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Director/Screenwriter: Joe Maggio
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Dennis Farina had one of the more unlikely routes to show business fame and fortune. A dyed-in-the-wool Chicagoan, he spent nearly 20 years with the Chicago Police Department before he was elevated from acting as a consultant on Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) to performing a small role in the movie. Farina knocked around the Chicago theatre scene, garnering the support of his fellow cops, who came to see and cheer him on. Chicago actors were hot in the 1980s, and Farina was swept up in the talent scouting that took such stage actors as William Peterson, Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Cole, John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise on to bigger and better things.
Farina’s Sicilian-American mug and unmistakable working-class accent didn’t outfit him for romantic leads in Hollywood, so, unsurprisingly, he played a lot of cops and crooks. Indeed, Mann would return to Farina again, casting him as cops in the classic 1986 film Manhunter and the TV series Crime Story, and as a crime boss in the TV series Miami Vice. What I always appreciated about Farina’s approach to his characters was that he never overplayed their toughness. His real-life experience prevented him from hyping the potential threat his characters posed, allowing his natural gravity from having walked in those shoes do the talking for him. At the same time, he found something individual in each of them and understood the delusions and vulnerabilities that might drive a man to choose a tough-guy profession. I became startlingly aware of just how great an actor he had become after watching one of his last films, The Last Rites of Joe May.
Joe May looks at a few weeks in the life of its title character (Farina), an aged short-money hustler of stolen goods who has just been released from the hospital after six weeks’ treatment for pneumonia. He must have been admitted in warmer weather, because the thin leather coat he wears is no match for the brutal dead of winter that greets him on his way back to his apartment in Little Italy, on the near West Side of Chicago. When he arrives, things look different. His belongings are missing, and signs that a child may be around (drawings on the refrigerator, frilly bedspread, toys) dot the apartment. Unexpectedly, he surprises a young woman in the shower. It seems Jenny Rapp (Jamie Anne Allman) and her daughter Angelina (Meredith Droeger) are living there; the landlord (Phil Ridarelli), thinking Joe died, rented the apartment out from under him and tossed all his belongings. A shocked Joe is next to be tossed by an equally shocked Jenny. Now homeless—even his ancient car has been ticketed as abandoned and towed away—Joe has nowhere to go and nothing to do but ride a bus until he is kicked off. One night, Jenny finds him shivering at her bus stop. She takes pity on him and offers him a room in the apartment. He immediately prepares to resume his “career” and get his life back on track.
Farina plays May as a man who has followed his delusions all his life, believing he was destined to do something great and ruining his relationships with his family and friends in the process. His life has been self-centered, petty, careless. His old age is a betrayal of how he sees himself—vital, tough, charismatic, a force to be reckoned with. He rejects the advice of his friend Billy (Chelcie Ross) to move into a retirement community with him where he can socialize and relax. Joe’s life project is unfinished, he hasn’t achieved his potential yet, so relaxation is out of the question. The less Farina does, the more he says about May—his quiet determination and a mind racing to outpace the bad fortune that is overtaking him, but not knowing what to do.
According to director/screenwriter Joe Maggio, he based the character of Joe May on the impoverished, displaced pensioner who is the title character of Vittorio de Sica’s classic drama Umberto D. (1952). Unlike Umberto D., Joe May never succumbs to pathos or melodrama. Farina’s May meets the world with bravado and refuses to let his belief in himself crumble. When he goes to see Lenny (Gary Cole), the fixer who fronts him the stolen goods he sells for a percentage of the take, Joe makes a big show for the drivers waiting outside for their hoodlum bosses to call, using what little money he has to hire a taxi and have the driver (Craig Bailey) open the door for him. Lenny’s contempt is palpable, but Joe is polite and controlled.
Sure he is going to get back into the game, he finds that Lenny has fixed him up with a 50-lb. hunk of grassfed New Zealand lamb (“It sells itself.”). It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry as we watch Farina hump the slowly thawing meat all over town as one grocer after another throws him out on his ear. Farina shows varying shades of anger, exasperation, fatigue, and defiance as Maggio records a day of effort move into a night of failure. Joe loses his courtly ways with Lenny when he goes back to get some respect and spits venom at one of the drivers who tries to offer him some money to tide him over, a cruel act that Farina plays to rip some sympathy for Joe from our hearts. He’s not willing to give Joe a pass, even though we might be.
His saving grace is the tenuous friendship he forms with Jenny and Angelina. Farina’s May is more embarrassed to see Jenny naked than she is shocked to see a stranger in her bathroom. Somehow, he finds it within himself to accept her charity, choosing to believe he can help with the rent, though he has barely a dollar to his name. He bristles at looking after Angelina when Jenny wants to have a romantic weekend away with her boyfriend, Stanley (Ian Barford), a Chicago cop; he was never around for his own son and doesn’t see himself doing “woman’s work.” He proves his inadequacy when he can’t even babysit Angelina properly, “losing” her when he dumps her at Billy’s rest home while he is trying to land a deal. Nonetheless, when he learns that Stanley beats Jenny up and intimidates her, he realizes that it’s finally time to square things with himself, to live up to his potential—which, surprisingly for him, is to do something for somebody else.
Maggio’s script is very observant, very attuned to what happens to us when we find the world has passed us by before we are ready to go. Joe’s neighborhood bartender (Matt DeCaro) still fronts him a boilermaker from time to time, but the gentrifying neighborhood is now overrun with hipsters who look at Joe’s tavern as the perfect “old man” meet-up bar. One of the hipsters even tries to buy Joe’s leather jacket for its retro cool look, insulting its current owner. When Jenny and Angelina buy Joe a record player for the few opera records of his the landlord didn’t toss in the garbage, we know it’s come from a junk shop, a relatively worthless relic that still fits Joe’s present need.
Maggio’s camera, lensed by Jay Silver, offers the real Chicago, far from the famous buildings, marquees, and lakefront that most films use as signifiers, a great tribute from a New York native who changed the location of the film from his city when he cast Farina. This film lingers on outside-the-Loop streets, underpasses, working-class residential neighborhoods, and meat-packing facilities. I’d almost say this film isn’t recognizably anywhere to people who don’t live here, but the presence of Farina and a raft of other Chicago actors gives the film a distinctive voice and vibe. A rap of the knuckles on a tabletop signifies thanks and recognition, short, plain-spoken sentences and expressive looks emphasize the understated staccato of a Chicago conversation, inadequate outerwear gets a matter-of-fact “That’s a little thin for the weather.”
The Last Rites of Joe May is full of small, telling moments that paint a picture of a place, a time, and especially a man whose life amounted to something after all just in the telling of it. The film builds believably to its inevitable end, honestly earning Joe the respect he craved all of his life. Dennis Farina’s tour-de-force performance is an appropriate legacy for a great actor who shared his soul and passion to the end of his life.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni
By Roderick Heath
Michelangelo Antonioni was a relatively minor figure in the European film scene until 1960. The former economics student and journalist entered the film world in the days of Mussolini’s regime, and started his directing career making documentaries. His early labours offered hues of the oncoming neorealist movement, depicting the lives of poor farmers in Gente del Po (1943), plied under the nose of the dying Fascist state but then lost amidst its collapse. He had the honour of being sacked by Vittorio Mussolini, was drafted, started fighting for the Resistance instead, and barely escaped execution. But when he made his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (1950), Antonioni began to blaze a trail off the neorealist path, following a contrapuntal instinct, a readiness to look into the voids left by other viewpoints, that would come to define his artistry. Although slower to make his name, he nonetheless formed with Federico Fellini the core of the next wave of Italian filmmakers. Antonioni helped write Fellini’s debut film The White Sheik (1951) before he made his second feature, I Vinti (1952), a three-part study of youths pushed into committing killings, a sketch for Antonioni’s recurring fascination with characters who barely know why they do what they do. Then Antonioni suddenly became a cause celebre, when his L’Avventura (1960) screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was met by jeers and anger from some of the audience and greeted as a ground-breaking masterpiece by others. L’Avventura took on a relatively obvious but powerful idea: what if you set up a film as seemingly one kind of story, changed tack, refused to solve the mystery presented, and used the resulting discord and frustration to infer a different, less ordained meaning?
Antonioni sold this idea as something like a Hitchcock film without the suspense sequences and reduced to the studies in emotional tension Hitchcock usually purveyed under the cover of such gimmicks, with rigorous filmmaking and an antiseptic approach to his characters’ private obsessions that left them squirming without recourse before his camera. Antonioni was now hailed as the poet laureate of “alienation” cinema, a filmmaking brand digging into the undercurrent of detachment, dissonance, and unfulfillable yearning lurking underneath the theoretically renewed, stable world after the cleansing fires of war and the ascent of modernity. His was the intellectual, Apollonian side to the same phenomenon observed in youth films in the U.S. and Britain like The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955); eventually Antonioni would try to unify the strands with Zabriskie Point (1970). Antonioni followed his breakthrough with two films to complete a rough trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962), and his first colour film, Il Deserto Rosso (1964). For Blowup, he shifted to London and its burgeoning “swinging” scene. Blowup, like L’Avventura, superficially repeats the gimmick of setting up a story that seems to promise regulation storytelling swerves, and then disassembles its own motor. Blowup’s murder mystery seems designed to point up a cocky young photographer’s defeat by ambiguity and lethargy and the dissolution of his own liminal senses. Or does it? Again, there was a Hitchockian side to this, taking the essence of Rear Window (1954) and its obsessive correlation of voyeurism with filmmaking, whilst inverting its ultimate inference. But Antonioni took his motivating concept from a story by Argentine author Julio Cortazar, “Las babas del diablo,” based around a man’s attempt to understand a scene featuring a pair of lovers and a strange man he spots in the background of photos he takes of Notre Dame.
Cortazar’s main character became lost in the unreal space between the photo and his own imaginings, projecting his own anxieties and emotional journey onto the people he inadvertently captured, particular his sexual apprehensions. Antonioni skewed this template to serve his own purposes and to reflect the strange new zeitgeist festering as the 1960s matured. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 sent ripples of profound disturbance and paranoia through the common experience. Conspiracy theorists began scouring photographic evidence for evidence to support their claims even before the Zapruder film came fully to light. Antonioni tapped into a percolating obsession, which joined also to a growing mistrust of public media at large, by reconstructing the central motif of Cortazar’s story to become one of apparent murder—perhaps an assassination. But Antonioni had been playing with some other ideas in the film since his career’s start. I Vinti contained one story set in London, depicting a shiftless young poet who discovers a dead body and tries to sell the story to the press: there already was the peculiar ambiguity of approaches to crime and the weird mix of venality and empathy that can inflect the artistic persona. Antonioni seems not to have lost the reportorial instinct honed in his documentary work. Like Dostoyevsky, he took on tabloid newsworthy stories about murder, vanishings, delinquency, and the sex lives of a new class jammed just between the real masters of society and its real workers. He followed such lines of enquiry through the social fabric of his native Italy at first, and then out into the larger world.
The aura of abstract elusiveness Antonioni’s works give off tends to disguise how much they are, in fact, highly tactile films, keenly aware of place, space, and décor, and constructing mood and inferring meaning through the accumulation of elements. Where Fellini increasingly celebrated the inner world and the furore of the individual perspective in the face of a strange and disorientating age, Antonioni became more interested in the flux of persona, the breakdown of the modern person’s ability to tell real from false, interior from exterior, even self from other, and had to find ways to explain this phenomenon, one that could only be identified like a black hole by its surroundings. Cortazar’s protagonist, moreover, was a writer who also dabbled in photography. Antonioni made his central character, Thomas (David Hemmings), a professional photographer whom he based on David Bailey, quintessential citizen of Swinging London, an angry Cockney kid who became the image-forger of the new age. Thomas’ sideline in harsh and gritty reportage from the edges of society for a book on the city he’s working on—he’s first glimpsed amongst a group of homeless men he’s spent the night taking clandestine shots of—suggests Antonioni mocking his own early documentaries and efforts at social realism. Thomas has a side genuinely fascinated by the teeming levels of life around him, but in a fashion that subordinates all meaning to his artistic eye and ego. He shifts casually from wayfarer amongst the desperate to swashbuckling haute couture iconographer, engaging with haughty model Veruschka in fully clothed intercourse, and irritably bullying another cadre of models until he gets fed up, projecting his own tiredness and waning interest onto them, and walks out.
Thomas takes time out with his neighbours, painter Bill (John Castle), and his wife Patricia (Sarah Miles): Thomas takes recourse in Patricia’s wifely-maternal care now and then, whilst Bill stares at his old paintings and explains that he has no thoughts whilst making them and only finds hints of meaning later, a statement that recalls Antonioni’s own confession that he approaches his works less as systematic codes than as flows of epiphanies eventually gathering meaning. Thomas is nakedly on the make, a businessman-artisan who longs for wealth to become totally free. He has designs on making a real estate killing, hoping to buy a mangy antique store in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood (“Already there are queers and poodles in the area!”) from its young owner, who wants to sell up and hit the seeker’s trail to Nepal. Wasting time before the store’s owner returns, Thomas starts clicking snaps in a neighbouring park, eventually becoming fascinated by an apparently idyllic vignette of two lovers sharing the green space. The woman (unnamed on screen, called Jane in the credits, and played by Vanessa Redgrave), who’s much younger than her apparent lover, spots Thomas and chases after him with a frantic, breathless desire to obtain his pictures. Thomas haughtily alternates between telling her he needs them—he immediately sees how to fit them into his London panoramic, as the perfect quiet diminuendo from all the harsher facts on display—and promising their return, but is surprised later on when she actually turns up at his studio. There have been signs that she and an unknown man might have been trailing him around the city, including watching him during his lunch with his agent, Ron (Peter Bowles).
Thomas’ studio, usually a scene where his will reigns, now becomes a kind of battleground, as Thomas, fascinated by Jane’s manner, at once nervous and uncomfortable but also sensual and self-contained, keeps using promises of the photos to get her to stick around; she, desperate to obtain the pictures, tries using sex appeal to prod him into submission. The two end up merely circling in a toey, searching dance (albeit with Thomas briefly schooling Jane on how to move to Herbie Hancock’s jittery grooves), their actual objectives unstated. Jane’s pushy determination arouses Thomas’ suspicions, so he allows her to finally dart off after trading her scribbled, fake telephone number with a roll of film—a blank roll in place of the one she wants. Thomas then begins studying the pictures of her and her lover in the park. Slowly, with a relentless and monstrous intimation, Thomas begins to see signs that far from being a romantic tryst, he was actually witnessing an intended crime, with Jane acting as the honey trap to bring the man to the scene, whilst her unknown partner lurked in the bushes with a gun. At first, Thomas thinks hopefully that his presence foiled the killing, but on looking even more closely, realises the target had been gunned down whilst he was arguing with Jane, or is at least apparently lying motionless on the ground. “Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out,” Thomas says with glib, but minatory wisdom to Jane, in reply to her cover story about why she wants the pictures. Eruptions of irrational occurrence and suddenly, primal mystery in Antonioni’s films don’t really sort anything out, but they do tend to expose his characters and the very thin ice they tend to walk on.
As if as a punch line to a very strange joke, Blowup became a pop movie hit, mostly because it became prized as a peek into a world about which many outside the scene fantasised, and its snapshot, now precisely a half-century old, still lingers in exotic fascination for many as time capsule and aesthetic experience. Blowup’s strangeness, implicit sourness, and assaults on filmic convention might even have helped its success, the aura of shocking newness it exuded perfectly in accord with the mutability of the moment. The ironies here are manifold, considering Antonioni’s insinuation that there’s no such thing as the sweet life and that cool is a synonym for wilful ignorance. One could suspect there’s a dash of the dichotomy apparent in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics, plying the allure of behaviour the moral framework condemns. But that would come from too glib a reading of the total work, which, in spite of its stringent evocation of a helpless state, is a lush, strange, attractively alien conjuring trick, a tale that takes place in a carefully cultivated version of reality, as much as any scifi or fantasy film. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) perhaps owed something to its patient, subliminal method and seeming ambling, but actually highly controlled form. Hitchcock himself was transfixed by it. Its spiritual children are manifold, including not just Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola’s revisions on its themes (The Conversation, 1974; Blow Out, 1982) and attempts by later Euro auteurs like Olivier Assayas (demonlover, 2002) and Michael Haneke (Cache, 2004) to tap into the same mood of omnipresent paranoia and destabilised reality, but more overtly fantastical parables like Logan’s Run (1976) where youth has become a total reality, death spectacle, and nature an alien realm, and The Matrix (1999) where the choice between dream and truth is similarly fraught. There was often a scifi quality to Antonioni’s films, with their sickly sense of the landscape’s colonisation by industry and modernist architecture like landing spaceships, the spread of a miasmic mood like radiation poisoning, the open portals in reality into which people disappear.
Blowup is a work of such airy, heady conceptualism, but it is also ingenious and highly realistic as portraiture, a triumph of describing a type, one that surely lodged a popular archetype of the fashion photographer in most minds. Thomas is a vivid antihero, but not an empathetic one. In fact, he’s a jerk, a high-powered, mercurial talent, a bully and a sexist with hints of class anger lurking behind his on-the-make modernity given to ordering his human chess pieces how he wants them. Hemmings, lean and cool, the fallen Regency poet and the proto-yuppie somehow both contained in his pasty frame, inhabits Thomas completely. When he and Redgrave are photographed shirtless together, there’s a strong erotic note, but also a weird mutual narcissism, as if both are a new species of mutants Antonioni can’t quite understand that will inherit the earth, able to fuck but not reproduce. Thomas seems like a glamorous, go-get-’em holy terror for much of the film, a study in prickish potency and constant motion—perhaps deliberately, he’s reminiscent of Richard Lester’s handling of the Beatles in places, the free-form artists at loose in the city with a slapstick-informed sense of action. But Thomas slows to a dead stop and fades away altogether by the film’s end.
Space is the subject of a silent war in Blowup. Within his bohemian studio Thomas is king, able to construct a world that responds entirely to his needs. Antonioni uses its environs to create a system of frames within frames, subdividing his characters and their interactions. Thomas’ ambition to annex the antique store represents a desire to expand a kingdom, and he roams through London keen to the process of the homey old city putting on a new face, whilst energetic young students engaged in the charity ritual known as the “rag” dress as mimes and roam at loose, claiming everything as their own. The empty public facility of the park becomes, ironically, a cloistered space to commit a murder. Later, when Thomas returns to the spot, he finds the victim’s body still sprawled, pathetic and undiscovered, upon the greenery. “He was someone,” is all Thomas can bleat at one point as he tells Patricia about the business, indicating both his bewildered lack of knowledge about the man to whom he’s been left as the last witness, and also his forlorn realisation that the man’s death is the mere absence of his being.
The giant airplane propeller Thomas buys from the antique store delights him, a relic of technology, the promise of movement now purely a decorative motif for his studio. Thomas craves freedom, but has no sense of adventure: “Nepal is all antiques,” he tells the store owner when she says she wants to escape her wares and their mustiness. Thomas’ talent has made him a magnet for wannabes, a fetish object himself in minor celebrity. His curiosity for Jane, with her intensity pointedly contrasts his insouciance towards two would-be models (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) who come hoping for a shooting session, but essentially become a pair of temporary houris for the flailing macho artist. The sequence in which Thomas and the two girls, known as only as the Blonde and the Brunette, sees Thomas revealing a scary side as he monsters the Blonde, only for this to quickly transmute into a gleefully childish, orgiastic moment as the three wrestle and fuck on the floor of the studio. Afterwards, the two girls worshipfully put his clothes back on. For them, it’s a graze with success in all its filthy glory and a moment of holy obeisance to the figure of mystical power in the new pop world. For him, it’s a moment of barely noticeable indulgence, a distraction from the far more interesting mystery before him, which in itself stirs a need in him he barely knows exists, like Jane herself. During their long scene together, Thomas pretends a phone call, possibly from Patricia, is from his wife, apparently just to tease Jane. He casually invents a history and a home life that he then completely revises until he’s left in honest limbo. The image of elusive happiness of Jane and the man in the park and the mystery of Jane stirs a wont—and then proves a total illusion, a siren call to annihilation.
The film’s crucial movement, a high point of cinema technique and style, comes as Thomas investigates his pictures. He zeroes in on anomalies and blurry, seemingly meaningless patches, even the inferences of his “actors”’ body language, and marks out points of interest and uncertainty. He then makes new prints blowing up these spots. Each reframing and zoom is a partial solution to the last puzzle and the start of a new one, until his studio is festooned with what seems an entire story, which Antonioni can now move through like a primitive flipbook protomovie. It’s a miniature film theory class, a lesson in constructing to elucidate a reality that would have otherwise been missed in the clumsy simplicity of human perception. It’s also a journey in transformation, turning the idyllic moment Thomas prized so much into a menacing and terrible opposite, and dragging Thomas himself through alternating states of obsession, pleasure, depression, and finally nullification, the film character invested with the same alternations of emotion and perception as the audience watching him.
Blowup fades Thomas out before it fades out itself, and his subjects are revealed as even stranger than they seemed: Jane’s frantic attempt to ward him off, the man’s slightly sheepish, slightly haughty disinterest. In both readings of the situation, something shameful is happening. The lurking killer’s posture and shadowiness are reminiscent of Reggie Nalder in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), but the thunder of Hitchcockian climax has been replaced by the shimmering, Zen-touched hiss of the trees. The aesthetic key comes from Bill, an artist working in a purposefully diametric medium, the man trying to make form out of his own strange chaos, even stating, perhaps superfluously, that it’s like tracking a clue in a detective story. The two art forms collide, mingle, reforge. Aesthetic is no longer décor, but challenge, way of being, even a danger.
What was profoundly disturbing in Antonioni’s moment has become a playful norm. Today, the manipulation and transformation of images, usually for trivial purposes and day-to-day entertainment, is commonplace. YouTube is crammed with ingeniously faked reels of monster sightings. Anyone who’s worked on retouching a picture with Photoshop has been through the experience of Thomas seeing, say, the eye of a beautiful woman turning into a swirling galaxy of colours and then an array of completely abstract cubes. The difficulty of manipulating film, with its complex chemical properties, has given way to the perfectly malleable states of digitisation. The idea that photographic evidence can automatically or even momentarily be granted complete trust is archaic. Cinema verite gave way to reality television. More seriously, huge amounts of time, energy, and bandwidth have been devoted by some to investigating footage of the moon landings and the 9/11 attacks for proof of conspiracy and mendacity, often provoking staggering incredulity over how different people can look at the same thing and interpret it in vastly different ways. Antonioni was looking forward to our time even as he rooted his film in the mood of a particular time and place—the saturation of the image and the charged, near-religious meaning it takes on in spite of being evidently profane. Many in his time saw a Marxism-inflected, Sartre-influenced meaning in his work as diagnoses of the eddying feebleness that descends when political and social motivation are subsumed by a meaninglessly material world. This was almost certainly an aspect of Antonioni’s thinking, though it also feels reductive: like all art, it wouldn’t exist if what it said could be summed up in a pamphlet. The experience itself is vital, the passage its own reality.
Thomas’ ultimate confrontation is not simply with impotence, but also with the vagaries of experience itself, as all proof of his experience vanishes and with it, assurance it ever happened. Antonioni toys with the idea that revealing the truth is only a matter of looking closely and seriously enough for something, but then undercuts it, suggesting that on a certain level, reality breaks down, or perhaps rather like the sense of matter in subatomic particles, is displaced and transmuted. Thomas becomes half-accidentally the witness to a murder, not just because he sees it, but because his merely human memory is the only repository for it after his photos and negatives are stolen. Once the murder’s done there’s no real purpose to action, something his “he was somebody” line again underscores—the only real spur to intervene in a crime is to prevent it, whereas anything afterwards is only fit for an undertaker. Thomas finds the man’s body in the park, but the drama’s over. He can’t do anything except try to enlist Ron to give independent testimony to his witnessing. Perhaps, far from simply accusing contemporary artists and audiences of ditzy political detachment, Antonioni was most urgently trying to portray his experiences as a filmmaker, his attempts to capture raw and unvarnished truths on film and then seeing that truth dissolve because of the vagaries of life and the medium shift under study. At the same time, Antonioni imposed rigorous aesthetic choices on his creation, going so far as to repaint houses in the streets where shooting took place to communicate interior states through exterior sign play: he had become an imperial creator even as he mocked his own ambitions.
The famous performance of the Yardbirds towards the end of the film in which Jeff Beck smashes his own guitar is crucial not as a mere indictment of a slide into neon barbarianism many of Antonioni’s generation saw in the rock ’n’ roll age, though that note does sound, but also a summary of Antonioni’s confession. Here is an artist’s anger with his art and his tools, his sense of form and purpose breaking down in the increasingly nettled sense of what to say and how to say it in the face of a modern world slipping away from any coherent design of understanding. The hip audience watch mostly with faces of stone, happy to let the artists act out their feelings, sublimating temptations towards excess, destruction, anarchy. Although Antonioni’s recreation of the mood of the time was the very opposite of the florid unruliness we associate with the era’s cultural scene, there’s definite sense and accuracy to his portrait, his understanding of the underlying psychic transaction. This scene converts the film’s larger experience into a jagged epigram.
Thomas needs and uses the mystery he uncovers to shock himself out of a stupor, only to find it doesn’t transcend his situation, only exemplifies it. The film’s last few reels turn into a dumbstruck odyssey for Thomas as he seeks Ron to take him to see the dead body, but is distracted by seeing someone he thinks is Jane enter a mod concert venue. He ventures into the concert looking for Jane, whose brief seeming appearance and then disappearance is one of Antonioni’s finest sleights of hand, and comes out instead with the guitar’s neck as a battle trophy, like the two models with him earlier, for the attention of the famous, only to toss the trophy away, its momentary totemic power spent. He then tracks Ron to a posh party where everyone’s doped to the gills and can barely lift a finger in response to Thomas’ news.
Some complained at the time that Antonioni’s tendency to find the same qualities in the countercultural youth and bohemians he studied in Blowup and Zabriskie Point as he did in the tepid bourgeoisie of Rome was wrongheaded and phony. But time eventually proved him right in many ways. There’s a cold, mordant honesty to the sequence in which Thomas sits watching a bunch of bohemian toffs getting high, the new lotus eaters buying out of a reality they’ve barely glimpsed anyway, faintly anticipatory of Kubrick’s historical wigs with people underneath in Barry Lyndon (1975), glimpsed in Restoration artlike friezes, and grindingly familiar to anyone who’s been surrounded by very stoned people at a party. Thomas’ resolve dissolves amongst their uninterest and his own exhaustion. He awakens the next morning, restored but now with the grip on his fever dream lost.
The closing scenes provide a coda much like the one Thomas wanted for his book: perhaps he’s projected himself after all into the zone of his fantasies, a state of hushed and wistful melancholy. Thomas finds the body gone. The drama he happened upon has now dissipated, replaced by the gang of students who have been crisscrossing his path since the start, making up their own realities. Tellingly, these characters are the only ones who have ever made Thomas smile. Thomas finally finds solace, or something, joining in, to the point where the sounds of a real tennis match start to resound on the soundtrack to accompany the fake one the mimes are playing. It’s easy to read this as the final collapse of Thomas’ sense of reality, but it’s also the first time he simply stands and experiences without his camera, his interior reality allowed scope to breathe. Perhaps what we’ve witnessed is not the defeat of the artist but rather a rebirth.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Larisa Shepitko
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“War is hell” is a truism for most people, as it should be, but the fact that large numbers of people continue to wage war and fight shows that a lot of people have a lot more complicated, even positive relationship with it. Such films as The Hurt Locker (2008), American Sniper (2014), and even The Third Man (1949) suggest that for some, war offers purpose, thrills, and profits that no other experience in life has or possibly ever will. The excitement and romance of serving one’s country in combat is at the core of Soviet filmmaker Larisa Shepitko’s Wings, a film that offers a unique perspective on the familiar subject of the “old soldier,” as well as a telling commentary on Soviet life, by focusing on a female fighter pilot whose glory days are long behind her.
Nadezhda “Nadya” Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova), a decorated veteran of World War II, is a school superintendent and civic leader in her provincial town. She faces the usual difficulties of Soviet bureaucrats of the time—her shoddily built school is crumbling, her small staff works overtime to make repairs and manage the day-to-day running of the school, and her students are undisciplined and insolent in the face of authority. During a gathering at which she is to accept an award for the school, some teasing between a male and female student gets out of hand, and the boy shoves the girl hard against a post. An outraged Nadya, her moment in the sun ruined, demands that the boy apologize in front of her guests and his peers. When he refuses, she expels him.
This incident is only the first of several in which Nadya must confront the breakdown of the values she holds dear and the respect she once commanded. Nadya, who never married, has an adopted daughter, Tanya (Zhanna Bolotova), who has grown distant from her. She learns after the fact that Tanya has married her college professor, Igor (Vladimir Gorelov), an older man Nadya has never met. Hurt that she was not consulted nor invited to the wedding, Nadya invites herself over to the newlyweds’ apartment while the couple is entertaining a gathering of Igor’s male colleagues. She listens to the men talk, pinpoints the philosopher of the group as Igor, and goes over to shake his hand. She has guessed wrong, and fumbles awkwardly as Tanya introduces her to Igor.
Despite her very contained and defined look—a severe haircut, close-fitting suits, and buttoned-up blouses—Nadya is a woman who doesn’t seem to know where she fits anymore. Shepitko emphasizes the irony of her situation in her opening shots: a close-up view of a tape measure moving quickly around a body as a tailor records the dimensions of a person who turns out to be Nadya. She adopted a girl instead of a boy because she thought mothers and daughters become closer, yet this plan hasn’t worked out at all. She commanded respect as a flyer, yet now her students draw unflattering pictures of her on their chalkboard and tell her to her face that they despise her. She is refused entry into a restaurant because it doesn’t seat unescorted women, and is sent next door to a tavern mainly populated by men and treated like one of the boys. She visits a museum that has an exhibit honoring Soviet fighter pilots and finds her picture in the collection—she is quite literally a museum piece, her previous life as dead as the bones her curator and would-be boyfriend collects.
Her longing to break free asserts itself frequently throughout the film. As we all do at moments of stress, disappointment, or boredom, Nadya escapes into daydreams. She imagines an open sky around her, the sun peeking through clouds, as Shepitko’s camera dips and tilts from inside Nadya’s thoughts. During a sojourn to a riverside beach, Nadya watches planes glide through the sky doing barrel rolls and finds herself traveling to the nearby airfield where one of her former comrades is training these pilots. The two reminisce and talk about getting the gang together for dinner and drinks, though they and we know this gathering will never happen. Too much time and life have passed. Nadya has only her memories now, including one of the man (Evgeniy Evstigneev) she would have married had his plane not crashed, and her duty. As she tells Tanya, “I never even knew such words as these: ‘Let someone else do it.’”
Shepitko’s eye and ear for detail are admirable. Nadya asks the curator if anyone has brought him a samovar for his collection, referring to an outmoded teapot she no doubt used in her younger days in sarcastic reference to her own age. Shepitko shoots a close-up of a high heel sinking into the school’s cheap floor, turned to putty by a pervasive dampness. She very effective isolates the charged look between Nadya and the student she expelled at the crowded tavern and catches the paralyzed look of the curator when Nadya abruptly asks him to marry her. Shepitko honors the solidarity of women of a certain age when Nadya and a restaurant owner bond over a cup of coffee and dance joyfully together in a spontaneous burst of energy. That energy extends to the final, inevitable scene where Nadya may or may not have found herself again. The open-ended shot of a patch of sky ends Wings on an ambiguous note.
Shepitko was a student of Alexander Dovzhenko, one of the most important early Russian filmmakers and a pioneer of montage theory. She died in a car crash in 1979 with only a handful of credits to her name, though her final feature film, The Ascent (1977), made her international reputation by winning the top prize at the 27th Berlin International Film Festival. However, it’s easy to see from Wings that Shepitko was on an upward trajectory that would have lasted for years had she lived. Her able direction of both the camera of Igor Slabnevich and her actors, especially the many shades she elicits from Bulgakova and the pointed portrayals of her supporting cast, mark her as a particular talent steeped in a film tradition not even Soviet control could contain.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Max Färberböck
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At least through February 28—Oscar night—it’s a pretty sure bet that people will be talking about Todd Haynes’ Carol and its six nominations, including Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the best actress and supporting actress categories, respectively. Carol is the latest, but certainly not the only lesbian romance to hit the big screen in a big way; indeed, Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival as recently as 2013. As I started thinking about films that deal with this topic, my mind went to a feature directorial debut from Germany, Max Färberböck’s Aimée & Jaguar.
Like Carol, Aimée & Jaguar is based on a book. Unlike the former film, which derives from the semiautobiographical novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the German film is based on the published correspondence of Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, two Berliners whose love affair spanned the final two years of World War II. What makes their story especially compelling is that Wust was a middle-aged wife of a Nazi soldier and mother of four and Schragenheim was a 19-year-old Jew who hid her religion and worked at a Nazi propaganda newspaper from which she secreted information to the underground working to topple Hitler and his regime. Wust and Schragenheim don’t get the happy ending intimated in Carol—instead, the couple is ripped apart by the SS on an especially happy day for them, with Felice presumed dead following her deportation to Thereisenstadt and possible forced death march at the very end of the war.
As though to emphasize the real basis of his story, Färberböck bookends his story, quite unnecessarily, with an elderly Lilly (Inge Keller) moving into a retirement home and discovering that one of its residents is Ilse (Kyra Mladeck), her former housekeeper and a friend and lover of Felice (Maria Schrader) before Lilly came on the scene. A voiceover from Ilse leads us back to the dangerous and, at least for our characters, thrilling days of 1943 Germany. Felice, an orphan, lives with Ilse (Johanna Wokalek) and her parents, plays up to her unsuspecting and adoring boss (Peter Weck), and pals around with a coterie of lesbians who live like it’s the decadent ’20s, not the fascist ’40s. One night, at a concert, Ilse sees her employer, Lilly (Juliane Köhler), out with a German officer while her husband, Günther (Detlev Buck), is fighting on the eastern front. Felice comments to a jealous Ilse about how attractive Lilly is and contrives to make contact with her after the concert, a brief encounter that lets the women get a good look at each other.
Felice insinuates herself into the Wust household, eventually organizing a party there with a group of her lesbian girlfriends. Günther, suddenly returned from the front, jumps into the middle of the lively goings-on. When Lilly catches him making out with Ilse, she brings her discovery rather excitedly to Felice. The younger woman takes the opportunity to kiss her, and earns a slap for her trouble. But the ice has been broken, and eventually Lilly succumbs to Felice’s seduction and sets up housekeeping with her in Lilly’s spacious apartment.
Aimée & Jaguar is an intriguing film that offers much food for thought, particularly in comparison with Carol. Whereas Haynes’ film is tightly produced and directed, with strong attention to period detail, Aimée & Jaguar is episodic and too beholden to the imagery of Weimar Germany and media depictions of the decadence of the time; Marlene Dietrich’s top hat and tails feature in a “wedding” ceremony between Lilly and Felice, and Felice and her friends pose for naughty pictures to be sent to the soldiers at the front in a scene that could have come from a Pabst film from the 1920s.
In other ways, Aimée & Jaguar captures a life force that the circumscribed Carol never really approaches. Felice and Carol are both predators, the former seeing if she can conquer a Nazi hausfrau of startling conventionality, the latter seeing an easy target in the fascinated and inexperienced store clerk she seduces. Both women are enigmatic, hiding their secrets from all but their intimates, and the extent to which either woman loves the new woman in her life is very much open to debate. But Carol is a fetishized mannequin of ’50s propriety, whereas Felice lives “now, now, now,” as excited as she is concerned about the closeness of death, delighted by the subversion of being welcomed into the anterooms of the Nazi power structure.
The choice to focus equally on both Lilly and Felice (Schrader and Köhler were both named best actress at the Bavarian Film Awards, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the German Film Awards) offers a strength Carol eschews in favor of privileging the female gaze of Carol’s lover, Therese. Lilly is an absorbing creature, welcoming ranking Nazis into her arms with a rather comic flourish after she sends her older children to the zoo with Ilse for the umpteenth time. She gets an inkling of the Nazi sting when her parents (Sarah Camp and Klaus Manchen) interrupt one of her trysts, sending the hapless officer (Jochen Stern) into hiding; when they make disparaging remarks about the country’s leadership, he emerges unashamed and menacing, warning them to watch what they think and say.
Lilly’s excitement at receiving a series of poetic and stirring love letters, signed only “Jaguar,” sends her into a tizzy guessing at their author. Felice certainly knows how to prime the pump of a conventionally romantic woman. When they finally end up in bed, Lilly holds her slip modestly over her breasts, trembling uncontrollably with fear and desire as Felice talks gently to her, asking whether she should stop, describing her feelings as matching Lilly’s. The scene is so tender, so erotic, everything the perfunctory, overly choreographed sex scene in Carol was not. Subsequent sex scenes are bold and frank, as Lilly experiences a love and joy she never thought was possible. Her fits of jealousy and anger at being shut out of complete knowledge of her lover are fierce and real. When Felice finally reveals that she is a Jew, Lilly’s response is breathtakingly knowing: “How could you love me?”
Aimée & Jaguar matches Carol in a certain kind of loveliness, a separation of the world of the lovers from the outside world, as when Lilly and Felice go swimming one bright day in a nearby lake surrounded by lush greenery. Yet, the ugliness of the time intrudes frequently. Rubble from repeated bombings of the city background many scenes, and one of Felice’s friends is gunned down in the street. Glowing red skies are both beautiful and horrible, a succinct reminder of the sickening bloodshed in and around Germany’s capital and throughout Europe. Felice’s friends warn her of the danger she has placed herself in, but some sort of compulsion—perhaps it is true love—keeps her at Lilly’s side. Unbelievably, Lilly visits Felice at Thereisenstadt as though it were just a local jail. Could this breach of the mass denial Germany was laboring under have hastened Felice’s death? No one can say for sure, though I personally don’t think it could have made much of a difference one way or the other.
On the downside, the film’s structure is a bit too loose. Günther pops in and out of his home so easily that it seems the eastern front he’s serving at is East Berlin. Lilly’s fourth child remains resolutely off-camera until near the end of the movie. Finally, the Berlin underground operates in such an obvious way in this film, I’m surprised it could have operated at all. On the upside, there is an equal mix of Germans who hew to the party line and those who maintain a relaxed, even helpful demeanor toward the “subversives” in their midst. The camaraderie of Felice and her friends is warm, youthful, and protective. Lilly’s rash actions—divorcing Günther and visiting Felice at the concentration camp—show her naivete and are met with horror by Felice’s friends. When she says, “Now I’m one of you,” the women and we know she is too far separated by her experiences to ever understand what their lives have been like under Nazism. Aimée & Jaguar describes an intense pas de deux of love, but maintains a strong foothold in the world of its time. Its rich performances and balanced approach to its central couple make it a nourishing experience.
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Director/Screenwriter: James Cameron
By Roderick Heath
To say that pop culture in the 1990s lacked in romanticism would be an understatement. The decade that gave unto us grunge music and the indie film craze can be aptly celebrated for general dedication to grit and eccentricity, but it also left a vast audience desperate for classical cinematic values of expansive vision and star power purveying high-flown passion. James Cameron’s sixth feature rode in on a wave of publicity over its colossal expense and often worrying buzz: the production had been troubled, the test screenings negative. Cameron had, until this moment, been a hero for many younger movie fans, the man who perfected, if not invented, the scifi-action film and brought a walloping, sophisticated intensity to all of his projects a legion of wannabe filmmakers wanted to emulate. But True Lies (1993) had been an awkward attempt to blend his high-powered template with relationship comedy, and for a fateful moment with Titanic, it seemed like he might have his Heaven’s Gate (1980). Then, of course, the opposite happened: Titanic became, in unadjusted terms, the most successful film of all time. As Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) might become the first sequel to ever become the top-grossing film of all time, and with star Leonardo DiCaprio heading for a possible Oscar win at last, I thought about Titanic again.
Titanic’s place in the psyche of the moment was, like other record-breakers before it, including Gone with the Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), unavoidable, whereas Cameron’s own successor, Avatar (2009), faded swiftly from the collective eye, and The Force Awakens represents total surrender to the age of franchise cinema, solid but almost instantly disposable, a copy of a copy. It seems that our most officially beloved movies don’t have the same aura of specific gravity anymore. For this reason and others, revisiting Titanic nearly 20 years after its release felt like a fraught proposition. It seems wedded to its time, in spite of the fact that, superficially at least, Cameron’s work seemed closely related to the epics of Cameron’s old Hollywood forebears as an evergreen example of supersized cinema. Like many pop movie hits, Titanic left some totally cold, but charmed so many others that it felt like a communal trance. Cameron conquered the film world, but lost his cool. Although Titanic’s glitz and gilt seemed contrary to the pop cultural mood in the years preceding it, the storyline’s essential thesis that the moment of passion must be seized before everything goes to hell was perfectly in tune with the time. The insistent concentration on the impact of burgeoning modernity and catastrophic epochal shifts also presented a perfect simile for another looming pivot, the approach of the millennium.
Similarly, the film’s flashback structure and nudging contemplation of the present’s relationship to a radically different past still somehow within living memory also caught the zeitgeist, the way nostalgia was ceasing to be a quirk merely of the aging and transforming into a new cultural state. Cameron, a fetishist both of the ritual structure of melodrama and of technology as a mode of expression and mediation rather than mere facility, found in the Titanic story a way to bundle his obsessions together with symbolic force. But, of course, for Cameron, as for many of us, that pseudo-romanticised past was one seen chiefly through the lens of old movies. Titanic is, amongst other things, a relentless remix of dozens of ancestors, harking back not just to 1930s movie melodramas and screwball comedies, but to Victorian stage thrillers, penny dreadfuls, and silent cliffhanger skits. Titanic is blatant in trying to position itself in a grand tradition of big cinema. Cameron’s showmanship often wields tremendous visual acuity, right from the stunning opening shot of submersibles sinking through the endlessly black sea, describing documentary detail and yet immediately introducing a note of eerie, numinous adventure, penetrating the sunken graveyard of memory and eras past. Cameron then contradicts that note as he introduces treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his boorish assistant Bodine (Lewis Abernathy). Brock makes self-dramatizing pronouncement for a video record, only to be made fun of, before invading the Titanic’s wreck on the hunt for the legendary lost necklace called the Heart of the Ocean. Brock thinks he’s found a safe containing the necklace, but instead the case proves to hide a sketch of a beautiful nude woman. Brock is furious, but he tries to use the find for publicity on TV and attracts the attention of 100-year-old Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who quickly snares Brock’s interest by revealing she knows what he’s after.
Brock has Rose and her granddaughter Lizzy (Suzi Amis) flown to his vessel, and after suffering through an instructive, but abstract lesson in how the Titanic met its end, Rose begins recounting her own history of the ship’s ill-fated maiden voyage. Like many highly successful filmmakers, Cameron’s work arrives in a mass of contradictions, affecting to encompass the tragedy of the Titanic’s victims whilst turning their fates into a kind of fun fair, showing off the paraphernalia his budget can offer whilst offering a theme that money doesn’t matter, and evoking the tone of a certain brand of cable television documentary whilst lampooning them at the same time. He presents Brock and crew as a bunch of slick-assed adventurers indifferent to the real history of what they’re exploiting. Cameron writes an unstated mission statement as Bodine shows off his goofy computer-animated version of the disaster, only for Cameron to reproduce it in it exact, bone-shaking detail later. The crassness of the modern is soon contrasted with the splendour and legendary aura of the past, though that past is soon ransacked for inequity and snobbery. Rose’s narrative begin at age 17, a porcelain beauty and poised aesthete (Kate Winslet) silently enraged that she’s been contracted to marry Caledon “Cal” Hockley (Billy Zane), son of a Pittsburgh steel tycoon, because her father lost all her family’s money before dying, and her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) was anxious to make the match to halt a slide into poverty. Cal’s possessive, dictatorial streak is immediately apparent as a self-appointed neopharaoh of the transatlantic sphere.
Meanwhile young, footloose artist Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) wins steerage-class tickets for himself and Italian pal Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) in a poker game, and the duo just manage to get aboard the liner before it sails. Jack, of course, thinks he’s one lucky guy. Soon Jack is gazing at Rose from afar, emblem of the impossible world of first class, even as fellow passenger Tommy Ryan (Jason Barry) boasts proudly about the Irish labour that built the ship: the picture of Rose’s floating beauty and her world based in skilled toil of working people. It’s all headed, of course, for the big crack-up, both on the personal level, as Rose flees her impending fate in a momentary fit of suicidal intent, and the impersonal, as the ship nears its rendezvous with the iceberg. Jack’s gallant attempt to talk Rose off her precarious perch on the ship’s stern turns into more physical heroism as he hauls her back over the railing, and, after a brief but telling moment where he’s mistaken for a sex fiend, is thanked by Cal, who asks his manservant Lovejoy (David Warner, nicely mean) to pay him off. When Rose protests, he adds an invitation to dine in first class the following day. Jack is taken under the wing of the unsinkable mining millionairess Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), who loans him her son’s tuxedo. Suitably armoured, he proceeds to charm the hoity-toity guests with his enthusiasm and philosophical take on fortune’s perversity, whilst trying his best to deflect the barely veiled contempt turned his way by Cal and Ruth. Then he entices Rose down to steerage to enjoy a “real party” amongst the buoyant, hard-drinking, melting-pot folk of the lower decks, and Jack and Rose’s attraction combusts on the dance floor. Cal, catching wind of this, thanks to Lovejoy’s patrolling, releases a squall of rage the next morning to Rose’s shock, and Ruth uses emotional blackmail to ensure Rose stays the course.
From the shift into flashback and up until nearly the midway mark, Titanic essentially plays as a romantic comedy with a dash of screwball, one with many motifs in common with 1930s and ’40s versions of that genre in which class versus love fuels such stalwart works like Love Me Tonight (1932) and My Man Godfrey (1936) and Holiday (1938). The diamond that is both the film’s McGuffin and central symbol also recalls the kinds of prized shiny things at play in many a screwball work, like Trouble in Paradise (1933) and Hitchcock’s tribute, To Catch a Thief (1956), both films in which those jewels were both plot motivators and metaphors for sexual frisson. Titanic even has connections with more overtly farcical works, like the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1932) and A Night at the Opera (1935). As the comic brothers did in those films, Jack dashes through a luxury liner upturning the microcosmic social mores and wielding outsider, underclass energy to a point where try as the snobs might to ignore him, they find him an unshakeable, even necessary nuisance. As in A Night at the Opera, the working-class passengers’ celebrations are viewed as an eruption of positive life force that dwarfs the pretensions of the upper classes, and the polygot immigrant tide promises an upset to the familiar ways of life the forced structuring on the vessel is nominally erected to exemplify. For a more elevated reference point, one could also say there’s a hue of Henry James in it all, as Cameron explores his schema through strident contrasts: Old World and New, high class and low, male and female. Notes of menace and impending danger contradict the droll tone, partly because everyone is heading for an inevitable disaster and also articulated meantime by the signs of danger apparent in Cal’s behaviour and the looming threat of irrevocable emotional (and physical) damage to Rose.
One crucial element in Titanic that makes it stand out is the way art is crucial to both the story and its very structure. Jack’s artistic ability services the story, as Rose, who partly defines her intellectual independence through her own critical interest in art and Freudian psychology, is fascinated by his talent. In one of the film’s most famous and oft-lampooned moments, Jack sketches a nude Rose in a scene that captures both the lush, but also suppressed eroticism arcing between the pair, and on different levels, Jack’s ability to transmute that eroticism into artistic purpose, and Rose’s use of it to declare independence from her class and her fiancé. Jack’s status as a bohemian protomodernist whose journeys and experiences anticipate the Lost Generation and the Beats emphasises the notion Cameron purveys of an oncoming world, just as Rose’s fumbling move towards liberation contains feminist rumblings, and their nascent modernity as the couple is spotlighted by this complementary and equivalent intellectual passion. The level of respect Cameron offers art in the film is evidently personal—he made Jack’s sketches himself—and defiant in some ways: usually, the passion of the artist is transmitted through some more metaphorical device in Hollywood. Of course, it’s “art” in a corny and reductive sense, with the ready-made signposting of Rose’s early modern collection and Jack’s embodiment of the artistic spirit as above all a sexual-romantic one. Dig the careful way Cameron both presents him as an unashamed eroticist with his sketch book full of naked chicks, but also reassures us he not merely some perv by noting how a prostitute’s hands obsessed him above all. Yet, another interesting facet of Titanic was the relatively unabashed championing of a little soft-core eroticism and youthful sexuality, at least by the standards of the increasingly timid Hollywood of the day, leading up to Jack and Rose perhaps being the first teens to ever have their first screw in the back seat of a car.
Jack’s way of feeling and seeing pervades the film’s visuals. The other most famous moment in the film, coming much earlier, is the one in which Jack stands on the Titanic’s bow and loses himself in ecstatics at the limitless promise of the future, whilst the ship’s captain, E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill), lets the brand-new product of human ingenuity and vision off the leash to sprint across the ocean. Cameron’s camera sweeps over the ship and explores the process by which Smith’s order becomes mechanical fact. Machinery and personal vision, the best products of the human world, combine in a moment of transcendence, one that visualises Jack’s artistic fugue that climaxes with his cry, “I’m the king of the world!” The filmmaking, blending special effects and expansive emotion, creates the experience and also rhymes with it, Cameron’s purest expression of his delight in the showmanship of cinema.
One of Cameron’s defining traits as a filmmaker had been a fascination with technology, and his depictions of the minutiae of the Titanic’s working parts recalls filmmakers like Dziga Vertov, John Grierson’s GPO film unit, and Howard Hughes in his desire to lay bare how things work, to get at the very guts of an industrial society’s relationship with its works and wares. Utilising the near-limitless freedoms allowed by modern special effects, he takes time out to note things other filmmakers would scarcely consider —the ship’s great propellers starting up and stirring a vortex of mud as the ship leaves harbour, the desperate effort of the chief engineer to reverse the engines during the iceberg collision—in his desire to encompass the nature of the Titanic as a technological creation that is also a near-animate, but vitally flawed, expression of its creators’ dreams and blind spots. In a naïve, but very real sense, he includes the mechanics of the human world aboard ship in the same regard: his sociology has a similarly mechanical sensibility. When the ship does hit the iceberg, the smooth functioning of both the machine and its human parts begin to break down, both essentially becoming a cage Jack and Rose try with new desperation to escape.
The Titanic’s history has long retained a specific gravitas and mystique as the apotheosis of a certain brand of ethic, an ethic that would soon be tested to the limit and finally shattered, along with whole social structures and institutions, during the Great War, carried down to us by tales like that of the ship’s band playing right until the end, and Benjamin Guggenheim sitting down with his valet to calmly await the end. Variations on the history had been filmed many times before Cameron took it up, most stacked with their own microcosmic studies. A 1943 German take, made as a Nazi propaganda film, turned it into a parable of British decadence. 1953’s Titanic, directed by Jean Negulesco, presented similar tensions to Cameron’s, emphasising the looming divide between nascent American motivation and Old World loucheness, with some cross-class romance. Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film A Night to Remember, usually regarded as the best Titanic film, took a cool, docudrama approach and supplied a very British sense of intense fortitude, but also, underneath that, regarded the human failings as well as the sad beauties revealed by the tragedy, including portrayals of the repression of the steerage passengers in a way more biting than Cameron’s. The little-remembered, but excellent miniseries SOS Titanic (1979; David Warner also costarred in that) similarly emphasised realistic detail. But Cameron’s film arguably goes further than any of these in encompassing the event on a metaphorical level, becoming something like a myth of the death of the Old World two years before the start of World War I, and the birth of the New World. Cameron, naturally, finds a telling detail in naval architecture: the great ship, the embodiment of newness, has a rudder too small to allow it to miss the iceberg. In a similar way, the rituals of gentility can’t stand up to the eruption of the repressed when push comes to shove. Cameron interrogates the stoic mystique by refraining obsessively to the survival will of the steerage passengers, kept at bay by the reflexive containment of the crew, and offering noisy, declarative, proletarian wilfulness as the only thing that can keep them alive. In short, Cameron attacks the Titanic myth’s very British aura and remakes it as very American. This mediating idea probably explains why Cameron was mostly spared greater ire from U.S. conservatives, in spite of the relentlessness of his class-war message.
As filmmaking, Titanic feels like it has at least one foot planted in John Ford’s oeuvre, particularly the phase in Ford’s cinema that climaxed with Stagecoach (1939), packing a socially diverse lot into a vessel and sending it where death and disaster await, with a refrain of outlaw romance, one Ford brought over from The Hurricane (1937), which was, of course, a disaster film like Titanic. At the time of release, some compared Cameron’s labours to David Lean in his sweeping, screen-filling vistas and gifts for orchestrating massive events. Cameron’s visuals do sometimes wield the mimetic quality of Lean’s, particularly the “king of the world” sequence in rhyming Jack’s inner world to the outer, whilst the film’s focus on an artist in love amidst turmoil recalls Doctor Zhivago (1965). But it almost goes without saying that Cameron lacks the often irony-spiked intelligence and sophistication of either director, who based themselves solidly in strong screenwriting and the divergent qualities of old Hollywood and British dramatic styles. DeMille is a more obvious relative, with his gift for manipulating massive elements and tying them to large dramatic ideas. Another close relative, it strikes me, is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)—like Lang’s supercity, the RMS Titanic is conceived as a doomed social vessel upon which the tensions of the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist are projected, climaxing in flood and ruination, images of squirming masses desperately trying to hold on. Lang also squarely rooted his parable and more sophisticated ideas in raw morality-play schemes of Victorian pulp fiction.
The problem with Titanic is that whilst its themes and imperatives are beautifully visualised and intelligent, if obvious, they are conveyed on a dramatic level by strokes so broad they border on crude. Cameron had energised big-budget genre cinema by entwining unexpectedly emotional stories with crashing hardware and conceptual fancies, but stepping out of his comfort zone in hypermodernity, he sold his period fantasia not simply by presenting his heroes as frustrated, nascent citizens of a world yet to be created, but by leaning on clichés and caricatures to evoke the era. Writing period dialogue, especially for an era like the 1910s that lurked between the familiar and the alien, can be tricky, and Cameron barely even tried: Jack and Rose often interact in the same slightly provoking, sarcastically aping manner as a pair of ’90s teens. As exacting as he is in his recreation of the visual textures of the past, Cameron remains often oblivious to the ear. The comedy, far from being as witty as the stuff he references, manifests instead in gauche moments like when Jack challenges Rose to engage in a spitting lesson, like someone let young Huck Finn on the ship. Cameron’s dogged evocation of class rage is admirable on some levels, but facetious on others: at its worst, the film is less 1930s screwball than 1980s slobs-versus-snobs farce with pretensions. One heralded aspect of the film that has dated awfully is James Horner’s Oscar-winning score. The pompous theme song, “My Heart Will Go On” got old very quickly back in the day, but the whole score sounds misjudged now, with its cheap-sounding synthesiser chords and excessively lyrical passages that sound like background music for a John Tesh album. It’s a pity that Horner, a great movie composer for the most part, was most remembered for this pap.
The dialogue is littered with egregious anachronisms, and many smaller roles are overplayed. Paxton, usually a reliable presence, hits an annoyingly overripe note early in the film and holds it right through. That said, most of the leading members of the cast labour to give the film vitality it might not have had otherwise. Fisher’s lethal jade gaze wields more violence than any of Cameron’s Terminators, and Victor Garber’s performance as the ship’s tragic designer Thomas Andrews is deft, capturing the pathos in a warm-hearted, brilliant man living just long enough to see his own worst nightmare and failure come to pass. Zane’s performance as Cal is usually targeted as a weak point, but upon returning to it, I found him one of the chief pleasures. Zane grasps Cameron’s bull by the horns in presenting Cal in all his unregenerate, Snidely Whiplash-esque caricature: clasping, possessive, snotty, bullying, with an apparent streak of intense neediness that makes him all the worse, delivering Cameron’s lines like, “What made you think you could put your hands on my fiance? Answer me, you filth!” with glee. By the film’s later stages, he becomes entirely splendid in his awfulness amidst all the noble behaviour, using a random lost child as his cover to enter a lifeboat, like some Terry-Thomas character at loose in an Arthur Miller play. I almost find myself wishing there exists a cut of the film composed purely of Cal being awful. DiCaprio and Winslet had harder jobs in making their characters seem nuanced and lifelike, and in conveying the necessary passion to ensure Jack and Rose emerged as more than mere puppets amongst the set design and screenplay determinism. They rose to the job with performances that set both solidly on the path to long and interesting careers. But time has dimmed the lustre of their chemistry, the thinness of some of their business and the self-conscious approximation of classic romance is rudely clear now, at the mercy of Cameron’s sometimes laborious signposting, to the point where patches of the first half are a bit hard to sit through.
Winslet was awarded an Oscar nomination, whilst DiCaprio was not. Winslet’s intelligently layered performance is still admirable, if beset by a period mid-Atlantic accent often brittle in its fastidiousness. With her cascading mane of wavy red hair, she seems to have stepped right out of some John Waterhouse painting, whilst belying the passive images of femininity her looks evoke, evolving by the last act into the kind of robust, gutsy lady Cameron likes so much. DiCaprio meantime offers the height of quicksilver matinee appeal. Underlying his superficial embodiment of a kind of boy-man dreamboat ideal of ’90s stardom and the broadness of the cowboy poet character he’s asked to maintain, he still comes on in Titanic like the nexus of a half-dozen Old Hollywood star archetypes—here a flick of Gable’s roguish charm, there a shot of Jimmy Stewart’s gangly wryness, the physicality of Flynn, the impudence of Cagney. By comparison, many of Winslet and DiCaprio’s subsequent performances, mature, intense, artistically committed, and often punishingly dour as they are, feel like weird cheats in looking back to the way Cameron unleashed them as pure movie stars. Cameron nods to the Twelve Oaks ball sequence in Gone with the Wind as Jack beams up at Rose on the ship’s grand staircase with knowing amusement, and again when the two kiss in the fiery sunset on the ship’s bow. The steerage dance sequence is one of the film’s silliest interludes, working on one level to reduce the pains of the immigrant journey, which Titanic affects to champion, to a dinner theatre experience. But it’s also the most enjoyable, particularly as Jack and Rose swap dance moves, delighting in physical release. Cameron tips his hat to another pop movie smash of years past, Saturday Night Fever (1977), when the romantic couple on the dance floor spin, the camera alternating viewpoints of each in the centrifugal rush.
In some ways, Titanic as a film represents a blend of impulses Cameron wasn’t a good enough screenwriter to make work in tandem. The melodrama framework is too slender to stand the full weight of his ambitions. Then again, Titanic’s occasional lapses into cartoonish broadness are perhaps partly the reason it was so successful—its transmutation of history and ideas into an artefact anyone can comprehend. But a true classic epic has finesse in its bold strokes, a finesse Titanic often lacks. Jack and Rose never have the unruly life, straining at the edges not just of social obligation but also the limitations of their own storyline, that Rhett and Scarlett obtain. Once the ship collides with the iceberg and begins to sink, Cameron’s filmmaking rolls on with the force of a freight train, if still with some notable problems. Cameron’s already familiar habit of presenting his action finales as nested events with surprise second and third movements here has him playing the same tricks a couple of times too many. He sets up a wonderfully tense situation in which Rose must venture deep into the sinking ship to find and free Jack, one which obeys the classic cliffhanger rules straight out of a Pearl White or Tom Mix two-reeler, except with the familiar genders of the trapped and the rescuer purposefully reversed.
But Cameron can’t help but contrive to send the pair back down into the ship again to repeat the sequence. Also, Cameron’s relative uninterest in most of the crew and background characters during the early parts of the film mean that as he starts ticking off the familiar vignettes of the sinking, many of the people enacting them seem vague and random. The film took flack for the portrayal of the ship’s first officer, John Murdoch (Ewan Stewart), usually acclaimed as a hero. Cameron depicts him fraying under the intense pressure of the moment, flabbergasted when Cal tries to bribe him for a spot in a boat and later throwing the money back in his face but, after accidentally shooting Ryan in a bid to keep order, finally killing himself. I can see the offensive side to this, but on the other hand, it’s one of the film’s more dramatically interesting aspects, offering moral ambiguity and a sense of personal catastrophe underneath the plaster saint aspect of the ship’s legend with a purpose that otherwise Cameron tends to slip by in favour of less subtle effects. I find myself more irritated by the way Cameron heedlessly perpetuates a few bogus canards about the disaster, reducing the White Star Line manager Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) to a cheesy villain (both upper-crust Limey and corporate honcho, the perfect twofer), and particularly the idea that the ship was speeding for the sake of some kind of glory.
And yet, despite his hesitations, Cameron still delivers his climactic sequences with incredible force and no small amount of true visual artistry,with Russell Carpenter’s photography a great aid. Indeed, Cameron’s eye decorates the film throughout with cinematographic coups. The sight of Jack and Rose dashing through the boiler room, Rose’s dress floating amidst stygian surroundings like a visiting angel in hell. The dolphins leaping before the Titanic’s knifing prow. The repeated dissolves from past to present seeing the glorious ship turn into the rusting hulk in sonorous depths. The last hour of the film counts, in spite of Cameron’s repetitions, as one of the great cinematic set-pieces, depicting the ship’s slow and monstrous transformation into exterminating leviathan, its sturdy and stable forms suddenly collapsing on hapless passengers and rearing up like a dying beast to dump them all in the icy ocean. Cameron alternates perspectives godlike and immediate, at one moment observing the ship and its distress flares from a distance, revealed suddenly in its remoteness and failing, and next offering a close-up of Rose’s face as she cowers in a flooding corridor, lights momentarily fading, the sounds of the dying ship like a growling belly, capturing her own isolation and terror. Anarchy falls hard upon this floating world; even Cal is momentarily left astounded as he beholds a funnel collapsing upon Fabrizio and other hapless swimmers, Captain Smith pummelled by gushing green waters as the bridge floods. Rose’s paintings drifting in the rising tide. A drowned woman with diaphanous clothes swimming around her, a shot that quietly answers the rhyme of the earlier shots of Rose in the boiler room, the spirit of genteel old femininity lost and gone.
In such moments, Cameron is a man in unrivalled control of his medium, able to pivot between styles and affects with casual ease. The sinking stands comparison with DeMille’s fabled moments of cosmic-scale, orchestrated spectacle, most particularly the collapsing temple at the climax of Samson & Delilah (1949), a sequence with a similar sense of awe in destruction and an overtone of punishing judgement falling upon the iniquitous. Yet Cameron doesn’t quite make the jump to such a level, in part because of his fastidious technique. Whereas the last reel of A Night to Remember starts to feel like a horror film as it depicts the same events with far cruder special effects but with an exacting eye and ear for individual desperation amongst collective terror, Cameron’s showy stunts and special effects that delight in depicting people crashing and spinning to their deaths from the ship’s stern evoke no horror, whilst the audience can take refuge in concentrating on the heroic couple, at least one of whom is guaranteed to survive. Upon this revisit, I noticed how incidental the fictitious Jack and Rose seem through all this, whilst the depiction of Wallace Hartley (Jonathan Evans-Jones) and his band sticking out their job to the bitter end still pierced me.
I recall reading a comment on John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) that stated action tends to describe symbolic meaning better than dialogue in cinema, and there’s truth in this, and yet the more he tries for import here, the less Cameron gains it, at least until the ship finally disappears and he stages a bloodcurdling pullback shot from Rose alone in the water to reveal hundreds more thrashing in the water. The eerie, expressionistic passage where a would-be rescue boat searches the expanse of people turned to icy statues, with Rose croaking desperately for aid, is similarly excellent, at last pushing again at the veil between life and death, heaven and earth, Cameron tested at the start. Jack begging Rose to go on with her life as he slowly freezes to death gilds the lily more than a little, but there’s still an authentic whiff of the kind of heightened Victorian romanticism Cameron’s been chasing all along, particularly as she bids farewell to his ice-daubed, cherub-lipped corpse and watches him sink into the black. But Cameron can’t help but overplay his hand as he returns to the present, reassuring us that Brock has learnt a lesson, whilst Rose drops the Heart of the Ocean into, yeah, the heart of the ocean, and dreams of a reunion with Jack to the applause of their old shipmates. Titanic hasn’t aged so well, it’s true. Yet it still leaves you with the sense that, for better and worse, you’ve just had the kind of experience for which the movies were invented.
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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My conversion to Quentin Tarantino fan has been a fraught and slow one, and not for the reasons some of you might imagine. I’m not that squeamish about violence and profanity, though I will admit they are not my favorite things. No, the real reason I started digging in my heels about Tarantino is that a very aggressive group of male film fans with whom I used to be associated kept insisting that I had to see his films. I don’t like being told what to do, and I especially don’t like to be told by a bunch of men with anger management issues and sexist tendencies. So it came to pass that it was 2008 before I saw one of his directing efforts, Grindhouse: Deathproof (2007). It was a rather unfortunate experience, as his homage to this form of cinema was so faithful that it bored me to tears. Nonetheless, the thaw between Mr. T and myself began, and though I still haven’t seen much of his oeuvre, I thoroughly enjoyed the Kill Bill movies and look forward to viewing others.
Which brings me to his latest film, The Hateful Eight. I was genuinely excited about seeing it, particularly since he was bringing back the widescreen, celluloid film format I remember so fondly from my childhood PLUS an overture and intermission. Why, I haven’t seen those lovely interludes in a proper theatrical setting since The Sound of Music (1965)—and believe me, a lot of films today could use them! I relished the idea of spending a New Year’s Day packed into the vintage Music Box Theatre with a sold-out crowd of 860 to see a genuine movie event. Even waiting outside in the cold for the patrons of the previous sold-out show to exit the theatre and the staff to clean up after them was kind of a thrill. We got some very good seats about 10 rows back from the specially rigged wide screen and waited for the lights to dim and the film to jitter slightly along the sprockets of the 70mm projector, through the Ennio Morricone overture, and finally to the opening vista of a snow-covered range in Wyoming. It was kind of downhill from there.
Tarantino’s choice of genre—a western set during Reconstruction—is an interesting one at this current moment in U.S. history. As racial tensions run high, in part because of the failure to sustain the advances of Reconstruction beyond the pitifully short 12 years it lasted, a bit of truth-telling to the country’s frantic white supremacists and “postracial” neoliberals is certainly in order. The writer/director’s transmitter of choice is a fully empowered African American named Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who fought for his freedom as a member of the Union Army; indeed, as a gun-toting bounty hunter who always brings ’em in dead and who claims a close friendship with Abraham Lincoln (read Barack Obama), he’s their worst nightmare.
The crackers he’s about to instruct constellate certain types. John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a fellow bounty hunter whose nickname, “The Hangman,” refers to his preference to bring ’em in alive. He doesn’t really say so, but it seems he believes in the American system of justice whose foundation is that everyone has a right to their day in court. He also adjudicates life and death on the road to Red Rock by deciding to let Warren and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a goofy guy who claims he’s headed to Red Rock to become their next sheriff, ride with him after they are stranded with a blizzard approaching. Chris, whose daddy was the leader of the infamous Mannix’s Marauders, a band of Confederate soldiers who kept fighting for the cause mainly by killing blacks anywhere and everywhere they found them, represents eager, uneducated youth, sure he’s ready to uphold the law in a land where violently breaking it is more the rule than the exception. The prisoner Ruth is transporting to Red Rock is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an unrepentant outlaw and racist whose obviously drawn-on black eye and function as a punching bag and target for disgusting bodily emissions are so cartoonish that her roles as plot device and (not very funny) comic relief are never really in question. Also, since she’s destined to hang, her enlightenment is neither needed nor wanted.
This being a Tarantino film, we know that this caravan is headed for some kind of bloody reckoning and that it will come at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the waystation where they must ride out the blizzard before reaching their final destination. Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and her husband, Sweet Dave (Gene Jones), are away. Bob (Demián Bichir), a shaggy Mexican, has been left in charge of the store. General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), an elderly Confederate officer who is on his way to Red Rock to erect a tombstone for his son, who died there while trying to seek his fortune, is holed up with two other stuck travelers, hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) and cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Warren turns sleuth at this point, noticing clues that all is not what it seems at Minnie’s, turning this western into a very crude episode of Murder, She Wrote as the cast of characters bob and weave around each other and start dying. All that’s left is to wait for Warren to call them all together to solve the mystery and finger the bad guys.
There are things about The Hateful Eight to admire. Tarantino seems to be more interested in creating character arcs that reveal some changes and depths of understanding. Warren is by far the most full-blooded of the film’s characters, revealing intelligence, cunning in dealing with a racist world, literacy far beyond what might be expected of a man of his background, and leadership skills. Although he appears to be named for Charles Marquis Warren, a pulp fiction writer, as well as a screenwriter and director of numerous western films and TV shows, he seems modeled in part on Robert Smalls, a slave who freed himself and others in a daring escape, joined the Union Army, lobbied Abraham Lincoln to enlist more black soldiers, and eventually served as a congressman from South Carolina. Ruth seems to have an emotional life, with an appreciation of music, an ability to compromise when he lets Daisy off her handcuff tether to him to eat dinner, and a genuine admiration for Warren as a fellow professional of uncommon skill. Even Chris, who initially offers a healthy helping of bigotry to Warren and greets Smithers with outsized respect, seems to grow into his supposed role as a lawman to work with Warren. Only Daisy resists redemption, which marks her out as the baddest of the bad in Tarantino’s eyes and deserving of everything she gets, though, in fact, the script reveals there is a far worse person associated with her in the eyes of the law.
I also applaud Tarantino’s attention to detail in showing how westerners handle blizzard conditions. It was really interesting to see guidelines strung between the store, the outhouse, and the stable through looped poles struck into the ground, and the camerawork of his regular DP, Robert Richardson, did all but put the ice on our noses as stagecoach driver O.B. Jackson (James Parks) struggles against gale-force winds to reach the store from the outhouse. That said, I found a singular lack of imagination in the use of the widescreen format for the duration of the film. Expecting great things from the beautiful panoramic shot that opens the film, I was dismayed that Tarantino immediately slaps us into a claustrophobic stagecoach for some lengthy conversation between Ruth, Warren, Mannix, and Domergue that made me wonder (probably correctly) if the whole thing had been filmed on a soundstage using really good process shots to show the great outdoors through the slivers of window that made it into the extra-wide frame.
After the coach ride, we are again largely confined to the interior of the haberdashery. I have read that Tarantino’s use of Panavision was to record the landscape of the face, but honestly, any camera at all can capture a good close-up of a face (see my review of The Lodger, a 35mm-shot film from 1926, for more on this). In fact, Richardson doesn’t spend all that much time on faces, but rather uses blocking that suggests Cinerama, whose logo is displayed during the opening credits. He divides the screen in thirds and places objects, mainly the characters, squarely in each zone when they are not large enough to fill the screen. This blocking makes demands on the actors and lighting technicians that other films don’t, and thus, there is a real finesse required of everyone to make the technique work. More than that, there needs to be a compelling reason and vision to use it. Westerns tend to be a natural fit because the ethos of the genre is conquest of the wide-open spaces. In this case, I feel Tarantino has neither the finesse nor the imagination that filmmakers like John Ford and David Lean possessed to envision a widescreen world. I applaud the attempt, however, for at least it gives young audiences a taste of what they’ve been missing all these years watching films on increasingly smaller and smaller screens in relative isolation.
Tarantino’s great love for B genre films seems to have extended to his lack of attention to continuity. In one scene, O.B. grabs a bearskin off the wall, rolls himself in it, and throws down next to the fire to warm up from his exposure to the blizzard. He is never seen in this position again. In another, a character is shot, crawls a bit on the floor, and dies. He does the same thing a couple of shots later. The denizens of Minnie’s stake out zones for Union and Confederate sympathizers, respectively, and then repeatedly violate those zones. He also offers the symbolism of an enormous, snow-covered, grotesquely carved crucifix on the roadside, a genre fixture, but never refers to religion in any way again. Even the too good to be true “good people” he injects into the film seem religion-free. In addition, scenes are allowed to drag on and on. For example, we really didn’t need to see eight of the looped poles going into the ground to get the idea, and the repeated “gag” of having to nail the door shut to keep out the snow wore out its welcome very quickly.
The biggest problem for me is that the film really held no surprises, nor did the stakes feel important or personal in any way. I kept thinking about another film, Day of the Outlaw (1959), and how much deeper it went in surveying a similar story because its characters behaved like real people and it seemed rooted in its surroundings in a way all the bric-a-brac in Minnie’s and then some could never accomplish. The film is a flimsy fantasy that I found almost completely humorless, though I may be an exception in this regard, and lacking a proper ending. Its comment on race relations, particularly in one lurid fantasy Warren relates to Smithers, certainly gets at the hysterical fear of black men especially, but because it’s so hard to take Tarantino’s films seriously, any statement he might be making—if indeed he was trying to make a statement at all—will likely be lost. I have no problem with filmmakers who just want to give their audiences a good time, and many filmgoers have had a great time seeing The Hateful Eight. I just wish I had been one of them.
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Directors: Richard C. Sarafian / Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
The story of Hugh Glass contains the essence of American frontier mythology—the cruelty of nature met with the indomitable grit and resolve of the frontiersman. It’s the sort of story breathlessly reported in pulp novellas and pseudohistories, and more recently, of course, movies. Glass, born in Pennsylvania in 1780, found his place in legend as a member of a fur-trading expedition led by General William Henry Ashley, setting out in 1822 with a force of about a hundred men, including other figures that would become vital in pioneering annals, like Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John Fitzgerald. The expedition had a rough time over the course of the following year, often battling warriors from the Arikara nation. Near the forks of the Grand River in what is today South Dakota, Glass was attacked by a bear and terribly mauled, and his party on the expedition believed his death was inevitable. Fitzgerald and some other men, perhaps including Bridger, were left behind to watch over Glass, but for whatever reason, departed before he had actually expired, taking his rifle with them. But far from dying conveniently, Glass, alone in an inhospitable wilderness, instead began to recover. Living off the land and, at first, literally crawling his way to safety, Glass headed for the nearest sure outpost of western civilisation, Fort Kiowa, about 200 miles away. He was helped by friendlier Native-Americans tribes and eventually made it to the Cheyenne River, where he built a raft and floated downstream to the fort. He later confronted and recovered his rifle from Fitzgerald.
Glass found only temporary reprieve from the violent death that would eventually come 10 years later, when his luck ran out and the Arikara caught up, but the account of his ordeal has been told and retold, lending him a kind of immortality. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest work, The Revenant, takes on Glass’s story via the highly fictionalised novel by Michael Punke, and Iñárritu and coscreenwriter Mark L. Smith embellished the tale further to illustrate not merely a great vignette of trial and suffering, but also a panoramic experience of a time and place that’s less than two centuries in the past and yet seems near-fantastical. It’s not the first film to take direct inspiration from Glass. Man in the Wilderness was the second of two films Richard C. Sarafian released in 1971, the other being his most famous work, Vanishing Point. Man in the Wilderness fell into obscurity by comparison, perhaps because it was overshadowed by a host of similar films at the time, including A Man Called Horse (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Man in the Wilderness is, after a fashion, also a product of a legendary time of pioneers and radicals impossible to recapture in an age of more insipid labours, except this time the disparity is merely one of artistic modes. Sarafian’s film is a totem for the fresh, sun-dappled, smoky-grainy stylistics of American New Wave cinema, whilst Iñárritu’s comes with a hefty, technically demanding contemporary production with a massive budget trying to recapture the same feeling of extreme experience and offer that peculiarly contemporary aesthetic, high-powered moodiness. Both films are nonetheless fascinatingly unified, and divided, by their approaches to Glass’s tale, and by their stature as products of filmmakers at the height of their respective powers.
Man in the Wilderness imposes pseudonyms on its characters for the sake of independence and portrays its main character, redubbed Zachary Bass (Richard Harris), as an Englishman, whilst also introducing immediately an element of loping surrealism in Sarafian’s vision: his “Captain Henry” (John Huston) commands from the deck of a boat that has been repurposed as a huge cart dragged overland by a team of horses, allowing his expedition to tackle both water and land as he aims his team toward the nearest big river to catch the spring melt. Immediately, Man in the Wilderness recasts Glass’s narrative as a variation on a theme by Melville, a tale of hubris on land rather than sea: Huston, who adapted Moby Dick into a film in 1956, here takes on the Ahab-esque master role, one which also fits neatly into the run of such corrupt overlord figures Huston would play in this period, most famously in Chinatown (1974). Iñárritu is less fanciful if not less referential or less preoccupied with symbolic dimensions, as his version of Ashley, also called Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), is forced to leave behind his river barge as well as all the furs the team has obtained after a devastating attack by the Arikara that leaves most of the party dead. Iñárritu quickly reveals his own points of adherence as his camera drifts through eerie, sunray-speared forests straight out of some imagined cinematic handbook of Terrence Malick’s (suggested title: “How to Be a Transcendentalist Filmmaker in 2,346 Easy Lessons”), with a strong dash of Herzog as Iñárritu’s camera roams restlessly around his characters on their small raft. Iñárritu creates a jittery, incessantly neurotic mood that suggests that, far from finding limitless freedom and romantic self-reliance in the wilderness, these pioneers are lurching into a bleeding sore in the Earth partly of their own making. Iñárritu and cowriter Mark L. Smith also quickly introduce fictional aspects of Glass’s story, as they portray Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as accompanied by Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his teenage son by his native wife.
Glass’s life before he joined the Henry expedition was, by all reports, already amazing, including a stint of piracy under Jean Lafitte and a spell living with a Pawnee tribe. He married a woman of the tribe and helped represent them in a delegation to the U.S. government. So Hawk isn’t at all an improbable invention, underlining both Glass’s attachment to and affinity for the land and its inhabitants, an affinity too few of his fellows share, as well as lending grim consequence to his character’s preoccupations and the odyssey ahead of him. Iñárritu’s Glass is haunted by the memory of Hawk’s mother, killed in an army raid on their camp, and Glass is marked with enigmatic infamy by his fellows for having killed one of the army soldiers who threatened his son. Fitzgerald, called Fogarty in Sarafian’s film (played there by Percy Herbert, whilst Tom Hardy takes the role in Iñárritu’s), is portrayed in both films as an antsy, truculent, paranoid exemplar of the white pioneer, with a side order of racism and a dose of fear-and-trembling religiosity in The Revenant. Iñárritu makes sure we know whose side to take when his Fitzgerald keeps insistently calling local Indians “tree-niggers.” To a certain extent, Sarafian’s Bass combines aspects of Iñárritu’s Glass and Fitzgerald, presenting a man stripped out of his world and adapted to a new one, solitary and haunted, motivated by almost inchoate need and sometimes seeing the mother of the child he left in Britain, Grace (Prunella Ransome), in foggy memory. Sarafian’s film is a sprawl of hazy browns, yellows, and pale greys, whereas Iñárritu paints with blue filters just occasionally relieved by the touch of the sun.
Early in The Revenant, Fitzgerald tries to spark a fight with Glass and Hawk in his anxiety and boiling anger following their battle with the Arikara and their looming cross-country hike, a gruelling journey made all the more bitter by their lost fortune. Fitzgerald takes out his resentment on Glass as the man who knows the land and has the cool mastery over it and himself that Fitzgerald lacks. Fate puts Glass at Fitzgerald’s mercy, although Fitzgerald only accepts the sorry and dangerous task because Henry offers him a bonus. He, Bridger, and Hawk remain to keep vigil, but Fitzgerald, who once survived a scalping by Indians—he has the semibald patch on his pate to prove it—is so afraid of being caught again by the war party on their trail that he knifes the protesting Hawk to death, dumps Glass in a shallow grave, and lies to Bridger about an imminent native attack to get him to flee with him. In Man in the Wilderness, Fogarty and the avatar for Bridger, Lowrie (Dennis Waterman), flee when they really do when seeing Indians close by, and, when they meet up with Henry, the commander acquiesces to their decision with a pep talk: “Man is expendable. We’re exploring new frontier – we must always push on and give our lives if need be.” Henry all but invites becoming Bass’s nemesis, not just by not going back for him, but also by anointing himself as representative of all the forces and powers by which Bass has felt persecuted. As the film unfolds, the two men fight long-range psychic warfare, Bass making a spear and aiming it with gritted teeth at the distant mountains Henry is trying to cross, Henry firing his guns into the whirling snow behind his wagon train at the invisible opponent. But Henry has his own bewildered feeling for Bass, as he gave the runaway a place on his ship when he was a youth and wanted to be his father figure; instead, he remained locked out by the coldly self-reliant exile.
The Revenant’s title comes from a nickname attached to Glass, a French word meaning to come back or be reborn, and both Sarafian and Iñárritu emphasise Glass/Bass’s story as one of both literal and mystical resurgence. Sarafian’s Bass emerges from his rough grave with some piece of his spirit now infused with the land, and his former fellows begin to see the landscape as charged with portents of his survival. Visions of the stalking revenger torment Captain Henry and Fogarty, to the point where Fogarty accidentally guns down Lowrie, thinking he’s Bass back from the dead. The meaning and import of Bass’s experience isn’t discussed or turned into images as literal as The Revenant’s, but rather diffused throughout the textures of the film. Both Man in the Wilderness and The Revenant wrestle with Glass/Bass’s journey as a tale replete with religious, or at least spiritual, overtones, but also present the hero himself in a state of deep crisis about his belief systems, an insistence that suggests just why Glass’s story fascinates them, as Glass travels as far, physically and in terms of life force, from other men as it’s possible to get and then begins his return. Iñárritu loads his take with images of both shamanic and Catholic concepts of rebirth, as Glass crawls out of the grave, emerges from a ritual hut after surviving a bout of sickness, and later is disgorged from the belly of a horse he climbed into to keep warm. He also enters the (possibly imagined) ruins of an abandoned frontier church replete with faded murals depicting devils and angels. “God made the world!” a hand-lashing, Bible-bashing teacher instructs bewildered and smouldering young Bass, and Sarafian’s film studies the divergent tug between the call of the sublime hidden somewhere in the landscape and his hatred of abusive powers claiming to work in the name of an almighty.
By contrast, Iñárritu’s take on Glass, whilst offering a similarly ecumenical view of spiritual impulses, nonetheless offers what is essentially a passion play, a Catholicised fetish tale of suffering as the way to truth. Both films also depict Glass/Bass’s revenge-seeking journey with a sense of anticipation over whether he’ll actually carry it through. The question of whether to take revenge is couched in terms of maintaining something like an ethical system in the face of a nihilistically indifferent land and a focal point for Bass’s already deep-set sense of alienation and aggrieved fury in the face of humanity’s contemptible side. Iñárritu’s Glass, on the other hand, has a more obvious spur to chase down and confront his enemy—the murderer of his son. Hikuc strikes up a woozy amity with Glass in part because they’re both bereft wanderers, but it’s Hikuc who conveniently spells out the message that vengeance is God’s province, not man’s, and the question becomes whether Glass will heed the credo of vengeance belonging to the Lord and bring mercy to the terrible reaches of the Earth. Meanwhile, authority as represented by Henry is, in very 1971 fashion, posturing, despotic, and grave in Man in the Wilderness; authority, in very 2015 fashion, is callow, well-meaning, and barely competent in The Revenant. “Zach fought against life all his life,” Captain Henry says of Bass, who is presented as a classic prickly antihero of the late ’60s and early ’70s, a self-reliant misfit who can’t handle domesticity, has contempt for standard religion as plied by figures like Henry as representative of the self-righteous, hierarchical world, and who only finally begins to regain a reason to engage with humanity, ironically, because of his betrayal and abandonment. Shortly after he’s left to die, Bass is found by a band of Arikara on the warpath, whose chief (veteran actor Henry Wilcoxon) gives him a blessing, an act that arms him spiritually on the way to recovery.
Sarafian’s world is happenstance, gritty and eerie. Iñárritu’s is enormous, but also reaches incessantly through the nightmarish for the ethereal. Iñárritu, although not universally admired, comes to the material right off the Oscar-garlanded success of Birdman, or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014), and he’s been lauded as a major talent since the release of Amores Perros in 2000. By comparison, Sarafian’s vision didn’t get much time to mature: a former TV director, he seemed poised for a major career with Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness and produced a handful of other cultish films, including Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (both 1973), few of which were successes at the time, forcing him back into TV and very occasional features. Nonetheless, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness stand as one of the most coherent units of filmmaking of the ’70s, complimentary mythical takes on the death and resurrection of the American spirit in that age of great national questioning. Vanishing Point’s hero, Kowalski, is contemporary man, riding his chrome horse across the landscape towards his inevitable date with death; Bass is both his ancestor and spiritual counterpart, clawing out of the Earth and relearning how to live in an Ouroboros-like chain. Man in the Wilderness is as shaggy, earthy, and fecund as Vanishing Point is shiny, modern, and solipsistic. Both films start in the present but explore their heroes’ lives via interpolated flashbacks: we see Grace, who had to contend with his restless incapacity to live a normal life and his decision to leave their son in her mother’s care after Grace died, whilst moments of dreamy, proto-Malickian beauty drift by, including Bass, lying tattered and agonised, staring up at autumnal trees dropping their leaves on him in languorous slow-motion, his lost lover’s face fading in and out of focus over maps of autumn detritus.
Vanishing Point was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose script referenced a peculiarly Latin-American brand of symbolic journey also reflected in Iñárritu’s comprehension of his material, which amplifies to the point of overloudness many of the ideas already present in Man in the Wilderness. Iñárritu has plainly long been fascinated by characters on the edge of the mortal precipice, whether explored in personal experiences fending off death or desperation in the likes of 21 Grams (2004) and Biutiful (2009), and caught between worlds, as evinced in Babel (2006). Iñárritu’s Glass is equally at odds with his nominal civilisation but has his place in a new one, again in a manner familiar from a lot of post-Dances With Wolves (1990) westerns. Iñárritu’s visual approach to The Revenant varies the one he proffered in Birdman, often punctuating the film with virtuoso linked camera movements, at once drifting and propulsive, and including staging several violent action sequences in seemingly unblinking single takes. In Birdman, the visual scheme emphasised both theatrical unity and the transformative power of its protagonist’s vision, as well as the impelling intensity of his neurosis. In The Revenant, Iñárritu regards the landscape as a sprawling system and a much larger stage through which his characters wander, apparently both free, but also locked in by the scale and indifference of the land and, even more unavoidably, the brutality of other humans and the wilderness of one’s own mind. But dreams and reveries have just as much import for Iñárritu as Sarafian, interpolating throughout Glass’s visions of his dead wife and other awesome, terrible sights around the west, like a mountain of buffalo bones and the smoking ruins of his village.
Iñárritu’s narrative incorporates a motif that suggests a tribute-cum-inversion of John Ford’s canonical western, The Searchers (1956), as he weaves in a rival storyline with Glass’s. The Arikara band’s leader, Elk Dog (Duane Howard), scours the landscape because his daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), has been kidnapped, and his belief that Henry’s party took her sparked the initial assault on them. At one point, he trades Henry’s recovered furs to a band of French trappers led by Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) in exchange for some horses, unaware that this party is the one holding Powaqa captive as a sex slave. Glass finds succour when he encounters a Pawnee loner, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), who shares offal from a felled bison with him, and later, recognising Glass is in danger of dying from infection, seals him up in a hut and plants maggots on his wounds to clean them. Glass emerges from this ordeal greatly recovered, but finds in the meantime that the French trappers have murdered Hikuc. He comes across them as Toussaint is raping Powaqa, intervenes, and lets Powaqa kill Toussaint before distracting his fellows whilst she runs away. Glass now has two gangs of incensed enemies on his trail. By contrast, Sarafian’s Bass remains much more of an onlooker, witness to the often surreal on the wilderness. He watches helpless as a small party comprising a white mountain man and his Indian family and companions are assaulted and wiped out by others on the warpath, but the funerary pyres the war party light near the dead bodies gives Bass the gift of warmth for the first time in weeks; he is also able to salvage spearheads and other tools from the attack. Later, he watches as a native woman gives birth in the midst of the woods whilst her man waits beyond a cordon of taboo, a spectacle of pain and exposure that nonetheless communicates an overwhelming charge of life’s unruly beginning and power, forcing Bass to think at last about the son he left behind and marking his own, genuine moment of spiritual rebirth.
The Revenant comes pouncing out of the underbrush, a careening, unstoppable beast of a film, much like the bear that gives its hero a very hard time. Iñárritu’s film is a visual experience of great verve and occasionally astonishing invention, utilising cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s incredible talent and turning his eye on terrains of grand mountains, snows, rivers, blood, filth, fire, night and day and, most zealously, the sepulchral beauty of magic hour. Iñárritu unveils a vision of nature as hell and cathedral, forge and fire. The director’s new obsession with plying his tricky extended shots and wowing the audience with how’d-they-do-that-isms conjures at least one great sequence, when Glass is awakened by the arrival of the Arikara war party and forced to flee on his horse only to ride over the edge of a cliff, pitching himself and his mount into an abyss. Lubezki’s recent shooting style, which he pioneered to mighty effect on The Tree of Life (2011), has brought to modern cinema something of a panoramic effect, utilising extreme wide-angle lenses, but with looming, lunging actions in the foreground, imbuing even simple actions with epic stature and lucid beauty. Iñárritu leans on this effect like a crutch throughout, when the camera is roaming. Unlike on Birdman, though, this incessant movement here seems to foil the energy and effects of his actors, who are often reduced to filling in unnecessary spaces. The more sophisticated Iñárritu becomes in terms of his filmmaking, the more scanty and heavy-handed his and Smith’s screenplay seems, the more repetitive in its action and straining in its search for significance the film becomes. The second hour of the two-and-a-half-hour film concentrates on Glass’s recovery and agonised journey, but ultimately gives less convincing a sense of his method than Man in the Wilderness. It’s not enough for Iñárritu to have his motif of death and rebirth—he has to revisit it three times. It’s not enough for him to stage one sweeping chase scene—he gives variations on the same scene several times.
DiCaprio’s genuinely good performance does far more to put flesh on Glass than the script ever does, presenting a man who’s in deep, soul-twisting pain long before the bear gets him, a being used to the laws by which frontier life is lived: it’s there in his eyes as he polishes his gun and keeps a firm lid on his son’s mouth. By the end, he’s suffered so much he enters a kind of rhapsody, and the thirst for revenge cannot be sated; it can only be transmuted into a different kind of rhapsody. But Hardy, who stops just this side of broad, has the juicier part as the half-mad Fitzgerald. The film desperately needs more of the eccentric character power of the scene where Fitzgerald tells Bridger about a revelation that a duck he came across was God and had a vision of the interconnectedness of things, just before he shot and killed it. Even this scene, though, doesn’t seem to have a point to make other than to underline Fitzgerald’s already underlined mixture of weird conviction and cynicism. Dialogue in early scenes is so awkward-sounding like it might well have been translated from Spanish. But to be fair, Iñárritu is making his first true epic film, perhaps the first since Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) that tries to mate the worship of expanse and macrocosmic survey that defines the epic with a volatile, near-experimental aesthetic. At the core is an appropriately epic purpose, an attempt to invoke the breadth of the American historical experience as crucible of trial, suffering, and violence, of contention with nature as an alternately brutal and sublime passage of arms, and with human nature, the bitterest of wildernesses. A point of reference here could well be D.H. Lawrence’s diagnosis of the death worship at the heart of so much formative American mythology and an attempt to move beyond it, to explore the emergence of new faiths, binding ideas, and crossbreeds of culture created in such a time and place. But Iñárritu doesn’t give enough of that, and it’s also hard to shake the feeling after a while that he just adores all the handsome gore and portent as some kind of art. Sarafian includes the birth scene to give a pungent, urgent image of life counterbalancing death, down to the mother biting through her babe’s umbilical cord. Iñárritu, on the other hand, can handle manly suffering by the bushel, but can’t handle its opposite. His art only exists in a hysterical flux.
Sarafian’s film is far more becalmed and classical, though in many ways, its approach is not only similar but, in its early ’70s manner, more sensible, balladlike in moments of wistfulness and muscular in action. It’s also much shorter, but still manages to conjure a mythic tone through the force of its images and the surging drama of Johnny Harris’ score, whose old-fashioned romanticism directly contrasts The Revenant’s surging atonal drones and thuds from a battery of composers. Wielding a sense of nature untouched both by human hands and CGI tweaking, Sarafian actually explores his hero’s mindset via flashbacks and the utilisation of the landscape as mimetic space, where Iñárritu rather merely states it: we know what the world means to Bass in a way that’s much richer, and less sentimental, than Glass’s pining for his wife. Indeed, Sarafian’s structure is more successful here than in Vanishing Point, where some of the flashback vignettes laid on formative crises a bit thickly. Richard Harris, an actor who could be sublime or a colossal hambone depending on his mood, was at his best for Sarafian as DiCaprio is for Iñárritu: both actors seem to revel in simply inhabiting their roles with a minimum of dialogue, their reactions to the shock of cold water, the feel of the earth, and the texture of blood entirely real. It could also be said that Sarafian does a slyer job inverting the audience’s viewpoints, as he offers a vignette depicting the Indians recording the sight of Henry’s land-boat in a painting, a glimpse of the strangeness of western enterprise through native eyes. Sarafian presents his Native Americans in their tribal contexts, in their fully formed social life, so starkly contrasting the bizarre, lumbering, unnatural expedition they make several attempts to wipe out.
Sarafian’s film could well have had significant influence, or at least psychic anticipation, of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), which revolve around similarly absurdist adventures of western world-builders seen in stark remove. By contrast, in spite of the powerful technical accomplishment of The Revenant and the often extraordinary beauty of its images, its aesthetic seems mostly second-hand, marrying long-take machinations in competition with Alfonso Cuaron to Malick and Herzog’s visual habits, with hints of a dark, wilfully odd brand of historical filmmaking that bobbed to the surface now and then in the ’70s and ’80s, like Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1984) and Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), and a rather large dab of Chuck Norris. Both Sarafian and Iñárritu build to action climaxes that underline the hero’s development of a new sense of moral compulsion, albeit here, at last, in notably different ways. In Man in the Wilderness, Captain Henry and his compatriots find the river they’ve been making for has dropped and the cart-ship literally finishes up stuck in the mud, forcing the party to stand and fight off a massed Indian attack. The Indian chief, seeing Bass approaching, clearly believes he’s been spared by cosmic forces to gain his righteous reward, and gives him the opportunity of taking his revenge with the trapping party entirely at his mercy. In The Revenant, catching wind that Glass might be alive, Henry leads men out to find him, and they bring him back to Fort Kiowa, whilst Fitzgerald tries to rob Henry’s safe and runs off, ahead of approaching justice. Henry and Glass ride after him.
Man in the Wilderness ends stirringly with Bass finally refusing to take revenge, instead simply vowing to return home to his son with a look of weary gratitude and uninterest in Henry and then tramping on. The rest of Henry’s party start trailing after Bass, abandoning their quest and likewise starting off, humbled and delivered from their own baggage, physical and mental. By contrast, the addition of Hawk and his murder to Iñárritu’s narrative has created a more immediate melodramatic spur that Iñárritu feels bound to satisfy at least partway, and so we get Glass and Fitzgerald fighting it out in a savage death match in the snowy wilds, knifing each other and biting off body parts with hateful gusto before Glass has a last-minute attack of morality and instead kindly sends Fitzgerald floating off to be scalped by Elk Dog, who happens along with the recovered Powaqa and the war party and are watching the fight with bewildered interest. Glass’s act of mercy towards Powaqa saves his life here, but the mechanics of this sequence are so clumsy and thudding that Iñárritu fails to deliver the moral lesson he wants to. Sarafian’s finale is the consummation of his work; Iñárritu’s is a bridge too far, an underlining of the director’s habits of unsubtlety and fondness for chasing down the obvious. Finally, the two films stand as ironic avatars of their filmmaking periods. If Man in the Wilderness is an underrated classic that was virtually ignored because of the wealth of such works in its time, The Revenant is a failed attempt to make a masterpiece in a time when Iñárritu will be praised for his ambition to drive cinema into new territory.
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By Marilyn Ferdinand
2015 is officially over, and I have squeezed in the last few films I can from the year, with the last of which, The Hateful Eight, still buzzing annoyingly in my head. Of the total of 63 2015 films I’ve seen, 13 were festival films, of which I’d guess perhaps only four or five will be released in 2016 or later in the United States, including Pablo Larraín’s brutal look at sexually predatory priests under house arrest, The Club; Corneliu Porumboiu’s gentle comedy, The Treasure; Michel Franco’s moving meditation on death, Chronic; and perhaps Gillian Armstrong’s inventive biopic of Orry-Kelly, Women He’s Undressed, and Arab and Tarzan Nasser’s sad comedy from Palestine, Dégradé.
The Look of Silence
Among the new releases Americans had a chance to see in theatres this year, I took in the much-buzzed-about (e.g., Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, The Look of Silence) and films that were lucky to find any screens or viewers at all (e.g., The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, James White, I’ll See You in My Dreams). Even with the poor distribution of foreign films, I grabbed a larger handful than most because of film festivals I’m able to attend in my cinema-mad city, though most had played here one of more years earlier, including About Elly, which I saw in 2009.
It has been an interesting year for the elderly in cinema. Seventy-year-old George Miller rebooted his own series, Mad Max, to delirious accolades, though, on the whole, I much preferred the genuine tension and creativity of his Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and hope he will be allowed to reboot that franchise soon. After decades of undistinguished parts in undistinguished movies and TV shows, Blythe Danner finally got the showcase she deserved in I’ll See You in My Dreams, a romantic drama about a retired Baby Boomer trying to awaken from the lethargy of a routine life. Jane Fonda, Michael Caine, and Harvey Keitel showed that age really does have it over the pretentiousness of the seriously flawed Youth. Charlotte Rampling gave a performance for the ages as a disillusioned woman about to celebrate her 45th wedding anniversary in 45 Years.
The year’s most anticipated films also had their share of imaginative failure. The formerly wildly inventive Charlie Kaufman teamed up with animator Duke Johnson to create the thoroughly dreary Anomalisa, perhaps thinking that using stop-motion animation would somehow save a story about a cynical man who stays cynical. Quentin Tarantino perhaps hoped that shooting on 70mm Ultra Panavision film would camouflage the fact that The Hateful Eight is a poor genre film; in fact, it not only did not compensate for the weaknesses in the script, but it revealed that the great film fan has no idea how to make use of widescreen technology. The excitement that greeted Roy Andersson’s 2000 return to feature filmmaking after 25 years with the highly original and funny Songs from the Second Floor led to diminishing returns with You, the Living (2007), and finally, thankfully, the last and least of his millennium trilogy this year, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.
Maps to the Stars
Just as Jessica Chastain seemed to be everywhere the last couple of years, this year, Alicia Vikander burst onto the scene in four high-profile films, Ex Machina, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Testament of Youth, and The Danish Girl. However, 2015 wasn’t the year of one woman; it really seemed to be a watershed year for women in film. There was a noticeable number of real women who were the protagonists in such films as Brooklyn, I’ll See You in My Dreams, Carol, The Clouds of Sils Maria, Maps to the Stars, and By the Sea, as well as transgender female characters in the delightful Tangerine, the less successful The Danish Girl, and in the festival films Open Up to Me and Girls Lost. Even the sexist American animation industry produced a female-centric film that felt authentic to a girl’s experience, Inside Out. In addition, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette, Meryl Streep, and other actresses lit up the 2015 Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards ceremonies by decrying the unequal and frivolous treatment they receive. More seriously, a hack of Sony email accounts revealed the lower salaries and insults Hollywood actresses receive from those in positions of power. In May, the ACLU called for an EEOC investigation into discriminatory hiring practices in Hollywood, and in October, those investigations commenced. (For a complete look at the cinematic year in women, I highly recommend this post by Marya E. Gates at her website, Cinema Fanatic.)
Tab Hunter Confidential
On the whole, I found the documentary year to be disappointing. On the positive side, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, a follow-up to The Act of Killing, his 2012 look at the Indonesian death squads that killed more than 1 million people during the 1960s, and the close look at the life and career of Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone? provided wide-ranging edification of events as well as specific people. However, too many documentarians focused their lenses on celebrities, fashionistas, and food in such films as Iris and Tab Hunter Confidential. Even a social-justice-oriented film like Dreamcatcher failed to escape the allure of the charismatic individual.
No Abras Nunca esa Puerta
Of course, my movie year must include the vintage films I’m privileged to see because of the many dedicated exhibitors who search the archives and the great foundations that resurrect forgotten works and have them restored and issued for theatrical and home viewing. Among the restored treasures of the past I’ve been able to see on the big screen this year were Sherlock Holmes (1916), Terence Young’s directorial debut, Corridor of Mirrors (1948), Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger (1990), Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy (1955/1956/1959), and Joseph Green and Konrad Tom’s Mamele (1938). The invaluable Film Noir Foundation again brought their Noir City program to Chicago, bringing more world noir with it, including reuniting the two halves of Argentine director Carlos Hugo Christensen’s 1952 classic thriller No Abras Nunca esa Puerta (Don’t Open that Door)/Si Muero Antes di Despertar (If I Die Before I Wake) in a new print. The celluloid-only Northwest Chicago Film Society inaugurated its new permanent home at Northeastern Illinois University with a two-strip Technicolor rarity, Follow Thru (1930), that brought down the house. They followed up with a number of archival and contemporary film prints, including Richard Lester’s first feature, It’s Trad, Dad! (1962), Ernst Lubitsch’s So This Is Paris (1926), and Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping (1987), to name only a few. Finally, a weeklong residency of the great Agnès Varda at the University of Chicago ended with a sold-out screening of Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and a Q&A with the director at the Music Box Theatre.
Now here’s my baker’s dozen of favorite films of the year, in order of preference.
1. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz)
The final film in the Amsalem Trilogy is the most intense and claustrophobic yet. Ronit Elkabetz continues her painfully committed 10-years-long performance as a woman trapped in a miserable marriage by Israel’s medieval divorce laws. Further, the courage to reveal this hidden scandal of domestic entrapment is a first in Israeli filmmaking and a feminist statement to rival any yet seen on the silver screen. That it is wrapped in a fascinating, well-executed story with vivid characterizations makes it the best film of 2015.
2. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
Old-fashioned filmmaking in the best sense, Spotlight relies on keen ensemble work to tell a compelling story about the successful efforts of Boston Globe investigative reporters to unearth the massive abuse of children by Catholic priests and the Church’s attempts to cover it up. Inspiring and horrifying in equal measure, the film builds up the painstaking detail work like a great detective story, and unlike the film it’s most often compared with, All the President’s Men (1976), shows the effect of the scandal on the ordinary people who suffered and those whose faith was shaken badly by the revelations.
3. La Sapienza (Eugène Green)
Sixty-eight-year-old Eugène Green, a late bloomer who began making films in 2001, has finally fully realized his potential with this fascinating dive into the Baroque period he so loves. A disaffected couple find their way back to each other by revisiting the past through its Baroque architecture and a brother and sister who seem to have transported from another time to teach them some lessons in immediacy and high romance. Unusual, beautiful, and supremely romantic.
4. About Elly (Asghar Farhadi)
Lies and tragedy sour the weekend getaway of some well-to-do residents of Tehran. The repressions of Iran’s Islamist state take a back seat to the more universal repressions between the sexes and the way guilt can turn normally rational people into blamers and liars. Golshifteh Farahani gives a performance for the ages as she manipulates her friends and husband to achieve her ends.
5. James White (Josh Mond)
Many people may find the in-your-face close-ups and raw performances of Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon almost too uncomfortable to watch, but I was astounded by how truly the film conveys the dynamics of a loving parent-child relationship and the emotional and practical aspects of caring for a dying parent. I felt privileged to share this intimate act with the actors and their director, who used his own life experience to create this moving film.
6. Blackhat (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann brings his unique brand of cool and weird to a tale of outrageous greed and cynicism fought by an outsider computer genius with a populist soul. The action shares equal time with the emotional core of each character, committed to their choice of good or evil in a way that reaches beyond the mechanics of plot. Underrated at its release, I hope it finds the acclaim it deserves.
7. Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner)
The Romantic Era of 18th century Europe infects the extremely conventional protagonist of Jessica Hausner’s comedy of manners, skewering the romance of love unto death while remaining compassionate toward those whose narrow lives reach toward some sort of true and pure act. Hausner’s generosity and wit have never been better.
8. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
The simple story of a long-married couple whose foundation is shaken by news of the husband’s long-ago love provides a platform to examine the assumptions and compromises we make or refuse to make when we take a spouse. Charlotte Rampling is astounding as an intelligent, rational woman who realizes she was second-best in her husband’s affections. No one who has ever been in love will fail to understand her feelings or those of her husband, played with oblivious honesty by Tom Courtenay.
9. Suffragette (Sarah Gavron)
It took a full complement of women to bring the story of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain to the big screen nearly 100 years after that country gave women the right to vote in 1918. The film focuses on the struggle of working-class women, eschewing the more usual top-down approach to depicting civil rights movements and showing how betrayal in the halls of government led to increasingly violent action. Brendan Gleeson, excellent as a shrewd cop, transposes the word “terrorism” onto the militant wing of the movement. Carey Mulligan gives a convincing performance as a woman radicalized by dashed hopes and masculine mistreatment into giving up everything for the cause. Historical details lend fascination to a compelling story.
10. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
This adaptation of the Emma Donoghue novel about a kidnapped woman who finally makes a bid for freedom after seven years of captivity downplays the point of view from which the book was told—that of the woman’s five-year-old son. However, in its place is a warm relationship between mother and son, preserving the boy’s fondness for the only home he’s ever known while understatedly horrifying us with her wretched existence bargaining for the necessities of life while being repeatedly raped. Brie Dorsey and young Jacob Tremblay could not be better in a challenging scenario.
11. By the Sea (Angelina Jolie Pitt)
Angelina Jolie Pitt is slowly building up a body of work as a director that could put her in the rarefied company of Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, and Robert Redford as an actor/director to be reckoned with. By the Sea, her most accomplished work to date, is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), focusing as it does on a troubled couple and their relationship with a younger couple. Jolie Pitt’s strong performance plumbs the depths of her character’s depression, self-loathing, and destructiveness. Her strong use of a Mediterranean idyll as a setting gives the film the timelessness of a Greek tragedy. A mesmerizing experience.
12. What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus)
The triumphs and tragedies of Nina Simone are chronicled largely using her own words from her letters, photos, and film clips of her performances and interviews. Her life illuminates the Jim Crow South, the black power movement, and the highlights and lowlights of her life in Europe. Her pain is palpable, her anger frightening, her embrace by those who would use her fame and talents for their own purposes cautionary. And, of course, her music, her glorious music.
13. The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt)
I didn’t expect to enjoy this film very much, chronicling as it does two writers, David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky, whose work I don’t know from an era of writing for which I have little love. Yet, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg turn this two-hander into an engaging dialogue full of gamesmanship that compares favorably with Sleuth (1972). The genuine, if short-lived friendship is touching and revealing, and the truths Wallace expresses about the life of an instant celebrity offer much food for thought.
Aloha (Cameron Crowe)
Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville)
Carol (Todd Haynes)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda)
I’ll See You in My Dreams (Brett Haley)
Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen)
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer)
Phoenix (Christian Petzold)
Shaun the Sheep Movie (Mark Burton, Richard Starzak)
Tangerine (Sean Baker)
What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)
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By Roderick Heath
Last year, I vowed I was going to spend much less time and energy keeping up with the films of 2015. So, of course, this year I saw over 100. Was it worth the time and effort? In the sense that I have an even broader perspective over the year than usual, yes. But I’ve still spent most of the last 12 months in a state of intense frustration, amidst a litany of films unable to sustain their best ideas and works whose worthiness seemed to be established entirely by the rhetorical force of the internet. This may, after a fashion, presage a vintage crop for next year, considering so many well-rated films from the major international film festivals are still limping their way towards distribution, like Dheepan, Jacques Audiard’s Cannes champion. But this year I’ve seen 50 different styles in old hat passed off as genius novelty, and had the feeling many films have been snatched hold of by cinephiles and critics like lifebuoys, talked up in a state of mild desperation. I just haven’t been able to get with the program at all.
2015 has been a year for colossal hits and equally big misses at the box office, as the Hollywood worm has been munching on its own tail even more voraciously than usual. Deep into the 21st century, ’60s spy tales and their disreputable heroes, including James Bond, the Mission: Impossible team, the Men (and girl) from U.N.C.L.E., and their ethically dubious descendants the Kingsmen, joined superheroes who go back even further, along with a clutch of franchises that date back variously to the Carter, Reagan, and Bill Clinton eras. By comparison, the compulsory well-reviewed Pixar movie of the year, Ronnie Del Carmen and Pete Docter’s Inside Out, seemed like a fount of originality, even if you swore you saw the same idea used in an old episode of Muppet Babies or Punky Brewster. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey flew the flag for something resembling cinema intended for adults, but, of course, that film’s brand of S&M erotica was actually turgidly adolescent in its underpinnings. It’s not surprising that in a time of fervent, reawakening social protest and anger over proofs of the retarded and monstrous things still at loose in our time, a lot of films took on an edge, whether vaguely metaphorical or concretely activist, of revisionist and redefining intent, from recasting the Rocky franchise as a tale of African-American resurgence where once, however unintentionally, the franchise expressed working class white anger at black success, to casting an all-female version of Ghostbusters.
Part of me digs this sort of thing, but another part recoils at the self-congratulation some of these tweaks stoke, distracting us from the fact that instead of coming up with new myths for a new time, we’re just redrafting old, tired models with thin veneers of fashionability. Of course, any good postmodernist might say that’s all art does anyway. I also wonder if our attachment to such familiar templates, as well as being enforced by risk-averse corporations, is as much to do with the fact that, well, for whatever reason, we can’t come up with anything better. Some great new shock might have to come to the culture. In any event, these are all “official” themes. In the past I’ve had more fun trying to pick the connecting threads of interest in the year’s films that seem more happenstance or coincidental, revealing of the zeitgeist’s subterranean structures. Those sorts of connecting motifs have felt rather diffuse this year, though. Certainly survivalism seems an ever-popular preoccupation. The hugely ambitious The Revenant, the tensile chamber drama Backcountry, and the good old monster movie Into the Grizzly Maze all depicted gruesome bear attacks on heroes lost in and assailed by nature, perhaps giving symbolic teeth to the anxiety surrounding climate change. Baltasar Kormakur’s Everest had no bears, but it had the might of the world’s biggest mountain, conquerable most of the time but able to swat away pesky humans when a foul mood descends, Mad Max: Fury Road posited a futuristic wasteland beset by mechanical monstrosities and humanoid tyrannies, whilst The Martian looked both forward and right back to the founding survival tale—Robinson Crusoe—in contending with an alien world.
This “here there be dragons” motif stalked the cinema screen more consistently than any other. Films as diverse as Fury Road, Spotlight, The Big Short, The Tribe, Testament of Youth, Sicario, Suffragette, Faults, Spectre, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jurassic World, Cymbeline, Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens, The Water Diviner, and The Assassin all depicted supposedly unshakeable institutions with all their safeguards and systems of security failing, releasing devils into the world, and described hapless protagonists amidst the furore, trying to keep hope in the box. Those lost characters, wandering through deserts, sometimes of their own making or imposed on them by fate or the machinations of others, also beg attention, a manifestation perhaps of the many talented and resolute people adrift in our time. This motif connects such apparently diametric figures as the loser antiheroes of Faults and The Mend and the scum-bucket tycoon of Welcome to New York, the battered frontiersmen of The Revenant, the blindsided FBI agent of Sicario, the increasingly politicised heroines of Suffragette and Testament of Youth. The titular killer of The Assassin and the renegade heroes of Blackhat and the wasteland riders of Fury Road, the bereft survivor of Backcountry, the outmatched individuals trying to become a lesbian couple of Carol. The junkies of Heaven Knows What and the hooker transsexuals of Tangerine, the stormtrooper-turned-righteous outcast in The Force Awakens, the banker who bets on the collapse of his nation’s economy and beholds his terrible success in The Big Short. The various actors in the tales of the Tale of Tales. The schoolgirl digging into her own collapsing identity in The Falling. Just about everyone in the versions of Detroit depicted in It Follows and Lost River.
Testament of Youth
Over in the more respectable climes of cinema, some of this year’s more ambitious works following the lead of last year’s Selma, including Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, Richard Laxton’s Effie Grey, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, Todd Haynes’ Carol, and James Kent’s Testament of Youth, in harking back to social and personal struggles with perplexed avatars of zeitgeists past, a good way of measuring achievement and failure in the current day, if also one that carries a certain cosy distance like a shield. Of these, Testament of Youth stuck with me most pleasurably, a temperate, fine-palette but quietly remorseless study in loss and positive political radicalisation. Apart from Velvet Goldmine, I’ve never warmed to Todd Haynes’ preciously arty style, and though I at least watched the whole of Carol, something I couldn’t manage with I’m Not There, nonetheless I found it a stiff, ponderous, stillborn approximation of Patricia Highsmith’s beloved lesbian romance: if you want to study repressed passion, it helps to actually have a sense of passion. F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton tried, with some verve and a good cast, to create an authentic contemporary hero myth via the career of rappers NWA who shook up the complacent pop culture of the mid-’80s. But the film, far from being as radical as the art it paid tribute to, soon fell victim to the castrating bent of both standard movie narrative and authorised biographical nicety. Adam McKay’s The Big Short took on the global financial crisis in an attempt to blend real-life drama with a waggish, Michael Moore-esque sense of panoramic satire, but finished up a mass of divergent impulses, with McKay’s annoying direction playing here to the rafters and there to the Oscar-bestowing tribunes, one part Funny or Die skit and one part Stanley Kramer aren’t-you-ashamed mallet. Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight took on a rather different subject, newspaper investigation into rape, cover-ups, and the abuse of power, with a similarly compulsive, procedural pursuit of a lurking menace. Whilst it overtly courted comparison to All the President’s Men (1976), Spotlight failed to bring anything like Alan Pakula’s cinematic power to the table or much nimbleness to its outlay of facts: sometimes the dialogue was more like reading a journalist’s notes than experiencing the journey of enquiry.
The old-is-new-again spirit of blockbusters was also powerfully apparent in the artier, capital-D dramas. Would-be serious filmmakers offered a parade of films harking back to the recent past and fondly fetishized model artworks, mostly from the heights of ’60s and ’70s moviemaking, including Spotlight, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind, Yann Demange’s ’71, and Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection. Such films were all engrossing, well worth watching, solid and intelligent, but also couldn’t shake the feeling of careful ventriloquism and a certain dramatic inevitability. One thing that made the various cinematic New Waves so great lay in the determination of artists not to heed the past or be nailed down by safe aesthetics or received ideas. Such work did give way to genuinely strong and imaginative movies that drew on certain classic traditions but also offered real evolution. Films like the shaggy, Cassavetes-gone-hipster mood of John Magary’s The Mend, the disorienting power tussles of Riley Stearns’s Faults, the neo-beatnik brutalism of Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, the screwball-goes-digicam mood of Andrew Bujalski’s Results, and the wobbly but ultimately enriching street-level tragicomedy of Sean Baker’s Tangerine, which was filmed on an iPhone, and managed to look better than many far, far more expensive films. Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York was like seeing the ancestor of these films rearing up like one of Jurassic World’s genetically revived dinosaurs, roaring with anger and pain; if the film was too distended to count as one of Ferrara’s classics, it was still a blast of unremitting purpose and unflinching artistry.
Alex of Venice
By contrast, some humbly likeable movies about humbly likeable people flitted about the edges of the cinematic consciousness, offering some spells of relief from all the Op-Ed themes and epic posturings, like Chris Messina’s gentle, balladlike Alex of Venice, Helen Hunt’s likeably ditzy surfer time-out Ride, and Results, which followed Bujalski’s Computer Chess in looking into a niche world of people no one takes seriously with a wry, but definite sense of empathy. Noah Baumbach offered both one of the year’s most trying films, While We’re Young, and one of its slyer successes, Mistress America, both studies in the manners and morals of contemporary New York as an Eden of smug, filled with people coasting on the triumphs of other, braver generations and dens of culturati. The Mend, set in much the same pocket of humanity, was such an inspired mix of the fuzzily indulgent and the ruthlessly well observed that it almost obscured how its statement about modern day masculinity essentially came down to a choice between being a shiftless, recherché outcast or submitting to concealment in coupledom. Dave Boyle’s Man From Reno was an original take on classic varieties of mystery thriller and fish-out-of-water adventure tales, its only major flaw, like too many films this year, its inability to come up with an ending.
Rude critical and box office treatment doled out to some of this year’s films compelled me to take note, for instance, how the first half of Josh Trank’s infamous bomb Fantastic Four was actually well done and more ambitious than most superhero films will ever be, and how David Koepp’s Mortdecai, crucified well before it was even released, was terribly overdirected, but sported some entertaining shtick nonetheless, including a fun Terry-Thomas tribute from star Johnny Depp. Depp was partly saved from career doldrums subsequently by his role as the glum, hollow bad guy in the glum, hollow Black Mass. On the other hand, there was some real shit out there. Where once upon a time Luc Besson’s imprimatur was a reliable source of good, dumb action, this year his protégés offered up the excruciatingly bad Taken 3 and The Gunman. Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland seemed primed to be another successful flight of fancy for one of Disney’s golden boys, but proved instead a fragmented, preachy, rather witless amble through one of the least interesting fantasy worlds ever concocted. Susanne Bier’s Serena, a film that wanted to be a laudable throwback to muscular melodramas from the days of classic Hollywood, was instead one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever seen, sporting a miscast Jennifer Lawrence playing a nature child femme fatale (!) and such dialogue as, “I love you. I have your child inside of me,” and, “They have to know it was a woman who tamed the eagle!” Come back, Pia Zadora, all is forgiven.
Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, awkwardly dumped into release, was certainly an affected piece of Lynchian artiness, but it also offered up some of the most compelling images and textures in any movie released in 2015. By comparison, I found some of the more praised left-field items of the year, like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Carol Morley’s The Falling, to be films that could have embraced the strangeness and wildness their best moments teased, but which instead took refuge in obvious concepts and arch metaphors. I’d still watch these any time over anodyne quality flicks like John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a pretty comedy-drama which also starred Lost River’s Saoirse Ronan, and The Danish Girl, which saw Eddie Redmayne misinterpreting his task in playing a pioneering transsexual as a quest to recreate the performances of divas past and win the Best Actress Oscar for 1932. Or something as bogus-gritty as Denis Villeneuve’s showy but empty drug war flick Sicario, and Justin Kurzel’s awful attempt to turn Macbeth into Games of Thrones. Macbeth was a particularly galling disaster, offering fine actors and some beautiful visual elements, but fumbling Shakespeare’s text embarrassingly and reducing its theme to a turgid parade of grandstanding violence.
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Yann Demange’s ’71, set in Belfast during the height of the Troubles, was rather similar in focusing on a solitary man trying to survive in a cruel landscape: Demange’s you-are-there aesthetics were strong, but the storyline descended into a mere potboiler thriller. Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe, although vigorous, failed to truly explore a closed-off world, in this case, a school filled with deaf-mute students somewhere in the grimiest centres of Ukraine, with authentic interest in the specifics of its environment and the pains of its characters. Instead, it offered up a technically daring but gimmicky, X-rated St. Trinian’s film with a ham-fisted metaphor for the shambles of contemporary Eastern Europe. Michael Almereyda’s Cymbeline was like a recipe the filmmaker hadn’t entirely perfected, and so, though far more interesting as screen Shakespeare than Macbeth, it also wasn’t half as successful as the same director’s Hamlet. Still, it was anchored by a fascinating high-wire performance by the year’s breakout star Dakota Johnson, who also gave Fifty Shades of Grey a flicker of charm and provided the one spark contradicting the dude-drama heaviosity of Black Mass. Almereyda quickly followed Cymbeline with Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story, one of the best releases of the year. Everybody’s been raving about Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (I haven’t seen yet, and I certainly hope is a roaring comeback for Lee), but his immediate predecessor, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, was a stilted remake of Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess. Where Gunn recorded the intricacies of his intellectual moment in a way that seemed as much reportage as surrealism, Lee suggested how square and alienated his academic characters were by dressing them in Poindexter suits.
The Face of an Angel
Michael Winterbottom, who like Lee has eased back from the previously frantic pace and protean urgency of his earlier work, offered The Face of an Angel, an experiment in narrative forms and postmodern flimflam based on the infamous Meredith Kercher murder case. The film was a mess, a pile of impulses and half-baked ideas, but it was just about the only film I saw this year actually about the zeitgeist rather than a symptom of it, describing the confused and tumultuous spiritual tenor of the moment manifest in its images of mass furore and private anguish, the simultaneously exciting and exhausting nature of it all. Winterbottom followed his protagonist in contemplating a criminal proceeding charged with intersectional issues and buzzwords, noting how the public event, which seems, thanks to media coverage, wide open to understanding, is in fact constantly redefined in terms of the baggage each of us brings to the table, a jumble which the creative mind meets with dizzy bemusement as it tries to organise an honest, organic response.
Dark Was the Night
Similarly occupied with a wayfaring antihero in Italy, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring toyed amusingly with the canard of a young man who encounters a beautiful, possibly dangerous young woman in an exotic clime, quoting ’80s body horror films through the prism of sunny, ’50s-style romantic comedy. It was a fresher and more original genre twist than the year’s wildly praised horror film, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, though Mitchell attempted with real purpose and some art to mate John Carpenter-esque menace with his own dreamy surveys of coming-of-age troubles. Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended took on a similar idea—a group of teens tormented by a supernatural entity—with much less refinement, but perhaps with more punch and relevance. Meanwhile David Gelb’s The Lazarus Effect stood up for good old fashioned dumb-dumb schlock, and Jack Heller’s Dark Was the Night was a gripping, if slightly verbose, monster-on-the-loose thriller. Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak was a curious byproduct of its creator’s imagination, alternately original and referential, gorgeously moody and excessively declarative: if the whole work had been as good as its first and last half-hours, it would have been a major classic. John McNaughton’s The Harvest, rescued from a distributor’s shelf, proved a throwback to a brand of modest, low-budget, high-tension thriller that used to bob up a lot in the ’80s, plus Samantha Morton and Michael Shannon playing memorably batty parents—imagine being their child! Daniel Espinosa’s Child 44 had incredible plusses going for it, including a terrific cast, meaty story based in fact, hefty production values. But it finished up choking on its own cornucopia, transposing the Chikatilo murder case to the Stalinist era for the sake of more self-important irony and drama, and then failing to decide just what kind of cliché thriller it wanted to be. Joe Lynch’s Everly knew exactly what it wanted to be—a nasty, gleefully disgraceful entertainment—and it delivered even as it went too far over the top. Everly did, at least, give Salma Hayek the rampaging revenger role I never knew I wanted, and it made Mad Max: Fury Road’s stilted action feminism look like so much hot air.
History may remember, or choose to forget, 2015 as the year of titanic reboots. It’s like when I was a kid again, and finally, that’s lost its charm. The biggest hit of the year, Jurassic World, was heir to one of the more comparatively youthful franchises, only harking back to 1992. Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens comprised the year’s big three in this field, with the surprising Creed giving chase and poor old Terminator: Genisys limping somewhere in there, too. Genisys actually had a certain charm, with its ramshackle plot and cheeky structure that turned the logarithmic variances of rebootology into its very own structure, and felt like the biggest budget Cannon Films production ever. Everyone but I liked Fury Road, so we’ll move on past that (but get real, folks, it was a two-hour dodge ’em car ride shot like a ’90s music video you all would’ve whizzed on if a less storied director had made it). The Force Awakens bravely told a story already told long ago in a franchise far, far away. Although in many ways an honourable attempt to reconstitute the hallowed epic series created by George Lucas with some excellent newcomer heroes and technical qualities, it was finally a flatly professional exercise, an overt tribute to beloved superficialities determined to give fans of a certain age a long, slow hand job. Frankly, Jurassic World was my favourite of these, cheesy as its bioweapon subplot was, because it was the only one that made anything like proper use of the movie stars at its disposal, and it was properly constructed, building up to its monster bash finale with a sense of showmanship and gleeful crescendo. Also, in spite of the often excruciating “debate” over its leading lady’s footwear, Jurassic World actually offered in Claire Dearing one of the year’s most endearing heroines, a gender-flipped version of Spielberg’s classic hapless Everyman who rose to the challenge of erupting chaos. Her release of the T-Rex upon the evil genetic chimera is still the most properly thrilling big movie moment of 2015.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
James Bond poked his head up again for another dance with the devil in Spectre, a film that disappointed many and was undoubtedly riddled with problems. But I still liked it more than the last two entries in Daniel Craig’s tenure as the superspy, as it sought to combine several rather antagonistic stylistic impulses that have defined the series over its half-century of life. Creed was good fun, but it had a tendency to presume too quickly that its new characters had earned a place in the heart, dutifully sending Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky through a lazily handled bout with cancer for the sake of pathos and to distract us from the fact that young tyro Adonis “Donnie” Creed was a bland, unconvincing inheritor whose daddy issues remained entirely abstract. Also, Coogler, whose filmmaking was so impressive throughout much of the film, fumbled the final fight by turning it into a long montage. By comparison, Antoine Fuqua’s much lumpier, less cool Southpaw remembered to bring the blaring baseline melodrama a boxing flick needs and paid off with much more kick. Marvel continued sucking in money like a black hole at the centre of the movie galaxy, but with decreased gravitational force. Avengers: Age of Ultron tried to bundle together the increasingly unwieldy sprawl of the superhero genre, and even nerd overlord Joss Whedon couldn’t cope with trying to meet the conflicting demands placed upon him: the result was both a gaudy good time but also somehow a quiet disappointment, overstuffed and lacking a focal point. The potential of Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man to form an islet of true cleverness and conceptual élan in this genre was undoubtedly foiled by losing Edgar Wright as helmsman, but it proved far fleeter and less exhausting than Age of Ultron, a throwback to the uncomplicated days of the first Iron Man.
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Meanwhile, some more contemporary franchises did fly their flags. Furious 7 proved a perfectly fine and fun action flick even if it wasn’t quite as rockin’ as everyone hoped, running out of steam barely halfway through. Plenty of noble man tears were nonetheless shed as it waved Paul Walker away into digital heaven, and that’s what mattered. Dwayne Johnson sometimes seemed like the epicentre of pop movies this year, also appearing in San Andreas, a big, clanging disaster movie, but his presence there felt like a cheat; as warm and welcome a screen presence as he usually is, the genre demands ordinary people as its heroes, not giant musclemen. The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2 brought a once-promising series to an end so flat and dutiful that even when lots of people paid to see it, barely anyone could remember it a week later. Donald Sutherland’s invaluably virulent President Snow did manage just briefly to jolt the whole tepid affair to life, at least. Meanwhile, Insurgent, the continuation of the second-string YA dystopia Divergent series, was considerably more fun, better paced and visualised. Kingsman: The Secret Service saw Matthew Vaughn revisiting Mark Millar’s rabble-rousing fare, presenting a bratty send-up cum tribute to old-school James Bond blended with deliberately outré humour: the result was slicker and more consistent than Vaughn and Millar’s Kick Ass, but didn’t match that film as a truly pungent, lawless-feeling take on its chosen genre lampoon as it laboured through a midsection taken up by a surprisingly straitlaced take on the usual learn-to-be-a-super-warrior story. Christopher McQuarrie, who proved his action-thriller chops with Jack Reacher, reteamed with Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and many were eager to hail the resurgence of Cruise as the Last Movie Star. But McQuarrie didn’t bring anything new to this most dispensable of movie series, making the fatal mistake of opening with the best stunt before proceeding through a parade of flashy, competent action scenes. Kenneth Branagh brought customary epic lustre and a sense of cavalier flash to Disney’s agreeable, if deliberately unimaginative Cinderella. Some people even tried to come up with something vaguely original, but sadly, the Wachowskis failed badly with their second attempt to match Star Wars, the well-made but weirdly listless and jumbling Jupiter Ascending.
The best entries in fantastical cinema I saw this year weren’t from Hollywood. Christophe Gans’ Beauty and the Beast was, in spite of its obvious intention of beating a lot of Hollywood CGI wonders at their own game in a manner likely to turn off Gallic fetishists, the year’s single most delicious piece of eye candy, and a smart mythopoeic amplification of the familiar story. Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales was a deeply strange and original take on classic Italian fairy tales, one that located real beauty and ugliness, pathos and terror in them in a way that evoked an imagined past’s alien textures. Tales of Tales, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, and Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria were all major Euro-auteurs who made films in English for the sake of convenience. Youth was one of the most wounding disappointments of the year, wasting a marvellous cast and Sorrentino’s talents on a slight and hackneyed exploration of artistic life. Assayas succeeded in every regard Sorrentino failed in, even if his method was passing arch, and with the irony that a French film found more power in the English language being used than just about any other movie lately. Peter Strickland, an English director at home amidst the rarefied textures of the continental film, offered The Duke of Burgundy, a darkly funny, mockingly sensuous trip through the intricacies of adult relationships via tropes harvested from a certain brand of disreputable cinema. I found some of it entrancing and some of it a mere repetition of Berberian Sound Studio’s wilful obscurantism, as if Strickland was marking time instead of looking for new, genuinely inventive games to play.
Poor distribution has really been a hindrance for non-English-language cinema lately. Christian Petzold’s Phoenix broke through this laggard scene to provide a real art house hit, providing an odd, occasionally wicked blend of Holocaust survivor drama and Hitchcockian identity thriller, though I found it didn’t add up to all that much in the long run, at least until that marvellous final scene. La French, aka The Connection, borrowed the finery of a certain brand of ballsy thriller from the glory days of such films, and it was a concoction that went down like a shot of a cheap whiskey blend—not refined or exceptional, but it hit the spot. At the opposite end of the filmmaking world, action master Tsui Hark tackled a story based in Maoist propaganda and Chinese opera and turned it into a high-flying action yarn for The Taking of Tiger Mountain: the result was gorgeous-looking but, by Tsui’s standards, curiously lacking depth and real inspiration, with the misjudged, gimmicky double finale only highlighting this. Meanwhile, in South Korea, Han-min Kim’s The Admiral: Roaring Currents, the biggest hit in the country’s history, was a blustery but full-blooded account of great national moment of trial, with a truly terrific battle finale. Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s The Assassin took on the same brand of historical swashbuckling and emerged as one of the year’s singular achievements, but also one of the most eccentric, an anti-action film that disassembled the familiar figure of the avenging angel. Australian cinema this year was dominated by Mad Max’s return, but there were some movies that crawled out of the rubble, including the young audience-oriented Paper Planes. The Water Diviner, Russell Crowe’s debut film, released at the end of 2014 here but exported this year, proved a lumbering mixture of disparate genre formulas mated to moral and patriotic soul-searching. Kim Farrant’s Strangerland was a good-looking mystery film that sadly seemed like a greatest hits record compiled with ideas from better Aussie films.
And what of comedy? Paul Feig’s Spy was well reviewed and a hit, but I found it as funny as a mouthful of turds, a mass of incompetently shot pseudo-lampooning that offered only the spectacle of “edgy” modern comedy grazing rock bottom. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was like watching the indie film tradition slowly bleed out with its too-cute claymation interludes and desperate desire to be the next Juno/Napoleon Dynamite/Perks of Being a Wallflower/whatever. All the hipsters went nuts for the Kiwi vampire housemate comedy What We Do in the Shadows, but lines of dialogue like “Werewolves, not swear-wolves” left me unmoved as the film kept contradicting its own basic tenets. Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, on the other hand, was such an old-fashioned brand of star vehicle and low-key character comedy that its bewildered audience reception wasn’t so surprising. Crowe, not normally a filmmaker I like much, offered a new-age variant on John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef complete with Ford’s gift for coaxing fine details from his actors: even if the nominal plot was excessively silly and the resolution far less engaging than the set-up, it still felt like an oasis of genuine cheer. Results similarly channelled the mood of a bygone brand of romantic comedy but with the antsy insecurity of modernity stitched into the seams, diagnosing in fitness fanatic types what Evelyn Waugh called the kind of neurosis that gets mistaken for energy. Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck was an admirably filthy take on the romantic comedy that showcased Amy Schumer well. Although the film was ridiculously overlong, the dance finale managed to slot Schumer into the most gallant tradition of screwball comediennes.
Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk was another of the year’s heavy bombs in spite of its urgent desire to please. This was a real pity, as it was Zemeckis’ most digestible film in a while, somewhat arduous in the set-up but transfixing when the moment of truth came, and harking back to his earlier work in its gallivanting, slightly asocial protagonist who wants to tread the finest line of the sublime and thumb his nose at the earth and its more stolid inhabitants. Magic Mike XXL and Pitch Perfect 2 became interchangeable in my mind in spite of their asymmetric demographics, both being ramshackle, knowingly superfluous sequels about putting on a good show for its own sake. Focus, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s lush tribute to a bygone brand of elegant romantic drama built around criminal activities, had a script that sadly played its best hands far too early, but it looked good all the way down and got the best out of stars Will Smith and Margot Robbie. That perennial Oscar cash crop, the biopic, hasn’t had nearly as much traction this year as usual, perhaps because of the domination by ensemble dramas about headline events. Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs was reminiscent of the eponymous antihero’s Macintosh, a bright, shiny, efficient object of technical art the mass market had no interest in. But it came armed with a terrific cast working at fever pitch, Boyle’s direction effectively restrained for once, and Aaron Sorkin’s script, although no less inclined to remake everyone in sight in his own image, was punchy and found theatrical integrity in its overtly artificial structure. Bill Petzold’s Love & Mercy was an entirely acceptable, good-natured biopic recounting Brian Wilson’s tumultuous life, sometimes wielding a genuinely clever sense of how to use sound and image independently, albeit whilst reducing its tall and tortured subject into a damaged pixie genius for easy consumption.
Of course, even in the midst of movies that don’t hold up, there can be scenes and images that linger in the mind, and in a year filled with so many not-quites, there’s a lot of such moments. The ebullient hip-hop variation on the compulsory training scene in Creed, where our young hero rants like a bard as motorcycle knights form his honour guard. The extended accidental house-party-cum-group hate-in in Mistress America and the Greenwich Village poseur gathering in The Mend. The attack of crippling, but also transformative dysmorphia that sweeps upon the protagonist of The Danish Girl, giving a flicker of momentary intensity to the hero’s need for transformation. James Bond beholding his new lady love swathed in silk in elegant surrounds in Spectre, and his opening adventure that transmutes 50 years of series lore into a perfect 10 minutes. The kinetic waltz that tears the heroine of Crimson Peak out of her solicitous solitude and the final chase, also dancelike, that sees her fighting for her life, painted in tones of snow white and blood red. The disquieting dream sequences that signal monstrous and bizarre things claiming the soul of the wretched antihero of Faults. The beach sequence in It Follows, gaining eruptive tension not from hiding the menace, but watching it with dispassion. The spectacles of action and detachment dotted through The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The awe-tinged climax of The Walk. The too self-consciously weird, but effectively creepy dance at the heart of Ex Machina.
Love & Mercy
Will Smith’s conman starting into a seemingly mad game of ante-up with B.D. Wong’s grinning gambling tycoon in Focus, essayed in a sprawl of fragmented and diffused images and jolting music cues that obscure the mechanics of deception at work. The brilliantly shot accident sequences with their ridiculous, but intricately observed processes of cause and effect bookending Age of Adaline. The gruellingly realistic bear attack sequence that gave Backcountry its moment of awful reckoning. The wittily staged microcosmic action finale of Ant-Man, complete with miniature tribute to 2001 that outdid the whole of Interstellar. The rip-roaring, one-shot, church massacre sequence in Kingsmen and the balletic aerial battle of hero and villainess. Tom Cruise dangling off the side of a plane at the very start of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The pummelling storm sequence in Everest and the astonishingly casual fate of John Hawkes’ gutsy, but outmatched ordinary man. The outbreaks of order-cracking deliria that punctuate The Falling. The hilarious interview with the industrious designer of S&M furnishings in The Duke of Burgundy. The nonverbal communication espoused by the two alpha males in Aloha. The depictions of recording Pet Sounds in Love & Mercy.
The song recital that gave Phoenix its climax and moment of ultimate revelation. President Snow laughing his guts out at the aptly nasty final spectacle of death that capped The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2. The ride of the Resistance in The Force Awakens, heroic flying knights skimming across the waters bringing retribution for the blitzed. Ultron singing his weird, mad song likening himself to a puppet freed from strings as titans and gods fight to undo his unleashed chaos. In Welcome to New York, Gerard Depardieu’s monstrous banker roaming like some soon-to-be-extinct Apatosaurus in New York’s dawn light, flanked by temples of glass and steel whilst meditating on the tragedy of his own lost hope. Shu Qi’s eponymous gentle killer in The Assassin, hovering amidst the shadows and gauzy drapes of the palace like some hazily remembered ghost of reckoning, listening in to the tragedy of her own life. The unblinking abortion sequence and silent final murder rampage in The Tribe. Alicia Vikander’s boozy, liberated heroine dancing behind Armie Hammer’s smouldering, gelded Soviet superman in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The assailed squaddie protagonist of ’71 carrying the young victim of a terrorist bombing out of the inferno. Saoirse Ronan enthroned as queen of the underworld by Matt Smith’s feudal lord of the wasteland, and Christina Hendricks slicing off her own “face” in the Grand Guignol theatre, in Lost River…
Performances of Note
Jacqueline Bisset, Welcome to New York
Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak; The Martian
Viola Davis, Blackhat
Gerard Depardieu, Welcome to New York
Harrison Ford, Age of Adaline; Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Greta Gerwig, Mistress America
Donald Glover, Magic Mike XXL; The Martian
Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies
Christina Hendricks, Lost River
Nina Hoss, Phoenix
Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World
Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight
Dakota Johnson, Black Mass; Cymbeline; Fifty Shades of Grey
Sidse Babett Knudsen, The Duke of Burgundy
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Rachel MacAdams, Aloha; Spotlight
Ben Mendelsohn, Lost River; Mississippi Grind
Carey Mulligan, Suffragette
Leland Orser, Faults
Shu Qi, The Assassin
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Peter Sarsgaard, Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story
Liev Schreiber, Spotlight
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Donald Sutherland, The Hunger Games – Mockingjay: Part 2
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; Testament of Youth
Maisie Williams, The Falling
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Alex From Venice; Faults
B.D. Wong, Focus
Jason Mitchell, Straight Outta Compton
Ensemble: The Mend
Ensemble: Steve Jobs
Best of 2015
The Assassin (Hsiao-Hsien Hou)
A dense, elusive, bewitching work from a real master, The Assassin, along with Michael Mann’s Blackhat, took on the well-worn idea of the rogue deliverer of justice in a corrupt world. Where Mann’s film was a myth of the hypermodern, Hou’s is a dream of the past, a whispery, folkloric exploration of a usually high-powered genre, turning the familiar marital arts drama inside out whilst staying true to some of its deeper cultural and spiritual underpinnings, every shot reverberating with implicit mystery, longing, and melancholy as well as impossible beauty. Shu Qi provided a near-silent centre of gravity with unerring poise.
Blackhat (Michael Mann)
One of the year’s heaviest flops and a divisive experience for those who did see it, Michael Mann’s Blackhat was perhaps the surest litmus test to differentiate between auteurists and everyone else since De Palma’s Mission to Mars, encompassing as it did the full pantheon of Mann’s ideas, obsessions, and stylistic quirks. At once a dashing piece of genre storytelling and a genuinely original, boundary-pushing piece of cinema, Mann’s first film in six years took on technological concepts that are notoriously tricky to film and turned them into raw cinema, whilst diagnosing the present day’s insidious psychic dichotomy, split between technological wonder and a reversion to almost primal causes and concomitant violence, with the kind of cool that burns.
Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)
Nobody would have minded much if Steven Spielberg had relaxed a little with the follow-up to his magnum opus Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies might have been just a grace note, another civics class account of righteous causes and plucky dealmakers with macro-historical interest. But Bridge of Spies built to its finale with admirable narrative cool that concealed a sneaky emotional punch, and provided, like Blackhat, a summary for its director’s career that also clears the way for new material. The familiar ordinary man at the heart of Spielberg’s early work strove through a narrative that moved in stages through his ’80s retro adventures, ’90s conscience dramas, and ’00s moral quagmire studies. Uniformly excellent performances helped.
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas)
Olivier Assayas’ antidrama took on the familiar conceit of art vs. life, applied a stringent cinematic and conceptual rigour to it, and came up with a work that was at once deliberately frustrating, even alienating, and yet somehow profoundly enjoyable to experience. Not all of Assayas’ twists and trials felt necessary, but as long as he was arming leading ladies Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz with words to wrap wicked tongues about, it was riveting. It was also, in spite of its emphasis on the verbal and theatrical, a work of exquisite visual poise and economy.
Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda)
In a year filled with rickety prestige films trying at once to be strong-arming dramas and meaningful statements on Big Issues, Experimenter proceeded with the same analytical, essayistic dispassion, mixed with a misdirecting technique, of its central character. Director Michael Almereyda stripped out everything that smacked of melodrama, whilst retaining a spry sense of humour and an absurdist visual style that might have been offering symbolism or just trolling us. Like Clouds of Sils Maria, Experimenter was a work that prods the audience to think rather than smother them in screenwriting contrivances.
The Martian (Ridley Scott)
In some ways a comedown in ambition from Ridley Scott’s recent films but all the more fluent for it, The Martian was an almost defiantly relaxed, sublimely confident exercise in crowd-pleasing, with a dose of big-heartedness and respect for intelligence that made it feel distinct amongst recent big-budget films. But under the new-agey take on heroic themes and pseudo-satiric waggishness was an old-fashioned sense of cinematic virtue, eyeing both grand vistas and the quirky nobility of its humans in both solitude and solidarity with a clear sense of their entwining: truly, a grain of sand doesn’t stir on Mars without eyes to see it.
Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone)
A movie I can imagine delighting or disturbing viewers in roughly equal numbers with its triptych of perverse, funny, often bloody, occasionally harrowing mythical stories harvested from a collection published in the 1500s, Tales of Tales was a fervently weird and original work that had much in common with a near-forgotten strand of European fantasy cinema that sometimes poked its head up during the ’60s and ’70s. Although made in English with an international cast, Tale of Tales retained an atmosphere rooted in the arcane, ornate Italianism at the heart of Garrone’s source material. But it also realised the essential timelessness and symbolic force at the heart of such stories, with their acerbic metaphorical attacks on power, class, family, desire, the hunger for beauty, youth, and riches, as well as other ills that still define our collective neurosis.
Would Have Been On Best-Of List If I Had Seen It In Time
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)
Aloha (Cameron Crowe)
Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans)
Faults (Riley Stearns)
Heaven Knows What (Ben & Joshua Safdie)
Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow)
The Mend (John Magary)
Results (Andrew Bujalski)
Testament of Youth (James Kent)
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara)
The Worthy & The Underrated
The Admiral: Roaring Currents (Han-min Kim)
Creed (Ryan Coogler)
Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)
The Falling (Carol Morley)
Joy (David O. Russell)
Man From Reno (Dave Boyle)
Mistress America (Noah Baumbach)
Pan (Joe Wright)
Spectre (Sam Mendes)
Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy)
Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle)
Suffragette (Sarah Gavron)
Tangerine (Sean Baker)
Trainwreck (Judd Apatow)
The Walk (Robert Zemeckis)
The Underwhelming & The Overrated
Black Mass (Scott Cooper)
Carol (Todd Haynes)
The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie)
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (Spike Lee)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)
What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)
Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)
The Gunman (Pierre Morel)
Macbeth (Justin Kurzel)
Serena (Susanne Bier)
Seventh Son (Sergei Bodrov)
Spy (Paul Feig)
Taken 3 (Olivier Megaton)
45 Years / Beasts of No Nation / Chi-Raq / Concussion / Diary of a Teenage Girl / The Dressmaker / Eden / The End of the Tour / Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem / Mustang / Room / Son of Saul / Tu Dors Nicole
Vintage: Best First-Time Movie Classic Viewings of 2015
Baby Doll (Elia Kazan)
The Big Boss / Fist of Fury (Lo Wei)
The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith)
Caravaggio (Derek Jarman)
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (Sergio Martino)
The Creation of the Humanoids (Wesley Barry)
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson)
Deadline USA (Richard Brooks)
Dillinger (John Milius)
The Driver (Walter Hill)
Eugenia (Jesus Franco)
Eyes of Fire (Avery Crounse)
Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger)
Fear City (Abel Ferrara)
Foolish Wives (Erich von Stroheim)
Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn)
Gold (Peter Hunt)
Green Snake / The Blade (Tsui Hark)
Hangover Square (John Brahm)
Krylya (Larisa Shepitko)
Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu)
The Laughing Policeman (Stuart Rosenberg)
Les Amants / Le Feu Follet (Louis Malle)
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Lucio Fulci)
Mamma Roma / The Gospel According to St. Matthew / Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
Men in War (Anthony Mann)
The Man on the Roof (Bo Widerberg)
Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Psych-Out (Richard Rush)
Riot in Cell Block 11 / Charley Varrick (Don Siegel)
The Samurai Trilogy / The Birth of Japan (Hiroshi Inagaki)
San Demetrio, London (Charles Frend)
Scandal (Akira Kurosawa)
Spring in a Small Town (Fei Mu)
Shack Out on 101 (Edward Dein)
Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)
The Story of G.I. Joe (William A. Wellman)
The Wild Angels (Roger Corman)
The Witch Who Came from the Sea (Matt Cimber)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: J. J. Abrams
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
And so it begins. Again. After months of feverish anticipation, it finally came down to me amidst a movie theatre filled by fans, many dressed as their favourite Star Wars characters. Some recoil from the way such popular material can suck up all the oxygen of cultural discussion, but I can’t help feeling enormously cheered when surrounded by people who love a story and a way of seeing so much that it inspires them to throw out the usual rules about how we’re supposed to treat the products of imagination in real life. Amidst such cultish fervour, however, it can also be hard to formulate an objective opinion. J. J. Abrams now lives out the dream of so many in the audience who saw the first Star Wars back in 1977 in relaunching the series for a new time and generation, skewing it back toward his understanding of what made it great in the first place. Abrams is, of course, the former scribe of TV shows, including Lost and Alias, who graduated to making films with the nervy action thriller Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), the big, fun, rather dumb rebooted Star Trek movies, and his best to date, the deeply personal, if derivative, semiclassic, Super 8 (2011).
Auteurist scruples may wince at the prospect, but then again, just as George Lucas was so ready to remix his favourite old movies into something for himself, the time had come, apparently, when someone can do the same to Lucas’ model. The new Star Wars entry comes weighed down with a colossal amount of expectation amongst many hardcore and casual fans, most of who want to bury the memory of Lucas’ prequels that I spent so many digits exploring recently. I like the prequels, and my set of expectations are inevitably different. I’m a fan of the series, of Lucas as a filmmaker, and of fantastic movies in general, a set of loyalties that can converge neatly—or twist in gruelling discursions.
The Force Awakens nonetheless studiously hits all the right notes from the outset— the classic title swooping away from the camera, the expository screen crawl, the first glimpse of something awesome deep in outer space. In this case, it’s a Star Destroyer appearing as a silhouette against a planet and disgorging a swarm of smaller space ships like some monstrous arachnid. The crawl does a fair job setting up the essential story: the Republic is faltering, a bunch of Imperial holdouts calling themselves the First Order are on the march, and Luke Skywalker has disappeared. First Order jackboots, including new dark lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Stormtroop commander Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), are chasing down dashing X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who’s on a mission to retrieve a map that may show Luke’s whereabouts. Poe receives the map from an old rebel adherent, Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow, pitifully wasted), on the desert planet Jakku, but Ren and his thugs arrive, forcing Poe to hide the map in his droid BB-8 just before he’s captured. The First Order thugs massacre Tekka and his fellow villagers, but one Stormtrooper, whose only moniker is FN-2187 (John Boyega), is disgusted with the slaughter. He helps Poe escape Kylo’s clutches, albeit not before Kylo uses his skill with the Force to extract the map’s whereabouts. Poe gives his rescuer a proper name, Finn, based on his number, and they escape in a TIE fighter. The craft is damaged, and they crash-land on Jakku. Finn thinks Poe has died and starts searching for BB-8 alone, only to be adopted quickly by venturesome young salvager, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Duo and droid flee First Order forces, and eventually hijack an old, battered spaceship found lying about a Jakku junkyard. Whaddaya know, it’s the Millennium Falcon.
The Force Awakens works well up to this point. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac are able to create likeable heroes and strong repartee with surprising fleetness, setting up this fresh roster of characters in the context of a new era whilst also counterpointing the story beats of the very first Star Wars film in a way that feels apt to the basic patterning that has dominated the series. Rey is, like Anakin and Luke Skywalker, the product of a desolate environment and even more hardscrabble existence, and Finn recalls Han Solo and Lando Calrissian in his determination to do right in spite of a morally compromised past. BB-8 is an ingeniously designed and executed new droid who has to bear all the heavy lifting of cute appeal in this edition, for precious little kid-friendly whimsy will be allowed to slip through tightened fanboy security. Isaac, in particular, is instantly convincing: his natural charisma and swagger, so often damped down in more earnest performances and films, makes Poe a real focal point — so, of course, the film leaves him out of its middle act. Abrams’ insistence on returning as much as possible to “practical” special effects, replete with model work and life-size mock-ups, pays the most obvious dividends. The physical world here has texture, and the technical production is magnificent, every ray gun blast and engine noise registering with thrumming force, every spaceship seeming real and tactile. If Abrams achieves nothing else, it might be that he does something similar to what Lucas, Spielberg, and the other Movie Brats accomplished in their day for his own contemporary cinema: reinvigorate the love of craft and sense of film production as a near-religious event.
Rey and Finn’s first adventure in the Falcon, dodging TIE fighters inside the strewn wrecks of cast-off Imperial death machines, is dynamically staged, and carries thematic force—the world of the old Star Wars films is now a dramatic scrap heap, a legendary time given way to an age of fractious decay needing new blood and gumption. But The Force Awakens starts to go awry here, too. The arch touch of finding the Falcon in such a circumstance is wittily purveyed, but segues into a desperately flimsy reintroduction for Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who have just returned to their old lives as smugglers because, as Han says at one point, it’s “the only thing I was ever good at.” You’ve gotta be kidding me, Abrams. Han and Chewie, appearing in a big, junky smuggling ship, zero in on the Falcon and pick it up. They hold off some disgruntled clientele and marauding monsters in a sequence that comes across more as a big-budget Red Dwarf gag than Star Wars-grade fare, and Abrams gets to do one of his trademark breathless but unimaginative run-about-hallways action scenes. The best news is that Ford is at the top of his game here, slipping back into Han like a second skin and tossing off his bluffs and grouchy quips with sublime ease. But this is part of the problem, too. Howard Hawks, one of Lucas’ masters and models, knew very well that he couldn’t utilise John Wayne the same way in El Dorado (1966) as he had in Red River (1948), and apart from Han’s tentative reunion with Leia late in the piece, there’s little convincing sense of character development. Abrams offers the juice of seeing an old friend, but with the dispiriting corollary of finding that old friend is still a screw-up. Of course, there’s a reason for this, such as it is.
It’s not surprising that Abrams is confident in making a continuation that gives us “what we want.” Any experienced TV writer learns quickly how to move onto a project and mimic the qualities that sustain a successful show. Here that honed skill is matched to a fan’s fetishism for the look, sound, and tenor of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens bends over backwards to operate like someone just took all the old Star Wars toys out of your bottom drawer and started playing with them again, at the expense of developing Lucas’ fantasy world in any meaningful way. Spent the last 30 years wondering what the rebuilt Jedi Order would look like, how Han would take to being a war hero and husband to a princess, what the rebuilt Republic would be like? Abrams answers these questions by negating them, hitting the reset button and returning the narrative to comfortable, fan-service postures. Luke’s in narrative purgatory, the Jedi are a nonstarter, Han’s gone rogue again, and Leia’s now a general, which means she does the same thing here as she did in the finale of the original—stand around watching glowing maps. The Republic is up and running once more, but fragile, and the First Order is being fought by “the Resistance,” which is basically the Rebel Alliance with a mandate, still scrappy, outmatched outsiders. The First Order looks, sounds, and operates exactly the same as the Empire though they seemingly have none of that entity’s resources or purview. Having experienced two giant variations on the Maginot Heresy already with the Death Star, here is, well, another Death Star, except it’s been constructed inside a planet and is called the Starkiller base: “It’s bigger!” Han cracks, a touch of knowing self-satire that doesn’t actually excuse the laziness of the story. The First Order have an overlord who’s come out of nowhere named Snoke (Andy Serkis)—wow, there’s a terrifying villain name—and looks like a bigger, even pastier and nastier version of Emperor Palpatine. His underlings Ren and Phasma are joined by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, overacting something shocking) to duke it out for most incompetent bad guy prize.
The emotional element for many in seeing Han, Chewie, and Leia again after so many years presents Abrams with a ball he can’t possibly drop, and he doesn’t. Nor does he do anything interesting or enriching with it: Han and Leia stand around swapping a few feels, and then we’re off again. The habit of reviving iconic characters only to make them mere furniture or to bump one or two off for shock effect is one comic book readers mocked decades ago, and Abrams lets himself be drawn into the same trap, as indeed he already did on his Star Trek films. One of the major spoilers or whatever here is Kylo Ren’s identity: in a motif drawn from the expanded universe novels that followed the original trilogy but tweaked for the sake of independence, Kylo is actually Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son, who’s fallen under the spell of the Dark Side. The absolute signature moment of the original trilogy was, of course, the revelation by Vader that he was Luke’s father. Think about that moment, how brilliantly powerful and climactic it was, how dramatically staged. Here, we learn Kylo’s real identity in a throwaway piece of exposition spouted by Snoke. Lame scarcely covers it. Kylo keeps Darth Vader’s melted helmet as a totem in his bedroom to spur his longing to become a worthy heir to the Sith lord’s power. Driver is competent in the role, but anyone who critiqued Hayden Christensen’s rather more complex performance as Anakin Skywalker should not have the gall to call this anything more persuasive. Indeed, the film badly lacks a truly potent and charismatic villain, someone to shock the narrative into feeling like anything more than a wire hanger to drape callbacks and footloose action on.
I know this might sound rich coming from a guy who defended the writing of the prequels, but the script of The Force Awakens is weak in many respects. It struck me to be about three or four drafts away from optimal, and contains many familiar clichés of Abrams’ writing style—and contemporary screenwriting in general. Lawrence Kasdan might have been hired to give the script some gloss of familiarity with the original characters (he’s credited as cowriter along with Abrams and Michael Arndt), but too much of the film has Abrams’ rather more mechanical, weakly balanced sensibility. In its desperate need to get off to a high-powered start and stay in that gear, the sequences that have to bear the weight of character and story development, particular in the middle act when our heroes takes refuge in a bar run by gnomic alien crone Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), take on an awkward feel, at once rushed and laborious. Maz is a fascinating example of how an attempt to reproduce an element of the original trilogy (Yoda) finished up as a bland and forgettable placeholder, someone to nudge Rey along her path toward finding her inner Jedi and nothing more: no one will remember a thing this character says or does. Also, why net an actress of Nyong’o’s quality for such a fruitless aspect of the film? The film sets up a tension whereby Finn fears the inevitable moment when his Stormtrooper past will be revealed to Rey. The moment comes. There’s no payoff. We wait for Han and Leia to be reunited. They’re reunited. And we’re done. Compared with the way Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) wove Indy’s reunion with Marion as a screwball bickering scene in amidst thunderous action, this is strikingly witless. Indeed, for all the faults of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it was a far more accomplished film than this in acknowledging aging heroes and weaving in legacy with derring-do.
The Force Awakens is a paean to popcorn movies as an ideal, and it moves along with such rollercoaster verve and good spirits that it does fulfil that ideal to a great degree. But something’s been lost. For Lucas, even at his lowest ebbs, the Star Wars mystique was about something more, something richer and more conceptually challenging. The acting is “better” here than in the prequels, but largely because the actors are called upon to do much less complicated things, in that increasingly common pseudo-screwball, TV-influenced manner where they all but trip over their dialogue from having to rattle it off so quickly. Boyega and Ridley give mostly confident, broad performances where they nail what their characters are supposed to be doing in any given scene, as much as the script is clear about who they are and what they’re thinking and feeling, which isn’t as often as I’d like. Boyega has a good sense of humour and he conveys Finn’s anxiety well, a particularly neat turn from an actor whose most notable previous role, as the hapless leader of the gang of posturing toughs in Attack the Block (2011), was defined precisely by a lack of self-humour. But at no point was I ever convinced that this character had ever been ruthlessly trained since childhood as a killing machine and then discovered his humanity. This is actually a very cogent example of something I was getting at in my comments on the prequels, where Lucas tried so hard to make his characters operate according to the laws of his invented universe rather than dumping easy avatars into that world, which is exactly what Abrams and company have done. Ridley, who suggests this year’s model Keira Knightley, is sometimes a plucky lass with a line of good-golly-gosh faces and sometimes an omnicompetent Sarah Connor type, and the film is remarkably cagey—or lazy—in telling us who she is and how she got this way. A couple of the bad guys sneer about her being a scavenger, but this feels more like regulation screenwriting apparatus than a real goad to her class rage. Nonetheless, I liked Finn and Rey as protagonists: as this revived series goes on, they might be allowed to take these roles to some interesting places. Or maybe not.
I’m not sure what, if any, authentic emotional level Abrams works on, except for his love of classic Gen X action and scifi flicks, and the originals in this series above all. The sprawl of Lucas’ references was vast. Abrams’ take on Star Wars refers to almost nothing outside itself, except with some vague suggestion of an Islamic State programme of all-consuming absolutism behind the First Order, as well as the usual Nazi-authoritarian stuff. Given the post-Romanesque world of the collapsed Empire, there was a good opportunity to give the overarching narrative shape by referring to tales of Charlemagne and Arthur, rather than the Greek and German myths used in the original sextet. One of the best heroic images in the film, when Poe leads in a flight of Resistance X-Wings to battle like charging paladins or knights of the Round Table, grasps this concept. There’s also a hint of Excalibur surrounding the light saber left behind by Luke, which Rey finds hanging around in an odd place (but convenient for Abrams, who still has a poor sense of how to get characters around points A, B, and C) which seems to now choose its owner. But the really alarming side of The Force Awakens is that it completely lacks any kind of fresh, motivating frame of reference or core idea, or at least, none that’s allowed to make itself apparent. The original films never let concepts get in the way of a good story, but they were held together doggedly by Lucas’ carefully parsed underpinnings. It’s enough for Abrams that a character goes from zero to hero; that’s his and Hollywood’s current idea of mythic resonance. Some critics have congratulated this film for precisely the absence of mythological preoccupation. Go to hell, I say; then why am I watching this and not the 300 other action-adventure franchises out there?
Abrams and his team have gone to great lengths to merely dress familiar things in new garb: here’s a new Emperor stand-in, here’s a Darth Vader wannabe, here’s a second-string Luke Skywalker, without pausing to let any of it breathe or gain substance. The original film took nearly an hour to leave Tatooine in the course of charting the events that set Luke on his journey, passing through stages of surprising stillness and quiet, evoking the meditative edge that often bubbled unexpectedly to the surface in places throughout the sextet. Lucas’ Jedi were thinkers and feelers; everyone here is a doer. Abrams grazes similar moments of horror to the death of Luke’s aunt and uncle and Anakin’s mother in noting the First Order’s violence, but it’s impersonal and offstage. Many branded the prequels as overly light and lacking grit, but The Force Awakens is actually far more blithe and evasive about the impact of violence. Many similarly derided the introduction of the idea of the midi-chlorians as a source for the Force as a misguided demystification of Lucas’ spiritual aspect, but here Abrams and company do something worse as the film reaches its climax and Rey literally gets her Jedi knight moves on in the course of battling Kylo. The whole point of the original trilogy was the process of developing the mental and spiritual discipline required to become a Jedi, and the prequels studied what horrible results could come of the process failing. To Abrams, it’s become just another cheap power fantasy.
The Starkiller base wipes out a few planets a la the destruction of Alderaan, but whereas that was Leia’s home and an immensely brutal act registered through her reaction delivered with a political purpose of tyrannising obedience out of Imperial subjects, here it’s just some places that get wiped out for no particular reason other than, well, the story needs to make us dislike the baddies some more. Such is the film’s great technical in-your-face bluster and swiftness of movement that the weakness of its story structure and designs is nearly obscured. Return of the Jedi saw the rebels embarking on a rather limp plan to foil their enemies’ defences, but that plotline now looks positively Machiavellian in cunning compared with the way Han and Finn take out the Starkiller base’s defences by holding Phasma at gunpoint and threatening her into lowering the shields. So much for these fanatically committed agents of evil. The second great spoiler here is that Kylo, when Han finally confronts him, kills his father, in a sequence deliberately reminiscent of the death of Obi-Wan in the original. That scene was wrenching and shocking in part because Lucas never really suggested it was going to be so momentous. Here Abrams telegraphs what’s going to happen so blatantly that I couldn’t feel even a flicker of surprise, or even much sadness. By this stage, Han is just another moving part amongst too many. But I did like the flicker of interesting ambiguity that strays into the scene—does Han realise what’s in Kylo’s heart and willingly sacrifice himself, or did he trust too much?—which lends the film momentary depth by offering the one vignette that isn’t plying the obvious.
The Force Awakens is spectacular, of course, but there’s a difference between spectacular and spectacle. Spectacular is flash and impact; spectacle is lucid and grand. Lucas aimed to give a touch of the sublime in his sense of the cosmic, and so often had a poetic edge to his visuals to counterpoint the kinetic ferocity. His frames spoke of his love of the fantastic, his desire to share with the audience a sense of things vast and strange, even when his words failed him and his movies skidded. Nothing like the romantic vistas of Attack of the Clones get a look in here, and Abrams’ way of evoking the same kind of yearning in Rey as once possessed Luke, so eloquently captured in the famous sunset shot of the original, manifests as her watching a spaceship take off, without anything like the same sense of visual rapture conveying inner meaning. The Force Awakens deploys the same lexicon of fantastic images as Lucas created, the scale of his war machines and the martial vigour of the space battles and final light saber duel. But Abrams has no gift for spectacle, and apart from the few brief visions early in the film, like the wrecked carcasses of Star Destroyers and their cavernous innards, no grasp on the dreamlike sensibility that coiled throughout the original sextet, no feel for the dark and hushed places that often live in the corners of that fantasy world where the heroes often found some of their truest threats.
Abrams has been consistently improving as a director, and he restrains his messy instincts here to a great degree, imitating Lucas as much as possible. Yet his images never escape the realm of mere prose. The final battle sequences forget entirely about the space war raging above the heads of the duelling young warriors, and the Starkiller base blows up with scarcely a raised eyebrow: there’s no sense of the dramatic shape that made the original’s finale so enthralling. Here it’s just more cool, pretty things going zap and boom. Even the scene I praised earlier, of the Resistance’s charge, kind of comes to nothing. Finn and Rey’s attempt to bring Kylo down really gains strength, but this is then spoilt by Abrams’ need to give too much too soon. I’m being churlish to a deliberate degree, I’ll admit. The Force Awakens is a beautifully produced, solid, fast-paced and entertaining space adventure movie. But on some level, for all the familiar paraphernalia and exacting tribute, I felt like it was barely a Star Wars film, but rather just another imitation, Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) with more money. The film finally wraps up with a coda that is, on one level, excruciatingly clumsy, but also intriguing, as Rey confronts Luke at his hidden abode, an ancient Jedi temple at the edge of the ocean, his grizzled and battered face suggesting the hells he’s been through coping with the aftermath of his awful triumph. It’s telling that merely the sight of Mark Hamill’s face captures exactly the note the film has spent more than two hours trying to strike.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Hsiao-Hsien Hou
By Roderick Heath
Hsiao-Hsien Hou is one of the greatest living filmmakers, and also one of the most rarefied. A visual poet of the highest order, Taiwan-based Hou has nonetheless avoided most of the tendencies of other rapturously cinematic filmmakers, preferring to make quiet, intimately textured dramas that often barely count as narratives. Hou could be broadly described as a minimalist, but this doesn’t quite encompass the lushness of his visions or his quiet, yet rigorous, experimentalist bent, his ability to take cinema apart and reassemble it with the bare minimum of gestures. With Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Hou tried to tell a story with a very few, almost entirely static shots, and yet was able to enliven them to a degree that makes the experience riveting. His Three Times (2005) told the story of modern Taiwanese history entirely through the fragmentary experiences of a triptych of lookalike lovers from three different epochs. Hou approaches film like a classical Chinese poet, inferring elusive ideas in his meditation on surface beauties and flitting lightly over his chosen theme, in a manner where seeming superficialities instead take on holistic meaning. The Assassin seems on the face of it a jarring change of direction for Hou, a digression into that perennial genre, wu xia, the historical martial arts action tale.
The great masters of that form, like King Hu and Tsui Hark, long struggled to introduce flourishes of artistry and personality into a style driven by an urge towards kinetic movement and familiar archetypes. But Hou follows Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Kaige Chen, and Yimou Zhang, the most acclaimed Chinese-language art film makers of the time, into this realm. Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) were balletic, richly crafted films that nonetheless stuck very close to the essentials of wu xia, and indeed tried to create exemplars of the form. Wong, with Ashes of Time (1995) and The Grandmaster (2013), played more deeply with the form and structure, as well as story patterns, though he still revelled in the spectacle of motion and conflict that forms the essence of the genre. Hou goes further in subordinating this style to his own preoccupations, to a degree that The Assassin barely has a likeness in modern film. The closest comparison I can come up with is with Sergei Paradjanov’s folkloric cinema works Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Legend of Suram Castle (1984)—films that sustain a certain brand of narrative but prize evocation of past times and modes of life, an explication not merely of a bygone time, but also a total immersion in an alien way of looking, feeling, and experiencing.
The Assassin is an elusive and taciturn work that doesn’t entirely dispense with the expectations of its chosen mode of storytelling, but does push the viewer to adopt a different sense of them. Hou prizes mystery, with a purpose: he evokes a world where treachery and violence are so endemic that almost anyone could be guilty of something, but where the responses to such a condition must inevitably be complicated. The core theme of The Assassin isn’t political so much as personal and moral, but there’s also a definite sense of parochial political inference to the film as well: although set in mainland China sometime in the 8th century, the situation of the state of Weibo, where the tale unfolds, resembles that of modern Taiwan.
Usually, the presence of an action hero in a tale signifies the need for action, but Hou’s film is predicated on the ironic inversion of this supposition. His heroine, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), has been trained since childhood to be a perfect killer—a lithe, silent, dynamically light-footed physical specimen who can deliver a death blow as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wings. Her gift is illustrated in the first sequence when she stands with her mentor and master, princess-turned-Buddhist nun Jiaxin (Fang-yi Sheu), watching a procession of state officials through a blissful copse in the countryside. Jiaxin instructs Yinniang to kill one of the officials, a corrupt and murderous man. Yinniang easily dispatches the man in the wide, open daylight and escapes barely noticed. The tensions set up here, between the shimmering, evanescent beauty of the woodland, with its promises of natural bounty, and the hatched seed of murder and depravity that is the dark side of human society, defines the rest of the film. Jiaxin has schooled Yinniang as the perfect engine of justice, a swift and detached instrument she can use when she targets someone she feels deserves a comeuppance in a world where the people who most deserve such ends are often the most shielded. But Yinniang shortly reveals a streak of independence and sentiment antipathetic to Jiaxin’s purpose, when she lurks in the rafters of a palace, watching another targeted official playing with his grandchildren and cradling a newborn. Yinniang drops into the room before the official but immediately starts to leave: when the official throws a blade after her, she spins and contemptuously knocks away the weapon, making it clear that she’s chosen not to kill him whilst leaving him aware how close he came.
Jiaxin isn’t happy with a mere gesture and threat, however, and she curtly informs her protégé that she’s going to be returned to her native province of Weibo to kill Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang), her own cousin and the governor of the province, as an ultimate test of her grit. This mission is intended as a punishment, a severance, and a consummation for reasons that slowly resolve from the murk of complex, worldly tussles both vital and trivial. Yinniang is returned to the fold of her family. Her uncle is Tian’s provost Nie Feng (Ni Dahong), but Yinniang’s youth was even more tightly entwined with the current regime at the Weibo court and its overlord. She was raised to be Tian’s wife, but then the arrangement was broken in favour of Tian’s union with the current Lady Tian (Yun Zhou), a woman from the powerful Yuan clan. Yinniang’s exile began after she tried breaking into the Yuan mansion, making it clear that she was going to be a nuisance. Her parents hurriedly agreed to the proposal of Jiaxin, who is the twin sister of Tian’s mother Princess Jiacheng, to take her away and look after her. Her relatives and their friends at court are perturbed at Yinniang’s return as a cool, black-clad, silently boding presence. Yinniang’s taciturn manner buckles when her mother (Mei Yong) presents her with a jade ringlet, one of a matching set, and explains the regrets that have permeated their lives since the Yuan marriage took place and Yinniang left. A pattern of broken and warped relationships has beset them since the Emperor’s sister, Jiacheng, Tian’s mother and Jiaxin’s twin sister, married the old Governor of Weibo. Yinniang weeps silently over the ornament, symbolic of breaks between past and present, families, and loyalties.
This moment is, in spite of its early arrival in the unfolding of The Assassin, a crucial pivot in the film. Emotional epiphany is far more important than the to-and-fro of court conspiracy in which the characters wind themselves until their lives resemble less a spider’s web than a fouled-up cat’s cradle. Although Yinniang’s arrival spreads ripples of awareness and tension through the Weibo court, nobody connects her at first with the black-clad swordswoman who keeps appearing mysteriously in the gardens and fights with the guards. She appears before Tian and his mistress in the palace chambers, seemingly caught eavesdropping but actually affording Tian the knowledge, as she did for the official she spared, that she’s watching and waiting for some ineluctable purpose. Tian chases after her but holds off when he realises who she is and she makes clear she’s not after a fight. He remains silent about the incident, perhaps because she’s the least of the problems in his court. Tian himself has already set in motion a crisis when he reacted with bratty anger to the counsel of one of his ministers, Chiang Nu (Shao-Huai Chang), warning him against getting involved with the plots of other governing families in nearby provinces and agitation against the imperial court. Chiang finds himself exiled at the insistence of Tian and his fellow ministers, whereupon Chiang briefly feigns paralysis from a stroke to escape possibly heavier wrath. Wheels within wheels are turning. Former ministers have a terrible habit of being captured by assassins on the road and buried alive. Both Lady Tian and a sorcerous eminence gris connected to her have agents reporting the possibility that one of Tian’s mistresses, court dancer Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying), is pregnant.
Hou’s source material was a collection of swordfighter and supernatural stories by Pei Xing dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a famously prosperous and culturally fecund period in classical Chinese history that also threw up much of its folk legends (Tsui Hark has recently mined the mythos of Judge Dee, a real figure of the time transmuted into folk hero, for two recent movies). Xing’s story was brief; a skeletal frame begging for a more developed narrative. Hou remixes elements and changes the plot greatly, but also stays true to its essential presentation of Yinniang as a woman forcibly imbued with great, deadly talents taking it upon herself to shepherd the best rather than exterminate the worst. Usually, when such stories are approached by filmmakers, they’re transferred to the screen as straightforward tales of action and adventure—just look at the many adaptations of ancient Greek myths. But any scholar of mythology knows that such stories encode deeply held ideals and peculiarities, maps of the psychology and social structure of the worlds from which they emerged: many are as much maps and poems as they are narratives. Hou sets out to capture the evocative side of such tales.
The Assassin’s extraordinary visual and aural textures create a mood that moves both in concert with, but also in intriguing detachment from this tangle of motives and actors. Silk curtains ruffling in the breeze and the licks of mist rising off a lake are observed with a sense of beauteous longing, a luxuriousness Hou refuses to give to the political drama. In some ways, Hou’s approach mimics Jiaxin’s programme of assassination: the context is smokescreen, the action all, in a world that’s rotten to the core, where everyone has become some kind of operative of the corruption. In other ways, Hou purposefully contradicts that programme, lingering on the intense, near-hallucinogenic beauty of this past world, the intricacy of the way it’s bound in with nature, in opposition to the modern world.
Upon her return, Yinniang is re-inducted into the feminine space of the court, wrapped in the lustrous hues of a highborn woman in a place that seems almost pellucid in its placidity and contemplative quiet. Here Princess Jiacheng plucks an instrument, and it seems like a breath of tension never touches them. But, of course, Hou, who evoked the brutal and deeply competitive side of brothels in Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times, understands the bind of power, soft and hard, in such a hermetic world. Hou writes thematic jokes into the visual pattern of his film: the shift from brilliant monochrome to the rich and iridescent colour that comes after Yinniang is sent to Weibo reflects the jarring movement from Jixian’s rigid worldview to Yinniang’s own, more complex viewpoint. The ugliness of much human activity is contrasted with the beauty of the world and our own arts, but, of course, beauty and decay are never distinct. Yinniang is in abstract a familiar figure, the killer with a conscience, and her relationship with Jixian evokes the title of another of Hou’s best-known films, The Puppet Master (1993); it would be very easy, one senses, for Yinniang to continue through life as an empty vessel operating at Jixian’s behest, as being a tool is far easier than being a moral arbiter and being defined, like a distaff Heathcliff, by exile, rejection, and forced repudiation of her love. But when confronted by human frailty, Yinniang judges, not from sentimental weakness, but because she comprehends that all actions, good and bad, take place in the real world, not some platonic state of ideals. The stringent sense of purpose and expression of identity often can be observed in people performing mundane things or simply living life, and The Assassin, in spite of the deathly portent of its title, is built around such actions—a man cradling a baby; serving women preparing a bath; kids kicking around balls; Tian practicing combat with his son and dancing with Huji and the other court dancers, suggesting a frustrated artist and performer; Lady Tian being assembled like a machine with the regalia of her position by her handmaidens. Hou thus finally aligns his visuals with his heroine’s, noting the way life teems and possesses tiny glories even in the midst of foul truths.
Themes of political corruption and the toxic qualities of monolithic power are ones many recent Chinese-language filmmakers have tackled in recent years, often in historical contexts, including Zhang with Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) and Xiagong Feng with his Hamlet-inspired The Banquet (2006). It’s a completely understandable preoccupation, given the nation’s long, uneasy relationship with the political forces that have governed it and the anxieties of contemporary filmmakers in a time of tremendous social and political rearrangement. But Hou’s attitude to it is distinct, worrying less about who’s committing what crimes and plots and why, in favour of noting the impact of loss and violence on individuals. Yinniang’s life is one of severed roles, like the jade amulets that symbolise her and Tian’s betrothal, which also originally symbolised Jiacheng’s separation from her home. Tian himself is first glimpsed reacting like a tyrant, but he’s soon shot like a sneak-thief in his own palace, stealing into Huji’s chamber to grasp a moment of succour and to explain the weird languor in his heart: he’s a total prisoner of his inherited life, a life he ironically gained despite being an illegitimate son of the last governor, just like the child in Huji’s belly whose potential threat stokes ruthless reprisal by enemies in court. Life in the Weibo court is a cage, where someone will always be plotting to kill someone else or snatch the reins of power. Yinniang listens in to Huji and Tian while hovering amidst the dangling drapes and veils that willow in the lazy drafts of evening like a spectral emanation, the agent of death and justice reduced to a remembered ghost in her own life.
At one point in the story, Tian approaches his wife and speaks to her of how Chiang must reach his place of exile unharmed, unlike the horrible fate that befell the last minister to pass the same way. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Lady Tian is earpiece and interlocutor, as well as active agent, of the Yuan family and rival political factions. Shortly after, riders are sent out after Chiang and his escort, Feng. Hou doesn’t elucidate whether Tian is asking his wife to use her contacts to save Chiang or make sure he meets a grim fate: the levers of an enigmatic machine of power are being pulled. Chiang’s party is waylaid on the road, his bodyguards die bravely, Feng is wounded and taken captive, and the killers start burying Chiang alive. A mirror polisher (Satoshi Tsumabuki), who overhears the battle nearby, ventures out of the woods to try to help them, distracting the killers long enough for Yinniang, who’s been shadowing the exile and her uncle, to arrive and carve a swathe through the assassins. Yinniang takes her father and the two men on to a small village, where they’re able to recover from their wounds. This sequence is the closest thing to a traditional action scene in The Assassin, where Hou finds incidental humour in the polisher’s dash-and-dart efforts to escape the hornets he stirs up by intervening, contrasted with Yinniang’s poise, and a gasp of melodramatic force as Yinniang saves the plucky artisan. But of course, it’s not the causes for the action here that are vital, but rather Yinniang’s reaction to it, her action on behalf of her uncle and Chiang a statement of her own moral compass.
Hou’s use of doppelgangers and characters whose roles merge emphasises a feeling of duplicitous and untrustworthy surfaces and identities. But it also echoes deeper, as if we could also be watching a Buddhist narrative of combating the elements in one’s self, whilst also recalling the splintered selves of Three Times and their three different modes of living: The twin princesses whose different interpretations of duty diverge in complete passivity and coldly detached, punitive action. Yinniang and Lady Tian and Huji, all prospective or actual mates of Tian. Tian himself and Chiang, two men with near-identical names, the truth-teller and the man afraid of the truth, but able to shuffle it off into a dead zone. Yinniang’s fleeting appearances in her assassin garb that stir up Tian’s guards also brings out another mysterious female figure, this one with features obscured by a gold mask and swathed in flamboyant colours: this figure stalks Yinniang after she saves Chiang and challenges her to a duel in the woods near the village. The masked woman gives Yinniang a gashed shoulder, but Yinniang is able to break her opponent’s mask, and the strange woman has to retreat before it falls from her face. The two women continue on their separate ways with an almost comic sense of diminuendo, but Hou notes the fractured disguise lying amidst the dead leaves.
At first glimpse, this is all rather cryptic, but closer observation reveals that it makes perfect sense: the masked assassin is actually Lady Tian herself, the woman who stepped into Yinniang’s place as Tian’s wife and who is also her equal-opposite as a martial artist, defending her turf from adherence to a credo of vested, familial interest, an interest she also obeys when turning her sorcerer ally on Huji. In another sense, the masked woman is again an aspect of herself that Yinniang has to fend off, the side that would work for venal causes, the side of herself lost in the world. Qi’s performance is one of intense and baleful near-silence in equal contrast with last year’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, where she was vibrantly comedic. She never lets Yinniang turn into a stoic or enigmatic blank, but instead seems to hang about the film even when not on screen like an old cape, the intelligence of her eyes a constant source of emotional tenor. The only time she speaks comes after she’s wounded by the masked assassin, as Chiang sews up the gash. She murmurs her new understanding of a seemingly obscure parable about a caged bird told to her earlier by being delivered a painful object lesson in the limitations of her strength and the price to be paid for meddling in systems too strong for an individual to combat, a truth that eludes Jixian’s program of assassination. Entrapment is one of Hou’s constant motifs, but so is liberation. In Three Times, he identified, more brilliantly than most any other artist of contemporary times, the peculiar anxiety that comes with ultimate freedom. The Assassin is more of a statement of overt hope, as Yinniang staves off all her shadow-selves and worldly parameters, as she realises her carefully imbued powers belong to her and give her something no one else in this time and place has, save for a humble merchant like the mirror polisher—the right to decide her own fate and morality.
Lim Giong’s score, with its odd and eclectic instrumentations, gives the film a peculiar pulse, surging during fight scenes, but more often vibrating under the visuals in dull drum thuds, counting off the minutes until the next eruption of violence. But The Assassin is, above all, a visual experience, a film in love with elusive flavours of experience and littered with moments of extraordinary, tremendous exertions of filmic craft to capture moments that feel ethereal and featherlight: Yinniang’s vantage on Tian and Huji through curtains with guttering candle flames rendered by the focal range as hovering wisps of fire, a battle between Yinniang and Tian’s guards filmed from a distance amidst trees where only flashes of colour and movement can be seen, and the final meeting of Yinniang and Jiaxin on a hilltop where curtains of mist rise and swirl about them as if the shape of the world is dissolving. Nature is charged with such astonishing power here that it becomes another character, not a threat like the jungles of Herzog and Coppola or a stage like Lean’s desert, but a place of escape and revelation, where things that are hidden in the human world are exposed, but so, too, is a more elusive sense of life.
Yinniang’s heroism at the end is to expose villainy and pay homage to the one real loyalty of her life; once she does this, she exposes herself to the vengeful disdain of Jixian. This proves ineffectual: Yinniang is no longer a tool. The climax of the film isn’t an action scene and doesn’t even include Yinniang, as Tian, aware that his wife has conspired against his lover and also probably played a part in the death of his father, confronts her in a steaming rage, and their son places himself in front of his mother as a human shield, suddenly rendering the furious overlord an impotent tantrum-thrower, utterly trapped by life and role. The last glimpse of Yinniang sees her leading her charges on to a new land, dissolving from sight like the fading dew of morning, entering myth as she leaves behind the ephemeral obsessions of the world that created her and nurtured her to the point where it could no longer contain her.
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Director: Todd Haynes
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s hard to believe that Todd Haynes has been making movies of some significance since 1985, when he launched his career with Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud, a short film about the love affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. Since this audaciously experimental beginning, Haynes has dealt explicitly and implicitly with gay themes, as with his examination of the sexually fluid glamrock scene through the eyes of a gay journalist in Velvet Goldmine (1998) and a camouflaged look at AIDS in his environmental-health horror story Safe (1995). He has also developed revisionist versions of classic films that have served as touchpoints for the gay community, including his TV miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011) and Far From Heaven (2002), his reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s “taboo” older woman/younger man romance All That Heaven Allows (1955) that pulls the conformist veil off the Eisenhower era to reveal the real social pariahs of the time—homosexuals and interracial couples. Haynes’ concerns have remained outside the mainstream for most of his somewhat sparse career, perhaps limiting the amount of work he could have accomplished, but also giving him the space to look at the films that influence him and find creative ways of capturing their appeal without succumbing to their amber-coated attitudes. In this respect, Carol represents the apotheosis of Haynes’ filmcraft.
Haynes once again turns to a mid-20th-century source, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, to mine the period details with which he seems so enamored as well as the repressions and widespread prejudices of the period that will stand in opposition to the would-be lovers, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Interestingly, the barriers to happiness for the couple in All the Heaven Allows—class and age differences—face Carol and Therese as well and are compounded by their same-sex attraction. In truth, however, neither woman seems to have any trouble being in love with another woman; it is the reaction of Therese’s suitor, Richard (Jack Lacy), and especially Carol’s estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), that puts them in a complicated bind.
The film opens near the end, with the audience casual observers of two women we soon learn are Therese and Carol as they sit across from each other in a restaurant. A young man spies Therese and goes up to greet her and invite her to a party. Reluctant at first, she agrees to go when Carol arises and says she has to meet some people anyway. The film then flashes back to Carol and Therese’s first meeting in the department store where Therese works and proceeds chronologically from there, as Carol pulls the barely formed Therese into her orbit, her bed, and, eventually, her life.
Haynes’ choice to name his film Carol instead of “Therese” or “Carol and Therese” reveals something interesting about gay relationships, especially in more closeted times, as well as some myths the straight world has held regarding homosexuals. Carol is older and has pursued lesbian relationships throughout her life; in fact, her former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson), is godmother to Carol’s daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim). Thus, Carol offers Therese the mentorship characteristic of gay relationships of the time. At the same time, her seduction of Therese is practiced and, frankly, predatory for the first half of the film—a perfect example of the “recruitment” homophobes fear. The revelation of Carol’s affair with Therese during her divorce proceedings further aggravates homophobic notions that she is a degenerate influence and blocks the slam dunk mothers of the time usually had in retaining custody of their children.
Haynes’ focus on Carol also presents a model of homosexuality that is more assertive and positive than it might have been had Therese been the center of attention. Therese is little more than a lump of clay who admits that she acquiesces to everyone because she has no idea who she is or what she wants. Her idea of rebellion is to “forget” to wear her Santa hat at work and to suggest that Carol buy her daughter a train set instead of a doll for Christmas—a gift Therese coveted as a child, in the script’s small nod to her hidden butchness. Even the stare she fixes on Carol when she first sees her, though insistent, is terribly repressed, so glazed over that it might be mistaken for something other than attraction, say, spotting her long-lost mother or recognizing the woman who seduced her father away from the family.
Carol quickly moves in on Therese, who instantly agrees to every invitation—to lunch, to Carol’s country estate, to take a road trip to Chicago and beyond. It’s sadly funny to watch the men in their lives stomp around like Rumpelstiltskin when they realize they are neither needed nor wanted. Richard can’t believe Therese won’t join him on a cruise to Europe—at his expense—and isn’t thrilled that he wants to marry her in opposition to his usual tom-catting ways. Harge keeps harping on Carol that she’s his wife and is supposed to want him, though his tragedy is that he is deeply in love with Carol and tries very hard to woo her back, turning vindictive and calculating only to unleash his pain at her and protect their daughter from her possibly harmful influence. Lacy creates a certain simple, straightforward man in Richard, one whose ordinariness makes him seem a bit like a pale caricature. Chandler defies expectations that he will eventually explode in violence and seems all the more impotent and pitiable for being, actually, a good man.
Haynes flings all his balls in the air, moving them skillfully in rhythmic orbit around each other, adding in and subtracting balls from his circular tale. He punctuates scenes with telling looks, charged touches, and fetishized objects, like the gloves Carol leaves on Therese’s counter to ensure they’ll be in touch again, the toy train shot from above as it describes a small, closed loop, the tartan hat Therese wears in many scenes, a blatant emblem of her schoolgirl innocence longing for experience, and Carol herself, with her luxurious golden locks, ruby-red lips and enveloping fur coat that rivet our attention. Haynes’ regular cinematographer, Edward Lachman, offers us a Technicolor dream, highlighting the breathtaking colors that accompany scenes shared by Therese and Carol, while offering muted, cool colors when Therese is on her own or bereft at her separation from Carol, as well as gauzy, dreamlike sequences that make his images indistinct and private. Haynes finally winds back to where the film started, but shot from a different angle to reveal the changes the previous scenes have wrought on Carol and Therese.
Blanchett delivers a complicated performance—all surface and sheen in the beginning, the gradual defrosting that happens during the road trip, and finally, a completely open declaration of who she is and what she wants when facing down Harge. Mara, on the other hand, doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, which seems contrary to what young people usually do, and remains a mousey presence whose main attractions for Carol seem to be her refined name, her slight ability to play the piano, and her eager youthfulness. When Carol tells Therese that she loves her, it seems sincere, but the final look she gives a slightly more wised-up Therese is tantalizingly enigmatic.
Honestly, I don’t believe in the sincerity of this love story, but Carol accomplishes something more interesting—it honors authenticity, devalues social convention and wealth, and presents a capstone tale that validates the tremendous gains made by the LGBTQ community in the past few years. It must have given Haynes great pleasure to acknowledge this progress in the best way he knows how—by continuing to chronicle and reinvent the gay experience for audiences everywhere with exquisitely crafted and directed films.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: George Lucas
By Roderick Heath
The fervent anticipation at the nearing release of Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens carries an unavoidable sensation of déjà vu. Like just about everyone else my age, I grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, and recall another wave of both powerful hype and real expectation through the closing months of the last millennium that crested with the release of George Lucas’ return to the series, Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace. This cinematic phenomenon began as a good-humoured, referential piece of space disco created by Lucas, a man who up until 1977 had been best known for a film about teens driving about all night to the musical accompaniment of ’50s oldies. But the series he inaugurated with Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) quickly became something rare: giant blockbusters viewers adopted with the fierce personal attachment of cult films. Stripped down to constituent parts, the original Star Wars films seem simple, even infantile, and yet there’s something incredibly powerful encoded in them, defying reduction if not dissection. Almost inimitable amongst modern special-effects-driven movies, they maintain the rarefied quality of fable, combining cheeky but essentially straitlaced heroism with a quality, in their evocations of places seen and visited, their alien cities dancing on clouds and death machines the size of moons and taverns littered with denizens of two dozen species, that resembles the apparatus of dreaming.
Concurrent with the fond eagerness was a quieter but powerful swell of cynicism from people who disliked the films or resented the hype. Star Wars had germinated as personal fantasia but became marketing event. Lucas began his career with the semi-experimental scifi feature THX 1138 (1971), but more than any other filmmaker of his generation—the so-called Movie Brats—Lucas came to exemplify faith in the broad audience’s wont as well as the artisan-artist’s individual vision. Lucas learnt the hard way about the pitfalls as well as the prospects in making movies for that audience by dealing with the uproar over the nightmarish Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and the flop of the oddball Howard the Duck (1986), and had resolved to be a responsible provider of family entertainment. Facing a new trilogy with much darker and less commercial subject matter than his first series, Lucas at first courted a new generation of young viewers as fans by conceding to them excessively. Trouble is, the people who already loved Star Wars weren’t kids anymore: they were 20- and 30-somethings who wanted, whether they knew it or not, two completely divergent, yet equally necessary, concessions: the feeling of being thrust back to childhood while simultaneously reflecting their evolution. The Matrix, released a few months before The Phantom Menace, became the film the latter singularly refused to be: a superman fantasy dressed up in pseudo-grit and cyberpunk quotes that fitted the mood of the time. The Phantom Menace was a huge hit, but soon became a byword for the cultural equivalent of a fumbled touchdown. I was and still am bewildered by the level of invective the prequel trilogy receives. In some ways, I even prefer those films today.
I don’t say this just for the sake of contrariness. Some criticism levelled at the trilogy is legitimate and feelings of dashed expectations are honest enough for many. But I also feel this cult of disdain was an exemplification of something notably obnoxious about the dawning age of the internet, a deeply spoiled capacity to judge with distinction or consider with a sense of history that refers outside of the bubble of fandom, or the opposite, charmless snootiness turned on popular cinema. I think of how lumbering and overhyped a lot of modern franchises have been—The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and Twilight and Hunger Games series, even to a certain extent the Marvel superhero films—all are testimonies to a kind of professional smoothness and anodyne brand of fun that has no low points like Lucas’ films do, but also none of the high points. Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, great as they are, remade the epic and the fantastic in a manner that remains resolutely concrete, sapped of relevance as parable, and the more they try for the ethereal, the less they are. So I’ve found myself returning often to the colour and expansive glee apparent in even the least of the Star Wars movies. There’s real beauty and great invention to be found in the prequel trilogy. At their best, they exemplify the creed of the project as it began to explore complicated ideas and motifs through apparently cheery and unpretentious figurations. Lucas had originally drawn on nearly a century’s worth of space opera scifi and pulp storytelling as well as more serious sources.
The surprising thing about The Phantom Menace is how well Lucas captures the tone of some of the stuff he alludes to—the broad, tony, featherweight joie de vivre of a Saturday afternoon adventure film by someone like Nathan Juran or Richard Thorpe. People wanted the Star Wars prequels to be about their childhoods, but it remained, in many ways, an account of Lucas’ youth. One definite impact upon my own sense of art and artistry I can say the series had was the way it introduced me to the idea of auteurist cinema. George Lucas was Star Wars; even when he wasn’t directing, his influence was still all over the product. This eventually proved a sword with two edges, as Lucas the creator became the boogeyman of fanboy campfire tales.
The overarching story of the prequel trilogy is straightforward, but also more complex in its dimensions and ramifications than the original trilogy’s, depicting the transformation of the Galactic Republic, an ancient, galaxy-spanning alliance of planets, into a fascistic Empire. Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a devotee of the once hugely powerful but long since toppled mystic society called the Sith, is at first a mere senator from the planet of Naboo. He engineers a plot in multiple stages, first leveraging himself into the chancellorship of the Republic Senate by creating a crisis between his home world and a cabal of smug, fish-faced aliens called the Trade Federation, led by Nute Gunray (Silas Carson). Palpatine then foments a full-scale civil war between Republic loyalists and disaffected groups, using his adherent and accomplice Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) to manipulate events until he is given dictatorial powers, permitting him to create a full-scale army of clones to control his domain. Then Palpatine moves to wipe out the Jedi, the Republic peacekeepers who adhere to an antipathetic philosophy to the Sith whilst drawing on the same quasi-spiritual energy source known as the Force.
Woven into the fabric of his plot are three core characters: the elected Queen and later Senator of Naboo, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and his pupil Anakin Skywalker (played as a kid by Jake Lloyd, as a man by Hayden Christensen). The Phantom Menace tells how Obi-Wan and mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) save Padmé and aid her in reconquering Naboo from the Federation. They encounter young Anakin by chance when hiding out on the remote, barbaric desert planet Tatooine, where he and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) are slaves to gruff, sleazy trader Watto (Andrew Secombe). Anakin’s uniquely powerful ways with the Force help gain a victory, and after Qui-Gon’s death in battle with Palpatine’s initial apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park), Obi-Wan convinces the Jedi Council to let him train the winning, but possibly unstable young prodigy. Whilst The Phantom Menace is the least effective of the six feature films to date in the series, it also clearly illustrates the uncool side of Lucas’ obsessions in a way that also confirms their meaning to him. In its first 40 minutes or so, the episode has a much more juvenile style and tone than the other films and is the one most clearly made with a young audience in mind. As much as this tone acts like nails on a chalkboard for older viewers, it’s not actually a flaw in itself.
That said, Lucas had not personally directed a whole film in 22 years, and the one-time savant of ’70s cinema had clearly grown stiff in the joints. Some parts of this revival are brilliantly executed, others weakly patched together. Early special-effects sequences in the episode are awkward and feel unfinished—particularly an underwater journey for the Jedi—and replete with weak edits. The much-hyped, first-ever, completely computer-generated character in a feature film proved to be Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), a floppy-eared, lizard-like alien from a Naboo race called the Gungans who seems composed of a few hundred different comic-relief figures (and ethnic clichés) from old movies. I generally side with popular opinion here: Jar Jar is an annoying figure who nudges the material too close to the cartoonish, lacking the fierce-cute appeal of the often derided but lovable Ewoks. That said, although Jar Jar grates badly in early scenes, his involvement in a climactic battle through which he careens like Jerry Lewis trying to be Errol Flynn, bringing terror and destruction to both the enemy and his own fellow Gungans, blends comedy and action well in a sequence that calls out directly to a lot of classic swashbucklers, like Nick Cravat darting through danger in The Crimson Pirate (1953) or Herbert Mundin amidst the throng at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
An extended subplot involving the substitution of the real Padmé, who pretends to be one of her own handmaidens behind a decoy, played by a very young Keira Knightley, means Portman and Knightley are forced into awkwardly imitating each other with a weird mid-Atlantic accent. But Padmé is one of the most interesting characters in the franchise. She’s a product of a culture with a curious predilection for being governed by emotionally and intellectually advanced young women, one who remains the voice of social and political wisdom in the trilogy and a gutsy fighter who has a tendency to leap into frays where others hesitate but who founders on her love for a younger, volatile man. The Ruritanian look of Naboo has a fervent and colourful charm, again clearly linking the instalment with the fantasy filmmaking of Lucas’ youth like Knights of the Round Table (1954) or Jack the Giant Killer (1962). The core of the story is distrustful races coming together to fight a common enemy, as the humans of Naboo ally with Jar Jar’s people, the Gungans. The last word spoken in the film is the Gungan king’s (Brian Blessed) cry of “Peace!”, contextualising the developing story as a decline from a state of civilisation into a time of war. War comes not as great and appealing crusade or assaults by conveniently abstract others, but because of the manipulations of cabals hoping to gain power or money. Images throughout the film of the Federation’s war machines trammelling the lush, green beauty of Naboo introduce a recurring note of concern for the environment, nodding toward the same themes of natural purity and the insatiable ravening of sentience depicted in Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
The core sequence, again often criticised but actually a terrific bit of filmmaking, comes when Qui-Gon manipulates events on Tatooine to allow him and his party to escape with young Anakin, which requires letting Anakin enter a dangerous form of competition known as the Pod Race. This sequence provides another evident reference to a movie that stands as distinct precursor to the Star Wars series in both production grandeur and self-mythologising style, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). Whereas the chariot race in that film was a climax, here the pod race actually inaugurates the essential Star Wars myth with the spectacle of something new and amazing coming into the world, and serving at least four purposes. In straight narrative terms, it solves the crisis of how the heroes will get off Tatooine and leads to Anakin joining their team. It’s also an action set-piece that jolts the spluttering film to life. It focuses not just the story, but also the mythic element in the evolving epic tale as Anakin’s great, courageous, slightly berserk talent reveals itself for the first time. It also revives the panoramic aspect that’s always been crucial to Star Wars: tiny, enriching details flit by, from Jabba the Hut overseeing the race and boredly flicking bugs off his booth’s ledge to vendors selling alien small fry to hungry viewers to the two-headed race caller mouthing off sarcastically. This sort of stuff is, to me, always a great part of the pleasure of Lucas’ creation, a universe of recognisable things given a fantastic, slightly mocking but ultimately effusive makeover. Also, given how junky a lot of ’90s action filmmaking looks today, this sequence is especially great in its clean and fluid use of widescreen and the perfect legibility of the visual grammar. But sequences like this sit cheek by jowl with bad ones like Anakin joshed by a bunch of kids who show no discernable performing talent.
Climactic scenes of The Phantom Menace may push the kiddie wish-fulfilment a bit far as Anakin saves the day by blowing up a Trade Federation control ship to a chorus of applause. But the light saber duel between the Jedi and Darth Maul, which costs Qui-Gon’s life and reveals Obi-Wan’s gift for surprising pompous opponents, is in the best series tradition. Attack of the Clones, the first follow-up, is probably the most frustrating entry in the entire cycle. The episode encompasses some heavy lifting in the overall narrative, depicting Anakin simultaneously as a brave and gallant knight who wields an almost unnerving romantic fixity in pursuing Padmé, but also harbouring a dangerously fraying psyche. This side to him, though sensed warily by the leading Jedi Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), is revealed when he returns to Tatooine looking for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), only to find her on the edge of death after being kidnapped and tortured by humanoid nomads known as Sandpeople. Anakin, stirred to psychotic rage after Shmi expires in his arms, slaughters a whole village of them. The monster within Anakin is hatching, byproduct of both his alienated and exploited youth and the process of becoming a Jedi, a process that was supposed to ennoble and cleanse him of such evil. Anakin confesses his act to Padmé, alternating shows of rage, adolescent petulance, grief, and bewildered self-reprehension. Padmé, resisting her own ardour for the handsome warrior, nonetheless acquiesces to and covers up his lunacy.
Parts of Attack of the Clones have a romantic grandeur that easily match the best moments in any other episodes and strike at the heart of the appeal of this universe. The film starts effectively with a noirish sequence depicting an assassination attempt on Padmé that kills one of her doubles, a moment that signals immediately that the kiddie games of The Phantom Menace are over. Anakin and Padmé kissing before being wheeled out for a death match before a stadium full of insect men is a moment carved out of the very ore of the fantasy epic. The climactic battle sequences, including a tribute to Ray Harryhausen as our heroes battle a trio of monsters, the Jedi finally depicted at their best as they rally to save our heroes and fight off an army of robots, and Yoda and Dooku meeting in a light saber duel, are great entertainment, with a hint of the old to-hell-with-it absurdity that marked the older films. The landscapes on display are a diorama of fetish points for space opera and classic scifi—robots, aliens, Art Deco supercities, technogothic castles, glistening chrome space ships, and stygian automated factories, as if decades of Amazing Stories and Astounding magazine covers have come to life. Mixed in with this are references to the ’50s pop culture beloved of Lucas, like diners and hot-rod-like speeders and spacecraft, making for the deepest immersion in the fantasy world Lucas had created.
But the episode is also beset by a baggy narrative that wastes screen time when it should be developing the tortured romance of Anakin and Padmé, whose affair unfolds in settings straight out of Pre-Raphaelite art. Instead we’re lumped with a couple of action scenes that come across more as show reels for the increasingly good digital effects or blueprints for computer games, like an asteroid field chase and a sequence in a droid assembly plant that is well-done and has a certain thematic force by portraying our heroes trying not to be more literally stamped out by a heedlessly working machine, but could easily have been left out. Some sequences even stir thrills and a touch of exasperation at the same time, like the early chase sequence through the planetwide city of Coruscant. Wisely, Lucas reduced Jar Jar to a handful of cameos here, as a malleable political stand-in for Padmé, whilst the reliable duo of C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are turned to for comic relief, though the pair don’t wield the importance or sharpness of humour they had in the original trilogy. For all its flaws, though, Attack of the Clones is a vigorous, fun, substantial work. Many of the best moments, odd for such a piece of big filmmaking, tend to be tossed-off asides: Obi-Wan using a Jedi mind trick on a barroom drug dealer, Anakin playing Joe Friday with bar patrons, bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) spinning his blaster like a gunslinger after shooting down a Jedi, C3-P0 having a killer droid head welded onto his body, and the sight of Anakin speeding across the Tattooine landscape on a futuristic motorcycle like the Wild One gone Zen Ronin.
A great part of the appeal of the original series lay in the relatively broad simplicity of its heroes, who stood for clear, easily graspable, positive values. Even Han Solo, the slightly tarnished wiseguy uneasily elevated to crusader status, is hardly a Dostoyevsky character. The characters did evolve, but only Luke really deepened, and his journey from fresh-faced farm boy, an obvious avatar for the audience’s fantastic yearnings, to grim inheritor of cosmic destiny, bore most of the real dramatic and mythic weight. By comparison, the prequels force one to empathise with a callow budding psychopath, his enabling lover, and his emotionally constipated mentor. These three protagonists each aid in causing the destruction of the world they think they’re defending. The prequels depict a world falling apart and tellingly refuse to let the audience off the hook, no matter how distanced or naïf the rendering of that hook: almost everything the audience wants to see is bound up in this decay. The desire to see action is sated, but immediately indicted by Yoda as proof of failure. The romance of Anakin and Padmé slips its bonds, but signals impending doom for both. The daydream sustained in the original trilogy is therefore critiqued and inverted.
Much as older viewers couldn’t relate to Anakin, many kids and teens did. His deeply egotistical and painfully self-castigating sense of having his potential thwarted and his need for control foiled, and Padmé’s optimism waning into an increasingly detached cynicism towards the political process she stands for, depict states of mind all too prolific in our time, ones that contradict common, conflicting expectations loaded upon young people, to be incredible achievers and unswervingly empathetic idealists all at once. “Only a Sith talks in absolutes,” Obi-Wan warns Anakin as he turns to the dark side. At the time, some took this for a tilt at the rhetoric of George W. Bush, as much as it now sounds like a thumbnail sutra explaining the powerful appeal of groups like Islamic State for some—the promise of complete surrender to a simple cause, a pure mode of thought for which any act can be countenanced. In this regard, Lucas clearly had his pulse on something other populist filmmakers have tried to grasp but usually belaboured. What is also clear to me is that Lucas, when he revisited this material, wanted to try to live within in it on a much deeper level than the original films and pay truer heed to the material’s partial roots in the medieval mythos, both Eastern and Western, where lives were lived and death was met according to rather different value systems. The famous title card of every episode declares that this is all “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” but this fairytale motif only really feels true with the prequels. The original films are a charmingly bratty revolution fantasy, where the good guys happen to speak like ’70s American teens and the bad guys have English accents. The prequels are a tragic contemplation of the forces that tear societies, and individuals, to pieces. Lucas’ interest in a chillier, headier brand of scifi parable was obvious right from THX 1138 and here found further articulation.
This quality emerges strongly in the last film of the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine’s attempts to win over Anakin resemble at once a seduction, therapy session, and a chess match of moral relativism. In the original trilogy, evil was, like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, an elixir that once tasted was totally subsuming. In the prequel trilogy, both the light and the dark sides are more processes of thought and ways of feeling: by the time he becomes Darth Vader, Anakin is convinced he’s bringing peace and justice to the realm. A constant leitmotif to the prequels is a sense of ethical questioning and a tension between the personal and the political that ultimately destroys both the Jedi and Anakin by pulling them in asymmetrical directions. Yoda warns young Anakin about maintaining attachments and giving himself cause for fear, and it’s precisely this that ultimately leads him straight into Palpatine’s arms. But the Jedi, presented as uncomplicated paragons whose aura is legendary in the original series, are here revealed as gallant but also demanding and elitist, almost incomprehensible to someone who runs on emotion as much as Anakin and perhaps ultimately too detached from the fate of the Republic to actually save it in part because of their own ethic of accepting loss.
Lucas shows he understands something vital about courtly sagas and classical tragedy: the requirement of role and the nature of humanity are disparate and demanding things. Lucas literalises the tension key to the prequels between role and person early on with Padmé’s absurd regalia, a crushing weight of stately role that continues to stand like a statue even when she’s entirely outside of it. Jar Jar actually serves a fairly analogous role here as Han Solo did to the original films, if much less successfully, as a character who remains oblivious to the pretences of the civilised and the imposing (“Maxi big the Force!”). His clumsiness is the very opposite to the ideal of disciplined self-abnegation that defines the Jedi and also the fetishism of power and order that defines the Sith.
The writing of the prequels is often criticised, but what this brings up is just exactly what is good writing in such a context? Is it the writing of, say, Joss Whedon, where everyone, no matter where they come from, speaks like a smart-aleck English major in a Californian college, or the brick-heavy koans of Christopher Nolan? That famous quote of Howard Hawks about the trouble working out how a Pharaoh should talk for Land of the Pharaohs (1955) (“I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew.”) is still relevant in this regard. Lucas tries, a bit archly but with some purpose, to recreate the flavour of a certain brand of courtly poeticism in speech through the prequels, with a texture on occasion that strives for the flavour of medieval epics— romantic, stylised, high-flown to the point of sounding like recitative. Lucas himself compared it to a kind of a rhythmic sound effect—a fair description. There’s a much-mocked line in Attack of the Clones when Anakin and Padmé share a romantic interlude by the side of a lake. Padmé remembers days of joy swimming and lying on the sand with an old boyfriend, and Anakin feebly jokes how much he hates sand. It is an uncomfortable moment, but deliberately so: Anakin tries to shrug aside a hint of romantic jealousy with humour, but accidentally reveals a hole in his soul, as he’s actually talking about his childhood on a planet where sandstorms were dangerous and life was hard, a place to which he will soon return. Characterisation, backstory, foreshadowing. Not so bad for a dumb joke about sand.
That’s not to cover up the many dud line readings in the prequels, most of which are perplexing as they could’ve been salvaged with a few hours’ dedicated ADR work. It’s definitely true that Lucas accomplishes his aims better with images than words. An iconic shot in Attack of the Clones depicting Anakin regarding the dawn and trying to calm his raw nerves with Padmé hovering in the wings, and the final shot of the same film where the pair get married in the rays of a setting sun, have a transfixing, totemic beauty. Lucas’ formal gifts are, in fact, often greatly in evidence throughout the series, particularly his interest in wide shots replete with geometries that highlight the formalism that defines this age in his fantastical world and the tension about to bust it to pieces.
I think the style is quite deliberate and suits the tone of the material, and is also modulated with a deliberation many didn’t notice, moving from the pantomime-like tone of the opening episode to high operatic drama in the last. But the emphasis on a tense decorum in this futuristic (albeit past) world leaves Portman and Christensen often seeming far more out of place than their predecessors ever did. Christensen, whose chief claim to fame was playing a troubled young misfit on the TV series Higher Ground before Lucas cast him, is one of the most vexing elements of the triptych. Lucas clearly wanted a James Dean-Marlon Brando quality to Anakin, his generational touchstones for rebellious youth and social disaffection, a touch of the immature as well as the fearsome to his asocial side. If Christensen was irredeemably bad, he could simply be allowed to fade into the texture of the films like human wallpaper. But Christensen delivers on occasion, as in the scene when Anakin tells Padmé about the massacre of the Sandpeople: he grasps the degree to which Anakin is composed of alternating repression and inchoate eruption, nobility and monstrosity.
Plummy old pros like McDiarmid, Jackson, and Oz fit into this landscape better. McGregor acquits himself well enough in the series, an achievement considering he had a difficult job in matching his younger, pithier version of Obi-Wan to Alec Guinness’ quiet and assured characterisation. Although he and Christensen have the athleticism, in some ways Portman strikes me as the natural adventurer of the three young stars, dashing about firing ray guns with delighted eyes; her “I call it aggressive negotiations” quip in Attack of the Clones is pure swashbuckle. Perhaps the best performance in the trilogy comes from August, who does a terrific job of securing the drama in the spectacle of a mother bereft of her son; the reunion in Attack of the Clones has an unusual pathos because the dying woman is transfixed by the sight of her grown son.
At its best, the prequel trilogy legitimately inhabits the realm of chivalric romance, stocked with themes and stances found in sagas, particularly in the traits that define Anakin, who’s actually much closer to a great mythic hero like Achilles, Jason, or Siegfried than Luke ever was in the violence and intensity of his driving emotions and character stances—forbidden love, crippling conflict between stoic integrity and hysterical eruption, an inability to settle into required strictures of life in the society he represents. Obi-Wan was originally presented as a mentor figure whose initially uncomplicated call to action for Luke was revealed in subsequent instalments to have more dimensions, but he still remained a figure of sagacious wisdom. McGregor plays him as a dashing, but serious-minded swashbuckler who retains a telling and ultimately calamitous blind spot when it comes to Anakin, his pupil and adopted brother, an emotional substitute for the lost father figure of Qui-Gon. This fantasy world is a kind of Eden from which everyone falls, giving birth to a different time and throwing up rogues like Han and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
Many of Lucas’ reference points for creating his mythos were pretty disreputable, including not just the classy art of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comics but the vulgarity of their screen serial adaptations. A wealth of other reference points is apparent— the swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz, the conceptual richness of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and the venturesome absurdity of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the sweep of John Ford’s western mythology and the rigorous formality of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, and Ray Harryhausen’s films, which combined ingenious wonders with the ropy charms of B-movies. On the highest level, Lucas has often seemed an acolyte of Cecil B. DeMille, whose embrace of scale and riotous colour as aesthetic tools matched the themes of world-shaping powers with The Ten Commandments (1956), and of Fritz Lang, who laid the groundwork for much of the style of Lucas’ works with his silent epics The Spiders (1919), Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), and Metropolis (1926)—fantastical pieces of world-building replete with similarly surreal and cavernous environs, action cliffhangers, and stories often split across multiple episodes. Coruscant turns Metropolis’ soaring modernist architecture into an entire world. There’s more than a hint of Die Nibelungen (both movie and source myth, quite apart from Wagner’s take) in the recurring images of crushing courtly stature and state, infernal downfall and baleful regard. Palpatine sitting at the centre of all plots is the ultimate Mabuse, manipulating the downfall of others for personal amusement, reducing government to a matter of his own will and detecting the weak points of Anakin’s psyche to turn him into a helpless acolyte.
The political substance of the series is a mishmash of historical motifs, blending a parable for the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the American Revolutionary War and Civil War, and World War II, complete with space Nazis and galactic paladins. But the prequels contain a consistent thread of real interest in the idea of what constitutes the self and society, diagnosing cynicism as a problem that’s as pernicious as corruption. The original trilogy only seemed to reference contemporary politics by evoking a generational anxiety of becoming what the ’60s counterculture rebelled against, as Luke tried to avoid becoming his father, whilst the battles of the Ewoks uncomfortably suggested an odd hijacking and inversion of the Vietnam experience. The prequels suggest a more immediate and clarified lesson. “So this is how freedom dies,” Padmé murmurs at one point when the Senate votes to make Palpatine Emperor, “With thunderous applause.” Revenge of the Sith, the concluding movie in the trilogy, has a rueful warning for younger generations of how easy it is to be so subsumed when your leaders manipulate you to commit evil in the name of good, with Anakin, youth and talent personified, seduced by promises of power and privilege, called to commit slaughter in the name of peace, to be delivered from fear and frustration. Anakin’s urge to free himself from fear also detaches him from democracy, making him lean toward authoritarianism, the get-things-done attitude of Palpatine.
One of the most obviously powerful qualities of the series since its inception has always been John Williams’ scoring, and perhaps the most inarguably strong aspect of the prequels is his music, particularly the “Duel of the Fates” piece used in The Phantom Menace and the lush “Across the Stars” motif in Attack of the Clones, and the thunderous drums and choral works that recur throughout Revenge of the Sith. The prequels sport a few nods to the original trilogy that are passing excessively cute—having C3-PO prove to have been an engineering project of young Anakin’s, making Boba Fett’s father Jango the genetic source of all the initial wave of clone Imperial Stormtroopers. But there are also some refined and intelligible touches of foreshadowing and mirroring throughout, particularly in Anakin’s two duels with Count Dooku, which mimic cinematic effects and story patterning in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) in suggesting the same forces of fate and divergence of character that define fathers and sons, masters and pupils. Revenge of the Sith signals the closing bookend to the trilogy in echoing Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, as Palpatine’s plots reach climax, the Jedi are wiped out, and Anakin begins a precipitous transformation into that darkest of dark marauders, Darth Vader.
Frankly, Revenge of the Sith is the best of the Star Wars films, a grandiose distillation of the entire concept of space opera scifi, the closest the series has come yet to fulfilling its neo-Wagnerian streak. It’s also the tightest, most dynamic piece of filmmaking, a narrative inexorable in the same way as A New Hope, except on a downward trajectory, successfully carrying through a promise to turn into high tragedy. Elements that had problems connecting and synchronising in the first two films snap into gear here— even Christensen is fairly okay—if at the relative expense of some aspects, including Padmé, a dashing figure in the first two instalments left as mere weepy baby mama here. The opening sequence is a marvel that shows how far special effects advanced even in the six years since the trilogy began, and unfolds as a pure episode of swashbuckling action, as Anakin and Obi-Wan try to rescue Palpatine, who’s been kidnapped by Dooku and cyborg rebel leader General Grievous. Anakin defeats Dooku this time and kills him at the chancellor’s behest, and finishes up having to pilot a massive crashing spaceship in for a neat landing. This whole sequence is a piece of cinema spectacle I don’t think anyone’s topped in the last 10 years. Revenge of the Sith alternates the urge to such kinetic release and intense, yet quiet, almost cerebral sequences where the characters grope their way through their contradictory impulses and collapsing worldviews.
Another very large reason I like these films is that they reject nearly every modish trick of so much contemporary filmmaking. As modern, perhaps excessively so, as the digital special effects seemed upon release, the actual cinematic design of the films is rich and classical in utilising the screen’s expanse, and those much-quibbled-over effects, sometimes gorgeous and sometimes cheesy, offer to me a quality like the painted wonders of old matte effects – not realistic, but transportive on some level. There’s scarcely a single too-tightly-framed shot or jerky camera moment in all seven hours of the filmmaking here. Lucas’ trademark Kurosawan screen wipes nudge visual and narrative structure along with fluidic insistence. I’ll also admit I have a liking for aspects of these films from which others recoil, so go ahead and assume I’m mentally ill. I enjoy Lucas’ happy embrace of the kind of outsized, old-fashioned melodrama and idealization usually filtered out of modern tent-pole films where the cult of awesome has a very narrow range of definition; the scenes of Anakin and Padmé swooning in the fields of Naboo, which have a resplendent, flower-child goofiness to them, and Vader’s final, over-the-top cry of “NO!” are big, gregarious middle fingers turned up at the middling, sometimes nonexistent emotional range of most of Lucas’ inheritors. Revenge of the Sith concludes the move away from the kid-friendly tone of The Phantom Menace, as here the young Jedi are butchered en masse by Anakin amidst a night of long light sabers. Marching ranks of Stormtroopers invade the Jedi temple, and Anakin heads to the planet Mustafar to wipe out the separatist leaders, including Nute Gunray, now that Palpatine no longer needs them.
Lucas’ direction, which grows more vigorous and animated throughout the trilogy, cuts loose in this movement, replete with delirious high viewpoints of marching armies, cross-cut glimpses of myriad alien worlds where other Jedi are betrayed and ambushed, and the churning violence Anakin turns on his enemies, carving up the separatists with a savagery that’s quite unmatched in the whole six-film cycle. The finale of Sith, at once paving the way for the next cycle of history and underlining the total collapse of everything depicted as sacrosanct and worthy in the previous three films, sees Obi-Wan and Anakin battling over Padmé’s crumpled, pregnant form on a volcanic planet where the spuming lava flows mimic the emotional landscape of the characters and the action unfolds in gloriously hyperbolic manner. Molten rock erupts, sparks fly, light sabers streak and slash, colossal machines fall apart and melt. The mimetic quality of Lucas’ creation is at its most unrestrained and beautiful here: I’m not sure if mainstream cinema had seen its like since the days of DeMille, or Powell and Pressburger, whose Black Narcissus (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948) similarly paint obsession and jealousy, love and hate, in bold tones of bloody red and dancelike motion.
Lucas does grant concessions to the remnant heroic ideal at the heart of the series. Yoda gives the newly crowned Emperor a bit of what-for before fleeing in the face of the crushing political machine the Sith now wields, and Obi-Wan quite literally cuts Anakin’s legs from under him when the young, increasingly mad tyro overreaches and underestimates his opponent. The concluding scenes take the cross-cutting structure to a striking place as two different kinds of death and birth are contrasted—the waning life-force of Padmé even as she struggles to give birth to the crucial Dioscuri of the next epoch, Luke and Leia, matched with the reconstruction of the mangled and pathetic Anakin into the monstrous form of Darth Vader. There’s a perverse and gruelling quality to this moments that, again, defined new territory for a series once based in mere boyish adventure. The themes of rebirth, cycles and family, decay and renewal, conclude in images of funeral, as Padme is celebrated in death by Naboo, and homecoming, with Leia finding a home with Senator Organa (Jimmy Smits) and his wife. But the very last shot inevitably returns to that most memorable image of A New Hope, as young Luke is held by his aunt and uncle (Joel Edgerton and Bonnie Maree Piesse) as they gaze out on the twin suns of Tatooine, the future with its horrors and glories a distant promise.
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Director/Screenwriter: Josh Mond
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I want to get one thing straight at the outset: I do not see James White as a movie about a self-destructive, self-centered, rich-ish 20-something who needs to grow up. The character of James White is not the problem that needs figuring out in this film. In fact, from where I sit, James White, as played brilliantly by Christopher Abbott, who is never offscreen, is a sensitive human being who feels everything so deeply and sees everything so clearly that he uses sex, drugs, and alcohol to beat reality back to a tolerable distance. James White is likely a difficult person to be with and live with because of how he deals with his sensitivity, but those who focus on these difficulties will miss the larger beauty of James and the film itself—the opportunity to understand how to behave when someone is grieving and how to undertake the sad privilege of caring for a dying loved one.
We first meet James in a pulsating nightclub where the in-your-face glitz and noise form an insignificant background to the almost full-frame shots of James’ sweat-soaked face and hair as he gets visibly more wasted as time goes by. Eventually, the scene shifts to a nice apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), is sitting shiva for James’ father, her ex-husband Barry (Scott Cohen). Nick (Scott Mescudi, who also provides the evocative score), James’ best friend from childhood, has flown in from Europe to lend his support, a support he must know James will need desperately in the weeks ahead. The shiva, a bizarre exercise given that Gail is not Jewish, is loaded with people from Barry’s life with his second wife, Karen (Sue Jean Kim), and friends of Gail’s who cruelly greet James with remarks like, “We always thought you’d end up in prison.” James and Nick leave the gathering to drink and find a couple of one-night stands to take to a hotel. When they return to Gail’s, the mourners are watching a tape of Karen and Barry’s wedding. Incensed at the insensitivity of this act toward his mother, James throws everyone out of the apartment. Very soon thereafter, he decamps to a posh Mexican resort with Nick, where he meets fellow New Yorker and future girlfriend Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), drops acid, and is called back home by a frantic Gail, who has learned that her cancer has returned.
Josh Mond’s perceptive first feature is shot in a way that refuses us the comfort of distance. His extreme close-ups, handheld camera work, and honest dialogue force us into James’ world, a world of loss, pain, and above all, love. The searing first scene in the nightclub gives us no clue as to what kind of a man James is or what his story will be. We are as disoriented as he is, and Mond keeps us off balance throughout the film. There is no settling into a familiar narrative rhythm, as James remains constantly on the move, free-falling through what plot there is, making tentative connections episodically and living in the raw through sensorial experiences as oppositive as beatdowns and being beat off by Jayne. In Mexico, the ocean laps at him, and an LSD trip makes his excursion through a shopping mall almost tactile for the audience as he and his friends reach toward the colorful baubles on display in a kind of parody of the dazzling allure of acquisitiveness.
The painful truth of James’ life is his ironclad connection to his creative, dependent mother who raised him without the presence of James’ father to provide him with a strong sense of direction in life—indeed, James never even met his father’s second wife until the shiva. James, a would-be fiction writer who promises more than he has so far delivered in the way of actual work, seems stuck in place, but some of his paralysis is beyond his control. Gail excoriates him for being a slacker who lives off her, while in the same breath condemning him for not being where he says he will be, for not being there for her. In fact, James has given up long stretches of his life to care for her through her various bouts with cancer. We see just how much when he races home from Mexico to be her advocate, her caregiver, her son during her final illness. His extreme competence in taking care of his mother shows what skills he was required to hone during the time of life when newly mature adults are establishing career trajectories and looking to settle down. His friendly alliance with Gail’s home care nurses shows that he has this drill down pat, while subtly emphasizing that no one else in Gail’s life seems to be around to help carry the water. Cynthia Nixon’s beautifully off-balanced intensity completely sells the double-bind Gail has necessarily put James in.
Mond moves into the intimate space of illness as we watch Gail remove her wig after the shiva to reveal a spiky, short hairdo that hints at the hair loss she experienced as a result of chemotherapy, and then in her gradual spiral to the end of her life. We see her embarrassment when she vomits suddenly, her temporary victory in getting her fever down, her helplessness when hospitalized with only James to scold the call nurse for not cleaning up the diarrhea she is sitting in. In the most touching scene I have seen in years, James is with Gail in their bathroom at home after she has just been sick. He asks her where she wants to be. Paris, she says. She leans her head on his chest as he starts to describe a beautiful life in the City of Light, where he lives with his wife and two children. She lives in her own apartment just a few doors away, close enough to visit frequently to play with her grandchildren and dine with them. It is in this moment that we see the essential utility of being able to escape, to pretend for a little while to get over the horrors of each moment leading to death. Who would be callous enough to deny either of them this harmless comfort?
Of course, escape for James and Gail is only temporary. Eventually, the reality of Gail’s imminent death results in a vigil of James, Nick, Jayne, and a number of the people who attended Barry’s shiva. Gail’s death rattle is frightening and so very final. James’ despair is almost too difficult to watch, but the aftermath offers us another dark chasm of uncertainty. Mond has softened the blow somewhat by writing in an editor (Ron Livingston) at New York Magazine who seems willing to hire James when he gets his act together, and the enduring presence of Jayne in James’ life is unexpected, but welcome.
Nonetheless, James is alone. Whether he will weather this raging storm is very much in doubt, and that heartbreaking reality forms a coda to his sadly tenuous life.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Jacques Tati
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This is part of the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings.
Jour de fête was the very first film I saw that was directed by France’s comic master Jacques Tati, and I’m delighted to say that it began a love affair with his relatively few, but endlessly intriguing filmic creations that I don’t expect to end before I do. Our acquaintance was made in 1995, the year the color version of the film was restored and made available to viewers for the first time by his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, and cameraman François Ede. It played the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and I can’t say that the restoration of the failed Thomson-Color experimental color process looked all that great—in fact, it was pretty dreadful, at least to someone who had never seen it in the black-and-white version, or should I say in one of the two spot-tinted black-and-white versions, one with and one without a painter character.
Still, nothing could hide the genius of Tati and the great love he had for cinema and France. Paying a visit to a one-day fair in a small French town and watching the hilarious misadventures of the local postman, played by Tati himself, was the most pleasant vacation I could take from my big-city woes—woes with which Tati would empathize and lampoon repeatedly in all of his feature films. Jour de fête, his feature debut, was his deceptively simple first volley at the giant maw of modernity.
The opening image of a caravan carrying merry-go-round horses down a snaking road to a town square, a young boy skipping behind in anticipation, conjures the idea that we are entering an enchanted valley that time forgot. We even have a fairy tale narrator—a severely bent old woman leading her goat and commenting on the people and activities surrounding her. Once in the village, we see nothing but horse-drawn vehicles and bicycles conveying objects and people, even elegantly dressed people come to town to attend the fair. Livestock and chickens walk and flap around the square and freely wander in the homes of their owners.
As the carnies unload their truck to set up their rides, midway games, and movie theatre, one of them, Roger (Guy Decomble), spies a lovely young woman, Germaine (Santa Relli), beautifully framed in a third-story window. The two flirt across the distance until his wife emerges from their caravan to give him what-for. Nonetheless, Germaine hurries down to the square, and in a sweet and ingenious scene, the two appear to carry on a flirtatious conversation with the dialogue from one of the movies to be played that day substituting for their voices.
We get an oblique hint that Tati’s entrance is imminent when Roger’s wife is shown to a mailbox where she can drop a letter. Soon, traveling the same winding route as the carnival workers, the real entertainment of the evening arrives. Like an old vaudevillian transferring his act from stage to screen, Tati arrives in the postman character from many of his short films, most notably The School for Postmen (1947), back straight as an ironing board, trousers fastened to his ankles with bicycle clips, and arms flailing to swat the wasp that dogs his descent.
For the rest of the film, Tati as François performs one gag after another with exquisite physicality. Around the village, he is a friend and helper, someone the villagers turn to as perhaps the only government official around to take a leadership position. For example, in one of my favorite gags in the film, the men of the village are trying to erect a pole in the middle of the square from which they can hang a banner with the French tricolors. The pole bobs precariously around the square until François is prevailed upon to lead the effort. He gets everyone organized, instructs a rope handler how to brace himself with the rope, and the pole gets raised. The cleat that will hold it in place still needs to be secured, but strangely, the man with the hammer keeps missing the spike. As François looks into his face, we get a close-up of his crossed eyes, a dead ringer for silent film comedian Ben Turpin. François moves one of the spikes to the left of the one on the cleat, and our man hits his target dead on.
However, this regard by the villagers encourages François to adopt an officious manner, causing those who meet him for the first time to make him the butt of their fun. Two of the carnies entice him into a café, get him drunk, and use a handheld kaleidoscope to circle his eye with black pitch. His staggering attempts to get on his bicycle and complete his route see him plunging helplessly into a thicket and attempting to ride a fence that has entangled his bike, scenes that play all the more hilarious for Tati’s uncomprehending distractedness.
When he finally returns to the square, he and the villagers are inspired by a preposterous newsreel of U.S. postal service efficiencies, including the use of helicopters and parachutes to get postmen through their appointed rounds. François decides to deliver mail “American style,” and devises methods to mount, dismount, and drop off letters with such speed that he even manages to outpace a cycling team on the road. (Is it possible that the USPS decided to sponsor a professional cycling team some 50 years later because of Tati?) The villagers cheer him on all the way as he skewers their mail on hoes, silently sneaks a package containing new shoes onto a block just as the butcher is bringing down his cleaver, and runs two cars off the road. When he finally speeds right off the side of a bridge and into a creek, our ancient narrator picks him and his bike up and rides them into town.
The ambition of the stunts pushes the film into surrealist territory. For example, a long sequence where his bike takes off on its own, forcing François to give chase, quite reminded me of the absurdist novel by Flann O’Brien called The Third Policeman in which a character steals bicycles when he believes their riders have exchanged too many cells with them and have become more than 50 percent bicycle. Tati filmed without sound, and his ability to play with the soundtrack to insert dialogue and diagetic sounds in addition to his gloriously quaint music allows him to orchestrate his humor precisely.
For a first feature, Tati has surprisingly strong control, calling on the conventions of silent films and vaudevillian stunts and recrafting them into a cinematic ecosystem all his own. While he was not able to achieve the color palette he so clearly wanted with this film, as indicated by the dialogue he wrote, his later films fairly vibrate with color. Finally, while the horrors of the modern, mechanized world would come in for more specific drubbing in such later films as Mon oncle (1958) and his crowning masterpiece Play Time (1967), his contempt for cars and Parisians gets its first voice here. Jour de fête is an auspicious beginning for a very distinctive and masterful filmmaker.
The Criterion two-disc set includes two alternate versions, a partly colorized 1964 version and the full-color 1995 rerelease version; “A L’americaine” (“American Style”), visual essays on the film by Tati expert Stéphane Goudet; Jour de fête: In Search of the Lost Color, a 1988 documentary on the restoration of the film to Tati’s original color vision; and the original trailer. The film is included in a box set, “The Complete Jacques Tati,” available in DVD and Blu-ray editions.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Since his debut with Cronos (1993), Guillermo Del Toro has stood as one of the few major arbiters of a near-bygone attitude in contemporary fantastic cinema. That attitude still floated to the surface even in his stabs at epic, vibrant crowd pleasers, including Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009) and Pacific Rim (2013), where a delight in the colour and spectacle of blockbuster cinema blended with a fervent belief in melodrama as a form that demands no apology. The brand of pop surrealism apparent even in Del Toro’s action works saw machines of the superego take on the welling forces of the id. Crimson Peak, his latest, is a partial reversion to another strand of his cinema and another province of his obsessions—outright gothic horror and classically contoured ghost stories. This streak was previously parlayed in his Spanish-language works, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), tales pitched in the keys of haunting loss and reality-transmuting fantasy mixed with bizarre and thunderous thriller plots that evoked political dimensions, as both of those films took place during the Spanish Civil War. Like many films these days, Crimson Peak blends homage with its own purposes, serving as a visual tour through the history of screen horror, evoking aspects of German expressionism, Universal and Hammer horror, 1940s gothic melodramas, and the romantic decadence of Italian horror. Del Toro declares his allegiances the moment you hear the heroine’s name is Edith Cushing.
The setting is turn-of-the-20th-century Boston with all its protomodernity of motor cars and typewriters as still-new but swiftly adopted technology. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the product of clashing social systems, the safe but cloying enclosure of a traditional ideal of femininity and her father’s “go get ’em” Americanness. Crimson Peak shifts territory from Del Toro’s earlier ghost stories, as it’s not about a child struggling in an adult world, though most of his protagonists are defined by similar experiences of being orphaned and left adrift in that world, a theme that also secured Hellboy, Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori, and even Blade to Del Toro’s personal universe. Edith certainly has the same quality of the innocent abroad about her, and she, too, is left alone to survive and finds herself in the midst of a situation she understands through the intuition of signs and distorted simulacra rather than from more worldly cues and hints. Edith, daughter of respected financier and former steel manufacturer Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), has ambitions to become a writer, but faces rebuff by a sniffy, patronising publisher at the outset because her book has no romance and is a ghost story. “It’s not a ghost story,” she protests, “It’s a story with a ghost in it.” Edith has a peculiar affinity with ghosts, however, as her mother’s spectre appeared to her as a young girl shortly after her funeral, delivering enigmatic warnings about a place called Crimson Peak. The shade returns and renews its entreaties not long after Edith’s eye is caught by a darkly handsome stranger who approaches her father for capital: Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet, trying to finance development of a digging machine he’s designed to revive his family’s clay mining business.
Encountering Thomas at her father’s workplace, where she labours during the day as a secretary, and then in local society, Edith falls under his spell. He encourages her out of her intellectual bubble and offers her a moment of metamorphosis as he dances a waltz with her at a society ball. Thomas is accompanied by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), whose taciturn and boding manner manifests as she takes entomological interest in dying butterflies and runs frostbite eyes over Edith. Edith has a childhood pal, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), now an eye doctor setting up practice in the same building as her father who shares Edith’s interest in spiritualism. He only starts to recognise his deeper affection for her as she’s pulled into Thomas’ orbit, whilst his mother (Leslie Hope) looks down her nose at the unglamorous would-be writer. Carter takes an immediate dislike to Thomas he can’t quite account for at first, except that as a self-made American, he can’t stand Thomas’ air of slightly effete, quixotic inspiration and softness. Later, as it becomes plain that Thomas is pursuing Edith, Carter hires a private detective, Mr. Holly (Burn Gorman), to investigate the Sharpes. Holly turns up something disturbing enough to make Carter call the Sharpes to his office and confront them. He pays them off and orders them to leave town quickly, whilst also extracting a promise from Thomas to break off with his daughter in a suitably jarring and heartbreaking way. Thomas obediently does so, humiliating Edith in front of a dinner party’s guests by disdaining her writing and lack of life experience. The next day, as Carter prepares to shave in the bathroom of his club, someone sneaks in and kills him by bashing his head against a sink to make it look like he’s died in a fall. Thomas returns and marries Edith, and then he and Lucille whisk her to England and introduce her to the lugubrious grandeur of their family manse, Allerdale Hall.
This long first act proves one of the more surprising aspects of Crimson Peak. Del Toro flirts interestingly with a Henry Jamesian approach to milieu, a sense of the personal and the cultural intersecting, and commences in an essentially realistic frame whilst setting up a move into perfervid weirdness. The film continues in this vein even as that weirdness floods the screen, taking its characters with unexpected seriousness even as they perform archetypal functions to the point where the chief source of tension in the last act stems from anticipating where the twists of character loyalties will lead. Of course, James himself notably departed from his serious social tales with his famous ghost story The Turn of the Screw, which locates the source of horror in the strange and twisted psychological reactions of its repressed and rootless female protagonist. Del Toro isn’t interested in ambiguity of genre—he’s far too fond of the imagery and mechanics of spookfest traditions—but if it wasn’t for the ooky-kooky wraith that appears in the first few minutes, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into some classy literary adaptation. Del Toro turns the waltz Thomas and Edith take into a subtly symphonic moment of swooning romanticism with a touch of the sublime indicated by their ability to dance whilst keeping a clutched candle lit. Thomas’ mastery of courtly arts and aura of bruised poeticism let him sustain waning aristocracy with Yankee money, a phenomenon that was very real in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. There’s a meta touch to making Edith a penner of the kinds of stories she’s about to get herself into—I detect a hint, deliberate or not, of Joseph Mankiewicz’s lampoon The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), which likewise turned on a similar conceit of literary self-reference.
A number of contemporary ghost tales made for the cinema have been set like Crimson Peak in the first quarter of the 20th century—Haunted (1995), The Woman in Black (2011), The Awakening (2012)—because the era presents a telling, yet quaint, opposition between evolving modernity and the persistence of the irrational, and they often reference the actual explosion in interest in spiritualism of the period. Del Toro goes a few steps further. Just as he looked to the schisms of Spanish history to ground his dark fantasias in a real-life sense of angst and unhealed wounds, here Del Toro takes New and Old Worlds as a similar line of division and angst. The narrative immediately touches several essential aspects of gothic melodrama: the loss of a parent, the heroine’s aura of intellectual independence colliding with desire, the coming of the Byronic stranger and the triangle formed with a more parochially charming suitor, and the eventual shift to strange territory in the form of the grand old house that contains dark and potentially destructive secrets that the young bride must either defeat or be consumed by.
The 1940s were a high point for this mode of cinema, perhaps nudged on by the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)—Mankiewicz’s debut Dragonwyck (1946), Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1945) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman (1946), the Gainsborough melodramas in Britain. By the finale, there’s a dash of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), too. Wasikowska has already played the heroine of a classic text in this style, Jane Eyre, a few years back, whilst Del Toro, with his lexicon of influences, readily invites comparisons with Rebecca. Del Toro isn’t particularly Hitchcockian as a filmmaker, but he clearly has an intellectual kinship with Hitchcock’s general delight in tales of seething repression, covert truths, and subversive hungers. Hitchcock returned to gothic territory with Under Capricorn (1948) and ultimately transmuted it into something newer and stranger with Psycho (1960).
Once the film reaches Allerdale Hall, Del Toro takes a swift turn into the saturated colour tones and densely miasmic moods of mid-century horror cinema. Del Toro is undoubtedly one of the great craftsmen of contemporary film, and his filmmaking throughout Crimson Peak hums with a sense of cinematic largesse. Del Toro infuses Lucille with a characteristic close to his own heart, a fascination for insect life, and turns an allusive moment when Edith and Lucille chat about American and British species of butterflies and moths, into a visual aria of a scene: butterflies paralysed in the chill evening become prey for swarming ants, filmed in colossal close-up. The foreshadowing is obvious—Edith is the butterfly, Lucille the black ant—but the effect is eerily sublime. As is right and correct in the gothic tradition, Allerdale Hall is a character in the film, a triumph for Del Toro and his production designer, Thomas E. Sanders, in creating a physical structure that has a quality of mimetic trap littered with remnants of past lives and decaying in synch with the psyches of its characters. Giant moths infest corners of the house. A great hole in the ceiling above the foyer lets snow collect on the floor, a rickety elevator connects the house with the basement and treacherous old mine workings. Mouldy, giant portraits gaze down on Edith and perverse spectres flit in the shadows and peer upon her. Thomas’s digging machine huffs and trembles like a great metal dinosaur hewing at the earth. The weird soil mixture in the hill the Hall stands on sees blood-coloured muck welling up, giving the hill its name; yes, this place is Crimson Peak.
Once safely ensconced again in their home, the Sharpes press Edith to sell her father’s estate to finance work on the digging machine. Meanwhile, Alan, troubled by the mysteries swirling around Carter’s death and the newlyweds’ swift departure, begins investigating, and thanks to information from Holly, begins putting together the terrible pattern behind the Sharpes’ activity—a truth that begins unfurling to Edith in a more urgent form. Edith keeps seeing spectres about the Hall, bearing signs of violent death. Although they terrify the hapless young bride, they seem to be trying, like her mother’s shade, to warn her about the hidden evil around Allerdale Hall. The early line about a story with ghosts in it seems an evident pitch on Del Toro’s part to gain a certain breed of critical favour, but it also helps make viewers aware of the way the supernatural and the corporeal interact in his story, with these ghosts operating more as totems of awful things, which is generally what tales of hauntings have traditionally served as, ways of preserving and communicating dread events and attaching them to places where they occurred in folklore. But Del Toro also loves spooks far too much to reduce them to the realm of the merely symbolic and the suggestive a la Val Lewton. This proves a major flaw, or at least superfluity, in Crimson Peak. The manifestations of the supernatural are both unnecessary and not terribly well handled (then again, I think the same thing about some of spooks in The Shining, 1980).
This is an odd weak point for Del Toro, who’s made a career out of his wholehearted love of the fantastical and his talent for illustrating it; perhaps that’s part of the problem, that it’s just too reflexive for Del Toro, who otherwise does a remarkable job here of blending multiple frames of reference. But the juddering, squirming, hissing wraiths that dog Edith are far too obvious, even clichéd displays of special-effects cinema, reminiscent of those in some of the rather lame horror films Del Toro has produced recently (like Mama, 2011). I get the feeling he and script collaborator Matthew Robbins (who once upon a time directed the interesting genre revision Dragonslayer, 1982) merely added ghosts to the film as a concession to presumed audience expectations, a way of sneaking them an uncool genre exercise in the guise of another. There’s a tension within Crimson Peak that doesn’t entirely resolve between the expansive showmanship manifest in Del Toro’s visual and conceptual approach and the stringencies of his story, which unfolds with a classical, near-leisurely interest in characterisation and mood, milieu and atmosphere. On the other hand, Del Toro resists turning his work into a mere haunted house ride. Crimson Peak probably counts as the first major stab at a true, unabashed gothic work since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), and it does have a surprising number of concerns in common with Burton’s Dark Shadows (2012), without the variable levels of humour: Del Toro is in earnest. That’s not to say Crimson Peak doesn’t earn any horror stripes either, it just belongs to a different branch. The scene of Carter’s murder references Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and nods to the common giallo ploy of playing games with the gender of the killer.
Argento’s predecessors Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava seem generally much closer to Del Toro’s thoughts than giallo, however, in the diseased romanticism of their gothic-accented horror works that took inspiration equally from Hitchcock and Edgar Allen Poe. Crimson Peak shares similar points of obsession with Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1972) and particularly Freda’s The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962)—sexual deviance, piano playing, insidious presences, poisoned drinks, a house as all-but-organic presence. Ultimately, although both spooks and the equally insidious nature of money figure in this tale, boiling human passions edging into the realm of madness are the real stakes and drivers, as Edith is confronted by the true grotesqueness of perverted lives and psychopathy channelled into relished crime. Del Toro can face up to the sorts of fetid underlying motives that generally had to be communicated more discreetly in classic genre inspirations: he ultimately reveals that Thomas and Lucille, having grown up isolated and neglected in the tottering towers of Allerdale Hall, have long engaged in an incestuous relationship. It’s an apt, if icky, revelation; quite often in classical mythology, the dark secret at the heart of many a riddle was a similar revelation (e.g., Oedipus, the parentage of Siegfried). The siblings have developed a modus operandi of marrying Thomas to rich, solitary women for their money, and having Lucille murder them with the same brutal relish she turned on their mother. It’s not hard to guess the grim intent at the heart of the Sharpes’ plan, and I also guessed the dread secret they harbour, too. But the pleasure of the story here is wrapped up with both its uncertainties and its fervency, the emotions and conflicting desires that ultimately create a deadly situation Edith has to fight her way out of, and the way Del Toro’s superlatively conjured creative universe illustrates that psychic landscape.
Hunnam played the jut-jawed young hero of Pacific Rim, and here inhabits a role akin to the sort David Manners used to play in the early Universal horror films—the square, upright character who keeps matters rooted in a less bizarre reality and whose traditional brand of heroism seems weirdly pallid in such a context. In ’80s slasher movies, they usually turn up dead sometime in the fifth reel, but here his search gives Robbins and Del Toro an excuse to steal one of the cleverest narrative touches from Joseph Ruben’s thriller The Stepfather (1987) when the time comes for the storylines to collide. It’s in its last act that Crimson Peak finally slips its moorings and goes gloriously over the top, as the tensions sustaining the triangle of Edith, Thomas, and Lucille crumble after Thomas gives into his real affection for Edith and sleeps with her, driving Lucille into a fit of psychotic, vengeful violence. One of Del Toro’s most distinctive traits is his ability to find humanity in even the most bizarre figures, and he locates real pathos in Thomas and Lucille, who lesser filmmakers would probably have reduced to mincing caricatures once necessary narrative games were dispensed with. Here, Lucille and Thomas become all the more interesting and strange the more their crimes and their own sufferings become clearer, particularly as Thomas tries to prod his sister toward self-awareness over what their attempts to avoid change have turned them into—and, of course, that sort of awareness is exactly the hardest thing to countenance. Hiddleston has a gift for suggesting things shiftless and septic under the surface of his lean English charm has been exploited well by several filmmakers lately, and he does fine work here, chiefly because like Del Toro he enjoys the pathos of tortured figures. Not without reason, if also by accident, has his Loki evolved into the heart of the Marvel franchise. Here, his performance reminded me a little of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, particularly in the underregarded Psycho 2 (1981), a film that recast the former serial killer as a troubled antihero.
Chastain’s slow-burn performance, suggesting degrees of tightly suppressed feeling at the beginning and slowly unsheathing lunacy laced with relished villainy, most effectively channels the melodrama spirit, particularly as Lucille slips the few bonds that keep her restrained and sends the film spiralling off with her into delirious realms. She’s most enjoyable letting a sweetly psychopathic pleasure sneak into her manner as she enjoys the chance to finally squash Edith under her thumb like a bug. Chastain remains one of the most interesting performers around at the moment because she can adapt her performing style to suit her material, and here she’s required to keep her characterisation just on the near side of camp. The finale’s loopy force makes up for some of the problems in Crimson Peak’s unfolding, proffering the image of a thoroughly unhinged Lucille pursuing Edith through the dank confines of Allerdale. The gears not just of story, but also within the iconography of Del Toro’s images, snap at last into perfect alignment: the Victoriana dolly nightgowns flowing in the dark and splattered with blood, the bars of the elevator crashing on delicate flesh, Chastain’s eyes bugging with vicious glee as she hefts a colossal axe intending to plant it in Wasikowska’s head, the cellar with blood-filled pits and bobbing bodies, the flakes of fairytale snow flitting in through high places, and then, finally, the wasteland of ice and metal where the final confrontation takes place. It’s like some lost last reel of a fondly imagined Joan Crawford movie viewed through a prism of freaked-out cosplayer chic and Final Girl survival drama, one that lets the ladies get down to business. Here, Del Toro cashes the check his labours have written and caps Crimson Peak as a grand experience in spite of its hesitations.
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Director/Screenwriter: Charles Burnett
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A teapot filled with marbles that falls from the fridge and breaks. Leaves placed under the feet of a sick man confined to his bed. A broom brushing the tops of a man’s shoes, filling him with terror. These are the portents and prescriptions of the superstitions that drive the humorous, but still rather horrifying tale of a family plagued by the literal devil they know from L.A. Rebellion director Charles Burnett.
Burnett is best known as a chronicler of the African-American experience in his home city of Los Angeles. His 1978 debut feature, Killer of Sheep, is a somber look at the soul-deadening effect of poverty on a slaughterhouse worker from Watts and his own temptation to sin. His vibrant second film, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), again focuses on an L.A. family, with the clash between a ne’er-do-well and his striving older brother providing another type of African-American story. To Sleep With Anger, Burnett’s third feature, is his first to use professional actors, but the thread linking it to his earlier works remains strong. The folklore his parents and grandparents shared with him during his formative years offered him a different template for exploring the African-American community, one that allowed him to tell a horror story of his own that can easily join other cautionary tales passed through the generations.
To Sleep With Anger opens during a nightmare. Gideon (Paul Butler), a retired transplant to Los Angeles from the Deep South, sits in a chair as though posing for a portrait like the one of his ancestor hanging on the wall behind him. Burning Bush-like flames emerge from a bowl of fruit sitting on the table next to him. Soon, Gideon’s feet are on fire as well, and the flames lick at the legs of the wooden chair that supports him. When he awakens, he complains to his wife Suzie (Mary Alice) that he can’t find his toby, an amulet his grandmother gave him to ward off evil spirits. He then invites her unsuccessfully to join him in bed for an afternoon delight; this is the last time we’ll see Gideon feeling so frisky. Burnett is about to plunge him, the rest of the characters in To Sleep With Anger, and us into a world of superstition, family strife, and earthly minions of the devil working to snatch troubled souls at their most vulnerable.
The monster in the story is a genial elderly man from “back home” named Harry (Danny Glover) who shows up on Gideon’s doorstep the day after his nightmare after 30 years’ separation. Gideon and Suzie welcome him with open arms and tell him that he can stay as long as he likes. They introduce him to their oldest son Junior (Carl Lumbly) and pregnant daughter-in-law Pat (Vonetta McGee). Every time Pat tries to shake Harry’s hand, her unborn baby kicks her—a sure sign to us, if not to her, that something is rotten in the state of Harry. Gideon’s younger son, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), is a lazy, unstable disappointment to his parents and the cause of frequent family arguments. He is married to Rhonda (Reina King), a real estate broker who detests her in-laws’ homespun ways, but not their services as babysitters; Babe Brother and Rhonda keep late hours working and partying, and frequently fetch their boy Sunny (DeVaughn Nixon) from Suzie and Gideon’s in the middle of the night.
Harry’s appearance and the steady introduction of a slew of down-home cronies who are more than willing to abet Harry’s attempts to corrupt Babe Brother with corn liquor and dice reminded me of the return of the ghostly lover of the grieving protagonist and his increasing disruption of her life in another 1990 film, Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply. In the latter film, the emotional dysfunction that allowed in the supernatural mischief makers is obstinate, unresolved grief. In the same way, Gideon and his family are made vulnerable to Harry and his bad intentions not because of a lost toby, but because Gideon’s anger and disapproval fracture his relationship with Babe Brother and Rhonda and infect the rest of the family. It only takes Harry walking Gideon through a railroad depot, where Gideon has a vision of working like a slave to lay track, to awaken a deeper anger, one that lands him in a mysterious coma.
Burnett works slyly to illustrate how the accumulation of grievances or unintended consequences of seemingly harmless deeds can work like a magical curse to create an annus horribilis for anyone. Gideon’s fury with Babe Brother, as well as his sedentary lifestyle and fatty diet, suggest he is ripe for a stroke. Suzie’s nostalgia and overly compliant nature allow Harry to roost, and with Gideon out of commission, to decimate their flock of chickens and ruin their carefully tilled vegetable garden. Junior’s self-righteousness turns him from being his brother’s keeper to nearly being his brother’s killer. Babe Brother and Rhonda represent a couple who want too much too fast, easy pickings for a similarly inclined Harry.
Nonetheless, Burnett is serious about his fable. Harry, too, lost his toby decades before, and there’s no question that Burnett wants us to believe he is the devil. It is hinted that Harry murdered several people back home, and he proudly brandishes his weapon like an elderly Mack the Knife. He sets some very lascivious eyes on Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), an old girlfriend from back home who has been saved and who advises Suzie to poison Harry if she gets the chance. Linda is like a beautiful, white-haired, avenging angel, singing gospel songs that cut Harry to the quick. Harry eventually is defeated, and Gideon’s family is healed in a hilarious denouement that closes this tale in a celebratory manner.
Danny Glover has Harry’s oily manners and menace down to an exact science. Burnett said Glover was worried about being typecast playing older characters (he was 44 at the time), but he asked to read for Harry unprompted after spending some time with the script. Brooks plays Babe Brother with all the pain and anger of a child who doesn’t know how to do what’s expected of him and is condemned for it. When he finally asserts that his name is Sam, Samuel, he finally lets go of his flailing adolescence. Mary Alice, with the face of an angel, is particularly good in a scene where her old beau Okra (Davis Roberts) suggests that she should marry him if/when Gideon fails to recover because they are lodge brothers—her widening eyes and tight mouth show the emotional depths that her warmly superficial character rarely reveals. I also really enjoyed Reina King, who could have come off as a bitch supreme after sitting in her car in front of her in-law’s house during Sunday dinner, but who brings a lot more nuance to her largely self-involved character when Babe Brother really starts going off the rails.
Cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s rich colors that somehow manage to suggest sepia add to the fairytale trappings of this fantasy, and film editor Nancy Richardson shows the great timing that would boost her to a major career in this, her second feature. Most of all, Burnett creates a fulsome community of saints and sinners, chicken coops and pigeon cages, gold watches and rabbit’s feet—a colorful gumbo of African-American life that was rare to see on screens in 1990 and that remains all too rare to this day.
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Director: Wes Craven
By Roderick Heath
Wes Craven’s career making horror films lasted over forty years, but he remained devilishly hard to contain or categorise. A former philosophy student and English professor, he often exhibited great conceptual intelligence in his work, utilising highbrow ideas like metatextuality and nested realities well before they became fashionable, as well as pursuing a definite satirical interest in confronting the violent and perverse impulses lurking under the surface of the modern world. But he also gleefully delivered the down-and-dirty pleasures of his chosen genre, and as he developed from the relatively straightforward rawness of his infamous debut, Last House on the Left (1972), he began to revel in a stylised, madcap, virtually slapstick version of horror. There was a strong dash of Looney Tunes to his horror – the villains reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in their braggart ferocity, the heroes fighting back with their Acme kit-like improvised methods. His sixth feature film, A Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), was the kind of hit every low-budget, ghettoised filmmaker dreams of, one that made mountains of lucre and impacted upon the genre significantly. And yet the director himself was forced to sell the rights to the film before its release, and could only stand and watch as his brainchild became a pop cultural phenomenon. Craven’s career would remain skittish, even after he finally found a degree of stature and mainstream success with the Scream series. In the phase following Elm Street, Craven did some of his best, most distinctive and vigorous work, but little of it was well-received at the time, including the would-be new franchise creator, Shocker (1989), the freakish, scabrous parable The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the ingeniously self-referential Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1993).
The Serpent and the Rainbow might have seemed at first glance a play for relative respectability. Craven took on a script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, adapted a memoir by researcher Wade Davis, recounting his investigations into tetrodotoxin, a chemical derived from puffer fish venom and used by Haitian voodoo practitioners in zombie creation rituals, with the hope of adapting it for medical use. Respectability seems the last thing on Craven’s mind when the viewer is confronted by the resulting film, however. Long before Charlie Kaufman made a joke out of trying to turn dry reportage into a popular genre movie in Adaptation. (2002), Craven beat him to the reality, creating one of his strangest, most defiantly individual films, as well as one of his best – ridiculous, weird, and riotously entertaining. The Serpent and the Rainbow arrived as a near-freeform assault on familiar narrative niceties, shifting through familiar modes at breakneck speed. It’s a travelogue, anthropological study, political thriller, surrealist fugue, blood-and-thunder horror yarn, and action blockbuster all at once. It looks back to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1942) in trying to seriously and even realistically encompass voodoo as a socio-religious tradition, with an aspect of a specific, very ‘80s brand of fashionable ethnographic study and Third World consciousness-raiser a la The Emerald Forest (1984) or Under Fire (1983). But it also shifts into utterly whacko B-movie shtick and haunted house ride-like showmanship when it feels like it.
Davis becomes Dennis Alan, played by Bill Pullman, a dashing young Harvard-trained ethnobotanist (!) who arrives deep in the Amazon forest hoping to find commercially exploitable herbal remedies amongst tribal shamans. One shaman (Evencio Mosquera Slaco) feeds him a hallucinogenic concoction as he thinks Dennis needs to perceive things beyond, because there’s some immensely evil force looming over him. Dennis, in his altered state, encounters a jaguar that terrifies him at first but proves to actually be his protective spirit animal. But the shaman is replaced in the fugue by a fearsomely leering sorcerer (Zakes Mokae), who torments Dennis with visions of being dragged down into the earth by dead and buried men. When he awakens from this grotesque trip, Dennis heads to his helicopter in relief but finds the pilot dead, killed by some malediction. Dennis is forced instead to hike out of the jungle, seemingly guided to safety by the jaguar spirit. When he gets back to the US, Dennis is hired by his mentor, Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough), who now works for pharmaceutical company boss Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle): Schoonbacher and Cassedy want him to go to Haiti, to investigate a seemingly authentic case of somebody having been made into a zombie. The first scenes of the film have already shown this, as the evil magician of Dennis’s dream, actually Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), oversaw the burial of the man pronounced dead but, Craven reveals, weeping in his coffin. The Captain works for the Tonton Macoute, the secret police force that did the dirty work for the government of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.
The unfortunate victim, Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), has since been disinterred and briefly sheltered for a time by psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (the ever-excellent Cathy Tyson), whose report attracted outside attention. Dennis meets up with Marielle but Christophe has long since left the run-down, grimy asylum Marielle tries to administrate: eventually they track him to where he now lives, the cemetery where he was buried, lurking in the shadows as a distraught and disorientated shell of his former self. Christophe was a schoolteacher who was fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, and Peytraud targeted him for destruction. Dennis tries to get on with his job, approaching braggart gambler and alchemist Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) to make some of the supposed zombiefying concoction he’s famous for, and Louis happily agrees for a few hundred dollars. Louis tries to cheat Dennis by giving him a batch of the bogus blend he sells to tourists, but Dennis spots the gag and forces Louis to put up the real thing. Louis eventually agrees but insists Dennis join him the long and complex preparation process for this mysterious concoction. Trouble is, the longer he spends in Haiti, the more deeply Dennis becomes involved with both the local culture and its marvels, and also the evil of the Duvalier regime, as represented by Peytraud, who uses both torture and voodoo to torment and terrorise anyone who attracts his sadistic interests.
Standing on the side of the just is Marielle’s friend, fellow resistance member, and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), who tries to use white magic to protect Dennis and Marielle as they tread on territory Peytraud jealously defends. In many ways Craven’s sense of style could hardly have been more different to the elegance and suggestiveness of the classic Universal and Val Lewton horror films: his camerawork, quite often utilising hand-held and steadicam shots that roam about his characters and vivid lensing effects that mimic the presence of unseen forces assailing them, is vigorous in a manner that suggests Werner Herzog’s work on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) on crack, the special effects unrestrained, and the manifestations of primal and supernatural terror visualised with gusto. And yet in other ways, particularly in Craven’s obsession with dreams and visions as the bridging point between the concrete and the fantastic, The Serpent and the Rainbow maintains links with an older, more ethereal brand of horror; reality and dream, worldly power and magic are in such a constant flux that they become inseparable. A richly visualised, otherworldly elegance pervades parts of the film, particularly a magical sequence in which Marielle takes Dennis on a trek along with thousands of worshippers on a religious festival. Streams of worshippers flow through the jungle to a rock pool high in the mountains where they carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, camping at night along the way in forests bedecked with jewels and totems and guttering candles, and Dennis and Marielle make love in a cave with a sense of ritualistic fervour, capping a movement of deliriously sensual textures.
In the midst of this movement, Craven offers an interlude when Dennis has another of his prophetic visions, seeing himself visited in the night in the forest by Christophe carrying the corpse of a voodoo priestess in a white grave dress, which then disgorges a snake for a tongue that bites Dennis on the face. Such are the breakneck shifts of mood and effect in this film, which come so often as to become their own, weird form of lucidity in creating a world where just about anything can and does happen. Dennis is constantly assailed with similarly strange and often spectacular dreams hallucinations and Craven uses these to give a more pyrotechnic brand of horror. Dennis’ early vision of being dragged down into the earth sees corpses thrusting rotting fingers at him before plunging into a black abyss, as if the dread sins of the past buried however deep are about to claim Dennis. Later, when he’s retreated from the villains to a small beachfront cabin, he sees a burning boat drifting to the shore, carrying the voodoo priestess, before the cabin closes up, shrinks down, and becomes a coffin, blood filling it up like a bathtub. The idea that villain Peytraud fights his battles on both a physical level and on the spiritual lets Craven go to town in portraying the totality of this form of warfare. Peytraud also represents for Craven one of several attempts to create another Freddy Krueger, a trickster villain who respects no usual limitations of physical law and logic to attack his enemies. Mokae was a South African actor who first found repute working with playwright Athol Fugard, and his later acting career was usually split between politically oriented dramas and horror films. Here he had a chance to combine those two, and he’s an unrestrained hoot in the role, with his rolling, bugging eyes and gold tooth flashing matched by rasping voice of cruel relish, as if someone recast Robert Newton’s Long John Silver as a Blaxploitation villain.
Most of Craven’s films had a powerful undercurrent sense of absurdist black comedy, and oftentimes entirely explicit. That streak is certainly present here, particularly apparent in just how much abuse Dennis receives throughout the film. It gets to the point where this all starts to feel like a lampoon on both the usual travails of venturesome heroes in pulp tales – young Pullman’s square-jawed, all-American visage needs only a pith helmet to complete the picture – and also of white western anxiety in the face of dangers beyond the safe limits of home, like Midnight Express (1978) gone troppo. In one sequence Craven reaches an apogee of discomfort in mainstream cinema whilst somehow avoiding depicting any actual gore. Peytraud seeks to terrify and punish Dennis by having him arrested, strapped to a chair naked in the secret police’s favourite torture chamber, and hammering a nail through his scrotum. Before striking his relished blow, Peytraud matches any Bond villain as he responds to Dennis’ desperate question “What do you want?” with, “I want to hear you scream!” This moment ranks with the “Squeal, piggy!” scene in Deliverance (1972) in literalising a protagonist’s emasculation by forces beyond his control. There is a disparity at the heart The Serpent and the Rainbow between the thesis Davis was arguing, that the apparent manifestations of the supernatural were actually the work of a complex, puzzling but actually rational work of nascent chemistry, and Craven’s casual demolition of that concept by embracing ooky-kooky magic. Voodoo as a religion and cultural phenomenon has been a constant source of interest for storytellers interested in the fantastic, but very few investigate it with much depth or seriousness as a genuine cultural phenomenon.
Whilst The Serpent and the Rainbow throws out any pretences to being seen as a strict tract on the subject, it does find Craven with an anthropological bent, truly fascinated by the sights, sounds, and lifestyle of Haiti, considering it as a fully-fledged society present amidst but also cordoned off from familiar definitions of modernity. The eruptions of irrationality in the storyline literalise this schism and also lets Craven show his own sensibility, associating political tyranny with forces of evil. There’s an appealing casualness to the interracial romance of Dennis and Marielle that looks forward to Craven’s embrace of black heroism in The People Under the Stairs and fusion of horror with Blaxploitation lampooning on Vampire in Brooklyn (1994). The pilgrimage scene is a highpoint of this bent, amidst an immersive sense of place (although the production was forced to leave Haiti mid-shoot and was finished in other locations including the Dominican Republic), as is a brief but fascinating depiction of Lucien performing a wedding. The Duvalier government and the Tonton Macoute really did use the paraphernalia of voodoo as part of their arsenal of repression, although ironically Wade Davis himself had little trouble from them. Marielle, a modern rationalist by profession, is also famed for her performances when possessed by spirits, and Dennis witnesses this transformation with bewilderment: “There is no conflict between my science and my faith,” as she states.
Craven’s pointed sense of humour makes itself apparent when a tourist-friendly display of local performers for a hotel crowd is portrayed as a festival of the strange with a male performer getting female guests to shove spikes through his cheeks, another chewing on glass, until finally Peytraud, who looks on, announces himself by mesmerically compelling one of the performers to attack Dennis. This scene is mirrored later in a vignette that counts amongst the most Cravenish of Craven moments, when Dennis returns to the States with the zombiefying powder and is treated to a swanky dinner by Cassedy and his wife Deborah (Dey Young) in their mansion as reward. Deborah, possessed by Peytraud in spite of the many miles and supposed barriers between these places, suddenly turns strange and sneering, begins chewing on a glass, and then launches herself across the dinner table in an attempt to stab Dennis, forcing her husband and Schoonbacher to drag her off. This makes for a disturbing/hilarious image of posh, lily-white insularity turned into funhouse for chaos and vengeful lunacy. There are seeds here for Craven’s later, equally wild and loopy The People Under the Stairs, which would turn the mirror back on Reaganite America and accuse it of being essentially the same thing. Craven didn’t help write the script here, which points to why some of Craven’s favourite themes are channelled in slightly different directions to his usual work, particularly his recurring motif of good and bad families and their avatars who, in the course of the tale, become increasingly blurred: Krug and his cohort and the bourgeois parents of Last House on the Left, the holidaying family and the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the suburbanites and their resurging tormentor/victim in Elm Street.
Here the oppositions are more political and national. The corollary to that theme, of the “normal”, “good” people becoming increasingly warlike and competent in facing their enemies, is more clearly present here too but it takes a long time before Dennis, reduced to a worm before the boot of Peytraud’s intent, finally turns. Peytraud frames Dennis for the murder of Christophe’s sister and uses it to ensure he’ll have him executed if he ever returns to the country, before sticking him on the next plane out. However Mozart sneaks aboard the plane and gives Dennis the batch of zombiefying powder for free, asking only that Dennis let people know about his talents. But Mozart is captured and executed by Peytraud, and after the incident at the Cassedys’ house Dennis feels compelled to return to Haiti as he senses Marielle will be in danger too. Lucien arranges to have Dennis brought to safety by some of his men disguised as cops, pre-empting the Tonton Macoute, so Peytraud has Marielle kidnapped, uses a hex to kill Lucien, and has an operative treat Dennis to a dose of the zombie powder. Dennis desperately begs bewildered people not to bury him as he folds him and seems to drop dead. In his paralysed state, Dennis is forced to experience his own burial.
This sequence sees Craven paying tribute to the famous dream of death and burial in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), shooting much of it subjectively from the view of the frozen Dennis as he passes under the eyes of friends and doctors, and his mocking enemy Peytraud. Just before he’s put into the ground, the Captain drops a tarantula into the coffin to keep him company, giving Craven a chance to stage a most iconically phobic horror image, the monstrous black arachnid crawling over Dennis’s stony face. Dennis is saved by Christophe, who knows very well what’s happened and digs Dennis out of his grave. The clash of aesthetic attitudes apparent in the texture of Craven’s filmmaking, and the ruthless way the original three-hour cut was pared down into a very peculiar 97 minutes, makes The Serpent and the Rainbow an experience that would probably seem to many perturbingly hectic. But it also finally exemplifies something rare about its maker and gives it force that refuses taming. The finale sees all hell break loose in both senses of the term, as the Duvalier government collapses, leading to scenes of explosive rage and rejoicing on the streets, through which threads the smaller but vital drama of Dennis taking on Peytraud for control of the nation’s spiritual as well as physical fate.
Here Craven goes all-out with a riotous assault of inspired, crazy images – the torture chair coming to life and chasing Dennis about the room, Dennis being assaulted by Lucien’s shade, his bashing his way through a door only to find gravity inverting as if he’s in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and dangling from the doorframe, and a nod to Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) as Dennis enters a hall of prison cells from which prisoners’ arms reach, unnaturally long, trying to grasp him. Craven connects Peytraud’s relish of holding the captured souls of his victims, including Lucien, with the political oppression, as Peytraud uses his control over the apparatus of terror to turn victims of that oppression into weapons. Except, naturally, this proves a double-edged sword, as Dennis and Marielle smash the pots containing the souls, letting loose the magical wrath of the repressed on their tormentor, spirits massing to drive Peytraud into a fire and burn him alive, whilst Lucien’s released shade passes on his powers to Dennis. Peytraud is defeated in the real world but there’s one fight left on the spiritual plane. Dennis, invested with Lucien’s magic and utilising the fierceness of his jaguar spirit, is able to overpower Peytraud here too, whereupon he hoists Peytraud by his own petard, psychically tethering him to the torture chair and punctured through the balls before being shunted off to hell, complete with reversal of the “I want to hear you scream!” line. The spirits of the dead arise in rainbow colours whilst the populace celebrates and Dennis and Marielle limp away, bloodied but triumphant. This climax goes so far over the top it all but hits orbit, and I dare say the film as a whole is a litmus test, either sweeping you up in its mad thrust or leaving you totally cold. But it’s also uproarious and casually flings brilliantly staged filmmaking at the audience, a perfect encapsulation of Craven’s delight in his art. Horror film will miss him.
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Director: Gordon Douglas
By Roderick Heath
The New Mexico desert, a vast, flat, seemingly sterile and vacant zone of the Earth, where it seems like nothing can hide for long in the glare of the sun. A police spotter plane contacts two cops in a patrol car, Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake), and guides them in tracking down a small figure wandering in the gruelling landscape. This proves to be a young girl (Sandy Descher), clutching a doll, walking with a glazed and staring expression in a state of deep trauma. Heading to a car and caravan parked nearby hoping to return her to her parents, they instead find the caravan has been violently torn open by some great force, with no sign of the owners, later identified as a couple named Ellinson. Only a weird, unrecognisable animal is print left in sand nearby, and sugar cubes are scattered all over. Ambulance men and lab investigators arrive, take a cast of the print, and load the girl to be taken to hospital. For a moment Ben and a medic are distracted and puzzled by a strange, trilling sound that arises out of the swirling sands near the site – a sound that momentarily stirs the girl. Ben and Ed head to a nearby general store owned by ‘Gramps’ Johnson as a dust storm rises and night falls, and find the store has also been broken into and trashed with incredible ferocity, with a buckled Winchester rifle on the floor and Gramps’ corpse discovered at the foot of steps into the cellar, mangled and bloodied. Ben heads off to bring the investigators over from the caravan, leaving Ed alone. Just as the sound of the car disappears into the night, Ed hears the same trilling call, and heads outside to look for the source. We hear his gun fire and his terrible scream as something launches on him from the dark.
Them! is the greatest atomic monster movie. Made with machine-like skill and chitinous beauty, it’s one of the very few sci-fi classics of the 1950s that feels scarcely dated. Part of its rare value and specific force stems from adopting what was then a radical idea, starting off in a different genre altogether, and proceeding with remarkable swerves of story and expectation. Them! unfolds essentially as a police procedural. Early scenes carefully posit signs of something incredible and far beyond the ordinary, violent death and carnage falling under the provenance of professional lawmen, whose method is linked with that of scientific enquirers, sifting facts and winnowing out inescapable conclusions. Slender threads and long shots are followed, ridiculous suppositions and apparently lunatic stories taken seriously. Director Gordon Douglas only made this single foray into fantastic cinema. Most of the time he made rock-solid westerns and crime flicks. This armed him perfectly to approach this story, however. Them! has familiar elements of both horror and sci-fi, but leads stylistically with a tone of sunstroke noir, like Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Dick Powell’s Split Second (1953), before segueing into the nightmarish scene at the store. Jack Arnold had tackled the desert as a setting of atmosphere and surrealist destabilisation in It Came From Outer Space a year earlier, and Douglas went one better. Here the wind howls through gutted walls and sets the overhead lights dancing, littered with broken bodies and signs of forceful intent at once superhuman in ripping out a wall and finicky in pausing again to steal sugar. The ripped bags and pooled grains are infested with tiny black ants, a coldly witty foreshadowing of where all this is going. White Sands, site of the first atomic bomb test less than a decade earlier, is not far away.
Douglas confronts the once-open American landscape as a place suddenly turned septic and deadly, riddled with monsters, and its taciturn, self-reliant inhabitants with their expert marksman eyes suddenly outmatched and their bones left strewn about, bleaching in the sun. Investigative method is at first is left utterly bemused, noting the damage done to Gramps, including shattered bones, pulverised flesh, and “the one for Sherlock Holmes – there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.” FBI Agent Bob Graham (James Arness) is just as clueless in the face of the details. Wiser, more rarefied intelligences are called for. Soon an unlikely pair of big brains are flown in, chasing a suspicion based on the plaster print: Dr Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, fellow scientist Dr Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon). Bob and Ben smirk and gawk at the site of a good-looking female scientist and a cuddly, absent-minded old professor, but soon find themselves scrambling to keep up with their businesslike attitudes and cryptic suggestions of imminent disaster. Medford uses the scent of formic acid to stir the young girl from her catatonic state: suddenly the girl launches herself from her chair, screaming “Them!” as she cowers in the corner. Medford grows all the grimmer as he makes the lawmen take him and Pat out to see where the print was found, scouring for new prints. Pat finds one, just in time to have the thing that made it come up behind her: an ant, big as an elephant. Medford shouts for the cops to shoot at the creature’s antennae to render it senseless, but it’s not until Ben fetches a machine gun that they bring down this unholy terror.
Medford pronounces his worst suspicion confirmed: lingering radiation from the first atom bomb test has sparked mutation. The ant is the worst possible species to face blown up to hundreds of times its normal size, an animal with great strength, social organisation, martial intelligence, and “savagery that makes Man look feeble by comparison.” If Godzilla (1954) articulated Japan’s sense of being on the receiving end of the atom age’s horrible birth, full of images of soaring, impersonal destruction, Them! is the more paranoid companion piece from the victors. The towering, singular, city-flattening monsters of most atomic monster movies here are exchanged with large and threatening but more immediate and pervading enemies. Manny Farber’s metaphor of termite art never felt more appropriate. The fear articulated in Them! is less of the destructive force of the Bomb itself than of the more insidious threat of radiation. Soldiers were being marched through atomic bomb test sites even as Them! was produced, many later to fall ill. The giAnts could also be seen as a twist on a popular caricature of Communists – monsters with a warlike attitude and perfect, communal organisation, spreading out and infesting the nation. Douglas had already done his best for Cold War acclimatising on I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951).
As Ben and Blackburn explore Gramps’ shattered store, a droning radio in the story broadcasts news from around the world. Reports on diplomatic entreaties and success of vaccination programs, the instability of modern politics and the genius of modern science reported in close succession, investing the scene confront the cops with a portentous mood of diagnosis. Them! depicts the essential conflict between the Janus faces of the atomic age, the forces that created the evil – science and militarism – called in to clean up their own mess, with the moral leadership provided by civil guardians Ben and Bob. “This is the first time I’ve ever given orders to a General,” Ben quips to General O’Brien (Onslow Stevens) as they’re required to work together, because Medford insists on keeping the existence of the giAnts secret as long as possible. With the nature of the beast finally revealed, the job of tracking down the monsters requires searching the desert by helicopter, and Medford calls in O’Brien and aide Major Kibbee (Sean McClory). Finally they glimpse one of the great black beasts standing astride the entrance to the nest, a ribcage in in its mandibles. Medford counsels the need to both exterminate the nest but also to keep it intact and make sure every creature is killed. He comes up with a plan that the two lawmen and two soldiers carry out, firing phosphorous charges at the nest with bazookas to keep the giAnts at bay, and then gas their hive with cyanide.
Bob momentarily balks at having Pat, who needs to do what her elderly father can’t, descend with him and Ben into the nest to survey the damage, but she quickly dismisses his concerns: “There isn’t time to give you a fast lesson in insect pathology.” Pat’s introduction echoes that of Bella Darvi’s similar prodigal daughter of the savant in Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water (1954): the first sight of her is a sliver of leg in a pump, descending a ladder, astounding the meatheads before quickly and simply laying claim to her place on the team. Fuller’s tone was satiric where Douglas is businesslike, for like Pat he can’t stand distractions and pointless arguments. It could be one of the most significant early rumbles of feminism on film: Pat does scream queen duty early on but after that is a model of cool and purpose, and as much as it makes Bob look gassy, he’s forced to concede Pat’s point. After that it’s never mentioned again. This aspect is perfectly contiguous with the film’s survey of a new landscape where the pace of change, and evolution itself, is outpacing comprehension. George Worthing Yates, who wrote the original story for Them!, would return to the same feminist slant, if more awkwardly, on It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955).
Descent into the ant nest sees the nightmarish tint of the store sequence shift into the realm of the truly strange and mythic as Ben, Bob, and Pat roam the labyrinth, where gas clouds swirl and demonic forms lie slumped and twisted. Two ants from a walled-up section of nest break out and attack, but Ben manages to cook both with his flame thrower, that great catch-all weapon of any self-respecting monster hunter. But the most disturbing and threatening discovery in the nest is an absence, as Pat recognises the importance of some large, empty egg shells. New queen ants and male consorts have hatched and left the nest, meaning that new colonies will be founded someplace else, and the cycle will start again. The film’s lengthy mid-section returns to the investigative theme as our small band of heroes rustle up government support, but still keep their operation small and low-key as they sift through leads extracted from an avalanche of reports encompassing weird and unusual events. In this situation, the more bizarre and lunatic-sounding the story, the more meaningful it is, one of the cleverest conceits of the script (by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes). The team get their best clue from a shaky Texan aviator, Alan Crotty (Fess Parker, pre-Davy Crockett), who’s been shut up in a loony bin because of his report of nearly flying into UFOs shaped like ants. More crucial leads come from a theft of a load of sugar from a parked railway car, and from a loopy alcoholic, Jensen (Olin Howlin), whose reports of seeing giant ants crawling about the LA River bed and flying about in model aeroplanes would be dismissed as DTs by most but set the hairs on our heroes’ necks standing.
Them! stands tall not just in the annals of monster movies but in movie history in general for the way it balances two qualities required for great storytelling which can seem contradictory: the concision of its storytelling, both visually and in its writing, with lean ferocity to the plot and pacing, coexisting with enriching distractions – comic asides, incidental vignettes, and moments of human intensity. The comedy is good: the railway security man who’s been arrested because he employers believe he must have been complicit in the sugar theft scoffing, “You ever hear of a fence for hot sugar?”, Crotty bleating that the staff in the hospital won’t even give him “anything to hold up my pants!” two old souses arguing the ethics of evening wear, or Jensen chanting “Make me a sergeant, charge the booze!” when he thinks Kibbee wants to draft him. The heroes and their motives are straightforward, with only Ben’s tight-wound desire to settle a score against the things that killed his partner and turned his beat into a war zone offered as an aside to the general business of social dedication, whilst romance between Bob and Pat is noted but not belaboured. Otherwise they get along with their jobs with the dedication of experts. Even with this terse attitude, though, Them! manages to be revealing, as with Medford’s habitual insistence on calling his daughter doctor when they’re discussing business, and Pat’s concern for the old man’s health. Gwenn, long a scene-stealing actor, delivers a peach of a performance, at once a source of frail but plucky humanity, as when he splutters irascibly at being lectured on how to use a two-way radio, and then delivers the regulation voice of pseudo-poetic wisdom beholding the terrors of a new age.
The necessity of the heroes doing that job is illustrated and made urgent by the repeated motif of interrupted lives, and children left endangered by the deaths of parents – the Ellinsons at first and then the two sons of Mrs Lodge (Mary Ann Hokanson). The hunt for the ants comes to Los Angeles in probing the sugar theft, and quickly a new ant colony in the storm drain system under the city is identified, in part because of an even more random lead, when Ben and Bob check out the body of a man who crashed his car but had clearly been violently mutilated beforehand. This man, Lodge, was a working man who took his children out on Sunday mornings, the only time he had for them, and it’s clear that this time it ended in violent tragedy. Finding what happened to Lodge’s children and where proves to the key to mystery and the stake for the finale. This aspect of the story does more than serve a plot function: it situated Them! in a real world that many such films never even graze, particularly in today’s genre film. The most powerful images here aren’t of battle and monstrosity but of human reaction. The first, of the Ellinson girl stirred from her traumatic bubble to jump up, face distorted by terror and proximity to the camera and screaming the title, is designed and executed as a perfectly iconic moment, capturing the leap from rigid anxiety to explosive, cathartic hysteria – the essence of the atom age conflated into a child’s face. Another moment, bordering on arch and yet remaining starkly serious, comes after the first giAnt is killed, with the sound of its fellows ringing eerily out of the dust storm, and Medford speaks a faux-Biblical quote that underline the mood of imminent apocalypse and primal threat: “And there shall be destruction and darkness come over Creation – and the beasts shall reign over the Earth.” The rhyme to the Ellinson girl’s violent display comes towards the end when Mrs Lodge hears her boys are alive, with Douglas cutting to a close-up as she buckles in sudden relief, a moment that packs emotional wallop no matter how many times I watch the film.
No monster movie is better than its monster, of course. As Steven Spielberg would to great effect years later with Jaws (1975), Them! keeps its beasties off screen for a long time – nearly a third of the film. The first appearance is a piece of brilliant mischief on Douglas’ part, as Pat kneels by a print she finds and scans her surrounds, unaware that a colossal monster is rising up over the sand dune just behind her, a giant something seeming to crawl out of infinite nothing, before fixing on the small, juicy human with beady eyes. I remember the first time I ever saw the film as a kid and being utterly bewildered as to what kind of threat was going to turn up until that most memorable reveal. The effects used to animate the giAnts aren’t always convincing, and aren’t as artful as the stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. But the decision to eschew miniatures and use puppets and large-mock-ups gives them a sense of size and imminence, bristling threat and an aura of brutish savagery. When the ants do show up, just as importantly, they don’t shrink as threats – rather the opposite. Even when not seen that eerily memorable sound effect of their call (actually the massed sound of a species of tree frog) signals their presence and builds atmosphere. One of my favourite moments in the film, which feels to me again like an encapsulation of the era’s taut nerves and sense of dark wonder at the newly threatening frontiers of existence, is when a report comes through to the government about another ant nest having hatched out on a ship at sea. Medford cranes over the shoulder of a signalman typing up a furiously tapped Morse code message. Douglas zooms in on the signalman’s headphones, dissolves to a shot of the ship at sea, then to the hand tapping out the message – a hapless sailor trying to get out his message as the giAnts careen through the ship consuming men and bashing through walls.
Them! as an artefact vibrates with intimations of a novel and alien age, Douglas and Hickox seeking out odd visual textures to underline a headlong rush into an enclosing modernity and pestilential menace. When the first giAnt appears, the humans in the scene are dehumanised by the goggles they wear against the sand, making them look a bit ant-like themselves (whilst Weldon’s tightly cinched waist is insectoid as anything in the film), whilst the irradiated desert anticipates a post-apocalyptic world. LA’s vaulted roadways and cemented rivers, and the storm drains where the army ventures on the hunt for the ants, becomes a maze of blank and glistening concrete, like a rough draft for some futuristic city, the kinds seen on a hundred scifi pulp novel covers. Bronislau Kaper’s scoring mimics the churn of radio signals and the pulse of Morse code and singing telephone lines as the action plays out on arrays of communication that suck in all the information of the world in a new network to be disseminated by our heroes.
Them! benefits from its relative privilege, a long time before Star Wars (1977), as a film from a genre usually relegated to cramped budgets and expedient filmmaking in those days, made with something like the care and production heft of a top-line movie, apparent not just in the special effects but also the technical elements including Sidney Hickox’s photography and especially Bronislau Kaper’s thunderous music score. Whitmore’s performance as Ben anchors the film with his restrained humanity and everyman quality, a quality that makes him seem like a prototype for a brand of movie hero who was still to have his day in the future, whereas Arness’s jut-jawed company man feels more like a familiar type of the day, especially as he gets befuddled around Pat’s aura of competence. Ben is also a tragic hero, dying whilst saving the Lodge kids from an army of the ants in the storm sewer, managing to hoist the two lads to safety only to finish up mangled between two massive mandibles – a bloodcurdling moment remarkable not just in its cruel verve but in carrying through on the violent threat to its hero with a gutsiness still few films can claim. When, a few minutes later, Bob gets trapped by a collapsed roof in a section of tunnel with more of the beasts, the narrative’s rude and declared disinterest in the usual niceties makes the moment all the more thrilling, with Bob becoming the image of a frontline warrior with machine gun blazing in desperate last stand against the ultimate enemy – monsters of the id turned flesh.
Though the two films belong technically to the same subgenre, if Godzilla, released in Japan less than four months later, defined the giant monster movie forever, Them! has surely had as permanent effect on a smaller-scaled brand of man-versus-whatever drama – there’s something of its mutant DNA in films as diverse as Jaws and its many rip-offs, The Birds (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Aliens (1986), and the Jurassic Park films, both on the level of narrative patterning and on the crudely but effectively phobic level of exploiting the dread of being eaten by something with a lot of teeth and legs. But there are also the seeds of concerns filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, with Kiss Me Deadly (1955), John Boorman, with Point Blank (1967), up to and including Michael Mann, would later enlarge upon, surveying the wilderness of the new with anxiety rather than triumph. The enemy is defeated and exterminated in the very last moments of Them!, but not without a sense of both regret, as the human protagonists look down upon the last of a new species writhing in streams of fire, and also, vitally, a sense of menace contained but not quelled. As Medford’s hokey but effective last speech states and Douglas’ bleakly revelling images convey, it won’t be the last horror the brave new world will have to stare down.
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Director: Karl Freund
By Roderick Heath
The series of horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s has long carried a specific mystique. The epoch of Expressionist horror that ushered the genre’s true arrival on screen had flowered in Germany but was waning by the time of the talkies. Whilst serious horror films were made in Hollywood throughout the silent period, jokey horrors were the most popular, lampooning the same dark and miasmic fantasias that the German filmmakers were revelling in. Many of the talented artistic progenitors of the Expressionist style, like directors F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Paul Leni, and camera wizard Karl Freund, decamped to Hollywood, which had already absorbed a lot of their style. A Hollywood horror revolution was officially kick-started by a native son, Tod Browning with Dracula (1931). Actually an adaptation of John L. Balderstone’s play taken from Bram Stoker’s novel, the film was charged with an enfolding sense of sonorous evil, and expertly exploited Béla Lugosi’s iconic charisma. Freund, who shot the film and helped meld the Expressionist ethic to the theatrical demands of early sound cinema,, emerged from the production with standing, as some felt he saved the difficult shoot, often filling in for the distracted Browning. Although more concrete than the intensely psychologised and symbolic Expressionist films, the specific power Universal’s approach was a dedication to making their horror films densely atmospheric and rarefied, close to cinematic mood poems and fables.
The great movies of their brand, including Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and a few others, defined the horror film in many minds, and still influence how many envision the classic roster of genre ghouls. Universal eventually turned successes into franchises and hammered those into the ground, although even their silliest later monster pile-ups like House of Dracula (1946) are exceedingly well-made and entertaining. But the earlier Universal work is far more powerful and still works even as many of the films show their age. Dracula proved a gigantic hit, and was quickly followed by James Whale’s brilliant take on Frankenstein, which although very different to Mary Shelley’s source novel, touched on a kind of fairy tale beauty and menace. Perhaps after a few years of the Depression, American audiences were in a mood not all that different to the struggling early days of Weimar; either way, dark, eerie, perverse and violent visions suddenly became wildly popular, an id to accompany the ego warriors of the gangster films soaring in popularity at the same time.
Universal, searching for another realm of the fantastic to explore, next produced The Mummy. It was an inspired and obvious recourse. Since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb ten years earlier, things Ancient Egyptian held great cultural power. The Mummy was an original property rather than a well-worn literary classic, albeit strongly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth” and “Lot 249” as well much of H. Rider Haggard’s writing. Keeping recent success in mind, the studio gave Boris Karloff, who had rocketed to stardom in Frankenstein, the title role, and had Balderstone pen the screenplay. Barely days before the shoot was to start, the studio pressed Freund to direct. When Universal returned to the idea of the mummy as monster in the Kharis series, kicked off by The Mummy’s Hand (1940), the more familiar version was created, that of a lurching, raggedly bandaged zombie slowly and remorselessly tracking victims. In this regard the original The Mummy can be a surprise, as the notion of a walking mummy is only briefly touched on in the film’s famous opening sequence.
That scene sees respected Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), his friend and colleague Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), and young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) inspecting their latest discoveries on their 1921 field expedition. Sir Joseph, an old and wise hand, wants to carry on cataloguing in the order of discover as per usual practice, but Norton is too distracted by their big finds, a casket that proves to house a mummy, a high priest named Imhotep, and a box containing a hieroglyphic scroll. Muller, inspecting the casket, deduces the mummy was in fact a man buried alive, for treason or, more likely, sacrilege. “Maybe he got too gay with the Vestal virgins in the temple,” Norton theorises cheekily, getting closer to the mark than he thinks. Sir Joseph is momentarily shocked by the terrible curse inscribed on the box containing the scroll, which proves on inspection to be the mythical Scroll of Toth, inscribed with a spell for raising the dead. Muller, an occult expert, and Sir Joseph head out to argue the wisdom of prying any further into their find, leaving Norton alone, where curiosity proves far too powerful for him: he removes the scroll, transcribes and translates it, and reads the words quietly to himself. As he does so, the eyes of the mummy behind him slowly flicker open, its desiccated hands twitch and shift. The poor archaeologist is unaware until suddenly one mouldering hand reaches into the frame and lifts the scroll.
The walking dead disappears out the door, still only glimpsed only as a few trailing bandages, leaving behind the instantly mentally shattered Norton, who bursts into hysterical laughter and reports to Sir Joseph when he comes running, “He went for a little walk – you should’ve seen his face!” This opening is so arresting and memorable that it has long overshadowed the rest of the film. The technical limitations of early sound cinema, including sparing use of music, actually helped imbue the early Universal horrors with their power – these films work like stepping into some quieter, sinister antechamber of reality, in spite of the fact Dracula and The Mummy are both set in a contemporary world of motor cars and other noisy paraphernalia (even Frankenstein was set about 1900). Freund turns a static, all but eventless scene into a little minuet of delicate camera movements and judicious cuts. He privileges the viewer at first to the manifestations of something extraordinary occurring, but then cuts the viewer out from seeing the climax of the moment. He concentrates instead on Norton’s transgressive act as something nudging the edges of an unseen world as he silently recites the crucial text, and then his confrontation with something from beyond the bounds of human experience and sanity. The narrative jumps forward ten years and takes up again with Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) working with Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie), on a new expedition on behalf of the British Museum that’s had a total flop of a digging season.
The events of ten years before are an enigma for these men, as Pearson ponders why David’s father vowed never to return to Egypt and David himself glibly theorises the boredom of digging in the desert broke Norton’s mind. A knock at the door of their base hut proves to be the strange, stalk-thin, brittle-skinned man claiming to be Ardeth Bey, who is of course is Imhotep himself, having cast off his grave wrappings and spent ten years practising Osiris knows what acts of dark magic to set himself up in the twentieth century and pass as a living being. Ardeth entices David and Pearson into facilitating his secret plan, by giving a clue to the location of the tomb of the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Intrigued by this seemingly wild surmise and anxious for anything resembling a find, the archaeologists set their diggers to the task and locate the tomb, fully intact with a bounty of untouched relics. So sensational is the find that Sir Joseph breaks his pledge and comes to oversee the removal of the treasure, which is then shipped to the Cairo Museum as prize exhibit. Freund offers another brilliant pirouette of style here as his camera explores the museum like a restless, hungry spirit, eventually zeroing in on the face on Anck-es-en-Amon’s casket. Freund then transitions via a whip-pan and an odd, delightful effect using a scrolling, illustrated cityscape as if the camera is racing across the city, to then halt on the face of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), gazing out at the pyramids as if staring into the past – the subliminal connection between her and the dead princess instantly stated.
The scrolling effect is deliberately artificial; a nod to the roots of fantastic cinema in magic lantern shows and theatrical effects, with an echo of Freund’s work for Murnau. It also reinforces an idea in the dialogue, a sense of disconnection from the reality of “this dreadful modern Cairo.” Helen is the daughter of the English governor of Sudan and an Egyptian woman “with a family tree a mile long,” and is the repository for a memory of nations and wandering spirits. Helen is being watched over by Muller and his wife (Kathryn Byron), but can’t concentrate on the “nice English boys” because something’s stirring in the night. That something is Imhotep, who breaks into the museum with the Scroll of Thoth and begins chanting her name in a ritual to bring her soul back to her body. Helen is the one who obeys the call as the Princess’s reincarnation, and Frank and his father come across her in a daze banging on the museum door. They take her to her apartment after she faints whilst Imhotep is chased by a museum guard who meets an ugly end in the shadows.
One distinctive quality of the Universal horror brand was that it upheld the notion that horror as a genre was essentially tragic, by concentrating on monsters and antiheroes who are often essentially cursed with existence, doomed to exist outside of the world and often prey on it. This idea stands in complete opposition to the tendency that emerged in the 1960s and still dominates the genre where the forces of evil have become increasingly one-dimensional and symbolic. Whale’s Frankenstein monster captured this idea with such power that it became a recurring motif, whilst Imhotep, in his desperate, eon-long search for his great love, exemplifies it. Appearing like a sun-dried praying mantis in kaftan and fez, Imhotep proceeds with Mandarin cool, alternately effete and concerted, afraid of being touched (“An Eastern prejudice,” he tells Sir Joseph by way of explanation after asking him not to) in case his skin comes off in mouldy flakes. But his parched and brittle body is belied by the power emanating from his eyes and the fixity of his desires. Universal’s make-up wiz Pierce created both the overtly gnarled and desiccated look of the mummy when first discovered and a subtler look for the revived and rejuvenated Ardeth, who looks just normal enough to pass but whose face bears a thousand tiny wrinkles as if someone tried to shrink his head.
Freund returns more than once to a single, stunning shot of Karloff’s face, every rut in Pierce’s make-up inscribed by the lighting and his eyes in shadow, only for his eyes to suddenly light up and reveal a dread, piercing stare. It’s a very simple effect, and yet it turns the idea of Imhotep’s deathless passion and innate force into a singular visual. The Mummy also helped codify a now-common form of morbid romanticism popular in the horror genre. Nowadays even Dracula, a human-shaped leech originally, has become a deathless romancer in search of his reincarnated darling in many recent takes on his story. Freund’s channelling of the Germanic liebestod tradition into a Hollywood movie was still a relatively new and powerful notion, and even segues into a perverse joke when Frank, half-jokingly and half-honestly, confesses to Helen that he fell in love with Anck-es-en-Amon’s mummified body after rifling through her personal effects. Archaeology as pick-up art by way of stalking and necrophilia.
The Mummy’s mood of subliminal obsession is mediated through intensely rhythmic visual and editing patterns, particularly the recurring images of Imhotep, swathed in shadow, chanting Anck-es-en-Amon’s name or reciting killing curses, alternately pathetic in his longing or terrible in his malevolence. Music and image build to crescendos as Imhotep screws up a fist to drive home his maledictions like lances. He kills Sir Joseph this way and also almost kills Frank, who is saved only by clasping onto a charm given to him by Muller, who serves as the de facto Van Helsing character. Van Sloan gets to display even more impressive pith as Muller than he did as Stoker’s savant, as he proclaims his desire to “get my hands on you – I’d break your dried flesh to pieces!”, but knows he can’t even approach the deadly magician. That’s another unusual aspect of The Mummy, too, as most horror films invoke the supernatural but very few place so much emphasis on mysticism as a form of power to be invoked and resisted. Every character in the film feels or wields an invisible influence, locked as they are within patterns of fate, from Sir Joseph’s Sudanese servant (Noble Johnson) who falls under the influence of Imhotep like one his ancestors did to that fallen but still potent empire, to Anck-es-en-Amon whose spirit continues to wander and find new bodies eternally for having broken her vows as a priestess of Isis.
The Mummy is perhaps the most overtly dreamlike and ethereal of horror films made between the coming of sound and the work of Georges Franju. An otherworldly quality is sustained throughout, a quality glimpsed at its strongest in moments like when Imhotep shows Helen their shared past in a shimmering pool of sacred water, or when Helen, swathed in white nightgown, stalks a corridor in a trance-state, leaving behind Frank’s crumped form on the floor. One the film’s most genuinely weird and jarring asides comes when Helen’s dog, nervous in Ardeth’s house of dark magic overseen by the cat goddess of evil sendings, Bast, is killed off-screen with a horrible wail. Most mummy tales exemplify, and indeed are today the most recognisable version, of a story pattern popular in a lot of Victorian-era fantastic fiction (also crime fiction, a la The Moonstone and The Sign of Four). In that pattern, exotic, mysterious objects from alien cultures come into the possession of hapless westerners, who find out just how much deadly power there is in the taboo objects of ransacked cultures. The forbidden object stood for a certain suppressed, half-conscious anxiety at the possible surge of forces stirred by colonialism, and reminded of the necessity of a certain stoic acceptance of foreign customs and rules.
This The Mummy has an aspect of this but moves in different directions. Imhotep re-emerges to torment the despoilers of a cultural heritage but also uses them to accomplish his ends. He lets Frank and Pearson commit the heresy he won’t, for he himself is a rebel against the demarcations of the sacred. He also happily reclaims ancient status when he mesmerically suborns the “Nubian” servant: the bath ain’t big enough for two imperialist powers. Karloff played Fu Manchu the same year in The Mask of Fu Manchu, and there’s a distinctly similar note of paranoia over the possibility of an aristocratic man from a non-Caucasian society creating a different, if no less oppressive, power paradigm. Here that pattern is complicated by Helen’s status as inheritor of dual legacies and existing in multiple ages. A deleted addendum to the lengthy flashback followed Anck-es-en-Amon’s spirit through many ages and places, disseminating the flow of civilisation out of Egypt and into Europe as well as the progress of her spirit. Imhotep is the power of things past but not forgotten; Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon is the life force that graces and never dies.
The vision of their shared history, including his own downfall and terrible death, Imhotep shows to Helen in his mystic pool, glimpsing how Anck-es-en-Amon died and Imhotep, the high priest to her priestess who had fallen in love with her against all taboos, tried to use the Scroll of Toth to revive her, only to be caught and sentenced to be buried alive. This sequence, which was recycled several times in Universal’s later mummy films, is a delight as a throwback to the fast-receding ideals of silent cinema, like a lost reel from some lost Cecil B. DeMille historical epic. Freund, like DeMille, takes the rectilinear styles of Ancient Egyptian art as a basis for stylising compositions and the movements of the actors within them, creating a ritualised form to evoke the distant past. More interestingly, though, Freund also utilises silent film acting styles to suggest the bygone and archaic – Freund both tipping his hat to the art form that had defined him and other filmmakers but which was already fading into legend. The close-up of Imhotep being wrapped in bandages before burial is excruciating, as Karloff communicates his unutterable fear and suffering even as he submits to his fate: this is, in its way, one of the most violent images ever committed to film. Imhotep’s pathos as a lover and antihero, where before he was merely a menacing ghoul, emerges here and gives context to the priest’s incredible defiance, even of his own death, a character who triangulates the dominating stature of Dracula, the victimised pathos of The Wolf Man‘s Larry Talbot, and the Promethean arrogance of Dr Frankenstein.
The Mummy hinges on Karloff’s ability to paint tortured depths in unlikely figures as well as sepulchral menace, his depictions of the alternations of hate, pain, longing, and a wry and haughty authority that drive the character making Imhotep one of the most genuinely interesting horror film villains. To have seen the film is to have his plangent chant of “Anck-es-en-Amon” forever in mind, reminiscent of that scene in Hour of the Wolf (1968) when the similar chant of “Pamina” in The Magic Flute is explored, the name as spell, love as transfiguring force. Indeed, Ingmar Bergman made that film in part as a tribute to his love for Universal’s horror films. Johann, a stage actress who was showcased as a potential movie star for a brief time but then retreated to Broadway and married John Houseman, is a fascinating presence. With her deep, silky voice and large-eyed beauty, she was at once able at once to seem the perfect flapper-age woman but also evoked a timeless quality. Her Helen looks and sounds like a being detached from the hoi-polloi of the twentieth century, and it’s easy to imagine her adrift on the rivers of time. Indeed, by the finale Imhotep has regressed her until she is once again Anck-es-en-Amon. Johann projects an easy sensuality and an aura of emotional maturity that belies her standing as damsel in distress, and she constantly nudges the viewer to remember this is a pre-Code film we’re watching. “What girl could fail to make a conquest who collapsed at a man’s feet in the moonlight?” she prods Frank amusedly when he professes instant passion for her, before adding: “Don’t you think I’ve had enough excitement for one evening without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?”
Manners, who had played a drippy Jonathan Harker in Dracula, is similarly outmatched here in a way that points to the way familiar romantic heroes were all but incidental in this kind of film long before the days of final girls. But Manners also fares better in playing Frank, who’s a rather oddball hero, a handsome nerd, albeit one whose romantic nerve once touched is impressively ardent: “You can tell me to go to the devil – but you can’t laugh at me,” as he proclaims with impressive determination as he declares his instant obsession to Helen. The Mummy is a flawed film for all its qualities. Balderstone’s script betrays something of the same stagy thinking that weighed down Dracula. Many scenes unfolds in the theatrical-like environs of the Whemples’ apartment, whilst Manners has deal with the lion’s share of unspeakable lines as romantic ingénue (“How I love you so!”). Freund’s last-minute hiring means that the filmmaking is flatly functional as often as it’s inspired. Freund was a profoundly gifted technician but only directed two horror films, this and Mad Love (1935). The degree to which he could take charge of material remained in question after the second film in particular was badly hampered by an unfocused narrative and excessive comic relief, and he stopped directing after that.
But The Mummy remains almost sui generis in its delicate sense of horror and tension, and resolves with a climax where the heroes, rushing to rescue Helen from Imhotep’s impending sacrifice and resurrection of her mortal form to remake her like himself, find themselves still outmatched by Imhotep’s power. Instead, aptly, it is up to Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon to defeat him by an act of prayer and contrition, calling on Isis to save her. Whereupon the statue of the goddess looking over the scene lifts a stony arm and strikes down the unruly priest with a curse that causes him to crumble to dust and skeletal remains, and Frank is left to try and drag Helen’s persona back from the murk of the past. This may well have influenced the similar deus ex machina punchline of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Although the staging of the finale is a bit awkward and rushed, it retains power for respecting the strange logic of this tale, where forces beyond rule all and love is an immutable force that distorts and rewrites reality. In celebrating this idea, The Mummy moves beyond Expressionist ideas into the realm of the authentically surreal.
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