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Director/Screenwriter: Wong Kar-Wai
By Roderick Heath
Wong Kar-Wai was already a major figure on the film scene of the 1990s, but his 2000 film In the Mood for Love made him something close to the cinematic poet laureate of the millennium’s pivot as far as many moviegoers were concerned. Achingly beautiful as a remembrance of things past and a portrait of stymied emotions, In the Mood for Love was both an apotheosis of Wong’s obsessive refrains as a creative force, but also suggested a deliberated about-face from the artistic persona he had built for himself and the style of his oeuvre to that point, rooted as they were in the hyperkinetic climes of his native Hong Kong. Works like Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995) were concerned with the neon-painted lives of young city dwellers adrift in the tides of modern detachment, the suffocating nature of lives spent in the vortex of too much choice and chance. In the Mood for Love, nominally a portrait of two people drawn together but fatefully unable to connect, was more tone poem than narrative, celebrating evanescent emotions in the midst of such human furore, immersing the viewer in Wong’s nostalgia for the milieu of 1960s Hong Kong with its crumbling, seedy, intimate vibrancy, an attempt to grasp at an image-dream of the past swept away in the hoopla of the late 20th century.
Wong’s most excitedly accepted works had a habit of dropping in between other projects he was expending more energy and time on. The genesis of In the Mood for Love hardly suggested it would prove Wong’s most popular film, as Wong had conceived and shot the film as a respite and recourse whilst another, heftier project called 2046 languished in development hell. Wong spun one project from the material of the other, resulting in two films linked by crucial but rearranged aspects, each narrative and its human figurations haunting the other like ghosts. A third film in the mix is Wong’s debut, Days of Being Wild (1988), suggesting that 2046, when it was finally produced, had evolved into a summative assessment and closing bracket for all his films up to that time. 2046 is a partial antithesis to its immediate predecessor in spite of its shared images, themes, and characters–sexual where the earlier film was chaste, purposefully messy rather than singularly focused, a study in the onrush of history both personal and general rather than a wistfully static zone within it. It’s also the director’s most unusual narrative insofar as it takes place in two different times, or two different realities, splitting the difference between mid-1960s Southeast Asia and the year of the title. 2046 isn’t a sequel in the conventional manner, nor is it a second chapter of the same story. A close literary relative would be D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Women in Love, which tell the lives of two sisters but can easily be regarded as standalone works or distorting mirrors of each other.
Much as 2046 recapitulates the plot of In the Mood for Love in a series of increasingly less sentimental and satisfactory echoes, the protagonist of 2046, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), writes one part of this story. Or does he only think he does–is he in fact the memory or myth of someone in 2046? Of course, both stories are being created by Wong Kar-Wai in the early 2000s, projecting both backwards and forwards in extending his poetic metaphors to extremes. Chow is nominally the same man seen in In the Mood for Love, but a revision—sour, cynical, and glib rather than intense and honourably disconsolate. He’s first glimpsed breaking up with a lover, Su Li-zhen (Gong Li), a woman who had the same name as Maggie Cheung’s character from In the Mood for Love but who couldn’t have been more different. This lady is a shady femme fatale and professional gambler who always wears a black glove, a creature suited to the smoky, feverish dens of Singapore, the place where Chow has been hiding out since his life fell apart back in Hong Kong. Chow returns to Hong Kong in the spirit of getting on with that life again, and quickly encounters a woman he once knew by the name of Mimi (Carina Lau), who had appeared in Days of Being Wild and who now calls herself Lulu. She doesn’t remember Chow, but he’s able to tell her own story back to her like a narrator, an act she seems to find beneficent. Soon after, Chow tries to find Lulu in the Orient Hotel, where she lives, only for the hotel owner, Mr. Wang (Wang Sum), to tell him she’s left. Chow is struck by the detail that Lulu was living in a room numbered 2046, the same number as the hotel room where he and the first Su Li-Zhen spent time trying to write kung-fu action stories.
Chow asks Wang if he can rent the room, but Wang puts him off, talking him into accepting the neighbouring room 2047. Chow later learns the grim truth Wang was suppressing: Lulu had been murdered by her jazz drummer boyfriend, and her room is still covered in blood. Chow settles into life in the Orient, encountering Wang’s daughters, the forlorn, fraying Jing-wen (Faye Wong) and her scamp of a younger sister, Jie-wen (Jie Dong), and cabaret dancer Bai Ling (Ziyi Zhang), who eventually moves into 2046. Jing-wen has a boyfriend, a Japanese businessman (Takuya Kimura) who had stayed at the hotel for a time and has since returned home, and now she spends her quiet time learning Japanese, hoping eventually to make the journey to his arms. But her father’s vehemence against the match seems to doom the romance to perpetual long-distance longing. Jie-wen soon visits a form of karma on their father when she, following in Lulu’s footsteps, runs off with another drummer. Meanwhile Chow begins a mutually aggravating flirtation with Bai Ling, who lives a similarly libertine lifestyle to him, and eventually it flowers into a fiery affair. The hotel is an easy place to romanticise. The balcony under the hotel sign is a flying bridge where the lost folk who inhabit its poky spaces retreat for solitary cigarettes or momentary connections with their fellows. But the opera that resounds from Wang’s apartment signals not a love of surging artistry, but rather an attempt to mask his constant, gruelling arguments with his daughters, and in a similar manner, the more insistent truth that emerges is that the hotel is a crossroads where lost souls graze one another.
Chow’s adventures in the Orient Hotel provide the seeds for a science fiction story he begins writing with Jing-wen after she has a bout of severe depression and spends time in hospital. Chow has already had a success with one he wrote called 2046; his and Jing-wen’s follow-up is entitled 2047, set in a future in which the world is spanned by a network of trains, one of which makes a journey to the mysterious destination 2046–a year, a place, a state of mind?–where life enters stasis and people remain immersed in their dreams and memories in escape from the real world. The hero of the story, a Japanese man named Tak (Kimura again), is the first person to ever make the return journey from 2046 because he lost his lover even in that dream world. During the trip, in spite of the driver’s warning not to fall in love with the android staff on the train, he becomes fascinated by one android (Wong again), and tries to puzzle out her behaviour, which might signal that she loves someone else or might be slowly suffering mechanical wear-out. Chow’s working relationship with Jing-wen proves successful, as their story forges a name and new profession for Chow but also troublingly echoes his liaison years before with the original Su Li-zhen. As he did then, Chow falls silently in love with his writing partner. Rather than take advantage of his Japanese rival’s absence, however, Chow lets them write to each other using him as intermediary so her father won’t suspect, and finally arranges a Christmastime phone call between the pair, acknowledging with melancholic satisfaction that the especially cold regions of 1224–1225 the trains in his story pass through were named for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the two days when everyone needs extra warmth.
Wong’s films before In the Mood for Love had been marked by their employment of purposefully arch storytelling techniques, some of them adapted from modernist literature, others suggesting the influence of poetry, fairy tales, even pop songs. Wong foregrounded his stories’ status as just that—stories—with films divided into chapters or mirroring narratives, doppelganger characters, intertwined narrative lines, and totemistic fetishes, like the man who buys canned pineapple cans every day and the girl who obsessively listens to “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express. At the same time he tried to demonstrate how all such devices were, to some extent, masks of an underlying obsessive drive to record and describe thoughts and feelings almost beyond words. His customarily eccentric take on the great native fictional genre wu xia, Ashes of Time (1994), had presented a collective of familiar stereotypes from the genre but as lovelorn and life-foiled individuals whose existential crises are only interrupted by occasional life-and-death battles that come on ironically more as escapes into pure action than as great climaxes.
Chow’s attempt to write wu xia tales in In the Mood for Love suggested an in-joke on Wong’s part, whereas here the bifurcated narrative split into period romance and futuristic metaphor reproduces the same essential idea of convention and cliché utilised to penetrate to the heart of real emotion. The rag-and-bone shop of Wong’s poetic lexicon is constantly evinced throughout 2046, rooted in the detritus of popular cultures of which, he suggests, Hong Kong was a particularly enriched tidewater where the products of both East and West wash ashore, and things remembered from Wong’s childhood, the fervent, crowded, fearsomely lively yet isolating atmosphere of Hong Kong and the open, rich sense of possibility in Southeast Asia at the time, before the horrors of Vietnam, Pol Pot, and the fall of Sukarno. In the Mood for Love’s final shots, filmed in Angkor Wat, suggested both a longing to regain a mystically tinged sense of certitude rooted in a fractured past and a sense of foreboding, knowing that soon monsters will be roaming over this landscape. 2046 stepped into a new realm for Wong, insofar as that it’s about the act of creation itself, offering in part a meditation on the way experience becomes art, the transposition of ideas from immediate reality into the zone of the fantastic, and back again. Chow processes his experiences into an alternate zone of facticity where emotional states shape that world, and, as Wong did with Ashes of Time, removing the traditional motivations of scifi–usually action and adventure–to study the more ephemeral qualities lurking within genre storytelling.
2046’s attempt to evoke zones of feeling and sexuality beyond the current understanding of such things isolates the underlying mood of scifi like Blade Runner (1982) and makes it the very point of the film’s ponderings. Wong also starts off not with Chow in his ’60s setting, but with the world of his fiction, raising the question as to which era is the dream of the other. Wong’s scifi references cover as much ground as his other cultural influences. Vistas of gleaming CGI neon and surging monorails come straight out of ’70s and ’80s Japanese anime, evoking a common background of such modern mythology in the past-war state of so many Asian cities–Tokyo demolished and Hong Kong turned from colonial outpost to place of refuge and haute-capitalist tide pool, causing both to be rebuilt as carnivals of steel, glass, and neon. The concept of correlating distant future as stage to deliberate on the past is reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s final works Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. Aspects of the story suggest Wong digested an episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, “The Lonely,” down to the fateful number in the title, the year the Serling story was set.
Of course, in one sense 2046 might not be regarded as science fiction at all, given that the futuristic element in the film is presented as something external to or concurrent to its other reality. And yet Wong, uninterested as he is in the nuts-and-bolts methods of technocratic pondering and conceptual fancy with which scifi tends to be preoccupied, engages with another, subtler mode of the genre, a brand that explores how the modern human identity subsists in relation to a vast, strange, implacable universe, and how we coexist with our own mimetic projects and creations. In this regard, 2046 has kinship with major genre works that betray a different sense of science fiction, including Alain Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime (1967) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971), similarly transfixed by memory and simulacra of life, exploring the constant human tendency towards interior travel rather than face up to the universe in all its indifferent grandeur. Ridley Scott’s Replicants would extend the Frankensteinian fear of a creation that refuses to abide and extend the creator’s self, but Wong’s twitchy-limbed fembots, like Stanislaw Lem’s alien planet that gives Tarkovsky’s film its central enigma and motive, only reflect back to the onlooker what they project upon them, embodying but remaining as fundamentally unknowable as the love-object. Chow tries to understand himself through mythic projections of himself and those who torment and fascinate him. A constant visual and thematic refrain is a large speakerlike object on the 2046 train, high-tech equivalent to the hole in the tree where secrets are whispered and stored–a piece of folktale wisdom mentioned in this film and its predecessor. The darkness at the heart of the pit of secrets is the crux of the enigma, the black hole at the galaxy’s centre, the vaginal portal, the id. Nothing that goes there comes back unless changed beyond recognition.
Wong and Doyle conjure gorgeous scifi images in the sleek confines of the 2046 train and the blank-eyed yet mysteriously emotive robots who stalk the deserted conveyance, Kimura’s perfect manga hero their detached and pensive companion-lover. Nor is scifi the only genre Wong rifles, as he steps into film noir and paperback romance tales. Gong’s gauntleted gambler could have stepped out of his frustrated attempt to film the source novel for Orson Welles’ noir masterpiece The Lady From Shanghai (1946). Glimpses of Chow’s own 2046 story being enacted split the difference between noir and scifi, as a cyberpunk gamine lures a man into bed and murders him whilst her boyfriend hides upstairs and spies on them, his dripping tears caught on the plunge by DP Christopher Doyle’s camera as galactic blotches. The images here hark back to Fallen Angels’ assassin lowlifes inhabiting the underside of contemporary Hong Kong that Wong filmed like an alien world. Chow’s shift of modes from writing martial arts tales to scifi suggests Wong had been paying attention to a general critical consensus that scifi provided a new stage for traditional genres to unfold, with the likes of Star Wars (1977) blending motifs borrowed from both the Western and the martial arts tale.
The metafictional aspect of Chow’s adventures in writing suggests an imagined alternative life for Wong himself, one where he subsists as a smith of genre fiction. Hong Kong cinema has for so long been buoyed by its reputation for action and comedy films Wong’s constitutional inability to swim with that tide was enabled a level of freedom by his stature but also left him cut off from the mainstream of his own local culture. Wong may well also have been thinking about the creative pillars of wu xia on the printed page, the likes of Liang Yusheng and Jin Yong, pseudonyms used by men who had created many of the defining characters and motifs of the genre writing for newspapers in the 1950s and ’60s–indeed, Ashes of Time had been adapted from Jin Yong’s stories. Much of the landscape of scifi and film noir had similarly been born of such writers, penning stories for magazines. Rather than dismissing such folk as grubby hacks, Wong celebrates them in his way, suggesting the fuel for all forms of creativity is inherently personal. 2046 is also, as some have noted, the year before the promised self-governing period of Hong Kong after the handover to China runs out, giving the number a foreboding quality, a crux of the political as well as personal. Hong Kong’s status as a world caught in the cross-rip of different cultures, hemispheres, and ways of being, perched uneasily on the edge of history, waiting to be pushed off by some fatal pressure. That sense of anxiety, however subliminal, gives Wong’s work an overtone that remains vital to it (for instance, the absence of it in Wong’s Stateside romp My Blueberry Nights, 2006, doomed that film for all its qualities to feel comparatively frivolous).
2046 unfolds as a series of contrapuntal sequences, stepping backwards and forwards in chronology and between realities. The highly rhythmic yet dislocated structure unfolds is simulated in Wong and Doyle’s shooting. In the Mood for Love’s style was marked by its Matisse-like visual effects, spaces and people alike used as elements in patterns that converge and give way without depth, conveying both the beauty and stasis of the central couple’s affair. 2046’s images flit by at a much faster pace, the dense layers of the period Hong Kong and Singapore scenes, all vertiginously narrowed corridors and universes folding in on themselves, matched to the stripped-back environs of the futuristic train scenes, where the real world moves by in a blank blur. The sense of something urgent underlying 2046 is impossible to ignore even as, essentially, nothing happens. Chow’s voiceover mentions riots convulsing on the waterfront, with the suggestion they’re the first act in an age of disruption that will end the islet time Wong was born in and celebrates. Shigeru Umebayashi’s propulsive main theme for the score underlines this sensation of impetus, contrasting the slower, more yearning, dancing pizzicato of his In the Mood for Love theme and matching the film’s pulse instead to the driving force of the futuristic trains seen dashing through tunnels and neon cities. Wong realises the two periods as polar opposites of atmosphere (if all still painted in the lustrous hues of Doyle’s photography), the clean, sleek, supermoderne environs of the 2046 express where stilted androids cavort and gaze dead-eyed out the windows into digital dreams, and the tangled, bustling, organic furore of period Hong Kong, a world in which Chow and Bai Ling exist bred to it as panthers in the veldt, slipping the cramped hallways, drenched in the hues of red and green and blue that infest the parlours and foyers and streets of the city, at once embracing and isolating.
The film occasionally switches into black-and-white for an aura faintly reminiscent of high-class advertising, apt for iconographic moments of perfection where, like the doomed Scotty Ferguson of Vertigo (1958), Chow finds himself confronted by reproductions of his idealised love object via fetishized talismanic objects and experiences–sharing a drowsy ride in the back of a taxi, the hand in the black glove–as waystations in a journey that loops eternally. Zhang and Leung make for one of the sexiest screen couples in history, inhabiting characters whose connection of a physical level is foiled by their discursive emotional needs. If In the Mood for Love was transfixed by a love affair based in subliminal accord foiled by scruple and circumstance, 2046 studies one doomed by the incapacity of the two lovers to state their subtler desires out loud and their ingrained attitudes even as they find deep carnal satisfaction: Chow constantly holds off Bai Ling’s shows of feeling by continually relegating her to the status of whore whilst she is constantly frustrated by his detachment whilst casting him as the eternally elusive lover. Their early scenes play out as a dance of attraction and repulsion in which they consciously assume characters, he the drawling roué, she the teasing tart, that ensure they don’t really meet, only the guises they put to survive their respective narratives as soiled romantic and fading beauty. Their quicksilver attraction and sexual compatibility founders, however, on their inability to leave behind such guises, as Bai Ling offends Chow by failing to show up for a dinner he gives when he plans to introduce her as his girlfriend to his friends, and he in turn leaves her increasingly wounded as he fails, deliberately or not, to recognise her very genuine neediness.
2046 is also a study in acting, both within and without Wong’s narratives. Leung is his eternally reliable worldly conduit, ensuring Chow always conveys a sense of gravitas and covert discomfort even when he’s being a flip shit. Wong’s cabal of actresses, a critical mass of Chinese screen beauty and talent, are all cast in accordance to classic Hollywood’s rules of casting according to type and essence–Gong in her steely, stoic majesty, Zhang in her defiant but covertly brittle intensity, Faye Wong’s bright-eyed yet melancholic romanticism. Wong even goes so far as to name Zhang’s character after one of the few big Hong Kong stars not in the film. The theme is both supernal and vital: roles and lives lived and unlived spin about each other in strange gravity throughout 2046, whether through the constructed safe zones of fiction or the demands of surviving daily existence in a metropolis, and a natural process of life, the people we are in different times. But within this celebration of words and identities worn like husks is an idea Wong constantly, even obsessively tries to dig into is the ambiguity of the self, whether it’s knowable not just to anyone outside of that self but even itself, and indeed the question as to whether that ambivalence is the essence of human authenticity rather than a failure to locate it. Both Chow and the second Su Li-zhen prize their ambivalence and the difficulty others take in trying to understand them–Su fobs Chow off when it comes to learning anything about her by playing high and low with him for such information, and she always wins. “I’ve seen pretty people disappear like smoke,” Bob Dylan once sang, and it’s a fact of life for Chow, who returns to Singapore towards the film’s end in search of her only to find her vanished, perhaps consumed by her perpetual twilight lifestyle, perhaps having returned to Cambodia where she came from, where she’ll probably also die once that epochal nightmare rolls around.
Chow’s time with the second Li-zhen is described in one of the later chapters although it comes before most of the events depicted in the film, and is bookended by his last encounter with Bai Ling, so we can see tragedy repeating not exactly as farce but surely as ironic inversion. Li-zhen resisted Chow’s entreaty to come with him to Hong Kong just as he refuses to play Bai Ling’s lover again–to be “borrowed” as he put it once before–because he recognises he’s finally found a part he can’t play, an interior reality he can’t ignore for the sake of an external one, and that like himself, she needs to escape the roundelay of simulacrums they take refuge in. Chow’s act here seems cold, as he leaves Bai Ling weeping in her poignant, final loss of illusion, but is actually as kind in its way as his aid to Jing-wen was, for his response here is akin to ripping off a band-aid, a momentary hurt that deflects a deeper and more grievous possible wound, a refusal on Chow’s part to indulge his guises any longer nor to offer Bai Ling the opium that is bogus affection. The concluding images of him are as a sad and solitary figure perhaps resigned to such a state until he can properly lay his ghosts to rest. Unlike his fictional antihero, Chow might not have the will the leave that place where memories surround and immerse, but there is a sign he is reconciled to it, able to coexist in future and past, a gaining of wisdom if not catharsis. The meaning of it all suggests a transposition of the famous last lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to a new setting and new context. All our trains rush on, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
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Directors: Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack
By Marilyn Ferdinand
At the time of Maya Angelou’s death in 2014 at the age of 86, she was a world icon. The holder of more than 50 honorary doctorates, she was known to millions as a close, personal friend and mentor to Oprah Winfrey. Another famous friend, Bill Clinton, asked her to write and deliver a poem at his first inauguration. Long a poet, her debut prose work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), launched her into the stratosphere of fame, winning millions of readers and admirers internationally who identified with and gained strength from her candid memoir of growing up black and female in Stamps, Arkansas. The book frightened a lot of people, too. Over the years, the book has been banned from various junior high and high school libraries and classrooms in the United States for sexual explicitness and violence; in 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee banned it for preaching “bitterness and hatred against whites.”
Angelou was a certified renaissance woman whose one long lifetime ranged farther and higher than most people of any race or class, let alone an African-American woman from a broken home who was dropped into Jim Crow Arkansas following several years in more permissive California and then experienced the racial tumult of every decade to the present. As the directors of And Still I Rise put it, “An eloquent poet, writer and performer, Maya Angelou’s life intersected with the civil rights struggle, the Harlem Writers Guild, the New Africa movement, the women’s movement and the cultural and political realignments of the 1970s and ’80s.”
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is a two-hour documentary made for PBS’s American Masters series that works hard to encapsulate the many facets of Angelou’s life. My own awareness of Angelou comes mainly through her appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, so I found this documentary revelatory. Who knew she was a dancer! Who knew she sang, if not beautifully, then with a kind of actorly expression that would find further voice in her role as Kunte Kinte’s African grandmother in the ground-breaking miniseries Roots (1977) and a dozen more parts through the 1990s and 2000s! I didn’t know she had a son, that she was married twice to white men, that she included B.B. King and South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make among her lovers, that she directed the quite wonderful feature film Down in the Delta (1998). Angelou was voracious in her pursuit of experiences and challenges, and, to my shame, I didn’t even know the half of what she accomplished.
In some ways, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise doesn’t either. Tackling such a consequential and eventful life forced directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack to make choices about what to include. Generally, they make good use of archival footage to illustrate parts of Angelou’s story. They include clips of her dancing and singing from Columbia Pictures’ Calypso Heat Wave (1957), made to capitalize on the popularity of calypso and Afro-Cuban music during the late 1950s. We also watch her deliver her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” during President Clinton’s inauguration—or rather, we watch it in bits and pieces as the directors repeatedly insert Bill Clinton’s talking-head reminiscences about both the day and his friendship with Angelou. Other luminaries who are interviewed include Diahann Carroll, Alfre Woodard, Hillary Clinton, Cicely Tyson, Common, Louis Gossett Jr. and, of course, Oprah. These interviews show how much of an inspiration Angelou was, but only Cicely Tyson seemed comfortable speaking about Angelou as a regular person with flaws and quirks.
The most emotionally satisfying commentator on Angelou is her son, Guy Johnson, who talks of seeing his mother very little, but forgiving her absences as her attempt to keep a roof over his head. He is moved to tears about her sacrifices and her guilt about her absences and the fact that he was crippled in a car accident while on a trip with her. He also regrets that she never found a satisfying romantic relationship. The film also includes fairly robust information about her involvement in the civil rights movement, which put her in the orbit of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the latter a close friend. I enjoyed seeing her in still photos and footage with James Baldwin, who encouraged her to devote herself to writing and telling the truth, and who is a man always worth listening to.
Hercules and Coburn Whack spend time on her writing process as personal therapy and liberation, and allude to the power of words for her by having her recount her five years of voluntary muteness as a child, a result of thinking she had killed someone with her voice. Disappointing was the fact that for a woman who left a large body of written work, including eight autobiographies, we hear so little of her prose and poetry. Indeed, we learn more about Jean Genet’s play The Blacks, in which Angelou performed, than we do about her own plays and screenplays, despite the fact that the filmmakers thought to include her poem and play title And Still I Rise in their own title.
The filmmakers worked with Angelou on this documentary until her death. While Angelou is frank about her life, the film tends to gloss quickly over her childhood rape and her time as a sex worker, offering instead her account of her calculated and personally disappointing first adult sexual encounter. If you’re going to bring the subject up, then you should follow it up with her attitude toward sex and relationships over time. Instead, it goes nowhere and seems more like the teasing opening sex scene so many movies punt to today. In addition, don’t expect to learn anything that questions her almost sainted status today—the people in this film and those behind the scenes love her and it shows.
I applaud the effort to bring the life of this seminal figure in African-American history and culture to the screen and think this is must-viewing for anyone who knows little about Maya Angelou. At the same time, this film could have been much more. Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) took an equally complex and extraordinary subject, Nina Simone, and told a riveting warts-and-all story that is one of the best documentaries of its type ever made. I hope that another documentarian brings that kind of razor-sharp observation to another telling of the life of Maya Angelou.
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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Georges Méliès
By Roderick Heath
On the 27th of December, 1895, Georges Méliès attended a special event arranged by the inventor brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. The brothers had recently perfected the machine they called the cinematograph—a creation that combined functions of moving picture camera, processor, and projector—and had been showing off the results around Paris throughout the later weeks of the year. On this night, they invited various showmen and theatrical impresarios to see the results of their labours. The invitees were to be one of the very first movie audiences, and at least one of them would soon become a pioneer of a new art. The Lumières had conflicting aims in the exhibition. They were exposing their creation and hoping to stir interest and publicity, which would help protect it from their many rivals, including Thomas Edison. But they also had avowed high-minded, scientific purpose for their invention on the cusp of dispatching a corps of photographers around the world to shoot documentary footage and exhibit the results. Méliès was an experienced stage illusionist who owned and managed the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, built by that famous magician. Méliès had become a success thanks to his meticulous attention to his theatre’s running and ingenuity in providing its attractions. Like all of the impresarios, he was transfixed by the new mode of communication the Lumières presented, and he jostled with the owner of the Folies Bergère in trying to buy their camera. But the brothers refused all offers.
Méliès got around this by travelling to London and purchasing another manufacturer’s projecting device, which he adapted into a noisy but working camera, at first directly copying the short films the Lumières had made and showing them in his theatre as a side attraction. Méliès discovered peculiarities in this new tool as he went along, as when his camera jammed whilst shooting a street scene. When filming was restarted, a moment of time had elapsed. When projected, Méliès saw the resulting jump and realised this basic quirk of the invention could be utilised to realise tricks similar to what he worked on stage. What was could suddenly become something else, only in the reality of film. Edison had already pulled a trick like this in one of his movies, but Méliès would make it the basis of a new expressive form. Méliès quickly found popularity with his new obsession far greater than what even his theatrical success could aspire to. He built a film studio in Montreuil, brought over his stock company of players, and began making movies with the verve and industry of someone who knew how to make and stage a show, as well as the quicksilver acumen required to adapt to a new medium. Most of his early works were only a few minutes long, but he tackled every subject he could, from ripped-from-the-headlines dramas like Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine (1898) and The Dreyfus Affair (1899), to titillating stag-circuit shorts like After the Ball (1897), and the proto-horror films Le Maison du Diable (1897) and Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899).
Méliès’ work provides the bridge between the show business of one age, the theatre of belle époque Paris and the Victorian era stage fantasia, and the oncoming time of cinema. Illusionism was Méliès’ stock in trade, but it wasn’t just his love of theatrical stunts and sleight-of-hand that would influence his drift towards spectacle and the realm of the fantastic. His was a genuine love for and affinity with such fare, particularly what was called the “féerie” on the French stage—pageants and spectacles based in mythic and supernatural tales, imbued with a light and evanescent quality of transformative wonder, safe for young audiences in their colour, but also dusted with delicate, good-natured eroticism. Méliès captured the essence of this style as he began to specialise in stories exploiting his gift for realising fantastic imagery. In 1899 he made the six-minute Cinderella, an extremely straightforward telling of Perrault’s story. This proved so popular it gained him international clout and international legal problems, as the popularity of his works with pirates became increasingly galling. Under the banner of his production company, christened Star Films, Méliès began work on his most ambitious film to date, spending 10,000 francs and taking four months to create a film over fifteen minutes long. This odyssey was Voyage dans la lune, or A Trip to the Moon, inspired by ideas from Jules Verne’s novella of that title and H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon, via, perhaps, Jacques Offenbach’s light-hearted operatic spin on Verne.
Méliès’ work dated quickly in its day, as the fast-moving tides of technology and taste almost resulted in its total loss, swept away just as CD-ROM and VHS have been in the very recent past. After Méliès fell into ruin and obscurity, his rediscovery came when cinema first started looking back over its shoulder at the past. A Trip to the Moon is so familiar as a totem of pop culture inception today that it can seem near to cliché. And yet it’s as tantalisingly strange, witty, and original now as it was a century ago, a broadcast from the very edges of technological memory and modern reference. Of all the things cinema has been and is now, a seed for so much lies within A Trip to the Moon. It’s an experimental work, feeling out the peculiar textures and tricks of this new expressive form recognising no limits, only a basic set of proposed rules and a governing urge. It’s a protosurrealist’s fantasia mapping out the universe as annex of the interior imagination. It’s a pure auteurist relic created by a man who tackled and manipulated every aspect of his burgeoning craft. It’s a work of spectacle driven by special effects and a desire to wow an audience with visual impact. It’s a spry and funny burlesque on the themes of genre fiction and the stuff of official mythology, as well as the new, exciting, more than slightly terrifying concepts of the age of mechanisation and expanding consciousness marking the end of the Victorian era and the onrush of the new century. Sixty-seven years later, humankind would actually pull off the adventure Méliès conjured.
A Trip to the Moon commences with a gathering of astronomers. The presiding Professor Barbenfouillis (Méliès himself) proposes firing a manned projectile to the moon with a giant gun, much to the excitement and consternation of his fellow scientists. A rival argues with him, plainly decrying his plan as preposterous, an exchange that devolves as Barbenfouillis tosses papers and paraphernalia at his adversary. Others agree to the proposed expedition and the mad-bearded professor shakes hands with them. Like much of the film, this scene seems very simple, with the unmoving camera, the stage-pageant sprawl and mime-show action. And yet it’s stuffed full of allusions, sign-play, and waggish jokes. Méliès depicts not contemporary scientists in the strict, professionalised garb of Victorian science but as medieval alchemists sporting cloaks decorated with celestial objects. Immediately apparent in this vignette is the way sexuality becomes a refrain, and above all show business itself; A Trip to the Moon is a paean to its own evocation of showmanship as a triumphant value. Cute stenographers write down the scientists’ every word, and a line of trim-waisted chorus girls enter to give the senior scientists the gifts of telescopes, which then transform into stools for them to sit on.
This fillip of visual humour has resonance, suggesting the way wonder is often transmuted into stolid function: these men are used to romanticising whilst sitting on their equipment, and their journey is glimpsed as something of a Quixotic tilt not merely at exploration but at regaining lost youthful pluck. Méliès surely hadn’t read any Freud and yet the phallic note in those telescopes is insistent, and recurs later when the chorus girls are needed to help fire off the gigantic cannon. The opening tableau pictures the scientific realm as a cabalistic enclave with roots in weird esoterica and antisocial elitism, but pointing the way forward with industry and inspiration. Perhaps there’s some hint here of the filmmaker’s cunning in regards to his audience’s understanding of forces rapidly changing their lives, an aspect that complicates the film’s usual characterisation as an epitome of an early twentieth century statement of bold forward-looking. Of course, Méliès is also aware that his very film itself is part of those transformative forces, and the very last shot conflates Méliès’ mastery of his new art and the act of heroic discovery. Barbenfouillis’ sketch on a chalkboard becomes great undertaking, as witnessed in the second and third tableaux, as they have their projectile built and great gun forged. The scientists immediately set about modernising themselves, changing out of antique gear into the clothes of Montgolfier-era gentlemen adventurers. Barbenfouillis and his cabal inspect their brainchild’s realisation in the second tableau, but the savants are out of place in this workaday environment, as one man trips over a tub to the great amusement of the workers.
If A Trip to the Moon repeatedly envisions scientific endeavour and venture into branch of show business, these scenes carry a hint of Méliès’ respect for the process required to produce anything wonderful, as the painted backdrop behind the projectile recognisably reproduces Méliès’ own studio. But the arts of Victorian metallurgy and industry become mere cardboard and paintwork. A Trip to the Moon revisited ideas Méliès had first explored in his whimsical 1899 work An Astronomer’s Dream, which had similarly envisioned an arcane concept of a skygazer dreaming of star-riding nymphs and a frightening moon with a man’s face that at one point eats the dreamer hero. A Trip to the Moon reordered these touches into a more elaborate edition, with the film’s famous central image quoting but also inverting the vision Méliès had offered three years earlier, as a product of human labour careens into the eye of the man in the moon. A simple inversion of a personal joke, certainly, but also an idea that reflects a changed attitude. Suddenly, humankind is no longer so at the mercy of the universe’s caprices. An Astronomer’s Dream betrays a certain level of anxiety filtered through comedy, a sense of the world just beyond our ken as both enticing and threatening. The promise of A Trip to the Moon has been the key promise of cinematic scifi ever since, that wisdom and applied intelligence might turn threat into triumph. The dreamer has become warrior with the way of things. And yet, of course, the aura of dreamlike plunge and the image of the cosmic feminine remain powerful in A Trip to the Moon.
Seven years had passed since the first time Méliès saw a motion picture. Cinema was coming together with Promethean fire, and still only a fraction of the distance of the path it would travel. To watch the earliest fragments of moviemaking, the work of Edison, the Lumieres, and the handful of other pioneers in the field, is to stare at the very liminal edge of any sense of the past in motion, and the fleeting illusion of human subjects caught in a moment of life, like some form of spiritualism. How much it would evolve again in the following decade and a half, in terms of the techniques of visual storytelling, shifting from Méliès’ mostly fixed camera to the aggressively mobile and expressive camera of the likes of D.W. Griffith and his generation. Méliès brought a school of illusion from the stage to the screen with the essential presumption that one could be used like the other. To him, the camera was conjuring device and an imaginary audience member in his beloved Théâtre Robert-Houdin beholding the wonders he and his creative team could parade before it. Lack of worry about where the camera was and what it was doing at least freed him to labour on his other effects, as the hand-painted settings and props sprawl across the screen, creating an alternate reality, mysterious, beautiful, protean.
Whilst the film presents only 17 apparent shots with a resolutely rectilinear perspective, it consists in fact of many more: Méliès’ camera passivity is another, carefully controlled illusion. One irony of passing time is that today with many filmmakers competing to outdo each other in masking their technique in elaborate tracking shots and the like, Méliès’ efforts in creating an illusion of sustained reality from a rigorously direct perspective feels less antiquated on at least this level. We can also see the jumps in Méliès’ sense of the camera by looking back to Cinderella with its cluttered but also simpler mise-en-scène and basic camera tricks just three years before—here the shots tend to stand back further, but are also more cleanly composed and energetically arranged. The vibrancy of the sets also betrays a more confident sense of what the frame could contain, what the eye could handle zapping down at it from the screen. The film’s third tableau, a shot of the astronomers overlooking the enormous undertaking of forging the cannon, is relatively brief but one of the most fascinatingly realised and visually dramatic moments, with Méliès using forced perspective, plumes of steam and smoke, and streams of liquid metal. This is a direct transposition of a vivid passage in Verne’s novel, revealing Méliès as adaptor as well as free improviser. The basic visual presumption here is still theatrical, but the shot betrays an interest in conveying process, the art of construction and the spectacle of industry in itself, that has moved beyond the tableaux style into something more definably cinematic, a seed for the epic style in filmmaking. Méliès’ shifts from shot to shot come with dissolves, embryonic film grammar giving the film the mobility the camera lacks.
The next three tableaux are the most familiar moments of A Trip to the Moon, indeed some of the most instantly recognisable in cinema history, endlessly excerpted and anthologised as they’ve been. The moon shot project reaches its moment of truth in the midst of public excitement and publicity coup. The scientists climb into their shell and a cohort of chorus girls load it into the great cannon, before a uniformed military officer (François Lallement, one of the Star Films cameramen) signals the gun to be fired. The shell flies through the ether, and the moon, envisioned like an illustration out of a children’s book with man’s face upon its dial beaming beatifically down upon the Earth, receives the interstellar slug right in the eye. These scenes again take Verne’s novel as blueprint, but subject it to a highly satiric attitude. The great business of conquering space is presented not as pure, stoic, Apollonian venture growing out of diverted military force but a carnival of enterprise that mocks martial swagger—the rifle-toting, trumpet-blowing, flag-waving marine entourage are girls who look like a rough draft for Mack Sennett’s bathing beauties (including Méliès’ lover and later wife Jeanne d’Alcy), sending a bunch of old farts to the moon with a gun blast that needs more than a little womanly priming. Méliès’ mischievous take on great nationalist adventures here betrays his background in drawing political cartoons, as well his impresario’s understanding that there is no event so great that can’t be sexed up a bit.
And, of course, the man in the moon receiving the shell in his eye still blazes with comical and technical genius, one of the greatest sight gags ever to grace celluloid. This sequence utilised Méliès’ technique, pioneered on The Man with the Rubber Head (1902), of approximating what would become the rack or zoom shot (except that the subject was moved closer to the camera rather than the more familiar practice, because the camera was too heavy), to provide a sense of motion. That motion is to give a sense of zeroing in on the moon, which starts off as a vague, mysterious object, charged with enigmatic meaning, then revealed as an animate being who splutters with pain and offence once he gets the iron slug lodged in his brow. Méliès knew well it was a killer image, utilising it as iconography in the film’s last shot and as core advertising motif. Here we seen encapsulated in image and action not just a great piece of humour and a technical innovation, but a pivot of ways of seeing the universe, an idea that legitimises A Trip to the Moon as science fiction and not just playful fantasy. Méliès signals his conversance with a panoply of mythical figures as common motifs in theatrical fancies throughout, and knows his audience is too; the projectile is the hard smack of new scientific possibility right in the eye of a poetic worldview. The idea of landing on the moon is an act of blasphemy according to one unit of values and a simple jaunt to a strange place in another. One irony here is that the filmmaking Méliès was now espousing would soon mostly sweep away the theatrical world he was rooted in, and invent new pantheons of myth to fill in for what he counts as cultural lingua franca. Of course, the tendency of humankind to write its own image on the universe has never really left us. It’s core to understanding some of the most ambitious science fiction films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) depiction of interstellar destiny to Solaris’s (1971) sarcasm towards the notion in encountering the truly alien that can only mimic the onlooker, eternally retarding and frustrating understanding with the collaboration of our most parochial reflexes.
Méliès offers this vignette as a kind of abstract, symbolic commentary on the idea of landing on the moon, only to follow it up with a different, more literal version of the same thing. The shell actually skids to a halt on the moon surface, depicted realistically as a craggy, brutal landscape, if also, not so realistically, as a place with a breathable atmosphere. The scientists climb out of the shell only for it to slide into an abyss, and, amazed by the sight of the Earth rising on the horizon, they settle down to try and sleep. Méliès revisits the core joke of The Astronomer’s Dream here as the snoozing savants either conjure up the spirits of the ether in their dreams or miss seeing them because they’re asleep, and again Méliès evokes the mystical way of looking at the universe with erotic overtones. The Pleiades look down in bewildered amusement, depicted as a flock of disembodied girls’ heads framed by stylised model stars, the snoozing old men still cheated of their true promised land. The moon goddess Phoebe (played by regular Méliès player and stage star Bleuette Bernon) and irate old Saturn argue over what to do about these interlopers, a fight Phoebe wins: she causes a gentle snowstorm that wakens them and drives them follow their shell into the abyss. The concept of the beneficent cosmic force overlooking sailors on the celestial ocean is, in spite of science fiction’s nominal agnosticism, a constant refrain in a lot of the genre’s screen existence, but Méliès’ sense of humour about the notion is rarer, the contrast of beatific Phoebe and ranting Saturn, who leans out of a portal in the side of the planet bearing his name, pictures the gods as comedy neighbours.
Descending into the valleys of the moon, the explorers find an exotic and fertile world where strange transformations can occur—Barbenfouillis finds his umbrella takes root and grows into a colossal mushroom. Here Méliès turned to Wells for inspiration, borrowing his moon inhabitants called Selenites to provide plot complication lacking from Verne, whose space projectile had simply rounded the moon and glimpsed the possibility of strange things existing on the dark side. One of the Selenites, weird, crustacean-like hominids fond of leaping bout like acrobats, erupts from the underbrush and intimidates the scientists sufficiently to make Barbenfouillis strike out with another umbrella, causing the alien to explode in a puff of smoke. He does the same thing to a second Selenite, only for a small army of the aliens to give chase and capture the hapless Earthlings. The captives are bound and paraded before the king of the Selenites, who sits on a throne in an alien city, surrounded by his harem of moon maids. Infuriated, Barbenfouillis wrenches at his bonds and snaps them, grabs the king and hurls him to the ground, exploding him, before the humans run for their lives. Méliès provides a sense of propulsion and quickening rhythm here, spurning the languid, dreamy mood of the scientists’ arrival on the mood as the action becomes urgent. Here we have a resolutely linear, comic book-like sense of action as the heroes flee across the frame into different shots, chased by furious Selenites, but not yet offering simple cuts between the scenes, still delineating the change of scene with the dissolve. The result offers a kind of embryonic montage.
Some have theorised Méliès intended A Trip to the Moon as a purposeful lampoon of imperialist practices and values, apparent in the bumbling but real aggression of the scientists crashing in upon a foreign culture and wreaking havoc. Méliès was probably aware of Cyrano de Bergerac’s own supposed adventures to the moon, part of his subversive method of mirroring absurdity on Earth. Méliès himself had spent time working as a leftist political cartoonist, taking aim official pieties and pomposities, and he had stirred fights in cinemas by explicitly taking a pro-Dreyfus stance with his film about the case. Later, with one of his last epics, Conquest of the Pole (1910), Méliès would be less abashed in poking fun at suffragettes and their opponents. A Trip to the Moon is filled with images smirking at the hoopla of nationalist intrepidity and the idea of timid humans faced with frighteningly wilful organisms. Whilst such readings might easily be taken to unlikely lengths, it is plain Méliès has a lot of fun transposing the template of imperialist-era adventure stories onto the moon, following the same basic pattern as any Tarzan story, but keeping tongue deep in cheek: the explorers tramp into the unknown, are captured by hostile natives and paraded before their overlord who embodies an archaic ideal of lordly domain, before the heroes make their escape. It’s certainly a long way from Wells’ portrait of the Selenites as a sentient race governed by resolutely different social and biological constructs. Blood-and-thunder plotting is, however, viewed through Méliès’ sensibility, the playful, naïve state of early cinema, and the traditions of the féerie, finding comic diminuendo in the fact that the Selenites explode rather than die realistically, and the easy manner in which Barbenfouillis breaks the ropes that bind him. Méliès’ moon bleeds but his Selenites disappear in puffs of theatrical smoke. The universe is alive but life is no more than a moment’s dream.
Méliès nonetheless dashes with breathless art towards his climax as the scientists locate their craft and climb in, whilst Barbenfouilles labours to pull the shell off a cliff, finally succeeding just as a lone Selenite grabs hold of the shell and is dragged over the edge along with it, plunging back towards Earth. This moment suggests Jack and the Beanstalk as another fairy tale influence on Méliès, another story of a naïve man ascending to a strange land, whilst Méliès abandons any pretence to scientific realism in favour of straight fantasy logic. Méliès has the shell splash-land in the ocean, the only use of any real, outdoor location in the film with the shell and splash superimposed over real waves. The shell sinks into the ocean depths, actually a fish tank, and then is pulled back to shore by a ship—a sliding cardboard cut-out pulling a similar mock-up of the shell, from which a handheld puppet waves a flag of triumph. These effects are obviously incredibly primitive on one level, and yet ebullient in their zest and stirring in Méliès’ willingness to use any and every trick to tell his story in as visually inventive and dynamic a manner possible. Here is the essence of a delight in artifice as its own aesthetic value that many a much later filmmaker, from Terry Gilliam to Tim Burton and Michel Gondry, has embraced. Questions of realism or artifice were probably entirely incidental to Méliès considering the nature of early filmmaking, and yet one can’t help but feel he was the kind to choose artifice every time.
The scientists make their triumphant return to their homeland with their Selenite captive, who is paraded before crowds and forced to dance, whilst Barbenfouilles is immortalised in statue as the conqueror of the moon, with the slogan “Labor omnia vincit” on the pedestal. Méliès retains hints of his acerbic side here, with an undertone of violence in the scientists’ success—the statue of Barbenfouillis depicts him with boot planted on the moon with the shell lodged in its eye, whilst the Selenite has been reduced to dancing bear. But the overall tone is one of pure elation, an envisioned moment of triumph that codifies all the confidence and joie de vivre not just of Méliès and his filmmaking team but of the young twentieth century itself, just starting to look up not just in fantasy but true ambition. Méliès evokes the masque dance used to end some theatrical performances in celebratory mood, and underlines his work here above all as an expression of carnivalesque joie de vivre, a work that stands above all as a tribute to the very idea of dreaming big. It was an apex of ambition and accomplishment for Star Films. Méliès had drawn on the theatre world he loved to help augment his vision, utilising friends who were singers in Paris’s music halls as his crew of scientists, beauties from the Théâtre du Châtelet as the cannon girls and star maids, and acrobats and dancers from the Folies Bergère as Selenites.
A Trip to the Moon’s influence is incalculable—every special-effects spectacle, every alien that stalks the screen in every scifi film owes it a debt of gratitude. The influence hardly stops at genre borders either. Edwin S. Porter’s seedling western The Great Train Robbery (1903) would take licence from the film’s shunting film grammar, controlled theatrical viewpoint, and dashing action style, echoing on through a vast array of horse operas and action films. D.W. Griffith would state he owed Méliès everything. The director’s own masterpiece is perhaps a purer fantasy, made four years later, The Kingdom of the Fairies, still just as stagy in some ways but now overwhelming the cinematic frame with shifting planes of vision and effect, and conveying the essence of the féerie Méliès loved so much for cinema’s posterity. But it was A Trip to the Moon that made Méliès the most famous of early filmmakers and which will probably always define his contribution. The only problem with Méliès’ success was that it was so inescapable. He had changed the way a very young art form conversed with its audience and expanded its scope to become a zone of pure creative vision, diverting the form away from the Lumieres’ vision of a tool of veracity. He had set in motion processes that would make him the first real movie king and the first to be dethroned by shifting tastes, evolving styles, and the brusque way of business that would soon dominate what turned quickly from enthusiast’s pursuit to heavy industry. Méliès had employed all that his studio and the theatrical world of Paris could offer, but all that was doomed to be swept away or radically transformed by an age of movable entertainment feasts. The century for which he had provided a fanfare would indeed eventually see men land on the moon after times of grotesque tragedy and grand calamity. The flame of grace that still gutters within A Trip to the Moon, in its charming and naïve proposition of the future by way of the past, is that it remembers that moment when anything seemed possible for us. Labor omnia vincit.
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Director: Jack Arnold
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The line between science fiction and horror is often breached because humanity’s fear of the unknown has proven fertile soil for the fevered imaginations of scifi writers and filmmakers. The 1950s, of course, produced a slew of Atomic Age nightmares, as the science fact of massively destructive weapons merged with the paranoias of the time. Some forget that this period in human and movie history also was awash in psychoanalysis—the science of the mind—with Freudian theories all the rage in films of all types.
The 1957 scifi/horror classic The Incredible Shrinking Man is firmly rooted in these socioscientific concerns. The plot is propelled by environmental horrors. A radioactive cloud floats toward the boat where the title character, Scott Carey (Grant Williams), and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) are relaxing and coats him with a stardust sheen. Scott doesn’t start shrinking, however, until he is exposed to insecticide after they return home. While there is plenty of frightening action ahead, it is in the aftermath of these initial events that the film takes on more psychological and philosophical shading, and makes a pointed critique of a society slipping a straitjacket of conformity and wholesomeness over its citizens following the chaos and lingering malaise of World War II.
Scott asserts his privilege as a white man in a white-male-dominated society in the very first scene by ordering his wife to go below deck to get him a beer: “To the galley, wench. Fetch me a flagon of beer,” he jests. Unwittingly, he did the manly thing by saving her from getting dusted, but because his rescue was unintentional and unconscious, we know we are in Freud’s realm of the uncanny. Freud said, “The uncanny is anything we experience in adulthood that reminds us of earlier psychic stages, of aspects of our unconscious life, or of the primitive experience of the human species.”
In Scott’s case, his body becomes one of a child, reduced to dependence and an infantile relationship with his wife. When he shrinks to the size of a doll, he takes up residence in a dollhouse, a feminizing situation, with his wife’s face looming over him like the overbearing mother’s in Woody Allen’s segment of New York Stories (1989). When he becomes even smaller, he must rely on primitive instincts and strategies to survive in a once-familiar but now alien and threatening environment.
Based on Richard Matheson’s book The Shrinking Man, The Incredible Shrinking Man offers the usual thrills of a Jack Arnold film and a sexual tension that can be found in many of his works—most notably, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)—and present in this one by the changing dynamic between Scott and Louise and Scott’s abortive attempt to return to a normal heterosexual relationship with Clarice (April Kent), a midget he befriends and from whom he flees when he discovers he is still shrinking. Voiceover narration by Scott somewhat preserves Matheson’s fractured timeline, though the film proceeds chronologically.
Arnold’s brilliant use of oversize furniture and props, as well as optical printing to put Scott in the same frame as the enormous beings who surround and threaten him, create a convincing world through which we can empathize with Scott’s struggle. I was particularly taken with the gentle cat for which the Careys show obvious affection, and its transformation into a dangerous beast chasing its own master seems the perfect metaphor for the destructive force of nature human beings unleashed upon themselves. With global warming filling our skies with the moisture of melting glaciers that cause mammoth hurricanes and biblical floods, the timeliness of The Incredible Shrinking Man cannot be overstated.
Arnold preserves some hope for humanity’s survival as we watch Scott improvise a house from a matchbox, a grappling hook from a pin, and a flaming arrow from a match. Arnold takes his time filming Scott in the cellar of his house trying to scrounge for food. Scott’s attempt to grab a piece of cheese from a mouse trap, as well as to reach some bread crumbs on a high ledge now guarded by a spider in its web are both painstakingly tedious and fraught with tension. His duel with the spider taps into the arachnophobia many people feel, providing audiences with a genuine fright.
It is in these final scenes that Scott’s attempts to reclaim his life and his privacy from the legions of curious people and probing reporters when he was, if small, still human-sized, completely fall away and move him—and us—into a contemplation of existence. It’s not entirely clear, but it appears that Scott will keep shrinking to the size of an atom, the perhaps logical end for exposure to atomic radiation, or disappear altogether to join the cosmic dust from which the universe sprang. Arnold ends his film with a vision of our galaxy, the alpha and omega of humanity. Don’t we all feel small in the face of that!
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Director: Byron Haskin
By Roderick Heath
It seems now as if H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds marked a vital moment not just in the evolution of science fiction as a literary mode, but maybe even of the modern consciousness. Wells contemplated the possibility that life not only might subsist beyond the confines of the Earth, but also might be intelligent and aggressive enough to attempt an invasion, displacing and annihilating humankind, in his tale of the inhabitants of Mars annexing the Earth with great technological advantage only to fall victim not to human ingenuity but to common microscopic infection. Wells was hardly the first writer to contemplate the possibility of alien life, but he ventured deep into speculative realms with both clear and ruthless logic and proper dramatic art, bundling together a panoply of concepts from his scientific learning and intellectual precepts to contemplate with such fervour and detail that it resembled reportage what such an event might feel like and how it might play out. Here was the new creed of scientific understanding reporting dragons on the fringes of its mental maps in the new vision of the Earth not as deistically guaranteed realm, but as mere bauble in the infinity of space, its human populace pretentious zoology. The most frightening reflexes apparent in Wells’ thinking come not from any great leaps of imagination, but from consideration of events still playing out at the time Wells was writing in the processes of colonialism. Wells’ narrator says of the Martians that descend upon Victorian Britain:
“And before we judge them too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
You couldn’t ask for a cooler diagnosis of human inhumanity nor more sinister counsel that one day what went around might well come around. Wells also worked a variation on a popular pulp fiction theme of the day, the possibility of an invasion of England by a foreign power, necessitating valiant and gruelling battle in the green fields. This storytelling mode, although the basics have changed greatly over the years, remains the basis of a tremendous amount of popular culture: if the quiet and order of everyday life are disrupted by a destructive force from without, how will we rise to the challenge? But Wells gave it a nasty twist, confronting his then-contemporary readership with the unsettling prospect of an enemy far more powerful and equally careless about things regarded as inferior. In addition to gifting his contemporaries a few chills, too, Wells’ nightmarish tale, realised with force by illustrator Warwick Goble in the original serialised version that appeared in Pearson’s Magazine, bequeathed to subsequent generations a dark and inquisitive strand of science fiction.
The potency of Wells’ vision has been recapitulated many times ever since. Even if the myth of the event far outstripped reality, Orson Welles certainly managed to burn his name into the mind of an audience for the first time with his legendary 1938 radio adaptation, pinning down the pensive mood of the prewar period with his docudrama conceit that, amongst other things, squarely updated the story with Martian craft landing in New Jersey. Film versions followed Welles’ lead in this. The first cinematic realisation, produced by George Pal and directed by former special effects wizard turned ragged auteur Byron Haskin, encapsulated the mood of the early atomic age. If Pal’s later adaptation of The Time Machine helped establish the iconography of Steampunk by retaining a delight in an antique vision of technology, The War of the Worlds resists such cutesiness; it remains eternally present-tense, an ideogram representing futurism’s threat. Steven Spielberg’s tilt, fifty years later, became a panoramic meditation on the post-9/11 mood. To a certain extent Spielberg’s take stays truer to the source material, rendered as a bleak and savage travelogue where calamity is glimpsed in dazzling snatches and the nature of the invaders remains tantalisingly vague, creating a maelstrom of destruction from which its human protagonists emerge simply happy to know they’re alive.
But Pal and Haskin’s version remains unavoidable: no science fiction film of its era is more emblematic. The dense and fleshy colours, ingenious sound design, the vistas of awesome violence and terrible beauty. Which is perhaps why The War of the Worlds still seems like the fount of so much modern scifi on screen, perhaps the most vital between Metropolis (1926) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Most every alien invasion film owes it something of course, up to and including not just Spielberg’s proper variation but also pop remixes like Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). But the inflection is just as notable in the bold use of colour to create a visual lexicon redolent of the fantastical and otherworldly in subsequent works like Forbidden Planet (1956) and TV’s Star Trek. The haunted, deserted vistas of Forrester’s odyssey through a deserted Los Angeles look forward to a strand of post-apocalyptic cinema, from The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1958) through to The Omega Man (1972) and even the Mad Max films. The film was to become an obsessive touchstone for several of the Movie Brat generation including Spielberg, Joe Dante, James Cameron, John Carpenter, Paul Verhoeven, and George Lucas, who surely absorbed the lesson that the film’s use of sound to create credulity in the fantastic was as vital as its visuals. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would name its mad scientist villain after Gene Barry’s hero. Hell, it’s even possible the oncoming styles of car design that fix the 1950s so accurately in the collective memory got some inspiration from the film’s alien death machines.
The War of the Worlds twists the 1950s’ assertive and chrome-plated flash in upon itself in a pointed parable of jut-jawed heroism suddenly turned impotent, the worst fear of recently victorious and newly-hegemonic America encapsulated when even the omnipotent promise of the atomic bomb is rendered ineffective. The psychic frontiers of the Cold War, that paranoid and strange idealisation of the Communist threat as something lurking beyond frozen reaches looking out with cold intent at the rest of the world, found perfect enshrinement, but so too did the entire mood of the post-WWII world, a world of nerve-tingling oddness, of slippery, arrogant technology and weird new electronic sounds, insinuating their ways into everyone’s lives. The age of “super-science” as Paul Frees’ opening narration calls it was stirring much soul-searching and reflexive anxiety, finding expression in diverse terms, from the demagogic postures of Joe McCarthy to a new fashion for themes of historical empire-wrangling and religious struggle in cinema that played at the same time as a boom in science fiction’s popularity, usually buried in historical epics kicked off the success of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). The morality of that new age was still being defined, if indeed it could ever be defined after all in the wake of WWII’s horrors. Little plays of responsibility would be played out in popular filmmaking for most of the decade.
Close to the start of The War of the Worlds the innocent folk of rural California are seen queuing up to see Samson and Delilah. This seems partly an in-joke, as DeMille had planned a film of the Wells novel in the ’30s, but also a statement of intent, for Pal seemed to harbour ambitions to become DeMille’s successor and knew well his scifi brand had annexed zones of the epic and the mythical DeMille was used to occupying. And The War of the Worlds plays out in the same palette of infernal reds and cleansing blues as DeMille’s later colour films, confirming its similar conceptualism of a Manichaean battle where the Enemy comes on with satanic, overwhelming force only to be finally stalled by “the littlest creatures in God’s creation.” Screenwriter Barré Lyndon had, several years before, helped give shape to the docudrama as a style that influenced a huge number of subsequent films with his script for The House on 92nd Street (1945), and he probably suggested the way this film announces itself, in the blaring terms of a wartime newsreel. Frees’ dramatic intonations recount recent history as a series of brutal wars fought with weapons becoming exponentially stronger, orientating the 1953 audience in terms of immediate cultural reference akin to a modern day film taking a mockumentary approach, and bringing them to the threshold of “the War of the Worlds.”
As with Pal’s other productions and much of Haskin’s directorial oeuvre, however, stentorian import and martial clamour are balanced with an insistent edge of the poetic and interludes of quiet intensity working in diastolic alternation. This is immediately apparent in the evocative sequence after the opening credits, surveying the other planets of the solar system from the viewpoint of the mysterious, even unknowable and yet so strangely similar aliens. Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s narration starts off with a slightly tweaked version of Wells’ own writing (“No one would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely…”) whilst also shaded with a planetarium announcer’s recounting of facts about the planets of the Sun such as James Dean would zone out from whilst considering the problems of life here on Earth a couple of years later: he knew the real aliens were parents and new kids in town. Here there remains something of the curiosity and excitement over the possibilities of the universe found in Pal’s game-changing first scifi film Destination Moon (1950), even in the face of things that might destroy us. The film also implicitly, like Wells, notes the commonalities between the Martians, however “vast, cool and unsympathetic” their intellects, and humankind as they behold the choices of the solar system, from roasted Mercury to frozen Pluto, and the planets in between, a range of limited choices for existential action illustrated with delirious colour and wonder. The Martian home world is glimpsed as a hive of super-modern structures amidst flurrying snow and ice, a bastion trying to hold out against climate change and dying resources. The perfection of the green Earth, “eloquent of fertility,” is the inescapable fact for both human and Martian, and so the war of conquest and resistance is fated to start.
In best Revelation style, a falling star brings Armageddon to Earth, a meteorite scorching its way through the evening sky and crashing in hills near the small California town of Linda Rosa. Volunteers rush to put out the brush fires the fallen colossus starts, whilst a local deputy (Frank Kreig) ventures up into the hills in search of three wise men: scientists from the (fictional) Pacific Institute of Technology up for an r’n’r session of fishing. One of the trio, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), descends to investigate the great space rock, which sits, glowering with heat, stirring dreams of avarice and enlargement in the locals, including one who bashes a shovel against the meteorite, hoping for gold, and others whose ambitions run more reasonably to fast food stands for Sunday driver traffic. Forrester encounters the pillars of the community including local pastor Dr Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin) and his librarian niece Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson). But the scientist’s Geiger counter begins to tick as it detects radiation emanating from the meteorite, the devil’s skin of the nuclear age. The early scenes of The War of the Worlds yearn to evoke a version of small-town Americana that’s a touch corny but effective in sketching the petty small-time schemers and white-bread religious leaders and the apple-cheeked librarian who worships the celebrity scientist even if she doesn’t recognise him with glasses on. Forrester gets inexplicably roped into the town’s evening square dance whilst three locals (Bill Phipps, Jack Kruschen, and Paul Birch) watch over the meteorite. Just before packing up and going home, the trio see something begin to move on the hummock, a circular hatchway slowly unscrewing and falling free. A metallic bulb on a flexing stalk emerges, pulsing with power and emitting a creepy ticking sound. The men advance waving a white flag. The response is a blast from a lethal heat ray that leaves behind only man-shaped piles of ash.
This moment comes straight from the novel, but the touch of the men’s shadows burnt into the ground betrays more immediate news from Hiroshima, nuclear age terror barely concealed by the alien metaphor. The Martian craft remain some of the most singularly memorable creations ever for a scifi film. Here Pal, Haskin, and their production team worked instead to conjure a menace that is graceful, even beautiful, sublimely menacing, all shining, slippery, aerodynamic surfaces, and the baleful, blinking glow of the heat ray that annihilates. The Martian ships are both perfectly technological but also somehow animate with their rattlesnake-like drone, snaking periscope necks, and sweeping, manta ray-like hulls, emitting unnerving pulsing sounds that hint the awful power they soon loose indiscriminately upon the world. Wells’ concept of monstrous tripods is given an update in how they don’t actually fly but instead move along propped up by three invisible beams. The announcement of the Martians’ malevolent intent brings the army rushing to Linda Rosa, under the command of arch-professional soldiers General Mann (Les Tremayne, impressively serious) and Colonel Heffner (Vernon Rich), whilst the eyes of the world on the Californian backwater, including a radio reporter who finds his truck amusingly fried by the heat ray. Forrester remains to advise Mann and scope out the mysterious entities still hidden in the meteorite crater, whilst Sylvia works as a Red Cross volunteer. Her uncle, after encouraging her to stick close to Forrester, resolves to attempt to communicate with the Martians as they finally emerge from the crater with the belief that as an advanced species they must be “nearer to the creator.” Haskin pulls off this sequence with a wicked sense of intensifying rhythm and peril as Collins makes his march out to meet the Martian machines, watched by a frantic Sylvia and the soldiers. The icy punch-line comes as the Martians confirm their lack of familiarity with scripture and scorch the priest off the face of the earth.
This scene again mimics but also transforms the meaning of a singular episode in the novel, when Wells’ unnamed narrator was trapped with a nervous curate who finally slips into a hysterical fugue and marches out preaching the word into a Martian den, forcing the narrator to kill him. For agnostic Wells religious verve could be dangerous and distracting, for Haskin the transcendental urge is one of openness and communication dashed with appalling enthusiasm by the Other. The pastor’s extermination wrings a furious reaction from the human soldiers, who rain thunder and death down upon the Martians, only to find themselves entirely impotent against the invisible shield the alien machines conjure for protection. Instead the army units are quickly and ruthlessly destroyed by the heat ray and a secondary weapon that simply causes objects to disintegrate on a subatomic level. Forrester convinces the soldiers to give up their defence just before Heffner is killed. Forrester flees in an army plane with Sylvia, only to crash-land in the countryside when flying too low to avoid bombers. The duo trek to an abandoned farmhouse and take time out to recuperate, only for another Martian cylinder to land and careen into the house. Trapped, Forrester and Sylvia find themselves the apparent objects of interest to the aliens, with Forrester just as eager to get a look at them. A camera-like probe surveys the house in search of the couple, and finally one of the aliens, a stalk-limbed, one-eyed thing, comes in and scares the hell out of Sylvia before fleeing with a wild shriek after Forrester throws a lump of wood at it. The two humans just manage to slip out of the house before the aliens annihilate it, and make it back to Los Angeles. Meanwhile the Martian invasion quickly spirals into a rout where the best efforts of all nations fail and populaces flee into the wilds, trying to avoid the aliens that seem determined on their total extermination.
Of course, The War of the Worlds has retrograde aspects. It might even define some of them to contemporary eyes, in the confident insularity in the portrait of ’50s Americana, the nervous heroine who screams a lot and serves coffee to handsome scientists and stern warriors who roll up all too ready to do battle with the invaders before they know what they are or what they want (“Shooting’s no good!” “It’s always been a good persuader.”) The careful elision of Cold War politics only serves to draw attention to them: many nationalities are mentioned but the Soviet bloc is completely ignored, deepening the suggestion that the Martians are stand-ins for godless, warmongering Commies. With his It Came From Outer Space released the same year, Jack Arnold mimicked the starting point of The War of the Worlds but immediately set about dissembling its clear-cut us-versus-them assumptions in a way that pointed forward the deepening currents of the genre: the aliens become us and the outsider hero is the only bridge. Barry’s Forrester belongs to a school of manly savants that populated ’50s scifi (e.g. Richard Carlson in Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954, and Rex Reason in This Island Earth, 1955) and has never been seen since, emphasising muscular virtue behind the scientific creed befitting the atom age. Tellingly, Forrester and Mann are supposed to have been previously acquainted working at the nuclear facility Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project. But Forrester gets to retain his inquisitiveness and his delight in the unknown and wonder at the Martians’ abilities and nature. Costar Bob Cornthwaite had played a similarly curious scientist in The Thing From Another World (1951) who was eventually, explicitly designated a dangerous factor. Forrester represents an ideal of the scientist as humane and conscientious, proactive figure rather than chilly intellectual tool. Barry’s performance is probably at its best when Forrester can’t suppress his boyish excitement as the Martians emerge from the first cylinder even knowing how dangerous they are.
Haskin also stays true and even exacerbates other aspects of Wells’ vision. Far from offering any real security in the idea of military might, the U.S. forces are even less effective against these Martians than Wells’ imperial soldiers. Forrester’s cool genius is finally left every bit as flailing and helpless as Sylvia’s emotive sensitivity. Even the atom bomb is rendered quaint by the Martian shields, and there is no equivalent to one of the book’s most memorable vignettes, when a British pre-dreadnought successfully takes on a Martian war machine. Interestingly, although grimmer in tone, Spielberg’s remake was ultimately more conventional in this regard, offering a moment when his central protagonist defeats a Martian machine and a finale in which the military regroups usefully. Collins’ death announces a willingness to challenge any parochial notions of moral gravitas in a world that’s suddenly too large and too wild for small-town enforcers of order to handle; in the same year Brando’s Wild One came riding in on his chrome horse to snatch away the daughters of the small Californian town, here the Martians bring an even louder announcement of the age of anxiety. Frees is glimpsed on screen as a reporter wandering through the tumult before the attempted atomic bombing of the Martians, tape recording his account in a clever updating of the epistolary style popular in Victorian genre writing and which Wells mimicked. “These recordings I’m making are for future history,” Frees notes: “If any.” Pal would later utilise Frees again as the voice of the talking rings in The Time Machine who, like the chorus figure he inhabits here, recounts calamity for unknown future ears.
Haskin had been making films since the silent era, and yet he became, along with Jack Arnold and Ishiro Honda, one of the first directors to become properly identified with science fiction on screen. If producer Pal essentially viewed the genre as a new annex of traditional fantasy and mythic storytelling, Haskin, who became his frequent collaborator, was keen to its textures, able to conjure a sense of the oneiric and limitless sprawl of the unknown. This quality he would reiterate in subsequent works, like the genre-grazing The Naked Jungle (1954), which inverts the sense of scale in alien invasion but remains just as insidious, the fear and trembling in the face of the infinite in the underrated Conquest of Space (1955), the noir-soaked flourishes of his legendary The Outer Limits episode “Demon With a Glass Hand,” and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which envisions Defoe’s hero as a man intruding upon the Martian landscape. Haskin’s signature fascination was with the pastoral theme of seemingly diverse characters meeting and communicating in the wilderness, an idea first posited in his first real hit as a director, Treasure Island (1951), and which he’d explore most deeply in Robinson Crusoe on Mars, is certainly apparent here as Forrester and Sylvia find themselves bound together, leading into a quiet interlude in which Sylvia recounts a myth out of her own youth, a time when she hid away in a church and begged for the person who loved her most to find her, which proved to be her uncle.
This lovely little interlude cuts to the quick of something Haskin repeatedly touches on, the frailty and strength of individual spirit and a search for cosmic requite in the face of overwhelming and inimical forces. This note recurs through all his other work in the genre and some beyond it. In this regard Robinson’s performance, which always aggravated me as a kid – then and now I generally like my heroines of sterner stuff – now seems to me the spirit of The War of the Worlds, which envisions everyone essentially as an orphan looking for their place in the world. Sylvia’s raw humanity is everyone’s, as the film advances to describe a descent into helplessness and chaos in which only a certain effervescent need for succour and the touch of other humans. Forrester’s close encounter with the Martians gives him and his wonderful little cabal of fellow Pacific Tech scientists (whose number includes stalwart character actors Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, and Ann Codee) clues as to their physical makeup and suggests the possibility of vulnerability to a biological weapon, an idea that seems humanity’s only recourse once the atomic bomb fails. But the scientists can’t get any project brewing before the Martians assault L.A., so they flee amongst a general evacuation that spirals into chaos, Sylvia driving a school bus loaded with scientists and Forrester following with a truck full of lab equipment.
But Forrester is dragged from the truck by a mob of men desperate for transport, beaten and left in the street, along with a wretched flimflammer (Ned Glass) who’s found to his horror that money doesn’t mean any to the mob in the street than the vague promise of science to combat the terror. Forrester finds signs that Sylvia’s bus had the same fate, and he begins an increasingly frayed and shambling odyssey around the town as the Martians perform a calculated blitzkrieg to destroy it, following a breadcrumb trail of clues and the memory of Sylvia’s story in searching for her in churches where exhausted, broken, hopeless people give themselves up to prayer and suppliance before fate. The War of the Worlds tried to do a lot with relatively limited resources, evident in the cast populated with lower-order contract players and B-movie stalwarts, depictions of disorder, evacuation, and worldwide calamity that require extras to mill about, and a mid-point montage consisting of stock footage pasted together with a fair amount of invention and given inimitable aid by Hardwicke’s majestic narration. Whenever Hardwicke speaks you never doubt the world is fighting for survival and losing. And yet The War of the Worlds contains more of a sense of moment and grandeur than movies that cost fifty times as much have conjured. Leith Stevens’ excellent score with its plangent strings and sonorous flourishes helps in that regard.
Moreover, the strength of the film’s imagery is quite remarkable, even if some of the special effects show their age (the very heavy props of the Martian craft required a veritable cat’s cradle of wires to keep aloft, something DVD and Blu-ray prints are especially harsh on). The War of the Worlds is littered with pictures that cut to the essence of science fiction in this mode, often painted in Haskin’s totemic use of red and green as signifiers of infernal destruction and alienness. The pulsing eye of the Martian craft and the flash of its heat-ray shooting at the camera, the three small-town envoys dissolving in its heat. Heffner struck by the death ray, glowing green with his skeleton showing white within before vanishing. Sylvia’s face in strange hues as seen through the alien camera, transformed under an alien gaze into an unfamiliar form of life, just as odd and threatening as the Martians were to her. The Martian’s sucker-tipped fingers clapping on Sylvia’s shoulder and cowering under Forrester’s torch, embodiment of every fear of the murk that shrinks under the light. Forrester’s solitary form, dwarfed and pathetic, wandering amidst a deserted city. The destruction of the L.A. City Hall, a special effects spectacle reused in many films. The final, unexpected pathos of the dying Martian’s arm. Haskin delivers another tremendous crescendo in the final moments as Forrester finally finds Sylvia in a church and rushes to grip her, editing yoking together the moment they embrace, the breaking of a stain-glass window sporting the image of Jesus, and the first sign of the Martians waning and dying, their war machines crashing in the streets outside. By film’s end church steeples are crowding the screen, the act of the Martians destroying the window implicitly signals their sudden striking down by on high in turn, and the film concludes with a chorale of “Amen” even as Hardwicke’s voiceover recounts Wells’ explanation that the Martians have unthinkingly left themselves vulnerable to microbial life.
The emphasis on religiosity that winds through the film stands in direct opposition to Wells’ pointedly rational vision of biological struggle extended with technological means, but it does give impetus nonetheless to The War of the Worlds as a movie, surveying the unease of the age and wondering what could still be counted certain, amidst a confrontation with Armageddon in terms as fiery and thunderous as anything Biblical. Pal had signalled a similar note at the end of When Worlds Collide (1951) in the prospect of a new Eden. But it became an aspect of Haskin’s work, one that bobs to the surface again in Conquest of Space and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, as intimations of divine intervention save its heroes. By Conquest of Space, though, the sense of religious awe in the universe has become internal and terrifying, causing near-disaster; in Robinson Crusoe, it’s a common value across species in the face of the hostility of the cosmos. A later generation of scifi dramatists would engage the same urge with a different method. For Nigel Kneale and Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky and Spielberg the search for gods was something that could be pursued through the motifs of science fiction itself, rather than offered as a bulwark that could make science fiction coherent and appetising for people just beginning to contemplate existence on a planet where suddenly, after 1945, life suddenly seemed to depend on good breaks rather than good prospect. For all its dated elements, one reason The War of the Worlds still packs the force of legend today is that it enshrined that very feeling forever.
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Director/Screenwriter: James Schamus
By Marilyn Ferdinand
By most accounts, Philip Roth’s 29th novel, Indignation (2008), is one of his weaker efforts. Still in the mold of his slightly autobiographical musings starring his fictional stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, this tale gains inspiration from Roth’s move from an all-Jewish section of Newark, N.J., to the small town of Lewisburg, Pa., to get his undergraduate education at Bucknell University in the early 1950s. Indignation shares other Roth obsessions, including fraught family relationships and sex.
Veteran film producer and cofounder and former Focus Films CEO James Schamus may have been attracted to Indignation for his directorial debut because of his own background. Schamus has a PhD in English and teaches at Columbia University in New York. Adapting one of the great American novelists of our time and cribbing from his own knowledge of academia, Schamus has lent a precise and knowing touch to Roth’s world while doing what many a successful producer has done—taken a minor book and turned it into a decent film.
The film opens with several American soldiers hiding in a building as the sounds of war surround them. They run when some Asian soldiers bearing bayoneted rifles enter their hideout to kill or be killed. A voiceover muses about tracing one’s steps through the many decisions, both large and small, that bring one to a critical moment in time. The scene shifts to Newark and centers on the Messners—Marcus (Logan Lerman), his father Max (Danny Burstein), and his mother Esther (Linda Emond).
The film spends a goodly amount of time showing the Jewish enclave where only-child Marcus lives. Marcus works hard at his father’s butcher shop, waiting on customers and patiently holding a pair of chickens by their feet for a middle-age woman to inspect. He relishes the chicken liver and onion dinner his mother serves. He also attends the funeral of a neighborhood boy who was killed in Korea. This event unnerves his father, who lost family during World War II, perhaps in the Holocaust—we’re never told for sure. Mr. Messner starts to hover over Marcus, looking all over town for him when he goes to the movies with his friends. Fortunately, Marcus’ stellar academic record secures him a place at Ohio-based Winesburg College and with it, a deferment from the draft and an escape from the increasingly bizarre behavior of his father.
One of Messner’s customers wonders, horrified, how Marcus will keep kosher in a place like Ohio. The obvious answer is that he won’t. Here Roth seems to air his disaffection with some members of the Jewish community who condemned him as an anti-Semite following the publication of his early short story “Defender of the Faith.” Marcus is an avowed atheist who apparently sees no contradiction in taking scholarship money from his synagogue. He also shuns an invitation to rush the only Jewish fraternity on campus, though the college has bunched him with two Jewish roommates.
His most typical, upwardly mobile, Rothian move is to pursue a prototypical blonde shiksa named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a Mt. Holyoke transfer and daughter of a prominent physician, whose bare leg draped over a chair in the library distracts Marcus so much that he must stay up until 3 a.m. doing the work he ignored while staring at it. As Roth wrote in Portnoy’s Complaint, “My contempt for what they believe in is more than neutralized by my adoration of the way they look, the way they move and laugh and speak.” His contempt and, ironically, his Jewishness will have severe consequences.
This film has every cliché in the book about Jews, but once Marcus hits Ohio, Schamus has Lerman underplay Marcus’ ethnicity. He attends the required chapel sessions with his roommates Flusser (Ben Rosenfield) and Ron (Philip Ettinger) without alarm and even eats the very treife escargot on his first date with Olivia. Following dinner, Olivia guides Marcus to a secluded location to give him a blow job. For traditional Jewish boys, having premarital sex is the equivalent of getting engaged, so Marcus’ confused amazement about this turn of events is more understandable in that context, not as the strange intellectual exercise he shares with a thoroughly disgusted Ron. That Marcus takes a swing at Ron for calling Olivia a slut and requests a new dorm room does not erase his muzzled reaction to her.
Another cliché that pops its head out, but to greater effect, is Marcus’ intellectual prowess. In a brilliant scene, Marcus takes on Mr. Caudwell (Tracy Letts), dean of men, who has called Marcus to his office to discuss why he is switching dorm rooms. The seeming concern of the dean fools Marcus not in the least, as he accurately assesses the interview as a veiled inquisition to discover if Marcus is a chronic malcontent and subversive. Marcus’ propensity for rabbinic argument extends to minutiae when he burrows into Caudwell’s description of his father as a kosher butcher, saying that he never used the word “kosher” on his college application. He further objects to attending chapel, baiting Caudwell to refer to his Jewish heritage and then trumping him by declaring himself an atheist and adherent of philosopher Bertrand Russell, a socialist he defends to Caudwell as a Nobel laureate. This scene is a master class in sparring with words, of the intellectual discourse of polar opposites that has all but vanished from popular culture—and perhaps a paean to the life of the mind from Schamus at a particularly stupid time in history.
At the same time, it shows the powerful danger into which Marcus has placed himself. Keeping a low profile and going along to get along simply isn’t his style, and again, I can’t help but think that Roth wanted to show the world that Jews are courageous, even though Marcus has avoided military service like any good Jewish intellectual. In the end, it is not Caudwell who is the ultimate enemy, but rather sex. Of course. Just like Ralphie and his Red Ryder bb gun, Marcus was bound to shoot his eye out by having sex, and this point is made in a too-on-the-nose fashion by having Marcus dream about kissing Olivia while they are both wearing bloody aprons. Schamus maintains the secret of Marcus’ downfall in a genuinely shocking and sensitive way, however, allowing him to question whether he is a victim of random events or fate as he picks over his choices and actions with a fine-tooth comb.
There are some fine performances in Indignation, with Letts a particular standout and possible Oscar contender as exactly the kind of cagey, cruel martinet who oversees the petty squabbles academia is heir to, absolute conviction in his rightness as his guiding principle. Emond makes the most of her one big scene in which she pours out her frustration with her husband to Marcus and then makes him promise to break off with Olivia, not because she’s a gentile but because she’s emotionally damaged and will drag him down. I also liked Ben Rosenfield as Marcus’ gay roommate, filling his clichéd role as a theatre major with a crush on Marcus with genuine enthusiasm, and sadness when Marcus decides to move out.
Lerman does a nice job of playing an emotionally contained young man. He projects a real intensity at times, while maintaining a mild demeanor and fresh-faced openness during his early days at Winesburg. Gadon, however, remains a bit of a cipher. She doesn’t seem emotionally troubled, though it seems we were meant to think that her sexual aggression was a sign of disturbance; later clues, like a scar on her wrist, seem like throwaways. Reviews of the book suggest that Roth’s characterizations were weak and sketchy, a handicap Schamus doesn’t entirely overcome. Nonetheless, he directs his cast well and captures an authentic feeling for the time, aided by a richly evocative, occasionally mournful color palette by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and Amy Roth’s costumes, which the actors inhabit with perfect ease. This one’s well worth your time.
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Director/Screenwriter: John Boorman
By Roderick Heath
The success of Deliverance (1972) turned John Boorman into a major figure on the cinematic landscape and gave him the opportunity to do almost anything he wanted. Almost. He first tried to realise an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and after the potential expense scuppered that project, Boorman remained excited by the idea of tackling an invented, fantastical world. An idea had come to him for a tale set in a distant future where extreme science fiction ideas could commingle with motifs and atmosphere out of mythology, the realm to which his thoughts were increasingly turning as he contemplated the unease of humanity with itself and the world. The result, Zardoz, has been an extremely divisive work since it was released.
There’s no doubting that if Boorman had set out to make a film that would dazzle and provoke some and strike others as bewildering and absurd, he could not have done better than what he managed with Zardoz. Aspects of the film, like the mantra “The gun is good, the penis is evil” and the sight of Sean Connery in a red loincloth, have even retained a kind of decontextualized fame, still eternally provocative to the adolescent mindset often pervading the internet. From its very first moments, Zardoz announces its strangeness, its odd humour, and its sly understanding of itself as a postmodern trip through the idea of myth-making. A man’s face hovers in the darkness, drifting closer to the screen, playing the chorus to the tale he himself is author of, protagonist in, and creation for. He is Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), made up like a Renaissance actor’s take on an alchemist or a pharaoh, confessing quickly that he, too, is just another made-up character for a tale before asking the audience, “And you, poor creature—who conjured you out of the clay? Is God in show business too?”
Frayn has many secrets to be unveiled in the course of Zardoz, not least of which is that he is the title character, or at least pretends to be. As in any good myth, the death of a god is the pivotal act. In the postapocalyptic wastes of 2293, Zardoz floats high above the desolate Earth, a giant, floating carving, a fearsome godhead worshipped by the remnant human population known as Brutals. Zardoz preaches a grim testament, encouraging his followers to take up the creed as anointed holy warriors who call themselves Exterminators and wear masks based on Zardoz. These adherents have been charged with killing their fellow humans to wipe the infesting remnant of their species from the face of the world. Zardoz delivers them loads of guns for this purpose. But one of the loyal Exterminators, Zed (Connery), sneaks into the godhead when it lands and discovers it’s actually a kind of hovering aircraft loaded with goods and stores and people in suspended animation, and captained by Frayn. Zed shoots Frayn, who falls from the craft. The Zardoz head lands in an enclosed commune, one of several scattered about the countryside, called the Vortex. Shielded by invisible force fields, the Vortex is an oasis of green and summery pleasantness in the otherwise forsaken land. Zed explores the Vortex and enters one of the houses, a seemingly ordinary country house littered with keepsakes and relics from a forgotten world. He discovers a miraculous crystal on a ring that projects Frayn’s image and links to a supercomputer that answers all of Zed’s questions—except for the truly important ones. Zed is soon discovered and apprehended by the inhabitants of the Vortex, dubbed the Eternals, a collective of humans who have, thanks to advanced science, achieved life stasis, effectively making them immortal. Even Frayn, dead at Zed’s hand, is already being regrown, his foetus suspended in plastic in the laboratories of the Vortex.
Zed finds himself the object of both curiosity and fear amongst the Eternals, representing as he does everything the Eternals have managed to reject or suborn—death, danger, sexuality, extreme feeling. The imperious Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) wants him quickly disposed of, but inquisitive scientist May (Sara Kestelman) wants to study him and learn what changes have been wrought on ordinary humans by the two centuries of struggle and privation that have passed since the Eternals last deigned to study them. May gets her way when the question is put to a vote, and is given three weeks to study him before he’s terminated.
Zed soon begins to discover that the Vortex is hardly the model of fraternity and tranquillity the Eternals like to pretend it is. One Eternal, Friend (John Alderton), takes charge of Zed and introduces him to some of the more chilling aspects of life in this hippy commune of the damned. Immortality torments many of the Eternals. Petty acts of rebellion and dissent are common—mostly just to break up the atmosphere of noble boredom—and are punished with forced ageing. Some of the most extreme cases, labelled Renegades, have been doomed to permanent old age and senility. Others, robbed of the natural drives of sex and sleep, which have been replaced by group trances and meditation, have become walking near-catatonics called Apathetics. One Eternal is tried and sentenced to be aged five years after he confesses to loathing everyone and the world around them, and Friend himself is soon also weeded out when he refuses to join the others in a trance. Zed later finds him haggard and grey, banished with the other reprobates.
The Eternals can’t govern their own life and death cycles because they deliberately erased the knowledge of how to disable the supercomputer that runs the Vortex, referred to as the Tabernacle. The computer controls the processes that regenerate them, and to which they are linked through crystalline devices implanted in their foreheads that also give them strong psychic powers. In return, the Tabernacle has absorbed aspects of all their personalities and has taken on something like a will of its own.
Zardoz remains one of the most original, bold, and heady of science fiction films, a dense and wilfully eccentric piece of movemaking made in the dying of a moment in popular cinema when a filmmaker could create something like this on a relatively big budget with one of the biggest acting stars in the world. It occasionally feels like a punch aimed right at 2001: A Space Odyssey’s (1968) frigid, Apollonian, faux-deistic crotch; stands as the frantically onanistic, Borges-reading father to The Matrix (1999); makes a little sport of Planet of the Apes (1968) along the way; and grazes territory staked out by TV’s The Prisoner (1967-68). Boorman’s fixations and mature style, bubbling under the surface of his earlier works, broke out in the most vivid and personal fashion. The dark underworlds and beckoning islets of eternity and paradises begging to be gate-crashed glimpsed in Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific, and Deliverance here became Boorman’s focal points, looking forward to the oddball mythopoeic stuff of The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Excalibur (1981), and The Emerald Forest (1984). Whilst themes of apocalyptic adaptation and cordoned-off lifestyle management concurred with a host of works in the same period and point forward to many more, Zardoz is more purposefully abstracted and spreads its roots farther and more deeply. Boorman tackles many an essential scifi concern and field of intellectual battle, from the underpinnings of religion to the purpose of free will and the battle between brute impulses and higher intelligence, and studying them with fierce concentration until all merge and blur, revealed as facets of the same Ouroboroslike concern of death and life entwined.
Zed’s role is analogous with the corn gods of pagan Europe, making the film something of a riposte to the sarcastic use of the old religion in The Wicker Man (1973), as Boorman’s fascination with pantheistic ideas and practices began to dominate his thinking. Not for nothing does Zed emerge from corn inside Frayn’s craft. Death and rebirth as constant cycle is taken as the inescapable fact of existence in Zardoz, a fact the Eternals, whose yearning towards transcendence of time has become a self-crucifying joke, deny. In this fashion, Zed is introduced as the death urge incarnate, but his person bespeaks the crude virility of an eternal frontier, fostered apparently by Frayn in the guise of Zardoz as a warden culling the last of a benighted species. But more is going on than any one character understands, even Frayn, who has recently taken to teaching the Brutals how to farm and using the Exterminators to capture, enslave, and manage others for this end. The nominal purpose for this was to provide extra food for the increasing number of Apathetics and Renegades in the Vortex, but Frayn’s deeper game is uncovered as May looks closely at Zed’s physique and genetic structure. She learns, with no small amount of unease as well as yearning, that Frayn had deliberately fostered Zed’s birth with selective breeding during his excursions into the wilds. Zed is the product of that breeding, a stable third-generation mutant, a new stage in evolution with perfect memory recall and other talents who only requires correct stimulus to bound past the Eternals in an evolutionary sense. But the power of the Tabernacle must be overcome if Zed can deliver what so many of the Eternals really want—death. Meanwhile, Consuella whips up a jihad after she catches May and Zed together in an embrace, inciting the other like-minded Eternals who want to fend off the doom Zed might bring. Zed’s fellow Exterminators wait patiently beyond the border force field for the chance to move in.
For all its teeming, trippy images conjured by a genuine cinematic talent, Zardoz’s essentials have much in common with a brand of sparely illustrated, pseudo-naïf, idea-driven scifi very common on the page, but usually confined to TV. Boorman, armed with a solid budget and a formidable battery of technical collaborators, including cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, was able to film with the sweep, colour, and class usually withheld from this brand. Boorman’s signal influences manifest throughout. Fellini is there in the use of masks and the atavistic evocations reminiscent of Satyricon (1969). Orson Welles registers in the final confrontation between Zed and the Tabernacle with a hall of mirrors sequence a la The Lady From Shanghai (1946), whilst other aspects are reminiscent of Welles’ similarly out-of-time take on Macbeth (1948). Like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1969), Zardoz finds new context for the hirsute machismo loose on Daliesque plains that defined Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western in a surrealist frieze, with Connery’s Zed cast as a gunslinger Neanderthal kicking in the door of the temple and ushering in a posthuman age.
Perhaps it’s a sign of Boorman’s essential Englishness that even as he seems to be exacerbating science fiction’s tendencies towards portentous self-seriousness he’s also making a glorified sex comedy movie, a Carry On film with pleasant delusions of grandeur. Certainly it’s a cinephile’s joke that echoes throughout Zardoz, as it reveals roots in that evergreen work of popular mythology, The Wizard of Oz (1939), Boorman mocking himself as magic lantern artiste via Frayn’s facetious sorcery and showmanship. Boorman also confessed to making the film when he was using hallucinogenic drugs, the kind of admission that seems too perfect in the face of the film’s liquidinous textures and distorting visuals redolent of the psychedelic style at its ripest in feature film. Yet Zardoz is entirely coherent on a narrative level, if also unusually structured, delaying significant revelations and honouring many classic mythical texts with an in medias res gambit.
Right from the opening shots of the floating head descending on the flocking Exterminators, Zardoz strikes and sustains a feeling of having been plucked out of any readily accessible reality and plunged into a zone far in the future or way back in the past, something out of shared Jungian dream-memory. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is crossbred with L. Frank Baum’s intelligibly childlike and most assuredly American popular fairy tales, whose title gives the clue to the nature of the false god he dares to meet and then kill. This proves one of Frayn’s mirthful but focused ploys, as he lures Zed into the experiential realm of reading and learning, only then to hand him the bitterness of disillusion through a copy of Baum’s book, revealing not just the source of the name Zardoz, but also Frayn’s method in posing as a god, offering the punch line to a tragically funny gag. The quality of political allegory Baum worked in his tale, warning everyone to beware seemingly awesome leaders with big voices, is reproduced and amplified by Boorman whilst also exploring the familiar scifi notion that technology looked at by someone without understanding would seem like magic. Frayn stirs the urge to rebel in Zed by forcing him and the other Exterminators to betray their creed before leading him through a series of tests and provocations designed to awaken the intellectual gifts Frayn’s breeding efforts instilled in them. The sting of betrayal Zed carries with him even as he progresses through levels of being and understanding, from near-animal to superman, continues to define him, counterbalancing the torment of the Eternals, who have attempted to make themselves gods and found themselves instead permanently tethered to their own mortal impotence. “Another dead end,” Friend reports to Zed when recalling their attempts to explore deep space. The chief scientist who led the mission to create the Vortex is now a withered and ancient being balanced perpetually on the edge of easeful death but never able to fall off.
Zardoz’s associations skid every which way, commenting as much on the fate of the counterculture intelligentsia of the 1970s as it does on scifi concepts, lampooning the era’s utopian impulses and the evergreen human longing for a panacea against mortality, and a dark-tinted emotional autobiography from its writer-director, an extended jeremiad against attempts to deny the darker side of human nature and against that eternal target of British artists, the class system. Some of Zardoz’s impulses, like the geriatric renegades being forced to dodder around a ballroom floor in ruffled formal dress in a gruesome caricature of a retirement home at Christmas time, have the quality of surreal but recognisable musing on contemporary denial of mortality. There’s also the allusive sense Boorman was trying to grasp of the nature of nostalgia, planted in a waning memory of a different age of parents and grandparents and his own youth in a hermetic suburban environment he described as “comfortably smug.” The final shot of Zed and Consuella evokes the same flavour, at once mimicking a Renaissance artwork and a late-Victorian wedding photo, marking them out as both holy family and ghostly forebears. Boorman depicts the Eternals as a mob of immortal yet morally and emotionally phthisic Bloomsbury Set rejects acting out a genre transcription of a D. H. Lawrence parable and Zed roped in as a Webley-wielding Mellors to boff and beat some life into these stiffs. It might even be fair to call Zardoz a variation on H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine told from the Morlock point of view: what use these Eloi anyway? A crucial flashback reveals the ranks of Eternals who have retained their sense of identity and purpose were all the youngest members of the commune, children of the scientists who created the Vortex and the Tabernacle: with less reference to the old way of life, the younger ones were able to adapt more readily.
Of course, one reason Zardoz still has to fight for its place at the table is the way it puts sexuality front and centre: scifi is one genre where the Id and Eros are usually channelled into solidly delineated forms, but Zardoz, as well as exemplifying a certain blithe, very ’70s approach to nudity, is deeply concerned with the place of sex in human identity and its future and as the essence of the life urge wound inextricably with death. Boorman’s defiantly eroticised approach manifests also in his sexualisation of his lead actor. This culminates in a hilarious and erotically potent moment when Connery is presented swathed in bridal dress and veil as the geriatrics smuggle him past the marauding Eternals, and later, when the great phallic monster becomes whore to a bevy of seed-seeking, would-be witch queens and lady madonnas. Zed’s sweat is an elixir that stirs the Apathetics to life and group snogging. The Eternals are gelded in their immortal state, but still fascinated by Zed’s sexuality, as his memories constantly refer back to adventures in rape and rutting out in the wilds. When Consuella tries to provoke erotic reactions in Zed with pornographic images, she finds he’s more aroused by her immediate person. S&M motifs bubble up as Zed becomes Friend’s ponyboy and finds himself uninterested in the wealth of utterly blasé sex objects presented by the Apathetics. Consuella is one part Vestal priestess guarding a forbidden zone from all but a touch of the divine, one part snooty princess in need of a good rogering as she proclaims sexuality the force that “so degraded woman and so betrayed men,” and glares icily at Zed’s erection. She accidentally breaks her own cage and finds she has transformed herself into her enemy. When she finds Zed under her knife, a claiming of potency that ironically destroys the very point of what she was fighting for, she stirs the newly enlightened Zed to quote Nietzsche’s famous epigram about the fate of those who fight monsters too long.
Connery supports Zardoz on his shoulders in the same way Charlton Heston used to prop up historical epics, with the film in part simply transposing the dichotomous mystique of James Bond as both ultimate lover and ultimate killer, the pure primitive man wrapped in the complete civilised man, and throwing the twinned image into heightened contrast. Connery, happily tossing away the wig that dogged his later turns as the spy yet still possessed of formidable physical presence, gives one of his best performances, conceding to Boorman’s exploitation of him as both irrepressible in his masculinity and also the constant subversion and mockery of it. Zed is, alternately, a shy beast, a natural titan, a flailing thing, and, finally, a human being or better. Connery’s presence also fills in a Lee Marvin-shaped hole in Boorman’s vision, as Zed recalls Walker of Point Blank, a similarly primeval power who nonetheless constantly finds himself battered and bewildered by the forces of civilisation (although I can’t help but wonder if Boorman might even have liked to cast a black actor in the role; put Jim Brown or the like in the part and imagine the fur that would’ve flown). Zed speaks wistfully of losing his innocence when his mind was activated, and finally finds himself notably impotent in one way by the end, when he can no longer use his gun: intelligence has given him morality, but removed pure will. Consuella’s war against Zed conceals her own powerful desire for him with a hunger that transcends not merely the social demarcations after she describes May’s interest in him as bestiality, but also the powerful death wish that has overcome the other Eternals, and at the very moment when she has the chance to kill Zed finds instant, transfiguring accord with him (another recurring Boorman motif, the couple that falls in love at the drop of a hat). Rampling’s lethal jade gaze was never better-suited to a role.
Boorman’s answer to Kubrick’s stargate trip is an equally magisterial, but even more deeply strange and gaudily colourful sequence in which Zed agrees to impregnate May and her cadre of like-minded women in the Vortex so they can carry away the next generation of humanity and repopulate the world; in exchange, they agree to use a teaching technique employing touch, psychic induction, and the crystals that allow them to tap the Tabernacle’s resources. Insemination of womb is rhymed to insemination of mind, illustrated in projections cast upon rutting bodies and naked frames and philosophies and poesy dropping from lips, an inheritance of intellect entwined with the flesh. Boorman attempts nothing less than an affirmation of the virility of one in terms of the other, an attempt to punch through the mind-spirit-body schism that has often defined and afflicted the western mindset. Here, too, Boorman’s influence also makes itself plainest, aspects of his creativity echoing through later works by filmmakers as diverse as Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Ben Wheatley, Terrence Malick, Terence Davies, and particularly, Terry Gilliam, all of whom would try in diverse ways to explore similarly the perpetually uneasy relationship between the immediacy of experience and the inescapability of physical being and the inheritance of culture, teasing the edges of abstraction in the process. Meanwhile, the anointed messiah figure has found a new life in many a more soothing setting, from Star Wars (1977) to Superman (1978) to The Matrix and the Marvel superhero roster, mostly robbed not just of sexuality, but of simple connection to other human beings.
Zed arrives near the end of his journey and takes on the Tabernacle, which torments him with the fragments of the people who form part of its makeup and, finally, Zed’s own doppelganger, which he kills in symbolic defeat of the machine. Zed emerges from the battle with authentic psychic power. Confronted by the Eternals whipped into a frenzy that has turned self-consuming as they smash the cultural inheritance they’re supposed to be protecting, Zed is able to shunt them from his path and telekinetically repair the statues they’ve vandalised—the capstone for Zed’s shift from destroyer to restorer. Zed and Consuella flee to the wilds and mate in the felled Zardoz head whilst the Eternals finally meet their fates at the hands of invading Exterminators, who are all too happy to answer their gleeful demands for death in an orgy of killing, including the newly restored Frayn and Friend, revealed as collaborators in the project of creating a force strong enough to break the Vortex.
The film’s coda is at once peculiarly funny and deeply sad as Boorman summarises the last/first family’s future in a fixed shot lapping through time, Zed and Consuella ageing and withering as their son is born, grows, and leaves them. Their biological function fulfilled, they remain until they are only a pair of ragged skeletons holding hands. One of Boorman’s major points here is one that we’re never easy with, particularly in this day and age, and yet can never deny—that we are all momentary vessels of life and that individual identities ultimately mean much less than what we pass on. The very last image zeroes in on Zed and Consuella’s hand prints on the wall of the cavern where they made their life, juxtaposed by Zed’s gun. Humanity arose from Stone Age to Space Age and back, and now a new pivot has taken place. All that’s ever left of anyone is the shape of their hand, outlined by paint on the stone.
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Directors: Jerome Robbins/Robert Wise
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The United States is a young country with an old history. Rising to the highest heights of power in the blink of an eye through rapid expansion across a broad land rich in natural resources, achieving unity more than 100 year before the much more ancient Europe even made a start at it, and now prematurely gray as it struggles to adapt to a global economy and a shattered self-image, the American story has been a tough one to tell. The mirrors held up to Americans have often been fractured and one-dimensional, and perhaps with the exception of the Great American Novel, Huckleberry Finn, no work of art has broken through as a wide-ranging reflection not only of who we want to be, but also of who we really are. So it may be a bold declaration to make, but if I had to pick the one work that has been and will continue to be the greatest telling of the Great American Story, it would be West Side Story.
The enduring legacy of West Side Story could not have been predicted based on its reception when it premiered at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1957. It garnered generally good reviews and had a respectable initial run of 732 performances, but that was nowhere near the 2,717 performances of My Fair Lady during the same Broadway season. Its hold on the imaginations of an international audience would not be secured until it was in a form that could be disseminated widely. When the film, codirected by its theatrical director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and Hollywood veteran Robert Wise, came out in 1961, it was a smash hit, earning the equivalent of $300 million in today’s dollars in the United States alone and winning 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. The huge audience for the film has made WSS a perennial favorite of school, amateur, and professional theatrical companies the world over. What is it that has attracted so many admirers across time and continents to this musical?
The extremely high standard of the classical/popular score spanning styles from mambo to opera, the tight choreography that comes from life itself, and the sarcastic/tragic lyrics that offer not platitudes, but truth, place West Side Story in a class by itself. However, WSS’s power does not come from its technical virtuosity alone. Riding on the timeless popularity of tragic love as rendered by William Shakespeare in Romeo & Juliet while delivering that play’s crucial message about the costs of hate, West Side Story also poses a direct challenge to the complacent belief in the American Dream and the elusive principle for which it stands, “liberty and justice for all,” through the most American narrative of all—immigration. Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, book writer Arthur Laurents, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim—all members of despised and persecuted groups in American society—crafted a coming-of-age tale for America itself and those who would lose themselves in its myth through its focus on adolescents struggling to mature and find a place for themselves in the world.
Some people may be familiar with WSS’s original working title, “East Side Story,” as the musical was first conceived by Robbins in 1948 as a tale of rival Jewish and Irish-Catholic gangs on New York’s Lower East Side. However, it would take eight years for the embryonic idea to come to fruition, during which time the team would jettison their outdated conflict for an updated approach that would reflect the sharp rise in Latino gang violence in America’s big cities. The creative team centered the rivalry among the children of poor European immigrants precariously established in New York City and those from the American territory of Puerto Rico arriving during “The Great Migration” of the 1950s. As Sondheim’s lyrics to “America” ironically suggest (“Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America”), the members of the Sharks might have an earlier claim to being American than do the teens who make up the Jets. This conflict already distinguishes WSS from Shakespeare’s blood feud of two aristocratic families as a pointedly American concern.
Laurents, who was brought in to write the book based on the strength of his treatment of anti-Semitism in the play Home of the Brave, quickly took to the new focus. Robbins made exploratory trips to Spanish Harlem to study the dance styles of Puerto Rican youths, and Bernstein’s love of Latin rhythms fed his creativity as the men continued to work on an array of projects before they were free to turn all of their attention to their theatrical masterpiece. When Bernstein realized that he would be unable to write lyrics for WSS while under pressure to compose Candide (interestingly, another musical that tracks, albeit satirically, with WSS’s themes of true love and striving for success in an Enlightenment version of the American Dream), up-and-comer Stephen Sondheim was contacted and persuaded to join the team despite his misgivings about this “step down” from composer to lyricist.
The film version of West Side Story features a magnetic cast of dancers and actors, with George Chakiris and Rita Moreno as standouts. Natalie Wood was put in the unfortunate position of being an Anglo playing a Latina and disliking costar Richard Beymer, the man she was supposed to be passionately in love with, but her professionalism (if not her dismal Puerto Rican accent) carried the day. All of the singing was dubbed, with veteran singing double Marni Nixon taking on Maria’s songs and Jimmy Bryant taking on Beymer’s. This is understandable considering the difficulties of the Bernstein score and does not, in my opinion, detract from the overall effect. The film takes few liberties with the stage version, with the notable and welcome exception of moving the panicked “Cool” from before the fateful rumble between the Jets and the Sharks to just after it, thus bumping the comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” to an earlier, more appropriate location after the first encounter the Jets have with the cops. In addition, Wise opens up the otherwise soundstage-bound film by shooting the opening “Prologue” on location in New York, thus creating a mise en scène of the contested turf that lingers in the audience’s mind as the rest of the film progresses.
Robbins, comfortable with stage choreography, manages to combine the best of both worlds throughout the film. He opens up his choreography in the “Prologue” to illustrate the Jets’ exuberant dominance of their turf. The ultimate gesture of cool—finger snapping—begins the “Prologue,” as the Jets survey their domain. Robbins moves them wordlessly from playground, to street, to basketball court in a combination of random, everyday movements by individual Jets that build to a coordinated dance. Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) whoops happily as some children run past on the street and leaps joyfully with his gang, only to run immediately into Sharks leader Bernardo (Chakiris). Bernardo handles their taunts, only to strike an obviously symbolic red stripe on a wall with his fist. Robbins dances Bernardo and two Sharks down a narrow gangway, snapping their fingers in a show of their own cool as they run over the word “JETS” painted on the street. Small gestures again build, only this time aggressively, and the “Prologue” ends in an all-out brawl. Camera cuts, overhead shots, close-ups of smug and resentful looks form a dance of their own, one the dancers assault by running directly at the camera lens, forcing it to cut away. Robbins may have been a novice filmmaker, but his dancer’s understanding of space and how a frame can open and choke it is second only to Gene Kelly’s.
Against the sense of belonging gang life provides to kids whose untethered home lives are mentioned in passing (“Gee, Officer Krupke”: “Dear kindly Judge, your Honor/My parents treat me rough/With all their marijuana/They won’t give me a puff./They didn’t wanna have me/But somehow I was had.”), the possibility of a real connection between Bernardo’s sister Maria (Wood) and former Jets leader Tony (Beymer) is hopelessly fragile. Tony and Maria fall in love at first sight during “The Dance at the Gym”; in an otherwise statically shot dance sequence (Wise, left on his own when Robbins was fired during the shoot, conservatively follows Fred Astaire’s philosophy of full-frontal framing), the lyric “I saw you and the world fell away” from the enthralling love song “Tonight” is produced visually, as all but the lovers fade into a white haze.
Another superb sequence is “Cool,” in which the Jets struggle to regain their composure after the murders of Riff and Bernardo. The song and dance take place in a dark, low-ceilinged parking garage to mirror the very dark turn of the plot and how trapped the gang is. First, Ice (Tucker Smith), a new character added to fill in for Riff as the Jets’ leader once the song had been moved, sings in barely covered shock at the harm they have just witnessed about how the Jets need to keep cool “‘Cause, man, you got/Some high times ahead/Take it slow and Daddy-o/You can live it up and die in bed!” The gang struggles to contain their emotions, doing a parody of the polite dancing they engaged in earlier at the community dance where Maria and Tony met. Finally, the gang moves in crouched unison like a soft crab hiding in its hard shell, their solidarity reinforced, their desire for vengeance deferred but not defused. Belonging is more important than living, and so the cycle of violence is doomed to repeat itself.
One of the great challenges for Robbins and his terrific crew of dancers was to hit their beats to the multiple time signatures contained in Leonard Bernstein’s majestic symphonic score. Moreno, who played Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, said that dance coordinator Betty Walberg had to count the beats out loud for the dancers as the music played. Since I’m no music expert, I will quote from Misha Berson’s valuable book Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination about some of the hallmarks of the score:
1) The frequent use of minor chords
2) Melodies that don’t neatly resolve but hang suspended
3) Fingers snaps and claps, as prominent percussion elements
4) Driving rhythms from a trove of percussion instruments (including trap drums, xylophone and vibraphone, timbales, and bongos)
5) Cross-rhythms that overlap two signatures to create a sense of agitation and unease
6) Swiftly cascading and ascending string lines
7) Jazzy bursts of brass and winds
8) Latin accents
In addition, many music scholars have commented on Bernstein’s use of tritones—playing a key note followed by a note three whole tones away from the key note—which is an important method of introducing dissonance in Western harmony. Berson comments that during the Middle Ages, tritones were considered diabolus in musica (“devil in music”) for being hard to sing in tune. While many people consider “Maria” one of the most beautiful songs in the score, it is sobering to realize that its first two notes form a tritone; considering that Maria’s admonishment to Tony to stop the rumble ends in the deaths of her brother, Tony’s best friend, and Tony himself, she certainly does seem to have done the devil’s work, however unwittingly.
Bernstein’s operatic elements are my favorite parts of the score. Anita and Maria’s duet “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is a cry of anguish, one for a lost love, the other for a love she is helpless to deny. Anita’s minor-key “A boy like that wants one thing only/And when he’s done he’ll leave you lonely/He’ll murder your love/he murdered mine” counterpoints with Maria’s “I hear your words/And in my head/I know they’re smart/But my heart, Anita/But my heart/Knows they’re wrong.” Reminiscent of Mozart’s operatic quartets, the “Tonight Quintet” offers musical variations on “Tonight” with lyrics that cleverly interweave the word “tonight” with the expectations of each party—the Sharks and Jets getting ready to rumble, Anita dolling herself up for a post-rumble tumble with Bernardo, and Maria and Tony planning for an endless future.
Again and again, the songs and characters of West Side Story communicate the need to belong. “The Jets Song” affirms “You’re never alone/You’re never disconnected” when you’re a Jet. The Shark boys and girls are torn between their longing for their first-class status in Puerto Rico and their newfound opportunities in “America.” The girls assert “Here you are free and you have pride,” to which the boys respond “Long as you stay on your own side.” “Life is alright in America/If you’re all white in America.” Maria and Tony, caught in the ethnic divide, find their sense of place in each other, which they affirm in the moving “Somewhere,” a place that is destroyed when Tony is gunned down by Maria’s formerly gentle suitor Chino (Jose De Vega). And a very interesting character nicknamed Anybodys (Susan Oakes) exemplifies a different kind of exclusion; dressing and acting like a boy, she rejects her sexual identity and is, in turn, rejected by the Jets. But she refuses to go away or give up on being a part of the action.
In the end, when violence has claimed three lives and ruined Maria’s, Anita’s, and Chino’s hopes and prospects, the creators of West Side Story decided that shame would bring the Sharks and Jets together to carry Tony’s lifeless body away. This note of hope may seem unrealistic. But it does recall another American Dream, one elucidated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that, in fits and starts, has started to come true. Perhaps West Side Story helped Americans find a new and more worthwhile image for a more mature and realizable Great American Story.
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Director: George Pal
By Roderick Heath
The 1950s saw the first real boom in cinematic science fiction, and those genre halcyon days owed much to George Pal. The Hungarian-born filmmaker had made his name working in the German film industry before the Nazis came to power with a series of shorts linking music and a clever brand of animation he developed known as Puppetoons. After he moved to the U.S. and started working in Hollywood, he captured an Oscar for his shorts in 1943 before eventually turning to feature production with the 1950 fantasy film The Great Rupert, helmed by actor-turned-director Irving Pichel. Pal and Pichel quickly followed it up with a more ambitious project extrapolating cutting-edge scientific concepts, most of which were still purely theoretical, about what space travel would be like and turning them into a movie titled Destination Moon (1950). Not the best of the scifi work of the era and not quite the first, Destination Moon nonetheless renewed the template for a brand of realistic science fiction first touched on by Fritz Lang two decades earlier with The Woman in the Moon (1929), and proved the catalyst for an eruption of interest in all things fantastical and futuristic that would cram movie screens for the next few years. Pal, who seemed to harbour ambitions to emulate his Paramount Pictures stablemate, Cecil B. DeMille, as a maker of grandiose entertainments, soon produced two more works still familiar to anyone who loves the genre: When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953), based on the H. G. Wells novel. His brand came to grief with Conquest of Space (1955), an attempt to return to Destination Moon’s template of hard scifi that was generally rejected as hokey and clumsy, although now its ambition and fumbling attempts at a poetic understanding of space flight now look far more prescient.
Pal didn’t make another film for three years, and when he did, it came as a straight fantasy for MGM, tom thumb (1958), with Pal himself directing for the first time. The film’s success allowed him to return to scifi with a second raid on the works of H. G. Wells, this time the 1895 novella The Time Machine. Wells’ role in shaping the very concept of science fiction is hard to overestimate. If his predecessors and fellow progenitors Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne opened up the strange new landscapes of speculative interest, the former pair as a psychic vista of strangeness and anxiety, and the latter with a grasp on the potential of machinery, Wells synthesised their approaches and used his real scientific learning to start writing stories that investigated a certain driving idea to a logical end, with his real dramatic and poetic gifts used to shade and guide. Wells was eventually frustrated by the way his early, short, sensational writings overshadowed his more literary and philosophical output even before his death in 1945. His most famous tales also defied easy filming, as they tend to be shaped more like travelogues through certain conceptual universes rather than as propulsive narratives. Pal, however, had no problem overseeing their conversion into forceful blood-and-thunder yarns.
Partly for this reason, Pal’s approach to scifi has often been divisive for genre fans in spite of his films’ iconic status, as he popularised the form by emphasising elements general audiences could grasp and relate to at the expense of more radical aspects: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds are littered with invocations of the biblical and parochial in contrast to the more difficult, sceptical, acidic impulses scifi in its literary form was just starting to contemplate. Yet Pal and his various stable directors had a grasp on the essence of scifi in the popular mindset as a place of vast frontiers, grand promise, and outsized threat: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds successfully visualised the new awareness of the Atomic Age as a place of both possibility and dread in fervent colours and big-type dramatic reflexes. By 1960, the zeitgeist was changing, and Pal took on The Time Machine with a mellower, more thoughtful palate, if also still happily leaping into adventure territory when the time came. Pal saw scifi through the eyes of a man whose life had been shaped by his love of constructing and manipulating his Puppetoons, a modern take on an old mechanistic craft with its roots based on middle Europe’s folk cultures as a new-age wing of the old fairy tale book; unsurprisingly, his next work as director was to be an exploration of the legacy of the Brothers Grimm. The Time Machine manages to be both thoughtful and wistful, but also childlike in its sense of the possible and glee in the process of the impossible.
The film’s prologue, a series of gently ticking, drifting clocks in the void giving way to the drumming thunder of Big Ben, has a beguilingly poetic quality that infuses the rest of the film, which looks both backwards and forwards with both youthful joie de vivre and an autumnal sweetness. In this regard, Pal’s visuals are inestimably aided by Russell Garcia’s scoring, with sound and image in deep accord in exploring the way the past and the future are another country. As later transposers of Wells’ art would also later do, Pal and screenwriter David Duncan wove Wells himself and his ideas into his tale, essentially presenting the anonymous time traveller of the book as Wells himself, or the version of himself he presented through his writing—a thoughtful dreamer and pacifist out of step with the coldly pragmatic mindset of the late Victorian age. Pal also reset the story at the moment of a great pivot, in the last week of the 19th century, charged with intimations of a farewell and a new beginning attendant to every change of year with the special dimension of one world about to give way to another. The book’s recounted narrative is retained, as kindly Scots merchant Robert Filby (Alan Young) and other members of a circle of friends, gruff Dr. Hillyer (a glorious character turn by Sebastian Cabot), boozy Bridewell (Tom Helmore), and stuffy Kemp (Whit Bissell), await dinner with their inventor friend George Wells (Rod Taylor) in his house. Increasingly irked by George’s absence, the men sit down to dinner served up by the housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd), only for George to appear, bloodied, shattered, and dishevelled.
George, fortified by wine and Filby’s assurances that he has “all the time in the world,” begins to recount the strange adventure he’s had since he last talked to them. A flashback takes them to their last meeting, on New Year’s Eve, during which George tried to thrill and impress his friends with a demonstration of a miniature version of a time machine he’s built. The small machine seemed to work perfectly, but his friends chose to dismiss it as a conjuring trick. Hillyer and Kemp instead prodded George to turn his efforts towards more practical ideas to serve military applications, whilst Filby feared the machine on a more fundamental level, warning his friend that it’s not a good idea to tempt the laws of providence. Frustrated by their lack of belief and understanding, and appalled by more grim news from the Boer War, George arranged for the dinner a week in the future before heading to his laboratory and climbing into the full-sized version of the time machine, determined to brave all dangers and explore the future in his conviction it will prove to be the place where his dreams become common reality.
The Time Machine chose to take on its source novel in the period during which it was written and employ the odd and fascinating spectacle of super-sophisticated machinery built in a Victorian fashion. In doing so, The Time Machine’s eponymous creation, a glorious thing of brass curves, plush red velvet and blinking multicoloured lights, became one prototype for the subgenre today called Steampunk. The Time Machine wasn’t the first work to render a scifi classic in period, as a handful of Verne adaptations in previous years—Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Byron Haskin’s From the Earth to the Moon (1958), and Henry Levin’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)—had already exploited the charm and colour of retro conceptualism. But that choice was more felicitous in making The Time Machine because of the nature of its narrative and its themes, and because although submarines and spaceships now existed, the idea of a time machine could still be illustrated in a charmingly vague way. George’s time travels didn’t have to be entirely imagined, and the contrast between his ideals and the reality of the new scientific age could be described, with an extra dimension of introspection from a 1960s perspective.
First and foremost, George’s plunge into what he calls “the fourth dimension” is both illustrated by and analogous with Pal’s own love of ingenious showmanship, visualising time travel through the basic building blocks of cinema itself—stop-motion and time-lapse photography—and replete with good-humoured flourishes, like the mannequin in Filby’s store window who becomes George’s unageing friend and barometer of shockingly changing tastes in fashion. George’s first stop in future time brings not just the chuffing oddness of a horseless carriage, but also a harsh taste of loss, as he sees Filby wearing a military uniform, only to learn to his sorrow that this is Filby’s grown son James (Young again), whose father has died in the trenches of World War I. George takes away one salve: Filby, who controlled George’s estate, refused to sell the house out of faith that one day George would “return.”
George despondently returns to his machine and presss on, experiencing his house’s destruction during the Blitz before stopping again presumably in the later 1960s, when atomic war has broken out. Again George is confronted by the sight of people fleeing to air raid shelters, and again meets James Filby in a military role, only this time he’s a silver-suited, white-haired air raid warden urging people to safety, astounded by George’s youthful appearance. The sight of an atomic missile drives Filby away even as Geroge begs him for conversation, and George barely survives the horror of an atomic explosion and the volcanic eruption it sets off. He climbs into his time machine and just manages to avoid being roasted by lava. Instead, he is walled inside a rock form for millennia.
When the rock wears away, he surveys a marvellously new green Earth where a sublime harmony seems to have evolved between human structures and the elements. He stops his machine suddenly, causing it to careen out of control, topple over and knock George out. He awakens to find himself close to a strange, Sphinxlike building, and when he begins to explore the landscape, finds it an Edenic place with apparently no one to share it, the huge, super-moderne buildings nearby uninhabited and run down. Finally, he does encounter other people, a bunch of wan, blonde, innocent and yet also almost pathologically indolent folk who call themselves the Eloi. George has to save one woman he sees close to drowning in a river under the blasé gaze of her friends. George makes the acquaintance of the woman, who says her name is Weena (Yvette Mimieux), and slowly begins to plumb the strangeness of the society he’s presented with.
The greatest qualities of The Time Machine become apparent in George’s headlong journey through time, experiencing his own erasure from history, the death of friends, and the calamities awaiting humankind thanks to our inability to learn lessons, all with steadily drooping enthusiasm. Pal grasps intuitively the action of time travel not just as discovery, but also as tragedy, as George finds himself doomed to witness looping events and scenes of loss and destruction, until finally, when the rock encasing him and his machine breaks apart, he seems to behold a gorgeous new future. But there are also peculiar proofs of faith, as when George finds that what was his old house has been turned into a park dedicated by James to his father’s love for his friend. There’s a striking intimacy and humanity to much of the film, for example, when George realises Filby has remained behind after his disappointing demonstration to talk, or George’s interactions with Weena, who gropes towards an understanding of him and the apple of necessary, but painful knowledge he brings to her Eden. When he arrives in the future he so dearly wants to see, his pleasure in what he sees is steadily worn down to a state of furious disillusion: the underlying truth about the Eloi and the strange beings that lurk in the darkness they call the Morlocks eventually proves utterly horrifying, but, in a way, less depressing to a man like George, who finds himself shocked and outraged when he finds the Eloi have allowed what’s left of the human intellectual inheritance to petrify and crumble away as they live happily in the sun eating the bounties provided to them without question or heed.
Wells set out with The Time Machine to disassemble the precious, barely questioned idealism of the high Victorian period, an idealism that had much in common with the 1950s variety—an official faith in the future with a vibrating anxiety over change and threat beneath it all. He took the still fresh and prickly notion of evolution, whose great proponent, Julian Huxley, had been one of Wells’ teachers, and applied it mirthlessly to the satirical idea that if allowed to continue, the stratification of society would eventually lead to two entirely different posthuman species, the Eloi, descendants of a leisure class, and the Morlocks, subterranean workers who, in a twist of brute sarcasm, have become farmers treating the Eloi as free-range cattle and living on their flesh. Pal and Duncan tweaked this concept to look squarely at the idea not just as a permutation of Victorian labour relations, but also as a distant echo of life in the 20th century: the Morlocks round up their flocks of Eloi by blasting out the sounds of air raid sirens that draw the Eloi underground. The Eloi have essentially become children, afraid of the dark and blithe about what supports their lifestyle, but George’s arrival quickly coaxes deeper reflexes from Weena. She braves the terrors of the night to warn him about the Morlocks as he searches for his machine, which he finds has been dragged within the Sphinx. George and Weena spend a night hunkered before a fire after one of the Morlocks has attacked her, but fortunately, the monsters prove vulnerable to bright light and a good right hook.
The Time Machine treads campy territory in trying to present the Eloi like a mob of listless, young Hollywood ingénues and beach bums (that Mimieux also starred in the same year’s Where the Boys Are amplifies the association), whilst also interestingly prescient on the oncoming age of the counterculture and its history-reboot philosophy, a movement which had much in common with the onset of many similar ideas in the Victorian age that Wells himself often espoused. There is stinging power in the moment when George, led to a collection of books kept by the Eloi by one of their number, realises the Eloi have let their cultural inheritance decay and literally turn to dust, and the previously idealistic and forward-looking savant is appalled and disillusioned to a crushing degree: “At least I can die amongst men!” he bellows in offense before abandoning his attempts to plumb the Eloi culture, because there is none. It’s also hard to deny that on at least one level, the film devolves into a Boy’s Own tale of two-fisted adventure and revolt as George proves the threat of the Morlocks is only as strong as they’re allowed to be. But the future sequences of the film have a similar mood of stripped-down mythos that would later sustain definitive genre TV works like Star Trek and early Doctor Who. In this regard and more, The Time Machine feels like a vital transitional moment in scifi cinema, mediating the chitinous forms of ’50s scifi and the brand that would dominate for the next 15 years or so in English-language scifi filmmaking—looking more closely at human society, its past and present, through the prisms of parable.
The soul-searching that often bubbled as subtext in ‘50s scifi films here hatches and becomes overt, contemplating the modern inheritance both as one of wonder, but also cringing fear of what terrors it had conjured. The Eloi living space has the quality of being at once futuristic and distantly mythical. The drama turns inward as it contemplates humanity’s fate with an early intimation of the idea of dystopia, a substrata of the genre that’s still powerful, often playing out in extrapolated versions of high modernist architectural environs and evoking common pasts as decayed and neglected memories, and plied with a dusting of fable as here, including the likes of THX-1138 (1971), Zardoz (1974), Rollerball (1975), and Logan’s Run (1976). The headier, questioning aspect of the film seeds many more genre directions, not the least of which was the time travel idea itself, one barely tackled in cinema before this, but which has become an oft-iterated theme in works as diverse as Back to the Future (1985) and Primer (2004). The haunting quality Pal manages to invest in the film continues to recur, especially powerful and poignant in the sequence when Weena leads George to a place where the remains of human civilisation still persist, the voices of men in ages past recorded on spinning rings reporting tales of bleak decline and death; pointedly, both voices heard are Paul Frees, who had loaned his stentorian tones to War of the Worlds as the definitive voice of futurism, now reporting as the ghost of ages lost in a sublime distillation of the scifi creed in a totemic moment: “My name is no consequence. The important thing you should know is that I am the last who remembers when each of us, man and woman, made his own decision.”
The lingering shadow of the ’50s monster movie still pervades The Time Machine, as the glowing-eyed Morlocks try to snatch Weena. But Pal still manages to generate a weird and tense atmosphere, as when George witnesses the Eloi responding to the Morlock siren call and then descends into their underground works to rescue Weena and in a gleeful action climax as George battles the cannibalistic, humanoid Morlocks, having discovered the gruesome secret in a room littered with human bones by exploiting their great weakness, their fear of bright light. A particular likeness has long intrigued me about this sequence and the way it connects to Pal’s earlier career and background: Garcia’s music in places sounds awfully reminiscent of Igor Stravinsky’s score for his famous ballet The Firebird, suggesting Pal might well have taken inspiration from that work and its roots in Slavic and Hungarian mythology, and evoking Pal’s own musical reflexes from his Puppetoon days. Certainly Pal had long been fascinated with the classic battery of fairy tales and had adapted several as shorts. This connection makes perfect sense to me, as the story is essentially the same, with George cast as the pure hero descending into a stygian underground to fight the demons and steal back a captive princess, fending off evil with light, and the time machine itself cast as the firebird, the vessel of transformative power. And as silly as George’s battle with the Morlocks is in a way, it’s still a genuinely gripping sequence with a great physicality, particularly as Pal’s eye is strong here, with the nightmarish image of the Morlocks advancing on their penned-up intended meals. The film’s corniest moment is also a highlight—an effete Eloi mans up and wallops one of the Morlocks in the back as it throttles George, saving his life.
A few good socks to the jaw and some fiery brands fortunately prove enough to give the Morlocks hell, being as they are used to victims who don’t fight back. George is able to rescue Weena and some of the other Eloi, blowing up part of the underground city, and a new dawn seems at hand. But the Morlocks set a trap for George, luring him into the Sphinx with his time machine and then closing the doors, separating him from Weena and forcing him to fight for his life before he manages to escape in time, first travelling forward, witnessing the gruesome decomposition of a Morlock he killed, a surprisingly graphic and spectacular visual punch for 1960. George finally returns to his own time to keep his date with his friends. His only proof for his story is a flower given to him by Weena, and again he is disbelieved, taken by his friends as an attempt to break into the penny dreadful market. At the last, Filby hears the time machine revving up again after George has dragged it back in from the garden and repositioned it in the laboratory so he can reappear outside the Sphinx before Weena.
It’s appropriate that the last notes of The Time Machine return to that mood of wistful longing and questioning as Filby is left contemplating his friend’s resolve when he and Mrs. Watchett notice George took three books to the future with him, leaving it up to the audience to divine which three books they were. This provides a lovely little supernal flourish that closes off the film on just the right note, again nudging the fablelike with the tiniest signs of human nature—a flower in Filby’s hand, a space on a bookshelf, the lights switching off in a house whose owner will never return, and a man shuffling off in the snow back to his family—proffered as transcendental totems.
The cast of the film lived long and well. When Rod Taylor and more recently Alan Young died, I could not help but think, “You have all the time in the world.”
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Director: Steven Spielberg
By Roderick Heath
The box office success of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Steven Spielberg’s third trip to that popular well, partly disguised his struggle to find his artistic maturity, a struggle that defined his oeuvre in the late 1980s and early ’90s. With the fervent, Dickensian lilt of The Color Purple (1985) nominated for multiple Oscars but then frozen out, and Empire of the Sun (1987), now regarded as one of his greatest achievements, a box office bomb and object of critical suspicion at the time, his foray into a more serious brand of cinema might have seemed a blind alley. He returned to lighter, fantastical tributes to moviemaking’s past with Always (1989) and Hook (1991), but in spite of tremendous moments in both, time hasn’t been particularly kind to either on the whole. Whilst Spielberg was working up the project that would eventually become Schindler’s List (1993), he also set out to find a new property to convert into hard-charging popcorn cinema in the Jaws (1975) mode. He found it in a novel by Michael Crichton, a former physician who turned to writing smart-pulpy scifi and thrillers for the printed page and TV in the late 1960s and even found some success as a film director himself for a time. Crichton had essentially recycled the core idea of his 1974 hit film Westworld for Jurassic Park, both being tales of a futuristic theme park contrived to realise deeply cherished fantasies for its audience whose illusion of control vanishes when the exhibits quickly become hunters.
Jurassic Park now looks very much like a pivotal moment in Spielberg’s career—not just chronologically, or in its success, which was colossal, even industry-deflecting in reestablishing Spielberg as the titan of pop cinema and giving the CGI era its clarion blast. Jurassic Park is its own work of theatre and self-dramatization, paying tribute to the ageless wish to see something truly awesome and to actually satisfying that desire. But it’s also a study in complication, the awareness of mechanics behind spectacles and the dangers of knowledge—the lot of adulthood. Westworld’s grounding in the Me Decade of the ’70s depicted very adult fantasies realised through the well-worn scifi concept of the humanoid robot that goes berserk. Jurassic Park, by contrast, had a more original, timely, scientific McGuffin to employ, and developed it with a variation on Crichton’s recycled concept with broader appeal: what if scientists could recreate dinosaurs using advances in DNA technology and exhibit the results as the ultimate tourist attraction? The concept of primeval forces placed before armies of sticky-fingered kids and their bewildered parents was obviously irresistible to Spielberg—a life-and-death entertainment for whole family.
Jurassic Park is also, more obviously, a tribute to and contemporary spin on a hallowed strand of scifi, one in which a remnant of the distant past and its formidable wonders is found subsisting in the present. This subgenre had roots in fare like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, entries from the early days of speculative fiction. The most famous movie inheritor of their lexicon was Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933), the definitive monster movie and progenitor over the intervening decades of the likes of Ray Harryhausen’s films and the Japanese kaiju epics. One of Jurassic Park’s key images, of the park’s wooden, momentous gateway, pays direct tribute to King Kong, whilst the opening scene deploys a wry joke for fans of the classic and a bluff for an audience expecting thrills. Tense and wary workmen and their overseer, great white hunter Robert Muldoon (Bob Peck), watch as something monstrous stirs behind trees, as Kong did in his first appearance. The culprit? A forklift. But the joke dies in the throat with intimations that something slyer and deadlier than Kong’s lumbering protomachismo is in play—the mechanical monster carries forth one of the deadly chimeras science has conjured ready to take a bite out of any hapless soul foolish enough to get close. Hints of dread give way to contrasts of absurdity and elusive promise, as lawyer Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) braves jungle depths to talk to miner Juanito Rostagno (Miguel Sandoval), who holds a shard of precious amber with its ancient prisoner, a luckless mosquito, every bit as powerful a relic pulled from the earth as Spielberg’s Ark of the Covenant. Gennaro, an insulated modern astray in the field contrasts Rostagno, a man confidently engaged in an ancient and honourable art, one shared by one of the film’s core heroes, Alan Grant (Sam Neill), a digger.
Alan and his palaeobotanist colleague and lover Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) are tempted away from their dig for velociraptor bones in the New Mexico desert by the initially obscure temptations of twinkle-eyed entrepreneur John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who offers to fund their research for years if they agree to come with him, no questions asked, to inspect his latest creation. Alan and Ellie find themselves thrown into the company of Gennaro and flashy mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who’s also been hired for expert opinion. Soon, the trio find out just what Hammond and his company, InGen, have been brewing on Isla Nublar, a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica. InGen’s scientific wizards, led by Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), have conjured a motley collection of dinosaurs bred from remnant DNA extracted from amber-entrapped prehistoric insects and arranged in paddocks. Hammond hopes this will be the commercial coup of the millennium. He’s distressed when the three savants all bring up the potential risks and variables they’re facing now that dangerous animals have come back from the dead, even though the scientific team working for InGen have tried their best to control the population, including breeding only females and leaving them hormonally deficient. But the real spanner in the works is human: Hammond’s chief computer technician, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), angry that he’s not getting paid enough for building Hammond’s cutting-edge, completely automated systems, has agreed to steal embryos for a rival company and arranges to send the park haywire to cover his theft and retreat. Nedry’s plan plays out during a confluence of complicating situations, with a hurricane brushing the island and Grant, Ellie, Ian, and Hammond’s two grandchildren, Lex (Ariana Richards) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello), trapped by the system breakdown in a very inconvenient situation.
The basic notions at the heart of Jurassic Park are some of the oldest and most familiar in science fiction, but given an ingenious gloss of cutting-edge theory and technology. The Frankenstein question of how far humankind’s dominion can and should stretch over the natural world is dressed up in some pop science thanks to the chaos theories espoused by Malcolm, who doubles as the film’s colour man: Malcolm’s mathematical extrapolations say that no outcome can be entirely predicted, especially when dealing with a living system. The film minimises, but doesn’t entirely eject the scientific detective element in Crichton’s book, as Alan tries to understand how the dinosaurs, in spite of their creators’ labours, prove still able to mate and reproduce: the use of frog DNA to fill in gaps in the genome proves the catalyst. Jurassic Park also came up with a great way to give those old lost world works a believable spin in an age when all the blank spots have been cleared from the world’s maps and a sense of wonder, and caution, in the face of the unknown steadily dulled. For Spielberg, the appeal of seeing dinosaurs is inevitably correlated with his very stock-in-trade, his cinematic skill, and the way he made the act of beholding itself a totemic action in his work.
Jurassic Park’s most powerful scene, one of the definitive moments of Spielberg’s career, is the lovingly orchestrated climax of the film’s first movement, when the visiting scientists catch their first, amazed glimpses of one of the dinosaurs in a dance of reaction shots, deft little dollies, and careful control of information that makes the act of seeing something as important as what’s being seen—Spielberg’s hotline into the unconscious of his audience at its most precise. Alan and Ellie are instantly plunged back into their own childhood fantasies of communing with the beasts they’ve made the subjects of their adult studies, confronted by a sprawl of saurian species straight off generations of museum dioramas and picture books illustrations instantly recognisable to any dinosaur-mad kid. Amazement gives way, inevitably, to curiosity, as Alan, Ellie, and Malcolm break out of the controlled limits of Hammond’s contrived theme park tour to look more closely at the science and the machinations behind the facades. Curiosity leads to knowledge, and that’s when the expulsion from Eden begins—or rather the dragons in Eden start to slither out of the underbrush. The scientists voice their concerns to the point where Hammond is left bemoaning the fact that the only person unequivocally on his side is Gennaro, “the bloodsucking lawyer,” who represents the purely fiscal mindset at a slight remove from Hammond’s creative vision. Small wonder the film of Jurassic Park inverts the novel’s fates, where Gennaro became a mild hero and Hammond died, consumed by his own creation.
Spielberg’s empathy with Hammond is vital to Jurassic Park, the filmmaker’s identification with the character’s desire to thrill and provoke people to wonderment mediating the myopia and incidental arrogance that created the park and leads to tragedy. Hammond is initially presented as a Venn diagram for Willy Wonka, Colonel Sanders, and Richard Branson, welcoming the innocent into his land of treats where the dangers are in full view. But Jurassic Park constantly correlates the experience of movie-going and its attendant paraphernalia with the world Hammond has engineered, and Hammond’s pride as a man who built himself up from the humblest of backgrounds—his first piece of showmanship was a flea circus—to become a maker of marvels. If a film like John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) depicted its maker’s increasing sourness and frustration with a zeitgeist he could never quite connect to and felt increasingly alienated from in scifi form, Jurassic Park is revealing of Spielberg’s point of view as somebody who had known success and yet had seen it careen in unexpected directions, throw up hazards, and stir worry he might be losing his way. Jurassic Park lampoons the idea of commercialising creative fruit even as it exemplifies the notion. The park is presented as the ultimate version of the Universal Studios tour where Spielberg’s man-eating shark regularly leaps from the water several times a day—except that the dinosaurs aren’t animatronic and will happily bite you on the ass. Spielberg gets to work through his ambivalence at the idea not just of seeing private inspiration become public circus, but the distance between art and reality above all. This motive comes as another indelible image, when a velociraptor painted on a wall is suddenly contrasted by the shadow of the real thing—wriggling, sniffing, hungry for living meat.
This moment exemplifies another enriching aspect of Jurassic Park, one that goes a long way to explaining the longevity of the film and the franchise it spawned: Spielberg’s ability to envision the dinosaurs not simply as threats and effects but as animals, with wilful, irrepressible natures, whether they’re brutal carnivores or boding vegetarians. The explosion in special-effects sophistication that allowed CGI to be paired with animatronics helped articulate this idea better than most variations on this idea had managed before, from the triceratops whose sleeping bulk captivates the scientists, to a brachiosaur that sneezes over an appalled Lex, or the sort of Heckle and Jeckle pair of raptors who stalk the kids through a kitchen in all their flitting curiosity and twitchy, predatory nerviness. Jurassic Park understood well the sway dinosaurs hold over people, particularly kids, avatars of a way of seeing the world as both hazardous, but also potentially splendid. The tyrannosaurus that is the film’s antihero encapsulates this understanding, progressing from demonic spectre that terrorises the heroes to engine of almost paternal vengeance that defeats the all-too-human velociraptors. The escape of the tyrannosaurus from its pen is the film’s core set-piece and another vignette of Spielberg’s skills at highest pitch, recalling the charge of Jaws as the monster is glimpsed in awful suggestions—a gory chunk of goat falling on top of Lex and Tim’s car, a pair of massive jaws closing in the flash of lightning—before the beast breaks through the fence left vulnerable by Nedry’s conniving and terrorises the kids, building to that most nightmarish moment in the Spielbergian universe: the object of awe and fascination looks right back at the beholder and decides it wants to eat it. The humans must reach into their most instinctual, primal facets to survive.
This sequence still thrills for relatively straightforward reasons that nonetheless completely elude so many of the filmmakers with pretensions to working in the same mode as Spielberg: he achieves the Pavlovian ideal of popular cinema, that for a few minutes you’re utterly convinced of the urgent reality of what’s happening. Spielberg creates the feeling of being someone small and vulnerable with the image right out of nursery room nightmare of a black and scaly monstrosity with butcher-knife teeth bearing down upon you, and yet the sequence is entirely logical, even mechanistic, as a series of unfortunate events where an animal’s hunger, the fear of some kids, the concern of two men, the panic of a third, and a broken-down moving part of someone else’s dream provide the elements of a chaotic ballet. Each moment, each gesture, each mistake, each fumbled attempt at recovery creates the context for the next, perfectly illustrating the concepts Ian has tried to expostulate unheeded. The initial note of nascent dread is signalled, like some Buddhist parable, by ripples in a cup of water—the same water, vitally, Ian had earlier used in teaching chaos theory to Ellie. By its climax, Alan has been forced to play Spielberg’s superhero Indiana Jones to save himself and Lex, Malcolm almost gets himself killed helping others, and Gennaro finishes up as lizard food, plucked off a toilet in the most horrible fashion in reward for his cowardice. Alan is left leading his two battered charges through the park, whilst Malcolm is recovered by Ellie and Muldoon moments before having to outrun the tyrannosaurus.
For all the showy thrill-mongering, much of the pleasure and quality of Jurassic Park comes as Spielberg enjoys his cast and characters interacting and treating the storyline’s conceits with both a sense of revelry and droll suspicion. The latter element is chiefly supplied by Goldblum’s Ian Malcom, whose persona is smartly contrived as the antithesis of the old-school cliché egghead, strutting through the film as leather-clad cool kid and dryly scornful voice of reason, violently contrasting Alan’s shabby, testy earthiness, Ellie’s pleasantly nerdy pluck, and Hammond’s pixilated bonhomie. Malcolm interestingly serves in contrast to one of the classic genre story patterns in which the figure of rationalism is portrayed as the cold arbiter of unfeeling precepts; Jurassic Park is, in part, the tragedy of everyone failing to listen to his Cassandralike omens. The scientists here are the bridging and communication points between the furore of nature and the human desire for order and domain. Muldoon (expertly played by the ice-eyed Peck, who sadly died not long after) evokes another archetype, the rugged bush tracker in slouch hat who sees the ruthless intelligence at hand in the raptors, but who finally proves no luckier than Jaws’ Quint when it comes to taking on his monstrous foes, outsmarted in the underbrush by tactics Alan had anticipated earlier. Alan and Ellie’s introductory scene sees Alan mischievously terrorising a snotty brat hanging around his paleontological dig site with tales of velociraptor acumen and savagery. Alan is basically a big kid himself, and another of Spielberg’s identification figures as the guy who likes stirring reactions in people and the man who fears taking the next step in his life as husband and father.
The bipolar aspect to Spielberg’s career was still fairly unrecognised when Jurassic Park came out. The mean and mischievous Loki of Jaws, 1941 (1979), and the first two Indiana Jones films, as well as the portraitist of cruelty and anarchy in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun, was still dimmed to most eyes by the joyous Peter Pan of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Like most of his fellow generation of “Movie Brats,” Spielberg had personal motives invested in his cinema but no problem plying his work for as big an audience as he could muster. Yet, for such a “big” work, many of the best moments in the film are virtually inconsequential—Ian and Ellie flirting up a storm, Alan beaming with boyish pleasure as he listens to a sickly triceratops breathing, Hammond expressing his quiet loathing for Ian’s taunting cynicism—nonetheless somehow manage to speak of the film’s essential theses of life in all its tumult, brutality, and empathy. The two children of a sundering family along for the ride provide surrogates for the younger audience and fill out one of Spielberg’s already-familiar pick-up families, as Alan grudgingly evolves from childphobic to burgeoning father figure. Early sequences are lengthy and surprisingly talky, prizing conversation, expostulation, the give-and-take of ideas and ways of seeing. The seed is here for Spielberg’s handling of this motif in ostensibly more serious fare, like Amistad (1997) and Lincoln (2012), just as the sequence when the visitors speak with Hammond and Muldoon at the raptor cage sees Spielberg try out a different way of shooting a scene—holding back, allowing multiple dialogues to take place at the same time—that signal an evolving aesthetic.
It’s chiefly the sense that the filmmaker is in his element that that gives Jurassic Park kick even as the storyline plays out in a predictable and, yes, somewhat slapdash fashion. I’ve never been an uncritical fan of Jurassic Park as a whole, although I’ve come to like it a lot more with time and clearer insight into its genuinely excellent aspects and elevating flourishes. But significant flaws also remain clear. Whilst Spielberg’s animated gamesmanship is always fun, the second half never succeeds in generating a sequence as intimately scary and thrilling as the tyrannosaurus break-out, and many of the situations feel frustratingly basic, failing to build to the kinds of crescendos Spielberg manages in his greatest action-adventure films; that’s one reason I actually prefer his sequel, the gleefully nasty and happily frivolous The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), which is essentially a series of Spielberg set-pieces striving to satirise and outdo earlier Spielberg set-pieces. The difficulties and budget-soaking cost of developing the film’s groundbreaking special effects whilst the script was still a work in progress (the writing was eventually credited to Crichton and David Koepp) shows through in the patchiness of some of the action. The film’s visual palette is relative bland, with Dean Cundey’s photography sometimes emphasising a surprisingly cheap, even TV-movie-like look. Nedry and Gennaro are reduced to crude, very ’90s stereotypes when I usually expect better from Spielberg. Casually killing off Gennaro and Muldoon left the film bereft of one of the book’s more enjoyable aspects, a lack that feels telling in the second half’s rather basic romp-and-chomp chase scenes that never, ever feel as urgent or compulsive as anything in a not-so-dissimilar monster chase movie like Aliens (1986).
Still, Spielberg continues to pull off great moments. The shock of the raptor attacking Ellie right after she manages to restore power is one of his finest pieces of timing and malicious nerve, whilst the sudden reappearance of the tyrannosaurus at the very end as deus-ex-machina is ridiculous on some levels, but tremendous on others. Moreover, the loose, rolling structure of Jurassic Park allowed Spielberg and his team to cram the film with throwaway touches until the film is as textured with jokes and visual flourishes as a MAD Magazine page. The tyrannosaurus’s yawing mouth glimpsed in a rearview mirror with the message, “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” Nedry disposing of a handful of shaving cream on a piece of apple pie. Strands of DNA code projected onto a marauding raptor’s face. Hammond crowing, “We spared no expense!” as perpetual B-movie actor Richard Kiley’s voice emanates as tour guide from speakers. Hot starlet sprawled on a zebra skin embodying the call of the wild and Robert Oppenheimer puffing a pipe with warning warring for attention around Nedry’s computer space. The little dance of action Alan performs in trying to escape Tim’s yammering enthusiasm. Repurposing the Woody Woodpecker cartoon from Destination Moon (1951) as explain-it-all short of the Jurassic Park ride experience—a deep cut of referential wit as well as a perfect expository device. Lex with a spoonful of jelly starting to shake like the proverbial when she spies an interloping raptor. And, of course, that capstone flourish of the roaring T-Rex with a poster reading “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” ribboning before the beast’s all-too-genuinely renascent power.
The achievement of Jurassic Park, both devious and ardent, is that it litters such touches around with abandon and feeds up a significant portion of its cast as dinosaur chow, and yet still manages to close out with a feeling of the sublime. The final frames offer a feeling of conciliation, acceptance, and still-bubbling curiosity rather than fear and retreat, as Alan gazes out at gliding seabirds with a new sense of life in its value, both his own and the kids he’s learned to care for, and the overall continuum that defines species and evolution. John Williams, who provided one of his best scores here, dusts proceedings with a sense of grandeur, even a hint of the elegiac, fleshing out this grace-note that suggests it’s precisely what terrifies us that often draws us back in deeper curiosity and need for understanding. This pivot of comprehension, moreover, backs up an aspect of the tale represented by Malcolm and his cautions against arrogance, and Alan and Ellie’s inquisitive and celebratory mindset. Jurassic Park is a tale of forces inimical to human conceit and the dangers of unfettered experimentation, and yet it finally manages to affirm the yearning spirit and the act of scientific inquiry as one of personal conviction. For Spielberg, it allowed him to tether his light and dark sides together with ease and pointed the way to the future.
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Director: Alan J. Pakula
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As I pick through the daily helpings of mainstream-media-bashing, liberal- and conservative-bias-shaming and all the other pleasantries that instantly greet all the news that’s fit to tweet, I find myself longing for some remnant of truth, justice, and the American Way the way I used to know. I find one bright spot in the journalism conducted under the auspices of First Look, a self-described “new-model media company devoted to supporting independent voices” that coproduced the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight, which chronicles the Boston Globe’s 2001 exposé of the decades-long sexual abuse of children by scores of priests and the Boston Archdiocese’s attempts to cover it up. As you can imagine, movies about heroic journalists are rare as hen’s teeth these days, so whatever the merits of Spotlight—and I can argue that it has many—its appearance and relatively high profile at a time when lies and propaganda are degrading freedoms throughout the world are a blessing and a balm to me.
The newspaper movie, however, has had a long run in motion pictures, chronicling both the cynicism that characterized the early years of yellow journalism (Chicago ), as well as Fifth Estate crusading, both helpful (Deadline U.S.A. ) and harmful (Try and Get Me! [aka The Sound of Fury, 1950]). The inherent drama of headline news provides filmmakers with a constant supply of riveting material that offers audiences more bang for their buck for being at least partially true.
Arguably the most acclaimed and enduring of newspaper movies is Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), based on the best-selling book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then reporters for the Washington Post, whose investigative reporting on the 1972 burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. , revealed a vast dirty-tricks conspiracy that eventually ended the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. I remember very fondly volunteering at my local PBS station to answer phones and take pledges during its rebroadcasts of the 319 hours of U.S. Senate Watergate Committee hearings, shown and aired live on the three major networks and NPR beginning May 17, 1973. An estimated 85 percent of the American public watched or listened to at least part of the hearings, and many people called in to express their thanks to PBS for giving them access to information about which they cared deeply. I don’t remember a single caller who attacked the effort, phoned in a bomb or death threat, or called me or PBS functionaries libtards. A lot of young people may not understand why “–gate” is appended to most public scandals these days, but for my generation, the Watergate scandal left a permanent mark and continues to reverberate, as extremists double-down to secure the power and national prestige lost following Nixon’s disgrace.
Just as Watergate changed the American political landscape, so, too, did Pakula’s film spread its influence far beyond the newspaper or political thriller. On TV, there has been a steady succession of small cells of true believers trying to right wrongs and uncover truths by any means necessary (“The X-Files,” “Person of Interest,” “Leverage,” “Burn Notice”). On the big screen, John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996) does a pretty good job of recreating the conspiracies and meticulous fact-finding of President’s Men in a western setting, and director Shane Carruth said his knockout scifi film Primer (2004) was directly influenced by the newspaper drama. Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015) not only continues that director’s themes of outsiders combating power, but also appears to take inspiration from Pakula’s vision of a depopulated maze of streets and buildings that look, precomputer age, ever so much like Blackhat’s opening volley of digital circuitry. I might even go so far as to say that many of the superhero/comic book films would be nowhere without their “origin story”—newspaper funnies—and their focus on the courage of a few against the oppressions of the powerful.
All the President’s Men is, too, a product and exemplar of its time. The 1970s witnessed one of the greatest flowerings of American film culture, with more realistic, director-driven movies that mixed spectacle, elegance, and old-fashioned star power with a raw immediacy and violence for audiences weaned on the televised Vietnam War who wanted their entertainment to draw blood. Pakula avoids histrionics, but amps up the tension of his film, borrowing from Antonioni’s urban alienation and George Romero’s paranoia to paint a portrait of ultimate power as both dangerous and deeply stupid.
The opening sequence, the break-in itself, offers us a voyeuristic thrill reminiscent of Hitchcock’s tableau in Rear Window (1954), but more for stroking our own egos at observing how hopelessly inept the burglars were in planning their crime—drab men in ugly clothes duct-taping a door catch open and rifling through offices awash in light and open windows. Their tracks are detected easily by a lone security guard, who handily dispatches police to catch the burglars in the act. The only thing about this sordid event that catches Metro Editor Harry Rosenfeld’s (Jack Warden) attention is that the bust-in occurred at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters. Rookie reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Reford) is dispatched to attend the arraignment.
The burglary might have been buried for good inside the pages of the Post had Woodward not chatted up a white-shoe attorney (Nicolas Coster) observing the public defenders assigned to the case. The five men, four Cuban-Americans from Miami and James McCord, Jr., all testify to having ties to the CIA. The trail starts to warm up as former CIA worker and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt and Charles Colson, special counsel to the President, work into the chain of events. The National Desk starts angling to take over the story, and Metro reporter Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) worms his way onto the investigation by doctoring Woodward’s copy as soon as he turns it over to the copy desk. This scene—Bernstein’s underhanded, but skillful assistance and Woodward’s forthright approach in calling him on it—sets up the bad cop/good cop routine “Woodstein” will marshall when trying to get information out of reluctant informants.
Pakula offers the dynamics of the competitive news business as the pair watch the New York Times covering similar ground and finding new leads. Bernstein flies to Miami to follow up a NYT-prompted lead that payoffs from the Committee to Reelect the President were made to the Watergate burglars, waiting all day for Martin Dardis (Ned Beatty), chief investigator for the Dade County state attorney’s office, to show him a check written to one of the burglars. The scene shows the dodged determination of Bernstein to reach his goal, including making a phony call to Dardis’ honey-tongued watchdog (Polly Holliday) to get her off her guard station in front of Dardis’ office.
Pakula uses a sort of Shakespearean construction of deep drama alternating with comic moments to keep the audience on a rollercoaster of tension and release, an effective strategy for a story whose momentous outcome was known years before. Foremost is the character of Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), now known to be W. Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI at the time of the break-in. He had been an occasional deep background source to Woodward and kept him on track with Watergate, meeting with him in a parking garage to talk. The archetype of the oracle is an ancient one, and cinematographer Gordon Willis’ shadowy underlair suggests a plot born from Hell, pulling the film out of the everyday and marking it with mythic dimensions. Holbrook’s Deep Throat gives up his secrets grudgingly, dismissing Woodward with vague aphorisms like “follow the money” to avoid more pointed information that would lead to some deep damnation or other. Eventually, he reveals that lives are at risk, giving Pakula an opportunity to release audience tension by shooting Woodward rather comically whiplashing around to look over his shoulder as he walks away.
Pakula will raise and lower tensions again as Bernstein interviews a frightened bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) who oversaw payments to the network of dirty tricksters taking orders from Attorney General John Mitchell and Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. The scene is an understated cat-and-mouse game, beginning with the bookkeeper standing behind a prisonlike banister in a corner of a room and moving to a different corner, this time created by Bernstein and her own desire to tell the truth. Bernstein approaches her as though she were a coiled cobra, moving slowly to “refresh” his memory with his notebook and accepting her offers of coffee. The scene ends in antic merriment when Bernstein goes to Woodward’s apartment with his notes after consuming 20 cups of coffee from his six-hour marathon interview.
Spotlight took a clear inspiration from President’s Men in its depiction of churches as part of the Boston landscape through which the Globe reporters pounded the pavement. Here, there are numerous shots of Woodward and Bernstein driving past the White House, the endpoint of their inquiry, though they didn’t know it from the start. Willis favors high overhead shots to emphasize the informational maze through which the heroes must travel. One famous shot shows the pair in the mandala that is the Library of Congress, rifling through stacks of library slips. Willis also likes long shots of the wide-open city room, often nearly empty, as though to emphasize the egalitarian and transparent nature of news reporting. In retrospect, it also emphasizes how reporters were always out in the community and how news-gathering has shifted today to online research conducted in remote fashion.
Of particular note is the movie’s Oscar-winning sound design, which emphasizes a strong, muscular, determined group of professionals plying their trade with machines whose metal keys punch ink onto paper. It’s a distinctive and percussive sound, and emphasizes why I find so annoying the anemic, plastic clicking of the computer keyboards that have taken over from the typewriters and teletype machines in life—and especially in the movies. Coins ring into pay phones, telephone dials spin and click, stereo knobs click on and off—there are a whole range of sounds that are nearly lost to us today that make a more direct connection between the characters and their actions, and that immediacy also quickens the heart of the moviegoer.
So, too, does the thoroughness of the reporters. Today, lies are reported more routinely that facts in some circles—we live in an age of the gossip rag—but corner-cutting was not Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s style. Jason Robards, as Bradlee, tells his reporters that their verifications (at least two) feel thin, he checks their desire to run with what they’ve got. It’s no good if it isn’t true, can’t be proven to be true. Predictably, one of their stories brings a denial from a high-profile source—even though the facts are right, the circumstances of their discovery were not reported properly—and a dramatic dressing-down from Bradlee. Can you imagine that happening today?
Hoffman and Redford are iconic in these roles, but they really did seem born to play these men. Scrappy, energetic Hoffman channels just a bit of his Ratso Rizzo sleaze from Midnight Cowboy (1969), marrying it to ambition and the good sense to let Woodward take the high ground when needed. Redford has us on his side all the way, his blond good looks and low-pressure style encouraging people to volunteer information they initially refused to divulge. A vast supporting cast keeps the film moving in a dizzying, but never incoherent way. One performance of note is Robert Walden as Donald Segretti, a “ratfucker,” that is, a dirty-tricks purveyor who was, no doubt, the idol of the king of the ratfuckers, Lee Atwater. I found his story of giving up on a law career for something more lucrative and, to him, the equivalent of moral mischief, an interesting and always timely one. Walden would go on to play a wily Bernsteinesque reporter teamed with a sensitive Woodwardlike journalist in the TV series “Lou Grant” (1977-1982), another great work that must have owed its very existence to All the President’s Men.
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Director: Ben Wheatley
By Roderick Heath
Ben Wheatley debuted as a director with 2009’s Down Terrace and leapt to the forefront of British filmmaking talents with his second work, the gruesome, tantalisingly semi-abstract horror film Kill List (2011). Since then Wheatley, working in close collaboration with wife Amy Jump, who cowrites and edits his films, made the blackly humorous Sightseers (2013) and the psychedelic period film A Field in England (2014). Part of the potency the duo’s collaborations have mustered wells from the blend of Wheatley’s filmmaking savvy, achieving beguiling gloss and texture with stringent budgets and strong but near-unknown casts, and creative eagerness to smack apposite ideas and styles together. Wheatley and Jump marry the disorientating and enigmatic effects of arthouse cinema to down-and-dirty genre aesthetics, conjure farce and savagery as entwined serpents, and harbour an evident yearning to reinvigorate touchstones from diverse heydays of British cinema. Sightseers, for instance, managed to pitch itself somewhere between Ealing comedy and the eerie stylings of ’60s and ’70s folk-horror films, whilst A Field in England, though never quite coalescing as successfully as its two predecessors, also represented a leap in ambition as Wheatley and Jump explored the familiar theme of the shock of the new, but in the context of the past. High-Rise sees the filmmaking duo moving into new territory in adapting a highly regarded novel penned by J.G. Ballard in 1975 and working with a much more prestigious cast and budget. Still, the material demands that the duo’s edgy, fearless streak be left undiluted.
Ballard, a writer who, like Kurt Vonnegut, transcended his niche in popularity as a science fiction writer to become regarded as one of the most impishly acerbic imaginations of his time, spent part of his youth in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. He later transmuted that desperate experience into his famous novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Ballard’s adult viewpoint on the world, one that emerged with increasing ferocity, perversity, and cyanide wit in his writing, was understandably inflected by the grim lessons of his war experience, the spectacle of human civilisation suddenly ceasing to work in the coherent, systematic, antiseptic manner that defines modernity. Ballard’s scifi writing took on an increasing tint of brute parable as he offered mordant dissection of social systems and the underlying assumptions of human behaviour that sustain them. High-Rise levelled Ballard’s cold wit and unsparing sensibility at one of modernism’s temples, the high-rise apartment building, and the attendant commercialism of the boutique lifestyle mythos. The story, although nominally realistic and contemporary to when Ballard wrote it, edges quickly into a Swiftian portrait of what happens as systems break down and primeval behavioural patterns begin to assert themselves.
A few years ago I happened to catch on TV a British semi-documentary film from 1946, The Way We Live, detailed the rebuilding of Plymouth, rejoicing in the promise of apartment blocks as the way of the future for affordable housing. It was both a fascinating and perturbing experience to watch from a half-century’s distance, considering that life in such blocks would eventually become synonymous with slums and social dysfunction in many British towns (and far beyond), as large numbers of poor people were crammed into drab, self-cordoning zones — although now high-rise solutions to space and environment problems in cities are again becoming an trendy notion. Ballard’s target was larger than just architectural cul-de-sacs and the social engineering they’re supposed to enable, though, as his high-rise structure becomes a metaphor for the entire apparatus of human civilisation, with a grand architect named Royal and the floors of the building literalising social caste in terms of floors. Wheatley and Jump, in adapting the novel, made the choice to keep the story set in the 1970s, an idea with perhaps inevitable appeal for the duo with their fetish for retro tropes and styles, but one which also risks stripping the tale of its immediacy and still-pungent relevance, especially considering that with Kill List, Wheatley had revealed a gift for digging into a raw nerve of anxiety and portrayed the blindsiding quality of the late ’00s economic tsunami and the bitter aftertaste of the decade’s geopolitical adventuring better than most any other filmmaker.
High-Rise also keeps intact the flashback structure of Ballard’s novel, which commences with the instantly galvanising image of focal character Robert Laing eating a dog, and works backwards to explain how he came to this moment. Tom Hiddleston takes on the part of Laing, glimpsed at the outset exploring the mysteriously ruined, fetid, broken-down environs of his home, where strange men and dead bodies sit around apparently unnoticed, and the aforementioned act of cooking and eating a wandering dog is scarcely worth a blink. A title card announces a jump back three months to the days when Laing first moved into his new apartment building, the first completed tower in a five block project designed by genius architect and entrepreneur Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Royal’s declared hope for the building is to create a civic crucible that would break down class and other social barriers and create a self-sufficient community unto itself, complete with supermarket and swimming pool, and he’s attracted a great swathe of tenants through the fashionable swank and visionary allure of his construction.
As he settles into life in building, Laing learns that the opposite situation to the one Royal hoped for is rapidly evolving, with a rigid hierarchy built on floor levels. Lower floors are filled with middle-class wannabes whilst toffs and celebrities congregate in the higher. Laing, a pathologist at a teaching hospital, hovers somewhere in between, but he captures the interest of many of his new neighbours, including the much-chased single mother and socialite a floor above, Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and Royal himself, with his tenancy application, which inadvertently portrayed him as a Byronic intellectual. Laing seems to partly fit the bill as a loner, tightly-wrapped, both physically and psychologically. He’s recently been left quietly bereft, but also subtly armoured, by the death of his sister.
Laing draws Charlotte’s further interest when she catches sight of him sunbaking naked on his apartment terrace. She invites him for a session of fine dining and rutting in her apartment, which is interrupted by her young, bespectacled, hyperintelligent son Toby (Louis Suc). Charlotte’s also being pursued by another resident, Wilder (Luke Evans), a virile, fervent, working-class man who’s climbed a few social rungs through his work as a TV filmmaker. He lives on a lower floor with his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their kids. Laing encounters other neighbours around the building, a gallery of variously fussy, pushy, eccentric types, including wealthy, famous, but desperately lonely and fraying actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory); and supermarket checkout chick Fay (Stacy Martin), who starts teaching herself French from a phrasebook Laing buys but leaves behind.
Laing is invited to meet Royal by Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), his gatekeeper, and is bewildered by the rooftop garden, complete with thatched cottage, that crowns the building, Royal’s concession to his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), progeny of a great country house and the patrician mindset thereof. Royal, who limps from an injury he sustained during the building’s construction, needs exercise to keep limber: he asks Laing to be his squash partner and also offhandedly invites him to a party his wife is giving. When he arrives at the party, Laing is embarrassed to find everyone else is in fancy dress (as pre-Revolution French aristocrats, complete with chamber orchestra scratching out a version of ABBA’s “SOS”) whilst he’s in a black suit, and worse, he’s outed as a man who doesn’t understand the vicissitudes of the sphere he has entered. Cosgrove, the hard fist attached to this body politic, tosses him out after a brief window of courtesy, and Laing is forced to spend the night in the elevator when it breaks down. Royal is apologetic over both the humiliation and the breakdown, but he infuriates Laing with unchivalrous remarks about Charlotte.
The elevator breakdown proves, moreover, to be an early sign of the faults Royal dismisses as teething problems, but which soon turn out to be endemic. As the infrastructure of the building breaks down so does the nerve, tolerance, and finally the humanity of its populace. “On the whole, life in the high-rise was good,” the narrator’s voiceover (also Hiddleston) proclaims late in the film, directly quoting Ballard’s text: “There had been no obvious point when it had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.” Part of the essence of High-Rise’s thesis is precisely the idea that perhaps there is no great divide between the petty evils (and ecstasies) of human society and the potential for total descent into what some would call anarchy; indeed, another of High-Rise’s themes is that anarchy is another kind of order. High-Rise eventually moves into overt parable, even surreal territory, reminiscent of the music room no one can leave in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), as life in Royal’s building begins to decay and everyone, instead of reaching beyond it, becomes determined to win their various battles within it, sensing, as the very end signals, that they might at least gain the advantage of being used to it before everyone else has to do the same. It’s also a variation on an eternal theme of postwar British artists, particularly satirists and comedians: the thorny and often insufferable business of living with other people, an inevitable psychological by-product of life on a small island where politeness is not just a pleasantry, but an actual survival skill.
Great swathes of modern science fiction writing have never really had their day on screen, and the best writers of Ballard’s era, including Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison, conjured gritty, dingy, sexy, acerbic tales that threw off the adamantine postures of earlier genre writing and embraced a cynical and dissident attitude even before the cyberpunk age arrived. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was one of the few authentic filmings of that style in its own era; Robert Fuest’s take on Moorcock’s The Final Programme (1974) was another. Wheatley’s work here recalls Fuest’s film particularly, evoking devolution as haute couture phenomenon. Wheatley’s decision to make High-Rise in period proves quickly to have been a master stroke, in part because it accords with the material’s wilful rejection of restraint in its metaphors, turning Ballard’s tale into a kind of disco allegory slightly out of time, like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968). The first half, however, plays mostly like a ’70s sex farce with the underlying note of absurdist dread only registering as the faintest buzz, as Laing negotiates life in the tower and contemplates the uncommon (that is, utterly common) mores of his fellow inhabitants, from Charlotte’s nonchalant approach to sexuality (after they’ve been interrupted shagging by Toby, Charlotte lights a cigarette; Laing asks confusedly, “I thought we were doing this,” to her reply, “We’ve done it.”) to Helen’s broody, frustrated angst, expiated in dreams of moving to a higher floor and watching TV dramas set in the romantic past, and Wilder’s tiger-in-a-cage unease in his environment. Meanwhile the upper classes and their lackeys barely bother concealing their vicious defensiveness, setting the stage for a partial inversion of the world H.G. Wells envisioned in his The Time Machine where the workers would evolve into cannibalistic Morlocks and the bourgeois into effete Eloi: in this vision, the upper classes remain so precisely because of their cold-blooded determination to hold onto privileges, a lack of sentimentality that could be called monstrous or some kind of evolutionary advantage.
Laing, after his ejection from Ann Royal’s party, takes out his anger with quiet precision on one of her other guests and a fellow tenant, the foppish Munrow (Augustus Prew), who’s also one of his pupils at the hospital. Munrow faints during Laing’s instructive dissection of a human head, and though his medical scans come back showing he’s fine, Laing plays a blackhearted practical joke on him by suggesting the scans suggest he might be ill. Shortly after, Munrow throws himself off a balcony to his death. Laing’s mean joke gone wrong proves to be a psychic declaration of war that soon starts to consume the building, where minor faults and breakdowns evolve into systemic failure of power and supply.
Wilder starts a more overt insurrection with a catalyst moment that begins as literal child’s play: Wilder, edgy and itching for conflict during a birthday party for one of his kids, leads the child guests in a raiding party on the swimming pool, which has been cordoned off and claimed for a toff’s wine party. After one of the higher-floor tenants, a newsreader who works for the same TV station, promises to get him blackballed, Wilder releases his anger by purposely drowning Jane’s dog. The pool crashing coincides with a power outage, with the lower-floor residents respond to with a sprawling impromptu party, during which Wilder snorts cocaine and, confronted by Cosgrove, beats the enforcer to a pulp. Wilder certainly has all the potency and force required to lead the lower-floor faction, as social sniping becomes active warfare, but does he have the sense of a cause and the wisdom? His first instinct is stick to his job, endeavouring to make a documentary on life in the tower block even as everything goes to hell, whilst Laing’s instinct is to retreat into his intense, self-composed bubble and wait out the various storms breaking upon his door. But this proves impossible as the block spirals into chaos during the continued blackout, and supplies start to run low. A cabal of upper-floor types led by Pangbourne (James Purefoy), with Ann Royal as patron, begin to create plans to take on the lower floors and throw an even better party, a plan that shades into full-on raiding and pillaging as looting breaks out in the supermarket and it becomes clear survival and prosperity in the building is starting to become a matter of raw force and dominance.
High-Rise, in spite of its nominal period setting, has the genes of dystopian science fiction, portraying a microcosmic society in breakdown and connecting that breakdown to the processes of the human mind itself. Laing compares Royal’s building plans to a human hand—the multiple towers are shaped like the curling fingers closing around the great central car park that, in spite of being wide open, is actually labyrinthine in its confusion—a brain and nervous system, and then finally, a heart. The idea of place becoming a mimetic map of psychological function is an old one in scifi, suggested in Metropolis (1926), and here employed with a hint that it’s an illustration of a war between functional utilitarianism, implied by the resemblance to the hand, the often illogical and mysterious twists of the mind that controls it, and the force of the heart that keeps beating through all. Laing’s name suggests a reference to the influential Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who helped develop a theory that the madness that follows attacks of schizophrenia is the cathartic result of the brain receiving contradictory messages—a notion that describes High-Rise’s narrative and Wheatley’s treatment of it as a whole with great accuracy. As the situation in the tower block worsens, Wheatley’s tone straddles the zones of horror movie consummation and screwball comedy, seeing both the repulsive and hilarious aspects of people acting on their worst impulses as their civilisation declines from consumerist paradise to galvanised class structure to tribal commune.
Futuristic tales of dystopian societies and struggles against coercion have been infiltrating popular cinema of late, with films like The Hunger Games series, Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer (2013), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and the structural conceit of Snowpiercer’s social metaphor suggests the immediate influence of Ballard’s tale. Wheatley’s take on that tale feels, however accidentally, like a riposte to the supposedly dark, but actually simplistic, reassuring heroic fantasies in those films. High-Rise posits Wilder as a possible hero figure, a would-be revolutionary who wears both his class resentment and his masculine force on his sleeve, but he’s led astray in the course of the film by the very violent impulses he can’t control and by sexual egotism that finally manifests in the ugliest way when he learns that Charlotte, who has rejected him, has been Royal’s mistress and that Toby is the architect’s son: Wilder’s response is to break into Charlotte’s flat, rape and beat her bloody, and then make her feed him in a gruesome caricature of normality, with the punch line that Charlotte feeds him dog food, one of the few foodstuffs left in the building. Wilder chows down with straightforward acceptance of a new reality, apparent in some of the building’s other inhabitants. Meanwhile, Helen finds her own succour getting rogered by Lain over the unused stovetop in his apartment, a space he tries in vain to decorate and inhabit; his belongings remain unpacked, with smears of neutral blue-grey paint the same hue as the colour of the sky outside on his walls in his attempt to fashion himself a free-floating life. It’s not until he actually has to fight for ownership of a can of paint in the supermarket-turned-war-zone that he actually proves he wants anything. Wilder eventually half-compliments, half-condemns Laing for his self-possession, the kind of apparently bland, quiet rigour that can actually weather the storm that’s breaking about their ears.
Moving slightly askew from Ballard’s obsessive theme of the distorting quality of technology and its pernicious penetration of the way humans relate to it and each other, Wheatley and Jump’s interest is more compelled by social ritual — its apparent arbitrariness, the very real forces it sometimes conceals and otherwise channels — and also by the rules of power as evinced in the seeming neutral zone of modern life. Sightseers portrayed its mousy social outcasts finding self-realisation in murder, whilst Kill List depicted a returned Iraq War veteran who engaged in killing for hire to support his lifestyle, only to find the bill arriving in the cruellest fashion possible. A Field in England depicted the temptations of control and submission with suggestive political ramifications: some people certainly do want to lord it over others, but is their ability to do so sometimes facilitated by the desire of others to let them, as a release from certain pressures and anxieties of existence? Wilder’s forced ritual of making Charlotte pose as dutiful wife echoes the scene in A Field in England where the necromancer took his enemy prisoner, tortured him, and then forced him to wear a sickly smile whilst leading him like a dog on a leash. Wilder eventually harbours an ambition to climb to the higher levels and confront the god-king Royal, to tear him down or displace him, only to fail to recognise Royal when the two men meet in the supermarket after the architect descends to the lower levels in his attempts to fathom the failure of his creation and the people in it. Royal himself tries to count himself out of the chaos, but is drawn however reluctantly into the upper-floor cabal out of sheer parochial loyalty, as his anointed class’s parties devolve into raw, explosive orgies fuelled with captured riches. Royal finds himself nominated as tribal chieftain, for all his flummoxed cynicism.
Around the travails of the main characters, Wheatley offers a sprawling landscape of strangeness, offering perversely ebullient filmmaking as he charts the decline of the building from chintzy classiness to stygian pit, alternating effects of dreamy fantasia and cokey Scorsesean montages, matched to Kubrick’s ironic classical music cues, whilst visions of Sadean revelry flit by. Ann Royal is forced to run on a supermarket conveyor like a treadmill when she’s caught by a gang of vengeful spivs led by Fay; Jane rides amidst the snobs’ orgy on horseback as a porn-queen take on Lady Godiva before dismounting and asking “which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse?” A team of upper-floor raiders led by Pangbourne adopt tracksuits as a uniform and march into the supermarket happy to crack skulls. Wheatley and Jump’s propulsive editing style maintains the free-flowing, anecdotal quality of Ballard’s writing, vignettes of a descent into hell—or heaven, as so many seem ebullient and released in their surrender to completely carnal realities, including Royal and his wife, who shift from mutual contempt to strange loving using Jane as sexual surrogate, the two women holding hands plaintively whilst Royal works away. As the dissolution of the building reaches it last stages, its atomises into camps—women gathered in communal suckling circles, orgiastic sprawls that would make Sardanapulus blush, the swimming pool turned at first into a miniature Ganges where people wash clothes and then a concrete Styx littered with corpses.
Laing eventually finds himself threatened with top-floor defenestration when he refuses the request of Cosgrove, Pangbourne, and others in the upper echelon to lobotomise Wilder; he is saved only by Royal’s intervention. Wilder himself, given a gun by the Royals’ much-abused housekeeper and after Helen has been snatched as a hostage and put to work as a servant, climbs up through the building’s ventilator system, determined to confront Royal, only to stir the wrath of the women who form a kind of gestalt, a band of neo-Bacchantes who respond with lethal group wrath when their priest-king is threatened. Perhaps the most subversive idea in High-Rise is not that there’s a monster lurking under everyone’s skin, but that people are the same in just about any situation, just to greater or lesser degrees, and that after a time, perhaps it’s less our individuality than our shared reflexes that allow us to survive and create worlds together. Wheatley and Jump finally locate weird visions of happiness in disintegration amidst the horror and find a moment to note humanity even in the worst and the creation of new binaries and social zones, climaxing in beguiling moments, like Pangbourne coaching Helen through her labour pains and the final survey of Laing, calm and fulfilled with a harem of wives and a shank of dog leg on his spit.
If there’s a major flaw to High-Rise, it’s that it paints, but doesn’t entirely analyse the social processes Ballard’s satire was evoking. It backs off from some of the novel’s blackest resolutions, preferring to illustrate instead in a continuum of free-form absurdism. I have the feeling a lot of material finished up in the cutting room floor. But the blackout, sketch-like structure is to a certain extent the strength of High-Rise, kicking off the strictures of narrative nicety and, as the narration says of the building populace by the end, surrendering “to a logic more powerful than reason.” Here is the suggestion its characters reach a logical psychic end point akin to survivors of Leningrad’s siege or the bombing of Dresden, continuing with the business of keeping on. Only the very end brings in a genuinely false note, as a speech by Margaret Thatcher about capitalism is heard wafting on the airwaves: this moment serves less to make a solid connection between the late ’70s rejection of grubby authenticity for neoliberal chic and the sharp edge of social Darwinism than confirming just how much their impotence before the Iron Lady and her creed still haunts the British intelligentsia. High-Rise is certainly strong meat, perhaps too strong for many, in spite of its playful flourishes. But for the most part Wheatley and Jump have made their own work, the kind cinema too rarely offers these days—audacious, dynamic, and superbly crafted.
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Directors: Elia Kazan/John Erman
By Marilyn Ferdinand
During an interview about her recent appearance on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Gillian Anderson said that for actresses, the character of Blanche DuBois is the equivalent of King Lear for actors—the most demanding of roles. Vivien Leigh, who put an indelible stamp on the role in the 1951 movie version, said Blanche “tipped me over into madness.” Ann-Margret, who played Blanche in a 1984 television movie version, acknowledged it as the hardest role of her career, commenting rather drolly: “I play a character who is a nymphomaniac, an alcoholic, and a psychotic. It’s not a musical.”
A musical it certainly is not. A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the bleakest, most primal works ever created, pits the illusory world of a desperate, half-crazed Southern belle against the brutal reality of a modern-day caveman in the heat-drenched squalor of a New Orleans slum. And yet it teems with a kind of music—the lyrical dialog of Williams, the great modern poet of the stage descended from a grand Tennessee family as reduced in circumstances in the 20th century as the fictional DuBois clan that spun Blanche and her sister Stella out as its tired, last remains.
Streetcar is my favorite play, one I’ve seen several times on stage and in two film productions—the famous Oscar-winning prestige picture from Warner Bros. and a made-for-TV production that aired on the ABC Movie of the Week. The former earned its lead actress, Vivien Leigh, an Oscar, and the latter garnered Ann-Margret a Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination. Comparison may be beside the point, as it is, I believe, the text itself that indelibly brands everyone who comes to Streetcar for the first time and colors their view of the best interpretation. Nonetheless, although many people may think I’m crazy to class a TV movie with a film made by the mighty Elia Kazan and starring two bonafide movie stars—as uneven a boxing card, they may think, as that between Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois—Ann-Margret, Treat Williams and their director, John Erman, more than hold their own.
Little is different in the set design and costuming from one version to the other, though the TV version eliminates the wrought-iron elegance from the Kowalskis’ apartment building, helping to identify it more properly as a tenement. A basic, but not insignificant, difference between the two productions is that the earlier one is shot in black-and-white and the later in color. Harry Stradling, a cinematographer whose career began in the silent era and who could shoot anything from musicals (Easter Parade , My Fair Lady ) to high drama (Suspicion , A Face in the Crowd ), opens Kazan’s film in a bustling train terminal that tees off a gritty, restless style that has more than a hint of Manhattan to it. Bill Butler, whose major claim to fame is lensing Jaws (1975), shot the color Streetcar with a gauzy, nostalgic look that opens with Blanche’s sun-dappled trip through the genteel Garden District and gradually dims as she moves into the heart of darkness that is Elysian Fields, the rough quarter where Stella and Stanley live. There is a languid, moist quality to the look that suggests the damp heat of a New Orleans summer and more closely matches the action and dialog indicated in the script.
Both films take liberties with the play. Both are shortened, but choose different elements to eliminate. Importantly, Williams collaborated on the Kazan screenplay with Oscar Saul, so the choices were largely his; the TV movie credits the adaptation to Oscar Saul alone. I love that the Kazan version retains Stella’s revealing and image-rich speech about Stanley’s first act on their wedding night (“Why, on our wedding night—soon as we came in here—he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs with it. … I was—sort of—thrilled by it.”), but the Production Code demanded that the reason for Blanche’s disgust with her young husband was his lack of ambition, not the discovery of him having sex with a man. Stanley’s rape of Blanche is represented by her face reflected in a suddenly smashed mirror. In Erman’s version, the homosexual text is restored and the rape made explicit as Stanley straddles Blanche on the bed and tears her clothes.
Of course, the most important differences can be found in the performances of the actors as guided by their directors. It is here that I will part company to a large degree with the consensus opinion that Leigh, Marlon Brando as Stanley, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Karl Malden as Mitch comprise the ultimate dream team for this work. In many ways, I prefer Ann-Margret, Treat Williams as Stanley, Beverly D’Angelo as Stella, and Randy Quaid as Mitch. Here’s why.
Let’s start with Kazan’s version. Brando originated the role of Stanley on Broadway, under Kazan’s direction, to great acclaim, so it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the film version employing both men is the definitive version. Brando, of course, was one of the most electrifying actors of any generation, and his beauty and physicality work perfectly to explain why the refined Stella DuBois would throw over her aristocratic, but impractical heritage when offered the reality of the best sex of her life for the duration of her life. It seems, however, that Brando has taken literally Blanche’s description of Stanley’s animalism: “There’s even something sub-human—something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Maybe he’ll strike or maybe grunt and kiss you!” For much of his performance, he mumbles flatly, crossing other players’ dialog in a jumble of semi-coherence. Brando’s early confrontations with Blanche seem disconnected; he has far more to say to Stella about Blanche’s wardrobe than to Blanche herself, reflecting the strong connection between the pair.
Leigh plays Blanche as a hysteric from the get-go. She talks so fast that no one statement gets more emphasis than any other. Now, I have known mentally unstable people with logorrhea, and so this choice is not out of place. It renders Blanche something of a ghost, drained in many ways of personality, a waif we really can believe has to depend on the kindness of strangers. As the hard knocks continue, especially living with the contemptuous Stanley, Blanche’s desperation and growing lunacy overtake more everyday matters. It is in these latter stages of the film that Leigh really shines. She embodies Blanche’s delusions with the conviction that it’s a blessing to tell “what ought to be real.” The weariness of facing the world and her fading fortunes—“God love you for a liar,” is her ironic retort when Stella tells her how well she looks—slips briefly during her last hurrah as she attacks Stanley with a broken bottle, but crumbles immediately in his grip.
My favorite line reading from Leigh is during her flirtation with the young newspaper boy (Wright King) who comes to the door when Stella and Stanley are out. She has flattered him by guessing he was smart enough to avoid being rained on by ducking into a drugstore for a soda. “Chocolate?” “No, ma’am. Cherry.” “Cherry! You make my mouth water.” The sly double entendre of that last line hits the ear like a bell because of the fleetingly expressive, somewhat offhand delivery of someone who is trying to keep control of herself and assert her power and desire at the same time—very fitting for a schoolteacher turned sexual predator. In this instance, she completely bests Ann-Margret’s nakedly sexual line reading.
Kim Hunter has to play Stella like a cockeyed optimist to give weight to her relationship with Blanche. I was struck by her upbeat offer to put a shot of whiskey in a glass of Coke when Blanche asks, “Is it just Coke?” By this point in the drama, it’s clear that Blanche has been hitting the bottle pretty hard, but Hunter’s Stella seems utterly unconcerned, perhaps lost in the delusions Blanche spins to maintain her tenuous grip on a home, a future, and her sanity. Nonetheless, if this was Hunter’s and Kazan’s intention, it undermines the “happy” ending when Stella chooses to face reality and leaves Stanley (perhaps to return?). Otherwise, Hunter works extremely well with Brando—it can’t have been hard to express desire for a man as charismatic as Brando, but she is also very convincing as a wife who loves her husband and isn’t afraid of him or of expressing her opinions.
Karl Malden is, in my opinion, almost a complete misfire as Mitch, Blanche’s awkward, mama’s boy of a suitor. He seems to have entered the Quarter by way of Hell’s Kitchen, adopting neither a proper Southern accent nor bearing. He looks like he’s trying to compete with Leigh when he should be overwhelmed by Blanche’s practiced seduction. Oddly, when it’s time for him to hold his own with her after learning of Blanche’s sordid past, he just seems to fall out of the scene as Leigh reflects back at Mitch with pride and venom his own fantasies of Blanche as a spider luring her victims to the Hotel Tarantula.
This brings us to the John Erman production. Erman directed some of the best older actresses in the business in TV movies, including Sylvia Sidney, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, and Lee Remick. In addition to Streetcar, he directed Ann-Margret in three other TV movies: Who Will Love My Children (1983), the marvelous The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987), and Our Sons (1991). Erman helps his leading lady harness her natural sensuousness and use it to give Blanche more grounding and substance than Vivien Leigh’s Blanche. Ann-Margret fills her line readings with meanings that reveal Blanche’s state of mind, from a subdued, quizzical “Can this be her home?” upon her first look at Stella’s building to her genteel, slightly coquettish response to Mitch asking to kiss her: “Why do you always ask me if you may? Why should you be so doubtful?” Indeed, she brings out the Southern gentleman in this quiet man who seems a very unlikely comrade of Stanley’s.
Ann-Margret’s physicality works in her favor as well. When she emerges from Blanche’s frequent hot baths, she luxuriates in a sense of refreshment and a reinvigorated body. She puts on a dress like a woman caressing her beloved: “Clothes are my passion,” she says as she flicks and examines a fur on her arm. Ann-Margret said that when she went at Williams with the broken bottle, she told him to be prepared for a real fight. Blanche makes several passes at him, with Williams making an interesting game of pretending to take her threat seriously. She never had a chance, of course, but her determination makes her madness in the final scene all the more heartbreaking.
Quaid is, to my mind, the perfect Mitch, soft-spoken and kind when allowed to be himself, driven to rash and cruel behavior when he’s drunk and disillusioned. He’s like the male version of Blanche with less breeding. Beverly D’Angelo is a terrific Stella. Her performance shows the troubled relationship she has had with Blanche and the DuBois clan, deflecting Blanche’s criticism of the way she left the family and Belle Reve with a firm, “The best I could do was make my own living, Blanche.” Later, her response to Blanche’s “Is it just Coke?” is a resigned and slightly disgusted “You mean you want a shot in it.” I didn’t feel the connection between D’Angelo and Williams as strongly as with Hunter and Brando, but they had some nice, familiar moments, such as the girlish, wheedling way Stella asks Stanley for some money to take Blanche out during Stanley’s poker night and her playful greeting and full-bodied hug after he returns home the morning Blanche implores her sister to leave him.
Will Treat Williams make anyone forget Marlon Brando? Probably not, but he’s a sexy man in his own right who actually gets to bare his well-toned torso during his first encounter with Blanche, allowing viewers to share in her carnal stare. His violence doesn’t explode like an inferno the way Brando’s does, but he keeps an undercurrent of menace through most of his performance. To see him play a seducer and likely murderer of a teenager in 1985’s Smooth Talk is to understand this aspect of his persona at its most extreme, and I enjoyed that he didn’t make Stanley such a simian dolt, but rather invested him with an intelligence Blanche would like to ignore.
Erman maintains a leisurely pace, allowing us to sense the passing of time from Stella’s first revelation that she’s pregnant to her baby’s birth and imagine the building tension in the Kowalski home. He gives his actors room to explore their characters’ moods and actions in this way as well. While both versions of A Streetcar Named Desire are fine works, if you only know Kazan’s, you’re missing out on a real treasure.
The John Erman Streetcar is available here on YouTube.
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Directors: George Seaton, Jack Smight, Jerry Jameson, David Lowell Rich
By Roderick Heath
For several decades, Bedfordshire-born Arthur Hailey was the popular definition of a successful, immensely popular author. Hailey purportedly sold more than 170 million books with his patented brand of turning stringent research on spheres of life charged with yearning fascination for the public at large—politics, five-star hotels, high finance, and most enticingly, the new age of jet travel. One of Hailey’s earliest successes was a teleplay written for Canadian TV, Flight Into Danger, depicting the chaotic results of an outbreak of food poisoning on a transcontinental airliner; it was quickly adapted into a 1957 feature film called Zero Hour. Hailey revisited this territory with his 1968 novel Airport, which became a colossal bestseller, informing his readers about a scene quickly becoming mundane and yet still imbued with an aura of romance and exclusivity, thrilling them with the privilege of seeing that world’s inner workings mixed with racy glimpses into the burgeoning sexual revolution as it affected not just the dashing wayfarers of the sky, but also the earthbound functionaries of airport administration. Airport was brought to the big screen in 1970 in the midst of what is seen today as a transformative moment in cinema history, as the old studios were teetering and a new breed of filmmaker was beginning to make headway in the industry.
Airport’s success in its time stood as a reminder that even in the days of Easy Rider (1969) and MASH (1970), old-fashioned Hollywood values still held power. The project was shepherded with Selznickian ambition by producer Ross Hunter, backed up by high production values and, most importantly, a battery of strong stars cultivated from several generations of Hollywood actor. The recent death of George Kennedy at a very ripe old age put the Airport films back in my mind. Kennedy, big, burly, and balding, was nobody’s idea of a traditional leading man, and yet he and his character, Joe Patroni, became the linchpin for this, one of the first true modern film franchises. Kennedy, well known to filmgoers after his Oscar-winning turn in Cool Hand Luke (1967), was cast as Patroni, initially a TWA mechanical troubleshooter, but soon, in the course of the series, to be kicked upstairs as an airline executive, and later, barnstorming pilot, still bringing arch masculinity and cussed grit to any situation.
The setting of Airport is Lincoln International Airport, based on Chicago’s O’Hare International, beset by Christmas traffic and a powerful blizzard. During the opening scenes, a pilot bringing a 707 into the airport manages to get the plane bogged in snow when trying to taxi, effectively blocking Runway 29 and forcing airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) to close it down. This stirs up manifold troubles for Mel: holiday passengers complain, and citizens of a suburb right under the alternate runway feel Mel has broken his promise not to use it at night. During the course of the night, Mel gets Patroni on the job of moving the ditched aircraft, fending off angry protesters and airport trustees, and dealing with an elderly habitual stowaway, Ada Quonsett (Helen Hayes), and an ever-escalating crisis involving a passenger, Guerrero (Van Heflin), who wants to blow himself up along with Rome-bound flight The Golden Argosy for insurance money.
Meanwhile everybody’s private life is in a state of flux. Mel’s marriage to Cindy (Dana Wynter) is falling apart because of his dedication to his job, a process sped up by one of their daughters, tired of their fights, running off from home. Cindy eventually admits to having an affair, and Mel himself is increasingly drawn to indefatigable airline customer relations honcho Tanya Livingston (Jean Seberg). Mel’s sister, Sarah (Barbara Hale), is married to pilot Vernon Demarest (Dean Martin), a serial romancer who’s currently having an affair with flight attendant Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset): Gwen reveals to Vernon she’s pregnant, and in spite of Sarah’s confident expectations that Vernon will always come back to her, he is seriously affected by Gwen’s news and begins contemplating a life with her. Meanwhile Guerrero’s distraught wife, Inez (Maureen Stapleton), comes into the airport looking for her husband. Alerted to his plan, Vernon, Gwen, and Quonsett, who escaped her minders and boarded the Argosy, use a ruse to snatch Guerrero’s dynamite-filled briefcase away from him, but they’re foiled by another passenger. Guerrero detonates the bomb, leaving Gwen badly injured and forcing the plane’s pilot, Anson Harris (Barry Nelson), to turn back and make a dangerous landing—a landing that can only take place if Patroni can get Runway 29 cleared in time.
Hailey’s disaster narrative owed a lot to Ernest K. Gann’s The High and the Mighty, which had been filmed by William Wellman to great effect in 1956. Writer-director George Seaton whittled down a lot of the discursions into the business and politicking of Mel’s job, as well as the sidelong lunges into soft-core territory that helped make Hailey’s book so popular, to concentrate on the major drama of Guerrero’s crazed mission. In the process, Seaton gave real impetus to a film genre for which The High and the Mighty had been ür-text: the disaster movie in which a number of motley types are placed into a situation of common danger from a deus-ex-machina calamity. Film screens in the next decade would be clogged with these films in both the subsequent Airport films and the more extravagant productions of Irwin Allen. Common to most was the emphasis on the “all-star cast,” ensembles combining dependable headliners, good-looking ingénues, fashionable faces of the moment, and a smattering of older, once very famous actors to lend a touch of class and nostalgic pep. There was an irony built into this formula, as the appeal of these films depended on employing veteran actors, only to kill them off per the demands of the narratives, as if Hollywood, in perpetuating itself, was employing its old troupers and hardy survivors as a kind of spiritual Soylent Green. Hayes’ witty, scene-stealing performance in Airport helped create this template and perhaps created something of an archetype familiar today—the geriatric who refuses to conform to type, happily indulging herself and using her age as a weapon to stave off prosecution and punishment.
Hunter and Seaton were both old Hollywood pros, exactly the sorts of people who were supposed to be irrelevant by this time. Seaton had worked on A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1936) for the Marx Brothers and later made the perennial Miracle on 34th Street (1947). With Airport, Hunter saw the ultimate proof of his own thesis, offered earlier when he produced Douglas Sirk’s lush melodramas, that the vicarious thrills of luxury and flash still had enormous appeal for filmgoers amidst all the washed-out denim of the period. It was also the final project for composer Alfred Newman, whose achievements included writing the famous 20th Century Fox fanfare. The overlit interiors and rather bland colour palette, as well as the often cheap look of some sets, recalls similar faults with a lot of studio filmmaking of the period, one reason many said that in spite of the budget and assembly-line production Hollywood still wielded at the time, the quality of its craftsmanship was slipping. Seaton’s direction imported some modish tricks to jazz the film up, like some split-screen effects that work well, although when he uses this style during Mel’s conversations with his family over the phone, the effect echoes rather amusingly of The Brady Bunch.
The thing that differentiates Airport from something that could have been made 15 years earlier was its reflection on shifting social mores. The first film wields an essentially nonmoralistic take on characters whose sex and emotional lives are becoming increasingly unconventional. The relatively calm, even auspicious sense that comes upon Mel and Cindy when they finally agree to divorce and pursue more satisfying relationships still has a faintly radical ring, even though the fact Cindy’s characterised as a shrieking, glassy harpy cops out a bit. This also goes for Vernon and Gwen’s relationship, although there’s a slight taste of something retrograde when gorgeous, spunky, quick-witted Gwen gets mangled by the bomb. The conscious equation of aircraft with sexuality is taken to amusingly hyperbolic lengths by the finale, as Patroni, desperate to gun the 707 out of the way, bellows at the plane “Either way, she’s gonna get it,” like a frustrated, but determined man trying to get a particularly uncooperative G-spot off. As the series unfolded, the embrace of a louche, glossy magazine adlike take on adult sexuality would become increasingly goofy. The film’s punch line, with Mel grinning at Tanya and essentially proposing they dive straight in the sack with the deathless line, “You’ve been bragging about your scrambled eggs,” sets the seal. The official message of the Airport series is that though the age of mass commercial flight can be an aggravating and occasionally dangerous business, a whole infrastructure of human and mechanical resource will be brought to bear if and when things go wrong. The unofficial message is that everyone should stop fretting and just get down with it.
Airport is still very entertaining and dramatically solid, for all its plastic-fantastic points, barrelling along with Seaton’s real storytelling savvy and utilising its excellent cast with a finite sense of what they bring to the table, particularly Hayes’ perky, elfin humour, Stapleton’s clammy panic, Bisset’s foxy poise, and Kennedy’s macho heft. Others don’t work so well, like Martin, who seems rather fuzzy throughout playing a character seemingly perfect for him. Occasionally the film lurches into real silliness, like a priest slapping an annoying passenger during landing, laying the seeds for some of the intense goofiness to come in the sequels. Airport grossed more than $100 million, a staggering sum for 1970, and small wonder every producer and his dog got busy imitating it. Hunter crash-landed making 1973’s atrocious Lost Horizon remake, and the series was handled from then on by Jennings Lang and William Frye, who provided a follow-up on the relative cheap four years after the original under the hopeful title of Airport 1975. It’s worth noting at this point that despite incredible popularity of the Airport films, now they’re probably known far less well than one of their cultural by-products, Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker’s send-up, Airplane! (1980), which borrowed tropes from all of the films and Zero Hour for a merciless ribbing. Airport 1975 serves up several of the most memorable elements Airplane! spoofed—the wonder of it is that the original might actually be sillier.
Airport 1975, the second entry in the series, feels more like the 15th in the way it takes only essential elements from the original and riffs on them with a tone that can’t be called self-satirising, but certainly with a rather puckish, can-you-believe-we’re-pulling-this-trick? smirk. Screenwriter Don Ingalls sets up the most bare-boned take on the series’ basic plot: placing a raft of quickly sketched characters played by assorted well-known faces in danger during a mid-air emergency. Some aspects of the original film are recycled studiously. The theme of romance between a pilot and his sturdy, but nettled stewardess is as compulsory as Patroni’s presence in the series, here in the form of Charlton Heston’s swashbuckling Alan Murdock, matched with Karen Black’s Nancy Pryor. Near-disaster is again caused by someone trying to keep up in the rat race, although Dana Andrews’ hapless salesman only accidentally collides his light plane with a 747, killing flight crew members Roy Thinnes and Erik Estrada and severely injuring captain Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Passengers on this troubled flight include Linda Blair, fresh off The Exorcist (1973), as a deathly ill transplant candidate, Myrna Loy as a wandering widow fond of boilermakers, Sid Caesar as an easily startled would-be romancer, Norman Fell and Jerry Stiller as a couple of stewed prunes, and, most bewilderingly, Gloria Swanson playing herself in the process of narrating her memoirs to a writer played by Heston’s former Planet of the Apes costar, Linda Harrison. Swanson reportedly wrote all her own dialogue, which sadly results in some of the worst screen dialogue ever uttered.
Blair’s character, Janice, becomes the object of empathy for two nuns on board. One, a guitar-wielding, pop-friendly songstress played by Australian singer Helen Reddy, regales her with smooth melodies. Reddy, in spite of her excruciatingly fey performance, was nominated for a Golden Globe at the time (and you think the Globes are corrupt now!). The director for this entry was Jack Smight, a former TV hand who made some good films in the 1960s, including Harper (1966) and The Illustrated Man (1968), but by the mid-’70s was turning increasingly mercenary on lazily assembled projects where his ability to give a veneer of gloss whilst keeping costs down was the chief appeal for the studios that hired him. The first 40 minutes of Airport 1975 are really bad, stilted and flimsy. The film improves considerably, however, thanks to Smight’s solid technique and raw dramatic impetus once disaster strikes. Nancy is forced to take control of the 747 and is coached over the radio by Murdock and colleague Patroni in basic manoeuvring. Patroni has a personal stake in the crisis, because his wife (Susan Clark) and son (Brian Morrison) are also on the damaged plane. Nancy gains enough control to avoid crashing into the Rocky Mountains, but to land the plane at Salt Lake City, a real pilot has to get on board. This leads to a riveting sequence as an Air Force pilot (Guy Stockwell) dangles from a military plane over the 747; he dies in the attempt, but Murdock dares the same feat and manages to get aboard.
Philip Lathrop’s aerial photography of the grand 747 flying over the mountains and the stunt work here is so good, it quickly quells the shoddiness of the set-up. Murdock lands the plane, but malfunctioning brakes mean he has to careen around the airfield before finally grinding to a halt. The original film’s concentration on relationship dilemmas had by this time given way to disco-era sleaziness, as Thinnes and Estrada oil up flight attendants with eyes and quips, particularly neophyte Bette (Christopher Norris), in displays of cringe-inducing sexism. This does, however, distract from another theme percolating here—a dawning contemplation of the difficulties of more equal partnerships glimmering in the way Black’s servile stewardess, introduced arguing with Murdock, then has to step up to the plate in a deadly situation and keep her head. The series kept up its habit of inventing airlines for nasty things to befall; for the original, a fictional Trans Global Airways and Trans America had been created, and in Airport 1975, Columbia Air Lines. This was an inevitable nicety when dealing with this sort of thing, although the films also notably bend over backwards to emphasise just how durable and tough the aircraft are in bad expository dialogue.
For all its silliness Airport 1975, although not as big a hit as the first film, brought back an amazing budget-to-box office ratio, making another entry inevitable. Airport ’77 is, by contrast, more polished and solidly conceived, easily sporting the best special effects of the series, as if the studio realised they needed to nurture this cash cow a bit more tenderly. Perhaps they also took a cue from Allen’s disaster films, making plot more important and putting greater emphasis on the mechanics of survival. Rather than just shoehorning someone like Swanson in, here the Old Hollywood star is James Stewart, cast as billionaire entrepreneur Philip Stevens, whose privately owned, specially built 747 is central to the storyline. For the sake of media coverage, Stevens has his chosen pilot, Capt. Don Gallagher (Jack Lemmon), fly the plane to his estate at Palm Beach with a load of celebrities and part of his valuable art collection. A number of thieves, colluding with Gallagher’s copilot, Chambers (Robert Foxworth), set out to hijack the plane mid-flight and abscond with the art: they knock out everyone aboard with gas, and Chambers steers for a remote island. On the way, he clips the top of an oil rig and crashes into the sea. Because of the plane’s special fittings, several compartments remain watertight, and the plane sinks to the shallow Caribbean floor with most of the people on board unharmed, but trapped. Gallagher has to work out some way of alerting rescuers to their position, and then just how to get them out of a tin can on the ocean floor becomes the concern of navy personnel, whilst Joe Patroni advises at Stevens’ side.
Airport ’77 proceeds with a more serious tone and tackles its slightly ridiculous central situation in a way that makes it feel tolerably believable, but still offers up some glorious hunks of cheese, chasing pathos in the form of blind lounge pianist Steve (Tom Sullivan) and adoring fan Julie (Kathleen Quinlan). Also on board are one of Stevens’ underlings, Stan Buchek (Darren McGavin); Stevens’ daughter, Lisa (Pamela Bellwood), and her son, who have established life out of the tycoon’s shadow; slick barman Eddie (Robert Hooks); and arts patron Emily Livingston (Olivia de Havilland), who finds herself flung back into the company of an old beau, Nicholas St. Downs (Joseph Cotton). The most vital characters here are Christopher Lee as Martin Wallace, an intensely committed underwater engineer and humanitarian, and his alcoholic wife, Karen (Lee Grant), who goads and insults her husband and has even slept with his assistant (Gil Gerard), but still, in her odd way, loves him obsessively. When the only option for escape seems to be a risky venture into the plane’s cargo hold to find and float a rescue beacon, Martin joins Gallagher, but drowns in the attempt when he opens a door to the sea, leaving Karen distraught. Grant’s magnificent overacting and Lee’s terse, earnest performance make for a heightened, highly entertaining study in contrasts, whilst their characters return to the motifs of unhappy couples in the original, playing what the Bakersfields’ marriage might have looked like if, instead of drifting apart, they’d been locked together in a perverse, even masochistic brand of affection. The problem here is that once Martin kicks the bucket and Karen zones out, Airport ’77 lacks anyone else interesting to focus on, as the other characters are too thinly sketched and played.
Casting Lemmon as Gallagher was a potentially interesting move in creating a hero in a different mould to the fantasy portraits in alpha masculinity hitherto seen, and his relationship with Eve Clayton (Brenda Vaccaro), another of Stevens’ aides, does feel distinctly warmer and more adult than most of the other couplings in the series. But Lemmon basically walks through the film when he’s not scuba diving, and I’d bet even money the chance to do something physical like that is the reason he accepted the role. Meanwhile, the old stars on show here—Stewart, De Havilland, and Cotton—basically get nothing to do. Even the screaming camp of Steve and Julie doesn’t sing as loudly as it should. It’s a sign of how lacking in pep the script is that it barely includes Patroni and can’t even provide anything for him to swear at. The director, Jerry Jameson, was another former TV hand who had also worked as an editor, but like his earlier horror film, Bat People (1974), and his later nautical project, Raise the Titanic (1979), he scarcely seems aware of how to dramatically shape a film, happy instead to offer up lots of B-roll footage of navy ships and scuba divers at work. This leaves Airport ’77 in a curious limbo: it’s better on almost all levels than Airport 1975, and yet, finally, much less entertaining. After the long, laborious finale when the navy does show up and sets about floating the plane to the surface, we’re assured the rescue techniques are all realistic, and indeed it does have the feel of watching someone’s manual acted out.
Nonetheless, Airport ’77 was still another substantial hit, and Jennings Lang eventually mustered the gall to produce one last episode. The Concorde… Airport ’79 came out in the waning months of the decade these films so exemplified. By this time, all hint of Hailey’s systemological and sociological interests were gone, but Patroni was still around, and finally comes into his own as central protagonist, albeit a little late. The Concorde bombed and brought the official series to an ignominious end. This swan song is incredibly silly, stretching several of the series’ regulation tropes to the point of cartoonishness. But it also has freewheeling pulp-novel jauntiness and a willingness to indulge its inanest ideas that makes it often riotously entertaining, if not always in a positive manner. The plot here strays into territory reminiscent of Hailey’s rival pop writers, Robert Ludlum and Alistair MacLean, revolving around tycoon arms manufacturer Kevin Harrison (Robert Wagner), who’s been selling weapons illegally. One of his minions, Carl Parker (Macon McCalman), approaches Harrison’s sometime girlfriend and TV journalist Maggie Whelan (Susan Blakely) with his collected evidence for Harrison’s activities, but a hired assassin guns down Carl and pursues Maggie around her house, eventually giving up and running away.
Maggie, scheduled to cover the inaugural run of a Concorde purchased by the airline owned by Eli Sands (Eddie Albert), embarks on the flight, but is given Carl’s evidence at the airport by his widow. Harrison, knowing this, immediately makes several attempts to destroy the flight in mid-air, including launching an experimental missile system at it, hiring a mercenary jet pilot to shoot it down, and finally, having agents sabotage the plane. Battling Harrison’s machinations are Patroni, who, looking for a challenge after his wife’s death, has returned to flying for Sands, and French copilot Paul Metrand (Alain Delon), who delivered the plane to the U.S. He partners with Patroni as they steer the plane to Moscow via Paris. On board this time are a bunch of Russian athletes bound for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, including champion gymnast Alicia Rogov (Andrea Marcovicci), who’s in love with one of Maggie’s colleagues, Robert Palmer (John Davidson), and Mercedes McCambridge playing her hard-bitten coach. Monica Lewis and Jimmie Walker appear as jazz musicians heading to a cultural festival before the Olympics, with Walker’s character, Boise, fond of getting high in the bathroom. Also in the cast for no particular reason are David Warner rounding out the flight crew, Cicely Tyson as an anxious mother escorting not a whole sick child but just the intended organ for a transplant, and Martha Raye and Charo adding comic relief, which is much less funny than the film’s serious stuff. Metrand is a dashing lothario contending with his own impending choice of continuing his wayward ways or settling down with stewardess Isabelle (Sylvia Kristel).
If the earlier entries in the series exemplified the apparent fantasy lives and yearnings of the era’s mass American audience, The Concorde tries to export the brand and lasso Delon and Kristel as avatars of an even more louche, free-and-easy continental lifestyle. The intended ooh-la-la jazz is lessened as Delon looks bewildered throughout and Kristel, well, can’t act. The filmmakers take this lifestyle target to the point where Metrand hires a hooker, Francine (Bibi Andersson), to pose as a perfect date for Patroni and help him get his mojo back, leading to an unforgettable scene with Kennedy and Andersson lounging in the buff under a lambs-wool blanket before an open fire. The experience leaves Patroni fired up again and cements his friendship with Metrand as they contend with Harrison’s attempts to kill them. Those attempts include a dizzyingly hilarious sequence in which Metrand flies the Concorde upside down whilst Patroni fires flares out the cockpit windows to distract heat-seeking missiles. To disassemble all the improbabilities in this scene would take a while; suffice to say that our heroes succeed and manage to land in Paris, although the Concorde is damaged and can’t brake, so the plane has to be caught in giant nets.
In spite of this mechanical complication, a couple of quick repairs later, the plane takes off again with Maggie still aboard, even though there’s a psychopathic tycoon trying to kill her. But everybody’s dedicated, dammit, and they’re going to finish the job they signed on for. Maggie is also friends with Patroni, and it’s signalled he could be a good fallback boyfriend after the prissy megalomaniac. The Concorde’s director was David Lowell Rich, another filmmaker who was jobbing around Hollywood for a long time and had staked his claim to taking on the series with the franchise imitation SST: Death Flight (1977). More interestingly and bewilderingly, the script was penned by Eric Roth, who would go on to pen Forrest Gump (1994), Ali (2001), and Munich (2005). Rich and Roth build to their climax, as sabotage causes a cargo bay door to fly off, forcing Mertrand and Patroni to land the ailing Concorde on a snow field. Mostly everyone escapes, and the film ends rather suddenly. The collection of good actors here picking up a quick paycheque is rather astounding. Blakely, in particular, deserved better, and where else can you see Delon, Kennedy, and Warner locked together in a small space?
Still, The Concorde is so magnificently dumb, it’s a near-endless pleasure to me. But it was certainly a bridge too far for the series, which died here. History wasn’t on its side, with the oncoming Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics, both of which made its lighthearted take on détente chic instantly dated. The flop of several competitors, including Irwin Allen’s The Swarm (1978) and When Time Ran Out… (1980), helped kill off the disaster movie craze, and Airplane! raked dirt over the grave. I also suspect a change of culture played a part, as the ’80s with Reaganism and AIDS saw the Me Decade fantasies at play here become recherché. But perhaps the biggest change that spelt the doom of this breed was cinematic. The arrival of Star Wars in 1977 has been blamed for helping kill the ambitious and personal cinema of the era, but, in fact, it was far more lethal to rival blockbuster films like the Airport series, which maintained their peculiar faith in those old cinema values like star power, no matter how they misused it. Although visual action in the Airport films is important to their plots, it’s obvious the filmmakers would always prefer to hire a name than spend the dime on an effect, and the effects in The Concorde are spectacular only in their lameness. But Star Wars filled theatres with special effects, not movie stars. I call it a slight pity, if only because maybe if there had been an Airport ’81, the filmmakers’ twinning urges towards trendiness and cliché might have finally given us a female pilot and her steward lover. The Airport films certainly don’t transcend their era, but as relics they still are fun.
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Director: Mario Bava
By Roderick Heath
Mario Bava is beloved by cineastes as the filmmaker who helped define the modern concept of horror and thriller cinema, as well as the founder of the giallo style that would shape both. But like most Italian directorial talents of the time, including rivals like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, who were not lucky enough to be counted amongst the anointed guard of art filmmakers, Bava dipped a toe in the other genres that were mainstays of the Italian film industry of the day: spaghetti westerns and peplum. Peplum films, a genre more usually known outside Italy as “sword and sandal” (the word “peplum” refers to a type of Greco-Roman toga), told stories based in classical history and sometimes outright mythology, and had been a mainstay of Italian film since early spectacles like Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1913). Thanks in large part to the appeal of imported American champion body builder Steve Reeves, 1957’s Hercules, directed by Pietro Francisci and produced by then-major Italian studio Titanus, proved a huge hit and sparked a general explosion in the genre. The once-parochial brand found an international audience amidst fans of zippy, simple thrills, kids delighting in straightforward action fantasy, weightlifting freaks, and aficionados of campy delights. Once Reeves bowed out of the role, Titanus went through several more beefcake heroes, including Jayne Mansfield’s husband Mickey Hargitay and Leeds-born former Mr. Britain, Reg Park.
Bava had served as cinematographer and special effects whiz on Francisci’s hit. After years gaining a reputation not just as an expert film technician but also as a sure hand at rescuing film productions, including mentor Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956) and the ambitious peplum drama The Giant of Marathon (1959), Bava finally made his proper directing debut with La Maschera del Demonio (1960). It was only natural that at some point, the new filmmaking star would be hired to handle an entry in the Titanus Hercules series, and Hercules in the Centre of the Earth was it. Bava’s forays into the western mode are generally considered his weakest work, but his historical action films are defiantly oddball and striking, in part because he displayed a propensity for mixing genres. On Hercules in the Centre of the Earth he injected a powerful strain of his gothic horror style, and later, in the face of stringent circumstances, blended western plot rhythms with a distant historical setting on Knives of the Avenger (1966). Bava, belated as his recognition was, is today seen as particularly important because of his influence on later filmmakers, including John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Ridley Scott, and others. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth is particularly vital in this regard as a nexus for several later cinematic strands. At first glance, Bava’s lush, baroque, eerie sense of style would hardly seem matched with the aesthetics of peplum, usually shot in the sun-dappled climes of Spain replete with oily guys in loin cloths sparring and chariots trundling across the landscape and releasing basso profundo laughter. But with Hercules in the Centre of the Earth, Bava, who shared writing credits with Sandro Continenza, Franco Prosperi, and Duccio Tessari, created a work that taps into the deepest spirit of the fantastic in spite of his low budget, cramped production, and the regulation tropes of peplum inimical to his dark and anarchic storytelling spirit.
That brings up an interesting point: what films do actually channel the feeling of mythology best? Most movie fans are used to the grandiosity of spectacular takes on mythology, from The Ten Commandments (1956) to Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films and other CGi-riddled recent fare, or the less expensive, but intricately manufactured works of Ray Harryhausen, whose Jason and the Argonauts (1963) shares some of its strongest aspects with Bava’s film. Art movie stalwarts might let their minds drift to the no-less-stylised, but considerably more allusive, purposefully estranged takes of Pasolini on Medea (1969), or Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), films which evoke the often very surreal aspect of mythic storytelling, glimpsed as if through a veil, broken frescoes in glittering fragments rather, if also neglecting their usually strong, orally based narrative values. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth tends closer to the former, and accepts the general rules of the peplum genre, a style generally governed by very strict rules of firm morality and clean-cut heroes. But it also successfully blends a quality of the otherworldly, verging on the hallucinatory, in its evocations of the comic-booklike storytelling essentials of classical heroic myths, to conjure a work that takes place entirely in a cordoned reality.
The film’s opening sees Hercules meeting up with friend and fellow monster-slaying mythic hero Theseus (George Ardisson) somewhere in the Achaean countryside. Hercules is heading to the city of Hercalia after a legendary journey to see his fiancée, the Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo). Theseus, ever the ladies’ man, is too busy making out with Princess Jocasta (Ely Dracò) to notice a gang of hired assassins sneaking up on them, and a wild melee breaks out as Hercules and Theseus fight off the bad guys, climaxing in Hercules picking up a wagon and sending the assassins skittling.
Hercules continues on his way to Hercalia, but he finds the city beset by famine and pestilence, the populace deeply unhappy and believing the gods have cursed them. Deianira herself seems to be under an evil influence, wandering the corridors of the royal palace in a dissociated stupor murmuring Shakespearean odes to Hercules, whom she can’t recognise and instead believes drowned at sea. What Hercules doesn’t know is that Deianira’s uncle, Lico (Christopher Lee), serving as regent during her illness, is actually a black magician who has made a pact with the dark pagan gods which used to reign in the region. He also hired the defeated band of assassins. One of them reports their failure to Lico but still demands to be paid. Lico seems happy to do so, only to lure the unfortunate goon into a trap that guards his treasure horde, causing hidden spears to spring out and impale the would-be killer like a pin cushion and leaving him dangling in gruesome rictus. This kind of clever-nasty gimmick harks back to silent serials and anticipates the flavour of the James Bond films, although that series was still a year away.
Lico’s evil designs are made apparent to the viewer, although Hercules remains oblivious to them for a long time to come. Lico keeps the mesmerised Deianira installed in a sarcophagus in the labyrinth below the palace, intending for her to join the populace of zombielike ghouls already sleeping there. Bava here nods to Nosferatu (1922) as Lico calls Deianira to life, and she stands up from the sarcophagus stiff as a board, and then moves toward the camera in an eerie glide, a flourish Bava would later recycle for a more famous variation in I Tre Volti della Paura (1963). Hercules is warned about the evil befalling the land by Chamberlain Keros (Mino Doro) and decides to speak to the Oracle Medea (Gaia Germani) and delve into the mystery. Medea consults in a stylised chamber of glittering Grecian decor and saturated colours, and delivers her prophecies in a carefully stylised blend of recitation and dance, face hidden by an Eastern-style mask. She warns Hercules that Deianira is under the influence of powerful, baleful forces, and that he must pay a heavy toll if he wants to proceed with any attempt to save her. He volunteers to Zeus to give up his immortality, and once it seems this offering it is accepted by a crack of thunder, the Oracle tells Hercules the only way to break the spell upon his intended is to venture into the realm of Hades and retrieve a totemic stone kept there which can ward off the evil spirits. This mission means penetrating the immutable veil between the living and the dead, and the only way to do that is to sail to the Garden of the Hesperides and fetch a totemic golden apple growing in the branches of a colossal, black tree.
Park was having his second turn as Hercules here. It’s hard to assess his performing skills as he was dubbed first into Italian and then with an American voice in the English-language version (as was costar Lee, amusingly), and many dismissed him as a big lunk in comparison to Reeves. But I find him a strong screen presence, armed with suggestions of delicate humour (as when he picks up one character between two fingers and moves him aside ever so gently), dashes of romanticism (as when he’s reunited with Deianira), and good humour with his fellow actors, even if his job is mostly to stand around showing his pecs, each about the size of Jerry Lewis. Bava’s gifts for employing colour and composition to create a dense, enfolding atmosphere, the essence of his art as a maker of horror films, gives Hercules in the Centre of the Earth a weird and oneiric quality that distinguishes it from a lot of fantasy cinema, particularly of the time, and steers it very close to Bava’s more familiar genre stomping grounds. This approach suits a storyline erected as a pretext to explore the mystical, incantatory corners of ancient Greek mythology, improvising freely on some of its essential themes whilst also checking off some of Hercules’ less well-known labours, particularly his hunt for the golden apple. Most peplum films minimised the fantastical, emphasising instead muscle, brains, and guts as the essentials tools for forging civilisation.
The darker side of the source legends, in which Hercules was frequently beset by curses and maladies and his own chaotic nature, underline the prototypical hero as an essentially ordinary man striving to do good and blessed with great natural attributes, but under the sway of malignant forces that serve as metaphors for the pressures that befall all people, trapped eternally between a presumed divine nature and the chaotic impulses of existence and fate. Peplum heroes were rarely so complicated. Bava’s film exemplifies peplum as a genre on some levels, particularly in the emphasis on legitimate and illegitimate governments, with Hercules presented as the embodiment of right as might, an unquestionably decent and gutsy individual blessed with an outsized strength inseparable from his moral compass. I’ve often wondered if peplum’s obsession with this narrative pattern reflected Italy’s postwar identity crisis as much as any Antonioni alienation fest, with Hercules, Maciste, Ursus and manifold other hunky heroes all posited as wandering, selfless fighters for the oppressed and dispossessed, and combaters of corrupt regimes. They were stringent antitheses to the trend toward antiheroes that would start in the next few years and that still permeate pop culture. Bava maintains the series pattern in making Hercules a simple, good-natured man, but critiques it noticeably as Hercules’ trusting nature blinds him to Lico’s evil, obvious to the audience, just because of who’s playing him, and uses Theseus instead as a figure who invokes wayward impulses and ultimately self-consuming emotional impulses. His womanising at the start is mere frivolous fun, but eventually causes other people great evil when he steals Persephone (Ida Galli) away from Hades.
The journey to the underworld sees Hercules returning to enlist Theseus’s aid, with the intention of commandeering a “magic” ship built by Sunis (Aldo Pedinotti), the only craft that can stand a chance of traversing the sea and reaching Hades. They’re joined by Telemachus (Franco Giacobini), an inept princeling engaged to Jocasta who came looking for her and, confronted by Theseus as a rival suitor, became friends with him instead. (The character’s name is taken from Odysseus’ son, but like several other characters here, only seems to have been named for general mythical association.) Telemachus volunteers to convince Sunis to give them his ship, but instead he finishes up almost drawn and quartered because Sunis wants to punish him for seducing his wife. Hercules intervenes and save Telemachus, and they take the ship whilst Sunis chases after him. On the mystic sea, the ship is assailed by storms, swirling clouds above, and schisms opening in the water, sweeping the ship and its crew onto the shores of the Hesperides. This is a place of perpetual night at the fringe of the underworld, and the Hesperides nymphs are held in check by dark powers, doomed to deliver up anyone who comes to them to the monstrous denizen of Hades’ gateway, Procrustes. Whilst Hercules as a son of Zeus is untouchable, the nymphs send Theseus and Telemachus to sleep in a chamber that serves as the lobby of Hades, where Procrustes lurks.
An implicit faith of peplum films is that few problems can’t be solved by throwing heavy objects around, and that’s still true here, although Bava emphasises how Hercules uses his strength in conjunction with intelligence. Defeated by the height of the tree on which the golden apple hangs and the furious divine storm that shakes it, Hercules instead makes a giant slingshot with a boulder and uses it to dislodge the apple. Hercules’ success breaks the spell forcing the Hesperides to enact Hades’ will, and their leader, Arethusa (Marisa Belli), warns Hercules he has to save his friends from the monster. The mythic Procrustes was a villainous son of Poseidon whom Theseus defeated; here he’s a demonic figure made of solid rock, impervious to Theseus’s sword blows. But Bava stays true to the gleefully nasty modus operandi of the mythical villain, with Theseus and Telemachus tied down on two beds, one too long and the other two short, with Procrustes intending to fit each to the bed by appropriately brutal means. Bava’s Procrustes, a lumbering but unstoppable creature, is a creation charged with peculiar creepiness, perhaps because of its odd, robotic-sounding voice as well as the sadistic simplicity of its intentions.
An interesting note sounds here, in spite of the sequence’s brevity, for fans of Bava and horror cinema in general. Bava takes on a purely symbolic brand of evil in a film that captures the aura of Greek mythology as a realm where the entire apparatus of narrative is psychological and symbolic. As Leone would in his westerns, Bava introduced this blank, atavistic sense of dramatic function sourced in myth to his following horror films, helping to give birth to the image of the masked, implacable, infernally motivated alien threat that would drive the slasher film. What is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) if not a much longer version of this same scene, down to the motifs of betrayed hospitality and the weird logic of a certain brand of cruelty? Fortunately, Hercules arrives before it can damage his friends lastingly, and with his aforementioned talent for hefting boulders around, Hercules grasps that Procrustes can be broken against other stone. He hurls the monster against a cave wall, smashing his body to rubble and breaking open the last barrier to entering Hades. After sending Telemachus to guard the ship and the golden apple, once in the underworld, Hercules and Theseus contend with illusory guardians and threats.
Hercules in the Center of the Earth was Bava’s first colour feature for which he was the unquestioned creative agent, making his instant mastery of deploying it all the more striking. Bava’s eye provides a constant stream of visual delights after Hercules and company set sail: the towering, shaking black trees of the Garden and Arethusa appearing out of ether, the surging, lysergic hues of the clouds as the ship is buffeted by a storm, the glittering tones of Procrustes’ abode, the surreal textures of Tartarus, the surveys of swooning Ruffo, all touched with hints of psychedelia several years before its official arrival as well as the dust of fairytale mystique. Hercules and Theseus’ adventures in the underworld meanwhile look forward to Indiana Jones’ ventures into caves of mystery and danger, with the added threat of illusion and supernatural forces. They negotiate seas of flame and boiling mud to reach the living stone, and slash their way through entangling tree roots that release grotesque screams and wails, which, they realise in a ghoulish flourish, emanate from the souls of the damned trapped in the roots. So often Bava would prove obsessed with damned people clinging onto places and existence, their dark dreams and desires never fulfilled but also never escapable, whilst Greek myth insisted on moral order enforced by overtly totemic, ironic means. These ideas converge here with particularly unsettling import, especially in the truly surreal image of the bleeding vines. Hercules uses some of these to make a rope to cross the last chasm before the resting place of the icon, but Theseus falls into the seething matter below and Hercules thinks him dead.
Theseus is, however, rescued by Persephone (Ida Galli), daughter of Hades, who falls for him instantly and lets him take her out of the underworld. Hercules braves physical agony retrieving the living stone, and he meets up with Theseus and Telemachus on the way out. Theseus keeps Persephone hidden from his friends and obeys her advice to throw the golden apple overboard to the smooth angry waters on their way out of the magical realms. This act saves their lives, and they manage to reach Hercalia, where Hercules uses the stone to awaken Deianira from her trance. But a new sickness begins to grip the city at large, and when Hercules consults Medea, again she tells him Hades has cursed the city because Theseus is sheltering Persephone there. Theseus has become so obsessed with his new lover that the clashing demands on him become maddeningly self-consuming to the point where, unable to renounce her, he instead starts goading Hercules into killing him. This makes for a very Bava plot motif, desire and obsession as forces that defy all limits of mortality and nature, and it can only be reconciled when Persephone chooses to leave for all their sakes. She takes the living stone back to the underworld, but not before telling Hercules who’s responsible for the threat to Deianira and that Lico plans to sacrifice her during a lunar eclipse to gain eternal life and control over the land.
Bava’s flow of visual invention continues even in the relative normality of the palace, which becomes an eerie and insidious place out of silent films, where murder happens in the halls and walls split open revealing secret passages, and builds the memorable image of Deianira glimpsing Lico’s face reflected in a pool of blood leaking from the throat of her slaughtered handmaiden. The finale lets Bava slip his nightmarish imagery and shift fully into horror movie territory, as Hercules chases Lico into the underground labyrinth littered with statues of arcane eastern gods and then up to a pagan stone circle on the hill above Hercalia where he intends to stage his sacrifice of the princess. Lico releases his force of enslaved, flying zombies to hold off Hercules, and in a spellbinding sequence that counts amongst the purest of Bava’s vignettes of gothic style, the lids of sarcophagi shudder and lift, gnarled hands reach out swathed in cobwebs, all painted in Bava’s favourite clashing lighting patterns, drenching reds, greens, and blues.
Fortunately, once more Hercules’ gift for lugging big rocks saves the day, but in a genuinely dramatic fashion, as he rips up the stone circle one monolith at a time and uses them first to pinion Lico and then to fend off the zombies. Finally, the moment of eclipse passes, and Lico, his power broken, bursts into flames whilst his zombies disintegrate. The madcap invention of this climax suggests another nascent genre, crossbreeding action with fantastical motifs that wouldn’t really flower until the 1980s. Hercules and Deianira are safe at last when the end credits roll, even though in the original Hercules myths, Deianira eventually brought about Hercules’ death through magic and sexual jealousy. Hercules in the Centre of the Earth is hardly a perfect film, and enjoying it demands a certain tolerance for the tropes of peplum as a whole and a specific tolerance for Telemachus’ comic relief. But it stands effortlessly tall as a reminder that the essence of the fantastic, even in its grandest fictional corners, can still be captured with imagination and skill without grand resources.
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Director: Paul McGuigan
By Roderick Heath
More or less ignored when not reviled upon release in 2009, Paul McGuigan’s Push has become one of the very few movies of recent years I can watch any time, in any mood, and enjoy. McGuigan, a talented Scots director, caught my eye in the late ’90s with the grimier, more authentically punkish answer to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995), The Acid House (1996), and the tougher-minded, more authentically maniacal retort to Guy Ritchie’s gimmicky gangster movies with Gangster No. 1 (2000). His work since going Hollywood, Wicker Park (2004) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006), failed to find wide audiences or critical favour, but have located some after-the-fact fandom. After a spell doing TV work, he just recently re-emerged as a feature director, only to have another jarring flop with Victor Frankenstein (2015). Push, his best work to date, is a hugely entertaining concoction in desperate need of some appreciation. It’s colourful, clever, and serious enough to compel, but sufficiently light-footed to evoke the kind of pulp novel adventure and comic book mind-bending its story evokes. Push is hypermodern in its approach and aesthetics, but also has the charm of a cult object slightly out of its time, as McGuigan’s stylish filmmaking blends diverse strands of contemporary cinema that someone ought to remix more often in service of a gleefully tricky narrative that riffs on the superhero genre with more poise and artistry than any actual recent superhero movie.
Push was also perhaps a little too obviously hoping to be the cornerstone of an original cinematic franchise. McGuigan lays the basic pillars of its plot through the opening credits, as protagonist Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) explains a secret history rooted in the efforts of Nazis to discover and exploit paranormal abilities. This programme eventually evolved into an ostensibly U.S. government-sponsored, but almost lawless and stateless organisation called Division, which specialises in collecting and employing an array of individuals given great psychic and telekinetic powers. These people have been sorted into several basic types, each with an unofficial, but pithy sobriquet. Movers can manipulate, repel, or direct objects. Sniffs have an extraordinary sense of smell and can track people’s movements through the smallest residual traces. Watchers have the power to foretell the future. Pushers can distort other people’s sense of reality. Shadows can mask people and objects from the powers of other breeds. Shifters can mask the true appearance of something. Stitches wield startling healing powers. Bleeders can pulverise with their vocal sounds. A prologue sequence sees young Nick Gant (Colin Ford) and his Mover father Jonah (Joel Gretsch) on the run from Division. Taking momentary refuge in a hotel room, Jonah forces Nick to leave him, as he intends to do battle with Division’s heavies, but tells him before their split that one day a girl will give him a flower, and this girl will give him the key to changing his life. Jonah dies moments later in battle with Division agents, led by the forbidding Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a battle Nick witnesses obliquely from a hiding place before he scurries away and gets on with the business of surviving on his own.
A decade later, Kira (Camilla Belle), a captive of Division, is seen receiving an experimental drug Division has cooked up to boost the powers of superhumans. Everyone who’s taken the drug before this has died, but Kira survives and escapes with a sample of the drug thanks to a marble dropped by another captive which spins by seemingly random luck across the floor and jams a door. Meanwhile Nick has grown into the stubbly, sad-eyed form of Chris Evans, and is living in Hong Kong, a popular refuge for unaligned superhumans because the dense population makes it difficult for Division’s goons to track them. Nick has inherited his father’s Mover powers, but has neglected to master them for fear he might meet the same fate. Nonetheless, driven by lack of cash, he tries to use his powers to cheat in a craps game, but fouls up and finishes up having to outrun gangsters bent on beating him up. Retreating into his apartment, he’s soon visited by two Sniffs, Agent Mack (Corey Stoll) and Agent Holden (Scott Michael Campbell), who have finally managed to track him down. They’re looking for Kira, Nick’s former girlfriend, but don’t let him know that, leaving Nick bewildered. Once they leave, Nick gets a phone call from 13-year-old Watcher Cassie, who is standing outside waiting for him to open the door so she can raid his refrigerator and enlist him in a search for a large sum of missing money.
Nick quickly sees through this ruse and declares he doesn’t want to get involved in whatever Cassie’s up to. But he soon finds that he and the girl have already been targeted by a Triad crime family headed up by a kingpin (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who wants to get hold of the drug and make his mob a rival to Division. All of his children have powers—he and his two sons are Bleeders and his daughter (Xiao Lu Li) is a talented Watcher with a fondness not just for sweets but also a sadistic proclivity for taunting her enemies, particularly precocious Cassie, whose mother is a legend in the paranormal community for her Watcher gifts. The clan are dubbed the “Pops” because of the daughter’s habit of sucking on lollypops. The crime family attack Nick and Cassie in a marketplace. The Bleeders cause havoc with their deadly screams—a touch that recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978)—as they chase the duo, causing fish in tanks to explode and finally leaving Nick badly mangled. He escapes death only because the Pop girl warns her brothers that they need him to obtain the drug. Cassie takes Nick to a Stitch, Teresa Stowe (Maggie Siff), who reshapes Nick’s body: Teresa is a haughty S&M priestess who can take away pain, but also return it, and who perversely enjoys not healing, but bringing agony. Then Cassie performs the totemic act of handing Nick a flower, signalling to Nick the time to take a stand has come.
Push’s conceptual similarity to the X-Men films was widely noted on release, but that is misleading to a certain extent, as the plot encompasses a rather different take on the relationship of its gifted outsider heroes to authority at large (there’s also a notable influence by Stephen King’s Firestarter). There’s less emphasis on spectacular powers than on subtler brands demanding mental discipline and wit. In the company of Push’s cast of superhumans, time and reality are in a constant state of flux to a point where even they can’t necessarily keep up. Push actually hews closer to an honourable update of one of the source texts for the more ambitious and sophisticated strand of superhuman fantasy works, A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with its Byzantine sense of paranoia in confronting a posthuman landscape amidst the shell of the hitherto dominant civilisation. As filmmaking, Push unfolds like a Fritz Lang movie reset in Wong Kar-Wai’s kaleidoscopic modern Hong Kong and jammed in a blender with Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1999). McGuigan’s strong visuals, alive to the colour and teeming liveliness of the locale, borrows from the aesthetics more usually associated with artier filmmakers, like Wong, Sofia Coppola, Michael Mann, and Olivier Assayas. Like several of those directors, McGuigan finds in Hong Kong the perfect hyperkinetic muse to survey the modern world, a place where urban life takes on a venturesome romanticism because it’s a frontier where cultures are meeting and ricocheting in manifold new forms.
McGuigan and screenwriter David Boursa are able to dramatize this idea precisely through the mechanics of their story, which hinges on people with all their differing gifts and traits working against or in conjunction with each other. Each power tends to complement another, but can also jam things up. The setting and the essential theme are noirish, the nature of fate unfolding in an urban labyrinth. But the mood is far too ebullient to nudge noir fatalism, and besides, Hong Kong is also a setting of action films, and the thematic lexicon can skew close to the traditions of manga and anime radiating from Japan—one of the Pop brothers has Astro Boy tattooed on his arm—and genre fusion mimics cultural fusion.
Appropriately for a film where a jostling breadth of humanity bestrides the landscape and the many modes of sensing evinced in the storyline, McGuigan’s trippy, tricky fantasia is a filtered, audio-visually layered experience laced with the jazziness of experimental films and music videos, but always plied with measured effect: freaky lensing, uses of contrasting film stocks and grains, careful use of décor and subdivisions of the frame that recall Wong’s assimilation of Matisselike visual textures and putting them into a more dynamic context, judicious slow-motion and time-lapse photography courtesy of DP David Sova. These flourishes are used with particular vividness in sequences illustrating the superhumans’ powers, like the fast-forward visions the Sniffs have when fondling Nick’s cup, visualising their analysis in reducing months of Nick’s life to a blur of action, and vertiginously edited fantasies the Pushers install in people’s heads.
Nick and Cassie, trying to work out where Cassie’s visions are leading, enlist the help of some other paranormal ronin, including Shifter Hook Waters (Cliff Curtis), Sniff Emily Hu (Ming Na Wen), and Shadow Pinkie Stein (Nate Mooney), who all have their reasons for hating Division and joining the fight even if their good sense tells them to stay out of the way of Carver and his hand-picked goon squad. Meanwhile Kira awakens on a boat in Hong Kong harbour with no memory of how she got there, looked over by the gaunt stranger who owns the boat and a message written with her own lipstick on a mirror simply spelling out Nick’s name and a number: Kira has had her memory of the recent past erased by the boatman, Wo Chiang (Paul Car). She’s soon captured by the two Sniffs but is able to push Agent Mack into killing his partner by convincing him that he murdered his brother, creating an entire alternative existence for Mack in a few blinks of her black-swelling eyes. Kira then manages to defeat Mack in a scrambling melee in a rest stop toilet and flees back to Hong Kong. Following clues given by both Cassie’s visions and Emily’s detection, Nick tries to rendezvous with the mysterious girl who everyone’s looking for. It proves to be Kira, who first response is to take a few potshots at him with Mack’s appropriated gun. Turns out Nick and Kira were lovers back in the States, a romance that ended suddenly when Kira was kidnapped by Division, leaving Nick clueless as to her whereabouts. Or were they? Believing they have to keep Kira out of Carver’s hands and find where she’s stashed the drug, they hole up in a hotel room using Pinkie’s gifts to hide Kira.
Another good quality of Push is the strength of its cast and the sharpness of its characters. Evans, post-Fantastic Four, first got to move away from Johnny Storm’s dude-bro tediousness and work out the charmingly chilled-out, white bread hero he’d soon purvey to much more money and popularity as Captain America, but also with a scruffy, more asocial quality, anticipating his next foray into Asiatic scifi, Snowpiercer (2013). Hounsou, always a great screen presence, makes for a formidable opponent, one who wears Division’s imperial arrogance like a suit: it feels like a manifestation of McGuigan’s raspy wit that the one-time oppressed hero of Amistad (1997) is now the ultimate manipulator of destinies and identities. Belle, who gained notice in Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2004), has an oddly delicate screen presence that helps draw out the contradictions of her character, who is at once powerful and near-fatally malleable.
One of screenwriter Boula’s better tweaks of the familiar plot pattern here is the way Nick is presented less as a singular hero than merely one in a group of pan-ethnic characters. Nick’s neglect of his talents means that he’s nearly constantly outmatched in his various encounters throughout the film, ending up battered, tormented, and tossed about like a plaything, as when he tries to confront Carver and his Mover bodyguard Victor (Neil Jackson). His lack of savvy as a hero recalls one of the film’s influences, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), though his lacks aren’t played for as many laughs as Jack Burton’s. His essential decency is noted early on when, whilst being tortured by Bleeders, he uses his powers to push Cassie to safety, and he does finally start to bring his real talents to the fore as the story unfolds. Chief amongst these is not his telekinetic gifts, but his mind for strategy, with which he works out a way to avoid the seemingly unstoppable fate barrelling down on him and his pals.
Young Fanning, though, taking her first step from child star to adult actor, is the one who walks off with the proceedings, playing Cassie as a precocious punkette with dashes of delirious pink dye in her hair (“Lose a bet with your hairdresser?” Nick prods her) and who draws pictures illustrating her visions in an art book, despite her complete lack of artistic ability: her pictures of the futures she sees are essays in childish style, all too crudely contrasting her precocious projections. Cassie is, in many ways, the film’s proper protagonist, as she’s desperate to save her mother from Division’s clutches. She is partially wizened beyond her years by her gift and also trying to play the grown-up living in her mother’s near-legendary shadow, a person who has touched the lives of almost everyone in the narrative with reverberations that eventually prove anything but accidental. Rattled by her own constant premonitions of death and the taunts of her lollypop-sucking sister-adversary, Cassie tries to focus her gifts and see her way through to another future by trying her mother’s favourite device to improve her seer powers—alcohol. Cassie, roaring drunk, bursts into the hotel room where the ragtag gang are holed up and accosts Kira as the one who’ll get them all killed: “I’m 13, and I’m powering my use!” she declares with truculent bravado.
Her encounters with Pop Girl are charged with peculiarly personal antipathy as well as a sense of their similarities, both prodigies competing directly on the behalf of family with the obligation to use the prodigal gifts they possess to further the ends of their kin, but with very different ultimate purposes. Where Cassie’s mother lives in a tranquilised void in Division’s headquarter—she’s only briefly glimpsed being led around by guards and dropping the fateful marble that helps Kira escape—and becomes something like a younger sister to Nick, Pop Girl represents a vicious and egomaniacal patriarch and a clan of carefully groomed thugs. When Pop Girl reports a failure to her father, he slaps her around. Later, when she presents her brothers with a more successful insight, it prompts them to ask whether that will make their father love them.
Push vibrates with unexpected fragments of emotional and thematic depth like these, decorating McGuigan’s framework like the neon that blazes over Hong Kong, never overplayed to bog things down. The emotional tenor here is wound together with the way the Watchers predict the future, becoming, in essence, like film viewers anticipating certain outcomes: “I like how this future ends,” Carver tells Cassie at one point when fate seems to be dooming the outsiders’ revolt to a grim end. The film’s audience, meanwhile, have their expectations constantly switched around, holding fast to the faith certain things will come out right even in the face of mounting contradictions and seemingly impossible knots of fate. Push’s approach to fate is one of its cleverest aspects. The idea that precognition is an ability affected by choices and potentials rather than being perfect insight into the inevitable isn’t a new one—Frank Herbert’s Dune posited a similar concept—and Push presents it as a psychic gift derived from people’s trains of thought, which means it’s vulnerable to temporary disruption. Kira took advantage of this by having her own memory wiped, and Nick eventually formulates a way to outwit the enemy Watchers by piecing together a plan and then having his own mind wiped by Wo Chiang, his instructions written down and parcelled out to his comrades in arms. I’m not sure if all this holds water logically, but it’s damn fun to watch play out. Nick is forced to take such drastic measures after Kira falls sick from the drug she was injected with and has to be handed over to Carver to save her life. This makes her vulnerable to Carver’s Pusher talents: he convinces her that she’s an agent in his employ who is suffering from amnesia.
Nick’s ploy works, sending both Carver and the Pops scrambling to keep up with the seemingly random twists and turns of their quarries, whilst they follow a chain of clues to locate the suitcase containing the drug sample in a skyscraper under construction, with a super-talented Shadow hired to mask the location. Our heroes still have run a gauntlet of challenges and dangers. The Pops try to zero in on the drug, but are instead fooled by a substitute Nick contrives to deliver to them. He then has a literally bruising encounter with Teresa, who has sided with Carver and has a sadistic streak her healing gifts are weirdly wound in with: she can restore injuries she fixes, and does just this to Nick, planning to torment him further, but his rapidly evolving Mover gifts allows him to outwit her. Cassie, constantly dogged throughout the film by visions of herself dead with a tiger above her, lets herself be bounced randomly around the Hong Kong underground, but still seems doomed to meet her ordained fate when she’s cornered by Pop Girl in a storeroom. But it turns out to be Pop Girl’s body splayed under one of the tiger symbol-emblazoned shipping boxes, her mind wiped by the lurking Wo Chiang. With Kira’s Pusher abilities magnified, Carver keeps her under his control once she’s stabilised and uses her take on the Pop clan’s army of gunmen, leading to a climactic battle within the half-finished skyscraper between the three vying factions.
I suspect that if Push had been made a decade earlier, it would have been a major cult hit, and not because superpowers weren’t so common on screen then. McGuigan’s sensibility cuts against the increasingly parochial and bombastic flavour of a lot of similar filmmaking, with its focus on international drifters in a polycultural nexus fighting the powers that be harking back to the ’90s milieu, rather than the post-9/11 mindset that rewarded Michael Bay’s fascist chic with big bucks, and the far more conventional and baggy filmmaking of the now exhaustingly dominant superhero movie. McGuigan signals a deliberate note of needling satire about the dark side of Bush-era politics, as he has Carver note, “We’re not ones for diplomacy anymore.” The final battle is a terrifically organised free-for-all during which Carver and Kira turn enemies on each other, Kira orchestrating a battery of killers under her influence like a particularly freaky line-dance choreographer, whilst Nick battles Victor, their powers becoming so well-balanced that they’re essentially reduced to a fist-fight, at least until the Pop Bleeder boys try to squelch them both. McGuigan tips another nod to Big Trouble in Little China when the Pop patriarch releases his Bleeder scream in uncontrolled furore after one of his sons dies, bringing down a heap of scaffolding on him and Victor.
Nick finishes up carrying the elaborate triple-bluff through to its end when he injects himself with the drug, which by this time has been substituted for soy sauce, and pretends to die under Carver’s contemptuous gaze. The very last few moments confirm that an even more elaborate plot than anyone except Cassie had originally realised has just been pulled off, and though Kira is still in Carver’s clutches, Nick has arranged for her to recover the truth, setting the scene for a most satisfying blackout moment of poetic justice. I’m inclined to call Push a kind of pop masterpiece, but too few heard this tree fall in the woods. A few months after its release, many of the same people who dissed it were calling the equally tricky but comparatively dour and pompous Inception (2010) a major event, which goes to show what a funny world we live in.
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Director: Melody Gilbert
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist Melody Gilbert is, like most documentarians, a carefully observant opportunist who finds her stories in her surroundings. Among her films are Fritz: The Walter Mondale Story (2008), about the career politician from her home state of Minnesota who served as vice president to President Jimmy Carter, and a short film for Twin Cities Public Television, Toxic Testing, about a 1950s program by the U.S. government to spray Minneapolis residents with toxic chemicals that prompted a federal investigation. Currently on a leave of absence from her job as an assistant professor and chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) in part to workshop The Summer Help through Chicago’s Kartemquin Films lab program, this latest effort has emerged directly from her experiences at the Blagoevgrad campus.
Specifically, Gilbert focuses primarily on two AUBG business students as they head to the United States for the summer to earn money for college. The two young women, Nikoleta and Elena, are friends who have secured work as housekeepers at a resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They have paid around $1,000 to a placement agency to help them obtain their J-1 exchange visitor visas to work in the United States, and bear on their own the expense of their travel and housing. As Gilbert relates in an informational title card, they are only two of up to 100,000 students who travel abroad for summer work in countries that can pay them far more than they would earn at home. To put a point on it, Gilbert adds captions to images of Nikoleta and her mother at work informing us that the young woman makes $8 an hour, whereas her mother, a factory seamstress, makes $8 a day.
The girls are excited about their first trip outside Bulgaria and record with their cellphones the various legs of their journey. In Myrtle Beach, they pound the pavement looking for second jobs, as their primary job will only cover their costs, contributing nothing to their college fund. As though to set us up for a film about worker exploitation, Gilbert follows Nikoleta home from her housekeeping job one day to her home away from home: the place is a cockroach-infested mess, but one with a refrigerator stuffed with food left behind by resort guests, including a whole watermelon. Pity the poor exchange worker and shame on wasteful Americans, the film seems to say at this point.
Of course, reality isn’t quite that simple, as we learn when Gilbert travels to visit with some exchange workers who ended up in Provincetown and Martha’s Vineyard, both in Massachusetts. The young men and women work two to four jobs catering to the upscale tourist trade in both locations. In a Martha’s Vineyard restaurant where one student works, an older couple commends her initiative in not accepting handouts and working hard instead to get what she wants out of life: “That’s what America’s all about,” the man says, like an embodied talking point for the Republican credo. Colorful, diverse Provincetown absorbs the newcomers from Eastern Europe easily, and the sprightly nightlife, welcoming atmosphere, and generous tips create a favorable impression among the workers and a desire to return the next year. One student says that the American University in Bulgaria has taught them to be tolerant of the eccentricities of Provincetown dwellers.
Perhaps some of the residents of Myrtle Beach should attend AUBG, because Nikoleta expresses her disgust and disappointment with Americans after she and Elena are ridiculed by some locals for the uniforms they wear. As housekeepers, they garner far fewer tips and pull in far less money than their counterparts in Massachusetts. Further, without access to a car or public transportation, Elena is subjected to a nasty fright when a man in a car follows her and tries to get her to ride with him. “He was drunk,” she says, adding incredulously that nothing like that ever happened to her in Bulgaria. Indeed, cultural exchange only goes so far. The painful class conflicts and behavioral disparities from one part of the United States to another are difficult for native Americans to negotiate, let alone young exchange workers.
Gilbert spends considerable time in Bulgaria shooting family gatherings and home interiors, as well as Skype chats spanning the distance between the girls and their families. She offers a somewhat sentimental view of family ties, scoring most such interludes monotonously with Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1. Because this film was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, public domain music was the most reasonable financial choice, but there are other public domain pieces of music that could have worked and enhanced other moods within the film. It seems a shame Gilbert didn’t explore more options.
The Summer Help has a brevity in keeping with Gilbert’s background in television journalism. The film provides a discernable contrast between the prospects in rich countries like the United States and poor ones like Bulgaria, but is content to comment on the more superficial aspects of these contrasts. Nonetheless, Gilbert found engaging students to foreground and hold our attention and sympathies. Nikoleta and Elena came of age in different ways through this experience—one embracing the American experience in a big way, the other rejecting it and finding better opportunities and lifestyles in other countries.
A one-time-only screening of The Summer Help takes place this Saturday, May 14, 7:45 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Gilbert will be on hand for a Q&A session after the film.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Norman Foster
By Roderick Heath
J. P. Marquand had a serious reputation as a writer in the 1930s, but he’s been remembered to posterity chiefly for his sideline in pulp fiction. He created Mr. Moto for the Saturday Evening Post in 1935 as a replacement for Charlie Chan, whose creator Earl Derr Biggers had recently died. Marquand quickly wrote several Moto books. His creation proved popular enough that two years later, 20th Century Fox inaugurated a series built around Moto. But this was not quite the same character. Marquand’s I. A. Moto was an Imperial Japanese agent, superficially genial and eccentric but capable of ruthless action. The Hollywood version was renamed Kentaro Moto and redesignated as an importer with a sideline in private investigation who later was employed as an Interpol agent and teacher of criminology. But he was best described by a character in Thank You, Mr. Moto: “Adventurer, explorer, soldier-of-fortune – one of the Orient’s mysteries.”
Whereas Chan was an avuncular collection of clichéd impressions of Chinese immigrants grafted onto the Conan Doyle template for a genius detective at a time when it was a short cut to popularity to give them distinctive ethnic or physical traits, Moto assembled more than a few Japanese clichés: pebble-lens glasses, big gold teeth, hyperattentive politeness, martial arts adeptness, and so on. Fox cast Peter Lorre in the part and gave him a sartorial makeover. Casting an Austrian Jewish actor as a Japanese gentleman seems a downright perverse idea today, but was hardly strange at the time; Warner Oland and Sidney Toler played Chan and Boris Karloff was both über-villain Fu Manchu and detective Mr. Wong. A big selling point for casting Lorre was that it would show off his thespian dexterity. His Hollywood debut two years earlier with Mad Love had been publicised as the coming to America of a great European actor, one who had electrified audiences worldwide with his performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Lorre, who learnt his lines by rote for his first English-language role in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was to become one of Hollywood’s indispensible character actors. The Moto films, which occupied him for most of the late ’30s, represented a stint of proper stardom. The role allowed him the widest range within a single part, and even the chance to destabilize presumptions about his character constantly.
Moto, as a skilful detective and globetrotting, multicultural savant, combined aspects of the Sherlock Holmes brand of hero with the physicality of a man of action, a mix that feels more contemporary than most of the era’s pulp heroes. He anticipates later pop-culture titans like James Bond, without his carnal appetites, and Indiana Jones, with whom he shares a fascination with the arcane, with the added complication and fascination of his being a non-Caucasian hero, one who insinuates rather than dominates until he clearly has the upper hand. The Moto series doesn’t entirely transcend the moment of its making. Yellowface bugs many people today and for good reason, and yet the series just as often ridicules, subverts, or inverts such caricatures, often putting the sublimely poised and skilful Moto in the company of clueless Westerners or having him act out caricatures only to throw them off and stun enemies and onlookers. Lorre’s preternatural gifts are also often exploited so that, in the same way that he puts on a new face, Moto turns it about and becomes just about any ethnicity you please, including perhaps his funniest guise in the series in Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938), a German artist who derides a gallery full of modernist work and then shows off his kitschy pictures of kids and kittens.
Several instalments in the series were helmed by Norman Foster, a former actor and a talent whose gifts were apparent enough for Orson Welles to collaborate with him on several projects, including Journey into Fear (1943), which marries Moto-ish settings with a more Wellesian technique. He later made some interesting noir films, like Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), and then moved into TV, where his career extended into the 1970s. Foster also cowrote the first two Moto films, with their backlot settings offering that delicious tang of the faux-exotic, encompassing much of what was wonderful and goofy about old Hollywood, that many filmmakers since have tried to reproduce. The Moto films are lightning-paced, funny, quirky, brief, but packed full of incident, detail, even mystique.
Think Fast, Mr. Moto, establishes Moto and his abilities in an opening sequence that sees him in the guise of a scruffy carpet merchant wandering through San Francisco’s Chinatown on Chinese New Year on the hunt for a lead. He encounters a masked stranger secreted in a wicker basket in the store, where Moto tries to sell a diamond; his Union Jack tattoo will identify him as the man who murdered an investigator. Moto has to fight his way out when an officious policeman who thinks Moto’s an unlicensed peddler enters the scene, sparking a three-way battle in which Moto’s jujitsu abilities triumph. Returning to his hotel, the “real” Moto emerges from under the layers of his disguise, but Moto’s motives and designs remain largely opaque until the climax.
One reason I fell under the spell of Moto as a character when I was a kid stems from this ambiguity. Although toned down from Marquand, Moto is still startling in switches of affect and manner, swinging from beaming friendliness and ready-to-please affability to command or chilling retributory violence according to the needs of the moment. When he confronts the tattooed murderer, who proves to be a passenger liner steward named Carson (John Rogers), Moto’s swerve into cold menace as he faces down and approaches the knife-wielding baddie is impressively badass, and their knock-down, drag-out fight climaxes with Moto heaving Carson over his head and hurling him over the ship’s side like a sack of rubbish. This follows on from an earlier scene in which, dragged into a stateroom by a party of boisterously patronising Americans, he puts up with them until he repays their pushiness by tossing several bodily about the room. It’s a bit of roughhouse payback that Bob Hitchings (Thomas Beck), object of the party and son of the ship’s owner, is good-humoured enough to understand. Moto and Hitchings prove to be linked by both the past—they belonged to the same college fraternity—and by secret, immediate motives; Moto is investigating a smuggling ring that’s been operating through the Hitchings Line, owned by Bob’s father, and Bob, trying to shake off his playboy habits, is heading to take over the Chinese end of the line’s export operations.
Think Fast, scarcely over an hour long, nonetheless sets up Moto as a perfect pulp hero—infinitely talented, complete with an arsenal of awesome headache cures, magic tricks, and cardsharp legerdemain, tough in all respects and yet usually happily plays a pleasant Asian milquetoast, declining alcoholic drinks in favour of milk. Considering how awkwardly a lot of franchise films these days lumber about for hours trying to set up heroic characters, the casual concision of the film still feels like a perfect antidote and model, an engine of humming efficiency that modern Hollywood could do well to study. Foster surrounds Moto with a rich assortment of character actors and teeming settings, as if he wanted to pack in every possible trope of the exotic mystery, from the shipboard setting and romance to the plunge into Shanghai nightlife where White Russian and Sikh gangsters rub shoulders with international flotsam. Foster orchestrates it all with efficient energy: indeed it’s been funny watching recent high-class movies, like The White Countess (2004), Lust, Caution (2006), and Shanghai (2011), tackling the same milieu and failing to feel half as real, lacking that mythic tilt Hollywood once wielded so deceptively and fearlessly. Ironically, recently you have to go to Hong Kong cinema, like Tsui Hark’s work, like Peking Opera Blues (1986), for similar panache.
Think Fast sticks to the basic pattern of Marquand books, as Moto teams up with an American innocent abroad who falls into the orbit of a woman of mystery, in this case, Gloria Danton (Virginia Field). Gloria poses as a wealthy traveller to ensnare Bob, expertly tempting him by feigning initial indifference, but, of course, she actually falls for him and is whisked off the ship by her employer, Nicolas Marloff (Sig Ruman), upon arrival in Shanghai. Marloff runs the International Club, one of those chic nightspots Hollywood would have believed were just everywhere in those days. Bob talks the Hitchings Line’s local manager, Mr. Wilkie (Murray Kinnell) into helping him find Gloria, but it’s Moto who secretly tips Bob off that she actually works as a singer in the International Club, and, of course, Moto has good reasons for bringing all the players together. Just getting to the club proves an ordeal for Moto and Lela, as they’re shanghaied by their rickshaw coolies on the order of Marloff’s agent, turban-clad Adram (J. Carrol Naish), who tries to assassinate Moto. Moto proves better with a gun than Adram does with a knife, winging Adram. Then one of the coolies tries to arrange his death by leaving his rickshaw in front of Bob and Wilkie’s oncoming car.
In good old Hollywood style, once they get to the club, there’s a brief time-out for a song by Gloria (warbling a godawful ditty in which she declares, “I’m just a shy vi-o-let.”). A couple of times during the series, Moto grazes against a love interest, usually a young Chinese-American starlet, but that couldn’t go anywhere with a white guy, even one dressed up as Japanese. Plus Moto’s not exactly the type you see settling down to have 10 kids like Charlie Chan. Here he enlists hotel telephone operator Lela Liu (Lotus Long) to listen in on interesting calls, and then to be his date/back-up on the venture to the International Club. She finishes up getting shot in the back by an unseen villain as she tries to call the police to Moto’s aid, although later we’re assured she survives.
One of the strong qualities of the series is the humour that constantly accompanies the thrills and seriousness, although it sometimes verges on goofy, as here when Moto has a hapless bartender make up a ridiculous hangover cure that includes gin, Worcestershire sauce, and a raw egg. Wryer is Moto cementing his friendship with Bob by revealing they were fraternity brothers; when Hitchings recalls Moto broke a pole vault record, Moto replies, “Now I would only break the pole.” In another example, one of Bob’s society lush pals, after seeing Moto toss her friends about the stateroom, asks in delight, “Hey – do that to me!” When Marloff asks what Moto is writing in Chinese on a menu, Moto replies that it’s an ancient haiku poem—except that when Lela reads it, it translates into a message to call the cops. In later films, Moto’s heroism is taken as a given, but in the first two entries he retains an opacity akin to ’70s antiheroes in his willingness to play dirty when necessary, think on his feet, and seem to ally with the bad guys if it gets him closer to his goal. Because his identity is so hard to nail down, he can get away with such tricks. When Marloff confronts him with the sight of Bob and Gloria trussed up and captive, Moto laughs and casually advises Marloff to keep Bob as a hostage and “slit her throat and be done with it.” This note echoes again in Thank You, Mr. Moto, in which he smilingly tells a woman, in response to her accusation that he killed a man to get hold of a valuable property, “Of course. I thought it was a very good reason.” The finale of Think Fast is a whirlwind of twists and reversals: exposed by the wounded Adram, Moto is shot by Marloff, and seems done for. Marloff prepares a coup de grace, only for Moto to rise miraculously and toss his enemies about the room before revealing his bulletproof vest to Bob and Gloria and slapping handcuffs on Wilkie, who proves to be both the real head of the smuggling ring and Lela’s attempted killer.
The collegial feel of the series is partly due to the stock company of actors who played similar or recurring roles: Ruman and Beck play slight variations on their characters in Thank You, whilst Field popped up again in two more. In Mr. Moto’s Last Warning and Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (both 1939), Moto is “helped” by bumbling Englishmen, inverting the usual diptych of Anglo hero and ethnic sidekick. In another entry, Mr. Moto on Danger Island (1938), Moto gains the aid of good-natured palooka, “Twister” McGurk (Warren Hymer), who becomes Moto’s aide in his eagerness to learn Moto’s great wrestling moves. Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938), the third film, has the film buff’s delight of seeing Moto contending with Keye Luke, playing Charlie Chan’s inimitable Number One son Lee. This was a side effect of the rapid revision of the script, intended for a Chan entry, after Oland’s sudden death. In the film Moto mentions his respect for Lee’s father, and maintains Chan’s solicitude to the extent of having Lee locked up in jail to keep him out of trouble. Another interesting sidekick for Moto came in Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938), where Rochelle Hudson plays an aviatrix who’s also a spy, staging a crash landing in the Vietnamese jungle to seek out the same rebellious conspiracy Moto’s investigating. The strongest villain of the series was also a self-reflexive piece of casting, as Joseph Schildkraut appeared in the final entry, Takes a Vacation, playing a supervillain with a genius for disguise. Like Lorre, Schildkraut was an Austro-Hungarian émigré and spends most of the film made up as another character, successfully impersonating a crusty American scientist before he’s unmasked, rises to full courtly bearing, and lets slip his Germanic lisp.
The whole series is generally a lot of fun, but Thank You, Mr. Moto easily stands tallest. Having established Moto, Norman’s second entry does what good sequels are supposed to do; it gets on with business, but also can be enjoyed by any viewer coming in blind. The opening sequence is a gem of atmosphere, as a caravan crossing the Gobi Desert is assailed by a sandstorm, and one of the travellers, a disguised Moto, contends with the homicidal attentions of another member of the party. Attacked in his tent, Moto battles the assassin by the flicker of an oil lamp, with the desolate wind whistling outside. Moto wins the fight, battering his opponent into submission, but the battle begins again when Moto releases him. This time Moto hacks him to death with a knife and begins digging up the sand under the tent to bury the corpse. Moto reaches Peiping (then the name of Beijing), but runs afoul of Schneider (Wilhelm von Brincken), a supposedly concerned citizen who’s whipped up the police to hypervigilance over smuggled art treasures. Schneider smartly detects that Moto has a scroll painting hidden inside his prop walking cane. Moto snatches the scroll and runs for it, managing to elude capture and make it to his hotel room, where his current valet doesn’t recognise him at first. Moto divests himself of guise and valet and attends a formal garden party being thrown by Colonel Tchernov (Ruman), a wealthy White Russian wash-up. Moto recognises the gamesmanship behind such gestures: “Garden parties are seldom given in Peiping without a purpose.”
That purpose proves to be so Tchernov could invite Prince Chung (Philip Ahn) and his mother (Pauline Frederick), make an offer to buy their family’s collection of scroll paintings and, if they refuse to sell, use coercive means to gain his prize. The party sequence is a another gem, this time of expository staging, commencing with a Hitchcockian crane shot the glides across Tchernov’s ballroom. The villains and heroes of the piece and all congregated with classical dramatic method, with all the major protagonists save the Chungs literally lined up to meet Eleanor Joyce (Jayne Regan), an American Oriental art historian and guest of the Tchernovs. Romantic, young consular official Tom Nelson (Beck) sets out to charm Eleanor with an extended gag about his psychic knowledge of her actually culled from her passport. Moto’s entrance, solitary and singular, is accompanied by a suddenly forceful passage in the dance music, gaining everybody’s interest and cautious attention, especially Tchernov, who invited him to keep an eye on him. This backfires, of course. Moto’s subsequent absence from the ballroom goes unnoticed by everyone except, in a terrific throwaway detail, the waiter carrying his customary glass of milk, as he thwarts Tchernov’s attempt to force Chung at gunpoint to sign over ownership of his scrolls. Foster elides Moto’s intervention; only when Eleanor intrudes, with Prince Chung brushing past hurriedly, does the resolution of the confrontation reveal itself, but through Eleanor’s confused eyes, seeing only Moto and a corpse. Moto convinces her to keep quiet about his and the Prince’s presence so that Tchernov’s death will be ruled a suicide, but finds herself increasingly uncomfortable, believing Moto murdered Tchernov.
The scroll paintings prove to be part of an elegant pulp McGuffin that form a map to the lost tomb of Genghis Khan: the scroll Moto brought back with him from the Gobi is part of the set, deliberately stored away from the others long away to render the map incomplete. Moto has been hired to race against Tchernov’s allies, Schneider and Koerger (Sidney Blackmer), to bring all of the scrolls together and locate the tomb with its fabled treasure. Everyone wants the scrolls, even Eleanor, albeit for her collection. An antiquarian, Pereira (John Carradine, sporting droopy moustache and fez for some reason), tempts her with one, which might be one of the Chungs’ stolen scrolls. Moto rumbles Pereira by visiting his shop and spots the scroll he’s trying to sell as a fake, but also perceives he stole the real scroll. Pereira is gunned down from a car speeding by just as he’s about to tell Moto who hired him for the heist. Moto faces the same sticking point as Tchernov in trying to learn the secret of the scrolls: even with the Prince’s gratitude to Moto for saving his life, the Chungs refuse to part with their legacy and decry the inevitable looting of the Khan’s tomb. The Chungs’ place in this drama generates peculiar emotional intensity, with Madame Chung’s haughty efforts to cling to the last remnants of their clan pride in the chaotic modern world and China’s dismembered state circa 1937—she used to be a lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress—and her son’s arduous position in trying to honour traditional values but protect his mother.
This schism is painfully illustrated as Koerger and company break into the Chungs’ house, tie up the Prince, and, after beating him fails to dent his resolve to keep silent, begin torturing his mother. This proves more than the Prince can resist, and he gives up the scrolls to the villains. Far from being grateful, however, Madame Chung is appalled at her son’s lapse and makes a last-ditch tilt for honour by trying to stab Koerger with a ceremonial knife. Koerger shoots her, and Chung, once freed by Moto and Nelson, stabs himself with the same knife, expiring in convulsions of shame and despair. Ahn’s excellent performance as Chung, genuinely strong and proud, but with his one weakness awfully, tragically laid bare, sells this sequence. It stirs an interesting reaction in Moto, who reveals a streak of serious Buddhist faith and a conscientious determination to avenge his friend and balance his cosmic books. Moto operates throughout the film, as he did in the first one, between worldviews and hemispheric cultural sensibilities, which are tellingly represented by two versions of the same thing: Tchernov, an exiled tsarist, and the Chungs are both fallen aristocrats out of place in the mid-century tumult, but with radically different responses to crumbling values of homicidal rapacity versus suicidal fidelity, and meeting mirroring ends: Tchernov’s fake suicide (“We call it harakiri,” Moto tells Eleanor) and Chung’s real one. Moto, operating according to mercenary requirement (“My mission has been clearly defined,” he tells Chung), nonetheless feels the pull of other values as the mission becomes more urgent.
A new dimension emerges as Eleanor eavesdrops on Tchernov’s wife (Nedda Harrigan) and learns she’s been having an affair with Koerger, which her husband’s death leaves her nicely free to continue. Eleanor becomes the object of Madame Tchernov’s jealousy when Koerger takes her prisoner, a random but felicitous element that gives Moto the key to destroying his enemies. Another interesting prefiguration of many a modern action hero is that way Moto becomes a kind of avenging angel: after the Chungs’ death, Tom and Moto pursue the villainous party who have Eleanor captive and most of the scrolls in hand in a car (“You handle your car quite well.” “It’s not mine, I borrowed it from my boss.”). After being shot at, Tom drives straight into a river, car crashing in the water with an almighty splash, and the pair struggle to escape the wreck and swim to safety under a hail of bullets. Tom is knocked out with an oar, and Moto seems to die from a bullet in the back. The villains set off on the trail to Khan’s tomb on a junk, but find their crew spooked by what they call a demon dogging their path. This is Moto of course, who, soaked and covered in mud and detritus, keeps emerging from the dark and fog to knock off henchmen, including Schneider, until he can crash in on Koerger, whom he keeps at bay in spite of the gun in his hand with an elaborate hail of bluffs. Eleanor proves quick-witted enough to help Moto in this, pretending that she’s also Koerger’s lover, which infuriates Madame Tchernov enough to grab at Koerger’s gun hand—all the window Moto needs.
The very finish sees Moto burning the scrolls to ensure that they won’t ever cause such havoc again and to honour his promise to Chung, rounding off the film with a touch of numinous beauty as Moto prays over the smoking ashes in the flickering firelight of the junk cabin. There’s a haunting note here, with a level of deference for the shared cultural maxims of Chung and Moto that adds up to a rare touch in a genre action movie of the time. Again, Thank You is only 67 minutes long and yet packs in enough narrative layers for a film three times as long. All of the Moto films have solid production values, particularly marked in Thank You, with rich, chiaroscuro evocations of Peiping courtesy of Virgil Miller’s fine photography, with swank Western enclaves, busy street scenes, and gritty, shadow-swamped, almost besieged atmosphere on the fringes where soldiers wait by ancient gates on the edge of sepulchral territories where it seems entirely possible that Moto could be a demon on the hunt for vengeance, although that note is dispelled when he breaks in on Koerger and offers, in his familiarly chirpy way, “Good evening everybody!” The mood echoes back to Josef von Sternberg’s oneiric chinoiserie in Shanghai Express (1932) and forward to Seijun Suzuki’s stylised remembrance in Story of a Prostitute (1964), whilst works of referential pastiche, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Hammett (1982), would later find it a touchstone. The Moto series was ended by the spectre of World War II after eight instalments; the character was left out of the film version of Marquand’s last Moto novel, Stopover Tokyo (1958). Moto’s only comeback has been a cheap 1965 entry played by Henry Silva of all people. Japanese heroes aren’t so verboten now in Western popular culture, though chiefly only the historical kind. I’d love to see Mr. Moto return.
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Director: Dziga Vertov
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In preparation for a review here, I have been working my way through Chantal Akerman – Four Films, a 2016 Icarus Films release of four documentaries made by the late Belgian director that features her “slow cinema” approach as she observes various locales around the world. One of the films, From the East (1993), chronicles her trip following the fall of the Soviet Union across Eastern Europe to Moscow, where she films workers walking to and from a factory and others standing in the cold waiting for buses. It is an interesting end to a story begun in 1917 with the Russian Revolution, a time of decisive action and idealism that the workers of the world could indeed unite and throw off their shackles.
I wonder what Dziga Vertov, creator of the movie under consideration here, the much-acclaimed Man with the Movie Camera, would have made not only of life after the fall of the Soviet Union, but also the molasses-like observational style of one of today’s most honored filmmakers. I believe he would have to recognize that the films are cousins, with points of view reflecting their makers’ personalities, experiences, and ideologies and containing many of the observational shots both indoors and out, with people alternately mugging for and hiding from the camera, that allow cataloguers to call them documentaries. I think he would be very sad to see the failure of the great Soviet experiment Akerman documents with deliberate understatement; he might also be disappointed that the kinetic musicality he celebrated in Man with the Movie Camera seems to have left the documentary field and migrated to fantasies of other times and other worlds.
Vertov (given name: David Kaufman), born in 1896 as a subject of the Russian Empire, emerged after the Russian Revolution as an adherent not only of bolshevism, but also of a cinema that would reflect a society reinventing itself. His interest was in taking actualities—films of everyday life that were among the earliest cinematic creations—a step further with new narrative and documentary forms. With Man with the Movie Camera, Vertov unveiled an almost pure cinema in somewhat-documentary form, an “image-oriented journalism” that could dissect “life caught unawares” and somehow create a symphony for the eye. An opening title card for the film is reminiscent of the spirit of The Communist Manifesto, with Vertov announcing his intention to create “a truly international, absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature.”
Vertov’s strategy is to self-consciously reveal the workings of the filmmaker, in fact, to make the filmmaker the title character of his film, appearing in its opening moments atop a gigantic camera and then moving into a movie theatre to show his epic of a day in the life of a Soviet city. The man with the camera is the new Tolstoy for a new age, chronicling a great new society. A repeated image of a marketplace named after Maxim Gorky aligns Vertov with the founder of the literary socialist realism in a Soviet Union whose aims are echoed in glorified images of the industrial age powered by ordinary workers pulling together and enjoying their lives to the fullest.
Vertov’s film starts off slowly, showing apparently homeless people sleeping in the street, a metaphor for the Soviet Union before the revolution—poor and unconscious of the dawning social transformation. A row of cribs, the images of two sleeping babies superimposed on each other, suggests new energy from a new generation born into a proletarian dream. All is quiet—lifeless mannequins in shop windows, a taxidermied dog in a perpetual snarl, empty streets, an idle abacus, tall apartment buildings, imposing factories, and dormant machines bearing witness to the mechanisms of industry about to spring to life.
From the interior of a building we see a car pull up. The man with the camera goes through a set of double doors, gets in the car, and is driven through the streets. Soon a flock of pigeons are on the wing—a sure sign of a change coming. In perhaps the most startling image of the film, the man with the camera is laying on a railroad track looking into his viewfinder with a train fast approaching. A thrilling set of cuts leaves us in suspense as to the man’s fate. Soon, Vertov reveals the magician’s method—a trench dug under the tracks allowed the camera to capture the shot safely.
What then are we to make of close-ups of a young woman getting out of bed, affixing her stockings to her garter belt and buttoning her ragged bra behind her back? Other images later in the film of women sunning on a beach and naked women smearing themselves with mud suggest Vertov isn’t as revolutionary as he might appear at first glance. Sex still sells movie tickets, crowds still want to be pleased, experimentation shouldn’t confound and alienate.
Intriguing are shots of Vertov’s wife and film editor, Elizaveta Svilova, working with bits and pieces of film strip. Single frames are shown, asking us to reengage our disbelief that what we have been watching is now history, not actually happening before our eyes. Short sequences of these frames moving at the speed of life and then stopping emphasize the artifice of the presentation. So, too, does all the trick photography in which Vertov engages, including split screens, superimpositions, slow motion, fast motion, and trick photography that engage the viewer with a rhythm that quickens our breath and heart beat.
Vertov himself plays the man with the movie camera, but, of course, someone else is filming him as he shoots from open cars, climbs brick smoke stacks, follows around men and horses working in a low-ceilinged mine, and scales steel beams with his tripod on his back. The director’s claim that he is eschewing the literary and theatrical doesn’t exactly hold water because there is continuity of character (his), time linearity, dramatic and even melodramatic scenes, e.g., a close-up of someone talking urgently into a phone intercut with an ambulance racing down the street with the cameraman’s car in close pursuit. His section on life—marriage, divorce, birth, death—is quite short and occasionally humorous, the embodiment of the side-by-side theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy.
Vertov also avails himself of the then-common technique in Soviet filmmaking of montage, with a dizzying array of quick cuts to disorient the audience, as well as thematic juxtapositions. For example, in one scene, he films a woman having her eyebrows dyed and matches it with a rough woman at work tossing coal into a railcar; in another, he shows a woman having her hair washed, followed by working hands scrubbing clothes in a washtub. The implications for socialist ideologues are plain as day and far from the objectivity people ascribe, generally incorrectly, to the documentary form. Nonetheless, all of these activities are part of the new order, so it’s hard to say what Vertov’s objective attitude may be.
Music, of course, has always been vital to silent film presentation. The DVD I watched was scored by the Alloy Orchestra. Alloy is not my favorite silent film scorer, and other silent film buffs mention two earlier versions favorably, one featuring music by Jason Swinscoe performed by The Cinematic Orchestra and the other by Michael Nyman performing his own music with the Michael Nyman Band. Nonetheless, Alloy followed to the letter Vertov’s instruction that the film be accompanied by energetic music, providing the verve the director felt vital to his enterprise.
This 68-minute ode to Soviet life and the filmmaking process is an exhilarating work of invention and must-viewing for every serious cinephile, but one I believe I have come to too late. Even while trying to keep the age of the film in perspective, I found it hard to think of this film as one of the greatest documentaries ever made. If it is a documentary at all, it is of the filmmaking process and the trickery that filmmakers use to entertain and inform, but it is incomplete in not sharing how special effects are achieved. Its special effects, which were not revolutionary in 1929, serve mainly to celebrate film’s own power of invention—for cinephiles, that may be enough.
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Director: John Boorman
By Roderick Heath
John Boorman, born near the banks of the Thames in Middlesex in 1933, worked his way up to become head of a BBC documentary unit before his 30th birthday. Poised amidst a rising tide of young talents ready to break out of TV work and onto the film scene, Boorman got his chance when offered directorial duties on a film intended as a quick cash-in on the success of the Beatles-starring A Hard Day’s Night (1964) to showcase a rival pop band, the Dave Clark Five. The result, Catch Us If You Can (1965), gained him some attention, but only middling success. Boorman’s career took a hard swerve towards becoming a major Hollywood filmmaker when he encountered Lee Marvin. The towering, famously wild-living, but covertly intelligent and cultured actor was in London shooting The Dirty Dozen (1967). In spite of their diverse origins and experiences, the two men found themselves in close accord, and eventually decided to adapt writer Donald Westlake’s novel The Hunter as their first collaboration. They chose that property because both Marvin and Boorman liked its main character, Parker, who had featured in a string of Westlake’s books published under the regular pen name of Richard Stark. Marvin, who had gained serious clout in Hollywood since his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou (1965), declared to Warner Bros. he was handing total control of the project to the sophomore director, presenting both filmmaker and actor a chance to make films completely according to their own instincts. Boorman, who would soon become alternately lauded and derided for his unique, erratic talent, seized the opportunity with both hands. He and Marvin would make two films together, both charged with Boorman’s eccentric vision and Marvin’s desire to explore his own complex and troubled psyche.
Like his debut, Point Blank again only gained Boorman good reviews and tolerable box office, but it was destined to slowly emerge as the rock-steady base of his reputation amongst cinephiles and an archetype and benchmark for the cinematic adventurousness of the period, all the more interesting and rich for being matched to genre storytelling. In Boorman’s hands, the script, credited to Alexander Jacobs and David and Rafe Newhouse, was transformed into a fractured and hallucinatory experience, the filmmaking’s experimental bent meshing perfectly with a tale exploring mean justice, wintry love, and mysterious politicking. Above and beyond this, Point Blank reveals the director’s fascination with characters on journeys laden with mystical, even mythical overtones, already mooted in jokey fashion on Catch Us If You Can, emerging more fully in a context seemingly far removed from the remote and primal stages of Boorman’s later works like Hell in the Pacific (1968), Deliverance (1972), or The Emerald Forest (1984).
The genre is film noir, the settings the chitinous environs of 1967 California, where the cyclopean vaults of highways and sweltering reaches of concrete and tar wear occasional flourishes of counterculture colour but more often lurk under the garish hieroglyphs of advertising, and homes have become blank, entrapping boxes of glass and brick. Boorman’s vision of this New World shore, like Richard Lester’s in Petulia (1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s on Zabriskie Point (1970), is both dazzled and estranged, surveying vast stretches of prefab housing and modernist infrastructure like cities on the moon. But the overall tone of the film is oneiric, taking as both its key setting and stylistic gambit the environs of Alcatraz Prison, where blocks of rude geometry and twisting, gothic aesthetics are strangely mated, a dank dream heart for Boorman’s American nightmare to well from.
Marvin plays Walker, a derivation of Parker, renamed for the film with a specific evocation of the man’s relentless movement, as well as to give him a subtle but definite distinctness from Westlake’s creation. He is first glimpsed awakening in the shadowy recesses of an Alcatraz prison cell, trying to remember how he got there. The opening credits come less in the traditional bracketing manner than wound into the film’s discombobulated texture, abstracted against the prison’s metal and stonework whilst the film captures Walker in the act of escaping in spite of terrible wounds, but not in motion, shot like tableaux vivants. The stuttering motion resembles film winding up towards proper speed, and Walker’s spiritual life is tethered to the texture of Boorman’s filmmaking. Slowly, in a skittering flow of images that eventually coalesce into something like traditional scenes, Walker’s memory returns, and with it Point Blank comes together from a miasma into something like a movie.
Walker recalls his friend Mal Reese (John Vernon), who came begging him for succour in the midst of a frenetic, boozy party: so desperate was Reese that he socked the drunken, garrulous, distracted Walker, knocking him to the floor, and climbed down to shake the dazed man and plead for attention down amongst the jostling feet of the crowd. Reese, a criminal in big with a crime group referred to only as the Organization, has screwed up badly, and the only way he can make up a debt he’s incurred is to rob a mysterious transaction that takes place regularly on Alcatraz during which a helicopter arrives to pick up a load of something in exchange for a big haul of cash. Walker, an old pal of Reese’s, agreed to aid in the plot, but soon Reese, ready to push things to the limit, guns down the two bagmen at the Alcatraz drop-off. This job turned near-fatal for Walker because of two ominously conjoined elements: his wife Lynne (Sharon Acker), third partner in the robbery, was also having an affair with Reese, who realised that the split loot couldn’t cover his debt. So his solution was obvious—he gunned Walker down. Walker is glimpsed during the credits slowly and agonisingly making his way out of the prison and tackling the dangerous swim to the San Francisco shore.
Boorman cuts to a year later when Walker, recovered, fit, with a cold, hollowed-out glow in his eyes, rides a tourist ferry to the island and converses with an enigmatic man (Keenan Wynn) who seems set on helping Walker exact revenge on Lynne and Reese, who bought his way back into favour and stature in the Organization with the proceeds of the heist, and gives Walker Lynne’s current address, a house high above L.A. Walker zeroes in on Lynne, an approach of fate she senses psychically, not empirically. She prepares like a pharaoh awaiting the angel of death, glimpsed dressing, making up, getting her hair done, all in static, entrapping frames replete with lenses and mirrors, whilst the image (and sound) of Walker on the march through the alien spaces of airports becomes a rhythm of menace and approaching reckoning. Walker thunders into her house and fires his gun into Lynne’s bed on the assumption Reese is in it, but all his bullets do is make smoking holes in the empty mattress, his load shot off impotently.
Marvin had the inspiration on set to leave out all his own dialogue in the scene that follows, as Lynne robotically explains her own sad and sorry lot since his shooting of being used and discarded by Reese, whilst Walker sits in silent boding, emotions unreadable. Lynne sounds like someone whose nerve and sense of self has been worn out by guilt, still attached to her husband on a psychic level and able to answer his unspoken questions. This shot goes on forever, Boorman turning the frame into a merciless trap that Lynne can only escape through self-destruction. Her explanation, illustrated in more of Boorman’s jagged, contrapuntal flashbacks, depicts her relationship with Walker and Reese with sublime economy: Walker and Lynne’s first meeting (“It was raining…”) a romantic vignette with the younger Walker cockily charming Lynne as she dances about him and a gang of fishermen look; Walker’s reunion with Reese and the burgeoning of his, Lynne, and Reese’s friendship into something like an unspoken ménage-a-trois.
Walker goes to sleep on her couch and sees his own actions replayed in languorous, analytical slow motion—the strange dance Lynne performed as he burst into the room and silenced her charged with a savage brand of intimacy; the jarring recoil of firing his gun depicted as a self-enervating force emphasised by Marvin’s physical acting, and followed by a dreamy shot of him emptying spent cartridges from his gun like he’s wasted his most vital seed. He awakens and finds Lynne has killed herself with an overdose, her body splayed like a forlorn husk on the sheets of her chic bed. Walker stumbles into her bathroom in a daze and accidentally knocks some of her perfumes and cosmetics into the sink, and stares dazedly into the stuff pooling there, the muck left behind by Lynne’s collapse, all the makings of her beautified façade now a psychedelic stew. Wynn’s mystery man, Walker sees, hovers outside, waiting for the conclusion of this first act in a campaign directed at the Organization.
Westlake’s Parker was the definition of antihero, a cool, remorseless, virtually amoral career thief whose purpose was to buy himself extended periods of rest at the price of occasional forays into danger and crime in a world defined less by familiar morality than varieties of criminal enterprise. Boorman and Marvin’s Walker is just as hard-bitten and enigmatic, but emerges in the course of the film as a bundle of contradictions. Gifted in violence and detached from both its infliction and reception, he could be ancestor of such later hulking, remorseless bogeymen of screen lore as Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers or the titular cyborg of The Terminator (1984) when he sees his goal and marches after it with chilly focus. But Marvin, with that scooping nose like a cocked police special and sledgehammer chin poised with grim intent and eyes swivelling slyly under heavy lids, emphasises Walker’s strangely passive, almost bewildered state when he doesn’t have a clear goal in mind or given to him. He’s clearly well removed from the world of organized crime except when pressed by a real motivation, and he even seems rather boyish in glimpses of his younger self flirting with Lynne and when he’s drunk as Reese comes to him for help. There are hints Walker and Reese were once army buddies. Walker’s actual aim isn’t specifically revenge but to get his money, and he seems bewildered when one of his prey doesn’t believe this is his only motive. Hilariously, the sum he’s after is both too big and too small to be easily pried out of the Organization, which represents the criminal enterprise transformed into a modern big business, its fiscal layout all sublimely contained within ledgers.
Walker buries Lynne in a cemetery perched on a hilltop above suburbs unfolding like lunar colonisation projects where it feels like even the intimacy of burial has become an instant consumer experience. Still with Wynn directing his efforts, Walker starts after Reese, following a breadcrumb trail first to Reese’s fellow middle-level members of the Organization, ‘Big John’ Stegman (Michael Strong), who has a day job as a smarmy car salesman. Walker shakes Stegman up by the novel means of luring him out for a test drive in one of his cars and then turning the car itself into a vehicle of torment, driving it wildly and jerkily until Stegman feels like he’s inside a washing machine. Stegman coughs up one vital piece of information: Reese now has designs on Lynne’s sister Chris (Angie Dickinson), who runs a nightclub called The Picture House that the Organization has taken over. Chris is resisting their efforts to exploit it and Reese’s advances with equal determination. Walker goes to the nightclub in search of her, but is met instead by several Organization goons. This sequence, theoretically a minor action scene, becomes another of Boorman’s fiendishly creative filmic arias, using the nightclub with its high psychedelic-era aesthetic. including pop art swathing the walls and a dynamic soul singer (Stu Gardner, who would later write The Cosby Show’s theme) on stage, as a place where underground nudges normality in surrounds deliberately contrived to resemble the cacophonous modern id with its dialogues of zeitgeists and images. This concept inflects the action on a deadly straight plane, as Walker fights off villains in the wings amidst churning movie projections and thundering noise. But it’s also reflected in a slyer, more blackly humorous way at the same time. The singer gets plump, pasty patrons to join him in screeching lyrics, and the screeches give way to a woman’s scream as she sees the sprawl of pummelled, writhing men left in Walker’s wake, whilst Walker himself lurks in a corner, volcanic cauldrons projected on his face.
Although as a whole original, Point Blank reveals Boorman, like many young directors stretching their legs, referencing and remixing freely. The themes of corruption and cleansing, fate and chance, describe classic film noir territory, merely translated into an unfamiliar aesthetic. Point Blank was the product of a production template that had fashioned Marvin’s earlier collaboration with Dickinson and director Don Siegel, The Killers (1964). The result can be read as a spiritual sequel to Siegel’s work, albeit moving beyond Siegel’s atavistic but entirely immediate sense of human abnormality into a more overtly surreal and interiorised setting. As Boorman himself noted, one of Point Blank’s funniest scenes reverses a moment in Siegel’s film where Marvin roughs up Dickinson’s character—it’s Dickinson thrashing and beating Marvin, though Walker stops bothering to fight her off and instead stands stoic and unblinking, her fiercest blows bouncing off his chest, squinting at her all the time like one of those dinosaurs whose nervous systems don’t register fatal wounds for minutes. Boorman also trod in the footsteps of Sam Fuller’s Underworld USA (1961): Boorman, like Fuller, surveys crime as an extension of big business, the upper echelons of which have become a sterile zone populated not by bruisers and heavies, but rather by canny plotters and managerial sharks into which a man resurging from the realm of the dead crashes like a wrecking ball. Siegel’s harsh surveys of the prefab cubist wonders of postwar Californian landscapes, long prefigured in the likes of The Line-Up (1958), provide some of Boorman’s palette, much as Boorman’s would inflect Siegel’s on Dirty Harry (1971).
But Boorman’s more radical efforts here reflect the strong imprint of a more fanciful breed of filmmaker, signalling the young director’s overboiling imagination and ambitions to move well beyond the prescribed limits of genre cinema. The jagged, often dizzyingly perched visuals, themes of interchangeable identity and resurrection, and islets of warped eroticism reference Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) as a significant touchstone, particularly apparent in a scene where one character dies falling from a rooftop. Orson Welles’ works surely also loomed in Boorman’s mind, in the obsessively baroque use of shadow and light, the fascination for strange environs and monstrous architecture, interest in power transactions between individuals, and distorted time as both method and motif. The fractured, subjunctive cutting and sound interpolation looks to France and the New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard had actually unofficially adapted one of the Parker novels the year before for Made in U.S.A. (although Godard, with characteristic wit, remade Parker into a lead role for Anna Karina), but Boorman’s approach owed more to Alain Resnais, who had found a way to translate psychological angst and evocation of a tormenting sense of past-in-present into the very texture of filmmaking, with works like Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Muriel (1963). Boorman repurposed his technique for a ghostly survey of the fallout of violence and feeling that seems much less opaque but that becomes, through such manipulation, an equally elusive statement on liminal experience and the slippery nature of character.
Chris has both great attraction to her sister’s former husband (“The best part of Lynne was you.”) as well as deep internal conflict about it. She’s eventually driven to express that conflict in spectacular fashion, but it’s still not hard for Walker to talk her into helping him when this is added to the balance along with a desire for revenge for Reese’s virtual murder of both Walker and Lynne. Reese has been ordered by his immediate senior in the Organization, Carter (Lloyd Bochner), to hole up in his penthouse apartment under heavy guard in an attempt to bait Walker into an attack. Walker takes the bait, but twists the trap inside out, firstly by using Chris to penetrate the apartment and distract Reese, whilst he creates diversions to distract the guards and enter a neighbouring apartment. Whilst Walker interrogates Reese, he semi-accidentally causes him to stumble back over the railing of his balcony and plunge to the ground far below.
Boorman’s sense of queasy eroticism crops up constantly throughout the film. Reese’s death comes humiliatingly when he’s naked, after a session in bed with Lynne, who’s actually desperately awaiting Walker to come and get him off her, and falling to his doom leaves his draping towel in Walker’s hand. Later, Boorman mischievously provides a sex scene between Chris and Walker where two men and two women, Walker, Reese, Lynne, Chris, are seen as interchangeable, urged along by seemingly perverse but actually entirely natural urges towards similar ends manifesting in sexual desire, the will to power, the search for an essential state of being. The violence they do to each other becomes the only way their egos can fend off dissolution into one another.
Boorman would revisit this catalogue of vital motifs in different settings—the city men and rednecks of Deliverance, the immortals and savages in Zardoz, the warring, often magically disguised knights and sorcerers of Excalibur (1981), the dichotomous twins of The Tiger’s Tail (2008). Much like the hunt for the Grail in Excalibur, Walker’s mission has a stated, totemic goal but involves instead an attempt to understand what life is, what it can be, in the face of death. He grazes the edges of such life in Chris’s arms, and their last moments together evoke both their relative anonymity to one another (“What’s my last name?” Chris asks; “What’s my first name?” Walker replies), but also the truth in such bareness, something that also looks forward to the identity-void sexuality of Last Tango in Paris (1972). Simultaneously, thanks to Wynn’s mysterious sensei, Walker is set on the path to ruthless, methodical exposure of the food chain of the quasi-corporate mob, trying to find a beating heart somewhere that he can attack, and discovering, eventually, there isn’t one, only a shifting series of actors whose attempts to grasp the big brass ring set in motion their own downfall. Carter hires a pipe-smoking assassin (James B. Sikking) to take care of Walker and gets Stegman to be the bait, but Walker senses treachery in any meeting arranged by the Organization. He barges into Carter’s office, drags him out, and forces him to be the one who ventures into the assassin’s field of fire.
This sequence, set in the Los Angeles River, is both a beautiful piece of staging, with Boorman utilising the vistas of the setting and the human architecture of his actors in alternations of grandeur and diminution, and also a vital nexus of references. Boorman locates the same discomfort in the locale Gordon Douglas exploited for scifi-accented ends in Them! (1954), that myth of atom-age horror, whilst the mechanics of the scene reference the similar punishment-by-substitution in a hard classic of noir, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946): the psychic precincts of two disparate genres combined to describe the new age. The assassin does Walker the neat service of killing both Stegman and Carter (in fact, Walker, for all his potent gestures and aura, doesn’t kill anyone in the film), and so Walker has to move another step up the Organization’s food chain to Brewster (Carroll O’Connor), a fatuous executive whose house Walker and Chris occupy at Wynn’s direction. Brewster, arriving in town in a private jet, shrugs off Sikking’s assassin when he wants to be paid for his perfectly executed killing of the wrong target, and instead suggests he go talk to another of the Organization’s bosses, Fairfax, or better yet, kill him, too. Walker is able to capture Brewster once he arrives home, and he nervously, but honestly explains to Walker the basic problem: the Organization barely works with cash anymore. The only option open to him to obtain what he seeks forces him to (nearly) return to the setting that put him on this path, the money drop in San Francisco, which has been shifted from Alcatraz to the Presidio.
This sequence provides the last, most beguiling, but also inscrutable stage in Walker’s journey, as it proves not to be the culmination of his efforts, but those of Wynn, who is revealed to be the last, hitherto unseen Fairfax. He has engineered the whole business because his underlings were planning to unseat him and has the assassin gun down Brewster to set the seal on the business. Fairfax then call for Walker to come out and take his pay, but Walker remains hovering in the shadows until the assassin emerges, whilst Fairfax becomes increasingly angry, shouting out, “I pay my debts!” But Walker has learnt a lesson, and he retreats into the darkness. Boorman scans Brewster’s dead, splayed body on the bricks of the Presidio, from high above, pulls back and scans the San Francisco vista before zooming in again on Alcatraz, as if closing the loop on a circle.
Some have seen this shot as proof that Walker died, and that all we’ve seen is simply his dying fantasy turning into desperate existential surrender. But to me, Point Blank is ultimately not reducible to such a literal resolution. What is certain is that Walker, at the end, sees his mission as fruitless, the final prize illusory and doomed to lead him into the same trap he stepped into before. He will remain a ghost haunting the underworld, literally or not. Boorman felt that for Marvin, who had been badly wounded in his gruelling WWII service and carried both physical and figurative scars throughout his life, Walker became the vessel of his angst, and so Point Blank is both an oblique investigation of his experience and its most specific exploration. It’s a statement purely dedicated to exploring that strange state of being, at once dead and alive, cold and loving, perpetually afraid and entirely justified, empty of knowledge and gifted with wisdom.
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