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Director: John Ford
The John Ford Blogathon
By Roderick Heath
This post is part of The John Ford Blogathon hosted by Krell Laboratories.
By the 1960s, John Ford might have expected and deserved a time of general acclaim as an elder statesman and artistic-industrial titan in Hollywood. The most Oscar-laden director in the medium’s history, with nearly 50 years’ worth of popular hits behind him and a legacy that for many defined the very essence of an American director as well as a whole genre, the western, Ford should have been hailed as an old master and given carte blanche to indulge his autumnal vision. He was indeed on the cusp of gaining a new kind of acclaim, one he scarcely knew how to process or relate to, as a singular hero of the auterist critical school. Unfortunately, even Ford faced the fate of too many filmmakers working in a business with little memory, only ledgers—a career that ended not in the grandiosity of a rapturously received ninth symphony or rose-piled farewell performance, but with films of decreasing budget, patronised and dismissed by studios he helped build, as an industry in a swift decline engaged in desperate reorganisation.
Still, Ford was able to make his kind of film right up until the end—or at least he made damn sure by the time they were done they were his kind of film. If he had died after making the knockabout comedy Donovan’s Reef (1963), he would have stowed away his oeuvre with a gently rambunctious, humane fantasia about the joys of friendly fist fights and light premarital S&M, with a spirit of wryness and conciliation sneakily close to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” But his swan song was destined to be 7 Women, which saw release on the lower half of a double bill. Thus, he ended his career not with a crinkly wink, but a gob of tobacco-stained spit right in his audience’s eye.
When directors’ days shorten, their films tend to get longer. But Ford’s final feature film clocked in at barely 85 minutes, displaying signs of harsh editing and resembling the rudely functional completeness of a piece of Brutalist architecture. Despite its length, more dramatic tensions bubble under the surface of 7 Women than many much longer films begin to approach. Ford, a director who had always played the imperious tough guy in Hollywood, keeping his sensitive, well-read streak tucked away like an embarrassing birthmark, had long been fascinated with not merely the mythos of the frontier, be it geographical or psychological, but its sociological meaning, which, for better or worse, entailed the arrival of civilisation and stability in unruly and protean places. The act of faith in all of his mature films, even the most conscientiously dogged and questioning, like The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Cheyenne Autumn (1962), assert that the better angels of human nature could win out over brute sectarianism and social prejudice eventually and find communal unity. In his more challenging works, particularly his last decade’s output, that unity might only be found on the level of individuals, as in The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Two Rode Together (1961). 7 Women offers no such clear hope. It’s closer in spirit to Samuel Beckett than Samuel Clemens,and contemplates the edge of a wilderness that cannot be tamed any further, tossing up barbarians and fanatics who destroy the sane between them.
The most obvious break with the rest of Ford’s oeuvre is that 7 Women is about women. Female characters were rarely focal points of Ford’s narratives, though his films were littered with strong and varied ones, sometimes taunting the males with independence, but more often representing the essence of civilisation overcoming their men as both overcame the landscape. 7 Women offers an almost entirely female cast left in the kind of frontier outpost where John Wayne, Henry Fonda. or Woody Strode would have stood in their defence. This outpost is a mission school and clinic situated somewhere in the wilds of northwestern China in the mid 1930s. The mission chief is Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), the unquestioned authority, both material and moral, over a small coterie of aides far out of their psychic safety zones. Andrews’ aide is the sparrowlike Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock), the image of a pinched and tremulously obeisant spinster. Kim (Hans William Lee) is the head of the staff of local men who help keep the mission operating.
Andrews’ two teachers are two relative newcomers, middle-aged Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) and very young Emma Clark (Sue Lyon). Pether has his wife Florrie (Betty Field) with him, and the part at first seem a rather pathetic, misplaced pair: Pether, having harboured a desire to be a preacher, is given to proselytising to his goggle-eyed, bewildered young Chinese pupils when he’s supposed to be teaching them the alphabet. Because Pether could only make enough money for the long-term support of his ailing mother, he’s only just married Florrie, his childhood sweetheart, pregnant though she’s the same age as her husband and perilously close to menopause. The perpetually worried and hair-trigger hysteric Florrie is the mission’s raw nerve and bellwether, listening for news of dread import, with the Mongolian warlord Tunga Khan known to be ravaging the frontier and rumoured to be committing atrocities. Andrews assures her charges that the mission isn’t in danger because she believes Tunga will not attack an American station.
The basis for 7 Women, interestingly, was the story “Chinese Finale” by Norah Lofts, who also provided the basis for the thematically very similar Hammer horror film The Witches, released the same year. Lofts’ fascination with independent women battling hostile forces, both internal and external, often encompassing the collapsing fringes of the declining colonial era, crossbreeds surprising neatly with Ford’s sensibility. A schism that commonly arises in Ford’s films between the genuinely committed and the destructively pompous is here given new context and taken to an extreme, as Andrews is quickly faced with as complete an opposite as she could expect. The mission has been without a doctor for some time, with the last two having pulled out at the last minute and Florrie increasingly worried about facing giving birth without medical care. Charles is sent to fetch the new arrival, but returns confusedly without anyone. Days later, the doctor arrives: Dr. D. R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) turns to the camera with a sleight of Ford’s hand that calls back to the similarly great introduction of the silhouetted Ringo Kid (John Wayne) in Stagecoach (1939). Similarly, just as Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge was the new type of indomitable American hero, Cartwright is Ford’s type of woman, defined as creature of imperious action and touching the outer edges of androgyny with short curly hair, leather jacket, and boots.
Cartwright soon reveals herself more than ready, whether she means to or not, to shake up the mission. A drinker, smoker, hard-bitten professional, and probable atheist, she quickly upsets the niceties of the mission’s social life, arriving at the dinner table with a smoke in hand and making her unfamiliarity with saying grace readily known. Real conflict between Cartwright and Andrews combusts when Cartwright, after inspecting Florrie, tells both Pether and Andrews that she would be better off in a proper hospital rather than risking birth in the mission. Andrews explains to Cartwright that each of the mission workers is “a soldier” and that Florrie will have to take her chances. Cartwright explodes at this, accusing Andrews of punishing Florrie for the obvious fact that she and her husband had sex in the mission and calling Andrews a small-time dictator. Argent tries to mollify and chastise Cartwright for disturbing the peace. Soon, Cartwright is pitched into an unquestioned, if temporary, authority when she detects signs of typhoid in refugees streaming through the mission gates, and institutes a quarantine.
Just before Cartwright recognises the disease’s presence, the mission welcomed a group of refugees, including Miss Binns (Flora Robson), Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee), and Miss Ling (Jane Chang), three workers from a British-run mission that’s already been raided by Tunga Khan. Andrews quietly rejects their offers to lend a hand because they’re a different denomination and might further upset her little empire, but Binns has sufficient experience in nursing to aid and relieve Cartwright. The labour of dealing with the epidemic still falls most heavily on the doctor’s shoulders, whilst Pether works to exhaustion with the mission’s local workmen to burn infected clothing and bury the dead.
Although Ford certainly didn’t mean for 7 Women to be his last movie, its motifs connect to a vast swathe of his films with a summative work’s clarity and concision, but not in a manner that suggests any kind of peace being made. The isolated setting and the drama’s compressed, playlike structure analysing a gallery of besieged characters, inevitably recalls not just Ford’s westerns, but also The Lost Patrol (1934). As with that early adventure film, a less familiar setting allows Ford to reduce the enemy “other” to something close to abstract symbol, as opposed to his increasingly fraught and empathetic depiction of Native Americans. Ford’s famously strong patriotism, religious conviction, and interest in social niceties and hierarchies were often counterbalanced by a contemptuous attitude to false versions of those faiths—prissy, empty piety was usually portrayed as a potent, but individual ill in Ford’s earlier works like Stagecoach, like the embezzling bank manager declares “What’s good for the banks is good for the country” and the women who chase Claire Trevor out of town, or How Green Was My Valley (1941), where the good minister is tormented by self-righteous parishioners. Perhaps the Ford work 7 Women feels in most immediate dialogue with is Fort Apache (1948), concentrating on an isolated locale where the little rituals that hold the civil balance are threatened by the arrival of a new figure of power, and the nature of such power is analysed in successive postures, as an increasingly irrational commander is revealed as a straw dummy whilst a cooler subordinate’s moral pragmatism can’t save the day. The dialectic of the two character types helps interrogate the difference between authoritarianism and leadership, and on a deeper level, between existential reaction to changing circumstance and adherence to unyielding codes of humanism and fanaticism. Leighton and Bancroft are cast in the Henry Fonda and John Wayne roles, respectively, with the newcomer as the voice of reason rather than that of vainglory, who exposes the whole project as a kind of sham, if perhaps a necessary sham.
The underlying drama is given a peculiar, deeper piquancy by the half-stated competition between Cartwright and Andrews for influence over Emma. The competition and its stakes are radically different for each woman, however. Cartwright recognises Emma as a young, fresh personality who she thinks should get out of the mission life before it sucks her dry. Andrews is powerfully in love with her pretty blonde charge, an attraction made painfully clear in an early scene when she catches sight of Emma partly undressed and her face contorts with bottomless pain and longing. During the quarantine, Cartwright is awakened from a few snatched hours of sleep to treat Emma, who has fallen to the disease. A moment of exhausted communion between Cartwright and Andrews comes when both sit at the tree at the centre of the mission compound—literal and spiritual axis of the mission—where earlier Andrews had been able to briefly take hold of Emma’s hand. Andrews, in her daze and grief, speaks of burying her emotions in her work. But that’s not working anymore. The seven women of the title do not include Cartwright, but rather the missionary ladies from whom she stands apart. Yet, Cartwright is certainly the hero of the film, a distinction that is quite deliberate. Her affectations rupture every presumption about womanhood seemingly upheld by the missionaries, but more than that, a carefully laid system of assumptions about what constitutes cohesive social values and duty of care. When she gets drunk after her tending to the sick, she incurs icy recriminations around the teetotallers’ table, and alludes to the lousy career choices she faced as a doctor in the U.S. where she worked in poor urban hospitals and finally fled after a love affair with “the wrong guy.”
Ford’s gift for realising character types with Dickensian vividness in the briefest of cinematic shorthand is apparent through 7 Women, occasionally touching the edges of camp caricature, as with Florrie’s early, quick leaps to florid worry and Mrs. Russell’s vehement reaction to Cartwright’s bottle of whisky. The casting certainly makes use of the actors’ screen personas from prior roles: Lyons, who had found brief fame acting in Lolita (1962) and then appeared in Night of the Iguana (1964), might well have been justifiably tired of playing objects of obsession for middle-aged pervs, whilst Leighton specialised in playing unstable, repressed figures, and Albert replays aspects of his role in Robert Aldrich’s Attack! (1956). But Ford and his screenwriters Janet Green and John McCormick complicate the schema with a vividness that is just as swift and precise. Ford’s visual language is deftly functional, yet always telling, usually perceiving this motley collective in group shots that survey them in a manner reminiscent of classic Dutch art’s group portraits and social studies, luminous faces amidst dark surrounds rendered by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s muted palettes dominated by shades of brown and grey.
Close-ups are privileges and dominance of the frame in contention: Andrews, at first unquestionably at the forefront of the visuals, is forced to contend with Cartwright in squared-off, geometrically balanced shots that see the two women holding each side of repeated shots. Andrews is pushed into the background and then generally cleaved from the group as she retreats into herself. The expansiveness of Ford’s cinema at its height is nowhere to be found here. Gone are the wide-open landscapes and languorous, enfolding studies in binding social ritual, and even the comic relief of boisterous brawling for blowing off steam (a welcome excision perhaps), something that the mission’s inhabitants have, quite literally, forbidden themselves.
The world beyond the mission walls becomes not free space, but oppressive zone of nullity, whilst its interior is dominated by narrow rectilinear shots in the shadowy hallway and dining room, cramming in upon the characters, a moral and psychological pressure cooker that quickly begins to work. Much like with Fritz Lang’s later Hollywood films, a pinched budget and lower expectation steered Ford back to a minimalist, interiorised, semi-expressionistic quality like a reflexive return to the art of the early cinema both men understood well. A nightmarish quality does permeate many moments of 7 Women, often evoked in shots staring down the oppressive length of the mission’s central corridor, where Pether retreats in agony as Florrie, locked away from the rest of the mission to keep her and her child safe from disease, shouts out to him with shrill, peevish demands; you can almost feel the mutual sense of long-cheated love turned into grinding misery. Much later, Cartwright, draped in exotic finery that entails submission to an alien, personality-erasing force that turns her into a ghost of other ages, stalks the same space with a lantern, planning death and deliverance. The social structure of the mission survives the crisis of the epidemic but cannot withstand the portents of Tunga Khan’s coming, first ominously suggested by a distant infernal glow on the horizon as a town burns. Ignoring Andrews’ angry cries, government troops flee the area, stripping the mission of protection both actual and psychological.
Following his back-breaking and depleting service during the epidemic, the imminence of a new danger finally shocks Pether out of his nervous timidity as he decries his vain actions in dragging his wife with him to this place, and vaults him into a newfound zone of confident command. Realising the exposed position of the mission once the soldiers leave, Pether assumes a take-charge attitude, telling everyone to get ready to leave, and sets out with Kim in the mission’s single, old jalopy to find out what’s going on. Later, the sound of the car’s horn calls a watchman to open the mission gate, only to allow a band of horsemen to charge in and conquer the outpost, the horn now a detached relic of conquest.
Kim, brought back to the mission as a captive, recounts Pether’s heroic but tragically absurd death in his first act of selfless valor—trying to intervene in a rape. Tunga Khan’s men then kill Kim at Andrews’ feet, sparking her to erupt in rage and sorrow. Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurski) has the women locked up in a supply shed, intending to hold them for ransom. Miss Ling, an aristocratic Chinese woman, is singled out for humiliation and abuse. Of course, Florrie goes into labour in the shed, still beggared by her husband’s sudden, fatal display of bravery. The reduction of space to the airless and comfortless shed precipitates Andrews’ total collapse in desperate detachment even as the others work to help Florrie give birth. Mother and baby survive the ordeal, and even Tunga Khan and his men are delighted by the arrival.
The beauty of 7 Women lies largely in a contemplation of its characters as beings in flux, fitting a film that seems to be resituating Ford’s eternal frontier as a place of the psyche where new worlds are at stake. Ford allows each character a theatrical moment that reveals something crucial about them, but then watches as each displays different facets under intense pressure: Pether’s transformation and Andrews’ slow crack-up are the two most overt, but by film’s end, most of the characters are revealed as, or pushed to become, the opposites of what they seem at the outset. Even the pathetic and annoying Florrie gains a peculiar dignity in hard-won perspective and the calm that comes from contemplating truly difficult circumstances. Indeed, dignity is a true currency in 7 Women, valuable to those who have it, those who want it, and those who want to take it away from others. Early in the film Andrews tries to assert her influence over Emma by describing Cartwright as superficially exciting but spiritually “dead,” a proposition Emma instinctively rejects. Indeed, as the film continues, one watches the painful death of Andrews as a personality as she’s consumed by repression and loses all dignity in the name of retaining it. Tunga Khan’s main pleasure is to subjugate personalities with pride, first with Miss Ling, who is raped off-screen and glimpsed being forced to tend to Tunga Khan’s concubine (Irene Tsu) as a serving maid. Yet, when Cartwright asks her how she is, Ling replies with cool fortitude, “I’m alive.”
By the film’s standard, Ling is the first to win the ultimate victory of retaining her sense of self in the face of trial. Cartwright herself becomes the next object of Tunga Khan’s predatory interest as her displays of fierce will and powerful personality intrigue him more than the other women, even the pretty but colourless Emma: only Cartwright, who, in her fearsome independence seems both an emissary from a feminist future but also a more ancient, uncurbed personality, an Empress hiding in riding jodhpurs, can offer Tunga Khan the unique pleasure of both robust erotic excitement and the pleasure of its submission. This desire becomes a weapon Cartwright seizes even at the cost of momentary degradation, as she makes a deal with Tunga Khan to have sex with him in exchange for better treatment of the prisoners and provisions for the baby. It’s strangely appropriate that Ford’s long career of portraying hard-drinking, asocial, highly talented professionals is crystallised in a female figure who belittles even Howard Hawks’ tough women whilst strongly resembling them, because unlike them, Cartwright isn’t just functional in a masculine world, she is, as she says herself, “better!” She meets her sleazy captor before fucking him with a cool-eyed, smoke-spouting smile that levels mountains. There’s a definite, deliberate note of black humour in the way Ford portrays the Mongol brutes, signalled first by having the gall to cast Mazurski and Woody Strode (as Tunga Khan’s “lean” lieutenant) with a straight face as their leaders, and confirmed in humorous asides until a climactic moment of death when one drops dead with the suddenness of a Loony Tunes character after ingesting poison.
Like Lee Marvin’s eponymous thug in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Tunga Khan and his men are on hand to embody primal masculinity as wild and juvenile proto-punks who delight in assaults on the trappings of civilisation, loping not out of the real steppes but from the recesses of modernity’s nightmares. There’s also a similarity to the kinds of crude, but gentle-souled giants Wallace Beery and Victor McLaglen played for Ford, stripped of their virtuous simplicity and reduced to beasts with appetites. They rant, smash, tear, rape, pillage, murder, and give boisterous stage laughs. Tunga Khan and his lieutenant are in the midst of a silent power struggle, a struggle that mirrors the one between the women but is played out in different fashion, signalled in a series of silent postures, as the lieutenant makes a play to impress Cartwright before Tunga Khan by engaging in a wrestling match. Tunga Khan immediately recognises the unspoken challenge and strips down to fight his aide himself, quickly and brutally cracking the man’s neck in combat, whilst Cartwright watches, smoking a cigarette with sardonic fascination. Rank prostitution for a good cause scarcely bothers Cartwright, who’s probably had one-night stands in Chicago as fetid and clumsy as Tunga Khan probably is, but Andrews, when she learns what’s happened, works herself up into a glaze-eyed tantrum, calling Cartwright the Whore of Babylon and other cute biblical phrases. Soon, Andrews has lost what little respect and patience the other women could show her: by the very end even Miss Argent snaps with livid anger, “I never want to hear another word from you as long as I live!”
7 Women stands up with a crucially similar film released the same year, Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, as the first work put out by Hollywood that feels assuredly like a metaphor for America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam. It certainly comprehends with surprising self-criticality and grimness the potential problems of an age of global reach where do-gooding blends problematically with cultural colonisation, filtered through the (then) not-so-distant past: Ford, who felt compelled to defend the war later, seems to have offloaded all of his psychic discontent here. The feeling that something is about to crack up nastily haunts 7 Women, geopolitics and sexual politics and even individual identity itself entering a no-man’s-land where all will be forcibly redefined, as if modernity is a bellows stoking every precept to white hot. The finale vibrates with anxiety and darkness as Cartwright, at Emma’s prompting and faced with the probably death of Florrie’s baby if not freed immediately, agrees to sell herself to Tunga Khan as permanent chattel to secure the release of the other women. This works, and Cartwright appears to the other prisoners now wrapped in the clothes of Tunga Khan’s concubine in a bleak gag that finally sees Cartwright forced into the part of traditional, doll-like female, and the seven women are carted away from the mission, The broken Andrews remains, awed by the spectacle of sacrifice required and given, echoing the similar self-sacrifice that defines The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The missionaries’ last sight of Cartwright is beautiful and chilling to equal degree, the doctor standing in her Chinese garb holding a lantern, aglow in near-darkness. Ford saves his greatest touch for a finale as memorable in its way as that of The Searchers, as Cartwright stalks the empty halls of the mission, the audience already forewarned she’s going to try something deadly and forced to watch it play out. Mutually assured destruction is the nihilistic metaphor at the heart of Ford’s swan song. Cartwright gets one of the most blackly amusing and stirring kiss-off lines in film history as she cracks her cup against the Khan’s and toasts, “Here’s to ya, you bastard!” She waits until the Khan drops dead from his poisoned drink before swallowing her own. Ford fades to black as she leans back to be embraced by the dark.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Robert Woodburn
Coscreenwriter: Robert Altman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When artists disavow and try to bury their juvenilia, there’s usually a good reason. Often, such works are half-baked and embarrassing, or may be a work product far from the output the artist considers representative of her or his work. Robert Altman’s early career in film largely took place in his home town of Kansas City, where he wrote and occasionally directed a wide variety of educational and industrial films for the Calvin Company, the leading producer of such fare in the United States at the time. Shortly before he left Kansas City for good to start making films in Hollywood, he wrote the screenplay for a country-western musical produced by Crest Productions. The film was intended to be more affordable for Midwestern exhibitors to screen than the high-priced Technicolor epics Hollywood was bankrolling at the time to compete with television. Corn’s-A-Poppin’ is a part of Altman’s oeuvre that represents the spirit of independence he so exemplified and that is so appropriate to discuss on this Fourth of July.
Altman never cared to acknowledge this cornpone musical, and that’s a shame. It has been many a day since I have been as entertained as I was at the recent screening of the restored Corn’s-A-Poppin’. The briskly paced, 58-minute Corn’s-A-Poppin’ was funded by the Popcorn Institute, and as it has been for funders through the years, product placement was all important. Altman, never shy about sliding a little social commentary on the evils of capitalism into every commercial venture, centers his story around the efforts of a corporate spy, Waldo Crummit (James Lantz), to drive Thaddeus Pinwhistle’s (Keith Painton) popcorn company to the brink of bankruptcy so that the competitor Crummit works for can buy it for a song and corner the popcorn market.
As was popular at the time, Pinwhistle sponsors a musical television show, the half-hour long “Pinwhistle Popcorn Hour,” as a means of promoting his product. Crummit sees to it that he hires a tone-deaf soprano named Lillian Gravelguard (Noralee Benedict), plucked from calling her hogs to answer the call of fame and fortune. To further his nefarious cause, Crummit arranges for Pinwhistle to buy kernels that won’t pop. During the commercial portion of the show, smooth announcer Johnny Wilson (Jerry Wallace) tries to convince a bored audience that Pinwhistle puts the pop in popcorn as a stagehand tips the popper filled with unpopped kernels into the scooping tray.
As with many musicals, the story of Corn’s-A-Poppin’ is just a background on which to stage the musical numbers, but I have to say that the regional actors they found to play the various parts are pretty good. My hat is off to Keith Painton especially for creating a likeable company president—think Arthur Carlson in “WKRP in Cincinnati” or another Altman creation, Col. Henry Blake in MASH (1970)—who realizes that he has trusted the wrong person but is always willing to give people a second chance. The musician/actors cast to play the singers who save Pinwhistle also show some major chops.
First among them is Wallace, who sings well and plays some engaging, if predictable, love scenes with Pinwhistle’s savvy secretary Sheila Burns, performed unevenly by Pat McReynolds. Of course, the couple must be kept apart until the final clinch, and this job is more than in capable hands. Little Cora Rice plays Johnny’s sister Susie, both the woman of the house—though she only knows how to cook spaghetti—and the moral arbiter of Johnny’s love life. The camera loves Rice, and she knows how to sing, act, and steal a scene; she could have had a real career in Hollywood.
Hobie Shepp and the Cowtown Wranglers, a group that has left no easily traceable mark, back up Wallace and Rice in some nicely done musical numbers. I particularly liked the up-tempo “Running After Love,” which featured a couple of times in the film. Other tunes included “Patches on My Heart” (Jimmy Carlyle); “Achin’ Heart” (Hobie Shepp); “Mamma, Wanna Balloon” (Eve Monroy and Jean Andes), a sweet showcase for Rice; and “On Our Way to Mars” (Leon and Rafael René), a cute duet between Wallace and Rice.
The production values are beyond cheap, so provisional that I wondered whether Pinwhistle’s executive suite was doubling for the Wilsons’ apartment. The flimsy walls looked like they might collapse at any second, and the artwork and props seem to have been fugitives from a Salvation Army store. When a high-performing strain of popcorn comes to Pinwhistle, saving the day by showing audiences that the popping is beyond first-rate, stagehands must have been throwing buckets of the stuff at the performers. The only lavish prop, the popcorn machine, was probably on loan from Charles T. Manley, a Kansas City native and owner of Manley, Inc., the “biggest name in popcorn.” According to Kyle Westphal, late of Eastman House and current vice president of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, which spearheaded the restoration, “A photograph featuring the junior Manley hobnobbing with Wallace, Woodburn, and Rhoden on the set strongly suggests the Pinwhistle character was meant as an affectionate tribute to a local legend.”
It is with great thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation, which funded the restoration of this orphan film—a great example of regional filmmaking and, in my opinion, a worthy addition to the Altman filmography—and Kyle Westphal, who recognized the value of the film when he first saw an imperfect print of it a few years ago, that I present this trailer for the unique Corn’s-A-Poppin’:
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Director/Co-screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
South Korean director Joon-ho Bong captured the attention of many international filmgoers in 2006 with his home-grown monster movie The Host. He rode the crest of a wave of interest in popular Korean cinema with its potent and often outlandish preoccupations, and reservoir of directorial talent and also including Chan-Wook Park and Kim Jee-woon. Many movie fans found that The Host offered the texture and quality of a bygone variety of genre entertainment, plied with energy and love for the nuts-and-bolts craft of a good creature feature Hollywood hasn’t offered since around the time of Arachnophobia and Tremors (both 1990). An enjoyable film, it was nonetheless rather overrated: I found Bong’s filmmaking, in spite of (and because of) his sustained steadicam shots, often clumsy or arrhythmic, the script far too busy and over-long, and the attempts to incorporate political and social commentary obvious, even tacky, without ever being incisive or as curtly dovetailed as in the best examples of the genre. Still, the film surely earned Bong a cult following abroad, whilst his follow-up, Mother (2011), seemed a complete about-face in subject matter, but still earned critical plaudits for the director’s eccentric artistry. Snowpiercer is a work of greatly increased ambition, an adaptation of a French graphic novel series with The Host’s co-stars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko rubbing shoulders with an international cast in a film that aims for the broadest possible audience, delivering thrills and spill tethered to an allegory that’s never any vaguely disguised.
A post-apocalyptic take on Spartacus (1960) mixed with a little A Night to Remember (1958) and The Cassandra Crossing (1977), Snowpiercer is built around one central, dominating concept: the entire film takes place on a super-fast bullet train speeding around the world. The world itself has been frozen into a giant block of ice by a misguided attempt to deal with global warming by inculcating the atmosphere with a dense artificial gas, and only the train’s constant motion keeps it from finishing up as a metal popsicle. Captain American himself, Chris Evans, plays Curtis, an intelligent and conscientious member of the train’s third class, that is, passengers who were allowed on board in the pure desperation and chaos of civilisation’s last days, and have been forced to subsist ever since in the rear carriages of the train. The train is the brainchild of genius inventor and industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), who never leaves the very front carriage of the train, tending his engine with its miraculous, perpetual-motion energy supply. The train still travels the old world-looping track he built nominally for international travel but actually because he anticipated just such a fate.
Curtis has become something like the adopted older brother or even father of Edgar (Jamie Bell), and the two have begun conspiring on ways to overthrow the armed guards who keep them cordoned off from the other classes on the train, and stage a takeover. The filthy and dispirited passengers of the rear carriages are fed on green, jelly-like blocks of protein. Curtis is haunted by evil events that occurred on the train in the early days and is discomforted by Edgar’s hero worship. Curtis feels second-rate compared to other passengers, like the wizened old Gilliam (John Hurt), who are missing multiple limbs for reasons that are eventually explained. Gilliam seems to have an intimate understanding of the train’s remote lord, who is regarded as an almost god-like benefactor by the better-off on the train, and he advises Curtis as their plans begin to take shape. Another, more mysterious helper has been smuggling messages of advice to Curtis in his evening protein blocks.
The third-class passengers are infuriated when Wilford’s emissary and concubine Claude (Emma Levie) comes on one of her occasional missions to extract small children for an unknown purpose. She claims Tim (Marcanthonee Jon Reis), son of Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and in the distraught melee that results, one passenger, Andrew (Ewen Bremner) tosses a shoe at Claude’s head. Andrew is grotesquely punished by having his arm forced out through a portal to be frozen stiff in the high mountain cold, and then shattered with a hammer, whilst Mason (Tilda Swinton), a gummy, gawky, patronising Minister in the train’s government, lectures the third class in the necessity of their happy obeisance to the settled order. Mason accidentally gives away a crucial piece of information which Curtis correctly interprets: the guards’ guns have run out of bullets in putting down earlier revolts, and now, if they can strike hard and fast enough, the third class might stand a chance. Curtis chafes against the efforts of Edgar, Tanya, and others to make him their appointed leader, but it soon becomes clear that any revolt is going to need a guiding mind with a clear and relentless idea of what to do each at each challenge, with the reflexes to match. Gross manifestations of repression and inequality are of course soon gleefully repaid as Curtis launches his revolt, using salvaged barrels to jam doors open and swoop upon the guards. As the rebels gain access to the next few cars, they discover the sickening truth about their food source, as insects and waste scraps are mashed into their protein blocks.
There’s conceptual similarity in Snowpiercer to works and writers from great days in the science-fiction genre, likes J.G. Ballard’s grimy satires and Philip K. Dick’s dystopian fantasias. Bong signals his influences and reference points early on: some have compared him to Steven Spielberg, and whilst that was evident in The Host with its narrative focus on a fractious, venturesome family unit, here the guiding influence seems rather to be ‘80s and ‘90s Euro Cyberpunk, like the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, and Terry Gilliam, who’s given an explicit name-check in Hurt’s character. Which could be cool, but frankly I found much of Snowpiercer felt old-hat, particularly in channelling Gilliam’s least likeable trait, of pushing his performers towards becoming leering grotesques, particularly evident in Bremner’s performance and, more appreciably, Swinton’s amusing if unsubtle Mason, who becomes the main foil and victim of the rebellion. Although pushed a few rungs down the social bracket so she speaks with a broad midlands accent and has a rather awful dental plate, Mason’s a quite obvious burlesque on Margaret Thatcher, abusing her charges, whom she calls “freeloaders,” for their lack of gratitude, and going through a show-and-tell play with a shoe placed on Andrew’s head: “Be a shoe,” she advises the passengers, because they’re not hats. In case it’s not obvious enough already, Snowpiercer is supposed to be a parable about have and have-nots, casting the rear carriage passengers as third world and underclass losers held down by the man, man.
Curtis seeks out Namgoong Minsoo (Song), the train’s former electrical and security wizard, who seems to have degenerated into a hopeless frazzled drug addict. The drug of choice on the train is Kronol, a by-product of the train’s toxic waste and a highly flammable substance. Minsoo, once he’s awakened out of his dissociate daze after being plucked from a penal cell like a morgue locker, makes a deal with Curtis to get his daughter Yona (Ko) out of another locker, and for them both to receive for blocks of Kronol in exchange for getting the rebels through each barrier ahead of them on the train. Yona, a “train baby”, seems to have a preternatural awareness, bordering on precognition, and is able to warn the advancing force about dangers hidden on the far side of the closed doors. The rebels face their greatest challenge in a carriage where they find Mason and a death squad armed with battle-axes waiting for them, timing a blackout with the train’s movement into a long, dark tunnel, so that the attackers, who have night vision goggles, can freely slaughter them. But, in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, one of the tiny number of matches Minsoo had saved is used to light a torch, and this is rushed from the rear of the train to the battleground by successive runners including Andrew in an ecstatic parody of an Olympic torch relay.
Fire allows the battle to proceed fairly and the rebels vanquish their foes, but Curtis is forced to make a call between saving Edgar, who is defeated and used as a human shield by one of the guards, and catching Mason before she can scurry off. Curtis makes the choice of a leader and goes after Mason: Edgar’s throat is cut but Curtis captures the Minister and uses her to force the guards to stop fighting. I like Evans as an actor: he was the star of one of my favourite recent genre films, Push (2009), which was one of those rare films that started off cleverly and kept up the flow of invention until the very end. And he’s quite competent here as a hero whose only exceptional characteristics are his intelligence and his desperation for moral regeneration, which drives him to break boundaries others accept. To his credit, Bong gives the film time to breathe with contemplative time-outs between scuffles, and paying attention to Curtis’ interactions with his fellow, culminating in a lengthy explanation to Minsoo about the early days on the train, when he was a teenage punk who had succumbed to murderous cannibalism, before the protein feed regime was instituted and the passengers were starving.
Curtis was brought to his senses when Gilliam and other older passengers began donating their limbs as food to keep the marauders like Curtis from snatching babies for the pot: Edgar’s life was saved directly by this intervention. Curtis thus faces that regulation trope (or cliché) of many recent Japanese and Korean dark thriller and horror films, the sense of guilt or transgression that can only be expiated by sacrificing a limb (see also the works of Chan-Wook Park, who produced this, and Takashi Miike). Such a revelation invests Curtis with a memorable pathos and darkness, and yet it doesn’t sit very well with the pretty clean-cut guy we’ve been introduced to. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been more convincing, and indeed genuinely affecting, with an older, more world-weary and weathered actor in the part, somebody who at least looked like he had the memory of a savage self in him.
At some point in this film’s development, Bong seems to have decided he was faced with a clear choice with this material, to either try to make it convincing or to play up its symbolic value. He chose the latter, but immediately revealed his lack of understanding of science-fiction, which can revolve around parable but must also exemplify a logical take on its chosen fantastical realm. The film follows a very basic guiding logic that makes sense, the literally linear movement from front to back of the train, which has a suspiciously video-game conceit to it, whilst also evoking the powerful influence of producer Park in the resemblance of fight scenes to the tight-packed, squared-off fight scenes that rather resemble the famous corridor battle in Oldboy (2006). But beyond this, Snowpiercer’s set-up, both technical and social, makes painfully little sense, never working at all to explain certain basic questions. Key to the film’s plot is the supposed balance of life within the train, a concept that has important ramifications in a climactic reveal. As the rebels advance through the conveyance, they pass through carriages dedicated to the propagation of animal and plant-life.
If the Snowpiercer had been deliberately designed as a mammoth Noah’s Ark-like device to save a small section of humanity I might have bought this, but the circumstances of the machine’s construction, when revealed, present the film as a private industrial Spruce Goose repurposed into it present use. The train, when glimpsed from the outside, doesn’t seem all that much bigger than the average Amtrak cross-country express, and couldn’t possibly support enough infrastructure to make the life on the train we see possible, not even to produce the insects ground up for the protein meal. The film is full of unexplained logic jumps as weapons come out of nowhere and characters who shouldn’t know one end of a gun from another suddenly having a working knowledge of automatic weapons. A gunfight is precipitated in the midst of a carriage full of the last kids on earth. Obviously someone doesn’t think children are our future.
The perspective the audience is forced to follow makes the early stages a striking experience in the sense of isolation and imposed abused, envisioning life in the third-class carriages as a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express turned into way of life, mixed with a favela. The conceit of the film can be excused as merely a transposed vision of slum dwellers invading the better parts of town wrapped in a polite sleeve of genre fiction, but nakedness of political metaphor doesn’t make for brilliance. As the film unfolds the coherency of the metaphor becomes increasingly silly and self-serving, as it offers no chance for perspective from the other classes on the train, just a broad caricature of privilege and indoctrination. Far from being a wake-up call about the dangers of global warming, the film could be seen as marking a different inference, a metaphor for the way third world countries are denied the pleasures and benefits of industrialisation by the environmental concerns of rich westerners. As the rebels penetrate the “first world” part of the train, the vignettes they see there look like the interior of a luxury liner where prim personages sit, and then the interior of a rave club, filled with louche young things reclining in decadent postures. Yes, that’s the limit of Bong’s insight into modernity’s diseases: stoned young party people and Victorian upper-crust caricatures. It’s so puerile it makes the French Revolution invocations of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) seem profound.
Where all the warriors came from, and indeed where they go to after initial skirmishes, and the train’s entire apparent infrastructure of government and representation, is skipped over. Good points might have been made about the whipped-up bloodlust and fear of the other passengers when faced with the insurrection as a simile for political manipulation, but the only “people” on the train are the rebels, and even they’re pretty one-dimensional. The film’s best scene isn’t much more sophisticated but is staged with such an intimate gusto I didn’t mind, as the rebels bust into a schoolroom carriage. There the primly raised little snots of the train’s upper class are inculcated with cultish love of Wilford through absurd songs and catechisms like “The engine is eternal! The engine is forever!” and “We would all freeze and die!” Mason delights in hearing the songs: “I love that one – such a tonic!” she reports with splendidly needy over-enthusiasm. Canadian actress Allison Pill has a deliriously inspired cameo here as the kids’ wackadoodle teacher, eyes aglow and eyelids aflutter with feverish excitement in teaching the gospel of Wilford like a Moonie zealot, whilst the overtones of this sequence take on several targets at once, from religion in general to the specifically cultish fanaticism attached to supposed benefactors, and even perhaps a tilt north of the 38th parallel.
The scene sharpens to a point as the heavily pregnant teacher draws an automatic weapon on Curtis and the other rebels: she gets a knife in the throat, and Curtis coolly executes the increasingly pathetic Mason in retaliation. Most of the issues I had with the film on an intellectual level with the film might have been rendered moot if I’d found it more satisfying on the level of meat-and-potatoes action, but Snowpiercer is rather ordinary in that regard, and certainly inferior to, say, Pierre Morel’s work on Banlieu 13 (2004), a film which had much the same structure and subtext but not half the pretension. One major problem with the film’s development is that apart from Mason none of the antagonists are at all well-defined enough to dislike. We have bad guys whom scrutiny of the credits tell me are called Franco (Vlad Ivanov, the sleazy abortionist of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, 2007) and Egg-Head (Tómas Lemarquis) but who come out of nowhere and are standard action movie villains. Curtis and Franco end up having a gunfight between carriages as the train goes around a long curve, an idea that makes interesting use of the specifics of the situation but as it plays out here is numbingly stupid.
Franco lumbers along emotionlessly killing Curtis’ followers, including Tanya, and proves rather hard to dispatch, like the Terminator in business casual. The film’s action set-piece is the tunnel fight, which is passably well-staged but more interested in pretty effects like art-directed blood spurting on the windows than in believably depicting a fight in such close-packed quarters: interestingly, neither side seems to have thought much about how such battles are likely to proceed. Bong does pull off one terrific little moment of action staging, with Curtis locked in mortal combat with a goon, another goon looms over his shoulder ready to strike, only for Edgar to launch himself into the frame and crash into the goon’s belly. This moment not only requires carefully framing on Bong’s part but also nicely shows off Bell’s physical grace as an actor, which no-one seems interested in exploiting otherwise. I’m not sure what both sides stopping their fight momentarily to celebrate the anniversary of getting on the train is supposed to signify except unfunny satirical intent.
It could also be argued that the film’s weakness as a mixture of realistic and metaphorical storytelling are justified by a certain pseudo-surrealist tone, and there is a little of this, as when the rebels suddenly burst into carriages that are gardens and aquariums. Not nearly enough to justify the film’s conceits, however. Where the finale might have justifiably moved into a zone of splintering realities, like the last episode of The Prisoner (TV, 1967-8), Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (who penned Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) stick close to diagrams of clunky blockbuster exposition. Curtis and Minsoo make it to the engine of the train, but find their way barred by a seemingly impassable hatch. Minsoo has a secret intention to use the Kronole he’s amassed to blow open the train’s only exterior hatch, because he’s noticed that the ice outside has retreated and escape from the train is now possible. Rather than do this immediately however, he and Curtis sit around for a half-hour talking whilst their enemies have time to mass. Claude unexpectedly emerges from the engine with a gun to usher Curtis in to see Wilford. Now, unlike Curtis who’s supposed to be smart, the audience will have guessed about five minutes in that Wilford was the one sending the helpful messages to Curtis, with only the motivation hazy. This is revealed to be, in a shameless rip-off of the climactic revelations of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), because Wilford likes to carefully provoke and repress rebellions to justify culling back the train’s population for the sake of sustainability.
Now, why a technocrat like Wilford who has essentially reduced the world to his own immediate ego-verse where he might easily control every element of life would rely on such clumsy and self-destructive tactics to maintain balance on his train is a question for smarter folks than I. So too is why the train’s society is set up like it is. Mason’s use of the word “freeloader” made me wonder if perhaps the schism was set up around those who, as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), had paid to get on the ark and those who had been taken on as an act of charity or had forced their way on. But this is never actually brought up, and really it’s just a conservative code word trucked in for broad satirical effect, and besides, after eighteen years nobody’s questioning such delineations? The dark sacrificial antitheses of the surface paradises portrayed in the likes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Logan’s Run (1976), stories based around similar ideas, aren’t necessarily more probable but they make a hell of a lot more sense in terms of the schematic societies they present us with.
Another ready reference point here is that immovable icon of cinema sci-fi, Metropolis (1926), which has an infamously vague political meaning, but at least boiled itself down to a likeable homily. I’m not sure what homily I could boil Snowpiercer down to, not even “Fight the Man”, as the film’s somewhat self-defeating climax derails (literally) the point it seems to have been making. The film does finally achieve a minatory power in the rush of events and visuals building to that climax – the sight of young Tim imprisoned amongst the gears and wheels of the engine has a Dickensian, symbolic impact, and Curtis and Minsoo rushing to embrace Yong and Tim to protect them from an explosion’s billowing flames offers a fitting condensation of the film’s theme of fatherly care, and a spark of real emotion at last in a film that otherwise lacks it. The last images evoke the end of THX-1138 (1971), although not as vividly iconic, in the simultaneous evocation of freedom and exposure, even as once again Snowpiercer begs a lot more questions than it really answers. Is it better than a Michael Bay movie? Yes. But not that much better.
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Director: Frank Capra
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If I had to make a list of the most subversive love stories ever committed to film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, would certainly be near the top. The interracial romance at the heart of the film was taboo in 1933, and remained so for many decades. But more subversive was the look at the love of money and destabilizing love of a Christian God missionaries spread throughout the world. This type of story is something of a surprise from Hollywood’s most successful idealizer of American values, Sicilian immigrant Frank Capra, and his female star, Barbara Stanwyck. Only two years earlier, the two had teamed to film The Miracle Woman, in which Stanwyck played a bitter and cynical evangelist whose faith in God is restored. In The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Capra and Stanwyck reversed this outcome, as a Chinese warlord “converts a missionary,” forcing her to see the charade of her blind loyalty to her missionary fiancé and her Christian mission, and acknowledge the attraction that has grown between them.
The film opens with the Chinese populace in Shanghai running in chaos to signal the civil war embroiling the country. In a well-appointed home, Western missionaries and expatriates are preparing for the wedding of Dr. Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon) and Megan Davis (Stanwyck), the latter of whom is coming from her upper-crust New England home to work side by side with her soon-to-be husband as a missionary.
In the muddy streets, Bob and Megan are making their way to the house in separate rickshaws. Megan’s rickshaw gets stuck in the mud, and before her driver can get it unstuck, he is mowed down by a large car driven by General Yen (Nils Ashter). Megan pleads with Yen to help the driver, but he is wondering why she would care about a stranger. She sees his head is bleeding and offers him her handkerchief. He demurs, pulling one of his own from his sleeve. They both cast a long gaze at each other as they go their separate ways.
When Bob and Megan reach the site of their wedding, Megan readies herself for the ceremony. Unfortunately, Bob has received word that a mission orphanage is in danger, and he must appeal to Yen to write him a safe-conduct pass. The assembled well-wishers are abuzz with the evils of General Yen, a crook who has amassed a fortune for his renegade army, and believe Bob will get nowhere with Yen. Nonetheless, with Megan insisting on accompanying him, Bob gets a note from Yen, which actually says that “This fool prefers orphans to the arms of his bride,” a joke only the Chinese who can read it can appreciate. Finding most of the orphanage already evacuated, Bob and Megan attempt to move the final group of six orphans and their nurse to safety. They duck machine gun fire that mows down an entire group of Chinese, but are nonetheless confronted by soldiers. Megan is hit on the head and loses consciousness, only to awaken in a beautifully appointed bedroom in what turns out to be General Yen’s summer palace where Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), Yen’s concubine, tends to her wounds. Yen has saved her, but what he intends to do with her is anyone’s guess.
Capra sets up situations in this film that he would plumb again in Lost Horizon (1937), in many ways, the reverse image of Bitter Tea. The opening scene of chaos is repeated at the beginning of Lost Horizon, and a kidnapping of the main character occurs. He also sets the second act of each picture in an exotic and isolated Asian locale, the better to remove his protagonists from the overweaning influence of their own Western enclaves. In both films, he critiques the base Western concerns that place a narrow morality and profit above all else. In the later film, George Conway (John Howard), the brother of idealist Robert Conway (Ronald Colman), considers himself a prisoner in the idyllic Shangri-La and spends most of his time planning to escape. In Bitter Tea, Megan is a prisoner who keeps demanding to be returned to Shanghai; her only contact with Western culture is American war profiteer Jones (Walter Connolly), whose sole interest in Yen and China is to enrich himself.
Where The Bitter Tea of General Yen parts company with Lost Horizon is in its smoldering, complex love story of mutual dislike and attraction. Megan strikes the first blow when she calls Yen a “yellow swine,” which visibly shakes him and shames Megan into realizing that she is full of prejudice against the people she came to China to help. Yen’s courtesy and refinement impress her, but she finds his barbarism incongruous. When she awakens one morning to the horror of prisoners being executed by a firing squad, she complains to Yen. His response is to send the firing squad down the road out of earshot, and excuses the executions as a kindness in comparison with the slow starvation they would suffer in his jail cells because he cannot afford to feed them all. “We are in the middle of a civil war,” he says, emphasizing in the most understated way the naivété of the missionaries who bring to the Chinese struggling for freedom “words, nothing but words.”
Ashter, made up with barely passable Asian features, towers over the diminutive Stanwyck, yet he never offers the menace she expects. He is highly insulted by her accusation that he meant to rape her, saying he only wants what is freely offered to him. Again, Megan’s prejudices are undercut—she is dealing with a man, not an ignorant heathen, from a civilization much more ancient than her Christian America and extending much earlier than the Christ era. Stanwyck is great at conveying a character who is far out of her depth, ignorant of her new surroundings and all they encompass, and weak even when asserting her strongest convictions. Her rebellion against Yen’s dinner invitations are paltry and her impassioned assurance that acts of mercy will bring Yen the greatest feeling in the world sounds desperate and hollow. Death is something she shrinks from, and Yen accurately chides her with “You are as afraid of death as you are of life.”
Capra builds a dreamy, romantic setting full of sparkling jewels, cherry-blossom moons, caressing costumes, and candle-kissed lighting. Stanwyck glows, her unusual beauty enhanced by Capra’s flattering, soft-focus close-ups, her tears like diamonds on her cheeks. Yen’s palace is enchanted, with simple acts like stirring a teacup handled with a painstaking decorum and touch. It is this atmosphere that seduces Megan and wraps the audience in a love-struck spell.
Megan observes young lovers courting on the picturesque grounds of the palace in scenes that are handled with a delicacy that reminded me of Lotte Reiniger’s fragile paper cutouts in The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). Their laughter and embraces form a mirror to the experiences Megan hoped to have with Bob and that now seem to be transmuting. The eroticism of Yen and his environment, a veritable hothouse of the entwined vines of sex and death so similar to the overwhelming sexual swoon that is India in Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece Black Narcissus (1947), shakes Megan from her moral moorings. She dreams of Yen, first as the stereotypical Yellow Devil menacing her with his long, phallic fingernails, and then as her masked savior. In her dream, she welcomes him into her arms and most probably to her bed, though the camera discreetly demurs to her awakening. She doesn’t seem appalled at what her mind has concocted, truly marking this film as a product of Pre-Code Hollywood.
Megan’s misguided trust in a duplicitous Mah-Li, whom she saves from execution, ends up ruining Yen. He confronts her with his anger, but unexpectedly says that he intended to kill her, as he was entitled to do by her pledge to vouch for Mah-Li, and then join her forever in the land of their ancestors, a tormented confession of love that both confuses and thrills Megan. Ashter’s ardor is a sudden burst from a fairly controlled man, though Megan says at one point that “The subtlety of you Orientals is very much overestimated.” I found it so touching that when she finally acquiesces to her feelings, coming to Yen’s side in an Asian dress she refused to wear before, crying over her guilt in helpless surrender, he wipes her tears with his silk handkerchief: “The Chinese gave the world silk.” With these words that show the soft tenderness of his love, Yen drinks the poisoned tea he brewed so meticulously for his suicide and quietly dies, the fulfillment of his love for Megan his gift for the afterlife.
Capra includes an interesting postscript in which a drunken Jones plays amateur fortune teller for a quiet Megan as they sail for Shanghai. He can’t seem to decide whether Megan will go through with the life she planned before falling under Yen’s influence or give it up. Megan, with a self-knowledge incited by her brief romance—some might call it tragic, but to me it formed a perfect whole, a love transcending race, culture, and time—simply gazes with limpid eyes and a rueful smile as the film draws to a close
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Director/Screenwriter: Tadeusz Konwicki
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Winner of 1958 Grand Prix at the International Festival of Documentary and Short Feature Films in Venice, The Last Day of Summer, author Tadeusz Konwicki’s first foray into filmmaking, radically altered how the world saw him. While still a noted writer with more than 20 titles to his name, he is now perhaps more famous as Poland’s first experimental film auteur. At a little over an hour long, The Last Day of Summer has the brevity of most experimental films, and it creates a dreamlike ambiguity that makes an almost too-subtle comment on World War II, particularly as compared with his anarchic Salto (Jump, 1965). At heart, I don’t think film was really his metier because these film are so derivative of experimental masters Maya Deren and Luis Buñuel, but especially with Last Day, Konwicki shows a touching regard for his characters that is something all his own.
Voiceover narration by the unnamed female protagonist (Irena Laskowski) suggests the hardships of war, talking about trains packed with what might be refugees or condemned Jews, with no traces left except dogs’ paws. Three planes flying in close formation buzz overhead, as the woman emerges from the ocean naked and covering her breasts. As she tries to zip herself into her bathing suit, she becomes aware of a young man (Jan Machulski) observing her. He is playful and boyish, but she angrily demands to know how long he has been watching her. He answers “two weeks,” ever since she first showed up on the beach. He is smitten with her, but she is wary of him. Besides, it is her last day by the seaside before returning to her everyday life.
She pins her wet hair and lays down to nap in the sun. After a fade, she awakens as the young man watches her nearby. With an overabundance of energy, he runs into the sea and starts to flounder. The woman goes in and rescues him from the rushing surf. When they are safely on land, he tells her that when he ran into the water, he forgot he couldn’t swim. She briefly softens to him, but then is unhappy that she is all wet again. She tells him to avert his eyes, which he mostly does, as she changes into a skirt and blouse. They build a fire together to dry off their wet things and cook a fish she has packed to eat, and he sets up a sundial in the sand using small pieces of driftwood to measure off her last day of summer.
The film consists of a dance of approach and withdrawal, as the woman alternately enjoys the young man’s attentions and fights to be practical. She was abandoned by her sweetheart during wartime—he went to England, apparently—and broken-hearted, she has remained alone, which the young man has surmised by her solitary visits to the beach each day. Every time she tries to break away, she ends up following him, their circling intimacy getting tighter and tighter. But when push comes to shove, the woman refuses to abandon her plans to live on the beach, idle and free, with the man. His subsequent disappearance has her wading into the ocean searching for him as the movie fades out.
Konwicki doesn’t set any impenetrable traps with this conventional look at the psyche of a lonely, aging woman. Her emergence from the sea at the beginning of the film is like a birth—imagine swimming nude to keep one’s bathing suit dry!—and her successive returns to the water are plunges into the unconscious, a chance at rescuing her youthful, buoyant animus unfortunately thwarted by her caution and doubt. It seemed fairly certain to me that the young man did not exist at all, but was sent by her unconscious to keep her from taking the final plunge into the darkness to which she eventually succumbs—the flattering admiration of a handsome, younger man a balm for her ego, a proposed escape from her drab existence a proffer of liberation and fulfillment. The shot of her after she has donned her clothes showcases the soft beauty elicited by his attentions.
Cinematographer Jan Laskowski composed many beautiful landscape and overhead shots, and his close-ups capture every nuance of emotion. Nonetheless, between him and Konwicki, the visuals are a pretty close rip-off of Maya Deren’s At Land (1944). Take a look:
The intrusion of the airplanes may have been intended as a grounding device similar to the dinner party in At Land, but it was much less coherent. Without some tie to the woman, these scenes did not have the perhaps desired effect of offering a tangible foreboding. Much more effective was the man’s use of a pocket knife, repeatedly throwing it idly to stick in a log near the sleeping form of the woman. Interestingly, when she gathers up their belongings in preparation for going back to her hotel to pack, she removes the knife and returns it to the man. Unlike the old saw that a gun produced in the first scene will be fired by the last, the knife is never used directly. Instead, it implies that the woman’s life may be in danger, but as the film progresses, the danger is really only from herself.
This film, part of the Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, shows Sunday, June 29, 3 p.m., and Wednesday, July 2, 6:15 p.m., at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Perhaps the last thing one would have expected from the director of Pharaoh (1966), a drama set among the elite of ancient Egypt in the expansive setting of the Sahara Desert, is an examination of the desperate lives of the professional and working classes of then-contemporary Poland set on the claustrophic confines of a train. Yet, despite leaps across time and space, Jerzy Kawalerowicz proved himself to be a master of the interior landscape of the human heart, a constant no matter what the setting. Night Train, an early, black-and-white effort from the director, offers Kawalerowicz’s and cinematographer Jan Laskowski’s exquisite eye for beautiful visual composition and interesting camera angles that set the physical and emotional spaces for a range of characters trapped by regret and need.
Much like the opening of Pharaoh, Night Train starts with an overhead shot of a Polish train yard bustling with people looking not unlike the dung beetles tumbling across the barren desert floor in Egypt. A middle-aged man (Leon Niemczyk) with sunglasses and a shock of gray hair at the temple hurries to board the train; he has no ticket, but buys both berths in a sleeper cabin because he wants to be alone. To his surprise, when he reaches his cabin, a beautiful blonde, who we much later learn is named Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), has moved in. She tells the overwhelmed train conductor (Helen Dabrowska) that she bought the ticket from a man, and though the conductor tells her it is a men’s only cabin, she refuses to leave. Wishing to avoid further unpleasantness, the man decides to let her stay. Nobody seems too bothered by strangers of the opposite sex sharing a cabin, except for a neighboring passenger (Teresa Szmigielówna) who is bored with her lawyer husband (Aleksander Sewruck) and hoping to have a fling with the man as she struts around him with her comely breasts pitched forward by a permanent arch in her back.
We learn very early in the film that a woman has been murdered and that her husband is being sought by the police. We are encouraged to believe that the curiously morose man who wants to be alone might be the murderer, and this planted idea seems designed to jack up the suspense of the film—particularly after Marta is alone with him in the cabin—if you judge by the advertising for the film that compares it to The Narrow Margin (1952). There is indeed a murderer on the train and a tense chase to apprehend him occurs, but the film is more interested in the secret pain and yearning of its characters than in being a thriller.
Marta is a woman haunted by a love affair gone wrong and a persistent admirer (Zbigniew Cybulski) who stalks her onto the train and rather violently insists that she not dispose of him after their two-week fling. The man is gentle and gentlemanly with Marta, surmising her unhappiness in love after seeing scars on her wrists. Her overall sadness, however, permeates her like a strong perfume, her mournful countenance visually caressed by her then-husband, director Kawalerowicz, as he peers at her reflection in a mirror, though a sliver from the top berth to the bottom berth where she lays, in her distant gaze out the open window suddenly exploded by the wind and noise of a train passing in the opposite direction.
The man, too, seems distracted and violently haunted when he shouts at Marta to kick the sheet covering her legs away. His explanation for his outburst is to ask her if she has ever seen a body in a morgue. I guessed that he was a doctor based on this detail, his reaction to her wrist scars, his comment about how much Marta smokes, and his ease spending money, but was kept in doubt about his profession until the end of the movie. Indeed, the movie does not seem anxious to give up its secrets—like any group of strangers sharing a space by necessity, no one is presented as an open book. All we get are impressions, bits of information. Kawalerowicz stamps this point on the film silently, as a young sailor in third class gazes fondly on a young girl, who shyly returns his regard—who they are and what will become of the flirtation is pure speculation, though the terminus of the train is a seaside resort where it appears the lawyer’s wife intends to tryst with whichever lover she lines up from the journey. Amusingly, her cuckold of a husband remains a disembodied voice for a good deal of the film until Kawalerowicz decides to let us sympathize with them both a bit by putting their mismatched temperaments together in their cabin as they bed down for the night.
Despite what Freud said about trains and sex, I was not expecting all the amorous goings-on on the train, but I have been informed that pociag means “train,” but it also means “attraction” or “desire,” a clear double entendre. The train appears to be a microcosm of the world, with cabins filled with religious pilgrims and holiday makers from every walk of life. Seeing people standing in the narrow passages in third class because there is no place to sit down reminded me of my work commute, people jostled and tired and bored, fitfully sleeping in the company of strangers and their cargo. So, too, does Kawalerowicz take on the issue of mob mentality. When the murderer pulls the emergency brake and jumps from the train ahead of the police, a number of passengers pursue him across a field in a scene that beautifully opens the film up to offer the great expanses Kawalerowicz handles expertly. Again we get an overhead shot after he is cornered and brought down, like a swarm of ants taking down a grasshopper. An earlier reveal of a man who can’t sleep in his cabin because the berths remind him of his four years in Buchenwald takes a poke at the rush to judgment and mob action that Kawalerowicz softly critiques in the murderer subplot.
In the end, the man and Marta have found some solace in each other’s company, though the painfully adrift Marta is disappointed that their association cannot last beyond the end of the line. Marta, still caught in her melancholy, alights on the seaside of the train and climbs awkwardly along the sandy shore, trapped at land’s end in the bright light of day.
This film, part of Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, shows Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m., at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gray
By Marilyn Ferdinand
James Gray is a director who is slowly finding his voice. After creating three family-centered crime films (Little Odessa , The Yards , and We Own the Night ), Gray has moved on to more emotion-laden, personal films that may include crime, but only as one of several strategies to which their damaged and desperate characters cling to maintain their precarious existence. The Immigrant is simultaneously operatic in its grand canvas detailing the dislocation of large masses of humanity during World War I, and a chamber piece that looks at the dysfunctional dance of need between two desperate people. In the final analysis, the film has a metaphysical agenda that lifts it out of the tedium of survival and into a contemplation of the soul.
The year is 1917. An expansive, grainy, unusual view of the backside of the Statue of Liberty and the water leading into the open ocean—the view from Ellis Island—opens the film, followed by a look inside this gateway for immigrants hoping to make a new start to their lives in the United States. Polish refugee Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) moves through the line of new arrivals, admonishing her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to suppress her coughing and providing hopeful encouragement that they are almost at the end of their ordeal. Not quite. Magda is shunted off for a six-month hospital quarantine, with tuberculosis the likely diagnosis ahead of her, and Ewa is declared liable to become a state charge when she tells the immigration official that she has no money and gives him a letter from her sponsors—her Aunt Edyta (Maja Wampuszyc) and Uncle Wojtek (Ilia Volok)—with an address he says doesn’t exist. Further, he says there were reports from the ship that Ewa is a woman of low morals. Her immediate deportation seems likely.
Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), an immigrant himself some 25 years before, who sees her among the other rejects and decides to help her. He bribes a guard to let her through to the ferry that will take them to Manhattan and gives her a place to stay in his apartment and a promise of work as a seamstress in his theatre. Ewa distrusts him, and grabs something that looks like an ice pick to put under her pillow as she sleeps. Thirteen hours later, she awakens, and Bruno takes her to the theatre where he and his “doves” put on a topless act for the rowdy, mostly male patrons, a prelude to selling their bodies. Rosie (Elena Solovey), the theatre owner, sees a gold mine in Ewa’s beauty, but Bruno says he has bigger plans for her. Nonetheless, in short order, Ewa’s first appearance on stage—ironically, as Lady Liberty—leads to her first night as a sex worker, deflowering a young man whose father has paid Bruno a large sum to make his son more manly.
Ewa is a survivor. She has seen her parents beheaded before her eyes, been raped on the ship to America, been rejected by her uncle because her shipboard “reputation” will damage his community standing and business, and fallen prey to a manipulative pimp who throws her concern for her sister and her need for his connections on Ellis Island at her every time he wants her to degrade herself. It takes money to free Magda and live in a country that prizes individual initiative above all else—her uncle’s concern for his reputation shows he’s well suited to the American Way, though he looks more like he plans to molest her the night she shows up on his doorstep after escaping from Bruno. Ewa does what she feels she has to do, but through her trapped suffering, she stirs an existential crisis in her hated benefactor, Bruno.
It would be easy to see this film primarily as a well-crafted melodrama, as well as a time machine that takes us back quite believably to the era to which many Americans, including myself, can trace our New World origins, filmed as it was at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens and all around the town, including on Ellis Island. Great care was taken to try to burrow under the daily lives of the characters in this film. For example, when Bruno first brings Ewa to his apartment, a young girl is sitting at the kitchen table, while her prostitute mother lies on the bed asleep. I don’t know what they were doing there, but the sequence shows that even whores have home lives. In addition, Bruno’s doves, displaced from the theatre after a brawl, do their parade under a viaduct in the park for men of even lesser means than the ones in the theatre, a poignant moment of practicality that rang true.
The street scenes and interiors had a lived in, authentic look, and the Ellis Island scenes were pitch-perfect in every regard. I especially enjoyed an opera reference that worked perfectly with the story: Ewa, caught by the police and returned to Ellis Island, goes to a performance put on for the detainees in hopes of seeing her sister in the audience. Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja), who actually did sing at Ellis Island, performs an aria from Puccini’s La Rondine, whose main female character is named Magda.
The Immigrant has its problems. Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) is really rather superfluous as anything other than a plot motivator. While Renner gives a fine performance, full of the kind of charisma and social ease Bruno envies, the triangle he sets in place wasn’t really needed. In addition, making Emil a magician is a little too on the nose about his success with women, nor did I buy that he was a bigger attraction for the low-rent theatre crowd than Bruno’s topless chippies. The latter explanation for his return to the theatre was simply to get him in the same room with Ewa and Bruno. The sepia tone of the cinematography was a little annoying, as I didn’t really need it to know that we were looking at a faded time, and it distorted colors in some unfortunate ways: blood coming from Bruno’s nose looked like the chocolate syrup it probably was, and in close-up, it was very distracting.
A more serious flaw is Gray’s inspiration to shoot Ewa like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). He concentrates a great deal on Cotillard’s face and expects her to put across Ewa’s complicated emotions, but he doesn’t seem to have the right touch to draw this performance out with any consistency. She comes nowhere near to suggesting the transcendence of Falconetti or Joan—she’s a pretty girl who remains a bit of a cipher except in her desire for money through at least half of the film, though her apparent mastery of Polish and ability to act in that language was brilliant. Happily, Gray eventually hits the right notes and takes us on a tour of the inner dimensions of the immigrant journey.
“Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” This remark of Ewa’s is at the heart of what this film seems to want to say. It’s a somewhat controversial line in this age of discrimination, because, indeed Bruno, Ewa, and the other immigrants engage in pandering, prostitution, theft, and bribery—all actions that born Americans, particularly in 1917, would not welcome in the newly arrived. Yet, the film clearly illustrates that for many of the people we meet, these crimes are necessary because there is no other way to get by.
For all his seeming gallantry toward Ewa, Bruno has been hollowed out during his own life as an outcast, called a kike by the police who rob him and beat him to a pulp and unable to rise beyond the level of a pimp and fixer in part because of the psychological crippling of his lowly status. It makes sense that when Emil, the “pretty boy” who manages to get all the girls despite his lies and drinking, starts putting the moves on Ewa, Bruno goes crazy. The characters say that Bruno is madly in love with Ewa, but I think that’s a little too simple. She hasn’t escaped becoming his prostitute, after all, but she has something he desperately wants—love—something he has no power to give and no talent to inspire the way Emil does. Ewa clings to her quest to be reunited with her beloved sister, the person who has kept her going in their darkest hours, and eventually returns to the Catholic Church after what I imagine is a period of anger at God for the trials in her life. It is only after Bruno follows her to church and eavesdrops on her confession that he understands how much he has damaged her and makes a start at a redemption that Ewa herself is seeking from the priest (Patrick Husted). In their final scene together, Ewa finds her way to forgiving Bruno and giving him the affirmation he killed for, though it is more absolution for a dying man than a guiding light into the future, as Bruno is determined to pay for his crimes.
Phoenix, a Gray regular, offered up an interpretation of Bruno as a manipulator that Gray did not see when crafting the script, leading me to believe that Gray relies too heavily on his actors to bring their characters to life. Regardless, Phoenix’s choices are dead-on, offering a complicated view of a man who, perhaps, is the true title character of The Immigrant.
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The White Elephant Blogathon
Director/Coscreenwriter: Neal Israel
By Roderick Heath
I’m sure you can imagine my pride and excitement in being asked to participate in the White Elephant Blogathon. How I’ve longed to be ennobled by this most cherished of institutions for the online film scholar. For this auspicious event, I was, of course, expecting half-fearfully, half-excitedly, the films I would be assigned to watch, wondering what peculiar depth of cinematic atrocity or weird and mysterious lode of forgotten peculiarity might be assigned to me. Of the little list of films I received, one, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), is a film I’m already familiar with, and besides Marilyn had already written it up in her inimitable fashion. The first and most interesting-sounding one I was able to obtain from my other choices was the all-but-forgotten 1979 comedy Americathon. Directed by Neal Israel, who had previously made the fairly well-regarded speculative satire about the future of TV, Tunnelvision (1976), Americathon is not a film with a good reputation. In fact, it is considered an absolute abomination. One of my online friends told me it was the first film he ever walked out on—he was 8 years old. But still I could hope that whoever had chosen it for the blogathon wished some attentive and open-minded person could rehabilitate what they felt had been wrongly designated an infamous stinkburger.
There is perhaps no form of bad film more troubling than the bad comedy. The bad comedy resists the usual dialogue of viewer and filmmaker that other bad movies allow, which can sometimes make them fascinating, compelling, or just plain hilarious. When someone makes a bad horror film or scifi film, the viewer has the privilege of enjoying the disparity between intent and result—they can laugh at it. Whereas bad comedy is bad precisely because you cannot laugh at it. This failure inspires instead a sense of personal desperation. As jokes are mistimed and pratfalls land with a thud, bad comedy shames us. Why? Because it’s so closely related to good comedy. We wince with a sense of recognition at how before we’ve laughed at hoary gags, dusty joke set-ups, try-hard comedians desperate to be liked, and clichéd punchlines. We cringe in perceiving how thin the line is between cheeky deflation and juvenile nastiness, familiar mockery and snide impertinence. The experience stokes the worst possible association for us, making us remember those jokes we’ve told that no one laughed at, and worse, made people snort derisively at our lameness. A bad monster movie inspires a sense of fun, of camaraderie with the filmmakers who couldn’t do that much better than you under the circumstances. A bad drama thrills us with the spectacle of seriousness turned camp, the fine art of portraying raw humanity turned into the kabuki of ham glory-seeking. A bad comedy makes you want to hide from humanity.
And yet Americathon gave me some real laughs.
For about 15 minutes.
Americathon was adapted from a stage production written by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, who had earlier collaborated on the script of Zachariah (1971), a more admired genre mash-up. Americathon has a central comic idea that could have yielded comedic dividends, and fits in quite neatly amongst a mode of screen comedy that was pretty common in the ’70s and early ’80s, a mode that seemed aimed to create the cinematic equivalent of an animated Mort Drucker cartoon, teeming with excess detail in painting vast panoramas of general zaniness. This style required brash and vivid execution, exceptional comic timing, and lashings of satire, cynicism, and a knowing, encompassing attitude to pop culture driven by a freewheeling, carnival-like sense of Americana in fecund decline. This comedy style had roots in disparate influences of ’50s and ’60s hip comedy—MAD magazine, Terry Southern, Lenny Bruce, Gary Trudeau, Richard Lester, student stage revues and improv theatre, Frank Tashlin, Buster Keaton, Luis Buñuel, Woody Allen, Tom Lehrer, Yippie street theatre, Mel Brooks, etc. The great days of this style were certainly not in the past when Americathon was released: Steven Spielberg’s 1941 came out the same year, David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ Airplane! and John Landis’ The Blues Brothers a year later. The fact that a lot of these were made by Jewish filmmakers isn’t coincidental. Jewishness was cool in the ’70s, as if all America had suddenly caught up with the Jewish take on things (that’s director Israel there with the sign in the above picture).
The quality that makes a film like Airplane! hallowed and one like Americathon dispatched to ignominy is one of those mysteries of culture that if someone could distil and package it, would make them rich beyond Jack Benny’s wildest dreams. Americathon sets out to a bouncy soundtrack by the Beach Boys and quickly lays out a vision for America’s near-future from a perspective that acutely reflects the worries and fashions of 1979. It opens with scenes that are played for jaunty humour but that are clearly, in context, supposed to represent a mordant dystopian future: without petrol, cars have become homes, and hero Eric McMerkin (Peter Riegert) sets off to work surrounded by bicyclists and joggers on highways turned into communal tides—only now does it look like a green-left dream come true.
George Carlin narrates the film, supposedly the voice of Eric when he’s older and looking back on these events: Carlin’s wry delivery is very much the reason why I found the early part of the film amusing. Thus, according to Carlin, Jimmy Carter is quickly lynched for giving one of his infamously uninspiring TV speeches, “along with two or three of his snootier cabinet members,” in contemplating yet another energy crisis, and his successor, David Eisenhower (Robert Beer), abandons his post in favour of cavorting with a girlfriend on the beach. The country runs out of petrol in the mid-1980s and money not long thereafter. By 1998, the U.S. is bankrupt and has maxed out its credit from Native American magnate Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George) to the tune of $400 billion, who is finally calling in the bill.
The new president has one thing in common with Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt—his name. Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) is, as Eric tells us, a graduate of “ECT, Scientology, TM, and Primal Grope Therapy,” a blissed-out New Age dim bulb who’s has moved the seat of the presidency into a rented Californian house now referred to as the West White House. Chet’s campaign promise was, “I’m not a schmuck,” but he’s having trouble keeping it. One of Chet’s cabinet members resigns to protest his awful ideas for revenue-raising, like a raffle to sell off public monuments and national treasures, only for his protest to be met with a smarmy kiss-off from Chet. “Fear is just a boogeyman of your mind,” Chet retorts to warnings of the dire situation, “I believe in taking responsibility.”
Eric, an academic who specialises in understanding TV demographics, is called to the West White House to consult on the raffle, but Eric protests that raffles work badly on TV, comparing it to the effectiveness of telethons. Chet’s bright-eyed girlfriend Lucy Beth (Nancy Morgan) suggests that the government hold exactly that. Chet is, of course, delighted and sets the wheels in motion, giving Eric a cabinet position to run the event he dubs “Americathon.” But Chet’s advisor Vincent Vanderhoff (Fred Willard) tries to sabotage the project at every turn because he’s plotting with ambassadors from the Hebrab Republic, an Arab-Israeli superstate, to take over the foreclosed U.S. Failing that, they have an attack squad ready to wipe out the government leaders.
Americathon’s foresight is extremely patchy, but often notable, accurately conceiving a future China gone raving capitalist, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reconstruction of Vietnam as a resort destination, the emergence of vastly wealthy Native Americans, the further debasement of high office by the telegenic, reality TV, aspects of modern environmentalism, and even the once-unthinkable longevity of ’60s rock bands like the Beach Boys. The future China isn’t just capitalistic—it defeated the Soviet Union “in table tennis and a nuclear war,” and has become a fast-food empire. Its most popular export is the Chang Kai Chef Restaurant chain with its biggest seller, the Mao Tse Tongue on Rye. Sam Birdwater’s repeated crying-poor protests that “I have to eat, too!” in apologetically insisting on loan repayment have a ring that’s become ever more familiar in recent years from plutocrats. Nike’s greatest days were still ahead of it, but it was already well known enough for the film to spin a joke around, for Birdwater’s mighty conglomerate is called “National Indian Knitting Enterprises,” specialising in a raft of fashionable industries like running shoes and tracksuits. Whilst the popularity of sportswear and casual clothes hasn’t quite reached the point that Americathon suggests it would, where everyone wears it all the time (even the Americathon host wears a kind of evening dress tracksuit), this is one of the film’s subtler and more pervasive gags. And there are some other, rather less acute anticipations, like its vision of a great Jewish-Islamic imperial power, and its fascinating, very ’70s myopia when it comes to race and sex—the film’s reflexion of a crass and sexist future is inextricable from its own era’s fully subsumed crassness and sexism. Example: the Hebrab Republic is described as having been founded on the recognition of the Jews and Arabs of their common trait—“the hots for anything blonde with a tush.” The film’s vision of debased future TV culture involves a drag queen father (I think that one was ticked off somewhere around 1987).
Amusingly, Americathon was part-financed by West German investors looking for a tax shelter, which sounds like a plot point from the film, and gives some accidental substance to its theme of the American bodies politic, corporate, and cultural consuming each other to the enrichment of foreigners. One underlying theme of the drama is a basic, perpetual, peculiarly American anxiety that’s coexisted with the officially optimistic national spirit since the earliest days of the republic—the conviction that it’s all going to fall apart one day, undone by sloth, decadence, and hubris. Here that half-submerged, apocalyptic quality to the American outlook is filtered through common late ’70s concerns, some of them based in quite clear and present realities, like the oil embargoes, energy crises, and the near-bankruptcy of New York, that fed general disillusionment in the wake of Watergate. Post-apocalyptic scifi and futuristic dystopias were common sights on cinema screens in the period; Americathon merely takes the same building blocks and turn them into comedy, in much the same fashion as Dr. Strangelove (1964), to which it pays homage via Eric’s last name, which calls out to Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley. Moreover, the film’s absurdism certainly has likenesses to more recent variations on the same ideas, including Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) and “The Simpsons,” especially the episode which casts a grown-up Lisa as an assailed President. Americathon then doesn’t lack for a premise with potential.
Nor does it lack for conceits that could readily become black comedy gold, like the performance by a superstar thrown up by the newfound fortune and popularity of Vietnam, Mouling Jackson (Zane Buzby), who specialises in songs crammed with sadistic come-ons to Yankee running dogs, performed in front of a colossal Viet Cong recruiting poster. This sequence exemplifies the film’s apparent aspiration to match Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” sequence in The Producers (1967) for transcendently provocative bad taste, or a monument to insta-camp as aesthetic value like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). However, even early Brooks had more directorial skill for that sort of thing than Israel, whose TV sketch technique exacerbates the already lingering structural weaknesses apparent in the slipshod and unfinished transposition from the stage. The songs, which I presume are also imported from the stage version, are charmless. One reason the “Springtime for Hitler” or “Time Walk” episodes in their respective films work well is because they’re great tunes, whilst the songs in Americathon are third-rate pastiche. Vanderhoff ensures that the only acts Eric is supposedly allowed to put on stage are terrible—ancient vaudevillians, most of them ventriloquists. So not only are we facing unfunny comedy in these stretches, we’re also dealing with unfunny comedy about unfunny comedy.
Americathon’s narrative is supposed to spin out of control along with television programming as it reaches unforeseen levels of grotesquery once Eric, allowed by Chet to slip Vanderhoff’s leash, starts going for the jugular with ever more outlandish, attention-getting acts, debasing the audience even as it saves their country. This could have resulted in a black comedy of greatness. But this notion is frittered away even in the film’s already curtailed running time. Any real telethon contains more moments of lethal smarm, dropped guards, self-congratulation, exposed pathos, performative desperation, and self-satire than this film manages. Nor does it make much sense that such an outrageous and popular foreign act as Mouling is booked when the rest of the bill is supposed to be mind-numbing slop. Whilst Israel is happy enough with the free-roaming, vignette-laden silliness of the early scenes, enjoying regulation ’70s jokes like a bicycle ridden by a quartet of nuns, his capacity to film performance is atrocious, missing all the details provided by the choreographers by constantly having his camera or edits in the wrong place, as if someone has half-heartedly filmed a live stage performance. The film as a whole has a blank, dull, cluttered look, one that exemplifies the mercenary quality of lesser ’70s filmmaking, an aspect that accords well with the air of glorified television much of it has. The cinematographer was Gerald Hirschfeld, who did such a good job shooting Young Frankenstein (1974) that for a moment, Mel Brooks looked like a film aesthete. Here, Hirschfeld doesn’t seem able to assert any kind of discipline on Israel.
Once Eric does start playing for the cheap seats, he stages the destruction of the last working car in America, a spectacle of consumer outrage perpetrated by loony daredevil Roy Budnitz (Meat Loaf), and a boxing match between a mother and a son (May Boss and Jay Leno). But he balks when the chosen host of the telethon, Monty Rushmore (Harvey Korman), suggests an onscreen killing, and becomes increasingly detached from the show. Monty himself is a flailing ham who’s sunk from major film stardom to starring in that drag-queen sitcom: Vanderhoff signs off on him because he has a heart ailment and a major drug problem (he has a suitcase full of pills in every shade of the rainbow) and is likely to drop dead before the 30-day event is over. But Monty is determined to revitalise his career and power through, bitchily accosting Eric and molesting anything in a skirt on stage. Korman, so terrific for Brooks in Blazing Saddles (1974), is the arrhythmic palpitation at the heart of this film, struggling with lines that have pretences to hilarity but no actual wit, trying to invest his caricature with an edge of pathetic anti-heroism it cannot sustain. Worse, the film seems to think he has actual pathos. It’s a little like someone decided to play the Emcee of Cabaret (1972) as the empathic spirit of declining Weimar Germany rather than its septic id, or Gig Young’s Emcee from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) as comic foil. Similarly, the film can’t decide if Eric is a growing voice of wisdom and conscience, the wily nerd hero who saves the day with brains, or just another stooge, whilst his romantic subplot—Lucy, spurned by Chet, who falls instantly in lust with Mouling, gravitates instead to Eric—is mere window dressing.
This points to one of the biggest problems with Americathon, which is that is sets up some semblance of traditional plot and character arcs but fails to follow through. A major “plot” point like Chet and Mouling being kidnapped by Hebrab agents is resolved via voiceover in the concluding montage, whatever comedic or thematic value it was supposed to convey unfulfilled. Such sloppiness is not necessarily a great crime in comedy, which can thrive on narrative chaos, but in a film as hard-up for coherent focal points and genuinely inspired situations as that one, it really hurts. What few laughs the film wrings out of its later sections comes from throwaway vignettes, like the kid Chris Broder (Geno Andrews) who sets out to skateboard across America to raise funds, accompanied by his strict father (“On the fourteenth day, his father finally allowed Chris to stop for lunch”), and arrives to a heroic welcome on the Americathon stage, only to get a slapping and a shove back off by Monty when Chris announces he’s collected the grand total of $32.12. Other vignettes just seem a bit desperate, like a glimpse of the now U.S.-controlled United Kingdom where Number 10 Downing Street is now “Thatch’s Disco,” and Elvis Costello is the Earl of Manchester. Costello’s brief appearance is utterly random (although snatches of the guitar hook from his “Chelsea” constantly punctuate the film at unexpected moments), as if someone kidnapped him from the airport pretending to be a chauffeur, took him to the film set, and forced him to film a cameo for the sake of giving the film some actual cool. Costello tries to compensate for his limply patched-in status by lip-synching energetically to another of his songs before some apparently entertained tourists.
Whatever interest this film might hold today for most viewers would probably lie in its truly odd assortment of stars, many of whom are billed in TV fashion as making special appearances, like serious veteran thespian Opatashu, cunningly cast nonactor Chief Dan, a reputed Native American activist and tribal leader who had appeared in Little Big Man (1970), future faces like Leno, and stars of the moment like Costello and Meat Loaf, Cybill Shepherd as the gold-painted girl who appeals to the audience in Monty’s opening production, and the ill-fated Dorothy Stratten in a blink-or-miss role as a Playboy bunny. Riegert, on his way to becoming one of the quintessential “oh, him” faces of ’80s and ’90s movies, registers a general blank as Eric, though that’s equally the fault of what he’s given to work with. Ritter, once and future sitcom king, fares much better as the dimwit President, though his character is generally rendered too passive to be anything but a foil for others, like Buzby’s Mouling.
I’m not really sure if Buzby is great or awful playing a pop star who comes across a bit like young Marlon Brando playing a street punk stuffed into the body of a vaguely Asian woman. But she is fun, and certainly brings the biggest and most committed comedic performance by far to the film. She all but wrestles bodily with the celluloid to wring some humour from her one-note role as a lunatic who was voted “Most Likely to Take a Life” in her high school year book, insulting and humiliating the President before eagerly becoming his lover, and karate kicking the Hebrab agents who come to kidnap her. One last gag informs us that Chet and Vanderhoff settled their differences after Mouling left Chet for Warren Beatty, and both moved to Vietnam themselves where they founded a religion around the songs of Donna Summer. Now there’s a religion I could embrace.
So is Americathon as godawful as its reputation? Yes and no. The other tricky thing about humour is that it’s often so subjective. The flatly reductive definition many have of good comedy is, did it make me laugh? Well, I’ve seen other films that made me laugh less: on a laughs-to-running-time ratio, or even moreso on a laughs-to-budget ratio, I’d say, for instance, that several recent films, like Your Highness (2011) or The Lone Ranger (2013), delivered less. But comedy is subject to the same rules as other cinema genres: is it well made, well shot, well acted, vigorous in its use of form? In this regard, Americathon is a weak and shoddy work, a by-product from the end of a period when Hollywood was so desperate for galvanising talents, it took risks on hiring rank amateurs. Either way, the time for such cynicism was over: Reagan was a year away, and film critics were already doing some of his work by purposefully attacking dark and negative films—that sort of thing was so 1976.
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Director: Andrjez Munk
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Andrzej Wajda is arguably Poland’s best-known director, the much-revered chronicler of Nazi- and Soviet-occupied Poland with an honorary Academy Award under his belt and a slew of other recognitions from Cannes, Britain, Italy, and other parts of the cinematic world. While Wajda claims Luis Buñuel as his earliest inspiration, it is easier to see a resemblance between the scathing satire of Buñuel’s films and those of Andrjez Munk, a filmmaker whose life-ending car accident at the age of 40 foreshortened his film legacy and cast him into the long shadow of Wajda, his contemporary. Now, Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has brought Munk back into the spotlight with a new restoration of the director’s film in two movements: Eroica.
Riffing, no doubt, on Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the so-called “Eroica” (heroic) symphony in four movements, Munk’s two-movement “symphony” is only half as heroic: Scherzo alla polacca, referring to the brisk nature of the action, but also indicating, in a slang translation, “the Polish joke;” and Ostinato lugubre, indicating a persistent, mournful theme. Whatever heroism can be found in these two movements is strictly accidental, as the insanity of war is translated through the individual foibles of members of the Polish Uprising and Polish officers in a Nazi P.O.W. camp.
The main protagonist of the scherzo movement is Dzidzius Gorkiewicz (Edward Dziewonski), or “Babyface” to the women in his life. He is a member of the Uprising who might become an accidental hero near the end of WWII by sneaking in and out of Warsaw to try to broker a deal between the leaders of his organization and Hungarian forces who are willing to join with the rebels to drive the Germans out. Babyface’s first action, however, is to break from the ragtag group of volunteers flubbing their formations to call the drill sergeant’s attention to an aircraft descending to strafe them. When the clueless sergeant finally yells to his “troops” to take cover, Babyface walks off, unwilling to risk his life just to run inane drills. He heads for his home away from his abandoned apartment in Warsaw—a country house that he finds has been requisitioned by some Hungarian officers, one of whom (Tomasz Zaliwski) Babyface’s wife Zosia (Barbara Polomska) has given their room—though she continues to occupy the bed. The officer asks Babyface to accompany him outside, and fearing that he will be shot so that the officer can have Zosia, he runs into a curtain of clothes that hides a cannon. The officer offers to join with the uprising—cannons and all—if Babyface can square it with his superiors. Overjoyed that he is not to be shot, Babyface indulges in his favorite pastime—drinking with whomever is nearby. The scene ends with Babyface shoving a half-empty bottle of booze down the cannon barrel.
Walking through checkpoints, explosions, and gunfire with his off-white suit and glib excuses, Babyface seems a hapless freedom fighter indeed. He acts like someone who has been whisked from a vacation in Hawaii and dropped into a war zone: he keeps looking for the hula girls and the mai tais, and hopes to take advantage of every situation—drinking a case of booze he finds in a barn where his former sweetheart Jogodka (Zofia Czerwinska), codename “Blueberry,” is running a switchboard, trying to convince his fellows to take advantage of the Hungarian troops’ offer (“as long as they’re here”), and escaping from a group of townspeople being displaced while their German guards are chasing another escapee. The latter incident offers the movement’s most over-the-top burlesque, as Babyface, on orders from a Nazi officer, tries to carry an old woman’s (Eleonora Lorentz) bag, only to find it loaded down with heavy metal objects. As with most of the film, Dziewonski displays precise, comic movement as he buckles and weaves under the weight and then pays the old woman 5 rubles to leave it behind. Even more funny, she takes the money and then tries to lift the bag herself—as stubbornly unmovable as her bundle. If ever there was an illustration of “life goes on,” Babyface’s almost casual attitude to the insanity around him is it—ending with a decisive action of a personal nature that brings the battle of the sexes into the war.
The second movement is equally absurd, but more desperate in tone. The action begins with the arrival of a new group of captured Polish officers at a mountain P.O.W. camp. Lt. Kursawa (Józef Nowak), an amiable, gentle-looking officer of about 30 and Lt. Szpakowski (Roman Klosowski), a brash youngster who moved up the ranks as officers above him were killed, join a cell block with veteran officers who have been locked up for about five years. Space is available in the block because Lt. Zawistowski (Tadeusz Lomnicki) has become the only person to escape the camp in its history. Zawistowski is held up as a paragon of bravery and ingenuity by the men on the block, but only two of them know the truth: Zawistowki, learning that the Gestapo were about to get their hands on him, went into hiding in an empty boiler in the ceiling. Kursawa learns of their deception by accident, but joins in the effort to keep him alive and undetected while the lives of the other members of the block spiral into madness.
A fugitive from Grand Illusion, Lt. Krygier (Henryk Bak) is all about military protocol, wondering whether Szpakowski should be allowed to fraternize with officers and regurgitating the dictum that it is an officer’s duty to try to escape, something he and his toady, Lt. Dabecki (Bogumil Kobiela), have yet to attempt. He goads Lt. Zak (Józef Kostecki), half-mad at the impossibility of being alone in a quiet place, into attempting to escape. Zak successfully negotiates two rows of barbed wire in broad daylight while his fellow officers create a distraction, only to be grabbed by two women passing by the camp and returned to his hell hole. His failure seems to have been an inevitability for him, and he gives away the 1,000 cigarettes—valuable as barter currency—he won for completing the dare. He goes into a plywood box that looks like a half-finished latrine to retreat from his blockmates and slams the door, a tragicomic moment he repeats many times during the movement. As the curtain falls on this farce, Zak is the only officer who truly takes escape seriously.
Munk’s penetrating gaze sees the touching humor in the maze of human relationships that we all must negotiate, no matter the circumstance. The possibility that the Hungarian troops could join the Polish Uprising is quashed because the Russians moving into Poland won’t work with the Hungarians. Babyface is rueful about the weakness of flesh as he watches the woman he married out of lust be true to her nature; she’s a slut, says Babyface, but that’s her appeal. Zak, Zawistowki’s best friend, is kept in the dark about the deception because he’s too unstable—or perhaps he’d try to take Zawistowki’s place in the ceiling just to get away from the other men. Life goes on, Munk tells, us, but the things it does to us in its course will have us weeping through our laughter.
A word must be said about DP Jerzy Wójcik, whose widescreen work on Pharaoh (1966) was both epic in scope and yet quite intimate, a skill he certainly mastered with Eroica. I was enthralled by the way he filled the more traditional dimensions of this black-and-white film, creating a particular mise-en-scène that luxuriated in the stands of long grass as a fleeing man disappeared among the stalks, and communicated the cramped chaos of the cell block with bits of paper and clothes, objects crammed on ledges and hung on walls, and a small window with a sketch of the mountains framing it along the width of the room.
The performances of the ensemble casts were peerless. Dziewonski was a perfect everyman who certainly would have been a hippie if he had been in the right place at the right time. Kostecki had a Felix Ungerish prissiness to him, but underneath, his tormented, highly insulted soul gave him the kind of substance one needs from a tragic clown. Lomnicki, though he had only one real scene, gave a very moving description of his isolation—rather than complain about the physical challenges, he seemed more bothered by the darkness and loneliness, the inability to see his own face. He brought home the human toll of war economically and effectively.
Eroica is a black comedy that never forgets it’s also a war flick. It’s one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen.
Eroica is showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, May 25, and Wednesday, May 28. It’s perfect for this Memorial Day weekend.
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Director: Gareth Edwards
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Like many young boys, I was once a Godzilla freak. Worse, I was a perpetually frustrated Godzilla freak. For a long time, the only entry in Toho Studios’ banner series I had available to me was Godzilla 1985, the somewhat altered New World Studio recut of The Return of Godzilla (1984), at the time, Big G’s first film in 10 years. Godzilla 1985 was, however, a great place to start with the most famous of atomic monsters, because it stripped its iconic monster back to the force of nature and terror it had begun as in Ishiro Honda’s great 1954 original. That stature had been diluted and then erased through the ’60s and ’70s as Godzilla had been turned increasingly into a giant tag-team wrestler taking on motley foes in increasingly weak instalments. By the time of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), the lizard was delivering flying karate kicks and swapping high-fives with his robot buddy.
Toho’s revived series soon brought back the antagonists and continued until 2004, whilst in between came a film remembered by every scifi fan in fear and loathing, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998). Emmerich’s film wasn’t actually a Godzilla film, tossing out just about everything that separated him from his forebears (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1951) and progeny (The Giant Behemoth, 1956; Gorgo, 1960; every other kaiju eiga) to make him King of Monsters. Another Hollywood Godzilla movie had to make up for this betrayal. The man to try this proved to be Gareth Edwards, a filmmaker with a lone, low-budget work behind him: Monsters (2009), an inventive, intelligent if pedantic movie, turning the invasive mutant beasts that littered its North American hinterlands into broad metaphors for many a contemporary ill, including illegal immigration. Edwards’ evident skill was ripe for a richer canvas, and his Godzilla is his play for directorial megatonnage, whilst giving the vintage Toho franchise new life. The carefully hyped product has been generating excitement in everyone with the slightest glimmer of fondness for Godzilla, but it had its work cut out for it to stand out in the field of modern special-effects movie, like Cloverfield (2006) and Pacific Rim (2013), where cities are regularly levelled and colossal beasts are terrorising humankind.
Edwards, to his credit, makes all the right moves early on, kicking off with a clever opening credits sequence that moves from pages of Darwinian evolution to photos of mysterious happenings and monstrous phenomena around A-bomb test sites, real and fake grainy photos, with cast and crew names flashing on screen in swiftly redacted excerpts. Edwards gives signs early on that his playbook is inflected by Steven Spielberg as much as by Toho. What the rising crane shot to reveal a vista is to Spielberg, a peak into a vertiginous depth is Edwards, commencing with an impressive helicopter shot of a massive sinkhole in the midst of an open-cut mine teeming with antlike humans, a visually impressive and thematically keen vision of what’s to come. Scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are brought to the mine in the Philippines to behold an amazing discovery in the sinkhole—the bones of a colossal saurian skeleton with two strange pods in its chest cavity, one of which seems to have hatched recently and disgorged something large.
Meanwhile, in Japan, nuclear safety watchdog Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliet Binoche) are alarmed by strange seismic and electrical disturbances at the nuclear power plant where they work. Just as Joe begins shutting the plant down, something bursts into the sub-basement where Sandra and an inspection team are working, and releases a flood of radioactive smoke. Edwards wrings the climax of this sequence for high emotion, as Joe is forced to seal off a corridor, leaving Sandra and the other workers trapped, with Joe saying farewell to his wife through a pane of Perspex before she is sealed away forever.
The film jumps 15 years to find Joe, now a damaged, hysterical seeker of the truth, venturing into the quarantined zone around the destroyed reactor in search of old data. His and Sandra’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a bomb disposal expert just returned from active duty and reunited with his doctor wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and has long since written his old man off as a crackpot. Nonetheless, he ventures to Japan to bail him out, only to be promptly dragged back into the quarantine zone with him as Joe urgently tries to convince him of strange phenomena that portend another cataclysmic event, an event presaged by the mysterious absence of any radiation in the hot zone. Joe and Ford are captured by guarding soldiers and brought to Serizawa and Graham, who are keeping watch on a mysterious something buried in the ruins, the weird, crusty subterranean beast that caused the initial disaster and has now been growing fat and strong from absorbing all of the fallout. Of course, Joe and Ford’s arrival coincides just about exactly with the creature waking up and bursting out of its cocoon to wreak havoc. If you’re expecting this to be Godzilla, though, you’d be wrong, because this is rather a colossal, insectoid monster dubbed Muto—“Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism”—that pulverises everything in sight and spreads its wings to fly into the night.
I was bemused by some early reviews that criticising the film for taking too long to get to the monster stuff, because most of the time, critics (justifiably) bawl out modern genre films for being too quick at cutting to the chase. Edwards and screenwriter Max Bornstein spend a lot of time setting up a rigorously old-fashioned approach to their storytelling. There’s some nice humour and character moulding early on, like a great little scene in a Japanese police station where Ford waits for his father to be released, entertained by watching as a Goth girl is collected by chastising parents before catching sight of his old man, who looks out with a detectable mix of shame and gratitude to his son. Whereas even the ardent Pacific Rim skipped most of that stuff to revel in the fantastic world it created, this Godzilla goes for an old-school tempo of ominous suggestion, startling glimpse, and finally, grand reveal, in the same fashion as such great monster movies as Them! (1954) and Jaws (1975), as well as the original Honda film. The opening offers wrenching, mythic loss to invest Joe with pathos well suited to a hero in this kind of film, whilst providing a father-son redemption as its key human story pivot, pitching Joe as kin to Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s (1977) Roy Neary as a man driven to frayed extremes by tragedy and intimations of the new and terrifying, with a touch of Unabomber nuttiness to him, counterbalanced by his son’s tepid all-American rectitude (notwithstanding his being played by a British actor). Cranston, still riding the crest of a huge following from the TV series “Breaking Bad,” knows how to do edgy and irrational without losing gravitas and empathy, and his presence in the film feels at first like the film’s most inspired, galvanising choice. Unfortunately, Godzilla then does something rather stupid from which it never truly recovers: it kills Joe in a skywalk collapse during Muto’s hatching, leaving Ford to fill in as hero.
Losing its most (only, in fact) detailed and engaged protagonist, the rest of Godzilla feels unmoored in a subtle, but dogged fashion. Taylor-Johnson, a good actor who can play oddball heroes effectively (Nowhere Boy, 2010; Kick-Ass, 2011; Savages, 2012), is reduced to a veritable GI Joe figurine. The limits of Edwards’ Spielbergian mimicry, which extends to naming its main hero after one Spielberg hero and the actor who played another, becomes obvious if one were to compare the scenes of Roy Neary’s home life with those of Ford Brody’s, which are far less detailed, realistic, and vibrant. Ford and Elle never cease looking and acting like placeholders where finished characters might later be inserted, and Edwards cross-cuts in ungainly fashion between the pair in their disparate places as the action heats up, with Elle trying to stick out her healing job in the midst of calamity, but this and the final reunion of the family played for uplift remain weightless.
One motif, amongst many, the monster film shares in common with the disaster film is the need to find convincing ways to have core protagonists somehow manage to be in different places so as to witness the main points of action, but Bornstein’s script manages some awfully contrived methods to keep Ford in play. These include shoving him into the midst of havoc on Hawaii and then having him talk his way onto a squad wiring up and then dismantling a thermonuclear device in northern California. Moreover, the rest of Edwards’ excellent cast is generally left holding the bag. Watanabe is on hand to maintain the film’s Japanese connection, but spends most of the film looking vaguely stupefied, as if someone just slapped him with a fish. Hawkins has quite literally nothing to do except look gawky and worried. Notably, although the filmmakers have named Watanabe’s character after Akihiko Hirata’s troubled genius in Honda’s film, who embodied the position of the nuclear inventor dogged by guilt in creating a terrible weapon, Watanabe’s character has no real function other than to act as sagacious pronouncer (e.g. “Let them fight!” and “Nature will find a balance!”).
Rather than the firm antimilitarism of the early Godzilla films and their preference for scientists, journalists, and everymen as protagonists, this one makes sure to give us a resolute soldier hero straight from a recruiting poster, even if he is one who specialises in dismantling bombs rather than launching them. The film’s awkward subplot about crusty Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) trying to lure Godzilla and foes to an H-bomb to kill them provokes perhaps the film’s most affecting genuflection to the original, emblematic meaning of all this, as Serizawa questions his decision by handing him his grandfather’s watch, which stopped forever at the time of Little Boy’s drop on Hiroshima. It’s a nicely understated moment that lets both characters and film understand the totem as sufficient unto itself. But the film is really nice to Stenz and his reasoning and cops out of any serious contemplation of the place for nuclear deterrent in the 21st century. Nor even are Godzilla and Muto actually designated as creations of the Atomic Age; rather, they are explained as prehistoric life forms that evolved when the Earth was much more radioactive to live off that energy, and merely revived by a new energy source. This fuzzy take on the key motif behind the series could have been mitigated by a clear new take on the monsters as symbolic phenomena, but nothing really sticks—certainly nothing likely to stick in the mind of any eight-year-old with as much meaning as the chillingly apocalyptic moment in Godzilla 1985 when an atmospheric nuclear blast creates a miniature nuclear winter that revives a felled Godzilla.
Of course, asking for highly reasoned parables and good human drama from a colossal-budget Hollywood creature feature has its churlish side. Edwards has clearly put a lot of thought and effort to one essential aspect of his film—to return to his monsters the awe and mystique engendered by truly titanic scale and impact. Muto’s hatching is grand spectacle, whilst Godzilla’s first real appearance is left until halfway through the film, savouring every hint, sign, tremor and partial glimpse. His coming is marked by cataclysm that sublimates imagery from the 2004 tsunamis as he comes ashore on Hawaii, until suddenly the whole grand beast is revealed in classic fashion in an upward camera pan that tracks the monster’s body from toenail to brow, before Big G releases his trademark concussive roar. Even better is a later sequence in which soldiers speed to Yucca Mountain, where the second, still-filled Muto egg Serizawa and Graham recovered is now stored, with Serizawa having realised the first Muto is heading to reunite with its female sibling. Soldiers begin inspecting the installation, only to find the entire backside of the mountain has been ripped out by the newly hatched and even more colossal mate, now casually ambling toward Las Vegas like a grumpy, loping teen after its first morning coffee. DP Seamus McGarvey’s images are all smoky, foggy, artfully ragged: Godzilla’s landfall at the Golden Gate Bridge—that perpetually unlucky structure!—creates at least one truly beautiful image, of the monstrous antihero striding away from the shattered bridge in a rainy morning mist. Another visually striking, if logically dumb scene has Ford and other soldiers inspect a rail bridge to see if their transport can cross it, only to realise a Muto is lurking in the shadows of the gorge it crosses, at once impersonal and blank in its scale and terribly immediate and minutely watchful in its predatory awareness.
Edwards maintains a rigour toward his monsters, perhaps trying to not oversate the audience as he builds a series of crescendos and diminuendos, bringing his visions of the monsters to the edge of declarative view, but then often dodging or averting his gaze. Sustaining this quality, too, seems to have been paramount in the minds of Edwards and his FX team, as they play with how the audience sees the beasts, from the distant, abstracting authenticity of cable news broadcasts to the swooping, fearsome perspective of parachutists falling in between the squirming bodies and snapping jaws of the monsters. Edwards is so determined to lend intangible, almost religious wonder to Godzilla that he explicitly likens it to the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by playing György Ligeti’s “Requiem” during the parachuting sequence, a sequence that is the film’s most strikingly staged but also about half an hour later than it should in the scheme of the film. Frankly, this evasive approach is impressive the first half-dozen times or so, but after a while, it starts to get irritating, reminiscent of the frustrating distance the first Transformers (2007) had from its nominal protagonists, as if the filmmakers had failed to really think through how to use their special effects in a dramatic way, a failing never committed by Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen. This leads me to the singular thought I had in contemplating this Godzilla: it’s a monster movie for people who don’t like monster movies.
That might seem a strange comment for a film as devoted to the spectacle of giant lizards and bugs scrapping in downtown San Francisco as this one, but it stuck with me because the overall film is so pensive, so evasive in its approach to its raison d’etre. Pacific Rim, a film that stands heads and shoulders over this one for me in most respects, succeeded in providing thunderous effects and cleverly meshing them with its human drama, though admittedly it was easier there because the fate and will of the human characters was tied to their robot simulacrums directly engaged in action with their foes. And it was also beautiful to look at, resplendent in its hallucinatory colours, in a mobile manner sharply different to this film’s oblique aestheticism, which threatens at many points to become ponderous, especially with Edwards’ stop-start approach to action. Edwards has a great eye for big compositions and for depicting mass drama, like an awesome high shot of a highway clogged with cars and a downed airliner lying smouldering amidst the vehicles, suggesting the meeting place of Godard’s Week-End (1967) and the monster movie. Yet, like a lot of contemporary filmmakers who turn their hand to this sort of thing, the type of simple, shot-for-shot visual exposition required to gain more intimate entry into chaos and stage dynamic interpersonal action is lacking, like a late, awkwardly rushed scene in which Ford tries to incinerate the Mutos’ eggs. When the Mutos first converge on San Francisco, Edwards offers stunning shots of the duo clambering over the tops of skyscrapers, culminating in a charmingly odd moment where the two seem to kiss and one gives the other a meal—a nuclear weapon. But several minutes later, it shows dimwit office workers still caught by surprise as the monsters careen into their building.
On the other hand, Edwards knows how to sharpen his effects to a point for some powerful, climactic moments, as in the finale’s cunningly delayed introduction for his most salient gift, his ability to spit plumes of blue radioactive flame, in a manner carefully contrived to reduce every fan to tears of joy. Edwards and company visualise this as a literal build-up, the spines on Big G’s tail starting to glow, and then the glow rushing forward in a long arc on its back, disappearing into murk and then back again, before it opens its mouth and lets loose. It’s a great fillip of fan service not just because the effects are good, but because it’s staged with relish and visual acuity. And whilst Edwards seems weirdly shy of letting the Godzilla-Muto death match take centre stage, when it does, it’s satisfying, as Big G lets loose with every limb, including its tail, to wallop its enemies, whilst the two Mutos come close to taking him down when they double-team it. One shot of a wounded Godzilla, collapsed in pain and exhaustion, with Ford barely metres away from its colossal snout, captures the disparity between two life forms and also their weird accord as dusty, battered, battle-hardened warriors. There’s a flash here of peculiar poetry, the kind that gives this Godzilla some of the stature it craves. Of course, by the end of the film, Godzilla itself arises with perverse heroic stature, a living embodiment of a channelled, but not tamed power fantasy, even as it stomps out of shattered ruins and disappears back into the ocean, still primal and strange in its individual might, as a TV news title declares it “The King of Monsters.” Yes it is, even when its films are only princelings. It’s still a good night at the movies.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard
By Roderick Heath
One of the storied events of film history, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) swiftly gained a reputation as a revolutionary moment in how movies were watched and made. Released in close company with Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (both 1959), Breathless surpassed them in establishing the New Wave as a radical aesthetic, a hip posture, an anti-cliché about to become a new norm. The New Wave directors became media darlings for a time, a perverse position for a bunch of young artists, mostly male, who had defined themselves through opposition to the status quo in art, politics, and commerce. Godard’s marriage to Anna Karina, a young actress, model, and singer he had elevated to movie stardom in his follow-up work, The Little Soldier (1960), even made the covers of celebrity magazines in France. Breathless was a deeply sarcastic take on the gangster film as ransacked by Godard’s peculiar aesthetic and intellectual sensibility, colliding genre motifs with pop art’s method of self-conscious quotation and ironically realistic contrasts. The Little Soldier essentially rewrote his debut in more immediate political terms, only to be banned and released well out of sequence in Godard’s development, and for critics at the time, it helped to muddy that development.
Une Femme est une Femme, Godard’s third work, was then released well before The Little Soldier. The film struck many as a comparatively messy and minor by-product of the director’s fearsomely intelligent, but contradictory impulses, with his habits of genre remixing and existential inquiry in full flower, as well as a sour auto-critique of the sudden, new-found stardom and opening doors for the movement. Certainly, as Breathless wrestles with the uneasy relationship between Godard’s love of film’s gaudy lies and his sense of life and honesty, Une Femme est une Femme explores the same territory, but more intimately: part send-up of Hollywood musicals, part valentine to them, with the flashy but distanced regard of pop art, it’s also a deeply personal and abrasive take on young love and a celebration of Godard’s fresh adoration of his leading lady, Anna Karina. Indeed, Une Femme est une Femme feels, even more than Breathless, like a film other directors tried to make dozens of times over in the following 10 years without quite getting the point. Godard litters the film with sight gags and bits of comic business that suggest he’s randomly spliced in scenes from silent slapstick films and random spritzers of Frank Tashlin, inventing an attitude of free-form zaniness which would define much Swinging ’60s cinema.
But Une Femme est une Femme is far more sardonic than its progeny, made clear enough from the opening minutes, as Karina’s character, Angela Récamier, stalks Parisian streets with Michel Legrand providing a floridly jaunty pseudo-Hollywood score, only for the music to cut out constantly, as if coming from a record player with a loose cable somewhere, leaving only casual street noise audible. This proves a boldly Brechtian touch, and Godard continues to work variations on this notion, having scenes unfold in everyday fashion and then suddenly rupturing the texture by having his characters break into bits of comic business—self-conscious absurdity alternating violently with kitchen-sink realism. The Paris on screen isn’t the pretty wonderland of An American in Paris (1951) or Can-Can (1958), even in this, Godard’s first colour film; shot in the Strasbourg–Saint Denis area, it is cramped, dirty, almost lugubrious, but also entirely alive, vibrantly organic, a place where people, not advertising placards live.
But Angela states her wish to act in a musical starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and she and her fellows constantly pose and playact as if about to turn their lives into one. Angela first appears strolling past shop windows in a blazing-red umbrella hat that looks just like a prop for a Technicolor musical. She walks into a café, plays Charles Aznavour on the jukebox as if to provide the scene with a ready-made score, then hurries off, delivering a quick wink to the camera, putting in play Godard’s subsequent, constant blows at the fourth wall.
Angela quickly runs into her boyfriend, Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), in a news agency, where Émile amuses himself by recommending books to a couple of young boys, who scoff at his selection: “Have you got anything more . . . sexy?” they ask, summarising Godard’s wry understanding of popular audiences in one quip. Angela thumbs through a book on childbearing, and it becomes apparent that the couple are seeing each other for the first time after a row, and indeed, the film depicts one long period of turmoil in their lives, albeit turmoil they keep trying to turn into antics.
Angela next meets her and Émile’s mutual pal Alfred Lubitsch (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who has a crush on her and engages in constant, glib flirtation. Angela finally makes it to her job, which involves singing and dancing, but in a strip club: Raoul Coutard’s cinematography abruptly drops handheld camerawork for swooping, room-scanning tracking shots, gliding through this fleapit wonderland with romantic zest, noting sexy performers and grimy old cleaners equitably, with careful use of coloured costumes that shout out to Vincent Minnelli. A pianist seated in the corner sees Angela come in and strikes up an appropriate musical theme. Angela’s joie de vivre and a little tacky showbiz craft—she dons a sailor costume and bathes under three-colour light—turn the club into a cheery place of transformative energy. This, Godard’s cleanest and cleverest joke, is a mere set of cuts between Karina advancing on the camera as she commences her song just like a musical heroine, and then switching to her viewpoint, which reveals the grimy dive and its bemused and seedy patrons perceived in all their depressing smallness. “Works of art are the 40 days of Nature’s glorious existence,” one of Angela’s fellows quotes to her from the book she’s reading, and Angela shrugs, getting on with her own version of art as glorious existence, no matter how stymied.
New Wave icon Jacques Demy made his famous musicals in a key of earnest largesse with a subtle overtone of worldly realism, rather than the sarcasm Godard constantly wields here. He described his efforts as trying to create a “neorealist musical,” but Une Femme est une Femme never actually becomes the musical it threatens. Much of the film is actually devoted to a series of skittish, emotional engagements between Émile and Angela, something at which Godard, from the long bedroom chat in Breathless through to the epic freeze-out session in Le Mepris (1963), was proving himself a master, with Brialy’s sharply handsome, slightly hawkish face betraying Émile’s boding aggravation with his lover.
At their apartment, Émile finally learns what seems to be bugging his flighty mate: she wants a baby, “in the next 24 hours,” but he’s saving himself for a big bike race on the weekend. This comic explanation partly obscures Émile’s sexual detachment from Angela exactly when she’s feeling what seems, to the male viewpoint, an arbitrary yet overwhelming desire for a child, a desire from which Émile instinctively shrinks. The couple’s bickering becomes so critical that at one point they cease talking, and so begin conversing rather through the covers of books they pluck from their shelves. Finally, the couple only half-joke when they ask Alfred if he’ll do the work of impregnating her, whereupon he quips, “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy.” This is Godard’s second mission statement, as he seeks to muddy the waters of genre and reception: a variation on it is spoken later, this time amended to, “I don’t know if this is a comedy or a tragedy, but it is a masterpiece.”
Another of Godard’s overtly Brechtian stunts sees him pan his camera back in forth in a slow arc, surveying the apartment whilst Angela and Émile sit in an embrace during a lull in their storm, with words explaining the inner purpose of their actions and the nature of their predicament (“It’s because they love each other that things will go wrong for Émile and Angela.”) flashing on screen. This gives their motivations rather more depth than their picayune actions would indicate, absolving them of being mere stereotypes and rather suggesting their game is more dangerous emotionally than we think: each message confirms they love each other, whilst also warning that they’re excessively cocky in regards to each other because of that love. Godard’s strong romanticism is the secret lode of Une Femme est une Femme, coexisting with and battling his ruthless analysis and overpowering male gaze turned on Karina. “Men are such cowards,” one of Émile and Alfred’s female friends comments with jocular incision. “It makes up for the nastiness of women,” Alfred ripostes.
The film’s title is both leitmotif and punchline, harkening to a brand of gendered mod comedy popular around the time, reducing Karina’s “femaleness” to a series of pop art identifiers and then wringing them dry. Just as Alfred presents a potential third corner to the relationship of Angela and Émile, so his name suggests another intersecting cinema tradition—the light and deceptively frothy sex comedies of Ernst Lubitsch. In Lubitsch as well as in many musicals, the hope of the Shakespearean pastoral is raised, where relationships can begin, end, or transform according to natural whims in zones where social laws don’t much matter; Godard dangles this hope before his heroine even while suggesting the danger in the world she actually lives in.
Nonetheless, exasperated by Émile, she does finally turn to Alfred. Angela and Alfred’s hook-up is, nonetheless, a glum and cross-purposed meeting in a café, where Alfred tells a joke that comments on Angela’s imminent infidelity. They both descend into reverie whilst listening to another Charles Aznavour song, the usual kinetic rush of a musical sequence here turned into a static, eddying emotional impasse. “What must I do to prove I love you?” Alfred asks, and suggests banging his head against a wall; when Angela hesitates, he leaves the café, crosses the street, and does just that. Angela rushes off to make Émile’s lunch, but tells Alfred that she’ll signal to him by lowering their apartment’s external awnings whether she’ll be coming back to him or stick with Émile. Alfred waits outside, but sees the awnings slide up and down in confusion.
Godard sends Angela into her seemingly inevitable transgression with Alfred, whilst Émile angrily searches for her without success. When he finally gives up, he picks up a hooker to expiate his anger. Looking at the prostitute lolling in a shot patterned after Henri Matisse’s work (Matisse earlier is glimpsed in TV documentary Angela watches) of sensual beauty with enfolding reds and blues and converging, clashing patterns surround beautiful flesh, Émile has an epiphany, as he decides, “We’re intolerant, and we’re evil.” Thus, Godard sets up his narrative to end on a joke, as Émile can’t really get angry at Angela for sleeping with Alfred, and indeed her purposeful action finally forces him to cover up his lack and sleep with her, too, just to spiritually, if not literally, impregnate her. The film ends on a French, almost Serge Gainsbourg-esque pun as Émile mutters that Angela is “infâme” (vile), and she responds, whilst grinning at the camera, “no, I’m une femme.” It’s a calculated travesty of the leave-’em-laughing final note of many a buoyant comedy even as it mimics them and the film’s contrapuntal mood behind the official grins and hipster loucheness reveals it to be a contemplation of the sorts of stupid things young lovers do to each other. Godard also conducts an invasive enquiry into what exactly defines women, or rather, his woman: when Émile confronts Angela after her return from Alfred, Godard’s handheld camera becomes Émile, darting and looming as she’s interrogated, the camera gaze becoming the inescapable, probing perception of a man who can grasp everything but the essence of what he loves.
In spite of the serious underpinnings and the acerbity of the aesthetic, Une Femme est une Femme is perhaps Godard’s funniest film, with a wit and a sense of rubbery good humour throughout that’s light years away from the director’s subsequent shift into oft-didactic art. Sight gags and meta-humour abound throughout, most of it feeding into Godard’s overall approach, as Belmondo mentions his pal Burt Lancaster and chats with Jeanne Moreau in a bar, asking her how shooting on Jules et Jim is going. Karina chats with a friend played by Marie Dubois, star of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), who mentions she’s reading, yes, Shoot the Piano Player, but gives the title in charades rather than words, whilst Godard accompanies her gestures with sound effects.
Vivre sa Vie, Godard’s immediate follow-up, by contrast, couldn’t seem more different at first glance. Even shorter than Une Femme and shot in black and white, it is a spare, bleak, tough-minded portrait of a heroine making choices that will destroy her, almost entirely lacking humour. And yet, Vivre sa Vie has a similar metre and meaning to its title, stating its heroine’s wilful agency, even as it begins to interrogate it. The film also displays Godard’s continuing, transfixed interest in Karina, casting her again as a frustrated actress falling into seamy circumstance, this time as a prostitute. If there’s a sophomoric quality to Godard’s anarchism in Une Femme redeemed by his great skill, a similar pretence is detectable in Vivre sa Vie’s determinedly sober artistry, but again transfigured by Godard’s rapidly evolving cinematic sensibility.
Where the overt politics of The Little Soldier got Godard in trouble, in these two films he introduces such perspective almost randomly: Angela and Émile’s flat is suddenly searched by cops who object to their reading a leftist newspaper, and in Vivre sa Vie the heroine flees the scene of a gun battle between Algerian terrorists and authorities. Thus, violence and suspicion are backdrop to both dramas. Vivre sa Vie is divided into 12 episodes, each one preceded by a chapter title that announces the upcoming events in a manner reminiscent again of Brecht, but also harking back to the 18th-century novel. Such harkening formalism declares Godard’s shift into a new, more analytical form of drama, whilst the visual language shifts again, sometimes fragmenting into sharply edited, photo-essay-like compositions, or distanced cinema verite study.
The opening sequence, depicting the break-up of Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Karina) and Paul (André S. Labarthe), finds them seated at a bistro counter with their backs to the camera, faces only partly visible as they converse. The archness of the conceit is mitigated by the precision with which it depicts the alienation and anonymity of the two, and sharpening awareness of gestures, as when Nana touches Paul’s head in consolation. Nana (named for Emile Zola’s courtesan heroine) resents Paul’s indifference to her ambitions and inability to make her feel special, a need that simmers beneath Nana’s desire to become an actress. The two reach an impasse in conversation and so play the most forlorn game of pinball in cinema history, as Paul recounts the content of an essay written by a young student of his teacher father: “A bird is an animal with an inside and an outside. Remove the outside, there’s the inside. Remove the inside and you see the soul.” The peculiar, childish metaphysics of this tale echoes through the rest of the film as it strives to comprehend Nana’s soul via exteriors.
Nana leaves Paul and their young child and gets a job working in a record store, but finds supporting herself difficult—she’s locked out of her apartment and bundled away by pals of the landlady when she can’t pay her rent. The precision of baseline economics is portrayed as Nana’s rent problems are caused by the absence of a friend she loaned 2,000 francs to, and that she tries to borrow off another friend in a kind of perpetual displacement of debt. Godard signals his connection to, and perspective on, Nana when he shows her in a darkened movie theatre, wrapped up to the point of tears in watching Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). This scene works on several simultaneous levels. It’s Godard showing off his immediate inspiration and cinematic memory. It’s a depiction of Nana’s soul, inverted by becoming lost in an artwork, and a portrait of her desire to achieve the same transfixing power as Falconetti on the screen. It’s an auguring of Nana’s fate, confirmed as, late in the film, silent film titles like those in the Dreyer film begin to flash on screen in place of dialogue.
Nana hooks up with a publicist and a photographer who takes portfolio shots of her, both of whom essentially offer a cost-free bed for the night. Finally, she’s arrested after an altercation with a woman over some dropped money. This brush with criminality presages her slide into prostitution, communicated with brilliant concision as Godard moves from regarding prostitutes from the viewpoint of a “normal” person riding in a car, to Nana herself treading the footpath, hunched in pensive expectancy, designated by her dress as a low-rent streetwalker. Godard repeats the scanning shots of waiting hookers, but now from Nana’s closer perspective, every face a study in thwarted and damaged interiors via bored, lacquered, anticipating exteriors.
The telling contradiction of Vivre sa Vie is that it was Godard’s most coolly stylised and intensely composed film to that point, and also his most deeply felt, perhaps the most immediately emotional of his career. No accident, either, it was borne of the direct and painful tensions in Godard and Karina’s marriage, as she had almost left Godard after an affair with an actor and then purportedly attempted suicide after his stormy reaction. Godard’s vow to create a true tragic vehicle for her talents produced Vivre sa Vie, but it didn’t satisfy Karina’s desires. Indeed, it could be called an anti-tragedy, consciously cutting away catharsis and questioning the usual linkages that define the actions in tragedies. Transforming Karina from the iconic, wilful coquette of Une Femme into a tragedienne with a Louise Brooks bob, Godard is fetishizing his wife, but also trying, in that neurotic manner of men throughout history, to know his woman by looking to some primeval essence, and falling short. Thus, Une Femme and Vivre sa Vie are two sides of the same coin. Godard suggests Nana has a crisis of her interior life, and is attracted to the idea of being an actress to experience a multiplicity of identities and make up for the mundaneness of her actual being, whilst several characters remark on her propensity for parroting the statements of others. But she’s also convinced that action entails nature and self-direction, hence the title: “I turn my head, I am responsible…I forget I am responsible, but I am.” Godard casts sublime doubt on the notion, noting the random and externally imposed demands that force Nana’s hand, especially once she surrenders autonomy to inhabit the role of prostitute.
The film’s most discomforting scene comes when Nana picks up her first john: Godard nervelessly follows the pair as they get a room in a seamy hotel, negotiate price, and go through all the niceties, whereupon the client clasps Nana in an embrace and tries to kiss her, but she resists, her anguish plain amdist the man’s frenzied invasion of her being. Nana soon encounters Yvette (Guylaine Schlumberger), an old friend who also has become a prostitute after her husband’s impoverishment and imprisonment. Nana meets Yvette’s pimp, Raoul (Saddy Rebbot), and though Yvette gives Nana a contact to work in a decent brothel, Raoul convinces her to join his stable. Godard zeroes in on Raoul’s capacity to play proxy boyfriend as he depicts Nana watching Yvette and Raoul playing at the same pinball machine she and Paul were at earlier. Indeed, Nana half-consciously gives herself over to this idea, even after she’s seen Raoul’s ledger with each of his girls’ earnings laid out, in part because Raoul readily coddles her desire to be seen as special, even in this profession. Nana’s initiation into true professionalism, and Raoul’s confidence, is suggested obliquely during a montage showing Nana’s work, whilst Raoul answers her questions about the business with the dry data-recounting style of a documentary voiceover. Soon, Nana is confident in her role, even released, as she easily directs the men who come to her and adapts her act to the needs of the moment.
Godard opens the film rather differently to his usual pop-art, billboard-like flashes, photographing Karina’s face from shifting angles like a studious profiler. Throughout the rest of the film, however, her face is often obscured, sometimes in shadow, or with her head turned three-quarters away from the camera, reduced at times to a mere walking hairdo. Framings are often oblique, bodies and faces arranged at their edge—other actors are repeatedly subsumed in the same way. Only Karina is allowed to dominate any shot, to be the single face, except for the young man who is the object of her desire. People become abstractions or exiles in their own little spaces very easily in this cinematic lexicon. The early scene in the record store where Nana works is done in one long shot that continues well past when the nominal actions it describes ends, scanning the nondescript world beyond the shop whilst Nana listens to another shopgirl read a vivid piece of romantic schlock in a pop magazine full of dramatic epiphanies.
One long scene describes the limit of Nana’s new “success” as she wanders the halls of a hotel to find another hooker to join a threesome with a john in a bleak, miniature odyssey through vertiginous-walled corridors where anonymous faces disappear behind anonymous doors for carnal pleasures glimpsed as studied postures. In the end, she finds herself left out when she brings in the other girl, so settles down to smoke a cigarette and await the client’s pleasure. That Nana is still, in essence, a frustrated performer is made doubly clear as Raoul meets to talk with some business acquaintances in a pool room: bored and itching to be centre of attention, she prods the men, and one good-naturedly gets up to perform a piece of vaudevillian mimicry that gives her a laugh. She then starts dancing around the room, ostensibly trying to prompt a reaction from Raoul, but actually for the benefit of a good-looking young man (Peter Kassovitz) playing by himself at the pool tables. Nana is at once peculiarly transcendent here, painting the seedy place and circumstance with her joie de vivre, and also pathetic, using up her essence to be left floundering.
Nana encounters an aged philosopher in a café (played by Godard’s own intellectual mentor Brice Parain), who happily engages Nana in discussion about various existential quandaries. “Love is a solution—but only if it’s true,” he tells Nana, obliquely warning her to beware of convenient substitutes and untruths, after recounting Porthos’ demise from Dumas’ Twenty Years After, crushed by a weight after being paralysed by the sudden onset of self-awareness that severs his hitherto instinctual survival capacity. The implication of Parain’s quote for the drama as a whole is fascinating, as it suggests that mere survival, the business of getting through the day, is still what keeps most folks functioning. As long as Nana obeys that logic, she prospers. When she resists it, she comes to grief. Somewhere between Godard’s vignettes, the handsome young man becomes Nana’s lover and is rediscovered sitting about her apartment reading Poe to her, an excerpt from The Oval Portrait in which a man gazes longingly at a portrait with the fiendish need to get beyond the image’s taunting beauty. This is one of those classic moments of relevant irrelevance Godard was so fond of, where another variety of artwork is suddenly privileged in cinema’s usually remorseless love of itself, and provides self-commentary on Godard the portraitist, creating his artwork and destroying his love object.
Godard takes this likeness literally as he sets up Nana’s death. Raoul suddenly sells her to some gangsters in exchange for a sum of cash, his justification being that she’s been turning down too many clients. But the handover goes awry, as Raoul realises he’s been underpaid, whilst the gangsters seem fairly eager for a reason to gun him down. Nana is quite literally caught in the middle as Raoul uses her as a human shield: one of the gangsters’ bullets hits her, and then Raoul shoots her himself, seemingly deliberately, and flees, leaving her sprawled on the road. Coutard’s camera tilts down a bit, as if to register shock and desolation, and then cut to black: that’s a wrap. This end is both deeply distressing and blindingly fast, a terrible demise for a woman so full of “life to live,” brought low by her own supposed choices, but finally used up as a pawn. But there’s also Godard’s dispassionate disassembly of genre here, too. Having rejected the original ending he came up with as middling, he went for full-bore tragedy, but then subjected that idea to a radical shift: Nana’s death is almost offhand, the fate of a peasant and plaything, a victim of human commodification and her own sublimation of it. Godard creates his Joan of Arc, but rather than give her the glorious martyrdom of auto-da-fe, leaves her like rubbish in the street.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jerzy Kawalerowicz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema has come to Chicago. The Gene Siskel Film Center is presenting most of the 21 films, curated by Mr. Scorsese and restored with the help of his Film Foundation, now through July 3 as part of the traveling show that audiences in 18 lucky cities (so far) in the U.S. and Canada will have a chance to view. Pharaoh, an Academy Award nominee, is a film that, up to now, has been treated very poorly. The long, rather slow film has been available almost exclusively in truncated, dubbed, or faded versions and as hard to see, even in a bastardized version, in Poland as it has been in the rest of the world. The new DCP version reveals the majesty of this adaptation of Bolesław Prus’s late 19th-century novel about the fictional Ramses XIII at the fall of the 20th dynasty and New Kingdom of Egypt. Although I can’t be sure, the story appears to be based on the reign of Ramses VIII, a pharaoh who ruled for no more than two years and about whom almost nothing is known—the perfect blank canvas for a writer whose complaints about the authenticity of most historical novels allowed him to provide the best available information about ancient Egypt at the time without needing to worry in the least about being accurate about his characters.
In what is surely one of the best prologues to a film I’ve ever seen, the opening credits roll over a parched patch of earth as the clashing, atonal score of Adam Walachinski sounds. The portentousness of this introduction finally resolves as a pair of dung beetles push a round turd from one side of the screen to the other, battling to possess it. A functionary’s face rises into the frame, and he runs the length of several regiments to the high priest Herhor (Piotr Pawlowski) to inform him that the sacred scarabs are in the direct line of the advancing troops. Herhor orders the troops to go around the beetles to avoid trampling them, to the protests of Ramses (Jerzy Zelnik) and the despair of a Hebrew slave (Jerzy Block) who spent 10 years digging a canal that Herhor now tells the troops to fill in so that they can advance. This opening perfectly communicates on both symbolic and literal levels the clash between governmental and religious leaders, the latter a frequent whipping post for director Kawalerowicz, as well as the puniness of their struggle in the face of the vast, uncaring forces of nature and history.
Ramses is a young, ambitious man who craves his own military command and the chance to wrest control of Egypt from the priests who have both the confidence of his parents, Osiris-Ramses XII (Andrzej Girtler) and Nikotris (Wiesława Mazurkiewicz), and control of a vast cache of gold held in the temple labyrinth for a “time of great need.” Ramses has modern ideas, believing in science and in using the gold to better the lives of ordinary Egyptians and pay for a first-rate military force to help Egypt regain its stature and power on the world stage. Instead, he must go to Dagon (Edward Raczkowski), a sleazy Phoenician merchant, to borrow enough money to pay the soldiers to whom he rashly promised bonuses. Thus, when Ramses XII dies, the stage is set for a power struggle between the new pharaoh and the priests.
Pharaoh provides a heady mix of stunning visuals and set pieces that bring this ancient world of sand and superstition vividly to life, while at the same time concentrating on its intimate human drama with an expositional style that has much in common with Shakespeare’s works—indeed, the scene with Dagon seems almost directly lifted from The Merchant of Venice. Contrasting it with C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which was reviewed below by Rod, is a useful exercise because Pharaoh actually conflates its story with the story of Passover while making obvious reference to the Nazi Holocaust to form a continuum of Jewish suffering that, while much more understated, actually packs a powerful punch.
Whereas DeMille, the grand showman, created a world so fantastical that his film is a legend in its own right, Kawalerowicz creates an almost alien and primitive world in which the power of myth and ritual is real and rather terrifying. The entrance of Ramses XII to court is handled with great chanting and solemnity, his every move as stiff and controlled as a hieroglyph. A complete believer in his own place in the divine line of Egyptian pharaohs and thus seeing the priests as enablers of his strength, he puts down young Ramses’ earthly concerns about being denied a military command with a simple, but crushing authority that the heir to the throne, no shrinking violet himself, cannot oppose. Ramses XII’s final ritual—his burial—is a dread affair, with female mourners leading the procession down a passageway to his tomb with wrenching wails, turning to face the walls to allow the funeral bier to pass them as a downward shot lends a claustrophobic angle to the scene; while we do not see these retainers locked in the tomb to serve their lord in the afterlife, the implication is there.
At the same time, Kawalerowicz takes pains to suggest that the priests are charlatans. After the opening scene, Ramses meets Sarah (Krystyna Mikolajewska), a beautiful Jewish slave who came out to the desert to see the army, and has her brought to the palace as his mistress. She gives birth to a son who, during Ramses’ absence, she names Isaac at the insistence of the priests. With this evidence of his son’s Jewishness, Ramses demotes Sarah to servant of Kama (Barbara Brylska), the priestess-mistress chosen for him by the priests, who seduced him in her temple by appearing and disappearing as if by magic (or, if you prefer, cinematic magic tricks).
Later, when the Egyptian people are induced by Ramses to storm the temple labyrinth, Pentuer (Leszek Herdegen), a prophet sympathetic to Ramses, tells him that an eclipse of the sun is about to occur. Herhor mounts the high wall of the temple labyrinth and stretches his arms to the sky, and the day goes dark. While the populace panic, screaming and running from the scene or digging in the sand to try to hide themselves, Ramses reminds himself to elevate the priests who study the sky to a higher position at court, deflating a dramatic moment with his modern mind. This eclipse, along with a bit of hyperbole from Nikotris that the water has turned to blood, as well as the murder of Sarah and her son, Ramses’ firstborn, echo the plagues visited upon the Egyptians by the god of the Hebrews that DeMille gave so much divine force.
The Hebrews themselves are hardly seen, apart from Sarah and the canal digger. The former seems much beloved of Ramses, but there is no salvation for her or her son inside the palace walls. The canal digger, told he and his family would be freed once the canal was finished, commits suicide following the order to fill it in. The echo of the slogan of Auschwitz, “Work Makes (You) Free,” certainly cannot be mistaken by a modern audience, and the image of the man hanging from a tree limb outstretched above the canal looks less like a suicide than a lynching—it is an image that comes to haunt Ramses, and with the counsel of Pentuer, a peasant elevated to priest, sets him on a course of public welfare that ensures his reign will be a short one.
There are moments that, in DeMille’s hands, would provide entertainment and thrills of the highest order. Sarah sings a Hebrew song to Ramses. Ramses drives his chariot through the desert. Ramses’ army attacks an Assyrian force many times its size and wins. Ramses and Hebron (Ewa Krzyzewska), the fiancée of Ramses’ right-hand man Tutmosis (Emir Buczacki), flirt while Tutmosis hovers nearby. Tutmosis, sent to arrest Herhor and Mephres (Stanislaw Milski), another high priest, is speared in the back by a traitor to Ramses. I can just hear the music punctuating each exciting moment, every footfall sure and rapid, a grin of pure abandon on Ramses face as he races to his destination. In Kawalerowicz’s film, however, each scene is as life itself. A scene of troops running up and down sand dunes shows it to be a slow, clumsy affair. Tutmosis doesn’t clutch himself and keel over as sinister music signals his death—he twists and squirms as his attacker continues to jab him, taking forever to succumb. Sarah sings a slow lament with her back to the audience, as though praying at the Wailing Wall. The complete lack of prudery in the film normalizes Ramses’ promiscuous sexual appetites and frees the other characters from jealousy. And driving a chariot takes concentration—it’s not a ’50s hot rod. Each of these scenes is beautifully realized by the stellar cast and DP Jerzy Wójcik, but we feel as though we are actually part of the scene rather than voyeurs looking for some thrills.
Kawalerowicz offers brutal reality on a personal level as opposed to mass slaughter. Ramses makes good on his vow to take 100,000 Assyrian hands, as baskets of severed hands from the fallen enemy soldiers are carried off the field of battle. A captured Assyrian horse becomes the target of one, then another, then another spear as Ramses gets his men into a fighting spirit. A confederate of Ramses who says he knows the path to the treasure chamber gets hopelessly lost in the labyrinth before taking poison upon his capture. Ramses shoots birds with arrows with the superstitious notion that if he hits each target, he will get what he wishes for. I can’t but think that this is how ancient Egyptians lived, and Kawalerowicz took great pains to stick as close to the historical record as possible, even building a boat for a scene on the Nile according to 4,000-year-old plans.
Kawalerowicz combined shooting at Łódź studios with location shooting in Uzbekistan and Egypt. The latter location provided him with some strangely poetic moments: Ramses laments that he will never build his own grand tomb to stand with the pharaohs of ages past as we look at the Great Pyramids, their outer skins ragged and time worn, a head of an ancient pharaoh toppled to the ground. These details make the story more lamentable, the greatness of this civilization—like all great civilizations—perishable. Even before his demise, Kawalerowicz seems to suggest, Ramses is already finished.
I was utterly captivated by the use of wigs in this film—Mazurkiewicz even went so far as to shave her head to wear one as it must have been worn in ancient times. Apart from the opening credits, music is only used diagetically, which cannily prevents us from soaring above the drama. The entire cast, led by a regal and rash Zelnik as the strong core of the film, is superb, communicating a great deal with a single look or movement. The villians, particularly Dagon and Kama, were a bit stereotypical, but not distractingly so, nor were Ramses and his compatriots glowing paragons of virtue. None of us will ever have the chance to experience life in ancient Egypt, but thanks to Pharaoh, we can at least imagine this remote time and its concerns. Moreover, Kawalerowicz has given us another approach to epic filmmaking that allows for our empathy and participation. With so few filmmakers working in this manner, the return of this film to its full glory is a welcome addition to the library of world cinema.
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Director: Cecil B. DeMille
By Roderick Heath
Legend has it that young film director Cecil B. DeMille arrived by train at a Midwestern location to shoot his debut project, The Squaw Man (1914), only to find a rainstorm was drenching the locale. DeMille decided to head on to the end of the line and film in the outskirts of Los Angeles, where some film production was already taking place and the climate was almost always favourable. The result of this miniature, comically fateful Exodus was the founding of another promised land, Hollywood, as America’s film capital. DeMille’s subsequent career all but defined the public’s idea of Tinseltown’s evolution from dusty backdrop to powerhouse industry, whilst his name became synonymous with what was, until the rise of special-effects-driven blockbusters, the biggest of cinematic genres: the costume epic. But DeMille, consummate showman, was always ready to change genres and modes when he sensed audiences were tiring of certain material. His original forte was sexy melodramas about temptation and punishment, like The Cheat (1915); later, he transferred the impulses he explored and exploited onto ostensibly more elevated material in religious dramas, like his first tilt at The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). DeMille was cunning, ardent, and hypocritical all at once: his parties had been the wildest in Hollywood in the ’20s, and he nailed down his audience appeal by flooding the eyes with sensual gratification whilst preaching in the ear.
DeMille’s best work usually made such clashes his subject, like the Christian martyr tale in The Sign of the Cross (1932), that gets the audience off on seeing faith tested with pleasures and terrors of the flesh that correlates this voyeurism with the sexual and sadistic impulses of Nero’s Rome. With films like Madam Satan (1930) and Four Frightened People (1934), DeMille tried to examine his audience’s fantasies in a more upfront fashion, with heroines desiring to transform themselves in liberating situations, but both flopped. So it was back to such self-consciously legendary historical films like Cleopatra (1934) and The Crusades (1935), and then, as he sensed post-Depression audiences were getting more parochial, equally mythical studies of U.S. history like The Plainsman (1936), Union Pacific (1939), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). After WWII, DeMille, who retained such status he was Hitchcock’s only rival for audience recognition amongst directors, revived the religious epic with Samson and Delilah (1949), proving that on the cusp of the 1950s, the audience again wanted lush escapism mixed with a fine patina of supercilious morality. DeMille’s instincts proved prescient again as the historical melodrama, usually with heavy religious themes, found natural symbiosis with the new widescreen and Technicolor-blazoned super-cinema that Hollywood was using to retaliate against TV’s growing threat. Coming off one of his flattest films, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) (of course, the one that gained him his lone Oscar), and 40 years after The Squaw Man, DeMille tackled, in his mid-70s, the largest and most ambitious of his epics, a redo of The Ten Commandments. At a budget of more than $13 million, it was the most expensive movie of its time and one of the biggest money-makers of any time.
The Ten Commandments is the sort of film that now tends to be appreciated with a smirk. With its blazing colour, stylised acting, florid dialogue, and commitment to telling its story in the most magnified and unequivocal of fashions, DeMille made a film that’s proved gold for satirists and camp enthusiasts ever since, and defined one ideal of old Hollywood cinema so thoroughly that everything that followed seemed like reaction. Wood for the trees, however; DeMille wasn’t trying to make On the Waterfront (1954), but its absolute opposite in stylistic terms, and it’s a version of cinema that demands much more respect than it usually receives. It approaches a defiant extreme in manipulation and sublimation of technique and human elements to the iconographic tale DeMille was telling, and yet, of course, DeMille’s take on Old Testament material is a version of a moral melodrama that reaches across the breadth of ’50s American cinema, including On the Waterfront, as a character hears the irrepressible call of his conscience that will lead him into a terrible power struggle.
DeMille’s achievement is close to what another silent cinema hero, Sergei Eisenstein, had managed with his Ivan the Terrible diptych (1946, 1959), tossing out the rules for realistic drama they had only half-heartedly played by since the coming of sound. Both men were surely remembering the likes of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) in turning past mythology into totalised conceptualism. DeMille’s reputation as a maker of big movies went further than his penchant for huge sets and large casts: every aesthetic element in them was rendered in an outsized manner. DeMille’s visual style was replete with a grand salon artist’s framings and arrangements of elements, as well as deep-focus shots emphasising space and physicality. His cultural armoury referenced Victorian genre painting, Wagnerian operatic staging, primitive and early civilisation art forms, cubism and art deco decorative and dance styles.
DeMille’s approach was perfect for portraying Old Testament myth for the benefit of mid-century audiences: the very anti-realism of it painted a palpable dream past where all-powerful deities casually part seas and god-kings battle with shamanic heroes for overlordship of humanity. The opening lays out DeMille’s iconographic talent in all its loud glory, his own inimitably stentorian voice reciting “Let there be light!” over shots of crepuscular-rifted clouds and perverse snapshots of massed slaves hauling monumental statues. Egyptian royalty and guards are arrayed like the friezes on tomb walls, as Ramses I (DeMille regular Ian Keith), scared by omens that proclaim the birth of the prophesised deliverer of his Hebrew slaves, is talked into massacring all their newborn. This slaughter is communicated with perfect economy in a dissolve to a dead-eyed mother sitting next to a cradle with a soldier, sword covered in blood, retreating from his murderous work. Yochabel (Martha Scott) saves her lad by setting him adrift on the Nile, and has her daughter follow his reed basket to make sure he finds a safe landing point. He certainly finds that, as he is rescued by Bithiah (Nina Foch), the Pharaoh’s daughter and a recent widow, and claimed as her gift of consolation from the gods. Exodus’ famously sketchy narrative until Moses, as Bithiah dubs him, leaves his gilded royal life to stick up for his people, is here fleshed out as a tale of adoptive familial strife. As a grown man, Moses (Charlton Heston) competes with Ramses (Yul Brynner), son of Bithiah’s brother Seti (Cedric Hardwicke), the next Pharaoh, for Seti’s favour.
Moses returns from war both as venerated patriotic hero and wise leader, having brought back the King of Ethiopia (Woody Strode) and his sister as allies. With Ramses having fallen behind schedule in building Seti’s “treasure city,” Seti gives the job to Moses whilst ordering Ramses to discover if the Hebrew messiah is alive, as the slaves hope. Ramses would almost be reduced to the Jan Brady of religious epics in contending with his cousin’s constantly recapitulated excellence, except that he’s so swaggeringly arrogant he scarcely doubts for a second that, sooner or later, his birth-imbued status will win out. Between them as a love interest is Nefertiri (Anne Baxter), dissemblingly referred to as the “throne princess” to disguise the prickly detail that she is Ramses’ sister and, as per ancient Egyptian custom, expected to marry her brother. Nefertiri’s preference for Moses is understandably unabashed. Moses’ innate decency almost gets him into trouble, however, as he’s appalled by the Hebrew slaves’ treatment. This comes to a head when Yochabel, employed as a grease layer to smooth the movement of enormous blocks of stone, is almost crushed; stone artisan Joshua (John Derek) saves her life by assaulting a foreman, and Joshua’s girlfriend, waterbearer Lilia (Debra Paget), calls Moses to intervene. Realising that the slaves are too malnourished and exhausted to work effectively, he has grain seized from priestly granaries to feed the slaves and gives them a day off each week. This allows Ramses to impugn his loyalty, but Seti is so impressed by the progress Moses makes that he declares him his heir.
Say what you will about DeMille’s boldface dramatic style, far from getting lost in pageantry and swagger or in religious and cultural vagaries, The Ten Commandments puts sketchy holy writ and gargantuan cinematic trappings at the mercy of immediate human drama. Sexual desire, jealousy, righteous anger, the nature of political might and worthiness of it, genetic versus emotional loyalty, family love, family hate—all are mixed together in a brash and muscular manner in the film’s first hour. Howard Hawks and William Faulkner blanched at the problem of what a Pharaoh sounded like, but DeMille and his battery of screenwriters charge right in with fake poeticisms and would-be arcane turns of phrase mixed with colloquialisms: one of my favourite moments tweaks the disparity, as Seti, listening to a litany of glorifying titles recited by a high priest, mutters to Nefertiri, “The old windbag!” In a manner so different to many modern spectacle films, the humans are never lost amidst the epic—quite the opposite in fact, as Seti’s city reshapes the world to reflect an individual’s ego back at him, something Seti himself is above but which Ramses is all too willing to accept as natural law. The dialectic continues through the film as Moses comes into contact with a greater power and uses it to pound that grand world back into clay. DeMille partly achieves this because his actors, particularly the titanic bodies of Heston and Brynner, are treated like landscapes in themselves. The two actors understand this well, playing with intense gestural and postural acuity that rapidly steps between the friezelike and the dancelike.
Moses’ journey from the very edge of his society to the centre and back again culminates in two murders, each an act of faith and love, but for sharply divergent ends. Nefertiri kills Memnet (Judith Anderson), Moses’ and Ramses’ former nurse, when she threatens to reveal Moses’ true identity to Seti, whilst Moses, when he discovers that identity, makes his first act of liberation the killing of Baka (Vincent Price), the self-indulgent governor of the slave town of Goshen, when he attempts to whip Joshua to death. Nefertiri kills nominally for love, but really to sate her own ego, whilst Moses does so not just to save a man, but also as a kind of declaration of war and identity. Nefetiri, initially merely a spoilt brat with a likeable streak of bravado, not so slowly disintegrates into an unstable egotist. Whilst beefcake masculinity covets the screen, Baxter’s gloriously arch turn as Nefertiri (all together now: “Oh, Moses, Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”) fits neatly into DeMille’s penchant for featuring wilful, transgressive women. She is indeed more complex than her predecessors and resolves in an image of tortured union as its own perdition. DeMille inverts the gender format of The Sign of the Cross as pagan tart tries to seduce adamantine man of faith even as Moses transforms into a prematurely wizened patriarch and enemy of the state. Whereas Samson and Delilah only works in fits and starts, as Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr failed to build the necessary over-the-top lust, Baxter keeps The Ten Commandments percolating on a level of erotic excess. She also gives the film jolts of impudent malice throughout, particularly in the second half, as Ramses’ confident alpha masculinity, expressed through his repeatedly stated intent to possess both Nefertiri and the crown, crumbles in the face of both Moses’ miracles and, worse, Nefertiri’s contemptuous jibes that fulfil the task of hardening Pharaoh’s heart via a process of relentless emasculation.
Downfall for Moses waits just around the corner, as Nefertiri hurls Memnet to her death from her balcony, and then meets Moses still gripped by a skittish mania that gives her deed and the reason behind it away. Moses heads to Yochabel’s home, where he learns the truth of his origins. DeMille milks Yochabel’s and Bithia’s converging, but polarised maternal grieving, but strikes an ingenious and graceful note as Moses contends with the radical shift in awareness, but ponders just how much he hasn’t changed. His subsequent self-immersion in the mean life of the Hebrew slaves brings him into contact with brutality and perversion as an old man who protests his humanity to a guard is casually murdered, and Lilia is lecherously picked out by Baka for forced prostitution. Such corny, but memorable vignettes give the film a moral context that resists reduction to mere theatre, in part because DeMille stages them vividly—the grimy mud clinging to Moses and the old man and the smear of red blood the guard wipes off the straw-chopper he used as a weapon, the maelstrom of intently oblivious activity around them—and because, like so many creative people who had lived through humanity’s worst epoch, DeMille seems to have had recent likenesses in mind.
Moses’ early triumphs culminate when he shows Seti his grandiose new city, complete with colossi and obelisks, impressing his surrogate father with gratification of the ego on a cosmic scale. Moses’ and DeMille’s showmanship conflate here as curtains are brushed back to reveal scales of achievement hitherto unimaginable, doubling as DeMille’s first real acknowledgment of the new vista and reach of the widescreen format. DeMille emphasises Moses as exemplar of all worldly virtues—great warrior, super-stud, loyal scion—before he’s transformed by sacred calling, DeMille’s way of assuring his audience that religion’s not for sissies or those merely fond of contentiousness. Whereas Quo Vadis? (1951) and The Robe (1953), immediate predecessors in the religious epic stakes, look today fascinatingly like metaphorical soul-searching for a United States talking through its split personality of conscientious citadel and newborn empire, DeMille disposes of the disparity by portraying the religious leader as titanic conqueror, terrifying his enemies with displays of force. But DeMille also keep in focus a notion fundamental to much religious mythology, that of the son of wealth and fame who abandons all for a higher calling: once he hears the call of suffering and oppression, Moses cannot ignore it or his own nature, whilst his intelligence and propriety prove as valuable, if not moreso, when he finds new roles to play. His status as accidental race traitor is counterpointed with Baka’s Hebrew underling Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), who volunteers himself to Ramses as the man to turn up the messiah. Dathan does just this, albeit through a stroke of luck at seeing Moses kill Baka, and he reaps the rewards of collaboration, down to taking possession of Lilia, who gives in to sexual blackmail to prevent Joshua from being killed.
Amidst this vast tapestry, DeMille’s attention zeroes in on the minute as well as the enormous aspects of mythic texture, like the scrap of Levite cloth that had been his blanket in the escape raft: Memnet uses it as proof of her story, and Moses finds the larger cloth it came from draped over his birth mother. Later, it’s given to him as an ironic cloak of princedom over the desert, along with the staff that was part of his manacling, from Ramses. This is, of course, the equivalent of a superhero’s costume finally coming together, as he’ll come back in his tribal livery with the staff transformed into a magic weapon. I also enjoy some of the physical business employed, like Seti and Nefertiri playing a board game called “Jackals and Lions” in a mood for gamesmanship, with Seti irritably snapping off the head of a Jackal; the trinket slides across the floor to be imperiously snapped up by an entering Ramses, setting the scene for his scooping up the spoils of his birthright. Or, Ramses, prodding Moses over his acts of supposed betrayal, counting them off as he adds weights to a scale, to which Moses retorts by placing a brick on the other tray to emphasize that dead slaves make no bricks. Baka and Dathan both make a point of picking out a flower for Lilia to wear when she’s first presented in chattel finery to them: Baka chooses a warm-hued bloom in sensual anticipation, whilst Dathan appends a white flower, depicting his delight in inevitably soiling her innocence. Moses is ritually cleansed by ordeal in the desert after losing everything, after DeMille offers one of his most concertedly iconic shots of Moses marching slowly into the desert away from a marker stone, facing the external and internal wilderness.
DeMille’s voiceover gets particularly flowery in describing Moses’ torments as he crosses the desert, but lo, masculine fantasy awaits, as he makes it to the well of Sheikh Jethro of Midian (Eduard Franz), whose soccer team of daughters tend to sheep nearby. Moses proves he hasn’t lost his touch as he beats up a bunch of bullying goatherds (damn dirty Amalekites!) who try muscling in on the well, earning him a place under Jethro’s tent. Love blooms between Moses and the odd one out amongst Jethro’s deliriously horny brood, the sober Sephorah (Yvonne De Carlo), in purple but uniquely lush dialogue aiming for Song of Solomon-esque rhapsody. After Moses has married her and they’ve had a son grow halfway to manhood, Joshua, having escaped captivity, turns up dangling rags and chains, forcing Moses to remember the continued state of his fellows. This stirs Moses to at last take the challenge that’s been before him for years, to climb Mt. Horeb and find if his God really lives there. The genuinely weird encounter with the Burning Bush, which causes even Moses to crumple like a fig in awe, segues into Moses returning to Sephorah and Joshua looking like history’s first stoner guru high on his particular, fiery weed. Whilst the parochial school teachers were all nodding in approval, what secret seeds did this film place in the psyches of a generation of psychedelic artists and dropouts, as well as quiet fortitude in the minds of civil rights campaigners?
For all his delight in the profane, DeMille’s Episcopalian faith was strong, and shared that dual instinct in common with much of his audience. He had a troubled relationship with his own half-Jewish identity, but the fervency of feeling that troubling status stoked in him contradicted his stance as Hollywood’s conservative stalwart, as his films indulge many racial caricatures (as they strike us now) but also often have a broad, apolitical, humanist punch. He had no trouble shooting parts of the film in Egypt in a time of vocal Arab nationalism because the local authorities remembered The Crusades with appreciation. As DeMille himself puts it in his personal appearance as emcee at the opening, his version of The Ten Commandments is unexpectedly political, positing the question of whether individuals are “free souls under God” or the property of the state and dictators like Ramses. The Book of Exodus is often troublingly chauvinist, with the slaughter of the inhabitants of Jordan is par for the course in claiming the Promised Land. DeMille and his battery of screenwriters, including the son of DeMille’s former production partner, Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., and Æneas MacKenzie, the Damon Lindelof of ’50s epics, tweak and twist Torah lore and blend it with details from the Koran and some pure pizzazz from popular novels. DeMille’s Passover is inclusive, as Bithia and her Nubian servants join Moses and his family to avoid the final plague whilst Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam become, respectively, easily led and xenophobic. If modern takes on figures of Judaic and Christian tradition like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Noah (2014) look precisely at the fault lines between faith and practice by studying the doubt of the individual hero in the face of eternal forces, DeMille takes the more old-fashioned tack: Moses never doubts himself, his God, or his purpose once he finds it, though he is wrenched by the awesome forces he is given to direct others, and appalled by the imminent, brutally ironic curse he knows Ramses’ arrogance has brought upon his people.
The long set-up of Moses’ exile and return, and the portrait of a world of such outsized power and ignominious humanity is, of course, a long set-up for the biggest takedown conceivable, and DeMille goes to town portraying the various calamities the new-minted, vastly changed prophet wields. DeMille downplays the shock of Moses’ return to Ramses and Nefertiri, though, in a scene that mirrors Nefertiri’s earlier, easy seduction of Moses back to the courtly life, she now fails as the purposeful man declares her “the lovely dust through which God will work his purpose.” Now that’s a chat-up line. But Nefertiri’s new-stoked ardour turns to vindictiveness when Moses not only rejects her, but humiliates her husband and finally, if incidentally, causes her son’s death along with that of all the other Egyptian first-born in a bleak mirroring of the opening slaughter. This act finally breaks Ramses’ will, and he releases the Hebrews. The sequence of Exodus’ commencement lets DeMille do what he did best, stage a vast number of extras heading out into Sinai, stretching the screen’s capacity to hold detail to the limit, a flood of humanity following a suitably spectacular and momentously archaic opening as men blow into horns to announce freedom and great events, framed against colossal walls and vast horizons. Stanley Kubrick, with Spartacus (1960), and David Lean, in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), notably tackled similar scenes with an almost competitive gall and still came off a close second, whilst George Lucas and Richard Marquand had the sequence quoted for the kick-off of the Ewok battle in Return of the Jedi (1983).
DeMille is rarely noted as a visual stylist, and yet a pictorial genius is in constant evidence throughout the nearly 4-hour film, essayed via Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. No shot is dead or merely functional. DeMille had experimented with fusing dance, theatre, art, and a blankly rectilinear cinema in Madam Satan, with its Zeppelin musical sequences that create moving canvases of cubist action, and similar flourishes are scattered throughout his career. But in The Ten Commandments, he makes these elements the keynote of his visual style, emphasising ritualistic and self-consciously antique qualities in the drama, most notable such in moments as when Ramses declares war on the fleeing Hebrews: the supporting cast swoop in, arrange themselves in rough geometry mimicking tomb wall paintings, and Ramses in centre frame stands in a X pose as his armour is placed upon him. DeMille reserves these formalised images, however, always for the Egyptians, or Moses’ power contests, whereas the Hebrews move in brawling, organic masses or arrange into vignettes from Renaissance art, as when Moses at the table during Pesach references Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” and awed Hebrew women watch the Red Sea part in studied triptychs. Vying with the more spectacular images in the film as the most memorable is the eerie prelude to the nightmarish Pesach, as the “angel of death” appears as a ghoulish green mist that spreads across the sky like a great gnarled hand, watched in silent wonder by Joshua, who endeavours to save Lilia by painting ram’s blood on the door of Dathan’s villa. Joshua then makes his way through the night to Moses’ house, and pauses at the threshold so they can listen to the moans of the dying and bereaved. The rest of the Pesach scene passes with a use of sound that’s as great as the visuals.
The Ten Commandments has its DNA scattered right through modern spectacle cinema, particularly in its influence on Steven Spielberg, who acknowledged the debt outright in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) with a clip, George Lucas, who recast DeMille’s titanic sensibility for the Star Wars series, Richard Donner, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Roland Emmerich, and Ridley Scott, all of whom have subscribed to DeMille’s desire to stretch cinema to breaking in portraying the fantastical. One of DeMille’s distinguishing gifts, which not all of his followers possess, however, was a sense of how to employ structure and metaphoric emblems, knowing that effect was not special without the velocity of narrative necessity behind it. The Ten Commandments uses its special effects, provided by John P. Fulton, a veteran of fantastic cinema who had worked on the Universal horror films, with a sense of mounting awe and verve. At first they’re used to portray massive, but very human-driven works, in the making of the treasure city, but they are employed to signal a divine presence as Moses stares up Mt. Horeb with its crown laced in an infernal glow.
Finally, as Moses brings down plagues on Egypt, the effects get a little creakier as they strain to portray checklist miracles, like the Nile turning to blood and fiery hail falling on Ramses’ rooftop patio. Then, of course, is the scene we’ve all been waiting for, as Ramses, worked to frenzy by grief and Nefertiri’s goads, rides out with his charioteers to exterminate the Hebrews caught on the edge of the Red Sea. Moses and God, of course, have it covered, as a giant pillar of fire holds back the charioteers whilst the ocean splits and parts to let the Hebrews flee. The power of this sequence doesn’t just lie in the ostentation of Fulton’s effects, but in the intricate staging that transforms it into cinematic demagoguery. Elmer Bernstein’s scoring is particularly important, propelling the images of Ramses preparing for and launching into battle, and careening toward the Hebrew camp. Images and words crash in upon Moses from every angle—from Ramses and from Dathan, who, forced to leave with his nominal fellows, wants to lead the slaves back to Ramses for a great reward. Clouds blacken and boil, winds rise, and the sea peels back upon itself in one of the great goose-flesh moments of cinema.
The second climax of the film sees Moses watch the eponymous commandments being carved in rock by Yahweh manifesting as a whirlpool of fire, whilst the Hebrews are whipped up by Dathan into a splendiferous orgy. This sequence could have been a comparative throwaway or diminuendo after the Red Sea, but is rather the cherry on the top of the great teetering cake. The onscreen depravity is quite nakedly pitched as everyone’s idea of a good time in the last and most enjoyable example of DeMille’s two-facedness, offering a sprawl of collegiate naughtiness whilst chiding it in a voiceover that almost begs satiric delight from the audience. But DeMille keeps other, purposeful notions in focus for all the pleasant carnage. He depicts the inevitable, explosive self-indulgence of a recently freed and exultant populace threatening to devolve into not just idolatry but human sacrifice, a surrender to a past Moses is supposed to be leading them away from. He comprehends the significance of the tablets’ carving as a creation of a new level of civilisation, a time of written law that cements mutuality as the key to future society and promises the wrath of God to keep it in place. DeMille crosscuts between carnal frenzy and transcendent rite, Moses cowering against a rock as stunning power quite literally carves the word of God in stone, perfectly visualising that basic, primordial image of communion between human and deity against a stark landscape, whilst the whirling fire matches the spiralling dance of the rioting Hebrews depicts another extreme.
DeMille gains the desired tone of something having run badly out of control, of sublimely self-destructive surrender to chaos not through the actual depiction of depravity, but rather from a mounting sense of madness derived by the maelstrom of actors churning before his camera, swallowing the individuals in the crowd. One of my favourite throwaway moments of the dizzying collage of images here is Carradine’s hangdog Aaron bleating, “Dathan and the others made me do it!” when another Hebrew accuses him of ruining them all by helping Dathan make the idol. Another is when Robinson’s performance hits lunatic grandeur as he happily avenges himself on Lilia by nominating her as sacrifice to the golden calf, and then sings and chants like a pimped-out druid in rapturous delight at his gift as the anti-Moses, the wizard of sin, as Lilia screams, “Are you insane?” from her prostrate perch above her absurdly fickle fellows intending her death. Moses struts in, and, seeing his profound mission already despoiled, has the mother of all hissy fits, hurling the commandments to explode in fire and brimstone on the golden calf and open a chasm that swallows Dathan and his ilk. The coda offers another splendiferous set of images as Moses, called to meet his maker, bids farewell to family and successor Joshua, and climbs back up the mountain to be illuminated in a shaft of light. Like so much of the film, this moment is utter cornball on one level, and yet perfect in another, an authentic vision of heroic stature that transcends dull reality and transfigures human nature.
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Director: John Carpenter
By Roderick Heath
I can remember when loving John Carpenter’s The Thing was still a rather lonely business. Carpenter’s remake was largely dismissed and derided upon release, chiefly for its gore, but also for its defiantly, disturbingly corporeal take on what had been a considered a very clean-cut alien invader fantasy when filmed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby in 1951. But the intensity and intelligence of the film’s revision of the original to speak to a new era slowly gained traction, to the point now where it’s widely considered Carpenter’s best film. In the 32 years since its release, it’s become a significant cult film and rite of passage for young fans of fantastic cinema, as well as something rare in motion picture history. Standing with the likes of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), The Thing proved that remakes could, in apt and imaginative hands, be taken seriously in their own right, not eclipsing a predecessor, but rather providing it with a potently evolved progeny.
Moreover, Carpenter’s take had claims to precedence over the original film as a more conceptually faithful adaptation of former Astounding Magazine editor John W. Campbell’s feted 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster, Burt Lancaster’s son, took Campbell’s original notion of a shape-shifting alien and made it their version’s reason for being, whilst maintaining the essential, classic set-up of a remote polar base under siege by a thing from another world. The result is as tough, harsh, and near-abstract in its elisions and uncertainty as any big-budget film ever made.
For Carpenter, The Thing was a troubled achievement. The young film student who, with some UCLA pals, had pieced together Dark Star (1974) with duct tape and hobby glue became the hugely successful hero of low-budget independent film with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1979), and Escape From New York (1981). Armed with millions of Universal Studios’ dollars, he made a film that has become both a fixed pole of excellence in his oeuvre, but was also the culmination of a seemingly inexorable career rise that was halted by the film’s weak financial performance and constantly frustrated thereafter.
Although The Thing was the first film for which Carpenter had not written either the script or the score, both provided instead by Lancaster and Ennio Morricone, respectively, with large contributions by special-effects wizards Rob Bottin and Dick Smith, the film is marked on all levels by Carpenter’s innate sensibility: the salty, plebeian mood of its characters, the sense of isolation and besiegement by forces beyond human control, the sustained mood of eerie dislocation. Even the unnerving electronic throb of Morricone’s scoring mimics and augments Carpenter’s familiar effects in music perfectly, spelling out lingering dread even as the viewer comprehends a stunning snow-crusted vista. Lancaster, had previously penned The Bad News Bears (1976), and whilst The Thing proved to be his last screenplay, his dialogue is almost endlessly quotable in its salty fashion, swiftly painting character and milieu. A brief prologue of a spaceship tearing out of the void and crashing into Earth’s atmosphere segues into Carpenter’s only direct nod to the original film, recreating the indelible image of the title seeming to burn or rip through a black field.
The concision of the original film’s metaphors for the paranoid new frontiers of the Cold War give way to something very different, an insidious process of breakdown and infiltration: whilst still “alien,” the Thing here is not a convenient Other, but a force lurking within familiar bodies, warping, perverting, and disassembling the given reality of the humans who contend with it. Gone, too, is the conflict of cold science and hot militarism in the original, reorganised (but not actually replaced) by different versions of survival impulse: here, the scientist, as in the original, endangers the team, but with the very different purpose of protecting the rest of the world and thinking about larger pictures than the mere frame of personal survival. Carpenter only offers a brief picture of his Antarctic explorers before chaos visits their midst, because that’s all he needs to paint the group and individual dynamics: the clashing temperaments, the huddled group and the self-exiled cowboy R. J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), black and white, rebels, bohemians, and company men—all echoes back to Dark Star and its portrait of men sent out on an absurd, isolating mission that has broken down not merely patterns of prescribed behaviour, but also individual personalities. Here there’s a subtle distinction between the hard-hat workers there to keep the machines running and the scientist nerds, but this soon dissipates in the face of individual responses to threat, as all characters are revealed, in their varying ways, to be both helpless in the face of such adversity but also often sneakily resilient and leadership roles are reassigned according to temperament and situational wit rather than societally imposed standards.
Carpenter’s innate respect for individualism is clearly at play here, but also placed in telling conflict with other urges—herd instinct and mutual responsibility. The camp’s inhabitants are all men, isolated in the first week of winter, to keep watch upon the Antarctic ice seemingly for the sake of it: commander Garry (Donald Moffat), helicopter pilot MacReady, blasé radio operator Windows (Thomas G. Waites), camp cook Nauls (T. K. Carter), dog handler Clark (Richard Masur), physician Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), biologists Blair (Wilford Brimley) and Fuchs (Joel Polis), geologist Norris (Charles Hallahan), meteorologist Bennings (Peter Maloney), and mechanics Palmer (David Clennon) and Childs (Keith David). Priceless, and precise vignettes of personal adaptation and maladaptation, from MacReady getting pissy with his computer’s chess programme and tipping a drink into it for revenge, to Nauls torturing Bennings by playing Stevie Wonder through the night, and Palmer and Childs getting high whilst watching VHS copies of old “Wheel of Fortune” episodes. This collection of men threatening at first appearance to break into distracted, preoccupied islets of coping with their isolation and the hell that is other people, are shocked back into reality by new circumstances. The narrative is propelled by the loss of individuality, as members of the team are assimilated down to the finest detail, for the purpose of perfect chameleonic disguise. Yet the innate certainty of some of the characters, like MacReady, that they’re still human provides the closest thing to certainty in the often opaque narrative.
The film’s pitiless logic distinguishes it, and moreover, the very narrative is about that logic, from the moment the husky dog that is actually the Thing’s last vessel reaches the U.S. National Science Institute Base 4, relying on the inability of the humans to recognise it as a threat so that they kill the last person who might’ve stopped the monster—the apparently mad Norwegian who’s chased it in a helicopter from his own devastated base. One of the cleverest revisions of both short story and original film was this narrative remove of having the Thing discovered not by the characters at the centre of the tale but by their predecessors in a chain of bleakly self-replicating events that mimic the Thing’s method of reproducing itself. The circumstances of its discovery, its thawing, and just what it originally looked like are all left to the imagination. There’s no causative immediacy for the American team, then, only an outlandish proliferation of mysteries and instabilities, the horror of a situation where, by the time they become properly aware of just what’s going on, they might be powerless to halt.
The confrontation with otherworldly forces finally comes when animal-loving Clark locks away the foreign dog in a kennel with the camp’s own, only for the arrival to split apart and reveal itself as a spidery mass of tissue that begins absorbing and replicating the other animals in a grotesque display of corporeal invasion and perversion. “I don’t know what it is,” Clark says to his campmates when they come running, “But it’s weird and pissed and off, whatever it is.” This is about the limit of what we come to learn about the Thing, apart from its relentless drive to survive in what fashion it can now that it’s found a new host world. Carpenter turned stomachs with his willingness to show the Thing going about some of its business, a rare segue into outright revulsion for the director. And yet it also came with the thrill of seeing something genuinely original and nightmarishly convincing, as well as viscerally intriguing in trying to capture just how a very different life form might behave, something most scifi cinema shies away from. This also sets up some of the best shocks in cinema history, like the infamous moment when the belly of a man apparently dying of heart failure suddenly opens like a massive pair of monstrous jaws, and the eruption of a dish full of blood that signals the crewman least you least suspect of being infected is, in fact, the Thing.
One of the greatest qualities of The Thing, however, is its embrace of ambiguity in the situation not merely to excite the audience with mystery but as a dramatic end—and not in that schematic manner of more gimmicky films. In spite of the endless attempts of fanboys to parse the film’s deliberate obscurities and unsolved mysteries, Carpenter’s filmmaking maintains teasing force. Characters disappear, their fates unclear, and one, famously, turns up again to leave the finale tingling with unanswerable angst. One of the disappointing aspects of Carpenter’s later work is his decreasing patience with setting up and deploying his effects, a surrender to adolescent glee in jokey violence and dime-store horrors, where the hallmark of his early work was the relentless control he wielded over camera and mood, that reached a height here. Camera movements analyse empty space in a manner reminiscent of Mario Bava, with some of Carpenter’s most memorable shots here depicting nothing, only wandering the halls of the station, suggesting unseen presences. Sometimes the camera takes on points of view in peering into corners and picking out patches of horror lit by torches with a sense of elision that gives a constant feeling of never quite seeing all.
Glimpses of things hellish are brief and stunning, like when Windows enters a storeroom where moments before Bennings had been working, and is confronted first by gruesome traces of blood and slime, and then looking over to where Bennings is in the grip of the monster, now a caricature of a human form swathed in tentacles. Carpenter sets this scene up with a deliberate nod to a similar scene in The Fog, which itself remixed another moment in Halloween. Whereas in Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, the threat was an Other clearly defined in nature but rendered close to abstract in concentrating on the reactions of his heroes to threat, here the film’s story offers the most perfect metaphorical reduction of Carpenter’s interest in this theme (barring perhaps the more comic, but equally sharp hypnotism of They Live, 1988) in that Other is now Us. Carpenter might have taken some licence from the flesh-twisting and rupturing of David Cronenberg and Alien (1979), but an equally close ancestor could be Salvador Dali’s “Landscape with Soft Beans,” with its famous image of a two-headed rock man trying to rip himself apart, often referred to as a premonition of the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, civil war is what The Thing portrays, a disintegrating body politic, making the film at one with Precinct 13 and Escape From New York. But the microcosm serves Carpenter better than many of his more sprawling takes on the theme.
The care taken with lighting, shooting, and acting that the big budget allowed Carpenter undoubtedly helped bring all this to a fine edge, though his early films had no lack of such craft. The narrative and the characters accept a situation where the precise limitations of threat dissolve and leave only taunting vagaries about the degree to which any of them cannot only be sure they can kill a Thing that can reproduce to the smallest molecule, but be sure of being human themselves and of surviving. The tension between individual and group reflexes of survival is beautifully studied in contemplating the Thing and the Humans, where for each, the temptation to go it alone is exposing. Faced with the necessity of group action, MacReady comes in from the cold, but finds himself almost killed in a roundelay of mistrust and power plays in which who the best man to lead against the monster becomes a genuinely vexed question. Where earlier Palmer had mocked official leader Garry in pondering “when El Capitan was gonna get to use his pop gun,” Garry hands over that pop gun when he comes under suspicion of sabotaging a potential test for identifying the Thing. MacReady’s reaction to his computer beating him at chess seems almost bratty and childish, but is quietly rhymed later when Blair watches his own computer mapping out the Thing’s replication pattern, calculating that the entire Earth could be infected by it in 25,000 hours. Blair obeys the computer logic and reaches for his gun; MacReady rebels and leads. MacReady’s observations of the Thing during one of its rampages realises that the alien is just like the group of humans fighting it, composed of unruly components that react blindly when threatened. This realization gives him a tool to uncover it.
The Thing is a grinning death’s head of a film, coolly, relentlessly sarcastic and laced with cruel swerves of fate, from the opening scene where the Norwegian, played by producer Larry J. Franco, accidentally blows up his fellow survivor with a grenade meant for the infected dog and then getting shot after his warnings in his uncomprehended language are taken for lunatic ramblings. A similarly contradictory mania grips Blair, the camp’s biggest brain and the one everyone looks to for answers, who devolves into a ranting, axe-wielding madman is because he’s the first to comprehend the extent of the danger. Deciding that the entire camp must be quarantined, he smashes up MacReady’s helicopter and Windows’ radio, robbing both men of purpose, in effect, and then spurring them to opposite reactions. Windows makes a play for individual defence, running to get himself a gun but only precipitating a leadership crisis as Garry is implicated by circumstance, whilst MacReady takes up the mantle as “somebody more even-tempered” than the aggressively querulous Childs.
MacReady, in Campbell’s story a gnarled, elemental hunk likened to a bronze statue, is here a spiky, faintly asocial cowboy who possesses the right mixture of chilly readiness and native intelligence to take an effective stand against both the monster and his own crewmates. He’s the ideal hero for the circumstances, though Carpenter and Russell would later collaborate to disassemble his perfection for laughs in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). First contact, historically laced with devastating plagues—here, between man and alien—is no different as virtually from the moment the dog arrives at the station, the men are doomed. This is not to say their fight is worthless, as MacReady, the most genuine survivor amongst the crew recognises: just as Blair does half the job of closing off the men’s chances for escape, so the rest of them close off the Thing’s chances.
Dean Cundey’s widescreen photography aids inestimably in creating contrasts early on between hermetic exteriors and microcosmic interiors, shooting David Lean vistas in the unerringly crisp ratio, opening the film proper with a view of an ice-fringed cliff wall and the helicopter that appears as a tiny dot, like Omar Sharif’s appearance in the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Like Lawrence, such expanse becomes a prison. But the frames are often oblique and distance. Scenes shift with dreamy dissolves. High-flying helicopter shots offer primal expanses that contain essential nothingness. Life is only possible within the fragile human abodes, which become temporal traps.
Beautifully unusual as exposition and tension-building, too, is the way backstory is drip-fed. MacReady and Copper venture out to the Norwegian camp in the hope of saving lives, instead finding a ghostly ruin littered with signs of violence, a huge, suggestively shaped block of ice that something has clearly broken out of, and piles of incinerated corpses that seem to have been warped together like the most perverse visions of surrealist art. Video footage purloined from the Norwegians gives clues to what they found, and Carpenter wittily reproduces the iconic shot from the original film of the men marking out the shape of a buried and frozen flying saucer, albeit once removed, glimpsed like the original film as a fuzzy relic on a black-and-white screen.
The actual spaceship, which MacReady, Norris, and Palmer seek out, proves to have been partly incinerated by the Norwegian attempt to extract it, and to have been frozen in the ice for 100,000 years, a nasty birthday present from the universe for whoever found it. That’s become a rather common motif of scifi cinema since this film, and perhaps marks out the long shadow of Nigel Kneale on Carpenter’s work with its obsession with primeval atavism, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) equal mark on the genre as a whole in looking to a distant past as key to present calamity. In any event, Carpenter’s precise use of quiet and space to create his nerve-jangling mood segues into scenes where all hell memorably breaks loose, particularly in the aforementioned sequence in which Norris is revealed to be a Thing by Copper’s cardiac shocks. The shocks stir the beast within to snap off the doctor’s arms before distorting and ripping apart, an id-beast with Copper’s face dangling from the ceiling whilst Norris’ head detaches, grows legs like a spider, and crawls away, stirring Palmer’s immortal motto, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” And, of course, the sustained tension of the scene in which MacReady puts his idea into practice whilst holding the crew at gunpoint—or, rather, flamethrower-point—by poking petri dishes filled with each man’s blood, having realised the Thing’s peculiar nature means that every part of it is, in essence, a separate entity, and the blood of a Thing ought to react. MacReady resorts to such measures after he falls under suspicion of being a Thing himself, locked out in the blizzard by Nauls and forced to shoot Clark when he tries to ambush MacReady with a scalpel.
The sequence that follows is a marvel not just of unerring construction, but also of dramatic byplay, as the specific characters react to each twist, from Childs taunting MacReady over Clark’s proving to be human after mocking the test as a crock of shit, to Nauls’ queasy expression as his test comes around and then his intense, hawkish look once he’s freed and holds the flamethrower himself, and Garry’s veneer of patience giving way to a hilarious final eruption of anger. In between, the startling revelation that Palmer, the classic least likely suspect, is a Thing, transmogrifying gruesomely, with skull splitting into toothsome halves that crunch on Windows and stumbling out into the polar dark whilst burning like a roman candle. At the point where victory seems possible for the men, however, new calamity forces them to contemplate extinction, as they venture out to test Blair, but find him vanished and a half-built alien spaceship under the tool hut, hinting that Blair’s been assimilated and their survival mission has literally been undermined. The simultaneous, mysterious venture of Blair into the snowy dark and the breakdown of the camp’s engine signal that the Thing now wants to refreeze and wait for a rescue party, demanding that MacReady, Garry, and Nauls burn their little world down to flush out the Thing at the inevitable cost of their own lives.
Arguably the film gives in to a less sophisticated brand of monster movie shtick in its climax, as the complete Thing, an obscene hodgepodge of assimilated animal and human parts, erupts from the floor to attack MacReady and release King Kong’s old roar. MacReady tosses dynamite at it with regulation action-hero pith and a sub-Bond kiss-off line. And yet the foreboding and disorientating effects extend right to the end, too, in the glimpse of more cringe-inducing corporeal invasion as the Blair-Thing assaults Garry, fingers sliding under the skin of his face and fusing solidly with it, whilst Nauls vanishes. Most memorable of all is the very coda, which embraces bleak, yet humorously deadpan stoicism of a brand that feels all too apt in the land of Scott and Shackleton. Childs and MacReady, on the edge of death and with one or both of them an alien by now, sit by their burning world, doing what a couple of working stiffs do when there’s nothing more to do—drink J&B. MacReady’s last line, “Why don’t we just…wait here for a little while…see what happens?”, ends the tale on the most low-key, yet utterly perfect note of exhausted acquiescence, MacReady’s tiny, appended laugh signaling he sees the cosmic joke in it all.
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Director: Michael Curtiz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
What do you get when you cross a pre-Code women’s film with a gangster film and a screwball comedy? The deeply convoluted, but entertaining The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, of course, and the comic/tragic tones of the movie fit the occasion of the showing I attended. After the owner of the Patio Theater announced that he was throwing in the towel on making a go of the 1927 movie palace his family has run for three generations, the Northwest Chicago Film Society’s booking of Molly Louvain proved to be the one that brought down the curtain for the last time. A packed crowd came to say farewell, as well as to see this energetic pre-Coder and hear Christine Rice, author of Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, discuss the film star and sign copies of her book.
In the cartoon before the feature, the NFCS seemed to make a comment on the loss of yet another vintage theater. Scary Crows (1937) shows a flock of crows completely decimate a farmer’s field while his girlfriend laughs at him. This utterly unfunny Columbia Pictures cartoon lent a depressing air to the evening that was slow to dissipate. But dissipate it did under the blinding hyperactivity of Lee Tracy and the equally blinding blonde wig of his costar Ann Dvorak wrestling with an adaptation of the play Tinsel Girl by Maurine Watkins, the author of the play that formed the basis for the film Chicago (1927).
Some of the elements Watkins brought to Chicago are present here, too—a Chicago setting, a rapacious press corps headed by Scotty Cornell (Tracy), a woman at the center of a crime, a man who’s a chump for the woman. It’s hard to know if Tinsel Girl had a straightforward story, but first-time adapter Edwin Gelsey, who would go on to pen some classic films of the 1930s (Gold Diggers of 1933, Flying Down to Rio ), created a gumbo whose flavors are a bit off.
When we meet Molly Louvain (Dvorak), she’s out with her rich beau Ralph (Don Dillaway) celebrating his birthday with a walk in the woods and, as we learn much later, a tumble in the hay. Ralph tells Molly he intends to keep her a secret from his family no longer by inviting her to his birthday party that evening. Molly, a cashier at a cigar counter whose mother abandoned her when she was seven, runs home and gussies up for her “big break.” There we are introduced to two of her suitors, wet-behind-the ears bellboy Jimmy (Richard Cromwell) and traveling salesman/crook Nick (Leslie Fenton), as well as Molly’s legs and lingerie in peek-a-boo shots common to most pre-Code films. When Molly arrives for the party, spending her last 95 cents on the cab ride, Ralph has been whisked away to New York by his mother, never to appear in the movie again. A dejected Molly, a seduced and abandoned woman now, descends the front stairs. Although we aren’t shown it, she takes up with Nick, a man who’s as rotten as she feels herself to be.
The film jumps three years in one minute. Director Curtiz shoots a series of license plates from different states to shorthand the itinerant life Molly leads with Nick, ending with one from Illinois—natch, the couple ends up in Chicago. Molly puts her adorable, two-year-old daughter Ann Marie (Jackie Lyn Dufton) in the care of a mother of nine (Claire McDowell), because she and Nick have fallen on hard times. Molly is working as a taxi dancer at the Roseland (apparently, a popular name for dance halls of the time), and Nick makes ends meet as a stick-up man.
Miraculously, Molly runs into Jimmy, now a college student, at the Roseland. When they exit to get a nightcap, Nick accosts them and forces them into a stolen car while he holds up a store. With the cops in pursuit, Nick gets plugged and mortally wounds one of his pursuers, while a panicked Molly drives away, fearing arrest. Although he survives, we never see Nick again. His influence is felt, however, through second-hand dialogue that reveals he has implicated Molly as the head of a robbery ring. Molly dyes her hair blonde and hides out with Jimmy in a boarding house where Scotty lives. The intrigue of the hunted woman and a headline-hungry reporter who is looking for her living under the same roof and, indeed, falling in love, pilots this film to its rapid conclusion.
At a mere 73 minutes, Molly Louvain leaves so much out that it’s hard to make sense of the characters, let alone the plot. It was not obvious to me that Molly had sex with Ralph, though perhaps a ’30s audience would see the clingy kissing and declarations of love as suggestive enough. I wasn’t even sure Ann Marie was Ralph’s daughter—she could just as easily have been Nick’s. As played by Dvorak, Molly doesn’t have a hard bone in her body. She slouches, smokes, and drinks like a hard case, but our sympathies never stray for a moment, particularly as she tries to do the right thing for her child and constantly pushes Jimmy away to keep him out of trouble. Similarly, although Jimmy keeps saying that Nick’s no good, we can’t see his assessment as anything but jealousy. Nick seems a little slick, but that’s kind of expected from a salesman, and he’s utterly charming with Molly. Possibly the fact that Dvorak and Fenton met and fell in love on this picture—they were married for 13 years—sabotaged Fenton’s tough-guy routine. His disappearance less than halfway through the picture took some of the air out of the drama he and Molly could have generated in a confrontation; it also cleared the decks for Tracy’s character to run roughshod over the picture.
Not that I’m complaining. Tracy, an actor I run hot and cold on, is at his best in Molly Louvain. A dynamo of almost acrobatic moves (watch him answer a candlestick phone by flipping the earpiece into his hand with one deft shake), his rapid-fire repartee is fairly mesmerizing. He and Dvorak spar with the best of the screwball couples destined to be together, though Scotty plays their romance as take it or leave it—he’s got an offer to go to Hollywood to write for pictures in his back pocket and a string of broken romances he’d be happy to continue with Molly. “When something takes a hold of you and goes right through you, you don’t care what anyone thinks—you go,” Molly says helplessly as Jimmy tries to keep her from running off with Scotty. Tracy has a similar effect on the audience.
The film features some great set pieces. A small moment has Molly sneak past a sleeping bathroom attendant to pour some peroxide of hydrogen into a sink to dunk her hair in. Even when pretending to be asleep, Louise Beavers manages to get a gentle laugh that is capped when the newly blonde Molly wakes her and gives the bewildered Beavers a tip. I enjoyed the riot of newspaper reporters, led by Frank McHugh, moving between the press room and the chief of police’s office, with a blustering beat cop played by Guy Kibbee trying to keep them in line—“Hogan’s Heroes” obviously took a cue from pictures like this. Perhaps my favorite moment was the Roseland scene. The city street, teeming and raucous, is joined by Jimmy and his college chums out on the town. The fresh-faced lads contrast beautifully with the glamor girls in the Roseland, the one time when Dvorak’s good-time gal routine plays true. Cromwell is awfully good as a straight arrow, and his boyish good looks add to the effect.
When the film plays the mother love card, it descends straight into weepy territory, the power of which overcomes even Scotty’s detachment. Will Molly, set to face prison for a crime she never knew was happening, find freedom and happiness with Scotty and Ann Marie? My greatest hope was that she’d lose that awful dye job!
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Director/Screenwriter: Ivan Sen
By Roderick Heath
In an unnamed town on the fringes of the desolate Australian interior where half-hearted suburban tracts abut soul-wearying, bone-dry flatlands and stony hills, a truck driver discovers the corpse of a teenage aboriginal girl named Julie stashed in a drain under the highway where the ominously named but completely dry Massacre Creek sometimes flows. Called out to investigate the crime scene is Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an indigenous policeman newly returned to the district after being trained elsewhere and promoted to detective. His roots are old and deep in the locality, starting with his father, a famed stockman who seems to have died of alcoholism. He finds himself confronted by laxity bordering on contempt by his colleague Roberts (Robert Mommone), whilst his sergeant (Tony Barry), dully lets him investigate but won’t treat the occurrence as an overriding priority. Mystery Road fills Swan’s return to his homeland with evil portent and dissonant messages.
Swan’s colleagues, particularly the drawling, mordant Johnno (Hugo Weaving), are an odd bunch, and the feeling that something’s going on with everyone around him looms inescapably. Local crime has apparently gotten out of control; Johnno is supposedly on the brink of a major break in a drugs case, which the sergeant seems more interested in. Whilst it quickly becomes apparent that the two cases are going to intersect, Swan has to feel his way in the dark, but soon begins to suspect that local pastoralist Bailey (David Field) and his son Pete (Ryan Kwanten), both swaggering racists, might be involved in both cases, and that they might have powerful friends in the illicit drug trade.
Mystery Road is a work of artisanal intimacy for Ivan Sen, serving as director, writer, editor, music composer and producer—whatever else you can say about it, it’s clearly a work of concentrated and individual personality. Sen’s debut film, Drifting Clouds (2002), was a classic variety of an earnest young filmmaker’s first work, a quasi-neorealist tale of two indigenous teenagers travelling from the far fringes of the outback to the city, dogged by racism, romance, and pursuing police. Sen’s formal gifts were strongly evident, but the film was hampered by poor acting and dialogue. Still, Sen became, for a brief moment, a media darling. Armed with youth, leading-man looks, and aboriginal heritage he’s happy to make the subject of his art, he seemed exactly what Aussie screen culture needed and wanted at the time. Sen dropped out of sight for several years in the aftermath, but returned to screens with Fire Talker (2006), a documentary about Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, and the barely released features Dreamland (2009) and Toomelah (2011). With Mystery Road, Sen has reclaimed some of his early promise, and his pretences are better served by how he incorporates his socially conscious interest in rural prejudice and his familiarity with indigenous characters caught between worldviews. The best aspect of the film is that the flexibility of the noir tale as a tool of milieu portraiture plays readily into Sen’s plan, as he deftly describes the psychic harshness of the town, with its air of eerie isolation, inverse claustrophobia sparked by the surrounding flatness, the wayward and dissolute state consuming everyone, and particularly the young aboriginals.
The sharpest moment of racial conflict comes when Swan interviews the taciturn farmer Bailey who quietly needles Swan by mentioning how young aboriginal kids keep stealing things from his property. Swan replies with disingenuous obtuseness, by admiring the expanse of Bailey’s property (“as far as you can see”) and congratulating him on having something to leave to his kids, a remark both men know is actually about whose land it was originally. Bailey’s property lies near Massacre Creek: keeping a vigil close to the murder site, Swan spies an interaction between two men in a car and the driver of a truck stopped on the highway that looks awfully like a drug pickup and payoff. Swan follows the car to a shack on Bailey’s property and is stricken with electric fear and paranoia. It’s very clear something evil’s going on beyond the immediate exigencies of Swan’s case, as the local police force is still smarting after one of its one, Bobby Rogers, was killed in an unsolved shooting a year earlier. As Swan digs, he talks to the dead constable’s wife Peggy (Samara Weaving), who believes he was called out on the night of his death by a fellow cop because of the way he was speaking. But who the cop was and why he called remain mysteries. Early in the film, Swan sits in glum silence at a farewell dinner for an older cop on the force as the sergeant voices his determination to “stop the rot,” because “for some us, it’s the only home we’ve got.”
Home is a troubling concept for Swan, who’s triply alienated as an aboriginal lawman held in disdain by both the local youths (“We shoot coppers ’round ’ere,” a tyke on a bicycle informs him) and many colleagues and townsfolk. He lives in his family’s large, old house, and is starkly alienated from his former lover Mary (Tasma Walton), who has hit the bottle hard and lives in a seamy, fibre-cement house with his daughter Crystal (Trisha Whitton), who has joined the ranks of brooding, determinedly blasé teens with faces constantly in their cell phones. He recognises sadly that both have succumbed to the entropy that consumes everyone except those determined to resist it: “What happened to you?” he asks Mary in unconcealed disgust when he catches sight of her feeding coins into a slot machine, to which she ripostes with the classic reversal of many a damaged person: “At least I know my problems.” Mystery Road borrows a lot of cues from Westerns, but in some ways it’s a thematic reversal of the classic Western, where the lone lawmen’s private code represents the introduction of civilisation—here it often feels more like a rear-guard action. “For some people, this is already a war zone,” Swan ripostes to his boss’s baleful warnings about what the town might become if its theoretical delicate equilibrium is interrupted.
Swan searches for Julie’s missing cell phone, and finds it in the possession of another black kid on a bike: the kid exchanges it for an opportunity to fondle Swan’s pistol, which the policeman doesn’t begrudge him, after unloading it, of course. He understands that he has given the lad a bit of stature before his mates and an understanding of the compact force of the weapon: the lad fondles it like a holy icon that promises delivery from banality and boredom. Swan finds photos on the phone of Crystal, Julie, and another pal, Tanni (Siobhan Binge), confirming their close links, which might have extended to a particularly creepy rumour Swan’s heard, that the local teen girls prostitute themselves out to the passing truckies. The case then begins to creep ever closer and more cruelly close to home. After Tanni is found dead, killed in the same way as Julie, Crystal seems to be the inevitable next target. The girls have all been tied together by one of their illicit escapades, which pissed off the wrong people, a picture that begins to resolve after Swan interviews and almost beats up cocky weed dealer Wayne Silverman (Damian Walshe-Howling). Sen’s most intelligent and effective point about such places lies in the canny observation that almost any kind of sensation becomes welcome respite from tedium and economic deprivation, in addition to the special malaise of the indigenous folk still tied to ancestral lands but with their relationship to it and each other poisoned by a modern lifestyle grafted onto it. Sen repeatedly cuts to high overhead shots of the town streets that make the town look like an experimental moon base erected in a suitably raw location.
The best-adjusted younger person Swan encounters, Jasmine (Angela Swan), is kept on a short leash by a determined, religious grandmother (Lillian Crombie). But the lone figure of good cheer about the place is Swan’s uncle, Old Boy (Jack Charles), an older aboriginal man Swan pays for street gossip who promptly blows it on penny-ante gambling ring with a cheery kind of dissolution that delivers him from gnawing angst. Sen’s gift for drawing portraits of pained humanity fleshes out two of the film’s most striking scenes: when Swan goes to tell Julie’s mother Ashley (Jarah Louise Rundle) that her daughter’s dead, Ashley already looks like she’s survived a battle and scarcely bats an eyelid when she hears the news.
Another superlative vignette comes when Swan visits Mr. Murray (Jack Thompson), an aging farmer who reported seeing a severed hand in the jaws of a wild dog that might have belonged to yet another victim of the killer; Murray is quietly furious and heartbroken after wild dogs ripped apart his pet chihuahua. Thompson’s excellence here is both stirring and sad, as the former golden boy of Aussie acting, terribly misused by some directors lately, including Baz Luhrmann in Australia (2008), looks and sounds as old as the hills and effortlessly projects a grim wisdom. His wearied visage effortlessly projects metaphorical weight for Sen in portraying a land that exhausts us pitilessly: despite its brevity, it could well be the performance of Thompson’s career.
Mystery Road is, however, far from a flawless work. Sen’s ear for dialogue remains occasionally weak and largely humourless. Even as he tries admirably to create scenes charged with a constant—perhaps too constant—sense of elusive, cryptic menace, he undercuts the effect with clanger exposition lines like, “But then, your old man was the head stockman around here for ages,” when the sergeant comments on Swan’s eye for horse flesh. One significant hesitation of Mystery Road is that, like a relatively long list of Aussie films that try to crossbreed genre storytelling with artier postures (The Boys , Lantana , Animal Kingdom ), it thinks it’s being subtle when it’s actually all but beating you over the head with obviousness, from the sergeant sucking on an ice cream with gauche disinterest (apparently he couldn’t get donuts that morning) to the sign-posted place names, or Johnno, bathed in bloody red light leaning in on Swan and asking him what he’d do if he ever killed someone accidentally: it’s almost like a set-up for a “The Simpsons” gag. Such an emphasis on an even surface texture starts to feel phony after a while. Sen’s visuals quickly create a beautifully paranoid evocation of a far west landscape, and yet the sustained mood of ominous tidings, replete with charged silences, loaded conversations and red-herring characterisations, border on excess all the more for the attempts at minimalist rigour.
Moreover, the film isn’t particularly abashed about its obvious influences: the wedding of noir tale to racial themes strongly evokes In the Heat of the Night (1967), whilst the visuals shout out variously to Don Siegel, Sam Peckinpah, and the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men (2007), as well as Cormac McCarthy in general. The emphasis on the spacious menace of the Aussie outback as a perfect place to set a murder mystery/horror film echoes Road Games (1980) and Wolf Creek (2005), and there are casual shout-outs to Friday the 13th (1980) and From Dusk ’Til Dawn (1996).
Aussie cinema’s long wariness of genre filmmaking has been easing lately, particularly since the ironic rediscovery and legitimisation of the “Ozploitation” trash epics of the late ’70s and ’80s. Mystery Road is also rather reminiscent of Bill Bennett’s lauded Kiss or Kill (1996), with which it shares a mesmerised fascination with the desolation and menace of the great expanses of the Australian outback, upon which it hangs a fairly standard, if obliquely told noir tale. In a similar fashion, Sen’s work suggests a certain pretentious queasiness about being a genre film. Unlike Bennett, at least Sen doesn’t feel the need to start off with a poetic quote to assure his audience that this is self-conscious, pop-art-like exploitation of pulp motifs. But the film’s title points to a knowing approach to the ritualised patterns underlying such storytelling that are, cumulatively, a bit fetid: a body is found at the outset near Massacre Creek, and later our hero arranges a rendezvous for a shoot-out finale at “Slaughter Hill—off Mystery Road.” Well, thank you for the road-map-cum-story-chart, Ivan.
Equally, a rather silly flourish introduced at the start and recurring throughout refers to the wild dogs that haunt the locality and chewed at Julie’s body. When the coroner (another Aussie movie veteran, Bruce Spence) reports back to Swan, he mentions that the saliva traces suggest some kind of “super dog,” which Swan dismisses as trivia; this weird, quasi-scifi stuff proves to be more laboured symbolism, particularly at the end when a violent clash segues into howling in the hills. More effective as visual explication of an interior theme is a scene in which Swan performs a bit of target shooting with his father’s vintage Winchester rifle, aiming not at empty beer bottles, but at full ones, his private declaration of war on the culture of oblivion-seeking around him. The authority of Sen’s visuals goes beyond mere pictorialism, but rather coherently charts mental and physical straits, sustaining both a sense of menace and blasted beauty in the soul-churning blaze of silhouetting sunsets and dawns, and the skewering brightness of days that offer no sanctuary. There’s a tingling sense of vulnerable solitude when Swan tracks the drug pickup back to Bailey’s place, and effective, clear-cut, visual exposition throughout to counter the murkiness of the dialogue. It’s good, too, that Mystery Road gives Pedersen the perfect star vehicle he’s needed for 20 years.
One particularly good sequence sees Swan tracking Silverman and witnessing his kidnapping and execution by the villains. Johnno’s actual place in the seeming conspiracy infecting the town remains moot, however, as his question about accidental killing seems to have been motivated by an experience that resulted in his outback exile and current, tight-lipped efforts to prosecute his own case. But he also solicitously rescues Silverman from Swan’s interrogation, which turns violent when Silverman makes a quip about Crystal. Johnno proves to know enough, at least, to prod Swan’s awareness that Crystal is the next target, a subterranean warning that sends Swan off in anxious search for the McGuffin. Said McGuffin drives the last part of the story, as Swan tries to head off further bloodshed, but instead reaps a shoot-out that makes up for some of the longeurs leading up to it. Sen takes the amusing and original tack of making most of his gunfighters terrible shots, with victory belonging not just to the best shot but to the coolest under fire. Sen pushes to the edge of farce with the crappy, point-blank marksmanship on display, whilst exchanges of long-range gunfire are depicted with exacting, thrilling verve keen to the specific difficulties of sniper marksmanship, whilst also, of course, fulfilling earlier glimpses of Swan’s skill. The very finish offers a break in the generally depressive landscape with a rather arbitrary, but thankfully restrained reunion that signals that Swan’s battles have not been in vain.
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Director: Keith Gordon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Writer Joyce Carol Oates called Scott Spencer, “the poet-celebrant of Eros.” As someone whose memory of his highly sensuous prose and love-mad teenagers is as vivid as it is some 30+ years after reading Endless Love, I couldn’t agree more. Spencer has written 12 novels in various genres—most recently, horror, under the pseudonym Chase Novak—but his elegant explorations into the depths of romantic love and obsession are nearly without peer. Even after two tries, Spencer’s celebrated vision of teen love hasn’t gotten the screen version it deserves yet, but his 1986 novel Waking the Dead is another matter. Keith Gordon, a director with a small, but impressive list of prestige television credits (“Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “Dexter,” “Homeland”) and at least one film that deserves a better reputation than it’s got, The Singing Detective (2003), is a veteran surveyor of the depths of human emotion. With Waking the Dead, he must navigate emotional commitments both personal and global. In the process, he gives us a much larger picture of what it means to be a good person than most films care to approach.
The opening sequence immediately announces the field of action on which Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) has been sparring with his girlfriend, Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), for the two tempestuous years of their love. Fielding watches the TV news in mounting horror as a report about a car bomb that killed two Chilean dissidents touring in Minnesota mentions that an American activist from Chicago was also killed in the blast. Sarah’s picture flashes on the screen, doubling the one on display near the television. Fielding squeezes his head as though to keep his skull from exploding and shrieks in jagged despair. From this point, the film toggles between 1972 through 1974, the years of Fielding and Sarah’s love affair, and 1984, when Fielding has taken his seat in the U.S. Congress.
Fielding and Sarah first meet at the office of his brother Danny (Paul Hipp), a counterculture publisher who hired her only the week before. Fielding’s attraction to her is immediate. When he asks her to dinner, she is a bit put off by his U.S. Coast Guard uniform, but agrees. At dinner, Sarah tells him she was educated at a Catholic convent school and is a committed activist for human rights. Fielding enlisted in the Coast Guard to build his resume as a patriot who has served his country; he intends to become a U.S. senator, though he confides to Sarah that he’d really like to be president. Fielding walks Sarah home, but she resists kissing him good night; however, moments after she enters her apartment, she opens her window and throws her keys down to him. Despite their unlikely pairing, their affair becomes a grand passion.
Leaving aside the chemistry between Fielding and Sarah, there is a sounder basis for their relationship. Both are dedicated to making the world a better place in part because of their early training. Fielding comes from a working-class family; his parents gave him a patrician name to match their hopes for his social mobility. His own observations of the needs of ordinary Americans drive him to become their representative in the halls of power. Sarah’s Catholic upbringing set her up for a life of service—indeed, she had ambitions to become a nun until puberty struck. When the pair met, American involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down and the Watergate scandal was about to surface, leaving behind massive disillusionment and the widespread radicalization of youths like Sarah. At another point in time, she might have welcomed Fielding’s ambition to reform the system from within, but her distrust of conventional solutions brings her into regular conflict with Fielding, and her clandestine missions to Chile to help opponents of its dictatorship escape have him feeling fearful for her safety and frustrated at not being the center of her universe.
By 1983, Fielding seems to have picked up the pieces and gotten on with his life plan. He is running for Congress with the backing of powerful politico Isaac Green (Hal Holbrook) and the support of politically savvy girlfriend Juliet Beck (Molly Parker). Fielding seems to be headed for a major power trip with all the trappings, but he starts seeing Sarah everywhere, imagining that she is speaking to him from beyond the grave or, perhaps, may have used the bombing to draw attention to the plight of oppressed Chileans and gone underground to continue her work. Has he finished grieving? Is Sarah the “Jiminy Cricket” on his shoulder to keep him in line as he ascends the staircase of influence? Is she alive?
What is great about Waking the Dead is that it places the mystery of love ahead of the mundane whodunit of Sarah’s fate. In Spencer’s world, the intensity of the feelings Fielding and Sarah shared transcends the grave. Fielding misses Sarah horribly and is honest—and cruel—enough to admit it to Juliet when he agrees with her that if she walked out the door and disappeared, he’d forget about her in a matter of days. The sticking point between Sarah and Fielding is a greater love than what they feel for each other—the love of humanity that Sarah ultimately chooses over the private happiness she has with Fielding. Waking the Dead does justice to the passion many activist boomers cling to from the time when they felt most alive and committed to public action, while honoring the private losses many of them faced as the war took its toll.
Fielding proves to be the kind of boomer for whom private happiness tends to be more important, the kind who have taken over the country and given up the fight for the common good, if they ever had much fight in them to begin with. When his sister Caroline (Janet McTeer) and others suggest the Sarah would have been a liability to Fielding’s future, the careerist boomer priorities come plainly into focus, though, in fact, they’re right. Sarah is the braver of the two in recognizing that however she and Fielding differ in their approaches to helping others, humanitarian causes must be fought for on as many fronts as possible; she never discourages him from his path and tries to help him by attending networking cocktail parties with him—though she can’t help making a hash of them by insulting the influential businessmen and party functionaries he is trying to court.
The script by Robert Dillon, which preserves some of the best of Spencer’s writing, is smart and literate. The scrambled chronology isn’t really a problem, but Gordon may have been induced to dress his sets in clearly defined ways—warm hippie-style scored by Joni Mitchell for the early sequences and sleek modern scored to Brian Eno and David Byrne for the ’80s scenes. On the other hand, placing Connelly and Crudup naked in front of a roaring fire might signal it was the director’s lack of imagination that drew this overly defined line in time. Fielding’s visions tend to be fairly straightforward as well, with the repeat motif of a figure in a long tartan cape standing in the distance. One place where the hallucination is truly haunting is in an airport terminal—one Sarah becoming many Sarahs wearing capes and moving down a corridor like ghosts emerging from the other side.
This film could have been little more than a hectoring indictment of boomers—and maybe that’s just how it was seen by some audience members—if not for Jennifer Connelly, a gift to this movie almost as miraculous as Sarah herself. She hits every note right between the eyes, utterly convincing in her commitment to her cause and to Fielding, acting both completely vulnerable and strong with determination. Crudup nearly matches her, but he is somewhat hampered by having to portray a shallower individual. When her love reaches out to him with all the right words and feelings, he answers more often than not with a hungry sexuality. In their final scene together, tellingly, nothing but tears and touches pass between them, a sign of Fielding’s growth through great pain. This film, though fairly conventional in its attitudes, can awaken the romantic in all of us, but especially those of us who have lived in heady times and loved with all our hearts.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
By Roderick Heath
The myth of the Great Flood is one of the most famed and ingrained in the modern world’s cultural inheritance. The tale was probably sourced in the ancient Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, and spread along with cultural traffic to plant narrative seeds in Indian, Judaic, Arabic, Greek, and Christian traditions. But it also has doppelgangers in folk traditions the world over. The flood-prone nature of the Tigris-Euphrates region is often thought to have inspired the legend, but in contemplating just how widespread the story is, some have speculated whether the story doesn’t recall an oral tradition to the end of the last ice age. In the Western world, the version found in the Book of Genesis with its hero named Noah is, of course, the best known. The story contains within its brief narrative walls—about 2,700 words of Genesis—the demarcations of a profound cultural underpinning, the story of a simple, goodly patriarch who, blessed with divine mission, saves the natural world whilst the sinful are washed away in primeval retribution. What father has not seen himself at some point as steering family and charges through times of calamity, and what child doesn’t delight in the idea of the world’s creatures as private barnyard parade? It certainly stands with the most powerful tales in the Old Testament, including Moses as heroic liberator, David the giant-slayer, and Samson the sex-addled freedom fighter, all of whom take up Noah’s mantle to a degree as shepherd of the populace with differing degrees of success.
How one will respond to Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of this elemental tale will inevitably be coloured by personal scruple: many religious and irreligious folk alike will judge it both by its seriousness of intent and concordance with tradition, whilst others will look to it for much the opposite, insights that ransack that tradition and ask it to speak to different worldly concerns. Since he debuted with Pi (1997), Aronofsky has been one of the most visually and formally experimental of modern American directors, but also a violently awkward artist, one with little capacity to sort his best ideas from his worst ones. This has tended to make works like Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and Black Swan (2010) at once stirring and excessive, visionary and ungainly. Noah fits into this strand well in some respects: it’s an outsized work of great ambition, driving along in adherence only to its creator’s singular ideas no matter how batty they seem. Aronofsky’s chutzpah aims at zones not penetrated in the genre since Martin Scorsese studied The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mythologies associated with living faiths are much more problematic to adapt than those springing from dead ones: no one minds Norse and Greek myths being remixed for big and noisy special-effects movies, as per recent Lord of the Rings and Clash of the Titans films, but Noah was the subject of studio angst as to how it would play to religious stalwarts and the crowd who lapped up The Passion of the Christ (2004), with its brutal and hypocritical take on Gospel.
In reaction to Mel Gibson’s paean to righteous suffering, Aronofsky offers parable laced with concepts imported broadly from extra-canonical Judaic lore, New Age spirituality and symbolism, deeply rigorous cultural enquiry, and CGI blockbuster cinema. His contemporary urges are pretty plain-spoken, making the flood an overt metaphor for climate change. Noah and his kin, descendants of Adam’s third son Seth, are all vegetarians eking out an existence in a world blasted by the rapaciousness of the descendants of Cain, who eat meat and have mastered technological arts. Such greenie fable-telling could have been a drag, but Aronofsky is at least restrained enough to let these elements speak for themselves. His real aim, it soon proves, is a rather more intimate contemplation of the impact of humanity’s capacity for both ferocity and creation. Noah (Dakota Goto) sees his father Lamech (Marton Csokas) murdered by Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), leaving Noah as the last Sethite. He grows to manhood in the shape of Russell Crowe, whose new-found capacity for biblical gravitas was well exploited in last year’s Man of Steel; here, he gets to do the real thing. He’s also reunited with his A Beautiful Mind (2001) co-star Jennifer Connolly, who plays Naameh, Noah’s wife. Noah, Naameh and their sons Shem (Gavin Casalegno) and Ham (Nolan Gross) maintain their foraging ways when Noah sees a flower bloom in an instant. An intimation of cosmic intent, this proves prelude to Noah’s dream of a world flooded over.
Sensing this is a prophecy sent by “the Creator” but unsure what it means, Noah sets out with his family across a cursed patch of land to reach the mountain where his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) lives. The family, pursued by Cainites, save a young girl, Ila (Skylar Burke), the lone survivor of a massacred tribe. They also encounter the strange inhabitants of this corner of Creation, the “Watchers” or Nephilim, angels who tried to aid Adam and Eve but were cursed by the Creator for their intransigence; their naturally radiant forms are now encased in hulking stone sporting pathetic, vestigial wings and glowing eyes. The Watchers detest humankind, whom they tried to help but who hunted and killed many of them, and propose abandoning Noah and his family to die in the wilderness. One of the Nephilim, Magog (Mark Margolis), decides to help them however, and when Noah reaches Methuselah, the ancient shaman gives him an incantatory brew so that he can see his dream completely. This helps Noah grasp that his mission is to build a craft that will weather the flood and contain animal life. Methuselah gives him the last seed saved from Eden, and, when planted, this seed causes water to spring from the earth and colossal forests to grow in minutes to provide a source of wood for the ark. Building the vessel takes years, long enough for Shem, Ham, and Ila to grow to adulthood (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Emma Watson), and for Noah and Naameh to have a third son, Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll).
Aronofsky’s script, written with Ari Handel, is fascinating and original in its willingness to encompass such figures as the Nephilim, described vaguely as “giants” in the Torah but in Apocrypha like the Book of Enoch (where they are called the Watchers) as the sons of human women and angels, and envisioning Methuselah as a massively powerful prophet-sorcerer who is the last keeper of Edenic lore. He is seen in flashback wielding a flaming sword, perhaps inspired by Genesis 3:24’s mention of this totem as God’s barrier to Eden, to defend the Nephilim against the Cainites, striking the ground and releasing concussive shockwaves of magic that drive the wicked men back. His gifts also provoke one of the narrative’s major crises as he works magic that promulgates fertility in true shamanic fashion. One reason texts featuring the Nephilim and other figures of the Apocrypha lore are excised from the Torah and Bible does seem to be because they represent a more superstitious, fantastical edge to the old faith, as well as a possible rival moral schema, a notion Aronofsky exploits to a certain degree. The Watchers, distorted and aggrieved, stand between Creator and Creation, resenting both but finally looking for redemption, and finding it in fighting for the ark. There’s richness and brilliance in incorporating them into this tale. This, however, makes how they’re animated and portrayed the most awkward aspect of Noah: they look and sound like lumpen monstrosities from dozens of other CGI fantasy fests, dragging the film perilously close to such territory.
Similarly intrepid, but logical, too, is how Aronofsky and Handel recast Tubal-cain as antagonist to Noah, leader of the rival tribe with arts of metal-working (biblically accurate) and concoctions close to gunpowder (not so much). Tubal-cain, played in hirsute and haggard middle-age by Ray Winstone, turns up with his followers as the ark nears completion, with an eye to getting aboard if the spreading rumour of impending apocalypse proves true. Noah has already been seen in combat, kicking ass for the Lord in righteous style but never taking a life, a stance that seems about to become impossible, especially as Noah sees his divinely inspired job as ensuring that none of the sinful survive. As the tale unfolds, indeed, Noah eventually admits to Naameh that as far as he can tell, the human race is meant to die out, with his children all dying in their allotted time and leaving the Earth cleansed. Noah’s certainty that the Creator is speaking to him is counterbalanced by the Watchers and Tubal-cain’s shared frustration at the lack of response: Tubal-cain prepares for war whilst quietly, but with the faintest tone of confused angst of an uncomprehending, rejected son, asking for such a sign as he bashes metal into shape. This, however, proves a double-edged sword, as Noah’s comprehension of his task transforms him from the most righteous man to an increasingly committed, fanatical, dark-eyed tool.
This touch is the most substantial amplification of the bare-bones tale: Noah, whose name means ease or comfort, is traditionally seen as the most beneficent of the Old Testament patriarchs. He’s not a character at all, really, not in the same way King David or Samson manage to be in their violently contradictory natures, but rather an emblem of a figure of grandfatherly shelter. Crowe’s more virile father is crossbred here with a later biblical figure, Abraham, as Aronofsky strikes deep at the heart of the patriarchal faith. Other films have depicted the Noah tale: Michael Curtiz’s 1929 version turned it into a parable for the Wall Street crash, whilst a more recent, godawful TV version featured Jon Voight speaking to a Jehovah who sounded like a TV sitcom dad. The best, and the one with which Aronofsky’s take feels in a dialectic, was John Huston’s The Bible…In the Beginning (1966). Huston, a rigorously nonreligious artist who emphasised the starkly symbolic and arcane virtues of Genesis, painted his Noah as a gently comedic figure and his story as colourful juvenilia before letting Lot and Abraham do the moral heavy lifting. Huston had his own parable for contemporary apocalyptic urges in mind: his Sodom was wiped out by a mushroom cloud and the intended sacrifice of Isaac takes place near the Hiroshima-like ruins of the city. Huston spread this notion out across most of the Genesis narrative, whereas Aronofsky packs it all into Noah’s, as his hero accepts his task and tries to carry it out, a burden Naameh tries mitigate, recognising the scale of guilt it imposes on her husband. However, even she threatens to abandon and curse him when he makes clear that he will follow through on his mission no matter how unpleasant it becomes.
Noah, then, is not just Aronofsky’s recapitulation of Old Testament wrath but an account of his active struggle with its meaning and intimations for a modern man, beggared by the scale of both offence given and taken apparent in the cause for the deluge. The wisdom of the patriarchs likewise is given a beady eye, as Noah’s cause sparks generational mistrust and war in his own family, a family he feels required to cheat of all future even as he saves them. Ila had been left barren by a wound as a girl, and as she grows and falls in love with Shem, she tearfully tells her adopted father that she doesn’t want to burden Shem with childlessness. But Naameh decides to help Ila by appealing to Methuselah in contravention of her husband’s word, and the old man agrees: he touches Ila’s belly, making her fertile again, and quickly she falls pregnant. Noah, outraged once he learns of this, howls that he’s now bound to kill her child if it proves to be a girl. Meanwhile Ham is pained by the sight of Shem and Ila’s physical intimacy, and sets out to try to extract a potential mate from the Cainite camp, which is in constant tumult from debauchery and violence. He tumbles into a pit and encounters a grotty, terrified girl, Na’el (Madison Davenport), and offers her a chance to flee with him to the ark. As they do so, however, the rains begin, and the Cainite horde makes for the ark. Noah ventures out to bring back Ham, but doesn’t try to help Na’el, who falls over and is crushed under the feet of the horde.
The first half of Noah is uneven and feels incomplete in that it could have yielded far more facets to its interesting elaborations and more insight into the tribal struggle. For instance, Aronofsky’s telling avoidance of the detail that in the Bible, Naameh was Tubal-cain’s sister and the sorts of loyalty conflict that might have stemmed from this, dismisses a potential source of strong drama. The flourishes of fantastic imagery, too, even if they disturb the faithful, beg for enlargement. Aronofsky is one of the few contemporary, mainstream directors with roots in experimental-edged filmmaking, and some of his most memorable and specific directorial flourishes here retain that edge, particularly in the stroboscopic edits of still pictures into a time-lapse effect depicting passing years via the flow of water out of Noah’s little Eden: here is a poetic charge of visual beauty and strangeness. Equally striking in execution is a similar sequence in which Noah recounts the history of the world to his children to illustrate the necessity of the Creator’s exterminating judgement. Aronofsky offers in super-speed the epochs of universal birth and expansion and earthly evolution equated with the six days of Creation, a state of balanced perfection despoiled by humankind’s peculiar gift for slaughter and calamity, with Aronofsky intercutting a silhouetted portrayal of Cain’s first murder with endless repetitions through the ages.
Aronofsky’s awesome craft in such moments is, however, contrasted with bluntness, like the witless, horror-movie flourishes in Black Swan. Biblical filmmaking works best when it’s allowed to boil down to powerful visual metaphors, such as DeMille’s collapsing temple in Samson and Delilah (1949) and parting Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956), or when it can possess a touch of the alien, such as Scorsese managed in The Last Temptation of Christ’s abstracted miracles and atavistic visions. Aronofsky’s conceptual imagination still seems limited in some regards: his canvases are huge and ripe, and yet his idea of spiritual imagery is, as in The Fountain, corny floods of CGI sunshine and rock-album-cover notions of fantastic landscapes. Occasionally, he still yields to plasticity, like in the instagrow Eden and firefly angels. The hordes of animals sweeping through the forest to take refuge in the ark are impressive but regulation special effects. Still, making a film as expensive as Noah demands concessions, and it seems Aronofsky was willing to make a trade-off to give his film appeal to a broad audience steeped in a more literal visual language of the fantastic.
Moreover, Aronofsky offers up many more powerful visualisations, like in a sequence that calls back to the orgy scene of Requiem for a Dream in which Noah visits the Cainite camp and perceives a morass of human depravity, filled with assault and rape, squirming acres of desperate flesh in the muck giving him a vision of degenerate humankind that bolsters his misanthropic interpretation of his mission. The igneous nature of the drama here suits Aronofsky’s sometimes reductive gift for portraying squalor on both physical and metaphysical levels. Aspects of Aronofsky’s stylisation blur the difference between distant past and distant future, with a hint of a science fiction to the alien-like Nephilim and Ouroboros-like rebooting of time represented by the Flood. Particularly in the bold and startling moment of Na’el’s death, the film clicks into a mode of sustained ferocity and genuinely powerful spectacle, kicking off a climactic sequence as the Watchers fight off the Cainites whilst Noah tries to seal the ark, the deluge starting as rain but soon giving way to colossal geysers. The Watchers, upon being felled by the humans, including Tubal-cain’s prototypical cannon, revert to angelic form and shoot back into the heavens. The brilliance of transcendence is painted in fiery colours and surges of mystical force amidst a struggle that remains one enacted in elements: flesh, blood, fire, water, and earth. There’s visual similarity here, indeed, to the similarly beautiful battle at the climax of Chris Weitz’s underrated The Golden Compass (2007). The actual flood is predictably colossal stuff.
Noah gains its greatest power as it sets up and marches towards a second, more intimate, but no less fractious climax, a difficult feat considering the seemingly inevitable and well-known resolution to the legend. The seeds of danger are sewn as Noah announces his intention to kill Ila’s daughters when she gives birth to twins, and sabotages her and Shem’s attempts to abandon the ark. Meanwhile Ham has smuggled the injured Tubal-cain aboard. The two older men begin to look increasingly similar, as the formerly warm and protective Noah becomes a hollow-eyed engine of merciless prosecution of his divinely appointed job, Naameh cracks and refuses to play along anymore, and Ham helps Tubal-cain recover and conspires to kill Noah, the young man receptive to Tubal-cain’s insinuating words in his fury at his father’s actions and intentions. Aronofsky is surely commenting on the ease with which zeal turns into fanaticism as he deconstructs the flat biblical hero and evokes real disquiet at the aspect rarely explored in versions of the arcane tales, the virulence in their images of sin and wrath, the pain facing individual men and women asked to accept or mete out cosmic force. This Noah is slowly destroyed by his task, as any decent man would be.
Aronofsky is deeply attentive, too, to the essential symbolism that drives the original tale, with its direct and unalloyed teaching tool portraying essential natural systems and physical and conceptual binaries sharing an enclosed space, the literal world in miniature, with male and female as breeding pairs as the essential truth, equated with human and animal, sin and redemption, disgrace and cleansing. Each binary is maintained and enlarged upon as Noah’s gift for interpreting prophecy is revealed to have failed in the clear presentation of twin daughters from Ila, giving each brother in the family a potential mate. There’s some humour in here, too, as Winstone, who’s been the go-to actor for plebeian bastardry since Nil By Mouth (1997), plays Tubal-cain as an earthy embodiment of humanity’s greed. When Ham catches him eating one of the ark’s animals, he protests, “There was only two of those!” to which Tubal-cain retorts calmly, “Yes but there’s only one of me.” The approaching climax threatens the collision of two programmes threatening intrafamilial homicide. Indeed, Aronofsky’s vision of the family is as a set of united, but finally individual viewpoints.
Aronofsky’s take on biblical drama is often infused with a rival, equally consuming mythos, that of classic American cinema: the inevitable three-way tussle of a son and two father figures recalls in a good way the similarly mythic climax of Return of the Jedi (1983), whilst the ultimate confrontation of Noah and Ila on the cusp of new worlds evokes John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). One knows the white dove with the sprig in its beak will turn up at a fortuitous moment, but just when Aronofsky has it fly in has its own subtle and telling resonances, arriving less as deus ex machine than confirmation of mercy’s necessity. Is Noah a work that our multitudinous contemporary cults, religious and otherwise, with their various viewpoints can sit down around and get something from? Probably not, but that’s a huge ask. This Noah is, finally, a strong, intelligently wrought and probing reaction to the present through the lens of the distant past/future, and an extremely impressive film with some significant flaws. It represents new ground for Aronofsky and the first work of his I’ve actually liked on a dramatic level as well as appreciated on formal grounds. He wrings great performances out of his cast in a genre not usually known for good acting: Crowe is excellent, and so is Connolly, whilst Watson follows up last year’s The Bling Ring in delivering a revelatory performance that finally ties all to the anguish of the individual young mother.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Sergio Leone
By Roderick Heath
For Sergio Leone, making Once Upon a Time in America was a 15-year labour that consumed the bulk of his directorial career. By the mid-1970s, Leone seemed to be washed up. The genre he had done so much to codify and popularise, the spaghetti western, had burnt out. Leone’s tilt at making a defining western saga, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), was mutilated and dismissed in the U.S., and Duck, You Sucker (1972) was similarly lost in the shuffle. Although he continued to produce odd projects and stepped in to help direct some without credit throughout the ’70s, Leone was left perched between worlds. He rejected advances from Paramount Pictures to direct The Godfather (1972), as he was fascinated instead by a purportedly autobiographical novel called The Hoods by former gangster Harry Goldberg, who published under the name Harry Grey. Leone finally put together a big $30 million budget. His ambition seemed to pay off as the 4.5-hour epic earned a standing ovation upon its premiere at Cannes. Triumph quickly curdled, however, for such expansive vision was conspicuously out of favour. A hacked-down version of the film released in the U.S. was a colossal flop, and the calamity on top of an arduous shoot helped kill Leone 5 years later. The 229-minute European cut, however, retained a strong reputation for those who could see it, as I first did, on a brick-thick VHS set.
Aside from its length, Leone’s film is challenging and commercially tricky, as Leone created a deeply ambiguous work, an apogee of the director’s individual temperament. Contradiction was Leone’s defining quality: A high stylist with a gift for lowdown art. A realist with a love of mythology. A romantic with a fetish for brute violence and sexuality. An Italian with a predilection for American pop culture and a gift for creating synergy between the spacious, aestheticized approach of European film and the gritty sturdiness of American argot and actors. A revisionist and Socialist-tinted historian, picking at the scabs of worldly motives, always looking for the carnal and corruptible underpinnings of human impulses, and yet conjuring dreamlike, mythopoeic visions of that history shot through with quixotic longing and melancholy. Once Upon a Time in America is a film where the audience is faced with mirroring ironies that fold time and tale back in on itself.
Leone employed seven screenwriters to build upon his ideas, including an uncredited Ernesto Gastaldi and snappy English dialogue by Stuart Kaminsky, and yet each touch was subsumed into Leone’s, as the film is more visual than verbal. It also both extends and contrasts the methods of Leone’s westerns. The long, elliptical, carefully rhythmic and internally rhyming structuring of Leone’s direction, as small plays of character and power and build-ups to violence are detailed with nerveless intensity, were retained. But whereas Leone’s westerns were defined by space, both in the environs of the open range, and crisp widescreen compositions based on horizontal lines, …In America is dense and baroque, the blasted colours and sunstruck brightness swapped for saturated tones, deep-etched darks and opiated atmosphere.
…In America has been characterised by some as one long drug dream, taking place in the mind of antihero David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) as he lies in an opium den. The movie starts there and finishes there, moving in an Ouroboros sort of pattern. Noodles has retreated to the den behind a Chinese shadow-puppet theatre to forget the consequences of the pivotal act of his life, an act that’s communicated in impressionistic fragments of sound and vision. The first scene of the film depicts his girlfriend Eve (Darlanne Fluegel) being shot dead in their apartment by gunmen on the hunt for him, with the strains of Kate Smith’s operatic take on “God Bless America” echoing in the background. Noodles’ friend, restaurateur and bar owner Fat Moe Gelly (Larry Rapp), is beaten to a bloody pulp by the same mob enforcers until he gives them Noodles’ location. A telephone rings like a jackhammer, burrowing into Noodle’s consciousness through the blur of the drug, conflating a call warning Noodles to flee, and, in his dazed reveries, a phone call he seems to have made to a policeman and the ringing bell of a fire truck at the remembered scene of a conflagration where corpses are laid out, variously scorched and bullet-riddled: Noodle’s pals and partners in crime Max Bercovicz (James Woods), Patsy Goldberg (James Hayden), and Cockeye Stein (William Forsythe), killed, it seems, by some connivance of Noodles’.
This opening manages at once to be allusive and almost psychedelic, but intelligibly puts in play both the taunting mysteries of the oncoming drama and the urgency of the immediate danger to Noodles, who has to flee the den and save Moe. This he does, in a scene that recalls the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West. Where that film had a windmill and a steam train on a flat plain, here there’s an elevator and interior heights, appropriate for the vertiginous moral chasms and landscape of the city. The elevator works laboriously, motor grinding and mechanisms shaking, to the floor where Moe is laid out like a carcass and a waiting assassin patiently awaits its passenger to alight. Instead, a bullet explodes out his forehead, fired by Noodles, who took the stairs. As well as being a quintessential Leone moment of surprise violence, Noodles’ wiliness is revealed here, a gift the film recapitulates many times, but also repeatedly counterpoints with his endless capacity for self-sabotage.
A talismanic key is taken from Moe’s grandfather clock, a key that fits a locker in Grand Central Station, but to Noodles’ evident shock and disappointment, the suitcase within only contains a bundle of newspapers instead of the expected fortune. Noodles has no choice but to keep running from the vengeance he has set in motion. He steps out of the frame, the camera zeroes in on an art deco poster for Coney Island and a wall mirror. Noodles re-enters the shot, reflected in the mirror, balding, doleful, and tense. The artwork is now a pop art mural, a version of “Yesterday” rises to displace “Night and Day” on sound, and without a line of dialogue, we know Noodles has returned to New York in the late 1960s.
This brilliantly handled leap forward touches on one essential aspect of …In America, which is as much about time and what it does to people and what they do to themselves in the eye of it, as it is about individual circumstances. It’s also one of the greatest explorations of the transporting intensity of remembering. Leone and ever-attuned composer Ennio Morricone even twist the potentially cheesy motif of using “Yesterday” as a leitmotif for aging regret to work for them by pushing it to a limit with a muzak-flavoured cover: nostalgia is another pop value. Noodles and Moe meet again, tired and on the wane, defined by a past that went magnificently and seemingly irreparably wrong. Moe’s bar is an islet of the past in a former Jewish neighbourhood, now filled with the new wave of Puerto Rican immigrants. Moe certainly didn’t pilfer the million dollars in the locker, Noodles now sees, and he explains the ominous yet seemingly casual missive that’s brought him back to New York, a letter that confirms someone knows where he’s been hiding and has now summoned him back for a reckoning. Longing for a chance to repair the past and pining for the flare of youth’s energy and vision transfigures Noodles. But he was not a good man, not even one ennobled by the Corleones’ familial ethos. Rather Noodles was, as the idol of his life, Moe’s sister Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), once diagnosed, a guy always doomed to be a two-bit punk. Noodles’ return home sees objects take on transformative power, recalling distant times and people: in the back of Moe’s bar is a peephole, and looking through it like a cinema audience conjures a young Deborah (Jennifer Connolly) as a vision of youth’s hope.
That youth is revealed as hardly an idyll, however, as Noodles and his pubescent pals were dirty-minded, fun-loving, budding criminals. To make money off local standover man Bugsy (James Russo), Noodles (played young by Scott Tiler), Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curran), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi), burn down a newspaper stand. They also rob drunks and blackmail an obnoxious cop (Richard Foronjy) after they photograph him having sex with underaged sexpot Peggy (Julie Cohen). Leone’s young imps are little pishers, glimpsed squirting lighter fluid as if they’re pissing on the newspapers. The boys encounter Max (Rusty Jacobs), a junkman’s son who foils one of their criminal enterprises with cheeky humour and then joins them. Success continually raises the stakes for the boys’ misadventures: gaining control over the cop places them in the path of Bugsy, who has Noodles and Max beaten up. When Noodles and his pals outmanoeuvre Bugsy in ingratiating themselves with the mafia, the older punk sets after them with a gun.
These ’20s sequences are majestic in their blend of the hazy immigrant remembrance that was popular in the newly ethnic-conscious and historically attuned American cinema (The Godfather Part II, 1974; Hester Street, 1975; Ragtime, 1981), but far outstripping most for evocativeness and exactitude of milieu—Leone’s period worlds are characters in themselves. One of his keenest gifts lay in creating organic milieus in particular places where social forces are in constructive flux. Leone’s crack team of filmmakers—cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, editor Nino Baragli, art director Carlo Simi, costumer Gabriella Cespucci—helped to make his old New York a place of dirty wildernesses of brick and cobble where the criminal lads dash and dance like Our Gang turning into Dead End Kids. Rooftop empires of bird shit, flapping laundry, and illicit sex and empire-planning. Harbours flooded by fog, zones of mystery and adventure. Above all, nascent industrial might symbolised by the Manhattan Bridge, like living in the shadow of a pyramid, the New World’s expression of communal power and hubristic desire. The neighbourhood around Moe’s place evolves in obedience to the zeitgeist. The old kosher restaurant run by the Gellys where young Moe (Mike Monetti) labours is a popular community crossroads. It gives way to a speakeasy, popular with a panoply of the urban melting pot, housing both underworld and elite. Finally, it becomes the clapped out, run-of-the-mill bar where Moe has to pay protection to a Puerto Rican standover man. When Noodles is fatefully carted off to a juvenile prison, both the prison and the opposing warehouse wall against which his friends range to see him swallowed by the beast emphasises the impersonal scale and fetid, rotting atmosphere of the urban landscape in a fashion that feels the oncoming age of oppression.
The very American tale of the immigrant experience, defined by the simultaneous, wrenching, gravitational fields of ethnic community and eruptive New World mores (young Noodles refuses to go home because “my old man’s praying and my old lady’s crying and the light’s turned off”), is crossbred with the Italian cinematic tradition for looking back in pained wistfulness at the birth pangs of modernity in films as diverse as The Leopard (1963), The Voyage (1974), and 1900 (1976). There’s also the equally Italian delight in describing the raw side of entering adulthood: the young hoods are obsessed with sex, whilst wrestling angrily with their weaknesses and deeper desires. Although the protagonists of …In America are unusual in the ranks of screen hoods for being Jewish, they’re exceedingly Italian in spirit, calling to mind the libido-addled adolescents of Fellini’s 8½ (1963) and Amarcord (1973). There is also, of course, deliberate recapitulation of classic movie themes, specifically, the gangster film, laced with references: the rise-and-fall stories of Little Caesar (1930) and Scarface (1931); the immigrant angst and youth-to-nefarious age drama of The Public Enemy (1931); and remixes of those themes in the tempted street kids of Angels with Dirty Faces (1937) and the generation-tracing arc of The Roaring Twenties (1939). Also, the galvanic punch and sociological notation of Don Siegel, Roger Corman, and Sam Fuller in the ’50s and ’60s, and the political awareness and epic tone of The Godfather. One original aspect of the story, anticipating Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), is the way its narrative centres on a character who could be perceived as peripheral, even a loser. Whereas James Cagney’s and Paul Muni’s gangsters always fell eventually but became colossal in their defiance or their tragic qualities, Noodles becomes not a fallen warrior, cautionary example, criminal overlord, or even really a proper antihero. Rather, he remains something of a fool of fortune doomed to keep losing great chunks of his life to his antics and poor judgement.
Youth is brought to an end through a series of rolling events, and indeed all three epochs described in the film detail long plot arcs dotted with vignettes and climaxing in dramatic severances. The greatest moment of the lads’ youth comes when they convince a mafia overlord to try their invention, involving flotation balloons and counterweights of salt, which can refloat cargos of liquor dumped in the river to avoid patrols. Waiting on a boat in the harbour in a dreamy mist that slowly unpeels over a grimy industrial waterway, the boys see their invention work and celebrate, with Max and Noodles falling overboard: Max plays a prank on Noodles, pretending to drown, before reappearing in the boat, flashing his mocking grin. Much later, Noodles plays the same gag on Max. The two friends, closer than brothers, also constantly try to get one over on each other, treating life almost like a huge practical joke. The folie à deux aspect of their friendship defines the entire narrative. Deborah mockingly describes Max as Noodles’ mother, constantly calling him, but for criminal hijinks. Max first appears on a garbage cart, and steals a watch from a drunk the others wanted to roll, motifs that double and reverse in the finale. Bugs shoots Dominic, who dies with pathos in Noodles’ arms, his felling filmed in slow motion, severing youth from adulthood. Noodles, in a lunatic fury, knifes to death both Bugsy and a cop who tries to intervene, and is imprisoned. He’s released years later as an adult, when Max and the others have become successful bootleggers and entrepreneurial criminals.
Max greets Noodles upon release with a present that combines Leone’s love of bawdy sexuality and morbid humour: Max has a hooker (Ann Neville) laid out like a corpse, pretending to be dead, only to drag Noodles in to prove they’re both very much alive. As the famous quote from …In the West says, Leone’s heroes have “something to do with death,” yet sex and death are constantly correlated with insistent, Freudian power, particularly in this film, where both impulses are seen as the logical extremes of life, whilst most nebulous needs, like love and power, have a grip of religious insubstantiality to them. Whereas love was something Leone’s gunslingers spurned in pursuit of revenge, or had lost and spurred that revenge, Noodles is fatally split by his base instincts and higher aspirations. Carnality is its own strength: when he’s returned to Moe’s, Noodles encounters an older Peggy (Amy Ryder) who’s now a rotund madam-cum-earth mother who sells it profitably “by the pound.” Reunited with his pals, Noodles is brought in on a heist job shopped out to them by made man Frankie Manoldi (Joe Pesci) and his acquaintance Joe Minaldi (Burt Young), who’s got wind of a lucrative diamond shipment he wants them to rob. This turns out to be a double-cross, as the gang’s really been hired to kill Minaldi, and take the diamonds as pay by Manoldi.
Young’s hilariously grotesque cameo as a kind of simian throwback jammed into a suit, telling the story of how he got the tip-off about the diamonds via an anecdote involving insuring his penis, calls back to the shambling, ill-shaven untermenschen that dogged the heroes of Leone’s westerns. Those heroes are by contrast pre-modern but not uncivilised men who seem to share the distant bloodlines of Titans in their gifts that elevate above the common run. The double-cross assassination takes place in another peerlessly atmospheric setting, a foggy canalside littered with beached steamboats and industrial detritus, and plays out with deliriously intense staging. Cockeye shoots Minaldi point-blank through his jeweller’s glass, the gang rake his car with a tommy gun, and Noodles chases an escapee into an eiderdown factory, where he catches his prey and guns him down in a shower of whirling feathers. Noodles performs well, proving he’s still a man of action, but is irritated at having not been told what was going down. He vents his irritation at Max and the others with loopy humour by driving their car off a pier, suggesting that even now, with their extremely grown-up sex and violence, they’re still kids delighting in mayhem and tomfoolery. An aspect of this extends through a ribald subplot: during the robbery of the diamonds, Noodles was pulled into a play-act rape of the jeweller’s secretary, Carol (Tuesday Weld), actually the inside snout who tipped off Minaldi and a deeply kinky broad who gets off on illicit thrills. When she coincidentally turns up at Moe’s as a customer, the gang greet her wearing the handkerchief masks they used in the robbery, with their dicks out, so she can pick out her prior acquaintance. But Carol picks Max, and becomes his girlfriend.
The more “elevated” influence on Leone’s tale was The Great Gatsby, which informs the longing quality of Noodles’ attraction to Deborah and all that she represents, both in youth, as a creature of grace and purity in a mucky world, and in manhood, as a woman going places in the world legitimately. Unlike Daisy Buchanan, however, who was a gossamer idyll formed by an elusive precinct of aspiration, Deborah actively constructs herself, knowing full well the world she lives in and the nature of Noodles. She puts on airs and wheedles her way out of chores by dint of her exceptionalism, as she’s trained in arts that may take her places, including feminine arts both full of mystique and irritating power over Noodles. The childhood friends who take different roads is another old motif of the gangster film (Little Caesar, Manhattan Melodrama, Angels with Dirty Faces) crossbred here with romantic longing, but developed in highly unexpected ways because one of Leone’s darkest themes here is betrayal and the damage people who love each other can do. One of Deborah’s fateful acts, locking Noodles out of the restaurant and refusing to answer his cries for help after he and Max are beaten bloody by enemies, suggests that Noodles will always be on the outside, calling for Deborah, and also informs his later act of brutal revenge on her, inextricable from his erotic and emotional obsession. The film’s apogee of romanticism depicts Noodles trying finally to consummate his love for Deborah with his ill-gotten fortune, taking over an off-season hotel for the night in a show of spectacular courtly advance shot through with intimations of grandeur and sadness; this scene captures the essence of Fitzgerald’s book better than any straight adaptation has so far achieved.
Yet it also provokes and feeds into Leone’s own Janus-faced sensibility, as Deborah maintains her focus and tells Noodles she’s leaving for Hollywood in the morning. He, smouldering with anger whilst they’re being driven back to the city, viciously and punitively rapes Deborah on the backseat until the chauffeur pulls over and puts an end to it. A supremely disorienting and ugly scene (though fascinatingly undercut by the chauffeur’s agency, as he even refuses Noodles’ money; in most melodramas with a crime of this sort, the functionary would be assumed to be a moral null), is one of Leone’s singular accomplishments, as it so utterly debases the usual core of sentimentality found in the gangster film, forcing a radical audience reorientation of where its sympathies lie. Early in the film, Noodles’ hunters had shot Eve, Deborah’s worldly substitute, and, with electric provocation, one tweaked a society lush’s nipple in the opium den with his pistol. Sexual violence adds an uneasy, potent undercurrent to the film as a whole. With Noodles’ assault on Deborah, it becomes clear that Noodles’ lifestyle and milieu, far from being redeemed by Deborah, has instead poisoned him, his expectations of women and life in general. Indeed, what was pseudocomic and anticipatory in Noodles’ and friends earlier sexual encounters with Peggy and Carol becomes appalling.
Leone reaches for and achieves Dostoyevskian stature in his depiction of madly clashing impulses inside characters, as Noodles is at once exposed in his reactive cruelty: he essentially treats Deborah in the same way he did Bugsy, with the blind anger of a kid who feels he’s had something treasured stolen from him. He also defeats himself utterly, and feels immediate, crushing shame, as he watches Deborah leaving for Hollywood on a train the next day, amidst a swirl of steam on the platform, like he’s a phantom his own life, which indeed is what he becomes. There’s a moral precision to this even as Leone largely rejects simple moral readings—all his characters here are cruel to each other on some intimate level, of which physical violence is only one variant. Earlier, young Deborah had charmed Noodles and sustained his fantasies by reading to him from the Song of Solomon, but roughing up the sublime poetic metaphors by comparing the idealised creatures on the page with Noodles, hanging onto her words with increasing torment as she stated “he could never be my beloved.” Deborah’s ironic reading elucidates Leone’s art: alternations between lofty yearnings and expressions of sublime emotions jarringly interpolated with vulgar and cynical sophistication. Equally strong and just as auspicious as Noodles’ crush on Deborah is Noodles’ bromance with Max, whose enticingly wicked grin and humour casts a different spell. Max’s spying curtails Noodles’ one kiss with Deborah just before Bugsy’s beating, signalling Max’s impact on their fate, and also, as later events confirm, exploring the synchronicity of their identities.
There’s an element of commentary on capitalism throughout the film, as there was in …In The West, where Frank (Henry Fonda) gazed with admiration and frustration at the apparatus of real, fiscal power after annihilating the small-time speculator; here Noodles has the gift for creating and putting over a stratagem, but it takes evolving tycoon Max to exploit them. This film deals with characters who are villains in Leone’s other films, though Cockeye, like Harmonica in …In The West, carries an instrument (a piccolo), and Noodles feels the righteous spur to revenge on Bugsy, an urge he will later, importantly, quell and reject. As in Leone’s westerns, community exists, but the heroes do not protect it, exemplify it, or even really blend into it, but are rather cordoned off in a way John Ford only did with final deliberation: when young, the boys are constantly filmed in empty streets at the fringes of activity, or on rooftops, whilst Deborah passes through the midst of crowds, both at one with them but moving against the tides. The beating Noodles and Max receive from Bugsy occurs after the rest of the street has deserted with the residents heading off to the synagogue. Even when Max finds security and insider status under an assumed identity and fortune, he cannot join the crowds in his house, and spies instead on his son as he greets his pretty girlfriend and enjoys all the joys of his aristocratic youth, bought with so much bloodshed and loss.
When Noodles first returns to his old street in 1968 and nears Moe’s, he is confronted by the momentarily surreal sight of a gravestone lifting into the air from behind a brick wall by a front-end loader, as the old immigrant graveyard is being disinterred. The motifs are trebled here, as both the memento mori hanging over Noodles is literalised, the notions that graves are opening and the dead walking is first hinted, and the unavoidable fact of the past being consumed by the present. Later, he finds his friends have been granted an ornate mausoleum, which, a sign says, was paid for by Noodles himself. There he finds another totemic key to the same old locker at the station containing a suitcase full of money: Noodles is being given one last job. A scandal is playing out on TV with a face Noodles recognises: union boss Jimmy Conway O’Donnell (Treat Williams), who the old gang once saved in their finest deed, supporting striking Teamsters, by using wit as well as weapons to combat a plutocratic manager, his goons, and his pet cop, Chief Vincent Aiello (Danny Aiello). Leone goes to town in a bright, relieving comic movement staged with impudent vivacity to “The Thieving Magpie,” as the gang swap babies in their hospital cribs, including Aiello’s, repeating their earlier act of blackmail to impress a cop. Leone pulls off a mirthful, technically superb overhead shot of a nurse frantically trying to calm the crying babies who have just been swapped, visualising the thematic notion spoken subsequently, that the gang have just played god and reapportioned destinies to each character. As Max says, “We’re better than fate. We give some the good life, give it to others right up the ass.”
The gang’s swashbuckling efforts on behalf of the unionist prove they still have emotional ties to the cause of working men. This proves a double-edged sword, as they put O’Donnell in debt to the mafia. Noodles rejects the oncoming age of corporatized criminality, which Max, O’Donnell’s political overlord, and Manoldi begin to build to carry them past the end of Prohibition. Indeed, the film examines a common point of fascination for modern gangster movies and popular history, digging into the complex relationship between organised labour, organised crime, and progressive politics. There’s the suggestion that in the formation of a new bloc of power out of divergent interests to counter settled oligarchies, helped define modern America. Max, alone amongst the gang, sees the possibilities, and he takes his chance to complete his own version of Deborah’s dream to completely transcend his roots and become a great American. Noodles’ rejection of the combination vision sets in motion Max’s master plan even as he seems to acquiesce, and his plot plays out under the guise of suicidal madness, as he proposes an impossible heist. Rather than let his friend push along with this seemingly mad intention, Noodles then counters with his own calculated betrayal, setting up the gang to be arrested on their last liquor run. But Noodles is absent, knocked out by Max seemingly in an unstable rage, and the story begins to catch up with itself, as the early glimpses of the aftermath of the set-up have already told us how this ended. Or did they?
The return at last to 1968 to play out the final stages, comes with the revelation that not only is Max alive, now known as Bailey, but he has wormed his way into the highest reaches of society and political life and seduced Deborah. This fact revealed to Noodles in his poignant, inevitably tentative reunion with her after a stage performance, or rather when the reunion concludes: Deborah’s face, swathed in stage make-up, is despoiled as she rubs it off, identity seemingly smudged as dimensions of her character Noodles never imagined are opened up. The face of her son (Rusty Jacobs), who arrives whilst they’re talking, instantly rewrites the past—he has Max’s young face, stamped by preppie innocence and confusion. Noodles’ contrition at what he did to Deborah is matched by her and Max’s guilt at having destroyed him to gain their own lives.
“Bailey” and his works are unravelling, however, thanks to the still-lingering ties to O’Donnell and the mob, and the final truth that emerges is that he only delayed, rather than avoided, the same reckoning that Noodles has long since made: finding Max heals rather than hurts Noodles, and he’s revealed in their final exchange as an almost monkish penitent, calmly and sadly refusing Max’s request for a friend to shoot him rather than some anonymous assassin, whilst recalling their shared youth, a time that involved and led to horrible things, and yet was still youth. The ambiguous, even surreal final moments of the film provoke both frustration and wonderment, and yet can be coherently read. Max seems to follow Noodles out from his house only to disappear into a passing, peculiarly menacing garbage truck, evoking one tale about Jimmy Hoffa. But does he kill himself, or is he killed? Either way, he goes out the way he came into Noodles’ life, in the back of a garbage mover, moments after he held up that watch, that talisman of the past.
The final images of the film circle back to the past, then, as Noodles is passed by ghostly, yet rowdy apparitions of parties past, as Jazz Age roadsters tear by, and then Noodles himself, a young man again, crawls into the opium den, returning to where we found him: indeed, did he ever actually leave? Was it all a dream of anticipation, a drug-enabled psychic fit? Or did, as I tend to think, Noodles realise on some level not unlocked until he got high, that Max had faked his death, and the practical joke was ongoing? Of course, Leone designed his narrative carefully to refuse exact explanations or interpretations, as so many of the film’s devices, scenes, and settings have recapitulated the notion that everything finally ends up back where it started.
As ever with a Leone film, the indispensable aesthetic capstone is Ennio Morricone’s scoring, which swings from florid, operatic feeling to jazzy jaunt. Just as Morricone’s scores for the westerns constantly nudged the atmosphere of Leone’s film toward both expressionist weirdness and the cultural gravity of Latin America through his instrumentations, so, too, does his work here, constantly punctuated by panpipes, give the film an exotic, haunted quality, as if ghosts are crowding the margins of the lives on screen. The cast is superlative. De Niro’s turn as Noodles is low-key, and yet represents one of the actor’s best achievements, in how concisely he portrays a man who ages 30-odd years, avoiding all of his familiar actor’s mannerisms whilst conveying deep, if taciturn emotion. By contrast, Woods is electric as Max, a less subtle role but one that requires the dash and indivisible mixture of charm and visceral scorn he’s invested with, whilst Weld is wickedly good as the masochistic, yet somehow dominating Carol. Even with its deliberate mysteries and the elisions, which may finally be partly plugged by longer forthcoming editions, Once Upon a Time in America is a cinematic pinnacle.
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Director: Martin Scorsese
By Roderick Heath
Martin Scorsese’s films that followed the heady, messy grandeur of Gangs of New York (2002) have all been enjoyable and beautifully made. Yet even the most ardent admirers, like me, could admit something was missing from them. That ornery, empirical attitude and fiery aesthetic edge that used to inflect and define Scorsese’s films was damped down in big, slick, good-looking entertainments like The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011), whilst The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2010) were genre exercises enlivened and enriched, but not transfigured by the director’s sense of style. The price Scorsese seemed to have paid for admission at last as a Hollywood grandee was to leave behind provocation. The Wolf of Wall Street is almost reassuring as it erupts in classic Scorsese curlicues of rocket-paced editing and rampant profanity, but to a degree that provokes caution about a director possibly moving into self-satire and playing to his fans’ affections, as he did with The Departed. But no, The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s most fearsome, powerful, specific film in over a decade, a thunder blast of black-witted absurdism, a portrait of a way of life as perceived by an individual whose distorting perspective exemplifies that world. Scorsese got in trouble in some quarters for allowing entrance into Travis Bickle’s point of view with Taxi Driver (1976), and now The Wolf of Wall Street has upset some by doing the same thing for Jordan Belfort, entrepreneur and criminal. This confirms that Scorsese is back doing his real job—directing films that discomfort as well as entertain his audience and provoking their moral and aesthetic standards. Scorsese’s devils are charming motherfuckers.
Scorsese’s fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio casts the actor as Belfort, product of a blue-collar upbringing, son of “Mad” Max (Rob Reiner), a former cop turned PI. Belfort recounts his story in the same high-powered voiceover that Henry Hill used in Goodfellas (1990), and like Hill, occasionally breaks down the fourth wall. But whereas Hill was explaining and excusing himself all the time, Belfort is a better, cockier salesman, suddenly cutting short his spiel to grin smarmily at the audience, whom he treats exactly like his clients, assuring us we needn’t concern ourselves with the details. He’s got them down, and the results are presented for our amusement as torrents of lifestyle brags, including a formidable array of drugs he’s comfortably addicted to and keeps balanced like a juggler.
Belfort recounts his early days as a young wannabe stockbroker, landing a job at the prestigious L. F. Rothschild and negotiating the totem pole. He’s taken to lunch by his superior, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), the kind of guy who snorts cocaine at the table of the ritzy skyline restaurant they sit in and preaches the values of masturbation to Jordan for keeping cool in their maniacal occupation. Mark also imparts the essential impulse of their business: to make sure the investor puts money in their hands and never takes it out, as the brokers get their cut for every use they can think of, regardless of whether it goes atomic or sinks into the abyss. The rollercoaster nature of the business is, however, almost immediately revealed to Belfort as the 1987 crash hits on his first day as an accredited broker, destroying his employer and leaving him and thousands of other brokers high and dry. On the advice of his wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti), Jordan takes a punt at an ignominious job that will still keep him in the game: selling penny or pink-sheet stocks in small companies with a low-rent outfit working out of a strip mall in the wilderness of Long Island.
Belfort is rooted in this environment, however, and he quickly adapts. He combines the skills he’s picked up on Wall Street with the art of suburban hustling and his awareness, cynical rather than empathetic, of the secret fantasies nursed by the type of low-grade investor he’s enticing. He swiftly sets up his own pink-sheet stock firm, but rather than recruit other brokers, he goes back to his old neighbourhood and cultivates talent from the two-bit salesmen and dope peddlers he grew up with. These include Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff (P. J. Byrne), nicknamed for his awful wig, Alden “Sea Otter” Kupferberg (Henry Zebrowski), and other sartorially sobriqueted suburbanites, though the talent he wants most, body-building Brad (Jon Bernthal), is content selling his stock of Quaaludes to stoner teens. Instead, Jordan gains a lieutenant in Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), a toy salesman who’s married to his own first cousin, Heidi (Mackenzie Meehan). Hill’s performance cunningly annexes a familiar brand of Scorsese spiv with deliberate artificiality, manifested through his grill of bathroom-tile-white teeth, recalling the lacquered creeps of Casino (1995). Donnie proves equivalent to Joe Pesci’s character in Scorsese’s earlier films, too, the loose cannon subordinate who doesn’t know where the limits of good sense are, even as his self-appointed wise superior slips quietly off the rails.
Scorsese starts with a thematic joke that’s also a cinematic one: an advertisement, rendered in a small, boxy TV format, for Stratton Oakmont that portrays a lion looking rather like MGM’s Leo, patrolling the floor of the company offices. It’s a deliberate alternative to, and echo of, the wolf figuration, as the ad creates an image of beneficent class and proud ferocity for a company that’s actually bent on eating you. Scorsese’s eruption into widescreen presents raucous, plebeian, orgiastic behaviour as Jordan and his hordes hurl dwarves at a target as part of an office party competition. The grotesque ebullience harkens back to Scorsese’s masters from the distant fringe of Hollywood memory, like Stroheim and Sternberg, when depictions of an amoral high life were a stock in trade, and through to Fellini and ’80s sex romps, save that this “Animal House” has sharper teeth and no pretence to counterculture attitude. The Wolf of Wall Street deals with much less violent characters than Goodfellas or Casino, and yet it ultimately feels uglier and less reassuring, not just because of the mind- (and eye-) boggling portrait of a business that considers itself an engine of national wealth, but because those earlier films’ criminal classes were defined by pretences to domesticity and rituals of pacific balance. The eruptions of violence there could be uncontrolled and irrational, but the essential fantasy of the mafia types was that they were people who pursued illegal wealth and liked wielding power, but did so with the understanding that they had to mimic the conservative family and social structures around them to survive. The Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, details a species that dreads such humble trappings and containing strictures. Although Jordan gets married, buys a house, and has kids, these feel more like lifestyle embellishment than a point in themselves. His cabal of hungry brokers are not happy merely consuming, even conspicuously. They want to live without the fearful pettiness of regular life, to remain on a constant high without dips or valleys.
Even the disasters and pitfalls Belfort and company encounter keeps them scrambling with an adrenalized excitement that Scorsese’s barrelling storytelling force-feeds to the audience. Belfort’s seamy genius is made clear as he gains awed applause from the other penny stock sellers for his master-class example flogging shares in a garage radar detector business to some shmuck, motivated by the discovery that unlike the 1 percent commission he got selling blue chip stock, in this “sort-of” regulated field, the brokers take home 50 percent. Jordan soon has the fateful inspiration to start selling poor stock to rich people. Jordan’s rationalisation argues that he deserves the money he reaps because he spends it better, and he only represents a more perfect version of the half-smart, ineffectively greedy people he bilks. He gives his new business cover by calling it Stratton Oakmont—Ivy League class and credibility seeming to drip from each syllable. This makes Belfort and his crew powerfully rich Wall Street players within months, with a high-rise office space churning with unleashed competitive energy. Scorsese pays a fittingly disgraceful nod to Citizen Kane (1941) as the team celebrates success with an invading marching band, except that the prim gaiety of the kick line that celebrated Charlie Kane is now a troupe stripped down to their underwear, followed by a mob of strippers in lingerie, as the scene devolves into a kind of pinstriped, pornographic Agincourt.
The brash, bratty attitude of the company and frat-boy ethos is highlighted by wince-inducing vignettes, like the dwarf tossing and a female employee having her head shaved for $10,000. The contempt and violence underlying this scene becomes clearer when Donnie smacks and belittles an employee he catches taking care of the office fish whilst gearing up for a big sale, before snatching out and eating the fish before the gleefully appalled staff. Predatory capitalism indeed. The chances of such egregious abuse pale compared to the rewards Belfort offers his crew, as far as they’re concerned. Even before he finds such accomplishment, Belfort is shown as a sensually greedy cad cavorting with prostitutes, and with great success comes only greater excess. The moment he claps eyes on Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie), a random, stunningly attractive guest at a party he throws, he flirts mercilessly with her whilst conspicuously ignoring her dipshit, preppie date. Donnie’s status as Jordan’s embodied id-beast is confirmed as he, in a drug-addled state, settles for whipping out his dick and masturbating in the midst of the party whilst ogling Naomi. Jordan seduces the dilettante model, or rather she seduces him, because, like Jordan, she operates according to programmed cues to go after the rich guy. Theresa catches them together as Jordan’s snorting cocaine off her rack in a limousine. One marriage ends and another commences, but not before Jordan treats his firm to a Caligula-level bacchanal, flying them all to Las Vegas with a planeload of hookers and drugs. The scene concludes with a shot of the naked Belfort standing before shattered hotel room windows, gazing out on the Las Vegas dawn, quoting a $2 million price tag for it.
Belfort easily gives FCC investigators the run-around, sequestering them in a freezing cold room whilst setting up a grand scam that ensures triumphal profits: Donnie’s schoolyard association with Steve Madden (Jake Hoffman), hip shoe designer who’s taking his company public, allows them to turn the deal to their own advantage. The Wolf of Wall Street is, inevitably, a film about hubris, but Belfort’s particular kind of hubris is fascinating: having built an extremely successful business in a morally questionable, but essentially legal field, he must go further and attempt to rig the game, as he commits stock fraud on the Madden deal, making himself personally far richer. When he hears an FBI agent, Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) is investigating him, Jordan invites him and a partner onto his yacht, trying to let the allure of his lifestyle entice the agent, and then, as the agent affects agreeable receptivity, talks and talks himself right up to the edge of committing another crime in intimating a possible bribe for Denham. Denham points this out, the two men’s feigned amity crumbling beautifully as Belfort throws him off his boat and insults the two men with wealth-based jibes, hurling bills after them in a display of bratty anger, but all too aware that in wiseguy terms, he just showed his ass. What’s particularly acute here is that Denham operates like Scorsese’s camera, slowing to attentive stillness, letting the scene run on and on until Jordan’s taken enough rope to hang himself. The Wolf of Wall Street consciously mimics the structuring of Goodfellas and Casino in particular, with the self-evident point that they’re all criminal epics, starting in medias res, then jumping back to show how the set-up was created, using high-powered montages to put across exposition with a method that’s more like essayistic filmmaking or a bullet-point presentation than traditional cause and effect, and constructing the main thrust of the narrative through detailed vignettes that increase the pressure-cooker atmosphere and sense of gyrating farcicality.
The film’s connections spread out to many of Scorsese’s works and influences, and indeed whilst it never loses its racy verve and consuming intent, it surely counts as a summative work. It’s an antithesis to the viewpoints of Boxcar Bertha (1972), but essays the same thematic motives. Like Mean Streets (1973) and many of Scorsese’s subsequent films, it’s a study in the frustrating irrationality of some personalities who insist on spoiling good deals because they’re animated by desires that crossbreed with their pathology: just as Johnny Boy gets kicks blowing up post boxes, so, too, does Jordan feel the thrill not just of making money and living it up, but also in actively cheating the system and feeling smarter than everyone else. Like Vincent Lauria in The Color of Money (1986), he’s the hip student of the wise operator who rejects moral standards and becomes an unrestrained, conniving asshole.
Yet Jordan cohabits the space occupied by frustrated figures of wisdom like Eddie Felson, as his impish associates detonate hard-earned successes. As Rupert Pupkin finally finds fame and audience adulation through his assaults on the system of celebrity, Jordan finds a second act to his American life because his criminal notoriety attracts followers. Like Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and even Newland Archer, he falls for a blonde status symbol, and like the second two protagonists, is tied to a dark-haired woman who symbolises class mundaneness. Like so many of Scorsese’s characters, including the few saintly ones like Jesus, the Dalai Lama, and Bringing Out the Dead’s Frank Pierce, he passes through the gut of infernal experience, and emerges on the far side of an invisible but genuine barrier, looking back on the audience like a messenger. That experience defines Scorsese’s much-analysed dialectic between saints and sinners, and also unifies them: all approaches to life, essentially, lead to similar crossroads, but then what do we make of them?
Scorsese’s visual stylistics have been so often imitated and annexed by acolytes in the past quarter-century that sometimes his devices threaten to look hackneyed, like the opening sequence’s freeze frames, the practiced mimicry of mercenary film styles (in the film’s second and funniest fake advertisement), the fast-paced camera dollies, and so forth. The colour and richness of Michael Ballhaus’ and Robert Richardson’s work for Scorsese is muted here in favour of the bald, steely tones of Rodrigo Prieto’s digital photography: the segue from the painterly, nostalgic beauty of Hugo is likewise brutal. What continues to distinguish Scorsese’s filmmaking, however, is both the pace and precision of the devices, their organic force: Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing has scarcely been more ruthless or driving with Scorsese’s images, which avoid show-off moments like the famous Goodfellas tracking shots. The facile appropriation of Scorsesean stylistics by the likes of American Hustle neglects its purpose and roots in an expressionistic aesthetic, the drive to make the camera match the sensibility of the main character in an act of forced identification even as he ventures to places we otherwise would never go. We join the ride with Jordan, gobsmacked and appalled, laughing our asses off like bystanders at a particularly mad party: we don’t approve, but no way in hell are we going home.
A sequence that many directors might treat obviously, like the one in which Theresa catches Jordan with Naomi, becomes a little whirlwind of alternating angles that crash in upon each other, distorting space and time—one diorama-like shot from across the street turns the pavement into a desolate, slapstick space with all traffic, including the limousine with Naomi still inside, excised—capturing the violent shock and colliding spaces of experience. All this is scored, by the way, by Eartha Kitt’s rendition of “C’est si bon,” anthem of a gold digger, rubbing the audience’s ears and crotches with its insouciantly materialist eroticism whilst mocking the drama on screen by reducing all the players to types: gentlemen really do prefer blondes. The invasion of the office space by strippers after the frenetic action of the marching band devolves from slashing dollies and cuts to drunken slow motion. The sequence depicting Belfort’s flying orgy, employees humping hookers in every crevice of the frame, is filmed in a tracking shot surveying the scene from above, ravening in its motion but analytical in its height, and then segues into a shot of splendiferously vulgar wonder, as the plane hits turbulence, frizz-haired prostitutes and a wave of white cocaine tumbling in slow motion, a switchback of distrait strangeness. The framing and image is echoed in reverse later, when a private jet Jordan has coming to pick him up explodes in mid-air, as minor hiccup gives way to proper disaster: the fanning flames mirror the shower of coke, this time superimposed over Jordan’s face as he watches in disbelief.
The centrepiece of the film is the epic pep-talk Jordan gives to the firm as they prepare for the Steve Madden sell-off. Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter make mild fun of Belfort for his literary pretences, which only exemplify our contemporary habits of reducing everything to a sound bite or inspirational epigram. Thus, in Jordan’s estimation, Moby-Dick is the tale of a man hunting his white whale, and you, too, can bag your quarry if you follow this simple script. An atavistic, tribal quality underlies Jordan’s creation, signalled early on when Hanna teaches him a kind of ritual chant and chest slap, one that the Stratton Oakmont cadre repeats en masse at Jordan’s signal as they approach their fiscal Thermopylae, echoing the imperial funeral sequence, with its similarly ranked mourners and winnowing chants, in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The film as a whole borrows the deeper meaning of Melville’s novel, as the mad captain takes his ship to destruction in ceaselessly chasing an illusion of cosmic intent, and also echoes John Huston’s film of it in the way he shoots Jordan hypnotising and drawing his harpooners into a quasi-mystic compact of mission.
DiCaprio’s career-best performance is close to unhinged in its energy and force here, and caps over a decade’s worth of collaboration for director and star with a genuine triumph. Equally good in a potentially thankless role is Robbie, playing Naomi, whose aura of high-class beauty is undercut by a peerlessly broad Queens accent. Naomi has a so-English aunt, Emma (Joanna Lumley), who represents all things worth aspiring to for Naomi and Jordan, but who herself delights in subverting such standards: she unblinkingly notes Jordan’s nose caked in coke and reassures him, oh so coolly, “I lived through the ‘Sixties,” and then readily and happily signs onto Jordan’s project to hide his profits from stock scams in a Swiss bank account. Scorsese wrings discomfort but also a kind of comic grace from Jordan’s awkward attempt to seduce Emma as her dollybird charisma and way with an innuendo seems to demand its price; indeed, it’s hard not to fall under the sway of Lumley’s projection of a far different, far more adult and alien brand of sex appeal.
Jordan uses Brad’s Swiss-Slovenian girlfriend Chantalle (Katarina Čas) and her family as couriers to get his money into Switzerland, where it’s handled by Rugrat’s college pal, now a prominent crooked banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel (Jean Dujardin, cunningly following up his 2011 Oscar win in the The Artist). Snooty, wily, disdainful, and as unaware of his own edge of absurdity as any of the other characters, Saurel is presented as Jordan’s European doppelgänger to such a degree that the pair can communicate in quasi-psychic insults. Emma and Saurel prove to be weak links in Jordan’s plot, the former by dying inconveniently and the latter by getting himself arrested on U.S. soil for some completely unrelated conniving. Along the way, however, Jordan’s increasingly erratic behaviour results in two epic sequences of self-destructive tomfoolery. Jordan and Donnie’s Quaalude habit pays off in a scene of tremendous slapstick comedy as Jordan, stoned and just warned that his house is bugged, realises he has to get home to stop a similarly influenced Donnie blabbing over the phone to Saurel. He has to roll, crawl, and drive in a near-paralytic state, finally shaking himself out of a stupor to save Donnie from choking to death by imitating a Popeye cartoon his daughter is watching, snorting a vial of cocaine in place of spinach to fire him back to action. The second comes when, after finding Emma has died, Jordan has to rush from the islands to southern France in order to get to Switzerland and save his fortune, ignoring his wife’s stunned grief and his captain’s cautions; his yacht is wrecked in a storm, and everyone has to be rescued by the Italian Coast Guard.
Such displays of auto-da-fe tomfoolery are hilarious, of course, and successfully reduce Jordan from übermensch to schlemiel; having congratulated himself on spending money in a superior fashion to his hapless investors, he also blows it with incredible talent. The real shipwreck for Jordan comes as his defiance proves ineffective and his tormentors close in. Faced with losing everything, it’s finally Naomi’s cruelly exact spurning that sets the scene for a true debasement. The mirroring here is again concise, as this sequence repeats an earlier fight the couple played out, except reversing the dictum of history as tragedy and then farce. The byplay of the couple is based in Naomi’s sexual power over Jordan, keeping him on a leash by withholding, but shifts from bedroom farce to domestic violence as she gives into his attentions for one last time, and then, with an assassin’s precision, tells him she’s divorcing him: Jordan responds by socking her in the stomach and fleeing to hide in his Porsche with his bewildered baby daughter like a spoilt child refusing to give up his last toy. Scorsese is a past master of portraying the annihilating verve in collapsing relationships—New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull, and Casino climax with disintegrating marriages—and here the action is pushed into a Bergmanesque shot of Jordan assaulting Naomi in long shot at the end of a hallway. The great world has screwed inward for a portrait of intimate brutality. Whilst not as powerful as those other films in this regard, where the marriages were far more detailed affairs and the splitting far more cataclysmic, the effect in the context of the jaunty, adolescent adventure preceding these scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street is jarring, but also, finally clarifying.
Betrayal, as Jordan agrees to rat for Denham on his colleagues, and a half-hearted, self-incriminating stab at redemption, by warning Donnie about this, are equal only then in their pathetic insufficiency. A shot of Denham riding the subway with the other poor schmucks who will never even have a momentary taste of Jordan’s glory days, is, far from being a failure of moral perspective, as some have claimed, actually a coup of such perspective, because it refuses to let the audience off the hook and feel superior. There is, rather, a coldly precise indictment of the world that created Jordan, sustained by fantasies of what he enacted, living on the profits of a common dream of something for nothing, elevating the dark arts of the few at the expense of the many. Perhaps it’s the lingering morality of many, a kind of decency, like Denham’s, that keeps them behaving, or maybe it’s just the lack of smarts; early on in the film, Sea Otter disputes Jordan’s proposal that everyone wants riches with an anecdote of an Amish stoner he once met. Scorsese knows full well that such pacific desires are far more the exception than the rule, and in the world described in The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s dismissed as a jokey discursion. Of course, the desire for such virulent power and plenty is still there, and Jordan’s fantasy was only everybody else’s, even after we’ve seen him pay the price for overreaching. In the coda, as the real Belfort introduces DiCaprio playing him, plying his inspirational wisdom to an audience of wannabes, there is dissociation, as Belfort, punished technically if not sufficiently, now himself becomes the mirror to those desires.
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