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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 was an exemplification of 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—all are testimonies to a kind of professional smoothness and anodyne brand of fun that has no low points like Lucas’ films do, but also none of the high points. Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, great as they are, remade 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 are. 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 more complex in its dimensions and ramifications than the original trilogy’s, depicting 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 bad ones like Anakin joshed by a bunch of kids who show no discernable performing talent.
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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Directors/Screenwriters: Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2014, with the release of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a truly great family trilogy entered the cinematic canon. As heartbreaking as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and more violent in its own way than Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, the Amsalem Trilogy spins an emotionally savage tale of human unhappiness as seen mainly through the character of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz), a Jewish wife and mother of four trapped in a miserable marriage to a man who refuses to give her a divorce.
This trilogy is something of a landmark in Israeli cinema. Formerly dominated by tales of the sabra/Ashkenazi Jewish experience, the country’s cinematic culture is starting to feel the influence of new waves of Jewish immigrants to Israel. The powerhouse sister/brother team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz conceived the trilogy to tell their story—the story of the Mizrahi Jews of North Africa and the Middle East forced by war to emigrate to Israel. The siblings also dared to do what no other filmmakers have done—expose the scandal of Israeli divorce.
The first film, To Take a Wife, opens on an extreme close-up of Viviane, who is being entreated in the wee hours of the morning by four of her seven brothers to make peace with her husband of 20 years, Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian). The brothers can’t understand how a pious man who makes a good living and never raises his hand to her could make Viviane so unhappy. She can’t explain how she feels and what exactly Eliyahu does that torments her. She simply chain-smokes and wears herself and everyone else out. Finally, she agrees to see Eliyahu, who has been sitting in their living room during the negotiations, and eventually gives him a peck on the cheek, signaling that everyone can go home until the next meltdown. Like the Elkabetzes’ parents, Viviane is a hairdresser and casually observant Jew, and Eliyahu is a postal worker and very active in the religious community. They moved to Kiryat Yam—the town where the Elkabetzes grew up—along with Viviane’s very large family, the Ohayons, from Morocco, and are just as likely to speak French as Hebrew.
The second film, Shiva, opens in a graveyard as the camera, shooting at ground level, records the Ohayons, led by matriarch Hanina (Sulika Kadosh), crying and wailing as dirt is shoveled into an open grave. One of Viviane’s brothers, Maurice, has died from a stroke, and the family sets up in his widow Ilana’s (Keren Mor) large house to observe shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning. Blood relatives may not leave the house once shiva has started, must receive all visitors paying their respects, and are to refrain from any activities but thinking about, talking about, and praying for the deceased. Creature comforts, like sitting in an easy chair or sleeping on a bed, are dispensed with as all of the mourners sit and sleep communally on the floor. Into this hothouse of raw emotion comes Eliyahu. He and Viviane have been separated for three years, and he uses the opportunity of paying his respects to try to talk to her.
The final film echoes the first by opening on an extreme close-up of Viviane as others talk about her and details of her marriage from offscreen. She is in rabbinical court struggling to get a gett, a religious divorce, from Eliyahu. Because there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, obtaining a gett is an absolute necessity if either party wishes to date without scandal or remarry. Unfortunately, unless the court can find grounds for divorce—and the grounds that would allow the court to compel the husband are very limited—it is strictly up to the husband whether to allow his wife to go free. It is not uncommon for an observant Jewish woman, no matter where in the world she lives, to be stuck in a marriage forever regardless of whether she is living with her husband because he refuses her a gett.
The Elkabetzes are unabashedly political and appropriately follow the second-wave feminist rallying cry that the personal is political by using this family saga to suggest the larger contexts in which these people operate, specifically, the Mizrahi immigrant experience and the suffocating religious dicta that offer little room for movement, especially to women. We see the seeds of Viviane’s discontent with her marriage in the rule-bound attitude of her husband. He and Viviane have different ideas about parenting and religious observance. In To Take a Wife, Viviane gives her young son Lior (Yam Eitan) some milk after he has eaten chicken to calm his stomach even though it breaks kosher dietary law and excuses her willful oldest son Eviatar (Kobi Regev) from accompanying Eliyahu to synagogue, a refusal that fills Eliyahu with shame. In Shiva, he polices the mourning, pronouncing what is and is not customary and correct, scolding the mourners for not focusing on Maurice, yet behaving hypocritically by using the occasion to try to persuade Viviane’s oldest brother Meir (Albert Iluz) to coerce her to return home.
The women we meet have little role other than as homemakers and mothers, with Viviane a glaring exception for running her own business. Families hold each other close—too close in many cases—and the shooting style of the trilogy exacerbates this closed familial and religious community by confining the action largely to single locations: the Amsalem apartment, the shiva house, and the rabbinical court. Indeed, the closed proceedings surrounding divorce are so secretive in Israel that Gett created a controversy on its debut for exposing the protracted, unfair process that gives all power to the judges and, ultimately, to the husband. Gett is an ordeal not only for Viviane, but also for the audiences who watch court sessions demarcated by title cards informing us how many months have passed as the court tries to force the marriage back together. After 5 years, the court negotiates a gett between the couple, only to have Eliyahu renege on his promise to go through with it. His stubborn refusal to give Viviane a divorce, though perhaps driven by a terror of losing her, represents his ultimate assertion of control, one that extends past the end of Gett.
Shiva concerns itself with family politics and nods at global politics as well. The Gulf War is raging, and all of the mourners carry gas masks wherever they go. The gallows humor of the Elkabetzes is on full display when an air raid siren sounds, and all the mourners at Maurice’s grave don their masks and continue to recite prayers at graveside. The war comes closer during the mourning period when a bomb falls close enough to the shiva house to nearly blow through a sheet of plastic covering an incomplete wall. The war has all but ruined the manufacturing business Haim Ohayon (Moshe Igvy) owns and runs, and the brothers who work there discuss their obligation or lack thereof to help Haim out. Haim’s rich wife Ita (Hana Laslo) represents the established generation of Ashkenazim. Her German uncle invested in Haim’s plant from Holocaust reparations he received from the German government, and she wields his family’s martyrdom as a weapon against the interests of her Mizrahi in-laws.
The films are not devoid of humor, particularly Shiva, which offers the widest cast of characters, displaying to one degree or another peculiar Jewish types. For example, a pair of old yentes watch as Meir frets about the quality of the posters he has ordered for his bid to become mayor of Kiryat Yam. One says his election will create a lot of financial opportunities for his family, perhaps unaware of how bad that sounds, while the other says it’s bad luck to talk about it. Offended that her friend has accused her of putting the evil eye on Meir and his family, she says, “OK, I’ll keep quiet,” a promise she’ll never be able to keep. In another scene, the mourners argue about whether they can eat the gizzard meat on their plates. Apparently, Iraqi Jews can, but Moroccan Jews can’t. Ever-correct Eliyahu wins the day, and one of the women removes the meat, one by one, from the mourners’ plates as Ilana reminisces about how much Maurice loved organ meat, naming each organ like the names of the Egyptian plagues recited at Passover.
Nonetheless, despite some liberal helpings of humor in both Shiva and Gett, all the films are most memorable for the frightening intensity of the animosity their characters show toward each other. In To Take a Wife, Viviane and Eliyahu have a fight that borders on madness. Viviane, warmed by her reminiscences of her romance with Albert (Gilbert Melki), the lover she had in Morocco before the move to Israel, can only spit venom at Eliyahu’s lack of affection toward her, his thoughtlessness and disregard for her as a woman. He, in turn, accuses her of being a drama queen and failing to appreciate how hard he works, even coming home every day to cook lunch for the family. Their fighting becomes so loud and vicious, we cringe in fear and sadness along with the children in their rooms at how two people who never should have gotten married can tear each other apart for their poor judgment. A similar explosion, which Viviane instigates among her brothers and sisters, occurs in Shiva. All the enforced closeness begun in good humor gives way to simmering resentments, jealousies, and physical confrontations. Saddest of all is watching Hanina cry miserably at the spectacle of her children pouring their disappointments, betrayals, and hates onto each other on the heels of the death of her son Maurice.
Elkabetz is an actress whose immersive approach to the roles she inhabits lays all of her emotions bare. I am still haunted by her unvarnished portrayal of a needy, careless prostitute in Or (2004), and with her decade-long portrayal of Viviane, she takes her all-in commitment as far as it can go. Viviane is passionate and emotional, almost incestuously affectionate with Eviatar, and catnip to the men who mewl around her: Albert, who comes to visit her and apologize for not leaving his wife when Viviane was ready to give everything up for him, only to be written off as untrustworthy and an insufficiently committed romantic for the volcanic Viviane; Ben Lulu (Gil Frank), an unmarried family friend who barely notices the awkward ministrations of spinster Evelyne (Evelin Hagoel) at the shiva house as he tries to sneak a moment alone with Viviane, stealing a kiss, but seemingly merely a placeholder for the lonely woman; and finally, Eliyahu, deeply in love with his wife but far too rigid in his religious orthodoxy and intimidated masculinity to allow her to be herself. Whether she is having a tooth-and-nail confrontation with Eliyahu or a mournful reunion with her lost love, Elkabetz simmers with love, hate, and love-hate that overwhelm with their force. When Viviane is all but gagged during the gett proceedings, one sees the masculine fear of female self-determination that leads to such repression and the kind of woman who elicits it most strongly.
Abkarian is an excellent match for Elkabetz, his charisma and masculine certitude offering a hint of why Viviane was drawn to him in the first place. He is certainly not without feeling for her, and his pain and bewilderment at the breakdown of his marriage are almost too excruciating to watch. In To Take a Wife, he is reciting a passage from the Torah at synagogue about a wife’s return and is overcome with emotion and unable to continue. Again, an overwhelming sadness floods the screen, a paean to human misery that culminates in the chain he clamps on Viviane in his vindictiveness and hurt pride.
Carrying a project like this through over the course of a decade allowed Abkarian and Elkabetz to age and reflect with veracity the long separations of Viviane and Eliyahu. Elkabetz is an extremely attractive woman, but in Gett, she looks rather haggard and faded. Eliyahu has gone gray, but not in a “distinguished” way. In the end, like the country in which they live, their war has been too long and too damaging to continue, but peace remains elusive.
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Director/Screenwriter: Bertrand Blier
The White Elephant Blogathon
By Roderick Heath
Bertrand Blier was for a long time a strong commercial and creative presence in French cinema, thanks to his reputation as a maker of droll, lippy, often outrageous films about that eternal French topic, l’amour. His work evoked prime-era Woody Allen’s fascination for urban manners and morals, but also blended with a delight, reminiscent of Louis Malle and Pedro Almodovar, in officially transgressive but actually commonplace human behaviours. He often took on taboo topics, like an affair between a married woman and teenage boy in his Best Foreign Film Oscar winner Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978) and a widowed man negotiating his young stepdaughter’s crush on him in Beau Pere (1981). Going Places (1974), depicting a pair of male buddies who share women and go queer with each other when there’s no other recourse, was the cornerstone of his career and the film that made Gérard Depardieu a star. Later, he started to gaze back in at the nature of cinema and audience expectations—expectations he had become famous and feted for meeting. Les Acteurs (2000) sported just about every major French movie actor playing a version of themselves in a game of filtered insider self-regard. How Much Do You Love Me? takes a different tack in turning the sign-play of cinematic genres inside out, but it still certainly represents Blier playing a jolly game with his viewers in a way that recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme est une Femme (1961) rather strongly. Although it won the Best Director prize at the Moscow Film Festival, How Much Do You Love Me? was received by many as a severe disappointment, even a disaster, to an extent that almost ended the director’s career: it took Blier five years to make another movie, and I presume therein lies the reason it came my way in this blogathon.
One of Blier’s recurring topics was the macho bluster of French masculinity constantly found wanting in the face of randy, liberated femininity. Here he partly inverts the theme, as he offers a hero who has been emasculated by life making a play for erotic fulfilment beyond his usual means, a notion usually reserved for Blier’s female characters and eventually asserted here as his heroine makes a similar play to meet him halfway. François Baron (Bernard Campan) is first glimpsed on cold, empty Pigalle streets gazing in on Daniela (Monica Bellucci), a pricey, drop-dead gorgeous Italian courtesan who sits in the window of a hooker bar surrounded by neon light and red velvet. François, a luckless and lovelorn office worker, goes inside and has Daniela sent to his table. He informs her that he has recently won the lottery and has nearly €4 million to waste. He makes her a proposition: he will pay her €100,000 a month to live with him until he’s broke. Daniela accepts with some conditions, including that he’s not allowed to abuse her, and he accompanies her to her apartment where she’ll pack some clothes and belongings. François folds up on the staircase and Daniela calls a doctor. François admits that he has a heart condition, and his organ is being stimulated to a dangerous pace by mere proximity to Daniela. Once ensconced in François’ apartment, Daniela promises to “go slow” with him so as not to kill him, but still operates according to her presumed brief as hired pleasure object, laced with ironic role-playing, as Daniela plays the lusty lady trying to keep her man from going off to work. When she asks what François’ actual profession is, he replies confusedly, “I don’t know. I’m an office worker…I contribute to my country’s economy.” Daniela groans to herself after he leaves, “This will be a barrel of laughs.”
The opening scenes are reminiscent of Leos Carax’s Lovers on the Pont-Neuf (1991), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), or Claire Denis’ Friday Night (2002), films replete with themes and images of romantic-erotic melancholy: François gazing in at Daniela from chill, deserted streets, painted in clashing hues of cold blue and uterine warmth and chic textures; silk stockings and high heels and crisp business suit trousers are isolated in one framing in a synopsis of high-class sex business. But this quickly gives way to broad sexual satire a la Friz Freleng or Frank Tashlin, for example, the latter’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). François’ best friend, similarly weary, middle-aged, clapped-out doctor André Migot (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), keeps tabs on his pal’s state of health with suspiciously cocked brows and eyes all too ready to drift over Daniela’s form. At one point, whilst lecturing Daniela to be careful of François’ ailments, André slips into a near-trance and imagines gripping and caressing her breasts.
Occasionally, when his characters slip into moments of charged intimacy or act on internal desires, Blier suddenly changes his visual texture, turning low-lit, lushly coloured scenes bright and pastel, as if suddenly swerving into Tim Burton’s celebrations of kitschy nostalgia. Airy opera is suddenly heard on the soundtrack, as if mocking the traditional affectations of European art cinema. How Much Do You Love Me? continues to unfold in this manner, alternating moods and modes of filmmaking even as Blier’s story proceeds in a relatively straightforward, even archetypal manner. The basic plot has evident similarities to Pretty Woman (1990) and Something Wild (1987), but tonally seems at first to be heading into the same territory as Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… (2003) and other Frenchified studies in erotic disaffection. Blier doesn’t subvert his film to make it a merely playful lark: How Much Do You Love Me? slips and slides between tones and styles with Brecthian attitude, trying to highlight the way an audience understands a movie through an accumulation of cues, and then suddenly, wilfully changing those cues.
Dining with the couple after they return from erotic adventures by the North Sea, André interrogates them for exact details of what they’ve been up to that could have upset François’s heart; they report in detail whilst André tests François’ blood pressure. Finally, André is called to their apartment; he assumes it’s to treat François, but finds on arriving Daniela’s the one feeling ill. When she slips off her nightgown so he can examine her, André promptly drops dead from a heart attack. André’s sudden demise comes as tragicomic antistrophe after his own peculiar romantic crucifixion has been described: filmed against a blank, grey background addressing the camera as if suddenly segueing into one of Alan Bennett’s talking-head TV plays, he tells François and Daniela about his own girlfriend, a nurse name Gisèle who’s dying of breast cancer—except Blier reveals André in his apartment speaking to the empty bed that was hers, the indentation of her head still in the pillow. François and Daniela learn at André’s funeral that Gisèle died five years before. François sits in a stunned and saddened contemplation of mortality, bereft of his only friend; Daniela, stirred by the spectacle, strips down in the background and invites him to come take a “trip to Italy.” Blier could well be commenting on his own sense of impending mortality—he was 66 when this was released, the age when death’s impermeable nature often becomes an immediate anxiety to be coped with, and unsurprisingly for a director obsessed with the way sexuality asserts itself against all barriers, the potency of the sex drive becomes the binary opposite and compensating force in the face of decline.
François blooms with Daniela: Blier offers the image of the man admiring himself in the camera/mirror, alight with sensual satisfaction and renewed vitality. Daniela comes up behind and joining him in a magazine ad pose, asks, “See how beautiful you are with me?” The film veers back to screwball comedy as Blier depicts François at his workplace where his coworkers, fascinated by his changed disposition, gather in a mass at his desk and then follow him back to his apartment to get a gander at his new woman like a comic chorus out of a Frank Capra or Preston Sturges movie. At their mass insistence, François takes them to his place to see Daniela for themselves, only to find she’s left the apartment, and when she doesn’t come back he sinks into a funk. He goes back to the bar where he found her, and sees she’s returned to her old place in the window, looking as disconsolately sphinxlike as she did before. When François confronts her, she tells him there is another man in her life, her pimp Charly (Depardieu), and that he should forget her. A younger prostitute in the bar, Muguet (Sara Forestier), swiftly attaches herself to François when she hears about his fortune and tries to convince him to take her to the Caribbean. Daniela encourages him to do just that, stating, in her forlorn and defeated fashion, “She’s young…she’s not damaged yet. I’m damaged.” François leaves with Muguet and ignores Daniela as she cries out to him from the door of the bar, but he soon returns, his reflection hovering ethereally in the glass of the window, and Daniela leans forward until her image and his conjoin.
The clean, graceful, occasionally oblique stylistic lustre in which Blier wraps the film pays off in some intensely affecting visualisations like this, and moments of strong pictorial concision recur throughout, with Blier often using his widescreen frame in multiple planes, suggesting unheard conversations and internal sensations as he cuts Bellucci off from her cast mates. Blier’s capacity to consider and render subtle emotions is constantly evident. Such artful crystallisations sit at odds with the overall tenor of the film, with its skitlike segues and narrative self-sabotage; the more traditional method seems to sit far better with Blier’s abilities than his gestures toward Godardian deconstruction. Yet the messiness of form and intent is part of the charge of weird élan I got from the project as a whole, which finds Blier anything but lazy or clapped out. Blier melds familiar, simple narrative precepts and sentimental characterisations—the put-upon man rejuvenated by the love of a woman who would usually seem beyond his reach and the whore redeemed by a good lover. The very familiarity of these essentials seems to intrigue Blier. At times he wavers toward the almost spiritual aura of Frank Borzage or the classic French poetic realists, filmmakers who often told such tales, and the piss-elegant, ultra-refined late work of Claude Sautet, whose A Heart in Winter (1992) and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1996) defined a certain internationally held ideal of what sophisticated French filmmaking should look and sound like. But then he swings back to sex farce and on into New Wave-esque modal games. How Much Do You Love Me? is at once intensely romantic and deeply sarcastic, and Blier seems to be trying to say something about himself and his own sensibility as much as he commenting on genre conventions. It’s possible that Blier, who had been a risk-taker in the ’70s but had become a respectable, well-liked mainstream artist by the time he made this, wanted to regain a cutting-edge lustre by borrowing the work-in-progress fragmentation of something like Charlie Kauffman’s script for Adaptation. (2002). But his guiding idea here seems closer to what fired much of Luis Buñuel’s filmmaking: just as the protean force of human need and affection bends people out of shape, Blier tries to capture that same lawlessness in the very texture of his cinema.
The cast expertly bridges the chasm of conceptualism. Bellucci, in particular, plays both the walking sex-ed film and the anguished, fracturing demimondaine, rendering both coherent facets of the same persona, her moony beauty a canvas of dexterity, whilst Depardieu is characteristically excellent, spitting out Blier’s rapid-fire lines with wicked force. The notion that matters of sexuality have long been subsumed into a capitalist hierarchy, with female attractiveness mere coin of the realm, is not a new one. Blier’s basic story conceit could be a metaphor for everyday exchanges, the male anxiety that they must busily construct a nest of prosperity to attract and keep a desirable mate, with the added dimension of aspiration fostered in a world filled with celebrity constructs that stir a constant sense of dissatisfaction with the everyday. Either way, the film is built around Bellucci in the same way La Dolce Vita (1960) revolved around Anita Ekberg, not only capturing her physical beauty, but also making it the very linchpin of all this business, presenting her as the essence of desirable femininity. Blier wrote the film specifically with Bellucci in mind, and Blier’s “prostitute” could be relabelled “movie star” and make nearly the same point, as sexuality is commodified and used to entice and frustrate the audience.
But what does desirable femininity desire? As How Much Do You Love Me? unfolds, it shifts from being François’ tale to Daniela’s, explicating her transfer of allegiance to François. When Daniela returns to his apartment after their encounter at the bar, it’s with a new understanding, but Daniela’s noisy love-making brings down the ire of François’ neighbour (Farida Rahouadj), a book translator, who bangs on their door and angrily suggests any woman making such a racket in the sack must be faking it. François has to hold Daniela from attacking the translator in anger, during a funny scene where the two trade insults based on their mutual lustiness (“I’m from the south!” “I’m from even farther south!”) and the translator recreates her own “earthquake” orgasms. François subsequently confronts Daniela and tells her to stop faking.
Problem is, once Daniela turns off her practiced act, she can’t turn it back on again when Charly reclaims her. Charly, who also proves to be her husband as well as pimp, visits François’ apartment along with two goons and tells François he should make him an offer, like handing over all of his lottery winnings, if he wants to keep Daniela. Charly is “a man who counts” in François’ parlance—a rich and powerful person, not to mention a scary one, except that he constantly needs to assert his aptness for the role he plays as bringer of bad tidings. “I’m a bad man,” he tells François, and, with his heavy physical presence and clipped, businesslike manner, drops hints about the Sadean extremes he can he go to; he starts to tell a story involving his last, unfaithful girlfriend and some rats that drives Daniela, who’s already heard the tale, to demand he stop talking, frantic with anxious loathing. Charly himself is as utterly defeated by his affection for Daniela as the other men. François seems to choose his money over Daniela, telling Charly he’ll buy a house in Provence instead, an idea Charly likes, too (and suggesting an in-joke aimed at Depardieu’s role in Jean de Florette, 1986), and Daniela leaves quietly with the gangster. Blier dissects another fond pop culture canard here, the image of the gangster as sexually potent overlord: in spite of his imperious posturing, Charly is actually a terrible lay, and as lovelorn in his way as François ever was. With Daniela returned to his swank apartment, and after he escorts her into his private bedroom and instructs her to “make it a boudoir,” Charly has sex with her, but his own sensuality-free humping style pathetically fails to revive Daniela’s professional courtesy. She describes François as having “grazed” her, and reflects that he did the greatest thing a woman in her profession could imagine: “He gave me back my modesty.”
Charly is so confounded by such statements that first he ushers his goons in to entertain themselves with her, but then shepherds them out again when she screams, “Try to understand instead of playing Godfather— can’t you see I’m losing it?” and he realises what he’s up against: the same force of unruly human will to which he is equally subject. So Charly lets her make up her own mind in a fit of “generosity” whilst warning “it won’t last.” Daniela is free, but when she returns to her new home, she finds François already rutting furiously with the translator. Having unleashed the great lover in François, now he’s become community property just like her (“We’re just being neighbourly.”). Daniela orders him to take a shower and wash off her smell, reclaiming him. But François has one more curve ball to throw at her, revealing that he never actually won the lottery and has simply been using his wages to pass momentarily as a high-roller, never imagining things would play out as they had—he couldn’t have bought Daniela off Charly even if he wanted to. François can barely even keep a straight face as he admits this, knowing it makes no difference between them now anyway, even as Daniela accosts him in anger. He’s right. The couple spend two weeks locked up in the apartment making love until finally François’ coworkers show up at the door, wondering what’s happened to him. Finding him fortified in his pleasure, they invade his apartment at Daniela’s urging and start an impromptu house party.
This party forms the last chapter of Blier’s creation, and here he veers even more wildly between attitudes as he ends the film four or five different ways according to the viewpoints of different characters. At first, Blier seems to commit the film to the realm of joie de vivre comedy, as Daniela dances in her newly liberated happiness. She’s even delighted by François scuffling with his ogling pals in defending her honour even though she’s happy to acknowledge what they already know, that she’s a prostitute, because it’s all so utterly normal. And yet the line, “Beware of parties, they often end in tears” drops from a character’s lips. François has already signed off without concern to her state and the idea that she might still retain her wantonness. Charly turns up halfway through the party to sink into a chair and gaze wistfully at Daniela, and the translator slips in amongst the dancers, immediately gathering all of the unattached males close to her in interest, including Charly, who flirts with her: “What’s under your pants?” “A thong.” “And under your tight sweater?” “A push-up bra.” “And in your head?” “Turmoil.” Blier takes a poke at national cliché as one of the men protests when the translator slaps him for touching her derrière: “Asses are meant to be touched—this is France.” Charly gets angry and pulls out his gun, declaring he has evil inside him and could kill everyone, but then joins in lockstep with the others as they begin deadpan boogying to the music. The movie breaks down as the characters move swiftly through islets of action from different genres, from stage farce to melodrama, the settings becoming overtly theatrical.
François catches Daniela making out with one of his pals along with the rest of the partyers, one of whom notes, “He’s taking his punishment” in confronting the inevitable result of his acquiescence, whereupon Charly guns down Daniela, before looking to the camera and saying “I could have done it, if I wanted to.” This is one ending, the tragicomic one, the one that others seem to want, the one where Daniela is an untrustworthy tart after all. Blier reboots: Daniela merely wanders the party in seeming detachment from her surroundings, maybe having absconded to make out with someone else and maybe not, perhaps doomed to feel separate from everyone except her boding, tolerant lover, and settling down for a cigarette of sisterly conciliation with the translator. Choose your own reality. Blier chooses his, not quite losing his wry smirk as he depicts Daniela and François planted in some neorealist’s idea of connubial bliss, the stairwell of the apartment block strung with flapping laundry and Daniela transformed into a flat-soled, polka-dot-dressed housewife, with François’ heart healed. Any or all of these endings might come on, because in storytelling Blier seems to think the same thing as he has one character say of la femme: “There is no never with women.” Is it all just a put-on on Blier’s part, a jivey recourse into po-mo postures to cover creative crisis, or a smart and witty and rebuttal to the idea a film can’t be both ironic and emotionally direct at the same time? Perhaps, again, it’s all of these. To answer the title’s question, though: I loved it, just a little.
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Director: Keith Gordon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Writer Joyce Carol Oates called Scott Spencer, “the poet-celebrant of Eros.” As someone whose memory of his highly sensuous prose and love-mad teenagers is as vivid as it is some 30+ years after reading Endless Love, I couldn’t agree more. Spencer has written 12 novels in various genres—most recently, horror, under the pseudonym Chase Novak—but his elegant explorations into the depths of romantic love and obsession are nearly without peer. Even after two tries, Spencer’s celebrated vision of teen love hasn’t gotten the screen version it deserves yet, but his 1986 novel Waking the Dead is another matter. Keith Gordon, a director with a small, but impressive list of prestige television credits (“Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “Dexter,” “Homeland”) and at least one film that deserves a better reputation than it’s got, The Singing Detective (2003), is a veteran surveyor of the depths of human emotion. With Waking the Dead, he must navigate emotional commitments both personal and global. In the process, he gives us a much larger picture of what it means to be a good person than most films care to approach.
The opening sequence immediately announces the field of action on which Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) has been sparring with his girlfriend, Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), for the two tempestuous years of their love. Fielding watches the TV news in mounting horror as a report about a car bomb that killed two Chilean dissidents touring in Minnesota mentions that an American activist from Chicago was also killed in the blast. Sarah’s picture flashes on the screen, doubling the one on display near the television. Fielding squeezes his head as though to keep his skull from exploding and shrieks in jagged despair. From this point, the film toggles between 1972 through 1974, the years of Fielding and Sarah’s love affair, and 1984, when Fielding has taken his seat in the U.S. Congress.
Fielding and Sarah first meet at the office of his brother Danny (Paul Hipp), a counterculture publisher who hired her only the week before. Fielding’s attraction to her is immediate. When he asks her to dinner, she is a bit put off by his U.S. Coast Guard uniform, but agrees. At dinner, Sarah tells him she was educated at a Catholic convent school and is a committed activist for human rights. Fielding enlisted in the Coast Guard to build his resume as a patriot who has served his country; he intends to become a U.S. senator, though he confides to Sarah that he’d really like to be president. Fielding walks Sarah home, but she resists kissing him good night; however, moments after she enters her apartment, she opens her window and throws her keys down to him. Despite their unlikely pairing, their affair becomes a grand passion.
Leaving aside the chemistry between Fielding and Sarah, there is a sounder basis for their relationship. Both are dedicated to making the world a better place in part because of their early training. Fielding comes from a working-class family; his parents gave him a patrician name to match their hopes for his social mobility. His own observations of the needs of ordinary Americans drive him to become their representative in the halls of power. Sarah’s Catholic upbringing set her up for a life of service—indeed, she had ambitions to become a nun until puberty struck. When the pair met, American involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down and the Watergate scandal was about to surface, leaving behind massive disillusionment and the widespread radicalization of youths like Sarah. At another point in time, she might have welcomed Fielding’s ambition to reform the system from within, but her distrust of conventional solutions brings her into regular conflict with Fielding, and her clandestine missions to Chile to help opponents of its dictatorship escape have him feeling fearful for her safety and frustrated at not being the center of her universe.
By 1983, Fielding seems to have picked up the pieces and gotten on with his life plan. He is running for Congress with the backing of powerful politico Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) and the support of politically savvy girlfriend Juliet Beck (Molly Parker). Fielding seems to be headed for a major power trip with all the trappings, but he starts seeing Sarah everywhere, imagining that she is speaking to him from beyond the grave or, perhaps, may have used the bombing to draw attention to the plight of oppressed Chileans and gone underground to continue her work. Has he finished grieving? Is Sarah the “Jiminy Cricket” on his shoulder to keep him in line as he ascends the staircase of influence? Is she alive?
What is great about Waking the Dead is that it places the mystery of love ahead of the mundane whodunit of Sarah’s fate. In Spencer’s world, the intensity of the feelings Fielding and Sarah shared transcends the grave. Fielding misses Sarah horribly and is honest—and cruel—enough to admit it to Juliet when he agrees with her that if she walked out the door and disappeared, he’d forget about her in a matter of days. The sticking point between Sarah and Fielding is a greater love than what they feel for each other—the love of humanity that Sarah ultimately chooses over the private happiness she has with Fielding. Waking the Dead does justice to the passion many activist boomers cling to from the time when they felt most alive and committed to public action, while honoring the private losses many of them faced as the war took its toll.
Fielding proves to be the kind of boomer for whom private happiness tends to be more important, the kind who have taken over the country and given up the fight for the common good, if they ever had much fight in them to begin with. When his sister Caroline (Janet McTeer) and others suggest the Sarah would have been a liability to Fielding’s future, the careerist boomer priorities come plainly into focus, though, in fact, they’re right. Sarah is the braver of the two in recognizing that however she and Fielding differ in their approaches to helping others, humanitarian causes must be fought for on as many fronts as possible; she never discourages him from his path and tries to help him by attending networking cocktail parties with him—though she can’t help making a hash of them by insulting the influential businessmen and party functionaries he is trying to court.
The script by Robert Dillon, which preserves some of the best of Spencer’s writing, is smart and literate. The scrambled chronology isn’t really a problem, but Gordon may have been induced to dress his sets in clearly defined ways—warm hippie-style scored by Joni Mitchell for the early sequences and sleek modern scored to Brian Eno and David Byrne for the ’80s scenes. On the other hand, placing Connelly and Crudup naked in front of a roaring fire might signal it was the director’s lack of imagination that drew this overly defined line in time. Fielding’s visions tend to be fairly straightforward as well, with the repeat motif of a figure in a long tartan cape standing in the distance. One place where the hallucination is truly haunting is in an airport terminal—one Sarah becoming many Sarahs wearing capes and moving down a corridor like ghosts emerging from the other side.
This film could have been little more than a hectoring indictment of boomers—and maybe that’s just how it was seen by some audience members—if not for Jennifer Connelly, a gift to this movie almost as miraculous as Sarah herself. She hits every note right between the eyes, utterly convincing in her commitment to her cause and to Fielding, acting both completely vulnerable and strong with determination. Crudup nearly matches her, but he is somewhat hampered by having to portray a shallower individual. When her love reaches out to him with all the right words and feelings, he answers more often than not with a hungry sexuality. In their final scene together, tellingly, nothing but tears and touches pass between them, a sign of Fielding’s growth through great pain. This film, though fairly conventional in its attitudes, can awaken the romantic in all of us, but especially those of us who have lived in heady times and loved with all our hearts.
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Director/Screenwriter: Lucrecia Martel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A little over a week ago, I reviewed the feature film Hannah Arendt (2012), about the famous German-Jewish philosopher during the period when she observed the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and wrote a series of articles and a book about it. Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” to suggest that Eichmann was an efficient bureaucrat who had literally lost the ability to think for himself, that his fiendish crimes became normalized for him to the point that there seemed to be no moral imperative surrounding his actions at all. Hannah Arendt centers around an observer of evil, and even though it includes some of the actual footage of Eichmann testifying during the trial, we, like Arendt, remain on the outside looking in.
As scary as it sounds, what would happen if we could actually experience the world as Eichmann did, from inside his head? What we would learn? Argentinian director/screenwriter Lucrecia Martel takes on just such an improbable mission with her intriguing and somewhat exasperating film The Headless Woman. The film concerns itself with a hit-and-run accident that occurs on an isolated road when the driver, Verónica (María Onetto), takes her eyes off the road for a moment to answer her cellphone. The bulk of the film actually tries to put us inside Veró’s head as she tries to process the fact that she may have killed someone.
The opening scene of three boys and a dog running along and across the road, jumping into and climbing out of an empty viaduct, and generally playing around is shot in the clear, sunny day with a sharpness that emphasizes their youthful vitality. The scene shifts to a group of women moving to their cars in a parking lot, with snatches of conversation that resemble Robert Altman’s overlapping dialogue, though in this case, we are brought into a dialogue that has been ongoing for weeks and must hunt for meaning. One woman compliments Veró on her blonde coiffure, and Veró responds that the chlorine is making it fade.
Another cut reveals Veró driving alone, listening to the radio. When her cellphone goes off, her head turns toward us and then down. The car is jostled as we hear one and then another loud bump. Veró eventually stops, visibly shaken, and sits catching her breath for several long moments. She looks in her rearview and sideview mirrors. We see what looks like a dog laying by the side of the road, but the car is distant enough to make identification difficult for us. Eventually, Veró puts the car in gear and drives off. She continues to monitor her car mirrors with worried confusion.
The next time we see her is at a hospital. She has a small bandage on her forehead, and is admitted for x-rays. A man (Daniel Genoud) comes to see her, and she embraces him to be comforted with sex. Who is he? We won’t find out for some time, but when Veró returns home, we learn that he’s not her husband Marcos (César Bordón). Much of what we learn about her comes indirectly from the people around her who are carrying on as usual—Veró herself says almost nothing for days, moving like a stunned animal through her home, her dental practice, and her social engagements. Eventually, however, she moves out of the shock of denial and shares with Marcos her fear that she killed someone on the road.
The terrible burden of moral culpability is what is on display in The Headless Woman. Martel tries to put us inside Veró’s head, conjuring a sensory experience that is both heightened and disoriented. The bright, sharp look of the opening scene gives way to a darker, more diffuse look that communicates a world gone out of focus, leeched of recognizable detail and simple joy. Martel trains her camera intently on Veró, tightly shooting her face at the edge of the frame, often with actions occurring behind her. Onetto often looks as though her thoughts are painfully fragmented, that she is “headless” in the aftermath of the accident. The withholding of information, the shards of relationships glimpsed in passing, all serve to draw us into Veró’s emotional universe.
They say that naming the problem is the first psychological step to solving it, and for Veró, sharing her secret not only relieves some of the pressure, but also allows others to intervene on her behalf. It is here that the film moves out of its almost experimental phase and progresses as a slightly more traditional narrative, or at least one that fills in a lot of the blanks. The threads of what were just images now come into focus—these are Veró’s aunt and cousins, this is the volunteer work she does at a school, here is confirmation that she has two daughters. And significantly, here are the employer, friends, and family of the boy she killed, completely unaware of who she is.
Martel is so intent that we virtually experience Veró’s trauma that despite her cuts that compress the week or so during which this narrative takes place, we seem to experience it in real time. Onetto has a huge job, on camera for nearly the entire running time, a camera peering into her face looking for Veró’s soul. She is never less than compelling to look at, but Martel has set up what I think is an impossible task. Just as Hannah Arendt tried, and actually failed, to divine the mystery of Eichmann’s soul, we cannot simply look at Veró’s face, even one that communicates emotion and trauma, and feel inside her. Indeed, we can’t do that in face-to-face interactions.
A secondary commentary arises after Veró shares her secret, that of class entitlement. Veró is from the professional class, and as her shock wears off, so does her moral quandary, a fading that becomes all the more easy as her husband “takes care of” her problem by erasing any traces of her actions. In some ways, it was comforting to see a more conventional resolution to the movie, with Veró washing that dead boy right out of her hair by going back to her natural brown color—though she hastens to add to her friend that her hair has probably gone grey under the serial dye jobs. It’s frustrating trying to feel something it’s impossible to feel unless you’ve actually had the experience of killing someone accidentally. But some of us can relate to someone taking care of our problems for us, and we can all relate to recovering from a trauma and finding ways to go on with our lives that often involve willful forgetting. Is that what Hannah Arendt meant when she said that Eichmann had lost the capacity to think? For The Headless Woman, the answer appears to be “yes.”
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Francis Ford Coppola
By Roderick Heath
With its legendarily torturous production, including a typhoon and a heart attack suffered by its leading man, and its thematic and aesthetic challenges, Apocalypse Now looked doomed to be a grand folly and the death-knell of ’70s auteurist ambition in Hollywood. Instead, Heaven’s Gate (1981) would be labeled the folly, whilst Apocalypse Now became the capstone for Francis Ford Coppola’s astonishing run of creativity in the decade, a careening outburst of artistic intensity that captured the Palme d’Or at Cannes and became a surprisingly popular, if also intensely divisive, film experience. Few mainstream films of any era have tried to stretch the form of cinema as much as Coppola’s Vietnam War epic. Coppola’s famous statement of creative hubris at the Cannes press conference in which he described the production as reproducing the nature of the war itself, only added to the mystique of the work and the strange, otherworldly power it radiated of being at once a film about feverish excess and obsession, and the product of these passions. Coppola later returned to the work and reedited it into the “Redux” version, adding back scenes that had bitten the cutting room floor over concern that the original epic concept could not be sold to mass audiences. The recut made the film, already a great but slightly inscrutable work, even better, and indeed lifted it into a truly epic realm with works like Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1969) as a vista of human experience in extremis.
The inspired notion of transposing Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s epochal 1899 study of colonial degeneration, onto the Vietnam War, courted overt parallels between two different eras and versions of First World sin. Conrad’s tale had dazzled critics for decades with its portrait of psychocultural collapse in the face of primal forces and unchecked exploitation, but earned the enmity of some postcolonial voices, like Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who felt that the novella perpetuated some of the worst misunderstandings of the colonialist mindset. Such unease was understandable, as the essential ambiguity of the piece, the invocation of the crazed, ungovernable forces released when cultures clash and power becomes almost godlike, suggests that finally all humans are prey to the same frailty, from the tribal level to the most “sophisticated.” Such is also true of Coppola’s adaptation, coauthored with John Milius, whose own sensibility often explored the schism between the beauty of the warrior ethic and the tragedy of martial violence. The adaptation took very loose inspiration from some real-life figures who attempted to form mountain tribes or “Montagnards” into fighting forces, and synthesised them with the image of the company man gone native, Conrad’s Mister Kurtz, paragon of civilised and civilising values somehow crumbling into pagan overlord of a bastardised anticivilisation.
Apocalypse Now, whilst offering a sustained and impressive catalogue and critique of the insanities of the specific war it dealt with, nonetheless stands most essentially as a psychologised, stylised, oneiric study of the divide between humanity at its best and basest instincts. Commencing with an Ouroborous-like moment where central antihero Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) recalls the thunder and carnage of jungle warfare as a dream of apocalypse, underscored by the sturm und drang of The Doors’ oedipal classic “The End,” the film surges forth in a state of woozy, shell-shocked, freaked-out fever dream. The film’s weird and expressive texture gains its inspiration and force from the disconnected mindset of soldiers on the ground, caught between a world of super-technology and the pleasures and comforts of modern “civilisation,” and the primordial savagery, shock, joy, and delirium of war, faced with the temptation to become lost in an alternative reality. Such an alternative zone of perception might be found either through drugs, or complete entrance into a semi-hypnotic state of dissociation. Both, indeed, temper the reality seen throughout Apocalypse Now, as the war provides sights as mind-jarringly weird as cattle being hoisted by helicopters above smoking battlegrounds and surfers trying to dodge explosions at they skip waves. The film’s structure obeys an essential geographical reality—it’s a “river movie” in the same way Easy Rider (1969) is a “road movie”—that also maps an interior, metaphysical, experiential journey backwards through states of consciousness and history.
Apocalypse Now proved at once the apotheosis of the era in which Coppola seemingly could do no wrong, and the end of it. Coppola’s rise from a wunderkind at the edges of Hollywood had begun under the wing of Roger Corman, whose name is checked in Apocalypse Now as a leader giving the hero the order to adventure into the unknown. Coppola attempted, like Corman but with a far different set of ambitions, to become a film industry unto himself. His rise had seen him move through multiple guises of cinematic genre, from brute horror (Dementia 13, 1963) to Richard Lesteresque hipster satire (You’re A Big Boy Now, 1967), offbeat twists on cute big studio properties (Finian’s Rainbow, 1968), and soulful proto-indie drama (The Rain People, 1969). His films were marked by great technical competence, one reason he blazed a trail that other Movie Brats followed, but also a growing fixation with singular characters engaging in odysseys of discovery that rarely have a certain, or positive, ends in sight, and a sense of expressive largesse that could make the smallest subject seem epic. His triumph with The Godfather (1972) and its sequel saw him elevate pulp fiction to the level of operatic tragedy simply by taking it far more seriously than anyone expected, wringing every moment for gravitas and substance, and sustaining a totality of mood that enfolded the audience. His low-key, semi-experimental thriller The Conversation (1974) extended his willingness to take formal risks, seeking new textures and methods in narrative cinema whilst also extending the semi-political studies of The Godfather films into a more interior style of storytelling to match the enquiries he had made in that direction with The Rain People. Willard, like Shirley Knight’s benumbed housewife in the latter film, cavorts in hotel rooms, stripping naked and spiralling in Promethean crisis. Whereas The Conversation is cool and bleakly paranoid, Apocalypse Now is overheated and delirious, but both revolve around the way their lead characters perceive the world around them. Like Michael Corleone, the monstrous Kurtz looks upon his works, achieved at first for resolute and honourable motives, and trembles in utmost horror.
For a film that is as famous, oft-quoted, excerpted, and satirised as Apocalypse Now, it’s often been the subject of a certain wood-for-the-trees cluelessness about its actual achievement, thanks to the iconic thrill of moments like the “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter raid that threaten to prove Truffaut’s rule about the difficulty of making antiwar movies. But one of Coppola’s supreme achievements was to succeed in transmuting the electric, still-raw experience of the war, rooted in the ’70s in the realm of polemic, social and moral fallout, and brute fact, into an argot of hallucinogenic expressionism. With its teeming visual textures, constantly littered with sensuous dissolves, dreamy double-exposures, flowing tracking shots, and layer upon layer of image, it’s one of the few modern films to take up the mantle of great silent Expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Paul Leni, in attempting to render the cinematic space as a psychological canvas. Willard’s mission to seek out Kurtz is prefaced by glimpses of the emotionally gutted man in the floating, lunatic time he spends awaiting an assignment, having run from the high tension of suburbia back to that of war, drinking liquor like water in the desert, dancing in drunken gyrations, and slicing his hand open when combating shadow enemies. Coppola’s dynamic excursions in montage throughout the film are bookended by two mirrored examples, scored to the breakdown phases of “The End” where private distress and butchery are correlated in a process of ritual catharsis.
Willard’s call to action comes from contemplative General Corman (G. D. Spradlin) and his doughy, unctuous underlings, men who seem to embody the cool distance between object and enterprise in the war, playing tapes of Kurtz’s eerie, disembodied, shamanistic speeches broadcast from the edge of nothingness, passing around shrimp that sits dead on the plate like alien harbingers (“…You’ll never have to prove your courage in any other way.”) whilst the coded statements and charged looks of the men communicate the profound and forbidden necessity of the mission. The General’s musings on the battle that Kurtz has lost are at once facetious and genuinely prognosticative, as if suggesting that the truth is not hard to find, but experiencing it is an entirely different animal.
Willard’s assignment to “terminate the Colonel’s command,” the nicely euphemistic way of saying kill him before he embarrasses us, takes him through a landscape of carnage and human wreckage, commencing with an exemplar of cavalier bravado Lt. Kilgore (Robert Duvall). A Custeresque leader of the Air Cavalry, Kilgore leads attacks with Wagner blaring from loudspeakers on his attack choppers, and more terrifyingly, encourages his soldiers to regard war as a distraction from, and another part of, one big, long beach party. Willard wonders why Kurtz, who fights this same way, is such a big deal, but the differences emerge sharply. Kurtz is described as a warrior-poet in the classic sense, but it’s Kilgore who introduces the idea with his famous “napalm in the morning” speech, celebrating the victorious associations of the scent of that flesh-roasting alchemy like a samurai writing poems to the beauty of cherry blossoms before combat. But Kilgore, with his bantam cock strut and frat boy worldview, embodies a macho, showy, almost caricatured ideal of a specifically American soldier, decrying his enemy as “fucking savages” for using guerrilla tactics against his indiscriminately destructive helicopters. Kilgore’s bizarre swings of militarist passion encompass brutality and sentimentalism, his mannerisms seemingly collected from a life of watching John Wayne movies, but filtered through a very real vocation for war. He’s the kind who tosses around cards to tell his enemy who killed their friends before giving a drink to a wounded VC because “any man who’s brave enough to fight can drink from my canteen any day,” seeing no discrepancy in such an attitude, because for him war is a kind of market of awe and power. He can be distracted instantly, however, by the presence of an admired figure like Lance Murdock (Sam Bottoms): fulfilling the necessary mission of getting Willard barely stirs Kilgore, but the hope of giving Lance a chance to surf a great swell has him fire up the engines of his ships. Kilgore wields the schizoid nature of modern war, whereas Kurtz is its victim.
The hilarious victory, part prank, partly moral statement, that Willard wins for the boat crew by stealing Kilgore’s surfboard seals an initial camaraderie that dissolves slowly, but definitely in the face of the ugly nature of Willard’s mission and the peculiar trail they follow. The crew of the boat manage as a cast of characters to tread a fine line between symbolic function and eccentric gallery of types: the sturdy, pragmatic skipper Chief Philips (Albert Hall), nervy but artful former New Orleans cook Jay “Chef” Hicks (Frederick Forrest), innocently brutal young gunner Tyrone “Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne), and wave-dancer Lance, all of whom stand at last at great remove from Willard, who operates throughout the film on a level of intensity that can seem at once soulless and zenlike. His desolate, yet curious, even philosophical vision was strengthened with great effect on the film via former war correspondent Michael Herr’s indelible voiceover, charged with an anthropological affection for specific Vietnam War jargon whilst also accessing the often enigmatic Willard’s interior meditations on the nature of his mission. Kurtz evolves in his mind from mere rogue lunatic to a creature of monstrous importance, his fall from a man “groomed for one of the top jobs in the Corporation” to a ranting demigod. For Willard, Kurtz becomes more than a target, or even a curiosity: he becomes the emblem and embodiment of the broken nature of the age and king of the dead zone Willard inhabits. The schism between the air-conditioned world of modern civilisation and the brute charnel house of Kurtz’s compound has more than miles of jungle and warfare separating them: it’s a gap of time, of learning, of art, of culture, of the refinement of the human soul, all reversed and left broken into inchoate fragments where once they linked, synthesised, and provided form in the face of chaos.
The boat’s journey maps the nature of the conflict like stations of the cross. The surreal USO show sees Playboy playmates gyrating to please the young and desperately horny soldiers whilst dressed up in a mockery of America’s historical wars—cavalry, cowboys, and Indians transformed into erotic tease—whilst the young men are worked up to a pitch of excitement so great some finish up dangling from the helicopter trying to snatch the lovelies away again. This moment evokes the inevitable conclusion of the war in images of helicopters ferrying out refugees from the fall of Saigon, played out here in anticipation as tragicomic burlesque show. The violently surreal disparity between this situation and the other world, the “real” world of home, is hinted again, whilst exploitation of young men and young women is presented in a double bind. Willard’s lesson gleaned about the nature of the war, the realisation that the enemy has no such illusions, no other home, no other reality (“His idea of great R’n’R was some cold rice and a little rat meat.”) is one that echoes through to Kurtz’s prescriptions for a war that should be fought purely by dedicated, amoral creatures facing such a determined enemy with so little to lose. Later, when the crew of the boat re-encounter the playmates, Willard is able to swap petrol for sex, an act of veritable prostitution that turns nonetheless into an islet of clumsy, but eager carnality and quicksilver emotions. The gorgeous young women and their soldier-johns at first graze off each other rather than meet. Chef tries to mould Miss May (Colleen Camp) into the simulacrum of her poster whilst she reminisces about her days as a birdkeeper in a zoo. The Playmate of the Year (Cynthia Wood) rambles anxiously about her exploitation whilst the increasingly spacey Lance paints her into an otherworldly idol.
Coppola implicates himself in the weirdness by providing a glimpse of himself as a TV director, anxiously trying to capture reality unmarred by awareness of the camera. The sense of the war as something powered by a deracinated, incoherent objective is suggested repeatedly and finally stated outright by Hubert de Marais (Christian Marquand), the patriarch of a lost French plantation still clinging by its fingernails to its piece of this good earth: “You Americans fight for the biggest nothing in history,” he says, as if to suggest that no one in the end really fights wars for politics, but for essentially personal desires, gains, or fears that find expression in political ideas, basic drives that are lacking for the characters seen throughout the film. Choices for coping with this lack run the gamut of stark survivalist integrity, glaze-eyed warrior trances, rigorous professionalism, rampant enjoyment of destruction for its own sake, and psychic disintegration. The Chief’s efforts to hold to the professional line offer the promise of sanity and safety, and yet eventually run up against the impossibility of rationality in a war where jittery kids command machine guns and the populace teems with potential enemies. His attempt to do his “job” rather than merely pursue Willard’s mission finishes up in a grotesque slaughter of civilians in a boat, and Willard announces his variety of singularly brutal honesty by shooting a wounded survivor,an act at once jarringly heinous and yet also compassionate to all concerned. The “moral terror” of which Kurtz becomes the prophet is inseparable from the stages of the journey, as the notion that war can be waged in any kind of ethical fashion seems to become ludicrous, and total nihilism looms on the horizon: “Drop the Bomb. Exterminate them all.”
Some of Coppola’s touches of pathos, like the tape recording of Clean’s mother reading a wooden birthday message whilst his crewmates are confronted with his body, are a little heavy-handed, and can be criticised for perpetuating a certain American egotism in the face of the war’s suffering. Still, the film hardly skimps on visions of the war as a grotesque infliction, particularly early on as civilians are evacuated in landing craft that close up like monsters and the land is pillaged. Part of the thesis here is that the reasons the opposing sides fought were completely different, and moreover that war in the world is merely an extension of war within the self. The essential Sisyphean nature of the struggle is clearly invoked by the symbol of a bridge that is constructed each night and smashed each day, glimpsed through the LSD-hued viewpoint of Lance as he and Willard stalk the battle zone where terrified, hollow-eyed mostly black GIs like the Chief and Clean suffer an injustice within an injustice. Ghostly armies lurk throughout Apocalypse Now, including Kurtz’s eerie band of white-painted guerrillas and the force defending De Marais’ remote plantation seeming to resolve out of the fog like a spectral band guarding the memory of the dead of Dien Bien Phu. It is these anachronistic warriors to whom Phillips entrusts Clean’s body as icon of the war’s dead, and they enact the proper funeral service with backwoods rigour.
The crew’s stay at the plantation swiftly segues into a quorum on history blended with very French disputations, but the essential motive of the planters is much the same as that of the Corleones: the desire to hold family together and defend hard-won turf, family integrity being one of Coppola’s constant absolutes. Willard remains far outside of it all, whilst locked in a zone of charged awareness with the ethereal widow of one of De Marais’ family, Roxanne Sarrault (Aurore Clément), who offers him the balms of opium and sexual contact as she had once given them to her husband. A moment of ethereal eroticism gives Willard a chance to reconnect with one half of himself seemingly annihilated by war, and the liminal limits of the moment are peeled back to find a chain of people inhabiting the same roles back into primordial time. The felicity of the Redux cut in adding feminine and erotic dimensions to the tale helped flesh out the film’s themes and also its almost numbing sensuousness: the physicality of Apocalypse Now, captured throughout by Vittorio Storaro’s masterly photography and aided by Walter Murch’s editing and richly compiled soundscapes, keeps the spiritual and philosophical excursions constantly rooted in the immediate land of blood, mud, flies, fire, jungle heat, sodden skin. The metaphysical is an extension of the physical. Willard’s face, perpetually beaded with sweat and with eyes like impact craters where a sense of reality once was, dominates many a frame of the film.
Conrad’s Marlowe, Willard’s analogue in the novella and a recurring voice of experience in Conrad’s works, was a peculiarly thoughtful, but also pragmatic working man; Willard, on the other hand, is just as thoughtful, but his soul is as much of a battleground as Kurtz’s, a fact that makes him the potential inheritor of Kurtz’s legacy. Willard is an unusual film protagonist considering that there are aspects of him that remain unknowable to the audience; the usual role of narrator-mediator as a way for audiences to get into the drama is passed onto the supporting characters. Willard’s calamitous soul is glimpsed at the outset as torn loose from time and place, reducing him to a lump of pure, raw feeling before he switches back into the clarity of his warrior mode. His previous missions, the men he knows he’s killed, haunt him, and the causes of his divorce and return to Vietnam seem rooted in a horrified fascination, an inability to escape the nagging hint of something he needs to confront fully, a need that Kurtz finally fulfils. Sheen’s less showy, often overlooked performance is a thing of hypnotic beauty, and likewise Hall’s emotional immediacy as Phillips is a quiet coup.
Equally memorable is the kinetic, late appearance by Dennis Hopper as a photojournalist trapped in Kurtz’s compound, an emissary of both mass media and countercultural impulses, and embodying every exposed nerve of both. Hopper’s own spiral into hophead exile after The Last Movie (1971) was perhaps one Coppola wanted to channel, and certainly no one embodied the crack-up of ’60s idealism more than the director of Easy Rider. His character stands as a kind of priest/court jester for the titanic Kurtz, rambling with incoherent urgency in his efforts to communicate both Kurtz’s greatness and his depravity, as if he’s found a kind of guru who scares the shit out of him. Not coincidentally, the Manson murders are invoked during the voyage upriver as Kurtz’s ignoble stateside avatar. In finally meeting Kurtz, Willard is ritually washed by his followers, who include Colby (Scott Glenn), another soldier sent on the same mission but seduced into the mesmerised fold, and presented as a trussed prisoner whom Kurtz regales with mysterious anecdotes: his description of having once sailed down a river past a place where “heaven fell to the earth in the form of gardenias” suggests that somewhere is a natural paradise to mirror this stygian abode. Kurtz is glimpsed mostly as a saurian beast in the shadows, running a hand over his bald head like a tarantula crawling on a melon, a creature of strange discursions and secret intentions that may well have proven to be so much quackery.
In one of Brando’s most compelling pieces of acting, Kurtz finally reveals one source of his madness—seeing a pile of children’s arms, inoculated against smallpox, hacked off by Vietcong extremists as a rejection of all imposed, external, modern control, an act of heinous brutality that nonetheless possesses a stringent logic. Coppola and Milius seem to have sensed that the wars of the modern world and psyche would be as much about deciding a frame for reality, and rejecting what does not fit into that frame, as they are about any concrete aim: control of the narrative is everything. Kurtz assesses Willard as Willard has tried to assess him—as a fitting bringer of death and successor as messenger from the edge. He cuts off any means of escape, including murdering Chef before he can call in an air strike, and wrings out nearly the last drop of life from Willard before reviving him as a man, “not even in their fucking army anymore.” Willard’s slaughter of Kurtz, associated in fierce montage with animal sacrifice, is both a bloody and savage act and a moment of liberation that gives Willard a unique power. His killing is an act of mercy and faith, thus uniting the two halves of the soul Roxanne had seen as irrevocably split. The followers of Kurtz bow down to him as their new god-king, but Willard throws away his weapon and receives wisdom—Kurtz’s testimonies—having achieved a complete, Euclidian rebirth for rational man. He is able to lead the innocent Lance back home, and as he sails away, Lance returns from the trance he’s been submerged in. Willard’s victory over moral terror, smothered as it is in a still-pungent scent of rot with Kurtz’s final words still echoing, is nonetheless real.
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Director: Abbas Kiarostami
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Several years ago, my blog partner Rod made a comment on one of my posts: “Stephanie Zacharek recently, and correctly, said that audiences go to the movies to see beautiful, exotic, or at the very least, vividly interesting people on screen, and that it’s one of the great pleasures of going to the cinema.” If nothing else, Abbas Kiarostami’s experimental film Shirin confirms this observation. He chose more than 100 of Iran’s leading actresses to play audience members watching what I took to be a film adaptation of the “Khosrow and Shirin/Fahrad and Shirin” section of Persia’s well-known medieval epic poem the Shâhnâma, and all of them are beautiful, exotic, or vividly interesting to look at. Are they interesting enough to look at for nearly 90 minutes? You’d better think about that before you decide to watch this film, for the entirety of what we see on screen is these women watching a story we only hear, and read, if Persian is not a language we understand.
Shirin is not the most compelling of films to watch, but I found it a fertile experience for monitoring my own reactions to what I was witnessing and bringing to the surface actions that human beings perform unconsciously when we take in a person’s face and figure. I also found it an interesting experience in multitasking, dividing as I had to the images Kiarostami shot while keeping track of the sad story of Shirin, an Armenian queen who left her kingdom for the love of Khosrow, a dethroned Persian king, and ended up alone and unhappy. Finally, I found distinct pleasure in moments of recognition. Not only did I enjoy thinking, oh look, it’s the actress I just saw in A Separation (Leila Hatami—I’m not that good at remembering Iranian names), but I also liked seeing people fidget with their clothes, hands, and faces as they settled into the picture, whisper to the person next to them, doze off for a few seconds—in other words, do the same things I do when I watch a movie.
An Iranian would have a much better time ticking off the names of all the famous women on screen, but since I do not have this familiarity, I found myself really looking at the faces, many of which looked familiar, and remarking to myself how beautiful many of them were. A natural extension of this realization, and something women almost always do with other women, was to analyze the various attributes that lent them distinction. I noticed how many of them had carefully shaped eyebrows, often with the thick inner brow squared off with the upper bridge of the nose. I examined their lips to see who was wearing lipstick and who was not; that appraisal led to an overall inquiry into how much make-up each woman wore. I also checked for jewelry, feeling a bit surprised to see earrings on a few of the women who didn’t appear to be wearing make-up. I also checked to see if all the women were veiled, and I think I spotted only one woman without a hijab, though it was hard to be sure. Even Juliette Binoche, the only Western actress in the film, wore a hijab, letting me know we were definitely in Iran, which subjects all women to this form of attire, regardless of religious affiliation.
Binoche also added artifice to the film, reminding me, as is Kiarostami’s habit, that I was watching actresses playing roles, not genuine reactions caught documentary-like on camera. For example, at one point, the actresses, including Binoche, shed tears. I know she speaks a number of languages, but as far as I know, Persian isn’t one of them. Since it’s unlikely the film would have been subtitled for showing in Iran, how could she have known what the characters were saying? Having witnessed Binoche’s ability to cry on cue in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), I assumed her reactions must have come some other way. It was not surprising to me to learn during my research that Kiarostami filmed the actresses in small groups, instructing them how to behave or what to think about as they stared at a dot-filled card near the camera lens.
Through careful editing to match the narrative of the unseen film, Shirin appears to take place in only one setting. To add more veracity to the illusion that marks the film as fiction, men were also in the audience, including one man who seemed to be accompanying his wife. The men, always at the periphery of the frame, served something like extras. They sometimes grabbed my notice, particularly the bottom half of one face that appeared to belong to Jafar Panahi, the beleaguered director who is awaiting “execution of the verdict” to begin a six-year prison term for sedition, as well as a woman with two black eyes and a bandage over her nose, which, given the composition of the “audience,” I thought was probably the aftermath of a nose job. Like many glancing encounters we have every day, the reason for her appearance can be guessed at, but never known. We thus create a narrative for the things we see that are as individual as our experience of life and the way we process data.
By bringing new faces into the frame throughout the film, Kiarostami seeks to engage the processes described above for the entire running time. I, however, got tired of the game. I might have turned the film off entirely except that the story of Shirin was really quite involving. In relatively short order, I mainly “tuned out” the faces and approached the film as a radio play, barely noticing that I was reading the dialogue. I have listened to radio dramas all my life, so this shift was not only natural, but also quite pleasurable, and allowed me to create pictures in my mind in the same way Kiarostami invited us to create narratives for the pictures of the peripheral members of his fictional audience.
Shirin is quite in keeping with Kiarostami’s usual approach to cinema, even if it seems more unorthodox than most of his films. His reflexive examination of illusion and reality is very much in play here, and is approached more subtly than in his controversial conclusion to Taste of Cherry (1997), though Certified Copy truly is the apex of his examination of this subject. Kiarostami also does one completely unique thing with Shirin that I don’t remember experiencing with any other film: he restores the oral tradition that was always associated with the Shâhnâma, in particular, and with epic poetry, in general. We actually get the chance to imagine the story of Shirin through audio cues and the faces of those who are listening as stand-ins for the storyteller who would emote during the recitation. Thus, not only do we get to learn an ancient tale from the classical Persian canon, we also get to time travel to experience it as it might have been experienced in medieval Persia. I, for one, enjoyed the ride.
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Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Ti West
By Roderick Heath
Revivalism is always a contentious practice in any art form, inviting charges of slavish nostalgia and unoriginality, but it’s also often a signifier of a form trying to reinvent itself and a rejection by younger artists of dominant, but oppressive and depleted models, a way of looking forward by looking back. That’s as true in cinema, though often more piecemeal because of the difficulties of film production, as it is in pop music or painting. In the case of a recent strand of revivalist-tinged horror cinema, it’s easy to see the roots of the movement: the horror film has been in a crisis, it seems, for most of my lifetime. That crisis has been ever-present, even though, or in large part because horror is a genre with a powerful commercial worth, whilst remaining doggedly verboten in the minds of many filmgoers and cultural watchdogs: many a box office list of recent years has proven what utter garbage can still lure fright and gore fans into the multiplexes. Horror proves over and over that it’s sourced in an essential ethic, one that can only be domesticated so far. The genre has seen a variety of pretenders march its halls. The much-hyped waves of Torture Porn, J-Horror and Euro Extreme yielded one or two strong films and a slew of infinitely lesser fare. Fortunately, just lately, there have been distinct signs of a sea change in the genre from the independent film scenes of Great Britain and the U.S.: indeed, whereas indie cinema has for a long time prided itself on distinction from low-budget genre cinema, a crossbreeding of the two seems to be nascent, allowing adventurous young filmmakers to reject the tired reflexes of the slasher movie, endless lousy remakes, and pure stomach-churning nastiness, and channel other models.
Ti West’s films are particularly engaging in this regard, because they represent a melding of the immersed sensibilities of a young genre fan with the anti-generic rhythms of independent film so confidently that he erases the disparity as if it was never there. The House of the Devil, for instance, immediately declares its indie cred with the mischievous touch of casting Greta Gerwig in the type of part often filled by Nancy Loomis or Belinda Balaski back when. West, who began to gain attention with two ultra-low-budget features, The Roost (2005) and Trigger Man (2007), before an ill-fated stab at becoming Eli Roth’s anointed successor with Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009), is suddenly the genre It Boy, and for once, the attention is for very good reasons. West’s already-signature slow-burn narratives have one foot distinctly planted in post-mumblecore realist cinema, with an emphasis on characterisation through suggestion and an almost discursive sense of narrative construction, and one foot in a classic gothic genre sensibility where a prevalence of a mood of evolving credulity, a sense of precise timing, and a slow rhythmic build-up, is of paramount importance. This mood is directly opposed to the instant gratification sensibility ushered in by the likes of Friday the 13th (1980). West extends that into the raison d’etre of his works, invoking no less a figure than Andrei Tarkovsky in the way he insists, like the Russian titan, that the surest way to build tension is to force the audience to wait. Thus in many ways West betrays the legacy of the ’70s and ’80s genre cinema he clearly loves as much as he celebrates it, because such patience and such wilful resistance to cheapjack stunts was rarely exhibited by such models.
The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are, in their fashion, extremely simple movies, employing spare settings and casts, and moving to deceptive beats of storytelling, at least until they hit their crisis moments, closer to ambient techno than blaring rock. The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are linked not only by aesthetic design but by the circumstances of their production: West was inspired to make the second film whilst making the first, during which he and his crew stayed in a hotel with a reputation for being haunted. Most consequentially, they’re conjoined by their human focus, and a distinctive quality of generational biography, skewed a little, but hardly unrecognisably by the ’80s setting of The House of the Devil, and emerging more fully in the context of employment anxiety and the disintegrating faiths and decaying institutions in The Innkeepers.
Both films follow comely, young, but hapless and semi-alienated heroines. The Innkeepers’ Claire (Sara Paxton) is spiritual kin to House’s Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), whilst moving in focus from college into the big, wide world, a world ironically defined by constantly narrowing environs to match their narrowing options. Samantha is more introverted than the kookier, talkative Claire, but each is linked by a flailing lack of direction and both seem clearly cut off from any reliable sense of refuge with, or support by, family, or more than one or two immediate friends. Samantha’s course in The House of the Devil leads her inexorably to the titular abode; Claire’s choices similarly see her unable to avoid the basement she’s explicitly warned not to venture into in the hotel that had become her home and, to a certain extent, refuge from life. If in a subtler, less transparently hip fashion, West’s cinema is nonetheless as attuned to the mindset of the moment as John Carpenter’s was in the hairy, feckless, oppressed atmosphere of Dark Star (1974): like Carpenter’s heroes in that film, the experiences of West’s heroines illustrate immediate realities through the prisms of the fantastic. In both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, financial anxiety is a keynote, and a subtler but pervasive air of anomie and abandonment.
The early scenes of The House of the Devil depict Samantha eddying in a time between times, preparing to move out of her college dormitory into a rented house, negotiating with a kindly prospective landlady (Dee Wallace), and getting a deal that will allow her to make a quick and relatively cheap leap into living by herself. She has good reasons to do so: her room back at the dorm is perpetually used by her roommate (Heather Robb) to copulate with random men, and the college is a dull, desolate space through which she flits in anxious distraction. West is suggestive but not declarative about the nature of Samantha’s background and present state of isolation, but she evokes such marked heroes of the genre as the eponymous mother of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Sgt. Howie of The Wicker Man (1972), defined by her subliminal distinction from her surrounds, retreating to the bathroom to weep in private, sprawling on steps to wait for a prospective employer, zoning out in music.
The prospective employer is named Ulman, and has placed ads for a babysitter around the campus: the moment Tom Noonan’s voice emerges from the other end of the telephone, you know whoever’s answering this ad is screwed. Fate is given an accidental nudge along when Samantha’s solitary gal pal Megan (Gerwig) takes offence on her behalf after Ulman fails to show for the appointed meeting, and rips down all of his ads, leaving Samantha as the sole alternative when another candidate backs out at the last minute. When Samantha finally gets to Ulman’s impressive old pile of a house located (natch) deep in the woods, the list of complications gets increasingly more daunting, including the fact that she’s supposed to actually sit for Ulman’s wife’s mother, an elderly shut-in, and Ulman is willing to pay an absurd amount for a few hours’ work. Mary Woronov, the darkly vulpine star of ’80s flicks like Nomads (1986), is Ulman’s fur-draped wife, who probes with disquieting effect into Samantha’s personal life and circumstances.
Just as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive directly evoked older films with its credit sequence, so, too, does The House of the Devil, projecting large yellow titles over an ’80s pop-scored reverie of Samantha (the music is actually on her ever-present Walkman) whilst strolling through autumnal suburbs back to the college. As in Refn’s film, such touches both announce the film’s programme, but also miscues those quick to assume what’s following is mere pastiche. The House of the Devil is quite a radical piece of narrative cinema in its quiet way, especially by modern standards, in taking its time to quietly condition the audience and its heroine, to the point where an inevitable eruption of chaos will come as a virtual relief from the tension—and one thing West does superlatively well is build tension. The bleary casualness of Samantha’s scenes with the gauchely agreeable Megan, even when driving her into the deep dark woods, is delectable for the mood of everyday camaraderie blended with irritation and mutual indulgence of failings. For the most part, West seeks to justify his long intake of breath with undercurrents rather than declarations: only when Megan, after dropping off her friend and leaving in a huff at Samantha’s willingness to place herself in such an odd situation for the sake of rent money and then pulls over for a cigarette in a nearby cemetery, does the lurking threat finally resolve. A helpful young man (AJ Bowen), actually the son of Samantha’s intriguing employers, steps up to the car and gives Megan a light, but the instant he realises that she is not the prospective babysitter, pulls out a pistol and shoots her in the face.
Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are structured around buildings, and the elusive sensation of isolation and paranoia that can define being alone in large supposedly empty spaces, a mood West ties ineffably to the unease of his protagonists within their own skin. Throughout the second half of House, there are shots peering in at Samantha through windows, a specimen of study, whilst she in turn explores a space that offers constant mystery and suggestion; only the privileged audience is allowed to understand, as West will seemingly casually give viewers a glimpse beyond a door that has foiled his heroine, to find bodies strewn in bloodied carnage. Such gambits relieve the almost purified pressure of the anxious unknown which defines the way The House of the Devil’s narrative works.
If The Innkeepers is slightly more prosaic in its style, with much more dialogue, more defined generic situations, and a few nods to traditional horror movie tricks, it’s also slightly more mature. The dynamic between Samantha and Megan is reconfigured into Claire’s slacker-hued companionship with Luke (Pat Healy), a slightly older he-nerd and fellow college dropout who’s further along in the process of cultivating disengaged contempt for the real world, spending his days surfing internet porn and building a web page to showcase the supposed sepulchral delights of the hotel they work in. The hotel, the Yankee Pedlar Inn, is a virtually empty Edwardian pile about to be closed down. The boss has skipped out to holiday in a tropical paradise, and the young duo is left as a live-in skeleton staff over a long weekend. It’s the sort of job that could be a godsend to the creatively self-involved, but the anxiety provoked by the job’s imminent demise, the immersive constancy of it, and the lack of any other purpose in their lives, makes the mysteries swirling within the building’s aged bricks and timbers a trap that works a perfect spell on Claire. The hotel is supposedly haunted by Madeline O’Malley, a lovelorn suicide who, it is said, can still be glimpsed wandering the halls. Luke claims to have seen her, though he’s caught no more substantial evidence so far than a video shot of a room door closing spontaneously, and he and Claire salve their boredom by engaging in a part-time ghost hunt.
Claire’s fraying capacity to survive in the outside world is brought out in an early scene, the only one where she leaves the immediate surrounds of the hotel to visit a neighbouring café, only to flee swiftly at a barrage of whining by the barista (Lena Dunham, herself an indie filmmaker). She withers under the anxious contempt of a woman (Alison Bartlett) who’s staying in the hotel with her son (Jake Schlueter), who proves less than an ideal audience for Claire’s ghost stories. An encounter with a childhood hero, former actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who, tellingly, played a maternal figure in an ’80s TV show Claire once adored, proves equally discouraging. Leanne supposedly comes to stay at the hotel for a fan convention, but it’s actually a gathering connected to her new occupation as a new-age therapist and psychic, and Leanne’s sozzled prickliness is sometimes mitigated by a more friendly demeanour as she willingly uses crystals to try to commune with the hotel’s spirits. Her contributions to the ghost hunt are vague at best in her bad tidings and warnings to stay out of the basement. Claire, left on a solitary nighttime vigil with a sensitive microphone provided by Luke as part of the hunt, seems to hear traces of far-off piano music, and tracking it to the piano in the lobby, she witnesses one key struck with melodramatic impetus, scaring the hell out of her, but also seeming to announce that the haunting isn’t just the hotel’s emptiness getting to them. And yet, there remains a possibility that Claire’s assailed psyche is fraying.
McGillis’ presence in The Innkeepers, like that of Wallace, Noonan, and Woronov in the earlier film, pays a definite nod to ’80s genre cinema, and utilises the actors’ specific auras and capabilities with intuitive aplomb. Noonan’s capacity to seem both affable and unsettling is expertly employed in his character’s mix of old-world gentlemanliness and desperation to please Samantha enough to get her to stay around. His towering height is utilised in The House of the Devil’s best gag, when Samantha and Megan first meet him, his head cut well out of the frame that comfortably encompasses the two shorter, daunted ladies. McGillis admirably embraces her part as a greying, fatigued, spikily alcoholic old dingbat with élan, her initial patronisation and coldness to Claire transforming a childhood hero into an embodiment of both the alienating schism between art and life and implicitly maternal condemnation and a generational gap. Later, Luke sneaks in a few low blows, figuratively speaking, at Leanne’s drinking and failed career in revenge for her hurting Claire’s feelings, and this bit made me wonder if in some way all our contemporary obsession with the failings of the famous is sourced in similar motives. Either way, West advertises himself through such casting as an heir to Quentin Tarantino’s and Christopher Nolan’s penchant for reviving the careers of faded figures of former cool.
But West is always focused on his central, younger figures, and he gets gems of performances out of Donahue and especially Paxton, whose wrestling match with a garbage bin early in The Innkeepers is a terrific piece of physical comedy that doubles as a furtherance of characterisation, as Claire is easily overwhelmed by inanimate objects, and the sight of Leanne gazing down from her hotel window like a hovering, disapproving owl deepens the moment’s humiliation. There’s a sequence in The House of the Devil where Samantha momentarily wins her war of nerves against both her own depression and her boding surrounds by cutting loose for a moment by listening to music on her headphones and dancing around the place with a kind of footloose energy and innocence that seems definably pre-’90s.
Unlike some obvious precursors like The Haunting’s (1963) Hill House or The Shining’s (1981) grandiose Overlook, The Innkeepers‘ Yankee Pedlar is nominally vintage, but is actually undistinguished in any quality except by age. But in the grand generic tradition, it has become a snare for frustrated dreams and circular lives: as well as the ghost whose backstory carries intimations of despair and abandonment, an aged man (George Riddle) turns up asking for the room his spent his honeymoon in, a room that, like most of the rest of the hotel, has been stripped down and sealed up. Claire and Luke acquiesce to his request, only for Claire to later find he’s committed suicide, the final catalyst for an onrush of terrible visions. Much of The Innkeepers is sustained by the attentive back and forth between Claire and Luke, particularly in an epic movement where the pair escapes ennui by getting drunk and playful, Claire’s flaky forlornness for a moment almost connecting with Luke’s sexual frustration and stymied attraction to his coworker. This tension resolves as Claire suggests descending into the basement to hunt for Madeline, culminating in a intense sequence offering only close-ups of the two actors in the midst of a sea of darkness, and Claire fearfully informing Luke that the wraith is standing right behind him. Luke freaks out and flees the hotel entirely, leaving Claire to try to survive alone. This sequence is enormously pleasurable on several levels—the slow-rising, sustained tension, the precision of characterisation and acting, the cunning use of camera perspective that generates a certainty of the supernatural whilst still never confirming its existence beyond Claire’s point of view.
If West’s otherwise marvellous diptych is hampered by anything, it’s by the relatively stolid conceptualisations of evil and the uncanny once they are actually revealed: the witch-woman (Danielle Noe) who claws her way out of the attic to perform a devilish ritual over Samantha’s trussed form at the climax of The House of the Devil and the mangled ghosts that pursue Claire in The Innkeepers are standard movie ghouls. West hasn’t really yet figured out ways to complicate and explicate deeper edges to his supernatural Macguffins yet. To a certain extent, that appears deliberate. West relishes their cheesy impact as ways of reminding people that he really likes the schlocky side of his films as much as their more ambitious elements. He’s clearly reaching a stage in his career where he might be advised, a la Quentin Tarantino with Jackie Brown (1997) or John Carpenter with The Thing (1982), to tackle an adaptation or a personalised remake that can enrich his lexicon. On the other hand, West displays in both films judiciousness about just what he does explain and depict that evokes the greatest traditions of Western ghost stories, as in the tales of M.R. James. One beauty of this approach is their simultaneous success as psychological narratives and genre fare. The apparently demonic gestation the witch-woman plants in Samantha in The House of the Devil is easily decipherable as the encumbrance of pregnancy putting a final damper on Samantha’s stymied upward mobility, and Claire’s final pursuit and death at the hands of a vengeful Madeline sees her unable to use an escape hatch she herself locked earlier in the film, finally entrapped by her own choices and susceptibilities. Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers resolve in genuinely haunting final images, suggesting survival in some form or another entails unknowable menaces.
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Director/Screenwriter: Raúl Ruiz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The world of cinema was shocked by the not-unexpected, but relatively premature death of Chilean-born filmmaker Raúl Ruiz on Friday. The 70-year-old director was known for his parodic approach to film styles, his lush canvasses, his sometimes overstuffed plots, and his extremely fecund output. For those seeking a deep dive into this complicated, experimental filmmaker, I recommend this survey/memoir by Jonathan Rosenbaum for starters and a date to view his Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), which has started to show in the United States and likely will be booked in more venues in tribute. As a Ruiz novice, I will try to honor his legacy as best I can with a review of Klimt, one of his more recent and accessible films, and a style of biopic more filmmakers should adopt.
Ruiz takes an ingeniously elliptical approach to film biography, one that puts the spirit of artist Gustav Klimt and fin-de-siècle Austria at the forefront as it drops the details of his life almost subliminally into our consciousness. As such, the film does something that is nearly impossible to do—find a channel, however speculative, into the creative process itself.
The film opens with Klimt’s protege Egon Schiele (Nikolai Kinski) going to visit Klimt (John Malkovich) as he lays dying in a bath. The doctor greets Schiele by swinging a skeleton in front of him and pointing out the various bones that comprise it, each from a different donor, all of different nationalities. Schiele comments that while there may be a scarcity of many things, there is no shortage of dead bodies. Klimt died of syphilis February 6, 1918, a few months before the “cure” for all war, World War I, formally ended. Klimt was treated with mercury, the standard remedy of the time and a poison that may have hastened his death and one that did not save him from the madness that accompanies advanced syphilis. Thus, the parallels Ruiz sets up between Klimt’s private disintegration, delusions, and madness and those of Europe at this time are established. Klimt’s mental free-fall through his life comprises the rest of the film.
Klimt’s life could be a template for the stereotypical successful Artist. He was a sensualist who bedded many women and fathered many children out of wedlock, who enraged the art establishment while still enjoying great popularity. We meet him in memory first in his studio, as three naked models move above his head on swings of cloth and another lays down on a bed in the background. Klimt ignores all of them as he pours water on a square of glass to examine the images it creates. He dismisses the models. The one on the bed remains. He says, “What about you?” She answers provocatively, “What about me?” Malkovich lets virtually nothing cross his face to indicate his state of mind, though perhaps the tiniest of smirks does escape by the end of the scene; it’s a bold choice, to keep Klimt in the state of sexual abstraction he must have needed to do his work when faced with an off-hours temptation.
This containment marks much of Malkovich’s performance, even in scenes where he declares his ardent love for an actress (Saffron Burrows) who plays dancer Lea de Castro (Georgia Reeve) in a short film by Georges Méliès (Gunther Gillian). Their embrace is one of the more awkward in film history, though Brown is wonderfully natural in her nakedness considering that her character is being watched from behind a two-way mirror by the real Lea to see how Klimt behaves. The fracturing of personality, the real and the false fronts, the interchangeability of human beings as seen in the mix-and-match skeleton in the first scene, all are preoccupations of both Ruiz and the Klimt he has written. Indeed, any representational artist is faced with how his or her creations poach from many sources and create illusions that are, nonetheless, physically real and real experiences for those who take them in.
Ruiz’s hallucinatory touches are inspired. Klimt’s long-time companion Emilie Flöge (Veronica Ferres), called Midi here, quarrels with him in his studio while he is applying gilding to a painting. Suddenly, her lips are gilded as well, an incarnate inspiration that Klimt would transfer to his canvas. When she slams the door to his studio, she blows the small squares of gilding into the air, sending Klimt, childlike, chasing after them to catch them on his brush. His cat starts mewling, and Klimt comes face to face with the Secretary (Stephen Dillane), a government functionary who becomes Klimt’s projected guide through his life and desires and, finally, his death. The Secretary, though sympathetic to Klimt’s art, seems to contradict Klimt’s outsider stance as part of the Vienna Secession, and suggest that his life was a function of bureaucratic manipulation.
Ruiz isolates the artistic claptrap of the day in a wonderful scene in a Vienna coffee house. A waiter takes orders from some of the patrons, calling their names and having them respond “as usual.” Klimt is dining with a friend who gives him the lay of the land of the different artistic schools of thought. A camera tracks around them, the background spinning one way, and Klimt and his friend spinning in the opposing direction, suggesting Klimt’s contrarian state of mind and bringing a liveliness to the Viennese art scene that ends with Klimt pushing a cake into a rival’s face.
The proper Viennese bourgeoisie, represented by Klimt’s mother (Annemarie Düringer) and sister (Marion Mitterhammer), are placed in a cool, utilitarian setting. His mother scolds him for his many illegitimate children, and his sister insinuates something unnatural about him for choosing only Jewesses to bear his children: “I didn’t make it up, I read it in the paper.” Klimt retorts, “You didn’t have to make it up because the papers already did it for you.” The poisonous atmosphere that would later engulf Austria gets a brief, but effective airing, but so do the distortions of media about celebrities, a very modern concern.
Apparently, no expense was spared in putting this film together. The costumes and sets are utterly sumptuous, and artists were brought in to recreate the scandal-inducing paintings Klimt produced for the University of Vienna that were destroyed in a fire in 1945, as well as a fictitious portrait of Lea and various Klimt canvasses in different stages of completion. Little is known about Klimt’s life, so the decadence of the times is brought to bear on his womanizing reputation while creating an atmosphere that helps the viewer sense the forces that influenced his sensual art. For example, Klimt goes to the Moustache brothel, where gentlemen play games in various rooms—Klimt is locked in a cage wearing a gorilla head in the African room—before going off with one or more of the moustachioed whores.
The anteroom of Klimt’s death is filled with the atmosphere of his life—the ever-present Viennese snow, stuffed cats, a bare-bones studio, and doors opening onto different paths. I hope Ruiz’s anteroom was just as inviting.
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Director: Ngozi Onwurah
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Shoot the Messenger is a humorous and profoundly uncomfortable film for any serious-minded, well-intentioned liberal to watch. As a white liberal, I found it particularly hard to react to. The film opens with a black man saying in an angry and anguished tone, “Everything bad that has happened in my life has happened because of black people.” It is tempting to think of the man as a successor to the unnamed protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a black man made profoundly self-loathing by racism. But in the spirit of the unintentionally ironic “feminist” ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”
Joe Pascale (David Oyelowo), an angry young black man in good, updated British tradition, isn’t shown to be the victim of racism. He’s actually a buppie who wants to do something to help troubled black boys become proud and productive men. He attends a meeting at which the problem is being discussed, or rather, pinned on anyone and everyone, and finally hears something he can do. He can become a teacher and role model. He quits his good job in information technology and lands a teaching job at a local high school. He’s so proud as he stands in front of the school, with two boys washing some obscene graffiti from the front of it. He’s going to clean up, too, and uses a tough-love approach that Sidney Poitier’s character Mark Thackeray in To Sir, With Love would have approved of heartily.
Unfortunately, the black boys in his school have developed something the eventually grateful students Poitier taught didn’t have—pride. Three friends led by Germal (Charles Mnene) sit in the back of Joe’s class and lob jeers. One morning when the three are slow to enter Joe’s classroom, Joe grabs Germal’s shoulder and pushes him toward the door. Germal protests that teachers are not supposed to touch students. After Joe gives Germal and his friends numerous detention classes (in which Joe takes great pride for forcing the students to learn), Joe learns that Germal has filed an assault complaint against him. The principal tries to drop it, but Germal’s mother goes to authorities, and criminal charges are brought against Joe.
The media start calling. Joe initially resists making a statement, but as the heat becomes more intense, he goes on a radio show to tell his side of the story. Of course, the shock jock hosts broil him and condemn “the system” that does nothing to protect black children. Eventually, Joe is brought to trial and convicted, though he receives a suspended sentence. As he walks out of the courtroom, he is heckled by community protesters carrying signs that say “House Nigger.” Of course, he loses his job. After he cleans out his locker at school, the wall he took so much pride in keeping clean of graffiti gets tagged with Joe’s personal mantra: “Fuck Black People.”
Joe goes mad, and after a stint in an asylum, ends up on the streets. Sitting on a bench in the pouring rain, he sees an older woman, Sarah (Medina Aijikawo), struggling with her groceries. She’s black, and he’s reluctant to help, but does. After that, he becomes a crusade for her. A church lady, she brings parishioners and her preacher to his spot in the alley and encourages him to come to Jesus—which he does. He moves into her home, wears her son’s clothes, and attends her church. He notices that all the people in church are women. Where are all the men? Cut to prison, where Sarah visits her son Roy (Richard Pepple). Joe thought he was dead, but of course, he should have known: Most black men are incarcerated.
Eventually, Joe tries to get a job, but his assault conviction (being appealed) hinders him. He and his job counselor Heather (Nikki Amuka-Bird) become romantically involved. She is a New Ager/self-helper who wears a hair weave and won’t let Joe touch her hair. When she is having a new weave put in, Joe takes some of the hair and burns it, forcing her to comb out her real hair into an afro. He is trying to work on her self-esteem. Instead, she breaks up with him because she doesn’t feel good about herself when she’s with him. Nobody does. His odyssey ends in the mental hospital to which he was admitted, where he encounters Germal for a final time and finally sees the fatal error that led him astray. The last shot challenges the audience, however, when Joe defies expectations and says he doesn’t take back a lot of what he said.
And what he says throughout this film in his direct-to-the-audience asides is dynamite in the cultural war within the black community. Joe would be a Joe Lieberman Republican in this country, a bit of a contradiction. He wants to help the beleaguered black community, but he does it from a condescending position. He is extremely hurt at how the community turns on him with their “House Nigger” signs, but in a way, he is. He is a classic boot-strapper who believes in individual responsibility and initiative, and refuses to accept arguments about slavery as excuses for the underachieving black community. Even Sarah says that blacks can’t be trusted because they pull each other down. They are the cursed people of Canaan to her.
The beauty of this film, though, is that it is more than a political satire. Joe’s pain at the rejection of his good intentions is extreme. He tells Heather that a heckler threw a rotten vegetable at him and holds his chest, over his heart, to indicate where the object struck. “After that, I went cold,” he says. Heather responds, “They broke your heart.” His later indictments include welfare mothers exemplified by Sarah’s daughter, who comes to Christmas dinner with her four children from four different fathers and abandons them, and a hoochie-looking girl with decaled fingernails and a made-up name (L’Braia). Like all stereotypes, these are funny, have a grain of truth, and are extremely unsettling. Joe’s refusal to disown his disdain for that bad behavior of members of his race shows that the filmmakers thought th black experience could finally handle criticism. (Not everyone saw it that way, however, calling the film “the most racist programme” in BBC history.)
Sharon Foster won the Dennis Potter Screenwriting Award for Shoot the Messenger, and it is a worthy honor for a television writer—this film was originally aired on BBC2—working solidly in Potter’s no-holds-barred tradition and borrowing styles from a wide range of works, from Alfie to Homer’s The Odyssey. Director Ngozi Onwurah maintains a sharp, comic pace, while skillfully building the force of the more serious, dramatic elements of the film. Shoot the Messenger is a gleefully thoughtful tour de force.
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Directors: Bryan Singer/Brett Ratner
By Roderick Heath
The recent release of Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men: First Class has tried to capitalize on not just the 50-year-old comic book source, but also the intricate allure of the franchise first built by Bryan Singer. Aficionado as I am of fantastic cinema, willing to take a bet on most any example of it, I still avoided the series at first. That’s partly because I had little investment in the source material, and I also because I was uneasy at Singer’s premature canonisation as director because of The Usual Suspects (1995), a fine film that nonetheless seems to have kicked off an insufferable Hollywood obsession with trick narratives, and to a certain extent the feeling I had that Singer was essentially a slick professional with a thin veneer of post-Tarantino indie chic has been proven essentially true over the years. But when I finally did sit down and watch the X-Men films, I was pleasantly surprised at how much character and class Singer managed to transfer to them.
The first two films were imbued by Singer with a definitively chic, minimalist visual style and a correspondingly nimble sense of their characters and ideas. They were also exceptionally well-cast, possessing a balance of both character-based and satiric humour, and emotive and symbolic awareness. Moreover, since I caught up with Singer’s debut, the little-seen, interesting and curiously affecting, if pretty slapdash parable Public Access (1992), I started appreciating his growth, which is both obvious and coherent. His consistent interests are apparent in the effervescent frosting of elegance and abstraction in the visual design, his acute thematic awareness of outsider angst and interest in political diatribes that mask hidden agendas, and his fondness for vividly chiselled leading men. As such, the X-Men films are one of the most successful examples of a former independent director negotiating his way through broad-appeal fare.
Moreover, Singer and screenwriter David Hayter established a series rather unique among comic book adaptations, by taking them seriously as worlds unto themselves, in which the powers of the heroes are not merely devices used in otherwise relatively conventional action, but as intrinsic to the story on all levels: the question of mutation is both the starting point and the consistent motivator. This makes the films close to legitimate science fiction. Another challenge for Singer and McQuarrie was to develop a coherent and intimate story out of the over-busy Marvel comic book series they were adapting. They did it chiefly by focusing on characters, and the series is essentially driven by three of them, Magneto (Ian McKellen), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), around who swirl other interesting personas whose gifts and faults complement and contrast each other.
X-Men commences portentously with a nadir of humanity: Jewish victims being led into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. One of the young men panics as he’s separated from his parents, and, as he’s wrestling with guards in a screaming frenzy, the gates of the camp seem to buckle spontaneously in obedience to his gestures. The boy is Eric Lensherr, who survives and grows into Magneto, a ferociously talented and brilliant manipulator of metal, and one of the emerging class of mutant people with the so-called X gene that gives them extraordinary, but unpredictably diverse, powers. In “the not too distant future,” Magneto determines to resist a growing push to track down and register mutants. He believes, not without some good cause, that a war is brewing, and he decides to push it along. He’s opposed by his former colleague and fellow defender of the oft-abused and outcast mutant population, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who runs a school that takes in mutants to educate them and train them to master their powers.
Some were offended by the use of the Holocaust for grounding this free-flowing fantasy, but can such fantasies be easily separated from the intense, real-world anxieties that fuel them? In any event, Singer and McQuarrie obviously stress such realistic likenesses for the material, apt considering the series was begun as a parable for the Civil Rights movement, and evolved to take in any disaffected social faction, including the gay experience. Such a point is repeatedly stressed by the need for rejected youths with problems that first manifest at puberty to find a home with den father Professor X and his understanding community.
Into that community stumble two new figures. Marie (Anna Paquin) finds herself afflicted with a particularly alienating mutation, the capacity to draw energy from anyone who touches her; she can absorb the gifts of any mutant, but if she touches them for too long they die, meaning she can’t have any kind of physical relationship. As per mutant custom, she gives herself a new name, Rogue, and flees from her suburban home to Canada, where she falls into the company of Logan, or Wolverine, a bristling tough guy who makes money winning cage fights. Wolverine and Rogue are attacked by a fearsome mutant, Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), who seems to want to capture one of them, but they are saved by two of Xavier’s teachers, Jean, a potentially powerful but fretful, unstable telepath and psychic, and her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), whose eyes emit powerful rays that have to be controlled with special glasses. The mutant school’s staff is rounded out by Ororo “Storm” Munro (Halle Berry), who can control weather.
The asocial Wolverine flits about the edges of this stable world: he possesses incredible healing capacities and an artificial metal skeleton with deadly claws that spring from his hands for battle, but no memory of how he got these claws. The story of their origin is crucial to X2, where Magneto’s worst nightmare is embodied by William Stryker (Brian Cox), an army bigwig who has sought to control and utilize mutants. He exploited Wolverine’s healing gifts to try to create a perfect soldier, and lobotomised his own mutant son, who killed his mother with psychic projections. Stryker blames the mutation for this, but father and son are both cut from the same psychopathic cloth. Magneto’s efforts in the first film mirror Stryker’s in the second—to exterminate the species they fear and detest with electronic augmentation. Stryker gains traction for his extermination plans by brainwashing lone German mutant Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Alan Cumming) into attacking the U.S. President (Cotter Smith).
The running confrontation of ideals, perspectives, and methods between Magneto and Xavier, backed up by the relish the two stalwarts bring to their parts, is a great part of the fun of the films, which put surprisingly little emphasis on spectacle and special effects except in controlled bursts. The emphasis on Xavier and Magneto’s former friendship and shared ideals lends a proper dramatic tension to their conflict, rather existing for simple generic necessity. Both possess the same traits in different mixtures, as Magneto’s genuine, empathetic angst is immediately established, underpinning his rage and contempt for the human world, and Xavier’s expedient choices in regards to Jean eventually lead to a grandiose tragedy. McKellen’s knowing, yet fierce playing of Magneto’s dramatic self-importance, which is entirely justified by his increasingly godlike powers, sees the actor transfer his persona from Richard III (1995) intact into a blockbuster.
The good casting extends right down the line, as various subplots and percolating themes evolve, such as Wolverine’s attraction to Jean, and hers to his hunky bad-boy appeal, in spite of her relationship with the cool, but too well-adjusted team player Cyclops. Jackman and Marsden’s mutual loathing is nearly as good as Stewart and McKellen’s, enacted in tossed-off insults and catty confrontations. Interestingly, and rare in such fare, it’s the female characters who keep the drama grounded, thanks largely to the restrained, mature performances, particularly Janssen, who makes her difficult character work well. Storm, signalled eventually as Xavier’s successor, maintains an intense slow burn that counterbalances Jean’s unsure brilliance. Berry’s Storm possesses a subtle, but noticeable African accent in the first film, as per the character’s Kenyan origin in the comics, but Berry drops this as well as Storm’s early glaze of weirdness in the second film, and her characterisation consequentially becomes less original. Still, I was more persuaded as to Berry’s acting talents by her here than by all the sweaty acrobatics of Monster’s Ball (2001).
On the opposite side of the camp is Rebecca Romijn’s lithesome Mystique, a shape-shifter and Magneto’s perpetual aide-cum-concubine who constantly overwhelms and surprises opponents with her capacity to change appearance and kick ass. As Brian de Palma did with Romijn in Femme Fatale (2002), Singer amusingly exploits her ability to imbue a sinuous wet-dream-incarnate sexuality with potent anger and predatory grace. It’s Mystique who really throws down the gauntlet of outsider rage when she kidnaps pompous Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), the main proponent of the Mutant Registration Act in the first film, spitting, “It’s people like you who made me afraid to go to school,” before knocking him out with her talented feet.
Simultaneously, the younger generation is developing its own hang-ups. Although the series never really works out what to do with her, Paquin’s Rogue is the character who seems most mythic (at least until Jean turns into a goddess of wrath), and reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Dr. Rappacini’s Daughter in possessing a physique that is inimical to all erotic experience. Like a gorgon, her cursed nature is suggested by her hair, as is Storm’s. Rogue’s relationship with Bobby “Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore), who can freeze anything, is inevitably frigid, and he seems to fall under the sway of Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (well-played by Ellen Page in the third film, after brief appearances of other actresses in the first two films). Meanwhile, their mutual friend John “Pyro” Allerdyce, who, naturally, wields fire, eventually gives into his aggressive streak and joins Magneto’s team.
If there’s a problem with Singer’s X-Men diptych, it’s curiously indivisible from its strengths: Singer’s too-cool handling and spare action means he never approaches the overheated delights of Guillermo del Toro’s glorious Hellboy films, and doesn’t quite possess the personal warmth that lit up Sam Raimi’s erratic Spider-Man series. None of the episodes is entirely satisfying on its own, demanding to be watched in close proximity with the others. On the other hand, this franchise was more complex and dramatically integrated than its many rivals, and where Raimi’s studied naiveté eventually grew excessive and repetitive, here the characters and their interactions grow more interesting the more familiar they become. It helps that the series went back to the original comic books for their best storylines. The chief source for the third film, X-Men: The Last Stand was the Phoenix cycle of the late ’70s, regarded as one of the greatest in comic book history. X-Men, on the other hand, feels limited by its very standard save-the-prestigious-event climax: the first film falls into the trap of basically setting things up to be knocked into the hole later.
Fittingly, X2 is the series highpoint, introducing the likeable, if fierce-looking Nightcrawler, and building to a lengthy, well-sustained finale, as the heroes try to save Professor Xavier from Stryker’s plot to fool him into psychically killing every mutant on Earth. X2 is full of excellent little set-pieces, particularly Magneto’s escape from his all-plastic prison, accomplished because Mystique injected tiny metal fragments into one of his guards during what he thought was a drunken hook-up, which Magneto is then able to suck out of his body and use to smash his cell. Wolverine’s discovery of his origin as part of a grotesque experiment and his shady personal history lead him into a battle with Stryker’s second, more obedient super-warrior, Yuriko “Lady Deathstrike” Oyama (Kelly Hu). Lady Deathstrike sprouts long, mandarinlike fingernails of steel, and the two well-matched animals slash and hack each other in a mean tussle that could theoretically last forever.
Singer sets up an elegant visual contrast for Stryker’s son, now a crippled, obedient, yet still obscene monster, with the little girl he projects into people’s heads to get them to do what he wants, and switches between reality and false vision. The episode concludes with Jean sacrificing herself to save her friends from being washed away by the waters of a collapsed dam; Singer pays obvious stylistic and thematic tributes to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), including having the familiar introductory quote by Xavier read by Jean before the final fade-out. Jean is reborn in X-Men: The Last Stand as a schizoid monster called “Phoenix,” an escapee from Xavier’s attempt to compartmentalise the unstable part of her personality and its awesome power. She returns from her watery grave at the mercy of this alternate personality and kills Cyclops in a lover’s embrace, a moment that finally fulfils the theme of deadly intimacy introduced by Rogue.
Singer’s interest in excoriating demagogues, rhetorical fear-mongers, false visionaries, and his penchant for wandering antiheroes, in evidence since Public Access, likewise recurs through the series, though no longer all packed into the same person. The series is worth comparing to the thematically similar Harry Potter series: in the latter, the unusually talented kids are accepted into a school that disciplines them and immediately normalises them, at least on a social level, whereas in the former, the emphasis remains clearly on the consequences and the immutable nature of their exceptionalism. Even the most successful and open-minded adults, like Storm and Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), are beset by a gnawing mix of resentment and alienation, even when trying their best to be proactive. One of the series’ best sequences comes in X2 when Stryker’s goons invade the school, shattering the cosiness of that environment, falling foul of some unusual mutant gifts, and forcing Wolverine to take up the mantle of defending the children in lieu of the absent teachers. As predictable as it is, the evolution of Wolverine from a fierce, somewhat masochistic, crude and brutal rebel into a functioning, responsible, but still lovably gruff member of the team, is an affecting and amusing strand throughout the films, until the unhinged Phoenix can taunt him with the observation that Xavier has tamed him.
Singer jumped ship on the franchise after this to try his hand at reviving another great superhero franchise with Superman Returns (2005), with very mixed results: whilst his ability to handle the infrastructure of a big action series had grown, his sense of what he wanted to achieve seemed to have disappeared. The third X-Men film was handed first to Matthew Vaughan, who, distressed by the studio’s rush to production, passed it on to Brett Ratner, whose name was already supplanting that of Joel Schumacher as an emblematic Hollywood hack. Ratner had made that claim for himself with his Rush Hour films and his unnecessary (and how!) remake of Manhunter (1987), Red Dragon (2002). Ratner kept most of the cast together however much some of them seemed to be going through the motions in virtual cameos, and did a passable job of sustaining Singer’s style. The result is somewhat better than it’s often regarded, but it’s hard not to notice that Ratner swapped Singer’s visual concision and ear for dry dialogue for a lot of clichéd bombast, trailer-ready dialogue, and a much less refined sense of pace and style. X-Men: The Last Stand also casually tosses away some of its by-now iconic characters, which does at least give it an unpredictable edge, and sports some overly obvious in-jokes.
Whereas Singer employed his outsider parable adroitly, here Ratner embraces it with cartoonish obviousness by introducing a young mutant, “Angel” (Ben Foster), who sports wings. His father, Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), has developed a “mutant cure” with his pharmaceutical company, hoping to save his son. Angel is glimpsed in a prologue as a kid, desperately trying to saw off his wings in the bathroom whilst his father bangs on the door, an admittedly cunning conflation of the theme of protean adolescent shame with the fantastic. But Angel finishes up flying away in a tribute to Tony Kushner by way of Melissa Etheridge.
The third film does, at least, accomplish the job of bringing the many strands of the first two episodes to a head and leading to a suitably epic showdown. Jean/Phoenix falls under Magneto’s sway as he leads resistance to Worthington’s cure made possible by culling the genes of a young mutant, Leech (Cameron Bright), whose immediate presence completely nullifies mutations. Both Leech and the infrastructure for making the cure are housed on Alcatraz Island. Magneto, after putting together an army of disaffected mutants, decides to assault the island, and pulls off the trick, impressive by any standard, of levitating the Golden Gate Bridge and planting it between the island and San Francisco. This sequence is fun to watch, but less impressive than an earlier one in which Phoenix, enraged, turns her powers on Xavier when he and Magneto track her to her family house. She causes the entire structure to levitate, and, amidst a blizzard of debris and with Wolverine crawling across the ceiling, Xavier disintegrates, and the house crashes back to earth. It’s one of the most exciting and dramatic special-effects set-pieces of recent years.
Indeed, for all his bad choices, I can’t help but feel Ratner wielded his effects with more confidence than Singer. The big action climax, for once, delivers, too, as Iceman and Pyro duel, Magneto falls prey to the cure and faces (horror!) life as a normal human, and Kitty saves Leech from one of Magneto’s goons, the Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), in a very funny little vignette that finishes up with the iron-clad villain, taunted by Kitty, knocking himself out cold when he tries to bash his way through a wall in the vicinity of Leech. Finally, Phoenix is let off the leash by a suddenly regretful Magneto, who bleatingly quotes Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) as Phoenix starts annihilating everything in sight. Wolverine has to shoulder the duty of taking on Phoenix, being the only one who can survive her pulverising telekinetic powers long enough to kill her, a coup de grace that Jean, momentarily back in control of her psyche, begs for. This ending offers proof that delirious melodrama and extraordinary colour aren’t only the province of Hong Kong cinema.
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Director/Screenwriter: Sally Potter
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The only film I have watched twice in a row, waiting only 30 minutes for my mother to show up for my second viewing after I rousted her with the order to come over NOW, was Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997). As tango and art lovers, Mom and I were mesmerized by the dancing and Robby Muller’s evocative black-and-white cinematography. But we were even more thunderstruck by Potter as a self-assured, determined woman romantically involved with a younger man. Because so few films provide women over 40 with positive images of women like themselves, I took it as a personal attack when critics called Potter self-indulgent for casting herself in the lead and showing off not only her dancing skill, but also her fantasy of seductive power, capped by a grandly over-the-top sequence where she is dancing with three men. (Strangely enough, another reviewer has yet again pronounced Ms. Potter to be “self-indulgent,” oh, and also “silly,” with her latest creation, Rage. It seems to me that some reviewers are becoming self-indulgent with that default pronouncement themselves.)
Rage represents an experiment in accommodating the cellphone viewer of movies. It was shot in seven episodes, uses actors delivering monologues to a cellphone camera against individually color-coded backgrounds, and premiered on mobile phones around the world. An intertitle introduces each episode, typed with mistakes that are deleted and retyped as though being texted on a cellphone. Rage is also directly linked to The Tango Lesson as the film Potter was working on when she changed her focus to tango and romance. Gestational scenes of Rage in the earlier film feature three high-fashion models wearing statement designs of different primary colors, with epic-length wigs to match, created by a legless fashion designer. One by one, they are gunned down during a photo shoot in Paris. Potter pitches this film unsuccessfully to some Hollywood honchos, and then later declares that she doesn’t care because she wrote a film she didn’t want to make. I’m glad she reconsidered.
Rage is the shortened title the fictitious director of the film, Michelangelo, decides on instead of “All the Rage”; the earlier title would have been fine for a film about the preparation and staging of a fashion show introducing a new fragrance called M, but not for what Michelangelo, a high school student doing the film as a school assignment, witnesses over seven days of shooting. To wit: The show is first derailed by the accidental death of a weepy model who gets her scarf caught in the wheel of a motorcycle driven onto the stage by Krishna-colored Vijay (Riz Ahmed), the personal pizza delivery boy to the show’s self-dramatizing designer Merlin (Simon Abkarian). Then, the second attempt to put on the show is cut short after the shooting of another model. Third time’s certainly not a charm, as workers protesting the unfair labor practices of the fashion house’s owner, “Tiny” Diamonds (Eddie Izzard), and the young people who have been following Michelangelo’s coverage on his website, converge to destroy the show and anyone connected with it.
Rage has a large cast of types. Among the more memorable is Dianne Wiest as the sweet former owner of the fashion house who pines for the good old days when the company belonged to her parents and clothes were made in America, not China. Diamonds reminded of me of a cross between Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump, buying businesses of every type just because he can and offering his unsolicited business advice to the pubescent filmmaker. Otto (Jacob Cedergren) is a self-important public relations flunky who consistently mispronounces Michelangelo’s name and thinks everything needs to be kept secret and under his control. Merlin himself is a caricature of dancer Pablo Veron, Potter’s costar in The Tango Lesson, amusing in his abstractions and down-to-earth exasperation over designing to marketing department specifications. Jude Law is a revelation as a drag queen supermodel called Minx who employs a fake accent and brings a genuine poignancy to the proceedings with his coming-out saga while undercutting it with the supremely narcissistic notion that he caused the mayhem because he wished the two unfortunate models dead. Judi Dench as fashion critic Mona Carvell is the height of cynicism, offering a critique of Merlin’s aesthetic to Michelangelo, knowing that she can circumvent traditional media through Michelangelo’s website when Diamonds ensures that her opinion will be censored by her publisher.
It’s interesting to see how Potter’s ideas about Rage have evolved. The original setting in Paris would have highlighted the economic and social importance of fashion to the French capital, making the killings both more significant and more dramatic. Moving the show to New York and highlighting a fragrance as the center of the supposedly provocative show reduces fashion to just another commodity, a fact driven home by the interchangeable marketing personalities played by Bob Balaban and Patrick J. Adams and their miserably uninspired ideas, as well as by the cellphone format itself. Talk about cutting fashion down to size! Potter tries to maintain a relevant edge by bringing in off-screen protesters heard along with many of the wonderful sound effects and asides that contribute to an insistent and lush sound design, but having talking heads relate the dramatic events undercuts any gravity Potter may have been going for. Bringing a complaining, over-the-hill war photographer (Steve Buscemi) on to shoot the fashion show further trivializes the event, even though it does, in fact, become a massacre worthy of his talents.
Several of the characters question themselves about why they are talking to Michelangelo, but the new technology and the ubiquity of reality TV has accustomed just about everyone to displaying their egos for an audience. Some of the characters, like Carvell, see how to work this technology to their advantage, while others never even seem to consider that their interviews are public domain as soon as they open their mouths. Seamstress Anita de los Angeles (Adriana Barazza) says little, refuses to carry on her life in front of a camera, and seems to be the only one completely in touch with the outside world, though anime-faced Lettuce Leaf (Lily Cole) hides out with Michelangelo until she can get out of town, very sensibly not wanting to be the next assassinated mannequin. The challenge to Michelangelo that he has blood on his hands for revealing so much to his Internet audience is laughable, and yet tracks with ideas about cyberbullying. Movements can indeed be launched and sustained on the Internet, but in Rage, the bastards have hung themselves.
In general, Rage is a comedy filled with great performances and superb writing to flesh ideas and observations that are rather obvious. Like most information we access on the Internet, Sally Potter’s film is ephemeral, but well done and a lot of fun.
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Producers/Codirectors: Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza
The Talking Pictures Festival, April 14-17, 2011
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Ever since I visited South Africa in 2000, I have been interested in the processes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Such processes occur on both the grand scale of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought psychological reparations for the atrocities committed under apartheid, and on the smaller scale chronicled by documentary directors Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza in Concrete, Steel, & Paint. Their film takes a look at the complications that occurred when two artists tried to bring together inmates of Pennsylvania’s Graterford maximum-security prison and residents of Philadelphia’s Fairhill neighborhood, a poor, violent area from which many of the inmates hail, to create a mural.
The idea for the mural came from the inmates themselves, all of whom were part of an art class inside the prison who heard about mural-making from Jane Golden, director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts program, and urged her to work with them in the class. Spurred by their sense of fulfillment in creating murals for some of the prison’s common areas, the inmates wanted to do something to give back to the community they had each wronged with their crimes, including murder. Golden got together with Victoria Greene, founder of the victim advocates group Every Murder Is Real (EMIR) that is named for her murdered son, who helped facilitate a meeting between the members of the art class and crime victims. Eventually, the mural project got off the ground, but evolved into two separate murals, one representing the inmates’ point of view and the other representing the victims.
What is fascinating is the differing perceptions and attitudes of the inmates, victims (largely family members of murder victims), and Golden herself. Golden says, “Graterford is the sixth
largest maximum security prison in the country. It has a reputation of being a tough place. There were serious criminals there—people I had read about—people I had judged. I was very suspicious of them.” The 30 inmates who attended the first meeting looked upon the mural project initially as something to do, highlighting the monotony of prison life and uselessness inmates feel.
At an initial meeting where the idea is brought to victims, one woman says, “I’m speaking as a victim, a survivor. I’m not interested in what he has to say…necessarily. I’m interested in my healing.” Another says, “I have to hear from the offender. I have to hear the remorse. I have to hear their pain because I need to know do they understand my pain.” Altovise Love-Craighead, Emir’s sister, tells her story and says, “There’s nothing to come out of. There is no closure,” explaining simply that the pain of losing a loved one to murder never goes away.
Despite misgivings and nervousness, both groups meet at the prison. A bridge starts to form, as Love-Craighead says the encounter kind of opened her eyes. The project commences, as Golden and muralist/instructor César Viveros work with the prisoners to come up with a mural concept for the wall they have chosen. He and Golden feel the concept is beautiful, but the victim group attacks it as showing only the prisoners’ pain. This rift forces a reframing of the project: Golden locates two new walls, on buildings that stand next to each other, and Viveros works with the survivors’ group on a mural design of their own.
Again and again throughout the film, the prison artists repeated, “We’re still people.” The horror of a life sentence and of being judged to be inhuman and unfit to do anything but sit, grow old, and die is vivid and very disturbed. Yet, there is a self-pity and feeling of victimization coming from some of the inmates that is galling. Zafir says he was not guilty but some people “didn’t see it that way, and I have to live with that.” Although there is abundant evidence that wrongful convictions take place, most of the inmates admit to their guilt. Tom, who is serving a life sentence for a robbery homicide, says he sees his victim’s face every day and knows he can never get over it.
By working together to paint the panels that will form the murals, the victims and prisoners get to hear each other’s points of view and do something constructive together. Tom talks with one of the victims about how he thinks murderers have a right not to accept the verdict of the outside world that people like him deserve to be “ripped apart by dogs.” She counters that “I’m sure the person who that person murdered probably didn’t want to die. And they had no choice.” This seems to make an impression on Tom. Another inmate talks about how he was a crime victim before he became a criminal, and a victim advocate says that no one is trying to diminish the horror of his experience but that “it’s unfair for you guys to speak for the crime victims who aren’t incarcerated.” Tom’s sister also comes into the prison to paint with the group, giving the survivors a humanizing representative for the prisoners.
In only 56 minutes, Concrete, Steel, & Paint offers a comprehensive view of crime and its victims, punishment, and the importance of dialogue for bringing disparate, resentful groups of people together to affirm their common humanity. Criminals seem to take some responsibility for their actions, though many of them seem to cling to their status as victims before their crimes to assuage their guilt. Likewise, survivors start to let go of revenge as an effective means to heal their pain. Some are frankly pragmatic that many of the people who go into prisons come back into their neighborhoods eventually, and the community needs to care about them. Indeed, one of the inmates, Linwood Ray, is released during the project and gets a job with Viveros working on the mural walls.
Once the murals are up, the community responds, seeing not only their decorative value but the value of the stories they tell—one man, a former inmate, identifies with struggles portrayed in the prisoner-designed walls, another who looks at a crestfallen boy on the survivors’ mural and says “that was me” when he heard his cousin had been shot to death. The power of creativity and the ability of art to offer a channel of communication for people who desperately need it comes through. Concrete, Steel, & Paint is an affecting portrait that makes documentary into a healing art as well.
Concrete, Steel, & Paint screens Friday, April 15, 6 p.m., at the MTC Forum, Medill School of Journalism, 1870 Campus Drive, Evanston.
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Director: Satoshi Kon
By Roderick Heath
Satoshi Kon’s death last year aged just 46 was a serious blow to anime fans and for cinema in general. Kon worked his way up through the animator ranks beginning in the early 1980s, and debuted as a director with 1997’s highly regarded Perfect Blue. For his second film, Kon wanted to adapt Yasutaka Tsutsui’s 1993 novel Paprika, but that project was put on hold when the production company folded. Kon made three more films in the interim before he finally brought Tsutsui’s novel to the screen. Like Perfect Blue, it was considerably altered from the source material, becoming in almost all respects Kon’s brainchild. That word seems particularly apt here, for Paprika is about the transformative capacities and boundless expanse of the mind’s imaginative abilities.
Paprika, the titular heroine, is the literal brainchild and ultra-cute avatar of brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara in the Japanese version and Cindy Robinson in the English-language edition). Atusko works for the Foundation for Psychiatric Research that has begun moving beyond traditional therapy methods, thanks to new technology that can help the shrinks infiltrate the dream states of clients, including a new remote unit called the DC-Mini invented by the brilliant, corpulent, geeky, distracted techno wiz Kohsaku Tokita (Tôru Furuya/ Yuri Lowenthal).
At the film’s outset, Kon plunges deep into the head of police detective Toshimi Kogawa, or Konakawa in the English version (Akio Ohtsuka/Paul St. Peter), via a recurring dream in which he’s tracking down a criminal. His dream commences in a circus where he’s caged by a magician and passes through several different genres of fantasy, including a Tarzan film, a suspense thriller in which he’s being garrotted, and what he says is the scene of a true crime he’s working on. There, a man falls dead to the floor of a hotel hallway whilst the perp is disappearing into a fire escape, and when Togawa attempts to chase him down, the dream dissolves and sends him plummeting toward wakefulness. Togawa’s getting neurotic, and Chiba, in her Paprika guise, has begun treating him with the still-experimental DC-Mini.
When Chiba arrives at the institute the next morning, however, Tokita, whom she finds humiliatingly jammed in the elevator, admits an even more humiliating fact to her: his DC-Mini prototypes have all disappeared, apparently stolen by his assistant and fellow nerdy genius Himuro (Daisuke Sakaguchi/Brian Beacock). The singular brilliance of the DC-Mini is its capacity not only to allow mind-to-mind communication, but also to project remotely into other minds and allow people attuned to it to step into and out of the dreamscapes at will. Because Tokita had not put security settings on the device, there are no limits on what the thief can do with the gadget. Immediately, the thief makes some of his intentions known to Chiba and her fellows, as her immediate superior Dr. Torataro Shima (Katsunosuke Hori/David Lodge) starts talking gibberish and hurls himself out of a window. Seriously injured and in a coma, Shima dreams of being the grand marshal of a great, insane parade that includes horn-blowing frogs, singing dolls, walking soft drink machines, and a thousand other equally ludicrous figures. Shima recovers, but the race to find the villain who begins subsuming increasing numbers of people into the same seemingly wondrous, but deadly dream chosen from the mind of one of the Foundation’s psychotic patients becomes urgent.
One of the most outstanding qualities of Paprika is that it has a more complex plot than most mainstream thrillers, and whilst it frequently operates on the level of dream logic, it’s always tightly coherent. Yet, it manages to remember that, at heart, it’s a fantasy adventure though tracts of the subconscious and the unconscious built around that desire to maintain lucid control over the dream-state’s possibilities. Chiba, in the familiar guise of a professional woman with her sharp suits and tight hair, is uptight, sober, critical, and rigid, but she lets slip her alter ego Paprika when delving into the dreams. Paprika is a bob-haired redhead with the antic disposition of a playfully creative teenager, a warrior princess perfectly adapted for the surreal world. Chiba has mastered the capacity to move in and out of the dream-state and control herself within it. At one point, sent off to do battle, Chiba runs along a corridor, transforming into Paprika a la Superman in a phone box. Pursuing the villains through layered dreamscapes, she changes forms according to childhood fancies, turning into the hero of the cult Japanese TV show Monkey when she needs to fly, or Tinkerbell, or the Sphinx from Gustave Moreau’s painting.
Chiba/Paprika needs all her wits to survive. At one point, she seems to follow an Ichimatsu doll into a deserted fairground, and while trying to jump a fence, is snatched back by her colleague Dr. Morio Osanai (Kôichi Yamadera/Doug Erholtz), because she was actually about to leap off a balcony. Later, when she finds the real-life equivalent of the park, she’s nearly flattened by Himuro falling from the top of a Ferris wheel: far from being the mastermind, he’s just another patsy.
Simultaneous to the main plot, Chiba attempts to continue treating Detective Togawa through his work computer, with Togawa passing into the dreamscape and imagining himself in an upscale, but empty bar with two dapper waiters; Paprika shows up to guide him in an investigation of the meaning of his dream. They prove to be based in Togawa’s own suppressed interest in movies, with the recurring dream commencing in a street showing movies that include the ones through which his dream then proceeds—The Greatest Show on Earth, Roman Holiday, Tarzan. Here, of course, Paprika the film openly acknowledges the accord between its version of dreaming and cinema itself as a primal space where identities are swapped and fantasies actualised. Togawa, initially neurotic and denying any interest in movies, proves, in fact, to be a colossal film buff who once tried and failed to make a suspenseful short film with an interesting gimmick: all the way through the film the characters, a cop and criminal, were chasing each other. At one point, Togawa realises the man falling dead is himself, and he starts to realise the dream is a metaphor for his own regret over abandoning his cinematic aspirations. His dream also becomes another battleground in the attempt to corner the DC-Mini thief, as Togawa is the detective the Foundation members turn to for help in tracking down the villain. He immediately recognises Chiba as Paprika’s real-life equivalent. When the two plot strands intersect in Togawa’s dreamscape, Togawa manages to gun down the bad guy, save Paprika, and gain a heroic The End all to the applause of the audience within his dream. It’s not really The End, but it does get them all out of the closed loop in which the true villains have tried to trap them.
Those villains are Dr. Seijiro Inui (Toru Emori/Michael Forest), the wheelchair-bound director of the Foundation, who believes that the dream-invading techniques are an abomination he’s using to teach a painful lesson to their proponents, and Osanai. But it’s clear that both men’s intentions have become blurred with a hunger for power for its own sake, as Inui becomes a colossus unlimited by his physical disability. Osanai, terminally jealous and desirous of Chiba, has become Inui’s lover in order to share in using the DC-Mini and possess Paprika. Kon respects the protean, often highly sexualised, if not specifically sexual, nature of dreaming, and the film is richly, playfully, and sometimes acutely aware of the eroticism that pulses through the material whilst going nowhere near the seamier precincts of animation. Some of this is on the level of a naughty pun, like Paprika giving Shima a different kind of blow job: she sinks inside of him and then inflates him like a giant balloon, which then bursts, waking him up. Elsewhere it’s more evocative and pointed. Particularly, beautifully kinky and nasty is the scene in which Osanai, having captured Paprika, has transformed her into a huge butterfly he has pinned to a table, and, with relish, plunges his hand into her groin and slides his splayed fingers up under her skin, peeling the Paprika shell off Chiba, discovered inside.
Inui attempts to assert control over Osanai, growing off him and out of him, but the two men remain fused in one, self-wrestling body, a grotesque vision of their mutual homoeroticism, narcissism, and crippled aspects turned monstrous. Their fight gives Togawa time to snatch away Chiba, and, when Togawa shoots Osanai, who has taken the place of the fleeing villain in the film, they have a vision of him in the waking world as dying from the wound, and in Inui’s house, where his body was, he’s sucked into a void that begins opening, consuming reality and dreamscapes alike.
It’s embarrassing to think about the level on which most Western animation is still pitched, whatever the fine qualities of such contemporary models as Pixar are, for it’s still basically kid’s stuff. Perhaps that’s one reason why the equally inventive, but still firmly youth-oriented films of Hayao Miyazaki have found more favour with Western critics than that of any other anime director. Paprika mashes together traditional juvenilia with far more adult imagery and concepts; in fact, it’s very much about the state of flux between youth and experience and the psychological continuity, or lack thereof, that afflicts so many. The tropes of childhood and early obsession afflict most of the characters, including Chiba herself, Tokichi, and Togawa. Paprika’s singular brilliance is in using such tropes to fuel her capacity to navigate dreamscapes. The film named after her is equally the work of a director with a vision in perfect control of, and comfort within, his medium. The material could have played out in many different ways, from the riotously grotesque to something as numbingly literal-minded as Inception (2010), a film that drained the dream-infiltrating idea of all colour, wit, and sexuality. But Kon, who held particular esteem for George Roy Hill’s time-hopping Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) and the works of Terry Gilliam (the influence of the latter is especially noticeable), and his animators kept a tight grip on this film, which swings from anarchy to crisp realism. As borderline psychotic as the imagery and as loopy as the story become in places, the film is never less than a carefully constructed, highly witty, and fluent piece of work.
Terrific little dashes of imagination and humour dot the landscape. A row of schoolgirls subsumed into the mass dream strut about with cell phones for heads, and a mob of perverts, similarly transformed, eagerly dash to look/photograph up their skirts. Togawa, when explaining a point of obscure cinema language to Paprika, suddenly appears dressed up in Akira Kurosawa’s signature peaked hat and sunglasses. Streams of weirdly poetic gibberish pour from the mouths of the victims plunged into the mass dream. There are morals to the story, of course, not least of which being that external appearances are rarely entirely true. As well as trying to save the day, Chiba finds herself as a point on an amusingly elusive romantic triangle between the cast-iron cop and the fat sweaty nerd, and all three characters are refreshingly complex creations. Togawa’s tough-guy job and his artistic impulses prove finally to have been deeply entwined, for he decided to live out the role of his movie’s hero in real life and thus joined the police force; his recurring dream is more about the way he lost contact with his forgotten collaborator on the film, who died young after getting attention. Chiba and Tokita’s love-hate relationship shows the psychotherapist in love with the genius in him but repelled by his weight and displacing that anxiety into tirades against his boyish obsessiveness.
Paprika herself embodies Chiba’s frustrated youth and playful instincts, which enables, rather than contradicts, her great professional ability. Paprika can be read as a film that is also about the creative impulse, with Chiba/Paprika evolving constantly in her sense of herself as a nexus of influences she takes in and then gives out. Similarly, Togawa comprehends his life as one of real dedication sprung from fictional creation. Tokita’s attempt to redeem himself by entering Himuro’s dream to draw out the villains gets him swept up pretty quickly, but later, Tokita, in his dreamscape reconfigured into one of his own collectible robots, destroys the gigantic Ichibana doll that is Inui’s favourite avatar. By the film’s madcap final 20 minutes, all of Tokyo has become engaged with the mass dream to the point where nobody’s sure what’s real and what isn’t; to Togawa and Shima’s bewilderment, Chiba and Paprika argue with each other over what course of action to take. Finally Paprika, yin to Inui’s yang, reconstructs herself into a colossus like him, growing both in size and through physical ages with the battle cry, “There’s always an opposite. Light and darkness, life and death, man and woman. And to spice it all up, you add Paprika!” She literally consumes Inui in defeating him. It’s both a send-up of, and a tribute to, the traditional monster-bashing finales of so much anime and keigu eiga movies. Finally, although he doesn’t get the girl, Togawa goes out and buys himself something just as vital to a well-balanced life: a movie ticket.
Weird, beautiful, sexy, funny, Paprika is a master class in film and story, and a great testament to its sadly departed creator. Also worth kudos is the terrific musical score by Susumu Hirasawa, particularly Paprika’s infectious theme.
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Director: Yousry Nasrallah
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It is possible in the most general terms to assign outstanding characteristics to various national cinemas. For example, Swedes seem to excel at introspective films with a fatalistic edge. Czech films tend to be absurd, sardonic, and visually stunning. And though my exposure thus far has been very limited, I’m starting to think of Egyptian cinema as excelling in the use of fables as a storytelling device. Perhaps it is only that Yousry Nasrallah learned at the knee of a master Egyptian fabler, Youssef Chahine, that he was drawn to depicting the political conditions in Egypt, particularly for women, through a modern-day Scheherazade. Whatever the reason, Nasrallah’s beautiful blending of political content and compelling storytelling makes Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story both an entertaining film and one that helps Western viewers understand the recent, courageous protests against government repression that drove President Hosni Mubarak from power.
Hebba (Mona Zaki), the beautiful host of a hard-hitting talk show on one of Egypt’s private television networks, has been married for seven months to Karim (Hassan al Raddad), an ambitious journalist who expects to be promoted to editor-in-chief of the state-owned newspaper where he works. The film opens with Hebba having a frightening dream in which violence silences her voice. She gets up and tries to work her tension off on her treadmill while watching herself grilling a government official on a tape of her show. Karim awakens, remarks jokingly on her vanity at watching herself, and then suggestively offers her another way to relax.
Karim has a problem. The newspaper isn’t happy with Hebba’s criticisms of the government. Fearing his promotion is in danger, Karim assures Hebba that her career is just as important to him, but cajoles her into offering viewers fluff until after he is confirmed. Fearing that this, her second marriage, might fall apart if she doesn’t agree, she decides to concentrate on women’s stories of love. Alas, no matter how hard she tries to find a noncontroversial subject to interview, each of the three women she brings on her show “Dusk to Dawn” highlights the woeful position of women in Egyptian society. Both she and her husband learn that everything is political, even love and marriage, as they reach a horrible crisis in their marriage that provides the climax of the film.
Just like Scheherazade, Nasrallah finds some compelling stories and tells them in such an exuberant way that the 134-minute film virtually flies by. The first story is the most benign, featuring Amany (Sawsan Badr), a 60ish woman who has lived in a mental hospital since she started screaming at a man who proposed marriage to her in a restaurant. To anyone who hadn’t heard the marriage negotiation, she certainly would have seemed crazy, but to us, it is the would-be husband who seems insane. He asks Amany merely to start wearing the veil, give him all her money, cook and clean for him without the maid she is used to, and allow his mother to come live with them to give her orders. In return, she gets a husband. Since he offers her no other tangible benefit than to simply repeat that she gets a husband, Amany rejects him as a lecher who wants to use and rule over her. It’s pretty clear Amany isn’t crazy, she’s simply mad, and has retreated to the hospital, where she is loved and useful, to avoid participating in a society that requires her to give up so much for so little in return.
Amany’s story is a big hit, and Kasim is thrilled with the new direction Hebba is taking. Encouraged by his response and the enthusiastic audience ratings, Hebba decides to track down Safaa (Rihab El Gamal), a woman in her late 30s who is living with the prison guard whom she befriended during her 15-year incarceration for murder. The modestly dressed, quiet Muslim seems an unlikely criminal, but her story is the longest and most compelling of the three.
Following the death of her father, a hardware-store owner, Safaa and her two sisters discuss their inheritance with their uncle. He abdicates his inheritance rights in exchange for maintaining his job managing the store. After three months of this arrangement, the sisters wonder when they will see some profits from the store. Their only worker, Said, says their uncle has been using it to gamble, drink, and take opium. The sisters banish their uncle and start running the store themselves, while paying Said, formerly an unpaid apprentice, as an employee. When they start to long for love and family, they are short on suitors. Reasoning that Said will be good to all of them if he marries one of them, they each begin trying to woo him. He responds to them all with promises of marriage in exchange for sex. When his deception is discovered, Safaa sends her sisters away and takes responsibility, as the eldest, for wreaking vengeance on him for treating them like whores.
This second story does not sit well with Karim or his employers, because it exposes the immorality of the men in her story. Despite Hebba’s protests that she presented a well-known story of love gone horribly wrong, Karim scolds her for not realizing that everything is political. It seems Hebba’s journalistic instincts simply will not be denied, as evidenced again in the third story she chooses to showcase. After seeing a well-dressed woman holding a sign up in the street, Hebba decides she needs to get to know her.
Nahed (Sanaa Akroud) is a dentist from a wealthy, conservative family who is wooed by a well-educated, influential economist. He cannot move in with her until renovations to his villa are complete, but he has a civil marriage with her in front of witnesses to confirm their attachment, and agrees to forestall consummation of the marriage until after the traditional ceremony. Nonetheless, he convinces Nahed, a virgin, to have sex with him—they are legally married after all—and succeeds in impregnating her. When he says he cannot be the father because he is sterile, he accuses her of adultery and tries to extort $3 million from her family in reparations. She finds this is his modus operandi for maintaining his plush lifestyle and finds his previous wife—actually an Egyptian who has a child by him—to testify in her divorce proceedings. But when he is appointed to an important government post, Nahed decides to protest, reasoning that a government that will do business with crooks is crooked itself. This story is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back and reveals Karim to be just as oppressive as the other men in the film.
The fact that each story can be summed up easily shows how self-contained and direct they are. Likewise the characters tend to be types, as is the custom and strength of fable in offering home truths. This is not to say that the acting is one-dimensional. Many of the women in this film, particularly Akroud, El Gamal, and Badr, invest their characters with hopes, anger, and disappointment. I particularly liked El Gamal’s uncontrollable rage in a brutal murder scene that felt earned but that signaled her own destruction, and Nahed’s crestfallen betrayal at her husband’s deception and her simple, courageous protest conducted like the intelligent lady she was raised to be.
Zaki does not lend particular nuance to Hebba, whose story stands as a reverse of Scheherazade’s own tale of begging a night’s reprieve from death with each story. Hebba is eliciting an opposite response, endangering her own well-being the more stories she reveals. The outcome of her telling is more in doubt as well. While Scheherazade slowly allowed her murder-minded husband to understand the worth of women as he came to admire her ingenuity and storytelling abilities, and absorb the morals of many of her stories, it is not clear that Hebba and her subjects will have the same effect on viewers of Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story. Describing injustices to women offers awareness, but it seems these days that awareness is the end of the road of righting many wrongs. Nonetheless, Nasrallah was cagey in setting his “1,001 Nights” on an Oprah Winfrey-style talk show, in which the juxtaposition of Hebba and her interviewee on a background screen gives visual reality to Oprah’s theme “I’m Every Woman.”
Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story is a superior melodrama full of intrigue, sudden violence, and knowing humor that I found exhilarating and the hubby found very moving and shame-inducing. I highly recommend this wonderful film with a message.
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Director: Eugène Green
By Marilyn Ferdinand
You’ve got to love a director who makes fun of formalist arthouse films right at the start of his formalist arthouse film—“The film is . . . unconventional,” says his main character, Julie de Hauranne (Leonor Baldaque), to the woman doing her make-up, who replies, “Boring, you mean.”—and then goes ahead with it, letting Julie speak his wish for the film: “I hope not. The story moves me.”
The self-reflexive meanings within meanings, of art imitating art as a means to tell the truth, as evidenced by this hope about the film French actress Julie is in Lisbon to film and the film Leonor Baldaque is in Lisbon to film (even director Green plays director Denis Verde [green]), comprise the main schema of The Portuguese Nun. The film’s main theme is the folly of earthly love, signaled by the project with which Julie has involved herself: a dramatization of Letters of a Portuguese Nun, comprising the love letters of said nun to a French officer with whom she had a passionate affair that were thought genuine until they were revealed to be a work of fiction. Julie, whose mother was from Lisbon and whose father was French Basque, speaks Portuguese but has never been to Lisbon before. Because of a leisurely shooting schedule, she spends a good deal of time wandering through the city, exploring her origins and learning to forgo her usual habit of brief, intense romances and embrace abiding love in some amusing ways.
Aside from the desk clerk at her hotel, who thinks Lisbon would be great if not for all the intellectuals, every male in this film is in thrall to Julie. She encounters an orphan boy, Vasco (Francisco Mozos), who tells her she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. She exchanges glances with an older man (Diogo Dória) in a restaurant, and he gives her his card; when she impulsively calls him the next night and accompanies him for the evening, she learns she has saved him from killing himself that very night and given him the will to go on. When she meets her handsome costar Martin (Adrien Michaux), who is happily married to a woman for whom he feels no passion, she does the good deed of sleeping with him so that he can feel he has not been cheated of anything by staying with his wife. Even a brief encounter at a disco with a man (Carloto Cotta) who asks her to dance becomes a mystical meeting at which she declares that he is the reincarnation of D. Sebastião, a 16th century king of Portugal who, legend has it, is supposed to step from a fog to restore the country as a world power. They meet again near the end of the film, and he tell her that he thinks she’s right about his true identity. In fairytale fashion, she tells him that if they meet a third time, she will tell him her name and be his forever because one cannot escape one’s destiny.
But it is Green who is Julie/Leonor’s most ardent admirer. You can see it in his face every time he plays a scene with her. He gives her a much larger wardrobe of beautiful, flowing clothes than she would ever need for a few days in Lisbon, and when the wind kicks up during any of Julie/Leonor’s strolls in her spaghetti-strap sundresses, a pretty wrap or sweater magically appears to keep her warm for the rest of the scene. Unaccountably, however, he puts her in clunky high heels for her long walks through the cobblestone streets; not only is it impossible to imagine her going very far in them, but they actually pitch her body at a very awkward angle. Green also gives her the increasingly distracting direction to open her doelike, brown eyes as wide as possible as often as possible and to refrain from blinking as he gives us straight-on views of her face. This technique was most jarring when Julie hears music and turns a corner to see a fado band playing, it seems, just for her. The camera cuts between close-ups of her unblinking face and the singer, whose eyes are little more than long-lashed slits as he tells a story that might have been her own. Although I loved the music and it was used well throughout the film, this interlude felt a bit like it was clipped out of a Bollywood musical.
The most problematic part of the film for me is the encounter Julie has with a real Portuguese nun (of course, not really real—she is played by Ana Moreira) in a chapel where the nun prays nightly. Julie has watched her from the back of the chapel on several nights, but they finally interact when the nun revives Julie, who has fainted among the pews. The cause of her fainting spell was seeing Sister Joana—a name the nun assumed in reverence for St. Joan of Arc—disappear and then reappear. The conversation they have about there being only one kind of love, and God being besieged (or besieging, I really couldn’t figure it out) left me more or less in the dust. This may have been by design, as Sister Joana asserts that reason was not created by God and does not exist, but giving us dialogue that can’t be reasoned out is a cheat and rather cheapens Julie’s apparent spiritual awakening, turning over of new leaves, giving of genuine love to little Vasco, etc. etc.
Green has a sly wit that had me thinking for quite some time that this was a romantic comedy. But the humor was not pitched well enough or sustained, nor was the seriousness of purpose consistent. In the end, the film was a bit too tricked up for its own good to be either a parody or an introspective examination of love. Such films are possible (see Certified Copy for the best recent example to date), but Green doesn’t seem to have grown an organic style of his own. When he stops having short passions with various film techniques and finds the slow-burning love of his life, his films will take the great leap forward they truly are poised to make.
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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Mann
By Roderick Heath
This post is part of For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon.
In looking for a film to write about for the Film Noir blogathon, I initially felt most motivated by what I wanted to avoid. Film noir was a dark, nasty, immediate kind of cinema movement that sprang out of artistic and real-world inspirations that were crucially of their moment, reportage from the front lines of domestic landscape of the Depression and World War II eras. It was really a style more than a genre, though tropes of crime fiction have become inextricably associated with it, blended and mediated through a specific range of clichés and metaphorical niceties that were exhausted with great speed. The intervening half-century of pop culture has often threatened to render that vital and spiky cinema a powerful magnet for nostalgic fetishism and arbitrary appropriation. Thus, I began to think more about what film noir had evolved into. I thought about what could be called the noir revivalism since the ’80s, some of which, like Wim Wenders’ Hammett (1982), Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), or Brian de Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006), preoccupy themselves in recreating the tangy milieu of noir but also employs a grittier portrayal of things more tangentially explored in the older genre works—sexuality, drugs, race, the whole shebang. And there are other films that, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), the Wachowski brothers’ Bound (1996), Rian Johnston’s Brick (2005), and the oeuvre of John Dahl, took the basic precepts of classic noir and played them out in a contemporary context.
Only a few current English-language directors have, however, truly kept the ethos of noir alive without a hint of retro cute. Since his debut with 1981’s Thief, the most high-profile is Michael Mann. Miami Vice, a bristling prestige project that had a troubled production and proved a surprise semi-failure on release, is nonetheless a genuinely evolved noir film. Adapted from the slick ’80s television series created by Anthony Yerkovich, for which Mann was executive producer and unofficial artistic mastermind, this Miami Vice refused to be nostalgic even for the ’80s. Mann signals his take fairly early when a nightclub pulses with Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”: the song is old, the beat is new. Mann built upon the stylish minimalism William Friedkin and Peter Yates had brought to crime flicks in the ’60s and ’70s, but his fascination with pared-down, art moderne visual textures was something new: existential haute couture. Mann’s stylistic reinventions have often outpaced audience receptivity throughout his career, and many of his early films, including the now-lionised Manhunter (1986), were bombs.
Miami Vice shows quickly enough how little interest it has in going through the niceties of adapting a TV show. Mann tosses the viewer in medias res with “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell), Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), and the members of their undercover squad, including Tubbs’ paramour Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris), Gina Calabrese (Elizabeth Rodriguez), Stan Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Larry Zito (Justin Theroux), busy trying to sting pimp Neptune (Isaach De Bankolé) in that nightclub. Crockett is drawn away by a frantic phone call from informer Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes), who’s charging across the city in his sports car, hoping to make it home. His wife has been taken captive by the mob of drug-dealing white supremacists, after Alonzo had arranged a meet-and-greet between the criminals and some FBI agents. Alonzo spilt the beans to the racists, and FBI agents are brutally, summarily gunned down by the white supremacists’ military-level firepower. Crockett and Tubbs manage to intercept him on the freeway and get him to pull over and explain, but when word comes through that Alonzo’s wife has been found murdered, Alonzo steps in front of a semitrailer. The boss of the blown FBI operation, Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), approaches Crockett, Tubbs, and their boss Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), because they’re the only people he can now trust with a mole certainly within his own operation.
Crockett and Tubbs swing into action, using their knowledge of who’s shipping what in and out of Miami and their willingness to bend the rules. After Trudy carefully falsifies criminal records for them, they destroy the high-speed boats being used to ferry in the gang’s dope. Then, using another criminal interlocutor, Nicholas (Eddie Marsan), the duo shop themselves out to the supply end of the business, represented by arch narcotics entrepreneur José Yero (John Ortiz) and the shadowy Isabella (Gong Li) from their base in Ciudad de Este in the Brazil-Paraguay-Argentine borderlands. Both are merely senior employees for the glowering kingpin Francisco Montoya (Luis Tosar), an internationally powerful, stateless monarch whose final approval Crockett and Tubbs have to gain to run a drug shipment into Miami. They pull this off, and get a second, larger contract, hoping to learn as much as possible about Montoya’s operations. Crockett enters a swiftly combusting romance with Isabella, who is Montoya’s lover but also a nominal free agent. Yero, ruthless, paranoid, and suspicious of these too-efficient newcomers, uses this affair to convince Montoya they should nullify their deal with the Americans and let their Nazi business partners take care of them.
Unlike most of the neo-noir I mentioned above, Miami Vice maintains the defining aspect of noir: the visual style is an aesthetic unit with the story’s preoccupations and the overt and covert themes. Mann’s film burns like liquid nitrogen, laying out the eponymous city as a sprawl of lights drenched in darkness and populated by swashbuckling law enforcers and monstrous villains. The film’s imagery often resembles modernist painting and varieties of experimental photography. Such affectations retain a quality that was part of the punch of classic expressionist-influenced films, retaining a definite link with the way directors like Lang, Welles, Hitchcock, and many others could twist a cinematic frame so that the elements within it became somehow abstracted. Mann shoots faces, bodies, technology, and architecture in such a way that they hover in a kind of electrified, yet impersonal beauty, sometimes with a crisp distance redolent of Jeffrey Smart or David Hockney, sometimes so close as to lose all sense of proportion and form. I particularly love the glimpse of the colossal white-supremacist thug festooned with tattoos and resembling some kind of humanoid brontosaur ransacking a refrigerator, while Alonzo’s wife’s slain form lays lifeless in the background. Another, very different moment of wonder comes when Sonny and Isabella flirt, their foreground faces blurred, but the background landscape sharp, perfectly communicating the almost drug-like intensity of their attraction.
The result is one the few genuine stylistic masterpieces of modern American film. Refining the aesthetic he’d developed in Thief, Manhunter, Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999), Mann pushed it to a limit here. Miami Vice’s terse, deterministic approach to the usual beats of the action-crime genre, as opposed to the operatic prolixity of Heat, is one of the things I like most about it, but this also perhaps made it bewildering for many. Mann tries to explicate as much of the drama as possible through the behaviour of the characters rather than through what they say to each other, and he pushes the notion that action is character to a rare level. The shot in which Crockett notices that Montoya and Isabella are wearing his-and-her watches turns casual detail into revelation, opening yawning abysses of subsequent uncertainty. That Crockett and Tubbs trust in each other completely is a matter chiefly communicated through how they stand and sit together, and the later concern Tubbs has that Crockett might be falling under the spell of Isabella and the potential imperial wealth he could accrue with her is as much about eye contact as talk. At the heart of this story, obviously, is one of the oldest motifs of the crime genre: the shifting no-man’s-land between cops and criminals. One of Mann’s most distinctive refrains in his crime stories is not just the porousness of the boundaries between good and bad, lawman and criminal, but also what keeps them polarised.
A significant difference between the hazy outsider parables of classic noir, with their losers, lone knights, femme fatales, and fatalistic sense of social hierarchy (and the insidious evil of fascism always sharply remembered as a then-recent phenomenon), and the sorts of TV dramas on which Mann cut his teeth, including Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice itself, was that such cop shows drew their heroes as guys doing a job and enjoying their lives when not working. This paved the way for how most modern cop shows are more about workplace dynamics than crime and its social dimensions. Mann’s concerns since starting his film career have been more classical, repeatedly pondering how people on both sides of any border, but usually a legal one, can have startling similarities as well as telling differences. “There’s undercover, and then there’s ‘which way is up’,” Tubbs notes at one point, firmly placing the film’s concerns back in classic noir territory. The real impetus there is found in the two concurrent, defiantly now-fashioned stories of Sonny and Isabella and Ricardo and Trudy, and narrative urgency is not sourced in any tension that Sonny and Tubbs might be seduced by the dark side, but in what their dedication might cost them and those they love. The early scenes portraying the grisly fate of Alonzo’s family and the FBI agents lay out the threat as almost gothic in scope and menace, especially the startling moment in which the racists’ high-powered weapons smash apart the agents.
Eventually, of course, they have to face down the same threats, when, double-crossed by Yero, they have to first extract Trudy from the hands of the racists, who have yoked her with plastic explosive (a charged image in more ways than one), and then work out a way of extracting Isabella and taking down the baddies without getting themselves annihilated. The story is necessarily simpler than the sorts of intricately woven political, social, and personality strands in some of Mann’s later-career films, like The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001). Yet his attempts to create a modern kind of noir film encompassing global networks of information, transport, permeable borderlines between national borders and even settled ethnic and sexual identities mediated throughout the flow of imagery both extends and, to a certain extent, subverts some of the given elements in classic noir films like Force of Evil (1948), The Big Heat (1953), Underworld USA (1961), in which crime organisations became metaphors for a sinister side to Western capitalism itself. In the course of the narrative, Mann traces the colossal drug-dealing project from end to end, possibly to make up for the epic he had wanted to made about the drug trade that was forestalled by Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2001). This holistic vision of worlds within worlds makes Miami Vice a much darker, denser film than one expects.
Almost all classic noir films are about the subterranean link between mean streets and the mansion on the hill. The original inspiration for Yerkovich’s series was a story he’d read about how the seized assets of drug dealers were being employed in operations against them. Such is the reason why Crockett, Tubbs, and the rest of their team are able to live lifestyles seemingly far above their pay grade. The sheer scale of money and clout the likes of Mendoza can call up, and the lifestyle they can enable, is pretty seductive. Mann is superlative at changing the tone and pace of his films with strange reversals, like the famous sleeping tiger scene in Manhunter and the coffee-drinking scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat. Here it’s in a scene where Isabella, after making a deal with Crockett and Tubbs, succumbs casually to Sonny’s come-ons and gets him to take her out for a spin in a borrowed-for-the occasion speed boat. She convinces him to take her to Havana for a drink, and they speed off across the waves. It’s as if he’s suddenly driving the movie into a hazy fantasy, a high-end commercial or space-age version of an Ernst Lubitsch film where ritzy people casually do ritzy things at the drop of a hat. And yet it cleverly and seductively illuminates the film’s biting perspective on a 21st century in which money, and what it buys, has become its own continent. Where once Friedkin’s hero Popeye Doyle had stood on a corner in the cold and watched his quarries stuff their faces, Mann’s are much more comfortable. But this, in its way, proves more dangerous.
What follows is an extended romantic interlude that deliberately echoes the earlier one between Ricardo and Trudy. Both couples shower together in moments of eroticism, but the disparity between the moments is impossible to ignore. Whereas Tubbs and his girl are clearly, easily in accord on all levels to the point where Ricardo can get away with a cheeky premature ejaculation gag and it’s just part of the fun, the layers of truth and deception in Sonny and Isabella’s relationship (Is his anecdote about his roadie father true? Why is he trying to make the super-profitable deal with her?) are all too telling. Add to this, of course, the obvious, suggestive disparities—Sonny the white trash rendered slicker by experience and ambition, romancing Isabella, a Chinese woman with a Spanish name and a mother who was a translator killed in Angola. Mann’s odd, fascinating games with racial coding expresses itself in Isabella and, in less germane style, with Fujima, played by an Irishman. Such seems to be his way of both subverting the clear-cut boundaries of the original series’ drug war geopolitics and simple fascination with watching the world’s wanderers find each other. Professionalism is another of the few meaningful yardsticks in Mann’s films, and, of course, Crockett, Tubbs, and team are arch experts; but so are Isabella, Yero, Mendoza, and even some of the white supremacists.
That sort of chitinous professionalism that hides a hidden psychic cost is also, of course, another long strand in noir, back to Hammett and Hemingway, the latter being one of noir’s biggest nongenre sources (no wonder Mann’s been kicking about the notion of shooting For Whom the Bell Tolls). Mann’s embattled individualists, searching for their own ways of living and often rejecting those that don’t smell right, certainly belong to that tradition, and his version of The Last of the Mohicans (1992) sifted out their link to an even older tradition (and notice Crockett’s name, “sonny” of another frontiersman legend). And yet some of the most fascinating moments in the film are far smaller and human, like Sonny’s care in doing up Isabella’s seatbelt in the speedboat, or the beat in which Isabella waits for Mendoza to speak after she casually informs him she slept with Crockett, and he only wants to know more about what she’s gleaned of his business plans. The cops-vs.-robbers business here is traditional men’s stuff, of course, but also one, Mann repeatedly emphasises, in which modern women are more often a part. Isabella, Trudy, and Calabrese are fully engaged members of what used to be purely masculine fields of endeavour, in a modern sense, and yet when push comes to shove they’re rendered pawns by the baddies. Isabella is no traditional femme fatale, in that her purpose is not consuming destructiveness of herself and others, in spite of the fact that she’s most definitely a criminal; “She’s one of them,” Tubbs states categorically to Sonny to remind him of the demarcations of their world. But she’s really more a kind of brutally pragmatic yuppie, jetting off to Geneva when business calls. I like Li’s performance in the film in spite of her initially inelegant command of English, and in part because of it, for the way Li relaxes and responds to Farrell’s Crockett with her entire physique and manner.
Crockett and Tubbs are, finally, old-fashioned white knights, going down those mean streets. Tubbs’ first specific gesture in the film comes when, infuriated by seeing Neptune manhandle one of his young hookers, Tubbs chases after him and breaks the fingers of one of his bodyguards. Later, when Trudy is endangered, Tubbs gains a personal motivation. Perhaps the true femme fatale is Calabrese, who has what is actually the film’s greatest bit of tough-guy business. She confronts the white supremacist holding the trigger for the bomb around Trudy’s neck, and informs him how she’ll shoot him in such a way that he can’t reflexively detonate the bomb; “Fuck y-” is all he gets out before her bullet does exactly that. The scene in which Tubbs and Calabrese invade the trailer of the creeps holding Trudy—the most-low-rent end to an international conspiracy imaginable—is borderline brilliant, not only for the bit mentioned above, but also for Tubbs’ own no-bullshit handling of the situation. You know all those films where you groaned when a hero failed to stop a villain by neglecting to put a bullet in his head when he was down? Not this one. But then, the nasty twist: Yero remotely sets off the explosive, seriously injuring Trudy just at the point all seems well.
After that, naturally, comes a walloping showdown between the cops and Yero’s coalition of paramilitary enforcers and the white supremacists Sonny and Isabella are literally caught in the middle, and Ricardo chases down and blows a hole in Yero. The action here anticipates the mix of naturalism and first-person force Mann would again muster in his follow-up, Public Enemies (2009), a film that intriguingly attempted to avoid the usual affectations of the period movies comprising much of the noir revivalist oeuvre. That Crockett and Tubbs’ ethics are at a slight remove from the strictures of their job is not shocking, but it is important, as Crockett, with Tubbs’ silent assent, bundles Isabella away from the battle scene to make her escape. Real heroism in Miami Vice is finally being able to tell the difference between right and wrong, and also to make the compromise between wish and reality. The film ends on much the same unfinished note with which it began, with Trudy merely recovering from her injuries, the standby villains defeated but with Mendoza having escaped.
Miami Vice is such an inherently visual film that it’s damnably hard to write about and demands multiple viewings, but I’ve come to love it as well as admire it. The acting is of a very high calibre, with Farrell and Foxx acquitting themselves exceptionally well; I particularly enjoy the unblinking deadpan fashion with which Tubbs asks of Yero, “Are you with the Man?”, a line that might have defeated many other actors. But it’s often the supporting cast, especially Tosar, Henley, and, above all, Ortiz, who truly galvanise the film. The result is one of my favourite films of the new millennium and one that keeps something of noir’s crumpled romanticism alive amongst the high-tech and unforgivingly modern.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jonathan Auf Der Heide
By Roderick Heath
Western civilisation’s remarkable capacity for setting up hells on earth at suitably distant places from itself in the Age of Enlightenment saw the primeval landscape of Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was known until 1856, become a place synonymous with harsh extremes and brutality. There the English invaders and the aboriginals engaged in a genocidal war of possession, and some of the harshest penal colonies were erected to banish the domestic losers of the British Empire’s great age of expansion and industrialisation. Thus, the best Australian movies—as opposed to the most popular—usually have a hint of deeply uneasy existential fable to them. Van Diemen’s Land, an oddly unheralded work, is a return to subject matter for Aussie films that was rendered groanworthy by repetition in the colonial revivalism of the ’70s and ’80s: the Convict and Settlement era. But Jonathan Auf Der Heide, an actor making his feature directorial debut, chose to tell an infamous story, one that inherently resists being romanticised. Auf Der Heide expanded Van Diemen’s Land from the short film Hell’s Gate, which dealt with the story of Alexander Pearce and the seven other convicts who escaped with him from the penal settlement of Sarah’s Island, Macquarie Harbour in 1822. Pearce’s subsequent cannibalisation of several of his fellows became one of the most bloody and colourful tales in the already bloody and colourful history of that island.
Pearce’s story, which saw him nicknamed “The Pieman” in later mythology (there’s even a Pieman Creek, named after him, near which the film was shot), recently came back to attention both through Auf Der Heide’s film and the nearly simultaneous Dying Breed, which used the legend of Pearce as the background for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre knock-off. Van Diemen’s Land immediately posits itself as a meditation on the terror and beauty of the Tasmanian landscape, which is distinct from the Australian mainland in several ways: heavily forested and possessing a climate similar to Europe.
Auf Der Heide makes his models and debts, to Herzog and Malick, fairly plain early in the film, but for once, an Aussie director with an eye for artful foreign models chooses them as is appropriate to the material, and moulds them to his own purpose. His film is shot through with a deeply convincing and gruelling sense of physical detail, especially in the early scenes that concentrate, with little dialogue, on the working men, their axes hewing into wood and shoes squelching in mud, hauling great logs into the harbour. There are also notes of black wit to leaven the bloodcurdling, unblinking approach to physical violence, and a cunning approach to the characterisations of the escapees, who are introduced as the anonymous members of a labouring gang. Auf Der Heide commences with a jolt of disorientating humour, showing a huge mouth sloppily chewing on a badly cooked pie, before revealing this is actually an officer, the overseer of a detachment of convicts. It’s more than just a grim joke, though: food is the chief dramatic stake and object of power in the following narrative.
Several of the convicts are Irish, victims of imperialism in subtle and overt manners, but that’s a point Auf Der Heide avoids proselytising into the ground, as finally, their backgrounds and identities place a distant second to their immediate capacity to live and kill. That he illustrates the point indirectly by having Pearce’s voiceover meditations spoken in his native Irish Gaelic rather than in the English he needs to communicate to most of the others, and the internecine, bare tolerance of the Irish, Scots, and English members of the party, which erupts occasionally into brawling, say enough. The Gaelic also carries a strong whiff of something more primal, barely reconstructed by a modern, viciously repressive milieu: the “freedom” that the convicts give themselves, even at its direst end, is only a variation on their lives. Pearce (Oscar Redding, who cowrote the script with Auf Der Heide) is initially indistinguishable from the rest of the men detailed to fell trees at the outset. His crime, for which he was deported to the other end of the world, was the theft of three pairs of shoes—a very Jean Valjean sort of misdeed, but one Auf Der Heide doesn’t tap for any sympathy. Pearce doesn’t mention it until very late in the film, and it becomes more like the ultimate absurdity, the pretexts for which men are reduced to less than men. There’s also a dark echo to his crime, which Auf Der Heide indicates by offering shots of the shoes the men wear and that get dumped along the route: six pairs of shoes, including Pearce’s own, get him to where he finishes up, alone and depraved.
Pearce, along with Bodenham (Thomas Wright), Travers (Paul Ashcroft), Dalton (Mark Leonard Winter), Kennerly (Greg Stone), Little Brown (John Francis Howard), Greenhill (Arthur Angel) ,and Mathers (Torquil Neilson), make a break when they’re sent to a remote edge of the harbour to fell trees under the supervision of Logan (Adrian Mulraney), an infuriatingly garrulous overseer who offers pronouncements like, “There’s freedom in work!” With a mixture of bonhomie and self-satisfaction, Logan offers the crew a share of the decent meal he had partaken of the night before: none of the men take him up on it. Greenhill tackles Logan when the coast is clear, and the men strip him naked to augment their own clothing with vengeful delight. Dalton has to threaten Mathers to make him stop hitting the overseer who asks, “Where are you going? There’s nothing out there!” There is something out there, however: where the men see nothing else, they see each other, alternately as companions in freedom, competitors, enemies stranded together, and, finally, food.
Van Diemen’s Land, whilst offering information in carefully parcelled amounts, essentially reduces historical horror story to a virtually metaphysical simplicity: is it easy to reduce a man to an animal, or is it the man who is truly dangerous? Threat is inherent long before any violence makes itself plain; it’s even inherent when Kennerly says to Logan, with subtly genuine malice, that one of his fellow convicts would much rather be home than stuck with the likes of him. Kennerly and the injured Brown eventually split off from the party; having witnessed Dalton’s killing and deserting to try to make it back to their jailers before they starve, they sense that either way lies probable death. Auf Der Heide leaves the fate of the two men unstated (they did actually make it back to the penal settlement, only to both die in hospital). Dalton seems to be the practical leader at first in restraining Mathers and directing the party. Kennerly is the dominant personality at first, with his earthy humour and sexual anecdotes, but his style soon proves abrasive when he mocks one of his fellows for trying to hunt an animal (“You’ll never catch it! Them imaginations are too fast!”) and starts a brawl amongst the convicts.
The initial plan, to try and make it to present-day Hobart and catch a ship away, gives way to a numbing, physically and spiritually corrosive pounding through bushland that’s seemingly as inhospitable as any desert. The men know far too little about survival in such circumstances to live off the land, and as the ructions deepen and the certainty that starvation looms for all of them, this near-inevitably translates into homicide. Dalton is the first victim, assaulted by Mathers and Travers and strung up to bleed to death. The axe that the convicts brought with them from their tree-felling labour becomes the totem passed between them, a tool of power and murder that some wield more easily than others. Pearce, in fact, initially stands back from the killing, and only develops and comes into specific focus as exceptional because in his quiet, reflective, foreboding nature lies a nihilistic potential to reject humanity with a completeness that eludes his other, more volatile and reactive fellows. “God can keep his heaven,” Pearce decides towards the end, “I am blood.”
Unlike some other recent attempts to create a more probing, unremitting approach to the often awesome violence involved in the country’s first hundred years of white settlement, like Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly (2002) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), Van Diemen’s Land presents violence free of apologia and Grand Guignol. Particularly in Pearce’s murder of Travers, Auf Der Heide presents the killing in all its unvarnished shades of feeling and physical difficulty, whilst managing to avoid being too theatrically literal (dismemberments are all offscreen). There’s a confrontational, questioning quality to this film that’s all too rare to Aussie films, apart from odd examples and the better works of Rolf de Heer.
Early in the film, the convicts and their overseer travel upriver, tracing the edges of the bristling, choking landscape into which they’ll soon desperately plunge. Later interludes where the camera drifts through the mist-clogged, darkly thatched landscape, Pearce’s sonorous Gaelic epigrams suggesting the lurking psychic unease, allow Auf Der Heide to have his cake and eat it in twinning the deeply corporeal, immediate problems facing the characters and the almost cosmic hopelessness of a situation where only bestial reversion can offer survival. There’s an eerie moment later in the film in which Pearce and his last fellow survivor, Greenhill, stumble out of the forest into a grassy plain where soft rain falls. You can almost feel the psychic relief, even if it’s only temporary, before Pearce has an hallucination of Dalton’s shade, accompanied by Dalton’s “Cooee” cry, as if that’s only just echoed back to him. Earlier, Bodenham is killed when his fellows realise that he’s completely left them behind, psychically, staring distractedly into the trees, so that Mathers, after a long pause, lifts the axe and swats him on the head.
The last section of the film plays out like Treasure of the Sierra Madre stripped of all pretences of motivation other than naked survival and hate. Travers mocks Pearce, whose first actual killing is of Mathers when Mathers tries to convince him to take care of Greenhill, because Pearce committed his killing without any hypocrisy but only in recognising who the weakest member was. But Travers is bitten by a snake, and after days of helping him limp through the forest, Greenhill, having shepherded him to the point where he can’t move anymore, carefully leaves the axe propped for Pearce to take up to finish him off. But Pearce isn’t in the least bit merciful to Travers after his mockery, and with the words, “Your soul to the Devil!”, rather than quickly kill him, chokes him to death with the axe-head. Travers and Pearce then have nothing to do except wait for the time when one will kill the other. Pearce fools Travers into showing his hand first, and when Travers awakens the next morning with Pearce standing over him, he can only wait for the blow to fall and then eventually demand, “Get on with it.” Pearce’s final pronouncement on the subject, that he sees God as dancing over humans with an axe, is the end of his progression back into a heart of darkness as he chew on Greenhills’s flesh. Auf Der Heide smartly ends the film there, as there’s nothing more to be said apart from a written postscript that tells of Pearce’s recapture, the disbelief of his confession by the authorities, and the bleak postscript in which he escaped again and needlessly killed another convict in order to eat him.
The juxtaposition of cancer-like neurosis blooming in the primordial forest and intense mortal and spiritual straits is a contrast more familiar from classic New Zealand than Australian cinema (Utu, Vigil, The Piano), though Van Diemen’s Land certainly expands the contemplation of the fearsome Aussie landscape seen in films like Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock. That Auf Der Heide’s debts are apparent and yet that his film still never feels laboured is an admirable achievement, and whilst Van Diemen’s Land would undoubtedly be a slightly too tough and taciturn experience for many audiences, it is purposefully so. In fact it’s as marvellously coherent, in the fullest sense of that word, as any Australian film I’ve seen in at least the past two decades, all the more admirable for choosing its firm focus and then taking no short cuts. It is, of course, inherent in the story, but Auf Der Heide nonetheless manages to communicate the way in which landscape and occurrence are linked in a much more profound way than, say, Philip Noyce’s similarly odyssean Rabbit-Proof Fence. Peculiarly enough for a film made by an actor, there’s an incredible avoidance of rhetorical showboating and anything but the most necessary emoting and semaphoring of internal meaning, making the collective acting all the more impressive. More than any other recent work I’ve seen, Van Diemen’s Land suggests the recent upturn in Australian cinematic culture might be more than skin deep.
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Director: Róbert I. Douglas
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My local library, the Skokie Public Library, is, I’m convinced, the most wonderful community library in the country, and it’s got the credentials to prove it—the 2008 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor for libraries. The huge catalog of foreign-language films the library carries or has available for download to accommodate village residents who speak one or more of 97 languages likely cannot be found in even the best video rental sources. And while I would never guess that Icelandic was one of those languages, the Skokie library has a few titles from that small country as well. The hubby picked up one of them yesterday for our evening entertainment, an irresistible-sounding film about a gay soccer club based in Reykjavík.
Eleven Men Out wastes no time in getting to the point. The powerful pro team, KR, moves into the locker room after a game, where they are pursued by photographers and reporters. One of the reporters is talking to Ottar Thor (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who is concerned where a photo of him will be placed in the magazine. She says that it will be on the last page, the last thing people read. He complains. She says that if he gives her something good, he could get a cover. He decides on the spot to come out as gay to her, the photographers, and his unsuspecting and flabbergasted teammates. Ottar gets his magazine cover—and gets booted off the team by the homophobic team owner.
Ottar’s father (Sigurður Skúlason) tells him to give up this nonsense or, barring that, to get psychiatric help to “cure” his “illness.” Ottar’s brother Orri (Jón Atli Jónason, who cowrote the screenplay), a completely contemptible person who treats his girlfriend of two months like trash, merely insults his brother at every opportunity and shows more concern for the money owed him for rentals from his video store than the tumult Ottar has caused his parents. Gugga (Lilja Nótt Þórarinsdóttir), Ottar’s ex-wife and a former Miss Iceland, is sloppy drunk for most of the movie; neither she nor Ottar understand how Ottar has made their son Maggi’s (Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson) life hell at school.
Ottar’s friend Pétur (Helgi Björnsson), a former pro who had his moment of glory scoring a goal off the mighty Arsenal team in London, coaches an amateur soccer team. He offers Ottar a position, mentioning that his team has a few gay members so Ottar won’t get the same treatment as he did on KR. Alas, Ottar is now a very high-profile homosexual, and the few straight men on the team resign. The discussion Pétur has with them is hilarious in its circularity (“But I’m not gay.” “Exactly. That’s why this isn’t a gay team.”). Of course, it doesn’t matter that the team is mixed; perception is everything, and these men fear guilt by association.
Eventually, the team is composed entirely of gay players. They change the name of the team to Pride United and adopt a uniform that has a rainbow stripe on the sleeve. After winning their first game through the homophobic forfeit of the other team, they finally get a chance to prove their worth by winning enough games to reach first in their league. A random drawing of teams for the playoffs has them bussing to northern Iceland to play a team in an isolated hamlet and partying in a pathetic disco called Club Cambodia, run by the Cambodian wife of the other team’s coach. Maggi meets their lovely half-Cambodian daughter Rosá (Pattra Sriyanonge), who asks the 13-year-old boy if he wants to fuck. He’s taken aback and nervous, but she says matter-of-factly that there’s not much else to do in her town.
The film climaxes when KR, worried about fallout from their homophobia, agrees to play Pride United. The date of the match falls, coincidentally, on the same day as Reykjavík’s gay pride parade. As a multicolored balloon ribbon follows the floats filled with drag queens down the streets of Reykjavík, Pride United and KR face off. If you want to know the outcome, stay with the closing credits; this film does not traffick in the traditional underdog payoff of most sports movies by filming the big game.
To many Americans, this film may seem thoroughly contemptible and behind the times. After all, have we not seen openly gay politicians rise to national prominence, openly gay entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres win lucrative modeling contracts and continue on with their successful careers, gay writers land on best-seller lists? Have we not also seen gay bashing continue, gay marriage rights come—and go—in various states, strong coalitions of religious leaders forming organized offensives against gay rights of every stripe? Have we not seen a 2010 film by a gay director present two lesbians in the most straight-friendly manner imaginable? If you listen carefully to the Icelandic, you’ll notice that the language has only one word for homosexual, whereas the subtitles change it up frequently. This one difference represents what I like so much about Eleven Men Out—its direct approach to its subject.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat the homophobia that exists in Iceland; it also doesn’t have its gay characters back down into stereotypes or defensiveness. Ottar says he is what he is, and by the way, that includes a narcissistic soccer star whose vanity brought him out of the closet without considering the consequences of an abrupt public outing on his teammates, friends, and family. Continuing with his tunnel vision, he takes up with a young soccer player on Pride United, offering up movie theme nights for entertainment; he’s caught completely off guard when his lover walks out on him, preferring to spend his time in more youthful, active pursuits. He is also careless about having Maggi walking in on him having sex with his lover. The film is utterly casual about nudity, mixing women and naked men in locker rooms without comment; a group hug in the showers is handled unself-consciously by the actors.
The film also doesn’t whitewash the very serious drinking problem the country has, as evidenced by Icelandic singer Björk’s admission to drinking a liter of vodka every Friday, a “custom” she picked up from her grandparents. Gugga is drunk all the time, but so is everyone else in the film, and there are virtually no scenes in which a character doesn’t have a drink in his or her hand. It also doesn’t present picture-postcard images of Iceland; in fact, I’m surprised the populace hasn’t drowned in all the rain, which isn’t the gentle mist one finds in more image-conscious Irish films, but comes down in torrents on the umbrella-free characters.
While Eleven Men Out strives for some kind of upbeat ending, with the Pride/KR match, Gugga’s entry into rehab, a real talk between Maggi and his parents, and Ottar’s mother (Lilja Guðrún Jónsdóttir) forcing her husband to sit in the stands with the fans of Pride United, the film doesn’t foresake the reality of Iceland’s attitude. “You didn’t expect us to win,” Ottar says to Pétur, a wonderfully comic line that sums up a realistic, sardonic attitude not only to the difference in skill between Pride United and KR, but also the uphill battle facing homosexuals in a society whose language has barely changed since it landed on the island in the 9th century.
I like how unsympathetic a part Atli Jónason was willing to write for himself, making him the perfect comic man you love to hate. This is a funny movie, but it’s not blind to the seriousness of its subjects and isn’t willing to turn its characters into caricatures for the sake of a few yucks. Unlike a film I didn’t much like, Up in the Air (2009), it doesn’t use its serious subjects as mere background. The film is too packed to get a deep character study, but we do get a good feel for the nasty situation Icelandic homosexuals find themselves in and their real strength to overcome it.
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Director/Screenwriter/Executive Producer/Star: Tommy Wiseau
By Roderick Heath
The Room has grown slowly but with ever-increasing momentum to become perhaps the preeminent Bad Movie of our time. When people talk about Bad Movies, the kind I mean by capitalising the epithet, they’re usually interested in the pleasures gained from the obscene mockery of all good sense exhibited on the screen. There’s affection in the way we love Bad Movies, akin to the impulse that makes people take in stray animals. Less noble emotions, too, including a level of wrath for the frustration that many of us aim at movies for being made by people richer and prettier and more talented than we are (or who at least mysteriously have access to enough money to make them) finds appropriate targets in select icons that encapsulate everything that can be rotten about cinema. These people become scapegoats, whipping boys, Gadarene swine for all the small frustrations and dashed hopes, the cumulative cognitive dissonance and offended sensibilities that movies can provoke and fuel. And yet, anyone who’s ever tried to create anything can empathise, usually distantly, but sometimes all too keenly, with the failures of artistic ambition that, a bit like the way decomposing marine life lends a phosphorescence to the brine, illuminate what’s actually good that much more clearly.
We rate movies according to the success with which they, in fact, lie to us. A film that so utterly compels us with its lies, say, The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, or any other movie hailed as a popular icon of great cinema, stands in contrast to Bad Movies, which are defined by their failure in this regard. The worse the movie, the more evident it usually is that the movie is constructed by a complex interplay of technicians and actors. Therein lies the beauty – or anti-beauty – of Ed Wood’s films, and this truth is also present in Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 debut film The Room, feeding into the playful audience participation that usually infuses such cult artefacts, as if, in failing to live up to any reasonable standard of professionalism, they have instead become open, interactive creations. Such works offer, in their way, unfiltered windows into their makers’ lives and attitudes, redolent of narcissism or at least breathtaking insensitivity to the problems of art. The cult status of The Room gathers more ironies in that the cult was germinated amongst the young culturati of California, essentially the same milieu from which the film itself emerged. Tommy Wiseau’s origins have been described as obscure, and, of course, Wiseau’s weird accent, bizarrely retro personal style, and strange notions about what a film should look and sound like readily designate him as a figure of fun.
Such considerations serve merely as intellectual prologue for me to the actual experience of watching The Room, which is, alternately, deliriously funny and deeply depressing. Armed with a budget that would have been entirely sufficient for other, actually talented filmmakers to put together something great, Wiseau produced one of the most god-awful films ever made. There’s often a peculiar kind of magic at work with bad films, as the piling up of mistakes and idiocies metastasize, and replicate, in their way, the same accumulation of refinement or invention that makes for great films; they therefore can be just as compelling, as each little fragment of foolishness takes on its own epic lustre. The Room certainly fulfils this requirement of the awe-inspiringly Bad Movie. I spent long stretches of the film clawing the air in pinioned physical reaction, and had to take a long breather in the middle, for it was starting to make me feel like a prisoner in a Kafkaesque nightmare. One by one, all of my more gentlemanly, inquisitive, broad-minded instincts were met and defeated by this film; it actively invites cheap shots at such rancid conceits as Wiseau’s evident pride in serving his body up as what he obviously thinks is a strapping example of manhood, but which in certain shots and lighting, looks rather like he’s suffered some sort of massive tissue trauma. Even the film’s title broadcasts a stultifying lack of imagination. What room does it refer to? The bedroom? The living room? The room in the loony bin waiting for anyone who watches this film without warning?
The Room is the story of Johnny (Wiseau), an all-round awesome dude with a fiancée— oh, sorry, “future wife” as she’s constantly referred to—Lisa (Juliette Danielle) who live together in a dream apartment in San Francisco. We know it’s San Francisco thanks to the endless opening montage of tourist brochure locations. And if we didn’t notice it then, Wiseau re-uses shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and other locales throughout The Room in his constant, ham-fisted scene interchanges. He even appears in some of them, crossing the frame with all the apparent randomness of CCTV footage or one of those “actual documented proof” movies depicting a Bigfoot sighting. Actually, with his long shaggy hair and knobbly, fit yet ungainly body, Wiseau looks a bit like Bigfoot, strategically shaved.
But I digress. Johnny is an employee with a bank who credits himself with saving his employers large sums of money, and expects a big promotion. Lisa talks about having to do something with computers, but she’s a failure at that, and so spends all day every day sitting about their apartment. Early on in The Room, Johnny comes home with a gift for Lisa, a sexy red dress she promptly dons as an overture to a scene of extended, sweaty passion, but only after a bit of banter with Denny (Philip Haldiman). He’s a young man whom Johnny apparently once wanted to adopt and whose college education Johnny is paying for, in spite of the fact that Denny acts like an emotionally retarded 11-year-old, following Lisa and Johnny up to their bedroom and hurling himself into their pillow fight, before they make it clear to him they want him to go away so they can make sexy-time.
Later, there will be a dramatic moment in which Denny is threatened by a gun-wielding drug dealer who insists in an unreasonably forceful manner that he be paid for selling Denny some of his wares, but fortunately Johnny and Johnny’s best friend Mark (Greg Sestero) grab the thug and take his gun without great difficulty before bundling him away. After a few tearful recriminations, this incident is not mentioned again. Its purpose, we later learn, is simply to get a gun into the story. Mark is the object of Lisa’s lust, for Lisa, as she explains to her reprehending, patronising mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), is bored with Johnny in spite of the fact that, as everyone repeatedly states, he’s a being of overwhelming goodness. He is a river to his people: father-figure to Denny, breadwinner to Lisa, and his apartment is, as Claudette describes it, a bit like Grand Central Station for the people who traipse through it. Michelle and Mike (Robyn Paris and Mike Holmes), a couple who, in spite of being in what appears to be their mid-20s, feel a need to sneak into Johnny’s place under the cover of doing “homework” in order to erotically share chocolates. Michelle is also Lisa’s confidante and sometime-enabler of her wayward sociopathic streak, half-heartedly trying to talk her into being honest with Johnny, but mostly just giggling along as if they’re both high and having playful fights with household objects. Other randomly introduced members of this circle of friends include Peter (Kyle Vogt), a psychologist who mumbles vague opinions about Lisa’s mindset, and some guy who looks a bit like Danny Huston who first appears during the climactic party scenes and yet seems instantly included as a major character.
An aspect of The Room that attracts the most immediately obvious incredulity, and yet which I found myself particularly taken by, is the way it accidentally trashes the settled niceties of humdrum screenwriting. It’s as if Wiseau, in penning his script, began toying with many possible discursions for his tale, decided to pursue none except the central romantic crucifixion, and then did no rewriting whatsoever. Scenes lurch by and repeat without specific motion, the story has an entirely disconnected rhythm, and Wiseau doesn’t just introduce conflict, but every conflict he can think of. Johnny tries blatantly to make Denny his lovably foolish mascot, as he cajoles the guys into playing football when they’re wearing tuxedos (Why they’re wearing tuxedos is not explained. Is someone getting married? Going to a funeral? Winning the Nobel Prize? It seems to be for some kind of wedding rehearsal — but whose wedding?) and stoking panicky, weepy concern from Lisa and Claudette when he gets threatened by that drug dealer. Claudette mentions early in the film that “I definitely have breast cancer.” Mike, during one of Denny’s impromptu football games, wobbles and nearly collapses as if he’s suffering from some illness, too. Neither of these aspects, like the drug dealer, is mentioned again. When Wiseau himself isn’t on screen, the combination of the otherwise blandly attractive cast and the jostling, clichéd story lines resembles clip-show excerpts from a particularly bad mid-’90s soap opera, assembled without any of the connective tissue or resolutions. That’s actually the highest praise I can give it.
Sometimes the Bad Movie cult engages in a kind of snobbery, where all low-budget films or even just old films with dated special effects and production values, are food for ridicule, a notion I’ve always been intensely at odds with when the film exhibited some passion and smarts. The original canon of cultish bad movies was built around monster movies and tacky spectacles like Plan Nine from Outer Space, Eegah!, Robot Monster, etc. Later, these were supplemented by movies from the late ’60s and early ’70s that tried to exploit the Counterculture, and then finally, by calamitous misfires of the blockbuster mentality, like Showgirls and Battlefield Earth. But The Room is something different. Aspects of its awfulness are timeless—the egotistical one-man-show quality of the production, with the auteur parading his sexual and emotional hang-ups, as well as incompetence, across the screen; the soul-witheringly awful writing; and total lack of cinematic intelligence and craft in the filmmaking. But other aspects are more contemporary in their obnoxiousness—the sex scenes, with their stale reproduction of visual gimmickry from shitty cable TV filler flicks and cheapo music videos; the dreadful synthesiser music score with its endlessly repeated, yet completely unmemorable main theme, and random quotes from Satie and Beethoven that swirl surreally under dialogue exchanges. The Room is the inevitable by-product of the independent film revolution, a specific summary of everything that could go wrong with the “Hey, I can make a movie, too!” philosophy.
One amazing thing about The Room is that it cost a reported $6 million to make. Apart from the incessant blue screen work in the rooftop scenes, in which exactly the same light and sun-through-cloud effects occur from scene to scene, it’s hard to imagine what the hell that money got spent on. Its sex scenes are like some hitherto undescribed 10th circle hell, interminable montage interludes scored to ballads that sound like they were recorded by the clapper loader’s brother’s band. Leading lady Danielle seems to have been chosen mostly for her willingness to let Wiseau’s carcass undulate on top of her. Undoubtedly these would-be sexy bits are the film’s selling point as some kind of erotic drama, and yet they wouldn’t get a nun bothered, except possibly by nausea. The first sexual interlude sports red rose petals crumbled over Lisa’s skin, dissolves between lighted candles and shots through the gauzy drapes around the bed, and rainwater flowing down the window. Soft-core? How about dribble-core? Most of these elements repeat in the next bedroom bit, too, like some horrible, recurring dream. These scenes elucidate both Johnny’s awesomeness and Lisa’s perfidy: how she can seem so blown away by Johnny in such moments, and yet still want to reject him and cheat on him, is supposed to be utterly mysterious. The fact that he’s an unattractive dimwit doesn’t seem to be obvious to anyone but Lisa and the audience.
Lisa and Mark’s first shag, on the stairs, sees them disrobing and fondling, and then, after a delicate dissolve, finds them both fully clothed again, still seated on the stairs. As the story gains terrible momentum when Johnny fails to land his sought-after promotion, Lisa encourages him to get drunk and go crazy. A jarring jump-cut later, intoxicated high spirits are communicated by how Lisa now wears Johnny’s necktie around her head; they then ascend to the bedroom for more eye-wounding contortions. But all of this is part of Lisa’s evil plot to justify leaving him—she plans to tell her mother and others that Johnny got drunk and hit her. She never does actually get around to leaving, at least not until another hour has passed. Lisa’s initial seduction of Mark is equally hilarious, as she comes on as vaguely crazy. Her character passes through some mad switchbacks of behaviour, sometimes full of tender concern for Denny and elucidating her appreciation of Johnny’s caring side, and then violently transforming into the scheming minx full of contempt and lies about to ruin everything. Mark shifts from a confused but generally pleasant hipster doofus into a posturing, pot-smoking jerk who first assaults Peter when he confronts Mark about his strange behaviour and then attacks Johnny in the wrenching climax. Such drama represents character evolution of the lowest calibre.
Ed Wood’s films maintain a sort of honesty, and their efforts to say, in their fumbling way, vaguely original and serious things in the context of their ’50s origins about arms control and sexual understanding, inspire a certain level of affection for Wood amongst casual and serious cinephiles alike. Wiseau’s agenda is much less agreeable. Wiseau’s portrait of Johnny as undone by widespread betrayal has qualities in common with some great tales of ridiculous men, like Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. Here however, it just reeks of gruesome self-pitycomposed of a potent misogyny mixed with a strange naiveté about the real world. Recognisable human behaviour is almost nowhere to be seen. Several scenes depict Claudette lecturing Lisa on what she owes Johnny and how Lisa can’t support herself and therefore needs to tether herself to his financial security, scenes that reveal Wiseau’s understanding of gender relations to be jammed somewhere back in 1917. Lisa’s ultimate crime of not comprehending Johnny’s greatness is therefore a compulsive act of self-destructiveness. By the time Johnny finally shoots himself after a titanic bout of maudlin demolition, it becomes clear that the film he’s made is a version of a child’s pouting session where he fantasises how much people will regret hurting him once he’s dead. The internal dynamics of Wiseau’s scenes often defy description, like the one in which Mark and Peter come to blows, or the already-immortal scene in which Lisa’s distanced provocation drives Johnny to scream, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” The characters move on from these concussive, sometimes near-deadly altercations almost immediately, without repercussions. Only one scene obtains anything like a whiff of authenticity, when Johnny recounts how he met Lisa just after his arrival in San Francisco.
Fortunately, Wiseau had the perfect lead actor to focus the qualities of his writing and direction. Wiseau’s acting is bad enough to warp the fabric of time and space, his complete lack of charisma only compounding his seeming insensibility in many scenes, refusing to look actors he’s exchanging lines with in the eye and mumbling so thickly that he’s had to redub his lines throughout, lip movements rarely synched to what he’s saying. He expresses emotion through violent exclamations, and theatrical groans and grunts only add to his accent in creating a likeness to a stoned Arnold Schwarzenegger with delusions of thespian capacity. Then there’s the spectacle of some of the other actors obviously trying to work out how to deliver the insipid drivel they’ve been given to speak. Wiseau’s inspired awfulness reaching an apogee in his moan-and-groan final scenes, trashing his house and shooting himself in a bratty fit, leaving Lisa and Mark to weep over his body and Mark to finally realise what a bitch Lisa is and walk out. Perhaps Lisa goes on to find her metier as a weapon of mass destruction for some obscure dictator. Either way, the ultimate statement of Wiseau’s movie is that it sucks to be him, and it’s one whose manifold inanities I feel like I’ve only touched on.
The effect of The Room is powerful, in a strange sort of way, as it lives up to the grand tradition of Bad Movies, and seems to infect everything else after it to make you feel both elated and wearied. It’s perhaps the first time I’ve ever been left feeling personally insulted by a filmmaker. The Room finishes, and yet its all-pervading awfulness remained with me. Everything seemed to grow darker, tainted by its touch. The likes of Michelangelo and Leo Tolstoy would have had their faith in creative endeavour shaken by it, and afterwards I started seeing the inner Wiseau in many a great artist, as if all efforts lead into an immense heart of crappiness.
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