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Director/Screenwriter: Alain Guiraudie
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Stranger by the Lake has been making waves internationally for its frank exploration of gay cruising, which includes explicit, mostly unsimulated sex scenes. The film’s director and screenwriter, Alain Guiraudie, won the directing prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for the film, a prize I think he deserved because of the unself-conscious performances he got from his actors and the subtle changes in mood he brings to the looping scenes of the lake, beach, and wooded area that form the single location of the film. At the same time, this film doesn’t offer a major departure in form or structure—Guiraudie, known for his more audaciously experimental approach to film, has said that he surprised himself by how formal the film ended up being. Of a piece with the New French Extremity movement that began in the early 2000s, Stranger by the Lake indulges the themes of loneliness, fatal attraction, and the linking of sex and death that go back to the beginnings of film, but that were elided until the end of the studio system in Hollywood and the coming of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The central character, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), is a young, slim, gay man without a career, job, or any specific goal beyond spending the summer at the cruising beach swimming, sunning, and having sex in the woods that surround the lake. Franck uses his first visit to the beach to get acclimated. He greets a friend, strips to his underwear, and goes for a swim. As the summer progresses, he’ll forgo the underwear, sunning and swimming in the nude like the other men. Franck also goes out of his way to become friendly with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a middle-aged man who sits apart from the beach dwellers, never sunning or swimming, but rather just watching them. Henri has split from the woman in his life (girlfriend or wife is never made clear), who has remained on the other side of the lake, presumably where couples roam in more conventional fashion. Henri may feel like an outcast from that world, but he also doesn’t seem to fit into the gay scene and, in fact, seems rather naïve about it. When Franck tells him that he doesn’t go with women ever, Henri seems surprised, thinking that all homosexuals also keep a woman around, perhaps because Henri is just such a man, trying to come to terms with his repressed homosexuality.
Franck is attracted to Michel (Christophe Paou), a man who epitomizes the ’70s style of desirable homosexual—tall, muscular, tanned, and sporting a thick mustache. However, Michel has a possessive lover, Eric, (Mathieu Vervisch), who sends Franck on his way. Franck, who has a habit of staying at the lake into the night, watches Eric and Michel swimming one evening. They appear to be playing, but the play turns deadly as Michel holds Eric under the water and soon emerges alone from the lake. Despite the fact that Eric’s red car and beach towel remain in place for several days, nobody remarks on it, and Franck says nothing of what he saw; instead, he and Michel become lovers. When Eric’s body washes up on shore and the police come snooping around the lake, the film moves steadily toward a suspenseful end.
Stranger by the Lake mildly indulges a backward-looking pastiche that seems to be forming a contemporary current in French cinema. The sun-washed days of idleness and pleasure by an Edenlike beach are bathed in Summer of ’42 (1971) nostalgia. The film is shot through with comic moments that seem to look back in time to a different, less dangerous era of free love; for example, Franck hooks up with a man who insists he wear a condom, even though Franck is only giving him a blow job. The caution this man won’t throw to the wind is not only gently ridiculed, but also contrasts with Franck’s attitude, which eschews the future to live in the moment. It’s possible to look at Franck’s fatal attraction as being akin to the search of the main character for a lover who will kill her in the 1977 Richard Brooks film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but Franck is not the suicidal one here. The notion of a gay-hating serial killer picked up from the much-reviled Al Pacino vehicle Cruising (1980) is voiced by Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte), who pops up at the lake regularly like Lieutenant Columbo, comic, but unavoidable, as Guiraudie refuses to open up his film beyond the lake. His intense focus on this locale has the effect of demystifying gay cruising for straight audiences through an honest depiction of desire that transcends sexual orientation. In this context, the explicit sex in the film is not pornographic, but an organic part of the world Guiraudie is trying to explore.
One wonders why Franck doesn’t run fast and far from Michel after what he has witnessed. Certainly, linking sex and death is nothing new—Gloria Grahame was more turned on by Robert Ryan in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) after she asked him if he ever killed anyone, and Vanessa Paradis seemed to orgasm when carnival performer Daniel Auteuil threw knives at her in Girl on the Bridge (1999). It is usually not the aim of such foreplay, however, to actually end in death. More likely, Franck has been caught by the devouring charisma many mentally damaged people give off that traps so many would-be rescuers and innocents who mistake their immediate connection with discovering a soulmate. Franck says after only a couple of meetings with Michel that he thinks he is falling in love, and Michel says all the things that would lead Franck to think he is feeling the same way, too. Only Henri sees Michel for what he is—an amoral psychopath who killed a possessive lover when he found someone he wanted more.
I found myself quite involved in this movie and concerned about what would happen to everyone. D’Assumçao exudes a pathos that nonetheless is grounded in reality. He tries to reach out to Franck, but knows that the young man is busy being young, and not a candidate to fill his empty heart. Paou is an implacable avatar of entitled desire—remorseless, sexually greedy, and quick to action. Deladonchamps, for all his sexual adventuring, seemed a bit like Bambi to me, particularly at the end of the film, when his plaintive cry was like a baby doe looking for its mother. By that time, we realize how much he’s made us care.
Stranger by the Lake screens Friday, October 18, 9:15 p.m. and Sunday, October 20, 4:10 p.m at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
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Director/Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola
By Roderick Heath
The ’00s are already starting to feel like a long time ago. The first decade of the new millennium, an age of gorging excess for a select number which ended up in a giant socioeconomic car crash from which we’re still recovering, is going to look ever stranger for people as they look back on the time—its naked money worship, the War on Terror hysteria, the gaping voids of thought and substance all too ably recorded for posterity by reality TV, and the new internet-fuelled super-pop culture. Just lately, I’ve started to get the feeling that filmmakers, particularly those from the independent scenes, have become canaries in the cultural mines the way poets used to be, registering changes in the zeitgeist with a peculiar speed that is perhaps indicative of how much quicker cinema production can be today and how much more engaged filmmakers are with the evolving social discourse. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring throws its mind and mood back to around 2008-9, when the bogus rhetoric of “aspiration” as justification for incredible greed and new forms of social exclusion was both at its height and about to meet the cold reality of boom-bust cycles, which here comes in the form an even more immediate, pitiless wake-up call.
The Bling Ring adapts a real incident, via a Vanity Fair article that was called “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” a jaunty title that identifies the brand-name-emblazoned mindset of the criminal gang whose activities comprise a weird mixture of delinquency and absurdity. A group of teenage friends, all children of affluence and times of plenty, engaged in a string of comically easy robberies of the houses of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, and Megan Fox, filching money, jewellery, and clothes. This allowed them to hit the L.A. highlife, where everybody’s a wannabe, with impudent élan. Fox famously has a freely quoted line from King Lear tattooed on her shoulder, “We will all laugh at gilded butterflies,” a jab in the original context at the kinds of well-dressed empty vessels who flock around the flames of power. The Bling Ring could be the butterflies, or they could be the laughers.
This crime wave is sparked by Asian-American high schooler Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang), who sees nothing wrong with stealing cash from parked cars and random houses in prosperous suburbs, even jacking a Porsche with blithe confidence. The ring begins to take shape when she ventures into Hilton’s manse when her pal Marc Hall (Israel Broussard) finds out online that she’s out of town. Marc, gay, dowdy, and awkward, is socially adopted by Rebecca when, like her, he’s forced to attend a public school after being kicked out of a private one. Rebecca offers Marc the chance to make glamorous associations and become a cool kid, as she’s friends with would-be model and fashionista Nicki Moore (Emma Watson). Nicky is enthused about the idea of stealing, and she brings her pal Chloe (Claire Julien), her younger sister Emily (Georgia Rock), and adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga) into the ring.
After returning to Hilton’s house multiple times, the ring begins to branch out and target other celebrities’ houses, after Marc does his quick research on the net to make sure when they’re away. Sam’s boyfriend Rob (Carlos Miranda) joins them on some raids, whilst Chloe and Marc sell some of Orlando Bloom’s Rolex watches to Chloe’s boyfriend, sleazy nightclub manager Ricky (Gavin Rossdale). Emily joins the gang when they need someone small to slide through Fox’s dog door. Their raids on Hilton’s house go undetected for a long time, because the owner leaves the keys under the welcome mat and they resist stealing any major items. Later, when robbing the house of TV host Audrina Patridge, they’re caught on camera as shadowy invaders. Their crimes become an open secret amongst the people they know and the scenes where they hang out, and they even display their exploits on social media. Finally, they’re rounded up and prosecuted after Rebecca, fleeing from tension at home to live with her father in Las Vegas, unwittingly makes Marc her accomplice in taking stolen goods over state lines.
Fragments of interviews taking place in the future with the ring, particularly Marc, give some context and perspective. Marc’s shift from teenage dirtbag to budding fabulousness is glimpsed in casually employed shots of him hovering before his webcam wearing lipstick and lounging about in a pair of stolen pumps, offering the only real signs of traditional character growth and identification, and a mischievous understanding of the protean forces at work for such a person. But Coppola really only gives us these bones because Marc is the gateway. Otherwise, the Bling Ring members are shallow, deliberately so. There’s little point in listening to them talk, because they talk crap; they’re well versed in brand names and designers but empty of other concerns. They’re pretty average young people, actually, save for the circumstances of their youth as citizens of L.A. and therefore faced with constant proximity to the promise of the high life in an imperial capital. Watching The Bling Ring, I had an insight into the way “we” morally respond to movies, via an element that has haunted Coppola with particular doggedness since her directing career began—that she’s a spoilt rich girl making films about same. Her perspective on the rapacious abyss that certain aspects of capitalist triumphalism conceal has become plainer and less generous since the playfully sardonic Marie Antoinette (2006) was infamously jeered at Cannes for making the link between modern consumerism and imperial downfall not just bitingly plain, but genuinely funny. The Bling Ring, whilst dealing with immediate, almost ripped-from-the-headlines fare, is certainly a thematic follow-up.
Coppola’s emotionally immediate, but conceptually slightly laboured Somewhere (2010) indicated that she had listened to her critics on one level, and adopted a more distanced and elusive take on the “white people problems” she was portraying, but in a manner that felt hackneyed on some levels. The Bling Ring benefits from both intimate knowledge of what she speaks and also definite, ironic amusement, delivering her least conventional narrative yet, shorn of many external complications and dramatic niceties. The film received a largely admiring but cool reception, and part of me began to wonder as I watched it if this wasn’t due to how successfully ambiguous is Coppola’s stance towards her teenage anti-Robin Hoods. The Bling Ringers engage in criminal acts according to sketchy, but carefully hinted personal needs and desires that are channelled into an official, overarching project of socioeconomic parasitism. If they were doing what they were doing for, say, the reasons that the rich-kid anarchists of this year’s The East do what they do, or rebelling or bringing down their idols with any purpose, or even acting out lodes of emotional disquiet that can’t be repressed by affluent suburban conformity a la Rebel Without a Cause (1955), they would immediately become heroes for the audience—naughty, nonviolent Dadaists making a mockery of wealth and fame and the pretences to possessors of such to exceptionalism, finding keys under the doormat to multimillion-dollar mansions and paltry security defending the castles of the new elite.
But the Bling Ringers remain well beyond the easy empathy of the audience because they seem, at least superficially, to be moving like baleen whales, sucking in both their sustenance and other people’s property thoughtlessly on a kind of emotional-moral autopilot. Not that they’re amoral or even particularly mean-spirited, though there are flashes of such qualities, especially when the temptation to posture according to the pop culture stricture toward ironclad egocentrism, arises. In just about the film’s only scene of traditional tension, Sam takes hold of a pistol Nicki finds in a house and waves it in Marc’s face, shifting into a movie-derived attitude of untouchable self-righteousness and threatening cool, and there’s momentary uncertainty of just how far Sam wants to take the act, if it is an act. She then sneaks into Rob’s bedroom to do the same thing with him, only for the gun to go off, luckily only putting a hole in his mattress.
Rebecca’s early larcenous behaviour seems the more familiar behaviour of a troubled teen, but it swiftly transforms into a much less common project. The ring tend to believe, not without some justification, that the world of the rich and famous is a smorgasbord from which they can partake without consequence, because everyone has plenty, and they’re entitled to a piece of it. Rebecca, for example, hopes to be a successful fashion designer—nay, intends and expects it—but in the meantime, finds that many of the privileges and perks of the level to which she wants to be elevated can be more easily obtained simply by stealing them. When the ring raid Patridge’s house, Coppola’s camera notes it all in a slow, inward-zooming longshot, framing the glowing house against the L.A. skyline like some temple of money, touching this and other midnight odysseys with a near-religious awe. There is an added layer here in that the camera also mimics the vantage of a CCTV camera, and the film segues into eerily green-tinged surveillance shots that turn what from a distance seemed to be a cubist delight of space and light into a trap.
For Marc, in particular, these ventures offers the chance to invent himself free of social judgment. The ring engage in acts that look and feel quite anarchic, illicit, and subversive, but only accidentally: their actual desire and intent is to enjoy the lifestyle without any concept of critiquing it or subverting it as class rebels. From a distance, and even pretty close up, they’re vacuous rich kids getting off on being naughty. Coppola’s already made withering mirth from a particular species of Hollywood dipstick—Anna Faris’ starlet Kelly—in Lost in Translation (2003), but here the likeable, witty audience avatars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson provided are missing; even a figure like Somewhere’s Johnny Marco, who was suffocating in an empty existence, has been excised. The closest thing to a substantive adult presence in The Bling Ring is Nicki’s mother Laurie (Leslie Mann), who home-schools Nicki and her sisters in deliciously, deliriously Californian New Age fashion, complete with prayer circles in which vaguely religious bromides-cum-pep talks are delivered. Laurie, far from a countervailing presence, is the film’s purest vehicle of satirical humour: when one of her home-schooling sessions is glimpsed, she holds up a handmade chart festooned with pictures of Angelina Jolie as an example of an inspiring role model, except that when she prods the girls why they might admire her, Sam suggests, “Her husband.” Other parents do appear, but they’re mostly onlookers, dissociated from their children’s lives. Marc has a father who’s “in the biz” as a film marketer. Jessica’s broken home seems to have played a part in her blithely larcenous behaviour. But Coppola avoids as much as possible making a cautionary tale of wild amoral teens with ignorant parents, like every teen crime flick going back to the Ed Wood-scribed The Violent Years (1956) and including another of this year’s films, the lauded but laboured Spring Breakers, which stands at a fascinatingly fantastical remove from The Bling Ring. Spring Breakers offers a (middle-aged, male, “edgy”) filmmaker’s take on a similar motif of teen girls becoming criminals for profit and fun, except that everything in it is made to circle back to the filmmaker’s sexual fetishism of their actions—just like The Violent Years.
In The Bling Ring, Coppola tries to avoid as many clichéd stances as possible. Rather than give us a malefic sense of things spinning out of control as the Ringers indulge in cocaine-charged nightclub partying, she makes them dreamily beautiful. There’s an implicit link to her The Virgin Suicides (1999) even as it seems to be making a directly opposite point. Whereas in the earlier film, adapted from Jeffrey Eugenides’ pseudo-mythopoeic novel, the young women were innocent nymphs wilting from being caged by outdated moralism, here the girls are unscrupulous sexpots free both to mimic and exemplify immediate cultural maxims of louche self-indulgence. What unites them, however, is Coppola’s manner of shooting them, daubed in rich light and colour and vibrating to furiously onanistic club beats, in a style that makes clear that the fresh bloom of youth is a fleeting moment of protean wonder. Of course the Bling Ringers want to get high, dance, and be rich, such are pretty normal impulses, and when they’re gyrating, however they’ve bought it, they are, like everyone else, rejoicing in the moment of their youth. Laurie does, accidentally almost, introduce one important idea to The Bling Ring when she advises her children, “We have to be really careful who we surround ourselves with, because we wind up being the average of those people.” Nicki later tries to use this as her out when justice comes knocking, trying to blame the company she’s kept for getting involved with crime, but finally being convicted for just that reason, indicted by her own propensities.
The Bling Ring, as a title, has ironic inferences: “bling,” of course, is probably the most popular phrase to emerge from hip-hop slang (and it comes, in turn, from comic book representation, a kind of visual onomatopoeia that could easily be projected onto Coppola’s colourful, epic surveys of jewels and designer shoes without making them anymore cartoonish). The ring, especially when Jo finds that gun, almost manage to live up to a peculiar schism that underlies a lot of contemporary pop culture: the rejoicing of flashy wealth coexisting with trashier values of physical strength and fitness, pistol-packing invulnerability, and posse-trailing imperiousness that also comes from hip-hop and represents a driving force behind the popularity of the Fast and Furious movies. Lana Del Ray and Frank Ocean are a couple of pop musicians who had made notable inquiries into this spirit lately. Del Ray’s upper-class jeune filles delighting in becoming concubines to blaxploitation villains could represent the fantasy lives of the ring, whilst Ocean’s druggy “Super Rich Kids” turns up, almost inevitably, over the end credits. The ring don’t physically hurt anyone, because they’re actually all wusses, and their criminal success occurs only because the people they’re targeting don’t believe criminals would dare rob them. Indeed, the culturally ingrained barriers, the aura of awe and distance that surrounds the modern media celebrity as the new aristocracy, is more effective than CCTV cameras and burglar alarms, a barrier that only a gang of kids from the same world would dare violate. Of course, many of the pleasures the ring derive from their actions are eminently, classically criminal: they can live beyond their means after brief spells of risky work, feel important and illicitly clever, and enjoy the notoriety their transgressions earn them.
It’s entirely apt that the ring’s first and repeated target is Paris Hilton, an ideal celebrity of a new brand of aristocracy famous for absolutely nothing other than being rich and telegenic enough to profitably show it off, whose house is revealed as a distressing trap of narcissism and tawdriness, complete with at-home pole dancing parlour (a common motif of Coppola’s fascination/repulsion for the modern highlife). Hilton, unlike the Bling Ring themselves, seems to know that she’s an interloper without talent whose only trick is the willingness to turn her entire existence into an act of pop art—or she’s completely blind to her own existence. The cleverest aspect of Coppola’s narrative patterning, though it’s one that contributes to the film’s slightly imbalanced quality, is that she largely reduces the middle hour to a flow of instant gratification: little small talk, minimal character development, just a series of criminal forays that offer the illicit thrills of exploration, like a sort of pirate edition of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” and the payoff of hard partying and private delight in shiny things. Coppola makes the audience complicit in their adventures, offering racks of designer goods for the eye-dazzling pleasure of plenty, and the repetitive acts of incursion, theft, and escape.
When the cops do come knocking, there’s an obvious affinity again with Coppola’s earlier work, this time with the climax of Marie Antoinette when the revolution calls: paradise lost, lives ruined, and the plenty that came so easily suddenly, cruelly severed. Rebecca tries to fake her way through a police interview, confident she’s disposed of all the booty after Marc called to warn her of their impending arrival, but her smug smile disappears when they turn up items she’d forgotten. Nicki screams with panicky despair as she’s handcuffed and hauled away. Marc is branded as a rat by the media, because after being arrested, he carelessly told the cops about his accomplices. But once arrested and indicted, Nicki treats it all like an audition as she tries to decide on the perfect outfit for a court date, and the infamy their arrest brings them is registered by Nicki only as the fame she’s always planned for. She’s interviewed for the Vanity Fair profile, fending off her mother’s goofily agreeable attempts to interject and add details, irritated that Leslie keeps trying to get in on her media moment. The law, historically arranged to powerfully favour property owners and now carefully tailored to the needs of modern consumerist society, falls upon the kids with such heaviness that they become exactly what they would never seem to be: martyrs for the sake of offended people of wealth. Concluding shots of Marc being hustled away with other orange-jumpsuited convicts, strike a surprising note of melancholy, the awareness that the fun and games have ruined lives, and the slightly bitter volte face that notes that a bunch of dumb kids have been hit with the full force of law.
Given the quality of The Bling Ring, it’s hard to admit, but also certain that the film doesn’t always sustain its best ideas: the observational sharpness that defines Nicki, Marc and Laurie doesn’t touch the other characters. Coppola’s last two films bear signs that she’s trying annex aspects of the more aloof, pseudo-objective filmmaking that art house figures have leavened in the past decade or so. But this affectation works against her own best qualities as the Molière of San Fernando, capable of both smiling as a ruthless satirist but also offering expansive empathy and cinematic expressivity. Nonetheless, to a great extent, Coppola’s decision to pare back standard dramatic development helps emphasize the film’s sociological qualities, the precise sense of how aspects of modern youth culture are branded; thus character is expressed through the accumulation of affectations rather than actual personality.
Broussard, Chang, and Farmiga are excellently naturalistic, whilst Watson leaves behind Hermione Granger here in playing the most polar opposite temperament her age bracket could offer, giving a convincing performance as a merrily vain moon unit. If the last sight of Marc suggests surprising tragedy, Nicki, bound to emerge from every situation as the winner because she’s been programmed to, rounds off the film with unsurprising gall. She’s last seen being interviewed about her arduous 30 days in prison, relieved by the fact that the girls’ idol and robbery target, Lindsay Lohan, was in the same boat, and leaves off with a plug for her website, NickiMooreForever.com.
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Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature films of: John Ford and Emin Alper, directors
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It isn’t every day that one can watch two films in one day—one from the early days of the motion picture industry and one hot off the presses—and see such a straight line of descent from the early to the new. Add to that “coincidence” the fact that both films represent the feature debuts of one legendary filmmaker and one possible legend in the making, and the experience is all the more powerful. Lucky was I! I had the rare privilege of seeing the first in what would be a long line of iconic Westerns by John Ford, and a more genre-mixed Western by one of the rising directors of Turkey’s emerging national cinema, Emin Alper. I had not realized the strong connection between these films when I made plans to see them, but the discovery was a highly illuminating one.
Straight Shooting was the first feature to emerge from the Cheyenne Harry short-film series Ford shot for Universal. The series’ star, Harry Carey, would continue to play kind-hearted outlaw Cheyenne Harry into the 1930s, though Ford’s working relationship with Carey would largely end by 1921. After getting a few shorts under his belt, Ford knew how to get what he wanted and delivered an action-packed Western centered on a range war, with homesteader Sweetwater Malone (George Berrell) standing fast against the threats of cattle rancher Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), who illegally stakes a claim on the creek they both share and threatens death to anyone who trespasses. Of course, Cheyenne Harry, who’d rather keep himself to himself, gets pulled into the fray.
A seemingly amoral rogue who finds himself pulled into the righteous side of a conflict, often with the enticement of a sweet and beautiful girl as partial incentive, is a stock situation that has been changed up and modified over the years, but never completely obliterated. With such a conventional through line, Ford insisted on injecting more realism with a strategy he would pursue his entire career—shooting on location. He chose Monument Valley (and is credited in some places with its discovery as a filming location), away from the artificial frontier of backlots and California ranches, to people with his ranchers, homesteaders, and outlaws. I can attest that the “hideout” for outlaw Black-Eye Pete (Milton Brown) and his gang—a valley beyond a steep rise guarded by lookouts on either side of the pass—looks very much like what a real gang would use.
Going from a short to a feature-length format may have set up a tendency I’ve seen in quite a few of Ford’s films to include a comic middle act that bears very little upon the main action of the film, and, in fact, could be popped out without any loss of continuity. With Straight Shooting, that middle act takes place in a saloon/rooming house where Harry goes to strike a deal with Flint to run the homesteaders off their land. After this bit of plot is slapped into place, a non sequitur involving the lily-livered sheriff surveilling Harry and Placer Fremont (Vester Pegg), one of Flint’s men, as they get drunk and pursue some burglars provides a bit of comic relief, though I was distressed to see Harry’s horse become so thoroughly spooked by the driving rain Ford engineered that it had to be removed after its opening appearance. In fact, horses and actors in danger during chases and descending the steep path to Pete’s hideout had me on the edge of my seat almost as much as the massing of the ranchers set to attack the homesteaders gathered at Malone’s cabin. One “dead” attacker had to “resurrect” to get out of the way of a horse on a path to trampling him. Although fascinating, such scenes are sobering reminders of how wild the early days of filmmaking actually were.
There’s no question in this fictional universe that there are good people and bad people. While Straight Shooting only goes so far as to indict Flint and his men through the cowardly act of shooting Malone’s son Ted (Ted Brooks) in the back, the film does seem to show a bias for people who settle down on the farm and start families. Malone’s daughter Joan (Molly Malone) switches her affection from her misguided beau Danny (Hoot Gibson) to Harry, and the final clinch inevitably comes after Harry weighs the pros and cons of giving up his crooked, carefree ways. While I haven’t seen the Cheyenne Harry films that follow this one, I reckon Harry slipped free of the marital noose to carry on his unofficial Lone Ranger duties.
The multi-award-winning film Beyond the Hill is a horse of a different color primarily in its insistence on withholding the blood-quickening violence from the audience and siding with the ranchers. The outlines of the conflict come slowly into view, as family patriarch Faik (Tamer Levent) welcomes his son Nusret (Reha Özcan) and grandsons Zafer (Berk Hakman) and Caner (Furkan Berk Kiran) back to the family homestead in a craggy corner of Turkey that quite resembles the Western frontier. Faik has 50 sheep grazing his pasturelands and a large stand of poplars, and Mehmet (Mehmet Ozgur), his wife Meryem (Banu Fotocan), and son Sulu (Sercan Gumus) are his hired hands. Faik declares that they will kill a goat to prepare a proper feast for his family, ignoring Mehmet’s suggestion that they wait a bit. Mehmet correctly susses that Faik means to kill the goat he took from a group of nomads that have been grazing their herd on Faik’s land.
The nomads are instantly recognizable to Turkish audiences as the Kurds with whom Turkey has been fighting a protracted war for decades, and former soldier Zafer is a mental casualty of that conflict. It is also apparent from their dress and customs that Mehmet and his family are Kurds, living under the thumb of Faik in substandard quarters due to a financial debt Mehmet owes that is never explicitly outlined. The political parallels of the story may be lost on a foreign audience, but the relative position of master and servant that allows Faik to bark orders at Meryem, Caner to threaten Sulu and his dog, and Nusret to get drunk and try to assault Meryem is universal.
Unlike in Straight Shooting, the nomads are never seen. Faik assumes they are massing to attack him after he kills several of their goats for trespassing on and “destroying” his pasture—never mind that he has 50 goats of his own that put stress on the land. Like the ranchers in Ford’s West, the nomads’ argument, as communicated to us through Faik, is that they have been grazing the land since the Ottoman Empire; Faik is the newcomer/homesteader who insists on the sanctity of private property and his right to defend it in any way he sees fit, as though history began when his family settled the land.
An interesting parallel between the two films is a character that is essentially a double-agent. Danny belongs to Flint’s gang, but is courting Joan and feeding intelligence to the Malones and Harry about Flint’s impending attacks. Sulu keeps a place of his own away from the Faik compound and is frequently the messenger who speak of thefts and attacks on Faik’s livestock. The morning after Nusret accosts Meryem—whether he completed the rape or she fended him off is never known—he rouses from the spot on the floor where he passed out and goes outside. A figure with a rifle takes aim, and we soon learn from Sulu that Nursret has been shot in the ankle. A parallel scene occurs in Straight Shooting right down to the exact camera angle, similar landscape, and object of attack—the son of the patriarch. In Beyond the Hill, however, the shooter is never revealed. Nonetheless, by the end of the film, the enemy Faik locates as an outside band of intruders may, in fact, be one of his own, someone filled with resentment who may be trying to escalate the disagreement to incite violence that will drive Faik off the land for good.
In both films, the primacy of a manly code that is enforced with guns, not laws, is front and center. The sheriff in Ford’s film is cowardly and ineffectual, and the Turkish police know very well what is going on but choose to accept Faik’s lies while refusing the goat meat, religiously and legally unclean for having been stolen, he offers them. Beyond the Hill goes further in fetishizing guns, as Caner can barely keep his hands off his grandfather’s rifles, and the sound of gunfire provides a dramatic forwarding of the plot. Zafer, plagued by hallucinations of his fallen comrades, offers a corrective to the macho entitlement of his grandfather while ridiculing his younger brother for being a sissy, showing that little that is learned about the atrocity of war is passed on to the next generation. The final image set to upbeat, heroic music, the only nondiagetic music in the film, shows Faik and company marching along a ridge to meet the enemy, the half-lame Nusret dragging behind. We want to laugh, just as we laugh when Harry is domesticated by Joan, but the certainty that history will repeat itself makes for a rueful close to this eastern Western.
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Director: Zack Snyder
By Roderick Heath
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, internet pop culture commentary is essentially split into two camps. There are those who tend to celebrate everything shiny and new and consider it automatically superior to the old, and those for whom all revision is doomed never to measure up to the purity, authority, and capacity to fool you into thinking you’re five years old again. In this era of commercial cinema sustaining itself through troubled times by carefully reinventing properties many of us have an ingrained affection for, the schism is all too easy to observe. A caveat here is that in spite of what the selective memory of cinephiles and filtering processes of repute suggest, commercial movie-making has been eating its own tail since its birth, with popular properties remade and reconfigured in an endless tapestry of remakes and reboots, as well as original works that are mostly variations on the same old themes. The difference today is not just in the kinds of properties being recycled, but in the stature of this process: audiences of millions don’t just go to see a movie, but await news of the filmmakers’ choices with merciless scrutiny. Every tweak risks stirring frenetic excitement or irrational loathing. For myself, who grew up very happily watching the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films repeatedly, there’s a certain bittersweet sense of both profit and loss from Zack Snyder’s new take. I know I’ve really wanted Superman to come back strong. Superman doesn’t exist, of course, nor do I want him to, but his symbolic power is still enormous. We still live in a world where awesome abuses of the weak occur, and the promise of absolute justice represented by Superman is, like Sherlock Holmes, one based in a faded era and sensibility, and yet nothing superior has yet been invented to replace him.
Bryan Singer’s strongly felt, but deeply problematic Superman Returns (2006) already proved the folly of trying to reproduce past glories, attempting anxiously to recreate the emotional and audio-visual textures of the Reeve films but failing through an inert story and half-hearted stabs at heterodoxy. Snyder’s take leaps into the phantom zone of near-complete redrafting, skewing the franchise back toward its rowdier roots. The charming mixture of naiveté and sophistication, mythic feeling and inclusive, good-humoured knowing Richard Donner conjured in his great 1978 take on Joel Siegel and Jerry Schuster’s canonical comic book hero seems now to have been an unreproducible alchemy: none of the superhero flicks that have tried to claim its mantle lately have measured up in more than flashes. Like this year’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, Snyder’s film is cursed, therefore, with inevitable comparison to a near-perfect totem of fantastic cinema, and like J. J. Abrams’ film, stirs divergent responses in me, only more so.
Donner and his team updated Superman by leaving his overgrown Boy Scout sensibility untouched whilst making the world he inhabited as vividly, energetically disillusioned as the 1970s and presenting analogues for the audience’s delight at the conceit in the characters sharing his world. Donner’s film wasn’t an irony-free zone, but its power lay in deliberately evoking sarcasm and then being seen to nullify it. Snyder’s take comes under the production aegis of Christopher Nolan, and in many respects Man of Steel obeys the basic demarcations Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer placed on their version of Batman: an attempt to sustain a coherent and grounded take on material once played purely for incongruity, with emphasis on psychological credulity and a variety of selective realism. That’s become a popular approach thanks to the success of Nolan’s films.
And yet blockbuster movies have started to feel like they’re running together precisely because there are so many of them, and they all seem aware of each other because they have to be. This genre specialises in creating worlds unto themselves, where anything is possible, but the correspondingly conversant audience has come to accept it all without batting an eyelid. The fantastic no longer needs introducing, but rather, mere reiteration. The wayward elements that helped make Donner’s film great are also its weirdest and most esoteric: the mystically tinged space trip Superman takes during his tutelage by his father’s simulacrum, the Andrew Wyeth and John Ford-esque moments of Americana, the goofy, quixotically romantic nighttime flight Superman takes with Lois Lane. Such risky peculiarities are verboten in tent-pole flicks now, where a certain processed quality is prized. Snyder’s approach doesn’t skimp on set-up, at least: the difference is one of method. Instead of mythical elegy, here we have chain-lightning pulp pace rendered with an overtone of sombre grandeur. Whereas the early ads for the film suggested a soulful, doleful take on Superman as a Terrence Malick-esque searcher, that quality only emerges in occasional flashes in the film, which opens up the possibility, to me at least, that this version was built in the editing room from a more expansive take.
Snyder’s stuck remixing a familiar story: again Krypton explodes, again young Kal-El is sent rocketing off to safety whilst his parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) die. But here things are more baroquely complicated, with Jor-El’s efforts to communicate imminent danger to the Kryptonian high council interrupted by General Zod (Michael Shannon), who is intent on taking dictatorial control of the planet. Jor-El slips through Zod’s clutches and steals a codex that contains the DNA of all Kryptonians, and has this diffused into his son’s body so that he becomes the living vessel for his species. Zod, unable to stop Kal-El’s escape, kills Jor-El. Along with his followers, Zod is then captured and exiled to an acausal space pocket called the Phantom Zone, just before Krypton finally explodes. Kal-El’s spaceship safely lands on its destination: Earth.
Man of Steel skips the tale of Kal-El’s earthly upbringing, at least for the moment. His adoption by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), his ostracism and outsider status in Smallville, Kansas and glimpses of his latent powers, like saving his schoolmates from a bus crash, instead emerge in flashback fragments throughout. This peculiar choice evokes a similar one made by Cary Fukunaga in his fine adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011) for expostulating character genesis quickly; indeed, it works thematically as well as structurally, placing Clark/Kal-El/Superman’s physical and character growth in counterpoint with the great drama to which his entire life seems to have been leading. Stylistically, Snyder quickly declares intent to do the opposite to Singer, and throws out all hangovers from the Reeve series, including John Williams’ unsurpassable score, which Singer leaned on like a crutch. The music here is provided by Hans Zimmer, who offers what is for him an unusually energetic and expressive score, but which still seems all too standard-issue compared to Williams’ dream-conjuring work. That’s the most overt disparity between Superman 1978 and 2013, though there are other qualities to mourn. The hunky grin and humane openness of Christopher Reeve and the husky-voiced, she-nerd vivacity of Margot Kidder are gone. Everyone here is much sterner, more grown-up, more world-weary. There’s a constant feeling in these modern spectacles that some kind of spiritual Rubicon has been crossed and that the jovial, old pulp and comic book world cannot be invoked again. Whereas Donner and company made the very disparity between youthful dreaming and adult disillusion the fuel of their movie, Snyder and Goyer split the difference.
There’s been no shortage of good and entertaining work in the superhero genre lately, even if it’s often repetitive and lexically limited, its days as major blockbuster material possibly limited now. My own favourites of recent years, Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) and Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), stood out for their willingness to stretch into blurred genre borderlands, whilst last year’s The Avengers set a high-water market for pure entertainment, pulling off the difficult task it undertook by limiting its focus to oddball character dynamics and a big, crowd-pleasing third act. Man of Steel has a similar structure and climax to The Avengers, but it’s a far more ambitious work, refusing to relax into geekfest fun and games. Snyder tries to retell the most famous origin story in modern pop culture, not quelling the memory of previous incarnations but coherently setting up its own priorities, and doing it all in a fashion that recreates the specific gravity of this mythos. The big, make-or-break difference between Nolan’s Batman films and Man of Steel lies in who’s actually doing the filmmaking. I am aware that my own disregard of Nolan and evolving admiration for Snyder is largely opposite to most commentators, but I’m happy with this attitude. Snyder is a technical wizard and messy, dramatic filmmaker, with a compensating passion for the big screen as an expressive space. He has more sense of cinematic show and shape and in his little toe than Nolan and most of his ilk have in their whole bodies.
Snyder’s last two live-action features, the disjointed but impressive Watchmen (2009) and the rich and strange Sucker Punch (2011), were divisive films, but for me, of course, made Man of Steel a film to watch for on top of its provenance as a comeback of the greatest superhero. Superman has come to be seen, awkwardly and even tiresomely, as a figurative superego for the United States, a noble knight who has to retain perfection or lose his status, as opposed to the malleable, id-inflected figure of Batman. As with the criticisms levelled at the new Star Trek movies, the sensation of idealism slowly being replaced with specious “relevance” looms throughout, though the hovering spirit of real-world anxieties always hangs heavy over such inventions. Superman offered a quasi-Jewish messiah figure at the start of the worst episode of anti-Semitism in history. The idea of Superman as a symbolic bulwark against the bleakest of threats takes its power from such circumstances of birth. Aptly, according to his interpretation, Zod, the Kryptonian rebel who has been promoted in the movies to one of Superman’s greatest adversaries, is here characterised as a both an engineered warrior whose reflexes quite genuinely can’t move beyond the bellicose, and a eugenicist and übermensch-proponent who believes Krypton’s past was ruined by weak stock and that its future must be purchased with species-cleansing.
Whilst I could wax lyrical about the specific pleasures of the older Superman that this one avoids, Snyder’s take nonetheless achieves authority in part for its sense of sobriety, lending the material much more scifi cred than it’s had before: the opening is a sprawl of ebullient Edgar Rice Burroughs-isms, with Jor-El dodging apocalypse and the wrath of Zod’s attempted coup on the backs of flying lizards to get his son Kal-El launched off-world. The rocket-paced élan of the opening is the sort of sequence that illustrates the painterly zest Snyder brings to CGI spectacle, resolving in the punch-drunk poeticism of Lara watching geysers of flame erupt to consume her world. That sort of scruff-of-the-neck gambit is one many movies can’t recover from, but Snyder tries, with varying levels of success, to keep the sense of relentless, junk-epic storytelling hurtling forth with the same unstoppable force as Superman’s flying—and therein lies some of the discomfort. These sorts of films are now expected to do all the heavy lifting that was once dispersed over a dozen modes of popular moviemaking in the 1970s, engaging real-world conundrums and providing parables for questions of morality and political resonance that would have once been only a vague allusion or frosting of agreeable subtext, whilst providing nonstop thrills. Snyder retains, however, a quiescent poetic sensibility, one diffused into his love of spectacle and world-contorting effects, leaking out from such visuals as the glimpses of Clark in youthful exile labouring on a fishing boat, faced with a distant glimpse of a burning oil rig that demands he leap in and save the day. There’s a strong sense of life on the fringe of civilisations here that gives Clark’s status as a man caught perpetually between worlds a grounded, experiential flavour.
One aspect of the plot here seems to reference intentionally The Thing (1982), as military authorities discover a Kryptonian colonising ship that’s been under the Arctic ice for millennia, and Clark, on the hunt for clues to his hitherto mysterious origins, infiltrates the workforce on the site. There he encounters Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Clark has to save her from one of the guardian sentry robots in the spaceship. Clark encounters his father, whose personality survives as an uploaded programme stored in a device salvaged from Clark’s spaceship, and Jor-El is able to school Clark in his background and nature. Snyder provides a neat piece of exposition as Jor-El explains Kryptonian history to his son, events displayed in a kind of moving art-deco, bas-relief that hurls the mind back to 1930s public artwork, a sort of design in-joke that touches on this mythology’s roots. Jor-El then sends Clark on his high-flying way, now wearing his iconic costume, actually a piece of salvaged Kryptonian utility wear sporting the symbol for “hope” that is his family’s emblem. Snyder stages this scene beautifully, revelling in Clark testing his ability to fly, crashing spectacularly but then gaining more perfect control and shooting across the face of the earth with liberated joy, a sequence that confirms that modern special effects really can communicate the essence of the fantastic.
Clark finds himself just in time, because soon Zod and his cabal turn up. Released from the Phantom Zone after Krypton’s destruction and having scoured the galaxy searching for remnants of their civilisation, they finally locate Clark through the frozen ship’s homing beacon. Zod, with his incapacity to think beyond immediate blunt-force solutions, demands that the humans hand over his compatriot: Clark gives himself up to the authorities, represented by General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) and Dr. Emil Hamilton (Richard Schiff), whilst Lois, having been arrested for her contact with the alien, becomes interlocutor. Clark agrees to be handed over to Zod, but warns that Zod isn’t to be trusted, and this proves exactly right: with his super-opponent immobilised by immersion in the Krypton atmosphere aboard his ship, Zod decides that with a little redecorating, Earth could become a new Krypton, repopulated with the DNA strip-mined from Clark’s body. One problem Man of Steel develops is that it boils down to plot 1-A of scifi action: supervillain wants to destroy the world with doomsday device, superhero sets out to stop the plot with major whoop-ass. But, of course, that’s the essence of roughly half the comic books ever penned, and who are the filmmakers to mess with that? But the attempts to skew the Superman mythos closer to real scifi are smart, and pay off with some lush and spectacular imagery, rejecting the day-glo neoclassicism of Donner’s Krypton in favour of a more organic world, and building to a superlatively envisioned contrast of Clark’s raw, corporeal force going up against the chitinous cyberpunk styling of Zod and company.
Man of Steel certainly offers a darker, rougher take on the Superman myth than usual, but to its credit, it tries to take the creation of the most elevated of superheroes seriously on a level that the older films essentially avoided. It’s this element that emerges with singular power: what makes a hero? Man of Steel aptly and coherently reflects the notion, dodged or fumbled badly by most movies of this ilk, that we no longer trust heroes simply for parochial reasons: with several versions of “truth, justice, and the American way” jostling for supremacy at the moment, some of them rather ugly, Superman more or less has to reinvent them. Snyder, who tackled Alan Moore’s cynical probing of the theme with Watchmen, offers a kind of dialectical antithesis here, albeit one that still raises awareness of the dark side of being a messiah figure. Man of Steel actually follows through with it, as Clark’s ethical construction as well as origin story is explicated. The paternal dualism of Jor-El and Jonathan is cleverly paralleled by the structure, each offering versions of self-sacrificial communal care: Jonathan is killed, in an affecting twist on the old mythology, trying to save people during a tornado, signalling to Clark not to save him in his certainty that the time for Clark’s public revelation of his gifts has not yet arrived.
Clark/Kal-El/Superman’s quiescent mix of anguish and acquiescence at his place in the scheme of things becomes the defining motif of his journey, leading to a surprisingly nuanced moment when he returns home to Martha, happily declaring he knows now who he is, and she responds with a stiff, faintly wounded bromide, like any mother hurt by an adopted child’s location of an alternative identity. The sense of overwhelming import that infuses Clark’s growing experience finally pays off in that great first flying scene, and when the creation they start to dub Superman finally appears fully formed, setting off to battle with motivation and character as well as apparel settled. When he launches himself into the fray, telling Lois with quiet charm to step back before he takes off at full power, it’s a genuinely rousing moment.
Much less impressive are Snyder’s nods towards religious parallels, which Singer plied tediously. A sequence of Clark consulting a priest to work through his issues hits a note reminiscent of the lost-in-translation, fetishized evocations of Christian iconography in Japanese anime—which might actually be the point. Another element of the film that falls unexpectedly flat is Adams’ Lois. Adams knows how to play neurotic, but appealing energy, and as such, she could be expected to follow comfortably in Kidder’s footsteps. But her Lois never feels very important, and romance between her and Clark is frustratingly dampened until a scene close to the climax when Superman lowers her lovingly to the ground. Kate Bosworth’s much-maligned turn as Lois in Superman Returns was actually one of the better aspects of that film, for Bosworth offered a Lois who was more a frustrated career woman on the verge of being half-willingly domesticated. In retrospect, Bosworth’s Lois feels all the better because Adams’ take remains stolid and functional, a reminder that Snyder’s touch with actors can be weak.
Cavill’s performance holds up under considerable pressure, however: his characterisation is subtler than Reeve’s, if not requiring much flexibility. Cavill sustains the sense of igneous strength under an essential conscientiousness and self-effacing will. Cunningly, Cavill, whose most high-profile role before this was Theseus in the god-awful Immortals (2011), conspires with the film around him to suggest that Superman becomes all the more human, and humane, because of his exceptionalism, rather than in spite of it. The notion that Superman is a hero for whom killing is an abhorrent act, even though he’s finally forced to cross that threshold, finally emerges with force, unlike many superheroes, such as most of the Marvel crew, who are essentially deadly weapons restraining their neuroses.
Zod and Clark are counterpointed throughout not simply in the broken fraternity that produced them, but because of different ideals. In a sneaky twist on the film’s insistent religious imagery, Kal-El is the result of the first nonvirgin birth on Krypton in centuries, Jor-El and Kara having had a baby the old-fashioned way. By contrast, Zod was the result of Krypton’s long genetic engineering programme, manufactured as a member of a warrior caste, one who cannot see past the end of his own nose, bellowing in triumphalist certainty at his quarry, except, of course, Superman, a product of deviant influences, proves superior. The contrast between battles of the spirit and battles of the flesh is exacerbated by Zod’s icy number two Faora (Antje Traue). She smashes her way through soldiers, facing off against a hapless but unswerving human opponent, Col. Hardy (Christopher Meloni), for a knife fight that’s going to have an inevitable end, Kryptonian patronising the human in his Horatius-on-the-Bridge moment: “A good death is its own reward.” Fortunately, Clark comes to the rescue, so that, in the film’s best pay-off, Hardy has a delayed self-sacrificing revenge as, firing her quip back at her, he blows Faora, himself, and most of the other invaders up. Traue’s statuesque villainy actually come close to stealing the film: she’s not really asked to provide erotic crackle or narrative depth, but provides both anyway with clinical brutality and genuinely alien regard for a lesser species that surprises her with its gameness. Snyder likes his women kick-ass, so it’s not surprising that he’s more animated by Faora than Lois, who’s reduced to spouting exposition as characterisation (“I’m a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist!”).
Shannon’s Zod, on the other hand, is effective without being surprising, as the actor plays in essentially the same key of perma-ferocity he’s handled a half-dozen times before. Terence Stamp’s disco-glam Zod was distinguished by Stamp’s projection of imperious egotism and confident psychopathy even when speaking clueless malapropisms (“So this is planet Houston!”) reflecting the disconnection between his knowledge and his assumptions. Shannon plays a far more coherent and motivated Zod, but he’s inevitably less fun. Crowe, on the other hand, is aging into a superbly relaxed and engaging actor: whilst in last year’s dreadful The Man with the Iron Fists he provided the sole source of fun, here he fulfils one of the most thankless roles imaginable, the guy who always dies in the first act of this story (previously played by Marlon Brando, no less!), with a blend of paternal poise and conscientious anxiety, believably projected even beyond the grave as a model for his son. Costner, never one of my favourite actors, nonetheless does well in counterpointing Crowe as the kind of role model we all wish our fathers to be, someone who can die ignominiously and yet still become practically omniscient through pure character—which is, indeed, what both Jor-El and Jonathan accomplish. Laurence Fishburne provides the third corner for the great paternal triangle in Clark’s growth, playing Lois’ boss Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, in a pitch of sceptical authority.
The much-deplored last act of the film, depicting Clark’s battles with his fellow Kryptonians, is indeed overlong, but also deeply, beautifully in debt to the essential nature of its comic sources, with superbeings rumbling across cityscapes in fistfights that shake worlds, whilst recreating something of the antiheroic tilt of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in making the destruction of Metropolis collateral damage. Snyder and his effects team pull out all the stops to translate the suggested nature of the physical tussling in the comics in a manner the movies haven’t quite managed before. There’s a sense of Superman here as both a bulwark against chaos and also unwitting facilitator of it. Particularly great are a couple of fillips of zest, the first coming when Zod, threatens Martha Clark, only for Superman to come crashing through the wall to drive his foe crashing through fields and silos in a pummelling rage, shouting, “You think you can threaten my mother?” If there’s one absolute law in the fictional universe, it’s that you don’t pick on Superman’s mom.
The second comes as Zod and Superman duel in a world-cracking frenzy, springing from the midst of a devastated city up into space where they kick about a space station before plunging back to Earth: this sequence is so pure in its evocation of the strange logic of the Superman comics that it could be animated pages of the old strip. The finale builds to an effective climax not just of the fighting but also of the essential moral drama of making Superman choose between various evils, making the right choices but with the personal cost for its hero not elided. The howl of anguish Superman releases after snapping Zod’s neck, to save the lives of some hapless passengers, evokes the one he gave over Lois’s body in the Donner film, but with a new dimension. This isn’t actually so new: after all, Superman actually killed Zod far more casually and indeed unfairly, in Superman II (1980), and of course, the interesting question is raised as to who exactly would be Zod’s judge and jailer? No, Snyder’s film doesn’t displace or eclipse Donner’s, but it does earn the right to complement it, proving that a superhero movie can offer a different brand of class. Welcome back, Superman.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai
By Roderick Heath
(Here there be spoilers. This essay is on the Chinese version, not the international cut.)
Wong Kar-Wai’s return to cinema screens after a lengthy fallow phase carries huge expectations for a man who, alongside John Woo and Zhang Yimou, is arguably the most reputed Chinese-language filmmaker worldwide. Wong gained his stature in international cinema in the 1990s partly for his lushly textured cinematic sensibility and partly because his trove of thematic interests, his simultaneous sense of vibrating modernity and underlying longing for the past, marked him as an artist with a finger on the pulse of the age.
With the landscape of urban Hong Kong as his hyperkinetic muse, Wong’s visual panache matched, on levels both explicit and sublime, his fascination with the problems of human accord. In films like Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), he created a version of the modern world where human beings, as compartmentalised as the tiny apartments and hole-in-the-wall eateries they frequented, were floating human islets grazing against possible mates and friends. The simultaneous urges in the density of contemporary life towards isolating, alienating atomisation and compressed, forced communing worked a constant pressure on the psyches of his characters, who then maintained their own peculiar methods for holding the world at bay, like the shopgirl in Chungking Express who blares out “California Dreaming” as a wall of noise against a grubby reality. Wong’s vocabulary of images and ideas, his unique way of filtering them through storytelling conceits that seemed somehow hip and quaint all at once, essayed through one of the most virile, formalistically confident eyes in contemporary film.
Wong briefly stepped out of his familiar mode with a take on the wu xia genre with the epic Ashes of Time (1995, revised 2007), but that film, which had a troubled production, proved a typically hallucinatory, internalised revision on that style, with Wong distorting it to suit his own mood rather than vice versa. His shift into a semi-historical perspective on his key concerns with In the Mood for Love and 2046 (2004), presented mesmeric studies in shifting cultural paradigms, his singular men and manifold women living and drowning in seas of neon-lit, corrosive emotions, which clearly continued his favourite themes but now accented them through a love of nostalgic artifice. His most famous characters, the suffering twosome of In the Mood for Love, refused to succumb to amoral pleasures in a quietly upending age, and finished up wounding themselves, but got on with the painful business of living. The general critical failure of Wong’s under-appreciated U.S. excursion My Blueberry Nights (2006) after 2046’s mixed response nonetheless demanded Wong retreat and reorientate. The Grandmaster sounds in abstract like a shift of direction for the director in tackling a biopic that’s also a martial-arts action drama. But, as the melancholic warriors of Ashes of Time and the oddball spin on the loner-assassin motif in Fallen Angels portended, The Grandmaster proves rather a dizzying sprawl of images and almost associative storytelling methods that revise how this, or indeed any, kind of filmmaking can deliver. It may be Wong’s most stylistically and thematically ambitious work.
The grandmaster of the title is Ip Man, a figure with folk-hero lustre in Hong Kong for popularising the Wing Chun kung-fu style and, amongst many students, most famously taught Bruce Lee. Ip Man has already been the subject of films and TV series, including a pair of popular recent films starring Donnie Yen. But in Wong’s hands, Ip (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) proves as much mediating viewpoint, conceptual linchpin, and witness to an era’s passions and tragedies as he is protagonist. Wong’s film ultimately becomes more akin to a heroic epic in the original sense, in that it’s partly about the deaths and births of nations, in this case the severance of modern China from its past, and the creation of modern Hong Kong. Wong tests Ip Man’s folk-hero status less by de-romanticising him than by studying the forces that create such figures and bury others. Thus, Wong turns the stuff of paperback heroism into raw material for one of his elusively poetic meditations on time and fate.
Whereas Wong’s early, young characters were always nagged by ennui, because of their sense of disconnection from the past, his later, older ones are always haunted by its contradictory loss and simultaneous, unavoidable influence on the present. Ip becomes one of Wong’s dreamer exiles, first glimpsed engaged in spectacular battle with challengers on the streets of his native city of Foshan, possibly in the course of his actual job, which was as a policeman. The opening credits see architectural and decorative patterns and inky credits warp and dissolve in water, introducing the film’s constant motif of water as visual conduit for time, whilst the fight takes place before a set of iron gates that become a recurring image invoking Ip’s life and losses. Ip is glimpsed in a bar pronouncing the essence of Kung Fu: “Two words. Horizontal. Vertical. Make a mistake—horizontal. Stay standing, and you win.”
This essentialist formula for fighting could make an equally good one for life in general, and Wong proceeds with that very assumption, albeit in a fashion that explores the different ways one can win and lose, fail and fight. Wong immediately depicts the more thrilling version, as he starts his film in the midst of a violent melee. Ip smashes his way through a dozen street toughs, including one fearsome opponent, Tiexieqi (Cung Le), who squares off with him in a one-on-one battle, the duo churning in the tempest like saurian beasts. This scene is an ecstatic deployment of cuts and camera moves, rendered in stark, near-monochrome colours: shots alternate blindingly fast moves and slow-motion close-ups of hands, feet, clothing, raindrops, broken glass, and walloping blows. A rickshaw is hilariously crushed by the simultaneous blows of Ip and his opponent, and the enemy finishes up sprawled on a toppled iron gate, flattened by a fearsome flying kick by Ip, who then strides away tugging the rim of his jaunty white hat like a Chinese version of a Bogart hero, confirmed in his Herculean talents. Other battles like this recur throughout The Grandmaster, but they’re largely untethered to any specific sense of narrative cause and effect. They are, rather, sufficient unto themselves as islets of furious action, displays of the physical genius of Ip and “Razor” Yixiantian (Chang Chen), exiles from the Mainland now surviving in the urban wilderness of mid-century Hong Kong, more depictions of their existential situations than battles for any real end. Wong’s fragmentation of the fights into impressionistic affairs turns the battlers into cosmic forces, working upon beads of water and other objects in the same way history at large works on these people.
Wong sets up a dialogue between his narrative in shifting between Hong Kong in the mid ’50s, and mainland China in the late ‘30s, when Ip, a citizen of Foshan and then on the cusp of his forties, first gained real fame in the martial arts community when he was chosen to represent the loose confederacy of southern Chinese martial arts schools against a northern fighter. Ip’s voiceover says that at the time, we was in the long spring of his life as a wealthy family man married to the lovely Zhang Yongcheng (Song Hye-kyo), who watches over her husband with a solicitous, indulgent eye and is described as “a woman of few words, because she knew their power.” But the stability of his life was counterpointed by his accomplishment as a martial artist, having been anointed as a promising figure in his youth by the aged founder of the Wing Chun school, Chan Wah-Shun (illustrious director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping).
The challenge from the north is brought by a potentate of martial artistry and the values attendant to it, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang). Gong unified northern schools into a federation and has nominated formidable protégé Ma San (Zhang Jin) as his successor. But he still plans to duel a southerner himself, as he believes Ma San is too aggressive and hungry to make a name for himself. Ip volunteers as a challenger in noting that he’s a comparative nobody, but his challenge is accepted because the battle in the rain has gained him notoriety. His nomination as champion is controversial as he’s still largely unproven as a fighter, and he’s rigorously challenged by fellow southern experts to make sure he can handle the various northern styles. Gong himself has a young daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who’s learned her clan’s famed “64 hands” technique, but whom her father wants to become a doctor and avoid the sometimes brutal world he inhabits.
The film’s early scenes, taking place in 1937, are set almost entirely within the Republic House, a brothel nicknamed the Gold Pavilion by clientele, which the southern Kung Fu adherents frequent as a kind of clubhouse and occasional field of battle. Wong’s recreation of the vanished world of classy, institutional bawdyhouses and the martial arts fraternity is similar in mood to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s studies of fin-de-siècle moods and aesthetics in Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Three Times (2006). In contrast to Hou’s static panoramas, however, Wong’s rendering is replete with dreamlike, elliptical and obtuse framings that suggest the bustle and intimacy of this world, as well as its claustrophobic, clannish qualities. Wong’s camera is as happy caressing the hems of dresses and shoes of its characters, like noting the tiny bound feet of the Peking Opera artist who gives Ip one of his tests wearing dainty boots that belie her amazing athleticism and skill, as it is recording the fearsome speed and detail of the fighting styles. The ornate atmosphere is violated when fights take place, as when Ma San swats aside several southerners who try to challenge Gong, sending them crashing through walls and down stairwells, or flipping them right around with casual contempt. Ip prizes precision above all things in kung fu, a trait that serves him largely well in fights that take place within the stately confines of the Gold Pavilion, but which later foils him in a telling fashion.
When the time comes for his fight with Gong, however, Ip finds the master has more than a mere match of physical skill in mind. He poses a problem that demands philosophical rigour as well—to try to break a cake Gong holds and simultaneously ponder the dumpling as a symbol for China itself and the martial arts community’s place in it, as the pressure of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the flailing responses from the Kuomintang seem destined to cause the south to secede. Ip succeeds in snapping the cake and answers the riddle by dismissing its precept, in arguing that their kind can look beyond their own borders and consider the world their field of interest. There’s a clever confluence here, in anticipating the effect Ip’s ideas would have on the international popularity of kung fu, whilst also paying heed to a great genre motif of posing a challenge to the young would-be master that’s as much spiritual and intellectual as physical. Gong warns Ip that his victory will make him famous and a target because everyone will want to fight him. He’s immediately confronted by Gong Er, who is determined to regain her family’s honour. Thus, another great stock figure of wu xia enters the tale, or rather two: the vengeful offspring of a defeated champion and the plucky female warrior wanting to prove herself in the arena.
Wong assiduously deconstructs these figures, but also elevates Gong Er’s conflation of them to a status of classical tragic heroine. When the old men who patronise her suggest her predicament is the will of heaven, she retorts with razor-sharp contempt, “Maybe I am the will of heaven,” a statement of tremendous pith but also hubris on her part, highlighting the tragic theme most precisely. Unsurprisingly for a director who has tended in the past to luxuriate in his actresses as both performers and imagistic fetishes, particularly the veritable harem of 2046, to a degree scarcely seen since the heady days of Sternberg and Dietrich, Zhang soon becomes the magnetic pole of the film. Gong Er and Ip’s battle in the Gold Pavilion sees martial arts mastery take on cryptic sexual qualities, bringing the equally talented man and woman into the most startling intimacy possible without any actual erotic contact, faces brushing within millimetres of each other as their bodies orbit, gravity made nonsense by their will and skill. Gong Er technically bests Ip by forcing him to land heavily on a step and break it, thus violating his own rule, and the two part seemingly as friendly equals. They are haunted thereafter by recollections of the fight and its dreadful intimacy, and they continue to correspond in planning a return bout for which Ip will head north, even buying his wife a coat for a winter journey. But the outbreak of new war soon sees Ip lose his two daughters, his money and home, his wife, and finally, his country.
Many of Wong’s films are close to being omnibus works, collections of interlocked short stories in which elements mirror and repeat with algorithmic variations, with characters and situations that comment on each other sometimes in isolated episodes and other times in counterpoint. The Grandmaster is looser in this regard, as his shifts of time zone and focal character are less formally precise, in keeping with a story that works more as a chain of vignettes than a linear account. Although Wong certainly tells a story, he privileges loose ends and fragmentary insights as much as he does the core plot, justified by the nature of his tale and his essential point about Ip Man as an avatar for an age that tore societies to shreds. People are lost to time and memory. Both Ip’s wife and children are ripped away from him by war, and the world he knew disintegrates under the pressure of history, which he describes as going from spring to winter in one moment. Wong’s filmmaking follows suit, as he leaves behind the amber tints and fraternal bosom of the Gold Pavilion for visions of Gong Er standing in snowy vistas and riding steam trains bustling with industrial-age power. Gong Er encounters Razor, a nationalist spy and another superlatively talented warrior who’s been wounded and is trying to hide from Japanese soldiers searching the train that’s taking Gong Er to medical school. Gong Er pretends to be Razor’s sweetheart, and, once the soldiers leave, Razor and Gong Er share a charged moment of tactile communion before he flees.
Wong employs film references galore throughout The Grandmaster, and this scene particularly recalls Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), except with Gong Er the willing saviour rather than randomly chosen target in fake romantic contact to throw off pursuers; hints of Brief Encounter (1945) percolate as well. Here, as elsewhere in the film, however, Wong employs melodrama tropes only to fracture them and study them like facets of hallucinatory beauty and artifice, creating a romantic dream expostulated in fetishized textures: the ice on the window, the blood dripping from the seat and caking Razor’s hands as he fondles Gong Er’s fur coat, all forming a moment of distilled fantasy-nostalgia. Razor never becomes a major protagonist like Ip and Gong Er in spite of his seeming lode of lethal cool and ability; rather he becomes a contrapuntal figure to both, finding a niche for himself later in Hong Kong as a barber and pacifier who keeps gangsters from taking control of the street. But Razor never gains the kind of status Ip does in spite of his action-hero background. Wong here ventures into territory similar to Quentin Tarantino (a fan and proponent) as he invokes the metatextual nature that often inflects genre storytelling, particularly in wu xia, based in a common pool of mythology, with characters transgressing the boundaries of tales and tellers and gaining some life of their own. Razor, who could be the hero of his own story, becomes a memorable bit player in Gong Er’s, just as she is one in Ip’s legend as Wong tells it. Gong Er’s own fate is bound up with her fervent need to prove herself a worthy vessel for her clan’s legacy.
When Ma San became a collaborator with the Japanese, Gong disowned him and the two fought, with Ma San killing the old man. Gong Er was aggrieved and further stung by the requests of her father’s clansmen and adherents that she desist from reprisal. Only her bodyguard and clan loyalist Jiang (Tielong Shang), sticks by her. She asked for a sign whilst praying in a temple if her father approved of her desire for vengeance, at the price of giving up all other worldly fulfilments, and received it in the form of a candle burning before a Buddha statue. Wong certainly offers everything one could hope for in the mode of a romantic-action epic. There’s a tale of unrequited love, thunderous fights, a grand revenge saga, a strident bad guy, a determined revenger, a vast scope, and extraordinary vistas portraying an exotic, lost world. Only Wong breaks it all with his conceptual hammer and then pastes it back together as pulp travesty transformed into poetic saga—and yet there’s reality behind even some of the film’s more romantic conceits. Gong Er, for instance, is based on a woman who shot a warlord in the back after 10 frustrating years of seeking revenge against him for killing her father. Such touches confirm the sensation that there’s another element in play here, detectable even without reading interviews with Wong that confirm it: he’s trying to recreate the Hong Kong he grew up in, where men and women with legendary pasts had retreated into hidey-holes in their new home, getting on with the banal business of living. Because of the outlawing of the martial arts schools by the Maoist government in 1949, all of the masters vacated en masse for Hong Kong.
One might contrast Wong’s investigation of this fecund theme with a far less imaginative film like Edward Zwick’s Defiance (2008), which could only state, not find dramatic irony in the fact that its titanic, real-life protagonists finished up running a Brooklyn trucking firm. Wong takes a step further back than In the Mood for Love and 2046, films which achingly recreated the Hong Kong of Wong’s youth in the brief time of pacific grace between the Maoist triumph in China and the horrors of Vietnam and Cambodia and looks to the even crueller crucible of the age before, transmuted via legendary characters. Characters like Jiang, who was once an imperial executioner (and the character in The Grandmaster who most clearly looks like a classic wu xia stock figure), and Gong Yutian’s contemporary and fellow in pre-Republic revolutionary assassination Ding Lianshan (Benshan Zhao), harken back even further to the forces that dragged China into the modern age. Crucial to the film’s structure is the disparity as well as the attraction between Ip and Gong Er: whereas Ip obeys the precepts of his Wing Chun creed and keeps moving forward in spite of awful loss, Gong Er renders herself a prisoner to the past. Wong underscores the mirroring in Ip and Razor’s experiences by depicting both in thrilling, visceral battles in the rain, except that where Ip’s fight is bloodless, Razor has to contend with assassins trying to knife him. Shots of blood falling into rainwater and sullying it communicate the essence of a more primal, brutal aspect to Razor’s experiences, as he’s pushed from nationalist patriot to lone-wolf survivor in the Hong Kong street.
Wong, who spent a year obsessively editing this film, finally turned in a rapturous mural of oneiric images, all carrying the powerful sensatory charge of sights, sounds, even scents recalled from a past just over the horizon: the whole thing could be an opium hallucination breathed in by Gong Er in her declining days, much like one its evident models, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The Grandmaster is feverishly drunk on its own highly romantic, deeply aestheticized take on a lost past. Undoubtedly for wu xia aficionados there are references and genre tropes aplenty here to masticate, but its cinematic language and references are far wider. Its closest relative in recent western filmmaking as a realm of thundering steam trains, stylised elemental extremes, and fervent human feeling, was Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012), and David Lean seems a point of common reference. But whereas Wright’s film was dancelike and theatrical, Wong’s is at once dense and aerated, musical in texture.
The opening fight sequence seems to take up the gauntlet thrown down by a great scene in Yimou’s Hero (2002) where action, rain, and music entwined in a synergistic dance. Indeed the stylistic gauntlet Yimou threw down with his deliriously stylised wu xia movies has remained a standing challenge for action filmmakers worldwide since, as Yimou turned his artful eye to aestheticizing genre precepts with Hero and House of the Flying Daggers (2004) with formalistic brilliance and purified, archaic, thematic concerns. Wong’s aims are ultimately different: he doesn’t offer patriotic apologia as Yimou did in Hero, nor create an uncomfortable crossbreed as Yimou did in The Curse of the Golden Flower (2005), but rather meditates on the nature of modern peace as a catharsis bought by conspicuously ignoring the horrors of the recent past. Wong confirms his debt to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America by including a music cue from that delirious saga, but the kinship is equally signalled by shared traits and motifs, like railway stations, exile, and opium as both plot devices and style keys. Indeed, if Tsui Hark hadn’t already claimed the title, Once Upon a Time in China might have made a good name for this film.
Where Leone and Lean were sleek, spacious, classical stylists even when adopting elliptical storytelling devices, however, Wong is situated in some post-Impressionist zone, piecing together his vision in points and patches of colour and light. Wong manages to produce a film that is both intensely thoughtful, replete with sequences of quiet intensity that nonetheless remains in near constant motion, achieving a kind of ecstatic flux that can, like a great kung fu fighter, shift from any stance to another with ease. The beauty of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s photography is both heightened and undercut by Wong’s fast-paced, occasionally enigmatic, eliding approach to cutting. Potentially languorous tracking shots are constantly cut off mid-flow, and early scenes are filled with vertiginous barricades between figures within frames, capturing the hermetic aspects of the time and place, as esoteric soup recipes and ancient creeds have their last moments of exacting consequence. One recurring shot depicts two fighters facing off with one centre-frame, the other circling into the shot closer to the camera, and the cut coming as they block out the opponent, cumulatively creating a tension and amplifying the sense of physical intricacy. Conversely, when he’s shooting fights, Wong becomes fiendishly precise, opposite to most other contemporary filmmakers, often alternating from eye-level shots to high, overhead views in obedience to the lateral-horizontal precepts of Ip’s philosophy.
Leone’s influence is particularly strong in the nominal climax, in a railway station on New Year’s Eve, 1940, when Gong Er finally ambushed Ma San and taunted him into a duel. Wong partly spoils his own climax with a flash-forward already depicting Gong Er in 1952, a cagey, still-beautiful but frail and haunted woman who resists Ip’s entreaties to teach him the 64 hands technique. Her battle with Ma San, the culmination of her campaign of payback, is an instant classic and indeed perhaps the best individual sequence in any movie of the past 10 years. Similar to the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), it commences with a long wait in the railway station as Gong Er studies flames in a brazier whilst Jiang sits on the platform, drifting in a wintry reverie where even the flicker of light bulbs and the swirl of snowflakes seem invested with ineluctable sense of momentous forces gathering: Gong Er strides through steam and smoke like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), anointed as a titanic hero. In her furious bout with Ma San, they badly wound each other. Ma San seems to come out the worse, as he ricochets off a moving train and is left sprawled on the platform, admitting defeat and allowing Gong Er her moment of triumph. But when she returns home, she coughs up blood and faints in a shot of deeply morbid ecstasy.
Wong provides the pay-off for the grand revenge saga the audience expects, but with a radical tweak that fulfils a note many other action films only suggest. For Gong Er, her defeat of Ma San is the highpoint of her life, a moment after which everything else, thanks to her vows, can only be addendum, anti-climax, and wastage. The Grandmasters last passages are a return to classic Wong territory as it reduces its vast tapestry to a portraitist study in frustrated romantic melancholy, as Gong Er and Ip Man encounter each other in Hong Kong. Gong Er confesses her pained and resigned desire for Ip, whilst never releasing herself from the strictures of her vows, and a button, saved from the winter coat Ip bought for his wife for their planned trip north, becomes the orphaned relic of their mutual desire. Ziyi’s face, tearful and yet perfectly composed, becomes at last a pool of wan splendour, calmly studied after the furious onrush of the film preceding this moment. Gong Er dissolves like a dream in a welter of opium and visions of herself as an impossibly perfect girl practising her moves like a dancer in the snow. Ip finds himself stranded in the present tense, taunted by his own emotional imperfection and losses, with his wife dying on the mainland, separated from him by more than water or politics. Nonetheless, he survives, artfully clobbering his way to preeminence in Hong Kong and becoming mentor for a new generation. Undoubtedly, The Grandmaster might prove a frustrating experience for viewers expecting a traditionally structured story that delivers familiarly neat character arcs and studious explication. Indeed, Wong’s original concept was just such a movie. But the finished film is a different, far more adventurous success, a bold, extraordinarily executed fusion of approaches that adds up to a genuinely great cinema experience.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
One of the great filmmakers working in modern genre cinema, Guillermo Del Toro has worked his way up to becoming one of the anointed few: a director of Hollywood mega-productions. And yet, although Del Toro has affinity for the sort of material that today fuels most blockbusters, a true top-tier success seems frustratingly out of reach for the portly Mexican auteur. Since his debut with the haunting, witty fable Cronos in 1992, he’s found his greatest critical success in the Spanish-language diptych of dark fairy tales, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Many of his films for the Hollywood market, like the fun and stylish Mimic (1997) and the Hellboy films, did middling box office, but gained fearsome cult followings. Well, at least they did with me. Hellboy II: The Golden Army was probably the best film of the past ten years to have a comic book source, offering both rigorous personality and teeming strangeness. That film’s sequence with the forest god clearly signalled Del Toro’s desire to make an unrestrained monster movie. Only Blade 2 (2004) has proved a true big hit in ratio to its budget, whilst Del Toro’s involvement with bringing Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the big screen ultimately proved a wasted effort, and he handed reins back to fellow nerd-lord Peter Jackson.
Del Toro’s surprising incapacity to truly score with a mass audience, which seems confirmed by his latest attempt at a world-conquering work achieving only soft box office, seems rooted perhaps in the fact that his affection for fantastic film retains a nerdish delight in genre esoterica, his desire to build rather than merely remake franchises, and an old-fashioned ethic that’s determinedly inclusive, refusing fashionable filmmaking postures in favour of emphasising character interaction and particularity in the worlds he creates. In short, Del Toro is a native of this land rather than an interloper, and he lets viewers know the difference.
Nonetheless, Pacific Rim is an overt bid by Del Toro to claim his rightful place at the top of the cinematic food chain. The oneiric, decidedly adult fantasy visions of his Spanish films that ironically involve children and their place in a dangerous world are balanced by the looser, goofier studies in misfits and oddballs cohering in his American works. But the hemispheres of his oeuvre still feel unitary not only in their lexicon of images and ideas harvested from centuries of folk tradition and mythology, but also in their essential tone, their emotional largesse and formal beauty, rendered in bold and fleshy, Renaissance-art colours and highly mobile, vigorous camerawork that maintains nonetheless classical rigour. Pacific Rim nominally annexes territory laid waste by Michael Bay, but is at odds with the preferred approach of most Hollywood big-movie directors like Bay.
The annoyingly vague title, which seems to have aimed for a Cloverfield-esque obfuscation, should have bit the dust during production: to get a sense of this film’s gleeful inner nature, it should’ve been called “Fury of the Mecha-Men” or “Hell-Beasts from the Deep”—something flashy, trashy, and vulgarly poetic, perfectly in tune with this film’s B-movie roots. Easily the best big-budget film of the year so far, Pacific Rim is gloriously corny and entirely unashamed of it, and no small work of formal artistry. It suggests a joie de vivre in its own absurdity and cinematic nature as well as confidence in its cornball dramatics and audio-visual force that’s been frustratingly lacking from the endless series of reboots and franchise instalments of the past couple of years. Even this year’s estimable Man of Steel had an uphill battle to erase memories of earlier versions. Del Toro, on the other hand, may well have made the best monster movie since the original King Kong (1933).
Of course, I am biased, both towards Del Toro as a filmmaker and his choice of references here. How much one enjoys Pacific Rim depends on one’s hunger for adventure, mayhem, and spectacle on the big screen, but will almost inevitably be augmented by a certain affection for ’50s scifi cinema and Japanese fantastic cinema and anime or kaiju, exemplified by the first and greatest, Godzilla (1954), and massive super-technology that offers symbiosis between human and machine, found in the likes of Godzilla director Ishirô Honda’s follow-ups like The Mysterians (1958) and Atragon (1961). Del Toro co-penned the script with Travis Beacham, who previously penned the lackluster Clash of the Titans (2010) remake, which shared at least two qualities Del Toro could appreciate: love of big, monsterish thingies and a certain democratic quality to the way it approached heroic quests. In pointed contrast to Bay’s fascist visions, Del Toro’s desire to create a more internationalist, multicultural vision of world saviours than one usually gets certainly comes out in the course of Pacific Rim, but that again is another way the film accords with old models, like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Conquest of Space (1955). With some emphasis on cooperation between talents of different nationalities and cultural resources, and brave new world solutions, the main plot hinges on the desperate need to create subliminal accord between two historically polarised entities, an American male and a Japanese female.
This accord becomes vital because, sometime in the near future, colossal monsters start crawling out the Pacific seabed, and attacking major cities. Del Toro gives an immediate nod to It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) as the first monster attacks the Golden Gate Bridge, severing its span while assaulted by jet fighters who find their weapons hopelessly outclassed by the terrifying beast. The animal is finally brought down after several days and apocalyptic damage to several cities. Soon, however, a steady number of of the so-called kaiju crawl out of some kind of dimensional portal hidden deep in the Pacific rift to create more havoc. A counter-weapon to the epidemic of monsters is rapidly developed and deployed: colossal, hard-to-control robots called jaegers (German for “hunters”) that are piloted by specially chosen people who have the ability to “drift,” that is, symbiotically join minds through technological linkages. People tend to drift best with people they already share connections with, so many jaeger pilots are related or have similarly close bonds. Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket, who pilots a jaeger with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). Vigorous and unorthodox fighters with an elastic approach to the rules of their trade, Raleigh and Yancy venture out of their designated defence zone off the Alaska coast one night during a fearsome storm to save a fishing trawler in the path of a kaiju. Although they succeed, the kaiju they thought they killed surfaces. The monster slices open the jaeger, and Yancy is ripped away to his death. Raleigh manages to keep enough control over the machine to finish the beast off and bring the mangled jaeger to the coast, where it flops on a beach before a grandfather and grandson (David Fox and Jake Goodman), fleetingly reminiscent of the main characters of Cronos.
Yancy’s death marks another turn in the tide of the kaiju war, as more of the tougher, more intelligent breed of beast that killed him emerge. Raleigh, left bereft and mentally scarred in more ways than one by the loss of his brother and drift partner, spends years in exile working construction shifts on the new sea wall the United Nations has directed be built to hold out the kaiju. There seems here to be a bit of a satirical pot-shot at the infamous Israeli security wall as well as “pragmatic” solutions to the eventuality of flooding from global warming, or a genre conflation of the idea with Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall of China. But it’s still really a broad metaphor for any problem that can be blocked out of sight and thence out of mind. Of course, that doesn’t last long. Meanwhile the jaegers have their ranks thinned, and finally the marshall of the force, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), is told by assorted bigwigs that the jaegers are to be decommissioned. Just as soon as Pentecost is informed of this, however, a kaiju easily bashes a hole through the wall in Sydney, and is brought down by Aussie father and son jaeger pilots Herc and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky).
The jaeger force’s science team, garrulous American nerd Geiszler (Charlie Day), who finds the kaiju unremittingly cool, and snooty, fussy Oxbridge type Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), who loves numbers far more than the messy elements, predict that kaiju will start to arrive in massed groups. Realising that the human race’s days might be numbered, Pentecost tries to get as many jaegers in the field as possible for a last-ditch attempt to close the portal, and particularly wants Raleigh because he’s the only one apart from Pentecost himself who ever managed to pilot a jaeger alone. Nonetheless, a new drift partner for Raleigh is sought, and the best candidate proves to be Pentecost’s assistant Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). In good contemporary fashion, Mako proves her grit and equality by besting Raleigh in a kendo battle. But Pentecost is reluctant to field Mako, for good reasons: she has personal, tragic spurs to want to take on the kaiju, with the kind of trauma in her past that can turn drifting into a destructive psychodrama. As both she and Raleigh share such trauma, they are a combustive team—risky, but also potentially extraordinary. Many films have explored how traumatic past experiences can both bring people close in kinship and retard their capacities to operate in the urgent flow of life, but here they’re quite crucial to the way the plot unfolds.
An immediate, stand-out quality of Pacific Rim is how good it looks, not an entirely superficial piece of praise. There’s been some criticism in various quarters of the photography of the fight scenes, and indeed, Del Toro occasionally frames his action close to the battles in that modish fashion that makes them blurry, dizzying studies in motion. But Del Toro never lets the action devolve into the kind of gibberish that some directors like Bay or Jonathan Liebesman have wrought lately, trying rather to break up the potential visual monotony of big things hitting each other. Del Toro knows how far to take it, and where to step back, and frankly, the inability of some observers to discern the difference worries me. Raleigh and Yancy’s first battle takes place in a churning squall: following Raleigh’s comment that the jaegers make their pilots feel able to take on hurricanes, the notion that these machines can compete with the very elemental nature of the Earth is rendered thrillingly literal in combat. More importantly, Del Toro sees no reason why special-effects-based cinema can’t be not just thrilling, but actually beautiful in a fashion that avoids the plasticity of a lot of CGI work. Pacific Rim is absolute eye candy. The lysergic vivacity of the colours comes to resemble some brand of modern art, with a palette close to Ridley Scott’s early films, in a peculiar, visual tone poem of modern urban noir, except on a far larger scale and blended with a techno-gothic largesse. His delight in swathing battles in rain and night helps contribute to the sort of visual density that distracts from flaws in the effects, of course, but also helps Del Toro create a rich atmosphere for his battles, apt for a director who loves his Universal horror films.
To expect Del Toro to offer the kind of polymorphic strangeness of his far smaller films in something like this would be pretty foolish. Pacific Rim doesn’t try to upset the apple cart in terms of genre rules; on the contrary, it tries to recreate the naïve tone and deceptive simplicity of classic models whilst blending it with the supercharged spectacle modern cinema can offer. Whereas Jackson’s take on King Kong (2005) was an enormous, gorgeous, but defanged and unwieldy love letter to the ideals of the monster movie, Del Toro keeps focused on the mode’s basics: titanic entities wailing on each other. At the same time, Pacific Rim manages to introduce some scifi gimmickry with genuine depth without getting bogged down in its own conceptualism: the concept of “drifting” delves into cyberpunk territory where barriers of the psyche are broken and definitions of physical reality and human intimacy lose some of their traditional meaning. It also presents a speedier version of the construction of empathy between people, which in most human experience, begins on a familial level, then extends to romantic partners and, if we’re lucky, close friends and immediate colleagues. When Raleigh and Mako first drift and take charge of their jaeger, Raleigh’s traumatic recollection of Yancy’s death shoves spiralling Mako into a recollection of her own formative trauma: the memory of wandering the lanes of decimated Tokyo with a colossal kaiju stalking her after killing her family.
Del Toro’s feel for the roots of such fantasy in childhood phobia is keen here in the nightmarish evocation of abandonment and the fear of a colossal force that feels straight out of any number of childhood bad dreams, and plugs back into the same mythopoeic zone Del Toro investigated with Pan’s Labyrinth, particularly in the totemic red shoe which Mako clutches in her memory and which adoptive father Pentecost hands to her to signal her graduation to monster killer. However, here the children are not abandoned in the face of horror, but rather the jaegers stand for all parental strength to hold back the nightmares, according with Mako’s ascension to full adulthood. Pacific Rim doesn’t mimic the feel of a fairy tale, and yet its underpinnings certainly maintain those qualities, as well as employing a delightful fetishism for taxonomy and offering peeks into bazaars of the esoterically charming and strange, in the colossal barns that house the jaegers and the kaiju party emporium run by Hannibal Chow (Ron Perlman) that captures the essence of being a kid and wandering into some pit of nerdish delight. Another thing Del Toro succeeds in which filmmakers who try to make monster movies often fumble is making their creatures not only malicious enough but also tough enough to make seeing them smote actually enjoyable, as the difficulty in killing colossal monsters is charted vividly: the rise of Raleigh and Mako is depicted purely in relation to their building ability to kill kaiju, from desperate and frantic tussles to lethal efficiency.
The film’s central battle takes place in Hong Kong, as the kaiju seem to hunt Geiszler following his invasion of their hive-mind, tracking him down to a public shelter, whilst the jaegers are faced with defeat by the new, specifically engineered beasts, including one that generates a charge that knocks out the electrics of the jaegers. Only Mako and Raleigh can save the day, and save it they do, marching into battle with a container ship wielded like a club, and finally bisecting a winged demon with their suddenly revealed super-sword, a compulsory mecha flourish saved for the most beautiful reveal and pay-off. The ebullient absurdity and grandeur of Pacific Rim can and should impress itself upon any receptive viewer, but if you’ve ever shared any of the fetishes I listed earlier, you’ll be especially tickled.
Neither the monster movie nor the concept of the giant or humanoid robot are concepts peculiarly native to Japan, of course. Godzilla was directly inspired by the Ray Harryhausen-enabled The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), whilst men driving robots has been a genre fixture since the early 20th century. But the kaigu eiga or “strange creature film” that Godzilla defined has its roots in the moment following World War II, as Japan faced modernisation in the face of atrocious destruction. Godzilla stood in for all the awful, impersonal threats of the atomic bomb and the modern age, and the kaigu eiga became a hugely popular style as a result; overseas, they became perhaps the key introduction to Japanese cinema and literary culture for most people. Soon enough, in the likes of The Mysterians and King Kong Escapes—epic technological reactions to these metaphoric menaces—began to appear, big enough and brash enough to answer such awful figurations with force, but requiring evolutionary boldness from humankind. The notion of humans forming symbiosis with machines became a fulcrum of the mecha genre, which has analogues in the American tradition like Iron Man, but which remains distinctively Japanese nonetheless. In mecha, an emphasis on collective power is always nascent, the notion of parts fitting together to make a whole on both a human and a technological level, a sort of gestalt power.
This aspect is realised in perhaps the most surprising and resonant edge of the traditions Del Toro is quoting here in how Del Toro perceives and draws out the faint mystical quality that often underlies them. Having recently made a repeat viewing of Tsui Hark’s gloriously loony-tunes Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1981) just a few days before seeing Pacific Rim, I was freshly attuned to the degree Del Toro and Beacham evoke the same conceptual fulcrums as their models. As in Zu, the ultimate unity of two different people linked on a supraphysical level to become a greater entity becomes the necessary ideal for conquering evil, though here it’s achieved on a techno-psychic level, rather than a spiritual one, but the difference is negligible, especially as there’s often a mystical edge underlying the fetishized futurism of a lot of anime. Notably, another recent film to channel the same influence and with similar configurations was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), which also paraded an anime influence, but in an entirely different key. The functioning accord needed between Mako and Raleigh is echoed by the need for the entire jaeger team to work together with their multitudinous nationalities, and the biology/abstraction schism of Geiszler and Gottlieb’s concepts of science and their radically different personalities, and the brain/hand link between the scientists and the warriors. Geiszler eventually decides to try drifting with the brains of the kaiju to learn about their motives, and successfully divines the forces employing them. Not surprisingly for Del Toro, Pacific Rim eventually edges into the sort of Lovecraftian territory he adores, that realm on the borderline between science fiction and psychological monstrosity.
Del Toro also finds peculiar humour and thematic heft in the sight of a whole kind of illicit industry growing off the literal detritus of the kaiju wars, giving him a chance to revisit the kind of mischievous black-market economics and underworld life he’s explored before in Hellboy II’s troll market sequences, evoked here as Geiszler travels down into the boondocks of Hong Kong, in a neighbourhood called the Bone District that’s sprouted in the shadow of a gigantic kaiju skeleton. Geiszler searches for an intact kaiju brain he can drift with, and with Pentecost’s guidance, he tracks down the distinctly un-Chinese Chow: “I got the name from my favourite military leader and my second favourite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn,” Chow explains, which sounds exactly like Del Toro and Beacham explaining how they thought the name up. Perlman’s appearance gained an appreciative laugh from the audience at my screening: he’s finally become a popular cinematic icon.
Geiszler is startled and excited to discover that Chow’s operation has mastered preservation and exploitation of the kaiju in a way the biologist thought impossible, with grotesquely amusing touches, like the colossal, squirming ticks Chow’s operatives pry off the fallen beasts. Chow ends up as, well, chow for a baby kaiju after airily proclaiming one dead, but Geiszler and Gottlieb joins forces in drifting to invade the kaiju’s mind and extract the dreadful truth about their origins and purpose. Geiszler’s adventures in Hong Kong see the bespectacled boffin singled out for annihilation by the kaiju who attack the city, and, thrown out by Chow who realises this, he’s forced to take refuge in a public shelter, where the panicking denizens thrash around him trying to get away from this Typhoid Mary but unable to escape their supposed shelter, as a kaiju bashes its way in from above.
The character postures—Pentecost is the armour-assed leader, Raleigh the bruised saviour, Mako the talented neophyte who only needs to get her act together—are fundamental, but handled with such verve and straight-faced force by cast and director that it fits this fare perfectly. There’s a merciful lack of Joss Whedon-esque flippery or pseudo-hip humour. Even Del Toro’s casting of two Americans to put on cheesy accents as an Australian father and son, and perpetual xenomorph Clifton Collins Jr. as the team’s Chinese-monickered tech wiz, has a certain aptness in recreating the pasteboard tone of many B-movies, and there is a music hall sense of humour underlying the regulation Alpha male head-butting of Raleigh and Chuck. Although this could just be a by-product of watching it as an Aussie with an audience of such: hoots of delighted derision were exploding around me whenever Martini and Kazinsky opened their mouths. Even if there’s nothing as happily off-message in the film as Hellboy 2’s hilarious Barry Manilow sing-along, Del Toro still manages to offer fillips of character comedy, from making Mako a bit of a perv, constantly trying to catch a glimpse of Raleigh with his shirt off through her cabin door peephole, to Gottlieb enthusiastically, if cluelessly trying to match Geiszler’s homeboy handshake. Del Toro’s riffs on stock characters are much like his riffs on anime: gleeful in recreating their essence whilst also subtly undermining them or warping them to his individual purpose.
Hunnam, who’s been hovering on the edge of a major career ever since appearing in the original British version of TV’s “Queer as Folk,” and his enticing performances in Nicholas Nickleby (2002) and Cold Mountain (2004), leaves behind his smooth-cheeked Dickens hero for a modern variety with bruises on his soul. He’s entirely likeable, to the degree Raleigh’s an upright and solid hero, though the film’s one lack is a protagonist as flagrantly cool and richly conceived as Hellboy. Kikuchi and Elba ultimately own the film. Kikuchi, who broke out with her performance in Gael Garcia Bernal’s very different fable about internationalism, Babel (2006), and provided a slyer pleasure in The Brothers Bloom (2009), still looks barely out of her teens even though she’s over 30, and offers a slightly oddball elegance to her roles; here the mix of supple humour and emotional immediacy she brings to her part is vital. Normally I don’t like iron leader characters (in films or real life), but the compensating factor for Pentecost is being played by Elba, whose capacity to project formidable authority overlaying a contemplative depth, hinted at in Thor (2011) and Prometheus (2012), is utilised here and mixed with a certain fearsome humour, as when he chides Raleigh, “Rule number one, don’t ever touch me. Rule number two, don’t ever touch me,” and serves the lippy Chuck a harsh character analysis.
The thunderous finale is gloriously over-the-top, as multiple hell-beasts attack our heroes, noble sacrifices and hair’s-breadth escapes are made, dimensions are crossed, and alien swine are righteously roasted. It’s certainly possible to wish that Pacific Rim had more down time for its characters and time to expand on some of its trippier ideas, but it ultimately remains faithful to its chosen brand. Many films try to make me feel eight years old again; this one succeeded.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Brian De Palma
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
Crime d’Amour (2010), starring Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott-Thomas, was the last film of reputable French director Alain Corneau. Corneau, who had a penchant for studying master-pupil rivalries and characters under extreme duress, combined his interests in his swan song for an amusingly ruthless, well-told, if essentially lightweight spin on a specific brand of crime drama. That brand is often mistaken for Hitchcockian, but actually has distinctly native roots, as displayed in fare like Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), and continuing through to many a recent French film like Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner (2006). This darkly comic Gallic style often reveals a wry and probing sense of what constitutes justice in the context of a corrupting and oblivious society in which human relations are reduced to intimate games of power and humiliation. La Chienne was famously remade in Hollywood as Scarlet Street (1945), a noirish look at an antihero’s self-destruction. Corneau’s final work, which he cowrote with Natalie Carter, has now also been remade in English as a French-Belgian-German coproduction by Brian De Palma six years after his involuntary leave of absence following his messy, furious Iraq War drama Redacted (2006).
De Palma is returning from one of his periodic fiscal and/or critical disgraces, which only seem to have become more frequent as the homogenisation of modern film product is completed. One would forgive him if he played his comeback straight—after all, he’s getting to the age now where he doesn’t have too many more comebacks left in him. But no director in mainstream film has embraced the musical idea of each film they make being a variation on a theme, or an opus in a linked cycle, quite as fulsomely as De Palma. Sometimes, whole films in his oeuvre seem to have been made to critique or develop an idea in a previous entry, and this tendency contributes both to the fun in contemplating his work as a whole while making their qualities as individual dramas highly variable. Thus, critiquing a new De Palma film is a fraught task: one desires, nay, demands a great new work from the quiescent but still-major auteur, but De Palma might deliver the cinematic equivalent of one of those Picasso doodles on a restaurant napkin. The appeal of the material in Passion to De Palma is obvious— a barbed study of the nexus of sex and power in the world of big business from a refreshing female perspective, building to a definitely nonmetaphoric act of corporate throat-cutting.
De Palma starts out by mimicking the cool, stand-offish style of Corneau, who drank in the modernist chill of chicly minimalist interior décor, as fitting surroundings for people whose behaviour remains primal, but whose practice of sadism has moved with the times. Like Crime d’Amour, Passion pits a young rising corporate whiz, Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace), against her immediate superior, Christine (Rachel McAdams), in a battle of sex, will, and finally, lethal intrigue. Isabelle works as a mid-level concept monger at the Berlin office of a marketing firm, Koch Image International: although a relatively new hire at the company, Isabelle has become Christine’s right-hand woman. The duo, contemplating how to improve a clichéd marketing campaign the company has commissioned to advertise a new smartphone, are introduced happily getting tipsy in Christine’s apartment. When Christine’s lover Dirk (Paul Anderson) arrives, Isabelle absents herself, but awakens in the middle of the night with a terrific idea for an ad. She quickly calls in her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth), and shoots a rough version of her idea, which she then presents to Christine: declaring her trust in Isabelle, Christine sends her in her stead to a meeting in London, accompanied by Dirk, where her ad seems to be a smashing success. Christine sinuously takes credit for the idea in hopes of landing a job at the company’s New York office, whilst assuring Isabelle there’s enough glory to go around.
De Palma’s major tweaks to the film’s first half, which otherwise follows the patterns of Crime d’Amour’s plotline closely, are to build his narrative around the furtive power of images to expose and indulge sexual obsession. Isabelle’s gimmick for her ad is double-edged: Isabelle plays a young lesbian delighting in showing off her girlfriend’s behind in a pair of tight jeans, with Dani filling the denim out. With the Koch smartphone stuck in the back pocket, providing “ass-cam” as she walks down the street, Dani attracts the delighted and appraising eyes of men and women. This touch introduces one of De Palma’s signature motifs from as far back as his first theatrical release, Greetings (1968): voyeuristic desire mediated through media imaging, the doubled experience of observing and being observed, narcissism and exhibitionism engaged in a dance. The edge of lipstick-lesbian chic touted playfully in the ad has echoes of Isabelle and Christine’s slightly charged friendship, as well as Dani’s simmering desire for her boss. Dani herself has undergone a sex-change from Corneau’s film, where Isabelle’s assistant was a devoted, dronelike male, an apt joke in the battle of the neomatriarchy, with the more traditionally predatory male, Dirk, reduced to an increasingly pathetic patsy. Dirk and Isabelle commence an affair while in London, a development Christine seems to expect and one that gives her an excuse to start pulling the wings off her collection of butterflies. Having covered up Dirk’s embezzling from the company, she now manoeuvres to ensure his disgrace and arrest. Once Isabelle gets sneaky revenge by posting her raw original ad on YouTube, garnering the company a smash hit that suddenly makes Isabelle rather than Christine the new favourite for promotion, Christine begins a programme of intimate humiliation.
De Palma’s fascination for the erotic element of cinema has always worked hand in hand with his explorations of human cruelty and perfidy, counterpointed with the search for safe harbour and human connection. Corneau and Carter reduced sex to a kind of side function of gamesmanship, an indulgence of basic physical need that, like other such needs, is mere addendum to the real business of profit and loss. For De Palma, it is the whole show, the drive underneath the other drives, but fatefully entangled with them. His casting shifts the grounding of the material considerably: Scott-Thomas, with her classy bone structure and capacity to radiate haughty disdain for lesser mortals, is somewhat older than Sagnier, with her Christine pitched somewhere between ruthless, destructive ice queen and aging wizard who’s exiled herself into a realm of isolating success, not yet paying the price as her physique holds up but sensing the bill’s in the post; the rivalry of the two women is therefore based as much in biological angst, the fear of the supplanting of the older by the younger, as it is in corporate ambition. Sagnier, who’s always looked younger than her years, was a more vulnerable-seeming Isabelle, whereas Rapace, most famous of course for playing the petite Valkyrie Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, stands toe to toe with McAdams, who first found fame playing a similar bitch-queen role in Mean Girls (2004): her Isabelle stands on a fine edge between neurotic self-destruction and pansexual übermensch. McAdams’ Christine is rather a smiling assassin, bordering on sickly-sweet in her charm and seductive approach, the spark of bi-fi magnetism between Christine and Isabelle becoming a hot flame, albeit one that is subordinated to Christine’s need to control or annihilate. She spins dramatic bullshit about her childhood that makes Isabelle partly forgive her until warned by Dirk about her propensity for saying and doing anything that will weaken her opponents.
The closer ages of Rapace and McAdams also help enforce De Palma’s investigation of similarity edging constantly into doppelganger territory, another of the director’s favourite motifs, as characters can alternate identities and dramatic functions, like Nancy Allen’s hooker waking up from dreams of homicide in the bed of a murdered woman in the climax of Dressed to Kill (1980). Isabelle is fascinated and titillated to learn Christine’s peccadilloes through Dirk, opening a drawer to find her array of sex toys, including a fanciful Venetian mask based on Christine’s own face she occasionally has Dirk wear, a fetishistic totem of refined beauty that begins an inevitable journey to the point at which Isabelle will don the mask and annihilate her anima. The great ideal of physical love in human understanding is supposed to be the unity of two people in a transcendent moment, but De Palma has always suggested the logical end point of modern sexuality, with its layers of concept constructed by the act of looking, is a polarised schism of godlike voyeurism and perfect narcissism. Isabelle’s ad taunts as well as exploits, playing a lesbian enjoying showing off her girlfriend’s wondrous rump, sexually attracting whilst remaining off-limits to the gazing male.
One quality of De Palma’s career that remains unique is that in spite of his advancing age, his thematic interests only seem to have become more relevant, to the point where it feels like he’s one of the very few filmmakers actually wrestling with one of the great aspects of the modern world: its saturation by media that can potentially turn every experience into an observed one, a perpetual loop of present-tense that is also past-tense, moment and document. Redacted dealt with his interest in the changes the digital age were wreaking in the bluntest of fashions, presenting the age of the War on Terror as a matrix of images, acts, and reactions. Passion does the same more obliquely, but as completely: no private or public act, Passion suggests, is now free of the lingering anxiety of being filmed and becoming a weapon to be turned against you.
Both Christine and Isabelle reproduce this game in offering themselves as objects of worship and lust to get what they want, as Christine tries to seduce Isabelle as a replacement for Dirk as well as useful hireling, and Isabelle, in turn, plays on Dani’s very real crush on her to make Dani her accomplice. Meanwhile, Christine is in her garters and bodice, strutting around her apartment getting sloshed trying desperately to dig up someone to answer her booty call now that Dirk’s out and Isabelle’s unresponsive. In a pointed gesture, Isabelle, having switched from victim to impending avenger, suddenly calls the bluff on Christine’s constant blend of bullying and flirtation by kissing her with aggression, an act of seeming passion that is also very clearly a fuck-you. Christine instantly repurposes it to her own ends, however: aware that Dani has walked in, she then makes a show of kissing Isabelle more passionately. The film’s funniest self-commentary comes when Isabelle and Christine, still nominally pals, go to a fashion show at which one model falls flat on her face, her attempts to play the glamazon conqueror suddenly brought down with her lost composure and the upskirt shot. This moment proves to be the basic joke of the whole film, a concept of lacquered haute couture perfection that crumbles to reveal the human clumsiness and carnality within: the colossal, tottering heels the woman gawk at become symbols, literal big shoes they all have a stab at filling. Christine attempts to deliver a death blow to Isabelle’s self-esteem first by squeezing Dirk to produce a sex tape he made of himself and Isabelle in bed, and then broadcasting it over the net to Isabelle’s utter mortification. She then exhibits footage of Isabelle’s distraught response, crashing her car in the office block car park, captured on CCTV, as part of a supposedly humorous video played at a company party. Isabelle responds with a strange and lunatic laugh, and immediately seems to spiral into drug-dependent depression. Anyone used to De Palma’s visual style and grammar will spot the shift here with some amusement, as he veers away from reproducing Corneau’s stand-offish approach and goes to town in displays of purified De Palma.
Isabelle and Christine’s master-pupil, Faustian rivalry easily evokes Swan and Winslow’s in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), exacerbated as Isabelle hovers outside Christine’s house, looking to penetrate it and gain revenge, whilst she herself is unwittingly captured by video, watcher becoming watched, lover/victim/killer seeking to assert power but becoming victim of another possessive force. Christine’s actual killing sees De Palma shifting into one of his most distinctive and striking conceits, presenting the unfolding action at Christine’s house in a split-screen effect alongside a performance of a ballet to Debussy’s Prelude a l’Apres-Midi d’un Faun, a gorgeously sensual dance in which the female dancer keeps her gaze locked much of the time on the audience/camera in a manner both intimate and challenging, a call to passion eternally out of reach for the voyeur. There’s a narrative purpose to this: Isabelle is supposed to be attending this performance when, in fact, she’s preparing to kill Christine. Its real purpose, however, is as another of De Palma’ patented, operatic, self-reflexive set-pieces, invoking, like the great opening of Femme Fatale (2001), a deeply aestheticized entwining of crime and art, false surfaces and genuine hurt arriving in turn. The dancer holds the eye of the audience/camera, inverting the idea in Isabelle’s ad, turning what’s surreptitious and leering into challenge and mirror. As Christine showers and prepares for what she thinks will be an erotic encounter, the dancers caress and sway, whilst Isabelle’s eyes peer out with lethal voyeuristic intent. An exquisitely art-directed act of butchery finally occurs, as Isabelle, wearing Christine’s mask, assails her, black giallo gloves gliding over her form, and Christine strips off her lace eye-veil, part of her kink, revelation and realisation that segues into murder.
The main problems of Passion stem from its translation of Corneau’s film and De Palma’s half-hearted annexation of its actual storyline. Whereas the original offered a certain sly, dark humour and obliquely considered consequence in its resolution, De Palma deconstructs everything to the point where suspense and empathy are essentially rendered unimportant: Christine, Isabelle, Dirk, and Dani are all pretty loathsome, whilst the representatives of the law, a bullying prosecutor (Benjamin Sadler) and stern cop (Rainer Bock) who becomes smitten with Isabelle, are, ironically, increasingly castrated. Rapace feels faintly miscast as a victimised fawn with a neurotic psycho under the surface, though that might be a result of associating her too much with her canonical role. McAdams, on the other hand, seems best in key with the film’s sly-malicious tune, particularly when Christine tries to bully Dani by setting her up on a sexual assault charge, an apex of campy humour. De Palma loves reiterating that his characters and their plights are all inventions, variations on themes that can be suddenly turned in upon themselves, revised, sent into rewind, or erased altogether, usually with some moment of choice from which guilt or complicity, a nexus of consequence both for good and evil, is identified.
De Palma’s films always teem with meta-narrative devices and implications, but just about the only occasion on which De Palma ever became overtly extra-narrative in his employment of this was in Body Double (1984), where an actor’s demand for a retake coincides with his resurgence from defeat by the villain. That film was also essentially a comedy, which Passion is, too, but a far more restrained and sour type. De Palma usually prefers to pass off his cinematic structural conceits as internal phenomena: dream sequences or chains of imagined consequence in the protagonist’s mind, which can then be safely revealed as bogus or tricks of perception so his films can retain their functionality as commercial cinema.
But that’s the beauty and welcomeness of a new De Palma film that sees him returning to the overtly fetishistic, deeply stylised manner of his best work. In spite of the film’s weaknesses, Passion still offers the pleasure of a cinematic imagination based unashamedly in visual beauty and expressive technique, increasingly rare in modern film: the sensuous zooms that punctuate scenes like Dani spying on Dirk and Isabelle, the zeroing in of the frame capturing fulminating jealousy planted like a seed, and overhead shots that coolly turn humans into furnishings or chess pieces in analytical notation of strategy and intent. The tilted camera and onerous shadows that suddenly infuse the squeaky clean offices of Koch as Isabelle’s murder plot gathers pace, and workplace bitchery becomes mounting psychodrama. The spiral staircase of Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926) and De Palma’s own precursors like Dressed to Kill recur as the stairwell in Isabelle’s apartment building transformed into an abstract pit of Hades, with a bouquet of blood-red roses hovering above nothingness. Colour design as lushly camp and exactingly psychologised as Douglas Sirk’s recurs throughout: indeed De Palma highlights the links of his film to a near-vanished class of melodrama based in such über-femme battles royale, a genre of which De Palma has often seemed to circle the edges. Dani, no longer a drone but encouraged to follow in Isabelle’s footsteps as a wily creature of predatory economics and sex, blackmails Isabelle into becoming her lover by revealing the evidence she has proving that Isabelle is the murderer, with footage of Isabelle setting up and committing the crime all captured on the very smartphone the two of them collaborated on to advertise.
So Dani becomes the latest to exemplify De Palma’s general, well-established fascination for the theme of individuals who, for whatever reason, are obsessed with another and wish to assert control over, first established by William Finley’s fruitcake psychiatrist in Sisters (1973), and then in many variations since: whether for sex, love, politics, power, De Palma delights and detests this vaguely osmotic process apparent in human desire and will. De Palma has also often refused to spare certain character types usually left untouched in the morality-play tradition underlying a lot of western drama. Isabelle becomes Christine; Dani becomes Isabelle, and the dance begins again, except that Isabelle’s fragmenting psyche proves a joker in the deck. The film’s last act is a series of absurd, dreamy sleights of hand that sees De Palma at last return to the kind of high-style expressionism that punctuates his career, as in the finale of Dressed to Kill and the infinitely rebootable realities of Raising Cain (1992), entering a loopy multiplication of doppelgangers, repeating events, and murder: Isabelle is shocked to see Christine at her own funeral, but this is instead Christine’s twin sister, an image of chic mystery, who stalks her way toward a reckoning with Isabelle, whilst Isabelle and Dani are locked in a death struggle over the smartphone where one click is literally all that’s necessary to destroy her, a perpetual sword of Damocles that finally drives Isabelle mad. De Palma fans will spot the last-act fake-out a mile off, as dream enfolds reality and imagined retribution shades into actual brutality: the sleeper awakens, the dream ends, but the body lying on the bedroom floor is very real.
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Director/Screenwriter: Pablo Berger
By Roderick Heath
Silent cinema seems to be making a comeback, not to the extent that it’s likely to take over the multiplexes, of course, but as a niche of playful experimentation by adventurous filmmakers. Recent works scattered across the zones of international cinema like The Call of Cthulhu (2005), Dr. Plonk (2007), The Artist (2011), and the second half of Tabu (2012), have engaged rewardingly with taking away the crutch of dialogue. And now we have Blancanieves, a hymn to the beauty of the antiquated and to things that never were, but which retain the palpable texture of shared memory through their totemic qualities. Filmmaker Pablo Berger takes the bare bones of the Grimm Brothers’ transcription of the old European fairy tale Snow White, based in one arcane yet doggedly popular and weirdly powerful art form, and feeds it through the distorting lens of another, the silent film.
Blancanieves is a lush, dreamy, deliriously cinematic work. Following in the footsteps of last year’s diptych of Hollywood takes on the Grimm tale, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, Blancanieves dwarfs them (pun intended), not just in artistry but in the simple joy in telling the story and delight in the texture of the poetic. Unlike The Artist, Berger’s film is more than mere jokey pastiche; it is an aesthetically engaged and solidly dramatic work that recreates the texture of early 20th century filmic art without reducing it to mimicry. Blancanieves, which swept the Goya Awards in Spain, is Berger’s second film. His previous work, the playful Torremolinos 73 (2003), also was fascinated by the vicissitudes of period cinema, except the period was the early ’70s and the cinema was pornographic; Torremolinos 73 captured the national mood on the cusp of the death of Franco and an eruption of a suppressed bawdiness. Blancanieves is far more thorough in its immersive purpose, as Berger gives the material a specifically Iberian tilt not only in recomposing the story to revolve around a world of bullfighters and mantilla-clad doñas, but in the specifically parochial qualities of its black humour and tragedian reflexes.
Berger’s fascination for the plight of a child at the mercy of the world, and its sense of an underlying meditation on historical suffering, are aspects his work shares with Guillermo del Toro’s diptych of Spanish horror films, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2007), whilst also harkening back to Victor Erice’s starkly suggestive The Secret of the Beehive (1973), as a distinct native strand in Spanish cinema. There are also enough hints in the mischievous humour, oddball sexuality, and wry take on class and gender battles flickering through the material to suggest the latter-day influence of Pedro Almodovar. Fittingly, Berger evokes one faded world of heroic entertainers and obsessive audiences, that of film, by focusing on another, bullfighting, as opening frames of the film find a city almost deserted because the great toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is going to duel six bulls in one day, an apotheosis for his sanguinary art. Villalta takes out five bulls, but the sixth proves his undoing, and he’s gored before his watching, pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta).
Berger cross-cuts between Villalta splayed and bloody on the operating table whilst his wife goes into labour: fatefully, Villalta lives, but emerges as a quadriplegic, but Carmen dies, leaving a small daughter who inherits her name. Before his surgery, Villalta hallucinates, projecting the face of his wife onto the nurse passing anaesthetic, Encarna (Maribel Verdú). Encarna is all too willing and eager to take advantage of this transference as she aids him in his recovery, and when he emerges from hospital, confined to a wheelchair, he and Encarna are married. The newlyweds promptly disappear behind the gates of Villalta’s country estate Monte Olvido, whilst young Carmen is raised by her grandmother, Doña Concha (Ángela Molina), and watched over by Villalta’s former manager Don (Ramón Barea).
Carmen never sees her father, pining for a visit and drawing his imagined face in flour. On her birthday, her grandmother draws her into a flamenco dance, but suffers a heart attack and dies. Finally, Carmen is taken into the care of Encarna, but far from proving a homecoming, she finds herself the target of Encarna’s sadistic degradations: Encarna cuts off her hair and makes her labour around the house, with only the pet rooster, Pepe, she brought with her and the kitchen maid as companions. With Villalta trapped upstairs in his chair, Encarna has complete control of the estate and the family fortune, and carries on an affair with her chauffeur Genaro (Pere Ponce). Carmen, chasing after her Pepe who sneaks inside the mansion, pursues him upstairs, where she’s been told never to go, and discovers her father, sad, imprisoned, and haunted. Carmen and Villalta connect, and she manages to visit him many times, even doing a flamenco dance for him on his birthday, before Encarna catches them. Villalta is doomed to spend the rest of his days jammed in a corner, whilst Encarna punishes Carmen by cooking and eating Pepe, before returning her to her life of drudgery.
Berger’s clever translation of the story’s motifs into a ’20s milieu, removing magic, but playing up melodrama, accords perfectly with the nature of silent cinema, which always thrived in depicting powerful emotions and rested best on a bedrock of simple, but not simplistic, plot mechanics and character reflexes, which could then drive a synergistic flow of images. One of Berger’s smartest choices was to film a tale that could very well have been an actual silent movie: Carmen is the sort of victimised waif in which Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish specialized, except that Berger then twists the story in a direction that pays a fair sop to a modern audience’s perspective, albeit one not entirely beyond the imagination of early filmmakers.
On the surface, Blancanieves has much in common with aspects of other retro-fetishist works of fantastical cinema, including the likes of Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1991) and the oeuvres of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Guy Maddin, in trying to recreate the ebulliently oneiric qualities of high expressionist filmmaking. But Berger enters entirely into the silent film world’s lexicon and also its populist sensibility, the sense that movie-going is, above all, an inclusive experience, one of the more sadly faded assumptions of cinema. Of course, Berger isn’t trying to proffer exacting pastiche: aspects of the story wouldn’t have flown in 1926, nor the gore and overt sexuality, and Berger happily indulges editing flourishes that would have been radical at the time. Blancanieves pays obvious homage to the world of European cinema before 1930, but resists the trap of referential obsession or film school appropriation: the aesthetics of filmmakers like Murnau, Buñuel, Pabst, Von Stroheim, Tod Browning, and many others are suggested without being specifically mimicked.
The attentiveness to lighting effects, the vivid contrast between textures of flesh and wood and metal and those vibrant rays of luminosity that invested early cinema with its visualised sense of the ethereal and the earthy in close contact, is recreated by Kiko de la Rica’s cinematography. The mystical chintz of show-business crucibles like circuses and bullfight arenas, the hazy, numinous mood of foggy forests and misted rivers, the lancing strangeness of the trappings of modernity in worlds poised on the edge of transformation, and the monolithic power of wealth in largely poverty-stricken and gritty environ—all are familiar images and contrasts in silent cinema, recreated sparingly but consequentially. In this fashion, Berger places his narrative as a whole on the edge of a kind of dream-memory of the past, filled with iconography and commencing with deliriously spiritual overtones of Villalta praying before his bullfight, hanging his locket photo of his wife on a statue of the Virgin. His wife and her mother wait in the crowd, idealised images of Spanish womanhood, just as Villalta is the male equivalent, fronting up to the bulls in spectacularly confident and lissom postures. Pride inevitably presages Villalta’s fall, as he goes from superman to trapped wreck and loses everything except his daughter’s love, which survives years of longing and forced separation. Genetic links prove strong: Carmen has inherited her parents’ talents as well as character. Blancanieves isn’t a film for children, though it’s easy to imagine it being compelling for a young audience, especially considering that like the famously gruelling Pickford vehicle Sparrows (1926) or even Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), it captures the unabashedly dark, phobic qualities one associates with folk tales that tap the genuine fears of emotional abandonment, isolation, and being left to fend for oneself children often have. Berger doesn’t shy away from the often fervent emotional violence in fairy tales, whilst also extracting overdrawn, blackly comic humour, like in the scene in which Encarna gloatingly devours a drumstick ripped from Pepe’s cooked cadaver to Carmen’s revulsion.
Berger’s approach hints at subtext that simmers unobtrusively, but insistently. Historical dimensions suggest historical severance and deposed hierarchies, as well as hints of a quiet commentary on the dread age of the celebrity. Villalta’s calamitous injury is induced by a photographer using a flash just as he’s readying the death-stroke for the last bull. When he’s released from hospital under Encarna’s nominal care, those photographers return to illuminate his ruination. Finally when he’s died, his family and friends have their pictures taken with his dressed corpse, a folk custom transformed into a cruel image of destroyed patriarchy, laced with political and satirical overtones. Carmen later faces grave danger, engineered by a friend turned madly envious by having the spotlight stolen from him.
The Evil Queen of the Snow White tales is defined by pathological intent to destroy a potential sexual rival, but Encarna is motivated less by immediate jealousy than by a determination to entirely assimilate the Villalta legacy, to obtain rather than retain exceptional status. Encarna is the worst kind of talentless parasite, one who attaches herself to the ruined Villalta to achieve wealth and fame. She is glimpsed leafing through fashion magazines, and desiring transformation into one of the glamorous beings she sees, poses for a magazine photo spread ensconced in haute couture—a super-bitch with a Joan Crawford-ish aspect; the film often plays like Crawford swapped parts with Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1964).
The reconstruction of the Evil Queen as Encarna is one of the most inspired touches: entirely egotistical, deeply sadistic, Encarna is a delightfully unrestrained baddie. What works about the characterisation, and Verdú’s mischievous performance, is how adroitly it connects the emblematic evil of the story’s villain with genuinely troubling real-life phenomenon: her grasping greed, exploitation of her disabled husband, and humiliating treatment of her stepdaughter are all acts of evil all too easy to believe in, even as they’re pushed to absurd extremes. True to the fashion of fairy tales, too, Carmen resists being brutalised by her experiences, remaining a good-natured, if haunted girl who grows into a steadfast woman. The happy, but tragically brief reunion Carmen has with her father sees her entertain him by dancing and practising cape-swirling under his tutelage. Encarna inflicts gender reassignment on Carmen by cutting her hair, a consequential act that bends Carmen towards moving into the masculine arts of her father rather than her mother and grandmother, though the nifty footwork and postural awareness flamenco dancing imbue in her fuse perfectly with the flourishes her father instructs her in for bullfighting. Young Carmen finds herself destined to try to live up to the stature of her parents, a union of both emblematic cultural institutions—toreador and flamenco dancer—talents that combine fruitfully once Carmen grows up, and finds herself plunged into the arena.
Berger moves between the first and second parts of his tale in a beguiling sequence, as young Carmen practises her toreador moves mixed with dancing with laundry, using pegs like banderillas, suddenly moving from girl to grown woman (the luminous Macarena García takes over), whereupon she’s informed of her father’s death. Encarna, tired of pretences, has pushed him down the stairs. The minion, who, in the story, is entrusted with Snow White’s murder, was a secretly good-natured figure. Here, it’s Encarna’s chauffeur-lover Genaro, glimpsed by Carmen playing the submissive boy-toy. One hilarious vignette depicts Encarna in the act of having her portrait painted as the image of imperious fashion-plate femininity, getting Genaro to take the place of the dog she’s being depicted as holding on a chain, to the painter’s nonplussed continued labour. Of course, his willingness to be Encarna’s dog belies his own viciousness, which emerges when given the task of taking Carmen to her death. He tries to rape her, and when she manages to knee him in the crotch and make a break, he catches her and drowns her in the river, leaving her for dead—except he didn’t quite finish the job, and she finds refuge with a band of six dwarfs, who work as travelling clowns and bullfighters called Los Enanitos Toreros.
Rafita (Sergio Dorado), the best-looking and most romantic of the band, was the one who plucked her from the river on a misty bank and took her to their caravan. The others in his band, including the nominal chief, the grouchy and jealous Jesusin (Emilio Gavira) and the cross-dressing Josefa (Alberto Martínez), are introduced with their names flashing on screen. When, during their next exhibition in a small town, Jesusin is charged by a bull and knocked about, the other dwarfs won’t intervene because the audience finds it hysterically funny. So Carmen leaps into the fray and astonishes all with a superlative display of cape work. Carmen, who hides her identity more to escape the past, it seems, than concern about Encarna’s wrath, nonetheless finds herself bound to close the family circle, though the fact that she’s dubbed “Blancanieves” by her new friends in recognition her plight is right out of the hoary old story. Berger’s revisions to the original story’s patterns as well as setting have a contemporary flavour, as Carmen casually shatters rigid gender barriers to gain credibility as a toreador, whilst handsome prince and dwarf are no longer exclusive figures, but conflated in the ardent Rafita. Yet such tweaks only seem to solidify the fairytale texture of Blancanieves, for dramatic transformations and protean forms are so vital to such storytelling and part of the way they still capture a unique essence of human existence. The Mephistophelean promoter Carlos de Montoya (José María Pou), complete with forked beard, brings the spectre of Faustian bargains to Carmen, as the girl, who can’t read is talked into signing a lifetime contract. Montoya gets her booked in the same arena where her father met his fate, and the circular narrative is matched by circular imagery, as the same ritualised stations on the way to a duel with fate and death are counted off.
Blancanieves is a gorgeous-looking film, replete with allusive visuals and well-used silent film devices, which range from the broad, like Carmen hallucinating Pepé’s head on a boiled sparrow she’s fed for dinner, to the wittily precise. Berger uses the iris shot, one of those devices associated most insistently with silent cinema, but matches it by literally projecting one on an actual iris, as Carmen is informed of her father’s death, with the flashback dialling in and out from her eye. Berger’s vertiginous framing often adopts violently low or high angles, lending his shots requisite drama and pictorial zest, whilst also invoking the violent state of fortune of his characters. But these gruelling shifts are encapsulated most precisely in an early shot, as Carmen’s communion dress is dyed black after her grandmother dies, streams of inky blighting black flowing from the pristine gown, signalling Carmen’s oncoming date with the devil Encarna. The same note and visual motif are mirrored in a lovingly executed crane shot that later retreats from Encarna’s silvery-draped form standing over a pristine white pool, in which the corpse of Genaro, whom she batters to death after learning Carmen survived, drifts in a cloud of blood.
Carmen proves triumphant in the ring, facing down the colossal bull the infuriated Jesusin has substituted for her smaller intended opponent, proving so invigorating to the audience that they vote for the bull’s pardon. Encarna, however, has taken what was her mother’s place in the crowd, swathed in black lace in perfect Manichaean contrast, proffering the inevitable poisoned apple, a glistening orb that Jesusin recognises after he’s accidentally knocked it from Encarna’s hands. Carmen collapses in a coma after taking a bite during her victory salute, and whilst the stricken Rafita clutches her body, Jesusin leads the others in trying to chase down Encarna, who tries to elude them in the bullpens. Her beautifully dark comeuppance arrives as she finds she’s locked herself in with a monstrous bull, its huge silhouetted horns falling upon her quivering, collapsing form.
As ebullient as his film often is, Berger takes a swerve back to tragedy in his final passage. Carmen, still in a coma and exhibited by Montoya in a circus sideshow as a freak of nature. “Miracle or curse?” Montoya asks repeatedly while sideshow patrons line up for the pleasure of trying to rouse her. Rafita works for Montoya, and wheels her out for the show to lovingly tends to her backstage. The mood here moves into a zone at once ethereal and pathetic, with hints of kink in the morbid sensuality everyone invests in Carmen’s form, with Rafita tenderly kissing her goodnight before bedding down with her, and infinitely sad frustration, as the very last shot reveals a single tear flowing from her eye. The sensibility here suggests the influence not just of silent cinema but later directors’ stylised tributes to the sawdust-and-tinsel mysticism and pathos of the peripatetic entertainer’s world, whilst reconfiguring the Sleeping Beauty image to something close to James B. Harris’ Some Call It Loving (1973), the image of imperishable mystery and beauty of life found even in the seamiest and most degraded exhibition. Even flat on her back, Carmen is beholden to the crowd. That last shot, of Carmen’s tear, encapsulates everything Berger aims for, emotionally and aesthetically.
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Director/Screenwriter: Peter Strickland
By Roderick Heath
British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) arrives at the Berberian Studio of Post-Production, a labyrinthine facility and a niche for creating the aspect of cinema perhaps least appreciated by laymen and yet amongst the most vital. This particular netherworld, where glowing, pulsing red lights wait with infernal meaning for Gilderoy, is guarded by a beautiful Circe, Elena (Tonia Sotiropoulou), armed with all contempt for the merely human expected of a fashion plate functionary in a magic kingdom filled with makers of fame and fortune. Gilderoy, middle-aged and gnomic, certainly seems especially human, like the intrusion of a sewage worker in a royal bedroom. But Gilderoy has gifts, gifts impressive enough to have inspired director Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) to have imported Gilderoy from England to mix the soundtrack of his latest film, The Equestrian Vortex.
Gilderoy has recently won an award for his work on a documentary about rural England, evoking the delicate textures of a genteel and pastoral landscape, but now he finds, to his queasy discomfort, that he’s engaged on a blood and thunder flick, filled with bizarre supernatural emanations and grotesque torture. Light years out of his comfort zone, this homely, homebody savant of sound is worried about his aged mother back home, disturbed by the material he’s working on, and gnawed at by financial distress since he spent all his money on the plane ticket and can’t get anyone to reimburse him. He finds himself surrounded by people driven by unpredictable emotions and private agendas, the alienation exacerbated by a language barrier. Gilderoy sets to work with his exacting and deeply introverted method, only to find himself falling into an abyssal trap of anxiety and mystery.
Writer-director Peter Strickland’s only previous feature work was the eerie, compelling revenge thriller Katalin Varga (2009), set and shot in Romania, and it’s possible Strickland’s experiences working on such menacing fare in a foreign language and locale helped inspire this far more enigmatic, deeply discombobulated follow-up. Berberian Sound Studio is, on the surface, a tribute to, and evocation of, the hallowed era of Italian giallo horror film, which came near the tail-end of an epoch of Italian exports from a film industry uneasy with English-language cinema, which it constantly tried to annex. Tales of disconnection and confusion in that time and place are many and amusing, and have already provided fodder to some filmmakers as far back as Vincent Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). The mood of Berberian Sound Studios is similar to some other movies about moviemaking, particularly Anthony Waller’s chiller Mute Witness (1995), which offered Hitchcockian suspense in a near-deserted Russian film studio; Roman Coppola’s playful CQ (2000), depicting this often happenstance, esoteric and self-involved world where personal creativity and messy necessity often blend in unpredictable ways; and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), which turned the craft of its hero, a sound-effects man, into a deeply tactile, experiential drama where bottomless depravity is uncovered through layers of media. Strickland, whilst evoking such progenitors of method, ultimately has a distinct and peculiar purpose. Rather than segueing from the fakery of filmmaking into a zone of “real-world” drama, Berberian Sound Studio instead uses the paraphernalia and artifice of film to conjure an interior journey into places of disquiet and dread.
Gilderoy is the innocent abroad here, and innocent he is, a bachelor and mummy’s boy who seems to have scarcely ventured out of the garden shed of his recording studio in years. He’s no signposted weirdo, however, only a timid and easily cowered man who has to undergo a sink-or-swim immersion in the ways of a corner of experience at once even more hermetic than his own but through which far more worldly characters occasionally tramp, violating the texture of his immediate surrounds and expectations with excruciating results. Gilderoy, upon arrival, learns that Santini worships his talents, but his hoped-for meeting with the director is delayed for some time and then proves a frustrating meeting with a patronising egotist. Gilderoy spends most of his time accompanied by Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), the film’s producer, always poised on a knife-edge above poles of professional facility and virulent irritation. When Gilderoy presses him about getting his ticket reimbursed, Francesco fobs him off on Elena, who passes him on to anonymous functionaries before Gilderoy learns about dealing with such matters here—get loud, get angry, and get the money—which is, of course, extremely difficult for a timid Englishman, especially one faced at every turn by language problems and wilful obfuscation. For extra genre cred, the studio is, in neat mid-’70s fashion, beset by random power cuts, with candles ready to illuminate the place after sudden plunges into stygian blackness.
Gilderoy is hired specifically as a sound mixer, but as the post-production lumbers on and the shortfalls of the film shoot have to be plastered over, he’s drawn into helping create sounds through foley work, the artful manipulation of elements to create apt aural versions of what’s occurring on screen. Strickland’s wicked sense of humour in exploiting this element is introduced early on as Gilderoy is first shown some footage of the film whilst the two official foley artists, Massimo and Massimo (Pal Toth and Jozef Cseres), provide accompanying effects. They hack at watermelons with brutal force, evoking the savagery of killing on screen through the most blackly hilarious of indirection, as Gilderoy squirms in his seat: one of the Massimos offers him a slice of the melon to eat, and Gilderoy regards it like a severed body part.
Strickland’s core conceit is that he never shows any footage from the film, allowing the sound effects the crew are providing and sometimes with a sketchy description of the plot to do the work. Ironically, the only bit of the film we do see is the opening credits sequence, a dynamic pastiche of ’70s-style design effects, which stands in for Berberian Sound Studio’s own credits. The Equestrian Vortex is evidently inspired by Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1976), though with overtones that seem closer to the work of trashier giallo directors like Lucio Fulci and Sergio Martino: the plot seems to involve young women who find that the equestrian school they attend is infiltrated by witches with a history dating back to gruesome medieval witch trials. Santini balks, naturally, at having Gilderoy describe his movie as a horror film: “This not a horror film. This is a Santini film! … This is a part of the human condition.” Santini airily expresses his desire to evoke the horror of historical misogyny, but, our suspicions that it’s utter trash are confirmed by the reactions of his crew and particularly the female cast members like Veronica (Susanna Cappellaro) and Silvia (Fatma Mohamed).
Berberian Sound Studio is a display of dazzling technique attached to a mysterious-feeling, ultimately interior tale of a solitary man’s mental disintegration, or possible transcendence, conveyed through the methods of his own craft. A gift for film buffs but one that nimbly avoids descending into a mere pastiche for the sake of tickling facile recognitions, Berberian Sound Studio is more an attempt to comprehend the peculiar nexus of artistic endeavour, private psychological credulity, and workaday labour. Strickland celebrates a world, one rapidly fading into history, of analog technology by which so much of the great cinema of the past was created. In its time, Gilderoy’s art represented cutting-edge capacity, but now it smacks of retro fetishisation as Strickland delights in depicting methods of constructing the densely layered compilation of devices we glibly call a movie. Strickland reminds us of the almost fanatical attention to craft that often goes into even the seamiest piece of crap, and which, on the level of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s scrolls of hundreds upon hundreds of crew names in closing credits, feels close to a religious enterprise. There’s more than a hint of connotation here, in that culturally we want to reward modest DIY artisans like Gilderoy, but the industry tends to win out in every other respect. Strickland’s camera roves over Elena’s desk with typewriter and rubber stamps arranged on a trestle like an abstract sculpture, the buttons and dials and charts and tapes that form the paraphernalia of Gilderoy’s art becoming runic, inscrutable alchemic devices for conjuring spells.
Strickland creates a uniquely strange atmosphere, and tension, but not by offering any specific source for unease, save for the oneiric atmosphere generated by his work. A parade of actors moves through the studio, making perverse and unnerving sound effects for terrified and slaughtered women, witches, and lurking goblins, filling the studio with disturbing inferences and the unpleasant sensation of everyday technical effort being suffused with menace and the ghosts of appalling acts. One scene sees Katalin Ladik, playing herself, recording the sound for her role as a witch, acting the incantatory part, face twisted into a visage of terrible delight, mimicking the faces of death and morbid ecstasy often glimpsed in De Palma and Argento’s films, exposed in artifice and yet still wielding a strange power. Santini proselytises to Gilderoy about his need to depict the horrors of witch trials to awaken his audience to historical crimes, except, of course, that Strickland notes the same crimes, in a far subtler and less immediately deadly fashion, going on in the studio. Santini, the smooth and imperious stud, is accused of casting with his dick, and Silvia, evidently involved with him in some fashion, is filled with disquiet and disillusionment. She forms a tenuous bond with Gilderoy, with his seeming status as meek, attentive gelding in contrast to the brash Italian alpha males, and advises him in how to combat the studio bureaucracy. Francesco warns Gilderoy about getting too close to Silvia: “Be careful of that girl…There is poison in those tits of hers.” Like Gilderoy, Silvia is another foreigner out of her element. Appearing with witchy portent in the dark of the studio and seeming alternately entrapped by the filmmaking and its dark avatar, Silvia finally goes on a rampage of destruction all too cruelly exact for the filmmakers: she destroys reels of sound and footage to announce her furious departure from the project, a special kiss-off to Santini.
Meanwhile Santini and Francesco push Gilderoy in implicating himself in the professional drama that has overtones of the imaginary one, finally conflating as Francesco forces Gilderoy to turn up the volume on recorded sound effects to literally torture a potential replacement for Silvia into giving a decent sounding scream. The sneaky truth to the casual sexism and contempt for employee needs, like Gilderoy’s, passed over for the joy of working in the big wonderful world of filmmaking, melds with Gilderoy’s evident frustrated sensuality, a sensuality channelled into his work. Gilderoy is something of a gentle magician: in one mesmerising scene, when a power cut leaves the actors and crew bored, Gilderoy is talked into entertaining them by creating eerie sounds with household items, conjuring a UFO from a lightbulb scraped across a grill. Just recently I’ve been much fascinated with the work and life of Delia Derbyshire, a brilliant boffin who helped invent electronic music from the anonymous ranks of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, most famously creating the Doctor Who theme: Gilderoy is characterised as just such a classic English eccentric whose introversion masks the ability to create worlds and invent futures, a delicate gift unable to withstand the pressure of industrialised art filled with egotists and moral vacuums.
One of the film’s most evanescently strange moments comes in one of the several turns in which Strickland uses the blackouts as a way to seamlessly and, with momentary disorientation, change scenes: Gilderoy is awoken in the night, and leaves his room, passing into blackness. The sounds of crunching detritus, as if he’s walking on fallen leaves, are heard, and Silvia emerges from the darkness, clutching a candle, an emanation from an ethereal beyond. Actually, they’re in the studio during another power cut, with Gilderoy recording his footfalls as background noise. Nonetheless Gilderoy’s tactile enjoyment of the moment evokes the very different world he’s used to, a quieter, more natural world. This moment reminded me powerfully of a similar motif in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), in which the antihero smothers his face longingly in natural detritus, mourning his isolation in a denaturalised world. Gilderoy sleeps in a room adjoining the studio, and his situation, and seemingly fragmenting consciousness, often seems to dissolve boundaries between liminal and subliminal zones. The rubbish bin filled with all the pulverised vegetables used in the foley work begins to turn into a toxic mass of putrefaction, standing in for the mangled flesh on screen: “Well, I was hoping for a more dignified end than this,” one actress quips upon seeing the mashed marrow that represents her on-screen character’s brutal death.
Berberian Sound Studio is, in many respects, an experimental film, an extended attempt to explore the pure texture of cinema, a layered journey through the act of creation itself that becomes at the same time a mesmerising experiential plunge. There seems to be an emerging strand of what could be called pseudo-abstract genre work in recent independent filmmaking, mimicking the forms of traditional horror and science-fiction films, but doing so to extract and isolate qualities of tone and method whilst excising literal story development: the U.S. and British film scenes have produced several filmmakers, including Shane Carruth, Brit Marling and collaborators Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, Ben Wheatley, and Ti West, who have deconstructed filmmaking pitched on the edge of the fantastic or the ominous to varying degrees; works by European filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier have also grazed this zone. Strickland’s effort here stands closer to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Fonzani’s Amer (2009), which boiled the traditional visual essentials of giallo down to an enigmatic narrative freed from responsibility to the boilerplate requirements of genre entertainment. Rather than offer the usual coded metaphors for a descent into a realm of nightmares and the irrational, Strickland goes straight for the purified sense of dread and implication of a solitary man who specialises in creating hints of wonder but is too vulnerable to being immersed in his own works.
Berberian Sound Studio therefore feels closer to some far more offbeat by-products of the ’60s and ’70s film milieu than to the giallo to which it pays surface tribute. David Lynch is an evident touchstone. Strickland references the shibboleth of Mulholland Drive (2001) through the flashing sign “Silenzio” outside the studio, the intimate examination of decay suggests Blue Velvet (1986), whilst the narrative doublings and dreamlike metamorphoses recall Lost Highway (1997). But where Lynch was fond of creating surrealist textures out of pulp stories, Strickland offers much less immediate strangeness, preferring to create a more definably psychological texture. The peculiar counterpoint of a technologically enabled tinkerer able to transform everyday ambience into strange art and a situation rife with discomforting expectation of violence recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1976): the heroes of both are sound experts engaged in creating evocations of the uncanny and faced with the disintegration of their presumably stable lives. But the ultimate method feels to me closest to Ingmar Bergman, as in Persona (1966), mental breakdown is conveyed through the literal breakdown of cinema itself, whilst Hour of the Wolf (1968), where an artist’s neuroses consume his life, realised through dreamlike reductions of gothic horror imagery to their phobic essences. Where Bergman referenced the expressionist chillers and Bela Lugosi flicks he’d loved as a youth, Strickland evokes giallo, but both modes are for each filmmaker a style to emulate rather than a genre to copy, a wellspring of expressive ambiguity and nightmarish textures.
Like the protagonist of Hour of the Wolf, Gilderoy disappears within the ghostly fantasia his mind seems to be projecting. As Gilderoy’s perception of his world becomes increasingly warped, everything becomes charged with a capacity for communing with a nightmare world, and the very filmmaking conspires against him. Gilderoy’s periodic letters from his mother take a dark twist as she recounts the massacre of a nest of bird hatchlings they’d been watching over before he left. Gilderoy’s private reality becomes increasingly mixed up with the film as one of the auditioned replacements for Silvia recounts the letter. We know who Gilderoy is, but what’s his last name? Why was he hired for this project? Why can’t the studio accountants find his flight booking? Is he here at all? Is the whole experience just his dream? Or is he, as the film repeatedly suggests, simply a figure at the mercy of his filmmaker, free to create him and then pull him apart, like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck (1953)? This seems ultimately the perfect analogue for Berberian Sound Studio, an exercise in layers of cinematic construction becoming its own malefic stunt. Time eventually reboots; Gilderoy, suddenly a speaker of fluent Italian, becomes the high priest and witch hunter, pummelling the eardrums of his actress-witches and lighting candles in prayer to dark gods of nature even as he remains ensconced in his technological cocoon.
Strickland saves his smartest antistrophe for a sequence in which Gilderoy imagines some hidden force crashing against the door of his bedroom, snatching up a knife and stalking out to search for the shadow enemy, only for the footage of his earlier fear in the room to start unspooling on the projection screen. Then the film melts and gives way to, of all things, the rural documentary Gilderoy won his prize for, tranquil footage of English dales and grass-munching sheep presenting a far more jarring and mercilessly funny twist than any supernatural ambassador could provide. Gilderoy is terrified of the price he will pay for success, of the world battering in his door and implicating him in its evils, anxiety attaching itself to the art he’s prostituting himself out to create. As in many horror films, however, the forces of good and light may have their victory over darkness. Gilderoy finds himself confronted by self-animating equipment that projects a spot of growing light, transfixing Gilderoy and promising to swallow him up, 2001–style, the beckoning promise of transcendence into ecstasy, or obliteration, a final surrender to the irrational. It’s easy, too easy, to imagine Berberian Sound Studio earning the wrath of viewers who would have it finally offer some sort of familiar gothic pay-off. But for anyone who engages with Strickland’s seriously peculiar yet remarkable style, this is a genuinely galvanising film experience—and those are pretty rare at the best of times.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Lawrence Blume
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Continuing the general contempt for family films with thoughtful characters and situations, exhibitors have all but ignored Tiger Eyes, the first film adaptation of a novel by the reigning monarch of books for young adults, Judy Blume. The independently produced Tiger Eyes opened this week in Chicago on exactly one screen in a small, divided movie theatre in the suburbs that caters more often than not to a Jewish audience. The two elderly women who were with us at the beginning of the movie were gone soon after it started after realizing that they were not watching the documentary they came to see, Hava Nagila (The Movie).
Had they stuck around, they would have seen that there was some Jewish content in Tiger Eyes, which centers on the grieving process of the Jewish Wexler family. Adam Wexler (Michael Sheets), the owner of a sandwich shop on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey, has been gunned down in a robbery, leaving his wife Gwen (Amy Jo Johnson), young son Jason (Lucien Dale), and our main protagonist, daughter Davey (Willa Holland), near destitute both emotionally and financially. Gwen’s sister and brother-in-law, Bitsy and Walter Kronick (Cynthia Stevenson and Forrest Frye), take the Wexlers into their luxurious home in Los Alamos, New Mexico, until Gwen can get over her paralyzing grief. Bitsy, disappointed over not having a family of her own, hopes to keep the Wexlers around permanently, enrolling Jason and Davey in the local schools and doting on a malleable Jason. Davey, seeing what is happening, tries to rouse her mother out of her dependent stupor and separates herself from her surroundings as much as possible, lost in her memories of her father and the horrible day he died. The family dynamics at work between the Kronicks and the Wexlers form the backdrop against which Davey’s slow and painful progress toward healing takes place.
Tiger Eyes is a film well aimed at young adults grappling with their own growing pains and dark histories. The screenplay by Lawrence Blume and his mother Judy Blume is small, avoiding the kind of complexity for which an adult film might have reached, keeping the focus mainly on Davey and the few people with whom she interacts. Her English teacher (Josh Berry) pairs her on her first day in her new school with Jane Albertson (Elise Eberle), a bright, haughty, very troubled teen with a drinking problem. Despite an offer to join the clique of creative anachronists who live out a medieval kind of existence, Davey stays loyal to Jane; after all, she’s not planning on settling down in Los Alamos and doesn’t really care where she fits. Thus, the cast of characters remains simple, and the complex of problems stratified in an understandable way without completely ignoring other elements in Davey’s environment.
The most healing aspect of Davey’s life in Los Alamos is Wolf (Tatanka Means), a Mexican-Native American who finds her in the desert after she has accidentally slid down a bluff she was exploring. After worrying that he might do her harm, she drops her guard, but tells him her name is Tiger. They continue to meet over the months, and when she attends a “relation” ceremony among his tribe on the pueblo, she understands that his ties with his home were strained as well and that his tribal family held the ceremony to strengthen his connection to them and support him. Wolf, real name Martin Ortiz, is attending Cal Tech to become a physicist like the many scientists at Los Alamos, and has taken a year off to attend to his dying father (Russell Means). As real-life son and his real-life father dying of cancer, Tatanka and Russell Means had an easy way into these characters and convey the private nature of their real and imagined relationship that matches perfectly with Davey and her memories of her father.
In this, his second feature film, Blume shows he has more to learn. He’s quite good at using landscape and setting to add mood (of course, that’s not too hard with New Mexico as a setting), but seems rather at sea with his characters. Cynthia Stevenson, who is the go-to gal for conventional, somewhat ridiculous women, gets little help from Blume and chooses to define herself more by her situation than her character’s inner fear. As a tour guide in the Bradbury Science Museum, she cheerfully shows off replicas of the atomic bombs that killed 220,000 people, and later, happily throws a Christmas party while Davey retreats to her room and lights a candle to celebrate Hanukkah in memory of her father. When Stevenson is called on to have a true emotional moment, she just doesn’t have the chops or the director to make it come alive.
Similarly, despite some kissing, the quasi-romance between Martin and Davey causes no discomfort, and therefore, Tiger Eyes is completely safe as a family film. But without a little chemistry, it’s hard to buy the connection between the two at more than a situational level. While the film gives life to the Native American experience in sharp contrast to the war-fueled prosperity and success ethos of the white Americans in Los Alamos, it still trafficks in stereotype. Martin and his father, whom Davey becomes close to at the hospital where she volunteers, step into the spirit guide roles white Americans have assigned to Native Americans since the crying Indian commercial for the Keep America Beautiful campaign in the 1970s.
Where the film succeeds beautifully is in the relationship, too little seen, between Davey and her brother. When Bitsy tries to indoctrinate Jason in the Los Alamos definition of success, Davey dreams a life of selling cookies on the boardwalk in Atlantic City for him. In another scene, they play Monopoly one night when the Kronicks double-date with Gwen and a fix-up, and spar joyfully and believably when Davey discovers Jason has been taking money from the bank. The scene, however, turns dark rather abruptly, with Davey accusing Jason of forgetting their father; nonetheless, their argument felt very real and offered the kind of emotional depth I would have liked to have seen throughout the film.
Blume slowly builds a picture of the day Davey’s father died in intermittent flashbacks, finally revealing Davey cradling her father on her lap as the life drains out of him. These scenes are beautifully shot, suggesting through lighting and lensing an unreal nightmare Davey is forced to relive a bit at a time until she can face the final moments of her father’s life. The progression suggests how grieving works, in a circular manner that spirals us a bit at a time back into our lives. While we don’t see it as directly with Gwen as we do with Davey, it is clear from small actions Gwen takes that she is having a parallel experience.
Willa Holland has a lot to carry on what the elder Ortiz says are her strong shoulders, and she is mostly up to the task. She has a magnetic screen presence that makes us want to spend time with her, and does indeed have the bright smile and sad eyes that Wolf remarks on when he first meets her. She can project her anger, grief, and struggle to face the rest of her life without her beloved father all at once and provides a relatable role model for girls and boys who are growing toward adulthood. I could see a child who has lost a family to divorce relate to this just as easily as one who has lost a parent to death, and children who have not faced such losses gaining an empathetic understanding toward those who have. In a marketplace bereft of substantial family films, Tiger Eyes is a welcome addition.
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Director: J. J. Abrams
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
I know modern movies are essentially treated by many viewers as dialogue filler between action sequences: certainly young audiences in movie theatres act that way. But I’m still stuck back in the age of storytelling, antediluvian-hearted animal that I am. When I wrote about the first entry in J. J. Abrams’ cycle back to a retrofitted version of the original Star Trek in 2009, I commented that although the USS Enterprise was back boldly going where no one had gone before, what it seemed likely to find was far more limited and generic than in Gene Roddenberry’s epochal, probing, often weirdly poetic TV classic. To a great extent, Star Trek: Into Darkness realized my expectations, provoking schismatic reactions in me.
Abrams offers fun and derring-do with only a thin veneer of the inquisitive humanism and speculative eccentricity that was the point of Roddenberry’s creation. This edition provokes suspicion, reinforced by Abrams’ own admissions, that he uses the superstructure of the Trek mythos in service to space opera malarkey whilst ignoring the richer and stranger texture of the source, the patina of flower-child idealism emphasising the multitudinous possibilities for contact and communication in the universe. Of course, that tone coexisted in a vision of the future with corny politics, guys in polyester stockings wrestling with men in plastic lizard suits, and storylines synthesised to justify whatever spare costumes and sets were lying around the Paramount backlot, from Nazi uniforms to gangster threads. The best movies in the Trek cinematic strand are essentially fast-paced pulp yarns that play ably on the fact that with all of the elements of essential drama long in place, it was easy to whip through worlds and ideas.
A greater problem that Abrams courts here is having his take compared to Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), a gold standard of scifi and franchise filmmaking. The stature of The Wrath of Khan lay in the near-perfection of its balance of character, theme, action, and plot rather than in its wobbly production, making it the complete opposite to so much big-budget fare today. The older film’s balance came to a certain extent from the accumulated affection for its cast and the substance of its repeated motifs, something a relatively callow franchise can’t swing nearly so confidently, especially one that has to fight for space on the multiplex screens and win over the popcorn crowd. Into Darkness doesn’t compete in regards to storytelling skill or provocation of wistful emotion. On the other hand, Meyer invested a depth into the characters that they’d never really had before, and played up their aging, worrisome quirks to deliver that rarest of creations, a zippy pop-culture work that grazed the edges of tragedy and myth. Therein lay a contradiction: Meyer both fulfilled and reinvented the brand. Abrams does the same thing, by dealing with a version of the characters defined by youthful volatility and the struggle to learn who they are, rather than the warhorses of the older movies and the crisp professionals of the series. Abrams’ signature touch at the start of his first instalment, one indeed he’s finding hard to top, was an epic sequence of generational loss and birth, signalling his intent to annex Star Trek as a place for genuine character drama. With its early reliance on broad stereotypes and the later series’ generally flaccid placeholders, the human element has always been the weak point of Trek, ironically only really gaining urgency through the perspective of characters who were not human, but who sought to understand that state, like Spock and The Next Generation’s Data.
Never mind the old show: some of the best qualities Abrams and company instilled in their revision aren’t really done further justice. John Cho’s butched-up Sulu, Zoë Saldana’s substantial Uhura, Karl Urban’s DeForest Kelley-by-way-of-Robert Newton take on Bones McCoy, and Anton Yelchin’s comedic Chekhov, all ripe for expanded roles, get odd moments of action, but are all somewhat left holding the bag. Abrams concentrates again on the Kirk and Spock Dioscuri, though the tricky relationship dynamic of Spock and Uhura—sage and communicator—pays off with a satisfying sop to the strength of mutual care. Klingons make it into this entry, but they’re just swarthy menaces who provide story fodder and a fight scene without much chance to show off their weirdly specific, perverse warrior pride and intelligence. Okay, one could wax lyrical about how Into Darkness doesn’t encompass the old Trek brand. It’s still a very enjoyably, impeccably made action flick that follows its predecessor and (mostly) surpasses it, standing up with John Carter (2012) as a rocking yarn that breathes life back into the near-asphyxiated field of mainstream scifi spectacle, purely through the vivacity of its visuals and pacing and the energy of its conceptual universe, coming at a time when scifi spectacle has seen entertaining entries like Avatar (2009) and Oblivion (2013) that are nonetheless dispiriting in their derivativeness. Rejigging Trek for the umpteenth time is also derivative, I’ll grant, but Abrams, having jolted the timeline of the series into an alternative reality for the sake of giving a shock to the material (and to the inertia of fan-obsessive continuity), at least has a sense of purpose, glazed in a sense of colour, light, humour, and movement that approximates the best of the old popcorn flicks we all watched as kids.
However, Abrams’ screenwriters, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, having proven themselves gifted at harvesting the tropes and ideas of other, better writers and remixing them into superficially clever narratives, have benefited greatly from the annexation of scifi properties by blockbuster cinema. Lindelof’s incoherent screenplay for last year’s Prometheus pointed sadly to just how much artisanal love and craft have deserted the medium. Yet Star Trek has a strong, but malleable, bedrock of lore that can accommodate almost any mode of storytelling, whilst Abram’s gusto and love for his medium is reliable. Abrams dumps the audience into an extended fusion of Indiana Jones adventure and the TV show’s cheerily tacky evocation of the alien as James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Bones distract a hostile aboriginal tribe on a far-flung planet long enough for Spock (Zachary Quinto) to drop a cold fusion device into an erupting volcano that’s threatening to wipe the planet out. Spock takes a tumble into the volcano’s mouth and expects to die. After escaping the natives, Kirk violates the Starfleet Prime Directive of not interfering with the evolution of species, and reveals the Enterprise in order to beam Spock aboard. Spock officiously reports the incident to Starfleet: Kirk is dressed down by his mentor Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and fired from his captaincy. Pike takes over the Enterprise and rehires a chastened Kirk as first officer. But a mysterious schemer named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) has engineered a terrorist attack that decimates a Starfleet facility in London, and a meeting is called of senior commanders to consider the danger.
Evoking The Godfather Part III (1990), Harrison assaults the meeting with a hovering attack ship, killing Pike and other Starfleet grandees. Senior commander Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) survives and gives Kirk the Enterprise to chase Harrison to where he’s fled: Kronos, the home world of the ever-ornery Klingons. Marcus equips Kirk with a number of drone photon torpedos to decimate the remote region in which Harrison is hiding. Scotty (Simon Pegg) and Spock argue the foolishness of such an act when relations with the Klingons are so fragile, and Kirk relents, choosing instead to capture Harrison with the help of Spock and Uhura. The Klingons are less than welcoming, and the trio are forced to fight, only to be saved by an awesomely talented warrior who proves to be Harrison. Harrison surrenders to Kirk upon learning of his strange cargo, and reveals his true identity: he’s Khan, a genetically engineered, super being exiled from Earth three centuries before. He was reawakened when the spaceship taking him and his fellow genetically engineered savants into exile was rediscovered in deep space, and Khan’s intelligence had been put to use by Marcus. The torpedoes actually contain his shipmates, held hostage to the Admiral’s nefarious designs.
The opening sets a template Abrams follows efficiently: essential Star Trek tropes are employed in a witty style that doesn’t forestall serial-like escapades, paying off in a boiled-down version of many an episode’s lesson, as the natives have an epiphany, drawing the image of the Enterprise in the dirt as a new sky-god. Abrams’ attempts to dovetail the TV show’s traditional themes with a good-humoured, spring-heeled approach are at their most successful here. The consequences of Kirk’s brazen style, in saving Spock who had been entirely willing to die according to the limits of his role, are also followed through in a way that the series rarely required of Kirk. This rule evoked the similar ones holding Superman and Doctor Who at bay from dabbling in social engineering. A hesitation here is that Kirk’s actions are only reprehensible from a strict rule-book perspective: he saves a native species and his first officer both from annihilation at the small expense of providing the natives with a glimpse of things strange and wonder-provoking, a possibly mixed blessing. Kirk’s disgrace puts in motion a drama about the inefficacy of always obeying seniors, even as Kirk has an extended crisis about his own leadership capacity clashing with his tendency to buckaroo improvisation: “I don’t know what I should do,” he says to Spock at a crucial juncture, “I only know what I can do.”
The original Star Trek asked questions redolent of the era’s concerns regarding race, war, and society: what constitutes “humanity” and life worthy of respect? How does one maintain a balance of peace against inimical opponents? Does one intervene in societies beset by growing pains or keep hands off for fear of playing god? What indeed is “god” in such a universe? Stirring and engaging as these questions were in such a medium, they were already pretty old-hat for science fiction by the 1960s. Whilst ethical and scientific inquiries are far less important in the context of Abrams’ films, here the questions are manifested in the push and pull of the Kirk-Spock relationship, with a new third corner in Khan, relating to morality and responsibility in leadership, whilst the larger story almost too obviously seeks to channel anxiety over terrorist blowback, manufactured war-justifying threats, and drone warfare. This “dark” slant of terrorist supervillains and warmongers is actually thematically similar to Meyer’s other Trek film, The Undiscovered Country (1992), which reconstructed the Cold War endgame into scifi argot. Into Darkness’ assumptions about institutional power are, at least before the plot cleans up neatly, far from the semi-utopian assumptions of the old Trek. But it does give a new urgency to Kirk’s desire to puzzle out how to do the most good when the responsibility is his, one Spock reiterates in the classic formula from The Wrath of Khan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”
Roddenberry’s patina of idealism was also always inseparable from the surprising rigidity and old-fashioned quality of its space-age notions of hierarchy and responsibility, something Meyer recognised when he played up Starfleet’s Hornblower qualities, and which Abrams tweaks here to more menacing purpose. Starfleet’s attitude and costuming are becoming distinctly more militarised: Kirk and his crew now occasionally wear peaked caps, which hint this future is now only a stone’s throw from the overt fascism of Starship Troopers (1997), and Scotty quits the Enterprise crew in protest of this creeping militarisation. Here, much of the leadership of Starfleet is exterminated, except for the very head honcho who proves to be a ranting General Ripper-esque psycho. Thus, Kirk and company find themselves caught between two different versions of the same evil. This narrative is definitely more sceptical than the traditional Trek story, but not necessarily more cynical. What’s more frustrating about Into Darkness is that where Abrams proved with his extended movie brat homage Super 8 (2011) that he could replicate the careful unfolding of narrative that made the brand of Spielberg et al. so powerful back in the day, here he’s still at the mercy of the lazier reflexes of the contemporary blockbuster. Khan’s motivation, history, and perspective aren’t gradually and effectively revealed, but dumped in an exposition speech delivered in the now-compulsory interlude where the villain is briefly imprisoned, as per The Dark Knight (2008), Skyfall, and The Avengers (both 2012).
The story is complex, but all of its elements are essentially in place already as the film jumps into it. Khan is awake. His crew are already stowed in cryogenic chambers hidden in photon torpedos with no convincing explanation for this strange choice of hiding place, nor how Marcus found them. Marcus’ plot has already largely progressed, and he chooses the least sensible patsy imaginable to deliver his Pearl Harbor/Gulf of Tonkin/9-11 on the Klingons. Khan and his crew’s backstory begs so many questions, most of which remain unanswered, that it could cause your forehead to turn inside out if you think about it too much. Into Darkness exacerbates an ever-more apparent problem with a lot of contemporary screenwriting—a story that is at once dense but also essentially treated as baggage. The story has already happened: Kirk and company are roped-in patsies who have to mop up the debris. What is left, then, is basically an extended third act of chase and battle. Whereas in The Wrath of Khan, the war to control the Genesis device was beautifully contoured into the story on several levels, providing thematic gravity, motive, and payoff, here Khan himself is turned into a variation on the device—apt as he is always associated with cyclical destruction and rebirth, which give the Vedic overtones of his name some coherence, with his blood possessing incredible healing properties. At the film’s outset he gains himself a suicide bomber (Thomas Harewood) by saving his deathly ill daughter with a transfusion, whilst this element bides time to provide a deus-ex-machina in the finale. The larger drama in play—Marcus’ attempt to force a war between the Federation and the Klingons—is timely, but not forceful, a significant idea dismissed as mere plot device.
But there I go again comparing, and to a large extent that’s unfair. I can only illustrate why it’s unfair by example: it’s akin to faulting Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) for not concentrating on the same elements of an evident inspiration like Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Whilst definably linked by aspects of character and image and genre, the older film is an exotic adventure movie, but also a situation-comedy about character, whereas the later movie is a full-throttle action film built around linked set-pieces. There’s still room for character and thematic depth in the action film, but it’s subordinated to an ethic of rolling cliffhangers. The problem here is that we already have so many would-be roller-coaster rides on modern cinema screens, making one ache for a more considered brand of genre delight. The positive aspect is that so many of those rides suck, whereas Star Trek’s rigid place in the pop cultural firmament helps give this style rare integrity and power. The day when Kirk and Khan could not only trade physical blows, but also blows of wit and ego laced with literary references seem sadly gone. One of the reasons Khan made such an impact on Trekkies and casual fans alike was because his leonine intellectualism, as well as great physical strength, made him a rare kind of villain befitting a show with a penchant for cerebral stimulation. Khan’s genius is stated, but scarcely given real scope: the film is filled with products of his brilliance, like the souped-up warship he’s designed for Marcus, but again, they’re already present and ready for use.
In its middle third, Into Darkness does shift into the kind of strategic gamesmanship The Wrath of Khan did so well, once again forcing the heroes to take on an enemy who seems to have all the advantages. A seemingly impossible situation is set up, which must be solved with both grit and smarts—a common quality of all versions of the series. Caught in deep space, sabotaged by Marcus in his plan to make them magnets for punitive Klingon action, the Enterprise crew first have to get their ship going, but then are chased by Marcus in the massive and lethal new Dreadnought-class spaceship Vengeance Khan designed. The Vengeance knocks the Enterprise out of warp close to Earth, and only the fact that Scotty has smuggled himself aboard prevents the Enterprise’s complete destruction. Kirk forges a brittle alliance with Khan to take out their mutual enemy, and the two make a thrilling, high-speed flight through a debris field to plunge into a narrow airlock that Scotty has to pop whilst under guard. Khan unleashes unvarnished, megalomaniacal rage, crushing Marcus’ head with his bare hands in another movie nod (to Blade Runner ) and forcing the Enterprise to beam over the torpedoes containing his frozen friends. However, Bones and Sulu pull off a (not too) malicious switcheroo, allowing them to blow Khan out of the sky just as he fires on them.
Into Darkness pulls off something that some other recent films, like the awful Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes series, have tried but not quite swung: putting characters better known for brains into situations requiring brawn, whilst not entirely asking them to abandon the former. Casting Cumberbatch, who plays a modernised Holmes on television, as Khan suggests a move towards embracing the intellectual as well as violent kind of villainy and in keeping with Ricardo Montalban’s characterisation of Khan as a wily, chess-playing, Moriarty-ish kind of enemy as well as a bristling he-man who delighted in his prowess and competitiveness but could only find the satisfaction of exercising his gifts against challenging opponents. That promise doesn’t really eventuate here, in part because he’s bestowed with a new trait that makes him less Nietzschean but also a more apt, shadowy doppelganger to Kirk: he’s consumed by his sense of care and duty toward his fellow mutants as a crew equal that dampens his capacity to act according to the ruthless predatory instincts of his genetic programming. This is a clever exacerbation of the basic theme flowing throughout Abrams’ Star Trek: finding drama in two inimical versions of the same sense of duty. The Kirk-Khan death dance takes on new dimensions, then, as each is forced into positions and choices that test their essential makeup. Cumberbatch invests Khan with pride and an exclusive variety of empathic feeling reserved strictly for his fellow übermensch, but also apocalyptic anger when offended. The “otherness” of Khan, with his distinct ethnic identity, has been removed, relying rather on Cumberbatch, with a mop of black hair and a deep, mordant voice, to embody malefic brilliance. That voice is capable of the same purr, redolent of a panther starting to think about its next meal, that made a star of Alan Rickman. Cumberbatch, whose early roles mostly stuck him playing swots and bluebloods, was hitherto best used for villainous purposes in Atonement (2007). I half-hoped he could find someone on the Enterprise to enjoin, “You have to bite it!” Even if Khan can’t be all that he should be in a modern multiplex blockbuster, Cumberbatch still inflates himself to fill Montalban’s large shoes.
Likewise Quinto, who doesn’t possess Leonard Nimoy’s lode of abyss-throated gravitas, makes up for it with his poise. Some have said that the new Trek has essentially become Spock’s series, and there’s a lot of truth to this, if only because the contemporary sensibility finds the internally divided, outwardly stoic figure much more compelling than the squarer Kirk. This seems to be the season for digging up fallen ’80s heroes, following William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer’s contributions to Iron Man 3; Abrams goes one much better in giving former Robocop Weller a lip-smacking bad-guy role. Rounding out the cast is Alice Eve, playing Marcus’ daughter Carol, a scientist who gets aboard the Enterprise to find out what her father’s up to: according to Trek lore, of course, she’s destined to be the mother of Kirk’s son David and supply a dash of silly cheesecake to a Peeping Tom Kirk, suggesting sexuality in Hollywood hasn’t progressed beyond the 1950s. Also, why Admiral Marcus has an American accent and Carol a British one is left sadly opaque.
Chris Pine’s performance is stretched in ways here that threaten to reveal its limitation: Shatner’s Kirk was always smug, but supremely competent, a man who wore his captaincy naturally. Pine’s, on the other hand, still feels a bit too much like a high school football captain suddenly beset by existential angst about life after graduation. But he and Quinto do still pull off the propulsive aspect of mutual reliance and affection in spite of violently contrasting temperaments. The harum-scarum rush of bluff and double-dealing, mixed with intense, vivid, physical action, is pretty tremendous stuff, and once Abrams is in his action element, Into Darkness rips and roars. The major set-pieces of the finale see Abrams trying to one-up the crashing spaceship sequence of George Lucas’ Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), first by having the Enterprise go into free-fall in Earth’s atmosphere, the heroes caught inside what amounts to a colossal tumble-dryer, and then Khan crashing the Dreadnought into San Francisco Bay in a suicide run at Starfleet Headquarters.
Abrams revels here in the scale and detail and force of what the contemporary special-effects palette can do for him, rejoicing in assaulting the prim environs of the Enterprise and the whole idea of colossal battleships in space, and subjecting them to violence on a grand and entertaining scale. Abrams, a famously transplanted TV talent, has been displaying ever-evolving cinematic gifts since his debut, the strong Mission: Impossible III (2006), a film driven by a peculiar tension between his grasp of kinetic pace and the sense-battering editing endemic to contemporary Hollywood. Abrams has been conquering the latter trait, and though his first Star Trek still displayed those bad habits. The classicism he forced on himself with Super 8 has paid dividends here: the spectacle is gorgeous and the fighting mostly comprehensible. But what really keeps Into Darkness humming is the clarity of Abrams’ focus on emotion that, in spite of the whiz-bang elements, still provides a sturdy superstructure. Where the first instalment ran with one of Abrams’ favourite themes—personality crises in the young and talented played out through the heightening tropes of genre urgency—here the crux is rites of passage that could also be life climaxes. Kirk loses Pike, the last link to his youth, right after he’s sent back to the minors, and, as in The Avengers, the swaggering hero is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice, saved only by convenient screenwriting (and the mutual model for both films is, again, The Wrath of Khan).
The gag is that whereas The Wrath of Khan saw Spock giving his life to restart the Enterprise’s engines, here it’s Kirk, building to an outrageously conceited yet peculiarly stirring mirroring scene to the older film’s climax. Spock sets off in vengeful pursuit of Khan culminating in an essentially superfluous but aptly grandiose and thrilling chase across the futuristic San Francisco skyline, battling on the backs of flying vehicles hundreds of feet above the ground, with Khan’s super-strength, lethal to humans, checked by Spock’s alien physique and way with a mind-meld. The beauty of this battle is twofold: the running theme of Abrams’ films—Spock’s deep-buried, but powerful sense of rage and feeling for his friends—is stoked and leashed upon an apt opponent. And, of course, there’s the sneaky joy of Spock, killed by Khan’s machinations in another reality, now kicking the superman’s ass, with some help from Uhura.
What’s ultimately true here is that Abrams has made a spectacular, bouncy, ripping-paced swashbuckler, largely transcending its flaws and niggling disappointments, but not the moment of its creation. Whether anyone will still watch this in 30 years’ time like they do The Wrath of Khan is a minor point; perhaps more important is that we’ll be watching it for different reasons if we are. The film’s very rushed wrap-up dismisses Kirk’s revival from the dead like something that happens every day, flinging Khan back into deep freeze and sending the crew off on their canonical five-year mission without any note of promise, mystery, or new horizons. By any standard, this is a weak and frustrating conclusion to a good ride, one that again reminds me too sharply of how much emotional fullness and storytelling relish are held as less important than getting the film wrapped up in the permitted running time. Even at its corniest, Star Trek was about wonderment, curiosity, and awe, but these seem to be aspects our screen culture has lost. At least we have gained a good action series.
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Director: Baz Luhrmann
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . . And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Baz Luhrmann is a director with a particular affinity for the past. He has taken on Shakespeare (Romeo + Juliet ) and Puccini (Moulin Rouge! ), dealt with his country’s pre-World War II past (Australia ), and examined a dance style only nostalgia buffs and professionals practice these days (Strictly Ballroom ). His regard for the past and penchant for grandeur and spectacle, apparent in all these efforts, was bound to pull him like a helpless planet to the black hole that is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
I’ve heard the conventional wisdom that Gatsby is unfilmable and wondered why. There are enough beautiful images and marvelous character descriptions to make even the most pedestrian cinematographer drool. The story is dramatic and eternal, both specific to the shell-shocked fear of annihilation after World War I that drove the frenzied debauchery and criminality that was the Roaring ’20s, and hopeful about the restorative power of love. What appears more the stumbling block to me is the first-person narration of Nick Carraway, who sides with Gatsby as a hero he hoped to emulate and therefore can view no one as a truly real person. It takes a special kind of director to film the illusions of a first-person narrator, to question the perceptions to arrive at a deeper truth while moving the story along.
Baz Luhrmann succeeds in creating a vulgar, seductively repellent world, mostly succeeds in suggesting the beauty and pain of love and admiration, and mostly fails in impeaching Nick Carraway’s illusions to offer more realistic assessments of the characters in the film. Nonetheless, as a work that offers a piquant parallel to the recent past—the televised slaughter of the Vietnam War, followed by a sustained period of greed and social carelessness—Baz Luhrmann proves his timing for producing a Gatsby was right on the money. Luhrmann is a genius visualist who creates images and milieus that reach directly into our unconscious and pull all sorts of mythic triggers that help us grapple with the larger implications of this love story. Indeed, his visual acuity nearly overcomes his failure to help his cast embody their characters with any authority, thus undercutting the moral echoes arising from the tragedies that will unfold.
The first question Luhrmann faced was whether to acknowledge the autobiographical elements in Fitzgerald’s novel. I believe he makes a mistake in doing so, making Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) a failed writer who only unleashes his gift after his fateful months in the orbit of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), his spectacularly nouveau riche neighbor in West Egg, Long Island. Had he stuck with the original scheme of making Carraway simply a self-taught bond trader, and less self-consciously sandwiched Carraway’s ramshackle home between the behemoth Gatsby mansion and the looming estate just across the sound in East Egg where cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her old-money husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) live, we might have been able to see Nick as one of the new 49ers heading east for the gold mines on Wall Street, gazing enviously at the riches all around him. Instead, he seems an insider not only by dint of being Daisy’s distant cousin and therefore heir to some of the attitudes of the monied class, but also by a certain noblesse oblige that accompanies the figure of the artist, a bit of a minor god who only lacks enough money to ascend to the top of society. Fitzgerald was precise in marking the levels of the American social totem pole, but Luhrmann offers a more democratic mixing of the classes, rendering Tom’s rant about the threat to the white race more of a WTF moment than the virulent line in the sand it is.
Luhrmann delays our introduction to Gatsby, tantalizing us with shots of the ring on his finger or his figure silhouetted against the night sky. In the midst of Gatsby’s weekly bacchanal, for which Nick is singled out and made to feel special as the only one with a written invitation, we finally get our formal introduction . . . and it’s Leonardo DiCaprio. I would say there is something meta about having a celebrity play a celebrity of sorts, but then a big movie like Gatsby would never have been made with an unknown in the title role. How unfortunate that DiCaprio is not given the room to inhabit his role, to shade it with the obsessive and violent tones that, say, James Cagney, brought to Gatsby contemporary and real-life gangster Martin Snyder in Love Me or Leave Me (1955), completely unpolished, but nonetheless, not a bad model for a figure ruthlessly immoral and pragmatic in service to attaining his goal. Instead, it is nearly impossible to forget his similarly romantic underdog role in Titanic (1997), taking the air out of any suggestion that Gatsby is no role model for anyone who wants to maintain their conscience intact.
The role of Daisy is similarly problematic. Nick’s first encounter with Daisy in the Buchanan sitting room is visual perfection: the diaphanous, floor-to-ceiling curtains lining the bay of open doors blowing like the clouds of Olympus through the room, with Daisy stirring from her nap on a sofa and rising into view like Venus emerging from the foam. Alas, no mere mortal, and certainly not the featherweight Carey Mulligan, could possibly take command from such visual poetry. Despite the fact that Daisy is only a goddess in Gatsby’s eyes, it is essential that the audience feel her fall from grace to understand the deep tragedy of Nick’s assessment that Tom and Daisy “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Instead, Daisy seems nice enough, perky, pretty, without the careless and shallow obliviousness that Nick diagnoses as she disingenuously declares that the world is a terrible place—her anger at her husband’s philandering shows a depth of feeling Mulligan plumbed without linking it to Daisy’s blinding self-involvement.
Nonetheless, Luhrmann finds ways to get around how basically uninteresting his characters come across by offering some pointed choices that had my head spinning with admiration. A first look at Gatsby’s gauche abode brought out feelings of revulsion in me at the kind of acquisitive excess that signals a great many people were hurt to achieve such tasteless extravagance. In this way, the influence of Joseph Conrad on Fitzgerald, particularly the parallel to the moral rot underlying colonialism, comes clearly into focus and helps put this film in company, however indirectly, with such anti-colonial classics as Lord Jim (1965) and Apocalypse Now (1979). Luhrmann’s staging of the first party Nick attends at Gatsby’s mansion brings all of his talent for detailed razzle dazzle to the forefront. Luhrmann packs the scene, distracting the eye in every direction with fountains of champagne, jazz musicians, and merrymakers of all sizes in exquisite period dress dancing, drinking, and swooning from the excess of it all. Offering a close-up of Gatsby superimposed on a sky exploding with fireworks adds a humorous and old-fashioned American spin to this weekly event, an Independence Day every bit as stage-managed for happiness as the nightly fireworks at Disney’s theme parks.
Luhrmann’s rendering of the Valley of Ashes is appropriately dirty, but not much more. One wonders at the existence of such a no-man’s land between Long Island and Manhattan, with Wilson’s Garage seeming like the last gas station before Death Valley. As such, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) is the ripe and wayward wife of a feckless fool (Jason Clarke) found in so many Western noirs, which provides an interesting genre non sequitur. Luhrmann comments on the bogeyman of today—the Islamist—by casting Amitabh Bachchan, an Indian actor with an Arabian look, as Fitzgerald’s Semite Meyer Wolfsheim. Gatsby and Nick’s foray into Wolfsheim’s speakeasy is like a descent into the casbah in Marrakesh, and Bachchan, rather than being overwhelmed by setting, matches his talent to it to bring a truly sinister air to his character.
The one symbol that resonated for me was the green light at the end of the Buchanan’s pier. Luhrmann offers an image of Gatsby reaching for it across the water with great longing. Much has been said about the green light, but for me, it echoed of the Arthurian myth of the Green Knight, a tale of renewal and honor derived from a more ancient myth of the pagan Green Man. While this myth comes in numerous shapes and forms, the one that pairs best with it is the trials to which Sir Gawain is put on the eve of his beheading by the Green Knight, whom he beheaded as part of the knight’s challenge one year earlier. Sir Gawain, a knight of the Round Table, is true to his bond of honor to forfeit his head per the agreement, and also keeps to the rules of hospitality by rejecting the advances of his host’s wife on three separate occasions. When the day of his “execution” arrives, he is merely nicked on the neck, having proven himself worthy of rule over the affairs of humanity.
Gatsby, of course, is a rule breaker, a criminal, and an adulterer. That he dies through Tom’s manipulations, protecting Daisy, is of no ultimate account. In Arthurian legend, Camelot was nearly destroyed by the affair between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, and Gatsby’s chivalry toward Daisy does not cleanse his dishonor. We can sympathize with Gatsby’s eternal love, and Leo lovers will feel he has been terribly wronged, but his rush on Daisy did not truly take into account her choice. She could have waited for him, but eventually chose not to, and did not nurse the romantic ideals he held as a guiding light to get him through the war. Gatsby, a WWI veteran born James Gats of a poor farming family in the upper Midwest, made up the world as he went along, but the world was not his alone to mold.
Unfortunately, for many film fans, the glamour of the rich, particularly during the uberstylish ’20s, is enormously seductive. The costumes and sets will do for the vast majority of moviegoers and AMPAS members. Baz Luhrmann knows how to deliver eye candy better than almost any director alive, and he has pushed his visuals into new and more meaningful territory. Sadly, his actors seem like little more than props. While this version of The Great Gatsby represents an improvement on previous efforts, I’m still waiting for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s deceptively complex novel to get the cinematic treatment it deserves.
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Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick
By Roderick Heath
My journey from Terrence Malick sceptic to devotee has been surprisingly smooth, whilst admitting Malick’s signature flourishes can still provoke tendentious reactions, especially if one doesn’t entirely share his obsessive touchstones and specific brand of spiritual yearning. But it’s a rare thing in this day and age to see a great and fearless artist at the height of their craft, and Malick has moved into a zone all of his own as a maker of experimental films for a world stage, blithely selling semi-abstract art films to a mainstream cinema scene littered with cash-cow franchises, self-inflated provocateurs, and duly sincere indie films. Once Malick had a certain amount of company, but now that Stanley Kubrick’s dead and Martin Scorsese’s moved into his emeritus phase, Malick feels like the last remnant of the American New Wave still working in an argot of deeply personal yet fulsomely conceived cinema. Actually, he’s not quite the last, as Monte Hellman’s and Francis Coppola’s patchy but fascinating re-emergences have proved, but they’ve accepted their status as marginal figures, scrappy doodlers in the corners of popular cinema, whereas Malick still has worlds to conquer, and no time at all to sit and weep.
Conceptually, at first glance at least, To the Wonder is a minor grace-note by comparison to his artistically mighty The New World (2005), which studied the terrible beauty in the meeting and sundering of civilisations, and The Tree of Life (2011), a psycho-metaphysical treatise. The Tree of Life reversed Malick’s fortunes after the flop of The New World, though he seems to have pulled that off by bludgeoning a good percentage of its audience into confused respect through the awesomely beautiful conceit of drawing links between the genesis of the universe and the state of the individual consciousness as expressed through a young boy. To the Wonder, his follow-up, has been paying the price, but To the Wonder isn’t a lesser film than The Tree of Life: in fact, in many ways, it’s superior, certainly in terms of structure.
To the Wonder has its share of Malickian canards: lithe-limbed female forms stretching hands to the holy sky and dancing across the fertile earth, shots at eye-level moving through tall grass and up through trees to the bounteous sun, and fragments of pseudo-poetic voiceover that suggest a high schooler’s first stab at philosophical musing. The slightly self-satisfied, inverted focus in Malick’s earlier films, studying human violence from on high like one of his inscrutably photographed birds, has given way to a newly voluble contemplation of humanity in the face of a universe it once happily assumed revolved around it, but now knows is powered by awesome enigmas and dizzyingly remote forces. Malick, as in The Tree of Life, tackles a distinctively Christian ethos and ponders its connection to any individual’s sense of basic motivating forces—the push toward others and the internal battle of base and noble impulse. But there’s an abstracted quality as well to Malick’s consideration which keeps well out of the zone of simple religious screed; the angst and questioning and fear of the void are in there, too. The sun, which Malick always uses as the closest thing to a holy object, is remote as well as bounteous, as taciturn as any Egyptian or Aztec rock carving, and pray to it all you like, you’ll still have to find your own sense of glory. The title To the Wonder points to a conflation: the wonder is both a real place, the monastery on Mont Saint Michel on the Normandy coast, and a metaphorical one, the numinous binding state of love, romantic or private, divine or communal. Early in the film this hemispheric sense of love is spelt out in voiceover, united in compelling splendour but driving in different directions, and eventually links to a series of binaries: new world and old, man and woman, commitment and freedom, city and country, industry and nature, individual and community. Malick, however, has a distinct disdain for the simplicities of binaries, insofar as that whilst charting them, like a good Taoist, he also constantly hints at the unity of opposites.
To the Wonder is a necessary and in many ways revelatory addendum to Malick’s recent films, in part because it drags his concerns at last into what is more or less the present, and it provides, in William Blake’s parlance, Songs of Experience to The Tree of Life’s Songs of Innocence, engaging substantially with adult love for the first time since the pastoral noir of Days of Heaven (1978). Where femininity in Badlands (1974) and The New World was adolescent and protean, transitioning from one state to another whilst scarcely in control of itself, and ethereally maternal in The Tree of Life, here Malick at last gives us women, or at least “women.” There’s a healthy carnal joy repeatedly displayed in To the Wonder, however briefly, mixed in with the rhapsodic dances and plaintive poeticism in taking on one of the hoariest of all storylines, the romantic triangle, and doing impossibly original things with it. The film’s opening scenes, captured in the smeared and grainy tones of a digital camera, are a blurry whirlwind of familiar traveller’s epiphanies: glimpses of famous artworks and exciting places, snatches of movement, rest, and happenstance romance. Malick’s film proper begins by connecting things: we see our man and woman, Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), running, dancing, and standing still in Paris, the beauty of the foreign and old equally dazzling for both the stranger and the local when looked at through the eyes of romantic bliss, rediscovering the world.
Malick’s tale here is very simple, essentially a framework to hang his epiphanies minor and major upon, but it should be said that Malick’s story is, in terms of plot, no more or less substantial than dozens of cinematic love stories and situational studies: the distinction lies in Malick’s approach to the material, essayed as an immersive study in the ebb and flow of feeling and the way our interior voices constantly try to comprehend our often arbitrary natures. Neil meets Marina, who has multiple musical talents and seems also to be a dancer, on holiday in France. Marina and her young daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline) move from Paris with Neil to the American Midwest. Malick’s desire to animate sensatory engagement between human (or emotional/mental/spiritual) and natural worlds (a realm of immutable facts, but eternally malleable contexts) has here reached something of a climax: his characters are not just characters but figures in a landscape, and the same goes for his landscapes, which are never free of an actual or implied observer or interacting presence, not just scenery but aesthetic tools. Many directors would settle for picture postcards of Mont Saint Michel in filming a romantic vignette there, but Malick uses it expressively and, yes, to use that most dreaded of critical words, symbolically. He gives us the hypnotic and unsettling sight of the tide slowly trickling over the causeway as surely as fate, and attunes to the hushed and ageless atmosphere of the cathedral interior, cold stone and timeless reverence as a forge for ephemeral, hot-blooded attraction between a man and woman.
The shots of the sand being slowly overwhelmed by the tide are repeated: it evokes both a strange, liminal horizon as echoed in the end times parable in The Tree of Life’s finale, and the process of solitude being supplanted by coupledom. Such is an incremental process and one, at least as far as To the Wonder essays, never completed: the tide washes over, but also retreats. The ebb and flow of affection, desire, curiosity, and misgiving between Neil and Marina is perpetually described by their positions in relation to Malick’s camera. Many descriptions of what Malick’s attempted here have summarised it as a kind of extended dance. The metaphor is perfect, and not just because of Marina’s constant recourse to dance as a means of expression, but because of this studied look at the way humans express without words. Marina’s physicality is a perfect contrast to Neil’s quiet, ponderous study of the world around him. Neil’s job tracking the environmental impact of industrial work is sufficiently lucrative and not so time-consuming that he can’t devote himself to life with Marina, except in the finite shadow of guilt and fretful contemplation that passes over Neil’s features as he confronts angry residents affected by his works and regarding the spreading pall of civilisation on the landscape. Malick seems here to be thinking of his father, who was a geologist. Neil communes with nature in a practical and modern fashion, and becomes the willing ear to the fears of people seeing the damage wrought upon their landscape by the incessant march of modern industry. But Malick’s ecological perspective, his stricken regard for humankind’s problematic relationship with its world, is posited through less an argot of earthy pragmatism or conscientious propaganda, than as another aspect of the same basic schism the rest of the film studies, a problem of inner nature.
Mostly, therefore, Malick’s exploration of the eternally contradictory bind of humankind’s relationship with its environment is expressed through everyday phenomena: places of living, business, shopping, worship, and the land beyond the fence, not quite wild, but not exactly subdued. Critic Stephanie Zacherak’s jab at Malick, that he never met a tree he didn’t like, neatly deflated the dippier side of Malick’s flower-child sensibility, but it fails to appreciate Malick’s relative disinterest in standard dramatic portraits and his way of utilising an intensely personal iconography of images that gain in importance as he returns to them. Landscape is never just landscape to his eye. To the Wonder as a title points to a specific structure, but Malick is fascinated throughout by human works, structures, abodes, labours, as functional and also as philosophical phenomena; the “wonder,” a pinnacle of historical efforts toward uniting earth and sky, humanity and god, is only a visual gateway to an exploration of modern, secular expressions of the yearning to balance contradictory desires and embrace beauty in the unlikeliest contexts. The sacred grandiosity of the seaside church segues into the neon-gilded gas stations burning in kaleidoscopic beauty, temples of fluorescent light and islands of humanity in the midst of churning traffic. Tract housing and small-town architecture looms dark and megalithic, communing with the sky and encompassing human dreams even in their arbitrary, inorganic newness, as if dropped in the middle of vast spaces. Supermarkets are dazzling cornucopias, to which Tatiana responds by dashing through the aisles rejoicing at “how clean everything is.”
Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki film the spare and spacious beauty of the Midwestern landscape and the populations spread upon it with the same weirding, refamiliarising wonder turned on iconic European culture. A couple of Malick’s most breathtaking shots are studies in human abodes in natural contexts: one offers the houses of a suburban street, a cul-de-sac abutting recently conquered pastoral land where Marina and Neil reside at one point, under the rule of snow and blasting wind, the modern houses suddenly plunged into a medieval winter. The second is subtler and quicker, photographing the remote farmhouse of Neil’s childhood friend Jane (Rachel McAdams), with her and Neil within in warm light and the twilight rural landscape without, an image rife with evocative colours and contemplation, and one that captures the atmosphere of modern rural life more intensely than all but a few other examples I’ve seen. Home is a powerful notion for Malick: he loves his homeland, and he feels the sacrosanct aura that many invest in the places they have sprung from, evolved in, and left without forgetting, a note that pays off later in the film. Marina is struck at first by her New World as a place of bounteous space and riches, but, in one of the film’s scenes of extended dialogue, Marina is visited by an Italian friend, Anna (Romina Mondello), who decries the emptiness and false faces of the locals whilst encouraging Marina to return to her free-spirited ways. Whilst such familiar conflicts are invoked, as Marina is alternatively dazzled and alienated by the profundity of space, the disposition of the people, and the thinness of the cultural blanket about her, Malick himself avoids value judgments. Everything is endowed in his eye with both value and transience. Paris is depicted at first as a place of infinite riches, but when Marina returns there, it seems by comparison an oppressive labyrinth crammed with people, noises, and distractions, a stygian space of excessive civilisation.
After her visa expires, Marina returns to France with a willing Tatiana, and Neil seems content to let their relationship end: as Marina had said earlier to Neil, “I don’t expect anything. Just to go a little of our way together.” This is very much the film’s founding thesis, as a study in just how far people can go together. After Marina’s departure, Neil turns Jane, who is dogged by the melancholy memory of her young son’s death several years earlier and a disintegrated marriage. Jane possesses a veneer of wariness that hides both great potential ardour and dark reaction, each of which Neil experiences. The movement that encompasses Neil’s interlude with Jane is brief but represents one of Malick’s greatest achievements, a synergistic flow of images and snatched words replete with an almost fairytale beauty and rapturous expression that I knew even as I was watching it was a masterpiece of film shooting and editing. Malick makes his disparities obvious without recourse to explanatory dialogue: Jane, framed repeatedly with the horses she tends and bison, is, like them, native product of an open land, endowed with a robustness and rooted self-certainty even in the face of tragedy, plucking away at work on the ranch in the face of hardship, in contrast to Marina, who tends to run from hardship. This is no simplistic good woman/bad woman schism, however, as Malick explores the appeal and necessity of both temperaments, and Neil, in spite of the seeming ease in his relationship with Jane, is fatefully drawn back to Marina’s mercurial nature as an invigorating contrast and partner to his own.
Just as Neil and Jane’s relationship comes to life, Marina contacts Neil, wanting to come back to him after giving custody of Tatiana to her ex-husband. Neil breaks off with Jane, in spite of her ardent and slightly pathetic offer of herself with one of her tethering ropes for the horses wrapped around her own wrists, but quickly enough she’s thrusting Neil away and quite literally crawling away from him in forlorn anger. Jane is last seen in a dreamlike discursion as she moves through what seems to be her childhood home, a dark and cavernous space that conflates with Neil’s house, a place where Marina hovers outside like a dogging spirit. Jane climbs stairs and disappears into darkness in a relay of shots that capture the trio in a moment of transition standing at thresholds, on different floors, and beyond windows, all with telegraphed psychological meaning. Jane’s fragmented odyssey feels vitally important as she retreats from the frontier back into an Oedipal space of the home, the reverse journey of the main character of The Tree of Life.
The haunting qualities of the old prairie houses Malick perhaps spent much of his youth in, their cache of faded gentility and piquancy suggested in Badlands, is recalled here, charged with a vividly haunted sense of lost security and longing. This segues into Neil’s attempts to settle down with Marina, cueing one of the droller moments in any Malick film, as they have their marriage witnessed by a prisoner waiting his turn in court. Marina and Neil take some time to reconnect, but they soon passionately reunite. Marina immediately begins to strain against her newly settled life and the lack of sensory excitement around her, and finds herself engaged in a war between her affection for Neil and hate, lividly described in a pool scene as Neil and Marina’s playful, tactile delight in each other is suddenly stricken with her apparent offence and loathing. There’s a Dostoyevskian quality to Marina’s plight and struggle within herself: “What a cruel war!” she says at one point. Taken with a carpenter, whose slightly damaged look exacerbates his precious attractiveness, Marina finally, seemingly deliberately detonates her marriage by sleeping with him.
Malick is a poetic filmmaker, but not in the usual vaguely lyrical fashion. He takes a methodical approach to refashioning persona and parochial experience into a system of shared experiences, essentials, and universal observations, inner experience turned into communal dreaming. The only measure for success in this is the degree to which it can strike others with a sense of recognition, and in this To the Wonder worked for me. I received a jolt of recognition in Malick’s feel for the evocative wonder of some commonplace sights and experiences, like his study of newly built tract housing which plunged me back into my early years in a sprawl of new suburbs that seemed to hover on the fringe of invaded farmland, contrasted with the shaded hominess of my grandparents’ houses in a more settled and traditionalised locale, and his already noted attentiveness to the moods of rural and city environs. One great late scene finds Marina, after committing an act of infidelity, reeling along the side of a busy road and reaching a large intersection, boiling with traffic flow, light and engine noise, a crucible of existential angst, and indeed the sensation of force and danger at such locations is transmuted into a moment of ecstatically immediate emotion. Malick’s finite sense of the way personal affection is communicated through touch, proximity, attitude, is exacting, as he can find the pain and confusion in even the smallest and briefest moments when a lover turns away, and the relief when they come back. The payoff for this sensitivity lies in the most eruptive moment in the film, when Neil smashes the rear-view mirror of his car and drags Marina out of it to leave her on the roadside after she confesses her unfaithfulness, a moment that becomes an apocalyptic gesture.
Malick’s sensatory ephemera are woven in with his actual drama, part of what he’s trying express in an ontological fashion. To the Wonder is a concluding chapter to Malick’s grand foray through American history, which has already encompassed its birth, its intermediate schism of industry and rural existence, its elevation in WWII to superpower in existential crisis, the false security of the 1950s, and now finally, the present, still stricken through with the same fault lines of its birth. One aspect of Malick’s world view that feels almost radical is not just his hunger for mysticism in a secular, earthbound age, but his plaintive affection for a particular brand of provincial religiosity found in his homeland’s vast middle spaces, the sort usually caricatured as a fount of bigotry and bellicosity. As hinted in the film’s early scenes, the central romantic drama is eventually counterpointed with a spiritual drama. Marina is stricken with her exile from the church because of her divorce, attending local services and explaining her problem to local priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem). Quintana, in turn, is beset by his own crisis of faith, a sensation that his sense of the binding properties of god, spiritual love, a world spirit, has abandoned him and left him as a social undertaker preaching to near-empty halls. He pursues his mission, however, venturing out into the poor districts of his Midwestern parish, trying to offer succour to the ruined people on the fringes of this society. A mark of Malick’s generosity is that he can take a sight most filmmakers would turn into a sneering portrait of First World dissolution, a large man snorting beer from a foam dome amidst the wreckage of a home, into a perversely beautiful depiction of ruination and degradation.
Quintana at once has ardent love of his job as knitter of social fabric but also feels its crushing weight, manifest in striking moments, as when he receives the despairing appeals of prisoners, one who kneels before him longing for a sense of forgiveness and others on the far side of visiting pen glass, and when he hides within his house from a gnarled drug addict who first rejects his aid and then comes seeking it, as if he’s hiding from faith itself in the fashion of biblical heroes like Jacob and Noah. That Quintana and Neil are brothers in their searching sensibilities is signalled late in the film when Neil and he are glimpsed in confabulation, and Neil follows Quintana in his daily rounds, each one a tragically beautiful adventure into human frailty. Malick’s characters are engaged in a kind of wrestling match with their individual nature and their animating force—personal ardour for Neil and Marina, maternal crisis for Jane, godly love for Quintana. Quintana regains his, oddly and implicitly, through the entwining of Malick’s images, via the experience of Marina and Neil losing theirs, as he suggests that in the sundering of individual love lies the essence of the greater kind.
Like Malick’s best films, To the Wonder gathers accumulated force in grand gyrations until it hits crescendos. It’s entirely fair to describe Malick’s structuring in musical rather than stage terms, and he encourages it often by tethering his various interludes to upsurges of specific music. To the Wonder then works in five movements. As a film, it feels unique in Malick’s oeuvre in the sense that it’s extremely autobiographical and revealing not just of personal experience but of artistic influence. Although The Tree of Life revealed Malick as another acolyte of Stanley Kubrick, here the influences are broader. The Searchers (1956) is repeatedly invoked with Fordian framings on the rolling prairies with bison and horses and characters in doorways, except that Monument Valley has given way to McMansions. David Lean is most often evoked: in the scene of Marina and Tatiana leaving Neil alone and the suddenly solitary male dashing back through his house to watch their car depart, Doctor Zhivago (1965) leaps to mind, and Lean’s feel for landscape has never seemed more clearly influential on Malick than here. Much like Lean’s concept of the poetic hero of that epic as more watcher than engaged in history, haplessly locked in love affairs whilst ideology reshapes the world aggressively, similarly here, Affleck’s Neil says little, acting as more the fulcrum for the dramas of his women than protagonist. Like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), To the Wonder can be described as a kind of character study where a level of frustration in the inability to actually penetrate the character is a definitive aspect of the narrative. Thematically, particularly in the form of Father Quintana’s diary of a suburban priest, Robert Bresson feels vitally close; indeed, he was probably in there all along.
But Malick’s closest creative relative as an American artist may not be other filmmakers, but rather Andrew Wyeth, a realist painter who nonetheless offered such intensely studied, obliquely conceived pictures that they always seem to vibrate with a sense of hidden elements and forces. In much the same way, Malick constantly alchemises images into emotions, which is the very aspect of his films that remain hardest for the more literal-minded to grasp. To the Wonder does represent another stage in his vision, however, if only because here Malick firmly hints at real experiences that have become inseparable aspects of his artistic imagination. Marina feels like the final condensation and archetype of the female who’s flitted through his last four films in variations, childlike but not childish, ethereal but also sensual, wounded but not ruined, perpetually enticing and yet bound to slip through one’s fingers. Marina’s neurotic flightiness and possible overtones of a developing mental illness, are distinctly suggested, as in later scenes her actions become increasingly less coherent. After they’ve separated, Neil goes to visit her in the apartment she’s now keeping and finds her idly cutting pictures out of books. Yet the final sequence of images suggests that far from spinning off into bleak realms, Marina remains an icon of unfettered life. Affleck’s face, never the most expressive of actorly instruments, becomes here Malick’s Mt. Rushmore of stolid American virtue, or perhaps an Easter Island statue, but Affleck’s flashes of good humour and play give Neil sufficient life. But the essence of the film is Kurylenko’s performance, quite an epic piece of actor’s art in spite of Malick’s odd way of shaping it, as she finds the underlying unity in Marina’s perversity. Perhaps this is the interesting contradiction in To the Wonder that’s made it Malick’s least rapturously received film so far, but that also makes it a great achievement nonetheless. Under the surface, which pretends to the usual beatification at the end, it’s a flailing, pained study in the impermanence of things.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director/Screenwriter: Neil Marshall
By Roderick Heath
English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.
Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.
Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.
On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts.
The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.
Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.
On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.
Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the Ninth Legion, which for a long time was believed to have disappeared in Scotland, has been challenged by recent scholarship that shows it might have been met its end in Spain instead. Still, whilst it’s been much fictionalised—Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular The Eagle of the Ninth novel series and its adaptation The Eagle (2011) also play with that contentious historical fillip—Marshall takes the legend a step further in suggesting the Legion’s vanishing from the history books was no accident, but a conspiracy perpetrated by Agricola and his fellow Roman bigwigs to cover up their own failure, a touch that happens to coincide nicely with the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, and other suspicious travesties in Iraq. Moreover, whilst Centurion hardly slows for a breath, narrative-wise, Marshall paints a coherent vision of the past as present, with the polyglot of nationalities, economic conscripts, and continental refuse that was the Roman Army confronting a native enemy that resists with every tool at its disposal. Marshall interestingly casts European actors, like Thomsen and Kurylenko, as Picts, to emphasise that this historical land isn’t the same one as modern Scotland nor its people exactly the same, with only one Pict, the exiled “witch” Arianne (Imogen Poots), a woman stranded between cultures and a product of the middle ground, who has a modern Scots accent.
Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.
Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.
More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.
Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.
The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).
The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.
Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.
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Director: Janet Tobias
By Marilyn Ferdinand
With the vast coverage World War II and the Holocaust have gotten in every facet of cultural endeavor the world over—films, books, plays, television, even video games—the challenge for any artist working in the subject area is to bring something new to the table. Edward Zwick had a chance to tell us a story of Jewish courage and survival with his 2008 feature Defiance, but his rendering of the relatively unknown story of the Bielski partisans of Belorussia is just another generic action flick. Documentarians have fared much better in finding unfamiliar subject matter and making the specific universal. Gordon Quinn’s Prisoner of Her Past (2010) looked at a case of late-onset posttraumatic stress disorder in a Jewish woman living in my town of Skokie and related it to the problems survivors of such disasters as Hurricane Katrina could face down the road.
Now we have No Place on Earth. Using talking-head interviews and lengthy reenactments, Janet Tobias brings us the story of three families, the Stermers, the Wexlers, and the Dodyks, who hid from the Nazis and Christian Ukrainians during the war. While we learn fairly early that this is a tale of survival, the events unfold for the audience with a glimmer of the dread, confusion, and triumph of those who lived it. The curiosity we share with the real-life detective of the story, Chris Nicola, turns into a strongly suspenseful narrative worthy of anything Alfred Hitchcock might have concocted, and made all the more interesting for being a true tale of life and death.
This story might never have come to light, however, had it not been for Nicola, a New Yorker of Ukrainian descent with a passion for caving. Nicola combined a trip to his ancestral country to trace his family roots with the exploration of Verteba, a rare gypsum cave. When he came across some human artifacts in the cave, he started asking around about the how the caves might have been used in the past. All he could glean was that some Jews hid there during World War II. Years of inquiries yielded nothing more until a message came through his website from a relative of one of the survivors. Verteba had sheltered more than 30 Jews until they were discovered by German troops. Those who escaped capture moved to a second cave, Priest’s Grotto, where they remained until the defeat of Germany. In all, they spent more than 500 days underground; several of the men left at night to gather food and fire wood, but the women and children never came to the surface at all.
It is a cliché to say that World War II represented a dark time in human history. No Place on Earth examines that notion quite literally. Cave guides will tell you that human eyes cannot adjust to the complete absence of light. Think about that. No light at all for days and weeks on end, no images of any kind to focus on. Of course, the survivors had candles and lamps, but they had to be rationed; it was better to sleep 20 hours a day to escape the darkness, hunger, and monotony than risk replenishing the sources of light. The Jews had a handful of friends in their village, but they were betrayed on more than one occasion, once by a man who discovered their location and whose life they spared. That betrayal cost two lives when the Germans raided Verteba. Living in the part of the world outside of Germany that was most hostile to Jews, these families only wanted to live and let live. They even spared a horse that could have provided them with meat for weeks.
No Place on Earth, with its paradoxical poster image, takes literal darkness and makes it light, that is, safe, as Sima Dodyk says. Sima was a little girl when she fled with her family underground. At first, it was fun to explore the caves and dream up a pretend world of adventure. As the stay became more prolonged, the tension of the adults more extreme, and the gnawing hunger more persistent, the novelty of living in the cave wore off. When the Germans came and rounded up several of their number, the consequences became all too real. It is only in this context that one can understand how total darkness can represent the safety Sima says it was for all of them.
I saw this film at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, where Tobias and several of the survivors were present to make statements and answer questions. Sonia Dodyk (above left) believes they survived because they decided from the beginning to stick together. Yet we know that the Frank and the van Pels families stuck together in an Amsterdam attic and did not escape their fate. Nonetheless, there is something to Sonia’s assertion that by sticking together, they found the means to survive by using their collective intelligence and labor to keep mind and body together for the duration.
If there is a hero to this story, it is Nissel Stermer, whom both Saul and Sam Stermer looked up to and followed during their raids aboveground for food and fuel. The Stermer brothers stole a grindstone and were able to grind wheat into flour to bake bread in the cave. When needed, Nissel later bribed the right people to get bags of flour; when the bags proved too heavy to carry, he worked with his brother Saul to fashion a sleigh and stole a horse to pull it to the opening of Priest’s Cave. The ingenuity and foresight Nissel had saved many a life, including Hannah Stermer, who chose to remain aboveground and who escaped the police because Nissel knew her hiding place would be uncovered.
What I found so remarkable about the film was watching the reenactments and seeing how handy people used to be. They knew how to soak and bend wood to form the runners of a sleigh, carve and use a grindstone, dig a “back door” to the caves to help them escape if they were raided, collect water from the dripping ceilings of the cave and make bed frames and ovens. Reduced to living as our prehistoric ancestors did, they brought their 20th century knowledge to bear on making the caves more liveable and thereby holding onto their humanity.
Perhaps it was could be seen as a triumph that several of the survivors were able to return to their village and visit the caves again. Their happiness in being able to thank the caves was leavened by their sadness at all the families they used to know vanished from the village and the future. The surviving families were quick to leave the Ukraine as well, where anti-Semitism never seems to go out of style. They settled in the United States, Canada, and Israel, and told the story of the caves to their burgeoning families. Now we know it, too.
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Director/Screenwriter: Cristian Mungiu
By Marilyn Ferdinand
After the break-out success and Palme d’Or win of his 2007 abortion drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu gained a kind of respect that tends to sanctify all successive efforts. I was knocked out by 4-3-2, but I find his newest film, Beyond the Hills, hard to parse. While adhering to the dogged realism and intensity of 4-3-2, Beyond the Hills is adapted from a novel, Deadly Confession, that itself is based on a 2005 exorcism attempt that shocked the Romanian public. The novel changed the story by making the young woman who underwent the exorcism a troubled friend of a nun instead of a nun herself and focusing on their relationship.
Mungiu has been asked in many of the interviews he has given about the film why he focuses on relationships between women. In one he gave to Zimbio, he points out that two of his films have included male protagonists. He further states, “My films are story-driven, not character-driven, and I seldom consider the gender of the protagonists before deciding if I’m interested by a story or not. These two films with female protagonists do not only describe their relationship, but speak about matters like personal freedom, compromise, sacrifice, choices in life, the role of religion in society today, social indifference, love and friendship, violence, faith or free will—all issues that transcend the gender border.”
Indeed, Beyond the Hills does touch on all these subjects, which is rather miraculous in itself, even for a film with a longish 155-minute running time, and the issues do have universal application. Nonetheless, unhappy consequences brought on by illegal abortion and manipulation in a community of female religious headed by a man reveal the kind of feminist agenda that can often be found more overtly in Iranian films, particularly those of Jafar Panahi. Mungiu explores his themes with a fair amount of subtlety, making room for individual intentions that tend to obscure the more global posturing of a feminist message. Unfortunately, by focusing on a 23-year-old woman outside the religious community—she is not observant and only goes through the motions of prayer and confession to please her friend—she becomes a completely unwilling victim. In addition, despite the many moments that feel true to life, in part because of Mungiu’s long takes that mimic the rhythms of real life, whether the film makes any kind of point largely depends upon the opinions of the audience. I have seen as many people view the film as a condemnation of superstition as think it is an exploitative exercise in violence against women. In my opinion, they’re both right.
The film opens in a train station, where Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) meets Alina (Cristina Flutur), her roommate at the orphanage where they both lived. People jostle her, and trains obscure Alina, who seems in danger of being hit by one in her rush to embrace Voichita. It becomes clear in Alina’s intense focus on Voichita as they travel to the primitive monastery where Voichita is a novice that the women were once romantically involved. Alina has made the trip from Germany, where she lives, to bring Voichita back with her. Alina has given up her apartment and job and secured work for them both on a German riverboat as waitresses. But Voichita has changed her mind. She tries to let Alina down easy, but the single-minded woman refuses to go without her. Then Alina falls ill with a lung infection and must be rushed to the hospital. Having missed the riverboat and with no home to return to, Alina is allowed to stay on at the monastery to recover after Voichita persuades a reluctant Father (Valeriu Andriuta) that she will make no problems for them.
Alas, Alina is troubled, possibly mentally ill, and becomes increasingly angry and disruptive. Eventually, Father and Mother (Dana Tapalaga) decide to “read” to Alina, and the rigors of an exorcism are filmed in excruciating, lengthy detail as the nuns craft a crude cross to which Alina is bound and gagged day and night, out of sight of the church congregants. The nuns carry her back and forth between an outbuilding and the church for the daily ritual, wash her when she soils herself, and deny her food and water to starve the demon that possesses her.
Mungiu provides a window into the opportunities for exploitation in Romanian society. The rapid growth of monasteries founded by self-styled sages like Father may be traced to the rebound of religious freedom in the country, but many of the acolytes come from orphanages that turn their residents out when they reach 18. Voichita found a comfortable home and purpose at her monastery, but for others, such as one of the sisters who is still in contact with her abusive husband, the monastic life is perhaps the only option they have. Alina’s retarded brother Ionut (Ionut Ghinea) has a job at a car wash where he is given no protective uniform to keep him warm and, significantly, no wages. He also becomes a member of the monastic community, his free labor and frigid cell perhaps a step down from the car wash.
The healthcare system seems to be the one bright spot in the country, and Alina receives adequate care there. Once back at the monastery, the nuns use her savings to pay for her medication, refuse her the rest she needs to recover, and eject her at one point to go live with her former foster parents. The couple have given away her room and stolen most of her savings, handing Mother back less than half of what she sent to them for safe keeping.
I had a lot of different reactions while watching this film. I felt for Voichita’s struggle between two conflicting allegiances, one to a life that fulfills her and the other to a relationship that helped her survive the orphanage but that she has outgrown. The nuns, though largely undifferentiated by the script, seem to be a cohesive unit struggling in a primitive compound without electricity or heating any more sophisticated than a fireplace, and in constant need of money. I didn’t particularly like Alina, and I felt the nuns, particularly Mother, were genuinely spiritual and believed they were trying to help her. Father struck me as prideful, striving to make the monastery successful, worrying about when or if the church will be consecrated, and anxious that Alina could drive their small congregation away. In proceeding alone with an exorcism that he himself said required two priests and manipulating Ionut into giving consent as Alina’s next of kin, I questioned his motives, if not those of his followers.
It is here that I started to feel queasy about the film. When winter arrives, it’s for real, and the visible breath of the actors shows just how cold it really is. Mungiu’s long takes necessitate long retakes if the actors flub any part of their performance; Mungiu reveals “we often shoot 20 or 30 takes and sometimes more.” I don’t wish to presume on the dedication of the entire film ensemble, but the harsh conditions of part of this shoot do give me pause about the level of pain and suffering a filmmaker—even an independent filmmaker of limited means—should be allowed to inflict. I might not have considered this question in the past—after all, Mungiu certainly isn’t the first director to demand so much from his cast and crew. But something about Father seems so like a projection of Mungiu’s personality, a believer in himself and his power justifying everyone’s faith and sacrifice.
Much is made of Alina making a full confession of her sins to Father, with the nuns reading off a list of nearly 500 sins she might have committed in a grimly humorous scene. It is not revealed what she tells Father, but her lesbian relationship might have been part of it, a part Voichita appears not to have confessed herself. Thus, Voichita can be seen as Alina’s undoer in some sense, just as Gabita exploited and injured Otilia in 4-3-2. Mungiu seems to take a dim view of close female friendships, with the most dire outcomes seeming to be the inevitable result of such closeness.
The film is beautiful to look at, the performances sophisticated and sincere, and the pacing fine for me, though perhaps too slow and deliberate for many. Beyond the Hills raises many important issues about relationships and religiosity, and Mungiu asserts that he is trying to be respectful of the characters by avoiding more voyeuristic shots (though watching Alina being chained to the cross does not seem particularly demure to me). However, by choosing such a sensational story and tacitly implicating modern society for its venal appetites and voyeurism, no matter how respectful Mungiu believes himself to be, we are drawn into the most cynical, and from my perspective, myopic conclusions.
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Director: Pablo Larraín
By Roderick Heath
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín made a name for himself a few years ago with the outré mission statement that was Tony Manero (2008), a vicious black comedy detailing life on the lowest level of Chilean society under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Larraín followed it up with the similarly dark Post Mortem (2010), and now concludes what could be called a loose trilogy of films about the most infamous chapter in his country’s existence with a study of the military dictator’s unexpected, purely politically enforced downfall. Larraín has changed tack from the punkish provocations of his debut (No is actually an adaptation by Pedro Peirano of a play by Antonio Skármeta), but his method and viewpoint in tackling Pinochet’s unseating retains a fascination for the unpredictable power of media imaging to fuel the fantasies of “ordinary” people and the perverse influence of those fantasies on reality. Whereas in Tony Manero Larraín investigated the culturally deadening nature of fascism through a degraded psychopath obsessed with disco glam, here his hero is a real person, albeit one who corrals fascinating contradictions: René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) has his cred in his name, as the son of exiled personage of the Allende years. René himself spent years in exile, too, schooled in the contemporary, first-world arts of advertising and media messaging, and has returned to his native country to work for the advertising agency run by Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), engaged in what is commonly dismissed as the shallowest and most brain-deadening, thought-clogging of arts.
René carries with him the sensibility of a different country’s youth culture, riding around on a skateboard, as if Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future (1985) hero has been dumped in the middle of a Costa-Gavras film, and conversing easily in an argot of branding, image-consciousness, and rapid-edit razzle-dazzle. Yet he also possesses the faintly battered, haunted spirit, the melancholy eyes and taciturn frustration that infuse almost everyone about him, the awareness of an oppressive reality enforced by everyday detail and intransigent memory. René is introduced giving a spiel to executives for the soft drink Free Cola that makes it sound like the commercial they’re about to see is some great seismic shift in the zeitgeist, when it’s actually a compendium of meaningless pop images built around that most essential embodiment of western licence and enthusiasm, the rock band, including, most irritatingly to one of the execs, a mime. But René is right, to a certain extent: his ad does portend the arrival of consumer culture in Chile, something the regime claims to have fostered with its economic competence and political stability, but which will turn on its master by demanding choice and brighter colours. As international pressure mounts on Pinochet, his regime announces a referendum for the public to decide whether or not it wants the General to continue his personal rule for several more years. Most opponents assume the election will be rigged or least made impossible to win, and indeed, the regime tries to ensure the No campaigners have as much difficulty getting their message out as humanly possible in spite of the legalisation of political advertising.
René is approached by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), a leading activist and opposition spokesman who knew René’s father, to give the first ads and strategies of the No campaign. These prove to be ads formed around that mantra of activism, “raising awareness,” trying to draw attention to the appalling number of dead, missing, and tortured under Pinochet’s regime, complete with tactics like ominous music and mournful mothers clutching photos of their dead or vanished sons. René initially turns down Urrutia’s request to supervise the campaign because of the lack of pay, tight deadline, irritation with the resigned attitude of the campaigners and their negative messaging that is likely to be suppressed quickly, and his own general ignorance of political specifics. But the niggling truth of his past and his percolating social conscience are soon given new solidity by his boss Guzmán’s pro-regime browbeating and veiled threats, and the sight of his ex, Verónica Carvajal (Antonia Zegers), being arrested along with coworkers in a raid by government goons. He works up what is at first a mere variation on his standard cola ads, and shows a rough cut assembled from other ads to give an idea of what he intends. Screening it to a collective of No campaign honchos, one stands up and upbraids René for belittling and hiding his and others’ pain and the horror that the regime has committed, barking epithets before stomping out. But others see what René is getting at, or at least sense that he knows what he’s talking about, and they commission him to make the all-important ads that will be squeezed into the allotted 15 minutes for the No program. René puts together a team from the agency who hold meetings and plan strategy under Guzmán’s nose, and shoot an ad to kick off the three-week campaign.
Larraín’s major stylistic choice, and coup, was to shoot No on a vintage ’80s video camera recovered from a rubbish dump, to keep the film’s mise-en-scène consistent with the news and television footage, including the real advertisements that doubtlessly burned themselves into the memories of Chileans who saw them. René skateboards through streets, or he and his No fellows discuss strategy on the beach, bathed in the blazing light and colour bleed familiar to anyone who worked with such cameras, this world reenvisioned as an artefact of its own technology. Such an approach, retrofitting the dramatic recreations of the movie to the period footage, is a reverse to more usual practice, though it does harken back to older films like The Longest Day (1962), which deliberately eschewed shooting in colour to interpolate documentary war footage. Larraín’s insistence on building his film around the original ads confirms his demand for specificity, not only because of the familiarity as mentioned above, but also because Larraín’s subject is not just the creation of iconic media moment, but that moment itself, its specific textures that encode their messages beyond the overt and immediate.
René forges ahead with his plan despite the uncertainty of other No campaigners, including his own aide, Fernando Arancibia (Néstor Cantillana), who wants to promote agitation. The process of shooting his centrepiece ad is depicted as a collage of seemingly random bits of business, which coalesce into a whole that’s equally random, except in its suggestion of an upcoming, entirely joyous event. René’s team even supplies the compulsory campaign anthem, except it’s not really an anthem, as René insists, but a jingle: plain and simple, catchy and easy to remember. The Yes campaign’s showpiece ads are, by contrast, terrifying in their staid, fatuous displays: glossy-faced blue-bloods singing operatic, patriotic songs and attempts to sell Pinochet as a hard-working manager in suits, not a uniform.
The nightly 15-minute slot for the No side has been chosen in the hope that “everyone will be sleeping,” as a bemusedly hopeful government minister, Fernández (Jaime Vadell), says to Guzmán. As an emblem for the campaign, René chooses from his designers’ options a rainbow, to suggest the accord between many political factions, which bemuses Fernández entirely: “Isn’t that for faggots?” The assumption that the opposition is a collective of communists and homosexuals is so endemic for the regime that its members literally can’t conceive of any other alternatives, a symptom of a sclerotic and self-involved administration. Larraín offers scenes of the regime’s senior bureaucrats and military overlords discussing their own strategies, believing they have all the aces by pushing their economic achievements. But René and team identify two groups with apparently completely divergent interests likely to abstain from voting: the nation’s youth, who despise the regime, and its elderly, who are frightened of change but even more frightened of the endemic poverty in the country. The team targets them specifically with different campaign strategies.
Larraín and Bernal adroitly chart the divide between René’s yuppie success story, working for a firm that’s almost a jewel in the regime’s crown for creating and sustaining the trappings of a modern economy, and his identity as a child of his time and place. The son of exiles, René is also the divorced single father of Simón (Pascal Montero), with an activist ex-wife who has a strong remnant affection for him, but holds him in not so subtle contempt for his affluent, apolitical security and shallow, disengaged occupation. “It’s a copy of a copy of a copy,” she drones amusedly as she considers his showpiece ad, a line he later repeats in a rant when Guzmán tries to imitate it. An air of exhausted fatalism has long since drowned Veronica’s romanticism of being young, bright, and full of zeal. René still has his zest, but he shares her weighted melancholy. René wants to reconnect with Veronica, but is stymied by her cynical, bleary distance, accentuated when she’s abused in custody and released with black eyes; later, René disappointedly finds she’s shacking up with a new guy. Meanwhile, his home’s security is violated as Fernández, lobbied by Guzmán to take action against his wayward employees, sends out his goons: they enter René’s house in the night and paint vicious slogans on his windows.
There’s a certain Spielbergian flavour to the way the narrative boils down to a father’s desire to protect his son and reunite his family, but also win something on their behalf in the context of a broad social drama, both participant and prisoner of upheaval and grand drama. However, in method and tone, Larraín aims closer to the likes of Haskell Wexler’s seminal docudrama Medium Cool (1969), especially in the film’s later stages, as news footage and staged scenes combine to recreate the violence unleashed on the No campaigners on the day of the plebiscite. Larraín doesn’t entirely succeed in meshing his various tones: the deadpan earnestness of René’s private life doesn’t feel as vital or urgent, and certainly not as gripping in its withering humour, as the rest of the film, nor does Larraín have the emotional fulsomeness of Spielberg or the livewire tone of Wexler or Godard. It would be easy to describe No as a sort of sarcastic triumphalist tale where retro commercial kitsch helps bring down a powerful evil, much like the cheap exploitation of that theme in Ben Affleck’s smooth and smarmy Argo (2012), where Hollywood bluster helps leaven a small good in the midst of geopolitical crisis.
Larraín is much slyer in his wit, more exacting in his sense of milieu, and more cogently ironic in his investigation of the uneasy discourse between popular media imagery and politics than Affleck would be if he lived to be a million. Larraín is hip to the faint ring of sarcasm in the original campaign, its playful, yet passive-aggressive refusal to treat the toppling of murderous dictators as a grim business, or buy into the Yes side’s game of political name-calling and fear-mongering. René and Guzmán argue incessantly and bitchily as they’re drawn into direct opposition, although Guzmán tries to keep the regime’s decision to make René their guru quiet, but still keep up their pretences in their daily labours, shooting ads for kitchenware and overseeing a marketing campaign for a popular soap opera, “Hair Salon Love.” René orchestrates a publicity stunt designed to infiltrate the evening news in which the soap’s male star lands by helicopter on a skyscraper roof, greeted by the show’s bevy of female beauties. This aside seems at first like a device to highlight the silliness of René and Guzmán’s profession at its lowest, but as the film circles back to this vignette in the stinging coda, the soap’s panoply of femmes being romanced by a debonair suitor mockingly reflects the new political paradigm of nascent democracy, a series of artfully constructed seductions, where the soap star’s silver-haired Latin charm turns the paternalist patronage of Pinochet’s regime into a pop culture canard, a grinning, aged lothario trying to chat up an assortment of affluent and picky, yet superficially flirtatious doñas.
Larraín builds anticipation and tension in leading up to the No campaign’s kick-off, in the desire to see how René’s seemingly silly and incoherent assemblage of ideas come together. The particular genius of Larraín’s employment of the original ads comes out in the way they’re linked in essayistic clarity, the war of messages allowed to play out so the movie audience can absorb them as artefacts that, as Marshall McLuhan asserted, prove how much their encapsulation of the medium is itself the message. René’s ads are occasionally corny and provoke howls of recognition for the dated branding style, and yet the technical competence, the slickness and professional intelligence behind them shine through, as well as the genuineness of their enthusiasm and the openness of their messaging. Just as Larraín used the siren call and fetishization of American pop-culture imagery in Tony Manero to reflect the cultural debasement of life in a dictatorship, here he directly counterpoints the flashiness of René’s product with the increasing desperation, derivativeness, and sloppiness of the regime’s ripostes. In René’s showpiece ad, the signature rainbow flag is passed on by horse riders like an Olympic torch, picnicking families celebrate peace and freedom by consuming culturally specious baguettes because they’re more photogenic, randomly excited dancers appear like they’ve dropped in from Footloose (1984), and those bloody mimes sneak in for another go around, presumably because René saw them in a David Bowie video or something. But all accumulate into a memorable panoply of images that spell “liberation” as insistently as the name of Free Cola flashes on the screen in the earlier ad without needing the literal words.
René’s plan, no matter his motives and lacks in conceiving it, works brilliantly: by removing content from his ads and replacing it with ephemeral promise and good humour, he leaves the regime’s advertising looking, ironically, all the more hollow for trying to infer villainy behind the No side’s deliberately fostered party atmosphere, which takes its cues from René’s approach but soon infuses their street rallies. Guzmán looks increasingly like an asshole—and the regime with him—as he tries to break the spell of René’s ads, but only seems to make them all the more alluring in their class and pep. In an ad that makes the infamous “Daisy” spot for Lyndon Johnson look subtle, the regime offers an ad with a steamroller threatening a toddler, inferring disaster, whilst another ad tries incompetently to satirise the upbeat tone of the No ads by depicting terrorists behind the scenes preparing anarchy and terror. But perhaps the most telling comparison comes through one of René’s joke-based ads, depicting a man and woman in bed, the woman resisting the man’s implorations with murmured “nos” until the man finally gives in and cries, “Alright then, No!” It’s a little gem of advertiser’s art, combining an exceedingly simple joke with an impudent, Yippielike tone, the basic advertising truism that sex sells, perfect and succinct on-brand messaging, and also deeper echoes to the Lysistrata myth, a play on the anxiety of discord in the nation played as bedroom agony. Guzman tries to counter it with a version where it’s the woman who finally says “Yes,” and a voiceover prods the audience as to which ending they like better. The lack of imagination, humour, originality, the crass appeal to machismo, the lack of inner sense or autonomy in the regime’s sensibility, all are laid bare cruelly. “This will be remembered as the campaign where the bosses worked for the regime and the workers for the opposition!” René warns Guzmán, and the results become all too amusingly obvious.
But the harsh reality momentarily held in check by the war of gags and memes isn’t elided, as the No rally on voting day is attacked by police and dispersed with flagrant violence. Even the carnival atmosphere René and others have strived to create is not sufficient to ward off the vindictive brutality of a self-righteous, threatened junta. Veronica is beaten again and arrested by police, and Guzmán proves his essential loyalty to René in spite of all – and perhaps tries to protect his ass from reprisals if and when Pinochet falls – by using his regime friends to get her released. René now switches from orchestrator to bewildered bystander, a man who’s helped unleash forces, truths, and passions beyond what he’s allowed himself to countenance, as even his defanged version of opposition is ripe for pummelling. But the winds of change slowly make themselves apparent as the No campaign scores a crushing victory, at first denied by the state-run announcements but finally admitted as it becomes clear Pinochet’s military cabal won’t resist the tide of opinion, one that’s overcome all obstacles.
René drifts in mute confusion as the moment of victory comes, suddenly not one of the animators but one of the paradoxically liberated and lost beneficiaries. Where Guzmán and other regime allies had promised punishment once the vote was stitched up, instead Guzmán introduces René with smug confidence to clients as the successful designer of the No campaign, before unveiling the company’s latest achievement, the soap opera’s news spot. Larraín closes on René’s uncomfortable expression after he offers a repeat of his opening folderol, a sharp and mordant punchline that reminds us that all great causes, once concluded, leave us stranded in the banality of the everyday and the mercenary. For René, that’s even truer, facing a return to life pretending that selling cola is as important an endeavour as changing regimes.
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Director: Tomás Lunák
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“Railway tracks can take you places: to Lisbon or to Auschwitz, to your own past or even to your doubts, the traces of what your parents, friends, and enemies have left behind.”
The psychic landscape of individual and collective memory infuses writer Jaroslav Rudiš and illustrator Jaromír 99’s graphic novel trilogy Alois Nebel (Bílý Potok [White Brook] 2003), Hlavní Nádraží [Central Station] 2004) and Zlaté Hory [Golden Hills] 2004). Each book is named for a Czech railway station and based on stories about Rudiš’s grandfather Alois, who was a railway worker. The popularity of the trilogy was a surprise to its creators. Even more surprising was the proposal to turn it into a film and its eventual choice as the Czech Republic’s official entry for Best Foreign-Language Film in the 84th Academy Awards race. Leave it to the Czechs to recognize the worth of a rotoscope-animated film that leaves most of the Oscar contenders and winners in the dust.
Armed with little more than a teaser description, a single image from the film, and an enthusiastic love for Czech cinema, I paid my money and opened myself up to an enveloping experience of peculiarly quiet intensity. Alois Nebel is, appropriately, image-driven, with little dialogue and a subtly communicated plot. Its central character, Alois Nebel, works at the Bílý Potok train station in the Jeseníky mountains of what was once the German Sudetenland, and it is his memories from 1945, when Germans were expelled from the region, that provide the key to the drama underlying the film’s events.
The film begins in 1989, before the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and Czechoslovakia. A voiceover repeats names of train stations and arrival times repeatedly. A man on the run, carrying an ax crosses the guarded border and darts into the trees. As the pursuit of the man ends with him killing a dog sent to track him down, a more down-to-earth scene follows at the Bílý Potok train station. Alois (Miroslav Krobot) emerges from the station house and pours some milk into a bowl for his cat. “Where were you last night?” he asks, as the cat laps at the milk. His coworker Wachek (Leos Noha) is a crude loudmouth who keeps an eye on Alois, lest he interfere with the black market transactions he and his father (Alois Svehlík) use to keep the old man’s trailer park business afloat. The uncommunicative Alois pays little mind to Wachek, however. He goes about his business, having dinner and a beer at the local pub, and reading the timetables to relax a troubled mind that sometimes drifts into a frightening fog.
One evening, Alois’ vision of the deportation of a German woman (Tereza Vorísková) who used to care for him after his mother died emerges from a fog. The disturbing vision turns into a fuller memory of her rough treatment during the deportation, one that sends Alois over the edge. Wachek finds him sitting in the john, refusing to emerge, and Alois is taken to a mental hospital for a time. There he meets the man on the run, the mute (Karel Roden) Alois calls him, who was picked up outside the Bílý Potok train station in front of Alois. When Alois is released, he finds his old job and living quarters have been given to someone else, and goes to Prague to get his job situation sorted out. He sleeps in the train depot with other unemployed railway workers until the bathroom attendant, Kveta (Marie Ludvíková), takes a shine to him and sees to his needs. The end of the Soviet bloc proves the end of Kveta and Alois’ courtship as well. When next we catch up with Alois, he has grown a beard and is posted to a remote station deep in the mountains. He reencounters the mute, and pieces of his past fall into place as the mute finally speaks and declares his intentions.
The choice to use rotoscope animation was a compromise between the wishes of the graphic-novel creators to maintain the look and feel of the books and director Lunák’s cinematic approach. Not a fan of the rotoscoping of Ralph Bakshi, I was prepared to feel underwhelmed by its use in Alois Nebel. The film would have worked as a traditional feature film, with the performances underlying the illustrations still boldly in evidence. Yet, the black-and-white animation emphasizes the grave, colorless world Alois inhabits, the joylessness of everything from liberation from the Soviets to an abortive love affair. Alois’ offering of carnations to Kveta could have popped with some color, but the answer to her question, “How did you know I like carnations?” is a truthful “I didn’t,” thus bleaching the moment of some of its romantic potential.
A horror-movie atmosphere pervades the mental hospital sequence, with prolonged and graphic depictions of electroshock therapy the equal of any dripping nightmare from Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Indeed, there are many elements of this film that are reminiscent of that horror movie, from recovered memories to crazed vengeance and ever-present water. The use of trains approaching us head-on from out of the screen is a familiar, even clichéd image, but one that is turned on its head as having nothing to do with Jewish deportation, but rather, German expulsion.
All of the actors are riveting, no matter how small their roles. Svehlík is a bilious old Nazi sympathizer who constantly fiddles with his old service revolver and keeps his greasy son on a short leash. I took note of the only time in the film when the younger Wachek smiled—a toothy grin for a larcenous Soviet official who was clearing out of the country. Roden’s periodic appearances in the film are perfectly timed to forward the central plot with the patience his character had to endure to realize his goal.
Yet, it is with a slow rhythm and the enigmatic magnetism of Alois that Krobot ensnares us. In an age when audiences, particularly American audiences, are drown with too-revealing dialogue, even fed entire plots in movie trailers, Krobot’s reticence and and Lunák’s very sparing use of flashback maintain a mystery that is intriguing to follow. Krobot fends off the cinematic voyeur, reacting more than revealing, accepting without being submissive, creating an indelible character who has witnessed much and learned to channel his distress with the routine of his timetables. How one gets so much from a monochrome line drawing of the man speaks to the skill of the actor, director, and animator.
Bílý Potok is the wettest place in the Czech Republic, and the film makes great use of a torrential rainstorm to bring its story to a dark and inevitable climax. Rushing water cascading through the mountainous terrain seems as ready to sweep away Alois’ future as it does his past. When the film draws to a close, people are where they should be, with the trains back on schedule and the past finally put to rest.
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Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
By Roderick Heath
Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have begun to feel like events, in part because of his relatively sparse and considered output, reflecting artisanal personality and integrity of purpose over his body of work. Even when his films seem so large and encompassing that anything else might seem like a grace note, he manages to contemplate their lacks and feel his way through to new ground. Free of swerves into lucrative franchise outings or one-off experiments, Anderson has the rare mystique of a major American film artist and the truest inheritor of the mantle from progenitors like Scorsese, Kubrick, Malick, and Altman. Anderson’s cinematic argot is highly sophisticated and increasingly less mannered in its debts. But what’s most intriguing about his oeuvre is how literary it’s starting to seem. Anderson seems well aware and engaged with the thematic trove of modern American writing and even contributes to it in his own way, but with a natural filmmaker’s understanding of the medium, ready and willing to translate his concerns into a vital play of images.
Whereas his first three films, Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999), felt to a great extent like imaginative adaptations of short stories or collections, he moved into a more novelistic territory with the woozy absurdism of Punch-Drunk Love (2002), before his first actual, if very loose, adaptation, There Will Be Blood (2007), based on Upton Sinclair, a fact in itself suggestive of Anderson’s wider range of interest in the American canon than expected. His latest, The Master, though an original work, also feels like a transformed version of some forgotten mid-century classic. Anderson’s themes are consistent, even as, like a jeweller, he turns them over to regard the glint and flaws of each facet.
His most consistent theme has the mentor-pupil relationship with a father-son feeling apparent, if not always actual. The relationship is usually depicted in the midst of a kind of inorganic family that offers shelter to misfits and outsiders, with the mentor figure often revealed as deeply flawed, and the pupil often malformed, volatile, inarticulate, even dim, whilst feeling their way through to new maturity. In Hard Eight, the flawed mentor-father dominated as tragic antihero; in Boogie Nights, he was part of a gallery. In Magnolia, Anderson made a son, rather than a father a wielder of strange, almost cultish power and wisdom. In There Will Be Blood, the relationship was complicated by the splitting of the pupil figure into a surrogate son and a doppelganger rival, and the mentor stripped of positive patriarchal qualities. Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s only foray into comedy proper of an uneasy brand (though, like Kubrick, all his films have a comedic or absurdist undertone), interestingly turned the relationship into a romantic one, turning his impishly malformed misfit into a “hero.”
Anderson also has a fascination for the peculiar subcultures of American life that throw up bodies of lore straining to become self-perpetuating codes, reinventions of traditional systems of religion and philosophy straining to become ahistorical in their purity, be it the male-dominant flimflam of Frank T. J. Mackey in Magnolia, the reductive capitalist thought of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, the gambling techniques in Hard Eight, or the porno-therapeutic jive of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights. Such world views nonetheless are evolved to help the characters survive in a world that often seems pointless, arbitrary, and assailing. Even the eventual climax to Plainview’s weltanschaung—murder—maintained a predatory, rather than nihilistic, understanding of existence. Perhaps inevitably, The Master moves closer to contending with this specific theme in one of its archest possible manifestations.
The real-life model for The Master’s unctuous titular guru is L. Ron Hubbard, but like Charles Foster Kane, another deliberately fashioned icon of modern American hubris, he could be composed of a thousand similar figures, from Charles Atlas to Anthony Robbins, ever to flog an easy path to fulfilment and understanding with a charisma-oozing grin. But “The Master,” Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is not so much focus as catalyst and momentary object of study, watched by Anderson through Freddie’s (Joaquin Phoenix) eyes. Freddie is the pivotal figure of this tale, imbued, like many everyman protagonists found in the kind of pulp sci-fi Hubbard used to write, with mysterious and inchoate powers he himself doesn’t understand. Much like the gormless blankness John (John C. Reilly) in Hard Eight gave mentor Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) to write the fine arts of gambling on and Dirk’s massive phallus in Boogie Nights provided Jack Horner’s nascent industry with its essential product, Freddie offers to Dodd the perfect mirror-opposite to work his craft on.
In the early scenes of The Master, Freddie is in the U.S. Navy as the war in the Pacific is winding down, a portrait in perversity that begs the question whether the war has damaged him deeply or merely exacerbated his strangeness and alienation. Glimpsed on the beaches of beatific Pacific isles, like the devolved beast-men left behind by the dreamy Rousseauian warriors of Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1997), Freddie and his fellow sailors drink, wrestling like hairless apes in the surf, and fantasize about sex. One is glimpsed jerking off with jism dripping in the ocean. Freddie, without quite the same operating governor between his desires and his circumstances as a “normal” person, tries to overcome lack with substitution. He brews moonshine liquor and molds a woman out of sand with which to have sex, his strange, fumbling play-act exemplifying strange and inadequate sexuality.
The next we see of Freddie, he’s being released from a VA hospital after being given a pep talk. Most films to deal with the veteran experience deal with trauma in its least subtle forms. The Master avoids any overt statement about what happened to land Freddie in the hospital, but it’s clear that in returning from the war he’s less than a complete and functional human being. Nonetheless, he lands a job in a department store as a photographer, taking lush snapshots that preserve the glossy familial pretences of the age in visual amber. Surrounded by the paraphernalia of postwar domesticity and aspiration, Freddie watches a floor model, Martha (Amy Ferguson), clad in a fur coat strutting around the store, a vision of desirability in the midst of retail paradise. As in The Hurt Locker (2008) and some other recent variations on the classic war drama, there’s an overtone here of satire in positing a consumer society panoply as the absurd counterpoint to the war-damaged human’s perspective, but with an added, subtler edge in evoking sensuality as well, and the basic human drives towards the paraphernalia of success and stability—illusory to a large extent, as revealed when Freddie manages to get the model into his darkroom. There she protests she’s a good girl but lets him fondle her underwear whilst drinking his rotgut: there are also the drives for quick flings, easy sex, numbing intoxicants, and everything else that buys off time. Freddie falls asleep when out on a date with her, a humiliation that seems, in part, to make him lose his cool with a photographic subject, degenerating into battle in the aisles as a doughy businessman tries to clobber the scrambling, skinny retread. Freddie is next revealed to have sunk into the day-labouring class, picking vegetables in Salinas. He has to flee when his moonshine poisons one of his fellow workers. This is Freddie’s nadir: he’s glimpsed loping by moonlight across the fields in frantic flight, moving very quickly and yet, of course, not seeming to get anywhere.
After wandering for who knows how long, he drunkenly takes refuge on a boat where Dodd is attending a party that sails languorously out to sea. As much as There Will Be Blood was obsessed with the earth and associated imagery of oil, blood, digging, and fire, The Master is a film obsessed, visually and thematically, with water and voyaging, filled with hints of mythopoeic meaning vibrating under its occasionally obscure textures, allusions to The Odyssey, Moby-Dick and the canon of nautical lore recorded in shanties and folk-poems. One core scene finds Dodd singing “Maid of Amsterdam (I’ll Go No More A-Roving),” possibly also a reference to John Huston’s film of Melville’s tome, where the song features prominently. Freddie, like Odysseus, is a voyager who’s been stranded by war far away from his love, whilst the sailor’s pledge to return to a girl echoes a thousand folk songs. Freddie’s semi-accidental embarkation with Dodd proves a turning point, a voyage of discovery where the navigator doesn’t have a map and the sailor is a loon. Anderson returns repeatedly to the image of a ship’s boiling wake cutting through a sea of rapturous blue, and the question boils up as to whether Freddie wants a homecoming or to recapture the freedom of a sailor. A common conflation in classical mythology sees the sea as feminine, maternal life-giving in unity, and there are hints throughout the film of such a conflation, complete with oedipal overtones in the image of the sailor masturbating over the waves, whilst Freddie’s female love icon is sculptured from the seaside sand.
Conceptually speaking, The Master seems smaller than Anderson’s maximalist efforts (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood) with its focus on another oddball subculture and a deeply ironic kind of male love story, but actually it represents a waypoint between the breadth of cultural focus in those films and the intimate, queasy situation comedy of Punch-Drunk Love. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s superlative cinematography, a love letter to the forcibly outmoded yet still unsurpassed expressivity of 70mm, ironically focuses for much of the film on faces and bodies in close communication rather than David Lean-esque expanses or the widescreen catechism of There Will Be Blood. But it consistently utilises the format’s crisp, exacting textures to supercharge the film’s visuals with a quality that’s often hyperreal, rarely departing from the naturalistic, and yet poised constantly on the edge of the abstract and the hallucinogenic: household curtains waver with fiery substance, ocean waves glitter like a sea of jewels, suburban homes hover in reticent tranquillity in the daylight. In the very first shot, Freddie, under his navy helmet appears only as wounded eyes and sun-weathered skin between hunks of military metal; much later, Freddie’s face is glimpsed abutting his sand-sculptured female breasts, as if composed of the same billion-fold fragments and longing to merge. When Dodd’s yacht sails out from San Francisco, its decks are aglow with light and the careless vivacity of the rich and victorious, sailing out under the Golden Gate Bridge with the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the twilight.
The first encounter between a pie-eyed Freddie and Dodd is not shown, but rather recounted when Freddie awakens aboard Dodd’s yacht, and the erstwhile guru wants more of the alluringly wicked concoction Freddie fed him: what’s poison for others is mother’s milk for Dodd, naturally, as both men turn potentially noxious ingredients into something invigorating and enjoyably unhealthy. Dodd’s loosely defined pseudo-scientific-therapeutic organisation, dubbed The Movement and built around a weighty tome of Dodd’s, utilises principles of psychoanalysis and cognitive therapy, but it rejects the purely psychological. Like Scientology, it is based in a mythology of residual spirits of ancient aliens that torment humans into irrational behaviour and pain, and the possibility that empirical reality is actually an elaborately constructed cover story for an infinitely stranger universe. Dodd’s cunningly built system releases individuals of angst that their own failings are responsible for their predicaments whilst still offering the hope of programmatic steps towards catharsis. Realities within realities seem an apt field for Dodd to dabble in as they seem to define his life, however, as the question as to what degree he’s in charge of his own mythmaking enterprise arises. His wife Peggy (Amy Adams) seems to control and direct his ambitions, and tries to ward off Freddie, thinking that one day he might prove a bigger liability than asset for their little enclave. Dodd’s inner circle is, in essence, a family: he’s just married his daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) to clean-cut but ethnically ambiguous Clark (Rami Malek) and crows about how his teachings have transformed the institution of marriage.
Dodd leads Freddie into an extended session of pseudo-therapeutic analysis where he manages to extract certain apparently salient facts about Freddie, including that he once slept with his aunt (“I was drunk and she looked good!”). Or is Freddie lying? Dodd seems immediately and deeply fascinated by Freddie as his damaged alter-ego and test subject. Freddie is the ideal object of Dodd’s dabbling, not just because Freddie’s troubles present a challenge to his methods, but because Freddie’s tics and traumas are so close to the surface that anything Dodd throws at him seems elevated to the level of profundity purely because it’s so easy to get a powerful reaction from Freddie, no matter if his technique is happenstance, inefficacious, or just plain improvised quackery. If Freddie was couched as the narrative voice of a novel, it would probably come across like one of Faulkner’s stranger, most impenetrably hazy and impressionistic voices, a few steps above The Sound and the Fury’s Benjy, full of crude epiphanies and strange segues from the immediate into the surreally earthy.
In a lengthy, vital sequence, Dodd subjects Freddie to an exercise, before an audience of awed followers waiting for great revelations, which sends him walking from wall to wall in a large room and describing what he touches. This seems to push Freddie away from reality, even as his hunger for tactile expression comes out, kissing glass and seeming almost to transform substance with his will. But eventually he is reduced to faking when he’s kept performing the exercise after all the observers, including Dodd, have gone to lunch, making the noises of his motions and crying out whatever new imaginary texture enters his head, again raising the possibility he’s wilfully fulfilling Dodd’s needs so his own will be met. Anderson presents this scene intercut with another exercise, in which Freddie and Clark, who may know that his wife has made passes at Freddie or at least fears Freddie has designs on her are instructed by Dodd to exchange withering assessments of each other without reacting.
This sequence is realised in one of Anderson’s signature touches, a rhythmic, extended, usually cross-cut montage that encapsulates an interlude of behaviour that seems to be reaching an apogee whilst actually finally breaking down. Moreover, what’s fascinating about Dodd’s “therapies” is their intensity as interpersonal games of show and tell, encouraging his subjects to unveil themselves and lock themselves in with arbitrary rules that strip them of power. Freddie’s reasons for playing along with such flimflam are never spelt out, but they’re still fairly obvious: like so many Anderson characters, he’s happy to be absorbed into a circle that makes him seem special in an otherwise contemptuous world where he can barely survive. As an Anderson character, he’s a blend of the director’s early, slightly dim seekers and the tormented, incoherent lost men on the periphery. At the same time, Freddie feels and looks like an exactly observed type, those men who exist at the periphery of life, with a distorted aspect that makes them look crippled even when there’s nothing greatly wrong with them.
Freddie confronts and attacks those who dare to criticise or interrogate Dodd, but Freddie himself reveals in a distraught jailhouse interlude that he knows Dodd’s verbiage is bullshit. He’s more like some roaming ronin desperate for an overlord who’ll give him a place in his castle, a patch of livery, and something to fight for, no matter how nebulous and suspect. Freddie becomes, thus, one of those figures usually caricatured in narratives, a goon protecting The Master from dissent. Dodd’s own encounters with such voices provoke an amusing/alarming explosiveness on his part, as when he’s grilled by John More (Christopher Evan Welch), an enquiring mind who’s concerned that Dodd’s claims to able to cure diseases like leukaemia might result in actual patients taking refuge in his quackery. Dodd blurts, “If you already know the answers to you questions, then why ask, pig-fuck?!” Freddie takes matters into his own hands and visits More to give him a hiding. Even when Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) assures Freddie that his father makes it all up as he goes, Freddie starts to get rough with him, too, though Freddie later suggests he knows Val is speaking the truth.
In addition to Freddie’s ill-judged liaison with his aunt, his past reveals he had wanderlust even before the war, when he left his impossibly innocent 15-year-old amour Doris Solstad (Madisen Beaty) to go sailing and never returned to her. The Freddie glimpsed in flashback is altogether a more vital person, quiet rather than asocial, romantic, skinny, and odd but not the gnarled wretch of the present. Now Freddie’s pervasively erotic imagination, which interprets every Rorschach blot held up before him by a doctor (Mike Howard) at the VA hospital in an obscene manner, seems fundamentally at odds with such sweetness and innocence, as though Freddie’s actually been locked in a frieze, taking solace in his imaginings of boundless sensual indulgence. Like the dirty boy in class, he hands around notes that read “Do you want to fuck?” to attractive Movement females whilst they’re listening to Dodd make recorded pronouncements like “You are not ruled by your emotions.” Freddie comes across by comparison like a realised portion of the id, a Marx Brother without the cheeky humour but all the perverse, incidental energy. Phoenix, wizened by comparison since his impersonation of Johnny Cash, his cleft palate scar often unflatteringly emphasised in the intimate force of Malaimare’s photography, elaborates Freddie’s simian quality with his over-large clothes and wounded sneer.
Whilst much of The Master feels somehow on the edge of detachment from reality with its cryptic elisions and occasional, almost dreamy discursions (like its voyaging scenes), it dips into an outright hallucination only once, during a party for The Movement where Dodd regales his adherents with the above-mentioned sea shanty. The scene commences normally, but as Freddie’s viewpoint is established, suddenly all the women in the room are naked, including the pregnant Peggy and the elderly musicians, as Dodd cavorts and croons, with his charisma and fatuous self-delight laid as bare as the female flesh, Freddie, true to form, conceiving Dodd’s power in sexual terms and delighting in the thought of this kind of power. Being a guru is the ticket to major pussy, of course, but Freddie also comes to perceive the erotic power The Master has on more levels than the immediately sexual, his capacity to seduce and intrude on the mind. That Freddie’s imagining is all too accurate is confirmed in the next scene as Peggy malevolently jerks off a hung-over Dodd whilst warning him that if he does want to pursue extramarital tail, to make sure it’s no one she knows, a pretence of giving her husband freedom whilst actually tightening her leash. It’s a reversal of Dodd’s way of keeping Freddie leashed in his therapeutic exercises.
Whereas in There Will Be Blood, an old-fashioned, hellfire religion gave counterpoint to vindictive entrepreneur triumphalism, here New Age pseudoscience takes its place as both religion and business, a fusion of the two impulses in modern American life to provide an underlying mythology for some general, free-floating emotional truths of the post-War era: that for many, reality feels false, alienated from their own emotions, stirring hunger for both assurance and also, contradictorily, for new paradigms. Dodd’s style of thought aims to fulfil both desires. “Man is not an animal,” Dodd intones, rejecting the inescapable earthiness and pragmatism of Darwinian science even whilst seeming to maintain a rationalist perspective. “We are not a part of the animal kingdom. We sit far above that crown, perched as spirits, not beasts.” Such a statement opposes the animalistic behaviour of the monkey-like sailors on the beach at the beginning, rude, crude homo sapiens unfettered. The counterculture of the ’60s is anticipated by The Movement, but tellingly without its polymorphic energy and anti-institutionalism; this is ’50s neo-religion as totalitarian Cold War manifestation even whilst offering the pretence of liberation. Dodd has the stagecraft his profession demands—most beautifully observed are his smarmy dollops of purposefully anti-pompous humour as wind-ups for his entirely pompous persona and message, delivered with self-satirising smiles—and even seems to believe in it, in his way, as when he has Freddie accompany him to unearth his second, supposedly revelatory and revolutionary second tome for The Movement, which he’s buried in the desert to keep secret until the time is right.
The inversion of the power relationship between Dodd, who presents the wise and dramatic visage of The Movement to the world, and Peggy, who plays Little League Lady Macbeth, could be trite, but Anderson, as elsewhere, refuses to give simplistic explanations. He identifies Peggy’s capacity to channel will and drive, and a seemingly sociopathic need for exclusivity and control, one who can weep with real offence when someone challenges her and her husband’s works, giving her all the reason she needs to pitch her head in Elizabethan resolve and airily ward off detractors. Her and Dodd’s relationship is a folie a deux where they mirror each other’s lacks, but this makes them capable of building a force out of unruly and facetious talent for bullshit and the ability to sell it. The Movement, seemingly prosperous, actually leeches off the prosperity of others like a spiritual gigolo, as Dodd and company set up in the house of a Midwestern duchess, Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), and Dodd gets himself in legal trouble over the donated estate of one adherent.
The Master has some intriguing similarities to Cronenberg’s adaptation of Hampton’s A Dangerous Method (2011), about the far more effectual, but often no less happenstance and cultish world of early Freudian psychiatry, with Freddie and Dodd’s relationship echoing that of Freud and his misfired protégé, the outré Otto Gross. Perhaps the linking theme is a peculiar tendency in powerful and influential characters to seek out persons who fascinate them through peculiar, antipathetic qualities, as well as assimilate the potential of such alternate viewpoints. Peggy wants to get rid of Freddie, not just because he could embarrass them with his strange and unpredictable temperament, but precisely because he represents the threat of the unpredictable: in his pathos and neediness lies the threat of its opposite, an unruly scepticism inimical to the petty authoritarianism of cult. Indeed, as Freddie begins to emerge from the eye of his personal crisis, he begins to display just such a character: he does not so much reject The Movement as suddenly not to need it anymore.
By The Master’s final act, Freddie does seem to be healing, newly calm and centred in his physical presence, armed with an increasingly dry and mordant sense of humour, and able to face the past. He returns to speak to Doris’ mother (Lena Endre) and learns Doris is now married, and Freddie can let her go with grace and perspective. Whereas in the earlier scenes, Dodd’s therapies contrived to keep Freddie netted, a scene laced with symbolic import sees Dodd take his close kin and protégé out to White Sands and take a motorcycle across the flats to feel the exhilaration of limitless space and speed—except that Dodd prescribes unconscious limitations, versions of the walls from the earlier exercise, which Freddie thoughtlessly, gleefully ruptures, ignoring or not hearing Dodd’s calls to stop and venturing so far away that the rest of the party have to trek into the dusk to find him. The next we see of him, he’s returned to the Solstad’s place on the other side of the country. Freddie has escaped, or least absented himself from The Movement, but Dodd is unnervingly able to locate him in a movie theatre by phone, begging him to come to England where he’s founding a chapter of The Movement. On arrival, however, Freddie is essentially given an ultimatum by Peggy to commit himself again to The Movement: “This is something you do for a billion years, or not at all.”
So Freddie chooses not at all, but not without a tear. Dodd’s final show of almost unctuous, discomforting vulnerability and neediness, as he sings “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China” to Freddie, while ensconced behind a massive desk before a grandiose window that bespeaks the oncoming rise of The Movement to a new level of institutional import. Meanwhile Freddie, like Anderson, has evolved a way of summing up truths in laconic and impudent gags; when The Movement’s British receptionist asks Freddie if he’s been travelling, he answers “How else do you get somewhere?” Freddie, born to be an exile, finally gets at least one thing he’s been after, picking up an English nurse, with both a deliberately anticlimactic joke in the suggestion that all he really needed was to get laid, but also that his journey to the point where he could was a complex and maddening one. Freddie reveals he’s learnt a thing or two from The Master, as he walks the lady through some of the exercises Dodd put him through, except Freddie is being satiric and self-aware, mocking Dodd’s method of power and seduction whilst also using them. “If you figure out a way to live without a master,” Dodd implores Freddie, “any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” It seems like an urgent request coming from Dodd’s mouth, though it’s really another of his self-enclosed sophistries. Freddie is not born to be either another master or a follower; he’s something else again, even if it’s just a wanderer.
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Director/Screenwriter: Miguel Gomes
By Roderick Heath
Tabu commences with a peculiar, droll vignette that refers to the days of Europe’s exploratory excursions into Africa. An adventurer in compulsory pith helmet treads forth into the wilds with native guides and porters, beating paths through the grass and leading columns through jungle and savannah as the image of the valiant penetrator of the unknown, armed with the nominal presence of the King, in the form of an empowering letter of proxy authority, as well as God, in his Bible. The explorer is, in spite of his noble mission, depressed and listless, driven on less by imperial ambition than by heartache. He’s pursued by the wraith, or fond hallucination, of his deceased wife, who blankly hovers over him when he rests and describes him as “poor and lost soul” when he decides to die if he can’t escape his heart’s pain. So the explorer walks into a river and is devoured by a crocodile, whilst his bearers dance in celebratory fashion; later, the legend of a ghostly woman with a crocodile at her feet haunting the region arises. This anecdote seems to have nothing to do with what follows except that it shares all its common themes: the troubled relationship between Europe and Africa, the sense of lovelorn melancholy, the immediacy of life and death and the strange way these phenomena commingle in the human soul, and the symbol of the crocodile, the glowering, toothy beast that becomes emblem for the latent animal passion in humankind, constantly at odds with its self-imposed attempts to cage it.
Tabu’s second movement leaps to contemporary Portugal, a fatigued, dully modern place where life is literally compartmentalised, squared off in safe bubbles of vacuously comfortable apartment living. Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a 50ish woman who works with activist groups and occasionally provides lodgings for backpackers. She goes to the airport to meet a new lodger, a Polish girl named Maya who’s been travelling in South America. But a young traveller, who has a stilted conversation with Pilar in English, their common language, tells her that Maya decided to change her itinerary and hasn’t come. The young woman, of course, is actually Maya, a fact revealed with ruthless mirth as her companions shout her name to make her hurry up even as she’s still smiling politely at Pilar, who has decided to stick with younger friends. Pilar is devoutly religious and conscientious, taking refuge in providing solace and aid to others, but also excruciatingly lonely and frustrated. She sees movies and goes on adventures sometimes with a portly artist, who has a crush on her and makes an aborted attempt at a declaration of love, but Pilar secretly dislikes his abstract paintings and only hangs up the ones he’s given to her when he comes to her place.
On New Year’s Eve, Pilar watches fireworks from her balcony and listens to the sounds of distant parties. She is friends with a neighbour in her apartment block, the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), who’s looked after by a nurse, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), an African immigrant actually employed by Aurora’s absent daughter, a marine biologist working in Canada. Pilar rescues Aurora from a casino where she’s lost all her money, and not for the first time: in spite of a promise not to return to the casino, Aurora had ventured again because of a premonition she had in a dream. Aurora, at the outset retaining hints of charisma and autonomy, begins to spiral toward decrepitude and senility, accusing Santa of trying to impose voodoo curses on her. As Aurora worsens and is hospitalised, she rambles on about an escaped crocodile, imploring her companions to search for it in the houses of apparently imaginary neighbours, and makes a request to Pilar to find one of them, named Gian Luca Ventura. Pilar finds Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) in a nursing home and brings him to Aurora’s funeral. Afterward, when they have lunch in a shopping mall, Gian Luca begins to explain his and Aurora’s shared history.
Tabu maintains a deceptively pokerfaced style, exacerbated in the second half as it shifts to historical drama rendered as a virtual silent movie, with only the older Ventura’s voiceover and the omnipresent trill of insects to disturb the passage of dumb-show theatrics. Under the film’s quiet surface is a synergistic flow of seemingly offhand ideas that coalesce into an ever-deepening, fascinating drama of time, not merely as a personal experience, but also a cultural one. Tabu seems to belong to a distinctive strand of Portuguese narrative art, recently exemplified by Raul Ruiz’s film of Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel Mysteries of Lisbon, in its preoccupation with exploring, rather than merely employing, history and storytelling as ambivalent zones of knowing and repositories of truth, sometimes imperceptibly and yet always vitally entwined with the present reality.
Much of the beauty of the film’s first half comes from the exactness of writer-director Miguel Gomes’ feel for character types, and the film’s initial mood is defined by the omnipresent pall of frustration and solitude that afflicts the main characters, particularly Pilar, depicted in casual, but exacting detail as a study of an everyday tragic. Pilar inhabits a zone of ready empathy and pathos in her typicality, as an increasingly invisible middle-aged woman who exists on the fringe of many contemporary scenes without ever holding the centre. She’s brushed off at the start by a young person who wants to hang out with other young people. Her male friend/admirer is an entertaining companion who suppresses romantic affection for her, but he is nonetheless a problematic personality too different for her to respond to with immediate inclination. He falls asleep during a movie, leaving her mired in weeping solitude, and then later makes a clumsy overture of affection that he then quickly retreats from, leaving Pilar more confused than ever. Pilar’s selflessness is admired by all: even the recalcitrant Maya, whom Pilar later trudges past when she’s canoodling with a boyfriend, enthuses over Pilar’s generosity.
Pilar’s saintly solicitude counters Santa’s nearly taciturn demeanour, as Santa bears the racist-tinted suspicion of the increasingly paranoid Aurora and the nosey concern of Pilar with businesslike cool, as she holds to the course dictated by the status of her job. Santa’s unease with language is depicted, as she’s learning Portuguese and bounding to the top of the class thanks, ironically, to reading that prototypical imperialist text Robinson Crusoe at bedtime. The racial tension and role awareness extant between Aurora and Santa introduces a theme that pays off as the film’s perspective shifts to the past, as Aurora’s ease at bossing around her black nurse like a maidservant hints at a past spent in lordly command. But the degree to which the worm has actually turned is apparent, as Santa enforces the regime imposed on Aurora by her absentee daughter to keep her on a tighter leash after her last casino venture, the former colonised now the coloniser, serving/imprisoning the waning remnant of a departed raj. Pilar, whilst dipping toes in activism, internationalism, and artistic bohemia, seems deeply and definably unhip as a steady pillar of stolid faith and square, unfashionable values. She replaces her would-be lover’s painting with a cosy landscape and prays each night before going to sleep in her lonely bed. Yet there’s something about Pilar that refuses reduction to a twee bystander in her own life, in part indicated by her selflessness and the regard others have for her and confirmed by the rapturous, luminously poetic prayer that she recites at bedtime. When Pilar attends a protest rally against the UN, she recites her prayer during a silence that baldly and hilariously contrasts the witless chant the crowd recites.
This scene, rendered in one, slow zoom closing in on Pilar’s stoic visage, is brilliant, illuminating with enriching wryness the way humanitarianism has supplanted and become a religion for many, whilst perceiving how it offers stolid pieties and studied outrage in place of the rhapsodic power and poetic fullness still apparent in Pilar’s worldview. There’s a hint of irony here, as Gomes actively contends with the losses and gains of any historical moment, contrasting the smallness of much of modern life with the lost grandeur, poeticism, and romanticism of the past; but the past is rendered not necessarily as a lost golden age either. Similarly, present here is a hovering awareness of the way age reduces people from creatures of fecund sense to wearied circumspection, and the crossing point between the two can come and go in the blink of an eye, never to be regained. Aurora is the avatar for this notion, as the film examines her final weeks and then loops back to explore her past in an unexpected pirouette of focus and meaning. Like Aurora, Ventura proves to have been supplanted by a descendant. His house is occupied by a young spiv with key chain and sweatshirt, who theorises that his great-uncle now no longer occupies his house because “he went bonkers.” Pilar goes to the nursing home where the old man has been deposited, sitting in a waiting room whose sterile cul-de-sac quality is all the better communicated for being unexaggerated in its blank modern emptiness. When she extracts Ventura, she’s confronted with a snowy-haired gentleman who wears a weathered old hat that rests like a totem on his head, redolent of a fascinating past. After Aurora’s funeral, Pilar and Santa go to eat with Ventura in a shopping mall cafeteria, and Gomes’ drifting camera almost casually transforms the place, through the potted plants of the mall’s indoor garden, into an anticipatory simulacrum of jungle, the humdrum suddenly taking on a charge of the authentically exotic.
Aurora’s and Ventura’s shared past, as he explains it, goes back to colonial Africa of the early 1960s, whereupon the second part of Tabu commences, shocking as it reaches a climax, even as certain aspects are inevitable. The person Aurora once was is now revealed in sometimes unflattering detail: a strident planter’s daughter who was world-famous as a hunter, a mischievous, imperious, and occasionally cruel personality under the surface of her cool beauty, redolent of a coddled upbringing. Gian Luca was a playboy who washed up in Africa after meeting Mario (Manuel Mesquita), an adventurous jack of all trades who had once trained to be a priest; after getting a job with a mining company, Gian Luca became a fixture in the colonial community. In this fashion, Gian Luca was eventually introduced to Aurora, who had recently been married to a pleasant young member (Ivo Müller) of the local pseudo-aristocracy. The real incident behind the older Aurora’s rambling about an escaped crocodile proves rooted in the crucial incident that brought her and Gian Luca together: the crocodile was a baby, a present given to her by her husband, and its occasional escapes usually saw it ending up in a pool at Gian Luca’s house, where their mutual attraction soon erupted in a clandestine affair. The affair flourished in spite of, and in fact partly fuelled by, her pregnancy by her husband and the oncoming plunge into the immobility of motherhood that rendered Aurora even more reactive than usual: when one of her family’s cooks, a reputed juju man, predicted the pregnancy and that Aurora would eventually die alone and bitter, she sacked him.
Tabu, like many works of modern narrative art, is as much about its own telling as it is a story told, but the great final effect of Tabu is in how concisely it dovetails the impulses to both tell and make a show of the telling. The flow of Gian Luca’s speech is rarefied and yet riveting, reproducing the intended effect: the older Ventura’s soft-spoken narration underscores the action, rendered at once remote and ironic by the lack of dialogue, but unfolding with the curious grace and immediacy of personal anecdote. The film’s contrast between the humdrum realism of Pilar’s story and the historical romanticism and melodrama of Aurora’s could have become arch, but Gomes’ strict control and sense of humour are mediated through his stylistic choices. The change in film stock in the shift from contemporary to period setting evokes the past through a rougher prism, albeit one that is often more immediate, communicative of grittier, fleshier textures. The point underlying this is the notion that we in the present—any present—experience the past either through memory or through the remnant self-representation of the period—any period—and the effect of the artifice becomes ingrained with the meaning. An early scene in the Pilar half of the film, in which the artist first appears, depicts the duo as part of a tour group being shown through underground catacombs by a rambling guide who tells them theoretical details about the place—that maybe it was once used by Romans and Moors—but then reminds them that “what I’m telling you is stories, not facts,” provoking the artist to finally rebel and shout out, “Why do you keep talking such crap?” Pilar cracks up in hilarity, the only time she does so, and whilst the artist is himself hardly idealised, his comedic abuse evokes Gomes’ conviction that the past can only be reconceived and brought to life by the complex interplay of evidence and artistry. Gomes recreates the alien strangeness of early ethnographic documentaries in an early scene where the explorer’s porters begin to dance for the camera after the explorer commits suicide, recreating the gaze of the colonial project only to turn it back on itself.
Tabu’s mastermind has made a film in part about colonialism, though with an infinitely lighter touch than the shrill overtones that subject usually invokes, and suggests the commencement of a cycle playing out its last gasps in depicting the death of the last generation of colonial survivors. The world glimpsed in Tabu’s second-half flashback is engaged in the early processes of epochal shift, as civil war and the end of the direct colonialist project in Africa is commencing. The flashy, internationalist world of modern pop culture is infiltrating even this backwater, as Mario’s band becomes a minor hit with a song prized today by music fans for its simple grittiness. An offhand, recurring detail confirms the wheels of time and the sinuous links of history, in a peppy Spanish-language version of “Be My Baby” to which Pilar listens on the radio at one point, and which later turns out to have been recorded by Mario’s band when working as a backing band for a female singer during a sojourn in Europe. Later, the intertwined nature of personal and social history is elucidated in a more alarming fashion, as a murder that punctuates the story, a purely personal affair, is repurposed in a declaration of war by rebel guerrillas, signalling the start of general bloodshed. Similarly, the firm moral grounding of the old world is giving way, as Gian Luca’s tale depicts a too-early grasp at sexual independence and Aurora is exposed as a peculiar by-product of colonialism in her deadly, strident independence, both proto-feminist victim of repressive social ideals and backdated remnant of a culture created by murderous self-interest and built around a sense of domain and overlordship.
The film, it is eventually revealed, takes its name from a fabled mountain close to the plantations where most of the period drama unfolds. The mountain is considered sacrosanct by the native Africans and notoriously inimical to explorers, and one of the characters of the historical portion, Mario, had his life saved by the man who became Aurora’s husband when a disaster cost the lives of several of Mario’s friends at the mountain. Later, the more vivid and corrosive meaning of taboo rises to the surface as Aurora and Gian Luca’s adulterous passion cleaves apart the incestuously tight-knit colonial world and its careful balance of opposing forces based on studiously observed rules. The bond of fellowship between Mario, Gian Luca, and Aurora’s husband (who is never actually called by name; only his status counts in the fading memory of Gian Luca) is broken. At the same time that the bonds of colonial nicety are disintegrating, with revolution manifesting as whispers and tales of bloodshed, not yet manifesting and actually taking an act of intra-fraternal murder to give it a push towards fruition. So the arrival of systemic disintegration is, to all intents, the by-product of moral failure, a failure that is both illusory in empirical effect and yet linked by a web of circumstance, a network of cracks in the structure that conjoin.
The contrasts in character are employed to a fascinating end: just as Aurora is revealed as someone as different to the repressed but conscientious goody-two-shoes Pilar as night to day, so, too, is Gian Luca, who in old age seems like a remnant of a swashbuckling era, finally and vividly contrasted by his pal Mario, whose lust for life, industry, bravery, and egotistical rectitude seem quite humiliatingly greater than his more superficially dashing pal. But Gian Luca’s character emerges in his hapless surrender to fate and judgement, and Mario’s postures of martyrdom are undercut early when the voiceover informs that Mario’s fondness for the company of natives resulted in a son whom he sometimes indulged by taking him for rides in his car along with a half-dozen more village progeny. Gomes’ final point is less moralistic, however, than biological and systemic: good, bad, moral, immoral, everybody dies. But the shape of the hole left by their absence describes oceans of meaning. As melancholic as Tabu’s themes are, Gomes retains a constant supply of dry, faintly absurdist humour percolating throughout much of the drama, the comic often indivisible from the tragic. This is apparent in the slumping shoulders and depressively staring, can’t-give-a-shit visage of the explorer in the first shot, the hoots of laughter Pilar releases when the artist upbraids the tour guide and the windy pathos of the artist’s proposal, and most particular in the élan of Mario and his band’s performances for their pool-party cliques. Shots of Gian Luca tearing about on motorcycle, chasing Marion in his car, depicts a celebration of a reckless youth in pure untrammelled, rule-free space reminiscent of African comedies like The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981), albeit with that lawless spirit lost in an irretrievable past.
Gomes’ layers of storytelling engage finally with varieties of mythology. Aurora’s hunting prowess as a virgin, which deserts her not when she marries but when, having taken Gian Luca as a lover, she gives her pet crocodile a romantic name, hints at likeness to figures out mythology like Atalante and Die Nibelungenlied’s version of Brunhilde, again pointing toward the import of ritual and its partner, taboo, as a fabric that still ties together human relations. Conversely, Gian Luca’s mention of how her hunting had made her internationally famous harkens to an age of glossy magazine articles from the time when traipsing about Africa shooting animals (or saving them) made people quite famous indeed. The climax of Gian Luca’s narrative depicts murder, cover-up, and the loss of life’s fondest loves, fittingly melodramatic culminations that justify patience with the telling. What has been depicted in the first half proves to have been a logical, if no less tragic, end for Aurora, who paid long and bitterly for her transgressions. Gomes’ silent-film refrains pay off in the climax, as Gian Luca cowers in fear of the gun-wielding Aurora, and a point-of-view shot from behind his shielding hands allows a crack through which to watch Aurora as she fires the fun, an equally fatal, though not mortally so, glimpse of transgression. It’s the sort of visual epiphany that could have sprung out of silent cinema, and finally Gomes’ conceits coalesce into a singularly distilled moment made all the sharper by the antihero’s instinctive panic, uncertain as to whether he’s the target or the object of rescue. The light in Aurora’s eye seems hardly tethered to immediate reality, but rather to obey the hunter’s instinct. The narrative finally, acerbically notes, that after ending a man’s life, everything else in her life is an anticlimax. The inner sense of what we’ve seen, including Aurora’s alienation from her daughter, born on the floor of a grass shack and reclaimed by her father and undoubtedly left to be regarded forever thus as the icon of her own debasement, is left tragically illuminated. Few films have ever managed to twin the macrocosmic and the immediately personal with the grace and cleverness of Tabu.
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