleft from her shoulders. But there are subtler moments of such cinematic concision, too, including in the eerie scene in which Hidetora, Tango, and Kyoami realise Tsurumaru’s identity, all three men framed around the younger man, their eyes glowing in fearful recognition from out of the shadows, as if they’ve all fused together into some hydra of guilt and fear. The final moments of the film depict Hidetora’s and Saburo’s bodies being marched across the bleak volcanic plain, whilst Tsurumaru, left alone in the universe, stumbles close to the edge of his family castle’s ruin, dropping over the precipice the Buddha icon Sue gave him for safe-keeping. A blind sexless figure teetering without a god on the edge of space—it’s one of those rare closing images that leave you with teeth clenched so hard you wonder if you’ll get them unstuck again.


5th 08 - 2011 | 14 comments »

Flash Gordon (1980)

Director: Mike Hodges

By Roderick Heath

It’s a little difficult to write a coherent piece on Mike Hodges’ cult classic Flash Gordon without descending into fetishising its variegated fragments of dazzling impression like a Gustav Klimt painting: Colour! Queen music! Ornella Muti’s thighs! Brian Blessed’s thighs! Today, the popular cinema culture feels an overwhelming need to validate and pump up the mythical seriousness of comic book fare, complete with epic-scaled special effects in which “believability” is a constant maxim. Look at the way Michael Bay tries to cloak his ludicrous Transformers movies with images of martial nobility and heavy-duty patriotism whilst his robots brawl in pseudo-realistic blurs of incoherent motion. Our age is a complete inversion of the camp, pop-art-inflected likes of the Batman TV series and films like Danger: Diabolik (1967) and Barbarella (1968). There’s some good reason for that inversion: campy, self-conscious superhero and comic book flicks eventually became embarrassing to their fans, because camp too often became a lazy creative crutch.

In 1980, Dino De Laurentiis, producer of Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella, and Lorenzo Semple Jr., occasional writer on Batman, collaborated on an adaptation of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, the seminal ’30s Buck Rogers rip-off that became one of the most recognisable icons of juvenile derring-do, interspersed with fantastical landscapes and dollops of soft-core sexuality. De Laurentiis and Semple had already collaborated on their sorry sack of a King Kong (1976) remake, and the Italian maestro’s attempts to conquer Hollywood through science fiction and horror movies were mostly disastrous, often both aesthetically and financially. George Lucas developed his original Star Wars material because De Laurentiis had bought the rights to Flash Gordon before he could. After trying to interest several high-profile directors in giving their distinctive personal stamp on the material, including Federico Fellini and Nicholas Roeg, De Laurentiis finished up hiring perhaps the least likely candidate for such a project: British director Mike Hodges, most famous for his bone-crunching gangster film Get Carter (1971).

The jump between such cast-iron fare and the delirious psychedelia and playful action of Flash Gordon seems colossal, though Hodges’ previous film was a step in a science-fiction direction—an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man (1973). Even more problematic was the fact that Hodges, working with De Laurentiis’ mostly Italian crew, essentially had to improvise everything but the dialogue and basic story from day to day during the shoot. Hodges’ Flash Gordon, which provided a sort of postdated antecedent and satiric mirror of Star Wars, nonetheless retains a rollicking verve and delicious sense of fun, as well as a genuinely rich evocation of those pop-art roots. It’s far better than Barbarella, and sustained by a remarkably sturdy sense of when to take the material seriously and when to send it up.

Flash (Sam J. Jones) is in this incarnation an American football champion on holiday in the off season. He meets travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) on a plane just when Earth is beset by showers of fiery meteorites that announce the campaign of terror begun by alien dictator Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow). The very opening of the film depicts Ming being presented with Earth as a suitable plaything and target for destruction by his vizier Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) to sate Ming’s boredom. The pilots of Flash and Dale’s plane are sucked out of the cockpit when it is punctured by a meteorite, forcing Flash to use his rudimentary flying skills to make an emergency landing.The plane crashes into the remote observatory/laboratory in which Dr. Hans Zarkov (Chaim Topol), a genius kicked out of NASA because of his much-derided fear of alien invasion, has built a homemade rocket ship. Zarkov is near-crazed by his determination to search for the alien threat, and needing a second passenger to help him operate the controls after his assistant Munson (William Hootkins) runs off, he kidnaps Flash and Dale by convincing them his ship is a telephone booth. After a tussle, they’re launched into space, sucked into a wormhole, and emerge on Mongo, Ming’s home planet, where they’re taken prisoner and presented to Ming’s court.

Hodges’ flashy visuals, with inestimable contributions by Danilo Donati’s wild production fancies and Gilbert Taylor’s terrific photography, present a vision of totalised style that suits this material perfectly. Hodges’ accounts of the film’s shooting reveal the vast difference between the kind of production De Laurentiis, Donati, and their crew were used to, compared with the oncoming age of Hollywood’s ruthlessly pedantic blockbuster infrastructure, as Donati hurled together gigantic sets for the hell of it and hired famous artists to work for weeks on background paintings, none of which could be used. This style of working perhaps explains why so many of De Laurentiis’ genre excursions finished up as giant messes; but Hodges seems to have had exactly the right sort of wit to make it all work for him.

The opening credits, offering fleeting visions of Raymond’s strip flickering by in a pop-culture dream to the driving throb and declarative choruses of Queen’s theme song, give context for what follows in the same bold, Sunday comic colour and two-dimensional illustrative elegance as Raymond’s pictures. Ming’s kingdom is a candy-tint sprawl of fantastically attired aliens and settings, from the oddly delightful, much-victimised lizard-men who appear throughout, to the army of scantily dressed concubines, and the winged, jockstrap-clad Hawkmen led by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed at his most spectacularly hambone). Jones, a minor hunk of beefcake whose greatest claim to fame before this was as a Playgirl centrefold, doesn’t display great acting chops, and yet, this makes him oddly perfect as Flash, who’s defined by his slightly dim, utterly innocent approach to life’s problems. “This guy’s a psycho!” he blurts when he witnesses Ming’s rough justice for the first time. He’s immediately plunged into a parade of cliffhangers and deadly situations. In perhaps the film’s most inspired coincidence of comedy and action, Flash starts a brawl with Ming’s henchmen, and, initially outmatched, he catches a ball-shaped ornament Zarkov tosses to him and immediately starts devastating them with his football prowess, with Dale giving pep-rally cheers. Klytus recognises the “barbaric game” and gives plays to the guards, while Zarkov finally accidentally knocks Flash out with a pass. Flash is sentenced to death in a gas chamber, whilst Dale is enslaved by Ming as a prospective bride. But Flash is saved by the conniving of Ming’s lusty daughter Aura (Ornella Muti), who arranges with one of her lovers, a doctor (Stanley Lebor), to help Flash survive the gas. She then spirits him away to the forest kingdom of Arboria, and begs another of her lovers, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), to shelter Flash.

Hodges treads a tightrope throughout Flash Gordon and stays on it for the most part, never allowing the film to become too silly whilst keeping tongue in cheek all the time. It helps that he plays the film’s serial-like set-pieces seriously, including Flash’s being forced by Vultan to engage in a deadly test of manhood for the Arboreans by reaching into different cavities in a tree stump where a poisonous creature lives, and later his death-match with Barin on a moving disc out of which lethal spikes randomly protrude. Dale even gets in on the act, besting a bunch of Ming’s blind pig-men guards with kick-ass élan, yet with the witty little touch of her constantly pausing to move out of the way the ludicrously glam high heels she kicked off to do battle until she’s done and can put them on again. The special effects are a different proposition, an advancement on the tinny craft usually seen zipping about on wires with firecrackers in the the ’30s and ’40s serial versions of the strip, and yet still paying more than a wink to their cheesy glee, as hordes of Hawkmen dive through the clouds bouncing about on wires, and suspiciously phallic rockets zip through the hallucinogenic skies of Mongo and its moons.

Hodges’ film came out eight years after Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm’s Flesh Gordon satirised the strip in a semi-pornographic, but startlingly accurate fashion, and some critics actually prefer that version. A not entirely dissimilar sense of the strip’s sexuality percolates more subtly throughout this one; after some surprise, Hodges admitted he had learnt just how strong the strip’s influence was on American friends’ early sexual fantasies, and pays some tribute to it, with Aura’s provocative horniness and the eventual S&M-accented torture of Flash and Aura. “We don’t like doing this at all!” claims spandex-clad bitch-queen General Kala (Mariangela Melato) in between lusty blows of a whip on Aura’s back; Klytus stops her with the even more insidious proposal: “Bring me the bore-worms!” Hodges even has famed playwright John Osbourne appear as a high priest whom he frames to look as if he’s masturbating, though he’s actually just engaged in a religious rite. A great pleasure of the film is that everyone seems to be in the right key of overlarge and funny, yet not excessive or mocking, performance. Von Sydow, relishing his first truly nonsensical role after two decades of suffering antiheroes and icy villains, makes a gloriously stylish, even sexy, but deeply psychopathic Ming, strutting through the proceedings with a concise physicality and arch attitude. Just as good is the mordant purr of Wyngarde’s masked Klytus. Muti’s overripe sexuality, practically a cult fetish in itself, neatly contrasts Anderson’s perfectly pitched turn as Dale—I have no idea why the only other film I’ve seen her in is Dead and Buried (1981)—and of course there’s a catfight between the pair. Dalton clearly laid his claim not only to his ill-fated, underrated turn as James Bond, but also his Errol Flynn-esque bad guy in The Rocketeer (1991) with his amazingly dashing performance as Barin, whose instant enmity for Flash is countered by Flash’s gentlemanliness, and he catches on to this whole Earthling decency thing.

This Flash Gordon was misinterpreted as a spoof by some at the time of release, but it’s really a classic swashbuckler with a grand sense of humour about itself. It’s the film’s refusal to modernise its plot and visuals or cynically mock the values it embodies, even whilst being very funny about everything else, that finally make it more than colour and motion. Flash is a patently outdated figure, but like Richard Donner’s similarly strong Superman (1978), the disparity is shoved aside when Flash is stuck into a situation that requires precisely his kind of naïveté. Throughout the film, treated with an ironic glint but with a hint of enough substance to hold it together dramatically, is the spectacle of the human values Flash, Dale, and Zarkov retain that easily, constantly better the cruel, powerful, yet rather sloppy omnipotence of Ming and his followers. There’s a witty and affecting episode in which Klytus and Kala try to brainwash Zarkov, parsing through his memories back to his Jewish roots in Hitler’s Germany: “Now he showed promise,” Klytus purrs upon seeing the dictator. But Zarkov thwarts them by keeping a litany of human arts and sciences flowing through his mind. Flash’s example impresses Barin and also Vartan and his Hawkmen, who follow him into battle, and Flash, with his guileless purity, resists Ming’s offer to give him Earth to reign over. Ming’s attempt to marry Dale comes as circling spacecraft trail signs that read, “All creatures will make merry…Under pain of death,” and the High Priest (Philip Stone) has to amend his marriage vows for Ming: “Do you promise…not to blast her into space…ah, until such time as you grow weary of her?”

Late in the film, Hodges offers a battle sequence that strikes a sturdy balance between genuine spectacle and tacky absurdity, as Flash and Vartan entrap one of Ming’s spaceships and board in a sequence that suggests a mating of The Sea Hawk (1940), Wagnerian myth, and a Peter Pan pantomime. Flash makes a suicide drive into Ming’s defences to bring about a catastrophic explosion that will allow the conquest of his citadel, but Barin’s action within helps Flash make Ming see the point in an hilariously apt finale. Key to a lot of the film’s high-flying impact, particularly in this sequence, is the terrific score provided by Queen (all together now: Flash! Ahh-ahhh!), standing in some contrast to the band’s overblown contribution to Highlander (1986), and orchestrations by Howard Blake. The film’s final shot pays a winking tribute to the end of Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958) as Ming’s hypnotic ring is all that’s left of his dissolved body, yet suggesting his survival: The End? asks the closing title, but no sequels were forthcoming. Which perhaps is just as well, as it’s hard to imagine how this film’s raucous invention could have been extended without descending into excess. But when Transformers 3 steals the box office and Bay’s notion of fantastic cinema poisons minds like the sputum of some fantastic space slug, it’s not hard to wish for an alternative dimension where Flash stills stands for every one of us.

29th 06 - 2011 | 3 comments »

Kenneth Anger: Films from the Magic Lantern Cycle, 1947-1981

Fireworks (1947) / Puce Moment (1949) / Rabbit’s Moon (1950) / Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) / Scorpio Rising (1964) / Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) / Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) / Lucifer Rising (1971-81)

By Roderick Heath

The first context in which I ever heard of Kenneth Anger was probably the same as most people, if they know him at all: as the author of the two Hollywood Babylon books that digest the gossip Anger heard growing up in the fringes of the film world, to expose the mythology and seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood. But Anger’s true metier was making a steady stream of experimental, surrealistic movies, commencing in his teens in the early 1940s, struggling through the ’50s, and finally finding an audience in the adventurous-minded ’60s. When Anger screened his breakthrough work Scorpio Rising (1964), it was the subject of much litigation. But it proved a potent inspiration for young filmmakers and brought Anger a squad of famous fans and collaborators in the counterculture era. Anger, assertively homosexual when it was far from kosher and willing to tackle the matter in his films through allusive, but unmistakable terms, counts as one of the inventors of modern queer aesthetics, as well as a vital contributor to cinema culture in general. Anger’s films represent different levels of realised ambition. With their often perverse, always striking cavalcades of associate images, Anger’s films come across as, and were certainly designed to be, broadcasts from the outer precincts of American society and the modern psyche, looking back to an unattainable pagan past and detecting the codified ways in which primal instincts infuse and distort the contemporary world.

Anger, born Kenneth William Anglemyer in 1927, began his involvement with cinema as a child, so his own personal legend has it, appearing (so he says) as one of the nymphs in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a film that had an effect on Anger’s later cinematic style and interests. He started making films as a kid, but considered his career to have started with Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), featuring several touches, like sped-up footage and dubbed-over pop music, that would become signature traits.

His first really defining work is considered to be Fireworks (1947), a striking homoerotic parable that reveals the depths of Anger’s early debts to Luis Buñuel, to whom he pays explicit tribute by recreating his cigarette-smoking pose in Un Chien Andalou (1929), and to Jean Cocteau, from whom he borrowed an interest in totems and transformations. But there’s also a violently, vividly original aspect to Fireworks, which commences with a single young man (Anger) lolling in his room, fingering a photograph of himself being carried by a hulking sailor, with a sculpture of a hand with smashed fingers sitting on his table. Phallic jokes recur: at one point, the young man seems to have an erection under his sheet, but he brushes away the cloth and finds to his disappointment it’s just a statuette; later the sailor unbuttons his fly to reveal a sparking rocket. The young man ventures out into the night, obviously hoping for a pick-up, but instead he encounters a formidable gang of sailors, including the sailor from the photo, armed with rude weapons found on the street.

Anger cleverly obfuscates exactly what happens to his hero except for impressions of something dreadfully violent yet also searingly erotic, in offering visions of his twisted, assaulted body from obtuse angles in a visually brutal experience. His eye are gouged, his upside-down mouth yaws wide in screams; white fluid, which many have thought to be metaphorical semen, pouring on his body, and, most incredibly, a hand holding a broken bottle neck, grazing the shattered edge over his belly, before Anger cuts to hideous shot of flesh being peeled open by determined hands, only to find a wavering compass within the carrion. The images are charged with carnal viciousness, but also metaphorically communicate the discovery of inner nature through acts on the body both pleasurable and aggressive. The young man, seemingly torn to pieces, is then returned to his room, with the sailor from the photo appearing amusingly with a tacky Christmas tree on his head and a candle on a stick that sets fire to the young man’s masturbatory collection of photos: the Christ myth reinterpreted as heroic gay romance mediated by chintzy, five-and-dime-store religious paraphernalia. The final image of the two men lying together and the fingers returned to the statue is an emblem of phallic restoration. Coming from the time it does, Fireworks pulses not just with obvious gay interest, but also a psychic awareness of a strange new age—the compass within the flesh has a science-fiction quality to it in its fusion of man and machine, as well as body-horror, and the bleak, otherworldly visions of the outside world have a post-apocalyptic aspect. If it’s one of Anger’s most easily decoded works, it’s also one that possesses eerie, transformative, memorable power. It also got Anger prosecuted for the first time, but the Supreme Court of California finally judged the film to be art.

Anger spent most of his young life in Los Angeles, surrounded by movie industry people, listening to the gossip of the city’s gay community and communing with the ghosts of the already distant days of the great silent stars and the ideals of glamour that had fostered the city’s prosperity. And yet that age had been suppressed in a welter of shame for its outsized, amoral grandiosity, in pointed contrast to the grubby, castrated contemporary scene Anger had tried to portray in Fireworks. Whilst Anger gained the material for Hollywood Babylon from this background, he also absorbed something more mutable, an evanescent mystique he tried to articulate in a film he never finished. The film intended to capture the ghosts of the departed inhabitants of the colossal movie mansions littering Hollywood (Billy Wilder would, of course, get around to his more literal treatment of this subject in 1951’s Sunset Blvd.). Anger did, however, complete one scene, which he finally turned into the short Puce Moment. As it stands, it’s a study in trying on nostalgic glamour, as a vampy young flapper sorts through her dresses and lounges amidst fragments of upscale bohemian décor, in seething shadows and colour that imbue the images with a flavour in slight tension with the stylization. One part animated ’20s Vogue photo spread, one part hazy nostalgia dream, this fillip sees Anger embracing a familiar camp-informed fondness for celebrating the apparel of haute couture femininity, albeit charged with a sense of mystery altogether rarer.

Anger left the U.S. in 1950, moving to Paris, to live with some blacklisted friends, partly at the behest of Jean Cocteau, who liked Fireworks. Anger repeatedly began and had to abandon films in the ’50s, including one that was supposed to be a fantasia on the life of the occultist and pansexual deviant Cardinal d’Este, of which, again, only one scene was completed, later shown as Eaux d’Artifice. Another unfinished project, which eventually the saw the light as Rabbit’s Moon, retold a Japanese myth of a man who falls in love with the moon, where a magical rabbit lives, and was enacted by members of the Commedia del’Arte, André Soubeyran, Nadine Valence, and Claude Revenant in the traditional guises of Pierrot, Pierrette, and Harlequin. Harlequin distracts Pierrot from his pure worship of the moon, to which he repeatedly stretches his arms, pulsating in repetitious shots with secretive energy, by dangling Pierrette before him. But Harlequin then snatches her away, leaving Pierrot to be ministered to by two nymphs (shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the consolations of music and a mirror, and then is pointed to the path to join his rabbit love. In the last image, the rabbit sits in the midst of the forest, and Pierrot plummets to the earth, having presumably tried, and failed, to climb to the moon. Puce Moment and Rabbit’s Moon form fragments of colourful, but frustrating and opaque ambition from Anger.

Anger had begun to cordon off his own area in the avant garde, however, in his fascination with cultural detritus and iconography—a form of fetishism which, both overt and subtle, throbs beneath such retro imagery. He struggled through the ’50s and early ’60s to make more movies, with only one inarguably completed, signal film to show for it: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film was inspired by a party given by some friends for which the theme was “come as your madness.” Anger, impressed with the results, decided to make a movie of the event transformed into a mystical spectacle. Here Anger expanded upon another interest important to his art: his life-long fascination with Aleister Crowley and pagan religion, especially Crowley’s personal creed, Thelema. (Anger subsequently made a documentary film with his friend Alfred Kinsey that looked into Crowley’s Abbey of Thélème in Palermo.) Built around the theme of a celebratory pageant in a lustrous palace from Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan,” Pleasure Dome depicts a number of pagan gods gathering together in the palace of a multitudinous titan, alternately garbed as Shiva, Osiris, and Nero, initially glimpsed swallowing jewels,and played by former silent film actor and dancer Samson De Brier. His guests include a pantheon of fascinating counterculture figures. The writer Anaïs Nin appears as Astarte, wearing a bird cage around her face. Anger’s friend and fellow pioneer in alternative cinema, Curtis Harrington, plays a servant based on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Margaret Cameron, the wife of a Crowley acolyte who would later play the mysterious Greek witch in Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), appears as Kali, rendered as a fiery-crowned über-femme. Pan turns up, accepting the gift of fire Kali gives him so that she can light her cigarette from his palm, before he conjures Aphrodite (Joan Whitney) from the flames.

As with many of Anger’s, images in the film seem wrung out of some collective unconscious, and also strike like the dark inverse of ’50s religious and historical epics with all their themes turned inside out, celebrating victorious, fertile paganism and anarchic antimoralism. Anger wildly superimposes the gods’ faces against cabalistic emblems, including the Eye of Horus, a constantly recurring motif in Anger’s later films, as is shots from silent movies, here with visions of Babylonian worship and calamity out of an Italian peplum film from 1911: glimpses of the god as Osiris, with Isis (Katy Kadell) suppliant before him, clearly evoke a silent film style with sepia tint, make-up, and gesture-acting. It’s all scored to Leos Janacek’s “Gagliotic Mass.” Characters, religions, genders all merge into each other, masks within masks revealed, but the film has a faintly visible narrative, as a beautiful young man amongst the guests is clawed by an orgiastic crowd like Orpheus assaulted by the Bacchantes. This sacrifice to the perpetuation of natural rhythms and archaic ritual also evokes the assault in Fireworks, as the imagery proliferates in an ecstatic fury. The whole thing, on one level, is a camp tribute to a kind of vanished heyday of high-society decadence, as well as the ambition of Crowley to turn Judeo-Christian European society’s mores and myth-history inside out. Anger perhaps succeeds better with images than any cant could accomplish: his pictures tear the fabric of reality, religion, mythology, sexuality, and character to pieces, and then glue them back together in any form he sees fit. In doing so, Anger created one of the founding documents of psychedelic and camp aesthetics.

Anger struggled for quite a few years after this, writing Hollywood Babylon and publishing it in France chiefly to raise funds, and attempting to shoot a film version of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But it wasn’t until he made Scorpio Rising that he made a proper comeback. He moved away from the historic artifice of his ‘50s works to explore a more contemporary fetish, celebrating the paraphernalia of motorcyclists, overlaid with pop music. In doing so, Anger discovered aspects of popular culture that practically no one else had recognised before, discerning the latent fetishism and delirious eroticism in the music, the homoeroticism in the macho excess of the leather-clad motorcyclists—the gone-wrong sons of the queer-bashing sailors of Fireworks. Divided into several acts, Scorpio Rising commences with languorous sequences of young men obsessively repairing, tending, and reconstructing motorcycles, the mechanisms of the machines explicitly defined as love objects by the songs playing. One young cyclist lounges in bed reading comics before finally, indolently, piecing together his biker uniform and venturing out into the night. By now familiar Anger motifs recur, but in a newly confrontational style, as wayside denizens, bohemian effuse, and gay corsairs congregate to party whilst his iconic biker Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is conflated with Jesus, glimpsed in excerpts from an old silent film, and Hitler, waving a Nazi flag like a barbarian priest summoning armies of the night to orgy and rampage.

Anger described the film as “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans,” his letter bomb to contemporary American culture. Amongst other things, the film perhaps proved Anger the most original and intelligent user of associative montage since Eisenstein, synthesising a series of connections between religion, sex, subcultural obsession, mechanics, and politics. Anger’s unfinished, ill-fated follow-up, Kustom Kar Kommandos, indicates with its title his ongoing thesis. A capped, cigarette-smoking, blonde-haired death’s head winks at the audience repeatedly in Scorpio Rising, evoking old VD posters as well as medieval folk-myth, having pushed the sex-death association to a limit. His method of reconstructing inanimate objects as eroticised things through careful lighting and dreamy photography segues into shots of bared chests fringed by leather, signalling Anger’s developing refusal to approach gay imagery so obliquely, leading to swiftly glimpsed sadomasochistic abuse, like a whip-scarred ass and a man being held down, again evoking Fireworks, with fluid being poured on his buttocks. The sexuality and fury of Scorpio Rising is encoded in its structure, rising from the languorous sensuality and indulgent observations of the early scenes into a hyperkinetic montage driving towards a deadly pile-up, with the red revolving lamp of an ambulance the inevitable last image.

Scorpio Rising courted controversy, and got it in spades, finally being banned by an all-female jury. The ban was later overturned, and Anger became a counterculture hero. He started hanging out with famous freaks like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who would both make substantial contributions to two of his most important later works, Jagger composing a score for Invocation of My Demon Brother and Faithfull appearing in Lucifer Rising. Much the same as Anger’s early works had looked back with some nostalgia to an earlier period of subcultural revolt associated with Crowley, so, too, his own films are fascinating records in image and idea of another era. Anger’s adoption by the age he helped to create, ironically, brought him into close contact with some of the forces he’d been attacking in his films.

With Invocation of My Demon Brother, he returned to familiar structural motifs, commencing as he had done with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and would again in Lucifer Rising, with a figure who seems to possess powers of magic or, at least, prophetic talent awakening. In this case it’s a white-haired man with a demonic aspect, looking about a room full of naked male houris and conjuring visions where they grapple, conjoin, meld into beasts of many backs. Freaky youths smoke a joint from a skull-shaped holder, and Anger himself plays a ranting priest of Thelema waving the Nazi flag and stalking around his psychedelic temple performing rites, as footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam swerves into the burning of a dead black cat in a funeral, footage of Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey, and, as a kind of grace note, hippies performing a gentler rite that concludes with a charred figure holding a sign that reads: “Zap – you’re pregnant – that’s witchcraft.” That closing message literalises the sensibility that runs through Anger’s films, the inextricability in his eyes of mysticism from corporeal sensation and the cycles of creation and death. Bodies writhe with symbols projected on them, including a swastika seemingly reclaimed for its original mystical roots.

As such, the final few moments of Invocation suggest an antistrophe from the malefic swirl of much of the film, the most frenetic and evil-feeling of Anger’s works, with its bolder homoeroticism shading into a portrait of a world of disintegrating substance. Anger had tapped into something dark within the period that would be acted out by a true-life, ranting, Nazi-flag-idolising priest of destruction, Charles Manson. And, indeed, one man who appears in the film, Bobby Beausoleil, went on to be convicted and now sits in prison, as one of Manson’s clan of killers. Anger had chosen Beausoleil a few years earlier to appear in his project Lucifer Rising, but by the time of Invocation, which was culled from footage originally intended for the Lucifer Rising project, Beausoleil and Anger had ceased to be friends. Beausoleil instead drifted close to Manson and killed Gary Hinman for Manson. Such a tragic, disturbing subsequent chain of events solidifies the impression of Invocation being Anger’s most acutely tuned reportage from the cultural fringe. Eventually, in spite of Beausoleil’s incarceration, Anger made peace with him. He commissioned Beausoleil to write the impressive score for Lucifer Rising, which Anger pieced together over the next few years, after tossing out a score written by Jimmy Page, who appears in the film briefly, after a row.

Fittingly, Lucifer Rising, in spite of its name, betrays creativity on Anger’s part that’s generally more positive-feeling, more spiritually searching, if no more literal or free of menace. Beausoleil later reported that Anger’s idea was indeed to construct an antithesis to the death-worship of Scorpio Rising. Anger even builds a visual joke out of that contrast, countering how Scorpio Rising’s title was spelt out as metal sequins on a leather jacket, with “Lucifer Rising” appearing as colourful letters on the back of Lucifer’s robe. A Von Danikenesque idea caps off the film that links Anger’s primal, mythical figures with glowing flying saucers. But the film commences with shots of volcanic lava and protoplasmic creation, before a bare-breasted Isis (Myriam Gibril) overseas the birth and growth of crocodiles and salutes the arrival of Osiris (filmmaker Donald Cammell) at the Temple of Karnak, the pair stirring up storms. This is the pair whose “Aeons” are supposed to have passed, according to Thelemic lore, and they’re waiting for the time of Horus. Meanwhile, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins), whom Anger had insisted be played by a young rebellious type, awakens in a mysterious palace, seats himself upon a throne, and claims a blood sacrifice, spearing from on high a young woman. Drenched in blood, he has to bathe. Faithfull appears as a woman, identified as Lilith, the rebellious female demon from Kabbalah lore, who rises from a hollowed, stone resting place by the light of the moon and travels to perform invocations to her male counterpart, Lucifer, in front of the Sphinx and pyramids. Seemingly rejuvenated, or possibly in an earlier time, she follows the path of torch-carrying worshippers to the Externsteine in Germany, naturally-formed stone pillars that have long been a site of pagan and then Christian religious rituals. Lilith seems to penetrate the magic abode of Lucifer.

Here the images lose all intelligibility as magi seem to congregate, and visions zip past with urgency and threat. Swooping tracking shots describe mysterious vignettes, like people with covered faces shuffling cards, Page reading an ancient tablet and regarding a photo of Crowley, and images of slow-motion explosion evoking the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970) in celebrating disintegration fantasy. Anger reappears ostensibly as the same Magus appearing in Invocation of My Demon Brother, performing rites in showers of sparks and stirring the seas to rise. Lucifer concocts apocalyptic magic and gets a birthday cake. Lilith seems anguished by having smashed a table, cries into a blood-stained scarf, and crushes a dried flower she seems to have meant to present to Lucifer. But they’re reunited at Karnak, and this time, a living lotus passes on to Isis, as she and Osiris watch spaceships arrive. In spite of the arcane symbolism and trippy pseudo-myth, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anger was making films about the act of creativity itself, his whirling incantations resembling the feverish labour that must have gone into these films. In any event, they form awesome, ludicrous, brilliant sprawls of imagery. Anger’s DNA flows like an underground river through much contemporary American cinema, including the films of John Waters, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant, and virtually every pseudo-surreal music-video director, like Tarsem Singh, from the late ’80s on.

19th 05 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Krull (1983)

Director: Peter Yates

By Roderick Heath

The early 1980s saw a brief but admirable flowering in pure fantasy filmmaking. Sailing on the zephyr of Star Wars series’ colossal success, the fantasy genre, which had previously been a province of tacky productions, suddenly gained larger budgets, loving labour, and a new gloss of prestige. Not that some admirably cheap, elemental examples, like Hawk the Slayer (1980) and The Beastmaster (1982), didn’t sneak through, but others, like John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1981), Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), and Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story (1985), offered dazzling landscapes, thematic heft, and creative filmmaking. With Krull, Peter Yates, one of a wave of creative British directors who had emerged in the glory years of the mid ’60s, took a stab at the genre in one of the many attempts to duplicate the Star Wars magic.

Yates, who died last year at age 85, has been chiefly associated with his tough, soulful crime films like the modish classic Bullitt (1968) and the dryly brilliant The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1974), and more character-based dramas like Breaking Away (1979) and The Dresser (1982). He wasn’t averse to tackling the odd blockbuster-wannabe, as he had done so with his enjoyable 1977 adaptation of Peter Benchley’s schlock novel The Deep. But he had not tried a film like Krull before, which is surprising because Yates’ sense of style really makes Krull worthwhile. Nonetheless, despite its ingenious visual design, fluency of motion, and depth of feeling that make it more than another formulaic adventure flick, Krull was nowhere near as big a hit as it was supposed to be. Criticised upon release for its lack of imagination, today it looks eminently classical.

I use the word classical advisedly: the greater part of the pleasure Krull offers now is that it was essayed in the polished, spectacular ’80s style of large-budget studio filmmaking, with a marvelously oversized score by James Horner and crisp, painterly, widescreen cinematography by Peter Suschitzky. It is the product of a cinematic sensibility that valued a sense of grandeur and physical vitality over today’s CGI, wobbly camerawork, and attention-deficit editing. The old-school set design and costuming-based style of fantasy filmmaking can look a bit stodgy at times, especially in the lumbering Slayers, who are villainous soldiers who look nearly as slow and unthreatening as the old Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons. But Krull positively glows with care in the filmmaking, with a firmly achieved mise-en-scène and some very clever special effects, most notably some stop-motion animation in a sequence with a giant crystal spider.

Krull’s first half moves in fits and starts: the title refers to a faraway planet where a kind of medievalism is still the mode of life, and preternatural mysticism is part of its texture. Out of the depths of space comes a gigantic ship piloted by the Beast, a monstrously powerful, shape-shifting creature determined to subdue the galaxy. After the ship, known as the Black Fortress because of its castle-like appearance, lands on Krull, the Beast sends out his army of Slayers to wipe out all human civilisation on the planet. To combat the Beast, Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Lyssa (Lysette Anthony), the heirs of two Krull realms, agree to marry and unite their strength, setting aside the ancient feud between their fathers, Eirig (Bernard Archard) and Turold (Tony Church). “Great fighters make bad husbands!” Eirig warns Lyssa. During the wedding ceremony, Slayers invade Eirig’s castle and kill everyone except for Colwyn, who’s wounded and left for dead, and Lyssa, who’s carried away to the Beast, who wants to marry her himself.

Colwyn is found amongst the dead and revived by Ynyr (Freddie Jones), the “old man of the mountains” (“Not that old,” he insists), a retired sage who is initially sickened by the young man’s indulgence in despair. But Colwyn gets over his grief quickly and asks for the sage’s aid in finding the Beast’s lair and rescuing Lyssa. The great problem facing them is not merely in breaking into the Black Fortress and battling the Beast, but in finding the place, because it changes location every day at dawn, disappearing and reappearing thousands of miles distant. Much of the subsequent story revolves around their attempts to find someone who can guide them to the Fortress’s present locale. Ynyr takes Colwyn to a priestly, green-robed seer (John Welsh), who can’t penetrate the Beast’s magic, so they take a detour to a sacred place in the midst of a swamp where the seer believes he’ll have more power. Along the way, Colwyn recruits the only talented fighting men he can find to aid him—a gang of criminals led by Torquil (Alun Armstrong) and including Kegan (Liam Neeson) and Rhun (Robbie Coltrane)—on the promise they’ll be pardoned if he ever manages to restore his kingdom. Also along for the ride are the seer’s boy apprentice Titch (Graham McGrath) and a boastful, but inept wizard named Ergo (David Battley). But the Beast’s agents and lurking Slayers prove competent in eliminating the seer and almost killing Colwyn; only the intervention of a Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw), member of a cursed race with a deep grudge against the Beast, saves Colwyn from assassination.

At this point in the film, Krull shifts gears, from awkwardly trying to tick off the compulsory elements for a fantasy adventure, to employing them with verve. Whilst some of the humour and by-play are a bit twee, Yates conjures an appropriate edge of gothic horror to give the film some menace and atmosphere. A xenomorphic assassin with black eyes and sprouting claws kills the seer and takes his place. The Beast’s disembodied hand appears out of a crystal ball to shatter it when the seer tries to find him. The Slayers are creepier when they die than when they’re menacing the heroes—when killed, their brainstems rip themselves out like escaping parasites with shrill screams and burrow into the ground. The best fantasies tend to have not necessarily a moral to them, but certainly an engagement with some vital fact of life mediated through extreme metaphors. Here it’s the struggle with accepting death and defining one’s life that haunt the Cyclops, Ynyr, and the other members of the heroic party, many of whom fall in battle trying to work out what they’ve let themselves be killed for. The Cyclops, like his entire race, had been betrayed by the Beast, which had promised them the gift of foresight, but only gave them the ability to predict the time of their own demise, and left them all with one eye to boot. The Cyclops aids the heroes right up until the threshold of the time he’s supposed to die, knowing that to go on will cost him great pain. In the finale, he, of course, makes the last-minute charge to the rescue of his friends, and ends up getting crushed in the sliding stone doorway he props open to let them by. Talk about cruel fate!

After the murder of the seer, Ynyr has to venture into the lair of another sorcerer in order to track the Fortress. He seeks the “Widow of the Web” (Francesca Annis), a woman who lives in a chamber at the centre of a gigantic web watched over by that huge spider. The widow’s real name is Lyssa, too, and long ago she and Ynyr were lovers; he abandoned her for court duties and she, in her bereavement, murdered their infant son. This murder is the reason for her cocooned, haggard entrapment, offering oracle services for anyone who can brave the spider, but nobody ever escapes it. When Ynyr manages, with the Widow’s help, to reach her, he sees her as miraculously rejuvenated, the years of shame falling away. After she tells him where to find the Fortress, to help him escape, she shatters an hourglass and gives him the sand to carry; he’ll live only as long as it takes for the last grains to flow through his fingers, and he manages to escape the web as the spider consumes the Widow. Ynyr makes it back to Colwyn before expiring as the last sands escape his grasp. It’s a surprisingly weighty, beautifully filmed, and well-conceived sequence, and the intriguing suggestion of a kind of circularity of time and experience encapsulated in the shared name of the aged and young women and the shared quest of the old and young men, not to mention the history of rage and sorrow and the metaphors for emotional damage and awareness of mortality, deepens the film immeasurably in the dovetailing of plot, theme, and special effects.

Meanwhile, Lyssa is prettily menaced by the Beast, who offers to transform himself into the likeness of Colwyn if that will make her likelier to accept him. But he’s really a grotesque alien, looking a bit like the creature from Xtro (1980). Whilst Krull doesn’t toy anywhere near as interestingly as Legend with the efforts of the gruesome villain to seduce the innocent heroine, the stylisation of the interior of the Black Fortress, with its shifting walls, organic coiling corridors, and facades and features shaped like eyes and hands, is excellent, as the Fortress is a suggestively eroticised space indivisible from the thing that inhabits it. The Beast assails Lyssa with visions of a giant, grotesque hand that morphs into a burning rose of love. The design here has a quality reminiscent of a lot of ’60s psychedelia-influenced fantasy, including the set design of Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1967) and even the animated film Yellow Submarine (1968), as well as the recognisable influence of the fantasy scenes in Powell and Pressburger’s The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and The Red Shoes (1948) in the shots of Lyssa dashing through cavernous, hallucinogenic spaces.

Whilst the filmmaking is, overall, straightforward and linear, Yates manages to employ some of the New Wave gimmicks he offered in his earlier films in a sequence where Lyssa and her father’s conversation is heard on sound whilst the vision offers shots of Colwyn and his retinue journeying across the grandiose Krull landscape. Yates’ work is however best distinguished by his lack of tricks, and his sense of how to shoot those landscapes and the effects in such a way as to make them seem awesome. A good example is a strong early sequence in which Colwyn performs a regulation mythic task—climb a mountain and retrieve an object called the Glave, a boomerang-like bladed wheel that’s a traditional symbol of lordly authority, hidden within molten rock. Yates films his tiny body traversing colossal ridges and cliffs, situating his camera far away from his character and framing his actions obliquely.

The supporting cast of Krull is much more interesting than its leads; Marshall is merely upright and good-looking in a fashion reminiscent of Kerwin Matthews and Todd Armstrong, stars in Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion fantasies. Anthony, who went on to become a familiar face in TV movies, was actually dubbed by Lindsay Crouse. But stalwarts like Jones and Armstrong, and the tantalising cameo by Annis, really make the film. It goes to show that sometimes star quality is an elusive thing to pin; where Marshall was plucked from obscurity and went back to it, dashing, but less conventionally handsome young Neeson plays a criminal with a girl in every village. Whilst Battley might as well spend the movie with a sign on his forehead reading “comic relief,” he does it well, as Ergo stumbles through the film, constantly attempting to turn antagonists into animals and usually only doing it to himself. In the finale, he works this to his advantage and turns into a tiger, tearing Slayers to pieces.

Yates delivers another scene invoking both pure fantasy thrills with an edge of almost poetic beauty as the heroes, needing to reach the Black Fortress before it relocates again, muster a herd of wild “fire-mares,” which can gallop at such great speeds that their hooves blaze and they can fly over great gorges: it’s a scene of pure boyish wonder when the flying horses make arcs of fire through the night sky and along vast landscapes. Once the band manages to break into the Fortress thanks to the Cyclops’s self-sacrifice, most of Torquil’s criminal entourage die in battling the Slayers and the Fortress’s living defences. Colwyn, finding Lyssa trapped in a chamber, uses the Glave for the first time to cut her out, only to attract and do battle with the Beast. The Beast proves less vulnerable to the Glave than the magical fire Colwyn can wield, due to an aspect of his marriage rite with Lyssa. The couple are finally invincible when united against the tyrannical intruder, a fitting closing point for the film’s motif of violated rites and pairings, and Yates closes with the awesome sight of the fortress crumbling bit by bit, the rubble falling up into the air, as if Krull’s very atmosphere is rejecting it. The swashbuckling, yet poignant pleasures of Krull’s second half make up for the faults of the first, and the film might have been truly great if it could have sustained the synthesising qualities of its best scenes. As it is, Krull sings visually with the essence of the genre, and remains a fun ride.

29th 04 - 2011 | 8 comments »

Legend (1985)

Director: Ridley Scott

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Even in its early stages, Tom Cruise’s career has been marked by risk taking. Not long after his star-making turn as the privileged teen having a wild weekend in Risky Business (1983), and just before his Air Force recruitment film Top Gun (1986), Cruise appeared in a smallish fantasy film that might have changed perceptions of him among casting directors and fans alike. In it he plays a Puckish forest child whose love for a princess imperils all that is good in the world, though admittedly, he does go on an heroic quest to fight the forces of darkness. That he made this film certainly must be down to his desire to work with the best directors—in this case, Ridley Scott, whose stylish Blade Runner (1982), his last film before Legend, was in a class by itself.

Scott’s earlier scifi/fantasy films, including the highly popular Alien (1979), focused on a menacing near-future. With Legend, Scott turned his gaze toward a pre-Judeo-Christian world. With its emphasis on enchantment, the primacy of true love, and violence without blood and death, this simple story, briskly told, was obviously made primarily for tweens and teens. Yet such is Scott’s skill that this tale is richly embellished with the power of myth for people of all ages via the mythmaking vehicle of the 20th century—film.

Simply, Darkness (Tim Curry) is bothered to learn that two unicorns still roam the earth. No longer content to simply be half of existence, he sends his goblins out to kill the creatures, without which Light will be banished forever. An innocent princess named Lily (Mia Sara), the beloved of Jack (Cruise), is used to lure the unicorns within range of the goblins’ poisoned darts. One is hit, but the other escapes. After the goblins cut off his horn, the world is plunged into darkness, with snow and ice covering the formerly verdant landscape. Lily sets off to right her wrong, and Jack and several elves follow to rescue her and the female unicorn, which has been captured and awaits execution.

Legend honors the era of the Goddess like few mythological works I’ve seen. Some associate the feminine with night, but it is actually the moon, which brings light to darkness, that is feminine. Lily is no silver-spoon princess who looks down on the beings of Mother Earth—its peasants and the embodied spirits of nature represented by elves and sprites. Indeed, when she visits the home of Nell (Tina Martin), a rosy-cheeked peasant woman, she waxes rhapsodic on the riches to be found in the humble cottage and surrounding forest. She loves Jack, whose spritely appearance makes him seem a cross between mortal and enchanted—an earthly man and proper male opposite who is at home in the feminine. When she realizes that she helped the minions of Darkness attack the unicorns, she decides to take action on her own.

Jack is an interesting character. Looking like Peter Pan (traditionally played by a woman), he is mortal, but has crossed over into the semi-deified world. Gump (David Bennent, the wonderful star of The Tin Drum), who seems to be the lead elf, has accepted him completely as a forest being, and let Jack in on all the forests’ secrets, including the location of the unicorns and, when he must fight Darkness, the cache of armor and weaponry he will need for his hero’s quest. He berates Jack for letting Lily touch the sacred unicorn, but recognizes that Jack’s love trumps such rules. In this, Legend is much more forgiving than the deity who expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Scott’s film shares some elements in common with his earlier works, particularly Blade Runner. The underground palace in which Darkness lives is reminiscent of Blade Runner in its dark, claustrophobic, semi-fascistic look. Yet it also exists on a scale of grandeur that fits not only the physical size, but also the importance of Darkness in the universe. Earth inscribes a perfect circle not only around the sun, but also on its axis, the latter action giving equal time to darkness and light. “What is light without dark,” says Darkness, a simple lesson for the physical life of our world that Scott honors and showcases. Jack’s ambiguous status also echoes the uncertainty about Deckard’s status as a human.

Scott also creates some wonderful images. When Lily looks at a clock with moving figures in Nell’s cottage, a portend of her future emerges when she sees snow covering the figure of the young girl being chased by the carving of death. The image of the male unicorn prostrate under a tree, snow swirling to cover him as his mate paces and bucks frantically around him is beautiful and poignant. A dancing black dress Darkness presents to Lily as her wedding gown (Liz Gilbert, whose face is covered in black gauze) is macabre and beautifully lit by leaping flames from his enormous fireplace. Scott’s dazzling palette of colors in the early sequences is a splendid tribute to nature.

I quite admired the make-up and costume designs, but alas, some of the masks were ill-constructed and rather laughable, and whatever was used to keep them affixed to the actors’ flesh didn’t work very well. Nonetheless, a green creature arising from the moat around Darkness’ castle to eat Jack was quite impressive-looking, as was Darkness himself. Annabelle Lanyon, who plays the sprite Oona, has an elfin face as it is, and her otherworldliness is accentuated by intense blue contact lenses and pale, wispy hair. I was transfixed whenever she was on screen.

It’s hard to really talk about performances in this film, since the dialogue is so basic and little complexity is required of the actors. Nonetheless, Bennent is an enormously gifted actor who projects gravity and strength despite his diminutive size. Cruise and Sara make an appealing couple who really do seem to be in love. And well, Tim Curry is at his Tim Curryest.

We’ve grown used to filmed myths and legends of the most bloated proportions these days. It’s nice to reflect on a film that infuses our hearts with the same kind of magic with economy and simplicity.

14th 02 - 2011 | 1 comment »

Black Widow (1987)

Director: Bob Rafelson

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.

Since Play Misty for Me came on the scene in 1972, numerous contemporary films have explored the horror of the psychotic femme fatale. Fatal Attraction (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), and even the deranged female fan of Misery (1990) all want to love their men to death. The one that has stuck with me the longest is Black Widow, in which it appears that Theresa Russell and Debra Winger were more made for each other than for any man, but in which Winger, a federal investigator named Alexandra “Alex” Barnes, tracks Russell, a black widow who marries rich men and kills them.

The film offers no doubt that our black widow, known by many names and in many guises, kills her husbands. Our first real encounter with her is as a Texas-style belle, all blonde and big-haired, with long, red-painted nails, injecting a liquor bottle with something that will make it appear as though her rich husband died of a rare syndrome called Ondine’s Curse. After the funeral, she takes a trip to forget, or rather, a trip from which she never intends to return. She moves to Seattle after carefully investigating the background and habits of another rich man, William McCrory (Nicol Williamson), and adopts another, more studious and refined persona, one that would appeal to McCrory. Once again, she marries, and once again, her husband dies.

Alex insists that these men were murdered. She obtains photos of the dead men and notes that the bride they all have on their arm is the same woman. Unfortunately, her boss (Terry O’Quinn) cannot believe that a woman would be capable of a complex series of seductions and murders. Frustrated, Alex quits her job and follows the black widow’s trail to Hawaii, where she has set her sights on another rich man (Sami Frey) to seduce.

The classic noir structure is in place, one involving murder, a sexy and duplicitous femme fatale, money, and a detective trying to unravel the whole rotten puzzle—indeed, a detective who has to go outside the normal channels to catch the villain. The twist, of course, is that the sparring partners and almost-lovers in this film are both female, and that the femme fatale’s motive for murder doesn’t really seem to be about the money at all. The noirish atmosphere and psychological underpinnings of Black Widow are found more in the characterizations than in an overarching style of expressionistic cinematography and cynical dialogue that typify classic noir. There are some shots that are clearly indebted to noir films’ contrast of beauty and sordidness, for example, a shadow of our femme fatale and her next victim set in a tropical paradise, and one can never go wrong with Conrad Hall behind the camera. Yet, the camerawork doesn’t set the mood—the two lead actors do.

Like classic noir, Black Widow is a critique of its times. Rather than look at the black widow’s money grabs as a hunger after years of wartime deprivation and malaise, or a chance to have power after an era of powerlessness under fascistic oppression, we see instead no easily discernible reason for her actions at all. She seems in thrall to grasping for more money than she could ever waste and afflicted with a restless mobility, both attitudes that infected the 1980s. The bond Russell and Winger form seems post second-wave feminist if it seems like anything. Winger’s boss underestimates women, including Alex, who has been laboring in the trenches for six years with no apparent road being paved to higher responsibility. Russell, calling herself “Linny” when she meets Alex, clearly feels at ease only around women. Alex is the only person we see her drop her guard with; all the men she so calculatingly seduces have no idea who she is or what she’s capable of. Yet, like a classic femme fatale, when cornered, she’ll strike out to survive, even at those she cares about. She nearly drowns Alex when she discovers that Alex is really on her trail—a warning shot across Alex’s bow that, had “Linny” been a little more frightened, would have been fatal.

It’s telling to me that Alex is a career woman with no apparent romantic life and a nickname that could belong to a man. The homoeroticism in her dealings with “Linny” track butch/femme, including sharing a regulator when they both take diving lessons that finally is realized into a hard, fast kiss at “Linny’s” fourth marriage, with “Linny” still in her wedding dress and flower veil. It’s very easy to see the pair as Sam Spade tangling with Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and in many ways, the film plays like The Maltese Falcon (1941), with a sad parting for the women. Alex is pledged to nail a killer—and just like Bogey, her professional life and values are on the line, so she can’t play the sap for Russell—but there’s an air of regret at losing the one person she might truly have loved.

Alex was allowed by “Linny” to “have” the man she had set her sights on for her next conquest, only to have “Linny” coolly steal him back with a nude swim after weeks of denying him sex. Will Alex pick up where she and the man left off—she saves him in a clever ruse—after “Linny” is carted away? Many modern films punt to the triumph of romance, but Black Widow isn’t buying it. Alex, like Russell’s character, has become a black widow, too.

For an interesting companion film, I suggest Paul Verhoeven’s 1983 psychohorror film The Fourth Man, which opens and closes with a spider killing and eating its prey and offers a black widow character in between, though the protagonist is a gay man after sex, not money.

6th 02 - 2011 | 13 comments »

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (TV, 1979)/Smiley’s People (TV, 1982)

Directors: John Irvin/Simon Langton

By Roderick Heath

The Cold War seems to be coming back into fashion as a storytelling subject. Twenty years after it ended, and following the fragmentary anxieties of the post 9/11 world, this time might be starting to look almost cosy in its firmly delineated conflicts and ideological boundaries, especially to anyone not old enough to remember the low-key aura of terror I readily recall from watching politicians of the era bicker with the stakes of nuclear war in play. In any event, with the popularity of sheer entertainments like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and the hilarious Salt (2009), as well as the more substantial, like Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2005), Florian von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days (2007), the Cold War milieu seems to be reviving as a popular cinematic topic. The fact that Tomas Alfredson, director of Let The Right One In (2008), is currently making a feature adaptation of John Le Carré’s hit 1976 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, bears out this new legitimacy. Of course, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a dense, intelligent, witty, gripping tome, is the sort of material that is worth making a movie of in any era. For anyone who’s seen the first adaptation of the book, the lengthy BBC-TV miniseries featuring Alec Guinness as Le Carré’s protagonist George Smiley, the first question that leaps to mind is, nonetheless, “Why bother?”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and some other Le Carré adaptations, stand alongside the likes of Dr. Strangelove (1964) amongst the relatively few Cold War artefacts that have retained relevance, because they’re as much about something malignant lodged deeply in the modern psyche as they are about politics. “I’ve always felt that the security services are the only true expression of a nation’s character,” Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) pronounces late in Tinker Tailor, and one could easily substitute the word “nation” for something broader in terms of the story’s enquiries. For Le Carré’s perspective on the post-WWII world is a coolly cynical one, one full of “half-devils versus half-angels,” as Connie Sachs (Beryl Reid), former MI6 info savant, describes them. Tinker Tailor and sequel Smiley’s People revolve around intricate detective stories that are blended on many levels with character studies, cryptic discernment and intellectual obscurity, and ironically realistic portraiture of geopolitics and the grubby heroes of espionage. Le Carré is the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell, who worked for MI6 in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in the period after the infamous Cambridge Five betrayals had left British intelligence reeling. Tinker Tailor was in very large part his sidelong account of that milieu.

“George Smiley, the Chelsea pensioner himself, god help us, fought every war since Thermopylae, hot, cold, and deep frozen!” is how Connie describes Le Carré’s favourite hero, who had evolved from a shadowy, unctuous-seeming functionary in his early novels (he was played by Rupert Davies in Martin Ritt’s strong film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963, and by James Mason, though the character was renamed, in Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair, 1965) into a doggedly admirable, if still, when necessary, a chilly, expediency-favouring hero. Smiley’s own degradation and casting out of the fold of “The Circus,” as the headquarters of the service is known to the intelligence fraternity, proves to be the first act in the long odyssey by which he gains revenge on the traitors and enemy spymaster responsible for making much of his service a living hell of constantly watching agents being caught, tortured, and shot. At the outset of Tinker Tailor, Smiley’s boss, the emaciated, dying, reclusive “Control” (Alexander Knox), is desperate, convinced there’s a mole in the higher echelons of The Circus. He brings in one of his aging, but still stalwart reliables, Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen), to meet with a Czech general who supposedly can supply the name. But Jim is shot and captured, and Control, Smiley, and everyone else linked closely to them is either forcibly retired or exiled in unrewarding posts.

Six months later, George is fetched out of retirement by Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston), one of Smiley’s protégés who’s been stuck running “scalp-hunters”—low-rent agents who specialise in enticing defectors—at the behest of The Circus’s civil service overlord Oliver Lacon (Anthony Bate). Smiley overhears the tale of one of Guillam’s agents, Ricky Tarr (Hywel Bennett), who, on a nondescript mission in Portugal, had an affair with a female Russian agent named Irina (Susan Kodicek). She spoke to Tarr of the mole’s existence, but disappeared shortly thereafter. Lacon can only rely on Smiley to investigate now. With Guillam’s help, Smiley studies the new ruling cabal at The Circus: the new boss, pompous poltroon Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge); quirky but dynamic Circus hero Bill Haydon; dour, working-class Roy Bland (Terence Rigby); and Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton), a fishy Hungarian playing the perfect English gentleman. That quartet were ennobled by fostering the supposedly astounding Russian mole “Merlin,” whose flow of information, dubbed “Witchcraft,” seems to have put The Circus back onto an even footing with the CIA. Control had dismissed this source as too good to be true, and Smiley, working on that theory, begins to ever-so-carefully unravel the chain of events around Prideaux’s capture, and through that, discern the mole’s identity.

All these ins and outs could be mistaken for the operations of cyborgs engaged in some kind of arcane game if it weren’t for the ever-elusive human factor, the way personal weakness, so theoretically unpredictable and yet so often exactly predictable, can infect any enterprise. For the spymasters of both sides, their webs are extensions of their personalities. These men’s whole lives have become entwined with their work, to the extent that George’s wife was seduced by a traitor. For the English side, The Circus is a functioning asylum for outdated Empire men, Etonian losers, colonial riff-raff, and uprooted Eurotrash. They exist to be easily shot full of holes by any passing fanatic. The monkish czar of the KGB, known only as Karla (played in tantalizing, wordless snippets by Patrick Stewart), gains great menace and power from his position in a totalitarian system, but is eventually rendered lost and desperate within that system by his one, human lapse. If George is the hero, and Karla the villain, it only comes out in the fine details; George merely split with his wife, where Karla sent his to the Gulag. Amongst these paranoid, professionally existential, often borderline disreputable people who become spies, sex and money are eternal currencies, whilst the most successful and powerful are those who largely avoid these temptations. In this, the enigmatic Smiley and his great nemesis Karla seem to stand ahead of the pack, and the battle between them is enacted not only in institutions but in the bedroom. Smiley has to contend constantly with the open secret that his estranged wife Ann (Sian Phillips) had an affair with Bill Haydon, and Haydon’s own omnivorous appetites also long ago included Prideaux as his partner in both business and pleasure. In between them are people with a kaleidoscopic range of grubby rendezvous and amusing foibles. Ricky Tarr, a kind of extremely low-rent James Bond wannabe, plays the noble romantic with Irina, but he’s actually a seedy bigamist who only accidentally helps Smiley through a ruse involving one of his wives he has a kid with.

There’s a moment about 45 minutes into Tinker Tailor when George polishes his glasses and slides them on as he asks a pointed question of Tarr, the timbre of his voice and the set of his face changed subtly yet entirely, providing one of Guinness’s most sublime bits of acting in his career: it’s Smiley’s equivalent of girding himself for battle, and the Cold Warrior lurking within his nondescript shell reveals itself with bracing clarity. Smiley, aging, determinedly anonymous, and old-school in his black mackintosh and homburg—the image of a bland civil servant—is the most unlikely of spy heroes, and it’s precisely this that makes him so interesting. He’s a bottomless well of both his own and other peoples’ secrets, and his own discursive, politely dissembling style only occasionally slips. Whilst Ann is the commonly known adulterer in their marriage, what Smiley’s befuddled detachment cost them both in that regard is ambiguous. A genius as a user of people, he’s almost a total dud as a social being, a quality that makes him all the better a spy. People tend to project their own anxieties and wants onto his becalmed exterior: for some, his visits are the god-sent appearances of a guardian angel, and for others, the calls of the grim reaper. Whereas the motivations of others are clear enough, for example, Guillam, who wants to uncover the mole who certainly cost the lives of many of his agents, Smiley seems both more mechanical and yet also deeper.

Le Carré’s stories are often cited as the antiseptic, realistic ripostes to the fantasies of James Bond, and that’s fair enough, though it’s a bit unfair to the surprising terseness of some of Ian Fleming’s writing and also a bit reductive to Le Carré’s talents and the texture of these adaptations. They’re shot through with the cool, yet empathetic cynicism and the utterly parched humour and irony of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Somerset Maugham, writers who surely influenced Le Carré, and the blend of the mundane and the surreally intense is quite Hitchcockian. Lacon’s name gives a tip of the hat to the laconic humour that’s prevalent throughout. One of the more specific beauties of Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People is that they’re in no hurry whatsoever. That’s usually a put-down, but the gravitas and moodiness of the stories, as well as their hypnotic outlay of detail great and small, demands rigidly controlled pacing. This is perfectly suited to television’s procedural intimacy, and also most effectively reveals the way Smiley’s method takes the smallest fragments of a puzzle, which would seem utterly opaque to others, and synthesises from them theories for which he then carefully accumulates evidence. Pattern and truth resolve from apparently bottomless murk, all mixed up with behaviour and personality, as well as political and social sensibility. Stylistically, the series are masterpieces of unyielding yet suggestive minimalism, right from their keenly illustrative opening title sequences—in Tinker Tailor, a set of Matryoshka dolls being stripped down to the last figure, which has no face; for Smiley’s People, shots of decaying paint on wood and an exploding piece of chalk redolent of the entwining macro and microcosmic forces at play.

Tinker Tailor, in particular, is also a situational study in group dynamics, the way certain cabals of personality types linked by aptitude as well as attitude can take over any workplace. The manipulations of the mole have been to promote the bullying, greedy, barely competent Alleline into the top job precisely because he’s not particularly good at anything but the appearance of competence, which is prized beyond all other things, whilst Smiley discerns clearly that the people who are best at their job have all been exiled because they were the ones most able to discern the real problems. The fact that Haydon, the most likeable, colourful, and impudent of The Circus proves to be the mole, is the cruelest stroke for all concerned, and yet there’s something inevitable about it. The first time I watched Tinker Tailor, I said aloud within the first two minutes that Haydon, thanks to his ineffably cute entrance with a cup of tea, had to be a traitor, and five hours later I found I was right.

There’s also a complex web of both amity and hatred that can transcend nominal boundaries to be unravelled. Smiley’s relationship with Karla proves perhaps to have more genuine intimacy than he has with anyone in his immediate life, and the affection that can develop between enemies often proves more durable than that between the members of The Circus. Amongst the people feeding off the intelligence services, pimps and blackmailers sometimes prove to have deeper morals and more immediate motives, for example, Otto “The Magician” Leipzig (Vladek Sheybal) and his bordello-managing partner Claus Kretzschmar (Mario Adorf) in Smiley’s People, than the higher-class opportunists running them. “Smiley’s people” is more than just a work group: it’s almost a metaphor for people who are capable of doing their jobs with the minimum of balderdash, and part of the background drama and satire of the two series is generational change, from the aging, slightly clapped-out, yet deeply professional WWII generation Smiley represents, to bombastic neocons like Alleline (whose backers, Smiley says, were “golfers and Conservatives”) and to an abrasively lower-class, brassier breed represented in Smiley’s People by new Circus chief Saul Enderby (Barry Foster) and his underling Strickland (Bill Patterson). Connie refers nostalgically to “her boys, her lovely boys” in speaking of the sexy, nostalgic allure of what had been a lustre that’s long since been buffed off The Circus and everything involved with the Cold War. Haydon’s motives for turning traitor seem inextricably bound up with his own disappointment at Britain’s shrinking place in world affairs and his sense of being cheated of being a potential master of the universe.

If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a kind of Grecian concision to the way its pieces fit together, Smiley’s People is a bit more the blockbuster, a longer, more sprawling work. Whereas Tinker Tailor was transcribed by Arthur Hopcraft, Le Carré cowrote the teleplay of Smiley’s People, and if it lacks the mordant symmetry of its predecessor, more of Le Carré’s deftly funny and revealing vignettes, and supple emotional punches, slip through. At the end of Tinker Tailor, Smiley is essentially in charge of The Circus, left to rebuild the organisation almost from scratch. (The middle chapter of the trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy, wasn’t filmed because of its potentially costly Hong Kong setting). This time around, the path is even more torturous, from a seemingly random series of events to a career reckoning for Smiley, who has again retired after handing over The Circus to new blood. Madame Ostrakova (Eileen Atkins), a Russian exile living in Paris, is visited by slimy Soviet bullyboy Oleg Kirov (Dudley Sutton, best known for his contribution as the chief witch-hunter to Ken Russell’s The Devils) and offered the chance to have the daughter she left behind in Russia sent to live with her. Ostrakova realises that the girl in the photos Kirov hands her can’t be her daughter, and so contacts the émigré organization run by the once-fearsome, but now aged Estonian General (Curd Jürgens, in his last ever role). The General contacts Leipzig, and what Leipzig digs up gets both him and The General murdered. Smiley is called in again by Lacon, who’s sliding into something of a featherheaded mid-life crisis after his own wife has left him, because the General had demanded Smiley act as his go-between with The Circus.

Lacon expects it to prove a cash grab by some has-beens, but Smiley hates the way the General, a rigid and brave former warrior, was patronised in the new atmosphere. Digging into his final actions, Smiley uncovers what Leipzig gave the General: a photo negative showing Leipzig and Kirov together in bed together with prostitutes, a proof that could destroy Kirov and, more importantly, recalls to Smiley a long-buried titbit of gossip that Karla had been using Kirov years before to find ripe candidates to palm the same female impostor onto. This lady proves to be Karla’s own schizophrenic daughter, Tatiana (Tusse Silberg), the inevitably psychologically shattered offspring of the Machiavellian genius and a partisan heroine he had executed when she went “soft on the Revolution.” Knowing very well that her disease can’t be treated properly in the USSR, Karla has her in a clinic in Switzerland, and wants to secure her as a Western citizen. With differing levels and brands of help of Esterhase, Guillam, Connie, and outsiders like Ostrakova and Kretzschmar, Smiley uncovers this secret. When he ensnares the hapless former economic professor and diplomat Grigoriev (Michael Lonsdale) Karla uses to keep an eye on his daughter and pay for her treatment, Smiley finally has everything he needs to force Karla into defecting.

The change in tone from Tinker Tailor is minor but distinct, and readily observable in Smiley, who, in operating as a “rogue elephant” with barely any official brief, determines to be less delicate and veiled in his efforts and attitudes. That resolve proves occasionally brutal in his desire to be surgical, as when he forcibly reminds Hilary (Norma West), a burnt-out former Circus agent who’s now Connie’s business and romantic partner, of how the laws of The Circus still bind her. Everyone wants him to go away and let them forget the still-binding parts they played in the Cold War and its still living legacy, but his fresh force of purpose (“I’ve been sleepwalking. I’ve woken up!” he declares to Connie) prods him into newly heroic territory. Smiley ventures into the no man’s land between East and West Germany where Leipzig lives, finds his battered corpse, and has to contend with Gypsy louts who suggest some waiting species of barbarian waiting to inherit the earth in one of its greyest zones. Smiley then returns to rescue Ostrakova from her Parisian apartment where she’s been besieged as Karla’s agent assassins, calling in the aid of Guillam (played this time by the equally good, if less appropriately steely, Michael Byrne), who’s been given the cushy post of head of the Parisian office. There’s a lovely moment when George goes to sleep on Guillam’s couch, and Guillam lays a blanket over the taciturn, yet very human old warrior.

Such terrific little touches dot both series, from the many, many choice bits of dialogue to the revealing peccadilloes that constantly show up characters’ pretensions. Amongst my favourites in Tinker Tailor are when Smiley goes to visit Prideuax, who, still recovering from bullet wounds and torture and working as a private school teacher, warns Smiley, “If you’re not alone, I’ll break your neck!” and other moments that depict Prideaux’s hero-worship by Roach, a schoolboy who’s a budding Smiley. In Smiley’s People there’s a particularly funny moment in which some sympathetic operatives who are try to coerce Grigoriev applaud him when he stands up to his obnoxious wife over the phone. Smiley’s visit to Kretzschmar’s “nightclub,” wiping the steam off his glasses in waiting through several live sex acts, is likewise hilarious in its incongruity. The climax of Tinker Tailor is not action pizzazz—though the sequence in which Smiley and Guillam smoke out the mole is suspense-mongering at its most efficient—but Smiley’s interview with an emotionally shattered, imprisoned Haydon. Richardson’s acting in the scene is some of the most perfectly judged I’ve ever seen, and remarkable even amongst a cast that is an embarrassment of riches, from the fitting career caps for Jürgens and Knox, to small roles, including Michael Gough and Ingrid Pitt as the General’s dowdy employees, and Alan Rickman as a hotel clerk, years before he would appear in a feature film. Reid, as Connie, makes the most of her character’s plumy wit, and Atkins as Ostrakova is especially good when upon receiving bad news from Smiley, absorbs it in a slight pause and gets on with her life. Weak points in the cast tend to stand out a mile, like Paul Herzberg’s overly fruity accent as the General’s young go-between in Smiley’s People.

It’s Guinness who had the biggest, hardest job, a couple of years after Star Wars had made him both exponentially more famous and rich than he had been before. Guinness reportedly fretted anxiously about his performance even whilst filming the second series. That’s not so surprising, in spite of what ought to have been Guinness’s unshakable professional confidence by that stage, because what Smiley is thinking, and even what he means when he’s speaking, is so often barely apparent and yet detectable on the finest frequencies, and Guinness’s unswerving dedication to realizing Smiley in such a fashion was a sustained challenge. The scene of Smiley’s final exchange with Haydon is especially refined work, his boiling yet rigidly controlled anger only apparent in slight fumbling and over-large gestures, and the care with which he gets Haydon to give back his pen, in pointed contrast to how he let Karla, who he respected, keep the cigarette lighter that was Smiley’s gift from Ann. Tinker Tailor’s director, John Irvin, went on to an initially interesting cinematic career, adapting Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1984) with a similar necessary feel for minutiae to balance the action, and the underrated, no-nonsense war film Hamburger Hill (1987). Smiley’s People helmsman Simon Langton, on the other hand, stuck mostly to TV work, turning in a very different kind of cult hit with the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that made Colin Firth a star. The emotional charge of the final sequences of Smiley’s People isn’t small, and yet Le Carré’s deeply ambivalent tone is retained. Even as George finally brings his nemesis to heel and theoretically avenges so much loss, the two old and haggard men only glare at each other, the ghost of Tatiana, emblem and offspring of their way of life, as an hysterical, dissociative mess, haunts them both, and Smiley’s lighter, dropped by Karla on the ground, remains there. It’s no victory he’s gained, only an end. Both he and Karla are ultimately two old men lost in no man’s land. The cumulative result is television at its greatest.

30th 01 - 2011 | 6 comments »

Cream in My Coffee (TV, 1980)

Writer: Dennis Potter
Director: Gavin Millar

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The teleplays of Dennis Potter use richly textured language and pop culture from various eras to elucidate his major themes of memory, sex, and deep religiosity. The crucible in which all of these elements worked to their utmost was The Singing Detective (1986), a 415-minute miniseries that showed a creator in complete command of his métier. Of course, the elaborate play of illness, fantasy, nostalgia, pop music of the 1930s, and love’s failures found in that herculean drama did not spring from Potter’s head fully formed. Six years earlier, Potter premiered Cream in My Coffee, a well-developed prototype for some of the more fanciful and rawly emotional elements of The Singing Detective. A drama of domestic disharmony, Cream in My Coffee moves between 1934, when Bernard Wishler (Peter Chelsom) and his girlfriend Jean (Shelagh McLeod) are trying on sex before marriage at Eastbourne’s posh Grand Hotel, and 1980, when Bernard (Lionel Jeffries) and Jean (Peggy Ashcroft) return to the seaside resort in an attempt to repair Bernard’s dying body and their cancerous marriage.

The grandiloquent world in which Bernard and Jean’s love flowers is already in decline, but patrons of the Victorian-era resort are determinedly taking no notice. A large contingent of impeccably appointed servants whose manners and solicitude have taken on an entitled edge attend to the ladies and gents who take tea to the strains of a string trio and dress in formal wear for dinner and dancing to the orchestra playing in the hotel’s grand ballroom. As Jean and Bernard move excitedly to their suite (“one of the best in the hotel,” their porter [Will Stampe] assures them), the sound of wooden curtain pulls knocking against a hall window attracts Jean to look out and admire the grounds. Once in the room, they marvel at how wonderful it is, as the porter stands ready to escort them to any corner of the suite, including the bedroom. A shy and embarrassed Bernard declines and overtips the porter. “I’m not good at these things,” he says to Jean, who is shocked by his extravagance.

The present-day trip to the same room is decidely less a shared thrill for the older Bernard and Jean. Jean, trying to get into the spirit of an enjoyable holiday, stops to admire the sound of the seagulls outside that same hall window. The porter (Leo Dolan) says the sound can make one quite barmy after a while; Bernard, assessing the porter, offers an insulting “clearly.” After a quick inspection of the room, Bernard can only say that it seems small and shabby. Jean says, “We’ve gotten used to better things,” and chirps that at least it’s close to home. “Close to the hospital you mean,” Bernard says. “No, close to home,” she retorts and then decides to unpack. Her hurry to settle in irritates her husband, though she says sensibly, “We don’t want our clothes to crease, do we?” Uttering this rhetorical question further angers Bernard, who accuses Jean of constantly trying to make up his mind for him.

The old saying that familiarity breeds contempt certainly applies to Jean and Bernard as they suffer their way through a long, ill-fated marriage. The two are from different social spheres, with Bernard the educated heir to a retailing fortune given to metaphorical thinking and Jean a literal-minded postal clerk who seems to live quite literally in the moment. Even during their romantic getaway, the pair fights constantly, with Bernard fearing looking ridiculous because of Jean’s obvious and gauche behavior while behaving like a snob and bigot himself. But familiarity in the biblical sense may be the worse problem. Although Jean and Bernard say they are to be married in September, it seems rather likely that Bernard could be exaggerating his commitment simply to bed Jean, whom he finds voluptuously beautiful. Jean is almost certainly not a virgin, and she flirts with Jack Butcher (Martin Shaw), the oily, seductive singer with the dance band, in front of Bernard. Despite his jealous protectiveness toward Jean, Bernard leaves her alone at the hotel to rush home on learning his father has been killed. She views his stiff arm to her involvement with his family as another slight to her standing in his life, gets drunk, and screws Butcher. Like other cuckoldings in Potter’s work, the long-term effects are corrosive.

Cream in My Coffee spends most of its time in the past, giving us a chance to contrast the elegance and romance of Empire England with the erosion not only of Jean and Bernard’s marriage, but also standards of service and cultural wit. The popular songs from the ’30s—a Potter trademark—are clever and danceable, certainly a huge improvement over the ’80s rock music the Wishlers are subjected to in the ballroom (“I want to go to the movies/Why don’t you take me to the movies/Flicker Flicker Flicker Flicker/Movies/Why don’t you take me to the movies”). Nonetheless, this seemingly graceful world is a worm-riddled phantom corporealized only within Victorian throwbacks like the Grand Hotel, and the changing times reveal not only what was lost, but also what needed to go. The mature Bernard is incredibly rude to the immigrant wait staff, hurling slurs with a venom that has Jean apologizing in embarrassment all through her meals, and Bernard’s unrestrained verbal abuse of his wife is shameful.

Watching Shaw lipsynch from the bandstand presages the look Michael Gambon would assume in The Singing Detective for his fantasy singing interludes. Butcher is a far more dubious character, however, than Philip Marlow, thus the lyrics, while offering an ideal of love to which Bernard and Jean aspire (“You’re the cream in my coffee/You’re the salt in my stew/You will always be my necessity/I’d be lost without you”), seem particularly hollow and ironic. The songs of sexual innuendo Shaw sings (“Thank your father/Thank your mother/Thank them both for meeting up with one another/Thank the horse that drew the buggy that night/Thank your dad for being just a bit tight”) seem more to the point.

The play offers beautiful dreams of happiness wrapped together with disappointment and death. Bernard enacts a sweet, almost childish seduction of Jean, only to be interrupted by the phone call informing him of his father’s death. The mature Jean watches some young men toss a young woman into the pool below their window despite her protests that she can’t swim. Her body sinks, and the boys jump in to rescue her, only to find she has been playing a trick on them. Most affecting, the knocking of the wooden curtain pulls spook Bernard every time he hears them, conjuring premonitions of death, “like knocking on your coffin,” he says with a shiver. The association of sex and death is plain and yet artfully rendered.

The production design and cinematography are particularly noteworthy for a television play. A gauzy glow inflects the flashbacks, but the present isn’t completely present. A warm sepia envelopes the modern hotel environs. Bernard complains about the old people in the sparsely populated tea room, seemingly unaware that he’s pushing 70 himself. Later, Bernard finds himself thrown back in time, hallucinating that the young people at the hotel for a dinner/dance of the type that was a nightly occurrence in his day are actually people from the ’30s. Some interesting camera angles frame Bernard and Jean as relics of the past; for example, in one scene, when Jean is returning to her room, a shadow of the Victorian ironwork in the hallway mixes with her shadow, as though she were a piece with it, as well as a prisoner of a bad choice made long ago.

Cream in My Coffee and two other Potter productions from 1980, Blade on the Feather and Rain on the Roof, are available on a three-DVD set called Dennis Potter: 3 to Remember. The set also includes Dennis Potter’s last interview. This collection, of which Cream in My Coffee is the standout, provides an excellent look at Potter’s work near the height of his powers.

9th 01 - 2011 | 16 comments »

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Director: John Carpenter

By Roderick Heath

Few works of ’80s commercial cinema still seem as fresh as John Carpenter’s ninth feature, a rowdy, rocking hunk of fun that both fulfils and subverts many ideals of action filmmaking. Big Trouble has been described as ahead of its time, in that it anticipated, and still outclasses, the great wave of Asian-Hollywood fusion flicks that took over action cinema from the mid ’90s on, represented by The Matrix, Kill Bill, the American starring vehicles of Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li, and sundry others martial-arts-infused movies. But in other, fundamental ways, it’s still unique. It was, in its own moment, a painful flop that effectively ended Carpenter’s rise up the rungs of Hollywood, in spite of it being his most stylistically confident and technically accomplished film; his next work, Prince of Darkness (1987), was a virtual bargain-basement affair. The reasons for Big Trouble’s failure are now practically lost in the mist of time, but its cult status today is undeniable and entirely deserved.

Carpenter’s career up until that point had been one of the most inspired of all the American directors to emerge in the ’70s. His debut film Dark Star (1974), expanded from a film school short and made on budget that couldn’t afford a spare shoestring, gained him notice. His colossal independent hit Halloween (1978), for better and for worse, redefined the horror genre. His greatest film, The Thing (1982), a bleakly brilliant remake of a seminal scifi movie, was controversial and perceived as a failure, but he bounced back with the popular Starman (1984). On Big Trouble’s DVD commentary track, Carpenter and star Kurt Russell recall with some hilarity how in the excited lead-up to the film’s release, the trade press asked, “How does it feel to know you’ve made the biggest film of the year?” That turned out a little inaccurate. Carpenter had begun in films hoping to make Westerns, but that genre was already in terminal decline. Horse opera flourishes still riddle virtually all his films, and Big Trouble in Little China was initially written as a Western. But the finished script was transposed to a contemporary locale. Inspired by specific Asian models like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, Carpenter also honoured Albert Zugsmith’s brilliantly weird Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), with the heroine of Zugsmith’s film, June Kyoto Lu, appearing here as a brothel madam. The screenplay by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein was rewritten by W. D. Richter, who had previously tried to put over his oddball ideal of tongue-in-cheek adventure with his equally cultish, equally unsuccessful The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984). And yet the result is Carpenter through and through.

A decade after Chinatown used the titular locale as shorthand for all that’s impenetrable and anti-democratic in American life, Big Trouble tried to use Little China as a place where the cultures of East and West could blend, and Carpenter brought his deep knowledge and love of martial arts films to invest the film with a flavour simultaneously loving and glib. Interestingly, too, as I’ve come back to take another look at Carpenter’s maligned later works, I’ve noticed more and more how the self-mocking flavour of Big Trouble infuses them, if essayed in some clumsier ways. The mix of high-tensile formal control, nuts-and-bolts honesty, and subversive, often dark-hued humour that had marked out Carpenter as a director of low-budget fare presented problems in being translated into ’80s big-budget Hollywood. His handmade sensibility betrays itself in its soundtrack. Whereas other blockbusters of the time would have soundtrack songs by Prince or Bon Jovi, presaging our era in which “soundtracks” are released featuring songs not even used in the films they’re supposed to be associated with, in egregious marketing cons, Big Trouble has a groovy, goofy theme performed by the Coupe De Villes, the band Carpenter and his longtime friends and collaborators Tommy Lee Wallace and Nick Castle put together.

Big Trouble’s cheeky take on the genre template commences with the fact that Jack Burton, the hero Kurt Russell plays, isn’t really the hero at all. He’s a tough-talking truck driver, fond of broadcasting his personal mythology over the CB radio and coming on like John Wayne’s bastard son, but he’s not too far from the kinds of character Bob Hope and Don Adams played, a posturing clot with occasional moments of competence—a poke in the eye for what was then the cult of greased-up machismo represented by Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Jack is friend and veritable sidekick to Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), whose physical prowess as a brilliant martial artist and motivation to snatch back his true love from the forces of evil clearly mark him as the real protagonist.

Carpenter and Russell had previously worked together on the telemovie Elvis (1979), Escape from New York (1981), and The Thing, but Big Trouble was the true high point of that collaboration, at least in terms of the director’s intent and the actor’s capacities meshing. Few other young male movie stars have ever betrayed such a willingness to send themselves up as Russell did here. Burton answers the question “Are you ready?” when venturing into any enemy lair with a swaggering “I was born ready!” Once there, however, he drops weapons, can’t work out how to let go of an opponent he’s holding prone, and looks momentarily shocked when he shoots someone, giving away his essential lack of experience as a tough guy.

Another thing that marked Carpenter out as a filmmaker, but which made him seem increasingly out of place in modern Hollywood, is his care in evoking a sense of milieu and situating his heroes as a part of an ordinary world. Often, they’re blue collar dudes and ladies, included by accident in greater machinations. Big Trouble commences with an opening that gives a fine sense of Burton as both a bit of a blowhard, ranting on the radio before cramming a giant hoagie in his mouth, but also as a cool guy. After delivering a load of produce to a market in San Francisco, he sits down to gamble with the mostly Asian porters and buyers, including his old friend Wang Chi, a self-made restaurateur. Carpenter doesn’t need a word of dialogue to show us who Burton, Wang, and the rest are: normal people doing real things and relaxing in a normal way, the sort of things nobody does in modern action blockbusters except in the most laboriously signposted fashions. The only remarkable moment is a challenge between Wang and Jack. Wang, who’s just lost all the money he’d saved up for a lavish welcome back from China for his fiancée, bets Jack double or nothing he can split a beer bottle in half with a meat cleaver. He fails, and Jack catches the bottle, which shoots across the table at him, proving he has brilliant reflexes. That’s a classic piece of establishing a hero’s gifts, but it’s a promise the film deliberately, hilariously delays fulfilling.

Jack recompenses Wang by taking him to pick up said fiancée, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), from the airport, where Jack eyes Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), a civil rights lawyer. She’s trying to shepherd immigrant Tara (Min Luong) safely past a waiting coterie of thugs from a Chinatown street gang on the lookout for girls to kidnap and force into prostitution. When the goons snatch Tara, Jack confronts them, only to be quickly toppled; the thugs take Miao Yin instead. Jack and Wang chase them to Chinatown, where they’re caught in the middle of a battle between the evil Wing Kong triad, and the good-guy Chang Sing gang, who are having the funeral procession for a leader and are ambushed by their enemies. The Chang Sing’s retaliation proves effective until the intervention of the Three Storms—Thunder (Carter Wong), Lightning (James Pax), and Rain (Peter Kwong)—bizarre beings that seem to have supernatural powers. The Storms slaughter the Chang Sings where they stand. When Jack tries to escape this melee by driving his truck through it, he seems to run down a tall, regally dressed man whom Wang thinks might be David Lo Pan (James Hong), the legendary head of the Wing Kong. Lo Pan seems unhurt by Jack’s truck, and rays of blinding light shoot from his eyes and mouth.

Jack soon learns that he and Wang have stumbled into the middle of a metaphysical battle of good and evil. Working with Gracie, whose knowledge of Chinatown’s criminal dealings is great, Jack infiltrates the White Tiger, a brothel where sex slaves are bought and sold, to find Miao Yin. Unfortunately, she’s snatched away by the Three Storms and taken to the underground lair of Lo Pan. He proves to be a 2,000-year-old soldier and magician, cursed by the gods for his offences, who is really a fleshless spirit desperately in search of a girl with green eyes he can marry to end his curse. Miao Yin fits the bill. Jack and Wang’s efforts to find her in Lo Pan’s headquarters prove a comic disaster until they manage to escape and free a number of captive women. But Gracie is left in the hands of Lo Pan and when he proves that both she and Miao Yin can survive the rituals for testing his brides, he plans to marry both, sacrificing one and keeping the other to be his companion as he conquers the universe. Wang and Jack are aided in their quest by Gracie’s journalist friend Margo Lane (Kate Burton), Wang’s debonair maitre d’ Eddie (Donald Li), the Chang Sings, and general-purpose sorcerer and tour guide Egg Shen (Victor Wong).

The quality of Big Trouble that sets it apart from many similar ’80s films and makes it tantalisingly hard to describe is the fluent ease with which it shifts between genres and tones: a giddy succession of swerves from slapstick to melodrama; Howard Hawksian verbal byplay; Tsui Hark wire-fu shenanigans; comic book hoot; resonant, sexually and mystically mysterious epic. Carpenter’s shift into action-oriented fare after mostly making horror movies, in which control of mood, atmosphere, and story progression are key assets, saw him assay Big Trouble with a contiguous grace that eludes most physically dynamic movies where a motion rush becomes paramount. Big Trouble’s atmosphere is tangible, as the heroes perform the gleeful boyish fantasy of taking a turn down just the right side street and being plunged into an adventure. When I was very young, I used to live within a stone’s throw of Sydney’s Chinatown and the old markets close by, and the visual pentimento of that area is one Carpenter’s film reproduces in a fashion that stokes an intense nostalgia in me.

The heroes enter an urban landscape of old tangled buildings that’s wreathed in mist and rain and decorated by the perfervid colours of Chinese restaurant neon and gilt. Cinematographer Dean Cundey, Carpenter’s collaborator since Halloween, bathes the film in lustrous hues. Carpenter’s remarkably illustrative style was at a peak, full of gloriously animated tracking shots that outlay physical context and unity of action with balletic, yet functional intricacy. Jack and Wang run off from Lo Pan on the street and thread their way through back alleys, dodging villains, only to end up back where they started, all without a cut. Later on in the film when the heroes are escaping, Cundey’s steadicam pursues them out through a veritable maze of rooms and doors in their drive back toward the real world at breakneck speed, their rush to freedom made a truly, physically imperative act.

General audiences have often tended to be uneasy when action movies move too much toward the comedic—witness the way Sam Raimi and Steven Spielberg had new ones torn for them for making the later Spider-Man and Indiana Jones entries too funny. Big Trouble’s blending of farce and fury took studio execs by surprise and the 20th Century Fox chief demanded that a more portentous prologue be attached to the film to make Jack, in particular, seem more worthy (though that prologue’s a great little bit in itself). The often deliriously funny vignettes revolve around gags that push to outer edges of mockery, like that in which Jack advises his fellows in escaping the lair, “Follow the leader,” only to pull back a door and be confronted with a gang of enemies, forcing Jack to close the door again and amend his instructions. Or when, with gun jammed and his knife fumbled, Jack has to retreat from a brawl, then returns with a swashbuckling yell only to find Wang’s lain waste to the enemy horde. Or, at the cusp of the great final battle, Jack fires his gun in the air in a warlike moment of exaltation only to have masonry fall on his head and knock him unconscious. Or when he kisses Gracie and then confronts Lo Pan and Thunder with a mouth smeared in her lipstick. But there’s also action that’s simultaneously hilarious and brilliant, like the lengthy duel Wang has with Rain, punctuated by the eyebrow-waggle Wang gives in taunting Rain, who’s amazed at his mortal opponent’s abilities under the influence of Egg Shen’s magic potion.

Under the surface effervescence, another strength of Big Trouble is that unlike most subsequent fantasy and East-West fusions, Carpenter captures, and even builds upon, the mystical weirdness that infuses much wu xia filmmaking. This is clear in images like Lo Pan transforming from his flaccid old guise into young ghost and passing through walls, and when Jack and the Chang Sing warriors follow Egg Shen down a fire pole into a subterranean shadow world where monsters lurk and the “black blood of the Earth” flows. The references to Chinese mythology alternate wryness with wistful seriousness, and Carpenter’s music score communicates a spacey, almost haunting underpinning to the adventure – the fact that many Hong Kong films of the same period sported synthesizer-dominated scores like Carpenter’s increases the likeness. There’s an erotic edge to Lo Pan’s fleshless lusts, and the ritual he performs to test Miao Yin and Gracie possesses a dreamily sexual vibe, communicated by slow motion and the ritualised cavorting of Lo Pan’s magical minions, as the women are lulled into a rigid trance by the exercises of Thunder and Rain before proving their mettle. They are stripped of their sight and identity, reduced essentially to dolls so that Lo Pan can marry them. None of this dominates the film’s giddy tone, of course, but it does flesh out the drama and give it the right tint of strangeness.

The notion that the spooky stories we hear as kids conceal something true and intangibly threatening, exemplified in Halloween and The Fog, reappears here for Wang, whose alpha immigrant success story is built on half-suppressed belief in childhood spook stories that retain a powerful potency, standing in contrast to Jack’s self-dramatising. When the relevance of those stories suddenly asserts itself, Wang is pinioned somewhere between the modern and ancient worlds, cultural identity and self-definition. Jack’s being out of his depth in a world he barely comprehends is continually reiterated. Carpenter, both a celebrator of old-fashioned American toughness and individualism, but also a cunning lefty satirist, makes a constant meal of Jack’s queasy declamation which brings Reaganite pomposity squarely to mind. Jack, the big-talking white man, squares off against the innately cool poise of the Chinese-Americans he falls in with. Inevitably, when he is confronted by a mob of Chang Sings and asks whether “any of them savvy English,” one tough looks at Wang and asks in contempt, “Hey man, who is this guy?” This sparks a competitiveness of manliness that sees one of the Chang Sings biting off the head of a raw fish and offering some to Jack, who responds, oh so calmly, “Later.” Even Lo Pan, in spite of his age and seclusion, has an assured grasp of contemporary street argot (“Now this really pisses me off to no end!”). Jack, on the other hand, is no better off than Margo, whose comment, “I must just be so monumentally naïve!” as a self-aware pathetic liberal, is swiftly confirmed by Eddie. But Jack does have his fine moments, such as when he springs the captive women from their cages, and when he performs what is virtually ritualistic for pulp heroes (compare with similar moments for Bogart in The Big Sleep and Ford in Blade Runner) when they put on an act to investigate. Jack presents himself as a gruesome caricature of a Midwestern milquetoast would-be swinger, introducing himself at the White Tiger: “Hello ma’am. Henry Swanson’s my name, and excitement’s my game!”

If Big Trouble had been made now, then Dun’s terrific, energetic and witty performance might have stood a chance of making him a star. Cattrall’s then-fledgling career was both hurt by the flop, but given one of its best moments. It’s hideous to think of the spectacle of her in the grotesque Sex and the City franchise after having grown up with her smoking-hot, garrulous performance here as Gracie, whose rapid-fire channelling of Lois Lane and Rosalind Russell links the movie most thoroughly to pulp of times past. Just as good is Victor Wong’s Egg Shen, who fills the role of an Obi Wan sensei, but whose style and persona skips right past all the niceties, to Jack’s increasingly sarcastic, appalled edification. He waves a “six-demon bag!” full of “wind, fire, stuff like that!” and pours out a steaming magic potion that will allow the good warriors to fight on a par with the magical beings: “You can see things no-one else can see, do things no-one else can do!” First glimpsed driving his tour bus, which Jack nearly runs off the road, Egg seems a comic caricature at first, but proves to be the destined nemesis of Lo Pan, engaging in a nuttily brilliant duel of conjured spirits when they confront each other in the final battle. Wong, who barely had any acting work for years before being cast in Wayne Wang’s Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985) and then rising to attention in this film, was a born scene-stealing comic actor.

James Hong as Lo Pan is an evergreen surprise. Generally known for playing gaunt, cagey ciphers, a la his role as the guardian of dark secrets in Chinatown, Hong presents Lo Pan as alternately the dirtiest of old men when he’s in his corporeal shell of withered leathery flesh, swearing and teasing Gracie with insidious delight, and a weirdly beautiful supernatural master in his classical garb and make-up, appealing to the unconscious Miao Yin with poetic cadence and quivering with frustrated desire. Such flourishes makes Lo Pan a far deeper kind of villain than the usual run, and Hong’s intuitively perfect performance struck such a deep chord with the actor that he directed a film, The Vineyard (1989), that reiterates aspects of this film’s plot. Lo Pan gets his comeuppance, eventually, but that’s really the throwaway end to a grandiose fight. Carpenter even makes fun of the usually epic deaths of supernatural villains by having Lo Pan succumb to the simplest of implements,with his great collection of plaster buddhas spontaneously collapsing like dominos, as if the gods are marking the passing of a great if evil force. Carpenter’s filming of the preceding fight is a source of constant delight to me, with a comic-book-like clarity of action displayed in the way Carpenter offers frames that are cut in half by swords or criss-crossed by battling opponents swooping from one edge to the other. Such stylistic rigour, light years away from the happenstance gibberish seen in so many recent action films, gives a sense of the physical space, combined with the rapidity of the editing and the dynamism of the stuntmen, in what is still a master class for this sort of thing. Whatever Big Trouble’s failures as a revenue earner, it was a big triumph as entertainment.


11th 08 - 2010 | 11 comments »

Die Hard (1988)

Director: John McTiernan

By Roderick Heath

For comics and satirists these days, an understanding of the 1980s action movie is as reliable a source of easy gags as the lexicon of Westerns and Tarzan movies were for Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and their generation. The send-ups of ritualised narratives, posturing, and pomposity get laughs because of the painfully personal dating of what once looked so cool and because so many of us watched those movies and can’t quite work out how life never worked out so freaking awesome. One irony is that a lot of ’80s action films were, at least tacitly, already comedies, made with tongues planted deep in cheeks and full of self-aware touches. The meta joke of Die Hard’s villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) mocking hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) as another American brat addicted to fantasies of John Wayne and Rambo echoes on and on in popular culture.

John McTiernan’s 1988 action-adventure classic was an adaptation of Roderick Thorpe’s pulp thriller Nothing Lasts Forever, from which the script was drawn with a degree of fidelity by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza. They substituted McClane for Thorpe’s recurring hero Joe Leland, who had been played by Frank Sinatra in the 1968 film The Detective. McClane, introduced lugging around a stuffed bear upon arrival in Los Angeles and trying to roll with the tiny, proliferating perversities of the West Coast, is the archetypal blue collar guy who’s worked himself up to a post that would have once have garnered him great respect. But L.A. and the Nakatomi Plaza, where his estranged wife Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) works, is one gigantic proof of his irrelevance. From being picked up in a limousine casually whistled up by the company as a friendly gesture but one that feels like the worst form of patronisation imaginable, to the office with unctuous coke fiends like Ellis (Hart Bochner), a Nakatomi exec who’s the model slick-talking yuppie wanker, trying to make Holly, and discovering his wife’s readoption of her maiden name to assert her independence, Die Hard essentially lays out a long series of little ego deaths for John. He contends with them sporting a wry, cagey smile, but even the efforts of the sartorial CEO Takagi (James Shigeta) to put him at ease with offhand jokes about Pearl Harbour and too many reminders of his wife’s quality don’t work.

Then, like the most ironically grotesque of godsends, a team of heat-packing terrorists arrive, and, of course, John gets the chance to do what he’s capable at: the kicking of much ass. Up against a motley collective of international thugs led by Gruber, John turns the tactics of the terrorists back on them, using speed, agility, creative use of terrain, improvised weapons, and even psychological warfare to rumble his opponents. He’s sustained only by the support of L.A. police sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), the first local cop to arrive on the scene after John’s signals for aid are all but ignored by officious locals. Powell talks John through crises by CB radio as the rest of the LAPD rolls up ready to charge in like the Rough Riders, playing right into Gruber’s Machiavellian strategy. Whilst Gruber waits for the inevitable moment when the FBI will cut the power to the building, giving him access to a super-secure vault, McClane’s efforts reduce the team of thugs one by one, inspiring the particular wrath of Gruber’s chief henchman, Karl (Alexander Gudonov), after John kills his younger brother, another of the crew.

I hadn’t seen Die Hard in quite a long time, and revisiting it now was all the more interesting for the passage of time. Although elements have certainly dated, it’s perhaps clearer now just how good a film it is. It has a theoretical similarity to many an old noir movie like The Desperate Hours (1955) or Split Second (1953), in which an assailed hero squares off against a kidnapping villain. But Die Hard also has big, gnarly explosions, superlatively filmed and edited action scenes, and a truly epic sweep. Certainly essayed in the broadest and most caricatured of terms, its rollicking, unceasing narrative flow nonetheless casts a lithe, coherent eye on so much of late ’80s culture. The golden years of Japanese business imperialism, yuppie excess, macho overcompensation, media saturation, the state of modern marriage and manhood, and the problems of the traditional family dealing with the effects of second-wave feminism, the alchemy of former radicals into enthusiastic capitalists, and even the alienation of technology, all come in for a volley in the course of the film. It’s also bracing to recall such a mixture of fantastically distorted reality and enthusiastically, viciously tactile violence.

It’s this intricate, reflexive sensibility that helps make Die Hard surprising, whilst it still manages to keep its focus squarely on the most important elements: McClane’s interactions with helpmate Al and nemesis Gruber over the radio and his despairing desire to get back to Holly and finish the conversation he was fouling up earlier. His war with Gruber’s team is the best way he can express his devotion whilst freeing himself from the humiliation of his wife’s business success. McClane’s a strong, focused, morally and emotionally simple man whose refusal to concede to forces greater than himself has made him the odd man out in a careerist, often willfully ignorant world. Such were fairly common character traits in ’80s genre flicks, and in his blue-collar resentment, unswerving moral core, and sense of waning masculine clout, he’s essentially a toned-down version of Mickey Rourke’s character in Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon (1984). John’s only easy amicability is with commonsense, African-American characters Al and his chauffeur Argyle (De’voreaux White) who are still engaged in the aspirational struggle that is John’s defining background creed—one that had been blithely ignored by corporate triumphalism.

But the thing that was different about McClane as an action hero was that once he got started, he set about his business with a relish that unsettled his opponents. Taunting them with harsh humour, knowing only the roughhouse pith of Irish street-fighting, he has no time for playing the gentleman, and he turns his own lack of polish here into a fundamental asset. John, whilst being astounded by his own gall and ability to survive and think on his feet, carrying on his sarcastic, self-reprobating monologues all the while, nonetheless proves cocky, even ruthless, and innately equipped for such barnstorming heroics. “Only John can drive somebody that crazy!” Holly perceives in watching Karl smash things in frustration, understanding that not only is John still alive in the building, but that he’s finally found his metier. John’s defiant preference for the most ludicrous Western hero of all, Roy Rogers, inspires his profane kiss-off “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” angrily rejects cultural conservatism in favour of a rudely evolving sense of American iconography.

Time and time again, the characters around John are defined by blissful ignorance or arrogant stupidity. The paranoia of ’70s films involving politics and violence has given way to a general impression that most of the modern world is defined not by power and conspiracy, but by idiocy, marketing, and corruption. Bochner’s hilarious performance as Ellis contrasts John in his belief that words and style, as opposed to dedication and substance, can solve everything; he tries to make a deal with “Hans, bubby!” only to get shot in the face for his pains. Moronic pretty boys rule the media: the vignette of anchor Harvey Johnson (David Ursin) being corrected after stating that Helsinki is in Sweden, is as devastating as anything in Broadcast News and takes 1/500th as long to make its point than that smug film. And, of course, rapacious hack Richard Thornburg (William Atherton, at the height of his career phase of playing hissworthy assholes) finishes up endangering the whole McClane family by stooping to the lowest, most thoughtless kind of gutter journalism. People in authority and trusted positions repeatedly use their power to humiliate and threaten ordinary workers—it’s no wonder they’re all Johnsons.

The LAPD becomes hopelessly dedicated to simultaneously showing off and covering its own ass. John’s initial attempts to call in the cavalry can’t overcome officious call centre operatives, the Deputy Police Chief Robinson (Paul Gleason) puts down all of his efforts because they’re not under control, SWAT officers charge in to traps they’ve been warned about, and the blowhard FBI pairing Agent Johnson (Grand L. Bush) and Special Agent Johnson (Robert Davi) strut in, oozing machismo and authority, to do exactly what Hans wants them to do in following their standard procedure whilst thinking they’re in absolute control. It’s easy to read Die Hard as reactionary fantasy—all-American tough guy takes out the Eurotrash and reestablishes the nuclear family; traumatised Al regains his gun-toting mojo right at the end when he kills a surprisingly undead Karl—but its instinctual resonances spread in many directions.

Special Agent Johnson’s whoop of glee when he and his partner ride Chinooks through the streets of L.A., hollering “Just like fuckin’ Saigon,” sets up a purposeful contrast: the arrogant, trigger-happy desire to avenge the failures of Vietnam amongst Reaganite officials is personified in contrast to John’s apparently messy, but actually highly focused efforts to deal with the problem. The tactics the police utilise reproduce Vietnam’s heresies, hurling obvious, militaristic tactics and hardware at a situation that instead demands brains and pinpoint force. John has a specifically personal, defensive, as opposed to unilaterally aggressive, motive at heart, and he’s characterised not as an inheritor of the Vietnam legacy but of the WWII GI spirit, as his discomfort at the spectacle of Japanese-American fusion is swiftly channelled to good use when the terrorists, belonging in nationality to another Axis enemy, stage their own Pearl Harbour sneak attack (the sequel, 1990’s darker Die Hard 2, explicitly characterised John’s adventures now as “Just like Iwo Jima!”).

Meanwhile Hans and crew, whilst defined as former German radicals (a theme so touchy that in Germany they were recharacterised as Irish), have actually dedicated themselves to Mammon, their true purpose to rob a fortune in bearer bonds, and then cynically dynamite all the hostages to fool the authorities. This depoliticised touch was reputedly an element McTiernan insisted on, and it was a smart one, for it not only provides humour—Hans’s phony list of political prisoners to be released, picked willy-nilly from magazines, is very funny—but also extended John’s conflict with business and bureaucracy. Hans and team have merely taken business warfare and thoughtless consumption to a limit in deciding to play that game. Holly’s anxiety about showing weakness in her place of business has demanded she assume the persona of dissociated toughness, and Hans’s discovery of her true identity is the most painfully extreme version of her anxiety. John’s final battle with Hans demands the Rolex watch the company gave to Holly, a symbolic wedding ring to the new age of rootless money-worship, and to be unclipped and discarded, causing Hans to fall to his death.

Although Die Hard, like many of its breed, is deliberately funny, what was clearly proven by Len Wiseman’s sanitised, plasticised Live Free or Die Hard in 2007, in which McClane couldn’t even get the whole of his signature catchphrase out lest it get the film a prohibitive censor rating, was that the Hollywood action film has lost its balls. In Die Hard, great gobs of blood spurt out of bodies when they’re shot, huge explosions rip apart bastions of capitalism, salty language drops from many a mouth, and even the most ludicrous action scenes still look and feel somehow, vaguely real. McClane took the exasperated, but brutality-absorbing normality of Indiana Jones and placed it in a squarely contemporary context. The final images of McClane reveal a man caked in blood and sweat, barely able to stand because of the gashes, gouges, and scorch marks all over his body. His suffering to a degree of physical punishment that had rarely been received by a screen hero before, evokes an almost martyrlike cleansing as the necessary catalyst for John’s return to home and hearth.

Die Hard is not a flawless film. McTiernan’s desire to take the edge off the violence with humor provides a bit too much comic relief, and there are at least four or five characters too many vying for attention. But as both entry and exemplar in the action movie stakes, it stands effortlessly tall, and always in that hyper-efficient, unself-conscious tradition in Hollywood filmmaking that has a recognisable link to the work of Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks. McTiernan, who had only two feature films to his credit before this (1986’s moody, bizarre Nomads, and 1987’s standard-setting Predator), provides direction so sleek that you almost don’t notice it; it takes a real effort to sit back and watch how he builds shots and scenes, like one marvellous tracking shot on the roof that swings from one group of terrorists flushing John to Karl, who treads forth carefully like a true predator (Godunov’s physicality exhibits his background as a dancer, and he died tragically young), with the nocturnal cityscape behind it all—context as well as excitement beautifully delivered. McTiernan’s later bad habit of blocking his action too tightly is rarely in evidence. The look of the film, courtesy of Jan de Bont (who went on to direct Speed [1994]), with its glittering surfaces and carefully diffused shades of silvery blue blotched here and there by the flashing police lights, flames, and floods of blood, is ’80s cinematography at its definitive. Kudos, too, to Michael Kamen’s thrilling score.

Rickman, strutting through the film like a leopard in a suit, is more charismatic in his villainy— still often voted some of the best of all time—than the heroics of most leading men. It’s almost impossible to believe that Rickman, then 42, was making his feature film debut. The contrast between his silken threat and John’s blunt, blustery persona is one of the most indelible contrasts in the history of genre filmmaking. Willis has grown a lot as an actor since his breakthrough here, but it’s so easy to perceive why this remains his most associated role. His terse, faintly exasperated tension in the early scenes is redolent of withheld emotion and compact force turned inward at the outset, and builds to the moment when he cuts his latent savagery loose on Karl with rampant, animalistic fury. Bedelia, whilst cast in a passive role, nonetheless delivers a terrific performance as she contends with Hans. “Frankly, I don’t enjoy being this close to you,” she articulates with exact, fearless acidity, making it clear why she’s the kind of woman John would brave all the terrors of the world to get back.

Yippee-ki-yay, folks.

10th 06 - 2010 | 4 comments »

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Spike Lee

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Everyone who reads me knows my great admiration for Melvin Van Peebles, whose ground-breaking films have created an authentic, modern voice for the African-American experience. His heir apparent is, of course, Spike Lee, the most enduring of the African-American directors to emerge in the 1980s. His debut feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, is a derivative affair—one is constantly reminded of Woody Allen while watching it—but at the same time, it has all the vitality and fizzy, alchemic mix of amateurism and professionalism our best directors demonstrate in their juvenilia.

She’s Gotta Have It is structured in a documentary style, with its central character, Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), telling the audience that this film will set the record straight about who she is and what she’s about. Nola, a sexy, attractive, independent woman, lives alone in a large apartment in Brooklyn and makes a living in graphic design. She got that apartment, we learn from her friend and former roommate Clorinda Bradford (Joie Lee), when Clorinda complained about all the strange men she would find using her bathroom in the mornings after their evenings with Nola. We go on to meet the three men Nola has settled on since moving out: Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee). Each man, like Bradford, is introduced with his name overlaid on the screen, and given the chance to tell his version of his relationship with Nola.

Jamie, who seems to have the inside track with Nola, followed her after seeing her on the street and basically threw himself at her feet. He’s solid, sincere, and romantic; when they make love for the first time, it is sensuously choreographed to the wonderful jazz score Spike’s father Bill wrote for the film, with all of the candles on Nola’s many-shelved headboard blazing and melting.

Mars is a nebbishy Woody Allen type, with insecurity and immaturity written all over him. He wears a large, gold, autograph necklace around his neck, rides his bike everywhere, and repeats sentences over and over like he is trying to jackhammer himself into Nola’s consciousness (his famous plea, “Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please,” has been a staple on t-shirts since the movie came out). Nola likes him because he is funny and brings out the kid in her, and he seems to have known her a long time from the neighborhood. Their sex scene seems to emphasize Mars’ childishness by focusing closely on him sucking on her nipple in a contrasting style of arthouse chic.

Greer is successful, narcissistic, and lives in the center of the universe—Manhattan. He tells us that he molded Nola, taking her out of her raggedy-ass self and teaching her refinement. She is always very chic in his company, and a scene where Nola and Greer’s exercise routine gives way to sex is a small comic gem. Nola seductively lowers the straps of her leotard and gets into bed. Greer slowly removes each piece of clothing and painstakingly folds it while Nola grows increasingly bored and impatient. This comedic set-up is followed by overhead shots quick-cut to humorous effect as Greer moves under the covers and around the bed almost like an aerobic workout.

But, predictably, the men in Nola’s life don’t like sharing her. Jamie is particularly persistent in trying to become her one and only, literally offering her a song and dance—the only part of the film shot in living color—as proof of his devotion and then taking up with the female in the dance duet to make Nola jealous. In what can only be described as the act of a clueless woman, Nola invites her three lovers over for Thanksgiving, emphasizing that it’s the very first Thanksgiving feast she’s ever cooked. The men squabble—Mars makes fun of Greer’s preference for white meat—and Nola leaves them to their own devices as she goes to sleep. Jamie cradles her on the bed as Greer and Mars finally give up and go home.

Lee seems to have gathered all his friends and family for this one, casting his sister and having his father play Nola’s father. I have to think that Raye Dowell, who plays a lesbian who is interested in Nola, was cast because she was a family friend—she is without question one of the worst actresses I’ve ever seen and spent half of her short acting career in other Spike Lee Joints. Johns is as fine as the men in the film say she is and is very likeable and intriguing in this role, even though her line readings reveal that she probably wasn’t a trained actress either—this was her first film. The male actors have substance, with Spike as the best of them, his energy and sarcasm enlivening the proceedings.

Lee may have latched onto a Woody Allen theme (male insecurity), format, and environment, but he’s a modern man who accords women their own agency, as a number of the better films of the 1980s did, most notably Sea of Love (1989). Jamie, frustrated with Nola’s insistence on following her own desires, rapes her, and Greer sends her to a psychiatrist (S. Epatha Merkerson, the only actor in the film to have made a recognizable name for herself), who declares Nola completely normal. Nola breaks up with Greer and Mars, but can’t make a go of it with Jamie, who we see from the very beginning is too possessive. In the end, Nola declares “It’s really about control, my body, my mind. Who was going to own it? Them? Or me? I’m not a one-man woman. Bottom line.”

The film incorporates a collage of styles Lee must have studied in the Tisch School of Arts’ film program. There’s a little bit of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) in Lee’s use of photographic stills, shot by his brother David, to create certain montage scenes, a technique he seems to echo in the collage Nola creates on her wall. He’s goes the full-color route for the dance duet in the park as an apparent homage to the great Technicolor musicals Hollywood churned out in its Golden Age. And his architectural landscapes reflect both Antonioni and Allen’s Manhattan.

Lee would return with more force to the subject of love and independent agency in subsequent films, such as his superlative School Daze (1988) and Jungle Fever (1991), as well as the intraracial politics in the African-American community that he subtly explores here. His body of work is polished, accomplished, and important, but She’s Gotta Have It is an exuberant, homestyle film that deserves respect and affection.

20th 05 - 2010 | 20 comments »

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

Picture my five-year-old self hiding in horror behind the chair of Sydney’s State Theatre cinema, unable to face the unthinkable: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) allowing his leading lady Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) to be lowered into a pit of boiling lava. Indiana Jones…evil?! And yet, soon enough, an iconic moment of heroism personified, with a long line of screen ancestors, supplanted this nightmare: Jones appears silhouetted before a (literal) Thug who’s about to beat the hell out of an enslaved child, before the lamp of an advancing mining car slowly reveals his face, glowering in righteous fury. The concussive punches Jones lands aren’t even shown, only the result, as the Thug slides away through the dirt, as if the wrath of Jehovah just hit him. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones film, Jehovah intervened personally to teach some Nazis a lesson: in Temple of Doom, Indiana becomes a Maccabee.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was an almost perfect mean for action-adventure filmmaking. It’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the baby of masterminds Steven Spielberg and George Lucas alone. Two other notables of the Movie Brat generation, Philip Kaufman and Lawrence Kasdan, helped write Raiders, and in that first film, the hero bore as much resemblance to the shady noir and Western antiheroes Kaufman and Kasdan loved as to Spielberg’s battered everymen and Lucas’s super-warriors. By the second Indiana Jones film, Kaufman and Kasdan were busy with their own directing projects, so the installment was written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who had penned Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) and polished the script for Star Wars (1977). (Huyck would go on to inadvertently demolish Lucas’s own temple of cash with the bizarre Howard the Duck in 1986.) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was another colossal hit, and yet one that’s often been treated as a bit of a millstone and a turning point for its maker. I’ve always adored it, for strong is the hold the things that scare the hell out of us at five years of age, so it’s worthwhile for me to study what I get out of it that others don’t.

As usual, the lightning-paced, serial-inspired storyline sees Dr. Jones leap from the frying pan—battling Chinese kingpin Lao Che (Roy Chiao) and his psycho son (Ric Young) after they’ve poisoned him—into a different fire. Indy and his new tagalongs, Willie, a singer at Lao’s nightclub, and Wan “Short Round” Li (Jonathan Ke Huy Quan) face death as the pilots of a plane they used to escape Shanghai—a plane belonging to Lao—try to ensure their demise by draining off the fuel and bailing out. Indy’s quick thinking gets them off the plane using an inflatable raft as a parachute and soon enough, after plunging over a cliff and riding swollen rapids, they come to a peaceful stop in northern India. They are confronted by a wizened old shaman (D. R. Nanayakkara), who takes their having fallen from the sky as a sign they’re destined to help rescue his village from the withering curse laid upon it when the sacred Sankara Stone was stolen from the village by the followers of a revival of the dreaded Thugee cult. These murderous worshippers of the goddess Kali, the Shaman says, is based in the palace of the young Maharajah of Pankot (Raj Singh).

After comedic hesitations, Indy, Willie, and Short Round reach the palace, and Temple of Doom fulfils the darker horror-movie-inspired edge of Raiders—so much so that the filmmakers unnerved themselves, especially after the result was persecuted as a saga that kept the imperialist precepts of writers like Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, and Rudyard Kipling overly intact. There is some truth in this as an ingrained aspect of the kind of pulp Spielberg and Lucas were celebrating, but to be honest, it’s hard to know exactly why bad guys deserve a hammering any less when they’re Thugs than when they’re Nazis and when the cultural clashes are so cartoonishly overdrawn. Bad guys these are: their wicked high priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri, whose effectiveness secured him a lucrative career playing baddies in dozens of Bollywood films) tears the hearts out devout of Hindus and lowers them into that pit of lava, whilst an army of enslaved children labours to enrich his cult.

There is an ironic felicity in plunging Willie into a third world situation where she’s constantly freaked out by wild animals, smelly elephants, crawling insects and repulsive foreign delicacies. Willie, though inspired by the drama queens of ’30s screwball films, is equally a contemporary Hollywood diva (desperately seeking a phone to call her agent and complaining about broken nails) and an extremely caricaturised version of a rich white tourist out of her comfort zone, one that confirms the solipsism of such a species: “You’re insulting them and embarrassing me,’ Indy tells her when she tries to decline some of the villagers’ bad-looking food, which represents for them an excruciating generosity. The obvious contrast is with Indiana, who is in many ways the quintessential, rugged American male, but who is also a multitalented, innately multicultural man with a vast appreciation and respect for the lore and religions of other peoples. The essential theme of the series – uncovering profound, often earth-shaking truths through the dusty, lost representative relics of the past – has a quieter added meaning for the potential of humans to understand each other, or pit their primal selves in struggle, in the hunger to grasp such signs and stories, and Indy, broad-minded as he is, has to orientate himself anew every time.

Although driven by his religion of archaeology and the “fortune and glory” that can come with it, Indy always gives in finally to humanistic impulses, and is always finally humbled by evidence of the power of faith. Here, Shiva’s truth is as inarguable as Jehovah’s in Raiders. “I understand its power now,’ Indy finally states to the shaman in comprehending the relevance of beliefs he at first half-dismisses. Lucas has always been proud of the Jones series’ basis in actual folklore and breadth of cultural focus, and I can agree with him on that: Temple of Doom, whilst making me scared shitless of Kali worshippers, also introduced me to figures of Hindu faith and the pulchritudinous wonders of Indian mythology. Caution about respecting other cultures was a lesson often learnt in the works of imperialist-era writers, like, say, “The Monkey’s Paw,” but those tended much more toward the “look, don’t touch” lessons of imperial management. Missing from them was the interventionist element exemplified by the fact that Indiana cannot walk away from suffering when he encounters it.

Pointedly, this is the only film in the series in which Indy is entirely shorn of his Stateside associations. He’s a citizen of the world here, and Indy’s creed is more that of deep humanism and the seeking out of evil where it dwells, evinced particularly in the scene in which, instead of fleeing the Thug’s temple with the Sankara Stone, he’s distracted by a child’s screams, and discovers the slaves and tosses a stone at the colossal, vicious overseer (Pat Roach) as he beats an exhausted boy. When Indy, Willie, and Short Round first arrive in the cursed village, the images of the starving, emaciated locals crowding about them were instantly familiar to me as a child in 1984: I was seeing the same scenes every night on television in news reports on famine in Ethiopia. Short Round himself is an orphan, having been caught by Indy trying to pick his pocket after his parents died in the bombing of Shanghai by the Japanese. Indy’s reluctant father status for him broached another of Spielberg’s recurring future themes, as the three interlopers form a pick-up nuclear family.

The Jones of Raiders hints at darkness in his soul, described as a mercenary by his mirror-image antagonist Bellocq (Paul Freeman), with a suggested edge of the cad in his flirtations with students and sordid past with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). He’s redeemed chiefly by his genuine dedication to the potential for wonderment he finds in archaeology and love of kicking Nazi ass. In Temple of Doom, he’s being scrubbed clean of his faults, which would be absent by the time of the second two, much more homogenous entries. Although Temple of Doom was technically a prequel, set a year before Raiders, thematically it’s very much an extension, as Indy, when captured by the Thugs, is forced to drink a mystic draught that brings on the “Black Sleep of Kali.” The drink turns him into one of the pliable cultists, so much so that Mola Ram forgoes the joy of ripping out Willie’s heart before sacrificing her for the even more pleasurable sadism of watching her freak out as Indy chains her up. The darker precincts of Indy’s character are revelled in, before Short Round, after escaping his chains in the mine, brings him back to his senses by jamming a flame in his side. Indy returns more righteous than before, declaring with hard purpose in response to Willie’s suggestion that they should get out of there: “All of us.”

Temple of Doom represented new reflexes in Spielberg’s oeuvre: he would soon try, not without criticism and mistakes but with similar ardency, to take on conflicted historical milieus filled with schisms of race and power. The importance of Temple of Doom’s variation on a Messiah myth and imagery of oppression would become clearer as cinema’s most successful Peter Pan grew up. The Indiana Jones films were chiefly a pop-art tribute to the idea of the past, fantasias of exoticism and danger, and even Nazism was just another prop to kick around. But that’s not to take them too lightly: in many ways, Spielberg articulated his anxieties here more fluently than in his dramas. The main problem, which renders this effort inferior to Raiders, is one that has dogged Lucas badly in his efforts since: an uneasy fondness for clumsy, overdrawn comic relief, particularly in the sequence in which Willie and Short Round are grossed out by the bizarre dishes on offer at Pankot, which, though it does serve a purpose as I’ve said above, is silly and grating and almost grinds the film to a halt. The greatness of Raiders was in how casual and uniquely antiheroic a lot of its humour was, with a hero who pulls off incredulous legerdemain in battle, but who feels the pain all too vividly afterwards. Some of that is still here, but muted in favour of slapstick. Although Capshaw gives an enthusiastic and occasionally funny performance, most effectively in the memorable flirtation she has with Ford, Willie’s a serious comedown from the Hawksian toughness of Marion.

Still, in its first 15 minutes and last hour, Temple of Doom displays Spielberg’s gifts as a prodigy of cinematic movement. He commences with a moment of nutty cultural hybrid, as Willie sings Cole Porter in Chinese with a chorus of fan dancers before segueing into a Busby Berkeley-esque dance number that exists purely on a plane of ethereal entertainment, declaring, like Willie, that anything goes. This musical prelude also amusingly prefigures the later, equally rhythmic, but very different staging of the Thug’s rites, the evil-dosed cultists chanting in horrid passion: Temple of Doom puts the melody in melodrama. It’s this heightened, almost surreal intensity of imagery and staging that makes the film such a disorientating and potent mixture. Where Raiders had adorned the Republic serial basics of the action scenes with grander flourishes borrowed from De Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), Temple of Doom maintains a stygian darkness until virtually the end. If some Hammer films, like Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and Don Sharp’s The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), had first attempted to meld gothic imagery with serial-like pacing and rolling set pieces, Temple of Doom, with Mola Ram as high priest of evil, returned the compliment.

The action set-pieces, like that in which Indy tries to battle the overseer on a conveyor belt before a huge rock crusher, while spasmodically folding up in agony as the Maharajah jabs a pin into his voodoo doll with sadistic relish, have a brute physicality to them that, these days, appears much closer to torture-porn horror than to the plastic action of Michael Bay or the Wachowskis. The scene in which both Indy and Short Round are simultaneously whipped in punishment is nearly pathological, but it also prefigures the key moment of Shorty reviving Indy from the Black Sleep by searing his flesh: the bonds of love are a painful, corporeal contract. The plot also contrives to break Indy’s reliance on guns, and by plunging him into the backwoods of India, to essentially create a timeless fantasy and a level playing field—except for Captain Blumburtt (Philip Stone), representative of the British Empire, whose rifle-wielding soldiers arrive too late to be any real use. Blumburtt, although only a minor figure, is important to the narrative’s echoes. Lal is eager to please the Captain to get him away from the cult’s centre, whilst not resisting taking digs at the imperialists: “How the British worry so for their Empire. Makes us all feel like well-cared-for children.” The shade of an equal and opposite reaction is then mooted as Mola Ram triumphantly announces to Indy his plan for religious hegemony: “The British in India will be slaughtered. Then we will overrun the Muslims. Then the Hebrew God will fall. And then the Christian god will be cast down and forgotten.”

Of course it’s a blind alley to dwell on such things too deeply in a film that climaxes when the hero’s cunning plan to foil the baddies involves his cutting the rope bridge he and his friends stand on. Temple of Doom is a swashbuckler through and through, and often references the kinds of comedic action seen in older variations on the genre, as trios of armed villains trip over each other and Indy fights off one swordsman by gripping the arm of another swordsman like a puppeteer. The film’s brilliant, raucous set pieces, like the mining car chase, are more frenetic than those in Raiders, and it’s easy to underestimate how well that sort of thing is pulled off compared to the many dolorous subsequent imitations, in, for example, Stephen Sommers’ works. But 26 years can be a long time, especially if you’re Harrison Ford: watching his droll, dashing performances in these early films, compared to his barely interested post-1990 work, is a sad contrast. Critic Chris Peachment wrote in 1982: “What some Peckinpah could do with a Harrison Ford, made anxious by middle-age, would be very interesting to see.” But Ford never got his Peckinpah and his reputation’s sunk to almost nothing lately. His credentials as a passionate man of action were still writ large here. I can’t think of any contemporary actor appearing in action films these days who seems as real on screen as Ford does here, dripping blood and sweat and dirt but still defying Mola Ram, delivering a promise to introduce him to his deity in hell with a grit John Wayne would envy.

11th 05 - 2010 | 7 comments »

The Shiralee (1987)

Director: George Ogilvie

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“Shiralee” is the Australian term for the bundle of worldly possessions carried by itinerant workers famously known from the unofficial anthem of Australia, “Waltzing Matilda,” as swagmen. In this television adaptation of D’Arcy Niland’s classic book, the infrequent voiceover narrator calls a shiralee a burden, and reckons that the swagman at the heart of the story, Macauley (Bryan Brown), has two of them—his bundle and his daughter Buster (Rebecca Smart). How a tough guy like Macauley ended up dragging his 9-year-old daughter through the Australian bush, sleeping around a campfire and walking miles in the harsh sun, is only part of the story. This wonderful family film creates a time and place you can practically taste and shows how the bond between a parent and child can dissolve even the most stoically borne disappointments and open up possibilities abandoned long ago.

The film flashes back to 1939, when Macauley, the product of an Adelaide orphanage, has left city life behind him and struck off for the hinterlands. He enters a general store and asks for clothing suitable for hard travel. The shopkeeper asks if he’s going on horseback or by foot, and when told foot, slaps down a sturdy pair of walking shoes. “Socks or no?” “Socks,” answers Macauley. “City boy,” the shopkeeper surmises. Macauley eventually pitches up in Eucla, Western Australia, just across the South Australia border, where he lands a job as an apprentice butcher to Thaddeus (Simon Chilvers) and is immediately smitten with Thad’s daughter Lily (Noni Hazlehurst). She returns his affections, much to the annoyance of her current beau Tony (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). He arranges for Lily to think Macauley spent the night with another woman, and when Macauley finds out, he confronts Tony, only to be beaten unconscious, doused with liquor, and dumped in Thad’s ransacked butcher shop. Drawing his own conclusions from the evidence, Thad puts the unconscious Macauley on a train out of Eucla.

Skipping past World War II, the film takes us to 1946. Macauley is working for a traveling carnival as the resident boxer who takes on locals who hope to beat him and win a cash prize. He’s content enough with his carney family until he runs into a man he used to know in Eucla and is introduced to the man’s wife—Lily. Still in love with her, he disobeys orders to let his next local contender win the bout and takes all his hurt and anger out on the hapless bloke. That evening, he informs the carneys that he and Marge (Lorna Lesley), a young barker on the carnival midway, are getting married. The carnival owners warn him about making such a rash match, but he says that the only woman he wanted to marry is already married and reckons that he and Marge can make a go of it.

The film moves forward to 1953, and a small apartment in Adelaide, where Buster watches her mother Marge apply lipstick in preparation for a date. To keep Buster quiet, Marge doses her milk with some liquor. Unfortunately for Marge, Macauley picks that night to come home from his work at rural farms and sheep stations and finds her in flagrante delicto with a town councilman. After breaking the man’s jaw and ribs and smelling liquor on Buster’s breath, he throws the money he made at Marge and walks out with Buster tucked under his arm. So begins his adventure as a single dad.

Macauley is a sun-scorched and solitary man who likes to stay on the move and avoid personal ties. Buster is a typical child who squeals with delight at finding a caterpillar, complains of hunger, runs almost to tripping to keep pace with her hard-stepping father, and worms her way into his heart and ours almost effortlessly. Rebecca Smart is a very natural, appealing young actress whose initial cries for her mother (comforted by an elderly woman on the train she and Macaulay are taking back to the bush) give way to a dogged devotion to her father. He allows her to keep a giraffe plush toy a friend has given her as long as she carries it herself, and it is through “Gooby” that Buster expresses her feelings to her skittish dad and anyone else who is paying attention.

The relationship between father and daughter is somewhat lopsided. Buster falls into the rhythms of Macauley’s life and forms her attachment easily. But Mac comes to love Buster through admiration at her determination and abilities, not through some magical, idealized bond. When she takes a hatchet to chop a piece of wood for their campfire, rather than pull the tool away from her in fear, he places the branch so she will be able to strike it more effectively. A look of pride rises to his face at what a tough and resourceful person she is. It’s so refreshing to see a child treated as an actual person instead of an appendage or a porcelain doll in need of constant protection.

Macauley and a now-widowed Lily meet again, still in love but separated by fear, and Mac reluctantly goes to work for her shearing sheep. Ogilvie’s camera lingers over the shearer quarters and takes its time showing the shearing process, breathing life into the work that has filled Mac’s life. When Lily intervenes when Buster comes down with a bad case of the flu, Mac yells that he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to raise his kid and sweats the flu out of her during an anxious night. Sadly, he storms off Lily’s farm without realizing that he does, indeed, need help being a parent. When Marge comes back on the scene and threatens his custody of Buster, his love has grown to the point where he is willing to meet Buster and Lily halfway and give up his solitary—and selfish—existence.

The small-town South Australia locations where Ogilvie shoots probably still have buildings that date back to at least 1939; adding some period clothing, sundries, and autos locates the characters over time but doesn’t take away appreciably from the timeless quality of this rural existence. A square dance in the 1939 section is shown at length as a joyous event that celebrates the sense of community among the bush towns; even something as ordinary as Thad’s death makes all the local newspapers, and the bush “telegraph” spreads the word of a crisis Buster and Mac face. Mac may be a loner, but he’s far from alone. But Aboriginals are absent save for one who travels with the carnival, and the look he gets from the locals suggests he is a highly unusual and not altogether welcome sight.

Bryan Brown is a yeoman actor with a somewhat limited range, but he is perfectly cast as Macauley. Handsome and rugged, he can project pleasure with a smile or clamp down his emotions with the utmost restraint. His growing relationship with Buster is believable and comes to a climax of emotional release that is very moving and realistic. The supporting cast is terrific, including Lorna Lesley, who plays a spurned and bitter wife with a pathetic intensity, and Simon Chilvers, who is decent, understated, and commanding of respect. Even the somewhat melodramatic ending feels grounded in reality and elicits emotions from us that the rest of the film has earned. The Shiralee is must viewing for anyone who values family films with life and depth.


7th 05 - 2010 | 20 comments »

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Director: John Milius

By Roderick Heath

Looking around lately, I’ve been forced to the conclusion that there’s a terrible paucity of truly good fantasy-adventure films out there, especially if, like me, one gravitates to the grittier side of the genre after the tongue-in-cheek qualities of old swashbucklers and the juvenile-oriented tone of a lot of older films, like the fabled Ray Harryhausen films (which still at least delight the eye), get a bit thin. Recently, of course, we’ve had The Lord of the Rings series, a fine but top-heavy achievement, and endless Harry Potter episodes, which are, for all their mild entertainment value, relatively static, twee, and disposable, as are so many of the recent CGI-encrusted entries where storytelling is subordinated to immediately dated spectacle. Nor does the disreputable side of the genre have much to offer, with only the likes of Beastmaster (1982) or Yor: The Hunter from the Future (1983), and flicks starring Lou Ferrigno. Luckily, when I feel the need for bristle and brawn, I always have Conan the Barbarian to cheer me up.

Not that John Milius’ 1982 film is perfect: it has a sometimes too-stately pace and a thin story, sports some stodgy touches, could use more action, and irks fans of Robert E. Howard’s iconic 1930s pulp hero with deviations from Howard’s mythology. But it’s still my favourite by far from the glut of fantasy films that came in the wake the success of Star Wars (1977), whose space-opera zest reinvigorated several genres of fantastic cinema, and it skirts a kind of greatness. John Milius, cigar-chomping, gun-loving, right-wing “zen anarchist,” is one of the most infamous and oddly lovable of the Movie Brats, memorialised by his filmmaking friends as both Paul Le Mat’s drag-racing bad boy in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) and as loopy Walter in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1997). He had a gift for larger-than-life narratives and a giddy energy. Having worked, like Coppola, Cimino, and Malick as a screenwriter and script doctor through much of the early ’70s, including penning the thoughtful, if not entirely successful, revisionist vigilante flick Magnum Force (1973), Milius also contributed to the script of Jaws (1975) and cowrote Apocalypse Now (1979). The impact he had on the latter project can perhaps be most strongly discerned through Conan the Barbarian.

Once his directing career got off the ground, Milius’ gifts were confirmed by the uneven, but enjoyable and nuanced The Wind and the Lion (1975), and the elegiac surfing saga Big Wednesday (1978), but he descended into self-parody with the Commie-bashing epic Red Dawn (1984). Conan, the film in between, made a true film star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Mr. Universe who had delighted many with his charisma in the documentary Pumping Iron (1978). Schwarzenegger, his physique still at its peak and his acting skills utterly basic but effective enough for the role, was a miraculous bit of casting luck for Milius. Milius also returned a favour to Lucas by casting James Earl Jones, who had been providing the voice of Lucas’ hugely popular baddie Darth Vader without credit, as his own paternalist supervillain Thulsa Doom, who, in the first few galvanising minutes of this film, exterminates Conan’s tribe of hardy, steel-producing Cimmerians.

A peculiar fault of Conan the Barbarian is that its first 15 minutes are so vivid in their soaring, violent, operatic drama that the rest can hardly live up to them. The opening credits, scored by Basil Poledouris’ awesome main theme, portray Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a sword, as his wife (Nadiuska) and young son (Jorge Sanz) look on. Father then imparts the lore of steel and their tribe’s god Crom to his son as they sit on the peak of a snow-crusted mountain, boiling clouds rushing overhead. Soon, Thulsa and his mounted marauders ride through the wintry forests and crash into their village, slaughtering all in sight, including Conan’s father. His mother readies to defend her son, but Thulsa pacifies her with his mesmerist’s gaze before, in a uniquely shocking moment, casually decapitating her, her headless body swaying away from Conan’s grasp before the boy even realises what’s happened. Conan is then hauled away with the other surviving children who are sold as slaves and put to work turning a colossal mill wheel, growing into the homely Austrian mug of Schwarzenegger, made so strong by his years of labour that he can push the wheel by himself.

What’s particularly impressive about this cavalcade of cruelty and calamity is the fact that it plays as a virtual silent movie, the only dialogue being the recitative exposition of Mako’s gravelly voiceover and the instructions of Conan’s father. Much of the first hour of Conan the Barbarian represents an “origin story,” as Conan finds glory as a gladiator, has his horizons expanded when he’s sold to Mongols and trained in Eastern swordplay, introduced to reading, writing, and sex, and then released by his nervous keeper, who senses something untameable in him. Conan stumbles upon the mausoleum of a long-dead king still enthroned wearing his armour. Conan, thinking this must be Crom, takes the dead man’s sword, which is far superior to any Conan’s seen before. Conan soon survives a grappling with a vampiric witch-woman, and saves Subotei (Gerry Lopez), a Mongol warrior she’s chained up to starve. Conan and Subotei become partners in thievery and survival, and gain a third fellow, Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). They break into a tower that’s a temple of a snake cult which uses the same emblem that Thulsa Doom had once used as his standard, rob its jewels, and kill the colossal serpent the cult keeps as a deistic stand-in.

Much of the pleasure Conan the Barbarian offers is in how it sustains a self-mythologising grandeur akin to Star Wars, Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia, whilst infusing a genre that was all too often fey and tacky with a rugged, tactile, sensualised vibe that channelled the imagery of ’70s fantasy artists. Almost every frame, flagrantly brutal and sexy, looks like something rendered by Boris Vallejo. Milius leapt feet-first into the material, replete with orgies, dancing girls, musclemen, concussive combat, and all the other paraphernalia of macho onanism. It’s a great part of the film’s gamey charm for those of us who wonder if Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter would even know what to do with a boob if presented with one. And yet, a loose, witty, warm humanity is the film’s constant undertone, as Conan and Subotei wander throughout the ancient world with a strange innocence, getting stoned, robbing, killing, getting laid, and punching out camels with much the same boyish incorruptibility that Milius’ all-American surfer dudes exuded in Big Wednesday. They’re rough and murderous, but only as much as they need to be. Conan’s basic decency in spite of his brutalisation is signalled early on when he’s given a stripped-down slave girl as reward and he quickly soothes her fears by wrapping her in a blanket.

That warmth is particularly discernable in Conan’s anxious romance with Valeria, the first time either warrior has found a true partner in love, and in the rhythms of fellowship they share with Subotai and the wizard (Mako) Conan encounters living in a haunted, deserted burial ground of ancient titans, who will become his chronicler and spiritual helpmate. It’s a quality that imbues the relished violence and gaudy trashiness with more than mere ornamental amusement: the essential loneliness of the characters in a lawless, careless world is a constant refrain, and the assailed likeableness of the heroes is vital. The ironies of Conan’s life, that his trials have transformed him into an unstoppable force, are drawn clearly when Conan finally tracks down Thulsa Doom, both men now understanding the “riddle of steel” that Conan’s father had mentioned to him and which has totemistic vitality. “Steel is strong, but flesh is stronger!” Thulsa recites as he casually encourages one of his followers to casually leap to her death to prove his own power.

Thulsa has reinvented himself as the magician-priest of the snake cult of Set, a story flourish that Milius uses to take some amusing pot shots at hippie mystics and communal fantasists, with the cult’s followers’ brandishing flowers and Conan easily infiltrating their ranks by answering questions like “What do you see?” posed by a priestess as he looks into a sacred pool, with: “Er…eternity!” Thulsa and his two chief henchmen Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven Ole Thorsen) who rode with him back at the fateful beginning, suggest a cross between opportunistic gangster sleazes mixed with manipulative faux-gurus like Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Conan’s rugged individualism and practicality provides a firm counterbalance. An uglier edge of Milius’ satire appears when Conan beats up a leathery old cult priest (Jack Taylor) who clearly wants to have sex with Conan in order to steal his robes and infiltrate the cult as its thousands of member converge on Thulsa’s remote mountaintop temple.

A more significant fault with the film is that Thulsa, Rexor, and Thorgrim aren’t really well-described or worthy opponents for Conan to take down. There’s still a great deal of pleasure to be wrung, however, from their inevitable comeuppances at Conan’s hands. The henchmen, who resemble two-thirds of Spinal Tap, are a source of humour as well as antagonism, such as Thorgrim’s bug-eyed amazement at his own strength when he knocks down a colossal stone pillar and Rexor, having turned himself into the bare-chested priest surrounded by buxom priestesses, presiding over sacrifices like a homicidal, medieval swinger—all he’s missing is a peace sign hanging around his neck. And Jones brings undeniable gusto to Thulsa that makes him genuinely serpentine in his evil: no one else could pronounce “Tree of Woe” in quite the same way. Max Von Sydow is as vigorously hammy in his short appearance as King Osric “the Usurper,” who actually sets Conan and crew on their mission against the snake cult when he asks them to retrieve his daughter, the Princess (Valerie Quennessen), who has become Thulsa’s high priestess.

Milius’ style of staging and shooting was interestingly different to some of his generational fellows, emphasising a deep-focus, rather three-dimensional sense of space, and a flowing mise-en-scène, somewhat different to the rapid, crisply edited illustrative style of, say, Spielberg. Milius’ set-pieces have a balletic complexity of movement, offering many near full-body shots of action designed to show off the physicality of his actors, particularly apparent with Bergman, a trained dancer: in this way, Milius’ fight scenes seem rather less dazzling than those of some other action directors and yet radiate a genuine sense of material force. He also wrings the simple narrative for all the grandeur and beauty he can, evident in hypnotic sequences like the heroes infiltrating one of Thulsa’s orgies, and the conclusion, in which Thulsa’s disillusioned followers toss their torches into a pool. It’s here that the theoretic similarity to Apocalypse Now is strongest (even the fire and water imagery is closely akin), particularly as Conan refuses to take Thulsa’s place as the Princess’s object of veneration.

The film’s impact is enormously deepened by Poledouris’ score, the greatest work he ever offered before his extremely untimely death: indeed, it’s a serious candidate for the greatest movie composition of the past 30 years. Poledouris, a surfing buddy of Milius’s, had studied at USC under Miklos Rozsa, whose mighty work on Ben-Hur is suggested in the Conan score, with its sweeping, pounding anthems and richly orchestrated love themes. However, the original template was Prokofiev’s score for Alexander Nevsky (1938), which Milius had used in editing. Conan the Barbarian was, in that regard, almost as referential as a Tarantino film: the costumes of Thulsa and his henchmen were based on Nevsky’s Teutonic baddies, and touches throughout the film certify the influence of several classic sword-and-sandal flicks, Ford’s The Searchers (1956), and Japanese films like Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964).

Schwarzenegger was and is a perennial candidate for the worst actor to ever be an A-list star, but a part like Conan was perfect, especially as he had at least the gift to not merely look but act as tough, stoic, and strong as a mobile mountain. This blended well with his ability to project a sense of humour and simple, but vivid emotions, particularly evident when in the anticipation of battle with Thulsa’s army, he recalls with pleasure the calm freshness of days in his youth. It’s Bergman though who almost steals the film with her unconventional kind of lived-in beauty and dashing physicality, her expressive eyes full of feeling in her love scenes balanced by moments such as her eyeing two opponents and slapping her sword against her palm like a scolding mother that are iconic in the history of on-screen tough gals. Conan the Barbarian will soon, as all things are, be remade, but the old one, in spite of its faults, does exactly what Conan himself does best: it kicks ass.

18th 04 - 2010 | 14 comments »

Near Dark (1987)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Kathryn Bigelow

By Roderick Heath

Kathryn Bigelow’s been saddled with one of those milestone Oscar wins that carries the whiff of cultural formaldehyde, but I find her victory inspiring and amusing in the same way Peter Jackson’s was: the ascension to mainstream laurels of a directorial talent rooted in fare beyond the pale. Indeed, the impact of The Hurt Locker was imbued not by any deep, inherent dramatic qualities in its fairly basic and dramatically familiar, if thankfully terse screenplay, but by Bigelow’s spare, yet intense vision, which first truly gained attention with her mighty reinvention of the vampire movie Near Dark. Truth be told, Near Dark is a far more nuanced, provocative, gripping, multileveled work than The Hurt Locker, but because it’s a horror film, nobody paid it that kind of attention. And yet each time I revisit Near Dark, its innate confidence and supple intelligence become more defined. I’m now convinced it’s one of the best American films of the ’80s.

Near Dark was also one of a small but well-remembered barrage of vampire movies in the mid ‘80s, including The Hunger (1983), Fright Night (1985), Vamp (1986), Once Bitten (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), and A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987), that subjected the classic mythology to their own modish, modernising bent. Near Dark has had possibly the deepest impact on subsequent works, including Joss Whedon’s popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise, both of which make use of Near Dark’s ideas for portraying a peripatetic, clannish demimonde of bloodsuckers. And yet it also sustains a mood in common with other films of its era, like John McTiernan’s Nomads and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (both 1986), that peered beneath the prim surfaces of contemporary America and suggested parallels for both forgotten underclasses and latent animalistic drives and chaos in emissaries of darkness. Likewise, Bigelow’s stark, savage, eerie evocation of the West fuses disparate versions of American culture into an original and arresting whole.

A running theme of Bigelow’s work is one of an intrusive outsider within a group that has developed a family dynamic, a dynamic as much defined by fractures as by fellowship. In Near Dark, it’s Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), a coltish cowboy-wannabe still trying out his act when he and some of his young friends spy pale, young, ice-cream-licking waif Mae (Jenny Wright). Caleb approaches her, and she seems, in her alternately distracted and eager fashion, to dig him in return. After a night of toey, curious flirtation, Jenny becomes panicked about making it home before sunrise, and when Caleb stops his truck and refuses to take her further without a kiss, she agrees, but bites him on the neck and runs away. Caleb, quickly becoming ill, tries to make it home as the sun seems to burn him, and is snatched up by a speeding Winnebago before his veterinarian father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and younger sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) can come to his aid.

Caleb’s been snared by members of the clan of vampires Jenny has been a part of for five years: Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), the leathery, hardened, pragmatic patriarch, mated to Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), a feral-freaky former victim of Jesse’s who serves as mother figure to Mae; wild good ole boy Severen (Bill Paxton); and Homer (Joshua Miller), a vampirised child housing an embittered man’s psyche. The vampires usually kill their prey—in this case, Caleb—immediately, but Mae begs for his life and promises to see him properly inducted into their ways by teaching him how to kill and feed off humans. Caleb, at first uncomprehending and terrified, tries to return to his home by bus, but has to bail out when he is afflicted with dreadful sickness that is only cured by drinking blood out of a gash Mae makes in her arm. However, Caleb can’t countenance the necessary act of killing people to feed. Loy and Sarah, meanwhile, begin a relentless highway hunt for Caleb.

Other films had toyed with fusing aspects of classic Americana and Western mythology with the horror movie, with mostly embarrassing results (eg, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, 1966), and with replacing the vampire genre’s traditional air of old-world decay and aristocratic glamour with other metaphorical impulses. Few succeeded like Bigelow did here. Her intelligence is proven throughout in the way she manages to conjure imagery that fuses multiple influences. In the same way that The Cramps’ recording of “Fever”—which plays throughout the film’s most infamous, iconic scene—takes a popular, playful song defined by slippery, deceptively subversive sensuality and invests it with an eerie, gothic vibe, so, too, does Bigelow rake over the sparse, desolate feel of the classic Western and do something new with it. The screenplay by Bigelow and Eric Red cunningly effects a psychic link between the Civil War, the Western tradition, the gangster movie, gothic horror, the counterculture, street culture, and the lost working class (“trailer trash”) left behind in Reaganite America, presenting them all as rooted in the landscape and the mood of alienation, otherness, and rebellion latent in the louder national identities.

These wandering vampires, living out of cars and motels, feed off the easily missed in a vast nocturnal Midwest of scantly lit, depopulated streets, bleak motels, diners, honkytonks, and bus stops full of drifting flotsam. Carnivorous callousness contrasts ironically with the care that manifests between people, both in the human world and in their world. A ticket seller won’t help out an obviously ill young man, and Caleb’s assumed to be a junkie by a plainclothes cop (Troy Evans). And yet a security guard giving Caleb a few bucks to pay his fare, and Jesse and Diamondback, both resembling hippie wash-ups, adopt the social refuse they come across. Yet that pair also embodies something far more primal and dangerous. They reign over an amusingly sick facsimile of a nuclear family governed by their own perverse family values, wolfish in their darkness and lean hunger. Jesse himself is actually a Confederate veteran (“We lost!”), still embodying the bushwhacker creed. Bigelow plays games with the usual codes of that family structure, with the young boy the most grotesque of the lot and Caleb reduced to a mooching deadbeat getting his sustenance directly from Mae’s veins. The carefully cast Wright seems both delicate and doe-like in some scenes, and a strong, powerful antelope in others, relating to Caleb as if he is the damsel in distress—which he is initially.

Near Dark’s crucial, classic scene depicts the clan invading an isolated bar (“Well I’ll be goddamned,” Severen declares: “Shit-kicker heaven!”), where Severen delights in terrifying, insulting, and slaughtering the patrons, defying and outdoing all the macho posturings of the clientele. Jesse cuts a waitress’s throat and drains her blood into a beer glass. Mae wipes blood coating her lips away as she marches up to a terrified young cowboy (James LeGros) and then asks him to dance, and Caleb gets a gutful from the shotgun-wielding barman (Thomas Wagner), which Severen avenges by slicing the barman’s throat with a few deft kicks of his cowboy spurs. The sequence’s woozy black humour, atmosphere of malefic menace and judicious flourishes of dazzling gore are spellbinding as the patrons, for all their air of seamy toughness, realise they’re contending with something completely unnatural. The vampires, however, fail in their nominal purpose, which is to impress Caleb with their strength and prerogative and create a clear ground for him to have his first meal of live blood. It’s a brilliant scene, all the more so for the fact that it succeeds in being both horrific, as opposed to merely gross-out, and compulsively entertaining, so charismatic is Paxton’s hammy, relished evil and the thrill of power and undercurrent of lethal misanthropy that unites the vampires. Caleb chases after the young man, who resembles himself, when he dashes out of the joint, but lets him go out of empathy for the terrified lad.

This proves a near-fatal mistake, however, as the incensed clan consider killing their unwanted charge. The young man leads the police to the hotel where the clan are shacked up, and the violent shoot-out that follows, with every bullet hole allowing in a deadly bolt of sunlight, sees Caleb save the day by fetching their van and crashing it though the room wall, giving them the chance to flee. This literally earns Caleb his spurs, as Severen gives him one of his. Layering the narrative are fascinating character and story flourishes that often tweak the familiar presentiments both of this type of narrative and the kinds of family and sexual dynamics it portrays. Loy’s protectiveness for Caleb and Sarah blurs the line between patriarchal and matriarchal care. Jesse and Diamondback’s recalling, like an old married couple, how they met (“And I just knew you were trouble,” Diamondback purrs), a relationship born in violence that has become uniquely loving. Mae and Caleb’s relationship is defined by alternations of dewy teenage love and amusing, unnerving fluctuations of power and need.

The image of Caleb drinking from Mae’s arm as lightning flashes and oil derricks pump and grind away behind them is one of the most memorable in the history of the horror film, blurring all divides between sex and sustenance, male and female, technical and supernatural, the modern and the primeval, a visual simile for the industrial, bodily, and emotional heart’s everlasting workings. The circular equation of blood equaling both family and life closes logically when Loy’s transfused blood proves to have the capacity to restore Caleb to humanity, a gift Caleb is then finally able to extend to Mae. Most uneasy and bizarre is Homer’s lot, as he insistently reminds his fellows: “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a big man on the inside and have a small body on the outside?” Having vampirised Mae out of a desire for her that’s remained for him painfully unconsummated, Homer sets his sights on Sarah. Homer, instantly besotted by Sarah’s forthright attitude, is somehow forlornly innocent and creepily redolent of a paedophile all at once, the most thoroughgoing example of how Bigelow blurs dichotomous concepts into each other. Even Mae’s ice-cream eating at the outset was only a prop (food is inedible for vampires) to draw in just such a victim as Caleb.

Bigelow’s style, with her crisply photographed widescreen frames (courtesy of Adam Greenberg’s beautiful photography) and rhythmic editing, was and is definitely modern. And whilst in initial scenes, Pasdar’s and Wright’s performances feel touchy, even blowsy, nervous, and slightly unfocused, these acting traits are actually a Bigelow trademark—the offbeat affectations often expose the uneasy threat at the heart of her tales: Jeremy Renner’s The Hurt Locker performance is similar. That Paxton, Henriksen, and Goldstein had all been in James Cameron’s Aliens the year before lends a touch of stock company camaraderie to the project, and they’re all ruthlessly convincing. The feel for the dizzying spaciousness of the prairies, and the inverted, claustrophobic night that swallows that flat and featureless land is moody and precise. The motel shoot-out, technically excellent action filmmaking that undoubtedly presages Bigelow’s later move entirely into that mode, evokes a very similar scene in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). But Bigelow’s love of Western iconography is most often in evidence, as Caleb’s growth into manhood sees him finally saddling up and riding to the rescue like a good cowboy to face down Severen in a High Midnight climax on a deserted street.

It’s only here, really, that Bigelow loses her total grip on the proceedings, as Severen’s demise via a jack-knifing, exploding truck apes, but doesn’t match, a similar scene in her then-husband’s The Terminator, and Caleb’s strutting confrontation with the vampires seems a bit unlikely considering he knows what they’re capable of doing to his once-again-human ass. The subsequent rush of Caleb, Mae, and Sarah to escape the remaining clan sees one of those amusingly quick-rising suns that often afflict vampire films. Nonetheless, the finale recovers to offer a blindingly bizarre, exciting, yet poignant consummation. Homer, chasing after Sarah in desperation, catches fire in the rising sun and burns away to a cinder, and Jesse and Diamondback roast alive in their station wagon as Jesse glowers in defeated ire whilst she beams at the glory of going out with her man. In such moments, Near Dark staked an irretrievable place in the hearts and minds of movie fans. l

13th 04 - 2010 | 2 comments »

The Company of Wolves (1984)

Director: Neil Jordan

By Roderick Heath

“What big teeth you have!
She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamour of the forest’s Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.”

—Angela Carter, “The Company of Wolves” in The Bloody Chamber

Former poet and novelist Neil Jordan had one film under his belt, 1982’s Angel, when he attempted to adapt for the screen several werewolf-themed stories from British novelist Angela Carter’s acclaimed collection of retold fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. His and Carter’s resulting screenplay for The Company of Wolves took some cues from Carter’s own radio adaptation and stands as something of a last gasp for the gothic horror movie, as well as an intelligent and original cross-breeding of genre motifs with something altogether more surreal and adroitly evocative. Inspired by the look of old Hammer and Roger Corman films, Jordan interpolated a more knowing, explicably symbolic, almost postmodern approach to the genre. The result is one of the most interesting and intelligent of ‘80s films of the fantastic, but also an underachieving work that doesn’t quite live up to its boundless potential.

Carter’s method with her stories was to interrogate the psychosexual codes in gothic fiction and fairytales and reinterpret them in altogether more cogently sensualised, darkly tangled, and evocative forms. The story “The Company of Wolves” transmutes Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” into a fable of burgeoning sexuality in which the wolf is insatiable male sexuality incarnate and the girl becomes master of her own desire. Jordan’s adaptation combined this story with other tales from the collection, adopting a narrative strategy like a Chinese puzzle-box. There is a framing story of a contemporary teenage girl, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), from a bourgeois Thatcherite family comprising her father (David Warner) and mother (Tusse Silberg) fretting about her self-isolating angst, and her older sister Alice (Georgia Slowe) abusing her for using her lipstick. Rosaleen has locked herself in her bedroom, Alice’s lipstick still on her mouth, as she suffers through the (hinted) travails of her first period. She sleeps restlessly, plunging into a dark dreamland where her bedroom transmutes into a dark, snarled forest through which Alice runs, pursued by wolves who bring her down and kill her.

In this dreamscape, Rosaleen’s parents are peasants in a small forest village that mourns Alice’s death. Rosaleen’s willful, wisdom-spitting Granny (Angela Lansbury) warns her to learn the moral of Alice’s death: always stick to the forest paths. Granny proceeds to educate her in other aspects of woodland lore: never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, and run like hell if she sees a man standing naked amongst the trees, for werewolves always take their clothes off before transforming. Granny knits a bright red shawl for Rosaleen whilst telling her anecdotes of werewolf lore. In one story, a young village woman (Kathryn Pogson) married a tinker (Stephen Rea) who excused himself from their wedding night and never came back. He returned a year later, after she had remarried, and, enraged by this betrayal, began to transmute into his wolf form. Fortunately, her second husband (Jim Carter) arrived in time to cleave his head off, and then beat her for letting him in.

Rosaleen, pursued by a homely, but passionate lad of the village (Shane Johnstone), begins to take up her Granny’s mantle as a storyteller with an edge of a seer, conjuring stories that may come from within her mind and yet also seem somehow linked to a hidden reality about her. Her tales include one about a witch (Dawn Archibald) who, impregnated and then abandoned by her noble lover (Richard Morant), walks into his wedding party and transforms the guests into wolves, and, later, offersa tale about a lonely wolf-girl who crawls out of the village’s well and is protected by the local priest (Graham Crowden) before returning to the netherworld. Meanwhile, the village is terrorised by animal attacks, and the men arrange a trap that successfully lures a wolf, which they kill, but when Rosaleen’s father brings the paw he cut off back as a trophy, he finds it has turned into a human hand. One day when making the trek to Granny’s, Rosaleen encounters a rakish, impudent aristocratic hunter (Micha Bergese), who taunts her with his ability to navigate the forest with a compass and bets her a kiss he can beat her to Granny’s. Bad luck for Granny that he wins his bet.

Most folk tales such as Carter was revising combine pungent metaphors for familiar physical and psychological phenomenon with a simple, pointed moral and message. As such, they were modes of education, of transmitting cautionary lessons and artful fright to keep the kids close to home and hearth. This purpose is thoroughly refracted through an acerbic modern eye in Carter’s stories and Jordan’s film, evoking the way premodern cultures sustained a body of lore—particularly feminine lore—through traditions and intergenerational story-sharing. Unless she wants to fall victim to the wolf in man, sticking to the well-worn path, both morally and physically, through the tangled thickets of the dark, nightmare-hiding wood is the firm rule Rosaleen must follow. Rosaleen’s mother, however, after copulating with her husband, tells Rosaleen that if there’s an animal in man, there’s one to meet it in women; not unexpectedly, there’s a chill distance between Granny and her daughter that Rosaleen has to decode as a difference in generational understandings. Rosaleen then becomes a bridge, a synthesiser, deducing new meanings and lessons through her own understanding. Where Granny offers warnings and rules, Rosaleen offers parables of justice and redemption.

Jordan’s stylisation both pays homage to the cinematic traditions of the gothic film, but also yearns to dig far deeper into the history of the genre, to before it had been mostly detached from the folk heritage. The imagery blurs firm demarcations between genres. As Rosaleen’s dreaming takes over the narrative at the outset, objects in her room, like her dolls and toys, become grotesquely oversized and begin moving as the edges of the room blur into a forest realm; then the process reverses at the end. Jordan offers up some startling sequences, particularly in the anecdote of the wedding party, where the foppish guests, resplendent in wigs and gowns, explode their clothes with claws and hair and snouts and dash off into the woods in howling anguish, leaving the witch to bow to the party’s menservants, who applaud her and break out the champagne: it’s an almost perfectly distilled scene. The werewolf transformations are similarly bizarre spins on what had already become a familiar special-effect art after The Howling (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981): when Rea’s aggrieved husband transforms, he peels off his skin in a gruesomely powerful vision of self-consuming rage, revealing the bloody musculature of the wolf within, and later, when the Hunter transforms, a wolf’s snout springs fully formed out from his mouth.

The Company of Wolves is certainly no standard werewolf film, yet it stands as a strange cousin to the same year’s more popular A Nightmare on Elm Street. Like Wes Craven’s film, it is built out of dreams within dreams, offering literalised figurations for the terrors of teenagers inheriting the loaded lore of their elders, becoming aware of the corrosive aberrations of adulthood when the certitudes of given reality suddenly give way and terrifying paradoxes become apparent: both films end with monsters exploding out of dreams and into the lives of their pubescent heroines. These films each represent a brief, but promising moment when the horror genre was aware of its own subliminal nature in a fashion that hadn’t been seen since the heyday of the expressionists. There’s also wit in the sequence in which Granny recounts the anecdote of how most werewolves are created when the bastard sons of priests meet the Devil, who gives them an unction that transforms them: in the version Jordan offers, Beelzebub is played by Terence Stamp (and Rosaleen is his blonde chauffeur), and he comes rolling up to one such young man in a 1920s car (Jordan had first tried to get Andy Warhol). And yet this touch reeks of a joke surrealism that’s against the grain of what the project is attempting.

Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why Carter’s writings appealed to Jordan, whose other early work sported a light frosting of the surreal: the motifs in Mona Lisa (1986) and The Miracle (1990) of lost children, hazy sexuality, and questing fathers; the reality-bending outlook of the young psycho in The Butcher Boy (1997); the changelings of The Crying Game (1993) and Breakfast on Pluto (2005). And the visual flourishes Jordan brought to such works reflect an artistic temperament with one foot planted in reality and the other in the metamorphic realm of magic-realism. Jordan brings a distinct sensibility to the tale, particularly in designating the wolf-husband of the first legend a “traveling man,” a tinker familiar from the Irish landscape, not specified in Carter’s story, lending parochial familiarity with the kinds of prejudices that can be encoded in such mythology. That story ends with the unforgettable image of the young man’s head, sliced from his lupine body, bobbing in a pail of milk: maternal sustenance, death, innocence, and villainy all churned together.

And yet Jordan, who was still learning his cinematic craft at the time, fails to fully capture that mythic perception here, and more problematically, can’t come to grips with the potent sensuality Carter was able to offer in her precise prose. The recreation of the set-bound atmosphere of classic horror movies is lovingly precise in its flagrant artifice, courtesy of production designer Anton Furst, pointing forward, in its way, to Tim Burton’s less layered, but spiritually similar takes on the folk-tale and gothic traditions in Sleepy Hollow (1999), Big Fish (2002) and Corpse Bride (2005): indeed, Furst is most famous for his work on Burton’s Batman (1989). Whilst the structure of The Company of Wolves does not pretend to fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the various interrelated stories do comment on each other, the final impression is more of disjointedness rather than dream-logic. Unlike a film very similar in its essence, Jaromil Jirês’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), Jordan didn’t know enough about movie-making then to fragment his visual narrative successfully into a trancelike indistinctness, and the result is a film both gorgeous to look at yet both curiously literal-minded and fussily indirect.

Take the misjudged moment when the Hunter kills Granny, her severed head a mere plaster façade that shatters against the wall, a rather pointless flourish, especially because in the story, the old woman’s desiccated bones rattle under the bed whilst the girl and her animal lover consummate a dark desire, a grotesque but canny reduction to a fine point of how new life springs from and finally ignores the old. Jordan seems somewhat afraid of the deeper recesses to be found in the material. The fact that he cast barely pubescent actress Patterson as Rosaleen necessitated his excising the eruptive sexuality that Carter evoked in the final few lines of her story before her heroine went to sleep wrapped in the wolf’s paws: “She will lay his fearful head on her laps and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage wedding ceremony.” Jordan’s touch feels far too precious for such stuff, and, in his wimpier edition, Rosaleen merely turns into a wolf, too, and runs into the forest with her hirsute beau when the villagers track them down. Where the film needs finally to achieve galvanising fantasy revelry, it settles for a potted pretension.

The Company of Wolves doesn’t quite work as adaptation and fails to fully resolve as an individual film. But it’s a long way from being a dismissable or inessential work: scenes from it stick in the memory like few films of the past 30 years. It’s certainly the best of Jordan’s several flirtations with the genre, including his failed ghost comedy High Spirits (1988), the psych-thriller In Dreams (1999), and especially his murky blockbuster adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), which likewise portrayed a taunting, fey male overlord’s bizarre relationship with a prematurely wise girl. The Company of Wolves is still one of the most intellectually dextrous and least veiled evocations of a folk-mythological past in English-language cinema, and a fascinating by-product of the British horror tradition. As Rosaleen learns in the final driving moments, changelings can awaken from a dream but can’t always forget what they see in themselves.

17th 03 - 2010 | 10 comments »

Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981)

Director/Screenwriter: Walerian Borowczyk

By Roderick Heath

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like many famed, oft-filmed horror-genre properties, has never been accurately adapted. Stevenson’s story possesses a cool, serpentine suggestion of elemental evil living within the brick and stone of Victorian London’s hidebound certainties, a low-key power that I had not actually encountered in any of the film versions, partly because of Stevenson’s strength of prose, and perhaps because most of the films follow Jekyll on his journey, and make it explicit and coherent, rather than view it from without in alarming, menaced snatches. In addition, unlike many of the film adaptations, Stevenson’s story almost completely lacks female characters. For example, the seminal 1932 Fredric March version provided Jekyll with a decorous fiancé and Hyde with a tart to harass, to extend and embody the schism behind the antihero’s cryptically described debaucheries. Stevenson himself had no time for the suggestion his story was about sexuality, and many such adornments in fact came from Richard Mansfield’s infamous stage production.

Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, who would make this bizarre and savage takeoff on the Stevenson story, could be described as an infinitely less lucky Roman Polanski or Miloš Forman. Borowczyk made a name for himself in the 50s and 60s as a maker of surrealist, short, animated films. He influenced Terry Gilliam, amongst others, who named his Jeux des anges (1964) one of the best animated films of all time. Borowczyk then gained significant acclaim with his first few feature films, including Goto, l’île d’amour (1968), Blanche (1971), and the Palme d’Or-nominated Dzieje grzechu (1975), but his career was generally perceived as losing steam in the later 70s, and his later work was dismissed as mere grindhouse fare. His short film Une Collection Particuliere (1973), a wry catalogue of the peculiarities of Victorian-era pornography, saw him drift perhaps out of personal taste toward sexuality-themed films like Immoral Tales (1974), and particularly, his variation on Beauty and the Beast variation La bête (1975); he eventually made Emmanuelle 5 in 1987 in final consummation of his drift into skin flicks. And yet prominent Australian film critic Scott Murray suggested in 1998 that Borowczyk’s oeuvre was ripe for reappraisal and that Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (aka Dr. Jekyll and his Women; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne; The Blood of Dr. Jekyll; and Bloodlust), a fruit of the officially debased end of his career, looked like his greatest film.

Borowczyk’s Jekyll makes no pretence of fidelity to the Stevenson’s story—in fact, it’s surely the loopiest adaptation ever—and yet it captures the threat lurking within the tale to a degree that dwarfs all rivals. Borowczyk had an antiquarian streak that infused his films with a highly physical evocation of the intangibly appealing past, and Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes displays this quality with an alternately grimy, ghostly, and hazy beauty evoked in the period Victoriana that’s comparable to a full-colour The Elephant Man. Borowczyk’s take on the story begins with a dread-provoking, mysteriously filmed sequence that conflates two incidents from the book: an adolescent girl runs for her life from a shadowy man through alleys and dark buildings before he finally chases her down and beats her with his cane, which shatters. He starts tearing her clothes off, but an interloper scares him away.

A short distance away, at the house of Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier), guests start arriving to celebrate his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). Osborne’s mother presents a unique dowry to Jekyll’s limping, pianist matriarch: a Vermeer painting recently discovered in Glasgow, which one invitee, Rev. Donald Reagan Guest (Clément Harari), proclaims to be a summit of human achievement. Other guests include General Carew (Patrick Magee) and his daughter Charlotte. Fanny is looking forward to a chance to spend the night with Jekyll as the couple’s sensual enthusiasm strains the boundaries of the acceptable: when they kiss with illicit glee in Jekyll’s laboratory, she flinches at the sight of Jekyll’s father’s portrait staring at them from the wall.

Jekyll’s recently published The Laboratory and Transcendental Medicine, a book that lays out his new theories of metaphysical medicine, is hotly debated about the dinner table by Jekyll, Reagan, and Jekyll’s colleague and critic Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon, an ubiquitous figure of Euro-exploitation). Borowczyk suggests what’s coming as, throughout the dinner conversation, flash cuts reveal glimpses of atrocities that will be committed by night’s end. For the evening entertainment, Victoria Enfield, the daughter of one the guests, dances, but the frivolities are interrupted by news of the discovery of the fatally beaten young girl.

All hell begins to break loose when Victoria, resting in an upstairs bedroom to recover from faintness after her dance, is raped with startling savagery and left for dead by an intruder. The men immediately presume the man who attacked the girl has infiltrated the house, and the General takes charge, ordering the women to lock themselves in their rooms and then setting out to track the man down; instead, he accidentally shoots the Osbournes’ coachman. The General is then sprung upon and tied up by the intruder, who tears off his medals and stamps on them, prongs his surprisingly willing daughter in front of him, and dashes off to do more mischief, including sexually assaulting one of the young male guests. Jekyll, who has seemed to have been outside tending to the coachman, returns at last in an exhausted state, and the servant he sent to fetch the police turns up dead. Now in a state of siege, Lanyon has the women take a sedative so they can more easily be kept locked together. Fanny avoids taking the draught and sneaks down to Henry’s lab, where she watches him bathe the solution that he uses to transmogrify into Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg).

It’s a touch of inestimable cheek on Borowczyk’s part to name Jekyll’s fiancé after Stevenson’s real-life wife, whose criticisms of the work reputedly inspired Stevenson to burn his first draft of the novella. And yet explicitly setting the drama in a blurry mid-ground between reality and fantasy helps signal that this is a riff on a familiar tale, and it then proceeds to conjure a bold and troubling fever dream out of Stevenson’s raw material. Whilst the besieged set-up and single-night structure is original, Borowczyk, like the original story, keeps the identity of Hyde mysterious for more than half the film, with Hyde’s appearances fast, obscured, and punctuated by unnerving glimpses of perverted savagery. Hyde’s killings aren’t just symbolic of sexual aggression as they are in so many horror movies: they are sexual aggression, for in the course of the film he kills at least one man and one woman by sexual penetration (or so we’re told) with his gigantic, animalistic phallus, as Lanyon notes with increasingly queasy apprehension. Lanyon realises they’re up against a creature not only brutal in nature but completely lacking in all sense of behavioural prohibition.

Some critics had, amusingly, condemned Borowczyk in his earlier films for making erotic films that weren’t erotic, and Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes extends this contradiction at least to the extent that Borowczyk is completely uninterested in the usual brands of eroticism or violent hype. Only in one scene, that in which the General’s daughter eagerly presents herself to Hyde, the beast fumbling with his colossal silhouetted penis, does the film slide into clumsiness, although the image of the prim Victorian lass eagerly giving herself to a monster to taunt her trussed-up, tyrannical father fits into the anarchic structure neatly. When she unties the General after he promises not to punish her, he immediately slaps her and then bends her over to whip her arse with unchecked fury. Magee, a tremendous actor who delighted in playing grotesques, had played the Marquis de Sade in Peter Brook’s similar, if far more self-consciously highbrow Marat/Sade (1967). Borowczyk’s film explores a genuinely Sadean side to Stevenson’s parable, which bears more than passing resemblance to 120 Days of Sodom and the film version Salo (1975) by Pasolini. Docteur Jekyll is not that grotesque, though some moments, like swiftly employed, nightmarish visions of Hyde’s victims hanging, their bloodied genitalia on display, evoke the furthest reaches of Sadean imagery.

Stevenson’s story contributed to the growing strain of psychic pessimism in late Victorian fiction that also manifested in H.G. Wells’ scientific romances and, finally, clearly breached the walls of symbolist fiction in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Borowczyk’s film successfully closes that circle, as the film’s remarkable final 20 minutes build a mounting sense of apocalyptic threat. Like Conrad, Borowczyk suggests the dissolution of civilisation through the totems of colonial conquest in Africa, in this case, poisoned arrows the General has brought back him from the “Black Continent” and given to Jekyll as his wedding present, a martial man’s gift that stands in opposition to the art of Vermeer. Hyde makes eager use of the arrows, shooting Fanny with one, and then making a pin-cushion out of the General, to his daughter’s giddy delight, until Hyde casually riddles her with barbs, too.

Borowczyk realises with power and integrity the implicit dichotomies of Stevenson’s text, as Jekyll’s “transcendental medicine” unleashes a force of utterly barbaric nihilism, yet still remaining, in a curious fashion, transcendental. The acting isn’t very important, with Kier and Pierro dubbed. Pierro, nonetheless, embodies Fanny with panther-like force, and both Borowczyk and Jean Rollin, to whose films Borowczyk’s display much in common, used her several times. As alarming and fascinating as Jekyll is until this point, the film doesn’t entirely hit its stride until the last 10 minutes, when Jekyll reconstitutes himself with Lanyon’s aid. Lanyon has saved a small amount of a substance needed to work the restoration from a batch Hyde has destroyed; the revelation that his friend is the monster so horrifies Lanyon that he falls dead from a heart attack. Jekyll then picks up a wounded and bewildered Fanny and takes her to his laboratory, explaining his system not with shame and self-hatred but with enthusiasm about being the first man to truly present two dichotomous faces to the world. He immediately sets about making another bath of his solution, unable to and uninterested in resisting the call of Hyde again.

Rather than being mortified by his revelations, Fanny declares she must take the bath herself. To save herself from the arrow’s poison and to join with Jekyll in his barbaric liberation, she dives right in and turns into a yellow-eyed demon who, with Hyde, sets about laying waste to the house and murdering the rest of the inhabitants. Fanny enthusiastically knifes her own mother, and the pair burn books and destroy artworks, including the Vermeer and the picture of Jekyll’s father. In its sheer unleashed anarchy, Jekyll bests anything Godard came up with to suggest the crack-up of Western civilisation in Week-End (1967).

In the film’s final mad moments, the couple flee in a coach, rutting on the floor of the carriage and lapping the blood streaming from each other’s wounds, as Bernard Parmegiani’s driving electronic score pulses to ecstatic rhythms and then runs down like a steam engine losing force to the film’s final puff. This is utterly brilliant filmmaking that packs a tremendous wallop.

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