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Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
This piece has been written for Wonders in the Dark’s Top 100 Science Fiction Films Countdown.
The box office success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Steven Spielberg’s third trip to that popular well, partly disguised his struggle to find his artistic maturity, a struggle that defined his oeuvre in the late 1980s and early ’90s. With the fervent, Dickensian lilt of The Color Purple (1985) nominated for multiple Oscars but then frozen out, and Empire of the Sun (1987), now regarded as one of his greatest achievements, a box office bomb and object of critical suspicion at the time, his foray into a more serious brand of cinema might have seemed a blind alley. He returned to lighter, fantastical tributes to moviemaking’s past with Always (1989) and Hook (1991), but in spite of fine moments in both, they still look like awkward placeholders. Whilst Spielberg was working up the project that would eventually become Schindler’s List (1993), he also set out to find a new property to convert into hard-charging popcorn cinema in the Jaws (1975) mode. He found it in a novel by Michael Crichton, a former physician who turned to writing smart-pulpy scifi and thrillers for the printed page and TV in the late 1960s and even found some success as a film director himself for a time. Crichton had essentially recycled the core idea of his 1974 hit film Westworld for Jurassic Park, both being tales of a futuristic theme park contrived to realise deeply cherished fantasies for its audience whose illusion of control vanishes when the exhibits quickly become hunters.
Jurassic Park now looks very much like a pivotal moment in Spielberg’s career—not just chronologically, or in its success, which was colossal, even industry-deflecting in reestablishing Spielberg as the titan of pop cinema and giving the CGI era its clarion blast. Jurassic Park is its own work of theatre and self-dramatization, paying tribute to the ageless wish to see something truly awesome and to actually satisfying that desire. But it’s also a study in complication, the awareness of mechanics behind spectacles and the dangers of knowledge—the lot of adulthood. Westworld’s grounding in the Me Decade of the ’70s depicted very adult fantasies realised through the well-worn scifi concept of the humanoid robot that goes berserk. Jurassic Park, by contrast, had a more original, timely, scientific McGuffin to employ, and developed it with a variation on Crichton’s recycled concept with broader appeal: what if scientists could recreate dinosaurs using advances in DNA technology and exhibit the results as the ultimate tourist attraction? The concept of primeval forces placed before armies of sticky-fingered kids and their bewildered parents was obviously irresistible to Spielberg—a life-and-death entertainment for whole family.
Jurassic Park is also, more obviously, a tribute to and contemporary spin on a hallowed strand of scifi, one in which a remnant of the distant past and its formidable wonders is found subsisting in the present. This subgenre had roots in fare like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, entries from the early days of speculative fiction. The most famous movie inheritor of their lexicon was Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933), the definitive monster movie and progenitor over the intervening decades of the likes of Ray Harryhausen’s films and the Japanese kaiju epics. One of Jurassic Park’s key images, of the park’s wooden, momentous gateway, pays direct tribute to King Kong, whilst the opening scene deploys a wry joke for fans of the classic and a bluff for an audience expecting thrills. Tense and wary workmen and their overseer, great white hunter Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), watch as something monstrous stirs behind trees, as Kong did in his first appearance. The culprit? A forklift. But the joke dies in the throat with intimations that something slyer and deadlier than Kong’s lumbering protomachismo is in play—the mechanical monster carries forth one of the deadly chimeras science has conjured ready to take a bite out of any hapless soul foolish enough to get close. Hints of dread give way to contrasts of absurdity and elusive promise, as lawyer Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) braves jungle depths to talk to miner Juanito Rostagno (Miguel Sandoval), who holds a shard of precious amber with its ancient prisoner, a luckless mosquito, every bit as powerful a relic pulled from the earth as Spielberg’s Ark of the Covenant. Gennaro, an insulated modern astray in the field contrasts Rostagno, a man confidently engaged in an ancient and honourable art, one shared by one of the film’s core heroes, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), a digger.
Alan and his palaeobotanist colleague and lover Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) are tempted away from their dig for velociraptor bones in the New Mexico desert by the initially obscure temptations of twinkle-eyed entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who offers to fund their research for years if they agree to come with him, no questions asked, to inspect his latest creation. Alan and Ellie find themselves thrown into the company of Gennaro and flashy mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who’s also been hired for expert opinion. Soon, the trio find out just what Hammond and his company, InGen, have been brewing on Isla Nublar, a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica. InGen’s scientific wizards, led by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), have conjured a motley collection of dinosaurs bred from remnant DNA extracted from amber-entrapped prehistoric insects and arranged in paddocks. Hammond hopes this will be the commercial coup of the millennium. He’s distressed when the three savants all bring up the potential risks and variables they’re facing now that dangerous animals have come back from the dead, even though the scientific team working for InGen have tried their best to control the population, including breeding only females and leaving them hormonally deficient. But the real spanner in the works is human: Hammond’s chief computer technician, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), angry that he’s not getting paid enough for building Hammond’s cutting-edge, completely automated systems, has agreed to steal embryos for a rival company and arranges to send the park haywire to cover his theft and retreat. Nedry’s plan plays out during a confluence of complicating situations, with a hurricane brushing the island and Grant, Ellie, Ian, and Hammond’s two grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), trapped by the system breakdown in a very inconvenient situation.
The basic notions at the heart of Jurassic Park are some of the oldest and most familiar in science fiction, but given an ingenious gloss of cutting-edge theory and technology. The Frankenstein question of how far humankind’s dominion can and should stretch over the natural world is dressed up in some pop science thanks to the chaos theories espoused by Malcolm, who doubles as the film’s colour man: Malcolm’s mathematical extrapolations say that no outcome can be entirely predicted, especially when dealing with a living system. The film minimises, but doesn’t entirely eject the scientific detective element in Crichton’s book, as Alan tries to understand how the dinosaurs, in spite of their creators’ labours, prove still able to mate and reproduce: the use of frog DNA to fill in gaps in the genome proves the catalyst. Jurassic Park also came up with a great way to give those old lost world works a believable spin in an age when all the blank spots have been cleared from the world’s maps and a sense of wonder, and caution, in the face of the unknown steadily dulled. For Spielberg, the appeal of seeing dinosaurs is inevitably correlated with his very stock-in-trade, his cinematic skill, and the way he made the act of beholding itself a totemic action in his work.
Jurassic Park’s most powerful scene, one of the definitive moments of Spielberg’s career, is the lovingly orchestrated climax of the film’s first movement, when the visiting scientists catch their first, amazed glimpses of one of the dinosaurs in a dance of reaction shots, deft little dollies, and careful control of information that makes the act of seeing something as important as what’s being seen—Spielberg’s hotline into the unconscious of his audience at its most precise. Alan and Ellie are instantly plunged back into their own childhood fantasies of communing with the beasts they’ve made the subjects of their adult studies, confronted by a sprawl of saurian species straight off generations of museum dioramas and picture books illustrations instantly recognisable to any dinosaur-mad kid. Amazement gives way, inevitably, to curiosity, as Alan, Ellie, and Malcolm break out of the controlled limits of Hammond’s contrived theme park tour to look more closely at the science and the machinations behind the facades. Curiosity leads to knowledge, and that’s when the expulsion from Eden begins—or rather the dragons in Eden start to slither out of the underbrush. The scientists voice their concerns to the point where Hammond is left bemoaning the fact that the only person unequivocally on his side is Gennaro, “the bloodsucking lawyer,” who represents the purely fiscal mindset at a slight remove from Hammond’s creative vision. Small wonder the film of Jurassic Park inverts the novel’s fates, where Gennaro became a mild hero and Hammond died, consumed by his own creation.
Spielberg’s empathy with Hammond is vital to Jurassic Park, the filmmaker’s identification with the character’s desire to thrill and provoke people to wonderment mediating the myopia and incidental arrogance that created the park and leads to tragedy. Hammond is initially presented as a Venn diagram for Willy Wonka, Colonel Sanders, and Richard Branson, welcoming the innocent into his land of treats where the dangers are in full view. But Jurassic Park constantly correlates the experience of movie-going and its attendant paraphernalia with the world Hammond has engineered, and Hammond’s pride as a man who built himself up from the humblest of backgrounds—his first piece of showmanship was a flea circus—to become a maker of marvels. If a film like John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) depicted its maker’s increasing sourness and frustration with a zeitgeist he could never quite connect to and felt increasingly alienated from in scifi form, Jurassic Park is revealing of Spielberg’s point of view as somebody who had known success and yet had seen it careen in unexpected directions, throw up hazards, and stir worry he might be losing his way. Jurassic Park lampoons the idea of commercialising creative fruit even as it exemplifies the notion. The park is presented as the ultimate version of the Universal Studios tour where Spielberg’s man-eating shark regularly leaps from the water several times a day—except that the dinosaurs aren’t animatronic and will happily bite you on the ass. Spielberg gets to work through his ambivalence at the idea not just of seeing private inspiration become public circus, but the distance between art and reality above all. This motive comes as another indelible image, when a velociraptor painted on a wall is suddenly contrasted by the shadow of the real thing—wriggling, sniffing, hungry for living meat.
This moment exemplifies another enriching aspect of Jurassic Park, one that goes a long way to explaining the longevity of the film and the franchise it spawned: Spielberg’s ability to envision the dinosaurs not simply as threats and effects but as animals, with wilful, irrepressible natures, whether they’re brutal carnivores or boding vegetarians. The explosion in special-effects sophistication that allowed CGI to be paired with animatronics helped articulate this idea better than most variations on this idea had managed before, from the triceratops whose sleeping bulk captivates the scientists, to a brachiosaur that sneezes over an appalled Lex, or the sort of Heckle and Jeckle pair of raptors who stalk the kids through a kitchen in all their flitting curiosity and twitchy, predatory nerviness. Jurassic Park understood well the sway dinosaurs hold over people, particularly kids, avatars of a way of seeing the world as both hazardous, but also potentially splendid. The tyrannosaurus that is the film’s antihero encapsulates this understanding, progressing from demonic spectre that terrorises the heroes to engine of almost paternal vengeance that defeats the all-too-human velociraptors. The escape of the tyrannosaurus from its pen is the film’s core set-piece and another vignette of Spielberg’s skills at highest pitch, recalling the charge of Jaws as the monster is glimpsed in awful suggestions—a gory chunk of goat falling on top of Lex and Tim’s car, a pair of massive jaws closing in the flash of lightning—before the beast breaks through the fence left vulnerable by Nedry’s conniving and terrorises the kids, building to that most nightmarish moment in the Spielbergian universe: the object of awe and fascination looks right back at the beholder and decides it wants to eat it. The humans must reach into their most instinctual, primal facets to survive.
This sequence still thrills for relatively straightforward reasons that nonetheless completely elude so many of the filmmakers with pretensions to working in the same mode as Spielberg: he achieves the Pavlovian ideal of popular cinema, that for a few minutes you’re utterly convinced of the urgent reality of what’s happening. Spielberg creates the feeling of being someone small and vulnerable with the image right out of nursery room nightmare of a black and scaly monstrosity with butcher-knife teeth bearing down upon you, and yet the sequence is entirely logical, even mechanistic, as a series of unfortunate events where an animal’s hunger, the fear of some kids, the concern of two men, the panic of a third, and a broken-down moving part of someone else’s dream provide the elements of a chaotic ballet. Each moment, each gesture, each mistake, each fumbled attempt at recovery creates the context for the next, perfectly illustrating the concepts Ian has tried to expostulate unheeded. The initial note of nascent dread is signalled, like some Buddhist parable, by ripples in a cup of water—the same water, vitally, Ian had earlier used in teaching chaos theory to Ellie. By its climax, Alan has been forced to play Spielberg’s superhero Indiana Jones to save himself and Lex, Malcolm almost gets himself killed helping others, and Gennaro finishes up as lizard food, plucked off a toilet in the most horrible fashion in reward for his cowardice. Alan is left leading his two battered charges through the park, whilst Malcolm is recovered by Ellie and Muldoon moments before having to outrun the tyrannosaurus.
For all the showy thrill-mongering, much of the pleasure and quality of Jurassic Park comes as Spielberg enjoys his cast and characters interacting and treating the storyline’s conceits with both a sense of revelry and droll suspicion. The latter element is chiefly supplied by Goldblum’s Ian Malcom, whose persona is smartly contrived as the antithesis of the old-school cliché egghead, strutting through the film as leather-clad cool kid and dryly scornful voice of reason, violently contrasting Alan’s shabby, testy earthiness, Ellie’s pleasantly nerdy pluck, and Hammond’s pixilated bonhomie. Malcolm interestingly serves in contrast to one of the classic genre story patterns in which the figure of rationalism is portrayed as the cold arbiter of unfeeling precepts; Jurassic Park is, in part, the tragedy of everyone failing to listen to his Cassandralike omens. The scientists here are the bridging and communication points between the furore of nature and the human desire for order and domain. Muldoon (expertly played by the ice-eyed Peck, who sadly died not long after) evokes another archetype, the rugged bush tracker in slouch hat who sees the ruthless intelligence at hand in the raptors, but who finally proves no luckier than Jaws’ Quint when it comes to taking on his monstrous foes, outsmarted in the underbrush by tactics Alan had anticipated earlier. Alan and Ellie’s introductory scene sees Alan mischievously terrorising a snotty brat hanging around his paleontological dig site with tales of velociraptor acumen and savagery. Alan is basically a big kid himsel, and another of Spielberg’s identification figures as the guy who likes stirring reactions in people and the man who fears taking the next step in his life as husband and father.
The bipolar aspect to Spielberg’s career was still fairly unrecognised when Jurassic Park came out. The mean and mischievous Loki of Jaws, 1941 (1979), and the first two Indiana Jones films, as well as the portraitist of cruelty and anarchy in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, was still dimmed to most eyes by the joyous Peter Pan of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Like most of his fellow generation of “Movie Brats,” Spielberg had personal motives invested in his cinema but no problem plying his work for as big an audience as he could muster. Yet, for such a “big” work, many of the best moments in the film are virtually inconsequential—Ian and Ellie flirting up a storm, Alan beaming with boyish pleasure as he listens to a sickly triceratops breathing, Hammond expressing his quiet loathing for Ian’s taunting cynicism—nonetheless somehow manage to speak of the film’s essential theses of life in all its tumult, brutality, and empathy. The two children of a sundering family along for the ride provide surrogates for the younger audience and fill out one of Spielberg’s already-familiar pick-up families, as Alan grudgingly evolves from childphobic to burgeoning father figure. Early sequences are lengthy and surprisingly talky, prizing conversation, expostulation, the give-and-take of ideas and ways of seeing. The seed is here for Spielberg’s handling of this motif in ostensibly more serious fare, like Amistad (1997) and Lincoln (2012), just as the sequence when the visitors speak with Hammond and Muldoon at the raptor cage sees Spielberg try out a different way of shooting a scene—holding back, allowing multiple dialogues to take place at the same time—that signal an evolving aesthetic.
It’s chiefly the sense that the filmmaker is in his element that that gives Jurassic Park kick even as the storyline plays out in a predictable and, yes, somewhat slapdash fashion. I’ve never been an uncritical fan of Jurassic Park as a whole, although I’ve come to like it a lot more with time and clearer insight into its genuinely excellent aspects and elevating flourishes. But significant flaws also remain clear. Whilst Spielberg’s animated gamesmanship is always fun, the second half never succeeds in generating a sequence as intimately scary and thrilling as the tyrannosaurus break-out, and many of the situations feel frustratingly basic, failing to build to the kinds of crescendos Spielberg manages in his greatest action-adventure films; that’s one reason I actually prefer his sequel, the gleefully nasty and happily frivolous The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), which is essentially a series of Spielberg set-pieces striving to satirise and outdo earlier Spielberg set-pieces. The difficulties and budget-soaking cost of developing the film’s groundbreaking special effects whilst the script was still a work in progress (the writing was eventually credited to Crichton and David Koepp) shows through in the patchiness of some of the action. The film’s visual palette is relative bland, with Dean Cundey’s photography sometimes emphasising a surprisingly cheap, even TV-movie-like look. Nedry and Gennaro are reduced to crude, very ’90s stereotypes when I usually expect better from Spielberg. Casually killing off Gennaro and Muldoon left the film bereft of one of the book’s more enjoyable aspects, a lack that feels telling in the second half’s rather basic romp-and-chomp chase scenes that never, ever feel as urgent or compulsive as anything in a not-so-dissimilar monster chase movie like Aliens (1986).
Still, Spielberg continues to pull off great moments. The shock of the raptor attacking Ellie right after she manages to restore power is one of his finest pieces of timing and malicious nerve, whilst the sudden reappearance of the tyrannosaurus at the very end as deus-ex-machina is ridiculous on some levels, but tremendous on others. Moreover, the loose, rolling structure of Jurassic Park allowed Spielberg and his team to cram the film with throwaway touches until the film is as textured with jokes and visual flourishes as a MAD Magazine page. The tyrannosaurus’s yawing mouth glimpsed in a rearview mirror with the message, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Nedry disposing of a handful of shaving cream on a piece of apple pie. Strands of DNA code projected onto a marauding raptor’s face. Hammond crowing, “We spared no expense!” as perpetual B-movie actor Richard Kiley’s voice emanates as tour guide from speakers. Hot starlet sprawled on a zebra skin embodying the call of the wild and Robert Oppenheimer puffing a pipe with warning warring for attention around Nedry’s computer space. The little dance of action Alan performs in trying to escape Tim’s yammering enthusiasm. Repurposing the Woody Woodpecker cartoon from Destination Moon (1951) as explain-it-all short of the Jurassic Park ride experience—a deep cut of referential wit as well as a perfect expository device. Lex with a spoonful of jelly starting to shake like the proverbial when she spies an interloping raptor. And, of course, that capstone flourish of the roaring T-Rex with a poster reading “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” ribboning before the beast’s all-too-genuinely renascent power.
The achievement of Jurassic Park, both devious and ardent, is that it litters such touches around with abandon and feeds up a significant portion of its cast as dinosaur chow, and yet still manages to close out with a feeling of the sublime. The final frames offer a feeling of conciliation, acceptance, and still-bubbling curiosity rather than fear and retreat, as Alan gazes out at gliding seabirds with a new sense of life in its value, both his own and the kids he’s learned to care for, and the overall continuum that defines species and evolution. John Williams, who provided one of his best scores here, dusts proceedings with a sense of grandeur, even a hint of the elegiac, fleshing out this grace-note that suggests it’s precisely what terrifies us that often draws us back in deeper curiosity and need for understanding. This pivot of comprehension, moreover, backs up an aspect of the tale represented by Malcolm and his cautions against arrogance, and Alan and Ellie’s inquisitive and celebratory mindset. Jurassic Park is a tale of forces inimical to human conceit and the dangers of unfettered experimentation, and yet it finally manages to affirm the yearning spirit and the act of scientific inquiry as one of personal conviction. For Spielberg, it allowed him to tether his light and dark sides together with ease and pointed the way to the future.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Márta Mészáros
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s time again for me to review another film nobody’s seen or heard of from a prominent and still-working female director who is nearly unknown these days outside of her native Hungary because of the general unavailability of her work. Márta Mészáros has been making shorts, documentaries, and feature films since the 1950s, with 64 director credits and numerous international awards to her name, including the Golden Bear at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival for Adoption (1975), the Grand Prix at the 1984 Cannes Films Festival for Diary for My Children (1984), and the Gold Plaque at the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival for The Last Report on Anna (2009). The film currently under consideration here, The Seventh Room, came to me through interlibrary loan of a DVD issued by Ignatius Press, a large U.S. publisher and distributor of Catholic books, magazines, videos, and music. As one might expect from a publisher who does not specialize in film releases, the barebones DVD derives from whatever print was available—in this case, a print from Italy with all of the actors dubbed in Italian. Despite enduring the deteriorating images on the well-worn library disk and the lost vocal performances of the international cast, I found The Seventh Room a thoroughly mesmerizing experience.
The Seventh Room tells the true story of Edith Stein, a German Jew, atheist, and philosopher who converted to Catholicism in 1922, became a Carmelite nun named Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, died in Auschwitz in 1942, and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. Stein was led to her conversion and vocation after reading the works of St. Teresa of Ávila, a 16th-century Spanish reformer of the Carmelite order; the title of the film references the last of the seven rooms of spiritual growth the Spanish saint posited, the stage when a person reaches a firm, all-inclusive worldview for which she or he may be willing to die. Mészáros alludes to Stein’s eventual entry into her seventh room by opening the film with images of trains and archways, which have become iconically linked with the Nazi death camps.
Mészáros’ approach is a very personal one, offering a complex look at Stein (Maia Morgenstern, a dead ringer for Edith Stein) that seeks to explicate the sharp turn of a worldly life of family devotion and professional acclaim to a severe, cloistered pursuit of spiritual perfection. It is nearly impossible to glimpse a soul, and Mészáros doesn’t really try, but the engaged and convincing performances she elicits and her effective use of light and imagery provide a compelling portrait of a saint in the making.
Morgenstern’s Stein is forceful and passionate in her work and in her relationships with her beloved family, especially her mother (Adriana Asti). She is truthful to a fault and unafraid of criticizing the rising Nazi Party, even when a beloved student of hers starts innocently sporting a swastika lapel pin from her “youth group,” yet she is made unsteady when a former colleague (Jan Nowicki, then Mészáros’ husband) taunts her and suggests she has won acclaim as a philosopher because she slept with her professor, famed phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. The introduction of this likely fictitious colleague whose thwarted romantic feelings for Stein and inferior professional standing transform him into the worst kind of enemy—a member of the SS—offers a rather heavy-handed symbol of the perverted relationship between the Christian and Jewish worlds that Stein hoped to harmonize. Mészáros and Nowicki may have had Dr. Mabuse in mind when they developed the portentously named Franz Heller, moving from what looks like his attempted rape of Stein in a repeated flashback to complete criminality in his new skin, his SS uniform, a skull and crossbones on his cap.
The sequences of Stein as a novice in the convent offer telling details about the unsuitably of her previous life and current physical condition to the work she has ahead of her. Already 42 when she enters the convent, she collapses while scrubbing the stone floor on her hands and knees and repeatedly dips her sleeves and veil into the wash water as she tackles the laundry, seemingly lacking the common sense to roll up her sleeves or pin back her veil. The convent’s mother superior (Anna Polony, another lookalike, this time for St. Teresa of Ávila) is skeptical about Stein’s vocation, wondering if she is trying to escape the fate of her fellow Jews, but then she appears to watch over Stein, evoking the spirit of St. Teresa as a guiding force in Stein’s spiritual growth. This is especially apparent during final vows, when Morgenstern’s genuinely moving happiness at becoming a bride of Jesus reflects on Polony’s face, softened in recognition of the bond they now share.
In a time when a film like The Big Short (2015) is being hailed for making complex concepts understandable to nonexperts, I have to say that The Seventh Room outclasses it in every way. Stein’s niece asks her to explain phenomenology, and when assured that the girl really wants to know, Stein sits at the family piano, which is currently being used to stage plates of cookies, and starts to play it, explaining that it only becomes what it was designed for when it is played. Simplicity itself, but the point is so well made that the Stein family bursts into applause. In another cinematically lucid moment, Stein explains to a novice what the seven rooms are. Mészáros shifts her camera angles as each room is counted off and described; her lighting is dramatic, quite reminding me of a Rembrandt painting, with the contrast between shadow and light offering a visual metaphor for the gradual spiritual awakening the seven rooms represent.
Mészáros’ grip on the spiritual is matched by her evocation of the secular world that is stalking Stein. Stein’s first visit to her mother’s, in 1922, is marked by a long tracking shot that takes Stein down a street with a gift of tulips in hand to the double doors of her mother’s home. In the 1933 sequence, we get the same shot, the same tulips, but the walls on either side of the doors are defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, an economical and shocking representation of the changes wrought in German society. The secular intrudes upon the sacred in some surprising ways. A movie first for me was seeing the nuns discuss the upcoming elections in which they will vote, with Stein stumping against Hitler; when the time comes for them to cast their ballots in the voting box brought inside the cloister, the officials worried about Stein are told matter-of-factly by the nuns to leave her alone because she has already been denied the vote by the Nazi government. In a unique staging of the overly familiar Kristallnacht, Mészáros shoots down the halls of the convent dimly lit by the glowing red hue of businesses burning to ash outside (another portent of the Holocaust), suggesting the hell one of the nuns says has come to earth.
The film takes pains to assert Stein’s personal affirmation of her Jewish identity as equal to her devotion to Christ. The film is heavily scored with Jewish liturgical and secular music, the background soundtrack of Stein’s life. In addition, the image of her mother, who died while she was in the convent, appears to her frequently, for example, when the train carrying her and her sister Rosa (Elide Melli), an extern sister with the Carmelites, to Auschwitz passes through their home town of Breslau, as well as in her final moments, when her mother embraces her naked body in a room that resembles a gas chamber. Because Jewish heritage is passed through the mother’s line, this connection is significant; their final embrace, reminiscent of a pietà, represents the reconciliation of her Jewishness and her Catholic identity.
The final passage—the transport of Stein, Rosa, and a large number of Jewish children to Auschwitz—is strangely peaceful, but the pitiable vision of small hands reaching through the gaps between the boxcar timbers drives home the horror to come without the usual theatrics. As the camp guards sort their human cargo into the two lines that signal life or death, a close-up shot of Stein, her shaved nun’s head a vision of what all of the women in the camp will look like before their extermination, offers dignity to the murdered and the completion of her life’s task. The sure-handed, coherent vision Mészáros builds throughout makes The Seventh Room a cinematic treasure that deserves to be more widely known.
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Directors/Coscreenwriters: Albert and Allen Hughes
By Roderick Heath
In the 1990s, following the lead of Spike Lee, a small wave of black filmmaking talents, including Carl Franklin, John Singleton, Kasi Lemmons, Bill Duke, Mario Van Peebles, and the Hughes Brothers, edged their way into Hollywood. Their careers have proven for the most part patchy and their works uneven, but all managed a few strong and significant movies to the extent that the period now looks like something of a renaissance nobody noticed that endured through dogged appreciation and fandom on video. Although many of these filmmakers would resist being pigeonholed to a great extent, all of them to an equal extent tried at times to describe realms of black experience that hadn’t been studied much in the movies. If a film like Van Peebles’ Panther (1995) wasn’t really very good, at least it was a desperately needed study of a vital moment in modern American life. Some of these directors leaned towards the ragged glories of genre film, particularly Duke’s loping, waggish crime flicks and Franklin’s cool and well-honed entries in the same genre, and Singleton’s punchy melodramas like Higher Learning (1995) and Rosewood (1997) that recalled Warner Bros. issue dramas of the ’30s. The Detroit-born brothers Albert and Allen Hughes made their name with 1993’s Menace II Society, a film some preferred to Singleton’s more widely lauded Boyz N the Hood (1992), and its follow-up three years later, Dead Presidents. The brothers’ career has moved in fits and starts since, with only their sadly defanged adaptation of Alan Moore’s From Hell (2000) and the biblical scifi parable The Book of Eli (2011), whilst Allen went solo in making the initially compelling but overplotted political corruption drama Broken City (2013). Dead Presidents, however, still stands as one of the best, most interesting and coherent films from this period for the scope of its ambitions and the visceral portrayal of things often left out of other takes on its chosen era and milieu.
Dead Presidents’ title conflates street argot for cash and a sense of history in flux and revision. The opening title sequence concentrates on images of cash burning, all those patrician faces and elegant scripts ablaze and drifting on the wind. The film encompasses a common narrative portrayed or alluded to in a lot of ’70s blaxploitation films, and the Hughes reference that mode of filmmaking throughout at a time when it wasn’t yet cool to reference: indeed, Dead Presidents is not just an homage to the blaxploitation creed, but an update of it, looking to the sociopolitical reality of the moment rather than merely its tropes. The scope of the narrative can be described as The Deer Hunter (1978) meets The Killing (1956), although for a real likeness of a narrative that encompasses the experience of a complete epoch, you have to look back even farther to the likes of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). The focus is on a returned black Vietnam War veteran confronted by a changed social scene at home—an idea that recalls not just blaxploitation films like Jack Starrett’s Slaughter (1972) and Fred Williamson’s Mean Johnny Barrows (1976), but also Marvin Gaye’s classic statement album What’s Going On.
The Hugheses start off in a key of funny-melancholy portrait of youth before going off to war: black teens Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) and Skip (Chris Tucker), and their Latino pal Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), have just finished high school and are looking at a leap in adulthood with different ambitions. Gabby, cynical Skip wants to be a pimp, whilst Anthony is being steered toward college like his older brother (Isaiah Washington). But Anthony chafes in the embrace of his relatively middle-class family and craves action, the kind of military action his father (James Pickens Jr.) and his employer, Kirby (Keith David), once saw. Kirby, who runs a pool hall and operates a low-grade numbers operation on the side, clearly favours Anthony like a surrogate son. Kirby employs him as a runner and lets him hang around the pool hall even though he’s underage.
The film’s first third has a loose, nostalgic feel and a quality reminiscent of many a coming-of-age tale, laced with the grittiness of a very urban life demanding quick learning skills and a witty gift for adaptation and a tone often verging on black comedy, like Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers (1979). Anthony loses his virginity with his girlfriend Juanita Benson (Rose Jackson) in a sequence of wry, bawdy honesty, and defies his parents as he announces his intention to join the Marines. Juanita lives with her nurse mother (Alvaleta Guess) and her plucky, flirty younger sister Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), who has put up with the sounds of the teens’ lovemaking when their mother’s on the night shift. Anthony’s education also includes a scary encounter with Cowboy (Terrence Howard), one of the sharpies who hangs around Kirby’s pool joint, who mocks Anthony for his age but then accepts Kirby’s suggestion they go head-to-head for a game. Anthony wins the game, but Cowboy refuses to pay the whole stake; when Anthony complains, Cowboy assaults him and cuts his face with a knife before Kirby and a pal can intervene. Kirby enlists Anthony as a driver when he goes to shake down a guy who owes him money, and standover violence takes on a slapstick edge: Kirby tosses his mark out a window whilst the man’s wife waves a gun at him. Kirby snatches the gun and knocks her out, whilst her husband tries to trip up Kirby by grabbing his leg, only to have Kirby’s prosthetic leg come off in his hands. Kirby finishes up rolling on the ground with the gun stuck up his quarry’s nose, and later stows his false leg on the dashboard and groans that he ought to go back and kill the guy because he made him lose his pack of cigarettes.
The brothers pull off a few terrific stylistic pirouettes through these early scenes. A tracking shot through an apartment where all the young graduates party, glimpsed in vignettes of passion, dancing, drinking, smoking, vomiting—all the follies and pleasures of young adulthood—is aestheticized to an extreme in hues of red and blue. There’s a strong Scorsesean influence here, but also an identifiable quality as a survey blending panorama and enlarged human detail of black artists like Archibald Motley. Later, trying to flee the Bensons’ house before being caught by their mother, Anthony makes a dash through neighbouring yards, leaping over fences and dodging barking dogs, filmed on the fly by the Hughes’ dashing camera, and then suddenly cutting to Anthony again on the run, but this time through the jungle in Vietnam surrounded by fellow soldiers in the midst of battle. This touch recalls the great smash cut that separates the homeland and ’Nam sequences in The Deer Hunter, but given a clever, kinetic makeover, and jarringly describes the distance between the comedy of Anthony’s arrival into manhood and the cruel reality of surviving the version of it his aspirations have plunged him into.
Vietnam movies had all but expended their moment of cultural status by 1995, but the Hughes actually managed to bring something new to the well-worn clichés of the subgenre here by pure dint of both their grittiness and their impassive approach to it. Far from the delirious atavism of Apocalypse Now (1979) or the operatic moralism of Platoon (1986), the Hughes war zone is a place of ferocious, devolving violence that its characters merely treat as a shitstorm to be survived, in whatever fashion they deem fit. With Jose drafted into the Army, Skip joined up with Anthony, and now the two watch each other’s backs in a rough-and-ready force recon outfit, skippered by Lieutenant Dugan (Jaimz Woolvett), and including Cleon (Bokeem Woodbine), the son of a minister who’s turned himself into a rampaging devil for the duration of the war, and the ill-fated D’Ambrosio (Michael Imperioli).
The visions of the war zone, including Cleon hacking off the head of a VC and keeping it as a steadily decomposing good luck charm and D’Ambrosio’s capture by the VC, who disembowel him, castrate him, and jam his penis in his mouth, but still manage to leave him alive, contemplate the most terrible aspects of the war with a kind of reportorial immediacy that eschews excess or self-congratulatory zest. Anthony and Skip lean on each other for sanity and support, but the unit has its own embracing camaraderie built around their status as the dudes who brave the hairiest situations under Dugan’s wily direction. Cleon only gets rid of his totem at the insistence of Dugan and the rest of the unit when its stink gets too much, but warns them all that they’ve just thrown away their luck. Anthony passes another, awful hurdle in his education as he obeys D’Ambrosio’s begging to kill him by injecting him with a morphine overdose. Later, the unit is ambushed in a firefight. Skip freezes up and is badly injured, whilst Dugan is killed trying to grab him, forcing Anthony and Cleon to save Skip and fight a rear-guard action before they escape.
A year later, Anthony returns to a home that looks familiar, but soon finds the magnetic pole has shifted. Skip is now an addict living on benefits and suffering from the after-effects of Agent Orange. Cowboy is now a friendly neighbourhood drug dealer. Jose, who was drafted and served in demolitions, lost a hand during the war. Delilah has become a leading figure in a Black Panther-like revolutionary group called the Nat Turner Cadre: she greets Anthony’s arrival with “Welcome to the Revolution,” which, by the way she kisses him, includes the sexual as well as the political kind. But Anthony already has a role mapped out for him as father and provider, because Juanita gave birth to his daughter whilst he was away. He lands a steady job as assistant to a kindly old Jewish butcher, Saul (Seymour Cassel), who strikes up a rapport with Anthony over his name’s ironic similarity to actor Tony Curtis, who, as Saul points out, was another young American busy hiding his roots. But when Saul retires, Anthony finds himself jobless and quickly running out of options. Rubbing his increasingly raw nerves even sorer, Anthony learns that during his absence, Juanita was a part-time girlfriend to a gangster, Cutty (Clifton Powell), who displays outright contempt for Anthony and continues to slip cash to Juanita. When Anthony insists he stop, Cutty sucker-punches him and jams a gun in his face, taunting him in the same way Cowboy once did, except with an even scarier weapon. As Anthony’s feelings of entrapment and castration escalate, he soon begins to think seriously about a robbery plan Jose has proposed, targeting a federal shipment of worn-out currency destined to be burnt.
The Hugheses confirm allegiances with several visual and thematic references to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), although whereas that film was concerned with an individual veteran completely adrift in his society who sees himself strangely plugged into its moral fate, here the Hughes concentrate on Anthony as an avatar of a common experience who maintains connections with other similarly damaged people but is dogged by his inability or refusal to become radicalised. Delilah offers Anthony the chance to find a place amongst the Cadre and the nascent possibility of black brotherhood. But Anthony insists on maintaining an allegiance to ideals of manhood and country that prove illusory, one setting him up to try to live a life that the other can’t or won’t give him. Twisting the usual screen portraits of ’Nam vets as nobly pained or bugfuck crazy, the Hughes brothers offer this motley crew of vets simply as guys trying to endure whatever landscape they’re placed in, facing constantly shrinking options that fit the ways they’ve been trained to survive. The narrative’s inspiration came from a book, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, compiled by Wallace Terry, and specifically, the experiences of Haywood T. Kirkland and his recollections of people he knew. Indeed, in spite of its moments of melodrama and conflation, Dead Presidents maintains a feeling throughout of memoir, something the brothers underline with gruesome piquancy in their war sequences and episodic structuring—the various passages of time are denoted through fades to black and back again and titles giving time and place—and their refusal of any kind of catharsis at the very end.
The Hugheses capture the atmosphere inscribed in Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” whilst remembering the time when it seemed the revolution might or might not be televised. Dead Presidents’ willingness to study both the milieu of black radicalism and its context in the Vietnam era, and to ponder the relationship between crime and such extremism, is certainly one of its important aspects. Rather than actually present Anthony with an alternative politicised path, Delilah readily signs up with his intended criminal enterprise, lending the operation the faint lustre of a revolutionary act even as it devolves, once again, into mere disastrous bloodletting. Perhaps it’s as good a mission of social anarchy as any other, as well as a play for riches and a focus for violent impulses. Delilah is perhaps the most original character in the film, the character who marks both the disorientating social shift Anthony is faced with once he comes back from the war even as the link between Delilah’s sassy, tomboyish disdain as a kid and her hard, radicalised intent is also signalled: she’s the one who greets him when we first see him go to the Benson house, and the first again when he comes back from war. Her status as the one real militant amidst all these clapped-out soldiers in the narrative suggests an element of dilettante posing found in much of the radical movement, although she proves her willingness to actually use deadly force. Delilah’s downfall is her unreciprocated crush on Anthony, an emotional attachment that, like Anthony’s to Juanita and his other loved ones, dooms him to a course of action that seems inevitable. When Anthony and his cadre actually embark on their robbery mission, they do so pointedly done up in dramatic, visually striking whiteface make-up that evokes Baron Samedi of voodoo lore, the embodiment of the perverse dichotomy of the slave society, the dualistic mix of black and white, owner and owned, command and slavery, eternity and death.
Similarly surreal in his mix of impulses is Cleon, who, since his return from war, has followed in his father’s footsteps and become a preacher, the head-hacking shaman he was in the bush seemingly cast off like a second skin. Nonetheless, Anthony and company approach him to join in their operation: Cleon, to their surprise, readily signs up with vague altruistic hopes for the cash he can net, although he worries Skip might freeze up again and go useless in a tight situation. The robbery, when it comes, is a ferocious sequence of pummelling Peckinpah-esque violence where nothing goes right, except for shedding blood. This climax is particularly good not just in the concussive, gory intensity of the action, but also in the Hughes’ sense of character as fate, which finds precise expression here: Delilah springing out of a dumpster with .45s in each hand blasting away cops with an expression that blends warrior rage and anguish just before getting iced herself; Cleon proving the one who’s unreliable when he can’t shoot down a fellow black veteran turned cop, forcing Skip to shoot the poor guy in the head; Anthony, stung by loss and releasing his rage on the coppers who insist on fighting back, eventually reduced to beating one with his gun when he runs out of bullets; Joe howling with laughter after his explosive device made to blow open the armoured car instead turns the vehicle into a giant ball of fire. There’s a touch of absurdism to this last moment, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of The Italian Job (1969), capping a robbery staged by people more used to violence than they are to planning and executing such a difficult mission. The Hughes present horror and comedy as two sides of the same coin, the result of things spinning far out of anyone’s control, and chaos, as on the battlefield, grips everyone in a ruthless logic.
Dead Presidents finally falls a few rungs short of real greatness, if for relatively subtle reasons. The Hugheses display more discipline here than Spike Lee often has, but lack his and Scorsese’s gift for turning anxiety into an aesthetic key, and the result doesn’t quite annex the realms of truly savage urban warfare in the way a precursor like Across 110th Street (1973) manages. Casting is a bit of a problem, with the supporting players generally more convincing than the leads. Tate is a very likeable actor, and he’s fairly good here, but often seems too lightweight and boyish to inhabit a figure as prematurely grave and seething as Anthony after he returns home, whilst Jackson never quite feels convincing when trying to put across Juanita’s blend of ardour and anger, which means scenes depicting the disintegration of Anthony and Juanita’s relationship don’t blaze with a sufficient sense of mad and inchoate emotion. David is as sourly marvellous as always. The sight of young Howard blazing with mean charisma and punkish swagger in his scenes as Cowboy tantalises with what the film might have been if he had played Anthony, whilst Wright shows real poise and potency in her scenes: in some alternative universe she might have become a real star. Tucker did start on his way towards becoming something of a star, and here his gift for zippy verbal comedy is tethered effectively to his portrayal, as Skip’s confidence in his breezy humour before war and his jittery attempts to maintain it after depict concisely how ruined he is.
In spite of its flaws, Dead Presidents stands as a fascinating, intermittently powerful journey that treads into territory I wish more filmmakers would take up. The disaster of the robbery sets the scene for the steady collapse and defeat of the crew, who manage, in spite of Joe turning the van into a fireball, to get away with a decent haul. But Joe is quickly chased down by police and killed when he shoots the driver of a cop car dead, but the vehicle slams into him. A crumbling Cleon brings down the heat when he starts handing out his cut of the loot to random beggars and people in the street, and squeals when he’s inevitably arrested. The police crash into Skip’s apartment only to find him dead from an overdose, his fish-eyed corpse lying grotesquely before his TV, which broadcasts a jaunty Soul Train performance. Dead Presidents was criticised upon release for its ending, as Anthony is sentenced to a long prison term by a white judge (a cameo by Martin Sheen), a fellow veteran who rejects the idea that the man in the docks deserves clemency for his service and brands him a disgrace instead. Anthony goes berserk in court and is shipped off to prison. This conclusion does have a peculiarly offhand quality, although I suspect that effect is deliberate, as the Hughes brothers fade to black as they have after each episode, only this time there are no more consequential chapters in Anthony’s life. Anthony isn’t granted the kind of glory a shootout like Raoul Walsh’s allowed to his antiheroic gangsters, or the sort of tragic stature filmmakers sometimes choose to extend to the likes of Bonnie & Clyde (1967) or Blow’s (2001) George Jung. He is instead doomed, like another modern Prometheus, to be gnawed at by the decimation of his community and the ambiguity of his own lot, the question of whether he really was a man without choices or the agent of his own destruction. Shit happens, and it just happened to Anthony Curtis.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Max Färberböck
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At least through February 28—Oscar night—it’s a pretty sure bet that people will be talking about Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) and its six nominations, including Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the best actress and supporting actress categories, respectively. Carol is the latest, but certainly not the only lesbian romance to hit the big screen in a big way; indeed, Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. As I started thinking about films that deal with this topic, my mind went to a feature directorial debut from Germany, Max Färberböck’s Aimée & Jaguar.
Like Carol, Aimée & Jaguar is based on a book. Unlike the former film, which derives from the semiautobiographical novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the German film is based on the published correspondence of Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, two Berliners whose love affair spanned the final two years of World War II. What makes their story especially compelling is that Wust was a middle-aged wife of a Nazi soldier and mother of four and Schragenheim was a 19-year-old Jew who hid her religion and worked at a Nazi propaganda newspaper from which she secreted information to the underground working to topple Hitler and his regime. Wust and Schragenheim don’t get the happy ending intimated in Carol—instead, the couple is ripped apart by the SS on an especially happy day for them, with Felice presumed dead following her deportation to Thereisenstadt and possible forced death march at the very end of the war.
As though to emphasize the real basis of his story, Färberböck bookends his story, quite unnecessarily, with an elderly Lilly (Inge Keller) moving into a retirement home and discovering that one of its residents is Ilse (Kyra Mladeck), her former housekeeper and a friend and lover of Felice (Maria Schrader) before Lilly came on the scene. A voiceover from Ilse leads us back to the dangerous and, at least for our characters, thrilling days of 1943 Germany. Felice, an orphan, lives with Ilse (Johanna Wokalek) and her parents, plays up to her unsuspecting and adoring boss (Peter Weck), and pals around with a coterie of lesbians who live like it’s the decadent ’20s, not the fascist ’40s. One night, at a concert, Ilse sees her employer, Lilly (Juliane Köhler), out with a German officer while her husband, Günther (Detlev Buck), is fighting on the eastern front. Felice comments to a jealous Ilse about how attractive Lilly is and contrives to make contact with her after the concert, a brief encounter that lets the women get a good look at each other.
Felice insinuates herself into the Wust household, eventually organizing a party there with a group of her lesbian girlfriends. Günther, suddenly returned from the front, jumps into the middle of the lively goings-on. When Lilly catches him making out with Ilse, she brings her discovery rather excitedly to Felice. The younger woman takes the opportunity to kiss her, and earns a slap for her trouble. But the ice has been broken, and eventually Lilly succumbs to Felice’s seduction and sets up housekeeping with her in Lilly’s spacious apartment.
Aimée & Jaguar is an intriguing film that offers much food for thought, particularly in comparison with Carol. Whereas Haynes’ film is tightly produced and directed, with strong attention to period detail, Aimée & Jaguar is episodic and too beholden to the imagery of Weimar Germany and media depictions of the decadence of the time; Marlene Dietrich’s top hat and tails feature in a “wedding” ceremony between Lilly and Felice, and Felice and her friends pose for naughty pictures to be sent to the soldiers at the front in a scene that could have come from a Pabst film from the 1920s.
In other ways, Aimée & Jaguar captures a life force that the circumscribed Carol never really approaches. Felice and Carol are both predators, the former seeing if she can conquer a Nazi hausfrau of startling conventionality, the latter seeing an easy target in the fascinated and inexperienced store clerk she seduces. Both women are enigmatic, hiding their secrets from all but their intimates, and the extent to which either woman loves the new woman in her life is very much open to debate. But Carol is a fetishized mannequin of ’50s propriety, whereas Felice lives “now, now, now,” as excited as she is concerned about the closeness of death, delighted by the subversion of being welcomed into the anterooms of the Nazi power structure.
The choice to focus equally on both Lilly and Felice (Schrader and Köhler were both named best actress at the Bavarian Film Awards, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the German Film Awards) offers a strength Carol eschews in favor of privileging the female gaze of Carol’s lover, Therese. Lilly is an absorbing creature, welcoming ranking Nazis into her arms with a rather comic flourish after she sends her older children to the zoo with Ilse for the umpteenth time. She gets an inkling of the Nazi sting when her parents (Sarah Camp and Klaus Manchen) interrupt one of her trysts, sending the hapless officer (Jochen Stern) into hiding; when they make disparaging remarks about the country’s leadership, he emerges unashamed and menacing, warning them to watch what they think and say.
Lilly’s excitement at receiving a series of poetic and stirring love letters, signed only “Jaguar,” sends her into a tizzy guessing at their author. Felice certainly knows how to prime the pump of a conventionally romantic woman. When they finally end up in bed, Lilly holds her slip modestly over her breasts, trembling uncontrollably with fear and desire as Felice talks gently to her, asking whether she should stop, describing her feelings as matching Lilly’s. The scene is so tender, so erotic, everything the perfunctory, overly choreographed sex scene in Carol was not. Subsequent sex scenes are bold and frank, as Lilly experiences a love and joy she never thought was possible. Her fits of jealousy and anger at being shut out of complete knowledge of her lover are fierce and real. When Felice finally reveals that she is a Jew, Lilly’s response is breathtakingly knowing: “How could you love me?”
Aimée & Jaguar matches Carol in a certain kind of loveliness, a separation of the world of the lovers from the outside world, as when Lilly and Felice go swimming one bright day in a nearby lake surrounded by lush greenery. Yet, the ugliness of the time intrudes frequently. Rubble from repeated bombings of the city background many scenes, and one of Felice’s friends is gunned down in the street. Glowing red skies are both beautiful and horrible, a succinct reminder of the sickening bloodshed in and around Germany’s capital and throughout Europe. Felice’s friends warn her of the danger she has placed herself in, but some sort of compulsion—perhaps it is true love—keeps her at Lilly’s side. Unbelievably, Lilly visits Felice at Thereisenstadt as though it were just a local jail. Could this breach of the mass denial Germany was laboring under have hastened Felice’s death? No one can say for sure, though I personally don’t think it could have made much of a difference one way or the other.
On the downside, the film’s structure is a bit too loose. Günther pops in and out of his home so easily that it seems the eastern front he’s serving at is East Berlin. Lilly’s fourth child remains resolutely off-camera until near the end of the movie. Finally, the Berlin underground operates in such an obvious way in this film, I’m surprised it could have operated at all. On the upside, there is an equal mix of Germans who hew to the party line and those who maintain a relaxed, even helpful demeanor toward the “subversives” in their midst. The camaraderie of Felice and her friends is warm, youthful, and protective. Lilly’s rash actions—divorcing Günther and visiting Felice at the concentration camp—show her naivete and are met with horror by Felice’s friends. When she says, “Now I’m one of you,” the women and we know she is too far separated by her experiences to ever understand what their lives have been like under Nazism. Aimée & Jaguar describes an intense pas de deux of love, but maintains a strong foothold in the world of its time. Its rich performances and balanced approach to its central couple make it a nourishing experience.
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Director/Screenwriter: James Cameron
By Roderick Heath
To say that pop culture in the 1990s lacked in romanticism would be an understatement. The decade that gave unto us grunge music and the indie film craze can be aptly celebrated for general dedication to grit and eccentricity, but it also left a vast audience desperate for classical cinematic values of expansive vision and star power purveying high-flown passion. James Cameron’s sixth feature rode in on a wave of publicity over its colossal expense and often worrying buzz: the production had been troubled, the test screenings negative. Cameron had, until this moment, been a hero for many younger movie fans, the man who perfected, if not invented, the scifi-action film and brought a walloping, sophisticated intensity to all of his projects a legion of wannabe filmmakers wanted to emulate. But True Lies (1993) had been an awkward attempt to blend his high-powered template with relationship comedy, and for a fateful moment with Titanic, it seemed like he might have his Heaven’s Gate (1980). Then, of course, the opposite happened: Titanic became, in unadjusted terms, the most successful film of all time. As Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) might become the first sequel to ever become the top-grossing film of all time, and with star Leonardo DiCaprio heading for a possible Oscar win at last, I thought about Titanic again.
Titanic’s place in the psyche of the moment was, like other record-breakers before it, including Gone with the Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), unavoidable, whereas Cameron’s own successor, Avatar (2009), faded swiftly from the collective eye, and The Force Awakens represents total surrender to the age of franchise cinema, solid but almost instantly disposable, a copy of a copy. It seems that our most officially beloved movies don’t have the same aura of specific gravity anymore. For this reason and others, revisiting Titanic nearly 20 years after its release felt like a fraught proposition. It seems wedded to its time, in spite of the fact that, superficially at least, Cameron’s work seemed closely related to the epics of Cameron’s old Hollywood forebears as an evergreen example of supersized cinema. Like many pop movie hits, Titanic left some totally cold, but charmed so many others that it felt like a communal trance. There was a price to be paid for this, of course: Cameron conquered the moviegoing world, but lost his cool in the process. Although Titanic’s glitz and gilt seemed contrary to the pop cultural mood in the years preceding it, the storyline’s essential thesis that the moment of passion must be seized before everything goes to hell was perfectly in tune with the time. The insistent concentration on the impact of burgeoning modernity and catastrophic epochal shifts also presented a perfect simile for another looming pivot, the approach of the millennium.
Similarly, the film’s flashback structure and nudging contemplation of the present’s relationship to a radically different past still somehow within living memory also caught the zeitgeist, the way nostalgia was ceasing to be a quirk merely of the aging and transforming into a new cultural state. Cameron, a fetishist both of the ritual structure of melodrama and of technology as a mode of expression and mediation rather than mere facility, found in the Titanic story a way to bundle his obsessions together with symbolic force. But for Cameron, as for many of us, that pseudo-romanticised past was one seen chiefly through the lens of old movies. Titanic is, amongst other things, a relentless remix of dozens of ancestors, harking back not just to 1930s movie melodramas and screwball comedies, but to Victorian stage thrillers, penny dreadfuls, and silent cliffhanger skits. Titanic is blatant in trying to position itself in a grand tradition of big cinema. Cameron’s showmanship often wields tremendous visual acuity, right from the stunning opening shot of submersibles sinking through the endlessly black sea, describing highly realistic detail and yet charging the moment with a note of eerie, numinous adventure, penetrating the sunken graveyard of memory and times past. Cameron quickly contrasts this otherworldly note with the tyranny of the mundane, as he introduces treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his boorish assistant Bodine (Lewis Abernathy). Brock makes self-dramatizing pronouncement for a video record, only to be made fun of, before invading the Titanic’s wreck on the hunt for the legendary lost necklace called the “Heart of the Ocean.” Brock thinks he’s found a safe containing the necklace, but instead the case proves to hide a sketch of a beautiful nude woman. Brock is furious, but he tries to use the find for publicity on TV and attracts the attention of 100-year-old Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who quickly snares Brock’s interest by revealing she knows what he’s after.
Brock has Rose and her granddaughter Lizzy (Suzi Amis) flown to his vessel, and after suffering through an instructive, but abstract lesson in how the Titanic met its end, Rose begins recounting her own history of the ship’s ill-fated maiden voyage. Like many highly successful filmmakers, Cameron’s work arrives in a mass of contradictions, affecting to encompass the tragedy of the Titanic’s victims whilst turning their fates into a kind of fun fair, showing off the paraphernalia his budget can offer whilst offering a theme that money doesn’t matter, and evoking the tone of a certain brand of cable television documentary whilst lampooning them at the same time. He presents Brock and crew as a bunch of slick-ass adventurers indifferent to the real history of what they’re exploiting. Cameron writes an unstated mission statement as Bodine shows off his goofy computer-animated version of the disaster, only for Cameron to reproduce it in it exact, bone-shaking detail later. The crassness of the modern is soon contrasted with the splendour and legendary aura of the past, though that past is soon ransacked for inequity and snobbery. Rose’s narrative begin at age 17, a porcelain beauty and poised aesthete (Kate Winslet) silently enraged that she’s been contracted to marry Caledon “Cal” Hockley (Billy Zane), son of a Pittsburgh steel tycoon, because her father lost all her family’s money before dying, and her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) was anxious to make the match to halt a slide into poverty. Cal’s possessive, dictatorial streak is immediately apparent as a self-appointed neopharaoh of the transatlantic sphere.
Meanwhile young, footloose artist Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) wins steerage-class tickets for himself and Italian pal Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) in a poker game, and the duo just manage to get aboard the liner before it sails. Jack, of course, thinks he’s one lucky guy. Soon Jack is gazing at Rose from afar, emblem of the impossible world of first class, even as fellow passenger Tommy Ryan (Jason Barry) boasts proudly about the Irish labour that built the ship: the picture of Rose’s floating beauty and her world based in skilled toil of working people. It’s all headed, of course, for the big crack-up, both on the personal level, as Rose flees her impending fate in a momentary fit of suicidal intent, and the impersonal, as the ship nears its rendezvous with the iceberg. Jack’s gallant attempt to talk Rose off her precarious perch on the ship’s stern turns into more physical heroism as he hauls her back over the railing, and, after a brief but telling moment where he’s mistaken for a sex fiend, is thanked by Cal, who asks his manservant Lovejoy (David Warner, nicely mean) to pay him off. When Rose protests, he adds an invitation to dine in first class the following day. Jack is taken under the wing of the unsinkable mining millionairess Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), who loans him her son’s tuxedo. Suitably armoured, he proceeds to charm the hoity-toity guests with his enthusiasm and philosophical take on fortune’s perversity, whilst trying his best to deflect the barely veiled contempt turned his way by Cal and Ruth. Then he entices Rose down to steerage to enjoy a “real party” amongst the buoyant, hard-drinking, melting-pot folk of the lower decks, and Jack and Rose’s attraction combusts on the dance floor. Cal, catching wind of this, thanks to Lovejoy’s patrolling, releases a squall of rage the next morning to Rose’s shock, and Ruth uses emotional blackmail to ensure Rose stays the course.
From the shift into flashback and up until nearly the midway mark, Titanic essentially plays as a romantic comedy with a dash of screwball, one with many motifs in common with 1930s and ’40s versions of that genre in which class versus love fuels such stalwart works like Love Me Tonight (1932) and My Man Godfrey (1936) and Holiday (1938). The diamond that is both the film’s McGuffin and central symbol also recalls the kinds of prized shiny things at play in many a screwball work, like Trouble in Paradise (1933) and Hitchcock’s tribute, To Catch a Thief (1956), both films in which those jewels were both plot motivators and metaphors for sexual frisson. Titanic even has connections with more overtly farcical works, like the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1932) and A Night at the Opera (1935). As the comic brothers did in those films, Jack dashes through a luxury liner upturning the microcosmic social mores and wielding outsider, underclass energy to a point where try as the snobs might to ignore him, they find him an unshakeable, even necessary nuisance. As in A Night at the Opera, the working-class passengers’ celebrations are viewed as an eruption of positive life force that dwarfs the pretensions of the upper classes, and the polygot immigrant tide promises an upset to the familiar ways of life the forced structuring on the vessel is nominally erected to exemplify. For a more elevated reference point, one could also say there’s a hue of Henry James in it all, as Cameron explores his schema through strident contrasts: Old World and New, high class and low, male and female. Notes of menace and impending danger contradict the droll tone, partly because everyone is heading for an inevitable disaster and also articulated meantime by the signs of danger apparent in Cal’s behaviour and the looming threat of irrevocable emotional (and physical) damage to Rose.
One crucial element in Titanic that makes it stand out is the way art is crucial to both the story and its very structure. Jack’s artistic ability services the story, as Rose, who partly defines her intellectual independence through her own critical interest in art and Freudian psychology, is fascinated by his talent. In one of the film’s most famous and oft-lampooned passages, Jack sketches a nude Rose in a scene that works on several levels. The lush but also suppressed eroticism arcing between the pair finds its perfect iconographic expression, whilst reflecting Jack’s ability to transmute that eroticism into artistic purpose and a higher-minded ideal, whilst Rose uses it to declare independence from her class and her fiancé. Jack’s status as a bohemian protomodernist whose journeys and experiences anticipate the Lost Generation and the Beats emphasises the notion Cameron purveys of an oncoming world, just as Rose’s fumbling move towards liberation contains feminist rumblings, and their nascent modernity as the couple is spotlighted by this complementary and equivalent intellectual passion. The level of respect Cameron offers art in the film is evidently personal—he made Jack’s sketches himself—and defiant in some ways: usually, the passion of the artist is transmitted through some more metaphorical device in Hollywood. Of course, it’s “art” in a corny and reductive sense, with the ready-made signposting of Rose’s early modern collection and Jack’s embodiment of the artistic spirit as above all a sexual-romantic one. Dig the careful way Cameron both presents him as an unashamed eroticist with his sketch book full of naked chicks, but also reassures us he not merely some perv by noting how a prostitute’s hands obsessed him above all. Yet, another interesting facet of Titanic was the relatively unabashed championing of a little pulchritude and buoyantly portrayed, unashamed youthful sexuality, at least by the standards of the increasingly timid Hollywood of the day, leading up to Jack and Rose perhaps being the first teens to ever have their first screw in the back seat of a car.
Jack’s way of feeling and seeing pervades the film’s visuals. The other most famous moment in the film, coming much earlier, is the one in which Jack stands on the Titanic’s bow and loses himself in ecstatics at the limitless promise of the future, whilst the ship’s captain, E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill), lets the brand-new product of human ingenuity and vision off the leash to sprint across the ocean. Cameron’s camera sweeps over the ship and explores the process by which Smith’s order becomes mechanical fact. Machinery and personal vision, the best products of the human world, combine in a moment of transcendence, one that visualises Jack’s artistic fugue that climaxes with his cry, “I’m the king of the world!” The filmmaking, blending special effects and expansive emotion, creates the experience and also rhymes with it, Cameron’s purest expression of his delight in the showmanship of cinema.
One of Cameron’s defining traits as a filmmaker had been a fascination with technology, and his depictions of the minutiae of the Titanic’s working parts recalls filmmakers like Dziga Vertov, John Grierson’s GPO film unit, and Howard Hughes in his desire to lay bare how things work, to get at the very guts of an industrial society’s relationship with its works and wares. Utilising the near-limitless freedoms allowed by modern special effects, he takes time out to note things other filmmakers would scarcely consider —the ship’s great propellers starting up and stirring a vortex of mud as the ship leaves harbour, the desperate effort of the chief engineer to reverse the engines during the iceberg collision—in his desire to encompass the nature of the Titanic as a technological creation that is also a near-animate, but vitally flawed, expression of its creators’ dreams and blind spots. In a naïve, but very real sense, he includes the mechanics of the human world aboard ship in the same regard: his sociology has a similarly mechanical sensibility. When the ship does hit the iceberg, the smooth functioning of both the machine and its human parts begin to break down, both essentially becoming a cage Jack and Rose try with new desperation to escape.
The Titanic’s history has long retained a specific gravitas and mystique as the apotheosis of a certain brand of ethic, an ethic that would soon be tested to the limit and finally shattered, along with whole social structures and institutions, during the Great War, carried down to us by tales like that of the ship’s band playing right until the end, and Benjamin Guggenheim sitting down with his valet to calmly await the end. Variations on the history had been filmed many times before Cameron took it up, most stacked with their own microcosmic studies. A 1943 German take, made as a Nazi propaganda film, turned it into a parable of British decadence. 1953’s Titanic, directed by Jean Negulesco, presented similar tensions to Cameron’s, emphasising the looming divide between nascent American motivation and Old World loucheness, with some cross-class romance. Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film A Night to Remember, usually regarded as the best Titanic film, took a cool, docudrama approach and supplied a very British sense of intense fortitude, but also, underneath that, regarded the human failings as well as the sad beauties revealed by the tragedy, including portrayals of the repression of the steerage passengers in a way more biting than Cameron’s. The little-remembered, but excellent miniseries SOS Titanic (1979; David Warner also costarred in that) similarly emphasised realistic detail. But Cameron’s film arguably goes further than any of these in encompassing the event on a metaphorical level, becoming something like a myth of the death of the Old World two years before the start of World War I, and the birth of the New World. Cameron, naturally, finds a telling detail in naval architecture: the great ship, the embodiment of newness, has a rudder too small to allow it to miss the iceberg. In a similar way, the rituals of gentility can’t stand up to the eruption of the repressed when push comes to shove. Cameron interrogates the stoic mystique by refraining obsessively to the survival will of the steerage passengers, kept at bay by the reflexive containment of the crew, and offering noisy, declarative, proletarian wilfulness as the only thing that can keep them alive. In short, Cameron attacks the Titanic myth’s very British aura and remakes it as very American. This mediating idea probably explains why Cameron was mostly spared greater ire from U.S. conservatives, in spite of the relentlessness of his class-war message.
As filmmaking, Titanic feels like it has at least one foot planted in John Ford’s oeuvre, particularly the phase in Ford’s cinema that climaxed with Stagecoach (1939), packing a socially diverse lot into a vessel and sending it where death and disaster await, with a refrain of outlaw romance, one Ford brought over from The Hurricane (1937), which was, of course, a disaster film like Titanic. At the time of release, some compared Cameron’s labours to David Lean in his sweeping, screen-filling vistas and gifts for orchestrating massive events. Cameron’s visuals do sometimes wield the mimetic quality of Lean’s, particularly the “king of the world” sequence in rhyming Jack’s inner world to the outer, whilst the film’s focus on an artist in love amidst turmoil recalls Doctor Zhivago (1965). But it almost goes without saying that Cameron lacks the often irony-spiked intelligence and sophistication of either director, who based themselves solidly in strong screenwriting and the divergent qualities of old Hollywood and British dramatic styles. DeMille is a more obvious relative, with his gift for manipulating massive elements and tying them to large dramatic ideas. Another close relative, it strikes me, is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)—like Lang’s supercity, the RMS Titanic is conceived as a doomed social vessel upon which the tensions of the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist are projected, climaxing in flood and ruination, images of squirming masses desperately trying to hold on. Lang also squarely rooted his parable and more sophisticated ideas in raw morality-play schemes of Victorian pulp fiction.
The problem with Titanic is that whilst its themes and imperatives are beautifully visualised and intelligent, if obvious, they are conveyed on a dramatic level by strokes so broad they border on crude. Cameron had energised big-budget genre cinema by entwining unexpectedly emotional stories with crashing hardware and conceptual fancies, but stepping out of his comfort zone in hypermodernity, he sold his period fantasia not simply by presenting his heroes as frustrated, nascent citizens of a world yet to be created, but by leaning on clichés and caricatures to evoke the era. Writing period dialogue, especially for an era like the 1910s that lurked between the familiar and the alien, can be tricky, and Cameron barely even tried: Jack and Rose often interact in the same slightly provoking, sarcastically aping manner as a pair of ’90s teens. As exacting as he is in his recreation of the visual textures of the past, Cameron remains often oblivious to the ear. The comedy, far from being as witty as the stuff he references, manifests instead in gauche moments like when Jack challenges Rose to engage in a spitting lesson, like someone let young Huck Finn on the ship. Cameron’s dogged evocation of class rage is admirable on some levels, but facetious on others: at its worst, the film is less 1930s screwball than 1980s slobs-versus-snobs farce with pretensions. One heralded aspect of the film that has dated awfully is James Horner’s Oscar-winning score. The pompous theme song, “My Heart Will Go On” got old very quickly back in the day, but the whole score sounds misjudged now, with its cheap-sounding synthesiser chords and excessively lyrical passages that sound like background music for a John Tesh album. It’s a pity that Horner, a great movie composer for the most part, was most remembered for this pap.
The dialogue is littered with egregious anachronisms, and many smaller roles are overplayed. Paxton, usually a reliable presence, hits an annoyingly overripe note early in the film and holds it right through. That said, most of the leading members of the cast labour to give the film vitality it might not have had otherwise. Fisher’s lethal jade gaze wields more violence than any of Cameron’s Terminators, and Victor Garber’s performance as the ship’s tragic designer Thomas Andrews is deft, capturing the pathos in a warm-hearted, brilliant man living just long enough to see his own worst nightmare and failure come to pass. Zane’s performance as Cal is usually targeted as a weak point, but upon returning to it, I found him one of the chief pleasures. Zane grasps Cameron’s bull by the horns in presenting Cal in all his unregenerate, Snidely Whiplash-esque caricature: clasping, possessive, snotty, bullying, with an apparent streak of intense neediness that makes him all the worse, delivering Cameron’s lines like, “What made you think you could put your hands on my fiance? Answer me, you filth!” with glee. By the film’s later stages, he becomes entirely splendid in his awfulness amidst all the noble behaviour, using a random lost child as his cover to enter a lifeboat, like some Terry-Thomas character at loose in an Arthur Miller play. I almost find myself wishing there exists a cut of the film composed purely of Cal being awful. DiCaprio and Winslet had harder jobs in making their characters seem nuanced and lifelike, and in conveying the necessary passion to ensure Jack and Rose emerged as more than mere puppets amongst the set design and screenplay determinism. They rose to the job with performances that set both solidly on the path to long and interesting careers. But time has dimmed the lustre of their chemistry, the thinness of some of their business and the self-conscious approximation of classic romance is rudely clear now, at the mercy of Cameron’s sometimes laborious signposting, to the point where patches of the first half are a bit hard to sit through.
Winslet was awarded an Oscar nomination, whilst DiCaprio was not. Winslet’s intelligently layered performance is still admirable, if beset by a period mid-Atlantic accent often brittle in its fastidiousness. With her cascading mane of wavy red hair, she seems to have stepped right out of some John Waterhouse painting, whilst belying the passive images of femininity her looks evoke, evolving by the last act into the kind of robust, gutsy lady Cameron likes so much. DiCaprio meantime offers the height of quicksilver matinee appeal. Underlying his superficial embodiment of a kind of boy-man dreamboat ideal of ’90s stardom and the broadness of the cowboy poet character he’s asked to maintain, he still comes on in Titanic like the nexus of a half-dozen Old Hollywood star archetypes—here a flick of Gable’s roguish charm, there a shot of Jimmy Stewart’s gangly wryness, the physicality of Flynn, the impudence of Cagney. By comparison, many of Winslet and DiCaprio’s subsequent performances, mature, intense, artistically committed, and often punishingly dour as they are, feel like weird cheats in looking back to the way Cameron unleashed them as pure movie stars. Cameron nods to the Twelve Oaks ball sequence in Gone with the Wind as Jack beams up at Rose on the ship’s grand staircase with knowing amusement, and again when the two kiss in the fiery sunset on the ship’s bow. The steerage dance sequence is one of the film’s silliest interludes, working on one level to reduce the pains of the immigrant journey, which Titanic affects to champion, to a dinner theatre experience. But it’s also the most enjoyable, particularly as Jack and Rose swap dance moves, delighting in physical release. Cameron tips his hat to another pop movie smash of years past, Saturday Night Fever (1977), when the romantic couple on the dance floor spin, the camera alternating viewpoints of each in the centrifugal rush.
In some ways, Titanic as a film represents a blend of impulses Cameron wasn’t a good enough screenwriter to make work in tandem. The melodrama framework is too slender to stand the full weight of his ambitions. Then again, Titanic’s occasional lapses into cartoonish broadness are perhaps partly the reason it was so successful—its transmutation of history and ideas into an artefact anyone can comprehend. But a true classic epic has finesse in its bold strokes, a finesse Titanic often lacks. Jack and Rose never have the unruly life, straining at the edges not just of social obligation but also the limitations of their own storyline, that Rhett and Scarlett obtain. Once the ship collides with the iceberg and begins to sink, Cameron’s filmmaking rolls on with the force of a freight train, if still with some notable problems. Cameron’s already familiar habit of presenting his action finales as nested events with surprise second and third movements here has him playing the same tricks a couple of times too many. He sets up a wonderfully tense situation in which Rose must venture deep into the sinking ship to find and free Jack, one which obeys the classic cliffhanger rules straight out of a Pearl White or Tom Mix two-reeler, except with the familiar genders of the trapped and the rescuer purposefully reversed.
But Cameron can’t help but contrive to send the pair back down into the ship again to repeat the sequence. Also, Cameron’s relative uninterest in most of the crew and background characters during the early parts of the film mean that as he starts ticking off the familiar vignettes of the sinking, many of the people enacting them seem vague and random. The film took flack for the portrayal of the ship’s first officer, John Murdoch (Ewan Stewart), usually acclaimed as a hero. Cameron depicts him fraying under the intense pressure of the moment, flabbergasted when Cal tries to bribe him for a spot in a boat and later throwing the money back in his face but, after accidentally shooting Ryan in a bid to keep order, finally killing himself. I can see the offensive side to this, but on the other hand, it’s one of the film’s more dramatically interesting aspects, offering moral ambiguity and a sense of personal catastrophe underneath the plaster saint aspect of the ship’s legend with a purpose that otherwise Cameron tends to slip by in favour of less subtle effects. I find myself more irritated by the way Cameron heedlessly perpetuates a few bogus canards about the disaster, reducing the White Star Line manager Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) to a cheesy villain (both upper-crust Limey and corporate honcho, the perfect twofer), and particularly the idea that the ship was speeding for the sake of some kind of glory.
And yet, despite his hesitations, Cameron still delivers his climactic sequences with incredible force and no small amount of true visual artistry,with Russell Carpenter’s photography a great aid. Indeed, Cameron’s eye decorates the film throughout with cinematographic coups. The sight of Jack and Rose dashing through the boiler room, Rose’s dress floating amidst stygian surroundings like a visiting angel in hell. The dolphins leaping before the Titanic’s knifing prow. The repeated dissolves from past to present seeing the glorious ship turn into the rusting hulk in sonorous depths. The last hour of the film counts, in spite of Cameron’s repetitions, as one of the great cinematic set-pieces, depicting the ship’s slow and monstrous transformation into exterminating leviathan, its sturdy and stable forms suddenly collapsing on hapless passengers and rearing up like a dying beast to dump them all in the icy ocean. Cameron alternates perspectives godlike and immediate, at one moment observing the ship and its distress flares from a distance, revealed suddenly in its remoteness and failing, and next offering a close-up of Rose’s face as she cowers in a flooding corridor, lights momentarily fading, the sounds of the dying ship like a growling belly, capturing her own isolation and terror. Anarchy falls hard upon this floating world; even Cal is momentarily left astounded as he beholds a funnel collapsing upon Fabrizio and other hapless swimmers, Captain Smith pummelled by gushing green waters as the bridge floods. Rose’s paintings drifting in the rising tide. A drowned woman with diaphanous clothes swimming around her, a shot that quietly answers the rhyme of the earlier shots of Rose in the boiler room, the spirit of genteel old femininity lost and gone.
In such moments, Cameron is a man in unrivalled control of his medium, able to pivot between styles and affects with casual ease. The sinking stands comparison with DeMille’s fabled moments of cosmic-scale, orchestrated spectacle, most particularly the collapsing temple at the climax of Samson & Delilah (1949), a sequence with a similar sense of awe in destruction and an overtone of punishing judgement falling upon the iniquitous. Yet Cameron doesn’t quite make the jump to such a level, in part because of his fastidious technique. Whereas the last reel of A Night to Remember starts to feel like a horror film as it depicts the same events with far cruder special effects but with an exacting eye and ear for individual desperation amongst collective terror, Cameron’s showy stunts and special effects that delight in depicting people crashing and spinning to their deaths from the ship’s stern evoke no horror, whilst the audience can take refuge in concentrating on the heroic couple, at least one of whom is guaranteed to survive. Upon this revisit, I noticed how incidental the fictitious Jack and Rose seem through all this, whilst the depiction of Wallace Hartley (Jonathan Evans-Jones) and his band sticking out their job to the bitter end still pierced me.
I recall reading a comment on John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) that stated action tends to describe symbolic meaning better than dialogue in cinema, and there’s truth in this, and yet the more he tries for import here, the less Cameron gains it, at least until the ship finally disappears and he stages a bloodcurdling pullback shot from Rose alone in the water to reveal hundreds more thrashing in the water. The eerie, expressionistic passage where a would-be rescue boat searches the expanse of people turned to icy statues, with Rose croaking desperately for aid, is similarly excellent, at last pushing again at the veil between life and death, heaven and earth, Cameron tested at the start. Jack begging Rose to go on with her life as he slowly freezes to death gilds the lily more than a little, but there’s still an authentic whiff of the kind of heightened Victorian romanticism Cameron’s been chasing all along, particularly as she bids farewell to his ice-daubed, cherub-lipped corpse and watches him sink into the black. But Cameron can’t help but overplay his hand as he returns to the present, reassuring us that Brock has learnt a lesson, whilst Rose drops the Heart of the Ocean into, yeah, the heart of the ocean, and dreams of a reunion with Jack to the applause of their old shipmates. Titanic hasn’t aged so well, it’s true. Yet it still leaves you with the sense that, for better and worse, you’ve just had the kind of experience for which the movies were invented.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: George Lucas
By Roderick Heath
The fervent anticipation at the nearing release of Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens carries an unavoidable sensation of déjà vu. Like just about everyone else my age, I grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, and recall another wave of both powerful hype and real expectation through the closing months of the last millennium that crested with the release of George Lucas’ return to the series, Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace. This cinematic phenomenon began as a good-humoured, referential piece of space disco created by Lucas, a man who up until 1977 had been best known for a film about teens driving about all night to the musical accompaniment of ’50s oldies. But the series he inaugurated with Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) quickly became something rare: giant blockbusters viewers adopted with the fierce personal attachment of cult films. Stripped down to constituent parts, the original Star Wars films seem simple, even infantile, and yet there’s something incredibly powerful encoded in them, defying reduction if not dissection. Almost inimitable amongst modern special-effects-driven movies, they maintain the rarefied quality of fable, combining cheeky but essentially straitlaced heroism with a quality, in their evocations of places seen and visited, their alien cities dancing on clouds and death machines the size of moons and taverns littered with denizens of two dozen species, that resembles the apparatus of dreaming.
Concurrent with the fond eagerness was a quieter but powerful swell of cynicism from people who disliked the films or resented the hype. Star Wars had germinated as personal fantasia but became marketing event. Lucas began his career with the semi-experimental scifi feature THX 1138 (1971), but more than any other filmmaker of his generation—the so-called Movie Brats—Lucas came to exemplify faith in the broad audience’s wont as well as the artisan-artist’s individual vision. Lucas learnt the hard way about the pitfalls as well as the prospects in making movies for that audience by dealing with the uproar over the nightmarish Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and the flop of the oddball Howard the Duck (1986), and had resolved to be a responsible provider of family entertainment. Facing a new trilogy with much darker and less commercial subject matter than his first series, Lucas at first courted a new generation of young viewers as fans by conceding to them excessively. Trouble is, the people who already loved Star Wars weren’t kids anymore: they were 20- and 30-somethings who wanted, whether they knew it or not, two completely divergent, yet equally necessary, concessions: the feeling of being thrust back to childhood while simultaneously reflecting their evolution. The Matrix, released a few months before The Phantom Menace, became the film the latter singularly refused to be: a superman fantasy dressed up in pseudo-grit and cyberpunk quotes that fitted the mood of the time. The Phantom Menace was a huge hit, but soon became a byword for the cultural equivalent of a fumbled touchdown. I was and still am bewildered by the level of invective the prequel trilogy receives. In some ways, I even prefer those films today.
I don’t say this just for the sake of contrariness. Some criticism levelled at the trilogy is legitimate and feelings of dashed expectations are honest enough for many. But I also feel this cult of disdain exemplified something notably obnoxious about the dawning age of the internet, a deeply spoiled capacity to judge with distinction or consider with a sense of history that refers outside of the bubble of fandom, or the opposite, charmless snootiness turned on popular cinema. I think of how lumbering and overhyped a lot of modern franchises have been—The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and Twilight and Hunger Games series, even to a certain extent the Marvel superhero films. So many are testimonies to a brand of professional smoothness or an anodyne brand of fun, rarely taking any risks or offering real ambition to match their flimsy gravitas. Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, formidable as they are, rendered the epic and the fantastic in a manner that remains resolutely concrete, sapped of relevance as parable, and the more they try for the ethereal, the less they seem. So I’ve found myself returning often to the colour and expansive glee apparent in even the least of the Star Wars movies. There’s real beauty and great invention to be found in the prequel trilogy. At their best, they exemplify the creed of the project as it began to explore complicated ideas and motifs through apparently cheery and unpretentious figurations. Lucas had originally drawn on nearly a century’s worth of space opera scifi and pulp storytelling as well as more serious sources.
The surprising thing about The Phantom Menace is how well Lucas captures the tone of some of the stuff he alludes to—the broad, tony, featherweight joie de vivre of a Saturday afternoon adventure film by someone like Nathan Juran or Richard Thorpe. People wanted the Star Wars prequels to be about their childhoods, but it remained, in many ways, an account of Lucas’ youth. One definite impact upon my own sense of art and artistry I can say the series had was the way it introduced me to the idea of auteurist cinema. George Lucas was Star Wars; even when he wasn’t directing, his influence was still all over the product. This eventually proved a sword with two edges, as Lucas the creator became the boogeyman of fanboy campfire tales.
The overarching story of the prequel trilogy is straightforward, but also much more complex in its dimensions and ramifications than the original trilogy’s. The trilogy depicts the transformation of the Galactic Republic, an ancient, galaxy-spanning alliance of planets, into a fascistic Empire. Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a devotee of the once hugely powerful but long since toppled mystic society called the Sith, is at first a mere senator from the planet of Naboo. He engineers a plot in multiple stages, first leveraging himself into the chancellorship of the Republic Senate by creating a crisis between his home world and a cabal of smug, fish-faced aliens called the Trade Federation, led by Nute Gunray (Silas Carson). Palpatine then foments a full-scale civil war between Republic loyalists and disaffected groups, using his adherent and accomplice Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to manipulate events until he is given dictatorial powers, permitting him to create a full-scale army of clones to control his domain. Then Palpatine moves to wipe out the Jedi, the Republic peacekeepers who adhere to an antipathetic philosophy to the Sith whilst drawing on the same quasi-spiritual energy source known as the Force.
Woven into the fabric of his plot are three core characters: the elected Queen and later Senator of Naboo, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and his pupil Anakin Skywalker (played as a kid by Jake Lloyd, as a man by Hayden Christensen). The Phantom Menace tells how Obi-Wan and mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) save Padmé and aid her in reconquering Naboo from the Federation. They encounter young Anakin by chance when hiding out on the remote, barbaric desert planet Tatooine, where he and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) are slaves to gruff, sleazy trader Watto (Andrew Secombe). Anakin’s uniquely powerful ways with the Force help gain a victory, and after Qui-Gon’s death in battle with Palpatine’s initial apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park), Obi-Wan convinces the Jedi Council to let him train the winning, but possibly unstable young prodigy. Whilst The Phantom Menace is the least effective of the six feature films to date in the series, it also clearly illustrates the uncool side of Lucas’ obsessions in a way that also confirms their meaning to him. In its first 40 minutes or so, the episode has a much more juvenile style and tone than the other films and is the one most clearly made with a young audience in mind. As much as this tone acts like nails on a chalkboard for older viewers, it’s not actually a flaw in itself.
That said, Lucas had not personally directed a whole film in 22 years, and the one-time savant of ’70s cinema had clearly grown stiff in the joints. Some parts of this revival are brilliantly executed, others weakly patched together. Early special-effects sequences in the episode are awkward and feel unfinished—particularly an underwater journey for the Jedi—and replete with weak edits. The much-hyped, first-ever, completely computer-generated character in a feature film proved to be Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), a floppy-eared, lizard-like alien from a Naboo race called the Gungans who seems composed of a few hundred different comic-relief figures (and ethnic clichés) from old movies. I generally side with popular opinion here: Jar Jar is an annoying figure who nudges the material too close to the cartoonish, lacking the fierce-cute appeal of the often derided but lovable Ewoks. That said, although Jar Jar grates badly in early scenes, his involvement in a climactic battle through which he careens like Jerry Lewis trying to be Errol Flynn, bringing terror and destruction to both the enemy and his own fellow Gungans, blends comedy and action well in a sequence that calls out directly to a lot of classic swashbucklers, like Nick Cravat darting through danger in The Crimson Pirate (1953) or Herbert Mundin amidst the throng at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
An extended subplot involving the substitution of the real Padmé, who pretends to be one of her own handmaidens behind a decoy, played by a very young Keira Knightley, means Portman and Knightley are forced into awkwardly imitating each other with a weird mid-Atlantic accent. But Padmé is one of the most interesting characters in the franchise. She’s a product of a culture with a curious predilection for being governed by emotionally and intellectually advanced young women, one who remains the voice of social and political wisdom in the trilogy and a gutsy fighter who has a tendency to leap into frays where others hesitate but who founders on her love for a younger, volatile man. The Ruritanian look of Naboo has a fervent and colourful charm, again clearly linking the instalment with the fantasy filmmaking of Lucas’ youth like Knights of the Round Table (1954) or Jack the Giant Killer (1962). The core of the story is distrustful races coming together to fight a common enemy, as the humans of Naboo ally with Jar Jar’s people, the Gungans. The last word spoken in the film is the Gungan king’s (Brian Blessed) cry of “Peace!”, contextualising the developing story as a decline from a state of civilisation into a time of war. War comes not as great and appealing crusade or assaults by conveniently abstract others, but because of the manipulations of cabals hoping to gain power or money. Images throughout the film of the Federation’s war machines trammelling the lush, green beauty of Naboo introduce a recurring note of concern for the environment, nodding toward the same themes of natural purity and the insatiable ravening of sentience depicted in Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
The core sequence, again often criticised but actually a terrific bit of filmmaking, comes when Qui-Gon manipulates events on Tatooine to allow him and his party to escape with young Anakin, which requires letting Anakin enter a dangerous form of competition known as the Pod Race. This sequence provides another evident reference to a movie that stands as distinct precursor to the Star Wars series in both production grandeur and self-mythologising style, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). Whereas the chariot race in that film was a climax, here the pod race actually inaugurates the essential Star Wars myth with the spectacle of something new and amazing coming into the world, and serving at least four purposes. In straight narrative terms, it solves the crisis of how the heroes will get off Tatooine and leads to Anakin joining their team. It’s also an action set-piece that jolts the spluttering film to life. It focuses not just the story, but also the mythic element in the evolving epic tale as Anakin’s great, courageous, slightly berserk talent reveals itself for the first time. It also revives the panoramic aspect that’s always been crucial to Star Wars: tiny, enriching details flit by, from Jabba the Hut overseeing the race and boredly flicking bugs off his booth’s ledge to vendors selling alien small fry to hungry viewers to the two-headed race caller mouthing off sarcastically. This sort of stuff is, to me, always a great part of the pleasure of Lucas’ creation, a universe of recognisable things given a fantastic, slightly mocking but ultimately effusive makeover. Also, given how junky a lot of ’90s action filmmaking looks today, this sequence is especially great in its clean and fluid use of widescreen and the perfect legibility of the visual grammar. But sequences like this sit cheek by jowl with awkward ones, like Anakin being teased by some fellow Tatooine waifs, where the style of acting and humour strays too far into a broad and juvenile place, like a Saturday morning children’s show.
Climactic scenes of The Phantom Menace may push the kiddie wish-fulfilment a bit far as Anakin saves the day by blowing up a Trade Federation control ship to a chorus of applause. But the light saber duel between the Jedi and Darth Maul, which costs Qui-Gon’s life and reveals Obi-Wan’s gift for surprising pompous opponents, is in the best series tradition. Attack of the Clones, the first follow-up, is probably the most frustrating entry in the entire cycle. The episode encompasses some heavy lifting in the overall narrative, depicting Anakin simultaneously as a brave and gallant knight who wields an almost unnerving romantic fixity in pursuing Padmé, but also harbouring a dangerously fraying psyche. This side to him, though sensed warily by the leading Jedi Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), is revealed when he returns to Tatooine looking for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), only to find her on the edge of death after being kidnapped and tortured by humanoid nomads known as Sandpeople. Anakin, stirred to psychotic rage after Shmi expires in his arms, slaughters a whole village of them. The monster within Anakin is hatching, byproduct of both his alienated and exploited youth and the process of becoming a Jedi, a process that was supposed to ennoble and cleanse him of such evil. Anakin confesses his act to Padmé, alternating shows of rage, adolescent petulance, grief, and bewildered self-reprehension. Padmé, resisting her own ardour for the handsome warrior, nonetheless acquiesces to and covers up his lunacy.
Parts of Attack of the Clones have a romantic grandeur that easily match the best moments in any other episodes and strike at the heart of the appeal of this universe. The film starts effectively with a noirish sequence depicting an assassination attempt on Padmé that kills one of her doubles, a moment that signals immediately that the kiddie games of The Phantom Menace are over. Anakin and Padmé kissing before being wheeled out for a death match before a stadium full of insect men is a moment carved out of the very ore of the fantasy epic. The climactic battle sequences, including a tribute to Ray Harryhausen as our heroes battle a trio of monsters, the Jedi finally depicted at their best as they rally to save our heroes and fight off an army of robots, and Yoda and Dooku meeting in a light saber duel, are great entertainment, with a hint of the old to-hell-with-it absurdity that marked the older films. The landscapes on display are a diorama of fetish points for space opera and classic scifi—robots, aliens, Art Deco supercities, technogothic castles, glistening chrome space ships, and stygian automated factories, as if decades of Amazing Stories and Astounding magazine covers have come to life. Mixed in with this are references to the ’50s pop culture beloved of Lucas, like diners and hot-rod-like speeders and spacecraft, making for the deepest immersion in the fantasy world Lucas had created.
But the episode is also beset by a baggy narrative that wastes screen time when it should be developing the tortured romance of Anakin and Padmé, whose affair unfolds in settings straight out of Pre-Raphaelite art. Instead we’re lumped with a couple of action scenes that come across more as show reels for the increasingly good digital effects or blueprints for computer games, like an asteroid field chase and a sequence in a droid assembly plant that is well-done and has a certain thematic force by portraying our heroes trying not to be more literally stamped out by a heedlessly working machine, but could easily have been left out. Some sequences even stir thrills and a touch of exasperation at the same time, like the early chase sequence through the planetwide city of Coruscant. Wisely, Lucas reduced Jar Jar to a handful of cameos here, as a malleable political stand-in for Padmé, whilst the reliable duo of C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are turned to for comic relief, though the pair don’t wield the importance or sharpness of humour they had in the original trilogy. For all its flaws, though, Attack of the Clones is a vigorous, fun, substantial work. Many of the best moments, odd for such a piece of big filmmaking, tend to be tossed-off asides: Obi-Wan using a Jedi mind trick on a barroom drug dealer, Anakin playing Joe Friday with bar patrons, bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) spinning his blaster like a gunslinger after shooting down a Jedi, C3-P0 having a killer droid head welded onto his body, and the sight of Anakin speeding across the Tattooine landscape on a futuristic motorcycle like the Wild One gone Zen Ronin.
A great part of the appeal of the original series lay in the relatively broad simplicity of its heroes, who stood for clear, easily graspable, positive values. Even Han Solo, the slightly tarnished wiseguy uneasily elevated to crusader status, is hardly a Dostoyevsky character. The characters did evolve, but only Luke really deepened, and his journey from fresh-faced farm boy, an obvious avatar for the audience’s fantastic yearnings, to grim inheritor of cosmic destiny, bore most of the real dramatic and mythic weight. By comparison, the prequels force one to empathise with a callow budding psychopath, his enabling lover, and his emotionally constipated mentor. These three protagonists each aid in causing the destruction of the world they think they’re defending. The prequels depict a world falling apart and tellingly refuse to let the audience off the hook, no matter how distanced or naïf the rendering of that hook: almost everything the audience wants to see is bound up in this decay. The desire to see action is sated, but immediately indicted by Yoda as proof of failure. The romance of Anakin and Padmé slips its bonds, but signals impending doom for both. The daydream sustained in the original trilogy is therefore critiqued and inverted.
Much as older viewers couldn’t relate to Anakin, many kids and teens did. His deeply egotistical and painfully self-castigating sense of having his potential thwarted and his need for control foiled, and Padmé’s optimism waning into an increasingly detached cynicism towards the political process she stands for, depict states of mind all too prolific in our time, ones that contradict common, conflicting expectations loaded upon young people, to be incredible achievers and unswervingly empathetic idealists all at once. “Only a Sith talks in absolutes,” Obi-Wan warns Anakin as he turns to the dark side. At the time, some took this for a tilt at the rhetoric of George W. Bush, as much as it now sounds like a thumbnail sutra explaining the powerful appeal of groups like Islamic State for some—the promise of complete surrender to a simple cause, a pure mode of thought for which any act can be countenanced. In this regard, Lucas clearly had his pulse on something other populist filmmakers have tried to grasp but usually belaboured. What is also clear to me is that Lucas, when he revisited this material, wanted to try to live within in it on a much deeper level than the original films and pay truer heed to the material’s partial roots in the medieval mythos, both Eastern and Western, where lives were lived and death was met according to rather different value systems. The famous title card of every episode declares that this is all “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” but this fairytale motif only really feels true with the prequels. The original films are a charmingly bratty revolution fantasy, where the good guys happen to speak like ’70s American teens and the bad guys have English accents. The prequels are a tragic contemplation of the forces that tear societies, and individuals, to pieces. Lucas’ interest in a chillier, headier brand of scifi parable was obvious right from THX 1138 and here found further articulation.
This quality emerges strongly in the last film of the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine’s attempts to win over Anakin resemble at once a seduction, therapy session, and a chess match of moral relativism. In the original trilogy, evil was, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an elixir that once tasted was totally subsuming. In the prequel trilogy, both the light and the dark sides are more processes of thought and ways of feeling: by the time he becomes Darth Vader, Anakin is convinced he’s bringing peace and justice to the realm. A constant leitmotif to the prequels is a sense of ethical questioning and a tension between the personal and the political that ultimately destroys both the Jedi and Anakin by pulling them in asymmetrical directions. Yoda warns young Anakin about maintaining attachments and giving himself cause for fear, and it’s precisely this that ultimately leads him straight into Palpatine’s arms. But the Jedi, presented as uncomplicated paragons whose aura is legendary in the original series, are here revealed as gallant but also demanding and elitist, almost incomprehensible to someone who runs on emotion as much as Anakin and perhaps ultimately too detached from the fate of the Republic to actually save it in part because of their own ethic of accepting loss.
Lucas shows he understands something vital about courtly sagas and classical tragedy: the requirement of role and the nature of humanity are disparate and demanding things. Lucas literalises the tension key to the prequels between role and person early on with Padmé’s absurd regalia, a crushing weight of stately role that continues to stand like a statue even when she’s entirely outside of it. Jar Jar actually serves a fairly analogous role here as Han Solo did to the original films, if much less successfully, as a character who remains oblivious to the pretences of the civilised and the imposing (“Maxi big the Force!”). His clumsiness is the very opposite to the ideal of disciplined self-abnegation that defines the Jedi and also the fetishism of power and order that defines the Sith.
The writing of the prequels is often criticised, but what this brings up is just exactly what is good writing in such a context? Is it the writing of, say, Joss Whedon, where everyone, no matter where they come from, speaks like a smart-aleck English major in a Californian college, or the brick-heavy koans of Christopher Nolan? That famous quote of Howard Hawks about the trouble working out how a Pharaoh should talk for Land of the Pharaohs (1955) (“I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew.”) is still relevant in this regard. Lucas tries, a bit archly but with some purpose, to recreate the flavour of a certain brand of courtly poeticism in speech through the prequels, with a texture on occasion that strives for the flavour of medieval epics— romantic, stylised, high-flown to the point of sounding like recitative. Lucas himself compared it to a kind of a rhythmic sound effect—a fair description. There’s a much-mocked line in Attack of the Clones when Anakin and Padmé share a romantic interlude by the side of a lake. Padmé remembers days of joy swimming and lying on the sand with an old boyfriend, and Anakin feebly jokes how much he hates sand. It is an uncomfortable moment, but deliberately so: Anakin tries to shrug aside a hint of romantic jealousy with humour, but accidentally reveals a hole in his soul, as he’s actually talking about his childhood on a planet where sandstorms were dangerous and life was hard, a place to which he will soon return. Characterisation, backstory, foreshadowing. Not so bad for a dumb joke about sand.
That’s not to cover up the many dud line readings in the prequels, most of which are perplexing as they could’ve been salvaged with a few hours’ dedicated ADR work. It’s definitely true that Lucas accomplishes his aims better with images than words. An iconic shot in Attack of the Clones depicting Anakin regarding the dawn and trying to calm his raw nerves with Padmé hovering in the wings, and the final shot of the same film where the pair get married in the rays of a setting sun, have a transfixing, totemic beauty. Lucas’ formal gifts are, in fact, often greatly in evidence throughout the series, particularly his interest in wide shots replete with geometries that highlight the formalism that defines this age in his fantastical world and the tension about to bust it to pieces.
I think the style is quite deliberate and suits the tone of the material, and is also modulated with a deliberation many didn’t notice, moving from the pantomime-like tone of the opening episode to high operatic drama in the last. But the emphasis on a tense decorum in this futuristic (albeit past) world leaves Portman and Christensen often seeming far more out of place than their predecessors ever did. Christensen, whose chief claim to fame was playing a troubled young misfit on the TV series Higher Ground before Lucas cast him, is one of the most vexing elements of the triptych. Lucas clearly wanted a James Dean-Marlon Brando quality to Anakin, his generational touchstones for rebellious youth and social disaffection, a touch of the immature as well as the fearsome to his asocial side. If Christensen was irredeemably bad, he could simply be allowed to fade into the texture of the films like human wallpaper. But Christensen delivers on occasion, as in the scene when Anakin tells Padmé about the massacre of the Sandpeople: he grasps the degree to which Anakin is composed of alternating repression and inchoate eruption, nobility and monstrosity.
Plummy old pros like McDiarmid, Jackson, and Oz fit into this landscape better. McGregor acquits himself well enough in the series, an achievement considering he had a difficult job in matching his younger, pithier version of Obi-Wan to Alec Guinness’ quiet and assured characterisation. Although he and Christensen have the athleticism, in some ways Portman strikes me as the natural adventurer of the three young stars, dashing about firing ray guns with delighted eyes; her “I call it aggressive negotiations” quip in Attack of the Clones is pure swashbuckle. Perhaps the best performance in the trilogy comes from August, who does a terrific job of securing the drama in the spectacle of a mother bereft of her son; the reunion in Attack of the Clones has an unusual pathos because the dying woman is transfixed by the sight of her grown son.
At its best, the prequel trilogy legitimately inhabits the realm of chivalric romance, stocked with themes and stances found in sagas, particularly in the traits that define Anakin, who’s actually much closer to a great mythic hero like Achilles, Jason, or Siegfried than Luke ever was in the violence and intensity of his driving emotions and character stances—forbidden love, crippling conflict between stoic integrity and hysterical eruption, an inability to settle into required strictures of life in the society he represents. Obi-Wan was originally presented as a mentor figure whose initially uncomplicated call to action for Luke was revealed in subsequent instalments to have more dimensions, but he still remained a figure of sagacious wisdom. McGregor plays him as a dashing, but serious-minded swashbuckler who retains a telling and ultimately calamitous blind spot when it comes to Anakin, his pupil and adopted brother, an emotional substitute for the lost father figure of Qui-Gon. This fantasy world is a kind of Eden from which everyone falls, giving birth to a different time and throwing up rogues like Han and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
Many of Lucas’ reference points for creating his mythos were pretty disreputable, including not just the classy art of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comics but the vulgarity of their screen serial adaptations. A wealth of other reference points is apparent— the swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz, the conceptual richness of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and the venturesome absurdity of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the sweep of John Ford’s western mythology and the rigorous formality of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, and Ray Harryhausen’s films, which combined ingenious wonders with the ropy charms of B-movies. On the highest level, Lucas has often seemed an acolyte of Cecil B. DeMille, whose embrace of scale and riotous colour as aesthetic tools matched the themes of world-shaping powers with The Ten Commandments (1956), and of Fritz Lang, who laid the groundwork for much of the style of Lucas’ works with his silent epics The Spiders (1919), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1926)—fantastical pieces of world-building replete with similarly surreal and cavernous environs, action cliffhangers, and stories often split across multiple episodes. Coruscant turns Metropolis’ soaring modernist architecture into an entire world. There’s more than a hint of Die Nibelungen (both movie and source myth, quite apart from Wagner’s take) in the recurring images of crushing courtly stature and state, infernal downfall and baleful regard. Palpatine sitting at the centre of all plots is the ultimate Mabuse, manipulating the downfall of others for personal amusement, reducing government to a matter of his own will and detecting the weak points of Anakin’s psyche to turn him into a helpless acolyte.
The political substance of the series is a mishmash of historical motifs, blending a parable for the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the American Revolutionary War and Civil War, and World War II, complete with space Nazis and galactic paladins. But the prequels contain a consistent thread of real interest in the idea of what constitutes the self and society, diagnosing cynicism as a problem that’s as pernicious as corruption. The original trilogy only seemed to reference contemporary politics by evoking a generational anxiety of becoming what the ’60s counterculture rebelled against, as Luke tried to avoid becoming his father, whilst the battles of the Ewoks uncomfortably suggested an odd hijacking and inversion of the Vietnam experience. The prequels suggest a more immediate and clarified lesson. “So this is how freedom dies,” Padmé murmurs at one point when the Senate votes to make Palpatine Emperor, “With thunderous applause.” Revenge of the Sith, the concluding movie in the trilogy, has a rueful warning for younger generations of how easy it is to be so subsumed when your leaders manipulate you to commit evil in the name of good, with Anakin, youth and talent personified, seduced by promises of power and privilege, called to commit slaughter in the name of peace, to be delivered from fear and frustration. Anakin’s urge to free himself from fear also detaches him from democracy, making him lean toward authoritarianism, the get-things-done attitude of Palpatine.
One of the most obviously powerful qualities of the series since its inception has always been John Williams’ scoring, and perhaps the most inarguably strong aspect of the prequels is his music, particularly the “Duel of the Fates” piece used in The Phantom Menace and the lush “Across the Stars” motif in Attack of the Clones, and the thunderous drums and choral works that recur throughout Revenge of the Sith. The prequels sport a few nods to the original trilogy that are passing excessively cute—having C3-PO prove to have been an engineering project of young Anakin’s, making Boba Fett’s father Jango the genetic source of all the initial wave of clone Imperial Stormtroopers. But there are also some refined and intelligible touches of foreshadowing and mirroring throughout, particularly in Anakin’s two duels with Count Dooku, which mimic cinematic effects and story patterning in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) in suggesting the same forces of fate and divergence of character that define fathers and sons, masters and pupils. Revenge of the Sith signals the closing bookend to the trilogy in echoing Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, as Palpatine’s plots reach climax, the Jedi are wiped out, and Anakin begins a precipitous transformation into that darkest of dark marauders, Darth Vader.
Frankly, Revenge of the Sith is the best of the Star Wars films, a grandiose distillation of the entire concept of space opera scifi, the closest the series has come yet to fulfilling its neo-Wagnerian streak. It’s also the tightest, most dynamic piece of filmmaking, a narrative inexorable in the same way as A New Hope, except on a downward trajectory, successfully carrying through a promise to turn into high tragedy. Elements that had problems connecting and synchronising in the first two films snap into gear here— even Christensen is fairly okay—if at the relative expense of some aspects, including Padmé, a dashing figure in the first two instalments left as mere weepy baby mama here. The opening sequence is a marvel that shows how far special effects advanced even in the six years since the trilogy began, and unfolds as a pure episode of swashbuckling action, as Anakin and Obi-Wan try to rescue Palpatine, who’s been kidnapped by Dooku and cyborg rebel leader General Grievous. Anakin defeats Dooku this time and kills him at the chancellor’s behest, and finishes up having to pilot a massive crashing spaceship in for a neat landing. This whole sequence is a piece of cinema spectacle I don’t think anyone’s topped in the last 10 years. Revenge of the Sith alternates the urge to such kinetic release and intense, yet quiet, almost cerebral sequences where the characters grope their way through their contradictory impulses and collapsing worldviews.
Another very large reason I like these films is that they reject nearly every modish trick of so much contemporary filmmaking. As modern, perhaps excessively so, as the digital special effects seemed upon release, the actual cinematic design of the films is rich and classical in utilising the screen’s expanse, and those much-quibbled-over effects, sometimes gorgeous and sometimes cheesy, offer to me a quality like the painted wonders of old matte effects – not realistic, but transportive on some level. There’s scarcely a single too-tightly-framed shot or jerky camera moment in all seven hours of the filmmaking here. Lucas’ trademark Kurosawan screen wipes nudge visual and narrative structure along with fluidic insistence. I’ll also admit I have a liking for aspects of these films from which others recoil, so go ahead and assume I’m mentally ill. I enjoy Lucas’ happy embrace of the kind of outsized, old-fashioned melodrama and idealization usually filtered out of modern tent-pole films where the cult of awesome has a very narrow range of definition; the scenes of Anakin and Padmé swooning in the fields of Naboo, which have a resplendent, flower-child goofiness to them, and Vader’s final, over-the-top cry of “NO!” are big, gregarious middle fingers turned up at the middling, sometimes nonexistent emotional range of most of Lucas’ inheritors. Revenge of the Sith concludes the move away from the kid-friendly tone of The Phantom Menace, as here the young Jedi are butchered en masse by Anakin amidst a night of long light sabers. Marching ranks of Stormtroopers invade the Jedi temple, and Anakin heads to the planet Mustafar to wipe out the separatist leaders, including Nute Gunray, now that Palpatine no longer needs them.
Lucas’ direction, which grows more vigorous and animated throughout the trilogy, cuts loose in this movement, replete with delirious high viewpoints of marching armies, cross-cut glimpses of myriad alien worlds where other Jedi are betrayed and ambushed, and the churning violence Anakin turns on his enemies, carving up the separatists with a savagery that’s quite unmatched in the whole six-film cycle. The finale of Sith, at once paving the way for the next cycle of history and underlining the total collapse of everything depicted as sacrosanct and worthy in the previous three films, sees Obi-Wan and Anakin battling over Padmé’s crumpled, pregnant form on a volcanic planet where the spuming lava flows mimic the emotional landscape of the characters and the action unfolds in gloriously hyperbolic manner. Molten rock erupts, sparks fly, light sabers streak and slash, colossal machines fall apart and melt. The mimetic quality of Lucas’ creation is at its most unrestrained and beautiful here: I’m not sure if mainstream cinema had seen its like since the days of DeMille, or Powell and Pressburger, whose Black Narcissus (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948) similarly paint obsession and jealousy, love and hate, in bold tones of bloody red and dancelike motion.
Lucas does grant concessions to the remnant heroic ideal at the heart of the series. Yoda gives the newly crowned Emperor a bit of what-for before fleeing in the face of the crushing political machine the Sith now wields, and Obi-Wan quite literally cuts Anakin’s legs from under him when the young, increasingly mad tyro overreaches and underestimates his opponent. The concluding scenes take the cross-cutting structure to a striking place as two different kinds of death and birth are contrasted—the waning life-force of Padmé even as she struggles to give birth to the crucial Dioscuri of the next epoch, Luke and Leia, matched with the reconstruction of the mangled and pathetic Anakin into the monstrous form of Darth Vader. There’s a perverse and gruelling quality to this moments that, again, defined new territory for a series once based in mere boyish adventure. The themes of rebirth, cycles and family, decay and renewal, conclude in images of funeral, as Padme is celebrated in death by Naboo, and homecoming, with Leia finding a home with Senator Organa (Jimmy Smits) and his wife. But the very last shot inevitably returns to that most memorable image of A New Hope, as young Luke is held by his aunt and uncle (Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Maree Piesse) as they gaze out on the twin suns of Tatooine, the future with its horrors and glories a distant promise.
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Director/Screenwriter: Charles Burnett
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A teapot filled with marbles that falls from the fridge and breaks. Leaves placed under the feet of a sick man confined to his bed. A broom brushing the tops of a man’s shoes, filling him with terror. These are the portents and prescriptions of the superstitions that drive the humorous, but still rather horrifying tale of a family plagued by the literal devil they know from L.A. Rebellion director Charles Burnett.
Burnett is best known as a chronicler of the African-American experience in his home city of Los Angeles. His 1978 debut feature, Killer of Sheep, is a somber look at the soul-deadening effect of poverty on a slaughterhouse worker from Watts and his own temptation to sin. His vibrant second film, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), again focuses on an L.A. family, with the clash between a ne’er-do-well and his striving older brother providing another type of African-American story. To Sleep With Anger, Burnett’s third feature, is his first to use professional actors, but the thread linking it to his earlier works remains strong. The folklore his parents and grandparents shared with him during his formative years offered him a different template for exploring the African-American community, one that allowed him to tell a horror story of his own that can easily join other cautionary tales passed through the generations.
To Sleep With Anger opens during a nightmare. Gideon (Paul Butler), a retired transplant to Los Angeles from the Deep South, sits in a chair as though posing for a portrait like the one of his ancestor hanging on the wall behind him. Burning Bush-like flames emerge from a bowl of fruit sitting on the table next to him. Soon, Gideon’s feet are on fire as well, and the flames lick at the legs of the wooden chair that supports him. When he awakens, he complains to his wife Suzie (Mary Alice) that he can’t find his toby, an amulet his grandmother gave him to ward off evil spirits. He then invites her unsuccessfully to join him in bed for an afternoon delight; this is the last time we’ll see Gideon feeling so frisky. Burnett is about to plunge him, the rest of the characters in To Sleep With Anger, and us into a world of superstition, family strife, and earthly minions of the devil working to snatch troubled souls at their most vulnerable.
The monster in the story is a genial elderly man from “back home” named Harry (Danny Glover) who shows up on Gideon’s doorstep the day after his nightmare after 30 years’ separation. Gideon and Suzie welcome him with open arms and tell him that he can stay as long as he likes. They introduce him to their oldest son Junior (Carl Lumbly) and pregnant daughter-in-law Pat (Vonetta McGee). Every time Pat tries to shake Harry’s hand, her unborn baby kicks her—a sure sign to us, if not to her, that something is rotten in the state of Harry. Gideon’s younger son, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), is a lazy, unstable disappointment to his parents and the cause of frequent family arguments. He is married to Rhonda (Reina King), a real estate broker who detests her in-laws’ homespun ways, but not their services as babysitters; Babe Brother and Rhonda keep late hours working and partying, and frequently fetch their boy Sunny (DeVaughn Nixon) from Suzie and Gideon’s in the middle of the night.
Harry’s appearance and the steady introduction of a slew of down-home cronies who are more than willing to abet Harry’s attempts to corrupt Babe Brother with corn liquor and dice reminded me of the return of the ghostly lover of the grieving protagonist and his increasing disruption of her life in another 1990 film, Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply. In the latter film, the emotional dysfunction that allowed in the supernatural mischief makers is obstinate, unresolved grief. In the same way, Gideon and his family are made vulnerable to Harry and his bad intentions not because of a lost toby, but because Gideon’s anger and disapproval fracture his relationship with Babe Brother and Rhonda and infect the rest of the family. It only takes Harry walking Gideon through a railroad depot, where Gideon has a vision of working like a slave to lay track, to awaken a deeper anger, one that lands him in a mysterious coma.
Burnett works slyly to illustrate how the accumulation of grievances or unintended consequences of seemingly harmless deeds can work like a magical curse to create an annus horribilis for anyone. Gideon’s fury with Babe Brother, as well as his sedentary lifestyle and fatty diet, suggest he is ripe for a stroke. Suzie’s nostalgia and overly compliant nature allow Harry to roost, and with Gideon out of commission, to decimate their flock of chickens and ruin their carefully tilled vegetable garden. Junior’s self-righteousness turns him from being his brother’s keeper to nearly being his brother’s killer. Babe Brother and Rhonda represent a couple who want too much too fast, easy pickings for a similarly inclined Harry.
Nonetheless, Burnett is serious about his fable. Harry, too, lost his toby decades before, and there’s no question that Burnett wants us to believe he is the devil. It is hinted that Harry murdered several people back home, and he proudly brandishes his weapon like an elderly Mack the Knife. He sets some very lascivious eyes on Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), an old girlfriend from back home who has been saved and who advises Suzie to poison Harry if she gets the chance. Linda is like a beautiful, white-haired, avenging angel, singing gospel songs that cut Harry to the quick. Harry eventually is defeated, and Gideon’s family is healed in a hilarious denouement that closes this tale in a celebratory manner.
Danny Glover has Harry’s oily manners and menace down to an exact science. Burnett said Glover was worried about being typecast playing older characters (he was 44 at the time), but he asked to read for Harry unprompted after spending some time with the script. Brooks plays Babe Brother with all the pain and anger of a child who doesn’t know how to do what’s expected of him and is condemned for it. When he finally asserts that his name is Sam, Samuel, he finally lets go of his flailing adolescence. Mary Alice, with the face of an angel, is particularly good in a scene where her old beau Okra (Davis Roberts) suggests that she should marry him if/when Gideon fails to recover because they are lodge brothers—her widening eyes and tight mouth show the emotional depths that her warmly superficial character rarely reveals. I also really enjoyed Reina King, who could have come off as a bitch supreme after sitting in her car in front of her in-law’s house during Sunday dinner, but who brings a lot more nuance to her largely self-involved character when Babe Brother really starts going off the rails.
Cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s rich colors that somehow manage to suggest sepia add to the fairytale trappings of this fantasy, and film editor Nancy Richardson shows the great timing that would boost her to a major career in this, her second feature. Most of all, Burnett creates a fulsome community of saints and sinners, chicken coops and pigeon cages, gold watches and rabbit’s feet—a colorful gumbo of African-American life that was rare to see on screens in 1990 and that remains all too rare to this day.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Edward Yang
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The immigrant experience has been fertile ground for many and sundry films throughout the decades, from David Butler’s Delicious (1931) and George Stevens’ I Remember Mama (1948), to Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and James Gray’s The Immigrant (2014). Of course, the seminal immigrant film, especially with regard to young people, is West Side Story (1961). The parallels between the disaffected, semi-rootless youths from barely established immigrant families in New York and their Taiwanese counterparts in A Brighter Summer Day are very striking, indicating the universal problem of trying to adapt to an alien world. Where director Edward Yang’s first masterpiece differs from West Side Story is in its broad, intricate consideration of entire families of mainland Chinese uprooted by the ascendency of Mao Tse-tung and its examination of the transition from one set of cultural values—respect for authority and one’s elders—to another—Western individualism, emancipated youth, and possession-oriented consumerism. In addition, although there is a central love story of a sort in this film, it is not the enmity of gangs that pulls the lovers apart, but rather their conflicting values adrift in an unsettled and unsettling land.
The action revolves primarily around two rival gangs, the Little Park gang and the 217 gang; 14-year-old student Zhang Zhen, nicknamed Xiao (“little”) Si’r (Chen Chang), his parents, and four siblings; and Ming (Lisa Yang), a beautiful 13-year-old girl whose boyfriend and leader of the Little Parks, Honey (Hung-Ming Lin), has run off. The film takes place in 1960, a mere decade after Si’r’s family fled Shanghai in 1949. The Zhangs and other immigrants like them are still looking for a secure foothold in their new country. Mrs. Zhang (Elaine Jin), though a fully qualified university instructor in Shanghai, cannot seem to get certified in Taipei. Mr. Zhang (Kuo-Chu Chang) is a civil servant with a going-nowhere career. Their finances are shaky: they buy their groceries on credit from Uncle Fat (Zhuo Ming), who periodically goes on the warpath to collect what he’s owed, and treasure little but Mrs. Zhang’s good watch and the promises of one of Zhang’s colleagues that he can get them the good jobs they need to really feel secure. The Zhangs, of course, are not alone in their insecurity; Ming’s single mother (Ying-chen Chang) suffers from asthma and has lost at least one position, as well as a place to stay, because of her inability to do her housekeeping job. Their parents’ provisional status and free-floating anxiety has their children looking for a sense of belonging and status as gang members.
The film opens at night with the Little Park gang being trounced on their turf by the 217s. Holed up in a darkened school corridor, the gang discusses Honey’s abandonment and their vulnerability without him. Two of the gang members bring forward a captured 217 member. Honey’s brother Deuce (Wang Zongzheng) picks up a thick, wooden block and offers it to two younger boys to prove they are ready to run with the big boys. When they refuse to take the block, Deuce raises it and slams it hard against the captured boy’s head, knocking him unconscious and sending the young wannabes running. When the boy comes to, Deuce sends him back to his gang with a warning that the Little Park gang will avenge themselves. This sudden brutality is characteristic of what is to come, a sharp contrast with West Side Story’s poetic and relatively infrequent violence.
The main story centers on Si’r and his developing crush and eventual romance with Ming. He spies one night—and the vast majority of this film takes place at night—Sly (Hung-Yu Chen) making out with a girl who turns out to be Ming. Si’r keeps Ming’s secret, even naming another girl as the one he saw, because he knows she pines for Honey. Ming drops her guard with Si’r, seeing him as different from all the other guys who come sniffing around her, and their playful interactions form most of what little daytime activity there is. When Honey returns, Si’r gallantly steps aside like the honorable person his father has tried to teach him to be, even though he is already fairly obsessed with Ming. Time away from her is just filling time at the loathed night school where he talks back to and swears at his teachers and the administrators for their unjust treatment of him, flirting with expulsion.
Like most of the gang members, Si’r has a temper. The importance of saving face and the allure of weapons are all too common maladies of these teens and preteens. Living in houses abandoned by the Japanese, the boys regularly find knives, guns, and even a samurai sword hidden in the rafters—another culture’s detritus waiting for assimilation by these new Taiwanese. A young would-be singer, Cat (Chi-tsan Wang), croons transliterated American pop songs, especially those of Elvis Presley. Cat even receives an answer to a letter and tape he sent to The King saying how gratified he is that his music is so popular in such an isolated, unknown country.
Elvis might never have heard of Taiwan, but it’s clear that for Cat and his friends, the country is also largely hidden, a blank slate onto which they try to graft whatever identity they can. Wang accentuates the unknown, possibly unknowable Taiwanese culture though his almost exclusive use of medium shots and unusual framings, showing people and places half-hidden by window and door jambs, objects emerging from total darkness like ghostly manifestations, shadows of warriors slashing at their rivals in near-total darkness, empty rooms save for one honest soul bewildered to be incarcerated during the Kuomintang “White Terror” to root out Communist enemies of the Nationalist state.
Wang’s interest in this subculture was wide and deep, almost as though he was still trying to understand the place even 40 years after emigrating from Shanghai to Taiwan, a place he left and to which he finally returned. His four-hour film teems with more than 100 characters with speaking parts, including school administrators and teachers, a film crew and actors in a soundstage adjacent to where Si’r attends school, shopkeepers and restauranteurs, police interrogators, doctors and nurses, and many gang members with nicknames like Airplane, Diaper, Threads, and Baldie. Within the drama of the central story are incidents great and small that flesh out this marginal area of Little Park, Taipei. A young Little Park gang member is teased about consuming porn, which he denies reading; he is later seen trying to buy some at a street stall, but runs when he sees Ming and Si’r coming toward him. After they pass by, he goes right back to the stall to finish what he started. In another incident, the director of the film, who has been arguing with its tempermental star, sees Ming and invites her for a screen test—after all she’s a teenager who would fit the part of the young girl better than the actress who “doesn’t look a day under 40!”
Most poignant is the struggle of Mr. Zhang to maintain his beliefs. He blames himself for earning Si’r a major demerit by arguing with the school administrators about punishing Si’r unfairly. He truly believes in being a civil servant and that, in strangely American fashion, one can succeed through hard work and individual initiative. The heart-to-heart talks he has with Si’r every time they walk back from a disciplinary conference at school seem to me like the little Dutch boy trying to hold back the flood of social pressure he sees hovering over his son’s head. The tragedy of this family is that they have tried to be honest without realizing how unimportant in the grand scheme of things honesty truly is. Indeed, why not join a gang when the Communist leadership and the Kuomintang have them.
The notorious climax of the film extends the confusion of youth and the chasm that divides East and West. Si’r tries to please his father by studying to get into day school, and worries about the honor of all those he loves, especially Ming. Ming, on the other hand, runs toward Western values of self-determination. Despite the incongruously demure school uniform she wears throughout the film, she bounces from one boy to another and even tries to seduce her engaged doctor. Furious with Si’r’s jealousy and talk about her honor, she dismisses him as just another boy who wants to change her. At an age when girls often start to go underground under social pressure, she is wise to realize that when you are caught between two worlds, the only hope of survival is to cling stubbornly to your sense of self. Si’r’s answer to her self-assertion is as shattering as it is inevitable, a cry in the dark to the film’s title theme “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
Previously unavailable for decades, A Brighter Summer Day has been restored by the World Cinema Foundation. It has been rumored that it will be released on the Criterion label and air on TCM on September 6 in the wee hours of the morning. Check your local listings to confirm.
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Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
By Roderick Heath
Like a miniature, speeded-up version of the ’70s new wave that reinvigorated American cinema, the mid-1990s saw a flurry of excitement about the burgeoning independent film scene. Hollywood suddenly saw a mine of talent in the fringes as Sundance became the hottest spot in the film world following the triumphs there of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. Low-budget filmmaking no longer had to be a seamy zone for rejects and mercenaries, but could promise invention and a tidy profit as long as an audience remained hungry for this kind of storytelling. A lode of young and interesting filmmakers who had pieced works together on hopes and prayers suddenly gained access to major distribution and studio funds, and were quickly drawn into the big, mean world of commercial cinema. The scene didn’t really last very long, and quite a few of the new talents fell by the wayside, but others have proven to be the backbone of what’s left of serious American cinema. Paul Thomas Anderson made his name with a benighted debut film he called Sydney, but that a nervous studio renamed Hard Eight (1995). A fine, intimate work situated at the crossroads of crime drama and character study, Hard Eight didn’t prove to be a Reservoir Dogs (1992). Anderson recovered from that trial and decided to adapt a student film he’d made in 1988, The Dirk Diggler Story, a mockumentary about a fictional porn star. The resulting feature, Boogie Nights, proved to be ambitious and provocative. Most importantly, it was cunning in appropriating everybody’s pop culture memory in just the right way to get attention.
Anderson has since evolved into one of the most distinctive directors on the current film scene, but at the time he didn’t mind letting his roots show, annexing the same zone of retro fetishism and cineaste allusiveness Tarantino had explored, but skewing it to his own, more rarefied purpose. He unabashedly quoted masters, including Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese as well as more obscure classic cinema deities like Mikhail Kolotozov. But he also found the glory in the seamiest and most degraded types of cinematic achievement. Boogie Nights followed Scorsese’s Casino (1995) in making nostalgia for the barbed, seedy, lawless side of the ’70s cool again. Anderson took a chance with his subject matter that doesn’t seem like such a chance now largely because he took it: after ’80s conservatism and ’90 political correctness, delving back into the world of ’70s hedonism and the “golden age” of the pornographic film industry seemed doubly perverse. Anderson created a miniature genre of modern storytelling that gets off on the lost style of a past recreated in bright colours, whilst analysing the cultural shifts that buried both the best and the worst of that lost time.
The chief inspiration for Boogie Nights was the life of John Holmes, a superlatively endowed porn star who got himself blackballed by the industry for a time for his drug-addled unreliability and became entangled with criminal associates who probably drew him into a drug heist. They targeted a major dealer who repaid Holmes’ confederates in what became known as the Wonderland murders, whilst Holmes himself died of AIDS in 1988. Anderson’s take mimics Holmes’ grindhouse tragedy whilst changing its emphases and investing it with tinctures of parable and satire. Anderson’s seemingly outrageous intent proved only skin deep, as he avoided not just punitive censorship, but also presented the second variation on his obsessive theme of finding family in a hostile world, ironically locating that family within a realm usually painted as cruel and obscene. Shocking things do happen in the film, and the flaws and hypocrisies of the characters are often laid brutally bare. Yet the peculiar warmth Anderson feels for them, the quietly lucid humour he invests in their behaviour, and the acknowledgement of an adolescent joie de vivre unleashed in their private world made for Anderson’s most accessible work to date.
Anderson’s view of the era through pop-coloured glasses is cleverly justified by the media-created fetishes of its young hero, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), whose bedroom walls are a shrine to adolescent desire, from idolisation of Bruce Lee and kung-fu prowess to muscle cars and music heroes, with only a smattering of girly pictures. Eddie’s only special feature, his enormous penis, gets him laid often enough, so he craves fulfilment in other places, places his limited smarts can’t access. Eddie has hopes of finding entry into that bright and shiny world of celebrity and success and works at a flashy disco, Hot Traxx, run by Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), where he’s surrounded by the fashionable and beautiful. Luck, or something like it, is on Eddie’s side when porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) enters Hot Traxx one night with his stable’s two finest fillies, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham). Jack spots Eddie across the crowded dance floor, sensing something about the lad, whose slightly naïve look doesn’t prevent him thinking Jack is another old perv who wants to take a gander at his wang. Eddie’s life in his parents’ home is quickly revealed to be excruciating, and a critical explosion of contemptuous rage by his mother (Joanna Gleason) drives Eddie to leave and run straight into Jack’s arms, where he joins Amber and Rollergirl as part of a pick-up nuclear family. Eddie soon proves as close to a natural in the business as it’s ever seen, and takes a stage name that comes to him as a vision emblazoned in neon: Dirk Diggler.
Anderson presents much of Boogie Nights as an extended fantasia where the kinky energy and specific needs of these aberrant people are channelled into powerhouse success that makes their dreams, however tawdry, come true. Anderson’s simplest yet most radical idea was to invert the usual moral lessons of stories set in such a milieu: as long as the characters stick to the basic understandings of their “family,” they survive and prosper. The familial relationship of Jack, Amber, Dirk, and Rollergirl is rendered especially perverse when one notes that all of them have sex with one another, save for Jack and Dirk. But most of the bad that happens to them is imposed by the big, wicked world beyond their hermetic life, where they’re mere delusional misfits, and when they try to reach beyond its limits, they are swiftly and mercilessly punished. Boogie Nights therefore explores a similar idea to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), which likewise viewed the rock bottom of the Hollywood totem pole as a place where society’s rejects can find fellowship, though with an in-built irony that these aren’t exceptional artists, but rather people who have gotten lucky mining a seam of gold nobody else will touch.
Jack entices Eddie with a monologue that explains not merely the immediate satisfactions of his business, but a yearning for loftier achievements—Jack’s desire to make a movie that can hold his audience from the raincoat brigade with actual dramatic values, and thus achieve respectability, not such a ludicrous ambition in the days of Emmanuelle (1974). Anderson thus used the golden-age porn scene as a way to comment on Hollywood and the filmmaking world in general, glimpsing the pretences of purveyors of the more elevated form through the ambitions of the least. Dirk proves to be the catalyst for Jack’s dream, as he becomes not just an instant star that Jack can build more ambitious productions around, but comes up with a great idea to make just such a movie as Jack dreams of. With stable mate Reed Richards (John C. Reilly), Dirk thinks up a hero named Brock Landers, a cross between James Bond and John Shaft and an actualisation of all Dirk’s fantasies about achieving multifarious grandeur as savvy jetsetter, streetwise tough guy, and legendary super-stud.
The warm embrace of Jack’s world has a duplicitous quality, as it offers freedom, but only in stasis. Those who try to move away from its orbit quickly discover how inimical the outside world is. This Garden of Eden clearly has its own serpents lurking from the start, too. Jack’s production manager Little Bill (William H. Macy) is quietly tormented by his wife’s (Nina Hartley) wholehearted engagement with the hedonistic lifestyle around her, a subplot that seems wryly comedic in portraying marital misinterpretation of modern licence, but soon reveals a cruel streak driving emasculated pathos to extremes. Horner’s backer, “the Colonel” James (Robert Ridgley, who had played Jack Horner in The Dirk Diggler Story) is the very image of the kind of sleaze who annexes ’70s permissiveness for his own unsavoury ends, whilst maintaining a façade of prosperous bonhomie. He first appears at one of Jack’s epic pool parties with a painfully thin, barely pubescent model in tow (Amber Hunter), and within a few minutes, the girl has OD’d on a bad batch of cocaine brought by another of Jack’s guests, who freaks out over the limp form with blood streaming out of her nose. The Colonel has his driver dump her outside a hospital. Later, the Colonel is arrested and imprisoned, unsurprisingly, for keeping a collection of child pornography, a sin which even the forgiving Jack can’t abide. The Colonel explains all to Jack through prison glass after he’s been arrested, Jack’s face screwing up in rueful fury and shutting himself off from the Colonel’s curiously naïve pleas. Cocaine proves to be Dirk’s dark muse, making him grandiose, paranoid, and intermittently impotent, eventually destroying his partnership with Jack after he feels threatened by a potential rival in Johnny Doe (Jonathan Quint). Dirk and Reed are drawn by a friend, stripper Todd Parker (Thomas Jane), into a drug-fuelled crime after their attempts to break into music are disastrous; the allure of easy cash breaks down what little good sense they have.
Boogie Nights is such a crowded, dazzling, busy film that it demands multiple viewings to comprehend every trick it pulls off. Anderson’s script resembles a short story collection bundled into an ingenious whole, a stunt that feels intent on mimicking Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) but with all-original material. The storylines are gleaned from real histories from the porn scene, but transmuted by imagination into something very different from the kind of roman-a-clef melodrama the process implies. Boogie Nights’ structure resembles Altman’s communal, multicharacter zones, but the style—a relentless, experiential push—owes far more to Scorsese, and particularly Goodfellas (1990), including the famous Copacabana tracking shot and cocaine-fuelled paranoia sequence. Anderson’s appropriation of Scorsese’s keynotes takes them a step further, charging them with encompassing force. The film’s first half is replete with dancelike tracking shots and rhythmically edited sequences that bind the criss-crossing and interaction of his characters into synergistic panoramas. Anderson uses steadicam shots that pace through Jack’s and Eddie’s houses to communicate a sense of open communality and functioning life. His camera pirouettes often pay off in punchlines like the whole Horner cast dancing Saturday Night Fever style upon the Hot Traxx dance floor, unified in the flashy, vivacious glory of their moment. Or Eddie’s early return home, when Anderson’s camera swivels 360, noting his festooned idols with a rock-and-roll version of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” blaring on sound, turning his gauche fantasies into contemporary worship.
As well as offering a multifaceted insight here into Eddie’s mindscape and the culture that defines him, Anderson finds a fun, hip way to communicate an idea that’s obsessed him more gravely in There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) that in America, business and the wares it propagates are religion—except that Eddie is a worshipper, whereas the protagonists of the later works are ministers. Boogie Nights’ vein of comedy moves smoothly from observational wryness to outright satire and then to pitch-black absurdity. All of Anderson’s films have a comedic edge, but usually it’s buried more deeply and rendered with a queasier tone, whilst Boogie Nights retains a larkish quality even as it takes turns toward seething darkness. Indeed, it gains power because these two impulses are entwined, mostly sourced in characters who have varying degrees of sweet dumbness or cluelessness about how to act in the world. Dirk’s oblivious side, his and Reed’s initial competitiveness and their later, mutual, blinkered boosting, offer character comedy laced with warnings about how badly they’ll fare when they try to go it alone, paying off in hilarious vignettes of the pair trying to start a recording career, wielding cringe-inducing cock-rock and wheezing off-key renditions of power rock anthems (Stan Bush’s “The Touch,” actually written for The Transformers: The Movie, 1986, never knew what hit it). Anderson’s deep lexicon of such half-forgotten pizzazz informs this pastiche of retro media artefacts. Boogie Nights may well have created a proliferating contemporary aesthetic dedicated to such recreations, chasing the elusive texture of those artefacts.
The film’s funniest vignettes are built around that mimicry, in Amber’s short film about Dirk, the solitary scene actually depicting the film crew at work, and the glimpses of the Brock Landers movies. These vignettes are precise in their reconstruction of weak edits, bygone methods of hype, wooden acting, and try-hard charm, reflecting back through a distorted mirror the way time can turn even the most outré material into amusing, deracinated relic at best or camp at worst (the stilted way Moore recites the line, “This is a giant cock!” deserved some kind of award on its own). And yet Boogie Nights was and is much more than a retro parody. Andersons’s career-long fascination with Americana and the peculiarities of subcultures are articulated with obsessive detail to a degree that borders on anthropology. The recreation here of the late ’70s vibe, from the tummy-hugger shirts to the fake-wood-panelled rooms, provides the surface credulity whilst articulating Anderson’s fascination with lifestyle as a mode through which his characters as citizens in a consumerist society express themselves, their desires, worldviews, even philosophical and religious impulses, ideas that would culminate in The Master, where religion, business, and lifestyle are all fused by the great American guru. At first, having cool things is Dirk’s religion, but Dirk, a seed in the same soil that produces the haute-capitalist brutality of Daniel Plainview and the transcendental hucksterism of Lancaster Dodd, giddily celebrates his victory at an adult film award ceremony by rejoicing in how his films have helped people, liberating them from sexual repression, his success now a way for everyone to achieve happiness.
Anderson is nimble in avoiding depicting the very business that concerns him, turning necessary self-censorship into a knowing game of concealment played with the audience until the very final scene, when Dirk’s dick is suddenly seen in all its glory. By then, the all-important penis is regarded not in action, as the weapon of culture-changing, orgasm-inducing potency that could link it to pagan phallic art, but presented like the kind of consumer object Dirk himself adores: he finally learns and accepts a not-so-pleasant truth, that his body is his only commodity. The one sequence depicting actual porn photography makes a show of its own evasiveness, by emphasising instead the transmutation of low-rent reality into mythology, via the wonderment, ranging from envy to lust, of the onlooking crew, and the filmmaking process itself. Moreover, the plot of the movie being shot sarcastically reflects the plot of Boogie Nights, as Dirk plays a young man auditioning for a porn producer played by Amber and finding immediate favour. Anderson’s obsession with the theme of master/pupil, father/son relations is here given its gentlest variation by turning Jack into the gruff, almost biblical patriarch and protector of his flock and Dirk into the prodigal son who falls from grace when he gets too big for his breaches, wanders the desolate wilderness for a while, then contritely returns to beg forgiveness.
Whilst Dirk’s story anchors the film, the galaxy of characters around him vie for attention, cast by life as well as by Jack as supporting players. They vary from comic relief, like Reed and TT, to characters of tragic dimensions, including Little Bill, Amber, whose ex-husband uses her profession as a barrier to her seeing their son, and Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a chubby, schlubby aide on the film crew who falls head over heels for Dirk. Anderson mostly avoids the doll’s house aesthetic this brand of Altman-inspired filmmaking often devolves to when it comes to his gallery of types, though he does get a little cute and unavoidably scant with some of his characterisations. Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker) was supposed to allow exploration of the domestic abuse many former porn starlets suffered once they tried to settle down with men outside the business, but with that subplot cut, she simply seems to be written out of the film when she proves to be superfluous. Don Cheadle’s Buck Swope, a hi-fi expert with a day job as well as one of Jack’s stars, is a black guy with a mysterious predilection for country music, a touch that might have been far too precious. But Anderson is even able to invest his tale with intricate meaning, as this joke about his character both highlight’s Anderson’s interest in lifestyle and self-definition and deepens when Buck finds himself cold-shouldered by banks for loans to start an electronics store, a business he knows inside out, as the Moral Majority backlash begins and his past stymies his future. Anderson somehow imbues most of the character vignettes with lodes of power that come out of nowhere, startling moments like Scotty tearfully repeating “I’m a fucking idiot!” after coming on to unresponsive Dirk, and Amber bawling after a custody hearing where her ex, John Doe, brands her as a scarlet woman — such moments are glimpsed and then shied away from, as if with a sense of guilt at having accidentally seen such scenes of exposed pain and humanity. Rollergirl drops out of high school, bewildered by an exam and sexually insulted by a classmate (Kai Lennox), and completely reinvents herself as a media creation who quite literally never takes off her roller skates.
After the relatively straightforward realism evinced in Hard Eight, Anderson’s rare gift for constructing intensely rhythmic, intricately detailed cinema emerges here. The tableaux-like set-pieces in the film’s first half, the summery pool party driven by a wandering camera that acts like a seemingly casually observant visitor who’s eye is attracted by various vignettes and then a bikini-clad bottom right into a pool (quoting Kolotozov’s legerdemain in I Am Cuba, 1964, and like that film depicting the end of an exploitative Eden). The fateful New Year’s Eve tragedy later in the film is an even more intricate nexus of staging and exposition. Moreover, such scenes depict how the characters connect, or fail to, and make choices about how to deal with life, from Scotty’s masochistic self-abuse to Little Bill’s homicidal explosion, and Buck connecting with sweet-natured costar Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters); all are not just linked but entwined with a cosmological sense of human becoming and failing. Amidst the microcosmic events that affect the lives of their employees, Jack and the Colonel and rival porn producer Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall, crucial actor of Anderson’s first three films) talk about what’s about to make the macrocosm shift. Gondolli warns Jack that video is about to change the porn industry, a notion Jack rejects vehemently as the death of what little pretence to artistry their industry has. From today’s perspective, with the internet having slaughtered porn as an industry, there’s some irony in this now, but also Anderson was also probably considering the first rumblings of the digital filming movement in the late ’90s and its looming impact on the art form he loves, couched in the terms of a character defending what craftsman’s self-respect he has. The New Year’s motif might have seemed excessive, and yet Anderson finally makes time itself and the inevitable shifts it causes part of the texture here, concluding with Little Bill’s murder-suicide as the bang that quite literally ends the ’70s and shifts the tenor of the film.
Perhaps Anderson’s signature directorial touch, an extended filmic movement intercutting depictions of the characters spiralling in islets of behaviour that see them push to hysterical extremes before hitting epiphanies, was first offered here in the film’s last third. Anderson entwines exiled Dirk, Jack, Amber, and Rollergirl hitting rock bottom in varying ways, from Dirk foray into male prostitution ending in a gay bashing, to Jack and Amber trying their hand at a kind of prototypical reality television as they ride about L.A. and pick up a random male to have sex with Rollergirl. Their lucky man proves to be the classmate whose teasing drove Rollergirl out of school, and when he perform badly, he insults her and Jack. Jack loses control and beast him to a bloody pulp, and Rollergirl gets a few of her own kicks in. The two acts of violence here are mutual—Jack and Rollergirl lashing out at an emissary of the world that absorbs their product but disdains them, and Dirk being singled out as a pervert to be punished. Michael Penn’s scoring of this movement, a low, throbbing, urging drone with chimes, as if time is ticking down toward some doomsday, is particularly great. Anderson charts two diverse reactions in his characters, as Dirk tries to prove himself in the outside world whilst Amber and Rollergirl retreat into a haze of drugged-up, mother-daughter mind-melding and decide they don’t want to leave a room within the safe confines of Jack’s house.
Degradation segues into confrontations with death and crime. Buck, caring for a very pregnant Jessie, enters a bakery only for a gunfight to break out around him when an armed robber enters: Buck is left splattered with strangers’ blood—he wears an angelic white suit, in a darkly arch Kubrickian joke—and frozen amidst corpses, but sees a chance to exit his personal perdition by snatching up the bag full of cash the robber dropped. Such an utterly random/contrived twist anticipates Anderson’s fascination with both narrative capriciousness and classical theatrical devices like the deus-ex-machina, as would again be used in the climax of his follow-up, Magnolia (1999). Boogie Nights’ late swerve into more familiar crime territory stymies to a certain extent the film’s masterful examination of its characters and their unusual world. But nobody could really expect Anderson to resist the ready-made climax the Wonderland case provided, albeit still subjected to his wayward sense of humour and gift for creating cringe-inducing situations. Todd talks Dirk and Reed into joining his hare-brained scheme to sell fake cocaine to dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), and then springs his actual intent to rob Rahad’s fortune.
The careful construction here as the deal becomes increasingly uneasy is beautiful, punctuated by precisely employed yet random-feeling details that work on the nerves like nails on a blackboard, in Rahad’s hopped-up friendliness and the firecrackers let off at random by his young Chinese houseguest (Joe G.M. Chan). Rahad swans about in a kimono, life scored by the blaring mix-tapes he makes in objection to the song-order artists impose on their work in yet another form of lifestyle self-management. The episode combusts with Todd and Rahad’s bodyguard (B. Philly Johnson) ending up very dead, and Rahad chasing Dirk and Reed off into the night with a shotgun, deadly crime and high farce commingling. Dirk returns to Jack and is accepted after admitting his faults, making for a suitably mythic catharsis. Dirk is a “big shining star” for all his foolishness. The final scene, an obvious tribute to the simultaneously pathetic and learned vignette of Jake LaMotta at the end of Raging Bull (1980), sees Dirk restored and reciting dialogue in character that once again nudges the theme of the film. Dirk may never become as slick and knowing as Brock Landers, but he has found some peculiar wisdom.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Oliver Stone
By Roderick Heath
The Doors, the psychedelic blues band formed by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Bobby Krieger, and John Densmore in 1966, had the stuff of the movies encoded in their music. Morrison and Manzarek were former film students, having studied under Josef von Sternberg, of all people, at UCLA, and their music, with its variable tempos, wildly imagistic and fragmented lyrics, and emphasis on creating aural atmosphere, probably shares more with the churning imagery of Sternberg, Fellini, Paradjanov, Cocteau, Anger, and other druids of cinema than with Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, in spite of Morrison’s poetic pretences. The band’s best songs, like “The End,” “Riders on the Storm,” “Five in One,” or “LA Woman,” seem innately cinematic, filled with word-pictures and aural landscapes plucked from imaginary epics and subterranean relics or designed to fuel some roaring montage spliced together by some overheated future movie savant: indeed, Francis Coppola did just that with Apocalypse Now (1979). Morrison’s brief, bristling, calamitous spell of fame became one of the most immediate reference points for the mystique of rock ’n’ roll and late ’60s hedonism for anyone inclined to lionise or denigrate either, and Morrison’s stature is the very image of the Dionysian, doomed rock hero.
I remember very well when I first saw The Doors, Oliver Stone’s retelling of that essential mythos: it was in high school, on a rainy afternoon when sports had been washed out and the need for a video, any video, to be shoved in the VCR to keep us trapped teens entertained produced some kid’s copy of the film. With no teachers about to turn it off, there we all sat reclining in delight at the spectacle of raw excess and messy creation. For us youth living in a declining mining town where futures both sure and exciting were in short supply, we may have listened to Nirvana or Oasis or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but it was The Doors we saw whenever we fantasised about stardom’s carnal crack-up ever after. 1991 was a banner year for Oliver Stone—he had already staked his claim to being American popular culture’s most respected firebrand with his revisionist-history tome JFK, and brought out The Doors mere months afterwards. It was a combination punch of formidable achievement, one that made Stone the one filmmaker everyone was talking about, in those few remaining days before some guy named Quentin Tarantino debuted his first movie at Sundance. JFK is often cited as Stone’s singular achievement, but The Doors vies with Talk Radio (1988) as my personal favourite of his works. The Doors was a troubling success for many rock and film fans, as it went through the motions of providing a Morrison biopic but seemed more intent on sensory overload than in analysing its antihero.
Stone’s psychologically superficial treatment of Morrison feels deliberate, partly because Stone clearly wanted to use Morrison as a totemic figure to explore the spirit of an era, an exemplar for a generation and a fatefully schizoid quality in his society. Much the same as Kennedy’s assassination let the director shake loose every bizarre subculture and paranoiac perversity in the America of his youth, so Morrison offered a spirit-guide to explore the pungent, sensory-distorting effect of drugs and the even more pernicious effect of American success. He could also be a personal avatar, for Stone seems to have related intensely to another son of the establishment who found himself in deeply resentful conflict with that establishment, and as a intelligent and cultured man who surrendered refinement for immediacy, intimacy for effect, class for passion, intellect for gut feeling. Plus, legend has it both men did incredible quantities of drugs. The Doors exemplifies a controversial, but legitimate approach to the artist biopic, turning the artist’s life into one of their own creations viewed inextricably through that prism. Thus, Morrison becomes his own ranting id-man, spirit-conjurer and magician alternating with sacrificial angel, all painted in mad psychedelic hues. In spite of its title, The Doors is more about Morrison than the rest of the band, and even more about the idea of Morrison and the band than whatever they were in reality. And that’s a good thing.
The film’s instant impact on the popular consciousness met with some nimble satire, for instance, the parody in Wayne’s World 2 (1994) (“Who are you?” “I’m Jim Morrison.” “And who’s he?” “A weird, naked Indian.”), but also has influenced some of the better rock ’n roll movies—small roster that it is—like Floria Sigismondi’s hugely underrated The Runaways (2011). Stone was lucky enough to have young Val Kilmer around to play Morrison, with his strong resemblance to one of the most masculinely beautiful ’60s rock icons. Kilmer had moved toward stardom playing a sub-Elvis hero in Top Secret! (1984), mocking the affectations of the early rock star; Stone had him create a similar performance, except in deadly earnestness. Stone and Kilmer’s Morrison is a guy living inside out, writing lyrics in speech and seeking prelapsarian formlessness in singing, a fantasy vision of the bardic ideal. Stone latches on to one of Morrison’s possibly part-apocryphal recollections from childhood, of driving past a car accident that left dead and injured Native American itinerant workers sprawled on a highway’s edge, as a motif that inflects the whole film, just as it was a constant refrain in Morrison’s writing.
Stone’s vision of his hero is protean, almost a man without a centre but a mass of impulses and creative urges. The young Morrison is glimpsed as a beatific Peter Pan smiling at his randomly chosen lady love from a tree, exemplifying the romantic hippie spirit, just as much as he later becomes the ranting ogre of proto-punk and the calm philosopher-poet he may have always wanted to be. Morrison drops out of film school along with Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) after his arty student film is sniffed at by fellow students and his teacher (not supposed to be Sternberg, but a square played by Stone himself), and treads through Venice Beach painted in reefs of hallucinogenic colour and gleaming, idealised beauty, where even vagrants gathered about a fire whilst a harmonica player wails the blues has the gilt of epic import, a place where Morrison can romance Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) under swirling stars and a time-lapse moon. Morrison singing a few random lyrics to Manzarek on the beachfront inspires immediate action in perfect obedience to the free-form energy and multitudinous references of the time and place, and within minutes they’re bashing out crude versions of future hits in a Hollywood bungalow with laid-back Krieger (Frank Whaley) and tetchy Densmore (Kevin Dillon), hurling “Light My Fire” together with the same enthusiasm of Garland and Rooney putting on a show. Stone’s chain-lightning, easy-as-can-be approach to the coming together of Morrison and Courson and The Doors as conquering band does nod to classic showbiz films. I love the crash cut from Krieger tapping out time to start “Light My Fire” to shots of LA nightlife with the song erupting in finished form as instant theme to a nocturnal wonderland.
Stone paints this as an Edenic moment for Morrison and his camp, unfettered idealism and life-hunger immediately earning reward, perhaps the writer and filmmaker’s good-humoured mockery of the way things seem to come much more easily to (some) musicians. But Stone is also not interested in the usual business of artist biopics, which is proving that their heroes are ordinary people who suffer and bleed for trying; the extraordinariness of Morrison is his subject, the Lawrence of Arabia of rock, working up followers with messianic passion and then finding himself going mad from such vision and power. He’s Lizard King in the world Stone left behind to make his tilt at good patriotism as detailed in Platoon (1986), and later on, Morrison’s admission that he might be having a nervous breakdown is backed up by footage fresh from Vietnam, as if he’s a psychic sponge for the half-submerged rot of the moment. “Let’s plan a murder or start a religion,” Morrison suggests as the band and their girls strut their embryonic cool through the LA evening, and he plays crowd cheerleader atop a car with stars spinning above him as the acid kicks in and turns his up-with-people chants into slurred onomatopoeia. Then, quick digression to the desert for some peyote, the band recast as seekers in search of nullifying experiences treading the sands like they’re on their way to the sandy orgy of Zabriskie Point (1970).
Stone started his movie career as a screenwriter and evolved into a filmmaker with an uncommonly vibrant, even assaultive style redolent of great talent and messy ambition. His major works of the late ’80s and ’90s blended traditional Hollywood effects with techniques borrowed from documentaries, TV news, silent expressionism, experimental film, Soviet realism, psychedelia, and sometimes even animation to create a visually rhapsodic, unsubtle but dynamic, associative form of cinema. The Doors subsumes the classic rise-to-fame biopic and layers it with Stone’s vivid, tendentious connections, like projecting an ancient Greek poet’s bust over Morrison’s face before fading into the regulation montage moment of the singer hero surrounded by the covers of magazines featuring his image, ramming home the idea Morrison himself was happy to embrace that the modern pop star was the classical poet-warrior reinvented. Stone offers a corny, but dazzling islet of psychedelia, as the band treads into the wastelands to get high. Morrison, in the depths of his own fantasy mindscape, follows the Indians he saw dead under mysterious eclipses, chased by black raptors and venturing into a cave to be reborn as crowd-mesmerising shaman. He emerges with “The End” as new anthem, with its Oedipal killer-hero embodied by a bald Indian who reappears throughout the film, most notably as a dancing hippie with a third eye painted on his forehead, constant reminder of Morrison’s dance with death and thematic link with JFK, where the same actor played one of the president’s assassins.
Stone’s visuals often genuinely tap the hallucinatory, half-banal, half-incantatory edge of the band’s songs and the imagistic obsessions in Morrison’s work to a degree of intensity that’s very rare in the artist biopic, calling back to the wildest moments of Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) and Savage Messiah (1972) or even, proportions maintained, Andrei Tarkovsky’s more remote and austere, but equally imaginative, panoramic Andrei Rublev (1966), as the directors seem to have interiorised the visions formed in their head whilst listening to the music and spat out the terrain created within. The camerawork, by Robert Richardson, swims in relentless motion, tracking and crane shots executed in sensual leaps surveying dense frescolike depictions of counterculture nightlife littered with intricate lighting and colour effects. The band’s first performance of “The End” in the Whiskey a Go Go sees Morrison achieving the orgiastic tötentanz that quickly becomes the band’s stock in trade, even cliché, but turns the eyes of everyone, even the go-go dancers, onto the front man who seems to recreate primal scream therapy onstage and then die Orpheus-like, sprawled on stage with women tearing at his carcass. Club management (represented, amusingly, by Eric Burdon) isn’t so happy about the obscene punchline of the song and casts The Doors onto the street, where they are greeted by Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman (Mark Moses) and producer Paul Rothchild (Michael Wincott) with the offer to make a record, which brings Morrison down from his performance high just long enough to get something done.
Stone’s reputation as American cinema’s most ambitious and aware filmmaker in the period was always rather belied by the blatancy of his concepts and messages, a tendency to push a rather obvious and tendentious idea with a force that could become mesmerising and tedious in equal measure. Such a tendency for me significantly hampers the likes of Platoon (1986) JFK, Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), and is certainly apparent in The Doors. But at least here it suits the theme, which is the texture of a pop culture experience, never greatly amenable to nuance, and Stone’s fascination with the idea of Morrison as a man who disintegrated under the frustration of gaining success that offers only a compromised freedom to energise but not radicalise. Stone’s print-the-legend depiction of the rock scene has been lambasted a lot over the years and with some good reason, and yet it’s worth noting that a scene like the early jam that pieces together “Light My Fire” actually gives a good idea of the process behind it in a way very few films about this sort of thing do, like, for instance, Control (2007), where the band just somehow turns up in the recording studios with its sound already burnished. Considering how prosaic most such films are, no matter Stone’s bollocks, I admire what he does here—even having Morrison dance on stage with ghost medicine men as naked hippies flounce around a bonfire—because he’s not trying to capture the surface reality of performance, but his idea of it, the joy of liberation in a stifled and technocratic America.
Of course, Stone can’t resist laying Morrison’s self-destructive edge down to a mixture of rank Freudian alienation from his parents, and the more intriguing notion of his hero as spiritual grease trap for his society’s wrongs, kicked off by the intense, formative experience of the bleeding labourers that anoints him as witness and soothsayer. Stone turns the parade of celebrities in the background into moving waxworks, as Ed Sullivan is gruesomely caricatured as a phony, old vampire and Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) is anti-personality at the eye of a poseur storm and prophet of the post-reality age. Stone stages the band’s encounter with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd as a descent into the underworld, where West Coast hallucinogenic inspiration sours under the influence of New York decadence and hard drugs. Morrison nervously pleads with his bandmates not to be left alone to face Warhol, as if he senses an oncoming ordeal he can’t face, but swiftly gives into this pint-sized Satan’s temptations, as Nico (Kristina Fulton) goes down on him in an elevator before Pamela’s stoned disbelief. A photographer (Mimi Rogers) takes iconic snaps of Morrison and repeats the siren call of stand-alone stardom. A press conference alternates between Morrison’s fantasy image of himself reproducing Bob Dylan’s shaded, combative cool and his slightly bleating, defensive actuality, hooking up with an inquisitive journalist and Wiccan, Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan), who successfully prescribes drinking blood as the cure for limp dick and later marries him in a Wicca ceremony (officiated by the real Kennealy).
Kennealy fatefully disturbs Morrison however, as she digs up the parents he claimed were dead, complete with the not-incidental detail that his father, an admiral in the U.S. Navy, was heavily involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and a cop’s intervention in their charged conversation before a show sparks one of Morrison’s infamous stage demonstrations, whipping up the audience against the patrolling cops and getting the show shut down. Morrison’s relationship with Pamela spins into increasingly fraught and mutually wounding territory, counterpointing level-headed Manzarek’s union with his wife Dorothy (Kelly Hu), whilst Morrison’s peevish displays increasingly infuriate Densmore. Pamela has her own sense of humour, introducing herself to a customs man as “Pamela Morrison, ornament,” but shares her husband’s appetites far too much to counterbalance his collective of enablers, including Warhol actor Tom Baker (Michael Madsen) and omnivorous ratbags Dog (Dennis Burkley) and Cat (Billy Idol). An attempt to throw a party for Ray and Dorothy after their wedding devolves into a shambles when Morrison gets stoned, Kennealy comes to call, and Pamela lets loose, sparking a bratty tantrum by Morrison that sees a roast duck stomped on and Morrison posing as Richard of Gloucester to Pamela’s Lady Anne, begging her to skewer and end him or accept the consequences of living with him. Stone’s love of concussive romance pitching half-mad men against haplessly loyal women (see also Heaven & Earth, 1994; Alexander, 2004) is certainly at play here, even if, true to form, he can’t help but make stuff up to make his visions of Morrison and Courson’s relationship more intense, like having him lock her in a cupboard and set fire to it with lighter fluid after catching her shooting smack with a suss Italian aristocrat (Costas Mandylor). Come on baby, light my fire, indeed.
One could again justifiably abuse Stone for buying Morrison’s postures as authentic, in presenting him as a man constantly swinging between the poles of the beatific world love of psychedelic rock and satanic troughs, looking forward to the brutalism of punk and heavy metal because of his psychic radar, rather than as a successful guy living the high life whose pharmaceutical indulgences fuel wild emotion swings. But in Stone’s eye there might as well be no distance between man and art, because to an artist like Stone, so often fired by both biography and autobiography, it’s absolutely true. The film’s proper climax is an epic restaging of the infamous 1969 Florida concert that saw Morrison indicted for obscenity. Densmore, already quietly infuriated by overhearing a rock journo sneer at their recent work, is at a fine pitch of anger at Morrison, who after arriving late and soused, starts abusing the crowd (“You’re all fucking slaves!”) with his inclusive demagoguery turning increasingly to septic provocation, and pretending to pull his prick out. The show climaxes in an eruptive return to form as Morrison hurls himself into the crowd and bellows “Break on Through” in a churning mass of wild humanity, the spirit of death hanging on to his shoulder all the while. This is a dazzlingly staged moment that exemplifies Stone and Richardson’s technical bravura.
The film as a whole is top-heavy with such audiovisual jazz, from Morrison crowd-surfing, picked out by a spotlight as hipster Jesus floating on his human Galilee, to a David Lynch-esque, languorous dolly shot closing in on Morrison in a red-lined recording booth, an islet in a sea of dark, slowly revealing Pamela giving him a blow job to coax him to an enthusiastic performance. One of my favourite shots in the film is near-antithesis to the rest of the sturm und drang, as Morrison strolls on the Venice beachfront in the early morning after one of his most rapturous concert performances, overlord now a burnt-out exile from his own home and wellsprings. Some anticipation here of another moment I love in an underrated rock film, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2004), where the similarly doomed, rootless and exiled artist hovers in the shadows of the kind of underground, defiant performance that once gave him community and purpose. That shot comes after of one of Stone’s loopiest, most dynamic sequences, as he furiously crosscuts between Morrison on stage and his mad reaction to Pamela taking junk with the Italian climaxing with the closet incident, and concluding with a visual quote from that eternal touchstone of films about American hubris, Citizen Kane (1941), reproducing the camera swoop Welles used to punctuate Kane’s apotheosis as political rabble-rouser on stage. This time, Morrison repeats his earlier cry of “I am the Lizard King – how many of you really know you’re alive?” but not as connective declaration, but rather as spacy star self-worship.
The film’s problematic nature is so closely linked to its achievements. The plotless rambling through this historical copse seems at first glance egregious, yet is actually fecund in a manner I appreciate as an attempt to prize an artistic experience as a value in itself above other motives. But Stone gets bogged down with duly included gossip, like Morrison and Kennealy having a contretemps over her pregnancy by him, and repetitive scenes in the second half that capture but do not much enlighten the wash-rinse-repeat aspect of life with a self-destructive addict and Stone’s concept of Morrison as someone constantly pushing himself to the edge of death as if on a constant adolescent dare. Ryan certainly looks the part of the kind of twentieth century fox Morrison celebrated, but her performance scarcely suggests what Morrison found so interesting about Courson amongst the panoply of partners life offered him.
What Stone found particularly compelling about Morrison emerges through such a motif as he studies his hero as doomed not just by internal failings, but also by the specific flaws of his society and as a classic overreacher. Just as much as Nixon represented to Stone both the beauty of America in his capacity to rise from straitened youth to national captaincy, and its dark flipside in his resentment and paranoia, and Alexander the Great believed in the potential and practised the worst inherent in colonial adventuring, so, too, Morrison represents a spiritual America doomed to be tortured by a materialistic age where hedonism is offered as substitute for liberty, his rebellion doomed to cause mere damage to self and others.
Stone suggests Morrison found a kind of stability in his last days, glimpsed as a pacified, bearded guru reading Beat poetry in solemn isolation (save for a recording engineer, played by the real Densmore), attending Manzarek’s children’s birthday party, and finally expiring with a look of transcendental bliss on his face when Courson finds him dead in a bathtub. That’s probably not how things really happened, but it does help the film find a tentative grace in its conclusion. Stone’s camera roves through Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery in search of Morrison’s grave amongst the greats buried there, and finds it floridly decorated with freaky missives, quotes, and artworks that celebrate the odd glory he found. But the film’s truest intersection of the sublime and the ridiculous is right at the end, with its parting glimpse of The Doors cranking out one of their best later songs, “LA Woman,” in an improvised home studio, with Kilmer-as-Morrison laying down his vocals seated on a toilet.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Tony Siu-Tung Ching
By Roderick Heath
Deep within the tangled growth of a dark forest lies an ancient ruin, a place where lost or weary travellers might find a place to rest for the night. But in the glow of moonlight, a mysterious and beautiful female emerges from the shadows. She approaches with seductive, otherworldly tenderness, and the traveller, stunned and smitten, can only submit, but at the peril of their soul, as they graze the boundaries of the liminal and fall in love with an emanation from beyond.
You know where this is going, because it’s the basic outline of dozens upon dozens of ghost stories. It’s a simple narrative that exploits a kind of idle masculine fantasy, charging it with warning and delineating the boundaries of taboo through the image of the death-dealing temptress and the evocation of evil in a place cordoned off by legend to commemorate some forgotten travesty of history and invested over time with fetid psychological symbolism. Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) are some Western film variations; Eastern takes include episodes in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964) and Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968).
Tony Siu-Tung Ching’s variation, based on a novel by Songling Pu, is something different—a crossbreed of this Gothic-flavoured nightmare scenario with the high-flying, reality-bending action of wu xia, the meat-and-potato genre of Chinese cinema. Blends of supernatural and mythical drama with swashbuckling exploits are fairly common in wu xia, and in the annals of Hong Kong action film. Tsui Hark’s canonical fantasy action work Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1982) and Lau Kun Wai’s nutty Mr. Vampire (1985) did it before Ching, as the Bride with White Hair diptych would afterwards. Ching is one of Hong Kong cinema’s most employed stunt and action choreographers, but he has maintained a directing career as well, with the three entries in his A Chinese Ghost Story series the most famous.
The grandmaster of Hong Kong cinema’s international emergence in the 1960s, King Hu, had experimented with melding spirituality and action and had filmed another Songling Pu story as the epic A Touch of Zen (1972). The first episode of Ching’s take was produced by Hark, and the imprint of that master’s rocket-paced, breathless sensibility is all over Ching’s work. But there is a delicate, but fervent romantic streak counterpointing the ebullience in Ching’s first two terrific films (the third is generally regarded as a flat retread of the first and lacks two important actors) helps to mark out A Chinese Ghost Story I & II as gems of 1980s Hong Kong cinema and that distinguishes Ching’s sensibility, even in later, blander work like The Empress and the Warriors (2008) and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011). Ching’s cleverest tweaks to the old mythos was to transform the ghostly female figure from agent of death to pawn struggling for freedom, and uncover an element of dreamy longing and rebellion against the oppressive nature of social norms.
The intensely rhythmic opening evokes fetishistic, erotic qualities, a swooning succession of wind-driven autumnal leaves, drenched moonlight, dangling silks, burning candles, hazy nocturnal light, breathily suggested sensuality, and exposed flesh, as a young taxman is seduced by a spectral woman. The bells on the anklet of Tsiao-Tsing Nieh (Joey Tsu-hsien Wang) ring when locked in the folds of love, summoning an awful thing from the woods to launch itself upon the man she pretends to embrace but, in fact, holds as prey. Destined to encounter these supernatural emissaries is a young tax collector, Ning Choi Sin (the lamented, ever-charming Leslie Cheung), who passes through a regional city. Law and order there are kept by an incompetent, overeager gendarmerie who assume everyone running must be a wanted criminal. Ning is beset by multiple humiliations as a callow youth playing the one official everyone wants to avoid, without horse or funds to buy him a dry place to sleep for the night. When he tries to collect taxes from one tavern keeper, he finds that rain has rendered all of the entries in his record book illegible.
Penniless, Ning asks where he might spend a sheltered night. He is directed to the ruined Lan Ro Temple by townsfolk whose murmuring disquiet at his obliviousness evokes a trillion horror movie peasants. Ching turns canard into satirical coup as Ning keeps pausing and glancing back over his shoulder at the crowd, who all cease rhubarbing and play dumb until he starts off again. He reaches the long-abandoned temple deep in the woods and straddling a lake, bathed in blue moonlight and fog and swirling leaves. Ning is chased by wolves, which stop at the threshold, and is then caught between two super-talented martial arts warriors battling in the grounds of the temple. The frighteningly brilliant Taoist warrior-monk Yin Chek Hsia (Ma Wu) duels with his long-time challenger Hsia-hou (Wai Lam), who’s determined to best the monk but has never succeeded. Poised uncomfortably between their sword points, Ning spouts desperate pacifications: “Love will conquer the world! Love is a powerful weapon!” Hsia-hou stalks off whilst Yin, who’s holed up at the temple trying to hide from a world of such competitive men, tells Ning to leave him alone. Hsia-hou comes across Tsiao-Tsing bathing in a river and tries to seduce her, leading to his exsanguinating death by the mysterious monster. When Yin comes in search of him, he’s attacked by Hsia-hou’s withered zombie remnant.
The Taoist destroys the zombie with magic, whilst Ning spends the night in a temple wing filled with other zombies who, despite his proximity, keep failing in their attempts to catch the oblivious taxman. Ning is drawn out of the temple by the strains of an instrument being plucked in the temple grounds: he finds the musician is Tsiao-Tsing, lustrously beautiful and hauntingly melancholic. With his mixture of bumbling well-meaning and innocence, Ning makes the lady fall in love with him. Tsiao-Tsing has a secret, however, that is no small lover’s hindrance: she’s actually the ghost of a murdered woman whose father was also killed before he could properly bury her and perform the necessary rituals to help her become reincarnated. Now she’s in thrall to a demon that can alternate between the forms of a tree monster, with an enormously long tongue, and an androgynous human overlord with a retinue of malevolent ghost-women. The demon is planning to wed Tsiao-Tsing to its evil overlord, Lord Dark, in the netherworld because, as Yin says in the film’s most pertinent line, “Spirits use each other, just like people.” The centrality of the romantic passion between Ning and Tsiao-Tsing enriches A Chinese Ghost Story enormously without ever slowing the film’s breakneck pacing or giddy inventiveness.
A Chinese Ghost Story, a pinnacle of Hong Kong film, also represents in turn an exemplar of a showbiz ethic, one that aims to offer a variety of entertainment, shifting from thunderous action to scares to romantic melodrama to slapstick comedy to musical numbers, without fatal tonal uncertainty or narrative diffusion. This replicated a presumption which Hollywood filmmaking once accepted but since abandoned in favour of focus-grouped niche markets, kept alive rather in the mass-audience-serving style of Hong Kong film and Bollywood. A Chinese Ghost Story readily includes all these elements, including breaks for song numbers. Both episodes are loaded with horror-movie tropes, but Ching quickly reveals his love for silent comedy, channeling the influence of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd, always well-remembered Hollywood icons in Hong Kong film, in Ning’s beleaguered but hardy approach to the hilariously overdrawn problems life keeps throwing his way. Ching’s intricate staging of comedy situations could become silly if they weren’t handled with deft invention and timing, qualities that work hand in hand with wu xia’s emphasis on precise physical skill and wit. In his first appearance, Ning tries to eat a dumpling that proves so hard it can crack rocks. A later comic bit turns into a miniature epic of taboo-grazing and suspense-mongering mixed with low comedy as Tsiao-Tsing hides Ning from the demon and her ghost-slaves when they come to visit her in the temple. She forces him into her bath to hide under the water, doing everything in her power to keep one of the more curious ghosts from looking into the bath, including breathing water into his lungs via a kiss and finally diving in and sitting on top of the increasingly breathless bureaucrat. Ching delights here in dodging around the usually prim behaviour in popular Chinese cinema whilst not breaking the rules. The comedic and suspense elements dovetail beautifully in a climactic moment as Ning tries to climb a ladder even as it’s being eaten by the monster, thus climbing frantically to nowhere.
A Chinese Ghost Story is, in familiar fashion, partly the tale of Ning’s maturation. As he begins to learn how to make his way in the world, he hits upon the bright idea of faking all of the erased entries in his ledger and successfully intimidates debtors into paying up. Ning’s true rite of passage is doing battle with evil, of course, a labour in which he’s not greatly talented or effective, but he transcends himself through the strength of his ardour. Tsiao-Tsing saves him several times with her supernatural powers, and she and Yin take on most of the action sequences. Deeply knowledgeable in the occult and supernatural warfare, Yin uses the paraphernalia of his religion and black magic as well as martial arts prowess to battle evil, and chases spirits through into the netherworld. Yin’s formidable gifts and cold capacity to recognise and take out ghost women makes him an oddball blend of the familiar variety of wu xia hero—a warrior who has mastered arts both physical and spiritual, giving them herculean skill and poise—mixed with the Van Helsing-esque variety of evil-battling savant, with overtones of a third tradition linked to both: the superhero. Yin is mistaken at first for a murderer by Ning, who sees him decapitate one of the tree demon’s ghostly underlings and glimpses his face on a wanted poster, which proves to be the image of Yin’s outlaw brother. The young bureaucrat tries to report Yin to the local magistrate, who is so timorous that he’s happy to take any excuse to ignore the problems posed by Lan Ro Temple, striking a note of satire over the ostriches and puppet masters of politics that extends more cogently into the sequel. Soon enough, however, Ning and Yin form a team, and Yin abruptly starts tearfully confessing how he’s let his anger over being confronted by challengers alienate him from humanity.
The very title A Chinese Ghost Story conflates parochial qualities with sarcasm. The story is grounded in the peculiarities of Chinese folklore and the accumulation of religious and spiritual concepts from multiple cultural influences, ineffably different to European precepts and yet subject to the same historical patterns. Ching presents a world where the incorporeal and earthly can meet and shift between states almost at will. The raw symbolic qualities of ghostliness, as embodiments of loss, of unfulfilled responsibility towards the dead, of fear of the unknown, and other permeable emotions that dog us, are considered as part of the texture of everyday existence. The narrative duel pits abstracted good against evil, but each is associated with different levels of religious belief and concomitant social ideas. The primal undertow of animism, associated with sacrifice and an oppressive, ancient, feudal/patriarchal hierarchism that subjugates Tsiao-Tsing to its power for despicable ends, is embodied by the ancient tree demon. This is pitted against the more enlightened religious creeds of Taoism and Buddhism, with their singular spiritual beneficence and capacity to meet chaos with order. Evil is battled not with crucifixes and holy water, but mantras and written sutras.
But the title’s cheekier quality is located in another dimension, that is, the manner in which it combines and coherently contrasts distinctive localised storytelling modes. The narrative sends horror story crashing headlong into comedy and freewheeling action, with the spirits and demons serving similar purposes to aliens for Hollywood blockbusters, a reminder that Ching followed Hark in trying to compete with and outdo the flash of Hollywood on a limited budget. Even fiends from hell prove fallible to the right bit of chop-socky know-how. It’s this hyped-up quality, the genre-hopping energy and gall of Ching’s films, that spur me to consider them adventure films, as they travel well beyond the psychological miasmas of horror tales as well as wu xia’s shared trait with Westerns, in that they both detail personality clashes and morality plays in terms of action. Here, as in Greek myth, battles with supernatural forces are merely part of the texture of a grand battle of humankind to dominate the earth around them and even venture into lands beyond, and, like many true adventure tales, the heroes engage in rebellion against repressive orders. And throughout it all, comedy and tragedy masks frame every gesture with an emotional directness that again feels like it belongs to a longer, older tradition.
The vivacity of Ching’s imagery and the compulsive drive of his filmmaking provide a centrifugal force that compels the various, usually quite distinct building blocks to form a coherent whole, a whole that overcomes the occasionally jarring shifts in approach, and finally dances on air as deftly as its heroes. Ching creates indelible visual impressions, like the grotesque sight of the tree demon’s colossal, tentacle-like tongue slashing through the undergrowth and writhing under the feet of the heroes. The penile invasive tip tries to dive into their mouths to drain their essences, enhances the already queasy erotic quality of the great tongue, an image of perverse evil that contrasts and manipulates the enticing feminine grace of Tsiao-Tsing. Ching wreathes shimmering mist and diffused light around the starkly atmospheric environs of Lan Ro, with the hauntingly lovely sight of Tsiao-Tsing’s white-and-red-clad form dashing through the misty trees, with sleeves of flowing silk that can become rescuing ropes and animated tendrils. This quality of unearthly beauty appended to the usual wire-fu shenanigans would show up again in the Bride with White Hair films and Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
The undertone of hazy eroticism and romantic languor is never entirely quelled by all the action, climaxing in a rapturous scene in which Tsiao-Tsing and Ning fulfil otherwise unquenchable longing by writing a poem together, creating a missive shot full of mysterious imagery that is so vague and affecting that in the sequel it’s mistaken for some kind of secret political message. The act of writing is imbued with the same romantic and totemic power it possesses in the climactic scenes of Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Hero (2002), and, in a way, the lovers’ penning of their poem is political, as it is a placard for their independence, with the films siding with young rebels against the malicious, life-sapping dictates of forced marriage. Whilst the Old Evil is bested in combat, the film resolves with Ning desperately attempting to keep exterminating light from falling on Tsiao-Tsien, who finally has to retreat into the urn with her ashes to protect herself. She cannot emerge again to see Ning, and he must perform the necessary rites to send her on in her reincarnation cycle.
Ching’s sequel lacks the romantic passion and the structure of the original, but in some other ways is superior. With a larger budget and zestier staging, he embraces an ever more madcap approach to his blend of action, comedy, and supernatural power. With Tsiao-Tsing freed from the bonds of the demon and hopefully allowed to gain reincarnation, Ning travels on his lonely way, only to be imprisoned, escape, and fall into the company of another warrior monk, this time a Buddhist called Autumn (Jacky Cheung): Autumn takes Ning for a thief when he rides off on Autumn’s horse, in the mistaken belief that it has been provided to facilitate his escape. Autumn, as well as possessing the same proficiency in white magic as Yin, can dig his way through the earth at great speed like some sort of mutant gopher.
The duo are attacked by spooks in the woods, which for some reason, do not set Autumn’s infallible nose for the supernatural tickling; in reality, they’re not spooks at all, but a band of freedom fighters in disguise. The band is led by sisters Windy (Joey Wang again) and Moon (Michelle Reis), who want to rescue their father, Lord Fu (Siu-Ming Lau), a former official who’s been arrested and charged with treason for trying to criticize the autocracy of the Imperial court. The fighters mistake a bearded Ning for Elder Chu Kot, the intellectual with whom Ning was imprisoned and whose writings inspired both the Lord’s arrest and his faction’s rebellion. Ning is transfixed by Windy’s amazing resemblance to Tsiao-Tsing, wondering if, against all seeming logic, she is her reincarnation. Both sisters in turn are love-struck by the man they believe to be their wise revolutionary guru.
Ching devotes a lot of the first half of A Chinese Ghost Story II to trying to top his first film’s physical comedy and action set-pieces, and succeeds, if at the expense of narrative contiguity, especially in two extended sequences of ribaldry. As in the first episode, the plot revolves around a haunted temple, except this time the locale is chosen by the freedom fighters as a place to ambush the convoy taking Lord Fu to the Emperor, and proves to be inhabited a large saurian demon that ponderously stalks potential victims in the temple. When Ning and Autumn first enter the temple, Autumn endeavours to teach Ning an incantation that can freeze anything in its tracks. Ning accidentally freezes Autumn while practising it at exactly the same time that the hulking demon bears down up them: Ning desperately tries to fend off the creature and communicate with Autumn through eye movements to learn the counter-curse. At one point all three become frozen in a pose with the beast, claws about to furl about the heroes, dribbling drool down on Ning’s cheek. The level of farceur skill shown here by the two Cheungs, and the way Ching cleverly weaves it in with the animatronics of the monster, is rare and splendid. A second, equally adroit if sillier scene enlarges upon the first film’s bathtub scene, as Ning tries to avoid compromising the two Wu sisters when he tries to alert a bathing Windy to the monster’s presence, and then tries to cover for Windy as she tries to get dressed without being seen by Moon and the other warriors and retreats to a loft, where the monster stalks her, in a dance of embarrassment and timorous sexuality.
Whilst both women are taken by Ning, he only has eyes for the one who looks like Hsiao-Hsien; when Moon gets the message, she transfers her affections to Autumn, an equally impossible fancy. But as in the first episode, the lingering shadow of arranged marriage holds Ning and his love at bay, for Windy’s father has promised her long ago to another lord, though fortunately such impediments prove rather more surmountable when both lovers are corporeal. Along the way, however, Windy is almost transformed into a demon herself when the monster in the temple is finally destroyed, albeit with its still-animated body parts flying in all directions to attack and latch onto the fighters. The girls’ father and his escorting jailers, led by the formidable, decent but rigidly dutiful soldier Hu (Waise Lee), finally pass by the temple, but the clash of arms between the two forces is stalled by the arrival of the official procession escorting the Imperial High Priest (Shun Lau). The High Priest proves to be the source of both the epidemic of demons and the political repression sweeping the land.
Political subtext is introduced during Ning’s early, mistaken imprisonment, learning quickly he has no hope of proving his innocence. Elder Chu (Feng Ku), who’s spent most of his life in jail, claims that every effort he’s made to find safe artistic ground has merely brought him some new variety of official persecution: “I analyse military strategy, they say I’m organising rebellion…I try to write fairy stories, they say I’m promoting superstition!” He’s spent so long in jail that he’s actually dug a hole through the wall and comes and goes when he feels like it, using his cell as a quiet place to work. Ching’s mischievous culmination of the theme comes when the heroes pursue the High Priest to his temple, where they find the entire Imperial court arranged in rigid ceremonial splendour—except they’re all hollow shells, their insides eaten out by the demon, a fake government fronting for monstrous power. Fortunately for Ning, he and Windy find themselves at the Lotus Temple, where Yin has holed up, and they’re able to call him to aid Autumn in a showdown with the High Priest.
Both episodes conclude with epic, utterly bizarre and visually startling leaps into special-effects set-pieces, as the heroes make journeys into the netherworld to do battle with the demons on their own turf, lands of abyssal dark and desolate plains where the demons sit on thrones and lord over dimensions beyond. In the first episode, Old Evil’s body proves to be composed of severed, animate flying heads that try to gnaw on the heroes like piranha, but the tag-team work of the three heroes finally helps defeat the monster. In the second, the High Priest proves to be a colossal juggernaut of a flying centipede, and Autumn and Yin, in a flourish unashamedly pinched by Men in Black (1998), are both swallowed by the beast, forcing them to destroy the beast by detaching the spirits from their bodies by reciting mantras, and then hacking their way out. This risky trick for the two savants of supernatural warfare proves tragic for Autumn, who can’t get back into his body. His spirit is swept away, with a distraught Moon chasing him–a last flourish for the rarefied melancholy that consistently underscores the series’ general joviality.
Ching’s visual style throughout the two films is a constant delight. Like Hark, who would eventually take the approach to excessive levels, Ching toys in the first episode with paring every shot to the bare minimum of time it takes to register, in a fashion that anticipates, but still remains distinct from, Hollywood filmmakers’ embrace of the hyperkinetic because basic rules of focus and editing rhythm are still obeyed. Nonetheless the racing pace of the films is startling and compulsive, whilst Ching’s photography, essayed in an argot of wide-focus lenses used in close-ups to give everything an overlarge, vertiginous immediacy, and zooming camera motions that constantly take on points of view or are used to add physicality to action shots, became deeply influential in a lot of subsequent filmmakers. Perhaps the western filmmaker most inflected with Ching’s example is Peter Jackson, whose photographic style and kinetic approach to fantasy, spectacularly in his early work and more measured in his Tolkien films, bears distinctive traces of Ching’s mighty fantasy-adventure diptych— at a zillion times the cost.
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Director/Screenwriter: Lisa Cholodenko
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the worst films of 2010 was The Kids Are All Right, a sitcom of a movie in which straight actors Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple dealing with the appearance of the sperm donor who is the biological father of their two children. Given the chance to reach a mainstream audience with a realistic portrayal of a family headed by two females, The Kids Are All Right instead self-consciously backs away from gay sexuality as fast it can, hiding a scene of lesbian sex under a heavy blanket and then rushing Moore into straight sex with the sperm donor. The only thing missing from the conventionality of this flat film is the nightstand sitting like a sentry between two single beds.
I wouldn’t have given The Kids Are All Right a second thought if not for the fact that it was cowritten and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, representing a shocking fall from grace for a director/screenwriter who created one of the most memorable feature debuts in many a year—High Art. High Art is everything The Kids Are All Right is not—assured, unapologetically frank about lesbian sex, nuanced, and authentic. Perhaps most important, Cholodenko offers a look at lesbians leading lives that contain as much love, dysfunction, ambition, and familial relationships as any other way of life.
High Art begins with Syd (Radha Mitchell) sitting in a small office examining slides submitted to Frame, the New York-based photography magazine where she works as an assistant editor. Her tragically hip boss Harry (David Thornton) dismisses her as his glorified gofer, though his condescension is a cover for his lackadaisical attitude toward his job and its subject matter. Dominique (Anh Duong), the editor of Frame, started as a receptionist at Interview, and her drive to succeed, her immersion in the art scene, and her cutthroat instincts form a mirror in which we can view Syd’s career aspirations.
Syd lives with her boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann) in a rundown apartment run by a slum landlord in the making. One evening, as she relaxes in a hot bath, she notices that the crack in the ceiling above the tub is starting to leak. She goes to the apartment above to let the tenants know about it. At the door is a thin woman about twice Syd’s age. After some perfunctory talk, the woman, Lucy (Ally Sheedy), promises to contact the super. Because service is slow to the point of nonexistent in the building, Syd returns to Lucy’s apartment several times to try to fix the leak herself.
The leak becomes a convenient excuse for Syd to explore an attraction to Lucy subtly encouraged by Lucy herself and the quality of the photographs hanging all over Lucy’s apartment. It doesn’t take long for Syd to discover that Lucy was once one of the hottest photographers in the New York art scene. The engulfing attention and demands made on her caused her to flee to Europe, where she became involved with Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a has-been Fassbinder actress, and spent most of her time snorting heroin and taking pictures as more of a reflex than as a serious pursuit. Her return to New York after a 10-year absence may signal that she is ready to start making photographs again, but the downward pull of Greta and the rest of their heroin-addicted circle of friends seems to be keeping Lucy in a holding pattern, that is, until Syd enters the picture.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and the obviously modest budget of High Art brought out the best in Cholodenko’s creativity, something the high-budget, high-profile The Kids Are All Right buried. The handheld camera work and settings—the apartments, the Frame offices, an upscale home where Lucy goes to visit her rich mother (Tammy Grimes), a restaurant, a mountain retreat—all must have been places opened to the cast and crew by friends and family. The lived-in, hazy look of Lucy’s apartment creates a realistic milieu for the kind of crash pad/opium den atmosphere needed to suggest the subterranean hideout of Lucy’s spirit. The unsuccessful photographs depicting Greta underwater reflect Lucy’s muffled talent. By contrast, the photos she takes of Syd when they go away together for the weekend to consummate their love are alive, vital, compelling.
The strong subtext of Syd and Lucy’s desire is ambition. There’s no question that the two women are in lust and could be falling in love, but what really pushes them together in an irresistible way is their individual hopes for themselves. Syd has a good eye and immediately recognizes that Lucy could be the great discovery that could raise her profile at Frame and help her push past her clueless boss. When she realizes how big her discovery—rediscovery—is, there is no stopping her from picking a fight with James, with whom she seemed to be happy, and running straight into Lucy’s arms. Lucy’s overtures to Syd are, to me, more touching. She seems to want to be saved from herself, from the pull of heroin and her codependent relationship with Greta. She is feeling the advance of age, signaled by her desire to return to New York and spend time with her aging, if difficult, Jewish mother, fearing the future, fearing her own mortality. Becoming the Lucy Berliner again seems a plausible way to ensure that her life will count for something once more, and continue after death.
The central performances by Sheedy and Mitchell are a master class in the way women love each other. Mitchell moves her braless torso in gentle curves, half-aware that she is being watched, not only by Lucy, but also by Greta. Cholodenko frequently directs shots that put Syd in the foreground, with Lucy in a corner of the frame looking at her with the eye of both a photographer and a seducer. Sheedy invades Mitchell’s space casually, agilely, but fixes her with her intensity. Syd’s response must feel like the kiss of life after Greta, who nods off in a drug haze when Lucy starts to make love to her. Indeed, although her German accent waxes and wanes, Patricia Clarkson plays a very believable Fassbinder actress, her superficial, needy vanity peeking out perfectly under her drug-layered performance. Overall, the drug scenes are very realistic—we can actually see Syd getting off after snorting her first line of heroin, and junkie-in-arms Arnie (Bill Sage) laying back in supreme pleasure after shooting up in Lucy and Greta’s bedroom.
The script is a bit precious at times, but often witty and revealing, such as when Syd holds forth on one of Lucy’s compositions, and Lucy responds ruefully, “I haven’t been deconstructed in a long time.” Perhaps at that moment she sees the true foundation of Syd’s affections toward her, but chooses to ignore it. Harry’s pretense that he knows who Lucy Berliner is when questioned by Dominique is appropriately sleazy and hilarious. Greta’s dialogue seems to have been lifted in part from a Fassbinder film, which is either very lazy or very clever—I haven’t made up my mind yet. The most touching scene is when Syd and Lucy are about to make love and Syd says, “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” The tenderness and reassurance Lucy provides, and Syd’s genuine tears of love and gratitude, are pitch perfect.
High Art offers a point of view in its final act. Photography—and by extension, film—captures moments in time that can move us with their emotional and physical content. The more universal the image, the more timeless it can be. Mere ambition and even enormously hard work have amazingly short shelf lives. True art can only come from those who can face the pleasure and pain of being alive and project that honestly.
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Director: Tim Burton
By Roderick Heath
The career of Edward D. Wood Jnr. went thus: he made bad movies, was not rewarded for this, and died young, poor, weird, and obscure. A simple narrative, one obeying seemingly cast-iron rules of art and industry, a ready example of an almost natural law at work—except that we sometimes tend to rebel against such obvious arcs, a temptation that’s especially strong today when movies can cost $200 million and still be less coherent, personal, or fun than the films Wood slapped together on rock-bottom budgets. Wood’s status as a hero of cash-strapped delirium has passed through phases, from roots in the punk era’s camp-hued affection for trashy antitheses to the slick emptiness of much popular culture, through to genuine, if sometimes over-earnest, attempts to embrace him as the essence of the outsider artist and a ramshackle surrealist.
In fact, Wood was a schismatic creature, at once a filmmaker who packed his movies with peccadilloes and private delights, and a hack who tried to winnow his way into Hollywood with his own ineffably clueless takes on material he thought popular. Wood lamely attempted to ape his betters, but also was a secret rebel twisting their noses with his characterful statements in favour of acceptance and against nuclear-age blustering, reflecting a general inability to fit into the conformist world of the 1950s, as if he was a prototypical, half-unwilling beatnik lost in a jungle of coldly commercial professionalism. Yet, it was precisely his inability to recreate the art that pleased him and to express his serious ideas in a serious manner that makes his work so disturbingly thrilling at times, the simultaneous horror and delight in the obviousness of the intention and the depth of failure. Edward D. Wood Jnr. has become the Charlie Brown of cinema icons, locked in an eternal frieze, trying to kick that cultural football and missing.
Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, spun from a screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is as much a film about the art and the idea of Wood and what they meant and could mean for other artists and filmmakers, as it is a traditional biopic. Ed Wood views his life through a prism of decades of semi-underground art movements, to celebrate those movements and their clique-happy enthusiasm. Burton feted Wood’s career through a series of ironic contrasts, reproducing his tacky special effects and cardboard motifs with large-budget, detail-driven zest and exacting technical competence, precisely the qualities Wood so badly lacked. Mimicking Wood’s style in the visuals of the film freed Burton somewhat from having to devote too much time to depicting the products of Ed’s work. Burton seemed to latch onto Wood as a personal avatar, another natural outsider, a singular oddball with a strange power for attracting and employing a posse of glorious misfits to whom he could offer a protective wing. Burton also found the same essential pleasure in cinema as a way of exploring the ephemera of things readily dismissed as tacky and corny, and yet which lingered with strange intensity from the shoals of childhood memory and adolescent fixation.
Wood’s story, at least the notable phase of it depicted in the film extending from 1953’s hallucinatory Glen or Glenda? through to his sci-fi anti-epic Plan Nine From Outer Space (1959), offered plentiful raw materials for a tragicomedy. The film concerns itself mostly with Wood’s friendship with the aging, haggard Béla Lugosi (Martin Landau) and others inhabiting the Hollywood fringe, including TV psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), monster movie hostess Maila “Vampira” Nurmi (Lisa Marie), temporary fiancé and future tunesmith Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), gloriously gay socialite Lyle “Bunny” Breckenridge (Bill Murray), and hulking pro wrestler Tor Johnson (George Steele)–a gallery of characters to rival the Addams Family for incongruous charm and the Keystone Kops for incompetence in the line of duty. Ed Wood is unusual as a movie narrative in many ways, then, because unlike most films, especially biopics, which lead us towards either a singular triumph or cathartic collapse, it becomes instead a snapshot of people fending off the ravages of time with fellowship, and the only triumph is an illusory one. Wood’s employment of the footage he took of Lugosi in Plan Nine is, here, no longer merely a man using a desperate gimmick for box office appeal, but an instinctive poet’s attempt to stave off mortality’s victory and the inevitable dissolution of the weirdly beautiful world he’s built around himself.
By presenting a biography of a director where the resulting work is, implicitly, negligible, Burton offers one of the most beguiling portraits of the artist as young self-deluder ever. Johnny Depp’s Wood is a creature of manic-depressive highs and lows, sometimes gnawed at by self-doubt suppressed with alcohol, but often skating along on the back of enthusiasm, process, and the druglike rush of believing in his own brilliance. Burton captures the latter attitude in a perfect visualisation: stock-footage explosions and patriotic parades are superimposed over Wood’s beaming face as he marvels at his own achievement, blending both the man’s defining traits and his techniques into a seamless, singular image. Ed Wood is the essence of every artist who has remained convinced of their own worth even whilst every force in the universe seems to be contradicting them.
For Burton, Ed Wood was a departure, and it remains a stand-out in his career, not only as his best film to date, but also in how he tackled a true story and transmuted it into both companion piece and negative image to his other works, executed with an uncommon economy, yet still stuffed with stylistic coups. Coming after his uneasy rise to the higher ranks of Hollywood through his Batman films, and his still-beloved diptych of black-comedy satires on family and suburbia, Beetlejuice (1987) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), Burton indulged a measure of self-analysis, possibly casting his thoughts back to his own brief partnership with Vincent Price on Edward Scissorhands in regarding Wood’s and Lugosi’s alliance, and extrapolating the image of himself as a man locked in a contradictory posture of eccentric, individualistic creativity finding a niche in a world with opposing priorities and values. Leading man Depp’s interpretation of Wood seems partly channelled through his one-time director John Waters, whose Cry Baby (1990) helped give Depp his first move beyond the teen stardom of “21 Jump Street.” (Waters’ own early efforts were something like Wood’s, though operating from a perspective of self-aware absurdist chic). In spite of the overt artifice Burton indulges, like black-and-white photography and flourishes of generic parody, and indeed largely because of this, Ed Wood is also a film with a sense of time and place so vivid you can practically smell the shady bars, two-room apartments, seedy low-rent studios, and bunkerlike offices of fly-by-night producers. This milieu is inseparable from Wood’s own work, with its location filming in deepest San Fernando and the down-market corners of Los Angeles. Ed Wood captures that atmosphere with an intensity that’s at once tactile, seamy, nostalgically affectionate, and occasionally, as in the opening, transformed into an adjunct of Wood’s shoestring-Expressionist worldview. Ed Wood remains a daydream about the underside of ’50s Hollywood.
Ed Wood commences with Criswell warning the audience in the manner of his introduction for Wood’s Revenge of the Dead (1960), from a coffin in the Old Willows Place of Bride of the Monster, about the dread experience the audience is about to witness, before the opening credits explore the environs of Wood’s iconography via an extended piece of brilliant model-work, resolving on a soaring vision of Los Angeles transformed into a Gothic wonderland. Wood is found fretting over the lack of press turning up for the premiere of a play he’s putting on. The glimpses we see of the play offer the Wood sensibility already fully formed: a giddy mix of the naively poetic and the woodenly terrible. Wood’s fearsome optimism proves resilient even in the face of a bad review served up by a leading critic’s copy boy, though his fiancé Dolores mournfully takes to heart its jabs at her (“Do I really have a face like a horse?”). Ed’s fairy godmother Bunny cynically dismisses the whole thing with his knowledge of the forces that really run Hollywood: sex, power, and money.
Ed, whose day job is carting around props at Universal Studios, is a man constantly trying to understand the business he’s involved in, marvelling at the forces which can produce camels for a bit of backlot flimflam, and yet its resources of magic remain ever out of reach, even as he finds possibility and excitement in detritus like the reels of stock footage an older employee digs out and then files away. Wood’s adoration for and grasp on the potential in the marginalia of this world extends to his spotting of Lugosi, whom he happens upon as the aging, haggard star is checking out coffins at an undertaker’s for the next exhausting tour of a production of Dracula, hanging onto the last vestige of his fame and means of making a living. Ed makes friends with Lugosi simply by offering him a ride in his car, saving the once wealthy star from having to catch the bus.
Ed’s tale is as much about trying to subsist and thrive within the precepts of the grand narrative of American and Hollywood success, whilst also, almost accidentally, trying to resist the pulverising conformity those 1950s narratives could assert, as it is about making bad movies. Late in the film, Ed and future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette) reminisce over their childhood love of the figures of wonderment broadcast to them through the highways of pop culture, from pulp radio serials to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, evoking the way such enchantments change lives even in the boondocks. Ed’s attempts to get into that game himself retain this innocent quality. Ed’s troupe become something akin to a family, accumulating members, some gleeful, some resistant, but all glad to find a temporary shelter and the shreds of dignity Ed’s drive gives them. Lugosi entrances Ed with a nostalgic, pseudo-intellectual paean to delights of the classic Gothic horror film, complete with Freudian jive about the felicities of Dracula as spur to scoring with the ladies in a humorous tilt that seems aimed as much at the psycho-sexual desolation of most contemporary genre film as at the ’50s giant monster craze Lugosi derides, as well as the spectacle of two horror nuts trying to lend their obsessions a veneer of profundity. (No, I wouldn’t know anything about that.) Mostly, it establishes Ed and Lugosi as men fundamentally out of step with their technocratic and fashionable time, one in which Lugosi is grievously humiliated on a live TV comedy show where the host’s improv mockery overwhelms Lugosi. The sequence suggests the real way Lugosi had been reduced to a comic foil in Abbot and Costello and Bowery Boys movies. Ed can’t even get Dolores to dredge up Lugosi’s name in making her guess who he just met (“You met — Basil Rathbone!”).
But Ed, in finding himself a star who needs money, gains through Lugosi a ticket into the great world of movie directing, even if it’s only a film about sex changes, hastily redrawn from a Christine Jorgensen biopic after the rights get too expensive for producer George “I make crap” Weiss (Mike Starr). Ed, after catching the article about Weiss’ efforts in Variety, makes his initial pitch to the bewildered producer, trying to compel him with his own secret kink, his love of cross-dressing (“You a fruit?” “Oh no, I’m all man. I even fought in WW2”). He manages to draw the beefy, volcanic Weiss in with eager interest with tales about making parachute landings in the war whilst wearing a bra and panties. Ed’s desire to be a success is constantly stymied by, and also inseparable from, his desire to present himself unmasked to the world, and to explore himself and his obsessions through his work, lacking the essential inner censor who can corral such impulses into professional limits. Late in the film, he convinces Baptist Church stalwarts Reynolds (Clive Rosengren) and Reverend Lemon (G.D. Spradlin) to give him the money to make Plan Nine from Outer Space, or Grave Robbers from Outer Space as it’s initially called, promising to make them enough cash to bankroll their own pet project, a series on the 12 apostles, only for the uptight religious financiers to take umbrage at Ed’s habit of putting on the angora sweater and blonde wig to relax on set.
One comic highlight here is the striptease Ed does for the for Bride of the Atom wrap party, with Criswell slipping cash into his garter and concluding with Ed unveiling to display his beaming, dentureless face in a moment of pure camp-grotesque cool. Fittingly, it’s both the moment of Ed’s personal liberation and the final straw for Dolores, who announces she’s leaving him to write songs for Elvis Presley. Ed’s personal identification with Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio and Maurice LaMarche) as the symbol of youthful, all-encompassing genius presents the hope of the artist-rebel as transcendent titan, as opposed to Wood, doomed to be the image of the artist-rebel as ant. The climactic (fictional, but readily imaginable) encounter of Welles and Wood spells out the similarities in their career troubles and dreams in sarcastic, and yet oddly accurate terms. For artists, Ed Wood constantly suggests, the only hope for such contrary personalities is to try to reconceive the world through the personal prisms of creativity, making no distinction between good and bad artists. Wood’s attempts to do so culminate when he uses his draft screenplay to reveal his predilection to Dolores, his doting partner rising in realisation from the chair in their kitchen to open the door upon Ed in full drag, like a sweet-tempered Frankenstein’s Monster.
Whilst art is liberating in Ed Wood, it is also enslaving. Lugosi finally, happily embraces association with a single role to the extent of having himself buried in Dracula’s cape, a fate many actors would recoil from precisely because it’s the last chance to force reality to obey their own will. Lugosi, in readily adopting his Dracula guise, is photographed taking his fixes in shadows, as if he’s become one of his own expressionist grotesques, and is finally found lolling in a pool of despair and self-pity; composer Howard Shore uses strains of Swan Lake, the theme of crepuscular romanticism from Tod Browning’s film, to lend undertones of tragedy to Lugosi’s attempts to hold onto his final alternate identity. The generally jokey movie quotes segue into outright horror, in the glimpse of Lugosi tied up in rehab, screaming at detox horrors, a vision transmuted through a B-movie nightmare. In counterpoint to Ed’s awkward emergence as the man he really is comes a transformation of Dolores herself, one which Parker exposits in a key of cleverly stylised archness. Dolores moves through stages of twentieth century American femininity, souring slowly from the ever-chipper, supportive wife-to-be, to a domestic terrorist who knocks Ed with a frypan brandished in Amazonian ferocity, as well as a wisecracking professional who leaves Ed in a mixed fury of personal and professional frustration. Ed offers movie stardom to Tor Johnson, who believes he’s “not good-looking enough” to be one: “I believe you’re quite handsome,” Ed assures him. He gives the girl just off the bus, Loretta King (Juliet Landau), a chance to become a star, too, even if it’s only because he mistakes her for a rich kid who can invest in his movie, and the act of trying to capitalise on this results in the start of the breakdown of his relationship with Dolores.
The secret codes of show business remain, however, constantly undecipherable to the wonderstruck Ed, even as Criswell tries to clue him in: “People believe my folderol because I wear a black tuxedo.” The spectacular failure Glen or Glenda? leaves Weiss threatening to kill Wood if he ever sees him again, and Universal Studio exec Feldman (Stanley Desantis) thinks it’s a practical joke foisted on him by William Wellman, before declaring to Ed that it’s the worst movie he’s ever seen. “Well, my next one’ll be better!” our hero replies without missing a beat, only to meet dial tone. Still, Ed tries to make the movie he thought up on the spur of the moment when talking with Feldman, Bride of the Atom, both for his own sake and for Lugosi’s, as the actor becomes increasingly distraught over his lack of money and doubtful future. This time, Ed attempts to raise funds independently, cueing a series of excruciatingly funny attempts to fool rich people into giving him money. Ed reaches an abyss of humiliation after a chance encounter with Vampira leaves him begging on his knees, looking like the biggest schmuck in history. Vampira herself describes the same downward arc as the others, only quicker, for when the moment of success is exhausted, she’s reduced to travelling on the bus in full arch-brow, décolletage-flashing Goth garb on the way to a job for Ed, unaware of how she provides a barren stretch of L.A. with a sketch of surrealist delight. “You should feel lucky,” Kathy admonishes her when she’s mournful about sinking to appearing in one of Ed’s film,: “Eddie’s the only fella in town who doesn’t cast judgement on people.” “That’s right,” Ed adds, “If I did, I wouldn’t have any friends.’
Ed Wood is first and foremost a comedy, and indeed it is, to me at least, one of the most truly, consistently funny films ever made. Alexander and Karaszewski’s dialogue is absurdly quotable—back in the late ’90s when I was often trying to shoot no-budget, hand-crafted movies with family and friends, every new shot was presaged by our own ritual quote, “Let’s shoot this fucker!”—and the film is littered with tiny bits of comic business that provide endless pleasure. Much of the humour resembles those little sketches in the margins in MAD Magazine, captured in throwaway flourishes of wit, far too many of them are worth mentioning but impossible to cram in here. Wood’s labours, from running from police because he lacks a filming permit to breaking into a studio warehouse to steal a giant octopus prop, inhabit the realm of farce.
Burton leavens it all with his most precise comedic rhythm and staging. There’s strange magic in Ed setting his impish helpmates and actors Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Conrad Brooks (Brent Hinkley) to find props and dig up body doubles for the deceased Lugosi, scurrying into action like lost members of the Three Stooges; in Ed and Lugosi watching Vampira on the TV presenting White Zombie (1932), with Ed irked by her sarcasm whilst Lugosi marvels over her jugs, attempting to hypnotise her through the TV screen; in Bunny submitting to a baptism for the sake of getting financing for Plan Nine, Baptist beatitude and nelly enthusiasm finding a bizarrely beautiful accord; and in stealing the octopus for Bride of the Atom, a moment in which Tor takes on the persona of Lobo to wrench away the lock on the warehouse door. The film’s set-piece comedy sequence, one of the funniest scenes in anything, revolves around the disastrous trip Ed and his troupe make to attend a premiere of the retitled Bride of the Monster, only to find the crowd going berserk, an event that sees them mugged by lecherous adolescents, lost in a maelstrom of popcorn (“I gotta save ‘em!”), and chased down the street by rioting movie fans, after the hearse they arrived in is found being stripped down by street hoods. For a moment, all the boundaries between persona and person, movie and reality, dream and discontent dissolve in a frenzy of anarchic delight.
For Burton, Ed Wood’s formal rigour, as well as the concision of its humane yet raucous spirit, remains unsurpassed. The lucid, often bald and unflattering, and yet also often textured, swooning beauty of the Stefan Czapsky’s photography is one of the film’s great qualities. Burton and Czapsky find actual expressionism lurking behind Wood’s half-assed attempt to find it in his jerry-built sets and location shoots. They transform the interior of Lugosi’s shell-like prefab house into a Gothic castle littered with remnants of former greatness and Lugosi’s past—the beauty, mystery, and threat of the exotic imprisoned in suburbia. Burton actually extends the dualistic contrast of Wood and Welles by constantly using Wellesian technique to depict Wood’s world, with soaring camera surveys of models that seems liberated from physical limits, passing through glass, in and out of water, with the sort of joie de vivre Wood himself seemed to be chasing haplessly; deep-focus, multiplaned shots and deadpan, medium-long shots, sometimes engaging in dramatic spoof or comedic contrast, and just as often leaving his characters stranded in their hapless pathos. Such dazzling cinema is often the very opposite of what Wood was infamous for, and yet his own flourishes of oddly inspired low-rent hype, like the lightning strike that announces his own name at the start of Plan Nine from Outer Space, are faithfully reproduced. One of my favourite shots in the film comes when Lugosi gives an impromptu recital of his famed “Home? I have no home” speech from Bride of the Monster, with Burton’s camera shifting to frame Lugosi under a building façade that provides him with a suitably sepulchral proscenium arch. Equally terrific is Shore’s scoring, one part satire on the tinny stock music slapped onto Wood’s films, one part celebration of retro weirdness, complete with theremin whistling eerily over driving beatnik bongos.
Many biopics tend to reduce their subjects, and that’s true to a certain extent here. Ed’s sideline as an equally terrible screenwriter for hire is left out, and Lugosi, who had an entire politically tinged history in Hungary, is a touch less than the commanding figure he was. But considering the film’s theme of how show business turns everyone, for better or worse, into the image they create for themselves, such diminution is understandable. Suffice to say Landau’s performance deserved every one of his copious plaudits, and the rest of the cast is impeccable. For Depp, though the film gained him little real reward at the time, it remains one of his best, most cleverly pitched performances, one that proved he could move into adult roles and introduced him as that most contradictory of figures, a star character actor. The film’s powerful undercurrents of melancholia, even tragedy, as it encompasses Lugosi’s sad final months and the start of Wood’s alcoholism, does not overwhelm the comedy, and in some ways even enhances it. Landau’s professed ambition to make Lugosi both funny and sad describes the film as a whole, as both emotions here well out of the same fundamental details—the try-hard aping of mass commercial culture, the struggle to retain a sense of personal beauty in the face of impersonal forces, the ravages of age and the hopeless delusion of youth. It’s a note that becomes especially keen in the closing moments when Kathy and Ed leave an imaginary triumphal premiere for Plan Nine to get married in Las Vegas. Ed’s real story was doomed to run out of gas somewhere out there in the California desert he and Kathy are last seen heading off into, but his legacy remains. The roll call of the characters’ fates listed in the prologue rams home the ephemeral nature of their labours, even though time has proven kinder to so many of them than they might have expected. The true cheat of Ed Wood’s life was his death barely months before his rediscovery commenced.
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Director/Screenwriter: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In cinema, even documentary cinema, the question of who we think we see on screen and who is actually on screen are two different things, fueling all kinds of existential fun and games for the astute filmmaker and receptive audiences. Identity as a motif has preoccupied numerous filmmakers, from Ingmar Bergman (Persona) to Monte Hellman (Road to Nowhere) to Abbas Kiarostami (Close-up). Identity is often tied up with psychosis, and psychotics frequently feature in horror and suspense films because they channel the nameless, faceless Id that resides in all of us that, on some level, we all would like to release in all its rampaging glory once in a while. The idea that any one of us could become a gruesome killer if someone or something pierced our social conditioning is at the heart of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure. Kurosawa, interested in the shocked comments people invariably make after a neighbor or acquaintance commits a brutal murder (“He was such a nice man. They were an ordinary couple.”), explores the nature of identity and whether our bodies and minds are mere vessels waiting to be filled.
On a busy street in Tokyo, a man (Ren Ohsugi) walks through a damp tunnel as cars pass on his right. A fluorescent light illuminating the tunnel blinks and buzzes. We next see the man in a hotel room with a naked prostitute. He is moving about the room, and she is sitting up in bed. Suddenly, he grabs a pipe and bashes her twice on the head. When next we enter the room, it is filled with police investigators. The lead detective, Kenichi Takabe (Kôji Yakusho), observes that a deep “x” has been cut across the prostitute’s neck and chest. The man is found naked, hiding in an air duct in the hallway. When he is questioned at police headquarters by Takabe and police psychiatrist Makoto Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), the man has no idea why he killed the woman. The case resembles other murders under investigation where a similar “x” was carved into the victims.
Takabe will have several more such murders to investigate as the film goes on, but he must balance this puzzle with the increasing burden posed by his wife Fumie’s (Anna Nakagawa) mental deterioration. We first see Fumie talking with her psychiatrist (Toshi Kato) as an outpatient and observe her attachment to the story of Bluebeard. She tells the doctor that she knows how the story ends—Bluebeard is killed by his wife. Fumie doesn’t appear capable of murder, but the worry she causes Takabe, the things she does that drive him crazy, the loss of companionship he experiences by her disconnectedness certainly must cause a kind of death to his spirit. Not being able to talk to her about the pain of his work is especially difficult for him.
As other “x” cases come to the fore—a young man kills his wife of two years, a police officer shoots his partner in the head, a doctor kills a man in a public bathroom and peels his face away from his skull—we and Takabe slowly discover what links them together: a young amnesiac who is soon identified as Kunio Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a medical school dropout whose disheveled home reveals shelves of books about psychiatry, psychosis, and works about and by Franz Mesmer, a German physician who developed the idea of animal magnetism, or in the term used in the film, hypnosis, to influence behavior. We saw the young husband, Tôru Hanaoka (Masahiro Toda), encounter Mamiya on a beach and after Mamiya collapses, take him home. Mamiya questions him over and over about who he is and asks him questions about his wife Tomoko (Misayo Haruki) while transfixing Tôru with the flame of his cigarette lighter. As Mamiya bounces from one encounter to another—Hanaoka takes him to the police station, where he mesmerizes Oida (Denden), the cop, before being sent to a hospital to put Dr. Miyajima (Yoriko Dôguchi) under his spell—the daisy chain of violence barely outpaces Takabe’s efforts to unravel the mystery before he himself is drawn under Mamiya’s influence.
As with most detective-centered stories, Takabe is no ordinary cop. He is intelligent and tormented, a Japanese version of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and his complexity makes him a Rorschach image of good for his evil opposite Mamiya. Mamiya entices Takabe with an accurate assessment of the detective’s torment, mentioning a vision Takabe had of Fumie hanging dead in the couple’s kitchen that incited the detective to helpless wailing. Of course, as a mesmerist, Mamiya causes his victims to conjure such visions by helping them to access their deepest fears and hatreds through his highly developed gift for hypnosis. Only by remaining empty himself can Mamiya be the master rather than the victim.
It is Mamiya’s conviction that most people don’t know themselves, the many selves hidden under the surface, the duality of their generous and vicious impulses. He considers Takabe extraordinary, like himself, for recognizing the split in himself—trying to be a loving husband while seeing the worst in human nature on a daily basis. The encounters Takabe has with Mamiya create convulsions of emotion in him, signaled not only by his violent outbursts toward Mamiya but also toward some of his colleagues; in fact, when Takabe tries to turn the tables on Mamiya by forcing him to look at his own lighter while incarcerated, a vision of a rain-collapsing ceiling overwhelms Takabe, and the lighter goes out. It appears to have been put out by the rain water, but my guess is that while Takabe was having the visions, Mamiya merely blew the lighter out. But, of course, this wouldn’t be a horror story if we didn’t give ourselves over to wondering if the strange sights on screen are real or imaginary.
Kurosawa’s camerawork is beyond good. He scouted locations in and around Tokyo that reek of decay, giving us a fair approximation of a haunted house in the penultimate scene where the final showdown between Takabe and Mamiya takes place. He combines handheld work with static long shots of great beauty and atmosphere. He knows how to create tension by considering the images outside the frame that haunt our imagination, for example, having Sakuma enter Mamiya’s cell, which has a short wall hiding the toilet area in which Mamiya is standing. We don’t see the prisoner, but we know what he’s capable of, and the fear of actually looking at him infuses this scene powerfully. In a later scene, we see one handcuff hanging from a pipe, and the story a cop tells Takabe about it creates the image of the body that had been attached to it in our minds in an uncomfortable parallel to the way Mamiya was able to create images in the minds of his victims. Indeed, Mamiya is rather like a filmmaker, bringing us under his spell, finding our triggers, conjuring images through exposition and suggestion.
But Cure does more than that. It makes us wonder what Takabe achieved by resolving the murder investigation. The last two scenes are powerfully suggestive, but also highly ambiguous. Takabe has put his wife in a psychiatric hospital, and we see a very brief scene at the hospital in which the image of a corpse with the telltale “x” appears. Takabe is later seen eating heartily and happily in his regular diner, apparently cured of his previous troubles. His waitress removes his plates and is called over to speak to her boss. Calmly she moves to a station and picks up a large chef’s knife. Has Takabe taken over where Mamiya left off, or has our experience of the film left us imagining the worst?
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Director: Joseph Ruben
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Who can turn the world on with her smile? As a fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and of its star, I must admit that in a head-to-head tooth-off, MTM would wither in the blaze of Julia Roberts’ pearly whites.
Julia Roberts has been dazzling movie goers with her mile-wide grin, infectious laugh, and Playmate-like naughty innocence since the late 80s. Can she act? Does it matter? As the first $20 million woman among a legion of limited-range actors commanding that sum or more, Julia Roberts is a rarity in today’s world—an old-fashioned Hollywood star in the Gene Tierney mold who can act if a director pushes her out of her comfort zone and forces her to, but whose main assets lie in her on-screen charisma and beauty. One look at her list of films and a flashback to the studio build-up to her nonwedding to Kiefer Sutherland show that the old boys of Tinsel Town understood what kind of a property they had in her.
Many of her films cast her as the fantasy trophy woman every man wants. She doesn’t need to come from the American aristocracy to ascend to it—as waitress Daisy Aruja in Mystic Pizza (1988), she is a self-confessed social climber who snags a hot-blooded blue blood with sex and the saucy insolence that such men seem to like. Of course, her breakout role as Vivian, the hooker who catches corporate raider Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990), is as nakedly honest about America’s then-definition of success as any out there; every young turk needs his BMW and his beautiful arm ornament who is, of course, a pistol in the sack, and every woman needs to be a mercenary sexpot who cleans up well to catch one. Vivian going on a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive became Roberts’ signature scene, a representation of the grasping, greedy climber made adorable by Roberts’ naive sweetness.
As Roberts matured, her roles tended to vary, but her iconic status worked most effectively in films that reflected on her persona—her commitment-phobic Runaway Bride (1999), her superstar-marries-a-commoner character in Notting Hill (1999), the reverse-snob triumph of using sex and lies for good in Erin Brockovich (2000). Even Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) became more than a cultural blip because of the way her rich neoliberal character separated her heavily mascaraed eyelashes. In Eat Pray Love (2010), she played a success who throws it all away to find enlightenment, forming a dead-on critique of the characters she played at the start of her career on just another type of shopping spree.
Sleeping with the Enemy is a bit of an aberration in the Roberts canon, showing as it does the downside of being a trophy wife. The film capitalizes on all those things audiences love about Julia Roberts, but allows her to be a woman who uses her tenacity to survive and strive for authenticity. Although Sleeping with the Enemy is a Hollywood movie and a hack bit of filmmaking, it is interesting as perhaps the definitive anti-Julia Roberts vehicle.
Laura Burney (Roberts) has been married for 3½ years to Martin (Patrick Bergin), a filthy-rich investment counselor who calls her “princess,” but sees her more like the bust of Nefertiti he bought her on their honeymoon—his possession, a symbol of his status. They live part-time in a huge beachfront mansion on Cape Cod that appears to have been designed by Luigi Moretti, one of Mussolini’s chief architects. Martin tells Laura what to wear to a party, signals her with a look when it is time to leave, and grabs her for sex when they arrive home. Laura is very good at appearing to be happy when Martin is watching, but the film reveals rather quickly that she looks at sex with Martin as rape and stands in terror of a beating for everything from having her pantry items carelessly stacked to taking off to bury her dead mother without his permission.
Martin likes to sail, but Laura is deathly afraid of the water. Nonetheless, he prevails upon her to go out for an evening sail with their neighbor (Kyle Secor), whose casual remark that he has seen Laura looking out from their home garners her a beating from a jealous Martin. Although the weather report called for calm waters and clear skies, a sudden squall forces them to turn back. When the boat is nearly home, the jib comes loose, and the two men run to the bow to secure it. When they turn around, Laura is gone, and an intensive search for her only turns up her life vest.
Of course, Laura has faked her death. Conquering her fear of the water, she took swimming lessons, preparing for a moment when Martin wouldn’t be watching her. Swimming toward the gap in the boardwalk lighting she made by breaking the bulbs, she runs to their house, dons a wig, grabs a prepacked bundle, and rides a bus to Cedar Falls, Iowa. She rents a house next door to handsome drama teacher and future lover Ben Woodward (Kevin Anderson), gets a menial job at a library, and starts flashing her dazzling smile and naturally curly hair all over the place.
A call to Martin from one of Laura’s swim classmates, however, sets him and his considerable resources on her trail. He tracks down Laura’s mother (Elizabeth Lawrence), who did not die but rather was moved to a nursing home near Cedar Falls. When Laura goes to visit her disguised as a man, Martin is there. She narrowly misses running into him, but we know it is only a matter of time until he shows up on her doorstep.
Based on a book by Nancy Price, Hollywood has upscaled the story to Julia Roberts proportions, making the crummy beach house in the book into a monument to the money-no-taste 80s. The scene during which she fakes her death is the epitome of convenient scripting, and Martin never emerges as anything other than a male version of Glenn Close’s monster in Fatal Attraction (1987). In the final denouement, every horror film cliché gets trotted out as Laura goes to investigate strange noises in the house, looking at her disheveled cupboard with relief, only to return to it shortly and find everything lined up with terrifying regularity. Anyone as frightened of her husband as Laura would run at the first sound and ask questions later.
In addition, the producers at 20th Century Fox felt the need to throw in a Julia playing dress-up scene, using the costume room at Ben’s theatre as an appropriate substitute. I hated being manipulated this way, but I must admit that having Kevin Anderson in the scene improved on it considerably. He’s a wonderful actor who understands how to portray just a guy who comes to understand how he might be frightening Laura, and why. He’s rejected for sex during a heavy makeout session, and accepts no for an answer, but not entirely gracefully. With a lesser actor, Ben would have been a complete gentleman, too good for words. Sadly, Bergin, who is a good actor, was given a character with less opportunity for nuance. It is an unfortunate fact of Julia Roberts films that the script is often formed to create the cardboard theatrics the bean counters demand to ensure success. It happened at the end of Erin Brockovich, and it happens here, too.
Nonetheless, Laura is an interesting character. She would seem to have it all, except that she’s just like millions of women from all classes and walks of life who are abused physically and psychologically by men close to them. Laura acknowledges to a woman she meets on the bus that she stayed with her husband too long, and feels that she is a coward. This is an interesting statement—clearly she was strong enough to get some things for herself while under his thumb, such as a part-time library job, and to hatch an elaborate and risky plan to leave him. It seems clear that her cowardice may be tied to her desire for the luxurious lifestyle he offered, or perhaps just her lack of self-confidence. Laura is a very real woman in recognizing these feelings in herself.
Her romance with Ben is also too fast. As onlookers, we think two such good-looking, age-appropriate people should be together (and, after all, that’s what the Hollywood shell of this movie sets us up to expect), but in truth, Laura is revealing the depth of her lack of confidence by hooking up after only a short period of caution. This is a woman whose lack of skills, as evidenced by the minimum-wage job she lands shelving books, forces her to rely on men to take care of her. Laura is a sister under the skin to Francine Hughes, and was lucky to have held onto her sense of self so that her torment lasted under four years. Fran was put on trial for killing her husband, but Sleeping with the Enemy makes sure there’s a witness to Laura’s attack to ensure that her murder of Martin will be deemed self-defense. So it looks like we have our Julia Roberts happy ending after all, but for once, she gave us a woman who punctured her gassy image.
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By Roderick Heath
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K), started in 1988 on KTMA, a Minnesota television station, but was swiftly promoted onto Comedy Central and, later, the Sci-Fi Channel. After some initial line-up changes, the show settled into a formula, with comedian Joel Hodgson, cocreator of the show, playing a version of himself as a victimised everyman kept prisoner in space on the Satellite of Love by evil genius Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). Forced to watch bad movies in a relentless experiment in mind control, he constructed a team of acerbic, antisocial robots, Crow (Beaulieu again) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), in a touch inspired by Silent Running (1972), that helped him mock the often dreadful movies foisted upon them. The line-up altered through the years, most notably with members of the writing team, Mike Nelson, Mary Jo Pehl, and Bill Corbett, taking over the parts of victim, tormentor, and Crow, but the basic dynamic remained successfully intact until the show’s demise in 1999, thanks to those corporate maniacs! Damn them all to hell! At any rate, the warmly goofy tone of the witty, semi-dramatic interludes depicting the altercations of the Satellite of Love team and their hapless persecutors helped to make MST3K the most clever and sustained variation on an American TV tradition stretching back to the sepulchral quips of Vampira in the 1950s.
The limited production values gave the show’s creators a chance to exhibit much the same qualities as the material they were showcasing: low-budget, flagrantly tacky invention, but layered with hipster sarcasm, referential dot-joining, and genuine movie-geek affection for the weird, wonderful, and often just plain lame breed of cinema on display. The legacy of MST3K has been a little mixed for fans of schlock genre cinema because any film subjected to the show’s signature snark was instantly branded for all and sundry as noxious junk. That was patently untrue of a number of movies the team took on, including This Island Earth (1955), Danger: Diabolik (1967), and The Undead (1957), and other, sometimes excellent low-budget works. Also, apart from occasional dares, like roasting a tacky West German version of Hamlet from the early ’60s, they rarely took on the more difficult tasks of making fun of inflated pseudo-art, or pumped-up Hollywood idiocies like Top Gun (1986) or Pretty Woman (1990), which have no budgetary excuses for their rankness. Instead, the quips at their laziest replicated standard shtick of mocking not terribly photogenic actors or cheap and obvious special effects, whilst ignoring hints of intelligence in the script or direction. But MST3K was arguably as much about a variety of audience interaction and the peculiar fraternity that has always defined fans of junk cinema as it was about film criticism, and at their best, the team’s riffs constructed new, concurrent movie narratives.
The series’ most beloved episodes include their epic takedowns of the South African space opera Space Mutiny (1988), Coleman Francis’ rancid beatnik noir film Night Train to Mundo Fine aka Red Zone Cuba (1966), and Ray Dennis Steckler’s freaky The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1966). MST3K often flailed trying to sustain its signature type of humour, but some of the team’s extended riffs, like the WWF-style commentary on the climactic bout of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1974) and the beach party of The Horror of Party Beach (1964), can stand up with any more polished challengers for sustained comic brilliance. Widely felt to be the show’s most definitive chapter is the 1993 episode that disinterred Harold P. Warren’s barely-screened “Manos” The Hands of Fate. Another product of that vintage year, 1966, “Manos” had failed to meet even its lowly ambition of becoming filler at drive-ins.
This film, whose title translates as “Hands The Hands of Fate,” was a labour of…well, not love, but rather a mixture of envy, gall, and entrepreneurial daring, for Warren, an El Paso fertiliser salesman. See? The jokes write themselves here. Legend has it Warren made the film after a lounge bar encounter with reputable Hollywood screenwriter Sterling Silliphant, whom he a bet he could produce a film for under $50,000. I’ve always been fascinated by the mystique of such risk-taking, low-budget cinema entrepreneurs, but for every George Romero or John Waters (whose no-frills early movies are name-checked at one point in the MST3K episode) thrown up by the cultural bayous, there are too many more like Warren, who simply redefined the depths of incompetence such fly-by-night filmmakers can descend to (a tradition still alive for us today thanks to Tommy Wiseau). Also, “Manos” The Hands of Fate is genuinely unwatchable without the MST3K crew (I know, I’ve tried) and would probably have remained in virtually complete ignominy had MST3K not disinterred it.
The funny thing is that “Manos” shows inklings of promise on a conceptual level. With its plot revolving around a nuclear family venturing into the southwestern backwoods and falling foul of retrograde menaces, it’s a certifiable first draft for the variations of that theme in 1970s horror cinema. The story setup, with the bizarre high priest of an obscure cult with a rugby team of wives and a satyr for a manservant, and the downbeat finale that was just becoming more popular in horror films, also hint at unexplored possibilities for black satire, or at least a half-decent soft-core porn film: paging Jesús Franco! There’s a vaguely existentialist air to the proceedings, as the family who are the protagonists finish up on a road to nowhere from which there is no return, and their smug presumptions swiftly unravel. There are signs Warren wanted to make a film with a lot more sex appeal, but because the modeling agency that he hired the evil cult leader’s wives from forbade anything but rather prim apparel, he spiced things up with the stodgiest mass catfight in cinema history. As Hodgson devastatingly sums it up at one point, “every single frame of this movie looks like someone’s last-known photograph.”
The family, consisting of dim-witted patriarch Mike (Warren himself, under the thin pseudonym of Hal Warren), equally dim-witted but slightly more intuitively aware mother Margaret (Diane Mahree), and young daughter Debbie, drive to their rendezvous with fate…and drive…and drive. The Robots start to fret, wondering if possibly this time Forrester is going to make them watch a snuff film. Finally a missed turn along a side road which seems signposted as the way to Valley Lodge (or “Valley Looge” as Joel misreads the poorly painted prop sign) brings them instead to a remote house overseen by Torgo, who mumbles uncertainly about not wanting to upset the Master (Tom Neyman).
This sequence highlights both the dire lacks of Warren’s film, and the singular inspiration of the MST3K team, as the watching trio make up dialogue for the characters that is both very funny and yet makes much more hay out of the ludicrous situation unfolding on screen than the script ever did. The spectacle of the family trying to negotiate Torgo’s physical strangeness and incoherent mix of warning and greasy hospitality is newly inflected with surreal politeness (“You got family, Torgo?”) and sarcasm (“So what does the Master approve?”), which, ironically, combine to make the scene feel much more…well, realistic—suddenly the characters have depth and pathos, as well as even deeper strangeness. Torgo himself—described initially by Servo as “Tom Cruise is Dr. John!” like a pitch for some ridiculous, yet alarmingly possible, musical biopic—is frustrated with his master for hogging all the women who fall into their trap, and leers over Margaret when he gets her alone, a liberty she’s appalled by in spite of the fact he’s slightly more attractive than her husband. The family dog runs outside and is later found mauled to death, and then Debbie disappears, prompting a search that brings the family closer to the shrine where the priest and his wives sleep. Quite a lot of MST3K’s comic style was attuned to mocking lazy exposition and cheap directorial tricks, but “Manos” offers a challenge in that regard, considering that Warren seems barely aware of any directorial tricks. A rare instance is a clumsy flashcut between the sight of the Master and his previously glimpsed portrait back in the house: “Ooooooh I get it,” Servo murmurs sarcastically in response.
Otherwise Warren’s lack of technique provides plentiful fuel for unforgiving ridicule. For example, Warren offers a long, boring, opening travel montage without quite seeming to understand the purpose of such montages is to compress the experience, not fill screen time—Hitchcock’s maxim of film being life with the boring parts cut out is numbingly forgotten. When two local cops pull over the family, Joel gives them the line, “Do you guys have any idea how you was framin’ back there?” A peculiar quality of “Manos” is that it almost seems to boil some generic basic of the era down to a pure essence, in a sort of revelatory, inadvertently satirical coup, encompassing a portrait of square ’60s suburbanites trapped in an existential crisis. Mike’s utter insensibility to any sort of caution and constant pig-headed patronisation is balanced by his being completely wrong and ineffectual all the time (“When is this guy going to start showing some simple competence?” Joel demands in exasperation when Mike can’t get his car started), and Margaret’s attitude is one of fretful anxiety and febrile passivity. At one stage, she gets grossly pawed by Torgo, whom she’s taller than and could probably push over with a sneeze considering his lousy satyr’s balance, but she shrinks back in torpid fear.
Another great MST3K trait was their capacity to rip fragments out of films and drop them into different genres, here perhaps best illustrated in a moment when Margaret combs her hair with a glazed and nervous aspect, and the riffs transform it into a musical: “Torgo, I just met a guy named Torgo!” Servo sings to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story, whilst Joel gives her the line, as if we’re in a wistful romance, “Mrs. Phyllis Torgo…guess I kind of like it.” The trio are often at their best when making fun of movie music, and they eat the score of this film alive, filled as it is with long, haunting flute solos that sound like they’ve been stolen from some sensitive indie film about wandering homeless children (“It’s Herbie Mann-os!”), interspersed with dreadful jazzy lounge singing and hideous dance-pop.
There’s a sort of subplot with barely a hair’s relationship to anything in the rest of the movie that involves two teens in a convertible constantly making out and being harassed by the cops: they do serve a function of alerting the audience to the doom the family is heading into and alerting the cops to their peril. But really, the kissers are just there to kiss. “Manos”’s sleazy aspect, complete with intimations of paedophilia in the final twist, is pronounced throughout even as the film displays no idea of how to make it count for anything sexy or unnerving; instead, it is icing on the cake for the whole film’s rankness. “I’m guessing this why this whole movie was made,” Servo says during the catfight scene, whilst Crow, as one of the wives slaps hell out of the other, inserts a little Chinatown reference, “She’s my sister and my daughter!”, perhaps my favourite moment of the episode. Another is when we get our first glimpse of the Master’s crypt, which bears an odd resemblance to a bad variety club act, emphasised by the rattling drum and cymbal music. Here the MST3K team’s well of cultural references and habit of projecting them into the movies blends perfectly with the editing of the film, as Servo adopts the voice of an announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight at the Copacabana, Jules Podell proudly presents…Pat Benatar and Tricia Nixon!”
The “Manos” episode is also a prime, if not quite the best, example of MST3K’s host comedy sketches interpolated throughout, with the usually gleeful Forrester and Frank each apologising in turn for going too far for making the crew watch this movie. The increasingly distraught, exasperated robots and Joel try to turn lemons into lemonade by mocking the driving scenes in adopting the persona of a Minnesota Swede and his family enjoying the scenery with “bemused interest” and being harassed by a southern sheriff caricature, but the robots are so nauseated by the footage from the film they can’t finish the sketch. The episode ends with Forrester and Frank ordering pizza, which is delivered by Torgo himself (played by future host Mike Nelson) in his ponderously icky fashion.
To fill out the episode owing to the short running time of “Manos”, it starts with part of an old Chevrolet sales-training film Hired, a bleakly tacky and hectoring piece of work about a senior company salesman complaining to his father about his lazy underlings, but being convinced by his father to put real effort into training them. The trio’s riffing on Hired beautifully draws out the quasi-fascistic edge in the short’s theme, acting, and style, presenting Chevrolet salesmanship as a pseudo-military operation requiring deep commitment and utter perfection of technique, capturing in its way how American big business tried to transfer the ethos of military service into civilian life after WWII. The leading salesman’s gruff advice is rounded out by Crow’s adding, “Name names!” whilst Joel has another ask, “Are you now or have you ever been a Ford owner?” Hired might, in its way, showcase the felicitous sensibility of the MST3K team even more perfectly than “Manos”. As for Warren, I have no idea whether he ever collected his bet from Silliphant, but thankfully, he never made another movie.
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Directors: Alistair Reed/Pierre Gang
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Well before Newsweek declared in June 1986 that it was more unlikely for an unmarried 40-year-old woman to get a husband than to be killed by a terrorist, writer Armistead Maupin struck a nerve with San Francisco’s unmarried women—and a lot of other people—with his portrait of the city’s romantic scene. What became Maupin’s first novel, Tales of the City, started showing up in serialized form, first in 1974 in The Pacific Sun newspaper, and then switching to The San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, exposing the general readership of these papers to the travails of heterosexual women in a city teeming with gay residents, as well as the way various factions in the city lived, loved, and interacted. In much the same way as Maupin’s series and eventual eight books opened a few eyes in their fun and offbeat way, the two miniseries based on his work created a minor earthquake for people like me with little or no exposure to gay life or San Francisco social customs.
In many ways, Tales of the City and its sequel tell a pretty familiar story about the search for love. Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney, in the first role I and many other people ever saw her play) is a fresh-faced young woman from Cleveland who decides to make her vacation in San Francisco permanent. She feels at home in San Francisco, she tells her flabbergasted mother over the phone, though it’s fairly obvious that she’s been seduced by its spectacular scenery and laissez-faire atmosphere that are worlds away from her home in the American heartland. She takes up her asterisk-flowered luggage and bunks in with Connie (Parker Posey), an old friend from high school who is singularly dedicated to finding her sexual identity by reading self-help books and smutty magazines and picking up men at discos and the grocery store. After seeing Connie bring home a man she herself had rejected, Mary Ann starts looking for a new apartment. A distinctive classified draws her to 28 Barbary Lane, a courtyard building on Russian Hill that looks like an idyllic land that time forgot. She quickly becomes the newest member of the small “family” headed by flamboyant landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) who welcomes each new tenant with a joint made from the marijuana she grows in her garden.
28 Barbary Lane forms the heart of the intersecting stories that have Mrs. Madrigal and her low-rent tenants—hippie fag hag Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb in the first series, Nina Siemaszko in the second), gay looking-for-love Michael Tolliver (Marcus D’Amico/Paul Hopkins), womanizer Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross/Whip Hubley), and Mary Ann—bumping into the lives of the high-rent Halcyon/Day households. Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) runs an ad agency, employing Mona as a copywriter and hiring Mary Ann as his secretary on Mona’s recommendation. His son-in-law Beauchamp (pronounced Beechum) Day (Thomas Gibson) is a selfish lout who seduces and dumps Mary Ann over a weekend, much to his wife DeDe’s (Barbara Garrick) dismay, and has a one-night stand with Michael’s boyfriend Jon Fielding (Bill Campbell) in the gay baths. DeDe consoles herself in the arms of Lionel Wong (Philip Moon), the son of her Chinese grocer who delivers; Mona leaves Michael, who moved in with her after he moved out of his former lover’s apartment, and returns for financial security and a platonic relationship to her rich lesbian lover D’orothea Wilson (Cynda Williams/Francoise Robertson), who models for the Halcyon agency; Mary Ann, who tried to pick up Michael’s first lover at the grocery store, doesn’t find love until the second series, and then it’s with an amnesiac named Burke (Colin Ferguson) who throws up every time he sees roses; and Michael and Jon break up and make up. Most important, Edgar and Anna find true love together in the last six months of Edgar’s life, a love that endures even after Anna tells Edgar that she is a transsexual who grew up in the brothel where Edgar lost his virginity, and that Mona is her daughter.
Got all that?
Of all the big cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, San Francisco is the one that seems most like a small town, or series of small towns all planted side by side on its hilly streets, open for some neighborly snooping through a pair of binoculars (which Brian and a party of gay men indulge in during the second series). Being a port city and a jewel on the magnetic California coast, it is also a place of transience. Tales of the City emphasizes not only San Francisco’s small-town incestuousness, but also the reinvention that California offers its teeming masses. Every type of sexual arrangement is explored, and the nontraditional ones appear to breed more stable, happy people than the socially accepted ones.
The people who seem most trapped and unhappy are those who play by society’s rules: DeDe’s wealth screws her into a socket of social propriety that has her a virtual prisoner of public opinion and her unhappy marriage; her mother Frannie, strikingly played by Nina Foch in the first series and pallidly by Diana Leblanc in the second, is so in her cups she doesn’t notice that her husband has fallen in love with someone else. Frannie escapes in the second series, where her drinking is drastically downplayed and her freedom to enjoy her life and money doesn’t come until she turns 60 and is eligible to join another very exclusive club for women exploring their hedonist side. It seems telling to me that this club, called Pinus (hardy har har), implies that these women who have married, raised families, and volunteered for all the right charities have long ago left behind pampering and sexual fulfillment—all the things Pinus’ stock of handsome, well-built young men will offer them for a price.
Maupin is, in fact, rather unkind to women in this series. Mona goes postal on a client selling pantyhose, loses her job, and then basically becomes completely lost. She is very close to Michael (“Mouse”), but leaves him with hardly a by-your-leave, refuses to have sex with D’orothea and leaves her, too, and then just leaves. A random encounter—again fated in the stars by a Maupin coincidence—puts her in company of her grandmother, “Mother Mucca” (Jackie Burroughs), madam of the Blue Moon brothel in Winnamucca, Nevada, and eventually, the entire Ramsey family ends up in or near Barbary Lane. Mona’s vengeful mother Betty (Swoosie Kurtz) comes to see her estranged daughter and blackmail her husband, and is instead sent packing to avoid a scandal. Mary Ann is ill-treated by Beauchamp—who seems to be the biggest douche of all because he plays both sides of the fence and loves no one but himself—and lets her dreamboat Burke go off to New York without her because she is unwilling to leave her cozy family at Barbary Lane. And DeDe and her new love, D’orothea go off to a place where, D’orothea says, “there are no strangers”—Jonestown.
Brian was potentially the most interesting character to me. A hetero man who dropped off his fast track to success as a lawyer and became first a professional protester (“I was at Wounded Knee.”) and then just a guy waking up with a different woman every morning, he seems to be a pretty typical representative of straight guys in San Francisco, at least as imagined/observed by Armistead Maupin and his love-starved hetero women. Paul Gross played Brian with a real complexity—acting like a complete jerk and revealing his serious-minded background as something of a dark secret. By contrast, Whip Hubley is Mr. Nice Guy through and through and made me completely lose interest in this rather dark character. His story line in the second series seems cheap and facile while trying to follow Anna’s advice to find a nice girl to be sincere with.
Michael is mainly an unemployed and unpretentious guy from Florida who has a hard time with self-esteem. He is the entry point to gay culture for the rest of us, using gay slang and generally being sweet and romantic. I liked Marcus D’Amico a bit better in the role because he wasn’t so pretty and he seemed less affected, but Paul Hopkins was a close second. Mary Ann becomes his fag hag in the second series, but I missed his intimacy with Mona as played by the intriguing Chloe Webb. Linney’s affection for him just seemed a little too big. In fact, most things about her character and performance seemed too everything—too naïve, too flamboyant, too understanding—and I put this down mainly to the writing. I don’t feel Maupin or his fellow screenwriters had a real understanding of this character, and if Linney didn’t look so much the part and try so hard to fill her with a bit of depth, Mary Ann might have been a complete misfire.
If this series belongs to anyone, it is Olympia Dukakis. This may be her best role, and I hope I won’t insult her by saying that she looks as though she could have been a man at one point in her life. This androgyny helps make Anna a very believable character physically, but obviously, her performance goes deeper. Her life as a man surfaces in her response to situations, but her mother hen routine is strongly felt. I sensed right through the TV screen the atmosphere of home she created in the almost enchanted setting of 28 Barbary Lane. Her love affair with Edgar develops beautifully, the only love story in this series that really touched my soul for its maturity and depth. When Edgar dies, I actually believed that Anna could sense the moment it happened. Of course, the asshole Anna admitted to being when she was Andy comes through, too. She has a genuine panic attack when she fears Betty will destroy her family, and it is this possessive love that has made her tenants prisoners in their haven. None of them is truly gainfully employed, emotionally committed to anyone but each other, or looking to fulfill any dream but being part of a family—and how much of that is generated by Anna’s dream, one wonders. Ultimately, this is kind of a sad story.
As a series, I prefer the first part for its greater emotional intimacy, particularly as generated by Dukakis and the great Donald Moffat. I preferred the gritty cinematography of Walt Lloyd in the first series to the slick, brightly colored work of Serge Ladoucer. Some scenes as shot by Lloyd were atmospheric and chilling, such as when Jon is cruising silently through the steam of the baths or the raucousness and competitiveness in the End Up Club, where Michael enters a dance contest to win money to pay the rent. The first series also attracted quite a few major celebrities, from Moffat and Foch to Karen Black, Bob Mackie, Paul Dooley, and Rod Steiger. I thought it was hilarious that everyone was watching “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,”—a favorite of mine and apparently of the entire gay community—only to have Mary Kay Place, a star of that late-night soap opera, appear in a small part as the leader of a topical ladies luncheon whose subject of the month was their personal experience of rape. The second series had fewer surprise guest stars (perhaps because it was filmed largely in Canada instead of California) though Swoosie Kurtz whipped out a terrific performance from a cliché-ridden and brief part. Both series indulged in a cloak-and-dagger mystery, but only the first series made use of the Northern California setting to evoke Hitchcockian suspense. The latter series simply devolved into silliness that left me cold. But then, the warmth of the free-love culture San Francisco represented to the world was about to give way to the horrors of AIDS, and the tender mercies of Tales of the City could no longer make sense.
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Directors: Ronnie Yu and David Wu
By Roderick Heath
Yusheng Liang, who died in 2009, is credited as one of the writers who modernised the wu xia novel, the imperishably popular Chinese mythological pulp genre. One of his most iconic works, The Bride with White Hair (1958), has been adapted several times for the big and small screens, but never more famously than with the two-part epic made by Ronnie Yu and David Wu, who split directorial duties but shared writing credits on both films. Both directors parlayed their success with this movie into disappointing Hollywood careers, but The Bride with White Hair diptych is one of the most eye-catching and dramatically inventive examples of the evolving modern Hong Kong genre cinema. It was made when the classic wire-fu style defined by directors like King Hu and Tsui Hark had not yet been corrupted by CGI, but it is vividly modern in other respects. The aesthetics of the Hong Kong genre school both recall Hollywood’s all-but-lost enthusiasm for raw storytelling and cinematic action panache, whilst retaining its own peculiarities, and The Bride with White Hair pushed the boundaries of the school. Its relatively unsheathed erotic edge and its modern thematic concerns pick at the surface the generic conceits and traditional assumptions, and present wild variations on its central issue of masculinity and femininity in fatal conflict.
The Bride with White Hair’s unusual structure offers a prologue that depicts a party of Imperial soldiers travelling to a distant, enchanted mountain where they’ve heard grows a rare flower with amazing healing properties that blooms only once every 10 years. They need the flowers to cure the Emperor’s health, but when they reach the peak, they’re astounded to find a man seated in the billowing snow, watching over the flowers. He slaughters them, declaring that there is only one person the flowers are for. This guardian is Zhuo Yihang, whose life story is recounted in flashback.
Zhuo was an orphan adopted into and raised with the values and fighting techniques of the Wu-Tang clan, one of eight syndicated sects that form the Chung Yuan. Zhuo proved to be a problematic student because of his innate individualism and discomfort with a life lived according to strict hierarchies, but he was also clearly the most talented. In spite of the efforts of one of the teachers, Bai Yun (Law Lok-lam), to promote his daughter Ho Lu-Hua (Yammie Lam) as a potential chieftain for the Wu-Tang, Zhuo, after clearing himself of charges of assault and battery against some young men from rival clans, is nominated to lead a coalition of their forces against the forces of Ji Wushuang. This enemy gang is named after its leaders, conjoined male and female twins (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) who are evil sorcerers, once expelled from China by the Chung Yuan clans. Now the twins have returned at the head of a cult of followers who practice human sacrifice and erotic rituals.
Their chief warrior and strong right fist is the whip-wielding Devil Wolf Girl (Brigitte Lin), so dubbed because she was raised from infancy by wolves and retained a devilish relish for battle after being trained in the deadly arts by Ji. But Zhuo, seeing her at war, remembers her when she was still living with the wolves and playing her pipe under the moonlight. He tracks her down after a battle to a ruined city where she bathes in a sacred spring. In spite of her fury at his intransigence, she has to return to her overlord before she can kill him. Such a sequence has echoes through to Western mythology, like the tale of Artemis and Actaeon, with its coded relationship of voyeurism and the inviolable female space. Later, when the Chung Yuan army advances into Wushuang’s territory, Lian and the cultists ambush the coalition encampment, and she and Zhuo square off. Zhuo challenges her to a weaponless fight, but Lian is struck by an arrow shot by Lu-Hua, and Zhuo protectively rushes her away to the ancient city, where he helps her recover and becomes her lover. He gives her the name Lian Nichang, and during his absence, he’s written off as a traitor by the clans. The male Ji Wushuang desperately desires Nichang, and is stoked to heights of jealousy; when she returns to the cult to ask for release so she can live with Zhuo, the male insists she sleep with him first. When she fails to please him, she’s forced to undergo a punishing ritual humiliation.
The Bride with White Hair films share common traits with Hong Kong cinema, from the style of humour and character interaction that seem distinctly more naïve than what we’re used to in Western cinema, to the fluent, utterly confident sense of storytelling that seems at once beautifully simple and irreducibly sophisticated, moving at a pace that forces the viewer to keep up. Both episodes soar to rare heights of stoked emotion and drenched décor effects, but it’s the way their inflated set-pieces revolve around metaphorical versions of everyday travails that really drives them. It’s most marked in Nichang’s singular insistence that Zhuo trust her, a key component of any adult relationship, made here to hinge on an act of mass murder and magical shape-shifting. But likewise, Zhuo’s chafing against the authoritarianism and clannish narrowness of Chung Yuan life evokes any kind of discomfort in imposed social roles.
Yu was most interested in taking a Romeo and Juliet angle on Yusheng’s novel, emphasising its heroes as struggling with the deterministic forces that have created them. Throughout the two films also flows a richly transformative investigation into extreme visions of gender conflict and emotional violence. Nichang, in particular, lives on a balancing point between transcendent epiphany and infernal rage in the first film, linked to the natural world and primal forces, whereas fellow orphan Zhuo is associated with human, hierarchical society and its entrapping concepts. But both are characterised as exceptional rebels who cause terrible destruction because of their wayward identities. In the sequel, Nichang relentlessly pummels a young woman almost to death to save her the lesson never to trust a man. The conjoined male and female villains of the first film, who, with their magic powers, can beat up people without touching them, also embody the story’s twisted take on heterosexual relations, and add immeasurably to the perversity and drama of the action. The his/her arguments between the twins, sister perpetually mocking her brother for his agonised lust for Nichang, which proves to be their Achilles’ heel, builds to the amazingly pathological images of the brother stabbing his own arm in masochistic frustration, the sister screaming and begging him to stop, and later, when he’s trying to have sex with a willfully passionless Nichang, his sister, “lying” on his back mocking him, building to eruptive frustration that causes him to smash Nichang’s head repeatedly against the bed frame. It’s the sort of scene where you wonder why David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven didn’t come up with it first.
Dashes of Spielbergian ambition dot The Bride with White Hair’s visual texture, with the Indian styling of Ji’s infernal cult, massed in a chanting relish of evil, suggesting the influence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), as well as a hint of Bollywood flavouring. But with its colour-drenched frames, dramatically tilted camera angles, and the eerily beautiful, yet lightning-paced images of the warriors bounding through fog-shrouded forests, Yu, like Johnny To’s wild The Heroic Trio from the same year, effectively synthesises Hollywood high style with the traditional effects of wu xia cinema. Yu also employs a headlong rush of narrative clearly learnt from Tsui Hark, and he’s not terribly interested in developing with clarity a political subplot involving General Wu San-Kuei (Eddy Ko), an officer Zhuo had known since childhood who sets out to become Emperor, adding to a slightly diffuse quality to the narrative that is the film’s biggest fault. But the blend of fantasy imagery, and a coherent use of that imagery’s protean possibilities for investigating complex aspects of the psyche, help the film earn comparison with the classical mythology it evokes.
The blend of the utterly fantastic and the emotionally overwrought builds to two brilliant sequences. The gauntlet Nichang has to walk in leaving Ji’s cult sees her walking upon hot coals, and shards of jagged glass while being mercilessly beaten by the cultists. She emerges, bloodied and near collapse, but still manages enough pride and power to walk out. But when she returns to the ancient city, she finds Zhuo has left. Fellow members of the Wu-Tang, including Lu-Hua, have tracked him down and convinced him to return to explain himself to the head priest, but on arrival, they find the other Wu-Tang have all been massacred, the head priest’s severed head dangling from the ceiling, and one wounded man reporting that the Wolf Girl attacked them. When Nichang arrives looking for Zhuo, the remnants of the cult attack her, and even Zhuo believes she’s guilty thanks to the dying man’s testimony. Nichang is deeply offended and heartbroken at the distrust, especially after what she’s been through for Zhuo, and when Lu-Hua manages to stab her with a sword, rather than dying, she’s transmogrified into a white-haired demon. She skewers Lu-Hua with a sword, tears off her red wedding gown to reveal a white one, and slaughters the rest of the Wu-Tang in a supernatural fury. The first massacre proves to have been the work of Ji, having used their power to assume Nichang’s form, and she and Zhuo join forces long enough to slice the evil sorcerer in half, allowing the male to release a sigh of relief before dying: “Such a relief to sleep this way!”
Yu’s film concludes on a bravely unresolved note with the haunted Zhuo on his mountaintop vigil, transfixed by his failures, and Nichang having disappeared into the underworld, now a spirit of purified wrath. Wu’s follow-up takes the story well beyond the limits of Yusheng’s novel: it’s 10 years later, and Zhou continues his vigil as the time of the flower’s blooming comes near. The Wu-Tang is struggling to rebuild after the massacre, but Nichang has entirely embraced her dark side and is relentlessly killing off all the sects of the Chung Yuan. The Wu-Tang tradition has come down to its last heir, Fung Chun-Kit (Sunny Chan), who’s marrying Yu Qin or “Lyre” (Joey Mann), daughter of another clan, taking the risk of incurring Nichang’s wrathful efforts to destroy all marriages within the clan. The image of the severed Ji twins presages a theme developed here of gender war, as Nichang has become a declared misanthropist, saving wronged and dishonoured women and bringing them into her cult, including her chief henchwoman and crypto-lesbian lover Chen Yuanyuan (Ruth Winona Tao), inculcating them with powers to become ruthless killers whilst giving them each a taste of revenge on their specific male abusers. On Kit and Lyre’s wedding night, Nichang breaks into the temple and savagely beats the couple, but when one of Feng’s friends manages to help him escape, Nichang spirits Ling to her hidden fortress and brainwashes her into becoming a psychotic assassin of men. Feng is nursed back to health by tomboy Wu-Tang adherent Moon (Christy Chung), who’s in love with him and sad that he married Ling, but sets out with him and a band of other young Chung Yuan warriors to seek out and storm Nichang’s fortress.
Wu’s half of the story presents several mirroring images of both the first film’s characters and their travails: where Zhuo and Nichang’s schism was something they tried to resolve in spite of their disparate worlds, Kit and Ling’s split is artificially imposed. The original’s core love triangle is reconfigured into a proliferation of grazing, inchoate relationships. Moon pines for Kit and is admired in turn by his determined but less good-looking fellow warrior Liu Hang (Richard Suen), who proves nonetheless a determined and able helpmate. Moon, with her mannish affectations—she’s seen constantly chewing on a cigarette—but thoroughly heterosexual ambitions stand in contrast to the cult Nichang runs with her collective of female assassins and their hideout’s air of lush sensuality. The clan warriors are placed under the command of the aged “Granny” of the Au Mei clan (Lily Chung), whose own mane of white hair sees her momentarily mistaken for the witch when she comes to take command. Moon fires off arrows at her, but she’s so good, she catches the arrows between her teeth. She’s also a disarmingly unaffected, calm, and wise person who prefers acting in defence and delegates to Kit when the time to attack arrives. Nichang in her transmogrified witch state can throw out her long white hair in tentacle-like coils that pierce the skin and drip poison. Moon is riddled with strands of the hair, and she’s left on death’s door, forbidden from attempting any kung fu; but she still leaps into the fray to save her friends with tragic results.
A lot of credit for the heft of the films is owed to its terrific pairing of Cheung and Lin, two of the best actors in Hong Kong cinema (though Cheung’s contribution to the second film is disappointingly brief), and especially Lin, who commands the films like an empress. They both considerably overshadow the younger actors in the sequel. There’s a touch of tribute to John Carpenter as the languorous, suggestive sequences of Lyre being ritually subsumed into the cult by Chen Yuanyuan echo the similar scenes of heroines in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), whilst the scene in which Kit dances before his wedding, blindfolded and playing a lyre given as a wedding present, has a quality similar to the rapturous little touches with which Zhang Yimou would decorate his wu xia films. After one fight scene, Wu cuts to observe the glittering drops of a slain man’s blood drip from the fronds of a silvery bush, a poetic flourish of a kind that dots both films, and it’s worth noting the intensity of the design element to the films, with the great costume design by Emi Wada and the set decoration, especially in the recurring contrast between the livid whiteness of Nichang and setting rendered either in red, the same as the red blood that spits out of so many bodies, or rich nocturnal blue. Wu, a long-time editor who also served in that capacity on the first episode, offers direction slightly more prosaic than Yu’s, and the initial Seven Samurai-like story set-up more familiar, failing to ruffle the settled rhythms and naïve humour of the genre as much.
But the story arc again echoes with fidelity a familiar mythic tale, and proceeds with wildly eccentric energy, building to even more floridly grandiose climaxes. When the Chung Yuan war party is all but wiped out infiltrating Nichang’s citadel, Kit and Liu are advised by Granny to seek out Zhuo Yuhang, as she’s one of the few who knows where’s he’s been hiding all these years. Wu obfuscates whether they find him in the chilly extremes of the sacred mountain, cutting from them stumbling away in a blizzard with Zhou watching them from his pinnacle, to the determined young duo deciding to attack the fortress again with planted explosives. It’s in the last few minutes that Wu’s installment goes for broke as his heroes give battle, Lei dying in combat with one of female cultists, dynamiting both himself and her after giving her a kiss to show her what a “real man” is like, and Zhuo turning up in time to forestall Nichang from killing Kit and Lyre. The confrontation of the two former lovers, long delayed, pays off in the delirious image of Zhuo, once again dropping his arms before Nichang, being skewered by her long tendrils of hair, proffering the magical flowers that get burnt to a crisp by a falling cinder. Zhuo’s proof of his still-smouldering ardour and contrition brings Nichang back from a homicidal rage, only to gain a sword in the back from the jealous Chen Yuanyuan, and all three die as the fortress falls flaming about their ears. It’s the sort of giddy, Wagnerian climax that one so often expects from fantasy-action tales, but so rarely gets.
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Director: Francis Ford Coppola
By Roderick Heath
Bram Stoker’s most famous creation has retained his culturally iconic status largely because of the many fascinatingly varied cinematic takes on the sanguinary Count. His story invites inventive interpretation, with underpinnings that are intrinsically mythic and psychologically primal, yet parsed by modern processes of rational investigation and juxtaposed realism. It’s also expressively bound up with the transformations just beginning to afflict Western society when Stoker published the work. These different tensions within the tale need only be tweaked slightly in any direction to change it comprehensively. Look at the films, and the artistic and cultural traditions therein, evolved from this work. F. W. Murnau offered a Germanic, Death-and-the-Maiden take in his expressionistic Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1921). Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) conjured a high-gothic, dreamlike world that belittled the neurotic repression of its heroes and offered the suavest of vampire overlords. Terence Fisher’s rip-roaring, ironically realistic Dracula (1958) stripped things down to basics and portrayed invasive sexuality afflicting the uptight bourgeoisie. Werner Herzog’s epic recasting of Murnau’s template with Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), delved even deeper to create a medieval-flavoured folk myth. Various interesting TV takes in the 1970s tried to stick close to the novel and draw out its literary intricacy, whilst John Badham’s 1979 version offered Frank Langella as a romance-novel antihero. Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) was a blend of dance and illustrative fantasia.
All of these versions have fans and several have a claim to greatness. Francis Ford Coppola took his chances in the early ’90s, and it paid off for him, at least in the short-term. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was his last popular hit to date, and it’s still held in fond regard by a lot of younger movie fans, largely because of the magical nexus of Gen-X icon Winona Ryder and a swooning version of the tale perfect for the burgeoning teen Goth subculture. Coppola had begun his directorial career with horror films, including his uncredited work on The Terror and his mainstream debut, Dementia 13 (1963), under the aegis of Roger Corman, so he knew his way around the genre. Being a young horror fan and movie buff at the time, the promise of Coppola making a Dracula film was exciting to the deepest parts of my anatomy. And yet the result was a disappointment so severe that I’ve never quite shaken it off in estimating my opinion of Coppola. I’ve only returned to it again a couple of times in the nearly two decades that have passed since its release. I generally feel Coppola’s post-Apocalypse Now work is badly underappreciated, particularly One from the Heart (1981), Rumblefish (1983), The Cotton Club (1984), and The Godfather Part III (1990). And yet Bram Stoker’s Dracula is definite proof of many of the worst things said about Coppola in those waning days: that he was only interested in style, and that his care with the human element was gone.
The initial selling point of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (hence the title) is the nominal notion that it’s a more accurate adaptation of Stoker than usual. It does restore many elements from the novel, from some of Stoker’s surprisingly potent horror, like Dracula’s feeding a child to his coterie of vampire femmes, to supporting characters like the gallant American Quincey Morris. And yet the possessive title starts to seem more than a bit laughable, because Coppola’s and screenwriter James V. Hart’s own digressions, though different from Murnau’s, are just as great. Conceptually, Coppola’s version is epic, and that is this film’s most resilient quality. Other versions reduce Dracula to a kind of rogue seducer and rodent-like survivor, but Coppola aims to flesh out Stoker’s hinted, if never quite fulfilled, portrait of Dracula as a titan with control over men and elements, a fallen king who only needs a foothold to commence an unparalleled reign of terror. Like other more recent versions, Bram Stoker’s Dracula conflates the historical inspiration for Stoker’s story by commencing with a stylised flashback to Vlad III “The Impaler” (Gary Oldman) fighting for the survival of Christianity against the Turks.
Vlad wins, only for his beloved wife Elisabeta (Winona Ryder) to commit suicide after a false message declaring his death is shot by arrow into the castle by his enemies. Returning home to her body, Vlad is enraged when the officiating priest (Anthony Hopkins) won’t give the sacrament of extreme unction to a suicide, and he declares a vow against God, stabbing the crucifix in his castle’s abbey and drinking the blood that pours forth from it. Four centuries later, young lawyer Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is commissioned by his boss to replace his predecessor, the now mad and incarcerated Renfield (Tom Waits), to travel to Transylvania and arrange for the decrepit, bizarre Count Dracula to move to London. Of course, after sealing the deal with the Count, Harker is left stranded in Dracula’s castle at the mercy of his vampire brides. Dracula hits the shores of England and quickly sets sights on Harker’s young fiancée Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray (Ryder again) and her saucier friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost). Lucy’s triumvirate of suitors, Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), and Morris (Bill Campbell), dismayed at Lucy’s afflicted state, call in Seward’s mentor on obscure illnesses and arcane things, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Hopkins again) to advise. He quickly diagnoses vampirism. The cure? More stake in her diet.
Whilst what follows traces the outlines of Stoker’s tale, Coppola’s wild cinematic flourishes quickly swing far away from the oneiric, creeping menace of the novel. So, too, does Hart’s addition of a new element—Mina is not just another target for Dracula’s attentions, but the reincarnation of Elisabeta, for whom Dracula hungers like the world’s oldest lovesick teenager. This notion essentially cuts against the grain of Stoker’s story, which is about rapacious, eruptive sexuality, and the way it subordinates conscious social constructs, not transcendent amorous attachment. Meanwhile, Coppola attempted to prove on multiple levels how hip he was, stirring the pot with relentless visual artifice, film references, MTV crowd casting, and subtext-ransacking figurations. Coppola set out not merely to make an effective horror movie, but to make every horror movie. His film contains direct visual quotes from Nosferatu, both Browning’s and Fisher’s Dracula, as well as The Cat and the Canary (1927), Faust (1926), Vampyr (1931), White Zombie (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), La Belle et la Bête (1946), Wolfen (1981), The Exorcist (1973), and The Shining (1980). The new central story motif comes from Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932). The kinkier elements take clear licence from the ’70s semi-underground horror of Jean Rollin and Jésus Franco, and the deliberately po-faced mixture of mockery and erotic exploration in early scenes between Mina and Lucy resemble Ken Russell’s similarly artificial, anarchic take on Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm (1987).
But Russell’s film, less refined and expensive, is nonetheless rather better, largely because it was a pure product of Russell’s unique sensibility, whereas Coppola here is mixing and matching like a half-interested DJ. There are signs he felt an essential empathy for Dracula as a tragic villain not so far from Michael Corleone and Colonel Kurtz, but the way this is handled saps the story’s intensity and excitement. White Worm also had a strongly focused lead performance by Amanda Donohoe as a Tory bitch-goddess, whereas here Oldman as Dracula seems completely at a loss in presenting a singular characterisation when the story and style seem set on sabotaging him. The seriously fragmented impression he leaves is exacerbated by Coppola’s giddy presentations of his various guises. Dracula is, successively, a flowing-locked cavalier, a withered, ludicrously attired old drag queen, an Oscar Wilde-ish dandy, and various forms of monster. Coppola embellishes on the way Dracula ages in reverse in the novel, but he neglects to give connections and explanations for a lot of his changing guises, and Oldman’s characterisation changes with each, offering grossly hammy flourishes, particularly in the first third. Coppola makes the Count and his environment so archly bizarre it’s a wonder Harker doesn’t run off screaming at first sight, and the film’s early portions offered a wealth of material to satirists, from Dracula’s independently gesturing shadow to his amusing hairdo, which the likes of Mel Brooks and The Simpsons have since made a meal of. Within moments of arriving, Dracula is waving a sword at Harker and ranting, lapping Harker’s blood off his razor blade, and delivering the famous “children of the night” with overblown camp relish. Indeed, whilst Coppola’s editing, special effects, and camerawork are all remarkably energetic, on closer inspection, it’s hard to miss how flatly and poorly directed most of the interpersonal scenes are. Then again, there’s only so much anyone can do with dialogue like this:
Mina: Can a man and a woman really do that?
Lucy: I did only last night!
Mina: Fibber! No you did not!
Lucy: Yes I did…well only in my dreams. Jonathan measures up, doesn’t he?
What is this, Carry On Dracula? Coppola aims straightforwardly to explicate the coded sexual elements in the novel. Dracula’s brides are pure carnal fantasy, sucking Harker’s blood and bodily appendages. Lucy, rather more the flirt in the book than the prim Mina, is here completely reconfigured into a budding tart happy to toy with her three suitors whilst pining for sexual acrobatics, giggling and wondering with Mina over the ancient erotic Oriental illustrations in Richard Burton’s translation of Arabian Nights. How exactly two well-brought-up young ladies got hold of such outré material isn’t made explicit, but it is a cunning introduction to the peculiar way the Victorians vicariously partook of erotica through the mystique of the historic and the Orient. When Dracula arrives on English shores in wolf form, he makes directly for Lucy’s house and bangs her in werewolf form in her garden, after she and Mina have been dancing in the rain and kissing in overripe ecstatics. Theoretically, this should be tremendously cogent and subversive in the fashion of some of the originators of the erotic horror style, but instead it mostly comes across as try-hard. A real problem is that Coppola goes to no effort at all to invoke a proper sense of repression and reaction, as Fisher, in particular, realised so beautifully. Coppola’s all-encompassing stylisation, which at many points starts to resemble a Dracula-themed video clip, numbs the narrative imperatives. Seward and Van Helsing are reduced to druggie weirdoes as crazy as anyone they treat. Seward is even seen injecting morphine, and his asylum suggests Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade crossbred with the pastiche of Terry Gilliam.
Like Basic Instinct, with which it shared a high-water mark in mainstream Hollywood’s embrace of the adult in 1992, there’s something amazingly asexual about the sexiness on screen, with Frost’s Lucy lolling on a bed with her boobs constantly falling out leaving a desultory flavour. Amongst Coppola’s fragments of visual rhapsody, bobbing corpuscles are a frequent motif, perhaps underlining why some thought of the film as a metaphor for AIDS, especially with the tale as sexed-up as this. Most crucially, placing a sentimentalised love story at the story’s heart basically smothers the erotic anarchism in the cradle. The clear dichotomy here, between Dracula’s predatory intentions and exploitation of Lucy’s desires to make her a ready victim, and his wanting to win over Mina through more traditional romantic means, is silly on several levels. After a meet-cute on the street, he’s giving Mina candlelit dinners, encouraging her to cuddle a white wolf, and swapping heavy sighs. This mocks the film’s own provocations by reducing the matters at stake to a lust-vs-love dynamic. When the time comes for the text’s key moment of Mina drinking Dracula’s blood from his chest, which is supposed to possess a queasy mixture of coercion and forbidden indulgence, Dracula gets all conscientious: “No, I do not vant dis!” he declares, against the grain of everything the character stands for, only for Mina to insistently drink, with Oldman contorting as if receiving the world’s greatest blow job. Secondly, there’s no subsequent substance, hysteria, or passion to the tug-of-war between Dracula and Harker for Mina’s affection, as Coppola rushes through the latter stages of the story, and never achieves the kind of poetic dissent Rollin’s films could muster.
The final impression, which left me so seriously irritated all those years ago and for reasons that have since become all too clear, is of a film that’s identifiable as a significant step on the route to the tedious Twilight-isation of the vampire mystique. Another thing that’s hard to get around is the fact that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is barely effective as a horror movie. Corny gore and make-up effects are aplenty, but there’s no coherence of mood or eeriness to the proceedings. Apocalypse Now sports a far firmer sense of dread and building metaphysical menace. Instead, Coppola trucks in some of his visual fixations, like cross-cutting between action and a religious ceremony, with lingering views of classical ceilings and religious icons, and bleeding crosses that heal, suggesting a Catholic-porn edition of the story. That the film is visually impressive and occasionally awesome is easy to concede. Coppola builds certain sequences to crescendos, and there are some excellent set-pieces that display Coppola’s sense of sheer cinematic movement, particularly a quality piece of swashbuckling when the heroes battle Dracula’s Magyar serfs. Coppola takes the epoch in which the story is set as an excuse to explore the evolution of cinema itself, from magic-lantern shows through to the flicker of the nickelodeon, one of which Dracula and Mina visit, to the stylised expressionism of Murnau and Lang, the lush artifice of the Hollywood back lot, and on to the most advanced swirl of technical effects.
And yet the effect, whilst bracing for movie buffs, leaves the movie perched uneasily between mainstream storytelling prerogatives and the world’s most elaborate student film. In this regard, it strongly resembles Coppola’s fellow haute-cineaste Martin Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear from the year before, and likewise is a good candidate for Coppola’s worst film. So many moments are conceptually arresting, and yet fumbled in execution and in relation to the overall drama. There’s a suggestion throughout, especially when Coppola cuts from Lucy’s beheading to a rare roast beef being carved, that he wouldn’t have minded turning it all into a Monty Python-esque spoof, and Hopkins’ Van Helsing certainly seems pitched on that level. He suggests a savant, introduced stating that “civilisation and syphilisation have evolved together,” detached from regular humanity. “Yes she was in great pain, and then we cut off her head and drove a stake through her heart and burned it, and then she found peace,” he airily declares when Mina asks how she died. His moral determination is seen as based in his own erotic divorcement, and is himself momentarily tempted, when Mina kisses him in the throes of vampiric urges. But again, there’s not enough firm engagement with this notion to make it seem more than another failed aspect, and Hopkins’ simultaneously hammy and distracted performance doesn’t help.
By the conclusion, the number of things Bram Stoker’s Dracula is trying to be has piled up like a mass car wreck: revision, send-up, ardent romance, film studies class, homage, spooky tale, action flick, disease parable, soft-core porn. But the aspect of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that finally wounds it beyond repair is the endemic woeful acting, from Reeves at his most wooden in impersonating an English gentleman to Hopkins, Ryder, Elwes, and Oldman all offering uncharacteristically poor work. Reeves’ worst moment is his one attempt to get emotional, screaming in terror when he sees Dracula giving over the baby to the brides. I would go easiest on Ryder, who was still making the shift from teen starlet to leading lady, and she acquits herself with flat competence until that scene with Van Helsing, where she suggests less a moral woman giving in to demonic impulses than an interpretive dance student giving in to her inner tart. It is worth noting a brief appearance by future star Monica Bellucci as one of Dracula’s brides, and a cameo by Jay Robinson, once famous for playing Caligula in The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, as Harker’s boss. But the actor who comes off best is Waits as Renfield, essaying physically one of the grotesques Waits usually conveys vocally in his music: he wields exactly the right stylised blend of mordant humour and perverse ferocity. Likewise, Wojciech Kilar’s terrific music score and Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography lend the film much more authoritative heft than it actually deserves. It wasn’t, however, a complete waste of time for Coppola, for some of his motifs and effects crop up again, infinitely more controlled, in his extraordinary return to mythological filmmaking, Youth Without Youth (2007).
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Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
This is an entry in The Spielberg Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies and Ryan Kelly of Medfly Quarantine.
I remember wondering back in the mid ’90s if Steven Spielberg had retired from directing after Schindler’s List (1993), his colossal, uneven holocaust diorama, finally brought him the widespread admiration as a cinema artist he seemed to have been longing for. Four years passed between Schindler’s List and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and that comeback was enough to make many wish he’d stayed away. I recall enjoying the entirely superfluous sequel to his signal 1993 hit rather more than the original, but it was hard to deny it encapsulated many of his least-favourable traits. And yet, as he’s done often throughout his career, he released his moneyspinner in near-tandem with a personal, more archly solemn work—Amistad.
Amistad was the middle film of what I’ve come to think of as his “Historical Conscience” trilogy, with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998) as its bookends, and it was, for the most part, received coolly and was soon eclipsed by Private Ryan’s orgiastic reception. Amistad neglected the gloriously oversized raptures of his first two dramas, The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987), and much of the self-conscious largesse of its triptych companions. Instead it was, on the face of it, a sober, talky tale that encompasses America’s greatest guilt complex, the transatlantic slave trade, in the form of a courtroom drama. The naked appeals to audience involvement and empathy that rendered Schindler’s List troublesome to some, and his overt efforts to bring a newly visceral, confrontational sense of violence that would find grand consummation in Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day opening, were both dialed back, and the horrors of the situation at hand explored more tangentially.
I’ve expected myself to reevaluate Amistad over the years, to decide it’s preachy, stagy, and minor. Nonetheless, Amistad has instead consistently remained my personal favourite of all Spielberg’s dramatic films. Whilst it doesn’t conjure anything quite as startlingly staged as the Krakow and warfare scenes in its trilogy partners, it also doesn’t provide anything as excruciating as Schindler’s List’s more stilted dialogue exchanges, or Private Ryan’s flimsy present-day frame, and its attempts at providing a kind of Socratic dialogue within itself are the most integral and persuasive of Spielberg’s several attempts at such. I take enormous pleasure in every sequence, every performance, in the deeply, physically convincing recreation of the historical milieu and the care with which Janusz Kaminski filmed it. It is fitting that Amistad gave to cinema the career of Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of our finest contemporary actors, as well as the charismatic Djimon Hounsou. Every bit as rigorous in terms of intense physical detail and production polish as his other films, it is nonetheless the most beautiful, coherent, and classical of all Spielberg’s serious works. Amistad achieves the effortless blend of the near-mythic and the intimately conversational those old-school cinema heroes the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Dieterle, and Michael Curtiz could bring to such dramas.
Some obvious statements first: Amistad’s a film that aimed to do for the African-American experience, which Spielberg had articulated his sympathy with in The Color Purple, what Schindler’s List had done for his own Jewish identity—to contextualise horrific aspects of its past, and to explicate a new paradigm for it. It’s modern in theme, insomuch as that it’s about nascent multiculturalism and self-empowerment rather than merely showing white guys being so kind as to stop enslaving black people. Or, at least, it’s not only about that. It’s also a film that clearly signals how Spielberg was willing to use his clout as a mainstream cinema hero to make films that push the boundaries of what that mainstream cinema can and should do. Only a few lines of dialogue are translated into English in the film’s first 20 minutes, and that opening relies instead almost purely on visual storytelling; later parts are purely about speaking and listening.
Amistad draws its ironic title from the vessel La Amistad, which is transporting a boatload of illegally enslaved men and women from Mendiland (in present-day Sierra Leone) in 1839. The ship is taken over by those slaves after one of them, Singbe Pieh, renamed Joseph Cinqué (Hounsou) by his captors, mounts an escape and leads his fellows in a slaughter of their tormentors. The Mende keep two of the Spanish crew of slavemasters, Ruiz and Calderon (Geno Silva and Tomas Milian), alive to steer them home. But that duo contrives to hug the American coast, and the rebels are captured by a U.S. navy frigate and put on trial in New Haven, Connecticut.
The question as to whether they’re guilty of piracy and murder on the high seas, or whether they are, in fact, merely property to be returned to their owners, is central to the trial, as several parties, including Ruiz and Calderon, the Spanish government, and the American officers who “salvaged” them, contend for the prize. Abolitionist journalists Joadson and Tappan (Morgan Freeman and Stellan Skarsgård) make the defence of the Africans their project. After an aborted effort to convince former U.S. President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), now an embittered and distracted U.S. Senator, to represent their cause, the journalists eventually hire property-rights attorney Roger Baldwin (McConaughey) to be the defendants’ advocate. He’s the only local lawyer willing to take the case, but his pragmatic reading of the issues at stake seems rather ignoble for the abolitionists. Yet his notion that merely proving that the slaves are from Africa rather than Cuban plantations will make all other points void proves persuasive; under the hypocritical, but consequential law of the time, the enslavement of free-born people was illegal, and the Africans had every right to commit insurrection in such a circumstance. Baldwin argues this case with the help of a manifest that he and Joadson locate on the La Amistad, which details how the Africans were transported across the Atlantic in an infamous slave ship, the Tecora. But with elections coming up, President Martin Van Buren (a splendidly craven Nigel Hawthorn), fearing loss of votes in Dixie, has his Secretary of State John Forsyth (David Paymer) and underling Hammond (Xander Berkeley) begin influencing the case. They have the first judge on the case (Allan Rich) dismissed and replaced by the handpicked Coglin (Jeremy Northam), whom they assume to be malleable because he is both at the start of his career and Catholic, then a handicap.
David Franzoni’s otherwise highly intelligent script leans on some familiar touches for elucidating sympathy and humour, mostly in the transformation of Baldwin from the antebellum equivalent of an ambulance-chasing douchebag into a man with a burgeoning sense of shared humanity, and the wait for Adams to come out swinging like a dry, drawling, legalistic Rocky. But such flourishes are, for me anyway, part of the film’s appeal, partly because they’re not oversold and because they establish the film’s credentials as old-fashioned, melodramatic agitprop. And they’re also part of the texture in a story that’s as much about the potential for noble institutions to be both cyclically corrupted and cleansed, depending of the mettle of the people engaging with them, as it is about the history of slavery. It’s also, of course, a film about humanity and its capacity to be both horrendous and virtuous, sometimes all at once and in fierce, virtually surreal opposition. Amistad is also perhaps Spielberg’s most sophisticated exploration of his most important recurring theme: the difficulties and beauties of communication. Revisiting Amistad to write this piece, it occurred to me that Spielberg’s career unfolded in the wrong direction. If he had made a film like this first, and then Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), he would have been congratulated for adapting his serious themes for a larger audience. Instead the cheap shot that’s always been used to attack his dramatic films has been the old “stick to making movies about dinosaurs” line.
Amistad’s opening contains some of the most vivid images of Spielberg’s career, thanks to his great find, the Polish-born cinematographer Kaminski, obscure before he provided Schindler’s List’s monochromatic ferocity. Boiling the film’s metaphysical and corporeal concerns down to a single act, the opening depicts Cinqué’s colossal, sweat-bejewelled brow as he tries to dig a rivet from out of the wooden frame of the hull, his nails scratching at the splinters and caked in blood, the unbearably slow, squeaking slide of the rivet out of its place to pick the lock on his chains. The imagery—the martyred man’s intense self-mortification, the drawing of the great spike—suggests crucifixion in reverse, and the resonances will spread throughout the coming narrative. Cinqué and his fellows emerge into a storm-thrashed night, and the hulking African warrior, every bit as terrifying as the tyrannosaurs that stalked Jurassic Park, roars with inconsolable fury as he slaughters his enemy. Later, when he tries to puzzle out Ruiz and Calderon’s deceptions, he turns the wheel of the boat whilst studying the way it affects the position of the stars: there’s something ineffably primal in the image of the aboriginal man evolving into a Copernican astronomer and seafarer. Cinqué connects to other Spielbergian protagonists who gaze at the night sky—Roy Neary, Quint, Indiana Jones, Elliott—and tried to puzzle out their place in the universe’s scheme. Whilst coming from a less “civilised” civilisation, he’s still a man, and far from stupid; on the contrary, he possesses the capacity to puzzle out a challenging, hostile, bizarre world with relentless ingenuity and determination, and he knows the stars as a map for his own world, too.
Shortly after, the La Amistad drifts past a ship on which a party of ritzy folk are dining. The immediate contrast, of the pretentious gentility of the white westerners and the fearful, frazzled Africans, is easily evident, but the scene echoes on deeper levels. Spielberg stages it with a ghostly aura that’s reminiscent of the way John Carpenter shot the appearance of the phantom ship in The Fog (1980), and like that film, it’s about angry spectres from crimes of profit resurging out of the mystic sea. The brief vision each ship’s parties have of each other seems charged with oppositional mystery and threat, as if neither belongs to the same world, each as unreal as the other. The physical nature of the scene—the dense fog, the creak of the ships’ rigging, the lilting elegance of a string quartet, the bleakly mystified gazes of the Africans and the perturbed returned stares of the whites—makes it seem like a fever dream where wildly disparate versions of humanity are as strange and irreconcilable as any men and monsters in Spielberg’s genre tales. Soon enough, the Mende find themselves locked within not only an alien country, but also an alien system of laws, letters, language, and presumptions that are almost entirely inimical to their own hitherto self-evident identity. When they’re captured, Cinqué’s determination to remain free sees him resort first to trying to swim home, and then to try to drown himself, but his will to live is finally greater.
Communication now becomes imperative, both legally and interpersonally. Amistad is a rare film, especially in modern Hollywood, that privileges words, laws, vision, and oratory on the same level as physical action and heroism. What words mean, and what they’re used for, are profoundly important things in this society, and defeating slavery and injustice is also a matter of defeating a dominant discourse. When the Mende are being escorted into prison, Cinqué and his fellows bellow in outrage and protest, and the guards treat this with contempt. Cinqué has his hand crushed in a gate by a jailer simply to get him to enter a cell. Many confrontations finish up with the hapless Africans shouting incoherently at the jailers and bristling at perceived threats and insults that make no sense to them. The problem of how to make the Africans understand their exact situation and allow them to tell their story—as Adams insists is a prerequisite for winning any case—presses upon their defenders. Here Amistad, whilst not losing its main focus, becomes a kind of screwball comedy of constantly repelled and cross-purpose communicative gambits, with the flustered Baldwin and the bemused, angry Cinqué cast in the functional roles of two potential brothers who need to learn how to speak to each other. The first translator Baldwin digs up, an anthropology professor (Austin Pendleton), fails to understand the Mende dialect and so makes up translations. Baldwin, Joadson, and Tappan have to scour the docks reciting words in Mende to dig up a native speaker, finally getting one in the form of James Covey (Ejiofor), a Mende who, after being rescued off a slave ship himself, became a sailor in the navy that saved him—the British navy.
That irony, that the nominal early enemies of American freedom actively fought against slavery in the post-Wilberforce era, is oft-repeated in Amistad. Against this is pitted mordant humour in the spectacle of Spain’s 11-year-old ruler Queen Isabella (Anna Paquin) and her patronisingly anti-democratic advisors trying to gain what they see as natural justice out of the trial. During the trial, Peter Firth makes an appearance as Captain Fitzgerald, a British officer who’s working to disrupt the slave trade and whose expert testimony is belittled by the state’s prosecutor Holabird (Pete Postlethwaite); Fitzgerald’s increasing irritation and disdain are all too obvious under the stiff upper lip, in a scene full of dark foreboding and threatening undercurrents. Covey provides the vital link between the Mende and their defenders, and Cinqué can then tell his story.
Where Amistad makes for a fascinating and intelligent extension to, and auto-critique of, Schindler’s List is in the way Spielberg goes to such lengths to unfold his story. In this way, he places the pain and necessity of remembering, the confusion of witnessing, and the difficulty of proof in a more important position. To win his case, Cinqué must recount the dreadful things that he saw and went through—being kidnapped from his home village, being kept in the slave trading fortress of Lomboko and then transported on the Tecora, and comprehending brutality that seems beyond all understanding. Whippings, rapes, and degradations. Men and women chained together and flung overboard. A woman giving birth in the huddled battery-farmlike lower decks of the ship and then promptly dying as her child is passed over the enchained ranks of slaves to its father. Another woman, suckling the baby, hurls herself and it to their deaths in the sea to escape this nonexistence. It’s a story the meaning of which Cinqué himself can’t comprehend, even as it finally contextualises his mad screams of bloodlust in his revolt. Holabird calls it a “good work of fiction,” even as Fitzgerald calmly explains the reasons for all the apparently incomprehensible acts of carnage as being merely cold pragmatism on the slavers’ part.
This notion that witnessing and testimony are vital in making society face up to shameful things is powerful and ever-relevant. It also allows Spielberg to avoid some of the problems that beset his approach to Holocaust: the fragmented landscape of atrocity in Amistad is selectively recalled and therefore free of any overneat sense of dramatic cause and effect. Cinqué’s subsequent survival and ability to speak about it are as much through chance as anything else, even if his own story is one of heroism and refusal to submit, and he holds on to his experiences like random shards of a nightmare. Overcoming the willful ignorance of a society in which the internet wasn’t even a thought and photography was just being invented, it was all too easy to ignore the truth of such situations, and this proves to be both a key to the trial and the overwhelming problem facing the abolitionists. Identity is a problematic notion. Proving who the Mende are is fraught with difficulty, and yet it’s not limited to them. Joadson, whose nightmarish experience in the La Amistad’s hold conjures his forefathers’ transportation as a perfervid race memory, is trying to come to terms with his own exceptional freeman status, and even Adams, whose own burden, that of his seeming inadequacy after his sire John Adams (“The only thing John Quincy Adams will be remembered for is his middle name!” Forsyth has previously derided), is reiterated constantly.
The process of what is known in contemporary postcolonial and structuralist studies as the construction of Otherness is seen in many forms in Amistad’s early sections, with the lack of dialogue as the key to the enforced portrait of the Africans as subhuman. There’s an intricate play on structuralist signs at work here, for the first actual subtitled line from one of the Mende is when he mistakes a black slave coachman for a chief because of his apparently exalted position on top of the carriage he steers. The Mende’s sense of the world’s signs are schematic and easily associative, full of direct meaning, which becomes all too apparent later when Covey, during a fraught conversation between Cinqué and Baldwin, explains to the frustrated lawyer that there is no Mende word for “should.” Cinqué’s friend and fellow prisoner Yamba (Razaaq Adoti) first likens Baldwin’s overeager manner to a man who was employed as a dung scraper in their village, and Cinqué murmurs that such a man might actually be what they need. Cinqué is ambivalent about the esteem his fellow Mende hold him in, for he was given preeminence as a warrior in their society for slaying a marauding lion, a feat he accomplished, he confesses to Baldwin, only by the lucky throw of a stone. The echoes of this story are clear—David and Goliath, obviously, but also, more pertinently, the finale of Jaws (1975)—thus clearly constituting Cinqué as one of Spielberg’s monster-slaying Everymen. Baldwin, too, is evolving into a lion slayer, and he has to remind Cinqué of the other lion he slew, the rebellion he led on the La Amistad, to recharge Cinqué’s sense of potency.
Spielberg’s customarily ambivalent take on religion bobs up throughout Amistad, a film which vibrates with echoes of parable. Such is particularly apparent in a lengthy, almost dreamy sequence in which Yamba reads through the bible handed to him by one of the abolitionists, and teases out for Cinqué that narrative he gleans from the engraved plates that tell Christ’s tale. This moment celebrates the power of visual storytelling as well as the potential for the beauty of faith to be easily communicated. But other underpinnings of this scene have already been suggested in moments in which the Africans are bewildered by the severe look of the Quakers who form the core of their abolitionist support that bolsters an otherwise jeering, hateful crowd surrounding the courthouse. Cinqué now sees signifiers of the hitherto mysterious religion of the Americans everywhere, even on the masts of ships, and interprets the Christ tale and the look of the abolitionists as involving a deeply morbid quality that permeates white western society that will sacrifice the Mende as Christ was when the time arrives. “That’s when they will finally kill us,” Cinqué states to Adams, when asked what will happen at the Supreme Court. This suggestion has an aspect of truth. Tappan’s tendency to reduce issues to flowery abstraction proves finally to mask an attitude to the matter at hand that’s less about saving specific lives than crusading on “the battlefield of righteousness,” or self-righteousness. He entertains the notion that the slaves are of more use to the cause dead than alive, which causes Joadson to break with him.
As much as there’s an overwhelming sense of deistic yearning, however playfully concealed, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Indiana Jones films, Spielberg’s interest in religion always centers chiefly on how it acts as social cement and form of heritage—as another form of communication for the passing along parables and legends as exemplars and embodiments of values. Cinqué reminds Yamba, “This is just a story,” but the point is that no story is just a story. Yamba’s explication is crosscut with images of Coglin worshipping in church. Far from being a reason to obey Forsyth’s wishes in the case, for Coglin his Catholic conscience is plainly part of the reason he finds in favour of the self-evident truth that the men of La Amistad are freeborn.
I’ve noted before in my commentary on Temple of Doom what an extremely musical director Spielberg can be, and that quality is subtly evident throughout Amistad. That cross-cutting between Yamba’s explication and Coglin’s worship works in a clearly contrapuntal fashion, and the sequence before that is a great example of Spielberg’s capacity to build towards climaxes and then let them fall away, in a fashion that resembles a Bruckner symphony. The scene in which Holabird grills Fitzgerald is staged as the courtroom, mostly illuminated by external ambient light, is filled with the infernal glow of dusk light as the smouldering tension between Fitzgerald and Holabird and their opposing worldviews becomes acute. Cinqué, seated in the dock, begins to silently panic as he reads the room, a plethora of tiny, insignificant details like twiddled cane knobs and the sheen of sweat Fitzgerald’s hand leaves on the wood of the witness bench, suddenly charged with suffocating meaning: he comes now to comprehend that the simple truth he recounted on the stand might still be lost, and now begins to speak his first words in fractured English (“Give us…us free!”) first in a fierce whisper and then in a righteous bellow. It’s corny on one level, but it’s also a sequence built with sublime technical and artistic care. Then it subsides again as if some random moment of humanity has somehow punctured the glaze of legal process. This is also vitally important in that it’s the first time Cinqué can make his sentiments crystal clear to the society now holding him captive. And yet this is only a small example of the many small swells and retreats in the film’s rhythm, which, of course, builds to a literally explosive climax and melancholic diminuendo.
Another aspect of the innate musicality is, as ever, John Williams’ music score, which could actually be the pinnacle of his and Spielberg’s collaboration, and that is saying something. Williams’ music, blending African themes with sweeping Copland-esque Americana, achieves aurally what the film attempts to do thematically—to draw out the common ground of disparate cultures and celebrate humanistic resistance to tyranny—with the recurring theme “Dry Your Tears, Africa” first heard in embryonic form when Adams prods Joadson about the importance of telling stories and rising with expansive heroism in later scenes. Adams finally joins the fight proper when his august expertise becomes necessary. That comes after Coglin finds in favour of the Africans. Van Buren is scared by the glowering auguries of Adams’ former vice president and slavery advocate John Calhoun (a keen cameo by Arliss Howard) that the unfavourable outcome of the case might not only lose Van Buren the election but might add fuel to the budding secessionist cause. So Van Buren has the case referred on to the Supreme Court, of which, Baldwin notes, seven of the nine members are slave-owning southerners.
Amistad was one of two prominent films of 1997—the other being Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt—to lead to a climactic argument in front of the Supreme Court. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwaite once took a sharp jab at Schindler’s List: “After making hundreds of millions of dollars, Spielberg finally decided to make a film with social content: the Nazis were bad! Wow!” In such a light, it’s not a small thing to note that Amistad is Spielberg’s most political film prior to Munich, in the sense that it is a clear assault on conservative readings of a constitution put together by revolutionaries. The nearly 10-minute final summation by Adams, a joyous piece of marathon theatrical showmanship on Hopkins’ part, is more than just a clear nod to such capping scenes in classic films like A Free Soul, Young Mr. Lincoln, Inherit the Wind, and A Man For All Seasons, but also a philosophical exegesis. Adams sets out to establish Cinqué as a man, and an heroic one at that, for both the court and the sake of conservative and phallogenocentric sensibilities that regard the struggles of black men as less immediately worthy of depiction and transmission (“If he were white and his enslavers were British, he wouldn’t be able to stand, so heavy the weight of the medals and honors we would bestow upon him. Songs would be written about, the great authors of our time would fill books about him!”). But he also channels Cinqué’s cultural understanding of his ancestors as direct aides in his life, in a spiritual sense, into an invocation of the capacity of heroic exemplars of all kinds to be spurs to right action.
Adams, too, learns to embrace such a legacy not as a burden but an inspiration, and a challenge, memorably suggesting that the Declaration of Independence be torn up if Calhoun’s credo is to be taken seriously, and actively pits the idealistic creed of the revolution in opposition to Van Buren’s cynical real politik and Calhoun’s pretentious white supremacy. This is Spielberg casting an eye on the meandering fashion in which the precepts of the American founding documents were used to achieve great breakthroughs in the time of Spielberg’s own youth in resistance to reactionary sentiments, and also another invocation of a sense of community that is larger and grander than the conveniently individualistic. “Who we are is who we were,” Adams reports, meditatively. Such a notion of overarching stories and awareness of culture, the inescapability of the past—and that not necessarily being a bad thing—which enfolds and overlaps with our present, individual selves, also infuses the other films in the Historical Conscience trilogy.
The payoff is Cinqué’s second liberation, the manacles now finally taken off his hands in the courtroom, and then, the consummation of the carefully controlled rhythm, where the film lets slip at last and offers up the rousing thunder, as Fitzgerald’s rifles and cannons smash Lomboko Fortress into rubble, its masters lying with smoking bullet holes in their flesh and their enslaved population flowing to freedom. There’s clear visual affinity there to the kids escaping the Thugee’s caverns in Temple of Doom, the film that first invoked Spielberg’s emancipationist concerns. There’s a bit of license here. Lomboko was wiped out in 1849, eight years after John Forsyth, to whom Fitzgerald dictates a pithy letter once the fortress has been smashed, ceased to be Secretary of State. But the impact of this moment is still colossal. Yet Amistad’s final note is perhaps the most outright tragic Spielberg left off on since The Sugarland Express, with Cinqué, his fellows, and Covey too, making their way back to Africa, where civil war and the decimation of his village awaits, just as it looms in the America he’s left behind. Even those who beat the odds of history must still bow to it. l
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