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Director/Co-screenwriter: Tobe Hooper
Few film titles have ever reaped such totemic power or attention-getting frisson as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. With bold, tabloid headline-style of hype and impact, such a title remained an easy reference point for both horror fans and haters for years after the film’s release in 1974. Every syllable seemed to usher in the age of depraved gore cinema, the quintessence of the slasher film, bathing perverts of all stripes in a sea of vicarious nastiness. Co-star Gunnar Hansen recalled Johnny Carson deriding the film’s very existence. Censorship troubles were universal. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was banned three times in Britain, wasn’t released in Australia until nearly ten years had passed, and remained verboten in places like Germany and Finland for decades. You can’t buy that sort of credibility as a horror filmmaker. This was the perfect product for the time of the Video Nasty as they were called in Britain, as films that had once been limited to select cinemas suddenly could be brought right into your living room via VHS. And yet, in some ways Tobe Hooper’s debut feature film was mild even for 1974. His work offered barely any on-screen bloodletting or dismemberment, and even had a pretty low body count: only three murders are committed in the course of the film. In spite of the title, the only time we actually see a chainsaw come in contact with the human body is when a killer drops it on his own leg. Compared to what guys like Lucio Fulci, Adrian Hoven, and even Ken Russell had done already, Hooper’s violence was clean and restrained. Indeed, Hooper had wanted to make a “PG” horror film, with the low budget forbidding gore spectacle anyway.
So, were those politicians, protectors of public morals and censors merely responding to that potent title? Yes and no. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre still packs an unholy wallop for its intensity as well as the potency of its suggestion, the force with which it invokes horror as a primal experience rather than a metaphoric one, an engulfing plunge from mundanity into nightmarish antiverse. In this regard, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might well have been the truly definitive modern horror film, the culmination itself of a movement started by Psycho (1960) now finding crystallisation, predating Halloween (1978) and accompanying Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) in defining the traits of the slasher film. A rampaging, all-too-corporeal homicidal maniac rather than a supernatural ghoul, with a mask and a memorable nickname. Young people as protagonists, vulnerable out of their urban enclaves, rendered both as identification figures for the generally, equally young audience, and also as deliberate victim-ciphers. A powerhouse approach to narrative after a deceptively calm start. The absence of any traditional heroic figure, substituted by the survival instinct of a single, helpless woman. Beyond specific impact on the genre, there is, indeed, the concept of film as total plunge into experiential spectacle here – thus, ironically, helping invent the ideal of the contemporary blockbuster in the most unlikely context.
The film’s slow passage from reviled underground myth to commonly acknowledged classic available for sale in your suburban DVD store was unlikely. Like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead six years earlier, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was pieced together by a hardy team of regional filmmakers, even further afield in the American showbiz universe, and yet the peculiarly egalitarian appeal of their product, plus the distribution muscle of a Mafia-connected guy enriched by receipts from Deep Throat (1972), let their product be sold internationally in the greatly changed movie universe of the 1970s. The gruelling, low-budget shoot and its circumstances were written into the film’s eventual texture, infusing it with an air of heat-frazzled, sweat-sodden hysteria, physical strain, and simmering aggression. The hostility the film received as a product beyond the pale ironically echoed the film’s thesis of economic disadvantage driving people to extreme acts and perversities. Hooper and Henkel’s debut work had been a film about life in a hippie commune, Eggshells (1969), Following the killer yokels of Easy Rider (1969) and Deliverance (1972), moreover, Massacre exploited a similar fear of social atomisation, a modern landscape breaking into obliquely composed camps but arranged along roughly similar fault lines – urban/technological/liberated versus rural/labouring/traditional. What had been funny and pathetic in John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941), with its gap-toothed sons of the soil acting like Barbary apes, had become a source of anxiety, the devolution of humankind in the midst of a nation that prided itself on progress turned heart of darkness.
Hooper’s inspiration, which reputedly struck in a hardware store, turned the implements of proletarian labouring into murder devices, also mixed in impudent reflections and inspired twists on the native culture Hooper had grown up with: cattle, cottage foodstuff industries, Texas barbecue, folk art, and the ethic of freedom and clannish self-reliance. The film’s most clearly defined characters, Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin Hardesty (Paul A. Partain), have roots in precisely the rural area where they find their special Hades, rather than total outsiders, and the plot is motivated by little more than their attempts to revisit those roots on a Sunday drive with their cool pals from town, drawn out by news that a remote rural graveyard where the Hardestys’ grandfather is buried has been desecrated. Hooper’s disquieting early images offer flash bulbs briefly illuminating shrivelled corpses, giving way then to the grotesque, starkly artistic image of a corpse tethered to the top of a gravestone, with another’s severed head in his lap.
The theme of morbid artistry offered as a bleak confirmation of a remnant expressive intent in the Sawyer clan even as they seem to indulge the most depraved outlets for it percolates with strange power throughout The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The Sawyers are not, unlike Jason Voorhees in the early Friday the 13th movies, mere bestial morons, or emblems of evil like Michael Myers, but people who clearly retain identities and even a type of ethic, but whose complete rejection of their worth by the values of their society has inspired a similar, complete rejection. By contrast, in spite of their light veneer of countercultural identity, the interloping young people around Sally and Franklin, Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn), seem hopelessly bland and insulated.
The quintet of youths in their Volkswagen van, iconic vehicle of hippie adventuring, traverse the Texan landscape on a stinking hot afternoon and find their attempts to live up to the On The Road creed immediately turns into disturbing self-satire, as they pick up a weird, dim-witted Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), near a slaughterhouse. The Hitchhiker quickly bemuses and appals the youths as he slices open his own hand with Franklin’s pocket knife, takes a polaroid photo of Franklin he doesn’t want to pay for, sets fire to the photo in a kind of folk magic ritual, and finally loses his temper and slices Franklin’s arm with his own straight-razor. He’s chased out of the van and he runs alongside, kicking the vehicle and smearing his own blood on the side as if trying to mark a hex. The slaughterhouse, hub of the local economy, repels Pam, but the old method of killing the cattle, with a hammer blow to the head, morbidly fascinates Franklin and the Hitchhiker, who explains that it was “better” than air guns because it employed more people.
The gritty, visceral contact with harsh facts of life celebrated by decades of westerns is farcically inverted throughout Massacre; it’s a film for the oncoming age in modern western society when nobody who counts works with their hands, or, indeed, does anything real. And yet corporeal reality actively afflicts the characters. The heat. Hunger. Fuel. The youths are first introduced to the audience when wheelchair-dependant Franklin has to take a stop to pee, necessitating a laborious process of Kirk laying down boards for him to descend in his chair and pee in a can. A passing cattle truck sprays Kirk with dirt and sends Franklin tumbling down a hill, the first in a mounting litany of exhausting and then cruel attacks on the physical stamina of these people. Franklin’s trials continue as he fights to enter his old family home, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence’s excruciating metaphor for broken-down modern humanity in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, also a man in a wheelchair, whilst his memorable angry, bratty meltdown, “If I have any more fun today I don’t think I can take it!”, becomes the film’s sarcastic motto.
One of Hooper and co-screenwriter Kim Henkel’s most cunning touches in this regard was to make their characters human to the edge of insufferable: aggravation slowly mounts as the whiny, needy Franklin feels no need to play stoic, Pam prefers reading horoscopes to actuality, Jerry slowly detaches irritably from his companions, and Sally becomes increasingly exasperated with her brother’s wheedling. Except for the Hitchhiker’s wild behaviour, it would just be a rotten outing. Sally and Franklin’s old family house, when they find it, is infested with insects and slowly disintegrating: clearly their family abandoned it as rural prosperity waned. Franklin has no survival capacity, and is fused in a mix of affection and frustration to Sally, whose possible romance with Jerry is strained and thwarted by sibling responsibilities. Franklin can barely even get into his old family home, and ruptures in childish tantrums as he’s left behind his thoughtlessly mobile companions. Immobility was, by the cold standards of ancient hunter-gatherer societies and the colonising wave of Europeans both, death, and the threat of being stuck afflicts both Franklin in particular and the quintet generally: worry about running out of petrol. Hints here of the social Darwinism that flowed through the writings of signal western writers like Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Edna Ferber. The youths visit a small gas station close to the old family house, where the owner (Jim Siedow, billed only as playing “Old Man”) sells them barbecue but can’t give them fuel.
When Kirk and Pam try to salvage their day by going to the mythical spot of childhood adventure Franklin remembers, a swimming hole, they are instead distracted by a distant puttering motor: Kirk is inspired to track down the owner and buy some petrol. They soon find the motor is a generator, providing power for a nearby farm house. Kirk ventures inside, searching for an owner, only for a large man, masked and clad in a butcher’s smock, to emerge from a back room and smack him over the head with a hammer. Kirk collapses and fits like a dying, damaged animal on the floor, before the assailant whacks him again, pulls him inside, and slams shut a sliding steel door. Pam, outside, waits and then ventures in after him, only to stumble into another room littered with moulted poultry feathers – from a chicken that’s kept, obscenely, in a bird cage – and pieces of human bone. The hulking man reappears and grabs Pam and takes her into the back room, which proves to be a makeshift slaughterhouse in itself, and hangs her on a meat hook, to dangle in agony whilst he fires up and chainsaw and starts to carve up Kirk’s body like a steer carcass. Such is our introduction to Leatherface (Hansen), the youngest and weirdest of the three Sawyer brothers, slaughterman and butcher whose livestock is you.
Hooper’s brutally mordant sense of humour is exposed more clearly amidst the carefully delayed eruption of horror, as the inevitable punch-line to the themes set up earlier arrives: humans turned into food by a clan that can’t get work providing food by other means, such as they did. Later, when Jerry comes in search of his friends and penetrates the slaughter room, he finds Pam locked in a meat freezer still alive, before Leatherface again dashes in and bashes him to death. One quality that gives the violence in Massacre a rare potency by comparison to more flashily shot horror deaths is the complete absence of artifice and indeed the speed of the killings. One moment there are characters, the next, lumps of dead meat. Leatherface himself, although a figure of dread of a brand never quite put on screen before, has a hapless, almost childish quality to him, stomping about in fretful anxiety after his home has been repeatedly invaded by quickly swatted pests. Like Franklin, he’s the family member who’s “special,” with a sibling charged with his care: the Old Man slaps the Hitchhiker for leaving Leatherface alone like they’re lost siblings of Moe and Curly Joe De Rita. The mirroring of the Hardestys and the Sawyers is smartly asymmetrical: the cannibal clan are old-fashioned insofar as they include members of more than one generation and live by attendant retrograde values, whereas the two Hardestys have lost roots and gained generational loyalties; and yet family still ties them together just as doggedly.
One of the qualities that makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seem such a pivotal moment in the genre cinema is its realism – not realism in the sense of being strictly believable, for there’s still those strong undercurrents of absurdism, surrealism, and black humour throughout – but realism in the way it posits its sense of horror in worldly terms. No supernatural forces are evinced here; the force of the irrational that breaks down the fabric of the presumed is here rather partly mental, partly social. The fear here is generated by the kinds of menaces newspapers and TV news reports propagated and indeed which lots of people, particularly women, faced and do face every day. Plenty of other horror films had been set in the present day, amidst the trappings and social, technological, and psychological givens of the commonplace in modern western society, and quite a few had engaged the social scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre however looks like a hatchling that had not quite escaped the egg before, but was now all too free. Massacre was released amidst a handful of works that set off another great shift in the preoccupations and popularity of horror films, including See No Evil (1971), Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973), The Wicker Man (1973), and Black Christmas. Although the supernatural figures in some of these, and would remain a fixture in the genre, tonally all had moved into the utterly present-tense, leaving behind the traditions of Gothic horror in all but some remnant style.
Much like Deliverance again, Massacre tackles a common concern of the time, the worry of the lack of authenticity in the face of an increasingly coddling and insulated society, only for the shock of immersion in true primal tests, represented both by the landscape and by humans who have somehow devolved, to prove overwhelming. Where John Boorman and James Dickey had implicitly constructed a parable about changing modes of manhood in Deliverance, Hooper and Henkel went a step further in essentially erasing a masculine hero figure and instead putting the plight of the victimised woman at the centre. The undercurrent of glum misogyny starting to infiltrate some parts of the horror genre arose from the new room to depict hitherto forbidden fantasies, soon to bloom in the overt invitations to ogle and then sublimate in watching the butchery of young women offered in many slasher films. There is a touch of that predicted here as Hopper lets the audience have a good eyeful of McMinn’s lovely back and butt in short-shorts moments before she’s hung up on a meat hook. There is also, however, a certain sly and bitter cinematic wit apparent there, as well as a brutal simplicity that cuts through that kind of blather; Hooper skirts outright gore with clever effect, as the viewer knows implicitly that when Leatherface hangs Pam up, the viewer knows she’s quite skewered, not dangling from clothing, with repulsive but frank effect. Mostly the film is strikingly non-exploitative although it deals with the relentless brutalisation of Sally: indeed, Hooper’s intent seems to have been mostly push into a realm beyond sexuality to depict the Freudian death-romance at an extreme.
Of course, the horror film is a genre that is predicated around exploiting the anxieties of its audience, a risky endeavour not everyone wants to cede power to, and one often worked in balance with the time-honoured purpose of the campfire tale, which was to literally keep the kids close to the campfire and not wander off into the dangerous dark. The shift in genre obsession around this time clearly invoked the shifts in society where young women were officially “liberated” and now had to face a sink-or-swim world that was once a manly preserve. The explosive popularity of the slasher film, with its diptych of sex-as-death and final girl’s survival battle, was precisely attuned to this zeitgeist. Massacre’s main contribution to this was the idea of making the victim protagonist, purely by dint of her efforts to survive. For their part, Hooper and Henkel were satirising and transmuting the social tension they were familiar with from their recent days in the Texas college counterculture, and following Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick’s sublimation of the era’s churning tensions and violent backdrops into cinematic snarls.
Hooper and Henkel applied their grounded experience to the mythology that had sprung up around that most infamous, specifically American of killers, Ed Gein, the Wisconsin Ghoul whose escapades with grave robbing, necrophilia, taxidermy, and cannibalism had also inspired Psycho and also 1974’s much less-known, but in many ways equally interesting, docudrama-like Deranged. Why was Gein’s legend such perfect fare for filmmakers? The oppositions it invokes – dank insanity and Oedipal dissolution amidst settings redolent of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting – are undoubtedly powerful, the spectacle of taciturn, stoic self-reliance championed in the pioneer ideal turned septic, whilst the Sawyers take the “don’t tread on me” independent creed to its ultimate extreme. Some critics have noted the implicit similarity of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, one of the names of Natty Bumppo the Hawkeyed hunter, to Leatherface, the annihilator who’s run out of frontiers and been forced into regression rather than movement. Like the classic western hero, strangely, the Sawyers are sexless. Even Sally’s hapless, pleading offer to “do anything you want” is met with sneering disinterest by the brothers, who can only plan to kill her. Unlike the eventual codification of the slasher killer, though, they’re not punishing transgressions, but the mere existence of the kind of fecundity they’re cut off from.
Sally and Franklin’s doomed attempt to track down their friends as night falls is both the real start of the film, in a way, and also apogee and climax of the everyday aggravation they suffer through, as Franklin’s whininess and Sally’s increasing irritation are pushed to extremes in the tense situation, with Franklin’s caution ironically proving wise. Sally endeavours to push Franklin through the woods, only for Leatherface to spring out of the dark and kill Franklin by hacking him to pieces, sending Sally scurrying off into the dark in terror. Sally’s desperate attempts to survive take up the remainder of Massacre, and yet the structure inverts as Sally becomes the outsider and the dynamics of the Sawyer family (not actually named as such until Hooper’s oddball 1986 sequel) sweep to the fore.
The last third of the film is indeed, if not actually one sequence, then certainly can be described as a single, extended set-piece, as Sally flees Leatherface through the woods, which conspire as much against would-be killer as well as prey, until Sally reaches the shelter of the gas station, the threat seeming to halt at the threshold of the Old Man’s door just like the Headless Horseman is supposed to stop at the bridge in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But where Ichabod Crane found that the Horseman could still strike from a distance, Sally quickly finds her sanctuary illusory, signalled in a weird visual discursion to study the paraphernalia of the Old Man’s barbecuing business, which conceals infinite cynicism and degeneracy in the guise of good ole home cooking. The young siblings resentful of the Old Man’s standing apart from the actual business of killing, in spite of his evident sadism displayed when he enjoys poking the bound and trussed Sally, and dismiss him as “a cook” whilst they do all the work. And yet the Old Man keeps his brothers in line with a stick.
Sally thus reaches the ninth circle of hell in a calculated travesty of down-home family values, tied to a chair made out of human bones at a clan dinner where the three brother alternate sarcastic hospitality with mockery and jeering in a symphony of cruelty. Hooper’s filmmaking evolves with his subject, lucid, calm, and distant at the outset, then pushing increasingly close and invasive, with insinuating tracking shots and long zoom shots, alternating with low angles that subtly magnify the gestures of his actors. At last, in these climactic scenes, the technique erupts in gruelling close-ups of the cast’s faces, pushing in to Burns’ eyes in ultra-close shots, as the visual language of the film closely matches the sensation of incipient madness and the ultimate descent into irrationality, at the outermost limits of narrative containment. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Massacre lies in how the film offers glimpses of extreme and utterly grotesque depravity, and yet somehow manages to invest it with a sense of humour so dark it’s subterranean, finding existentially pitiless humour in the sight of the Sawyer’s Grandpa (John Dugan), a leathery old husk brought down to join in the family festivities, greedily and gleefully sucking blood from Sally’s finger, and the yowls of the family in response to her waking screams.
The careful travesty of family rituals, inspired by Gein’s craziest ideas but taken a step further, evinced around the house, likewise radiate a twisted sense of comic commentary – chairs made of bones and cured limbs; Grandpa set up in his attic abode with a corpse filling in for grandmother, and dog skeleton wrapped in a fur propped up for company; and a dinner table laden with skulls under a light shaded by a human face. What is ultimately so beggaring about the world the Sawyers have built around themselves lies in this complete subversion of the excised place of death in modern suburbanised society. As repellent as Hooper makes them, therefore, nonetheless they stand for a powerful notion taken to a reductio ad absurdum, whilst the film’s sense of black humour feeds rather than retards the spiralling sense of madness and suffering. The Sawyers eventually, happily decide the honour of butchering Sally should go to Grandpa, whose past as slaughterman is legendary: “Old Grandpa’s the best killer there ever was,” Old Man tells Sally by way of trying to reassure her that her end will be merciful, “He did sixty in five minutes once – they say he could’ve done more if the hook and pull gangs coulda gotten the beeves outta the way faster.”
But Grandpa can’t even hold the hammer, and keeps dropping it with dull, gut-wrenching thuds into the metal pan the Hitchhiker tries to hold Sally over. This resort to a bizarre variety of sentiment on the part of the Sawyers proves their undoing, as it gives Sally the chance, in her hysterical will to survive, to throw off the Hitchhiker and make a break, crashing through a window for the second time and plunging into disorientating daylight. The very finale of Massacre, much like the earlier eruptions of action, is startling for its speed and compressed, wild energy, as Sally tries to flee from her tormentors although she’s cut and bruised and can barely walk, the Hitchhiker crazedly slashing at Sally with his razor as he catches her, but he’s taken a step too far, and the Sawyers’ pursuit of Sally retains a farcical edge in spite of the pulse-pounding intensity of the sequence.
The degree to which the youths were out of their depth the moment they turned off the main road, so the Sawyers find themselves thwarted as they chase their recalcitrant prey out onto the highway that passes their little kingdom. Within moments the Hitchhiker is crushed by a cattle truck, a deus ex machina loaded with multiple ironies, emblem of the bigger, mechanised food industry that displace them, driven by a black man (Ed Guinn) whose bulk and invocations of hearty fertility – his truck is named “Black Maria” – instantly mocks and subverts the rotten presumptions of the film’s arch reduction of white conservative self-interest. The driver saves Sally’s life again, and his own, by knocking Leatherface down with a wrench thrown in his face, causing Leatherface to fall down and be sliced by his own petard, before both run for dear life. Sally just manages to scramble into the back of a passing pick-up truck, leaving behind Leatherface on the road, still poised in a strange zone between primal terror and peevishly frustrated child.
Sally’s giddy, maniacal laughter of triumph and relief as Leatherface disappears in the distance is definitely one of the great moments in cinema, as is the last image of Leatherface spinning in maniacal anger with his weapon in the dawn light: the dance of death is over, the last survivor escaped alone to tell thee, echoing another great American art work about hunting and death, “Moby-Dick”. Like The Wicker Man, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ends at dawn with its emblem of horror silhouetted against the rising sun. The final seconds belong to Leatherface, dancing as if engaging in pagan rite of the dawn stumbled of an atavistic time warp, letting his chainsaw scream in fury for him like the howl of the repressed, oppressed subconscious that might have been thwarted but will never be erased.
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Director: Roger Corman
By Roderick Heath
When you want to talk about Roger Corman, you have to take into account that there is at least three of him. The most famous is the low-budget film director and producer whose name became a by-word for cheap and tacky movies, building small empires from the stray audiences and industrial detritus of the movie business, and whose career has stretched from providing screen filler for drive-ins to VHS shelves to VOD. The second, the won who received a special Oscar, fostered the careers of dozens upon dozens of actors and filmmakers, some of whom went on to have major Hollywood careers, by giving them jobs in his low-rent domains, trusting young on-the-make talent in the same way that he, lucky in his time, got unexpected breaks and became a film director before he was 30.
The third Roger Corman is perhaps the most controversial, insofar as many deny he exists, and yet has been acknowledged elsewhere ever since Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival: the important American filmmaker. Corman’s ingenious touch and wily acumen as a director, perpetually motivated by the most nakedly mercenary wonts and yet somehow always characterful and idiosyncratic, had been apparent since his early work like The Day the World Ended (1956), and his first work in the horror genre, if a rather jokey one, The Undead (1957). Those films were made at a time when Corman’s place on the lowest rung of Hollywood belied his status as one of the few filmmakers in town tackling the psychic underside of modernity via perfervid little fantasias designed to tap the tastes and wallets of young audiences. This he essayed through a brand of cinema that seemed, through its very sparse and straitened creativity, to approximate the mind-space of Elizabethan theatre: even something as magnificently absurd as The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958) has the kind of delightful quality to it that suggests a play put on by talented kids after raiding the old chests laden with forgotten potential props in the attic. Usually working with screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, Corman’s films, for all their diverting lacks in production values, often had rich conceptual cleverness and an impudent take on storytelling niceties that often legitimately strayed into the territory of the post-modern. Just as a crudely lettered sign could fill in for a forest in Shakespeare’s day, a man in a tatty monster suit could be the hinge for Corman’s films to become little fugues and bonsai myths.
In 1960, Corman made a move up-market. American Releasing Corporation, the company run by B-movie specialists James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, had morphed into American International Pictures, thanks in part to Corman’s gift for penny-pinching and money-spinning, and their seizure of the nascent youth market. Corman sold them on the idea of making a more ambitious type of product to what they had so far done: to make a relatively classy horror movie in colour, to try and reach the same market Hammer Studios had recently uncovered. Needing a subject to go up against Hammer’s repertoire of Gothic literary sources, Corman chose as a subject a specifically American source of horror fare, one that was also, conveniently, in the public domain: Edgar Allan Poe. The first film he adapted from Poe, House of Usher, proved such a hit that AIP immediately became a dominant force in the new, wide-open post-studio era of exploitation cinema, and Corman made a slew of Poe adaptations in the next four years: Pit and the Pendulum and Premature Burial (both 1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (both 1963), and The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964), as well as two films that fit thematically if not pedantically into the series, the famously, hastily assembled The Terror, and The Haunted Palace (both 1963), named for a Poe poem but actually the first film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story.
Corman turned from his usual writing team and commissioned a screenplay for House of Usher from well-regarded sci-fi writer Richard Matheson. Matheson was contributing scripts to Rod Serling’s epochal TV show “The Twilight Zone” at the time, and Corman also used scripts by another of the show’s writers, Charles Beaumont, for the Poe series. But the true key to the success of the series was gained when Corman obtained the services of Vincent Price, a stage and Hollywood actor who had a frustrating career in movies for fifteen years, usually playing smarmy upper-crust playboys or menacing Byronic types, until House of Wax (1953), one of the few major American horror films of the decade, had turned him at last into a niche star. Price started drifting towards becoming a full-time horror actor as the decade wore on but many of the films didn’t know what to do with him, for instance The Fly (1958) which cast him as straight man: Corman however offered him roles that stretched his gifts and played on his capacity to shift from avuncular to menacing on the drop of a hat, and offer facially and vocally expressive performances influenced by theatrical melodrama perfectly attuned to the stylised, expressionistic needs of Gothic horror. Price starred in all of the Poe films except for Premature Burial, which featured Ray Milland, lending his inimitably over-large style in cunningly pitched variations that confirmed his second career as a cult figure. In Pit and the Pendulum, the second of Corman’s Poe films, Price plays two parts which merge towards the end, conjoining those two poles of his personality.
Pit and the Pendulum opens with a desolate and eerie vista traversed by a lonely coach, setting the film’s toey, tense mood in motion. Poe’s original story, one of the most brilliant examples of the writer’s gift for composing what seem like remembered nightmares recorded in lucid detail, was a tale of sadistic suffering anticipatory of Kafka and Orwell, set in a Spain where the terror of Inquisition becomes a cosmic force, and the hero is only rescued in the last few sentences by an avenging army. Corman’s budget couldn’t cope with that, so he and Matheson stuck close to the template that had worked on House of Usher, sticking with the Spanish setting and theme of the Inquisition but shifting the location to a remote castle and revisiting the gambit of an outsider, this case John Kerr’s invasive Englishman Francis Barnard, entering a family house dominated by an intense and morbid air of familial guilt. Worked into the story is a greatest hits-like collection of Poe themes like burial alive, personality possession, erotically-tinged guilt and melancholic obsession. Francis comes to Spain in search of facts about a woman, in this case his sister Elizabeth, who had married Spanish nobleman Nicholas Medina (Price), but has recently died in mysterious circumstances.
Arriving on the blasted, Salvador Dali-esque shoreline where Medina’s castle teeters on the edge of a sonorously rolling sea, Francis bangs on the door and demands admittance with a haughty, bullish determination to learn why his sister died. He soon finds himself up against a thicket of confused explanations, with the mood of distrust heightened by Nicholas’ bleary sense of responsibility, and the sketchy details of Elizabeth’s demise which prove to have been partly covered up. Soon Francis pries from Nicholas, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders), and family physician Doctor Leon (Antony Carbone) the truth as they know it, that Elizabeth died from a heart attack, caused by her accidentally sealing herself into an iron maiden in the torture chamber conveniently located in the castle’s basement, which morbid allure had drawn her to: the chamber had been constructed by Nicholas’ father Sebastian, an infamous torture artist employed by the Inquisition.
Unlike the mostly mood-driven House of Usher, however, Pit and the Pendulum develops an inwardly spiralling mystery with the classic Gaslight (1940) theme of machinations to drive a person mad for worldly gain. The characters try to solve strange portents infesting the castle, including signs that Elizabeth may well have risen from the grave, a possibility that touches Nicholas deeply. The trauma behind Nicholas’ quivering anxiety and specific fear of burial alive is rooted in an anecdote Catherine has to relay to Francis: Nicholas secretly witnessed Sebastian (also played by Price in flashback) luring their mother (Mary Menzies) and her lover, his brother Bartoleme (Charles Victor) into his torture chamber, where he bashed Bartoleme’s head in and tortured their mother before walling her up alive. Although Leon assures them that Elizabeth was quite dead, the mysterious sounds of her beloved harpsichord being played in the night, a whispering voice shocking the maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) whilst cleaning Elizabeth’s room, and Francis’ discovery of a network of secret passages, begin to suggest the true situation is stranger. Francis eventually theorises that Nicholas is creating the disturbances himself, because he’s mentally unbalanced and suffering dissociative fits. Acting on the possibility that Nicholas’ own belief that Elizabeth might still be alive or at least to satisfy Nicholas’ obsessive anxiety, the men break their way into the sealed crypt below to investigate. In her coffin, they find a gnarled and twisted body that does indeed seem to have died in screaming agony whilst sealed in alive.
The blend of firmly geographical realism with an undertow of obsessively morbid style that steadily eats into the texture of the film until it breaks out in hallucinogenic blooms, exemplified by Pit and the Pendulum, became Corman’s specific touch. Amongst Corman’s Poe films, this one had probably the most evident, immediate impact on some of Corman’s rivals, particularly Italian brethren including Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, from whom he in turn stole Steele: Freda remixed the plot of Pit and the Pendulum for L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hichcock (1962). As Paul Leni and Tod Browning had done years before, Bava would accomplish so masterfully on Operazione Paura (1966) and John Carpenter would manage on Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), Corman transforms environment and the absence of people and action into a dramatic element key for creating tension and mystery, as cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s camera restlessly probes the Medina castle in the night, the camera suggesting a lurking intelligence in spite of the absence of human presences, long before the eerie sounds of Elisabeth’s harpsichord begin to echo about the castle.
Author Stephen King has said the moment of the discovery of Elizabeth’s entombed body marked the start of a trend towards ever-more-intense shock-effect horror in the genre, and it is arguable that the film provides the bridge between the lip-smacking sadism of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and the eventual sub-genre based around torture as source of horror that flowered regrettably in the last decade or so. Where Hammer had effectively drenched its horror films with Technicolor to paint them in illustrative verve that made them stand out at a time when the genre was usually too cheap to afford colour or still essaying mood through Expressionist lighting, Corman was the first filmmaker since Michael Curtiz’s work with two-colour Technicolor in the early ‘30s to really seize on the format as an expressive tool, carefully employing costuming and décor in commentary. In spite of the cramped budgets, Corman’s eye for talent snared him two collaborators with years of experience in studio cinema, Crosby and art director Daniel Haller. The palette they created for Pit and the Pendulum grips the actors in a world of musty browns and greys, the dust and dirt of the grave infesting the frames, except for carefully coordinated splashes of colour.
Corman was fond of blurring the boundaries between distant past and future, and even dramatized the idea in Teenage Caveman (1958), as time eats itself, ouroboros-like. Even the land around the castle has been desiccated as thoroughly as by nuclear fallout, one way in which Corman manages to link the threat of desolation he had explored with real fascination in his scifi, with its nuclear age angst, with Poe’s timeless psychological realm. In a similar way, Les Baxter’s scoring, the most inventive of the composer’s work on the Poe series, utilises electronic sounds and strange, almost musique concrete effects throughout, throbbing and droning in weird, echoic manner, recalling the score of Forbidden Planet (1956) but with futurism replaced by atavistic dread. When Steele’s Elizabath finally appears, rising like a wraith from the shadows, she is nonetheless wrapped in brilliant white with blood-stained fingers, a perverse angel crawling her way out of the fetid psychological trap her husband’s obsessions inadvertently forced on her and which she has now turned into a weapon. Corman would get to work out this concept most fully in the colour codings of The Masque of the Red Death, where he gained Nicholas Roeg as a collaborator. It’s hard not to read Corman’s background as a trained engineer – a career he abandoned after two weeks – in the precision of his use of space and elements, as well as the on-time, on-budget ethic he stuck to as a filmmaker.
The Poe series tends to take pre-eminence in serious appraisals of Corman’s oeuvre, understandable considering their higher budgets and concomitant, relative smoothness and vivacity, although they do lack to a certain extent the antic humour, self-reference and self-satire that define so many of Corman’s cheaper early films, which shone out particularly bright in the knowing burlesques on Poverty Row enterprise and minor entrepreneurial artistry in A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors, the multi-genre send-up in Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), and his mini-epic of meta-humour, Rock All Night (1957). But the bare-boned, apocalyptic morality plays he was also good at – The Day the World Ended, Gunslinger (1956), The Last Woman on Earth (1961), The Intruder (aka Shame, 1962) – provided a basis for the conceptually hermetic, sparsely populated, intensely oneiric worlds he conjures in the Poe films. One of the most interesting aspects of Corman’s works lay in how, even in his cheapest films (indeed, sometimes particularly there), he was one of the few directors of his era who incorporated visual art as both an element in the films and as stylistic guide, in a fashion similar to how other filmmakers were leaning on Saul Bass to inject their work with the same veneer of stark, modernist quintessence. The pretences to classical integrity in the Poe series stymied his playfully deconstructive instincts his early films often displayed, but Corman compensated by turning the films in referential pieces, quoting Poe on screen during the films to provide literary bookends to his visualisations. The opening and closing credits depict seething colours, a simple effect rendered with paint running in oil, making everything in between some like the feverish product of a mad artist. Artworks that seem to contain the remnant personalities of their subjects becomes a recurring motif in Corman’s films, here manifesting first when Nicholas shows Francis portraits of his father and of Elizabeth, rendered in anachronistic styles, and later, in the waking-nightmare finale, ghoulishly stylised paintings of hooded monks glaring down at the tortured hero, turned into twisted, elongated icons with a faint of echo of Eisenstein’s perversion of medieval Russians into human illustrations in Ivan the Terrible (1945-57), breaking down the barriers between set, décor, costuming, and camera effect. Reality starts to melt on the edge of mortality as the paintings are doubly distorted by lens effects and screen-flooding colours.
Corman’s later, brief shift into semi-experimental, psychedelic film with The Trip (1967) notably followed on from both the technique and themes he was exploring here and elsewhere in the series, presenting the mind unfettered experiencing past, present, and dream-state in a melange. Moreover, a theme that threads through much of Corman’s oeuvre, a portrait of the attempt to create as a process involving eternal frustrations and cruelty to both self and others, blithely portrayed in stuff like Rock All Night, A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, but more seriously engaged repeatedly in the Poe films, The Trip, and elsewhere, here crystallises as Nicholas laments his incapacity to transcend through art in his attempts to capture Elizabeth’s face on canvas, and so, again like many of Corman’s antiheroes, recreates himself to cope. Corman’s noted admiration of Ingmar Bergman, again expressed more completely in Masque of the Red Death, feels most acute in this theme with similarly obsessed the Swedish master, if essayed in far more high-falutin’ ways. True to the intensely psychological understanding Corman and Matheson both shared in relation to Poe’s tales, they relentlessly link the dank, mysterious abodes beneath the castle with the fetid areas of the mind, the castle a mimetic map of that mind, and signal that in spite of Nicholas’ surface vulnerability he maintains a dangerous and obsessive link with his father’s world. When Francis first enters the dungeon, Nicholas appears suddenly from a closed door – a trick Corman repeats when Elisabeth bursts into the film – behind which the sounds of machinery working have startled Francis and Catherine: all Nicholas will say is that “machine needs constant repair.” Why on earth Nicholas needs such a machine we only learn in the climax.
The deliberate, patient, neurotic tempo of Pit and the Pendulum tightens a spring that won’t release until the finale, but punctuated with brief outbursts of hysteria and intensely rhythmic fulcrums, including the sequence where the men break into Elizabeth’s tomb that sees the hacking pickaxes becoming time-keepers counting down to their own entrance into the tomb, and the later scene where Nicholas finds himself exploring hidden passages. He’s drawn on by the siren call of what sounds like his dead wife, the dazed and terrified man becoming steadily more distracted, at first cringing as he touches thick cobwebs and then stumbling through them without noticing. When Nicholas follows this labyrinth to the opened tomb and sees something climbing out of his wife’s coffin, Corman doesn’t shift the beat, but watches just as calmly as Nicholas retreats in panicky fear and finally collapses until Steele’s Elizabeth suddenly erupts from the shadows screaming his name, turning her husband, or her prey, into a scurrying animal and then catatonic cuckold. Nicholas survives however by going constructively mad, as it becomes clear that Leon and Elizabeth are lovers who have plotted to destroy Nicholas by driving him mad. Nicholas then arises, his own personality subsumed by his murderous, tyrannical father, closing the very circle of inevitably inheritance Nicholas had feared but also armouring him against evil.
Price gives a quintessential example of his gift for oversized, expressive style, perhaps indeed one of his most florid, although his showiness, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of grand barnstorming melodrama actors as Tod Slaughter, disguises his skill. Price shifts between personas with consummate ease and provides the film with its dramatic nexus, telegraphing Nicholas’ quivering boy-man fear and anguish striated with fixation, his constant worry that he might inevitably inherit his father’s evil dooming him to just that. Next to him, everyone else except for Steele looks stolid and strained. Kerr, whose big claim to fame prior to this was appearing in Tea and Sympathy (1958), has the relatively thankless job of playing Francis, who mostly comes on as obnoxiously insensitive, but he’s effective enough as sounding board for Price’s spectacke and plays the character with admirable chilliness that makes Francis seem, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, to be something like its villain, relentlessly pounding on vulnerable and empathetic Nicholas’ fragile nature. Francis proves however to more a hapless interloper, in a vein that renders him intriguingly close in function and identity to the “final girl” as that figure would arrive in the ‘70s horror genre, as he loses all agency and undergoes terrible suffering and has to be saved by a woman and servant: here Corman and Matheson clearly signal something changing in the genre. Anders, who also appeared in Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide the same year, had a kind of raw, slightly uncertain charm that suits her character, who retains innocence amidst the emotional wreckage that is her family legacy and has avoided her brother’s neurosis but certainly feel the weight of experience, staring blankly into her own imagined version of family horror as she narrates it to Francis.
For horror fans the undoubted appeal of Pit and the Pendulum acting-wise lies in seeing Price and Steele together. That promise was partly hampered, as Steele had her speaking voice post-dubbed by another actress, because her regional English accent sounded oddly out place amidst the mid-Atlantic brogues everyone else in the cast adopted to play Spaniards. Nonetheless Steele’s physicality blazes for her few minutes on screen in her first major movie after being promoted to genre stardom by Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), her remarkable face, the very image of the femme fatale capable of shifting between modes of porcelain doll-like beauty and utter evil, leering gleefully over Price’s prone form, sweetly mocking him with the litany of people who have betrayed him or sinned in his immediate life. Gloating pleasure turns abruptly to queasy fear as Nicholas starts laughing back at her, and grasps her as if the most intimate lover’s embrace as Elisabeth squirms fearfully in his arms before gagging her and shutting her in an iron maiden. Transformation via psychotic breakdown unleashes demonic sexuality as Nicholas/Sebastian gives Elisabeth a voracious kiss. This wonderful moment nails down the base erotic element in so much of the horror genre, the alternations of power within sexuality, the broken wall between desire and hatred, as well as the performative skill of the duo.
Nicholas’ insanity next leads him to chase down Leon, who plunges to his death in a secret pit, and so Francis, who stumbles down into the dungeon in search of Nicholas and finds him now entirely subsumed by the personality of Sebastian: Nicholas knocks out Francis and substitutes him for Leon as stand-in for Bartoleme, and subjects him to Sebastian’s ultimate torture machine – the pendulum. Nicholas/Sebastian gloats over his tethered victim before setting the torture machine in motion and memorably welcomes Francis to his zone of nullification of reason, giving it names from a panoply of cultures and describing it as the ultimate metaphor for the state of human kind before setting the gears in laborious motion and the machine begins lowering the blade remorselessly towards Francis’ stomach. Price goes gleefully for the rafters here in one of his bravura shows of theatricality, but both he and the film also, finally reach the point of crisis they’ve been working to with sneaky skill, both filmmakers’ showmanship and torturer’s converging to offer a spectacle of torment that allows perfect summation of both the plot and the obsessions of the characters, from Nicholas’ torment/fascination to Francis’ obsession with knowing the whole truth and being given an intimate lesson in fate.
The final action is entirely riveting, as Catherine and servant Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) break into the chamber: when finally they gain entrance, Maximillian battles Nicholas whilst Catherine tries to halt the pendulum, resulting in Nicholas falling to his death beside Leon and Francis only saved by the thinnest of margins. This is thanks in no small part to Catherine’s pluck and awareness, which up until then have been neglected, another of Corman’s most integral themes. The ending is technically happy as the good guys stumble away unharmed, and yet Corman saves up one of the most coldly ironic final shots in horror film history, as Catherine, Francis, and Maximillian leave the dungeon. “No-one shall enter this room again,” Catherine vows, only for Corman to veer his camera back to the iron maiden from which the gagged Elizabeth stares in silent mortification, doomed to the nastiest possible punishment for her crime. The ritualistic final quote direct from Poe that ends the film ironically fills in a description of the very sound Elizabeth can’t make: the primal scream of purgative fear.
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Director: Gene Fowler Jr
By Roderick Heath
Ladies, has your husband turned into a stranger? Is he withdrawn? Pensive? Acting oddly? Is your bedroom colder than the refrigerator? Does he seem to be hiding a very different face from you? Then you may have to consider he might be an alien imposter.
The science fiction cinema that enjoyed a wave of popularity in the 1950s saw officious optimism and dark introspection jostling in close proximity, constantly battling for psychic supremacy. The broad and obvious association of the atomic age’s terrors with the panoply of giant monsters that stalked across the screen and the intrigued, visionary idealism of potential space travel were accompanied by subtler variations. Starting with Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953), the theme of possession or outright replacement of human beings by aliens became a recurring notion. This theme was quickly reused in a slew of genre films that followed, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Invaders from Mars (1956), War of the Satellites (1957), I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and Village of the Damned (1961). All of these films exploited the fear of a loved-one suddenly turning into a stranger, the everyday and familiar suddenly subverted and turned into masking travesty. What was going on in the popular and artistic psyche at the time to make this a notion powerful enough to serve such repetition? Certainly this fear could cover vast territories in the modern psyche, from the most intimate personal disillusionment to raging schizoid fantasies, all somehow latching onto the new extremities and uprooted mood of the age.
Where the earlier films stopped at the fringe of bedroom, however, I Married a Monster moves right into that realm, a move fraught with peril for filmmakers in those waning days before the age of the contraceptive pill and the sexual revolution blew it all open. The early rumblings of something changing were already echoing through prominent melodramas like those of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Mark Robson, to which I Married a Monster, one of the most genuinely odd and subtext-laden of major ‘50s sci-fi films, feels closely related, whilst also touching on territory Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang had been exploring for decades, the zones of mystery between human beings and the seething psychosexual forces enacted there. I Married a Monster digs incisively into the headspace of its moment of making, delving into questions about that fulcrum period that something like Mad Men tries to examine second-hand: the difficulties and discomforts with prescribed social norms in the time and how it manifested in utterly “normal” settings, and diagnosing fraying social contracts. Director Gene Fowler Jnr broke into momentary genre cinema auteurship with the equally oddball, metaphor-heavy I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), establishing a template of transformative unease and primal fear situated in entirely normal circumstances, symbolised by apparently idyllic Eisenhower-age Midwestern towns. Both films tellingly co-opted the common magazine article ploy of the time in their titles, of breathless confessionals and reports from the dangerous zones of life.
With I Married a Monster, with its script penned by Louis Vittes, who previously penned the more prosaic monster movie Monster from Green Hell (1957), Fowler shifted attention from teenage angst to marital, kicking off with an archetypal collective of male friends gathered for a bucks party at the local country club of another pleasant regional town, with Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon) due to be married the next day. Sourly miserable jokes are thrown about, but Bill sets out to check in with his bride with happy confidence, driving along the dark rural road back to town. He brakes suddenly to try and avoid hitting what looks like a body stretched on the road. The body disappears as Bill investigates, who is set upon by a bizarre octopoidal alien that glows in the dark, and enveloped by a creeping mist that spirits him away. Bill still turns up the next day to his wedding to fretful Marge Bradley (Gloria Talbott), and the couple head off to their honeymoon at a seaside resort that quickly turns as cheerless as the thundery weather: Bill has suddenly developed an aptitude for driving in the dark with his headlights off, and when they get to their hotel, instead of diving into bed with his nervously eager bride, Bill prefers to gaze into the lightning in poetic raptures, and the strobing light reveals that somewhere under his handsome, all-American exterior lurks an extra-terrestrial.
Months later, the increasingly disturbed Marge pines for children but her marriage isn’t delivering those, or anything else. Her GP, Dr Wayne (Ken Lynch), checks her as A-1 fertility-wise, and suggests Bill come see him, an idea that turns the already chilly atmosphere around the house Arctic. Even worse, when Marge buys “Bill” a young pup as a birthday present, the formerly dog-loving man finds the animal aggressive and suspicious, and later, when Marge is safely in bed, “Bill” descends to kill the dog and passes it off as an accidental death. Beginning to suspect something genuinely strange is going on, Marge follows “Bill” when he leaves the house one and tracks him into the woods outside of town, where she sees things that seem beyond human reality: an alien being floats in gaseous form out of “Bill”’s body and reforms solid before heading into a secreted space ship. The shell of “Bill” falls flat on the ground, insects crawling over its stony face, and Marge flees in dizzy panic.
Fowler defuses any doubts about whether Marge’s controlling perspective is unreliable by making it clear early on what’s happening, but nonetheless expertly grows a sense of tingling atmosphere as he patiently charts the mounting evidence she finds that this conspiracy is not just in her mind, and the avoidance of making any mystery about the substitution shifts focus agreeably onto what are the motives of the aliens and how Marge will respond. Fowler intelligibly contrasts domestic domiciles of the suburbs with not just the mutable menace of the woods that fringe such safe, civilised zones, but also with the inner precincts of the town, a crude caricature of urbanity yearning for the status of a grown-up city where outcasts, reprobates, unhappy upright citizens, demimondaines, and drifters keep odd hours and the underbelly of this world is usually kept safely contained. Whereas in Teenage Werewolf Fowler’s junior artificial werewolf stalked pals on moonlit country paths, here Marge’s flight through the woods turns into a whirl of hallucinatory fears, looming alien faces and zombie-Bill chasing her in her mind. Like the same year’s The Blob (for which I Married a Monster was actually produced to partner on a double bill), Fowler turns the venturesome night of a small town into a zone of simultaneous threat and embrace in the suburban enclave, the Everytown locale turned into island amidst darkness where beasts roam.
Fowler’s promise as a director was never really fulfilled: whilst his first two works are still the objects of fervent cult admiration, as often happened with directors who revealed an affinity with the fantastic genres, his subsequent works out of those genres rose in respectability but declined in interest and in between a bit of TV directing, he returned to original job of editor. Importantly, Fowler had cut The Woman in the Window (1944) and While the City Sleeps (1956) for Fritz Lang, and Lang’s impact on Fowler seems particularly deep: Lang’s feel for environment as actor in the cinematic space, his fondness for thickets of psychological disease in his characters, and constantly recurring themes of sinister conspiracy, oppressive regimes, and infiltration are all clearly apparent here. I Married a Monster sports intelligent filmmaking, with arresting moments evoking the strong influence of not just Lang but also Alfred Hitchcock on his efforts. A sequence depicting Marge lying in bed listening to her husband’s approach, cross-cutting with his steps up the stairs, strongly suggests Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946), both films that likewise revolve around female protagonists under threat in their marriages (notably, Fowler also had Hitchcock’s regular editor George Tomasini working for him here).
Fowler pulls off the kind of invisible edit Hitchcock and Orson Welles were fond of early in the film with a hint of dextrous humour and thematic import when he uses flashing lightning to mask a shift from the window of the hotel restaurant newlywed Marge and “Bill” are nervously toasting each-other in, to their room upstairs: Fowler hides his technique with the same device he reveals his alien – the lightning – and mixes in a joke about deceptions and slippery realities. The Farrell house becomes a noir-ish zone of shadow and telling compartmentalisation, repeating shots of “Bill” and Marge in turn watching their partner in the kitchen from the living room, observing each-other playing at domesticity whilst filled with unease and shame. Fowler notably echoes a moment in Lang’s Fury (1936) when Marge finds herself floundering in the middle of town after fleeing the aliens in the woods and hears blaring, cheery music, only to find a dull and desolate bar with a few sleazy denizens. Wiseguy Weldon (James Anderson) and punchy barman Grady (Max Rosenbloom) mock her reports of monsters as the ravings of a frustrated closet alcoholic, but are also tantalised by this wild-eyed escapee from Squaresville. Weldon tracks her to her house and hangs about hoping she’ll emerge again looking for fun, only to be confronted by the town’s two assimilated policemen Schultz and Swanson (Jack Orrison and Peter Baldwin) and executed by them when realises what’s going on. Marge tells their chief, Capt. Collins (John Eldredge), what’s happening, and he counsels patience, but of course, flashing lightning reveals that he too has been possessed.
Fowler’s little universe proliferates with ingenious fragments of surrealist destabilisation, which often pack a sneaky thematic wallop and totemic encapsulation of the genre’s essence. Mysterious mists slide out of urban alleyways, enfold men and erase them. The hatch for an alien spaceship is secreted amidst the woods just beyond the fringes of a town. Dead animals mark the progress of monsters hiding in suburbia. The obsessions of Middle America, like security and stability, are tweaked only slightly to be turned into punitive sarcasms. The streets of the idyllic town become zones of fascistic repression, so that a lurking “criminal type” is not just confronted and waved on by enforcers of the illusion of peace, but knocked unconscious and shot dead on the street. An unhappy marriage and the moans of a billion wives that their husband just isn’t the man they fell in love with anymore becomes a literal wedding to an alien interloper. The tread of a husband’s feet on the stairs, so easily translated into fear of an abusive spouse or Marge’s own sexual anxieties, becomes the step of the secreted beast. Aliens watch humans from the forest and study their behaviour with intent of conquest and mimic their bodies, then sit around in bars refusing to drink like teetotallers, but end up using the time to whine about their mates and their lots in life just like their hosts.
In the film’s most strikingly eerie scene, the teasing hooker who hangs about Grady’s, Francine (Valerie Allen), wanders the desolate space of the town’s centre, sauntering with a hungry sensuality that’s clearly anything but domestic. Beings emblematic of free-floating sexuality and reproductive craving come into contact and conflict, as Francine tries to chat up a stranger with a hooded jacket she sees staring at dolls in a store-front window: too late does she see that her prospective John is an alien. The alien blasts her with a ray gun as she runs off, momentarily turning her to a blazing spectre before fading into oblivion, before the monster turns back to its weird, sad, solitary study of another species’ iconographic celebration of its offspring. It’s already been made clear by this time that the aliens do want to mate with human women, as the gang of replaced males have discussed. One quality that elevates I Married a Monster is not just its broad metaphors but its web of reversals and epiphanies. The gang of male friends annexed by the aliens who stand in place of normality, far from being agreeably Norman Rockwellian types signifying free and easy Americana, aren’t particularly likeable. In fact they’re mostly a mob of liquor-swilling, disgruntled, misogynist jerks conjoined by their general dread of the trappings of domesticity they nonetheless head into dutifully. The only difference between them and the aliens is that the aliens know why they’re passing.
These men in grey flannel – most of them work in insurance – are already a step away from losing themselves anyway. If they resist, like Sam Benson (Alan Dexter), they’re assimilated by the aliens. Sam’s double then does the work of proposing to his long-time girlfriend Helen Rhodes (Jean Carson). Helen is in turn so delighted from being saved from being a “career woman” that she remains wilfully oblivious to Marge’s warnings that connubial bliss isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Another of Bill’s pals, Harry Phillips, drunkenly proposes “mass suicide” as the solution to marriage: after he’s replaced by an alien, Harry then complains in exactly the same bitter way about how disgusting his new body is. One of the tell-tale signs of assimilation is sudden giving up of drinking, a biological necessity for the allergic aliens but also a neat gag on the presumed niceties of marital life that the other, unchanged males still chafe against. Another of Bill’s pals, Ted Hanks (Chuck Wassil), rails against the chains of marriage (“Even a convict gets time off for good behaviour.”) and tries to make humour out of his wife Caroline’s (Darlene Fields) emasculating gift for baseball pitching that almost got her a try-out for the Yankees. Once most of the gang are assimilated, they gather with their wives for a picnic where the alien Sam falls out of a rowboat: the aliens are as unfamiliar with water as they are with liquor, so Ted leaps into the lake alone to haul Sam out whilst the others all stand, shirtless and buff, a hilarious spectacle of masculinity turned passive and ineffectual.
Caroline’s pregnancy however forestalls Ted’s replacement and, later, fatherhood brings him out all smiles, handing cigars to Marge and Dr Wayne – not a casual detail, as Wayne, by now convinced of the truth of Marge’s warnings, realises that the town’s recent fathers must still be human, providing a reliable force to muster and take on the infiltrators. I Married a Monster posits parenthood as not just as an act of biological urging but as a commodity of value, a communal need as well as a personal one, one which the male aliens are forced, ironically, to share intimately with the broody women of Earth. Once the veil drops between “Bill” and Marge and the alien appeals to his potential mate for understanding, he explains that all of his species’ women have died out during their long and agonising exodus from their dying planet, and now they have no choice but to seek mates on the way. “You have no idea how rare life is those cold, countless miles of space,” “Bill” reports with a hint of haunted exhaustion, correlating the deadness of the void with the infertility that has stricken his race and the distances between the two worlds with those between men and women. “We came together for breeding purposes only,” “Bill” says of his species’ unemotional nature, but begs Marge for understanding as he confesses to be “learning what love is.”
Of course, like most ‘50s sci-fi films, the Cold War’s special paranoias infest I Married a Monster, and the aliens, with their coldly unemotional, communal ethos, readily call to mind the archest caricatures of Communists as unfeeling, obedient hive minds. But the film suggests other varieties of modern pressure upon the essential stability of the idealised nuclear family unit that would soon burst it open. Critics and theorists have argued for decades over the political meaning of Siegel’s pod people, but in the end the suggestion that they represented a kind of Rorschach test for our anxieties in an age buffeted by the uprooting of old securities feels most accurate. I Married a Monster has this quality too, but the film ultimately evokes more personal, interior anxieties. Much in the same way that Invaders from Mars beautifully communicates a child’s fear of the loss parental love amidst its tacky wonders, I Married a Monster is most crucially about the idea communicated in its title, the fear of the otherness in the partner who romantic ideals tell us are supposed to be fused into our very sense of self. The film is explored chiefly from the wife’s point of view in being tethered to a man who cannot perform for her in bed. Talbott’s performance, her only real star moment, fits her oh-so-‘50s apparel, angular and vivid, shot through with breathless need and tremulous determination. Like the same year’s much less accomplished but still gaudily symbolic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, I Married a Monster conflates marital melodrama with monster movie and proto-feminist inquiry: both Marge here and Allison Hayes’ fraying heiress in 50 Foot Woman are beset by aliens who neatly turn percolating unease into ripe manifestations, and troubled by men they love without recourse.
The infiltrating aliens of It Came From Outer Space were detached from the Earthlings, merely following their own programme; the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers inimical opportunists mimicking humanity but erasing its essence. Here something more different again is at work, for I Married a Monster is simultaneously enriching and disturbing in the quiet but powerful empathy it offers for both sides of its coin. The fake “Bill” is revealed as a creature that feels the lightest breezes of humanity in his human form, and responds with yearning, albeit a yearning laced with colonialist entitlement, an entitlement the other aliens never doubt. Tryon was an actor who had near brushes with major stardom (particularly in The Cardinal, 1963) but quit to become an accomplished horror writer, and he was cast with alacrity here. With his vivid cheekbones and Action Man doll’s physique, he’s almost a caricatured ideal of ‘50s manhood, but Tryon’s ambiguity is always apparent, the actor displaying churning emotion under his stolid surface with deceptive passion. Tryon was beset by sexual confusion until he finally came out in the early ‘70s, and the film’s strong undercurrent towards reading as a metaphor, at least in part, about hiding as a gay man with a beard wife feels acute even when you don’t know this biographical detail. The newly replaced “Sam” visits “Bill”, ostensibly over an insurance policy, where “Sam” has to reveal himself with an overt gesture when “Bill” won’t get the hint, whereupon “Bill” welcomes him to the club, in a scene that feels like an elaborate form of cruising. Not for nothing, then, do the town’s successful breeders go out hunting for the hidden misfits who cannot reproduce. Notably, although Tryon disliked having to act in this film he tackled the theme of people being drafted into playing roles in an uncanny community himself in his later novel “Harvest Home.”
Whilst the fantasies are still mostly veiled here, a new phase of the horror and sci-fi genres based in the fervent fear of physical perversion seems nascent. So too, indeed, does the shifting balance between horror and sci-fi themselves, a year after Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein. There was often little distance between the genres during the decade anyway, in works like Them! and Creature from the Black Lagoon (both 1954) with their inky, nightmarish sagas of monstrous advent, with only the most fundamental underpinnings of the two genres – the irrationalism of horror and the solid cause-and-effect of sci-fi – to distinguish them. Here, the emphasis on the psychological nature of the disquiet and the dark visual palette betray the shift. I Married a Monster’s anticipations are interesting and vital, including David Lynch’s placement of surrealist fragmentation in homey surrounds in Blue Velvet (1986) and TV’s Twin Peaks, whilst the eroticised fear of deviant birth and strange sexuality inevitably feel like precursors to David Cronenberg and the progeny of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Marge’s recoiling horror at the thought of being impregnated with an essentially alien foetus looks forward to Cronenberg’s darkest fantasies like the infamous births of The Brood (1978) and The Fly (1986) in particular, making I Married a Monster, in spite of the dated social assumptions it anatomises, one of the most forward-looking of the major ‘50s sci-fi films, as well as just about the last.
Putting its slippery meanings and weightier invocations aside, I Married a Monster is above all a fun, smart, well-made film (all the more impressively so for its budget) that delivers everything you want from a ‘50s monster movie: only the slightly pokey pacing and structuring of the middle third mar it, plus the slightly laborious effect of some of the dialogue scenes, the product in part perhaps of screenwriter Vittes camping out on set to make sure all his lines were served up exactly. But Fowler delivers a great finale as Marge realises she’s completely trapped by the secret regime that controls the town, but finally convinces Dr Wayne of what’s going on. This sets Ted and other recent fathers on the warpath, moving in a posse to hunt for the space ship and stage a raid on the two unmasked aliens guarding their ship. The attackers find themselves hopelessly outgunned as bullets just pock the skins of the spongy alien flesh in an ingenious little special effect, whilst the ray guns of the enemy blast the men to atoms. But Fowler employs a fun irony as one of the men’s German Shepherd dogs successful bring down the two aliens by attacking and ripping open their distended, tentacle-like neck arteries: it’s a bit of payback for their canine brethren killed earlier that also, amusingly, underlines the film’s theme of species self-loyalty.
The men are then able to penetrate the alien craft where, in another fillip of quality strangeness, the missing men are found dangling like sides of beef, hooked up to projection devices to sustain the aliens’ disguises. The rush to free the men however precipitates tragedy for the aliens who have taken their places, especially “Bill”, who has suffered from being taught what humanity as he remained nonetheless tethered to alien mission, only to be inevitably destroyed whilst fighting for his species’ future, and also is aware of it in a more personal manner thanks to his new human impulses to make it worse: “Bill”, “Schultz”, and “Swanson” dash to intervene but as each host is disconnected they fall one by one and dissolve into gruesome stew: back in his office, the fake Chief Collins pulls out a tiny transmitter and signals to his brethren to give this wild and nasty planet before melting into the same mush. Real Bill pops out of the spaceship into Marge’s arms moments after his doppelganger meets his end, and the fade out presents a last, haunting vista, of an alien fleet moving past Earth and heading on to friendlier climes. “It’s a nice idea anyway,” the fake Bill said earlier, writing his own epitaph, “Making visitors feel welcome.”
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Director: Terence Fisher
By Roderick Heath
A fog-rimmed lake. A sonorous voice on the soundtrack telling us we are now in Transylvania. A carriage careening through the twilight forest, the driver whipping his horses in frenzy, his comely passenger panicking as her journey to a new life seems to be turning into a nightmarish ride in unknown territory. What looks like dead body lies on the road, blocking the way. A mysterious stranger watches from the woods, looking for his opportunity to stealthily climb aboard the coach and work his mysterious purpose. Now that’s how you start a horror movie.
Amongst horror movie fans and connoisseurs of Hammer Films’ output, The Brides of Dracula has slowly gained repute, to the point where some state today that it’s the best horror work the studio ever made. The film’s delayed rise to such acclaim was due to its being overshadowed and dismissed as a by-product at the time of its release. Christopher Lee had played Bram Stoker’s vampire overlord in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958) to audience-delighting, icon-making effect. Titling a film The Brides of Dracula without Dracula actually turning up was received as a bit of a cheat, and after Lee resumed the role, Hammer’s first stab at extending its vampire franchise was obscured. Lee, frightened with good reason of being typecast, refused to play the role again, and would not buckle until 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness. In the meantime, Fisher and the creative team at Hammer tried to synthesise a replacement for Dracula whilst retaining his antagonist, Peter Cushing’s Dr Van Helsing, for another bout with evil. Lee and Cushing wouldn’t be reunited in their archetypal roles until Dracula A.D. 1972. The film’s development was rocky, with three credited screenwriters including the studio’s two main horror scribes, Jimmy Sangster and Peter Bryan, and contributions from producer Anthony Hinds, Fisher, and Cushing, and a planned finale that was dropped and then used in another film. And yet Brides stands alongside the likes of Fisher’s own The Gorgon (1964) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire (1963), and John Gilling’s The Reptile (1966), as one of the supreme Hammer films, a fiercely concentrated and lushly executed work of the studio’s peculiar brand of Technicolor Gothic, instantly recognisable for its near-operatic sense of colour and drama.
The Brides of Dracula arrived when Hammer’s budgets and ambitions were expanding, with more elaborate sets and some special effects, but still limited enough to deliver some of the shoddy pleasures associated with the brand, here apparent most particularly in a delightfully unconvincing devil bat. But Brides is a vibrant work, one that revels in being freed from the specific mythos of Dracula himself whilst still remixing the themes and images established so vividly by Fisher’s first take. Early sequences provide a tweak on Stoker’s template by placing a woman, rather than a man, in danger in a remote locale, and emphasising more forcefully the theme of the innocent abroad taking a plunge into the abyss. The innocent here is Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), a young Frenchwoman on her way to work as a student-teacher in the small town of Badstein, in the usual hazily defined Mittel Europa of Hammer works, supposedly in what the narrator describes as, “Transylvania – land of dark forests, dread mountains and black, unfathomed lakes – still the home of magic and devilry as the Nineteenth century draws to a close.” The thunder of the opening resolves in a fake-out, as the body on the road proves to be only a peculiarly shaped log, which the fretful coachman (inevitably, Michael Ripper) clears out of the way. But this anticlimax turns out to be a ploy by the stranger in the woods (actually Black Park in Buckinghamshire, soon be all too familiar to audiences of Hammer films) who catches hold of the back of the coach and rides secretly with it into the nearby village.
The stranger’s part in the film proves the most enigmatic element, an emissary of evil who’s never named (although the credits and the famously whacko novelisation by Dean Owen call him Latour) and vanishes from the proceedings having performed his deed, as he bribes the coachman to leave the village and abandon Marianne while she’s in a tavern having dinner. Already gilded genre cliché is already in play, but with a twist: the locale is strange, the underlying mood tense, but the locals are friendly enough in a workaday fashion, until the time of dread falls upon them, at which point the innkeeper so solicitous to Marianne (Norman Pierce) and his wife (Vera Cook) are gripped by enigmatic, hysterical urgency. Fisher offers a lovely weird moment when an abrupt silence draws the attention of Marianne and the innkeeper, who have been conversing pleasantly, to the front door, and see that the stranger is standing there, watching them with a satisfied smile, whilst everyone else in the room has fallen gravely quiet. Marianne is advised to flee by the two solicitous hoteliers, but before they can bustle her away, the sound of another coach coming into town signals the limits of their bravery and resistance. “Don’t open it,” the wife says; “I must,” the man replies in bleak concession to life under a tyranny. Tyranny in this village has a courtly face, however, as the owner of the coach Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who offers Marianne hospitality for night, beguiling the young woman with aristocratic indulgences, like fancy wine. Marianne accepts and dines with the Baroness in the castle overlooking the village.
The Baroness offers that most hallowed of gothic horror tropes, the devolved remnant of the ancien regime reminiscing with exultant sadness about the times when the castle was the scene of grand parties and conspicuous consumption. By this time, however, Marianne is privy to the mysterious secret of Castle Meinster, having glimpsed from the room the Baroness assigns her a young man, standing on a balcony far below. The Baroness admits this is her son, the young Baron who is, she explains, beset by a malady that has destroyed their lives, a malady he picked up in his wild, indulgent youth: “We pray for death, my son and I,” she reports, shocking Danielle but also stirring her empathy. However, during the night, Marianne catches sight again of the Baron, this time seemingly about to hurl himself to his death from his apartment balcony. She screams out to stop what she presumes to be his imminent suicide, but after she find her way through the house into the Baron’s apartment, she is confronted by the contrivance that makes his suicide by jumping impossible: he’s chained by the leg. The Baron, far from being an imprisoned lunatic, steps out from the shadows to reveal himself as a starkly handsome, soft-spoken romantic idol who appeals desperately to Marianne to find the key to the lock on his ankle in his mother’s room.
The Brides of Dracula offers a fun burlesque here on classic historical romantic fiction, calling back to British cinema’s mid-‘40s heyday of films in that genre when James Mason and Stewart Granger played roguish, black-hearted seducers not that far removed from Hammer’s Dracula. Marianne is cast as plucky damsel freeing the cruelly imprisoned heir with an impressive feat of bravery, stealing into the Baroness’s room and locating the key and then, when she’s almost trapped by the Baroness’s arrival, escaping through the window and traversing a narrow ledge to safety, all whilst still clad in her nightgown. But Marianne’s act of love-struck bravery proves, of course, to have been performed in the service of bottomless evil, because the Baron is a vampire, held in restraint by his mother and kept sated with young women like Marianne. The freed Baron shields Marianne from the Baroness’s wrath however, telling Marianne to go pack and then addressing his mother with smoothly menacing intensity that compels her to follow him back into his former prison. Marianne, once dressed and ready to leave, hears a strange cackling laugh echoing from the Baron’s apartment and descends to investigate. Rather than her beautiful prize for gallant action, Marianne only finds Frieda laughing in nihilistic delight over the Baron’s discarded restraint, and the cracked servant happily makes Marianne face the consequence of her act: the Baroness sitting dead in an armchair. Marianne, horrified and panicked, flees into the night and traverses the forest by moonlight. Frieda remains behind, muttering a Shakespearean soliloquy as she admonishes the dead Baroness for her history of indulging the young Baron until he finally become an undoubted monster, and anticipates the Baron’s inevitable return to his coffin, waiting empty for its owner’s return.
Hammer’s brand of horror was usually quite literal and straightforward, portraying eruptions of the irrational in a thoroughly tangible context, an alternative to the otherworldly approach of German expressionism. This alternative was rooted in a peculiarly British variety of magic-realism, one that had long lurked within classic gothic literature and romantic fiction, a distorted, magnified sense of the compellingly vicious that had generally only found cinematic expression in Britain through Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, and the charismatic bounders and bitches of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the ‘40s. Evil, no matter how supernaturally powered, becomes a materialist thing infesting and infecting the human world in the Hammer ethos, whilst Fisher’s approach to the genre’s monochromatic moral essence was resolutely totemic and vivid, staked in flesh and blood and stone and wood. Social evil is indivisible from the less palpable kind, feeding each-other. The Brides of Dracula, however, sees the director straining beyond the studio’s usual realistic template, as he would again with The Gorgon. As usual with Fisher’s direction, the dramatic, geographical, and interpersonal relationships are all mapped with an exacting sense of linkage, progression, cause and effect in Brides. He builds a little world with the fastidiousness of a model train enthusiast, where all the elements exist precisely to facilitate others and are demonstrably connected, like the plainly visible chateau above the Meinster village set, and the keen camera movements and angles in the chateau that make the set feel both labyrinthine and spatially coherent.
Yet Fisher often invested his horror films with hints of dark fairy tale and folk myth, an inflection fully apparent in images here like Marianne stalking the shadowy halls of the fairy tale castle, trying to free her demon lover, and then running away into the dark forest like Snow White, only to be found as a sleeping beauty lying in the midst of the woods by an improbable Prince Charming. The Brides of Dracula skirts of a kind of airy cinematic mysticism usually associated with continental filmmakers like Lang, Cocteau, and Franju, with their love of permeable realities and blithe manifestations of the fantastic. The film also harkens explicitly to Fisher’s early, pre-Hammer work, the Hitchcockian thriller So Long at the Fair (1952) where another young female traveller falls through the permeable barriers between normal and abnormal worlds, faced with jarring disappearances and conspiracies of silence. Van Helsing speaks of vampirism not as individual monstrosities but a “Cult of the Undead,” a “remnant of one of the ancient pagan religions,” which introduces a note of dense, conspiratorial evil reminiscent of Lang’s films, whilst the darkly romantic fairy tale motifs in a proto-modern world anticipate Franju’s remix of Judex (1963). Moreover, Brides may well be the most specifically influential of Hammer films, certainly in its visuals the quintessential studio entry. The rich Technicolor photography by Fisher’s regular photographer Jack Asher painting a world in musty, muted blues and browns that suggest a permanent autumn in the world, punctuated by eye-gorging, saturated hues in clothing and décor, evoking Victorian lithographic and book plate illustration to generate a sense of gothic atmosphere. Neil Jordan, with The Company of Wolves (1984), and Tim Burton, in Sleepy Hollow (1999), would later pay explicit tribute to that style, with Burton even recreating the windmill featured in this film’s finale for his tribute.
The morning following Marianne’s adventure sees a passing coach halt on the forest roadside. A casual downward pan reveals Marianne sprawled unconscious on autumnal leaves. The passenger in the coach proves to be just the person you want to find you after a terrifying encounter with a vampire: Dr Van Helsing plucks Marianne off the ground and transports her to the village, where the innkeepers are surprised and happy to see her safe. Van Helsing has been invited to the village by the local Cure (Fred Johnson) who suspects the nature of the evil previously held within the Chateau and wants Van Helsing to investigate. Van Helsing carefully teases out details of Marianne’s story whilst trying to shield her from the nature of the danger she faced, hoping to speedily return her to normality, but this proves a miscalculation on his part, as he leaves the door open for the Baron to approach Marianne still playing the hapless young lover, his mother’s death dismissed as tragic culmination of her own violence. Van Helsing escorts Marianne to her new place of employment, a Girl’s Academy run by the sweet-and-sour couple Frau and Herr Lang (Mona Washbourne and Henry Oscar). Van Helsing calmly faces down the overbearing Herr Lang, whose own wife describes him as “a little bit terrifying,” when he chastises Marianne for being late and in a man’s company: Van Helsing producing his business card with its long list of impressive doctorates instantly turns petty overlord into grovelling bourgeois. This joke is repeated with a slightly more pointed inference later when Baron Meinster turns up to romance Marianne, and Lang, not knowing him, threatens to throw him out. The Baron explains he’s Lang’s landlord with suave assurance, but gets a measure of revenge as he congratulates Lang on maintaining “such a charming house and grounds – at so low a rent.”
Cushing’s Van Helsing here wields the same specific gravitas he held in Dracula, as the unremittingly rational being who battles supernatural evil with the trappings of religion and myth but with the method of a scientist, slowly cutting out the cancer of ancient ills as the emblem of modernity as faith. “Who is it is who has no fear?” Baroness Meinster asks him when he approaches her: “Only God has no fear,” he replies, but Van Helsing hesitates at no threshold. Cushing was better off than Lee in returning to his character, as Lee would find to his increasing chagrin as he was reduced to an intensely glowering monster in Hammer’s later Dracula entries, whilst here Cushing was allowed to develop nuances in the role. Van Helsing had been courageous but brutal in Dracula, embodying the puritanical force pounding life out of the sensually gorged lovers of the vampire overlord, but turning on a penny to solicitously comfort a small girl with fatherly grace. Here that side of him is emphasised as he appears as the essential crusader hero, bringing relief from tyranny and insidious evil.
Producer Hinds quipped once that he and Fisher and Sangster had all regarded these films as their own babies but Cushing was certain of it, and Cushing’s contributions to the script perhaps helped this recasting of the hero in something like his own image, kinder and with a dash of romanticism. Van Helsing engages in rivalry with the Baron for Marianne’s affection as well as her soul, the Baron’s pretty boy charms pitted against the spindly savant’s hangdog intensity and winning out initially. Cushing pulls off a marvellous scene when Marianne informs Van Helsing she’s now engaged: he congratulates her with a good grace that’s ever so slightly pallid, but when she mentions just who it is she’s marrying he reacts with horror and checks her hands for signs of the tell-tale venereal stigmata of the “kiss of Dracula.” “Do you love him?” he asks in mild incredulity, and quickly leaves when Marianne answers yes, silently astounded at the perversities of existence but not swayed from his mission.
The deep veins of perversity that spread through The Brides of Dracula are indeed a source of the film’s specific richness. The notion that vampirism was a metaphor for sexuality permeates Fisher and Sangster’s take and permanently inflected the genre, but here Meinster’s attentions are indiscriminate and suggestively pansexual. Even Van Helsing, who’s seen a thing or two, is revolted by the discovery Meinster has drunk his mother’s blood, and this comes on top of the narrative’s hints of homosexuality, as the good doctor himself comes in for the vampire’s attentions. The film’s title suggests the Girl’s Academy will be a feasting ground for the bloodsucker as one would be in Lust for a Vampire (1970), but Meinster only attacks one of Marianne’s fellows there, her fast friend Gina (Andree Melly). On the night of his first release, Meinster kills a village girl (Marie Devereux), and her heartbroken father is confused and appalled when the Cure, after finding her buried in the churchyard, tells him she must be removed. Van Helsing, who overhears, assures the Cure that he can prevent the girl’s revival, but when he arrives in the churchyard finds Frieda lying upon the grave, playing midwife in encouraging the new vampire’s emergence in a travesty of birth. This cues one of the most memorable scenes in the genre’s history as it climaxes with the ecstatically morbid images of the girl’s white hand thrusting out of the earth, and then pushing back the lid of her coffin and sitting up with a dead-eyed smile of sensual gratification. This image of a vampire’s birth has an iconic perfection, and indeed it could well have been the first depiction of this morbidly beautiful process.
Van Helsing can’t help but watch in disgusted but mesmerised fascination, a spell only broken when the Cure, who’s just arrived, bellows his protest and then leap to secure Frieda whilst Van Helsing chases the vampire. Van Helsing’s pursuit is stalled however by Meinster, transformed into a huge bat which dive-bombs the vampire hunter until his kitbag tumbles open and his crucifix spills out. Van Helsing heads up to the Chateau Meinster, where he finds the Baroness, now revived as a vampire, haunting her own castle. The splendidly patrician Hunt was most famous for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), which Fisher had edited, and her casting here plays on that role as a reclusive and haughty grande dame whose hospitality entails destruction (Jackson, playing her servant, was also in the Lean film where she played the fearsome Mrs Joe), but here is allowed to retain more pathos as an eerie, existentially tormented victim who hides her new vampire fangs like a demure maiden behind a veil. The Baroness recites with dread the indulgences that brought disease upon her son and self and now believing herself cursed to eternally bend to her son’s will. David Peel, chiefly known as a stage actor, was received badly as a stand-in for Lee when the film came out, an understandable response as far as it goes.
Peel is, nonetheless, a coldly confident presence as a younger, more sadistically callow but superficially debonair evil lord, charming Marianne with his Mod hairdo, hints of intense sensuality, and precise, plummy Old Vic accent reminiscent of a better-looking edition of fellow Hammer alumnus Michael Gough: he’s the vampire prince as a mix of boarding school bully and toffy-nosed pop heartthrob. Meinster is presented as a Byronic sleaze who takes active delight in spectacles of cruelty, stripped of even the faint remnant of noble hauteur Lee gave his Dracula. Peel handles the alterations between the smooth façade he puts on to people he needs to charm and the animalistic savagery of his true nature with élan, particularly when he suddenly appears from nowhere whilst Van Helsing talks to his mother, teeth extended and mouth dripping blood, hissing like a snake at the sight of its only natural predator.
Meinster and Van Helsing have brief but vigorous tussle as the doctor fends off vampire by sliding his crucifix down the length of a table toward him, forcing the vampire back, cringing in pain. Meinster flees after upending the table to trap Van Helsing in turn, leaving Van Helsing alone with his mother. Fisher offers another starkly simple yet rhythmically powerful aside as Van Helsing waits for the dawn to give the Baroness the release she craves, whereupon he takes out stake and hammer and drives it through her body: Fisher cuts from the spurt of red blood to a deep crimson curtain which Van Helsing rips down and spreads across her body with solicitous care that mirrors the vampire midwifery, laying the desiccated matriarch to rest like a mother himself putting a baby to bed. The scoring by Malcolm Williamson, an Australian-born composer who later became Master of the Queen’s Music, is particularly notable in this sequence, a lightly funereal organ on sound rising to a crescendo that helps the vigorous cutting and colour inflate the brief sequence into something rhapsodic. Van Helsing’s return to the village coincides with news of Gina’s death at the Academy. At the Cure’s urging, Van Helsing goes with the local GP, Tobler (Miles Malleson) to look at the body, and convinces Tobler to let him deal with the problem by quickly quarantining the body locked in a stout, padlocked coffin and assigning reliable people to keep a watch over it. Marianne relieves Frau Lang in this task and waits with the school’s stable master Severin (Henry Scott). Before Van Helsing can return with his vampire killing kit, however, Severin is killed by Meinster in bat form, whilst Marianne is confronted by Gina rising out of her coffin.
Fisher borrows a flourish here from M. R. James’ “Count Magnus” as the padlocks on Gina’s coffin fall one by one to the floor unlocked. The vampire Gina stalks the terrified Marianne with fiendishly sensual intent even as she begs her forgiveness for “letting him love me” whilst urging Marianne to kiss “your little Gina.” The lesbian vampire film still has to wait until the following year’s Blood and Roses to come out of the coffin however, as Van Helsing arrives in time to chase Gina off, but Brides does rack up the possibly more interesting landmark of gay vampiric activity later. Van Helsing breaks his unspoken compact to protect Marianne from the truth as she confronts her with the Baron’s nature and forces her to tell him where she expects to meet him. This proves to be an old windmill at the edge of town, a marvellous arena for a final confrontation where Van Helsing finds Gina and the other vampire bride with a harshly mocking Greta. Van Helsing holds off the two girls with his crucifix but Greta simply jumps on him and fights for the talisman, only to accidentally plunge with it over a balcony and crash to her death on some boards laid over a well. The cross drops through a crack into the well before Van Helsing can retrieve it, leaving him vulnerable to Meinster when he enters producing a chain from under his cape and almost throttling Van Helsing to death with it, before gleefully biting his nemesis, taking enough blood to put him under his command. The Baron then goes to drag Marianne out of the Academy and bring her back so that he can force Van Helsing to watch her initiation into the undead fold.
When he wakes up, Van Helsing is distraught to find the vampire’s mark on his neck, but he isn’t out of tricks yet. In another of the film’s innovative and clever ideas, much mimicked in vampire cinema ever since, Van Helsing tries a radical cure. He stokes a branding iron red hot in a brazier and then jams it against his wound, scalding him hideously but removing the stain of this most transgressive “kiss.” A little dab of holy water from a cask the Cure gave him heals the burn immediately, and Van Helsing is back to form. When Meinster returns he doesn’t realise his enemy is able to fight, and before he can vamp Marianna, Van Helsing helps to a face-full of holy water that leaves him horribly scarred. Meinster escapes after warding off Van Helsing by kicking the brazier over, turning the windmill immediately into an inferno, but Van Helsing escapes with Marianne to the mill’s upper balcony.
The climax originally intended of Brides was for Van Helsing to use a curse to call down other vampires as bats upon the Baron, for his transgression in drinking his mother’s blood. Budget constraints and Cushing’s objection to the idea Van Helsing would engage in black magic meant this concept was abandoned, only to be used a few years later in Kiss of the Vampire. Meinster’s comeuppance here is less spectacular but still original and memorable, as Van Helsing jumps onto the mill’s sail and drags it down to turn the whole structure into a crucifix, pinioning the Baron under the shadow of religious sanctity and finally killing him, leaving a fade out with Marianne in Van Helsing’s arms and the mill with the two vampire girls within going up in flames as the credits roll. The Brides of Dracula was released in what proved a banner year for horror cinema as the commercial force of Hammer’s success unleashed a new wave of films, including Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio, Roger Corman’s House of Usher, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and it stands tall with them in the genre’s mottled history. After all but dying out in the mid-1940s, the horror film was well and truly back from the dead.
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Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
By Roderick Heath
Like a miniature, speeded-up version of the ’70s new wave that reinvigorated American cinema, the mid-1990s saw a flurry of excitement about the burgeoning independent film scene. Hollywood suddenly saw a mine of talent in the fringes as Sundance became the hottest spot in the film world following the triumphs there of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. Low-budget filmmaking no longer had to be a seamy zone for rejects and mercenaries, but could promise invention and a tidy profit as long as a new, young audience remained hungry for this kind of storytelling. A lode of young and interesting filmmakers who had pieced works together on hopes and prayers suddenly gained access to major distribution and studio funds, and were quickly drawn into the big, mean world of commercial cinema. The scene didn’t really last very long, and quite a few of the new talents fell by the wayside, but others have proven to be the backbone of what’s left of serious American cinema. Paul Thomas Anderson made his name with a benighted debut film he called Sydney, but that a nervous studio renamed Hard Eight (1995). A fine, intimate work situated at the crossroads of crime drama and character study, Hard Eight didn’t prove to be a Reservoir Dogs (1992). Anderson recovered from that trial and decided to adapt a student film he’d made in 1988, The Dirk Diggler Story, a mockumentary about a fictional porn star. The resulting feature, Boogie Nights, proved to be ambitious and provocative. Most importantly, it was cunning in appropriating everybody’s pop culture memory in just the right way to get attention.
Anderson has since evolved into one of the most distinctive directors on the current film scene, but at the time he didn’t mind letting his roots show, annexing the same zone of retro fetishism and cineaste allusiveness Tarantino had explored, but skewing it to his own, more rarefied purpose. He unabashedly quoted masters, including Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese as well as more obscure classic cinema deities like Mikhail Kolotozov. But he also found the glory in the seamiest and most degraded types of cinematic achievement. Boogie Nights followed Scorsese’s Casino (1995) in making nostalgia for the barbed, seedy, lawless side of the ’70s cool again. Anderson took a chance with his subject matter that doesn’t seem like such a chance now largely because he took it: after ’80s conservatism and ’90 political correctness, delving back into the world of ’70s hedonism and the “golden age” of the pornographic film industry seemed doubly perverse. Anderson created a miniature genre of modern storytelling that gets off on the lost style of a past recreated in bright colours, whilst analysing the cultural shifts that buried both the best and the worst of that lost time.
The chief inspiration for Boogie Nights was the life of John Holmes, a superlatively endowed porn star who got himself blackballed by the industry for a time for his drug-addled unreliability and became entangled with criminal associates who probably drew him into a drug heist. They targeted a major dealer who repaid Holmes’ confederates in what became known as the Wonderland murders, whilst Holmes himself died of AIDS in 1988. Anderson’s take mimics Holmes’ grindhouse tragedy whilst changing its emphases and investing it with tinctures of parable and satire. Anderson’s seemingly outrageous intent proved only skin deep, as he avoided not just punitive censorship, but also presented the second variation on his obsessive theme of finding family in a hostile world, ironically locating that family within a realm usually painted as cruel and obscene. Shocking things do happen in the film, and the flaws and hypocrisies of the characters are often laid brutally bare. Yet the peculiar warmth Anderson feels for them, the quietly lucid humour he invests in their behaviour, and the acknowledgement of an adolescent joie de vivre unleashed in their private world made for Anderson’s most accessible work to date.
Anderson’s view of the era through pop-coloured glasses is cleverly justified by the media-created fetishes of its young hero, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), whose bedroom walls are a shrine to adolescent desire, from idolisation of Bruce Lee and kung-fu prowess to muscle cars and music heroes, with only a smattering of girly pictures. Eddie’s only special feature, his enormous penis, gets him laid often enough, so he craves fulfilment in other places, places his limited smarts can’t access. Eddie has hopes of finding entry into that bright and shiny world of celebrity and success and works at a flashy disco, Hot Traxx, run by Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), where he’s surrounded by the fashionable and beautiful. Luck, or something like it, is on Eddie’s side when porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) enters Hot Traxx one night with his stable’s two finest fillies, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham). Jack spots Eddie across the crowded dance floor, sensing something about the lad, whose slightly naïve look doesn’t prevent him thinking Jack is another old perv who wants to take a gander at his wang. Eddie’s life in his parents’ home is quickly revealed to be excruciating, and a critical explosion of contemptuous rage by his mother (Joanna Gleason) drives Eddie to leave and run straight into Jack’s arms, where he joins Amber and Rollergirl as part of a pick-up nuclear family. Eddie soon proves as close to a natural in the business as it’s ever seen, and takes a stage name that comes to him as a vision emblazoned in neon: Dirk Diggler.
Anderson presents much of Boogie Nights as an extended fantasia where the kinky energy and specific needs of these aberrant people are channelled into powerhouse success that makes their dreams, however tawdry, come true. Anderson’s simplest yet most radical idea was to invert the usual moral lessons of stories set in such a milieu: as long as the characters stick to the basic understandings of their “family,” they survive and prosper. The familial relationship of Jack, Amber, Dirk, and Rollergirl is rendered especially perverse when one notes that all of them have sex with one another, save for Jack and Dirk. But most of the bad that happens to them is imposed by the big, wicked world beyond their hermetic life, where they’re mere delusional misfits, and when they try to reach beyond its limits, they are swiftly and mercilessly punished. Boogie Nights therefore explores a similar idea to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), which likewise viewed the rock bottom of the Hollywood totem pole as a place where society’s rejects can find fellowship, though with an in-built irony that these aren’t exceptional artists, but rather people who have gotten lucky mining a seam of gold nobody else will touch.
Jack entices Eddie with a monologue that explains not merely the immediate satisfactions of his business, but a yearning for loftier achievements—Jack’s desire to make a movie that can hold his audience from the raincoat brigade with actual dramatic values, and thus achieve respectability, not such a ludicrous ambition in the days of Emmanuelle (1974). Anderson thus used the golden-age porn scene as a way to comment on Hollywood and the filmmaking world in general, glimpsing the pretences of purveyors of the more elevated form through the ambitions of the least. Dirk proves to be the catalyst for Jack’s dream, as he becomes not just an instant star that Jack can build more ambitious productions around, but comes up with a great idea to make just such a movie as Jack dreams of. With stable mate Reed Richards (John C. Reilly), Dirk thinks up a hero named Brock Landers, a cross between James Bond and John Shaft and an actualisation of all Dirk’s fantasies about achieving multifarious grandeur as savvy jetsetter, streetwise tough guy, and legendary super-stud.
The warm embrace of Jack’s world has a duplicitous quality, as it offers freedom, but only in stasis. Those who try to move away from its orbit quickly discover how inimical the outside world is. This Garden of Eden clearly has its own serpents lurking from the start, too. Jack’s production manager Little Bill (William H. Macy) is quietly tormented by his wife’s (Nina Hartley) wholehearted engagement with the hedonistic lifestyle around her, a subplot that seems wryly comedic in portraying marital misinterpretation of modern licence, but soon reveals a cruel streak driving emasculated pathos to extremes. Horner’s backer, “the Colonel” James (Robert Ridgley, who had played Jack Horner in The Dirk Diggler Story) is the very image of the kind of sleaze who annexes ’70s permissiveness for his own unsavoury ends, whilst maintaining a façade of prosperous bonhomie. He first appears at one of Jack’s epic pool parties with a painfully thin, barely pubescent model in tow (Amber Hunter), and within a few minutes, the girl has OD’d on a bad batch of cocaine brought by another of Jack’s guests, who freaks out over the limp form with blood streaming out of her nose. The Colonel has his driver dump her outside a hospital. Later, the Colonel is arrested and imprisoned, unsurprisingly, for keeping a collection of child pornography, a sin which even the forgiving Jack can’t abide. The Colonel explains all to Jack through prison glass after he’s been arrested, Jack’s face screwing up in rueful fury and shutting himself off from the Colonel’s curiously naïve pleas. Cocaine proves to be Dirk’s dark muse, making him grandiose, paranoid, and intermittently impotent, eventually destroying his partnership with Jack after he feels threatened by a potential rival in Johnny Doe (Jonathan Quint). Dirk and Reed are drawn by a friend, stripper Todd Parker (Thomas Jane), into a drug-fuelled crime after their attempts to break into music are disastrous; the allure of easy cash breaks down what little good sense they have.
Boogie Nights is such a crowded, dazzling, busy film that it demands multiple viewings to comprehend every trick it pulls off. Anderson’s script resembles a short story collection bundled into an ingenious whole, a stunt that feels intent on mimicking Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) but with all-original material. The storylines are gleaned from real histories from the porn scene, but transmuted by imagination into something very different from the kind of roman-a-clef melodrama the process implies. Boogie Nights’ structure resembles Altman’s communal, multicharacter zones, but the style—a relentless, experiential push—owes far more to Scorsese, and particularly Goodfellas (1990), including the famous Copacabana tracking shot and cocaine-fuelled paranoia sequence. Anderson’s appropriation of Scorsese’s keynotes takes them a step further, charging them with encompassing force. The film’s first half is replete with dancelike tracking shots and rhythmically edited sequences that bind the criss-crossing and interaction of his characters into synergistic panoramas. Anderson uses steadicam shots that pace through Jack’s and Eddie’s houses to communicate a sense of open communality and functioning life. His camera pirouettes often pay off in punchlines like the whole Horner cast dancing Saturday Night Fever style upon the Hot Traxx dance floor, unified in the flashy, vivacious glory of their moment. Or Eddie’s early return home, when Anderson’s camera swivels 360, noting his festooned idols with a rock-and-roll version of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” blaring on sound, turning his gauche fantasies into contemporary worship.
As well as offering a multifaceted insight here into Eddie’s mindscape and the culture that defines him, Anderson finds a fun, hip way to communicate an idea that’s obsessed him more gravely in There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) that in America, business and the wares it propagates are religion—except that Eddie is a worshipper, whereas the protagonists of the later works are ministers. Boogie Nights’ vein of comedy moves smoothly from observational wryness to outright satire and then to pitch-black absurdity. All of Anderson’s films have a comedic edge, but usually it’s buried more deeply and rendered with a queasier tone, whilst Boogie Nights retains a larkish quality even as it takes turns toward seething darkness. Indeed, it gains power because these two impulses are entwined, mostly sourced in characters who have varying degrees of sweet dumbness or cluelessness about how to act in the world. Dirk’s oblivious side, his and Reed’s initial competitiveness and their later, mutual, blinkered boosting, offer character comedy laced with warnings about how badly they’ll fare when they try to go it alone, paying off in hilarious vignettes of the pair trying to start a recording career, wielding cringe-inducing cock-rock and wheezing off-key renditions of power rock anthems (Stan Bush’s “The Touch,” actually written for The Transformers: The Movie, 1986, never knew what hit it). Anderson’s deep lexicon of such half-forgotten pizzazz informs this pastiche of retro media artefacts. Boogie Nights may well have created a proliferating contemporary aesthetic dedicated to such recreations, chasing the elusive texture of those artefacts.
The film’s funniest vignettes are built around that mimicry, in Amber’s short film about Dirk, the solitary scene actually depicting the film crew at work, and the glimpses of the Brock Landers movies. These vignettes are precise in their reconstruction of weak edits, bygone methods of hype, wooden acting, and try-hard charm, reflecting back through a distorted mirror the way time can turn even the most outré material into amusing, deracinated relic at best or camp at worst (the stilted way Moore recites the line, “This is a giant cock!” deserved some kind of award on its own). And yet Boogie Nights was and is much more than a retro parody. Andersons’s career-long fascination with Americana and the peculiarities of subcultures are articulated with obsessive detail to a degree that borders on anthropology. The recreation here of the late ’70s vibe, from the tummy-hugger shirts to the fake-wood-panelled rooms, provides the surface credulity whilst articulating Anderson’s fascination with lifestyle as a mode through which his characters as citizens in a consumerist society express themselves, their desires, worldviews, even philosophical and religious impulses, ideas that would culminate in The Master, where religion, business, and lifestyle are all fused by the great American guru. At first, having cool things is Dirk’s religion, but Dirk, a seed in the same soil that produces the haute-capitalist brutality of Daniel Plainview and the transcendental hucksterism of Lancaster Dodd, giddily celebrates his victory at an adult film award ceremony by rejoicing in how his films have helped people, liberating them from sexual repression, his success now a way for everyone to achieve happiness.
Anderson’s nimbleness in avoiding depicting the very business that concerns him is cunning, turns necessary self-censorship into a game of concealment played with the audience until the very final scene, when Dirk’s dick is suddenly seen in all its glory. By then, the all-important penis is regarded not in action, as the weapon of culture-changing, orgasm-inducing potency that could link it to pagan phallic art, but presented like the kind of consumer object Dirk himself adores: he finally learns and accepts a not-so-pleasant truth, that his body is his only commodity. The one sequence depicting actual porn photography makes a show of its own evasiveness, by emphasising instead the transmutation of low-rent reality into mythology, via the wonderment, ranging from envy to lust, of the onlooking crew, and the filmmaking process itself. Moreover, the plot of the movie being shot sarcastically reflects the plot of Boogie Nights, as Dirk plays a young man auditioning for a porn producer played by Amber and finding immediate favour. Anderson’s obsession with the theme of master/pupil, father/son relations is here given its gentlest variation by turning Jack into the gruff, almost biblical patriarch and protector of his flock and Dirk into the prodigal son who falls from grace when he gets too big for his breaches, wanders the desolate wilderness for a while, then contritely returns to beg forgiveness.
Whilst Dirk’s story anchors the film, the galaxy of characters around him vie for attention, cast by life as well as by Jack as supporting players. They vary from comic relief, like Reed and TT, to characters of tragic dimensions, including Little Bill, Amber, whose ex-husband uses her profession as a barrier to her seeing their son, and Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a chubby, schlubby aide on the film crew who falls head over heels for Dirk. Anderson mostly avoids the doll’s house aesthetic this brand of Altman-inspired filmmaking often devolves to when it comes to his gallery of types, though he does get a little cute and unavoidably scant with some of his characterisations. Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker) was supposed to allow exploration of the domestic abuse many former porn starlets suffered once they tried to settle down with men outside the business, but with that subplot cut, she simply seems to be written out of the film when she proves to be superfluous. Don Cheadle’s Buck Swope, a hi-fi expert with a day job as well as one of Jack’s stars, is a black guy with a mysterious predilection for country music, a touch that might have been far too precious. But Anderson is even able to invest his tale with intricate meaning, as this joke about his character both highlight’s Anderson’s interest in lifestyle and self-definition and deepens when Buck finds himself cold-shouldered by banks for loans to start an electronics store, a business he knows inside out, as the Moral Majority backlash begins and his past stymies his future. Anderson somehow imbues most of the character vignettes with lodes of power that come out of nowhere, startling moments like Scotty tearfully repeating “I’m a fucking idiot!” after coming on to unresponsive Dirk, and Amber bawling after a custody hearing where her ex, John Doe, brands her as a scarlet woman — such moments are glimpsed and then shied away from, as if with a sense of guilt at having accidentally seen such scenes of exposed pain and humanity. Rollergirl drops out of high school, bewildered by an exam and sexually insulted by a classmate (Kai Lennox), and completely reinvents herself as a media creation who quite literally never takes off her roller skates.
After the relatively straightforward realism evinced in Hard Eight, Anderson’s rare gift for constructing intensely rhythmic, intricately detailed cinema emerges here. The tableaux-like set-pieces in the film’s first half, the summery pool party driven by a wandering camera that acts like a seemingly casually observant visitor who’s eye is attracted by various vignettes and then a bikini-clad bottom right into a pool (quoting Kolotozov’s legerdemain in I Am Cuba, 1964, and like that film depicting the end of an exploitative Eden). The fateful New Year’s Eve tragedy later in the film is an even more intricate nexus of staging and exposition. Moreover, such scenes depict how the characters connect, or fail to, and make choices about how to deal with life, from Scotty’s masochistic self-abuse to Little Bill’s homicidal explosion, and Buck connecting with sweet-natured costar Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters); all are not just linked but entwined with a cosmological sense of human becoming and failing. Amidst the microcosmic events that affect the lives of their employees, Jack and the Colonel and rival porn producer Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall, crucial actor of Anderson’s first three films) talk about what’s about to make the macrocosm shift. Gondolli warns Jack that video is about to change the porn industry, a notion Jack rejects vehemently as the death of what little pretence to artistry their industry has. From today’s perspective, with the internet having slaughtered porn as an industry, there’s some irony in this now, but also Anderson was also probably considering the first rumblings of the digital filming movement in the late ’90s and its looming impact on the art form he loves, couched in the terms of a character defending what craftsman’s self-respect he has. The New Year’s motif might have seemed excessive, and yet Anderson finally makes time itself and the inevitable shifts it causes part of the texture here, concluding with Little Bill’s murder-suicide as the bang that quite literally ends the ’70s and shifts the tenor of the film.
Perhaps Anderson’s signature directorial touch, an extended filmic movement intercutting depictions of the characters spiralling in islets of behaviour that see them push to hysterical extremes before hitting epiphanies, was first offered here in the film’s last third. Anderson entwines exiled Dirk, Jack, Amber, and Rollergirl hitting rock bottom in varying ways, from Dirk foray into male prostitution ending in a gay bashing, to Jack and Amber trying their hand at a kind of prototypical reality television as they ride about L.A. and pick up a random male to have sex with Rollergirl. Their lucky man proves to be the classmate whose teasing drove Rollergirl out of school, and when he perform badly, he insults her and Jack. Jack loses control and beast him to a bloody pulp, and Rollergirl gets a few of her own kicks in. The two acts of violence here are mutual—Jack and Rollergirl lashing out at an emissary of the world that absorbs their product but disdains them, and Dirk being singled out as a pervert to be punished. Michael Penn’s scoring of this movement, a low, throbbing, urging drone with chimes, as if time is ticking down toward some doomsday, is particularly great. Anderson charts two diverse reactions in his characters, as Dirk tries to prove himself in the outside world whilst Amber and Rollergirl retreat into a haze of drugged-up, mother-daughter mind-melding and decide they don’t want to leave a room within the safe confines of Jack’s house.
Degradation segues into confrontations with death and crime. Buck, caring for a very pregnant Jessie, enters a bakery only for a gunfight to break out around him when an armed robber enters: Buck is left splattered with strangers’ blood—he wears an angelic white suit, in a darkly arch Kubrickian joke—and frozen amidst corpses, but sees a chance to exit his personal perdition by snatching up the bag full of cash the robber dropped. Such an utterly random/contrived twist anticipates Anderson’s fascination with both narrative capriciousness and classical theatrical devices like the deus-ex-machina, as would again be used in the climax of his follow-up, Magnolia (1999). Boogie Nights’ late swerve into more familiar crime territory stymies to a certain extent the film’s masterful examination of its characters and their unusual world. But nobody could really expect Anderson to resist the ready-made climax the Wonderland case provided, albeit still subjected to his wayward sense of humour and gift for creating cringe-inducing situations. Todd talks Dirk and Reed into joining his hare-brained scheme to sell fake cocaine to dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), and then springs his actual intent to rob Rahad’s fortune.
The careful construction here as the deal becomes increasingly uneasy is beautiful, punctuated by precisely employed yet random-feeling details that work on the nerves like nails on a blackboard, in Rahad’s hopped-up friendliness and the firecrackers let off at random by his young Chinese houseguest (Joe G.M. Chan). Rahad swans about in a kimono, life scored by the blaring mix-tapes he makes in objection to the song-order artists impose on their work in yet another form of lifestyle self-management. The episode combusts with Todd and Rahad’s bodyguard (B. Philly Johnson) ending up very dead, and Rahad chasing Dirk and Reed off into the night with a shotgun, deadly crime and high farce commingling. Dirk returns to Jack and is accepted after admitting his faults, making for a suitably mythic catharsis. Dirk is a “big shining star” for all his foolishness. The final scene, an obvious tribute to the simultaneously pathetic and learned vignette of Jake LaMotta at the end of Raging Bull (1980), sees Dirk restored and reciting dialogue in character that once again nudges the theme of the film. Dirk may never become as slick and knowing as Brock Landers, but he has found some peculiar wisdom.
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Director: Michael Curtiz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Although director Michael Curtiz and the rest of the team involved with making Casablanca could not have known it at the time, this last line of dialogue from the film perfectly characterizes the love affair movie audiences have had with this quintessential World War II romance since it premiered on November 26, 1942, in New York’s Hollywood Theatre. During the war, audiences were hungry for news and stories about the war, and films like The Battle of Midway (1942) and Mrs. Miniver (1942) mixed with documentaries like The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), frankly racist anti-Axis cartoons, and newsreels to keep the public informed and morale high; Casablanca was timed to appear about the same time as the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8 and the presumed liberation of Casablanca itself. While other wartime films have lived on, none have generated the ardor fans feel for this story of “three little people” caught in a love triangle. What makes this film so compelling that it lands regularly among the top romances of all time?
Casablanca is much more than just a boy-meets-girl kind of romance, and to show that, I’m going to have to go all schoolmarm on you. The birthplace of most of the philosophies that guide Western societies is Greece, and the Greeks had four terms for the main types of love human beings experience: agape, eros, philia, and storge. Agape means love in a spiritual or humanitarian sense, wanting the good of another. Eros, the most common love in Hollywood romances, is the passionate love of longing and desire. Philia is more general and can extend to family, friends, or activities. Finally, storge is natural love, as by a parent for a child; importantly, Greek texts also use this term for situations people must tolerate, as in “loving” a dictator. Casablanca activates each of these forms of love, giving audiences a quadruple whammy of loves so powerful that the film has become the stuff of legend, with well-remembered quotes that distill the essence of these forms of love.
Let’s start with eros, the love that’s launched a thousand movies. The central love affair of the film is between Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), one so intensely romantic that it’s impossible to forget. Certainly, Rick’s passion for Ilsa is undying, but he keeps it under deep cover as he plays the morally indifferent, womanizing proprietor of Rick’s Café Americain, a far cry from the freedom fighter he had been when he met Ilsa in Paris weeks before the Nazis marched into that most romantic of cities. He has forbidden Sam (Dooley Wilson), the piano player he escaped Paris with on the day Ilsa abandoned him, from playing the couple’s song, “As Time Goes By.” When he hears it and races to scold Sam, he comes face to face with Ilsa, dewy-eyed with remembrance and longing for Rick. How many of us wonder at a fate that tears the thing we want most away from us (“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”) and then returns it transformed into an instrument of torture (“If she can stand it, I can. Play it!”).
It could be argued that the marriage between Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa is an example of eros as well, and for Victor, that is probably true, though the parental role he played in Ilsa’s life might mean that his began as a storge kind of love. For Ilsa, the relationship is most definitely a complicated example of storge. Not only is her love more that of a child than a grown woman—and, to be frank, gender norms often cast women as children in an unequal balance of relational power—but also one of accustoming herself to a man for whom she has no real romantic feelings, something particularly acute once Ilsa and Rick are reunited. Victor has been through great hardship at the hands of the Nazis, but his greatest tragedy is poignantly communicated when he tells Rick that he knows they both love the same woman: “Apparently you think of me only as the leader of a cause. Well, I’m also a human being. Yes, I love her that much.”
Storge and philia are best exemplified by Louis Renault (Claude Rains), Casablanca’s French police captain. A functionary of the Vichy government, Renault is the ultimate survivor, making his way by having no convictions at all. Flattering Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a Gestapo officer who has been pursuing Laszlo since his escape from a Nazi concentration camp, Renault says, “We are very honored tonight, Rick. Major Strasser is one of the reasons the Third Reich enjoys the reputation it has today.” Strasser says, “You repeat Third Reich as though you expected there to be others!” In a deft sleight of hand that reveals his storge regard for France’s conquerers, Renault replies, “Well, personally, Major, I will take what comes.” Renault’s double meanings in dealing with Strasser are doubled by his philia love for Rick as a man of like mind, “the only one in Casablanca with less scruples than I.” Beneath their nonchalant exteriors, both nurture the love that conquers all in Casablanca—the love of humanity, agape.
Yes, the central love of Casablanca is agape after all. What sacrifice will the characters in this film not make for love of country, of humanity. It is this attachment to an ideal, to the thread that binds us all together at the most basic, spiritual level that resounds in generation after generation of movie fans. While there are incredible scenes of romantic love throughout Casablanca, led by Ingrid Bergman’s luminous presence and Humphrey Bogart’s commanding tenderness, the most soul-stirring scenes are explosions of agape, such as when Laszlo commands the combo at Rick’s to play “La Marseillaise” to counter the Germans singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” in celebration of their own camaraderie. The two songs are perfectly counterpointed in Curtiz’s editing and Max Steiner’s scoring, a symbolic battle of ideals to justify the sacrifices the film’s audiences and their proxies on the screen were then making on and off the battlefield. That this scene still resonates relates only in part to what modern audiences know about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis—the love of freedom is a love that’s bred in the bone.
Curtiz and the smart script by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch continually counterpoint the soul-shriveled with the virtuous. The murdering, greedy fixer Ugarte (Peter Lorre), whose possession of the letters of transit that could see Ilsa and Victor safely out of Casablanca constitutes nothing more than a get-rich-quick scheme, contrasts Rick’s motives in keeping the letters, a way to regain his lost love and not for sale to Victor at any price. Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), Rick’s jilted lover, perverts romantic love by keeping company with the German officers.
Yet both Rick and Yvonne let go of their bitterness when confronted with the power of agape. Yvonne joins in singing “La Marseillaise,” tears streaming down her face, and Rick utters his immortal speech as he sends Victor and Ilsa off to continue the fight in America: “I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” His eros love resolved and transformed by these paternalistic words into storge love, he has set Ilsa free to make her marriage a real one and found freedom for himself to return to a life that can express its love of humanity and perhaps, one day, to find romantic love again. Casablanca’s rare and wonderful ending leaves us not longing for the lovers to unite, but uplifted by the universal love that it so beautifully affirms.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gunn
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
The U.S. summer blockbuster season has just passed, and what a dismal time it was for critics, audiences, and studios alike. A parade of banal sequels and listless franchise expansion have meant that some are seriously questioning just what Hollywood is good for right at the time when the mass cinema industry’s basic presumptions are being challenged. Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest in Marvel’s world-conquering, epoch-defining hits, was one of the few real critical and commercial bright spots of the season— an industry surprise considering the source comic’s lack of legacy and its deliberately volatile, tongue-in-cheek take on fantastic fare. The building blocks of Guardians seems at first glance to be quite a distance from Captain America’s boy scout decency or the PG naughtiness of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, offering a hero who seems to have nothing more going for him than the vocabulary, horniness, and general attitude problem of an ’80s movie delinquent and a talking racoon who likes taking out his confusion with a Gatling gun set in distant climes of classic space opera. But audiences seem to have been hungry for a little more bite and jollity in the genre, and Guardians has been generally received as a genuine throwback to the kind of goofy, audience-delighting hit that made the 1980s a rather good time to be a kid—or at least, that’s what the hype reported.
Director and cowriter James Gunn was not, at first glance, the kind of filmmaker one expected to score such a hit, as his biggest claim to fame prior to this was his dark, unstable farce Super (2011). That work subjected the superhero genre to aggressive deconstruction, exposing its heroes as stymied vigilante wingnuts and sexual fetishists out of their depth, essayed with a blunt and rather obvious method but managed with a spirit that made the film as entertaining as what it was satirising. Gunn emerged from the infamous, outrageous exploitation studio Troma and entered Hollywood writing Scooby-Doo (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) before making his directing debut with Slither (2006). Undoubtedly Gunn’s clear understanding of what he was kidding made Marvel hire him. The studio’s product has been, in the past two years since The Avengers (2012), devolving into bland and shapeless pablum, and new ingredients have definitely been required. Gunn’s writing partner on this film, Nicole Perlman, did script-doctor work on Thor (2011), still my favourite Marvel movie. The hope that something of Super’s corrosive spirit could be blended with Thor’s grandeur to create something as simultaneously wry and spectacular, knowing and unfettered as, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Flash Gordon (1980) rose in my heart.
Guardians kicks off with an unabashedly Spielbergian touch, in a prologue set in 1988: a young boy, Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff), is called in to his dying mother’s (Laura Haddock) hospital room to say goodbye to her. She leaves him a specific and peculiar gift: a mix-tape filled with all her favourite oddball pop hits. When she expires, Peter runs outside to grieve, only for a mysterious UFO to fly over and pick him up in a tractor beam. Twenty-odd years later, Quill (played as a grown-up by sitcom star Chris Pratt) is now a low-rent corsair and space stud zipping about the galaxy using the dodgy nom-de-guerre of Star Lord. He’s trying to escape the influence of his adopted father, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), leader of a band of pirates called Ravagers who picked up young Quill on a contract to deliver him to his real, mysterious father, but kept the kid and raised him as one of their band (sadly, no Pirates of Penzance jokes are forthcoming).
Quill snatches a chance to make himself rich when he locates a mysterious orb in a wrecked spaceship on a remote planet that every other goon and chancer in the galaxy is after. Yondu is incensed that Quill beat him to it and doesn’t plan cutting him in, whilst warrior Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and his henchmen fight Quill for it. Peter gives Korath the slip and heads to Xandar, a squeaky-clean intergalactic imperial hub that recently signed a peace treaty with the phlegmatic Kree race, after a protracted and bloody war. But once there, he’s immediately attacked by three rivals, one of whom, Gamora (Zoë Saldana), is after the orb. The other two, Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), are bounty hunters after Quill, but after a struggle in the streets of Xandar’s capital, all four are arrested by the peace-keeping Nova Corps, led by sarcastic Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and flung into a rough prison floating in space called the Kyln. Initially antagonistic and mutually contemptuous, Quill, Gamora, and the bounty hunters soon find themselves bound together by a mutual interest: money. Gamora hopes to make a fortune selling the orb to the omnivorous “Collector,” Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro) and offers the others a piece of the action, necessitating an escape plan.
The constituent parts of Guardians are interesting and occasionally spark, particularly the characterisation of Rocket, whose loyal companionship with Groot stems from their background as products of crimes against nature committed in some genetics lab. Rocket’s unstable, resentful, acidic take on the world around him is used to cover up some major existential pain that leads him at one point to nearly shoot up a bar full of people just to release his anger. Groot has a vocabulary limited to three words, “I am Groot,” with variations of intonation that only Rocket can understand in a ready jest on similarly opaque utterances by Chewbacca and R2D2 in the Star Wars films. Groot tends to express himself more through the language of his “body,” like when he releases glowing buds to swim in the air for both lighting purposes and a little symbolic commentary, and, most strikingly towards the end, when he sprouts a thicket of lush foliage to enfold and protect his friends from harm. For a more dramatic thicket of backstory, we have Gamora, whose body is a literal lethal weapon, trained since childhood along with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) by their adoptive father, intergalactic harbinger of doom Thanos (Josh Brolin), who destroyed their civilisations.
Somewhere along the line, however, Gamora rebelled. She pretends to be in the service of her father and chief bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) but actually intends to foil them. Nebula chases after her sister in an inevitable, quasi-sibling feud of mythic proportions. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a hulking alien Quill and the others meet in the Kyln who seeks revenge on Ronan for killing his family and signs up for any business that might lead him to his foe. Gunn’s referential framework here, likeably enough, can be seen as encompassing not just obvious touchstones like Star Wars and such predecessors in the space opera realm like Lensman and Buck Rogers, but also John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and some its pop culture children, most of which have appeared on TV—Red Dwarf, Lexx, and Futurama. There’s also some kinship with much more disreputable ’80s fare like Ice Pirates, The Last Starfighter, Night of the Comet (all 1984), and My Science Project (1986), half-clever, scrappy, rascally movies that blended genre fare with a pop spirit that ironically contrasted the traditionally weird and epic zones of scifi with characters still locked in mundane, earthly zones of understanding. Guardians has clear ambitions to annexing that tradition.
Well, that’s what Guardians of the Galaxy’s ambitions are. The film’s actual achievement is, by contrast, so minor that it counts as the biggest disappointment from a big movie I’ve had since Gravity (2013). How could I fail to like what’s clearly entertained audiences so fully? I don’t know. I’m desperate for good space opera. Perhaps therein in lies some of the problem. Guardians threw my mind back to the Pirates of the Caribbean films insofar as that, like those works, it’s overloaded with raw material that could make for truly great, weird, original adventure films—perhaps, indeed, too many because neither Pirates nor Guardians have any idea how to put them together. Guardians isn’t a traditional superhero story; in fact, it’s Marvel’s first work that, though based on a comic series and linked via plot elements like Thanos to other strands of the Marvel universe, represents new genre turf. Yet Guardians fails to escape the template Marvel has established of superfluous motivations and static characterisations, without any place of real interest to take its stories. The early films the studio put out had the advantage of being origin stories, a necessity in setting up superhero franchises that frustrates some comic book fans but helps make the phenomenon coherent for the rest of us. A maxim often bandied about in reference to the comic book genre is that second films are the best, because the business of setting up character and situation has been done and the sequel can hit the ground running.
But Marvel has been proving that maxim untrue, because their sequels have tended to be ramshackle hunks of fan service with plotting that is painfully superfluous. Even this year’s superior, but still highly overrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which tried to shift into new territory by borrowing a veneer of hard-boiled cynicism from ’70s thrillers, still readily descended into info-dump explanations and bland, bloodless action. Guardians is technically an origin story but tries to behave like a swinging sequel. Similarly, although Gunn makes many gestures toward placing his work in a grand tradition of zippy fun, the actual product he ends up with is a by-rote work with occasional touches of impertinence that fail to add up to anything substantial. Rather than a flow of loopy, inspired humour and madcap action, Guardians offers up zany ideas harvested from its source material and then lets them sit around serving no function. Guardians wants to act like the usual epic claptrap of its genre is mere background whilst playing up the idiosyncrasies of it heroes, but it remains enslaved to a banal edition of its genre as it overcompensates by stuffing in more plot elements and antagonists than it knows what to do with.
The biggest lack of Guardians is any faith—or even real interest—in storytelling. The early fight between Rocket, Groot, Quill, and Gamora on the streets of Xandar is a good example, simply allowing the three different plot strands/character groups to collide on the street. The prologue sets in motion a theoretical sense of longing for family that Quill gains through his new compadres and invests plentiful melodramatic thrusts to give the story some charge. Yet Guardians’ attempts to get emotional and exciting flounder without ever feeling urgent or convincing. The team comes together and becomes inseparable mostly because that’s what the story demands they do, without much effort put in to developing convincing camaraderie: we go from Rocket drunkenly threatening to kill everyone to superfriends real fast and a couple of low-rent group bickering sessions. The closest we get to a scene of real emotional bonding, touching almost on a love scene (that verboten thing in this perpetually preadolescent genre), comes when Quill and Gamora take a timeout so they can share backstory, delivered in lumpen stare-into-the-middle-distance manner. Guardians lopes from scene to scene without a clear sense of direction. Drax summons up Ronan and his legions for no better reason than the film needs a bit more banging and blasting at that juncture. We spend ages waiting for our heroes to encounter the perverse Collector. The moment they reach his lair, the film swerves ridiculously as one of Tivan’s servants (Ophelia Lovibond) tries to master the infinity stone to escape his influence and instead causes a big bang in a twist that feels less like a radical blindsiding to keep us on our feet than a clumsy waste of time and money.
Imagine getting an actor of Del Toro’s calibre and wasting him like that. In fact, Guardians stands as an incidental monument to the decadent lack of interest in the talent Hollywood has its disposal in the age of the FX blockbuster. Fine actors—Glenn Close! John C. Reilly! Benecio del Toro! Josh Brolin! Djimon Hounsou!—are hurled into the mix and then given absolutely nothing to do. The film even makes a show of this by casting Vin Diesel as a tree that only speaks three words. Quill’s status as intergalactic lady’s man and arrested-development miscreant might have been funnier if J. J. Abrams’ take on James T. Kirk hadn’t already done basically the same thing. Having him flip the bird to the Nova Corps whilst getting a mug shot taken scarcely constitutes investing him with a lode of real character and comes across like a rebellious gesture that’s been relentlessly examined and finally approved by a corporate strategy meeting that thinks it’s being edgy.
Similarly, Gunn throws up the comic’s wacky ideas—a crazy anthropomorphic racoon! a space hero who’s a total scrub!—and expects us to find them outrageously entertaining and not pay any attention to how little invention has gone into the stuff that surrounds them. For instance, in Ice Pirates, a film usually written off today as an example of what could go wrong with the ’80s fantasy template, there’s a genuinely inspired aspect to the final battle, which takes place in the midst of a time warp where the heroes pass through a lifespan’s worth of events in a few minutes even as they charge about trying to defeat the bad guys. Even the ramshackle charms of Flash Gordon sported more real wit, like the impromptu football match in Ming’s throne room that entwined a great, specific joke about culture shock with slapstick humour. By comparison, Guardians has a dismaying lack of cleverness for all its enhanced budget and technical advantages.
Gunn and Perlman’s script does throw up some wisecracks that are pretty funny: the most edgy and unexpected comes when Quill, responding to Gamora’s peevish complaint that his spaceship is filthy, tells his other new friends, “Oh she has no idea. If I had a black light this’d look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” But the humour doesn’t add up to much. There are great long patches without anything particularly amusing going on, and really only the fanciful effects that give us Groot and Rocket distinguish them from comic-relief characters in decades worth of second-string westerns. Drax comes from a race that speaks in vaguely medieval fashion but has no understanding of metaphor, a potentially fertile idea for comedy, but the script develops the idea lazily (apparently though Drax can’t comprehend figures of speech like “over your head,” he has no problem using simile). Pace’s Ronan is supposed to be a fearsome figure of genocidal intent and deep wells of resentment behind his status as a vengeful extremist, but he arrives on screen as basically the same glowing-eyed, hooded bad guy Christopher Ecclestone played in Thor: The Dark World (2013). At the outset, we see Gamora close to Ronan, but what side she’s really on isn’t questioned for any narrative intrigue, whilst the relationships are spat at us by the movie without much care for impact or how we connect them, such as who Thanos is, what his connection to Ronan is motivated by, what Gamora and Nebula’s relationship was before Gamora’s treachery.
The film’s simultaneously flippant yet somehow witless take on employing generic niceties keeps the story from ever seeming important, and thus there’s no vitality to the inevitable wham-bam climax. Guardians makes an outright joke of the obvious McGuffin status of the object that motivates the plot, the orb which holds an “infinity stone,” a source of immense, primeval power. As Quill says, “It’s got a real shining-blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.” Rather than amusing me with the plain cheek of this self-referential jive, though, this line highlighted how fed up I am with blockbusters that can’t sustain a proper storyline or be bothered investing real stakes in a plot that connects convincingly to the heroes’ predicaments. Similarly, the film’s soundtrack is replete with the hits that feature on Quill’s inheritance, his mix-tape, utilised as an ironically jaunty soundtrack in place of the usual blaring Wagnerian stuff. There is inherent fun to watching Quill dance across an alien landscape to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” or planning battle to the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” But again I felt after a while that the music was being used to disguise the film’s lack of imagination and skill: the songs are patched over the sequences rather than carefully wound into them, unlike, for recent example, the ingenious deployment of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” during the best scene in the otherwise insipid X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). The film tosses out what it sets up as a clever escape sequence in the Kyln, as Rocket lists required objects, only for Groot to almost sabotage it by casually snatching one object and setting off anarchy, and the would-be clever sequence dissolves into so much visual white noise.
What Gunn is trying to do here is actually quite difficult, certainly more difficult than he seems to have realised. It’s certainly not impossible: the action-adventure film that satirises itself as it goes along whilst not deflating the excitement. Look at a really great predecessor that did this sort of thing: the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The careful deployment of information, the steadily constructed tension, hints of character, unfolding of incident. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) nailed exactly the mix this film is after, veering blithely between high myth and low comedy, timeless thrills and fleeting insouciance, as did just about any Hong Kong action of the ’80s. Gunn’s work isn’t particularly interesting visually, zipping by its alien landscapes as just so much more CGI fodder without a sign of wonder or investment in the fantastic, betraying the film’s references to Star Wars and the like as the smarmy pretensions of a second-rate jokester. The film’s action scenes are big and expensive and noisy, and yet remarkably dull, failures as cinematic spectacle just as the script fails at satiric comedy. There’s an odd moment in the final battle when a bunch of spaceships join together like a giant Lego set to form a kind of net to catch Ronan’s ship. This is another striking idea, one that comes out of nowhere, performed by a bunch of characters whose presence in the film has been vague at best. Guardians tries to have its cake and eat it, but doesn’t know how to bake and can’t chew.
To me, the film’s one real flash of excitement came when Gamora and Nebula finally meet in battle, a conflict where, for all the weaknesses in its set-up, at last showed a buzz of emotional investment in the fight and the sight of physical dynamism in the actresses and their stunt stand-ins that is the essence of this type of cinema. But even this doesn’t count for much because it’s over before you know it and only ends with a set-up for a sequel (isn’t everything?), and it’s thrown into the mix with about 15 other vignettes pieced together without much intelligent scene grammar. Finally, right at the end, something of Guardians’ ambitions came to fruition in Groot’s final sacrificial action, and the borderline-mystical joining of the ragtag team who become the eponymous Guardians by virtue of their exceptional weirdness, as well as pith, to defeat Ronan with the infinity stone. Pratt does give Star Lord his all, and he could well be a promising action-comedy star. This and the black-out gag featuring a dancing baby groot almost convinced me that I hadn’t wasted my time. And yet, it is easy to understand why Guardians been such a big hit, and I can’t even discount the possibility that some day it will be as big an object of cult veneration as the ones it invokes. Either way, my personal, dismal movie-going year continues unabated.
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Director: W. S. Van Dyke
By Marilyn Ferdinand
During the silent film era, exoticism was all the rage. The original Latin lover, Rudolph Valentino, was the stand-out heartthrob of the age, but Myrtle Gonzalez, Gilbert Roland, Antonio Moreno, and Beatriz and Vera Michelena all had their followings, and Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez became bonafide movie stars. It took Valentino’s death in 1926 for Mexican singer/dancer/actor Ramon Novarro to become Hollywood’s reigning Latin lover, a place he would have held easily in any open field. Novarro combined the athletic daring and comic wit of Douglas Fairbanks with the dusky good looks of Valentino, and threw in his own dazzling smile for good measure. The camera loved him, and soon, so did audiences all over the world. Novarro almost single-handedly saved MGM from bankruptcy when his star turn in Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ hit theatres in 1925; after that, he made up to four pictures a year through 1934.
The Pagan came about in the middle of Novarro’s heyday, and aside from recycling some popular tropes of the silent era, it lavishes a good deal of attention on Novarro’s sex appeal. It also has a documentary quality to it, filmed as it was in Tahiti, with fascinating footage of workers harvesting coconuts and making copra from it: a title card even tells us what copra is and what its uses are. Perhaps most interesting to me are the musical threads that run through and beyond the film itself.
Stalwart representative of white progress Roger Slater (Donald Crisp) sails to the island where half-white/half-native Henry Shoesmith, Jr. (Novarro) owns a vast coconut grove in hopes of striking a deal with Shoesmith to harvest the crop for copra production. Slater learns from an Asian banker where Henry lives and that the young man takes after his native mother—in other words, he’s too lazy to work the plantation. Slater and Henry meet cute when Slater goes to the manor house looking for Henry and is directed to a pair of bare feet by a servant. Henry is lounging barechested and rebuffs Slater, telling him he should come back later. Henry is much more interested in sleeping and playing his ukulele than in talking business.
I’m not sure why, but every tropical paradise seems to have a white prostitute, and we meet this island’s good-time girl, Madge, (Renée Adorée, a dead ringer for another actress of the night, Shirley MacLaine) as she’s being thrown out of the bank. Unaccountably, we next see her lounging with Henry in a field, playing his ukulele to him. The camera pans up Novarro’s half-naked body as Madge asks with a sigh why Henry never liked her. Of course, she means in the biblical sense, but Henry is such an innocent that he merely answers that he does like her very much. At this moment, Henry’s sexual urgings are awakened when he starts to sing “Pagan Love Song” and hears the song returned by a woman on board a ship anchored near his field. Madge warns him that the ship belongs to a nasty white trader—Slater—but he responds, “she native voice” and swims out to meet the lovely young woman whose voice he heard—Tito (Dorothy Janis), an orphan and Slater’s ward.
The Pagan offers echoes of Sadie Thompson (1928), but with a much lighter and more peripheral touch. Instead of a sanctimonious preacher who falls for the prostitute, Slater is this film’s reformer, and his project is Tito. The film is quiet in portraying Slater’s attraction to Tito, with Crisp underplaying what could have been a cardboard villain role; he gently plays with her hair while she reads scripture aloud to him and projects as much fatherly regard as he does lustful suitor. It’s not clear how long she has been his ward, but when Henry appears as a rival for her attentions, Slater’s affections stir to the point of “sacrificing” himself to her betterment by forcing her to marry him through the power of his parental authority.
More central to the film is the clash of Western progress/colonialism and native culture. The film states its case in the opening moments of the film, remarking that Slater is too busy to notice the natural beauty all around him as the camera scans the tropical idyll. At the same time, Henry is such a naïve nature boy that it’s hard not to see some condescension in the film’s attitude toward native people, though his cluelessness is played largely for laughs. He has no interest in or knowledge of money, accepting no payment for giving Slater exclusive rights to harvest his coconuts because he has too many to eat himself and similarly giving away the goods in his plantation store on the promise of payment as he tries and fails to become a businessman worthy of Tito’s affections. Despite being cheated of his plantation, Henry only becomes angry when Slater snatches Tito away. Even Slater’s comeuppance is dealt by the impersonal hand of nature, not Henry.
It’s safe to say that The Pagan was the Out of Africa (1985) or Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) of its time—an escapist travelogue that allowed audiences to enjoy the attractive island and human scenery and dream about a simple life unencumbered by financial concerns. Novarro and Janis are a gorgeous couple who play extremely well together and provide an island of calm and joyful play to balance the more melodramatic moments of this generally solid film. Because of the location shooting, the film was made as a silent, and employed a MovieTone synchronized score for the musical interludes, though I think I detected a very short scene that seemed to be sound-recorded on one of the interior sets.
It is the music connections of this film that I found most interesting while researching this review. Novarro had ambitions to be a professional opera singer, but his voice lacked the strength to carry it off. Nonetheless, a contemporary review of the film by the New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall says, “Mr. Novarro, who is to make his bow on the Berlin operatic stage within a week or so in ‘La Tosca,’ is heard singing a few songs in the course of this film.” “Pagan Love Song” was produced by the composer/lyricist team of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (“I Cried for You,” “You Were Meant for Me,” “Singin’ in the Rain”), the latter of whom would play a monumental role in creating and fostering movie musicals in Hollywood. Finally, the beautiful Dorothy Janis, who also sang in The Pagan, ended up marrying popular, Chicago-based bandleader Wayne King in 1932 and retired from movies.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch
By Roderick Heath
Jim Jarmusch’s career seems as intimately connected with the evolution of American independent film as Pablo Picasso’s was to modernism in painting: he helped to give birth to it, he gave it much of its aesthetic and thematic lexicon, but then he remained happy in his niche and left it for everyone else to accept or reject what they liked in their own attempts to reforge the art form. Similarities between Jarmusch and Picasso end there, of course. Jarmusch’s calm, wry, gentle style subtly evolved from his early work, though it remained defined by a resolute minimalism and lack of interest in cinematic flash that only partly hides a New Age take on an old Hollywood value, one that holds films are no more interesting than the people in front of the camera and what they’re saying. Jarmusch was one filmmaker who seemed to arrive with the phrase “cult following” already attached to his name, and he continued on that way, though that following has diminished a little in recent years. It’s odd indeed to think of a filmmaker like Jarmusch in an age increasingly detached from the kinds of small, arty movie theatres in bohemian neighbourhoods and video store back shelves that fostered his following. Only Lovers Left Alive signals Jarmusch’s awareness of this, as it provides an aging retronaut’s statement of fetishistic revelry in all that is arcane and eternal in the midst of yet another paradigm shift. Jarmusch’s one concession to a zeitgeist is his story, which depicts that much-beloved and abused figure of crepuscular romanticism, the vampire.
This is a vampire movie as only Jarmusch could make it—except perhaps for Amy Heckerling, whose Vamps (2012) was completely different in tone and yet dealt in almost exactly the same ideas and concerns. Jarmusch’s vampires are undying hipsters, as their creator aligns the outsider status of the artist: the sun-shy, attention-wary bohemians who create for the pure love of creation and expression of innermost emotions, and subsist in fear of a world that will surely misunderstand, if not fear them. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a wan, rake-thin composer who’s walled himself up in a house in the midst of Detroit’s blasted suburbs. Adam has a contracted gopher, Ian (Anton Yelchin), to dig up anything he asks for, from an array of vintage guitars to a hardwood bullet in a working .38 shell casing he claims to need for an “art project.” Adam’s elegantly dishevelled home is crammed with LPs and amusingly jerry-rigged technology. Amongst the talents he’s developed in his hundreds of years on earth is a gift for zany electrical engineering: not surprisingly, Nikolai Tesla is one of his heroes, like Jack White was in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). His house runs on a generator that absorbs atmospheric energy, and he’s linked his laptop up to an old TV so he can see anyone he’s Skyping with on a decent-sized screen. But Adam’s real metier is musician, one he’s been following for centuries. He once let Schubert claim a piece of his “just to get it out there,” and now composes droning, spacey Shoegaze-ish pics he describes as funeral music. He has let some of his new compositions leak out to test their mettle and has become an underground music hero, a problematic achievement as now bands of young fans are trolling the streets of Detroit in search of the elusive master’s home.
Adam’s life partner, or more accurately undead partner, is the inevitably named Eve (Tilda Swinton), who resides in Algiers, the couple well used to both times of togetherness and separation, a quirky habit that has undoubtedly fostered their centuries-long affair’s steadfast ardour. Eve chums about with aged fellow vampire Kit (John Hurt), another reclusive artist: he used to be Christopher Marlowe, no less, and is still irritated by being forced into hiding because of his supposed murder and that his “illiterate zombie” front Shakespeare gets all the credit for the plays he wrote afterwards. Kit, who’s become old and incapacitated, has been adopted by a café owner and literary protégé, Bilal (Slimane Dazi). Adam, Eve, and Kit don’t drink human blood direct from the source anymore, more out of respect and caution for their own health than for people because of the amount of “contamination” out there these days. Besides, it’s hard to dispose of the victims for things have changed, as Eve notes, from “the old days when we could just chuck them in the Thames alongside all the other tubercular floaters.” The sensible, modern vampire prefers to procure nicely purified and bottled supplies from clinicians and blood banks: Kit gets his from “a lovely French doctor” and passes some on to Eve. Adam buys his from a physician in a Detroit hospital, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), whom he meets late at night with menacing silence wearing a surgical mask, lab coat, an antiquated stethoscope, and a nametag that reads Dr. Faust, and pays off with huge rolls of cash. Getting their blood offers a sublime, druglike pleasure for the vampires. But Adam seems to be in a particularly dark and downbeat mood of late: his wooden bullet is actually a suicide option, and his distress signals reach the intuitively understanding Eve. She grumpily prepares to travel to him, packing her only necessities—her favourite books.
Only Lovers Left Alive plainly deals with matters that have long fascinated Jarmusch, in particular, cultural memory in the context of the New World’s determined lack of it. The fetishism for the detritus of recent pasts and the mystique of cool evokes a constant thread in his films, whilst the film’s closest immediate analogue is probably Mystery Train (1991), his ghost-riddled, wry comedy that used Memphis rather than Detroit as his blasted avatar of Americana, whilst the central couple have similarities to the Japanese cool cats who traversed that city and declared preference for Carl Perkins over Elvis Presley in the pantheon of hip. The travelling, eye-caressing surveys of nocturnal cities, splendid in their desertion and decay, immediately evoke Jarmusch’s early works, like Down by Law (1986) and Night on Earth (1991). The literary nom-de-plumes and hints of blurred identity and life-after-death journeying recalls Dead Man (1996). Jarmusch’s style, verging on an antistyle and influenced by such great stripped-down cinematic mechanics as Ozu and Dreyer, is so spare as to be hard to spot variations in, but some of Jarmusch’s later works, like Broken Flowers (2006), certainly started to feel hermetic in their outlook and references as well as method. That film’s hero and his habit of driving while listening to his mix CDs, in careful excision of anything unwantedly messy or edgy, contrasts Jarmusch’s early works, which were like toggling between late-night radio stations, taking in a panoramic sample of the cultural landscape and its otherworldly wells. But Only Lovers Left Alive reveals a real artist’s capacity for self-awareness and even self-satire: Jarmusch has made his own dismay at time’s relentless advance and its impact on the institutions of artistic meaning he treasures part of the film’s texture, whilst also noting that what could be taken by the jaded as inevitable repetition might also be fecund revivalism, reinvention, even rebirth.
Some might find it odd that Jarmusch has made a film that could be called the black bible of the current crop of hipsters and trendies in its celebration of the fashionably arcane, bygone maxims of style and authority. But, of course, mix-and-match delight in the ephemera of the past and present is hardly a recent invention, and has been a secret tool of bohemia in contention with industrial society’s chop-chop insistence as far back as the pre-Raphaelites and neoclassicists. Nothing was as cheap and ephemeral as an 8-inch single record was in 1960, but now it’s an artefact, a lodestone and repository. Jarmusch starts the film with a sequence that stands amongst his best, his camera moving in a swooning circle in mistimed mimicry of such a record spinning on a player: Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” played at the wrong speed turning into a druggy anthem for its pair of separated lovers, who both recline in their dreamy, separate but connected anomie. Jarmusch might move his camera more in this film than he did in his first three films put together, if still sparingly, creating a sense much like being sucked into a whirlpool in a lake of tar, a slow and slurping decline. Jarmusch repeats the motif later as he intercuts between Adam, Eve, and Kit sinking into ecstasy as they have their taste of blood. The correlation of vampiric activity and junkie habitudes isn’t a new one: Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1973) mooted it a long time ago, and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) put it front and centre for a far more lacerating approach to the idea of contemporary vampire life than this one seeks to be. But Jarmusch’s take is original insofar as he equates it with the experiential, potentially communal thrill of lotus eating, absinthe drinking, LSD, and MDMA, as well as the solitary corrosion of heroin.
Jarmusch’s attitude to his antiheroes is wry and exacting even as he makes it plain he’s on their side, sharing their quirks, their fears, and their loves. They snobbishly refer to ordinary people as “zombies,” and Adam reveals he’s contemplating self-annihilation because he’s fed up with their “fear of their own imaginations.” Jarmusch confirms his antennae certainly haven’t weakened, as he articulates the feeling that’s been prevalent amidst sectors of the educated culturati in the increasingly messy state of contemporary democracy of increasingly blinding, fraught despair at the reactionary impulses apparent in modern society. Jarmusch satirizes the attitude a little bit, too, not letting his undying cool folk off the hook by reminding us forcefully by the end that they participate in the roundelay of consumption, too, and that their pretences require somebody’s sacrifice. One of the key conceits and driving jokes of the film is that the actually cool and creative will always recognise their kind: Adam and Eve have shifted with the evolution of culture from baroque to romanticism to Motown (“I’m more of a Stax girl myself,” Eve admits), obeying the necessity of changing modes of expression whilst recognising unchanging fixtures and standards. Adam’s stringy-haired gloominess, so readily identifiable in the age of Emo, was imbued, Eve argues, by his association with Byron and Shelley. Adam has a wall filled with privileged heroes (and of course, he says repeatedly “I don’t have heroes”) including Buster Keaton, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, and Rodney Dangerfield.
The film is textured by allusions. These run from small, jokey ones, like the encounter between Dr. Faust and Dr. Watson, to larger, more expansive rhymes, like linking the dying industrial mecca of Detroit with a traditional vampire’s castle, comprehending the similarity of the movements that eroded both feudal aristocracy and Western industrial capitalism, and the narrative’s refrains to Algiers, hang-out of escapee nonconformists from Delacroix to William Burroughs. Drug dealers constantly try to entice Eve from the alleys of the Casbah, an ironic touch as Eve is certainly on the hunt for her fix, but not that kind: her good stuff is far more difficult to acquire and more acute in its representation of life bartered. Jarmusch unfolds many scenes in successions of dreamy dissolves and repeated framings that infer the connectedness of Adam and Eve even in separate places, and finally portrays them both naked and in bed, lounging in a slight asymmetry that captures both their definite sexuality and their faint androgyny.
The couple’s eventualmeeting, clearly the first time they’ve come back together in ages, is one of two superbly affecting moments: centuries of gathered affectations and borrowed trappings the two lovers wear like costumes suddenly fall away, and they are again a courtly gentleman and his lady, Adam stripping off Eve’s glove and kissing her palm with all the tortured and fulsome passion of some De Laclos characters. The second comes as Adam gives Eve tours of his midnight world, showing her his ingenious power supply when it breaks down and driving her around Detroit with its endless razed blocks and tomblike warehouses and factories, pointing out the old Packard plant, “where they once built the most beautiful cars in the world—finished.” Eve confidently anticipates Detroit’s rebirth in the future when “the cities of the south are burning.” Adam takes Eve inside the Michigan Theatre, a beautiful manmade cavern with decayed remnants of glorious ambition and soaring craftsmanship, now used as a car park and recognised as itself only by the two exiles. Jarmusch’s camera floats rapturously, scanning the ceiling and his two lovers back to back as they crane their heads up and their bodies spin upon the dusty floor.
Jarmusch blends his fictional conceit cleverly with a realistic basis that’s sneakily exact and detailed, a method that defines most well-thought-through fantasies. Adam and Eve are a sophisticated, unconventional couple, only slightly exaggerated, with deftly recorded rhythms of behaviour, from Eve picking up on Adam’s distress signals to the eternal bugbear that is Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Ava has warned both of them that she’s likely to turn up in their lives by psychic means, projecting herself into their dreams, and she does arrive at Adam’s house when Eve’s only been there for three days. The way the couple refer to her makes one perhaps expect a darker, deadlier, more traditional version of the vampire, but, in fact, Ava’s a carefree, self-indulgent, ageless teenager, dangerous to them not because she’s more wicked but because, like so many teens, she has much less idea of consequences and no interest in their adult fussiness. Her affectations, like polka-dotted stockings and faux-fur coats, mark her as an interminable scenester and low-rent party girl, the embarrassing sibling who’s been dogging the couple for ages and making them cringe a little for offering pose without style. She flops on Adam’s couch, drinks up his blood supply like it’s going out of fashion, puts on his new recordings to listen to, and airily informs him she’s heard some of his stuff in an underground club in Los Angeles. “Zombie central,” Adam contemptuously describes that city. The closeness of Eve and Ava’s sisterly relationship is swiftly, casually noted as they mirror each others’ pose and actions in stripping off gloves and reclining on the sofa, leaving Adam cut off and glowering in the reverse shot. “Are you still upset about the thing in Paris?” Ava questions. “It’s been 87 years,” Eve does admit.
Adam’s misgivings about having her around prove well-founded however. When she talks the couple into exploring the city’s nightlife with her, Adam gets Ian to guide them. He takes them to an agreeably grimy nightspot where a quality punk band grinds out music, and Adam hears his own droning sounds piped during the break. When the quartet return to Adam’s house at dawn, he and Eve retreat to bed, leaving Ava and Ian together. In the evening, Eve is shocked to find Ava has killed Ian, a moment of weakness that’s left her in discomfort from imbibing his polluted blood. Adam and Eve’s patience snaps: they throw Ava out on the street, and she shambles off into the night yelling insults. The couple quickly rid themselves of the immediate problem by taking Ian’s corpse to an abandoned factory and tossing it into a sunken pit filled with some nasty substance: “Don’t ask,” Adam warns Eve, and when the body lands in it, the flesh is immediately eaten away. Eve recoils, and mutters, “Well, that was visual,” in a wry punch line that feels like a jab back at the way Jarmusch has been criticised for rarely indulging visual qualities. Realising that they still face investigation because Ian had been seen with them in public, Adam agrees to accompany Eve back to Algiers. They fast through the flight in anticipation of some of Kit’s quality blood stash, but the pair finds Kit is dying, tended to by a distraught Bilal, from blood that was badly contaminated. Thus, the pair is left not just distraught by the fading of their friend and fellow true believer, but also starving.
For all its blackly humorous morbidity, invocations of collapse and melancholia, and permanent nocturnal atmosphere that resolves in a restaging-cum-parody of a strung-out junkie-lovers drama like Panic in Needle Park (1971), Only Lovers Left Alive is a work of peculiar grace and good humour, even in its darker refrains. The title’s implicit message (borrowed from a scifi novel that inspired a punk rock album) speaks of romanticism undying and captures the peculiar faith upheld by everyone who treasures a work of art, even in an age that wants to transduce it all into a cloud of bits somewhere. Adam mocks Ava for enjoying something on You Tube (admittedly, only a schlocky piece of Euro dance music with a video featuring a joke shop Dracula and go-go dancers) and ignoring the grand cornucopia such phenomena provide, the ready, but not tactile connection with a vast scheme of invention.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a stand for the tactile connection, albeit one whose mood is ethereal. Adam and Eve inherit the dreams and achievements of a culture that has so little use for them. Adam is given renewed zest and will to fight for his survival in a new and alienating place when he sees a young female singer, Yasmine (Yasmine Hamdan), performing in café, a vision of leather-clad beauty and talent suggesting that Adam’s ever-renewing search for quality and cool has found a new, embryonic zone for experiment and distillation—a new zeitgeist to be absorbed by. His next phase, and Eve’s, too, can only be achieved, however, through an act of calculated parasitism. The couple put it off as long as possible, but when presented by an opportunity—a young couple making out in a deserted courtyard—they move upon them with impunity, bearing their fangs before the film blacks out in an unnerving and bleakly funny last glimpse. Even the biggest dreamer amongst us is still just another animal.
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Director: Dennis Hopper
By Roderick Heath
Before 1969, Dennis Hopper was one of many talented, young Method actors to drift west from the Actor’s Studio to Hollywood, if a flagrantly offbeat and arresting example of the breed. His blue eyes seemed to radiate an almost spiritual, romantic dissociation, as well as a potentially manic ferocity—Viking berserker and Celtic saint in one volatile package. He often recited dialogue with a halting, eddying, almost doleful style that could make each word sound like it was being pulled out of his mouth with pliers. His pal James Dean had brought him into film work, and Hopper’s reputation for on-set insubordination almost ruined his career before it got going; after Dean’s death he was all but blackballed by the industry.
Indie filmmaker and long-time bohemian Curtis Harrington gave Hopper a lead role in the wonderful horror film Night Tide (1961), and his friend John Wayne eventually revived his acting career by insisting Henry Hathaway hire him for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). Whilst keeping one foot planted in mainstream labours, Hopper was a driving force in the annexation of Hollywood’s hinterlands by the counterculture. After he starred alongside friend Peter Fonda in a film written by another pal, Jack Nicholson, the psychedelic paean The Trip (1967) directed by Roger Corman, Hopper and Fonda developed their take on the zeitgeist. Fonda produced and Hopper directed the singularly successful film of and about the era, Easy Rider (1969). Low budget, rough and ready, a combination of Voltaire parable and satire with an essayistic exploration of alternative Americana, Easy Rider channelled diverse aspects of the European and American film styles to make a counterculture document with some credibility.
Easy Rider was a colossal success, making Hopper a cause célèbre and Hollywood’s official hippie. But Hopper seemed to be setting himself up to become public sacrifice and cautionary example, feuding with Fonda over royalties, getting in and out of a marriage to The Mamas & The Papas singer Michelle Phillips in two weeks, and letting his indulgence in drugs go off the deep end. He was given $1 million by Universal to make his next film at a time when studios were throwing money at films about counterculture youth hoping some of it would stick. Hopper, however, couldn’t have been less interested in that subject—or so it seems. The result was an infamous debacle that once again sent Hopper into exile, branded as a livewire addict and professional madcap. He managed to turn this persona to his own ends when, against all predictions, he rehabilitated his career again in the 1980s. Hopper’s directorial legacy is scant, but, except for a largely dismissed final comedy Chasers (1994), it is also one of the strongest and most unique in American cinema.
Hopper had been kicking around the idea for The Last Movie since his experiences making a western at a foreign location in the mid ’60s, and he developed a script with Rebel Without a Cause (1955) scribe Stewart Stern. At first, he constructed a rudely expressive, but essentially linear film, before, legend has it, his pal the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky mocked his straitlaced structure and encouraged him to attack it like an Abstract Expressionist slashing his own canvas. That anecdote sounds a touch arch, however, as The Last Movie clearly expands on the form- and mind-bending elements in Easy Rider while essentially telling its fans to fuck off.
Such a radical take was an inspired, if doomed, enterprise. The Last Movie is a weird, loping, visceral work, an ill-starred fate already written into its texture. The Last Movie feels deeply personal for Hopper, as it depicts the movie world in a manner so alienated and troubled, so concerned with the effects of cinema fantasy on real life, it was transmuted into a monument to the desecration of cinematic form. The opening immediately immerses the viewer in a mystic ceremony studded with strange portents with a context that will only be revealed via looping cinematic time. The conclusion seems carefully contrived to appear like funding ran out before the filmmakers quite finished making their film. And yet The Last Movie’s conceits feel far less jarring than they might have at the time, certainly not nearly so much after the likes of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s and Christopher Nolan’s taxing experiments in film structuring, although Hopper’s work is deliberately more ragged than such later films, as it maintains an associative rather than merely rearranged visual logic. The Last Movie is a portrait of shambling wash-ups, existential angst, and the protean zones of culture, filled with some of Hopper’s most accomplished images and highly self-critical themes. Hopper works again with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, whose special visual tones on Easy Rider became the signature of the Hollywood New Wave, to fashion an artefact that alternates lyricism, immediacy, disorientation, and estrangement. Hopper doesn’t give himself an easy part to play either, embodying a troubled, even swinish character—a stuntman and fallen cowboy named Kansas.
Kansas is, at the outset, working on a western partly about Billy the Kid, being filmed in Peru by Samuel Fuller. Fuller appears as himself in the film’s most sublime and resonant in-joke, as Fuller had been shown the door by Hollywood by this time in much the same way Hopper had been and was about to be again. The film Fuller’s making seems to be a mixture of the kind of shambolic post-western Robert Altman was making in Canada at the same time, (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971), with glimpses of mockingly awful vaudeville routines featuring gartered dancing girls, and Sam Peckinpah’s savagery, as a giant, comically brutal shoot-out sequence sees the two sides in a clannish range war exterminate each other, even gunning down the handsome deputy sheriff (Fonda) and his sweetheart. Early in the film, one of the stunt sequences of Fuller’s western is depicted, with another stuntman pulling off an impressively gruelling fall from a rooftop and through some scaffolding. Later, this scene is revealed as important in more than incidental fashion, as the stuntman who performed it died. Kansas stumbles through the early scenes dissociated, traumatised, and emotionally volatile, as he does throughout the entire work, his headspace dictating the reality depicted.
The spectacle of real death on the movie set gives impetus to a strange fantasia. At the very outset Kansas is glimpsed as a bloodied and shameful penitent amidst a crowd at a local religious festival, whilst an imperious, would-be Peruvian director wearing a U.S. Cavalry hat searches for a beauty to star in his “film.” This director-cum-warlord will claim and take over the abandoned sets of the Hollywood shoot, making these into a place of religious fervour for the locals. The district priest (Tomas Milian) has to perform his masses in the set’s fake church to reach his congregation. Hopper then loops the film back to a few weeks earlier, when the Hollywood crew was still working. Kansas hovers around the shoot, still dazed by death and irritating Fuller. The film crew successfully wraps up their production after depicting the death of Billy the Kid, which Fuller announces he wants done different and better than any previous version. At the wrap party, Kansas wanders through a tangled crowd of performers and revellers and finds amongst them various tableaux vivants unfolding before his eyes. Narrative alienation blends fascinatingly with the sense that Hopper is documenting his own dissociation from his apparent place as Hollywood’s king of hipsters, as he reduces the apparatus of stardom to cameo fodder: Kovacs’ gliding camera, surveying a world of cool film folk, with a lot of Hopper’s own friends and fellows dotting the crowd, engage in drop-of-a-hat sing-alongs, mini happenings, and strange rites.
A man is transformed into a woman by a group of masked faux-shamans in a glimpsed moment that seems to come right out of some Carlos Castenada-esque fever dream, and indeed, the influence of Latin American magic realism and spiritual writing traditions pervades The Last Movie as narratives of false life and false death segue hazily into abnormal rituals of real life and real death. Kansas retreats into the shadows and weeps, but tries to fend off solicitous interest from a friend. Hopper suggests an approach close to that of Easy Rider in early scenes where songs play like commentary on the soundtrack, but Hopper quickly fragments and then disposes of this refrain. He casts Kris Kristofferson and others as musically inclined crewmen on the film who play Greek chorus, and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” scores footage of Hopper in character as Kansas roving on horseback like the Marlboro Man, the ideal, self-reliant frontiersman, only to have Kansas accidentally crash Fuller’s set in the middle of filming, stirring a torrent of abuse from the director.
Kansas is soon called on to participate in stunts himself, glimpses of which are interpolated throughout the film. The stunts require him to take the place of the dead man in jarring and difficult movements, like being jerked off a horse by a tether or swinging in on a guy rope, causing alarm and concern in one local extra working on the film, recognisable as the man later directing the fake movie. Once the film shoot concludes and the company disbands to return home, Kansas decides to stay behind and live in the mountain town with his local girlfriend Maria (Stella Garcia) in a house he starts building above the town. Their union is deeply carnal, and when they have sex in a waterfall pool, it proves embarrassingly close to a popular path along which the priest escorts children.
Islets of quintessential hippy romanticism early in the film see the pair framed against beautiful mountain vistas in flowered fields. But Kansas and Maria are far from being dippy young lovers, as Maria is happy to have hooked up with a rich gringo, and Kansas regards her as useful appliance. Emerging from his depression high on the spirit and beauty of his new home, but detached from the poverty around it, Kansas thinks big, dreaming up schemes to create a ski resort on snow-clad peaks. Kansas’ only local pal, Neville Robey (Don Gordon), claims to have a lead on a potential gold mine, and wants to dig up an investor to help him extract it. Kansas becomes his partner as the film productions he was expecting to exploit in the now-established location don’t come. One afternoon in a café where they play chequers, Neville gets Kansas to help him flirt with a pair of women who enter, Mrs. Anderson (Julie Adams) and her daughter (Donna Baccala), the family of prominent American businessman Harry Anderson (Roy Engel). Kansas has the wherewithal to charm Mrs. Anderson, and manages to get them invited to dinner with the family, where Neville can lobby Mr. Anderson to fund their mine.
Here The Last Movie shifts into territory reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ studies in behaviour amongst the emotionally thwarted and morally bankrupt, as Hopper’s collective of exiled Americans get drunk, tell filthy jokes, flirt, and go out in search of a racy good time that will shock their stagnant nerves and fetid blood back into action. Neville drunkenly burbles sexy shockers like suggesting mother and daughter make out, whilst both Anderson and Maria carefully ignore Kansas’ increasingly overt moves on Mrs. Anderson and her all-too-eager appreciation of them. Hopper notes with a cold alacrity the mutuality of Anderson and Maria’s blind eyes, the former acquiescing for the sake of keeping his attractive wife happy and the latter for the sake of not rocking her fiscal boat as multiple forms of prostitution collide. The booze-sodden evening moves on to a local brothel, which Neville reckons is the town’s best entertainment venue, and they listen to a soaring-voiced folk warbler (Poupée Bocar) before retiring for more obscene delights as Kansas pays a couple of hookers to put on a sex act as floor show. Mrs. Anderson contorts in raw, erotic pleasure and plainly wants to join the couple on the floor before lolling in autoerotic delight, framed between two pin-ups of a muscle man and a starved African child in the film’s most direct and bitter portrait of first-world anomie in perfect symbiosis with exploitation. Kansas has to fend off the attentions of Maria’s former boyfriend/pimp who threatens him with a gun. Maria leaps up to intervene and rushes the man away, but Kansas is still drunkenly infuriated and he beats the hell out of her when she returns.
The sobered, chagrined Kansas tries to make it up to Maria, who demands a fur coat like Mrs. Anderson’s. Kansas goes to the Andersons to buy one, and Mrs Anderson, who confesses to her own sadomasochistic fantasies stirred by Kansas’ guilty confessions and the night’s pornography, agrees to give him her daughter’s. But she extracts her own price from Kansas, insisting he submit to her sadistic fantasies of abuse and control, making him kneel and receive slaps in the face. This movement of the film is so odd, mordant, and perversely fascinating that I would sing the whole’s praises even if the rest of it had been mere footage of Hopper pissing against a wall—which is just about what Hollywood and a lot of critics thought he did.
Colonialism is certainly a part-hidden target of the film as it regards the gravitational effect of American cultural apparatchiks and their infrastructure distorting the minds and lives of anyone with whom they come in contact. Money matters to Hopper’s characters, for, as in Easy Rider, a quixotic attempt to make money to buy “freedom” comes to the fore, swapping the previous film’s original sin-like drug deal for Kansas and Neville’s attempt to ascertain if the gold mine can really pay off for them. They head into the wilderness to the gold mine with some explicit references to Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): in fact, in a scene close to the end of the film, which seems to be a non sequitur flashback to this journey, Kansas and Neville are depicted arguing comically about details from Sierra Madre, which might be Neville’s only actual source of knowledge about gold mining.
Earlier in the film, the priest alerted Kansas to a novel and disturbing phenomenon that seems to have gripped his parishioners, and led him to the fake film village to see them “shooting” their own version of the film with equipment made of out of wicker, complete with fistfights that result in real blood and bruises. Kansas tries to show them how it’s done in the trade, but the director complains that “isn’t real!” Exactly what the fake shoot is supposed to be Hopper leaves ambiguous, but he makes clear he feels guilty for his participation in the hypnotic, reality-bending force of the movies and correlates them with other forms of imperial power. Kansas requests absolution from the Priest for playing his part in this. For the locals, this activity seems initially a simplistic piece of monkey-see-monkey-do, but comes to look rather like a determined, ritualistic subsuming of the power of cultural imperialism, a Promethean project of stealing the movie gods’ fire and also a religious festival, as the film’s finale invokes two different forms of ritualised theatre, film production, and passion play, blending in perfect mirroring.
Few satires on the movie industry are quite as brutally logical and funny as the director here, who combines the archetype of the filmmaker as authoritarian visionary with Mexican bandit and military overlord. He handles his “cast” and “crew” with great collaborative zest, but when someone doesn’t stick with the programme he takes action. Kansas, who tries to flee from their clutches, busts out of the prison he’s locked in because he realises that it is of course not a real prison. The director, however, pulls out a very real pistol and starts shooting at him as he rides away, clipping Kansas in the shoulder. The injured cowboy, dizzy from blood loss and hysterical, first tries to find Maria in the brothel, where he starts a fight with bouncers and gets himself thrown out. He limps through empty, debris-filled buildings in perhaps the film’s most surreal-feeling sequence, filled with jump cuts and oblique framings that fragment perception, as the structures become dreamlike traps where past, present, and future become liquid and Kansas’ cognisance splinters, glimpsed in agony in mirrors in the midst of stone-walled, half-finished, or half-demolished structures, stumbling amidst piled and ruined coffins and religious paraphernalia. He recovers, ministered to by the priest and the director and found by Maria, who nonetheless falls under the influence of the director and announces she’s off to participate in a beauty pageant designed to pick a star for the film. Kansas stumbles back into the midst of the “film” as he searches for Maria and is swept up in the culmination of the strange rite, with the priest now playing along with his flock in uniting the worship of movies and Christianity. Kansas is imprisoned again, and Maria tetchily mocks Kansas’ appeals for help, believing the director won’t go so far as to actually kill him.
During his first exile, Hopper fostered a serious interest in photography and found traction in the field. Whilst the formal beauty and experimental élan of Kovacs’ photography is readily apparent, and many scenes play out in a coherent enough manner, Hopper’s photographic experience had given him a highly tactile, expressive sense of film as a tool to be used or abused. The Last Movie plays out in a high state of flux that occasionally stabilises, reality and film deliberately fragmented and confused. Hopper offers some obvious pokes at familiar structuring, like having his “A film by Dennis Hopper” title card appear 10 minutes into the film, and then the actual film title another 10 minutes later, and “scene missing” cards inserted in a manner that anticipates the fascination of recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Andrew Bujalski with the film as an artefact. The Last Movie, as its title might well threaten, is a constant, boiling mass of cinematic style and antistyle, as Kovacs works in wild lensing effects and a jagged lexicon of film language. Godard’s Week-End (1967) seems to have been a specific influence, borrowing not just its name from that film’s final title, but much of Godard’s deliberately anarchic aesthetic, hacking up movie time. But whereas Godard emphasised theatricality and falseness in his mise-en-scene to mock the idea of verisimilitude, The Last Movie is more attentive to the immediate reality of its setting, capturing the weird atmosphere of its Peruvian setting with an often documentary immediacy.
Classically graceful tracking shots alternate with analytical, extended, meandering zoom shots, or handheld documentary-style shots with fish-eye lensing that create a mood of happenstance, overheated authenticity. One motif of the film lies in repeated, startlingly wide, long-angle panorama shots that seem to be trying to rupture the limitations of the frame and that often include someone sprawled dead or injured (or playing dead or injured) in the foreground. There seems to be an almost religious meaning behind this recurring shot of earth, sky, and fallen being in one vast arc of communion. Certainly there is such meaning in the recurring vision of a man stretched out either dead or being transformed, from the drag queen at the wrap party to the shots that conjoin Kansas and the soon-to-be-dead stuntman as both go through the rope stunt and finish up flat on their backs, and a later shot where an injured Kansas lies prone and agonised, time and space breaking up into barely liminal flashes. Christ-like postures are one of the signal clichés of male movie actors seeking to become the auteurs of their movies, whether directing or not, and Hopper certainly indulges that posture here, as Kansas fears he’s going to be the human sacrifice to set the seal on the movie-ritual. But the strangely beautiful refrain that represents the ultimate break-up of narrative in The Last Movie, showing Kansas running and falling as if shot but then getting up again. The resurrection that is so crucial to the Christ mythos is readily coherent in film where (nearly) every death is fake and resurrection immediate, and Kansas’ ritualised reengagement with the death that ended the “real” film restores the order.
Or does it? Hopper makes fun of the parable and his apparent irony, or rather reduces it to absurdist statement, offering up repeated takes of his “death,” each filmed in languorous slow motion. Hopper then lets the film trail off in shots as elusive as the early ones, noting bored-looking extras waiting for the star to enter the frame, and Hopper, Milian, and the “director” stumbling through abortive takes or halting, improvised comedy. A return to Kansas and Neville on their gold hunt calls back to the gently spacy comedy of Easy Rider’s campfire scenes, before Hopper closes on one of the film’s repeated shots, of a tree on fire in the midst of the film set—a shout-out to Cecil B. DeMille’s burning bush?—with an unidentified man hanging in the branches. The Last Movie is a supremely uneasy work, one that transmits both its filmmaker’s lack of faith in his art, but also his dynamic involvement with it. The Last Movie was dismissed and buried for a long time, and yet what’s striking is how much influence, or at least anticipation, it had. Francis Coppola revealed his affinity by borrowing the seamy nightlife venture for The Godfather Part II (1974) and then casting Hopper in the thematically, crucially similar Apocalypse Now (1979), whilst elements of the later cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Alex Cox, and some Latin American filmmakers are predicted with fascinating alacrity. Hopper himself finally returned from directorial exile via the work some regard as his best, the troubled-youth flick Out of the Blue (1980), which posited former easy rider as child-abusing drunk and progeny as apocalyptic punkette.
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Directors: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast/Luchino Visconti
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s fascinating how a single story can be bent almost infinitely to suit the imagination and purposes of individual creatives. I recently had a chance to view two rare films that riff off the same basic plot—a grindingly poor, but attractive woman marries a wealthy older man for security and faces the dilemma of whether to leave him to be with the penniless man she loves. Both films were shot during difficult times in their respective countries: Laughter premiered just after the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, and Obsessione was shown as Mussolini’s fascist government was headed toward oblivion, with a feeling of defeat and waste settling over the Italian population. Yet, one film is the prototype of the screwball comedy, and the other a noir tragedy and the second film version of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Laughter opens on a downbeat note, as Ralph la Sainte (Glenn Enders), an artist in love with our heroine, former chorus girl Peggy Gibson (Nancy Carroll), seeks her in vain at the mansion she shares with her stockbroker husband Mortimer (Frank Morgan). He leaves her a desperate note and returns to his garret on the wrong side of town, a side she called home before Mortimer plucked her out of the chorus line. Enter financially struggling composer/musician Paul Lockridge (Frederic March), fresh from Paris and looking to renew his love affair with pretty Peggy. The butler (Leonard Carey) who repeatedly asks for his card to present to Mrs. Gibson becomes the billboard on which the pair communicate, with Paul writing a message on his starched shirt front, and Peggy replying in kind that she is not at home, exclamation point! Paul brings Peggy youth, laughter, and love, whereas Mortimer can only clamp one jeweled bracelet after another around her wrist, thrilling to the ticker that tells him he has made more than $6 million that day rather than enjoying an impromptu vaudeville routine by Peggy and her friends in his drawing room. Circumstances will conspire to put Peggy in the same room with Ralph, ending in a tragedy that has Peggy reconsidering her priorities.
Obsessione begins in much more prosaic fashion, as a wheat-bearing truck stops at a roadside trattoria to gas up and dislodge Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti), a filthy, but handsome tramp who hitched a ride in the flatbed. He charms a meal out of Giovanna Bragana (Carla Calamai), the beautiful, young wife of the trattoria owner, Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa), a fat, old man who treats her like a servant and possession. The attraction between Gino and Giovanna is as strong as her hatred of her husband, and she contrives to keep Gino around by having him pay for his meal with work. Giuseppe takes a liking to Gino and offers him a permanent job, but the lovers become impatient with Giuseppe constantly underfoot and start to run away together. After walking a while in high heels down a dirt road, Giovanna, tired and unhappy about her future prospects with her impoverished lover, turns back. However, their paths cross again, and fate moves them toward a murderous and tragic end.
Although Laughter and Obsessione take their shared plot in decidedly different directions, each manages to break new ground while providing commentary on the societies from which they emerged. Laughter may seem to have passed its moment in history by not depicting the ruin that befell people like Mortimer Gibson, but it foreshadows the desperation of the Depression while offering an escapist resolution to the love triangle that would become de rigueur in the 1930s. La Sainte represents the disillusionment of the age, a struggling artist whose failures in love and life lead to despair and tragedy. Although not specifically stated, it would be reasonable to assume that Peggy’s rejection of Paul and marriage to Mortimer were prompted at least in part by the decline of vaudeville and a tawdry future in burlesque and prostitution that sometimes awaited chorines like her. Obsessione makes this fate explicit in the character of Anita (Dhia Cristiani), an attractive woman who meets Gino in a park and tells him that she’s a dancer in a show—even challenges him to check her story out—but starts to remove her sweater the moment she discovers him in her one-room apartment hiding from the police.
In its own way, Obsessione offers a carefree escape for ordinary Italians through Visconti’s Neorealist approach to filming his story on the Italian streets. After Gino leaves the Braganas, he meets an itinerant carnival worker nicknamed “The Spaniard” (Elio Marcuzzo), who pays Gino’s train fare to Ancona, shares a room with him, and puts him to work advertising his street performance by wearing a sandwich board. Ancona is a lively place where people come to vacation, enjoy street fairs and carnival rides, and gather together communally to eat, drink, and participate in contests and games. Giuseppe and Giovanna run into Gino on their way to a singing contest at a large trattoria, and the jovial Giuseppe invites Gino to come. Giuseppe, justly proud of his fine singing voice, earns our sympathy with his innocent enthusiasm and friendship. The entire scene in Ancona, and later, in the Bragana trattoria, where Giovanna has increased business tremendously by introducing music and dancing to the restaurant, show the sweet life in the midst of tremendous hardship and sorrow, thus lifting the film to a more complex and affecting level.
Laughter, a product of Hollywood, can’t offer the same verisimilitude, but snappy dialogue cowritten by director d’Abbadie d’Arrast, energetic action, and some lovely comic set-pieces evoke the anything-goes attitude of the recently remembered Roaring ’20s. When Peggy meets Mortimer’s grown daughter Marjorie (Diane Ellis), their arch references to each other as “Mother” and Daughter” signal the unconventional sophistication of their social set. Further, Peggy and Paul think nothing of going off together for a drive in the country without a word to her husband. When Paul conveniently runs out of gas and they get caught in the rain, they break into a conveniently empty house and crawl inside two bearskin rugs for a bit of whimsical playacting that defines a screwball romp. When they are arrested for breaking and entering, Mortimer comes in handy to secure their release—they even rate a police escort back to New York.
In both films, the romantic pairs’ yearning for love and happiness drive the action. Peggy decides that love is more important than money after seeing someone die for love of her. When she leaves her marriage, which even Mortimer acknowledges is not based on love, the audience gets an emotionally satisfying ending, with the attractive couple laughing gaily in a Parisian sidewalk café—not the Ritz, but certainly comfortable enough. Giuseppe knows the hard facts about his marriage of convenience, too, but he reckons that Giovanna will be rewarded soon enough—he is an old man and not likely to live much longer. Again, when Giovanna and Gino are eaten with guilt and eventually punished for their crime just when they seem to be headed for true happiness, audiences receive the emotional payoff righteousness demands. Both films are cruel to their aging patriarchs who, despite their cluelessness about how to treat a wife, had their redeeming qualities.
Film critic and educator Jonathan Rosenbaum chose Laughter as part of a film course he is teaching at the School of the Art Institute, “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” and it’s easy to see how a film that treats love largely as an optional confection is a transgressive reflection of the social upheaval that occurred before and after 1930. Carroll and March are an extremely likeable and appealing couple whose antics would have been a balm to audiences while offering mild titillation that asks them to consider which is the greater sin—love without marriage or marriage without love. Carroll and March must have provided considerable inspiration to Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), which offers perhaps a naughtier view of an unmarried couple on the road despite its appearance during early enforcement of the Production Code.
Obsessione, an international example of film noir shown at Noir City Chicago this year, is less ambiguous about what love makes permissible, signaling the fate that awaits the adulterous murderers when an account of a man shot dead by a cuckolded husband reaches the patrons of the trattoria near the beginning of the film. Even Visconti’s camera blocking when the couple first meets, Gino’s body obscuring all but Giovanna’s legs, lets us know who will be erased by the end of the film. Visconti also inserts the suggestion of a gay subtext with The Spaniard, who behaves like Gino does toward Giovanna, following him back to the trattoria and getting into a fistfight with him in a subtly played jealous rage. Love is not a confection in this film, but a trap, particularly for its noir antihero, who chucked a happy life when he caught the disease; Calamai, a late replacement for a pregnant Anna Magnani, turns full femme fatale in Ancona to get what she wants. Transgressive in its own time, the film was banned after Mussolini’s son rejected it as not reflecting the reality of the Italian people, and Visconti was forced to turn over all prints and negatives for destruction. We only have this valuable document of wartime Italian filmmaking, as well as Visconti’s pungent directorial debut, because Visconti held back one negative; the film stands as a candidate ripe for restoration.
Two forms largely seen as products of 20th century American life—screwball comedy and noir—reflect the more Janus-faced aspects of common human experiences. Laughter and Obsessione offer the commonality of human emotion particularized by their respective places and moments in time.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Don Siegel
By Roderick Heath
Few filmmakers more than 20 years into their careers can be said to have just come into their own—indeed, by that time, many have burned out or lapse into mere competence. Even fewer whose careers started in Hollywood’s classic studio era could have claimed such inspiration in the tumult of the mid 1960s, when audience and business shifts had left many familiar talents high and dry. Don Siegel defied the odds as he suddenly found himself a venerated hit-maker by the early ‘70s who eventually was elevated from B-movie craftsman to master and auteur. Having made the leap from Warner Bros’ in-house expert of montage cutting, Siegel directed terrific films from his debut film, The Verdict (1946), including The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Line-Up (1958) and Hell Is for Heroes (1961), and his reputation amongst peers was strong—Ida Lupino, herself no slouch at directing, once confessed she hoped to be counted as a decent second-string Siegel. Siegel’s vertiginous visual sensibility, filled with alternations between godlike high angles and all-too-human, bruising closeness, a feel for both primal and urban landscapes as spaces that shape human action, a grip on both the studious grammar of classical filmmaking and expressive reflexes that could readily bend or break those rules armed him with tools that could absorb what he needed from New Wave filmmaking, ignore the rest, and still seem authoritative.
Siegel’s grouchy cynicism directed at the counterculture resulted in scabrous portraits in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Dirty Harry (1971), but then he could pivot and reveal a sheer delight in bratty anti-authoritarianism and rejection of communal rules—key to Two Mules for Sister Sara. His most consistent theme was more subtle, however, one of individuals at odds with their milieu, unable to comprehend the niceties of coexistence with radically different viewpoints and social doctrines that try to force acquiescence on his instinctually, rather than politically rebellious heroes. This is one reason that the theme of a lone wolf working within a larger system or cause was one of his favourites, an attitudinal linchpin that would have a profound influence, particularly on Quentin Tarantino.
He wrestled with modernity’s teeming, contradictory emotions in a way mainstream audiences could understand and coalesce without feeling like they were being preached at by a message movie. Siegel could offer a cop or a criminal empathy at any given moment. He could provoke liberals by transferring a frontier law ethos to modern cities, and then pivot to anatomise contemporary urges to agitation and shifting social mores in contexts like scifi with Body Snatchers, or historical, as in Hell Is for Heroes, with its proto-beatnik hero adrift in the war zone, or even further back with anxiety over emerging feminism in The Beguiled (1971) in a Civil War landscape. Two Mules for Sister Sara, like its immediate follow-up The Beguiled, bespeaks of Siegel’s inherent love of such paradox, prefiguring the next film’s dark, eerie take on sexual and social dislocation in a playful fashion that resembles The African Queen (1951) remade by Sam Peckinpah. Indeed, Peckinpah was Siegel’s first major protégé, whilst Sister Sara stars his second, Clint Eastwood.
Like Peckinpah, Siegel’s oeuvre seems intricately macho, but could embrace femininity and lyricism at unexpected moments. Again, like Peckinpah, he found an ideal thematic landscape in the open zones of culture between the U.S. and Mexico. But whereas for Peckinpah that landscape offered a schism between worlds that held the possibility of continued romantic freedom on the one hand and familiar but encroaching control on the other, for Siegel it was closer to Shakespeare’s forests, a zone of anarchy where his heroes could roam free and where familiar demarcations become porous, not a no-man’s-land but any-man’s-land. Siegel could also make fun of himself more convincingly. Sister Sara, written by Albert Maltz, was based on a story by Budd Boetticher, himself a major director who had hit a career doldrum by this time, is even more explicitly Shakespearean in its use of disguise and uncertain identity, as well as gender comedy to entertain and tease.
Antihero Hogan (Clint Eastwood) is a mercenary and a former soldier in his country’s Civil War—what side isn’t mentioned. He’s looking to make a quick fortune and buy perpetual personal independence by aiding a community in the same process, in this case the Mexican Juarista revolt against French imperialism in the 1860s. Hogan’s intentions are hampered when he comes across a nun about to be sexually assaulted in the borderland wilderness by three ruffians, whom Hogan kills in quick order with both direct and cunning means. The nun calls herself Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), and Hogan is forced to carry on as her protector when she reveals she must not be found by patrolling French dragoons because she, too, is aiding the revolution.
When she learns that Hogan has been hired to help destroy a French fortress in Chihuahua, Sister Sara reveals intimate knowledge of the place because her church was next door. She suggests a raid on the fortress when the garrison celebrates its traditional Bastille Day bacchanal. Sara proceeds to drive Hogan batty with a mixture of basic physical appeal that he cannot move upon, and her dedicated plying of her religious calling, such as insisting on proper burial and prayers for her assaulters, and a dozen other daily impositions. Hogan’s general credulity for Sara’s vocational steadfastness is thus sustained even when she reveals some strange knowledge, as when she reassures him that God will forgive him for putting his hands on her ass in a good cause. She soon reveals stranger habits, as when she absconds with one of Hogan’s half-smoked cigars to indulge a few furtive puffs with the relief of a showgirl between matinees, and a surprising tolerance, nay, thirst for strong liquor. She’s no nun, of course, and he’s no knight in shining armour, so the interplay of deception and ignoble intention between her and Eastwood, and the tongue-in-cheek approach to sex and religion, ambles with an off-kilter pep. Eastwood rarely played a proper romantic lead, and he doesn’t exactly play one here either, as Hogan is a sensually crude being who has no thought for settling down. The film draws much entertainment value from forcing one of his taciturn warriors to deal with a disturbing female form that is, at first, painfully off-limits, and then his increasingly perturbed reactions to Sara’s provocations.
It’s not very surprising when late in the film Sara is revealed to be a prostitute well known by certain members of the army she’s declared war on. Sara’s act, however, is more than mere camouflage and not exactly a play for false veneration. It is certainly a good-humoured mockery of the theoretical disparity of the classic madonna-whore figuration as it’s pitted against Hogan’s arch masculinity, her habit merely exacerbating Hogan’s confusion before femininity whilst also calling into question his—and the audience’s—understanding of it. Sara makes theatrical displays of playing the good Christian, blessing her buried attackers with water and infuriating Hogan with the waste. Yet Sister Sara intriguingly conflates what is usually perceived as two different kinds of tolerance, that of the woman who’s so familiar with life’s rough side that a near-rape is just another day at the office, and that of the committed religious idealist who forgives her enemies out of divine assurance, and suggests there’s no essential difference as both stem from a degree of character slightly beyond the more reactive male. Likewise, the independence of the prostitute is conflated with that of the nun, defined by their communal life in an overtly feminine space (to wit, the conflation of nunnery and bawdyhouse in Shakespearean humour) that also renders them autonomous in many ways. But Sara remains something distinct from Howard Hawks’ famous tough women because, unlike them, she reveals herself not as above the usual portrait of femininity surviving in a macho world, but readily hewing to both sides of stereotype and proving herself more than able in both.
Sister Sara represents a fascinating intersection point for several approaches to the western, although its setting and scope of action partly elide more exact definitions of the genre, almost a final point of correlation before the genre started its decline through the ’70s. In the late ‘60s, the genre had been schismatically redefined by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and then by the ferocity of Peckinpah, unified by their emphasis on tactile, visual realism and harsher violence than oatsers had known in the past, but separated on deeper levels by their ways of conceiving the genre’s heroes and social inferences. Leone’s grand, archetypal approach was reacting to the “adult western” of the ’50s, uninterested in its psychological and truthful reflexes, whilst Peckinpah accused the older genre of naiveté and aimed right for its sanctities. Boetticher had been, along with Anthony Mann, the adult western’s most persistent auteur, and Boetticher’s intimacy with his material was always a great strength. He was fascinated by the way individuals paint their own internal hopes or neuroses upon the neutral landscape. Boetticher wrote Sister Sara, whilst Siegel borrowed Leone’s composer Ennio Morricone to lend his film some of the weird, perfervid atmosphere of the Italian style. He also annexed aspects of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and set about stitching together disparate influences with his own viewpoint in satirising the disparity between the individualist, macho hero and the woman who is in some ways tougher and more determined than him. To a certain extent, the film’s portrait of Hogan’s dizziness before Sara’s independence was reproduced on set as the practiced survivor MacLaine intimidated both Siegel and Eastwood, who finished up billed second for the last time until The Bridges of Madison County (1994), giving the finished film an amusing subtext.
Sara and Hogan’s voyage through the wilderness has a multiplicity of resonances, not just to thematically similar predecessors, like The African Queen, Black Narcissus (1947), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958). There’s a playful take on Samuel Beckett in Sara and Hogan’s droll meandering through a blank and depopulated landscape, bickering half-romantically, half-irascibly. There’s a hint of Luis Buñuel in Siegel’s wry, schoolboy delight in profane conceits, where a whore is holy and holiness is whoring out to anyone on the side of the angels, as well as the general atmosphere of Mexico Buñuel perhaps grasped better than anyone else as an ideal stage for surrealist disparities. The film’s title points to a particularly Buñuel-esque joke: Sara’s mule has an injured foot, giving Hogan a chance to finally leave her behind in a small village, but Sara immediately kneels to pray before a roadside shrine, whereupon a farmer rides by with an another mule for which she’s able to arrange a swap. Morricone’s droll choral chants confirm divine intervention, though the result is an extremely uneven trade. Siegel borrowed Buñuel’s former cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and he aided in creating a film that exemplifies the visual pleasures of early ’70s cinema. Figueroa captures the sun-burnished, raw, earthy hues of the Mexican landscape, dotted with the vivid colours humans drape themselves in or discharge, be it sweat or blood, and even the porcelain tint of MacLaine’s naked back, all with a sense of pungent physicality, immediacy, and crucial beauty.
Of course, if you don’t want to think much about what a film means deep down, Sister Sara is, first and foremost, a rollicking entertainment built around Siegel and Boetticher’s cleverness and exactitude as storytellers and painters of circumstance and event. Early in the film, as Hogan helps Sara elude the French, he takes her into a ruined hacienda where he might stand a chance in a firelight shootout and kills a lurking rattlesnake. Hogan sets up an ambush, placing loaded guns in old loopholes, ready to move from one to the other to maintain rapid fire, whilst the hidden Sara dissuades a searching soldier by grabbing up the tail of the dead snake and shaking it to make the man think there’s a lurking serpent. The ploy works, and the soldiers depart. Later, when the two are bunked down for the night in a small copse, Hogan hears strange scuffling sounds in the night, so he hoists Sara into a tree, pours out some gunpowder, and lights it to catch a glimpse of the intruding presence like a camera flash, only to find a group of refugees from the war. Sara’s garb gives her rare abilities to cross barriers and move unmolested through social contexts, if not the wilderness. This advantage backfires when she tries to collect information in a garrison town, only to be waylaid by some officers looking for anyone who can give last rites to their dying commander. The commander proves to be a man Sara herself helped assassinate, and she has to silence him before he can shout out at her in rage. Fortunately, he dies right away, and Sara takes comfort in a long swig of Hogan’s whiskey once she returns.
The film’s centrepiece is a long, superbly constructed and sustained sequence in which Hogan is skewered by an arrow from a roving Indian band when he and Sara set out to blow up a troop train. Sara again successfully wields the power of her fake religiosity by warding off the Indians by holding her crucifix up in the hope some might recognise it, and then sets about obeying Hogan’s instructions for getting the arrow out of him. The shaft has pierced him through, and the point is jutting from his back, so the best way to extract the arrow is to bash it right through. Hogan gets drunk to dull the pain as he makes her meticulously prepare the arrow with a groove filled with gunpowder to be lit at the moment she strikes so that the burning powder will cauterize the wound even as it slides through his body. This excruciating piece of frontier doctoring works a treat, but it leaves Hogan too drunk and too crippled to prepare to blow the train. Instead he makes Sara plant dynamite under a trestle bridge (never mind that dynamite wasn’t patented until a year after the end of the Juarista War), necessitating a perilous climb for the woozy lady. Hogan, who can only shoot with his left hand, must try to detonate the explosive with a bullet. He muffs it repeatedly until Sara lets loose in a tirade of furious, salty insults and slaps, whereupon he finally manages to hit the dynamite and wreck the train in spectacular fashion. Their shared achievement in wounding the enemy proves to be partly self-defeating, as the French garrison in Chihuahua is put on the alert, so that the easy victory over a mob of drunkards Sara promised the Juaristas becomes instead an assault on a highly alert stronghold.
There’s a terrifically involved, logical and convincing layering of story. Siegel steps easily between comic and serious notes because they’re both allowed to flow with naturalness from the circumstances. Sara isn’t pretending to be a nun just because it’s funny, but because she’s genuinely afraid for her safety and it’s a practical, useful disguise, albeit one that creates problems as well as solutions. Frankly, Sister Sara makes a lot of contemporary genre filmmaking seem, by comparison, plastic and detached from reality, however much more fire and blood they might toss at the screen. Hogan and Sara eventually rejoin society as they make it to the encampment of a Juarista band led by Colonel Beltrán (Manolo Fábregas), another alpha male held in axial partnership with Hogan by Sara as they venture into town to check over their target and find the soldiers on the defensive, demanding a new plan. Siegel’s dynamic sense of staging turns a throwaway sequence like the Juaristas sneaking into town and ascending to the rooftops overlooking the fort into an epic moment of communal action in the offing.
Hogan travels back to the States to buy more dynamite, giving him time to heal, and when he returns, he is faced with Sara’s actual identity. Boetticher was quite mad at Siegel for making it too obvious that Sara wasn’t what she was supposed to be before the reveal, but it’s still a splendidly funny moment when Sara leads Hogan and the freedom fighters to the “church,” and the madame (Rosa Furman) greets Sara gleefully by grabbing her backside. When Hogan protests that her church is actually a cathouse, she replies, “Oh no, this is no cathouse. This is the best damn whorehouse in town.” Sara rattles off an airy explanation, wraps a red shawl about her head, steals a cigar, and bingo, she’s anything Hogan could ever need and maybe more than he can handle.
When an underground passage that offers a secret way into the fortress proves to be locked from above, the only way for the army to penetrate the fort is for Hogan to pose as a bounty hunter bringing the wanted Sara back for punishment. The fort’s commander, Gen. LeClaire (Alberto Morin), is a gentlemanly creep who pleasantly offers Sara a last indulgence of a snoot full of wine before being shoved before a firing squad still in her habit. Hogan’s quick draw sees the CO and his roomful of brass-buttoned officers blown to kingdom come in a blink, and red-blooded characters can finally get down to the proper business of fighting and fucking. The final battle scene was criticised by some, and it is at odds with the rest of the film to a certain degree, as Siegel visualises the ferocious battle as a murderous whirlwind that plays as Siegel’s riposte-cum-tribute to the climax of his former protégé’s The Wild Bunch. Forty-odd years later, though, it just seems like a damn great action climax—indeed, one of my favourites—in keeping with the determinedly gritty vicissitudes of its time. Hogan finally gets to prove his action chops, tossing dynamite like an arsenal of thunder and letting galloping horses drag him past the French guns so that he can let Beltrán and his renegades into the fort. Flames boil and limbs are severed as Siegel’s camerawork switches from rocketing tracking shots to handheld immersion in the midst of furious hand-to-hand melees.
Hogan reenters the brothel with the fort’s cashbox in a wheelbarrow and bashes his way into Sara’s room to find her in a bathtub: he climbs in fully clothed, explaining “I don’t have time!” when she comments he might at least take off his hat. The film’s last, great visual joke shows Hogan back on horseback and heading home, tetchily waving for his lady to catch up. Sister Sara is just as much his essential pain in the ass as before, dressed in all her finery as a woman of easy virtue, crossing the desert with her rough-hewn beau in dainty defiance of good sense.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Rob Thomas
By Marilyn Ferdinand
From 2004 through 2007, “We Used to Be Friends,” the dreamy, edgy song performed by the Dandy Warhols, opened “Veronica Mars,” a television series that created such a loyal following that it survived low ratings to last three seasons and encouraged more than 91,500 people to contribute to a Kickstarter campaign so successful that we now have a movie based on the series. What was it about this series that had people of all ages and backgrounds—including me—glued to the tube each week?
The series, which featured Kristen Bell as the title teenage gumshoe, was much more than the updated Nancy Drew or straight-playing “Twin Peaks” it seemed to be. Its essence was noir, with corruption at the heart of its original through-story of Veronica’s investigation into the murder of her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), in the fictional town of Neptune, California, a playground for the rich and famous with a soft underbelly reminiscent of the Los Angeles of Chinatown (1974). Veronica, daughter of ex-sheriff and current P.I. Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), ran in the rarefied circles of Neptune’s power elite, but remained a resolute outsider by dint of her lowly financial status and exposure to the ruinous power of wealth and influence as exemplified by the campaign of the 1% to run her dad out of office for daring to come after one of their own. Many fans of the series believe, in the words of the Film Noir Foundation, that “it’s a bitter little world,” and despite the futility, it still felt good to see our wry, savvy antiheroine act like Sam Spade: “When a (girl’s best friend) is killed, (s)he’s supposed to do something about it.” We thrilled, too, that like Spade, she fell like a ton of bricks for the wrong person—troubled rich kid Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring)—possessive, violently protective, and oh so sexy.
When the series ended, it seemed like Veronica had put her demons behind her and followed her father’s advice to get out of the cesspool of Neptune and make a normal life for herself. The movie picks up at the point where Veronica, a recent law school graduate, is interviewing for a job at a top New York law firm and living with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), her kind-of boyfriend during her undergraduate days at Hearst College. A high-profile murder in Neptune grabs her attention—pop singer Bonnie DeVille (Andrea Estella), nee Carrie Bishop of Neptune, Logan’s girlfriend, is found electrocuted in her bathtub, and Logan stands accused of murdering her. One text from Logan that he needs her has Veronica on the first plane out, assuring understanding Piz that she will be there only a couple of days to help him choose a defense attorney.
Logan, now an officer in the U.S. Navy, greets Veronica at the airport wearing his dress whites. She is dazzled and says, “You should always wear that,” but as they say, love is blind—the uniform fits him like a laundry bag and makes him look like the prototypical pencil-necked geek. How he managed to maintain a relationship with a junkie pop star while in the Navy is beyond me, but thankfully, he wears civvies for the rest of the film and seems to have been able to make bail—he is filthy rich, after all. This series’ version of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Scooby gang—computer geek Mac (Tina Majorino), gofer/buddy Wallace (Percy Daggs III), and Latino tough Weevil (Francis Capra)—have all grown up into responsible adult positions, with Mac making a very nice living in IT, Wallace a school teacher at their former high school, and Weevil a married man and doting father.
Veronica Mars is a solid, if unremarkable film whose hole-filled scenario is, as Rod pointed out about the plot of another noir, The Big Sleep (1946), rather beside the point. What fans of the series and viewers of the film will most enjoy is a chance to visit with or revisit some beloved characters indelibly created by the prodigious talent of the actors who played them, their acting chops better than ever, and especially the incredible chemistry between Bell and Dohring and the close relationship Veronica has with her father.
Veronica gets drawn back into her former life and her former love, reflecting in the noirish voiceover narration that peppers the film that she is an addict of sorts of both. But then, the script doesn’t make Veronica’s law career seem very exciting. When she interviews with attorney Gayle Buckley (Jamie Lee Curtis), she is told that the firm tries to keep its corporate clients out of court as much as possible—so, in fact, if Veronica takes the job, she will be spending her days literally settling. Once she’s caught up in the adrenaline rush of the investigation to exonerate Logan, she knows that all she really wants to do is get people—the bad guys—into court. Working as she did in high school, investigating her classmates who may have graduated from smaller stuff like test rigging and cyberbullying to actual murder while her father investigates even more grown-up stuff like systemic corruption in the police department, is just like old times.
Yet Veronica’s quest for a safe and normal life seems to have changed her, made her more vulnerable. While still verbally quick, she has slowed down a bit, preferring direct actions like punching a bitchy former classmate to cutting her with her rapier wit—then again, this scene plays like a rip-off of the Indiana Jones and the Arab swordsman scene. A more genuine moment shows Veronica hiding from a killer, panting with terror and thinking as fast as she can for a way to save herself while obviously flailing at the unexpectedness of her plight. The scene is beautifully choreographed and builds tension that the film sustains to the end. The film is also ably aided by its moody look and a soundtrack as edgy and dreamy as its theme song.
One change from the TV series to the movie is Veronica’s heavy use of her smartphone. I thought this was natural for someone well versed in the use of surveillance equipment and an early adopter of new technology, and yet, Veronica seemed to be the only person glued to the screen in her hand. She happens to appear in Neptune the weekend of her 10th high school reunion and is dragged there by the Scoobys. As if by some time-travel miracle, virtually no one was checking their phone every few minutes or texting someone. A crucial plot twist shows a similar stupidity about the power in everyone’s hands these days, though we could possibly blame drugs and alcohol for this particular lapse. Similarly, the Neptune police seem not to have given much thought to the audio/video capabilities of cellphones and are repeatedly recorded doing things they oughtn’t, including unprovoked violence against some defenseless teens. Viewing this film on the heels of seeing the footage from Ferguson, Mo., was a truly eerie experience.
Still, the main event is Veronica and Logan. Their mutual attraction burns a hole through every scene they share, though Logan keeps a gentlemanly distance, even when he is blindsided and momentarily made jealous by Piz’s appearance at the reunion. A flash of his old protectiveness goes overboard when the reunion committee decides to humiliate Veronica by projecting an old sex tape of her and Logan. His rage precipitates the equivalent of a barroom brawl from a creaky Western, a truly shoddy piece of comedy that undercuts the Veronica Mars vibe. While this display from Logan would have sent the Veronica of old packing, the more vulnerable version may actually feel the need for a man who can mix it up, and when he saves her father from an attempt on his life, he becomes plainly irresistible. I have read some criticism of this relationship that it supposedly reinforces the idea that women are looking for sexy bad boys when they should be attracted to nice guys. Of course, it’s ridiculous and futile to tell hearts and genitals what they should want, but in fact, Veronica is a bad girl and thus a perfect match for Logan.
Most fans of the series are crazy about Weevil, and I was disappointed that this complex character had so little to do and ended the film on a note that seemed all wrong. Daggs, also a fan favorite, is just as good in the movie, but again, has little to do. Colantoni is a veteran actor whose presence is felt in any project in which he appears. In Veronica Mars, he is every bit the sympathetic dad and quietly persistent private eye he was in the series, and he and Bell continue as one of the best fictional father/daughter duos anywhere; his joy at being surprised by Veronica’s sudden appearance at his office is a delightful and truthful moment. While Bell has maintained an active career on television, neither she nor the inexplicably lesser-seen Dohring has ever made the impact they did with “Veronica Mars.”
In the end, this pastiche of filmic styles takes it final cue from Casablanca (1942). In their version of “We’ll always have Paris,” Logan and Veronica repeat some words from the series:
I thought our story was epic, you know, you and me. Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, bloodshed. EPIC.
As Logan heads back to the Navy, Veronica goes back to being a gumshoe, apparently with the Scoobys back by her side fighting the bad guys, as though listening to the words of Victor Laszlo: “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”
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Director: Howard Hawks
By Roderick Heath
“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.” – Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”
Raymond Chandler, a former oil company executive who had found himself jobless in his forties, turned to writing crime fiction for survival and to expel the cynical passion that had built up inside him. Inspired by the genre’s early master, Dashiell Hammett, who had already lapsed as a novelist, Chandler began writing short detective stories before achieving a smash with his first novel, The Big Sleep. Where Hammett’s diamond-hard prose and stringent sense of human motive blended a peculiarly Dickensian imagination with a hard-earned understanding of street realities, and Chandler’s rivals like James M. Cain and Jim Thompson were paring down their words to hard blocks of chilly analysis, Chandler brought intricate, even florid, visual and experiential prose as well as literary awareness to the form. He turned the private eye tale into a type of neomythology. Chandler’s singular hero, Philip Marlowe, became his tarnished knight-errant, anatomising a corrupt society whilst retaining his decency under a veneer of cool scorn and world-weary alienation.
Chandler’s writing was inimitable on the page but he swiftly inspired a raft of strong cinema. The first film based on his work was Murder, My Sweet (1944), taken from his second novel Farewell, My Lovely, and cleverly cast Dick Powell as Marlowe, his boyish face from his ingenue days turned anxious and leathery and thus a good mix for embodying Marlowe’s peculiar persona. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), greeted as shambling revisionism in its time, actually got to the heart of Chandler’s often outmatched, fool-of-fortune hero to a striking degree. Dick Richards’ more traditional Farewell, My Lovely (1974) cast Robert Mitchum as a tough, aging man tormented by his own failures. But the best known and arguably most perfectly iconic Marlowe, however, was Humphrey Bogart, who played the role for Howard Hawks in The Big Sleep.
Playing private eyes, gangsters, and other urban warriors was already second nature for Bogart, who had finally cemented his film stardom by playing Hammett’s distinctly grubby Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Bogart was an unlikely figure for such roles, as he came from a blue-blood New York clan, but youthful experiences in World War I, where according to lore he received a facial injury that gave him his signature lisp, and a spell of rank poverty during the Depression chiselled worldly knowledge deep into Bogart’s face and voice. He became American cinema’s image of the tough, savvy man of action until his death from cancer in 1956. The Marlowe Bogart plays in The Big Sleep isn’t quite the sad-sack he increasingly became in Chandler’s books, but a swift-tongued, poised, occasionally insolent swashbuckler with a moral streak that never feels forced, but rather flows from his refusal to be bullshitted.
Hawks made The Big Sleep as a follow-up to his and Bogart’s first collaboration, To Have and Have Not (1944), which had made a star out of model Lauren Bacall. Bacall and Bogart’s on-screen chemistry lit up the screen, whilst their off-screen affair was common knowledge and ended Bogart’s troubled second marriage. Hawks and his formidable task force of screenwriters, including future Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner, sought to create another vehicle for the couple’s electric appeal. They seized on Chandler’s work, even though they couldn’t work out who killed whom at one point, and soon found the author couldn’t remember either.
Of course, The Big Sleep, although a mystery and a crime drama, isn’t really about its plot. Its connective tissue is provided by entwined incidents of romance and evil, rather than riddle, with narrative velocity provided by how Marlowe sinks up to his neck in the proliferating consequences of the perversities of a family of American aristocrats who have turned the national dream into an id-inflected nightmare purely by dint of self-indulgence. The animating mood of Chandler’s novels, captured beautifully in this film in spite of its buoyant segues, is one of miasmic corruption and evil welling out of a still-callow, urban America that’s infected with secret appetites fed by feudal princes of the underworld, creating a noxious symbiosis that can only be battled by someone who understands it intimately. Bogart, who had found his real break in cinema playing hood-eyed heels ready to break teeth and plug bellies, was ideal to play such an intimately conversant hero, hard knocks and rude facts impressed upon his persona. Marlowe’s first appearance in the Sternwood Mansion sees him immediately fascinated by effetely competent butler Norris (Charles D. Brown), and the thumb-sucking teenaged seductress Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), who, as Marlowe puts it, tries to sit in his lap whilst he’s standing up.
Marlowe is hired by Carmen’s decrepit, wheelchair-bound but still whip-sharp father General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to find the most sensible way to get rid of a blackmailer who’s calling in Carmen’s gambling debts. Marlowe’s interaction with Sternwood is a marvellous introduction to the strange adventure upon which he’s about to embark, the General mentioning that he imagines his daughters “have all the usual vices besides those they’ve invented for themselves,” and coolly notes, “If I sound a bit sinister as a parent Mr. Marlowe, it’s because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy.”
Sternwood is quietly pained by his recent abandonment by personal bodyguard and companion Sean Regan, who usually took care of such unpleasant business for Marlowe. Marlowe soon realises that Regan’s disappearance is on the minds of others, as Carmen’s older sister Vivian (Bacall) tries to find if he’s been hired to find Regan. Marlowe rebuffs her in a verbal skirmish of quips, insults, and innuendo, and then gets busy tracking the apparent blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) to a rare bookstore he owns. There, Marlowe pretends to be a camp dilettante, annoying Geiger’s chicly dressed, but covertly brassy shopgirl Agnes (Sonia Darrin) and noting the apparently forbidden trade of the shop. Marlowe consults an employee in a neighbouring shop (Dorothy Malone) who is able to point out Geiger to him. Marlowe follows Geiger to his house and whilst staking the place out hears multiple shots, followed by two cars fleeing. He finds Geiger dead and a very high Carmen sitting by the body.
The most difficult challenge for Hawks and crew wasn’t Chandler’s knotty plot, but rather the litany of crimes, depravities, and illicit acts encompassed by the story, nigh impossible to portray under the rules of the Production Code. Carmen’s drug addiction, Geiger’s pornography racket that has her in thrall, Geiger’s gay relationship with his gunsel Carol Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty), and sundry other aspects had to be conveyed via nudge-and-wink devices, like Marlowe glimpsing a flustered-looking man looking for access to the locked back room in Geiger’s store’s, or Marlowe recoiling when he sniffs a concoction near Carmen in Geiger’s house, the girl not stark naked as she is on the page, but draped in a Chinese bathrobe. Major story developments had to be changed, too. Regan could no longer be Vivian’s husband as he was in the book, just as the identity of his killer had to be carefully smudged. Yet The Big Sleep still conveys an atmosphere of impeccable sleaze, as the dialogue and action constantly trace the sordid world it sees lurking behind urban brickwork, suburban rose bushes, and brownstone mansions alike. Hawks and company even make an overt joke out of the barely censored material when he has Agnes repeatedly cut off from finishing her angry description of a hood pal as “a pain in my—”. The Big Sleep conveys a pervasive relish of the dark side of American life that makes it stand apart from a lot of the noir films that would follow it, feeling closer in spirit to the boastful, struttin’ blues of guys like Muddy Waters and, much later, many a hip-hop star.
Like those artists, The Big Sleep simultaneously brags and conspires with the audience to delight in its carnality and brutality in a manner partly detached from the oncoming noir pattern of stark moral parable. Toughness, terseness, cool under pressure, a capacity to look at the meaner things in life and love and still sling off a devastating wisecrack: not only does the film revolve around such traits, but positively fetishizes them. Sometimes it does this to a grimly hilarious extent, like the traditionally shoehorned time-out for a song, where Bacall warbles lyrics bouncily reporting the tale of a “sweet, sweet guy” who socks his lady in the choppers.
The specific appeal of the private eye genre has always been about the detective’s independence from the state-sponsored moral force represented by the police. Marlowe’s breezy confidence in sticky situations is quickly confirmed, as he spirits Carmen from Geiger’s house, tells Norris and Vivian how to handle the situation, and then returns to study the crime scene and work out what happened. A police inspector pal of Marlowe’s, Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey), calls him out to a seaside pier, where a car containing the Sternwoods’ murdered chauffeur Owen Taylor has crashed into the water. Ohls, who recommended Marlowe for his current job, half-jokingly suggests Marlowe might have rid the family of a problem by killing Taylor.
Marlowe soon strides with characteristic directness into the thicket of double-crosses Geiger’s death causes amidst his coterie of associates, including reputed creep Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt), who may or may not have killed Taylor for Carmen’s porn pictures, but who’s certainly trying to squeeze the Sternwoods again with them, with Agnes as grouchy confidant and Lundgren gunning for whoever he thinks killed Geiger. Events and personalities collide in Brody’s apartment in a hilarious and then brutal critical mass that sees Marlowe sarcastically outwitting not just Brody but also Vivian, who tries to cut a separate deal, and then Carmen, who turns up wielding a pistol to collect her photos. Many directors might have let this sequence devolve into an extended exposition punctuated by random, gun-wielding interlopers. Hawks turns it into a bedroom farce, linked to the screwball comedies he helmed in the 1930s and would direct again in the near future, except with blackmail and murder added to sex. Marlowe casually calls out Agnes and Vivian out from the curtain behind which they are hiding, with Marlowe and Vivian’s frenetic argument interrupted by an exasperated Brody.
Later, in a subtle, but brilliant encapsulation of Hawks’ technique, Marlowe, now holding the gun and the aces, grills Brody over his actions before Taylor’s death. Brody sits in a chair and Marlowe prowls on the far side facing the camera. Brody shifts his position as he explains, trying to avoid Marlowe’s excoriating gaze, and the camera pans slightly back and forth, tracing this little dance of power, with Brody quite literally shifty, Agnes looking on poised like a praying mantis dying to chew Brody’s head off, and Marlowe’s potency visually stated. A moment like Marlowe kicking Lundgren in the chin after challenging him to pick up a gun only confirms his mastery, a spasm of physical violence as precise and immediate as any kung-fu battle and quicker to the point. Of course, Marlowe was also himself perhaps the most knocked-out and beaten-up hero in the history of literature, and here he gets the crap knocked out of him by a couple of stand-over artists and his lights turned off by a thug with a fist full of pennies. The Big Sleep is set in wartime, instead of being a quasi-period piece, an off-hand detail confirmed by the rationing stickers on the cars and the habit of chief villain Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) referring to Marlowe as “Soldier”—which he is, lone warrior keeping the home front in order.
One fascinating aspect of The Big Sleep is that as an action film made during World War II, the age of Rosie the Riveter, Hawks is in a wonderland where his love of gender blurring can be given free rein, free from the usual justifications for having the classic Hawksian lady on hand, as female taxi drivers who can flirt hot and drive cool could be introduced without comment. Marlowe has starkly memorable interactions not just with appointed love interest Vivian but with a complement of strong vivid, hardboiled gals of various persuasions, from Agnes to Carmen, to cute librarians, cigarette girls, gangland wives, and, most deliciously, Malone’s embodiment of an everyday wet dream, the trimly bespectacled geek girl who archly transforms into drop-dead babe for a bout of backroom sex between incidents in the case. Malone’s star was as instantaneously sealed by her appearance here as Bacall’s was giving whistling instructions in To Have and Have Not. Vickers is similarly marvellous as the protean Carmen, swerving from frightened kid to coquettish seducer to wrathful dope freak, and yet, amazingly, her career never went anywhere after this. This was also true of Darrin, who’s brilliantly spiky as Agnes (“Whadda those look like, grapefruit?”), the proverbial cookie full of arsenic.
No director of his—or perhaps any—era had such finite understanding as Hawks of the film actor as a lodestone of both singular personality and ensemble reaction, and how to use this to enrich rather than take over a film, especially when it came to the ever-mercurial nature of sex appeal. In Bogie and Bacall’s combusting on-set romance he had a force of nature at his disposal, and yet The Big Sleep had to be retooled to make the most of it to ease studio worries over Bacall’s less well-received sophomore work in The Confidential Agent (1945). So, scenes were added sporting charged conversations where the couple assess each other’s sexual style through horse racing metaphors, and a late scene is laced with intimations of S&M as Vivian voraciously kisses a trussed and bloodied Marlowe. The whole thing adds up to one of the sexiest films ever made, a rare achievement not just considering the time of its making but also its usually more businesslike, overtly macho genre. Part and parcel, too, of the film’s greatness is the almost relentless stream of great dialogue provided by the awesome trio of screenwriters, with Jules Furthman rounding out the work by Faulkner and Leigh Brackett. Speech in The Big Sleep is not, however, just a series of verbal displays of cleverness like too much modern film and TV writing. It’s given form and shape by the niceties of streetwise communication, and usually predicated on characters testing each other, feeling out motives, fishing for revelations, toughness made apparent not just in slugging and shooting, but also in verbal wit and dexterity and their capacity to hold onto knowledge, another form of power. The General’s aged, ruined form (“I seem to exist mostly on heat, like a newborn spider”) conceals a man who has no need to ration truth, which puts him at an advantage over just about everyone else, but also signals how far out of the running he is now.
Verbal currency is certainly at stake during Marlowe’s first conversation with Vivian, where she tries to wheedle facts out of him, but is instead provoked to quick displays of anger. Bogart’s Marlowe turns his weaknesses into strengths through his verbal nimbleness. “So you’re a private detective,” Vivian greets him, “I didn’t know they existed except in books or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors. My, you are a mess, aren’t you?” An opening barrage many could not recover from, but Marlowe replies, undaunted, “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie and carry a tennis racket.” There’s a pair of clever in-jokes lodged in this line, as Bogart had been forced to wear platform shoes opposite Ingrid Bergman on Casablanca (1943) and had often ridiculed his early career playing Joe College types who say “Anyone for tennis?” Marlowe’s quip deprecates both himself and the actor playing him, but in a way that gives both stature and potency. Similarly knowing are Marlowe’s exchanges with Carmen, where he calls himself Doghouse Reilly in parody of stock tough-guy shtick, the filmmakers wise to Chandler’s strategy of kidding the genre’s clichés just a little to clear ground for his own. By comparison, Marlowe’s interactions with Mars see two alpha males assessing each other’s qualities almost delicately, though even Mars is finally driven to note irritably, “You take chances Marlowe.” “I get paid to,” the private eye replies. Ridgley’s performance is nicely understated, never trying to come on like the tough guy.
Mars is a gambling boss who proves to be shepherding the Sternwoods’ darkest secrets even as his associates, like Geiger, try to profit from them. Even when the case seems over, with the Sternwoods’ blackmailers dead or locked away, Marlowe comprehends that some deeper game is being played, especially when Vivian is apparently robbed by one of Mars’ goons after a big roulette win. Marlowe realises the robbery has been staged, and is seemingly connected to the disappearance of Mars’ wife, who supposedly ran off with Sean Regan. Marlowe cops a beating for his continued interest, but then encounters Harry Jones (Elisha Cook Jr.), Agnes’ diminutive but poised boyfriend, who offers to sell interesting information. Before Marlowe can pay him off, he witnesses a unique bit of cruelty, as he spies on Mars’ main thug Canino (Bob Steele) extracting Agnes’ whereabouts from Harry, who’s loyal enough to lie, and then bullying him into drinking poison. Even for Marlowe, it’s so nasty and depressing a spectacle that he spends the rest of the film restraining a glimmering ferocity that finds equal expression in forcing Mars’ wife Mona (Peggy Knudsen) to recognise the monster her husband is. Marlowe finds Mona with the help of Agnes, whose words of regret for Harry’s death are, “I got a raw deal.” Agnes puts Marlowe onto the actual whereabouts of Mars’ wife, and he arrives at a rundown service station where a kick on the door brings out the gun-wielding, nerveless owner Huck (Trevor Bardette) and, more portentously, Canino, solicitously inviting Marlowe in to make an easier catch.
Hawks’ classical, spacious mise-en-scene is at its most open and free-flowing through The Big Sleep. Cuts only come when necessary, as Hawks generally prefers to choose camera set-ups that allow for nimble shifts of focus. His camera drifts with and amidst characters in settings like the Sternwoods’ mansion and Mars’ gambling palace, where geography is at once carefully unified and hard to read, camera peering through into adjoining rooms and the sense of secret forces always at work, a notion confirmed when Mars offers to let Marlowe see the rooms behind the gambling tables. Marlowe replies, “No thanks, I’ll go out with the rest of the suckers.” Hawks avoids the more expressionistic edge of noir for the most part except for odd moments, as when Marlowe eavesdrops on Jones’ death, the silhouetted victim and villain seen through glass with the camera deftly taking up a position where it can see Canino through a gap in the door, privileging the viewer. Yet the frames are often flooded with darkness, the lighting a careful alternation of dark zones and hazily embracing lights.
The camera quite often becomes the observant eye that Marlowe is, reading promissory notes, car registration slips, street signs, or spying on a stick-up going down. Such are the readily absorbable details of the modern world, the signs and wonders Marlowe’s understanding depends upon, but, of course, nothing compared to reading people, like Vivian’s insolent mandarin visage when Marlowe first sees her. Praising any single performance in The Big Sleep feels pointless because of the general excellence, the machine-tooled refinement of the actors’ rhythms, which make the film seem to work like a racing engine, fast and efficient and utterly integral. Hawks’ beloved, rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue patterns turn all that great dialogue into an aural dance of precise musical intensity.
The typically cheap Warner Bros. sets, swathed in mist and rain (I think more rain falls in the course of the film than in the average L.A. year), nonetheless imbue the film with its pervasive air of enclosing gloom, and even when Marlowe heads out of town the landscape offers no respite. Even a moment of overt slapstick to relieve the mood—Huck running for the hills at a shot from Marlowe—is still rendered as a moment of hysterical energy, particularly thanks to Max Steiner’s scoring. In spite of its nominal pretences as an account of the very real dangers and depths of American society and idealised vision of the battle against them, some perhaps well known to members of the cast and crew, The Big Sleep, as its weird, pithily poetic title suggests, is far from realistic. It is indeed one of the most fervently delirious works from classic Hollywood, moreso than John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s most stylised creations in The Maltese Falcon (1941). This is a world of golems lurking in the shadows (Canino), lesser imps and demons (Brody and Lundgren) capricious witches (Agnes and Carmen), royal priestesses (Vivian), ruined kings (Sternwood), and thieving pretenders (Mars), with Marlowe as muddied knight-errant. The tale occurs in a zone of the fantastic, a grotesque netherworld where every character is harbinger of either sex or death.
The evolving relationship of Marlowe and Vivian, who turns out to be hiding with Mona in a last-ditch effort to put Marlowe off the scent, pays off naturally as she not only frees him, but proves gutsy and loyal enough to help him trick Canino. Canino finishes up on his back with a gut full of bullets, and Marlowe sets out to entrap his boss. In the book, it was revealed that Carmen shot Regan in a moment of druggy, jealous anger when he rejected her advances, and that Mars has both covered up the crime but used it as a way to siphon the Sternwood fortune. Here that’s passed over and inferred in favour of a fiendishly nasty climax (one Hawks would later recycle in 1966’s El Dorado) that sees a casual aside earlier in the film, Mars’ invitation for Marlowe to step outside when his goons are patrolling, turned into a trap. Marlowe drives the criminal out of Geiger’s house so that his own thugs machine-gun him down, his fate traced out with ghoulishly memorable concision by a line of bullet holes erupting through a door before his limp and perforated body falls back. Hawks fades out on the sound of police sirens as Marlowe and Vivian face each other in a moment of triumph, but before their besiegement actually ends, poised between past and future, with the pure moment of anticipation now theirs—the immediate prospect that at last someone’s going to get laid. However you view it, The Big Sleep is one of the classics that define classic Hollywood.
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Director/Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
John Michael McDonagh debuted as a feature film director with 2011’s wry comedy-thriller The Guard, which became the most successful independent film ever made in Ireland and clearly established McDonagh as a major new talent in the national cinema. Like many of the new wave of Irish filmmakers, including his brother Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, both of whom came from playwriting, and their forebear, novelist and poet Neil Jordan, John Michael’s talent has a highly literate, theatrical inflection that stands at odds with the mantras fed to modern film students. Calvary, his follow-up to The Guard, plainly declares itself to be no run-of-the-mill social-issues movie, even as it tackles some of the most pervasive and passion-stirring issues relevant to modern societies. Whilst the conventionally pretty cinematography drinks in the grandeur of Ireland’s rugged west coast, the drama is compact, even claustrophobic, befitting the film’s revision of an old and hoary theatrical event, one that used to tie together and define communities in festivals of religious fervour: the passion play. Brendan Gleeson, Irish film’s stocky Atlas since John Boorman made him a movie star in The General (1997), counters his lead role as the Falstaffian antihero of The Guard with a role here as Father James Lavelle, the priest of a small Catholic church in a coastal town. A cold opening sees Lavelle enter the confession box on Sunday as per his roster of duties. The man on the other side of the screen is silent for a moment, to the point where Lavelle is confused, but then the man says, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”
Lavelle, startled, nonetheless utters the first in the film’s manifold self-referential quips: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man querulously asks Lavelle what he means, and then informs him of his design. In revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of priests, he intends to gain attention and make a statement by killing a cleric. Not a bad priest, mind, but a good one—Lavelle himself, whom he predicts will die by his hand on the beach in precisely one week’s time. Lavelle emerges from the confessional quietly shaken, but continues his holy duties without demur, alongside Father Leary (David Wilmot), a dim, rubbery poltroon of the faith. Lavelle reports the incident in abstract to his bishop, Garett Montgomery (David McSavage), and confirms he knows who the man is. The bishop tells Lavelle he’s free to go to the police because the man showed no sign of penitence and received no absolution, but Lavelle makes no move to do so. Instead, he picks up his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) from the train station. Sporting a bandaged cut on her wrist from a recent suicide attempt, Fiona has retreated from her London life to recover from the bleak depression that followed a break-up. Fiona has been in pain, however, since the death of her mother, the event that drove Lavelle into the priesthood, a move which Fiona felt was akin to being abandoned by him.
The week before the next, fateful Sunday thus sees Lavelle engaging not only with his wounded daughter, but also the denizens of the town, still hewing to an old-fashioned sense of the job as one demanding an active interest in their lives. Lavelle is not an old-fashioned priest, however. Thoroughly worldly and experienced in personal folly (he’s a recovering alcoholic), he’s up-to-date on all the modern perversities he and Leary hear about in the confessional (“Do you know what felching is?” “I do know what felching is, yeah.” “I had to look it up.”). This fillip of modern lifestyle was mentioned by one of their female congregants, Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who’s recently left her husband, the town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), in favour of pursuing erotic dalliances around town, particularly with Senegalese immigrant Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a car mechanic. Because Veronica sported a black eye in church on Sunday, Lavelle sets out to find out who gave it to her. Jack blames it on Simon, and Simon takes umbrage to the point of flicking a cigar against Lavelle’s chest and threatening to beat him up for his unwelcome prying. Veronica herself tells him more politely to mind his own business.
Other people around town whom Lavelle ministers to, interacts with, or merely swaps jests and insults with, include Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a black-humoured, professionally cynical doctor who works in the local hospital emergency room, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane), an altar boy who swipes communion wine and paints the coastline, and retired stock trader Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who’s bought a nearby mansion with an ill-gotten fortune and now is stewing in a solitary, alcoholic haze of bile and self-regard. Lavelle also ferries supplies to an elderly American writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who lives alone on a small island off the coast. The writer is aging and asks for Lavelle to find him a gun so he can end his days when the time comes. Lavelle does obtain a gun, from Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), who entertains a wise-cracking rent boy, Leo (Owen Sharpe). Does Lavelle intend the gun for the writer’s peace or for self-defence?
Ireland is a country wrapped up in a specific mythology that long since went international in fame and allure, one that’s both a blessing and burden for contemporary artists to work with. The last 20 years has seen both the boom of the “Celtic Tiger” and then the bust, and the ongoing exposure of the septic underbelly of the Catholic Church’s dominance of a society that might well be said to have swapped imperialism for theocracy in the 1920s, shaking up some of the most fetishized aspects of the Irish myth: poverty, religion, and detachment from modernity. Calvary’s essential conceit, mapped out by McDonagh in interviews, is the potent irony provided by setting up a good priest as the martyr for the bad ones in the context of an age when cumulative disgust can cause divorcement of the public at large from a once omnipresent institution. Calvary starts as a kind of deadpan situation comedy where the oddball assortment of characters and their helpful priest interact with barbed geniality. But as the film continues and deepens, jokey conversations quickly show real teeth, and Lavelle is quickly exposed to the level of real anger, contempt, and fear in the community, as cheeky humour gives way to purposeful mockeries and acts of licenced cruelty. Calvary’s title gives an immediate hint as to the oncoming stations-of-the-cross epic Lavelle is facing, his faith not so much tested as his commitment to his role in an age that doesn’t seem to care much for what he offers, even when he sees many proofs that his function is still needed, and especially when confronted by a seemingly imminent date with fate that demands affirmation of just how dedicated he is.
McDonagh bites off as much as any artist, literary or cinematic, could chew here. Indeed, the scope of his ambition almost feels anachronistic in an age of oblique independent films and buffed-down mainstream pseudo-dramas. McDonagh’s writing pitches itself on the outer verges of archness, as his carefully studied characters exchange knowing witticisms whilst not budging from their sharply drawn, almost caricatured postures—indeed, a couple of them, like Sharpe’s Leo and Milo (Killian Scott) never quite escape the realm of improv-theatre exercise. Milo is a young, bespectacled, bow-tie-sporting gent who’s considering joining the army to release sadistic fantasies provoked by his inability to get laid in his small and claustrophobic town. Lavelle derides his plan and suggests moving to a bigger city where “young women with loose morals” are in greater supply. The village is a stage that only offers a small roster of major players, each one charged with a certain relevance to Lavelle’s predicament. Those characters seem to be aware of the roles they are playing, inhabiting types they know are types. Harte, tiring of baiting Lavelle for a moment, mutters that “the atheistic doctor, it’s a clichéd part to play – there aren’t that many good lines.” “You really should talk you know,” Lavelle tells Fiona, “Let it all out.” To which she replies, “Like one of those shit plays at the Abbey?” McDonagh’s highlights his work’s postmodern, smart-ass tilt with a purpose that finally reveals itself by the climax, as the film reproduces with slippery awareness that way the characters hold life at arm’s length with humour and wryly stoic pith that the unknown nihilist seeks to violate with intimate anger.
Lavelle’s controlling viewpoint is a vital, subtle aspect of the film, as the increasing tension and darkness of his situation begins to colour every exchange, and every piss-take joke at his expense and provocation becomes more loaded. Historical abuses of the church, including Simon’s cool statement that “we’re not in the missions now,” are fired at him by several characters. Harte approaches him at the wrong moment with a bleak and horrifying anecdote about his early days doctoring in Dublin when he saw a kid left completely paralysed, blind, deaf, and dumb by an anaesthetist’s failure. The doctor suddenly plays the part of serpent in the garden, a satanic taunter armed with life’s dumb cruelty to goad Lavelle. The priest’s nerves have already been rubbed raw by a series of events, from finding his beloved pet dog with its throat cut to his and Leary’s church burning down. Whether these crimes were committed by his would-be murderer or others remains unclear, but it certainly seems that Lavelle recognises a common disdain for him. That disdain finds apogee when he encounters a small girl walking a laneway and chats amiably with her, only to have her father roar up in a car and furiously threaten him after bundling her away. Lavelle is confronted by the severed cords of trust and amity to which he’s supposed to be tied to his community, the assumption that he’s the force for good suddenly stricken and actively derided by Simon and publican Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt). Lavelle responds by breaking his drinking ban, whereupon he gets pie-eyed and unleashes his own wrath on the publican by firing his gun off, shattering bottles. When he’s out of bullets, however, Lynch pulls out his own weapon, a baseball bat, and when next we see Lavelle, he’s washing a broken nose.
Calvary’s seriousness of intent reveals itself steadily, a palpable anger and mournfulness about the State of Things, but this is also a vitally funny film, with verbal comedy lethally sharp throughout. Lavelle’s conversations with his melancholic daughter are laced with a spiky, rhythmic style of humour that suggests their deep accord whilst also defining the toey, touchy space each maintains in their mutually therapeutic exchanges. The film’s comic highpoint comes when Lavelle goes to visit Fitzgerald at his house to discuss Fitzgerald’s proposed, large cash donation to the church for the hell of it: “That interests you doesn’t it? he asks, “It’s goin’ to be a black day altogether when the Catholic Church is no longer interested in money, huh?” Lavelle finds Fitzgerald, completely tanked, seemingly determined to make some sort of point to the priest as he waves airily at artworks that have cost him fortunes whilst decrying his wife, children, and servants, all of whom have quit him, and mentions his quasi-illegal financial dealings, which might be investigated but certainly won’t ever see him imprisoned. Finally, for a last piece of anarchic one-upmanship, Fitzgerald shows off his copy of Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” “I don’t know what it means, but I own it,” he notes, not recognising the weird smudge in the foreground of the frame is actually a carefully distorted skull that can only be seen through a special lens, a memento mori inserted into the original painting’s apparent celebration of lucid, scientific achievement. Lavelle finally loses patience with Fitzgerald and turns to go after berating him for inviting him over merely to tease him. Fitzgerald stalls his departure by saying he can piss on the masterwork he owns, and takes down the painting for that purpose. Lavelle retorts, “Why not? People like you have already pissed on everything else,” and departs as a stream of yellow fluid begins raining upon the masterpiece.
Whilst it could be said McDonagh’s epochal anger (albeit of a type many feel) is a bit obvious here, he’s made it, firstly, very funny and caustic, but also has contoured it into a drama that takes on a legitimate, even fundamental question facing most modern societies: as old faiths wane, what takes their place? In effect, who cares? What constructs tether a society together, beyond a mutually negative reaction? At its best, as McDonagh intends Lavelle to exemplify, the priest fulfils a holistic role that conjoins therapist, carer, interlocutor, concerned friend, public philosopher, and social worker, a contradiction to the modern world’s presumptions of specialisation that result in compartmentalisation. Harte can repair bodies, but has no feel for humanity; Fitzgerald is a member of a ruling class that no longer rules, but simply hoards and decays. Lavelle’s own outlook holds that his job is to provide “solace,” and later, at a crucial juncture, tells Fiona he thinks there’s far too much obsession with sin these days, and that forgiveness is underrated. This line isn’t given much weight but is very much the key to the film, and particularly the very final scene which portrays a stirring act of forgiveness and outreach that represents the triumph of Lavelle’s spirit. Lavelle reaches out to the cocky, provocative Leo, who cracks wise about his own sexual abuse by priests, having dealt with it in the utter reverse manner to the secret would-be murderer, by turning himself into an extroverted male prostitute.
Calvary has spiritual similarities with many studies of faith and commitment, particularly Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an evident influence on this film in the segmented vignettes of the torments and quandaries besetting both priest and flock. The film’s kin are also found in other studies in the martyr complex where the heroes find themselves faced with a choice between physical survival and moral success, from A Man for All Seasons (1966) to The Crucible (1996) and Hunger (2009). The latter film’s epic ethical argument between prisoner and priest in brusque, tart, Irish accents feels like close kin to McDonagh’s work, and though he lacks Steve McQueen’s gifts for alchemising his concerns into the raw expression of cinema yet, McDonagh remains clearer-headed about his hero’s confrontation with mortality. A sneaky piece of prefiguring sees Lavelle note two sketchy figures in Mícheál’s beach painting: Mícheál is bemused as to where they came from, suggesting they’re some kind of echo, but actually, of course, it’s presentiment. Otherwise, however, McDonagh steers far away from wrestling with the specifics of the material’s possible transcendental side. His concerns are worldly.
Calvary also resembles a thematic follow-up to Antonia Bird’s once-controversial Priest (1994), with its script by Liverpool Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern, which similarly set up a pair of committed, faithful, but unusual priests, one gay, the other a pulpit radical, to face the modern Pharisees. Calvary’s new prognostication of the ills the older films identified looks squarely at a time when doubt is a way of life, and presents the unusual notion of its protagonist as scapegoat and outcast in a society where he would once have been automatically venerated, or at least tolerated. McDonagh’s smart enough to understand why, too, whilst empathising squarely with his hero’s battered sense of commitment and humane interest.
McDonagh provides two deeply serious sequences that serve as pivotal moments, as Lavelle goes about the most important tasks before him as a priest and anchor the film and catalyse the darkening tone. The first comes with a very Dostoyevskian scene in which Lavelle goes to a prison to visit a former student of his, Freddie Joyce (Gleeson’s son Domhnall), who’s been imprisoned for life as a serial sex murderer. Joyce pathetically reports his desire to be hung in spite of the absence of a death penalty in Ireland, and speaks of fantasies about the afterlife when he’ll be reunited with his victims, purged of all his malicious urges, and begs of Lavelle an answer to the question of why, if God made him the way he is, he would not understand him. Lavelle answers with utmost consideration, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” Later, he’s called to the hospital where Harte has lost his fight to save the life of a French tourist who was in a car crash. Lavelle sits with the tourist’s wife Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) in a chapel, coaxing her through grief and doing his job’s ultimate function, acting as the midwife between states of existence, with unerring sensitivity. Lavelle encounters Teresa again at the point where his wavering resolve threatens to drive him from his town, and her deep gratitude and admiration arms him with new strength to return and face whatever fate has been allotted to him—to save a soul or give his life.
The way McDonagh’s distancing ironies and those of the characters’ are entangled might, with a less talented filmmaker, have caused too much friction against the material’s deadly earnest elements and considerations, but for the most part they work well in tandem, and with gathering power. McDonagh sharpens this to a beautifully nasty point when a man is shot after preaching detachment from the film’s vital central problem, followed by the shooter’s angry declaration, “Detach yourself from that!” The finale of Calvary is enormously powerful for precisely its invocation of this shedding of posture and confrontation with immediate reality, in terms of cause and consequence. More than that, it’s an unsparing climax that surprisingly validates not just the potential martyr’s feelings, but also those of the wrathful agent, who screams with a fury as natural and potent as the rolling storm swell crashing on the coast, “I was one of the lucky ones! There’s bodies buried back there!” McDonagh manages to complicate rather than polarise the morality inherent in the final confrontation, as the fury and pain of the would-be killer is depicted with such stirring force that it presents to the audience the possibility that not only Lavelle, but the audience itself is not so innocent, complicit if only by detachment from the evils that beset the world and dog others like demons. By meeting the challenges he sets himself with unremitting focus at last, McDonagh redeems his flaws and arrives at a genuinely compelling and relevant piece of cinema.
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Director: John Frankenheimer
By Roderick Heath
James Garner’s recent death came to a man of ripe, old age (86) with a rich, full life behind him. But it was still a stinging loss to movie and TV fans of multiple generations. Garner’s specific charm, masculine but tongue-in-cheek, breezy but subtly soulful, had invigorated pop culture for more than 50 years, from his quick breakthrough as a young actor in Sayonara (1957) through to his still-magnetic turn as the elderly version of Ryan Gosling in The Notebook (2004). In between came a lot of work which still defines an ideal of entertainment.
During the 1960s, Garner busted out of his status as a TV star after talking a walk from “Maverick” to become a movie star, and indeed, he probably did more than any other actor of the time to attack the strict status barrier between the two mediums. His work of the period included the clever, kinetic war films The Great Escape (1963) and 36 Hours (1964), the cynical satire The Americanisation of Emily (1964), before he returned to TV for his other great shows, “Nichols” (1971-72) and “The Rockford Files” (1974-1980). In the 1990s, he was still giving poised, flagrantly charismatic turns in the likes of the prototypical HBO telemovie Barbarians at the Gate (1993) and Twilight (1998), Robert Benton’s moody tribute to aging stars like Garner, Paul Newman, and Gene Hackman. Grand Prix, one of MGM’s super-sized productions designed to take advantage of the Cinerama format for narrative film, was one of the few blockbuster-grade productions Garner was called upon to anchor, though as in The Great Escape, he had to share the limelight with big-name international actors—Yves Montand and Toshiro Mifune, as well as would-be new stars Brian Bedford and Antonio Sabato.
Grand Prix was helmed by John Frankenheimer, who had debuted as a feature director nine years earlier after making a name for himself as a TV director. Frankenheimer’s early work was done mostly under the aegis of Burt Lancaster’s production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, formed to make substantive dramas that often touched upon social issues. Frankenheimer’s first four films, The Young Stranger (1957), The Young Savages (1961), All Fall Down (1962) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), certainly fit that bill as lightly poetic studies in alienated youth, misfits, and criminals, with only The Young Savages quite suggesting the oncoming potency of Frankenheimer’s vivid, Wellesian visual technique, which would flourish in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), his chief claim to cinematic immortality. Frankenheimer’s career remained prolific until his death in 2002 as he fought to remain an industry player, defined best by his run of important, vivid films made between The Manchurian Candidate and 1975’s French Connection II. He spent most of the ’80s making ambitious, but shaky B-movies. Ironically, a late-career return to making TV films revived his reputation and helped him round off his oeuvre with some variable high-profile films, the best of which was Ronin (1998). Grand Prix is a quintessential relic of both Frankenheimer’s early career and 1960s big-budget cinema, as the tyro filmmaker took advantage of the era’s stylistic openness and willingness to let cinematic language be stretched. He worked with Saul Bass, the innovative editor and title designer, and his technical team, incorporating ideas from New Wave filmmaking and TV sports coverage, to give the audience a new kind of epic cinema.
It’s easy to imagine screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur’s screenplay handled in a completely different fashion, as the kind of spare, intimate drama Frankenheimer had done before. The film might be more appreciated if it had been. Grand Prix’s big, flashy surface seems to demand titanic gestures and heroes, but Aurthur’s downbeat script and Frankenheimer’s cool, dramatic style emphasise instead the fallible humanity of its protagonists who try, Achilles-like, to inscribe their names on history at the possible expense of a long life. As with many of Frankenheimer’s best works, the characters are obsessives seeking expression through action and release but shot through with neuroses that border on the maniacal. Grand Prix tries to walk a line, not always successfully, but with a certain honour, between pop-existential study loaded with fatalistic gravitas, and an Arthur Hailey-esque yarn of competitive alpha people living and loving in glamorous surrounds.
The film’s biggest drag is the chief concession to the latter quality—the beautiful-people romance of Sicilian motorcyclist-turned-Formula 1 driver Nino Barlini and his girlfriend, race timer Lisa. They’re supposed to be the eye candy and comic relief counterweight to the other protagonists, but the performances of Sabato and Françoise Hardy in the roles are stiff enough to be taken for Ikea furniture. Sabato’s weak grasp on English declamation retards his good-humour as the film’s breeziest figure, the poor kid who’s found success and become the type of randy, proletariat, “I’m so fucking good” character which today would inevitably be passed off onto a black actor: his complete lack of neurosis is expressed best when Lisa asks him if he’s worried about racing, and he answers, “I am immortal.”
The other three racing drivers Grand Prix depicts, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Montand), American Pete Aron (Garner), and Brit Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford), are very different. Sarti, a former champion, is recovering from a string of bad luck and now seems set to sweep all before him racing with Nino for Ferrari. Aron, a former Ferrari driver and a bullish, hard-driving competitor, is teammates with Stoddard for BRM at the outset. Stoddard’s chief competitor is his dead brother Roger, who died three years earlier after a triumphant career. Scott still keeps all his brother’s trophies and memorabilia as “something to shoot for.” Scott’s wife Pat (Jessica Walter) knows the cost of his compulsion; she’s introduced sleeping off a night boozing on Ouzo with some Greek guys the night before the Monaco Grand Prix, the kind of escapade she gets up to as she tries to avoid the spectacle of her husband lying in a cold sweat before a race.
The Monaco race, a set-piece that opens the film, sees Aron well outpaced by Sarti and Stoddard, with his car’s gearbox giving him trouble: the BRM manager Jeff Jordan (Jack Watson) doesn’t believe Aron when he reports the trouble, and Aron continues racing, though at the point of being lapped by Stoddard. Aron insists on racing Scott, to Jordan’s irritation, but when Aron finally gives up and waves Stoddard past, his brakes seize up, causing their vehicles to collide. Stoddard’s car careens into an embankment, badly injuring him, whilst Aron’s car flies into the harbour, from which he emerges uninjured. Aron is sacked by an irate Jordan and blamed by Stoddard, but Sarti, who wins the race, takes it all as part of their rough business and asks Aron if he ever gets tired of racing. Sarti’s tone that makes it clear Sarti himself is rapidly losing interest in the sport, but he’s still driven to push himself to the limit to retain his belief that he is the best.
During the race season, Sarti gravitates towards Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), a high-profile American magazine journalist who’s been assigned to cover the racing season but, in a manner that resembles Howard Hawks’ communal studies, remains puzzled by its subculture, one that parties after men have been seriously injured or even killed. Sarti himself, who confesses that when there’s a serious accident on the track, he speeds up because everybody else is slowing down, and that “there is no terrible way to win.” Although he sounds like a douchebag, Sarti is actually a calm, collected, serious man who’s separated from his wife Monique Delvaux-Sarti (Geneviève Page), the boss’s daughter he married before starting to race. Sarti and Louise’s gently mature romance is countered by the tormented relations Stoddard and Aron share with Pat, who leaves her husband when he’s lying a mangled wreck in his hospital because she’s knows full well that Scott will keep racing. Going to work for Louise as a model, Pat remains close to the race scene and drifts into an affair with momentarily exiled Aron. Such a rebound romance seems unlikely after Aron sourly blasts her for bullshitting about her marriage for a TV interview, but that proves instead overture to a coupling that has more than a hint of mutual masochism and self-castigation. Aron, forced to sit out the next race, the French Grand Prix, briefly takes a job as an interviewer for American sports TV. He leaps at an offer to race again from Japanese tycoon Izo Yamura (Mifune), whose racing team lacks a potential champion.
Grand Prix is rife with the kind of tarnished angel beloved of ’60s pop culture, as the protagonists’ veneers of professional commitment hide turmoil and dilemma. The film sports many similarities to the same year’s fighter-pilot epic The Blue Max, which likewise focuses on an antihero laden with powerful class envy in control of fantastically liberating technology through which he tries to outgun competitors. But there are also strong reasons to empathise with Sarti, Aron, and Stoddard. Sarti is feeling his age but still driving with fixated determination because the speed and stature of driving allows him to forget the unpleasant facts of his failed marriage to Monique, which still persists because she won’t divorce him and his business interests demand its continuation. Sarti’s focus is shaken, perhaps irreparably, during the Belgian Grand Prix, at a rural race course where driving in rain is a constant hazard: during a shower that drenches the field, one of Sarti’s wheels comes lose and he crashes, killing two children. The kids’ father (Jean Michaud) assaults Sarti as he babbles technical details and plans for future races, trying to remain detached, whilst Eve hugs him in desperate anguish. A sense of entrapment begins to form around Sarti, whose subsequent weak racing performances result in the Ferrari boss, Agostini Manetta (Adolfo Celi), a smooth creep who dismissed Aron’s attempts to rejoin the team, now pressuring him for better results with tactics like withholding his replacement car until the last minute. Aron declares himself an “old-fashioned boy at heart,” so Pat takes care to assure him she’s getting a divorce before seducing him. Aron finds himself constantly demonised thanks to a series of events beyond his control, though he also repeatedly miscalculates, like still trying to race Stoddard when his car’s playing up.
Aron wins the Belgian race after Sarti’s crash, providing an immediate payoff for his pact with Yamura. But the real curveball in the championship is Stoddard’s determined leap back into racing: still bleeding from some of his wounds and keeping pain under control with strong drugs, Scott, running cold and fuelled by losses old and new, competes in the Dutch Grand Prix. He breaks records and quickly becomes a force to reckon with as he captures the New York Grand Prix. The moment he turns back up at the race scene, still on crutches, to confront his wife, leads to a marvellously uncomfortable scene where Aron politely excuses himself whilst Scott states his determination to win Pat back whilst maintaining his cool, self-deprecating sense of humour, and delivering the perhaps inevitable lament that humans can’t be stripped down and easily repaired like a race car can. Aurthur’s script often feels like reportage from the frontlines of mid-’60s gender relations, the uneasy ménage of Pat, Pete, and Scott testing new definitions and zones of tolerance in relationships, whilst Sarti is ironically trapped in an unhappy marriage whilst trying to romance feminist Louise. When Louise finally tells him, “I love you, Jean-Pierre,” he replies, “As I you—we have to discuss the consequences of those terrible words.”
Such touches indicate the surprisingly adult tenor of much of Grand Prix that is strengthened by the cast, including Montand, who blends of wry, yet sad-sack grace and terse, Gallic focus. The grown-up attitude of the film does, however, curiously work against the project’s nominal appeal, as Sarti’s toey romance with Louise never quite combusts and is certainly never as interesting as the weird triangle of Pete, Scott, and Pat, which is in turn too angst-ridden to be sexy, whilst Nino and Lisa might as well be Ken and Barbie dolls. Bedford is good as Scott, tossing off his barbed, blackly humorous self-deprecation and sarcasm and putting across the character’s odd mixture of dry cool and morbid obsession, but he also lacks charisma and warmth, one reason perhaps his film career didn’t amount to much after this. Walter’s role as Pat, superficially shallow and certainly life-hungry, but actually rather tormented, plays as both antithesis and anticipation of her famous part as the psycho stalker in Play Misty for Me (1970), a psychic grease trap for flawed macho men. She is, in many ways, the heart of the film. Garner is cast against type, playing the kind of cool, seemingly detached, but actually deeply fixated customer patented by Steve McQueen, who indeed had been the first choice for the role; McQueen signed up for a rival production instead.
Garner’s best scenes come opposite Mifune, who isn’t given that much to do really and whose impact is doubly hampered by a clumsy and wooden dub job by Paul Frees. But Mifune’s poise and thoughtfulness still come across, as the American hotshot and Japanese magnate find accord, even friendship, even as Yamura admits that he shot down 17 American planes during his stint as a WWII fighter pilot. Aron tells Yamura he likes him because he comes to the point, and Yamura confirms that’s why he chose Aron as his champion, because he races in the same fashion. Their accord is strained momentarily as Aron admits he makes more mistakes than the triumphant Scott, as Yamura subjects him to hours studying footage of his various stuff-ups. But the theme is ultimately a positive portrait of postwar reconciliation that fits in not just the film’s internationalist viewpoint, but also the romantic pairings, for everything in the film is viewed at some point in a cycle of integration and disintegration, fitting for a tale which revolves around systemic variations and the quest for infallible interactions of fickle parts. Frankenheimer constantly binds his four protagonists together in the filmmaking, visually and aurally counterpointing their actions and their perspectives before and during races, and more ominously, noting each man’s blood group medallion before the last race. Such motifs suggest Frankenheimer playing games with autonomy and identity in a much less direct manner than he did in The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds (1966), but still finding ways to express it as the racers adventure in extreme zones where they are only as good as their machines: they become something other than human in such zones.
Grand Prix is most famous for its technical achievements over and above its human side, and whilst as I’ve noted that’s not entirely justified, what is certain is that Frankenheimer’s work with Bass, supervising editor Frederic Steinkamp, and DP Lionel Lindon succeeded in creating a new kind of sports film. Whilst the film’s portrait of the sportsman as existential adventurer in search of perfection in the game but suffering in human interactions surely stands in the shadow of The Hustler (1961), its own immediate influence both stylistically and thematically is intrinsic in films like Downhill Racer (1969), Winning (1969), and Le Mans (1971), and stretching through to Chariots of Fire (1981) and Any Given Sunday (1999), before the more familiar style initiated by Rocky (1976) made the recent sports film a dance towards inevitable triumph.
Right from the opening frames, the stylistic boldness of Grand Prix is writ large and in many ways still unsurpassed, as the filmmakers assault the familiar limitations of the frame and big-cinema technique by strip-mining various mediums and approaches. The use of split-screen, an idea in mainstream filmmaking that perhaps hadn’t been seen since Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), presents subdivisions that rapidly multiply and turn alternatively kaleidoscopic or analytical. Some shots invoke photo-essayistic technique, capturing detail and momentarily frozen or stuttering vignettes where physical time loses meaning and internal time screws in toward moments of decision and anticipation. One clever motif combines TV, documentary, and New Wave film style in journalistic interviews with the four drivers—their reporting on their personal motives, perspectives, and technical challenges in races are heard in the midst of already unfolding races, providing swift, intelligible exposition and characterisation amidst action.
Frankenheimer and Bass also took care to film none of the races in quite the same manner, varying rhythmically and visually. For example, the French Grand Prix sequence is rendered as a dreamy discursion, the cars dancing in blurs of motion, viewed obliquely through spring flowers, mimicking both Louise’s viewpoint, as she falls under the spell of both Sarti and his sport, and that of the crowd of Sunday folk out to watch the glamorous event. The Belgian race depicts the difficulty of powering along in clouds of flying water, made alarmingly clear by alternations of point-of-view shots from the cars shooting along the narrow roads (with real spectators captured sometimes in the act of dashing across in front of the cars) and high helicopter shots. The vertiginous car-mounted shots, some of which were captured by cameras fixed to Phil Hill’s car in real races, must have been dizzying on the Cinerama screen, and certainly communicate great velocity even on TV. Frankenheimer nixed any under-cranking to give the impression of speed, knowing full well audiences could spot that, and so everything was staged at high speed, though most of the cars in the film were actually Formula 3 racers made to look like Formula 1 cars.
In spite of the fancy visual language on display throughout, Grand Prix belongs to an age of cinema where the immediacy of spectacle entailed dazzling the audience with an overwhelming impression of real thrills with attendant risks. Whereas recent works in a similar vein like the Fast and Furious films or Rush (2013) drench the eye in furious cuts and wobbling camerawork to give the impression of speed and danger, Frankenheimer takes care to show his actors’s faces in cars moving at high speeds in elegant panning shots. This is more startling when you learn that among the actors, only Garner was actually an accomplished driver—in fact, he gained high praise from the Formula 1 aces who helped make the film. Amongst that roster of racers who helped make the film are names that still have the ring of legend for aficionados of the sport, including the aforementioned Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, and Juan Manuel Fangio. The dramatic shape of Grand Prix emphasises that the drivers are, to a certain extent, interchangeable, and each man succeeds, fails, lives, or dies through complex collaborations. Each driver is victimised by bad luck and the tiny faults in their machines: Nino is the only one not to have mechanical trouble, which is why he’s in front in the overall championship by the last race.
The film contends with the notion that morbid delight in the spectacle of death is the great attraction of the sport, a notion Pat voices outright. The film’s bitter cynicism about the voyeuristic urge, especially those professional voyeurs, the press, is old hat these days, but was much less so at the time. Grand Prix interestingly suggests this is merely the dark side to the need of both audience and drivers to explore the grey zone between life and death and thus “know living more intensely,” as Aron describes it to Yamura. Louise herself tries to cheer up Sarti with this very idea, that he puts something in people’s lives they can’t find elsewhere, a truly invigorating spectacle of challenge where the result can never be entirely known. But Louise is forced to confront the dark side of this dialogue in the raw, hyperbolic instant when she holds up hands smeared in her lover’s blood to a gaggle of photographers, screaming “Is this what you want?”
The finale, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, sees the drivers taking on a challenge long since banished from Formula 1 racing, as they venture onto dangerous banking that sends them careening at terrific speeds, constantly buffeted by slipstreams and the very road surface. Sarti’s number comes up, as seems curiously inevitable after his chilly encounters with both his wife and Manetta and his admission of love with Louise: a piece of tailpipe falling off Scott’s car causes Sarti’s vehicle to lose control and fly off the banking like a rocket, leaving him dangling bloody in a tree like some pagan animal sacrifice whilst his car explodes in a ball of fire. Manetta displays surprising decency by calling in Nino and surrendering the race to Pete and Scott, who then duke it out unaware of their friend’s death. Pete takes the race and the championship, and invites Scott to share the winner’s podium with him, but any sense of triumph is stymied by the realisation of Sarti’s death. The film leaves off with a poetic vignette of Aron long after the carnival has moved on walking alone around the starting grid at the Monza track, imagining the engine roar of the cars and the announcer naming his comrades, some now gone. It’s hard to imagine a film would be made today leaving off on such a wistful bummer of an ending. The reality around the film’s making bears out the truth of it, too: of the 32 drivers who helped to make the film, 10 would die in races within the next 12 years.
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Director: Anton Corbijn
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The entertainment world and fans of thoughtful, fine acting mourned mightily this past February when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose at the age of 46. During a prolific career that encompassed small roles and large in crowd pleasers like Twister (1996) and Mission: Impossible III (2006), as well as serious-minded films like Capote (2005) and The Master (2012), Hoffman brought a complexity and intelligence to his creations that always made them memorable. A Most Wanted Man, his final film, was an apt one with which to end a career of great accomplishment thwarted by the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.
A Most Wanted Man promises an exciting story of international espionage from its opening sequence—a young, haggard-looking man dragging himself from the water at Hamburg, Germany and threading his way furtively through a lot of cars waiting overnight for the morning a ferry and finding one to sleep in. His entry into Germany has been observed by German intelligence and his identity confirmed as a Muslim rebel of Russian-Chechen background, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). What he is doing in Hamburg and how he will be dealt with becomes the concern of Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), the head of a small cell of intelligence operatives, whose low-key, painstaking tactics are at loggerheads with the punitive, action-oriented methods of Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a heavy-handed colleague Günther openly ridicules. Günther’s approach wins out.
This development will be an enormous disappointment to the adrenalin junkies whose ideas about spy work have been shaped by the M:I, Bourne, and even James Bond franchises. However, fans of John le Carré, the author whose book formed the basis of this movie, will be right at home. Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley, a gray, anonymous member of Britain’s MI6, knows that spy work is more a drab waiting game than a thrill ride, a psychological gambit that preys insidiously on vulnerable informants and nervous targets. Although the powers that be—in this case, the Americans and Russians—have not abandoned brutal interrogation and imprisonment, Günther bucks the establishment to follow his leads upstream to what he hopes will be the heads of Islamist terrorist operations in the Middle East.
Günther and his team have gathered intelligence on a Muslim humanitarian named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who appears to be using a shipping company to divert a portion of relief supplies to Islamist groups to sell to fund arms purchases. Günther learns that Karpov is the son of a Russian official notorious for his brutality and criminal activities, and that he has come to Hamburg to seek help from a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose father laundered money for the elder Karpov. Issa has a sizeable “inheritance” in Brue’s bank, but wants nothing to do with it—he only wants to be able to stay in the West and out of the reach of the Russians who tortured him. Günther uses his “friendly persuasion” to ensure Brue releases the money to Issa, who will then be persuaded by his attorney, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), to transfer the money to Abdullah. Günther plans to seize Abdullah after the transaction and persuade him to reveal the Islamists to whom he has been diverting resources, but he must persuade skeptical German and American intelligence officials, led by American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), to go along with his plan.
There is abundant, real-world evidence that “extraordinary rendition,” an extraordinarily obtuse term for government-sponsored kidnapping and torture, is highly ineffective in extracting useful information from suspected terrorists, and that Günther’s methodical approach—combining a mild threat with offers of help in exchange for cooperation—works. Günther knows how and how much pressure to bring to bear to get his reluctant informants to go along with his plans; he even manages to bring Abdullah’s son Jamal (Mehdi Debhi) into his network. But the violence of 9/11 and the racial and religious hatred that has only grown in the ensuing years has left the major powers with itchy trigger fingers. Sullivan has already blown Günther’s entire network in Beirut with her cowboy tactics, forcing his removal to Hamburg; Günther doesn’t want to trust her, but he really has no alternative.
A Most Wanted Man is slow and methodical, just like Günther and his team, making for a sometimes too sedate ride. Moments that could have been amped for more tension with music or quick cuts, like Annabel’s capture by Günther’s team, play out with a low unease. It’s true to life, which is its virtue, but rather undramatic. We’re not sure whether or not to root for Günther, who uses repugnant techniques like kidnapping, surveillance technology, and coercion to “make the world a safer place.” Yet, anyone who has watched “Law & Order” or any of its offshoots will recognize the same techniques and have to own up to the fact that we tend to sympathize with the cops because they are almost always on the side of the angels as those shows are written. The ambiguity of Günther’s position is that we see the seams of his good cop/bad cop routine, an act he shares with his civilian aide-de-camp Irna (the criminally underused Nina Hoss), and virtually all of the characters he is manipulating are fairly well-intentioned people who are completely out of their depth in the world of geopolitical espionage.
For example, Dobrygin plays Issa as a damaged, haunted man who took up the Chechen cause against Russia because of his father’s brutality to his Chechen mother and who, through Islam, has tried to find inner peace from his past and the horrible torture he endured. It would be tempting to think of him as another Raskolnikov, except that his crimes are those of a psychologically vulnerable freedom fighter, not a student with theories about human nature and moral relativism. Rachel McAdam is brilliant as an idealistic public-service attorney who goes above and beyond for Issa. Her attempts to assert her authority are as weak as her concern for Issa is strong and motherly, though she threatens to pull focus from the other characters simply because she’s so pretty and photogenic. Dafoe is his usual excellent self, creating a somewhat weak character who is trying to redeem his business from its nefarious past one client at a time.
Hoffman, playing an obese smoker and drinker, fits the mold of the intelligent outsider who blends into the background—the perfect guise for a spy. It is much to Hoffman’s credit that he manages to retain some of our sympathy while arousing a bit of our scorn. Hoffman keeps Günther’s motives somewhat obscure—is he just another kind of cop or is the spy game something that he does as a strange kind of sport? He takes incredible pride in his work, perhaps to the detriment of his cause when he openly insults people he believes to be his inferiors, and his belief in the rightness of his methods places a considerable blind spot in his way. When faced with Sullivan’s abrupt, cutting authority, he tries to work her the same way he does his informants by allying his interests with hers. Wright makes the most of this small, but crucial role, reviving the Ugly American in all its nasty glory. Yet it’s also easy to see that Sullivan and Günther are cut from the same cloth and know the same tricks—what separates them may be down to the very different roads Germany and the United States took with regard to the dignity of the individual over the last 30 or so years.
We see a bit of the Muslim community, and it is as work-a-day and ordinary as any other ethnic enclave. Abdullah is thought to be a good man with just a little bit of bad, enough for more radical Islamists to exploit. That, to Günther, makes him a useful side street to the center of terrorist activity. Abdullah’s sincere sympathy for Issa softens our hearts to these men who seek some kind of healing for their community, but are misguided in their methods. Dobrygin and Ershadi’s one significant scene together is perhaps the most moving of the film; only the horror of Issa’s badly scarred back—partial proof to Brue that he is who he says he is—is more moving.
The final scene of the film offers Hoffman the catharsis, the break from the even-toned professional, we knew was inevitable. He howls, hating his world. From that howl, we hear perhaps an echo of what drove him to his fatal addiction, a man too sensitive to face the world without a potent veil before his face.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Oliver Stone
By Roderick Heath
The Doors, the psychedelic blues band formed by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Bobby Krieger, and John Densmore in 1966, had the stuff of the movies encoded in their music. Morrison and Manzarek were former film students, having studied under Josef von Sternberg, of all people, at UCLA, and their music, with its variable tempos, wildly imagistic and fragmented lyrics, and emphasis on creating aural atmosphere, probably shares more with the churning imagery of Sternberg, Fellini, Paradjanov, Cocteau, Anger, and other druids of cinema than with Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, in spite of Morrison’s poetic pretences. The band’s best songs, like “The End,” “Riders on the Storm,” “Five in One,” or “LA Woman,” seem innately cinematic, filled with word-pictures and aural landscapes plucked from imaginary epics and subterranean relics or designed to fuel some roaring montage spliced together by some overheated future movie savant: indeed, Francis Coppola did just that with Apocalypse Now (1979). Morrison’s brief, bristling, calamitous spell of fame became one of the most immediate reference points for the mystique of rock ’n’ roll and late ’60s hedonism for anyone inclined to lionise or denigrate either, and Morrison’s stature is the very image of the Dionysian, doomed rock hero.
I remember very well when I first saw The Doors, Oliver Stone’s retelling of that essential mythos: it was in high school, on a rainy afternoon when sports had been washed out and the need for a video, any video, to be shoved in the VCR to keep us trapped teens entertained produced some kid’s copy of the film. With no teachers about to turn it off, there we all sat reclining in delight at the spectacle of raw excess and messy creation. For us youth living in a declining mining town where futures both sure and exciting were in short supply, we may have listened to Nirvana or Oasis or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but it was The Doors we saw whenever we fantasised about stardom’s carnal crack-up ever after. 1991 was a banner year for Oliver Stone—he had lain his claim to being American popular culture’s most respected firebrand with his revisionist-history tome JFK, and brought out The Doors within a few months, a one-two punch of formidable achievement that made him the one filmmaker everyone was talking about in those few months before Quentin Tarantino arrived. JFK is often cited as Stone’s singular achievement, but The Doors vies with Talk Radio (1988) as my personal favourite of his works. The Doors was a troubling success for many rock and film fans, as it went through the motions of providing a Morrison biopic but seemed more intent on sensory overload than in analysing its antihero.
Stone’s psychologically superficial treatment of Morrison feels deliberate, partly because Stone clearly wanted to use Morrison as a totemic figure to explore the spirit of an era, an exemplar for a generation and a fatefully schizoid quality in his society. Much the same as Kennedy’s assassination let the director shake loose every bizarre subculture and paranoiac perversity in the America of his youth, so Morrison offered a spirit-guide to explore the pungent, sensory-distorting effect of drugs and the even more pernicious effect of American success. He could also be a personal avatar, for Stone seems to have related intensely to another son of the establishment who found himself in deeply resentful conflict with that establishment, and as a intelligent and cultured man who surrendered refinement for immediacy, intimacy for effect, class for passion, intellect for gut feeling. Plus, legend has it both men did incredible quantities of drugs. The Doors exemplifies a controversial, but legitimate approach to the artist biopic, turning the artist’s life into one of their own creations viewed inextricably through that prism. Thus, Morrison becomes his own ranting id-man, spirit-conjurer and magician alternating with sacrificial angel, all painted in mad psychedelic hues. In spite of its title, The Doors is more about Morrison than the rest of the band, and even more about the idea of Morrison and the band than whatever they were in reality. And that’s a good thing.
The film’s instant impact on the popular consciousness met with some nimble satire, for instance, the parody in Wayne’s World 2 (1994) (“Who are you?” “I’m Jim Morrison.” “And who’s he?” “A weird, naked Indian.”), but also has influenced some of the better rock ’n roll movies—small roster that it is—like Floria Sigismondi’s hugely underrated The Runaways (2011). Stone was lucky enough to have young Val Kilmer around to play Morrison, with his strong resemblance to one of the most masculinely beautiful ’60s rock icons. Kilmer had moved toward stardom playing a sub-Elvis hero in Top Secret! (1984), mocking the affectations of the early rock star; Stone had him create a similar performance, except in deadly earnestness. Stone and Kilmer’s Morrison is a guy living inside out, writing lyrics in speech and seeking prelapsarian formlessness in singing, a fantasy vision of the bardic ideal. Stone latches on to one of Morrison’s possibly part-apocryphal recollections from childhood, of driving past a car accident that left dead and injured Native American itinerant workers sprawled on a highway’s edge, as a motif that inflects the whole film, just as it was a constant refrain in Morrison’s writing.
Stone’s vision of his hero is protean, almost a man without a centre but a mass of impulses and creative urges. The young Morrison is glimpsed as a beatific Peter Pan smiling at his randomly chosen lady love from a tree, exemplifying the romantic hippie spirit, just as much as he later becomes the ranting ogre of proto-punk and the calm philosopher-poet he may have always wanted to be. Morrison drops out of film school along with Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) after his arty student film is sniffed at by fellow students and his teacher (not supposed to be Sternberg, but a square played by Stone himself), and treads through Venice Beach painted in reefs of hallucinogenic colour and gleaming, idealised beauty, where even vagrants gathered about a fire whilst a harmonica player wails the blues has the gilt of epic import, a place where Morrison can romance Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) under swirling stars and a time-lapse moon. Morrison singing a few random lyrics to Manzarek on the beachfront inspires immediate action in perfect obedience to the free-form energy and multitudinous references of the time and place, and within minutes they’re bashing out crude versions of future hits in a Hollywood bungalow with laid-back Krieger (Frank Whaley) and tetchy Densmore (Kevin Dillon), hurling “Light My Fire” together with the same enthusiasm of Garland and Rooney putting on a show. Stone’s chain-lightning, easy-as-can-be approach to the coming together of Morrison and Courson and The Doors as conquering band does nod to classic showbiz films. I love the crash cut from Krieger tapping out time to start “Light My Fire” to shots of LA nightlife with the song erupting in finished form as instant theme to a nocturnal wonderland.
Stone paints this as an Edenic moment for Morrison and his camp, unfettered idealism and life-hunger immediately earning reward, perhaps the writer and filmmaker’s good-humoured mockery of the way things seem to come much more easily to (some) musicians. But Stone is also not interested in the usual business of artist biopics, which is proving that their heroes are ordinary people who suffer and bleed for trying; the extraordinariness of Morrison is his subject, the Lawrence of Arabia of rock, working up followers with messianic passion and then finding himself going mad from such vision and power. He’s Lizard King in the world Stone left behind to make his tilt at good patriotism as detailed in Platoon (1986), and later on, Morrison’s admission that he might be having a nervous breakdown is backed up by footage fresh from Vietnam, as if he’s a psychic sponge for the half-submerged rot of the moment. “Let’s plan a murder or start a religion,” Morrison suggests as the band and their girls strut their embryonic cool through the LA evening, and he plays crowd cheerleader atop a car with stars spinning above him as the acid kicks in and turns his up-with-people chants into slurred onomatopoeia. Then, quick digression to the desert for some peyote, the band recast as seekers in search of nullifying experiences treading the sands like they’re on their way to the sandy orgy of Zabriskie Point (1970).
Stone started his movie career as a screenwriter and evolved into a filmmaker with an uncommonly vibrant, even assaultive style redolent of great talent and messy ambition. His major works of the late ’80s and ’90s blended traditional Hollywood effects with techniques borrowed from documentaries, TV news, silent expressionism, experimental film, Soviet realism, psychedelia, and sometimes even animation to create a visually rhapsodic, unsubtle but dynamic, associative form of cinema. The Doors subsumes the classic rise-to-fame biopic and layers it with Stone’s vivid, tendentious connections, like projecting an ancient Greek poet’s bust over Morrison’s face before fading into the regulation montage moment of the singer hero surrounded by the covers of magazines featuring his image, ramming home the idea Morrison himself was happy to embrace that the modern pop star was the classical poet-warrior reinvented. Stone offers a corny, but dazzling islet of psychedelia, as the band treads into the wastelands to get high. Morrison, in the depths of his own fantasy mindscape, follows the Indians he saw dead under mysterious eclipses, chased by black raptors and venturing into a cave to be reborn as crowd-mesmerising shaman. He emerges with “The End” as new anthem, with its Oedipal killer-hero embodied by a bald Indian who reappears throughout the film, most notably as a dancing hippie with a third eye painted on his forehead, constant reminder of Morrison’s dance with death and thematic link with JFK, where the same actor played one of the president’s assassins.
Stone’s visuals often genuinely tap the hallucinatory, half-banal, half-incantatory edge of the band’s songs and the imagistic obsessions in Morrison’s work to a degree of intensity that’s very rare in the artist biopic, calling back to the wildest moments of Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) and Savage Messiah (1972) or even, proportions maintained, Andrei Tarkovsky’s more remote and austere, but equally imaginative, panoramic Andrei Rublev (1966), as the directors seem to have interiorised the visions formed in their head whilst listening to the music and spat out the terrain created within. The camerawork, by Robert Richardson, swims in relentless motion, tracking and crane shots executed in sensual leaps surveying dense frescolike depictions of counterculture nightlife littered with intricate lighting and colour effects. The band’s first performance of “The End” in the Whiskey a Go Go sees Morrison achieving the orgiastic tötentanz that quickly becomes the band’s stock in trade, even cliché, but turns the eyes of everyone, even the go-go dancers, onto the front man who seems to recreate primal scream therapy onstage and then die Orpheus-like, sprawled on stage with women tearing at his carcass. Club management (represented, amusingly, by Eric Burdon) isn’t so happy about the obscene punchline of the song and casts The Doors onto the street, where they are greeted by Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman (Mark Moses) and producer Paul Rothchild (Michael Wincott) with the offer to make a record, which brings Morrison down from his performance high just long enough to get something done.
Stone’s reputation as American cinema’s most ambitious and aware filmmaker in the period was always rather belied by the blatancy of his concepts and messages, a tendency to push a rather obvious and tendentious idea with a force that could become mesmerising and tedious in equal measure. Such a tendency for me significantly hampers the likes of Platoon (1986) JFK, Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), and is certainly apparent in The Doors. But at least here it suits the theme, which is the texture of a pop culture experience, never greatly amenable to nuance, and Stone’s fascination with the idea of Morrison as a man who disintegrated under the frustration of gaining success that offers only a compromised freedom to energise but not radicalise. Stone’s print-the-legend depiction of the rock scene has been lambasted a lot over the years and with some good reason, and yet it’s worth noting that a scene like the early jam that pieces together “Light My Fire” actually gives a good idea of the process behind it in a way very few films about this sort of thing do, like, for instance, Control (2007), where the band just somehow turns up in the recording studios with its sound already burnished. Considering how prosaic most such films are, no matter Stone’s bollocks, I admire what he does here—even having Morrison dance on stage with ghost medicine men as naked hippies flounce around a bonfire—because he’s not trying to capture the surface reality of performance, but his idea of it, the joy of liberation in a stifled and technocratic America.
Of course, Stone can’t resist laying Morrison’s self-destructive edge down to a mixture of rank Freudian alienation from his parents, and the more intriguing notion of his hero as spiritual grease trap for his society’s wrongs, kicked off by the intense, formative experience of the bleeding labourers that anoints him as witness and soothsayer. Stone turns the parade of celebrities in the background into moving waxworks, as Ed Sullivan is gruesomely caricatured as a phony, old vampire and Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) is anti-personality at the eye of a poseur storm and prophet of the post-reality age. Stone stages the band’s encounter with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd as a descent into the underworld, where West Coast hallucinogenic inspiration sours under the influence of New York decadence and hard drugs. Morrison nervously pleads with his bandmates not to be left alone to face Warhol, as if he senses an oncoming ordeal he can’t face, but swiftly gives into this pint-sized Satan’s temptations, as Nico (Kristina Fulton) goes down on him in an elevator before Pamela’s stoned disbelief. A photographer (Mimi Rogers) takes iconic snaps of Morrison and repeats the siren call of stand-alone stardom. A press conference alternates between Morrison’s fantasy image of himself reproducing Bob Dylan’s shaded, combative cool and his slightly bleating, defensive actuality, hooking up with an inquisitive journalist and Wiccan, Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan), who successfully prescribes drinking blood as the cure for limp dick and later marries him in a Wicca ceremony (officiated by the real Kennealy).
Kennealy fatefully disturbs Morrison however, as she digs up the parents he claimed were dead, complete with the not-incidental detail that his father, an admiral in the U.S. Navy, was heavily involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and a cop’s intervention in their charged conversation before a show sparks one of Morrison’s infamous stage demonstrations, whipping up the audience against the patrolling cops and getting the show shut down. Morrison’s relationship with Pamela spins into increasingly fraught and mutually wounding territory, counterpointing level-headed Manzarek’s union with his wife Dorothy (Kelly Hu), whilst Morrison’s peevish displays increasingly infuriate Densmore. Pamela has her own sense of humour, introducing herself to a customs man as “Pamela Morrison, ornament,” but shares her husband’s appetites far too much to counterbalance his collective of enablers, including Warhol actor Tom Baker (Michael Madsen) and omnivorous ratbags Dog (Dennis Burkley) and Cat (Billy Idol). An attempt to throw a party for Ray and Dorothy after their wedding devolves into a shambles when Morrison gets stoned, Kennealy comes to call, and Pamela lets loose, sparking a bratty tantrum by Morrison that sees a roast duck stomped on and Morrison posing as Richard of Gloucester to Pamela’s Lady Anne, begging her to skewer and end him or accept the consequences of living with him. Stone’s love of concussive romance pitching half-mad men against haplessly loyal women (see also Heaven & Earth, 1994; Alexander, 2004) is certainly at play here, even if, true to form, he can’t help but make stuff up to make his visions of Morrison and Courson’s relationship more intense, like having him lock her in a cupboard and set fire to it with lighter fluid after catching her shooting smack with a suss Italian aristocrat (Costas Mandylor). Come on baby, light my fire, indeed.
One could again justifiably abuse Stone for buying Morrison’s postures as authentic, in presenting him as a man constantly swinging between the poles of the beatific world love of psychedelic rock and satanic troughs, looking forward to the brutalism of punk and heavy metal because of his psychic radar, rather than as a successful guy living the high life whose pharmaceutical indulgences fuel wild emotion swings. But in Stone’s eye there might as well be no distance between man and art, because to an artist like Stone, so often fired by both biography and autobiography, it’s absolutely true. The film’s proper climax is an epic restaging of the infamous 1970 Florida concert that saw Morrison indicted for obscenity. Densmore, already quietly infuriated by overhearing a rock journo sneer at their recent work, is at a fine pitch of anger at Morrison, who after arriving late and soused, starts abusing the crowd (“You’re all fucking slaves!”) with his inclusive demagoguery turning increasingly to septic provocation, and pretending to pull his prick out. The show climaxes in an eruptive return to form as Morrison hurls himself into the crowd and bellows “Break on Through” in a churning mass of wild humanity, the spirit of death hanging on to his shoulder all the while. This is a dazzlingly staged moment that exemplifies Stone and Richardson’s technical bravura.
The film as a whole is top-heavy with such audiovisual jazz, from Morrison crowd-surfing, picked out by a spotlight as hipster Jesus floating on his human Galilee, to a David Lynch-esque, languorous dolly shot closing in on Morrison in a red-lined recording booth, an islet in a sea of dark, slowly revealing Pamela giving him a blow job to coax him to an enthusiastic performance. One of my favourite shots in the film is near-antithesis to the rest of the sturm und drang, as Morrison strolls on the Venice beachfront in the early morning after one of his most rapturous concert performances, overlord now a burnt-out exile from his own home and wellsprings. Some anticipation here of another moment I love in an underrated rock film, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2004), where the similarly doomed, rootless and exiled artist hovers in the shadows of the kind of underground, defiant performance that once gave him community and purpose. That shot comes after of one of Stone’s loopiest, most dynamic sequences, as he furiously crosscuts between Morrison on stage and his mad reaction to Pamela taking junk with the Italian climaxing with the closet incident, and concluding with a visual quote from that eternal touchstone of films about American hubris, Citizen Kane (1941), reproducing the camera swoop Welles used to punctuate Kane’s apotheosis as political rabble-rouser on stage. This time, Morrison repeats his earlier cry of “I am the Lizard King – how many of you really know you’re alive?” but not as connective declaration, but rather as spacy star self-worship.
The film’s problematic nature is so closely linked to its achievements. The plotless rambling through this historical copse seems at first glance egregious, yet is actually fecund in a manner I appreciate as an attempt to prize an artistic experience as a value in itself above other motives. But Stone gets bogged down with duly included gossip, like Morrison and Kennealy having a contretemps over her pregnancy by him, and repetitive scenes in the second half that capture but do not much enlighten the wash-rinse-repeat aspect of life with a self-destructive addict and Stone’s concept of Morrison as someone constantly pushing himself to the edge of death as if on a constant adolescent dare. Ryan certainly looks the part of the kind of twentieth century fox Morrison celebrated, but her performance scarcely suggests what Morrison found so interesting about Courson amongst the panoply of partners life offered him.
What Stone found particularly compelling about Morrison emerges through such a motif as he studies his hero as doomed not just by internal failings, but also by the specific flaws of his society and as a classic overreacher. Just as much as Nixon represented to Stone both the beauty of America in his capacity to rise from straitened youth to national captaincy, and its dark flipside in his resentment and paranoia, and Alexander the Great believed in the potential and practised the worst inherent in colonial adventuring, so, too, Morrison represents a spiritual America doomed to be tortured by a materialistic age where hedonism is offered as substitute for liberty, his rebellion doomed to cause mere damage to self and others.
Stone suggests Morrison found a kind of stability in his last days, glimpsed as a pacified, bearded guru reading Beat poetry in solemn isolation (save for a recording engineer, played by the real Densmore), attending Manzarek’s children’s birthday party, and finally expiring with a look of transcendental bliss on his face when Courson finds him dead in a bathtub. That’s probably not how things really happened, but it does help the film find a tentative grace in its conclusion. Stone’s camera roves through Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery in search of Morrison’s grave amongst the greats buried there, and finds it floridly decorated with freaky missives, quotes, and artworks that celebrate the odd glory he found. But the film’s truest intersection of the sublime and the ridiculous is right at the end, with its parting glimpse of The Doors cranking out one of their best later songs, “LA Woman,” in an improvised home studio, with Kilmer-as-Morrison laying down his vocals seated on a toilet.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Josef von Sternberg
By Roderick Heath
After the collapse of his partnership with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg’s career, which had traced the upper limits of success as a film director, went into near-terminal arrest. The flagrantly sensual, imperious, outrageous expressionist of the silver screen was out of place in the aesthetically and morally leashed era ruled by the Production Code. Whilst Sternberg lost the big budgets and rapturous, unfettered stature he had in the early ’30s, his grip on sound cinema strengthened, and some of his final films, as patchy, brilliant, and forsaken as Orson Welles’ later work, stand amongst his best. He made a marvellous skid row version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1935), but his involvement with Alexander Korda’s big-budget adaptation of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” proved a disaster when star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident and Korda pulled financing. Sternberg kept making whatever films he could in the next 20 years, even travelling to Japan to make Anatahan (1953). The Shanghai Gesture, destined to be the last complete work he was able to make in Hollywood, remains one of his most obscure, but is also a prized cult object. The Shanghai Gesture was based on a play by John Colton, a property that several Hollywood big shots, including Cecil B. DeMille, had tried to film. But the potato was just too hot: a lurid, fetid moral melodrama about revenge and degradation set in a high-class brothel. The Hays Office ordered more than 30 revisions to the script before it was finally deemed acceptable, including a shift of setting from bawdyhouse to casino—even then, the potency of the piece was inescapable.
Sternberg proved the guy gutsy enough to do it, and legend has it he did it whilst lying on a couch all through the shoot. The resulting film is many things, amongst them Sternberg’s expression of enraged contempt for how clean and bogus the town had become. Even the film’s opening credits includes a jab at the hierarchism of the industry as it offers a page in praise of “Hollywood extras,” whose anonymous, massed contributions helped so many films. Another early title assures the viewer that this is a pre-War story, whilst Shanghai of the day was at the centre of an enormous tussle of civilisations, “its fate undecided.” But of course, Sternberg’s time and place is not the real Shanghai of the 1930s, but his imagination’s conjured nexus of mystique and depravity.
The linchpin of this mythic world is Mother Gin Sling’s gambling establishment in the heart of the old International Quarter. The Shanghai Gesture feels on some levels like the evil twin of Casablanca (1942), with which it shares the setting of a popular nightspot and gaming house at a world crossroads—with Marcel Dalio playing the overseer of games in both—where an old romance comes back to haunt the owner. But The Shanghai Gesture is the virtual negative image of the more famous film: the owner is a woman, and the old romance not only can’t be healed, but sparks a merciless vengeance the moment chance presents itself. For Sternberg, it was also a thematic return to the nature of rootlessness and the corrosive nature of erotic need, which tend in his films to lead directly in to one another, expressed through the exotica of unstable 1930s China in Shanghai Express (1932). But whereas that film emphasised mobility and hope, The Shanghai Gesture is again an inversion, a static, sucking whirlpool of evil.
The production design turns Mother Gin Sling’s into just such a maelstrom, the terraces of the casino interior evoking a tiered descent into Dante’s levelled hell where the roulette wheel spins on and on in the lowest circle, racking up cash and souls. “It smells so incredibly evil,” Victoria “Poppy” Charteris (Gene Tierney) murmurs in sublime delight shortly after arriving and surveying the motley denizens: “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination.” Sternberg immediately acknowledges through his as-yet innocent, yet already perverse anti-heroine that this is psychological wonderland and repainted reality, where the audience is encouraged to use their own imaginations to fill in the lurid details. Sternberg’s narrative enters Mother Gin Sling’s not with Poppy but with another young woman, an American former chorus girl and exiled chippie, Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks), who’s introduced being shuffled down the street by an angry landlord and his comrades to a cop for failing to make the rent. Luck, or something like that, is on her side, as two of Mother Gin Sling’s cabal, “Doctor” Omar (Victor Mature) and gone-native English financier Percival Montgomery Hower (Clyde Fillmore) pass in a car and, taken by her looks, pay off her debt and take her to be assessed for a job as decorative furniture in the casino.
Mother Gin Sling’s hardly seems like a safe repose, however, as a player’s attempt to shoot himself is dismissed as “Saturday night.” This week’s would-be suicide is regular player Boris (Ivan Lebedeff). Gin Sling makes her first appearance after his failed attempt, chastising him: “I thought we were good friends. Why do you choose my place as a springboard to the upper air?” Gin Sling is the film’s fetishistic heart and villain, as archly formalised in her dragon lady affectations as Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader or any other pulp villain, whilst also recalling the icon of stylised femininity Sternberg always tried to turn Dietrich into. She treads the aisles and stairs of her palace with angular precision, a high-fashion Nosferatu in her rarefied castle. Poppy is brought to this establishment by an asinine guide to the lowlife (John Abbott) in search of cheap thrills, but it soon proves that Poppy has some yearnings to be a cheap thrill. Poppy swaps politely barbed words with Gin Sling when introduced: Poppy teases her about her unlikely name, and Gin Sling pleasantly insults her back by suggesting her name might have been something as generic as Poppy, with the suggestion that there’s scarcely a thing different about where each of them has come from and where they’re going.
Gin Sling learns from a circle of rich businessmen she counts amongst her regular customers, including Van Elst (Albert Bassermann), that her establishment is the target of strict new laws being imposed by corporate interests on Shanghai. “This is not a moral crusade, which might be easier for you to oppose than big business,” Van Elst warns Gin Sling, on giving her the news she has to clear out. “What do you call this?” ripostes Gin Sling’s bookkeeper (Eric Blore), referring to Mother Gin Sling’s. The herald of change is a newly arrived representative of the India-China Trading Company, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who is also Poppy’s father. Gin Sling doesn’t recognise the name and is scarcely interested or concerned by this threat, until she finds that Dixie was a former girlfriend of the incoming plutocrat.
As Dixie describes one of his signature physical mannerisms, Gin Sling suddenly realises that she knows Charteris, and a look of lethal intent comes upon her. Her plot starts in encouraging Omar, her spruiker, pimp, and in-house gigolo, in his attentions towards Poppy, drawing the young woman, who’s fresh from a girls’ school in Switzerland, down to the roulette table, where she gambles with increasing fervor while spouting that eternal line of the neophyte, “I can stop anytime I want to.” But Gin Sling keeps her tethered to the tables by giving her a ready line of credit. Poppy’s real character begins to appear from behind the shield money and social insulation provide. She proves to be a spoilt, dictatorial brat with streaks of outsized carnal desire and contempt, and her jealousy is carefully stoked to a white heat by Omar’s simultaneous attentions to Dixie. Gin Sling barely bats an eye when Poppy is quickly reduced to a drunken harpy decorating her bar.
Whilst not as floridly stylised as Sternberg’s earlier works, like Shanghai Express, Docks of New York (1928) or The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Shanghai Gesture is just as hypnotic in its less shadowy, but equally artful images, where characters are turned into stylised types defined by physical attitudes and modes of dress. The visual style suggests a touch of Art Deco infused with Sternberg’s prior baroque sensibility, with more emphasis on flow and geometry as organising principle—planes, angular lines, elegant curves and circles explored with tracking and crane shots, particularly the grand, slow descent of the camera into Gin Sling’s casino pit. As opposed to the tangled, semi-surrealist forms of The Scarlet Empress that entangled the protagonists, here, the interiors are spare and spacious, yet just as organic and entrapping, the carefully constructed physical expression of Gin Sling’s understanding of the most putrid parts of her customers’ psyches. The wide shots offers mural-like studies in form and content, as rich and sprawling with detail as the decorative artwork that clads the walls of the casino and Gin Sling’s abode (notably, that artwork was provided by the Chinese-American actor Keye Luke). Close-ups reduce the actors, particularly Munson in Gin Sling’s finery, to kabuki masks of stylised affectation and the fanning shapes of her increasingly ornate pseudo-Mandarin hairdos. It’s easy to think of Dietrich in the part of Gin Sling (in fact, Munson, who’s probably best remembered as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, 1939, had, like Sternberg, been Dietrich’s lover in the ’30s), but Munson’s blend of icy malignance and an arch survivor’s cautious precision is excellent. The way Munson walks through Gin Sling’s joint, blind to the human cacophony about her as she contemplates her upcoming consummation with the gait of an empress walking a tightrope is sublime physical characterisation.
The Shanghai Gesture may represent one time when a censorious attitude from studios and the revisionist instincts of the director made for a work far superior to the source. Colston’s hysterical work was sordid and racist in the extreme, and like many such works (including another film starring Huston, 1932’s Kongo, which was a remake of Tod Browning’s silent film West of Zanzibar, 1927) offers insights into the hothouse nature of sexual fantasy in the Western mind of the era, channelling images of sexual sadomasochism and the simultaneous desire to protect and pillage virginal white femininity through racial Others. Sternberg’s reordered narrative and new characters constructed an infinitely more ironic piece of work. He added two significant characters, Dixie and Omar, to offer protagonists who are observers and alternate voices in the story. Dixie’s American garrulousness is present mostly to deflate the pretensions of the two versions of the Old World, Chinese and European. Her earthy, experienced sensibility directly contradicts the fetid sexual and racial politics at play in Gin Sling’s revenge on Charteris, and she retorts to a jealously bossy Poppy who’s accusing her of trying to steal Omar with a roaring putdown that notes that real character has nothing to do with birth or lot in life. In the finale, Dixie is the lone character who manages to detach herself from the awful spectacle of blackmail and cruelty with cheeky humour. Sternberg delights in throwaway character actions, from the Sikh policeman directing traffic with imperious elegance in the midst of urban chaos, Gin Sling’s accountant gleefully scooping out the night’s profits like a kid fondling his Halloween candy, or Dixie mucking about at a swanky dinner trying to leaven the oncoming mood of disaster.
Omar is Sternberg’s archest conceit, a character who fits neatly into the line of such Sternberg alter egos as Count Alexei in The Scarlet Empress, whilst painted interestingly as a corrupter who knows but doesn’t much care that he’s a zone of moral nullity because he’s a creation of multiple worlds, a misfit who’s found his place as an imp of Gin Sling’s Satan. A self-appointed doctor (or maybe not) and a self-described mutt of the East with part-French, part-Armenian heritage and Damascene birth, Omar is a conceited lothario who seems to think he’s Greek chorus to his own life. He’s given to perpetually reciting appropriate passages from Omar Khayyam (“If you wanna, you can listen to that Persian tripe, I’m goin’,” Dixie tells Poppy at one point.). He greets his weekly paycheck, dropped from the bookkeeper’s booth to him in the casino pit, with a sarcastic salaam and plays Gin Sling’s bait to get and keep Poppy on the hook. Mature, several years away from major stardom, is splendidly smug in his role as he wears his character’s bogus exoticism on his sleeve and slouches through the film with the lazy sensuality of an experienced libertine until the very finale reveals something more serious long dormant in him. Tierney, another soon-to-be star who would prove an uneven actor, capable of performances both refined and stiff, is equally fun here as the prim British fashion plate who steadily devolves into a neurotic addict and harridan, glimpsed in one marvellous moment seated on a bar top, whining for attention and satisfaction, delivering a backward kick of one foot like a stroppy yearling to a wine glass and sending it flying. Her behaviour wavers between poles like delirium, as she soaks Omar’s face with a G&T before pleading forgiveness in desperate erotic obeisance. Great touch here: Omar holds up his robe to hide their kiss from the room, perhaps less out of gentlemanly discretion than embarrassment to be seen kissing such a brat.
By comparison, Huston’s performance as Sir Guy, like Munson’s Gin Sling, seems to belong to another species: the world’s aristocrats, who specialise in much daintier cannibalism. Sir Guy is a suave man of the world who seems to have long burned out all his excess passions and now only has a measured solicitude to him. Gin Sling first tries to contact him when he’s in a meeting with the International Quarter’s bigwigs, and when told she plans to keep phoning until he answers, he simply unplugs the phone and gets on with his business. Gin Sling then sends a Russian coolie (Mike Mazurki) over to Charteris’ apartment block to fire a bullet through his window. A fascinated Sir Guy understands the implied message that the coolie will try to kill him if he doesn’t let the winds of arranged fate steer him towards Madame Gin Sling’s place.
Gin Sling invites Sir Guy and other doyens of Shanghai’s European community for a soiree on Chinese New Year. Gin Sling has some kind of hold on most of them, through threat of scandal or humiliation. She provides a dining table arrayed with little statuettes of each guest; the figurine of Poppy has its head strategically removed. An intervention by Omar, who sells a necklace Poppy pawned for gambling funds, alerts her father to her increasingly fraught, indebted nightlife. He calls her to his office where he announces he’s sending her out of the country. Poppy seems grateful, and Sir Guy sees her off on a plane, leaving him free to venture to Gin Sling’s lair and find out what she’s on about with maximum savoir faire.
Gin Sling’s Chinese New Year banquet proves to be rather a delirious theatre of cruelty, a banquet where revenge will be served at sub-Arctic temperature, a sequence of slow-uncoiling poison and suppressed hysteria, punctuated by nervously raucous laughs and Gin Sling’s potent, whiplash-like threats to keep her guests in their seats for the purpose of dealing up to Sir Guy a certified public scalding. The evening entertainment starts with a wild spectacle of women in cages being sold off to fishermen as sex slaves, angling just outside the window of the casino’s dining room, a show Gin Sling explains that has only been staged for her male guests’ edification.
Gin Sling assures her guests this is a show for the tourists only based on past practice, but the show looks frighteningly real, and soon Gin Sling has all but stated that once she was one of those girls, kept at bay by having the soles of her feet cut open and pebbles sewn inside to stop her running off. What exactly happened between Sir Guy and Gin Sling back when he was a young adventurer under a different name is only partly revealed in what follows, as Sir Guy certainly married her back when she was the daughter of a good family, and had a child whose apparent infant death sent Gin Sling running off in a wild grief. Now she believes Sir Guy abandoned her and stole her family’s wealth. Sir Guy is initially confounded as he realises who Gin Sling is, a possibility that seems impossible to him. Gin Sling’s neat line of recrimination is, however, disputed as he claims her family’s money is lodged in a bank even though he thought her dead.
Still, Gin Sling trots out the crown of her bitter banquet: Poppy, who returned to Shanghai on her own, now thrust into her father’s sight, poured into a glittering silver gown, bow-legged and tousled and swinish in mood and humour, clearly having been treated to every degradation under the sun by Gin Sling’s minions, and having enjoyed it. The tar-thick sense of evil eroticism lurking under the surface of the film finally oozes out here, and plays out in the exchange of close-ups of Huston and Munson, grim wounding and malicious pleasure underneath their studied surfaces. Sir Guy’s attempt to make a graceful exit is forestalled by Poppy herself. Wild-eyed in her drugged-up rage, Poppy has pretences to play the same bitch-queen as Gin Sling, only without the finesse or the smarts. She point a gun at Dixie, proposing to shoot her for presuming to attract Omar’s eye, and only Omar’s quick intervention stops her.
Meanwhile, Gin Sling unsheathes a peculiar kind of reverse-racism as she gloats in her triumph over Sir Guy and his weak genes, only for Sir Guy to reveal his own secret: Poppy is his and Gin Sling’s daughter, the child who didn’t die, and so she’s gone to great effort to reduce her own offspring to a wretch. Gin Sling’s attempt to intervene and restrain Poppy in her newfound aggression is met with utter contempt that only grows when Gin Sling tries to argue maternal right, cueing Poppy’s immortal line, “I have no more connection to you than with a toad out in the street!” Mother Gin Sling, her title all the more perverse now that it matches her status, reacts with less than restrained maternal chastisement, whilst Sir Guy, poised on the threshold between dreadful past and empty future, hears a gunshot. Omar has already delivered the epigraph earlier: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit, Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.” “You likee Chinese New Year?” the Russian coolie asks, for one of the most casually, coldly sarcastic final lines in film history.
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Director: Steve James
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This is, perhaps, a review I ought not to write—after all, my acquaintance with the facts of Roger Ebert’s life and work isn’t exactly casual. I spent almost the whole of his career reading his reviews, watching his various TV shows, and attending his film festival. I owe my inspiration and approach to film criticism to him, more public acknowledgment than I might otherwise have gotten to his very occasional mentions of my work, and my absence of Second City Syndrome to the widespread love and influence he wielded as a critic who lived, worked, and died in my home town. Yet, when a local boy made good—Steve James—makes a documentary about another local boy made good—Roger Ebert—it would be unseemly for me not to comment on the effort. In fact, however, Chicago isn’t the home town of either James or Ebert—look to Hampton, Virginia, and Urbana, Illinois, for their earliest roots. Yet both embraced my Midwestern metropolis and found what so many other creative people have—a laissez-faire atmosphere that makes it possible to do the work in a generous and open fashion and avoid a lot of the competitive bullshit that closes off so many opportunities, both personally and professionally, in the nation’s large coastal cities.
Life Itself really isn’t Steve James’ kind of movie, and I’m not referring to the subject matter. His very people-focused documentaries offer biographies of sorts about his subjects, perhaps most comprehensively in Stevie (2002), which brought James farther into the frame than any of his movies, based as it was on his former Little Brother when James was in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. James likes to spread into his subjects’ lives, take in the long horizon through his own observations. Life Itself, however, began as an end-of-life project for its subject—though neither Ebert nor James knew they would have only five months together, it was obvious to everyone that Ebert’s days were short.
James reveals in the film that the nine single-spaced pages of questions he sent to Ebert to answer in writing were too much for the failing film critic, who requested that he receive them one at a time. Late in the film, Ebert points James to his autobiography, Life Itself, to glean answers, revealing even more than the voiceover recitations from the book by Stephen Stanton, doing a very good job of imitating Ebert’s voice, that the movie was largely structured and scripted by Ebert’s own take on his life. I think it was very honest of James to name the film after the autobiography, but I’m not sure he needed to crib so much from Ebert’s TV show, particularly his tribute show to Gene Siskel, in creating the film. At many points, I felt as though I were watching Sneak Previews or the tribute show, the latter of which included seminal moments from the careers of the two critics, such as their appearance on The Tonight Show when Ebert panned Three Amigos (1986) to Chevy Chase’s face, the combative outtakes of them recording promo spots for the show, and Ebert being interviewed about why he did not get top billing in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.
James tries to address some of the controversy surrounding the “thumbs” approach to movie reviewing with a series of talking-head interviews. Most cogent was his interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, former chief film critic of Chicago’s alt-weekly, The Reader, and what he perceived as the demotion of serious film criticism that had arisen during the 1960s by the populist approach Siskel and Ebert popularized. (I’m not sure why James decided to do the interview in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, but I’m always happy to see the old place, no matter the circumstances.) But he also recounts the appearance of Andrew Sarris, and especially Pauline Kael, on the print beat, pointing out that they were the darlings of those members of the film intelligentsia who were inclined to pay attention to the mainstream press—not surprisingly, both were based in New York City. A line that came from this part of the film, “Fuck Pauline Kael,” was said in reference to the people who held her in much higher esteem than they did Roger Ebert—who was, ironically, an acolyte of Kael’s approach. The line got a laugh, but a cheap one.
Was being and staying a Midwesterner the secret behind the enormous affection Ebert garnered from most of the people whose lives he touched? Life Itself doesn’t say so explicitly, but does mention a throwaway comment Ebert made when the New York Times came a-courtin’ following his Pulitzer Prize win—“I don’t want to learn new streets”—exactly the kind of no-nonsense sarcasm a Chicagoan might issue to a self-important “newspaper of record.” Ebert worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, the proletarian paper in town, and stayed true to his employer, his coworkers, his alma mater (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and his roots to the end of his life. James reports that as Ebert and his long-time TV partner Gene Siskel, a native Chicagoan and Yale graduate who worked for the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, became the most popular film critics in the country, the self-appointed tastemakers in Los Angeles and New York ignored them and refused to carry their syndicated program—until it was no longer possible to do so.
The film recounts Ebert’s enormously mature felicity with words, even while working on the college newspaper; his alcoholic “men’s club” at O’Rourke’s, Chicago’s late, lamented haunt for newspapermen and writers; his entry into AA and sobriety; his jaunts to the Cannes Film Festival; and, of course, his marriage to Chaz, the woman who saved him from the life of loneliness toward which he said he seemed to be headed and who kept him going in the darkest throes of his fight with cancer. James offers a clip from the Conference on World Affairs Ebert attended for many years in which he announces that he is very ill—the salivary-gland cancer he thought he beat had returned and gone into his jaw. James is unsparing in showing the results of the illness—the lower part of Ebert’s face swings freely, the skin no longer having a jawbone to anchor it.
It is in the footage of the day to day of Ebert’s final few months that James finds familiar ground, and it is here where the film really comes alive. Watching Ebert struggle to break free of his walker and wheelchair is grueling, but it also affirms how present he is in his life. When he comes home from the hospital, Chaz tries to stage-manage his ascent up the stairs, a cadre of home health workers at the ready. Ebert insists she give him his notepad to write some instruction or other; the couple’s power struggle continues for a couple of minutes, and Chaz finally relents. Ebert in his prime was a force of nature, a storyteller nobody ever interrupted, a critic of uncompromising honesty. He largely remained that man to the end, insisting on exerting his agency even in the most reduced circumstances. It’s easy to see how he could become so influential and champion so tirelessly the careers of filmmakers he believed in, from a faltering Martin Scorsese to promising young director Ramin Bahrani to Academy Award winner Errol Morris, whose first film, Gates of Heaven (1978), was dismissed by everyone but Ebert. That is what makes the single most affecting seconds of Life Itself so poignant. When James tries to press Ebert to type an answer to a question, we see his email response: “I can’t.”
I have read extravagant praise of this film as well as withering takedowns by critics and fans alike. Life Itself—like life itself—isn’t perfect, but it is a fitting tribute to a man who meant a lot to a lot of people. I think Ebert would have given it a big thumbs up.
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