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Directors: Jacob Ben-Ami and Edgar G. Ulmer
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most people who have heard of Edgar Ulmer know him as the director of the no-budget noir classic Detour (1945). But Ulmer, a Jewish emigré from Austria-Hungary, was well known to Jewish audiences for his Yiddish-language films. Many of these films were adapted from the thriving Yiddish theatre scene, with creative teams moving easily between the two worlds. Ulmer’s codirector, Jacob Ben-Ami, cofounded a Yiddish theatre troupe in Odessa, Russia, with playwright Peretz Hirshbein, who had a hit with Green Fields on stage and whose fame was such that he gets top billing in the film’s opening credits. Another Poverty Row effort from Ulmer, Green Fields channels that peculiar Ulmer magic, supported by Ben-Ami’s experience with the play, to elevate this gentle comedy into something more rueful and revealing.
A rabbinic student, Levi Yitskhok (Michael Gorrin), leaves his studies in search of some kind of truth not to be found in his books, including what he calls “better Jews.” This prototypical Wandering Jew walks for many miles, signaled by his figure superimposed on changing landscapes. Eventually, he comes upon a 14-year-old boy, Avrom Yankov (Herschel Bernardi, in his first screen role), who brings him to his parents’ cottage, where he lives with them and his big brother Hersh-Ber (Saul Levine) and older sister Tsine (Helen Beverly). His father and mother, Dovid-Noich (Isidore Cashier) and Rokhl (Anna Appel), are thrilled to have a scholar visit and believe it will bring great honor to their family to be his hosts. Despite being offered a permanent teaching post, the reluctant Levi Yitskhok is not sure this village offers what he is looking for. Nonetheless, he is persuaded to stay until after the High Holidays. His presence arouses the envy of Dovid-Noich and Rokhl’s neighbors, Elkone (Max Vodnoy) and Gitl (Lea Noemi), who conspire to house the “rebbe” themselves. Soon, the situation is complicated as Elkone and Gitl try to make a match between the rebbe and their daughter, Stera (Dena Drute), who is in love with Hersh-Ber. While the parents bicker and scheme, Tsine mounts a campaign of her own to learn how to read and write and, incidentally, capture Levi Yikskhok’s heart.
The opening, which shows peasants at work in the fields, must have caused pangs of nostalgia in European Jews in the audience who came to America after being forced off their lands. The equivalent of Ozu’s “pillow shots” interrupt the film at various junctures, thus glorifying the beauty and simplicity of rural life. The countryside is a place of health in this film, a place of light, contrasting with the dark synagogue the rebbe left at the beginning of the film, illuminated only by a single candle. Levi Yitskhok literally moves from darkness into light when he leaves, and the obsession the film has with finding the “true Jews” and being a good Jew isn’t one I entirely understand, but affirm as something I heard constantly when I was growing up.
The script and direction contrast the shy asceticism of Levi Yitskhok with rugged rail-splitter Hersh-Ber and the energetic Tsine and Stera, both unabashed flirts who run barefoot all day. Yet, healthful surroundings aren’t a total balm or the only need a Jew has. Dovid-Noich says that when he went to bury his father in an urban cemetery, he didn’t want to return to the countryside. The lack of educational opportunities in rural areas was certainly painful for many Jews—the characters constantly refer to themselves as ignorant—but a greater hardship was eviction from the Pale, discussed in the stories of Sholem Aleichem that formed the basis for Fiddler of the Roof, which broke up Jewish communities and made remnant populations feel isolated and vulnerable.
The overall shooting style and tone put me in mind of Soviet or communist Chinese propaganda showing the joyful, industrious peasant plowing furrows, planting potatoes, and chopping wood. Indeed, the closing shot of the film moves from Tsine and Levi Yitskhok walking past a plow in the foreground to a close-up of the plow itself. Yet these foreground shots are used to greater effect in other ways. For example, Tsine and Rokhl are shown preparing each course of a Sabbath meal at the wood-stoked hearth and taking turns carrying the food to the table in the background where the men are eating. There didn’t seem to be any place settings for the women, so this scene, while quite beautifully lit and a lovely slice of life, shows the unequal gender roles of a traditional Jewish household, an aspect of Jewish life that is reinforced when Tsine gives Levi Yitskhok an unpleasant surprise by showing him that she can write her name on a slate.
The characters in this film derive from familiar Yiddish theatre types—giddy girls, gossiping and contentious wives and their blowhard husbands, and the painfully pious rebbe. The acting tends to be broad, as many of the actors were used to playing to live audiences, and Bernardi, in particular, is physically awkward, his too-long sleeves—no doubt meant to show they were hand-me-downs—giving him a scarecrow-like appearance. Close-ups and two-shots are used too sparingly, but when they are, they really help the actors deepen their performances. I was particularly struck by Isidore Cashier’s emotional depth when talking about life in the countryside and the easy rapport he shared with Anna Appel that had me believing they were a long-time married couple. Helen Beverly is very appealing, and watching her watch Levi Yitskhok, curious at first, and then with more longing, made for a smooth and believable transition. Michael Gorrin didn’t always seem to know what to do—he walked around the cottage and barnyard in a pointlessly random way and his embarrassed looks were little more than mugging. Dena Drute and Saul Levine had a lot of chemistry, and I enjoyed their robust playing together. It’s a shame they didn’t have more screen time, as Tsine and Levi Yitskhok didn’t make a very riveting couple.
I have to say a word about the score and arrangements of Russian composer, conductor, choral director, and pianist Vladimir Heifetz. Heifetz composed some of the music for Eisenstein’s powerhouse film Battleship Potemkin (1925), the first of only three films he worked on during a very successful classical music career. As with that film, he demonstrates his ability to storytell with music, filling Green Fields with charmingly Jewish melodies and colors for the changing moods of the script—lively and sunny in the countryside, driving when accompanying work scenes, brooding and solemn in the synagogue and during the Sabbath meal. Heifetz’s contributions take Green Fields to a higher, more artistic level.
Green Fields was restored in 1978 by the National Center for Jewish Film, which has made it available on DVD.
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Director: Ken Annakin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Ken Annakin is an interesting director who stirs not a lot of interest among cinephiles. The British-born filmmaker got his start during World War II as assistant director to Carol Reed on a women’s recruiting short, We Serve (1942), and got his first feature break at the Rank Organisation with the adventure comedy Holiday Camp (1947). He went from being nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and garnering a DGA nomination for his contribution to The Longest Day (1962) to winning a Razzie as worst director for The Pirate Movie (1982). He is best known as one of Walt Disney’s go-to directors for the live-action feature films wholly or partially shot in Europe.
What I like about Annakin is that when given the chance, he knew how to make intelligent movies for the whole family, a virtually extinct type of film that gets little respect today. His best-known Disney feature is Swiss Family Robinson (1960), a ripping family yarn that reunited him with Third Man on the Mountain actors James MacArthur and Janet Munro. The latter film is based on Banner in the Sky, a novel by writer and mountaineer James Ramsey Ullman (who ghost-wrote Tenzing Norgay’s autobiography, Man of Everest), which tells a fictionalized account of the first successful summiting of the Matterhorn in 1865. Of the two Swiss-inflected films, Third Man on the Mountain is the more ambitious and thought-provoking, with more believable situations and action sequences made all the more hair-raising for actually taking place on the Matterhorn.
Rudi Matt (MacArthur) lives in the fictional Alpine town of Kurtal, where he works as a dishwasher in a hotel that caters to the tourists who come to admire and climb the mountains. His father, Josef, the best guide the Alps had ever known, died when Rudi was a toddler while trying to keep his client from freezing on the slopes of the “Citadel.” The client was rescued literally wearing the red shirt off Josef’s back, and Rudi keeps the shirt as a talisman and inspiration for his own dream of following in his father’s footsteps. His mother (Nora Swinburne) and Uncle Franz (James Donald), a guide himself who refuses to go near the Citadel, continue to steer him toward a hotel career to protect him from dying like his father. His girlfriend, Lisbeth (Munro), rejoices every time Rudi sneaks out of the hotel kitchen to test himself on the nearby peaks, believing that men should do what they are meant to do in life.
During one of his escapes to the mountains, Rudi counts the peaks he has or will climb. He points at the Citadel and yells “And you!” Under the echoes of his own voice, he hears a cry for help. Investigating, he sees that a man has become trapped at the bottom of a crevasse. Finding that his rescue rope is too short, Rudi, like his father, strips his shirt off to tie to the end of the rope. The man he rescues is Captain Winter (Michael Rennie), a famous climber who has come to Kurtal to try to persuade Franz to be his guide up the Citadel. Winter encourages Rudi’s ambitions by buying him new equipment, and he convinces Franz to let the boy be their porter on a climb they have planned for another mountain. However, in an effort to impress Winter, Rudi strands himself on a chimney rock and must be rescued by Franz, now more set against Rudi’s ambitions than ever. When Franz confiscates Rudi’s new boots, Lisbeth and the hotel baker, Teo (Laurence Naismith), conspire to retrieve them and help Rudi learn how to be a proper guide to convince Winter and his uncle that he deserves a chance.
Winter leaves Kurtal, briefly dashing Rudi’s hopes, but he returns with Emil Saxo (Herbert Lom), a guide from another village, to take him up the Citadel. Rudi steals away to their base camp to join them. In an effort to rescue Rudi, the Kurtal guides race to the base camp and are shamed by Saxo for their cowardice. Franz not only agrees to join the climb, but to allow Rudi to come as well, and the breathtaking assault on the Citadel moves into high gear.
Walt Disney and his wife were smitten with and frequent visitors to Switzerland, and he personally insisted that Third Man on the Mountain be filmed there. In an odd irony to a story in which climbers from rival Swiss towns vie for the honor of scaling the Citadel, the director of the mountain unit was French mountaineer Gaston Rébuffat, one of the rare non-Swiss climbers to become an official Alps climbing guide. While Annakin used some matte paintings and a bit of movie magic to simulate the steep drops of the cliffsides, the climbing sequences are real; all the actors learned climbing techniques so that the use of doubles in closer shots could be kept to a minimum. The film shows how the sport was done in 1865—no pitons or carabiners to lock them to the rock faces, no pulleys, no waterproof down parkas, no helmets, and no oxygen. They wear wool clothes, plain leather boots with spikes, and stocking caps, and their main tool is their body—hands and feet for finding hand and toe holds, and shoulders and torso to act as a pulley for belaying their fellow climbers. They have no protection from a rock slide but to cower under whatever they can find, and they have to find something secure to throw their rope around if they can’t find any usable holds or paths. It’s both awe-inspiring and terrifying to watch the climbers moving along the mountain on the smallest of ledges with nothing between them and a fatal fall but the strength of their fingers and toes. I literally had to look away at certain points in the film.
However, the film is generously paced with scenes of village life, a little comic relief in the form of Teo and mountains of unwashed dishes, and the sense of pride the Swiss take in their unique sport. A telescope sits in the square through which the villagers eagerly take turns watching the progress on the mountain—the film gets its name from a declaration that there’s “a third man on the mountain” when only two were anticipated. The cinematography by the great Harry Waxman (Brighton Rock , The Wicker Man ) shows off Switzerland to good effect, particularly in the mystic shots of the Matterhorn looking like the killer it is (and inspiration for the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland), and his colorful mise-en-scène for a village dance offers an attractive, less sentimental view of small towns than is often the norm for family films.
James MacArthur is terrific as Rudi. He conveys Rudi’s irresistible urge to climb without theatrics—he just moves as though propelled by an unseen hand. MacArthur enjoyed climbing, and so some of this performance might have included his own awakening to the beauty and challenges of the sport, but he modulates his performance with a steely resolve when needed. Janet Munro is an incredibly likeable actress whose approach to playing Lisbeth is more mature than I’ve seen her attempt before. Her final clinch with Rudi includes a very grown-up kiss, and she speaks about marrying him without a hint of girlishness—she’s a woman who can bear up should she lose her man to the mountain because she knows he’s not going to be fully himself without it. The competitiveness of the sport and the honor of being lead guide or first to summit are voiced strongly by a surprisingly effective Herbert Lom, who is almost unrecognizable as Emil. Michael Rennie seems just a little too kind, forgiving, and genteel for this sport, but he doesn’t do any real damage to the film. And just for good measure, MacArthur’s mother, Helen Hayes, makes an uncredited cameo appearance in the film as a hotel guest.
Ullman’s fictionalized names draw parallels to the real events that inspired his novel. The book and screenplay suggest that the young conquerer of the Citadel will have his name forever linked with the mountain, giving the erroneous impression that Matt lent his name to the Matterhorn. In addition, Captain Winter’s name and nationality must have derived from the organizer of the real climb, Edward Whymper. Screenwriter Eleanore Griffin, a solid talent whose work on Imitation of Life (1959) has been all but forgotten by Douglas Sirk auteurists, put together a well-written script that encourages children and young adults to follow their hearts and take responsibility for themselves and others, and shows adults how important it is to care for their children without squashing their spirits.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard
By Marilyn Ferdinand
You know why I quit playing ballads? Cause I love playing ballads. —Miles Davis
The above quote by jazz great Miles Davis has always stuck in my mind. Why would someone give up on something they love? Why would they push themselves to the edges of their chosen form with sounds that couldn’t be more different from a ballad? Miles was frank about his reasons: “”You should never be comfortable, man. Being comfortable fouled up a lot of musicians.” Comfort has fouled up a lot of other people, too. Just see what some writers about movies have to say about the National Society of Film Critics’ choice for best picture of 2014—“…as stupid & self-congratulatory a choice NSFC could make” (David Poland, Movie City News); “snobbish and elitist” (Scott Feinberg, Hollywood Reporter). In an age of punditry, not being utterly accessible for critical parsing or two-line synopsizing is perhaps the greatest offense a film could make.
I, for one, congratulate the NSFC for their choice and wholeheartedly agree with it. Goodbye to Language is a joy, not least because the 84-year-old dean of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, continues to embrace new challenges and humbly said to the NSFC in a thank-you missive that he is “still learning.” Nobody insisted he keep making movies, and at his age, he would be forgiven for retiring on his laurels to write full time or tend his garden. Instead, while other directors have approached 3D technology timidly or in the pursuit of butts in seats just like its original aim in the 1950s, Godard has, like Roberto Benigni, chosen to “lie down in the firmament making love to everyone” with his warm and ground-breaking embrace of 3D cinematography.
There are many knowledgeable Godardians who have done a far better job than I could of analyzing the content and technical aspects of his latest effort and contextualizing it within his oeuvre. Indeed, the excited discourse among Godardians is a juggernaut of its own, with the endless possibilities of Godard’s intentions being picked over like the booty in a dragon’s treasure chamber. For me, such detailed intellectual exercises are for the young. As an older film enthusiast who craves the immediacy of experience, I prefer to bask in the absolute beauty of Goodbye to Language.
If I can be so presumptuous, it seems that Godard is a little tired of these mental roundelays as well. Goodbye to Language seems more like a repository of impressions, inspirations, even questions. While he drops a few references, images, and actions into the film regarding Africa and violence, his oft-repeated refrain, “There is no why!” challenges his seriousness of purpose in raising these subjects. For me, the film is a valentine to all the things Godard loves—nature, dogs (particularly his dog, Roxy), art, film, language, and his partner in life, Anne-Marie Miéville. As though to confirm that assertion, one enterprising writer at MUBI has catalogued many of the literary, visual, and musical quotes Godard incorporated into the film, and the range of his influences, from Derrida to Anouihl to Ezra Pound, reveals Godard’s far-ranging intellectual and cultural engagement that makes the title of his film all but impossible to take seriously. At the same time, Godard is dipping several toes into the media of today, commenting on and making use of the renaissance in 3D filmmaking and smartphone videography, the former with wild abandon, the latter with more petulant reservations.
Goodbye to Language concerns itself with nature and metaphor in four alternating parts, preceded by an introductory scene at a book stand near Usine a Gaz, a cultural center in Nyon, Switzerland. Most amusing of the goings-on in this section is a professor named Davidson (Christian Gregori) looking at a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and telling a young woman not to look the writer up on Google. Godard juxtaposes book readers with smartphone readers and eventually shows a smartphone with a headshot of Solzhenitsyn on the screen. I laughed out loud at the futility of Davidson’s plea and at the way a man of towering importance concerned with the worst in state oppression in his writings could be reduced to a selfie by proxy.
Godard uses two couples who strongly resemble each other to play almost identical scenes in parts 1 and 2, in what seemed to me to be an homage to his New Wave compatriot and former film editor Jackie Raynal, particularly her film Deux Fois (Two Times, 1968), in which she says goodbye not to language, but to meaning. At the same time, by using different actors, he is illustrating a very literal interpretation of the word “metaphor,” that is, a comparison of two unlike things that share something important—and no matter how much the pairs of actors (Héloïse Godet [Josette] and Kamel Abdelli [Gédéon]/Zoé Bruneau [Ivitch] and Richard Chevallier [Marcus]) resemble each other, they are not the same.
Godard varies the scenes in ways that modulate the amount of alienation between the two couples. In a pierside scene, Josette is looking forlornly at the clouded sky from behind a set of bars when a man’s hand moves tentatively into the frame, but remains far from Josette’s hand. In the replayed scene, Marcus’ hand moves much closer to Ivitch’s. Josette and Gédéon are filmed in an apartment. Both are nude, but unlike Ivitch in the later sequence, Josette is conspicuous in her nakedness, putting a trench coat on at one point but allowing it to flap open. Gédéon says with disgust that there is no Nobel Prize for art, which must be his profession, and his unease spills through the scene. The couple’s unhappiness crystallized for me when Josette sits naked next to a vase of flowers, more subjugated objects for a painting than real and relatable. A shower scene shows Josette from behind, standing in the bathroom doorway urging Gédéon to finish so she can use the shower. The second couple tussle in the glassed-in shower, a scary scene considering that they could break through the glass, but at least they are showering together.
Godard also offers sequences of violence (an apparent murder, water running in a blood-filled sink) and of low comedy (the men farting on a toilet while their women try to talk to them). Throughout, scenes from films appear as short snippets or on a large TV in the couples’ bedroom, drawing the eye away from the foreground. And that is literal, as Godard’s use of 3D allows us to separate the planes of background, foreground, and subtitles. The viewer has the freedom to close one eye or the other to get different angles and colors, reminiscent of the open-source films like Sita Sings the Blues (2008) that allow viewers to embellish and change the basic film.
Godard even seems to send up his own rebellion against France’s so-called quality films and Oscar-bait period films by inserting an interlude of Mary Shelley with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron as she pens Frankenstein. At the same time, he seems to suggest that the act of creation is a terrible beauty and that technology can unleash forces that can subvert our humanity. Is Godard a hypocrite, decrying smartphones while playing with 3D? I say we all draw our lines, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
He saves his most dazzlingly colorful scenes for the nature sequences that feature his dog Roxy, which may be a proxy for Godard himself. Roxy is a philosopher queen in her natural world of trees, grass, and flowers ruminating on what the river knows, immediately putting me in mind of “Ole Man River” from Show Boat (1936/1951). Roxy is rejected by one couple, left standing on a pier while they go off in a boat; they may even have tossed her in the rapids. The other couple adopts her and takes her everywhere with them. Dogs, we are told in voiceover, are the only creatures that love others more than themselves, making them superior to human beings in their capacity for empathy and sacrifice. Godard, the old dog learning new tricks, may be wondering whether he will be accepted or rejected and signals in what I believe to be an almost total lack of ego that he really does what he does for us, not himself. The ungenerous criticisms flung at this sweet film show us to be the lesser—again.
To quote from Miles Davis again: “If you understood everything I say, you’d be me!” It’s time to stop our own ego trips, give up on finding new ways to reduce his vision to a few paragraphs, and offer this consummate artist our sincere thanks for never giving up on us.
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Director/Screenwriter: Gina Prince-Bythewood
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Last year, I participated in one of group blog Wonders in the Dark’s legendary countdowns, which poll numerous cinephiles on what they consider to be the best films in a given genre or category. This countdown involved romance films, the definition of which was left up to each voter. Film fans will quibble as they always do about what is included and what is missing, but I think the voters did a pretty good job of choosing a wide array of films with a romantic bent, from cartoon features like Lady and the Tramp (1955) and WALL-E (2008) and warped relationships in the noir films Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), to gay love in Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) and eternal love in Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). I was happy to see some newer films on the list, but dismayed that most of them were made by indie and foreign directors. It seems that Hollywood’s formerly large portfolio of adult romances has been pushed out of the way by adolescent and dysfunctional relationships, as well as period pieces made more romantic by their elegantly arcane settings.
That’s why Beyond the Lights hit me like a ton of bricks. The central pair in this contemporary romance, a Rihanna-style pop star and a policeman with political aspirations, are in their 20s, accomplished, and self-aware. They don’t meet anywhere near cute, and they don’t give up everything just to be together. They actually have lives that include, but don’t revolve around each other, and director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood lets us see those lives. Wow, imagine that!
The film opens in Brixton, London’s sketchy multicultural neighborhood. We meet Noni as a 10-year-old child (India Jean-Jacques) being dragged into a hair salon by her mother Macy (Minnie Driver). Macy successfully begs the beautician, Felicia (Deidrie Henry), who is closing for the day, to give her a few tips so that she can bring Noni’s unruly hair into line for an important talent competition the next day. The film cuts to the competition, where we see a tap dancer whirl around the stage before Noni takes her turn. She offers a soulful, a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” and comes in second, behind the dancer. Macy drags Noni off the stage in a rage and forces her to throw her trophy away. Noni learns the hard way that winning is the only option.
The film fast-forwards to the present in which a grown-up Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) no longer worries about her nappy hair or being a runner-up. She’s a popular singer who works a sleek, purple weave and fuck-me clothing and gestures, and carries on an affair of convenience with rapper and musical collaborator Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly). The duo’s latest single wins a Grammy, and as Noni drives off with some friends in a limo, the teetotaler uncharacteristically swills some champagne straight from the bottle. When she returns to her hotel room to change clothes for an after-party, she tells Kazan (Nate Parker), the moonlighting cop guarding her door, not to let anyone in. Wondering why her daughter is taking so long to emerge, Macy orders Kaz to open the door. They find Noni sitting precariously on the balcony railing, crying that “nobody sees me.” She pushes off, but Kaz catches her wrist and hauls her back up with the words “I see you” on his lips. The media are abuzz with reports of her suicide attempt, witnessed by people on the ground. Forced into a position of damage control, Noni goes with the cover story that she was intoxicated and slipped. Kaz, cast as a hero, believes in telling the truth, but compromises his principles to support her cover story. He wants to keep his distance from Noni, but she pursues him and the two commence a serious romance.
What sets Beyond the Lights apart from other mainstream romances—and despite the largely black cast, this film maintains an assured classic structure—is the attention to the details of the lovers’ lives and the way such now-familiar components of popular culture as paparazzi, scandal-mongering, hero worship, and image creation actually affect those who work in the public eye. Noni’s suicide attempt could have signaled just another cliché of the poor little rich girl or tragic star, but Prince-Bythewood smartly let us see the soul of this person in the opening scenes, drawn to jazz and self-expression but pushed by an ambitious mother to pursue fame and fortune. This strategy invests the audience with a stake in her rescue and recovery, as well as lifts the story out of the jaws of superficial melodrama.
Kaz’s story is just as interesting. The son of a retired cop (Danny Glover), Kaz is following in his father’s footsteps as part of their joint plan to launch him into politics. His initial courting of some influential religious leaders is rocky, as they question him about his youth and then upbraid him for seeming to compare himself to another youthful mover and shaker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annoyed by their retreat behind the sacred cow of King, Kaz merely asks them to know him by his deeds. He is warned that Noni might not be good for his image, even though he has gotten some much-needed name recognition from the press conference at which she thanked him for saving her. But his dedication to honesty might be a larger hindrance to him in the long run.
Ultimately, what makes this story so compelling and this love match so right is the journey toward authenticity Noni and Kaz are on. Kaz tells Noni that he loves Nina Simone, unwittingly signaling to her that he can understand her real self, and self-consciously says that his parents named him Kazan because they thought it sounded African, a sly joke on an older generation that looked to a continent many of them had never seen for their authenticity. He refuses to consider himself her boyfriend until she breaks up with Kid Culprit, giving her the courage to do just that and try to jettison her false, hypersexual image on stage. The new relationship kicks into high gear when they drive across the border to Mexico for a weekend idyll. Noni pulls off her fake fingernails, pulls out her weave, and the pair visits an open-air market. Kaz refuses to give her some cash for an ID bracelet, forcing Noni to barter her diamond earrings for it. In a moment in which Noni owns her stardom as part of who she is, she gives Kaz a “really?” look when he asks her if the diamonds are real.
Unfortunately, the getaway is ruined when Noni’s mother and the paparazzi find her after a fan videos her singing a very moving version of “Blackbird” at a karaoke bar and posts it on YouTube. Whisked back into the fray of celebrity, Noni refuses to chuck it all because it makes Kaz uncomfortable to be under a microscope. She wants to have a world stage to say what she wants to say as a singer and songwriter and isn’t ready to cash in her chips based on the wants and needs of a man. When Noni and Macy play hardball with her record company to include a couple of songs Noni wrote on her new album, which will cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in rerecording and production fees, the price is dropping Kaz. After a quick beat, Noni simply and unemotionally says, “OK.”
Prince-Bythewood offers a wonderfully intimate look at Noni and Macy’s relationship. Macy tells a story Noni hasn’t heard before. Macy was abandoned by Noni’s black father and rejected by her family and she ended up—infuriatingly—just as they predicted: broke in a Brixton tenement. A passage out opened when a very young Noni opened her lungs to sing along to a recording of “Blackbird.” Macy’s actions become much more understandable, even forgivable, when put in context, but she just can’t seem to recognize Noni as a person—a common affliction of parents everywhere. In the end, both Noni and Kaz have to separate their own dreams from those of their parents if they are to give birth to their true, adult selves.
I believed almost every minute of this film, with only a few false notes sounded mainly to move the action forward. The portrayal of the music industry, with its power plays, image churning, and negotiating, seemed real without being the caricature of villainy we often see in feature films. Noni and Kaz’s relationship develops slowly to the random rhythms of life, not on the predictable waves of plot. Prince-Bythewood doesn’t feel the need to show skin when her characters have sex—indeed, this welcome change of pace offers insight into what Noni is fleeing, revealed in a very professionally shot music video at the beginning of the film that is little more than a visual sexual assault. I liked how full and teeming the film was—it was a nice touch to have the kindly hair stylist return as a member of Noni’s staff. Even the concertgoers seemed to get just enough camera time to make them seem like more than extras.
Most especially, I loved Mbatha-Raw, who with her appearances in the highly regarded film Belle and this one, is having quite a year. She adopts a different spine for the Noni she presents to the world and the one she has kept under wraps, and melds the two believably through the course of the film. Her rendition of “Blackbird,” sung through tears, is inspired and beautiful. Her dignity is kept intact by a sympathetic director and matched by a dignified love interest who learns that his chosen path doesn’t really fit his character. Mbatha-Raw and Parker have a wonderful chemistry, which Prince-Bythewood captures in some beautifully paced and rendered scenes. Beyond the Lights may be optimistic about the power of the truth, but this large and talented creative team have made a believer out of me.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has steadily gained a select and growing circle of international film devotees since his debut in 1998 with Small Town. His last four films have won prizes in the Cannes Film Festival, 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia brought him a far wider level of acclaim, and this year’s Winter Sleep captured the Palme d’Or, cementing his reputation as one of the age’s major filmmakers. For fans of Anatolia, Winter Sleep may prove to be a subtly dissonant experience. Extreme length and a vivid mood connect them, and yet where Anatolia was a stark, eerie work where conversation and human connection were as scarce as houses in the blasted plains of central Turkey essayed through a rarefied mix of utter realism and poetic contemplation, Winter Sleep calls back to Ceylan’s earlier efforts as a novelistic work where the loquacity of the characters pointedly contrasts the taciturn men of the previous film. That’s not so much a criticism as a point of reference, for Ceylan’s gift for situating stories in very specific climes that are nonetheless readily recognisable, universal portraits of humanity is still palpable, and he captures that specific sense of place with longing and desolate romanticism. Whereas Anatolia was a film about exposure, as its policeman and functionary protagonists wandered the vast plains searching for a dead body, Winter Sleep is a tale of homes and refuges, albeit one that notes how a bedroom can become as wintry and alienating as King Lear’s blasted heath.
Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a middle-aged former actor who now runs a hotel in the rocky region of Cappodocia, a tourist hot spot in the summer because of its spectacular scenery and the fascinating local tradition of building houses into the rocks. But it is also a place of chilly, oppressive winters and depressed conditions for many of the inhabitants who aren’t benefiting from the economics of tourism. The film opens in the last wane of the tourist season, and the only guests now at the hotel are a Japanese couple and a motorcycle-riding wanderer, Timur (Mehmet Ali Nuroglu), who’s interested in the possibility of riding a horse whilst staying at the hotel, as promised by pictures on the website. Aydin apologetically explains that the pictures were just for visual impact, but then he does discuss obtaining a horse for the hotel guests to ride and hires a wrangler who promises to capture one of the wild horses that live in the valley below. Aydin’s energies are scarcely demanded by all of his interests, delegating them to assistants and family, giving him considerable time to pursue a significant project in his mind, a history of the Turkish theatre. But he procrastinates with a sideline he loves, writing “The Voice of the Steppes,” a column for a regional newspaper in which he can pontificate on any subject he desires. Aydin lives with both his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), who’s recently divorced her alcoholic husband, and his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who, being much younger than her husband, is beset by the boredom and isolation of the hotel and has made herself useful running campaigns and soliciting donations to improve the local schools.
Besides the hotel, Aydin is a landlord, owning many houses in the nearby town of Garip. Aydin’s troubles begin when a stone crashes into the passenger side window of his jeep when he’s being driven through the town by his manager Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). The rock was thrown by a kid, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), who runs off but falls in a pond. Hidayet fishes him out, and he and Aydin take Ilyas back to his father, Ismail (Nejat Isler), who is one of Aydin’s tenants. Ismail is unemployed after a spell in jail, and is now well behind on his rent. Aydin’s agents had seized some of their property as payment, including their refrigerator and television, and also possibly manhandled Ismail in the process. Ismail slaps his son in the face for his act, but then punches in one of his own house’s windows, and almost attacks Hidayet in a fury, held back only by his brother, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç). Hamdi is an imam, amiable and personable–perhaps a little too much so. He tries to act as interlocutor with Aydin and broker an arrangement to keep the peace, but he proves hapless as he offers to pay for the repair of the car window, only to learn it’s excruciatingly expensive for his poor family’s finances. To even make such an approach, Hamdi has to walk the 10 kilometres from town. Aydin, for his part, rather than being pleased or understanding about such efforts, takes veiled potshots at Hamdi in his column, complaining about badly dressed, rundown imams who stick their nose in other people’s business.
Like Asghar Farhadi from Iran, another paragon of the new Middle Eastern cinema, Ceylan tips his hat to artistic traditions of Europe and Russia as well more parochial ones, and makes a very literate, not merely literal movie. The great Russian authors of the 19th century are clearly a major influence on this work, particularly Anton Chekhov, whose wryly observed, ultimately tragic tales of ordinary oppressions and disappointments are an official inspiration, as well as Ceylan’s favourite film masters, including Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, with whom he shares an unfashionable yet powerful fondness for deep, meditative tales digging into psychological and sociological matters. Aydin is the kind of character Chekhov and Ibsen particularly enjoyed, if that’s the word—a pompous, self-appointed master of the world who quietly grinds down the people around him, though Aydin isn’t quite such a pillar of monstrous egocentrism as some of those writers’ protagonists are. Initially, Aydin seems like a quietly industrious, but world-weary, henpecked intellectual whose prosperity is merely resented, but we get an eyeful of just what a shit he can be when Hamdi brings Ilyas to see him and apologise, as with smarmy delight, Aydin holds out his hand for Ilyas to kiss. Ceylan’s portraits of contemporary society out in the Turkish boondocks do indeed seem to justify the likeness to Victorian Russia, glimpsing a country riddled with uncomfortable extremes, where a prosperous urban class has partly annexed remnants of power and position and expected deference once reserved for the aristocracy, cheek-by-jowl with people trying to subsist.
Ceylan’s eye for physical context and cinematic atmosphere, which dominated in Anatolia, is more muted here, but just as crucial. He introduces Aydin wandering in the dawn light amongst the crags of the landscape, and returns to the motif, viewing Aydin ironically and consistently as a man exiled from his own home in spite of his nominal security and mastery. This impression is made literal when Nihal asks him to leave whilst she holds a private meeting of donors and interested parties to her school project, leaving Aydin wandering without, gazing in pained jealous at the warmth of the interior and the place Nihal has gained for herself in a niche that doesn’t involve him. Early in the film, the wrangler Aydin hires captures a wild horse, which stumbles into a canal and has to be hauled out in a gruelling sequence. The animal is stowed in a cave near the hotel, where Aydin visits it in the darkness of early dawn, the animal a boding presence of shackled, incomprehensible wildness under his house, encapsulating all the violently contradictory feelings starting to burst forth in Aydin’s little world. At first, this seething seems aimed at Aydin from out in the world, crashing in very solid form as Ilyas’ rock against his car, but soon becomes palpable in his house.
A revealing early scene sees Aydin consulting with one of his friends, the bearded and contemplative Suavi (Tamer Levent), and calls in Nihal to give her two cents as well, on the subject of an email he’s received asking for his help lobbying for a specially built sewing hutch for local women. Nihal reacts with scarcely concealed contempt and anger that Aydin hasn’t done a damn thing to help with the local schools that badly need upkeep, but responds to a flattering email into helping with a scarcely necessary project. What gives Winter Sleep it subtle propulsion is the way each scene opens a gate into the next, as this scene presages Aydin’s subsequent encounters with Necla and Nihal, which reveal the household to be no paragon of domestic tranquillity. Early on, Necla mentions to Aydin that she liked his latest column, but as he begins to expound on subjects beyond his usual ken, and particularly as he indulges critical pot shots at Hamdi, Nacla chafes. Finally, during their familiar evening scene when she reclines on a lounge behind him in his office, she unloads, pouring suspicion and scorn on his pretences to punditry and suggests he takes stances he thinks will make him popular or save him from really taking a position: as she notes, he pours scorn on the faithful for their naiveté and distrusts the irreligious for their lack of commitment. Aydin fires back that he understands why she got divorced; clearly her husband couldn’t take her venomous tongue anymore. Indeed, Necla does seem to be taking her feelings out on Aydin a little, in part because earlier he sceptically responded to her wistful thesis of shaming wrongdoers into right action by asking for their forgiveness, an assumption of sin and mode of passive resistance.
Later, Aydin intrudes upon a meeting of Nihal’s school donors and encounters Levent (Nadir Saribacak), a teacher with a wry streak who enters murmuring that he’s just visited the local army base: “These military types pretend to love their wives in public,” Levent notes, “But if they had the chance they’d put them in sacks and dump them in the river.” Aydin is quietly ruffled as Nihal tends solicitously to Levent, and then goes morose when Nihal asks him to leave. Aydin retreats to his office where, in a droll jump cut, he’s pictured sitting at his computer with a long-nosed mask on, a vision of sullen rejection. After Nihal’s meeting is over, he makes a play of concern about the state of her records of the donations she’s received and the trustworthiness of the donors, stating that any scandal might affect his own good name, but actually, obviously just trying to insert himself into her business. “Your altruism moves me to tears,” Nihal comments acidly, and it becomes clear that their marriage has only been technically sustained for a couple of years now by his promise to let her have this salving venture to herself. The film’s centrepiece arrives in a chain of epic, melancholy exchanges between husband and wife, in the classically Bergman-esque mode of tearful truth-telling by wintry firelight a la Hour of the Wolf (1968). Nihal condemns Aydin for his intrusive egotism but also herself for her cowardice in remaining married to him to avoid the cruelty of surviving alone in the big world. Aydin goes through a big show of collecting up Nihal’s records and papers to inspect, retreats to his office and, realising he’s made a major tactical error, returns them, confessing he’s too lazy.
One of the best qualities of Winter Sleep is its sensitive mixture of the utterly humdrum with the majestic, the slow-burning intensity of its humans turning minor bugbears and petty conflicts into spurs for major crises, and their tethering to a landscape that both ignores them and inflicts realities upon them. Where Anatolia depicted the aftermath of murder, the heat of the moment long left behind and only the chill of a dead body and destroyed lives noted, Winter Sleep avoids even that much melodramatic cue. People in this film are smouldering, cramped, and aching with mostly self-imposed frustration and anger and sorrow. Aydin’s lack of interest in the property that sustains his situation is indicted as part of the problem rather; he has scarcely any concept of how enforcement of his proprietorial interest has left the already desperate and disenfranchised Ismail even worse off—and of course, this is the sort of iniquity that happens every day anywhere. However, Ceylan and his coscreenwriter, his wife Ebru, are careful not to make Aydin a monster; although his thoughtlessness and position of economic power are definitely destructive, he is just as hapless as the people who would like to blame him for all their problems. Aydin, aging and greyed, seems to yearn to dissolve into the landscape at some points, and his pretences hide his anxiety over the final wane of the abilities and attributes that have allowed him to make his life. Not that the Ceylans indulge his self-pity either or the usual shallow psychology of suffering: during his argument with Nihal, when he begins a spiel about his upbringing in a poor town without electricity, Nihal interrupts him by telling him he’s not playing a role anymore.
Winter Sleep is a highly verbal experience in many respects, sustaining dramatic engagement almost purely through the conversation between its characters at many points, though just as often defined by the silences between them. Many of the characters uphold, or try to uphold, a distinct philosophical viewpoint, but for the Ceylans, this is not so much philosophical work as a depiction of characters wrestling with the gap between their gift for reason–that is, their humanness–and their inability to make it work in their lives. Some have criticised this aspect of the film, and yet the discussions reminded me acutely of real-life versions I’ve engaged in, stews of words and impulses mixed together in yearning toward a coherent sense of meaning, inflected with the peccadilloes, humour, and competitive spirit of the people engaging in them. Necla and Aydin’s argument over her ethical ideas lays down a basic dichotomy, with Necla upholding a vision of forgiveness and accepting responsibility for another’s faults that could create a firmer connection of common feeling and thus perhaps heal, whilst Aydin ripostes with questioning whether the victims of Nazis should therefore have apologised to their persecutors. Necla never gets around to trying to put her thought into action, but is clearly tormented by the idea that in leaving her husband, she abandoned him to worsening alcoholism.
Aydin doesn’t have an actual intellectual or ideological position. The Ceylans cunningly use him to exemplify something all too common in the contemporary world, a person with pretences to being a thinker who nonetheless has only a series of ideas he’s rejected, bugbears to expound on, and fashionable causes rather than an actual set of concepts and ideals to be coherently expounded. Indeed, the figure of a blowhard pontificating on the internet is hardly relevant only to Turkey. Finally, Nihal is the one who actually tries to put an ideal into practice, but this works out in a different manner to how she expects. “A life that’s all mapped out isn’t real,” the motorcyclist states simply but with unshakeable authority, though his way is pointedly lonely, an existential cowboy passing through the lives of these domesticated ethicists. Aydin finally begins to look like an avatar for the divided state of modern Turkey, an urbane pseudo-intellectual in a country that stretches between Europe and Asia, modernity and history, his real past rooted in the hardscrabble soil of the national past but turned into self-dramatizing present, making him expansive and parsimonious, yearning and defensive, sceptical and sentimental all at once.
Gökhan Tiryaki’s cinematography is one of Ceylan’s great weapons in sustaining his films, with his capacity for finding a line of beauty in landscapes that offer no focal point, and capturing a sense of physical opposition, interior lights smeared in honeyed warmth and exteriors of sharp, yet bleary space. The drama of big egos and small towns could be played out just about anywhere, but Ceylan is keen to the specific nature of the environment he depicts, a place of history deep, dense, and boding, inflecting casual actions with an awareness that Ceylan articulates as a mood of haunting. Aydin often seems poised as if straining to hear something just beyond the frequency of human ears, the hum of the ghosts that inhabit these ancient hills. But Ceylan also notes the modernity infusing this landscape, the laptops and mobile phones, the presence of interloping tourists and the necessity of bilingualism (Aydin chats amiably with his Japanese tourists in English), things that define a borderless world, the sophisticated as opposed to the parochial. But it’s the parochial that’s inescapable once the tourists have fled the winter snows that will enclose everyone and force them to sit and stew in their thoughts. One wry scene shows Aydin and Hidayet skipping across the hotel’s muddy forecourt. When Hidayet asks why Aydin doesn’t pave it or cover it with gravel, Aydin retorts that if he did, his authenticity-craving clientele would be disappointed.
After the excoriating argument with Nihal, where Aydin’s bullying fails and forces him to try and save face in utter defeat, he announces he’s decided to decamp to Istanbul for a while to work on his book. But faced with a wait for a train and tramping around the cheerless, snow-clad expanse of the railway station, Aydin instead decides to go to Suavi’s house and hide out with him for a while. This amusing, pathetic discursion sees him getting drunk and gabbling with his friend and Levent, who’s also a pal of Suavi’s. Here the film becomes a gruesomely funny portrait of middle-aged men drinking in their underwear until they recite Shakespeare and then vomit on the floor. Understandably, Aydin is ultimately chastened by the experience. The trio then go out to stalk the hills and hunt, with Aydin cast as bandy-legged Hercules, managing to plug a rabbit after glancing around to see if there’s anyone else to do it for him. This funny antiheroic passage is contrasted by Nihal’s attempt to do a good deed and expiate Aydin’s excruciating patronisation of her moral intelligence. Just before he left, Aydin give her an envelope filled with cash to put towards the school fund, but Nihal knows all too well it’s essentially a bribe to make her think he’s a generous person after all.
Instead, Nihal resolves to give this money to Ismail’s family to help them out of trouble, and she treks to their house, where she chats with the stunned Hamdi, before Ismail enters, in a moment Ceylan shoots with sly operatic intensity, Ismail’s shadow falling on the floor just before he’s seen, looming like the tragic hero of some Wagnerian extravaganza. And indeed, he does suddenly possess such stature. Where most of Winter Sleep shows its kinship to the Chekhov of “Uncle Vanya” or “The Cherry Orchard,” here Ceylan, who had suggested the influence of Dostoyevsky in Anatolia, tips his hat more definitely to that Russian master. The subplot of Ismail and Ilyas proves to be a variation on that of Snegiryov and Ilyusha (note the similarity of the names of the boys) in “The Brothers Karamazov,” the tormented and fallen father triumphing before his son in his refusal to put money before pride, whilst also calling out to “The Idiot,,” in a rejection of Nihal’s efforts that nonetheless proves cathartic in a distressing way for her. From Hidayet’s jeep Aydin glimpses the town of Garip and transforms it into a raft of humanity afloat on the elements, a promise of shifting perspectives and epiphanies that offers the climactic scenes a hint of awakening even in the midst of the winter snows that drown time and sound, and narcotise the will.
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By Roderick Heath
Many times in 2014, I was tempted to throw my hands up and walk away from the year’s film scene. It seems to have been a pretty common feeling. The profitability of the film industry’s most exalted spheres have slumped, and the sense that the obsession gripping Hollywood for recycled product and well-milked cashcows might be choking the industry it at a time when people are all too willing to switch over to some other source of entertainment is becoming more convincing—not that it’s likely to spark any great sea change in Hollywood yet. Certainly a sense of diminishing returns was all too palpable in this year’s mass market cinema. Some have posited that the current economics of Hollywood have practically killed off the stream of mid-budget films aimed at adult audiences, though that strand had long been an endangered species: adults have long been very picky about what they go to see in a movie theatre. This year, I lost the last of my patience with Marvel and even Godzilla’s presence on the big screen couldn’t entirely please me.
Despite all that, 2014 has slowly accumulated good films like specks of gold in river sand until the year has proven doggedly, quietly impressive.
We Are the Best!
A lot of this year’s films have concerned themselves with creativity itself as a theme: the sources of it, the process of gaining the skill to express it, the worldly powers it gives those who master it, and the constant, dogging anxiety of doing right by it. We Are the Best! looked wistfully back to time most artists have gone through, when their impulses and characters demanded creative outlet long before they actually had the skills for doing so, when their spirits were at their purest. Damien Chazelle’s scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash posited the idea of the artist needing brute force to gain virtuosity. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood proposed that creative vision is the result of specific, often terrible, sometimes wonderful formative experiences. John Carney’s Begin Again and Jon Favreau’s Chef both suggested a fall is needed to rise again as a creative force. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook presented a heroine as a frustrated artist whose possible incipient psychosis might be a by-product of that potential creativity. Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur turned creative ownership into gender struggle, the wish-fulfilment side of much art turned around on itself in a bitter sex farce. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) portrayed an actor who had known the dizzy heights of Hollywood success trying to prove himself an artist in the face of a culture geared to poles of celebrity-obsessed admiration or antipathy. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner gave us a panoramic contextualisation for a boorish genius. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars portrayed creativity turned septic tank, the world of acting and celebrity having turned into stews of self-worship and pharaohlike, incestuous self-perpetuating discourse control. Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright, a film that failed resolutely to achieve any of its interesting goals, nonetheless also made the link between cathartic horror and creative success with a great climactic image, its heroine transformed into a stylised icon of trauma and triumph, splattered blood and theatrical make-up mixing on her face.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek depicts an exercise in self-mythologising fallen victim to the primal, unruly terrors that still inhabit our world. The Lego Movie made good sport of generations of popular mythology and then delved into the childhood roots of how we construct our own world views, and then how we adapt them to coexist with others. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys breezed through the familiar rags-to-riches-to-pain narrative of the showbiz flick to conclude that sometimes professionalism is a greater value than mere inspiration and that identity often trumps aspiration. The Fault in Our Stars tried to portray the moment when the intellectual awareness that art cannot contain life’s grief suddenly becomes all too immediate.
Some films took this thematic turf a step further and contemplated characters trying to create or recreate themselves, the creation of the self and life itself becoming art forms. The very notion of becoming, the processes that create us as individuals and as a collective and point us forward became a recurring concern. The alien temptress of Under the Skin felt the faint breezes of the humanity she gazed at uncomprehendingly, but finally became fatally trapped between worlds. The heroines of Wild and Tracks both sought to conquer distance to rebuild their damaged interiors. The eponymous Lucy of Luc Besson’s scifi action epic accidentally pushed onto a higher level of awareness and then willingly pushed herself to achieve the status of a god. The flailing hero of Locke, his life suddenly turning into a disastrous quagmire, struggled throughout to pull off a piece of managerial legerdemain that would write his commitment in the sky. The hapless heroine of Obvious Child converted the minutiae of her existence into her art, stand-up comedy, which then often affected her life, an ouroboros chain of creation and deflation. The bourgeois Los Angelinos of Coherence, many of them failed or flailing artists, are confronted by doppelgangers who might turn their own failings and self-hatreds upon themselves, and offers a heroine who quite literally tries to beat herself to death to grasp a better version of the same thing. Amy of Gone Girl tried to control her own life narrative through a dense mesh of art and action.
As far as “big” movies go, this year has been trending lacklustre to rotten, riddled with overhyped, underwhelming fare as the current Hollywood ethos of sequels, remakes, and franchise service finally began to crack up under its own weight. Usually a film year offers two or three blockbusters deserving of appreciation, but this year, the fun and spectacle the genre offers have been remarkably lacking. Something like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla sounds far better as a think-piece article than it actually played as a movie, with its occasionally brilliant images foiled by a flimsy script. Guardians of the Galaxy, a pseudo-original hit for Marvel, spawned innumerable memes, most of them wittier and more entertaining than the spectacularly ordinary, lazily composed film. Maleficent, a promising concept in revisionist fairy-tale-telling from Disney, proved to be depressingly incompetent trash that couldn’t even be bothered to sustain a basic story and character logic. After feeling the strain throughout 2013, I also felt this year like I saw the comic book movie, the industry’s greatest money faucet at the moment as well as its stand-out cultural phenomenon, begin quietly dying. The depth of enthusiasm it can still wring from aficionados has started to feel forced and wilful, with minor tweaks and twists greeted like momentous events and competent films inflated into titans by sheer force of hype. What was once one of the best comic book series, the X-Men franchise, saw Bryan Singer returning to the helm on Days of Future Past, a work overloaded with promise and expectation that managed to piss just about all of it up against the wall, save for the great “Time in a Bottle” scene. Captain America: The Winter Soldier provided a reasonably honourable attempt to bring the superhero genre down to earth and contextualise it amidst a semblance of real, contemporary evils, but still ended up a grab bag of random story elements and stodgy action. The unfortunate mess that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been generally recognised, though again I felt a little out of step as I found it a slight improvement on Marc Webb’s first, dolorous reboot; at least it had the minatory courage to shoot for romantic tragedy, something the gutless Marvel films couldn’t countenance.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Ironically, I found two of the most entertaining big-budget works of the year were throwbacks to bygone brand of spectacle, the biblical epic: Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Scott’s film sometimes played like a highlights reel from The Ten Commandments (1956), but Scott’s pernickety, critical scepticism gave it specificity and wove intelligently with the vistas and grandiosity, taking as its keynote the detail that “Israelite” means “he who wrestles God,” and keeping camp and earnestness in a healthy balance. Aronofsky’s was a different beast, more ambitious and cinematically lively than just about any other big movie of the year, if also more humourless in trying to forge new zones for mythopoeic inquiry. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s (probably) final entry in his Tolkien series, like Scott’s film, is all but a throwaway master class in big movie making, making sweeping use of the screen, reading action coherently, and packing even the most functional shots with visual lustre. The most hyped and discussed blockbuster this year was Christopher Nolan’s divisive Interstellar, another supremely ambitious work that saw Nolan trying simultaneously to earn the Kubrick comparisons he’s had heaped on him whilst also positioning himself as heir to Steven Spielberg as king of the Hollywood mythologists. He didn’t make it, with a script that ran the gamut from irritatingly pedantic to haplessly schmaltzy, took some blind alleys and a last act that didn’t work. Yet Interstellar was still an often-compelling experience that packed a sense of true wonder in both scientific theory and cinema, and signaled the widening outlook of movie scifi after decades of being reduced to mere action backdrop.
The Lego Movie
One of the best major money-spinners from Hollywood this year was Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie, a zippy, hugely entertaining film that contained, in its building blocks, a sense of perspective on how children build their own worlds, a satirical streak that broadly and successfully lampooned many popular modern Hollywood narratives, and also more specific gags that occasionally cut deep: after its portrayal of Batman as an emo-jock jerk with a sideline in death metal music sporting lyrics like “Darkness!” and “No parents!” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take the character seriously again. One thing that 2014 has been a quietly terrific year for is the kind of trashy fare we’re not supposed to honour on best-of lists: I’ve created an honour roll for my preferences below.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
Not for the first time in cinema history and surely not for the last, it was interesting to see filmmakers from beyond the pale take on the sort of thing we used to expect from the Dream Factory and outdo it by degrees. Stephen Chow’s funny, frenetic, almost endlessly inventive Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons had zest and ingenuity enough for 10 films, as well as a lampooning streak that didn’t strain to seem urgently hip. Meanwhile Welsh expat turned Indonesian auteur Gareth Evans made the year’s best action film and crime epic by far in The Raid 2: Berandal. Evans will certainly hear the call from Hollywood soon, and part of me hopes he might spread his gospel from such a vantage, but another part of me wants him to stay where he is, creating tropical storms. Paul W.S. Anderson took a thankful time-out from those goddamned Resident Evil things to make Pompeii, a film that was crucified by many on release and a box office bomb, and yet became a quick fetish object for Anderson’s vulgar auteurist fans. Yes, it reminded me why I once thought him an interesting talent: the film’s clunky, clichéd sword-and-sandal first half gave way to a second half that was a sustained study in controlled, ebullient cinematic spectacle.
David Ayers, who gained some notice as a screenwriter and then as director, released two films this year, the fairly well-regarded and successful Fury, and the much-derided Sabotage. I greatly preferred Sabotage, a gamy, vicious, hard-driving revisionist western in cop garb that sported Olivia Williams and Mireille Enos’ in two impressive, blind-siding female performances—you know something’s weird when Williams and Arnold Schwarzenegger counted as one of the best romantic pairings of the year. Fury, by contrast, tried a two-faced game in looking with unvarnished force at the inhuman side of war, and offered a marvellous centrepiece sequence that saw Yankee tank crewmen and two German women thrust together amidst rites of passage and stews of resentment. But then it retreated into a stale and incomprehensible celebration of comradeship that threw away the very point it had been making in favour of a clumsy, ill-conceived action finale. Jaume Collet-Serra, who has made some decent DVD shelf filler in the past, raised his game considerably with Non-Stop, an expertly developed pressure-cooker thriller that slipped into excess by its finale, but along the way used widescreen photography to conduce both claustrophobia and paranoia, expertly charting a drama that concerned not just Liam Neeson’s regulation damaged badass and his electric concerns, but also a small community roused from dozy distraction to group action. Even better was Omid Nooshin’s barely seen Last Passenger, a thriller similarly pitched at first on a level of near-subliminal menace amidst a drowsy romantic comedy, building into an urgent fight for survival with dashes of Spielberg’s Duel (1971), even if, again, Nooshin didn’t quite know how to end it.
Cold in July
Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ attempt to revive his beloved TV show, proved a mixed, but mostly charming bag that provided solid evidence that social commentary and good humour don’t have be mutually exclusive and that Kristen Bell remains one of America’s wasted natural resources. I wasn’t so thrilled with Jeremy Saulnier’s much-hyped Blue Ruin, a very indie film that displayed some fine craft throughout but fizzled on both the levels of raw suspense and supposed critique of revenge-minded action films, many of which already essentially made the same points: if the movie really wanted to disassemble the genre’s usual presumptions, it might have started by making the villains less caricatured. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July was a similar mixture, more intriguing and pulling off some inspired perversions of expectation. Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed was excessively goofy and a little too determined to annex the Fast and Furious fans, yet it was the kind of formally strong, candy-coloured entertainment too rare this year, and benefited from an excellent cast having a ball. Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano sustained some strong sub-Brian De Palma staging and remained taut until almost the end, though, like too many films this year, failed to even try to come up with a convincing finish. The zippy efficiency and moodiness of these films to my mind showed up the pretences of some of the year’s more acclaimed genre-leaning films, including Bong Joon-ho’s okay but incredibly overblown Snowpiercer (save that schoolroom sequence, a black comedy apotheosis) and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, a film that had no idea how to discipline the many impulses of its source material for effective cinema, leaning at different stages towards media satire, marital parable, thriller, and horror film, and doing none that well.
Similarly confused was Luc Besson’s Lucy, which toyed with some great mind-bending scifi ideas and confirmed Besson’s powerful sense of style hasn’t entirely abandoned him. But Besson’s lazy story development and perpetual B-movie presumptions foiled its potential. José Padilha’s remake of Robocop was a beggaring spectacle, lumbering where the original was fleet, obvious rather than sly, painfully literal and bogus-classy rather than disreputably ingenious. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow became a critical charity case after it bombed at the U.S. box office because it was a rare attempt in the current studio scene to forge something new, but it never had any clue what to do with its superficially clever storytelling and battery of reliable actors. Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was an odd duck, trundling into a tedious welter of contemporary action clichés, but along the way suggesting something more serious, contemplating its young hero’s confrontations with his mortality and first life-or-death struggle and patriotic duty shading into romantic conflict in a manner vaguely reminiscent of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Divergent was a The Hunger Games cash-in that moved in frustrating fits and starts, but proved ultimately more entertaining than any of the Hunger Games films have managed to be yet, with a less duly stoic heroine and some nice villainy from Kate Winslet. McG’s 3 Days to Kill was a sorry waste of talent, including the agreeably battered Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld playing the same part as she did in Begin Again, and Amber Heard cast as a potentially great character, a brilliant, ruthless, sexually adventurous hit woman who was then made to stand around and do absolutely nothing.
White Bird in a Blizzard
The Expendables 3 continued that barely watchable series’ habit of casting an increasingly awesome array of leathery action greats and forcing them to mouth terrible dialogue and mow down cardboard villains. Machete Kills, which likewise cast Mel Gibson in what seems now to be his most appropriate role as charming asshole, was a slightly more enjoyable genre mockery, but signs are that between this and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it’s time for Robert Rodriguez to grow up. The latter at least featured a well-reviewed Eva Green, who was unleashed to great effect in an off-the-wall incarnation of thwarted passion in White Bird in a Blizzard, where she found the meeting point of Douglas Sirk character and J-horror ghoul, and also in 300: Rise of an Empire, the latter, a mildly entertaining, if often ponderous study in CGI action that offered one of the year’s most memorable movies images: Green’s Queen Artemisia kissing the lips of a prisoner’s severed head, a bold moment of far-out eroticism in the midst of a genre usually very busy sublimating it.
Amidst the growing school of independent fantastic cinema, Ti West, who had been shaping up as a major talent, turned in The Sacrament this year; tense and entertaining, it was nonetheless something of disappointment in resorting to the found-footage mode West had so effectively countered before, and skating over its not-quite recreation of Jonestown without penetrating beyond its studiously composed surface. Still, some sequences, like the lengthy one-shot portrait of a woman poisoning her brother, were powerful, and Gene Jones’ performance, alternately seductive, defensive, and imperial, was superlative. Two classy thrillers I was eager to see and ultimately severely disappointed by were Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. The former almost gave “old-fashioned” a bad name as it moved pokerfaced through potentially cracking, perverse material, and the latter crept glacially towards a preordained, cynical finale without locating its own dramatic heart, for all the good work by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams.
The Quiet Ones
More sustained, and indeed one of the small gems of the year, was professional provocateur Bobcat Goldthwait’s restrained, smart, witty found-footage burlesque Willow Creek, which wove rich, satirical value contemplating various forms of mythologising and coupling whilst offering some quality scares, particularly in its signature, epic-length tent sequence. Hammer Studios’ revival continued to slip along unsteadily with John Pogue’s well-made, attractively cast, but rickety The Quiet Ones, a film that, like Blair Erickson’s The Banshee Chapter, mixed traditional horror filmmaking with found-footage touches to varying effect. The Banshee Chapter sustained interest by having a plot composed of an array of inspired connections and a defiantly Val Lewton-esque sense of minimalist scariness. The Irish horror film In Fear failed to keep me until the end, sadly. Surprisingly, the best-regarded horror film of the year has proven to be an Australian film, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, all the more remarkable considering the film’s quick trip in and out of movie theatres here. I must admit, however, that apart from Essie Davis’ sustained performance, it left me cold: the relentless showiness of the filmmaking couldn’t disguise that this is well-worn territory for horror fans, replete with neon-flashing metaphors, and the marvelous prop book that sets up the drama wrote a cheque the film couldn’t cash. Also, the characterisations, particularly of the hapless heroine’s son, kept changing according to what Kent wanted to do with a scene. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence was a fleet and entertaining mindbender, made for next to nothing and sustaining its “Twilight Zone”-esque plot with conceptual cleverness and a dash of enjoyably sarcastic commentary in offering a literal portrait of people who become their own worst enemies.
The Monuments Men
Over in “serious” movie land, things have often been just as frustrating. George Clooney, who was so impressive with his first two features as director, reached an artistic nadir with The Monuments Men, a film that lurched from scene to scene with no sense of structure, tension, or character substance, only the most snivelling take on its cultural thesis, and a series of lazily tethered vignettes that added up to the one of the most galling moviegoing experiences I had in 2014. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo were terrific as a pair of mutually exploiting rodents in Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal particularly offering an expert black comedy performance as a creep who shape-shifts into whatever he thinks the market wants of him. But the one-note script was far too pleased with itself, built to an utterly predictable “dark” climax signalled about an hour earlier, and cut no deeper as media satire than the average Kent Brockman report. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was for me a new departure for the director: whereas his take-it-or-leave-it directing style has been at least reliably on a level with his writing, this was the first time I’d been frustrated that his script couldn’t have been handled by a director with a half-ounce of taste and a real sense of the European tradition he was bastardising and trivialising. David Cronenberg, who had been on a roll, crashed to a halt with Maps to the Stars, a would-be devastating critique of modern Hollywood and American parenting. Cronenberg’s direction was poised in a way that only showed up the emptiness of the script, which did at least have a core idea with potential—the likening of modern Hollywood with ancient Egypt as a place where incest is the logical end-point of cordoned power and privilege. Yet the satirical points were dismayingly stale and smug: nutty actress celebrating a rivals’ misfortune and a self-help guru who’s a total asshole to his kids.
Under the Skin
The year’s most unavoidable movie in terms of critical regard has been Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Boyhood’s stature derives entirely from the unique conceit behind its filming, having been shot in snatches across a 12-year period to chart young star Ellar Coltrane’s growth. This method is indeed affecting for allowing us to see actors age before our eyes, but as a work of dramaturgy, it’s a superficial achievement that fails to gain real entry into the psychology and viewpoint of its young hero (certainly not like Terrence Malick did with The Tree of Life), instead presenting a mass of vignettes and ironically being prevented by the niceties of that method to get up close to the poetry of becoming. Studying Ethan Hawke’s face and how much it’s changed since Joe Dante’s Explorers (1986; another greatly preferable study of childhood dreams giving way to adult realities), moved me more than young Mason’s growth into a vague and wooden avatar for just about every stubbly, arty, self-involved young man likely to make up the bulk of its audience. Yet the film offered up some excellent moments that rang painfully true, particularly Mason’s encounters with the various men, most of them his mother’s poor choices in mates, frustrated with his ever-intensifying individuality, making plays for power over him disguised as sagacious aid. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is another highly regarded work of the year, and I have more sympathy with it: the final scene was so good it almost urges me to put it on my best-of list, and yet I could never shake off the feeling that I was watching an exercise in music video aesthetics being stretched to a 90-minute film: so coolly confident when portraying utter alienness stalking social refuse in a desolate Glasgow, the film turned stodgy as it tried to reverse the perspective, as ornery, ordinary humanity can scarcely get past Glazer’s relentless aesthetic filter. Still, the film’s sense of atmosphere, the chill and cheerless Glaswegian streets and the wild surf and rain-smothered hills, were powerful in a manner that made the film’s contemplation of various forms of life stunted by circumstances urgent.
Gregg Araki, a filmmaker who shifted from enfant terrible to major artist nearly a decade ago with Mysterious Skin, returned with White Bird in a Blizzard, a jumpy, oddly curtailed film that nonetheless continues to nag at me, in Araki’s perfervid and often dreamlike blend of John Waters-esque camp and P. T. Anderson-like haunted nostalgia. The film’s animating murder mystery offered a thriller element less by pondering who murdered whom, but rather in contemplating whose aberrant and frustrated sexuality boiled over with destructive results, and how much Shailene Woodley’s young protagonist has inherited it, in a work pitched at the nexus of wistful coming-of-age tale, suburban tragedy, and punch-drunk satire. Gia Coppola’s debut film Palo Alto, an interesting if rather loosely structured adaptation of a book of short stories by James Franco, sometimes trod similar territory in portraying adolescence in affluent, distracted America as a no-man’s-land of experience. Franco’s much-mocked, yet dogged, directorial career threw up some intriguing, if ultimately unsuccessful films, particularly Interior. Leather Bar., a pseudo-documentary exploration made with gay filmmaker Travis Mathews that rummaged through concepts of acting and the aesthetics of sexuality, whilst Franco’s solo work Child of God turned Cormac McCarthy’s arty gross-out novel into a portrait of utter human degradation that, by the end, may well have been reborn. Jean-Marc Valee’s Wild tried to bash Cheryl Strayed’s diffuse memoir of walking therapy into an epic of personal experience: the result swung wildly between clumsy devices and granola pseudo-philosophy, and yet often communicated a sense of life far more unruly than this sort of thing usually offers, and had the straight-up nerve to portray a heroine who was no angel. John Curran’s Tracks, a similar tale, chose a more distanced take, one that ought to have proven superior, and yet the evasive smugness of the film’s dramatic pitch somehow turned great adventure into tedious hike. Amma Assante’s Belle touched on fascinating history and personalities and offered Gugu Mbatha-Raw a star-making role she made the most of (see also Beyond the Lights), but proved filled with vapid characterisations and laborious speechifying on a level somewhere between romantic melodrama, historical consciousness-raiser, and Jane Austen fan bait, to the point where it almost became self-satire.
Get On Up
As ever, biopics were a cash crop this year. Mr. Turner essayed the form with eccentric power and teeming detail, trying to capture an age and way of life as much as the prickly personality of the singular man who inhabits it. And yet somehow, somewhere, the film lost its own thread of enquiry, to the point where it seemed to be essentially ingeniously-composed rubbernecking. The Theory of Everything provided an utterly contrived and smoothed-over portrait of Stephen Hawking, exemplifying just about everything wrong with this contemporary brand of prestige lure. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys and Tate Taylor’s Get On Up were both showbiz biopics that gained less attention than expected. Both films kept their own theatricality in mind, making comedy out of the usual road-to-stardom stuff, and the vivacity of Get On Up’s early scenes suggested Taylor might redeem himself after the godawful The Help: the recreations of the flash and cool of a real cultural revolution were often superb. But whereas Eastwood’s sturdy sense of technique and emotional directness eventually helped his film locate a modicum of worldlywise catharsis, Taylor’s became cartoonish and ultimately formless: Chadwick Boseman worked his ass off playing James Brown, and yet never quite found what was going on behind those sharklike eyes, whereas Nelsan Ellis quietly stole the film as his long-suffering, less mercurial yet vital compadré Bobby Byrd. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Coincidence) likewise was essentially a showbiz farce constructed out of archetypes and received ideas posing as a grand and incisive tragicomedy, but redeemed by its sheer delight of technique and performance.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
2014 was a weak year for comedy, but then again so are most years now. The controversial dumping of the Seth Rogen-James Franco vehicle The Interview by an assailed Sony probably hasn’t cheated us of a classic of mirth, and yet the event as a whole suggested new truths about global culture with some galling and ridiculous ramifications. Few were particularly keen to see a film from Seth MacFarlane after his job hosting the Oscars, and his western parody A Million Ways to Die in the West proved frustratingly patchy and indecisive as to what kind of movie it was. Yet it was an intermittently enjoyable experience after all, a contemporary answer to Blazing Saddles (1974), just as undisciplined and tendentious, if much less consistently inspired, offering such random joys as the spectacle of Amanda Seyfried sucking on Neil Patrick Harris’ moustache, and Gilbert Gottfried’s wacko cameo as a fake Abraham Lincoln joyously announcing his newfound wealth to a bunch of oblivious schoolkids. On the other hand, the much-praised Obvious Child was, like its heroine, nowhere near as funny or radical as it wanted us to think it was. Jon Favreau’s likeably minor Chef had energy and a good-humoured take on the same story other films took deadly seriously this year, though its chief effect in the end was to make me hungry. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! was a gleefully energetic if rather shallow and sometimes nerve-trying paean to the joys of youth rebellion.
Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)
2014 was at least a vintage year beyond the precincts of the Anglo-American zone. Little surprises and pleasures I was privileged to catch this year included a couple of fine Canadian films, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’s mordant portrait in comedic existential angst Whitewash, featuring a drolly soulful Thomas Hayden Church, and the superior Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, both films unfolding like bleak fairytales in the midst of the woods. Out of France came one of my more frustratingly unseen films of the year, Jean-Luc Godard’s much-acclaimed Goodbye to Language. Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai d’Orsay (released abroad as The French Minister) was a divisive film, as some branded it a laboured Gallic version of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, but it was to me a lighter, much less one-note indictment than those satires, instead a deft comedy of manners that tried to comprehend the degree to which modern politics is a game of perpetual catch-up football enacted by people whose talents and follies coexist. Roman Polanski offered what was, to me, easily his most enjoyable and full-blooded film in a long time with the twisted role-playing satire Venus in Fur, setting Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner into a pas-de-deux of sexual and artistic gamesmanship. Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie was, by comparison, a good-looking but still-born study of an alienated young woman who finds…well, something or other in prostituting herself out. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, maker of 2011’s superlative Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, captured the Palme d’Or this year with Winter Sleep, an equally lengthy and intensive interrogation of the modes of petty tyranny and fear that too often consume and define life on the most everyday levels, unfolding like a good book but infused with genuine cinematic values. Jauja, Lisandro Alonso’s spacy, intriguing, if ultimately unsatisfying odyssey across the Argentine pampas inferred history as a chasm people fall into and societies emerge from. Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water was a lustrously beautiful, if excessively diaphanous fable that told a not-dissimilar story to Boyhood, but with a far richer sense of social and natural connection, as well as a more specific sense of the fears and torments of growing up.
Performances of Note:
Agata Kulesza, Ida
Allison Pill, Snowpiercer
Brendan Gleeson, Calvary
Dakota Fanning, Night Moves
Don Johnson, Cold in July
Dorothy Atkinson, Mr. Turner
Dylan Moran, Calvary
Edward Norton, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Emma Watson, Noah
Emmanuelle Seigner, Venus in Fur
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Eva Green, 300: Rise of an Empire; White Bird in a Blizzard
Gene Jones, The Sacrament
Golshifteh Farahani, My Sweet Pepper Land
Imogen Poots, Need for Speed
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant ; Inherent Vice
Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Katia Winter, The Banshee Chapter
Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night; The Immigrant
Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Mireille Enos, Sabotage
Nelsan Ellis, Get On Up
Olivia Williams, Sabotage
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Russell Crowe, Noah
Shailene Woodley, White Bird in a Blizzard
Thierry Lhermitte, Quai d’Orsay
Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive; Snowpiercer
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Tom Hardy, Locke
Favourite Films of 2014
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Calvary wasn’t a perfect work, but it was a massif of ambitious drama that actually had something to say and said it well, simultaneously curious and sceptical, brutal and humane, extraordinarily funny and deeply sad. A titanic lead performance from Brendan Gleeson backed by excellent ensemble work helped give flesh to a film that delved into matters of faith and character and beyond, to study the failure of the most profound social bonds in the modern world, to try and honestly state both why the failure happened and also question what, if anything, might remake those bonds.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson)
A lot of pretenders have tried to claim the crown of the FX blockbuster king in recent years, and the sharp knives that greeted Peter Jackson’s final Tolkien entry suggests many are ready for a change of dynasty. But Jackson still does this sort of thing with a sense of gusto, fulsomeness, and an eye for beauty in unlikely places that makes most rivals look pathetic, particularly amongst this year’s big movie dross. Battle of the Five Armies stands tall in the Hobbit triptych: fun as they were, the first two often felt like theme park rides in Middle Earth, whereas here the final battle rams together every moving part in the story with consequence, and pays off with a pair of harshly beautiful death scenes carrying more tragic gravitas than just about anything else in the entire sextet. The spectacle of cross-purposes, naked greed, and swaggering arrogance from various self-appointed supermen who conspire to start a war also represented the most morally complex passage in the series, and the possibility of redemption through trial therefore more moving.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
I found myself cocking an eyebrow suspiciously at Ida, a continental excursion for a filmmaker who had previously been based in Britain. With its black-and-white photography, Holocaust themes, preciously framed shots, and general air of mournful seriousness, it seemed like something carefully pitched to be the perfect art film for pseuds. Yet under the film’s studied surface lay a fervently beating heart and a brilliant sense of character in a work attuned to cultural dislocation and flavourful in its evocation of the period. Pawlikowski’s style conveys the way life flows on, running roughshod over personal loss and horror, suggesting both why that’s inevitable and possibly even for the best, and also noting the good and bad reasons why some might choose to opt out altogether.
The Immigrant (James Gray)
A tragic tale situated in real history but dusted with the lightest gilt of magic-realism, The Immigrant needed no gimmicks or stunts other than good filmmaking to tell its story, rising with a symphonic blend of intricacy and directness and represents one of the most concise and intelligible aesthetic constructions of recent years: The Immigrant withholds until its last shot, and then haunts for days afterwards. The sublime intelligence of Marion Cotillard’s bedeviled heroine and particularly Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured Caliban deserve great acclaim, but won’t get it.
My Sweet Pepper Land (Hiner Saleem)
This oddball mix of Fordian western, Leanian epic, Shakespearean romance, with a jigger of antic gallows humour, has gained little release and appreciation, and yet it’s stuck with me with more affection that many other films of the year. My Sweet Pepper Land resituated Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) in the wilds of Iraqi Kurdistan, portraying a young policeman’s entanglement with a victimised schoolteacher and a criminal potentate as a way of exploring the new frontiers of an ever-assailed nation and cultural tensions pulling the Middle East in the many directions all too clearly described by contemporary history.
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
I wasn’t sold on Kelly Reichardt’s lauded anti-western Meek’s Cut-Off (2010), but her follow-up Night Moves was accomplished in treading similar territory with a lighter foot and a less obvious sense of irony. A notable film talent emerged more completely. Depicting a trio of eco-terrorists driven to blow up a dam by various motives both political and personal, Reichardt, like Hiner Saleem, blended disparate genres, including war movie, murder mystery, horror film, and the jangled nerved thrillers of ‘70s cinema (including Arthur Penn’s great film of the same name) for the sake of depicting people and an age at a crossroads, the grey zone where commitment shades into hostility, idealism is subsumed by solipsism, and alienation realises that it is actually sociopathy.
Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
Aronofsky’s startlingly odd, mammoth, misshapen revival of the biblical epic had chutzpah beyond the measure of any rival in big-budget cinema this year and an actual vision to purvey, daring to enrich a stark legend with conceptual weight and philosophical enquiry. See also Ridley Scott’s less thoughtful, but brilliantly staged Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s best film in many years was a droll and opulent exploration of the bohemian creed through a twist on an old metaphor: vampirism. Tourism through the desolate grandeur of Detroit is equated with the intellectual journey of life and of romance through the ages, constantly changing expressive form and governing code but never the vital essence. The coda landed a blackly humorous rabbit punch in contemplating how sooner or later, everyone who looks at the stars has to acknowledge the gutter they’re in.
The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans)
Punctuated by thunderous, brilliantly staged and choreographed sequences of mayhem and martial artistry, Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his claustrophobic ass-kick classic from 2011 expanded his scope enormously, not entirely without some pacing problems, but finally creating a spectacle of motion matched to an expansive drama of gangland honour, offering everything from tragedy to farce and hazy poeticism.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Note-perfect social realism and incisive ethics and psychology provide reminders just why the Dardenne brothers are so lauded, in a taut and thrilling tale that is also utterly believable. Marion Cotillard’s second great role of the year saw her inhabit an Everywoman without a trace of either star slumming or self-important art.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) / Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)
I pair these films in part because Stranger by the Lake was a delayed 2013 film, which Marilyn Ferdinand reviewed back then, and because both are cool, bare-boned, almost mythic tales with a queer twist: Stranger by the Lake invoked primal rituals of mating and blood sacrifice in a landscape deliberately cordoned off from the modern world, whilst Vic + Flo Saw a Bear becomes a kind of fairy tale enacted by two aging, life-damaged lesbian partners threatened by a lurking demon from one woman’s past. Both films conclude with wrenching, brutal, yet oddly touching visions of people who just can’t live without love, even in the face of annihilation.
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Palme d’Or winner is over three hours long, driven by dialogue, and replete with silence and evocations of alienation–it’s like the art movie your mother warned you about. Yet Winter Sleep is patient rather than inflated, dense with detail and quietly motivated, taking its characters seriously but never over-indulging them. Ceylan analyses psychology and social context with a feel for how the two affect each other. Like Calvary, with more finesse, Ceylan uses a small town and its occupants to delve into the way so many of us create phantoms of our preoccupations, terrors, and preferred world views and inflict them on other people.
Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
Locke (Steven Knight)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Still the Water (Naomi Kawase)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki)
Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait)
Rough Gems & Underrated
Begin Again (John Carney)
Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)
Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
Quai d’Orsay (aka The French Minister, Bertrand Tavernier)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Starred Up (David Mackenzie)
Roll of Genre Pleasures
Cold in July (Jim Mickle)
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira)
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow & Chi-kin Kwok)
Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin)
Need For Speed (Scott Waugh)
Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson)
Sabotage (David Ayer)
Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas)
Overrated & Underwhelming
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
Fury (David Ayres)
Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
John Wick (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch)
Lucy (Luc Besson)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Tracks (John Curran)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)
3 Days to Kill (McG)
The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone)
Maleficent (Robert Stromberg)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Robocop (José Padilha)
The Rover (David Michôd)
Bird People / The Blue Room / The Captive / Charlie’s Country / Child’s Pose / The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby / Force Majeure / Frank / A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night / Gloria / Goodbye to Language / The Guest / Horse Money / Ilo Ilo / In Bloom / It Felt Like Love / Joe / Land Ho! / Leviathan / Love Is Strange / Mommy / Norte, The End of History / Nymphomaniac / Pride / The Strange Little Cat / Stray Dogs / The Tale of the Princess Kaguya / The Tribe / Unbroken
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2014:
Baby Face Nelson / The Beguiled (Don Siegel)
Bell Book and Candle (Richard Quine)
The Big Night / Finger of Guilt (Joseph Losey)
The Bigamist (Ida Lupino)
Break of Day (Ken Hannam)
China Seas (Tay Garnett)
The Colossus of Rhodes (Sergio Leone)
Creature with the Atom Brain / The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake / Pier 5, Havana (Edward L. Cahn)
The Driller Killer / China Girl / The Addiction (Abel Ferrara)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler / The Testament of Dr. Mabuse / The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio)
Faces (John Cassavetes)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Mario Bava)
Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch)
The Horsemen / Black Sunday / Prophecy (John Frankenheimer)
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian)
The Loyal 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Matango (Ishiro Honda)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki)
Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak)
Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson)
Rabid / The Brood / Scanners (David Cronenberg)
Railroaded! / T-Men (Anthony Mann)
Seas Beneath / The Plough and the Stars / The Long Voyage Home / The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford)
Shaft / Shaft’s Big Score! (Gordon Parks)
The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves)
The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts)
Strangler of the Swamp (Frank Wisbar)
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce)
Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon)
Une Femme est une Femme / Vivre Sa Vie / Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard)
The Uninvited (Lewis Allen)
Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow)
Woman Who Came Back (Walter Colmes)
Wyatt Earp (Lawrence Kasdan)
Scorecard: Best Films of the 2010s, Halfway Mark:
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Most filmmakers portion out what talent they have in small, polite courses, but Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu throws messy, teetering banquets every time. Since his debut with 2000’s Amores Perros, Iñárritu has made technically bravura, deeply felt and seriously intended works that push at the edges of narrative cinema, sometimes to the limits of credulity and patience. His second film, 21 Grams (2003), was radically told soap opera. His Oscar-nominated Babel (2006) displayed all of his best and worst traits—intense and vibrant portraiture of characters and the worlds they live in, conveyed with powerhouse cinema, tied together with threadbare contrivances and inchoate emotional connections and impulses. Iñárritu has been quiet for some time since his bruising break-up with his screenwriting collaborator Guillermo Arriaga—only the exhausting, Spanish-made drug-addiction drama Biutiful (2010) was released in the interval. Now he’s come roaring back to prestige-clad attention again with Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film that seems intended to give Iñárritu’s rival in the Latin-American wunderkind stakes, Alfonso Cuaron, some more competition. Following Cuaron’s showy technical extravaganza Gravity (2013), with its epic-length shots and special effects, Iñárritu ripostes with a more earthbound drama that nonetheless one-ups Cuaron by offering a film that affects to be composed of one, constant, driving shot.
Iñárritu uses this device to illustrate the drowning wave of anxiety and detail that threatens to swamp his protagonist, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who’s directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan is a former movie star, famed for his part in the “Birdman” franchise of nearly 20 years earlier, and he feels like he sacrificed too much of his credibility and talent for a paycheque. Now he is dogged by the alter ego by which too much of the public knows him, constantly hearing a droning, mordant voice mocking his efforts to reinvent himself as an artist, his Birdman characterisation become his personal daemon.
Riggan has managed to pull together the theatrical production and steered it to the very threshold of opening in the St. James Theatre on Broadway, but has just realised how bad his supporting male star Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) is. By serendipitous fortune, or perhaps contrivance, a lighting rig falls on Ralph’s head during a rehearsal, badly injuring him. Riggan has to find another actor quickly. He consults with his lawyer and confidant Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and rattles off a list of potentials, like Woody Harrelson and Jeremy Renner (“Who?”), but they’re all busy playing the current wave of superhero films. Costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an actor of the stage who has great critical favour and a reputation for uncompromising artistry—that is, he’s a pain in the ass.
Because he knows Riggan’s play inside out from helping Lesley rehearse, Mike is able not just to slip quickly into the role, but also immediately coax Riggan to make improvements. Riggan is delighted at first with his new costar, but soon Mike’s loose-cannon ethic starts to make Riggan’s situation feel even more nightmarish. Iñárritu has described himself as a frustrated musician, and he once composed scores for Mexican films before he broke through as a director. The intimate flow and relentless tug of music is clearly what he’s after here, translated into visual terms. The constant sense of headlong movement created by his tracking shots is matched to a syncopated jazz drum beat, lending a neurotically arrhythmic yet propelling heartbeat—at one point, the drummer is even glimpsed as a busker outside the theatre, and it’s as if his nerveless beat has invaded Riggan’s ear and won’t leave it; and then, later, inside, playing merrily in the theatre’s kitchen. Iñárritu’s camera aims to bind everything into a multileveled, pan-dimensional stage, sweeping up and down stairwells, around rooms, in and out of the most cramped confines of the theatre and out into the expanse of the Manhattan night where crowds reel and neon blazes.
Iñárritu captures the teeming, electric sense of the location in a way that few recent films have managed, recalling classic films whose grungy-glamorous portraits of urban gods captured both the city’s boiling, stygian ferocity and vigour, a crucible of possibility—movies like Sweet Smell of Success (1957), as well as the specific canon of Broadway films like A Double Life (1947), All About Eve (1950), and The Country Girl (1956). In Birdman, powerful theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) sits in a solitary vigil with pusillanimous pen poised for takedowns in a nearby bar, recalling Sweet Smell’s savage columnist J. J. Hunsecker, whilst Riggan seems to be threatened with a schizoid breakdown along the fault lines of the real and fictional persona like Ronald Colman’s Anthony John in A Double Life. Riggan keeps moving because, like a shark, he’ll die if he stops—he’s invested all his money into the production. His actors share and amplify his brittle, egocentric, dedicated gusto, particularly Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who’s also his girlfriend. He recounts to Mike his “origin story” and its connection to this obsessive venture: as a young performer in a school play, Riggan impressed Raymond Carver, who sent a congratulatory message backstage to him written on a bar coaster, inspiring Riggan to choose acting as his career. Mike ripostes by noting this clearly indicates Carver was drunk at the time.
Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who’s just of out of rehab and is working as Riggan’s PA, stands outside of the stream, angry at her father for his false promises as a parent and left with a raw and cynical understanding of this niche world, plainly contemptuous of her father’s hoped-for redemption via art in a scene that’s scarcely relevant beyond a few city blocks. She lets loose this contempt on Riggan after he confronts her about smoking dope. Mike, on the other hand, is deeply impressed with his own integrity as anointed artist-hero who brings edge and danger to the stage, and constantly tests the limits of Stanislavskian realism. He erupts in a fury during a preview performance when the real liquor he’s been drinking proves to have been replaced with water. During another preview, when he and Lesley are being wheeled on stage in a prop bed, Mike, in the thrill of imminent performance and momentarily overcoming the impotence that’s been besetting him, attempts to ravage Lesley there and then. Lesley, appalled and infuriated, promptly breaks up with him, and when Laura consoles her, they lock lips, caught up in the whirl of passion. Mike further antagonises Riggan by giving an interview where he steals Riggan’s Carver anecdote, and postures as the saviour of the show.
Mike is often insufferable in this manner, but also candid and committed in his bullshit artiste way. He tries to warn Riggan that he’s headed for a fall, locked on the wrong side of a perceived opposition between artist and mere celebrity. Mike reveals a far less aggravating side as he forms a bond with Sam, whom he encounters at her favourite hideaway, perched on the edge of a balcony high above Broadway, ironically calling to mind the similarly poised, detached yet omnipotent Batman that Keaton played a quarter-century ago. Mike is drawn to the damaged and sceptical young woman, and seems almost like a different person when calmly admitting his fears and faults to her, though his attempts to convince her of her worth are met with good-humoured derision. Nonetheless, the sideways-glimpsed romance between Mike and his daughter adds another worry to Riggan’s already overloaded psyche. Riggan is having semi-hallucinatory experiences, introduced at the start when we see him floating like a bodhisattva in his dressing room, and then seeming to use superpowers to move objects and, eventually, trash that dressing room—except that when the camera steps back and takes on a more objective viewpoint, he’s revealed to be smashing things the old-fashioned way. Finally, the mocking voice is revealed to be Riggan in his Birdman guise, sweeping down through the city streets to preach like Mephistopheles the gospel of entertainment and the security of low expectations with high pay.
Casting Keaton as Riggan was a coup of uncommon fortune for Iñárritu, giving him as it does a legitimate hinge not just of performing ability but potential satiric and thematic impact. Keaton’s stint as Batman was his apotheosis as a movie star and also the start of a long wane, though he’s long been a difficult actor to contain, too impish and odd to make a standard leading man, too self-contained and nonchalant to behave as comic fount. In a similar way, Iñárritu’s other actors are cast to play off associated roles; Watts’ pash with Riseborough clearly is a skit based on Watts’ breakthrough role in Mulholland Drive (2000), whilst Norton plays a variation on his public persona. Such conceits are entirely understandable in a film that is both about theatricality and possessed by it. The way Iñárritu films his actors and lets them combust in big, showy spiels and set-piece rants may only indulge rather than critique that theatricality, but there’s nothing much wrong with that, especially as it all contributes to the hothouse atmosphere and, moreover, delights in acting, raw and untrammelled, as the ultimate source of spectacle, both on stage and screen. Iñárritu lets his actors go wild with their tools just as he’s doing with his camera.
Meanwhile, Iñárritu manages a cunning and sinuous control of tonal shifts whilst never seeming to demarcate his moves officially, leading from farce to drama to elegy through virtuoso manipulation of elements and the connective sinew of Antonio Sánchez’s score. Riggan’s encounter with a hot-to-trot Laura in the lowest hallways of the theatre sees her transformed by lighting into a sultry and beckoning sylph in the labyrinth, then the camera follows her up to the stage, segueing into the first preview performance where a tone of elegy dominates, the tone Riggan wants for it, until Mike suddenly violates the mood with an outburst. Iñárritu cues a shift from hyped-up intensity to punch-drunk eeriness after the dispiriting impact of Sam’s excoriation of her father and his bleary, defeated suck on her worn reefer: the camera slides out and across the stage in the midst of dry ice and blue light, picking out Laura as a ghostly figure in mid-flight of elegiac speech in one of Riggan’s stylised dream sequences. A trip out the door of the theatre plunges first from exhausting claustrophobia to the mad tumult of the street to the shadowy and sheltering refuge of the bar. A quick recourse to a salving cigarette shimmers with a sense of relief and relaxation. Mike and Sam making love on a catwalk high above the stage sees camera hover and then float out above the actors at work below with swooning romanticism falling into gentle diminuendo. Iñárritu almost wills style into substance in such pirouettes, lending his vision of this hothouse of creation the quicksilver changeableness of creative vision and dramatic mood.
As a statement about the soul of the actor and the eternally tendentious nature of creative endeavour, Birdman works best through such epiphanies and flourishes of stagecraft, transforming mundane realities into mimetic canvas where Riggan’s terrors and inspirations collide and crossbreed. The problem here is that when one examines each facet, the film seems composed of a great mass of clichés. The washed-up star striving for a second chance. The sassy, irate, burn-out celebrity’s daughter. The young tyro prick. The nutty, oversexed actress. The vituperative critic who has appointed herself as guardian of culture determined to cut down our hero. It’s worth noting that 2014 has seen a small glut of films that seem like obvious metaphors for their makers’ troubled relationship with the business of art, the demands of family, and the pundits who approve or dismiss their work; there’s a strong undercurrent of this in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, John Carney’s Begin Again, and Jon Favreau’s lightly comic Chef, which strained to transfer the theme onto the world of celebrity cooking. Birdman shares with the last two films the figure of the unruly, ageing male talent and his efforts to balance a relationship with a child against renewing artistic success. Yet Chef was more sophisticated and accepting than any of the more self-righteous and noisy versions, particular when it came to the hero’s relationship with his critic-antagonist, who curiously pointed out that their battles on Twitter were “theatre.” Iñárritu, bluntly and ridiculously, portrays Dickinson as an outright creep who announces her intention to destroy Riggan’s project for even daring to try.
The best defence one can offer is that Birdman is an exercise in cut-up aesthetics, an extended jazzlike improvisation based in stirring, familiar melodies and refrains that reflect the distorting intensity of such a feat as Riggan is intending. We could accept the film’s stereotypes and cornball ideas as mere extensions of his enthused, but not terribly original mind—and I would, except Iñárritu’s technique, wonderful as it is, subtly foils his excuse, as he readily leaves behind Riggan’s viewpoint when he feels like it. This isn’t exactly a deal breaker in terms of the film’s worth, especially as Iñárritu and his cast make the characters vibrate with such energy and offer many segues of contradiction and surprise. More problematic is the film’s approach to the art it portrays. Unlike some stalwarts of artist-meltdown portraiture like 8½ (1963) and All That Jazz (1979), Iñárritu doesn’t suggest much deep knowledge or interest in the art form he’s portraying, and scarce interest in whether Riggan’s boondoggle project is worthwhile; the project is subordinated by force to the desire to see him win through. The snatches we see and hear of Riggan’s adaptation may strike one as effectively stylised and lyrical or stilted and graven, and there are dancing reindeer in his dream sequences, which, in spite of what Laura says, isn’t a good idea.
In terms of artistic commentary and perspective, Birdman poses as extra-relevant: it mentions superhero movies. But its cultural presumptions are actually passé. Iñárritu’s idea of cutting-edge satire of actor vanity is to show Riggan pulling off his wig. Appearing in superhero movies might have hurt the careers of some actors in the past, but the idea that it’s some sort of ticket to serious career oblivion is dated. Perhaps if Iñárritu had cast a more obviously limited actor than Keaton, some classically bland leading man crumpled by time and anxiety, his points might have landed with more urgency and specificity. When Tim Burton cast Keaton as Batman, he did so precisely to avoid cliché about square-jawed heroes, a subtlety that seems lost on Iñárritu, who plays up the presumed entrenched dichotomy between serious art and adolescent fantasy with thudding simplicity as food for the sorts of self-congratulatory pseuds Riggan’s supposed to be battling. Theatre critics line up to bathe in the aura of celebrity like everybody else these days, and Hollywood stars regularly use the Great White Way to give their careers a retooling.
Iñárritu does fruitfully use his dichotomy at one interval, when Riggan’s Birdman alter ego finally appears and unleashes a wave of blockbuster destruction, offering the balm of such adolescent, but buoyant destruction fantasy as a cure for the terror of “seriousness,” an eruption of Michael Bayisms that scarcely feel out of place in this work’s sturm und drang. Riggan responds with his own, stripped-back fantasy of flight, evoking Marcello Mastroianni’s escapades as a kite in 8½. Birdman needed to embrace its inner Robert Altman film more, given flesh to the potential in Riseborough and Watts’ characters, and kept the film a grand extravaganza of comic types crashing against one another. Because Birdman steadily loses steam in spite of its propulsive method, as the conflicts of ego and temperament that pop and fizz so well in the first half give way to more sustained contemplation of Riggan’s hapless state. This doesn’t work very well as Riggan isn’t that detailed or empathetic a protagonist: there’s no sense of who Riggan was before Birdman—did anyone ever take him seriously as an actor?—and his major failings, including infidelities and neglecting of Sam and his warily understanding ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), are all safely vague and past. Also bordering on cliché is the subplot where one of Riggan’s antics makes him an online superstar, with Sam translating and exploiting for the social media sceptic the power he doesn’t yet understand. This element feels shoehorned in (again, Chef actually did this better) perhaps to make sure we know the film is set in the present rather than in 1965, which is indeed when the movie’s presumptions as a whole would’ve been more believable.
The constantly unstable sense of reality certainly invokes the Latin-American traditions of magic-realism, with which Iñárritu, a fan of Borges and Cortazar, is clearly conversant: most every moment tingles with the mysterious, transformative energy of the imagination, or maybe lunacy. Time folds in upon itself, reality bends to one’s will, invented personae torment their creators, and dream states infuse and upend all certainty. But Birdman may be viewed best as a screwball farce, as much a lampoon on the idea of artistic endeavour as anything else, sharing more in common with the Marx Brothers of A Night at the Opera (1935) and Room Service (1938), the early scenes of Some Like It Hot (1959), and Looney Tunes than Fellini or those old Broadway films. The script is littered with good lines, like Riggan’s furious self-description as Birdman prods him to return to the cape: “I look like a turkey with leukaemia!” Even if Iñárritu isn’t a comic filmmaker of great finesse or originality yet, he still manages to pay off with some sequences of slapstick zest as well done as anything I can think of recently, particularly when the infuriated Riggan drags the supposedly ascetic Mike out of his sunbed in a rage over the newspaper interview and starts a fight. Norton reveals surprising comic grace as Mike scrambles and flails like Jerry Lewis cast as hapless henchman. One sustained sequence varies a very old bit of comic business, as Riggan steps outside of the theatre’s rear entrance for a smoke during his break, only for the door to swing shut and catch his bathrobe: Riggan is stranded outside, and forced to dash in his underwear through Times Square and back in through the front entrance of the theatre, with enthused tourists and gabby New Yorkers taking photos of him all the way. Inside, he has to dodge Ralph and his lawyer who have come to try and squeeze money out of him, and once he gets back into the theatre, has to start acting a scene from the aisle, a disaster that becomes gold as the audience is wowed by the unique staging and Riggan’s seemingly raw and risky playing.
Fittingly, the film’s climax is based on another old showbiz joke, one memorably used by the Looney Tunes cartoon “Show Biz Bugs,” with its immortal punch line “I can only do it once!” as the artist self-conflagrates on stage, totally breaking down the barrier between act and deed. Frustratingly, though, Iñárritu can’t quite commit to the joke and its black comedy triumph and gives a coda that offers instead triumph through going above and beyond in a not-too-costly fashion. In a visual joke, Riggan, masked by dressings that resemble his Birdman guise, has become a hero, but only in the most ironic and self-punishing of fashions. On one level, none of this is a joke, but rather an attempt to articulate flurrying artistic worry and ecstasy with deadly, transcendental seriousness, and Riggan’s climactic gesture is meant also partly as a real solution to his quandary, an act of daring that can wow even the most jaded or hateful—except that it would actually be taken as a sign of deep mental illness, which is indeed a possible interpretation, but the very end obfuscates too much. The film’s weak and shop-worn ideas can’t be entirely forgiven when it yearns so badly to say something of substance. Yet Birdman still counts as a major work of cinema purely because it loves cinema so much, and evokes that line of Orson Welles’ about a movie studio being the greatest toy train set a kid ever had.
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Director/Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s place in the heart of his native folk has only become more secure as time has advanced. He’s seen as triumphantly, transcendentally English as Walt Whitman was American or Goethe was German and is more popular than either. His painting “The Fighting Temeraire” was recently voted the greatest British artwork of all time by newspaper readers, the perfect encapsulation of a national spirit always torn between bold forward lunges and a haunted sense of loss. Mike Leigh is, on the face of things, the last filmmaker one would correlate with Turner, save in their very specific sense of nationality. Leigh is a portraitist and Turner a landscape artist, but both have stretched far beyond those limits. Turner’s blazing vistas, his expressivity through elements that humble mere humanity but also subsume them into the primal dramas of existence, couldn’t be more different from Leigh’s meticulous realism in environment and slightly skewed character study that is the very core of his art, closer to Dickens and Hogarth. In short, Leigh is literal where Turner became increasingly ecstatic and allusive.
Mr. Turner, Leigh’s new biopic about the artist, has the quality of an old, bitterly humorous observation that the lovers of so many artists are eternally frustrated their mates are never as sensitive in their dealings with life as they are in their art. Leigh conceptualises Turner accordingly and seems to push it to an extreme, offering Turner as a man with the elephantine hide of a Londoner who’s survived everything life has thrown at him, swathed in a mound of flesh that deep, deep within, holds a man of exceptional, almost morbid sensitivity. The film’s Turner (Timothy Spall) is first glimpsed furiously executing a painting of a Dutch landscape, complete with two gabbling women walking by on their day’s business, as oblivious to Turner as he is to them. Leigh returns to this motif repeatedly, contemplating not just Turner as man of and in his time, but as only one functional element, meeting other savants of the era, joking and jesting and crossing swords with characters of all sorts, roaming through crowds, be they holidaymakers, passengers, or fellow artists—a viewpoint, but not an entirety.
There’s a constant sense of buffeting, a sense that slowly makes the almost implacable veneer Turner usually offers comprehensible, especially when one knows Leigh’s perspective. Leigh has generally been less didactic in the political and social perspectives of his works than fellow British realist, director Ken Loach, whilst still being obviously and unabashedly fervent. This sensibility, particularly in his earlier work, reflects in the figure of a tortured working-class male trying to make good on his talent but stymied in major and minor ways, faced, in Meantime (1983), Naked (1993), and Career Girls (1997). Leigh’s take on Turner essentially envisions the same figure having survived and gained prosperity against the odds, whilst also splitting this characterisation, and offering the eruptive ne’er-do-well Benjamin Robert Haydon (Martin Savage) as Turner’s professional malcontent twin, echoing Meantime’s Mark and Naked’s Johnny Porter. Leigh emphasises Turner as the barber’s son made good as artistic genius as a man who’s remained utterly of the earth, a portly mound of flesh, a man who can offer a range of responses from approval to contempt with variations on the same porcine grunt.
Leigh’s formally interesting decision to start with Turner at age 51 in the full stream of his success and tracing his final few years, invites inevitable personal reverberations: like Turner, Leigh is acclaimed but getting old, facing the shifting tides of taste and critical favour. The film’s narrative is both teeming and yet also exceptionally simple, portraying the last years of Turner’s relationship with his father William (Paul Jesson), with his housekeeper and concubine Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), and with another lover, Margate boarding-house keeper Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), in whose house and company he finally dies. The one person Turner trusts and loves implicitly is his father, who, as his assistant, is first seen seeking out the paints that his son turns into visions.
Like any Mario Puzo gangster, the Turners are bound together in their class-informed, clannish interdependency: everyone else really is just a stranger, and whatever happened to sunder Turner from his former lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), he’s made the break completely, even denying the two daughters he’s had by her. The Turners pursue their venture as a trade, whatever its trappings: a wry scene early in the film depicts William’s showmanship, ushering buyers for their wares into a dark annex before opening doors into the gallery, the better to dazzle them with a sudden flood of colour and light. This is British art as cottage industry. Yet it drags Turner all around his world, hobnobbing with the gentry, arguing with fellow artists, conversing with boarding house owners.
A quietly bravura sequence early in the film sees the artist parading the halls of a colossal manor where a coterie of fellow artists are employed to offer décor for the cavernous house, chatting in a way with Lord Egremont (Patrick Godfrey) in a manner that reveals their shared traits of quick understanding and dour dislike of wasting time. Turner pauses to share a brief interlude of clumsy but intent bonding with a young woman (Karina Fernandez) practising Beethoven on the piano who indulges him by playing some Henry Purcell for him to sing raggedly along to. Turner is bitten for a loan by Haydon, who remarks with dry wonder at the turns of his life: only recently released from debtor’s prison, he’s now being entertained by a lord. After hectoring Turner, Haydon extracts the promise of £50 from him. During the evening soiree, a young soprano’s precious recitals give way to a bawdy song that delights the guests in a calculatedly cute assault on the rules.
Like most of the film, this sequence seems to be a mere quilt of vignettes, and yet the supple moves of Leigh’s camerawork and staging gives the film an oblique, but unified tenor that skirts the dancelike and the theatrical, as everyone’s free on their stage of life, eventually compositing into a tapestrylike vision of the age. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope offer one marvellous shot as punchline: Turner watches Haydon stroll off into the garden whilst still framed by one of the manor’s huge doors. Three more painters lurch into the shot from the side, pausing to follow Turner’s gaze and cluck over their hapless, solitary fellow who’s nominated himself to play the role of unappreciated genius, and yet, with Turner’s attention and the frame itself suggesting the tension between the security of acceptance as an artist and the unfettered state of the man beyond. Neither the character of Turner nor Leigh as controlling voice have too much time for rebellious romanticism: Turner is powered by sublime vision, but releases it in a job of work. Leigh is evidently trying to deromanticise the past here: this Georgian London is a bristling, dirty, vigorous, aggravating, invigorating sprawl, still earthy in a manner alien to the oncoming Victorianism. John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), intellectual definer of his era’s culture, is portrayed as a chirpily effete idealist who engages Turner amidst a salon session with other artists in a conversation that ranges from gooseberries to French artist Claude Lorrain. Turner has a professional’s reluctance to bad-mouth Claude, one of his influences, in the face of Ruskin’s breezy dismissal.
Painting is often portrayed as a dainty art, the cliché of the artist seated and dabbing away at a canvas, but anyone who’s spent any time actually engaging in the form or seen anyone tackle the form on a large scale know that it’s actually a virile, physical activity, messy and demanding. Leigh embraces this quality and pushes his notion of the artist as brute force, as Turner does everything from politely caress his paint to spit on the canvas to gain his physically involving effects. Spall’s Turner is a genius Caliban who can be showman, raconteur, even a seducer, and can offer the most surprisingly eloquent soliloquies on art or life, if often sputtered out between lips barely willing to move. Turner barely bothers to speak, and the sense emerges that verbal expression is not something he likes, particularly when called upon to release emotion. The film’s torturous scenes dwell on this incapacity—amusingly, when he tries to give a stilted speech on optics to the Royal Academy, and, more hurtfully, when he can’t cough up a cliché to conjure his feelings after one of his daughters dies. Not that he’s an insensate pillar of self-indulgence: Leigh constantly hints at secret sources of pain and also the very real incapacity in many creative types to offer the sorts of codes and semaphores used to mollify and normalise social situations.
Mr. Turner as a whole is both brilliant and problematic, a storm-swell of accomplished filmmaking where the exact object feels uncertain, like a great, necessary leap was left untaken. Yet the result is stirring and fascinating, a fresco of ingenious detail that communes between the mud of history and the ether of personality. The sustained depth and brilliance of Spall’s performance as the pivot of Mr. Turner is a career highlight for a hugely talented actor and is surrounded by such pitch-perfect turns. Leigh does not, as we expect from most biopics, transfer the passions of creative endeavour onto a romantic love for easy consumption; far from it. Turner copulates bullishly with Hannah and others when the need arises, but seems to feel them as no more than natural urges, like eating or defecating. Instead, he finds electric transcendence in art, clearest when he has a sailor strap him to the mast of a ship, Odysseuslike, to be swept up in a snowy squall at sea, both an act and observation which he alchemises into his mighty work “Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.” Turner’s relationship with Danby is both excruciating and funny, and finally dusted with tragedy. Quite clearly Hannah enjoys Turner’s attentions, but nothing like a romance persists between them, with interludes of carnality suddenly rising and falling like winds and then returning to polite distance. Only right at the end when Hannah, essentially left alone to exist as a peeling, scabby wraith in Turner’s house, seeks out her missing master and finds him now ensconced with Booth, does the depth of Hannah’s bond emerge. The theme of the servant who takes both pleasure and refuge in being the pokerfaced crutch of the genius reminded me more than a little of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972).
By contrast, Turner’s relationship with Booth starts when he goes to paint in Margate, a picturesque and teeming seaside locale fit for his artistic obsessions. The town proves to have a personal meaning to him, as he was sent to school there, and survived where friends didn’t in the dank and appalling state of educational institutions of the age. Mrs Booth has a husband (Karl Johnson) who fascinates Turner with his grim and guilty recollections of days as a sailor on a slave ship, which Mrs Booth tries to awkwardly bypass with bromides. On a return trip, Turner learns that Mr. Booth has died. He takes the opportunity to praise the widow on her weathered beauty and seems to prize her company as a refuge from the world he strides through as colossus but can actually barely stand. As the two become a couple, Booth eventually sells her Margate house and buys another on the Thames as an easier-to-reach refuge for Turner. Again there’s a hint of investment for Leigh here: Bailey is his partner, and the scenes of Turner’s oddly earnest seduction of her have the immediacy and particularity of such a backdrop, the authentic human comedy of courtship in late middle age.
Compared with the increasingly formulaic and tepid state of the prestige biopic industry, which has served up turds in the past few years like The King’s Speech (2010) through to this year’s cartoonish Get On Up and empty The Theory of Everything, Mr. Turner seems like an alien artefact, overflowing with biographical detail, but much of it subordinated to a powerful but discursive intent to explore the world about its antihero as much as his impenetrable head rather than turn the stuff of life into dreary plot beats. Everything from serious artistic debate to glimpsed contretemps between lovers excites Leigh’s eye. Mr. Turner isn’t quite sui generis, as it particularly resembles Alexander Korda’s underrated Rembrandt (1936), which likewise considered the artist from mid-life onward and contemplated him from a similar perspective of interest as a man of real artistic ideals but hapless in the world. Echoes here, too, are to Ken Russell’s similarly holistic fascination for artists in the world. Russell’s lacks of measure and subtlety and Leigh’s lack of the penetrating force of metaphoric exploration that a less earthbound artist can wield, are revealed as complementary. What Mr. Turner ultimately lacks is a focal point. Whereas the sprawl of Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999) was given centrifugal force by the project of creating and staging “The Mikado,” Mr. Turner, moving across time as it does, flails to find shape. Although the creation of “Snow Storm” is brilliantly exposited, other sequences affecting to portray moments of inspirations for great works like “Rain, Steam, and Speed” and “The Fighting Temeraire” are weak.
Leigh and regular cinematographer Dick Pope occasionally stoop to offering hints of Turner’s vision in their visual textures, most cleverly in one shot where the camera seems to be studying what could be fine details of blotchy paint on one of his canvases, only for this to prove to be a mountainside, creating a clear and explicable link between Turner’s subjects and his vision. Otherwise, Leigh circles his subject, studying Turner’s surface exactingly, expressing wonder and incisive fascination, but never gaining access to the mysterious mills of his creativity. In fact, Leigh doesn’t really even try, and it’s arguably a good idea that he doesn’t, refusing to tie the wonder of creativity or life in general up in the neat bows of pop psychology and false epiphany. But Leigh’s contemplation of Turner’s artistry too often threatens to become banal, as when he shows a friend his painting of Hannibal’s progress across the Alps and has her strain to pick out an elephant: Turner doesn’t paint the obvious! At one point Ruskin, studying Turner’s vision of drowning slaves thrown from a sinking ship, bypasses the hapless humanity to concentrate on suggestions of God’s presence in the glimmering light piercing the clouds above: the object which Turner contemplates is subsumed by the aesthetic perspective, something that the often peevishly literal Leigh can’t abide. Here Leigh shows his hand to a great degree, suggesting a cheeky likeness of critical masturbation, but he might just betray his own lack of real penetration into his subject, trying to cover it up with sneering that stumbles perilously close to boorishness. More interesting and telling is the later conversation Turner and Ruskin have about Claude: Turner quietly refuses to engage in Ruskin’s critical habit of creating hierarchies and dichotomies, maintaining professional respect and perspective for an artist responding to different stimuli. At his least, Leigh can lumber like a thoroughbred horse drunk on fermented apples, a mixture of precision and wayward intent.
Leigh’s method is far more at home depicting Turner attending an exhibition of his fellow artists, an electrifying sequence laced with wry and pointed observations as Turner shrugs off news that his work has been relegated to the dreaded antechamber along with Haydon’s, and instead struts through the scene like a king surrounded by fellow royalty, offering pleasantries and keen observations whether wanted or not. John Constable (James Fleet) labours on his mammoth painting of the opening of Waterloo Bridge, furiously adding flourishes; Turner, with impudent precision, strolls over to a naval painting and adds a red buoy to break up the visual texture and thus enrich it, making a theatrical act out of his very simple revision and grabbing attention from all, from the fascinated to the appalled. Haydon, on the other hand, explodes in anger and frustration when he’s grilled over the meaning of his painting of a donkey, which he claims is Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, and almost comes to blows with his rivals.
Turner and Haydon’s acquaintance is faintly reminiscent of that between Lesley Manville’s frantic Mary with the centring couple in Another Year (2010), with a similarly empathetic yet unsparing wisdom about the types of personalities that weather storms and those that don’t, and how they tend to relate. There’s the suggestion Haydon, rather than being burdened by Turner’s loan, actually needs it to keep him connected, and Turner senses this when he abruptly absolves the debt and washes his hands of the wayward fellow artist. Manville appears in another of the film’s transfixing scenes, playing plucky Scots scientist Mary Somerville. Somerville demonstrates the peculiarities of magnetism to the interested artist, a swift understanding and amity developing between the Turners and Somerville fired by intuition and sharing a wry sense of their own individuality and hard-won space for expressing it.
That indeed is one of the major themes of Mr. Turner. One of Turner’s few outbursts of intemperate feeling comes after his father dies. He goes to a brothel, intending to sketch one of the young whores (Kate O’Flynn) in a pose of desolation, but when he learns she’s 13, suddenly taps his own grief and becomes a sobbing mess. Art here is most clearly a ritual Turner uses to sublimate his emotions, but fails in the face of such a well of grief—or, perhaps it succeeds in just this cause. Turner is left unmoored by his father’s death; where William took pride in turning his son’s showroom into a place of wonder, all Turner can do is poke the dead flies gathering in some meshing whilst showing some buyers his wares. Leigh works in a hint of satiric semblance as Turner evolves not just into a proto-modernist with spare, almost abstract visions that bemuse his public, including Queen Victoria (Sinead Matthews), but also becomes the first to receive the backlash of incomprehension. Turner is burned and humiliated when he’s satirised in a stage revue he attends, his art jeered as a confidence trick to suck in rich patrons, a routine gone through about once a week in British tabloids with artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin these days. By the end of the film Turner is turning his nose up at the rigorous craft and sentimentality of the pre-Raphaelites (Leigh turning his own nose up at the current film scene?), aware that his intransigent pantheism and Regency libertinism is on the way out. He’s also confronted with the new phenomenon of photography and is fascinated even in the face of his own potential obsolescence.
Turner later encounters Joseph Gillott (Peter Wight), who is also a working-class man made good, but in industry, which has made him fabulously wealthy. Gillott, bucking the turning tide of Turner’s popularity, offers to buy up all of Turner’s works. In spite of the similarities between the two men, Turner resists because he wants to donate his works to the British people. Although Leigh surely means this moment as an earnest apotheosis for the artist’s concept of his role in his society and denial of mere financial success, nonetheless, he has Spall play it less like triumph than as a bemused, half-willing gesture toward an ideal and a hope from a man who’s feeling bruised and confused by the twists of his fate. Leigh depicts Turner’s waning days as a brutal and unstoppable succumbing to the natural forces Turner himself worships. He hauls himself out of his bed to try to sketch the corpse of a woman found drowned in the Thames mud, again perhaps trying to conceptualise his own looming fate through his art. “The sun is God!” he declares on his deathbed, and then gives a dry little chuckle before expiring, as if his dying epiphany is a private joke between himself and the universe.
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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2010, we had Eat Pray Love. In 2013, we had Tracks. Now, this year, it’s Wild. I haven’t seen so many people on walkabout since, well, Walkabout (1971), and they all happen to be women. What’s going on?
Unlike adventuring men in the movies, who conquer nations and open new frontiers both physical and intellectual, adventuring women escape their societies and take on physical challenges to heal and find some direction for their directionless lives. In the case of Wild, our heroine is quite literally tamed. That many women have found the memoir upon which Wild is based so inspirational leaves me feeling a little let down.
Wild tells the true story of writer Cheryl Strayed’s 1,100-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1995 at the age of 26 to recover from the loss of her beloved mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) and the breakdown of her first marriage. Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who it appears took that last name in memory of her infidelity to Paul (Thomas Sadoski), takes on the PCT on impulse. She’s not like all the men on the trail, who hike regularly just for the pleasure and challenge of it. She’s never done a hike like this, has packed so much stuff that she spends several minutes just trying to stand up with the pack on her back, and reads instructions for her camp stove when she’s out on the trail, only to find out she’s got the wrong kind of fuel. In an obscure way, her voyage of self-discovery seems like a death wish, except that there are other people on the trail who keep up with her by the epigraphs she puts in the guest books that dot the trail, making her a minor celebrity; she gets care packages mailed to her at regular intervals by her friendly ex-husband; and she leaves the trail several times to eat, drink, and be merry. Tenzing Norgay she ain’t.
Despite an opening that would seem to predict otherwise, the actual trek is the least important part of Wild. We begin by seeing Strayed remove a boot and a bloody sock to reveal her big toenail hanging on by a thread of skin. She braces herself against her pack and tears the toenail off, only to go reeling in agony, bumping the loose boot down a cliffside. In fury, she removes the other shoe and flings it after the first one with a frustrated scream. But this is a mere set-up for the copious flashbacks that overwhelm the scenic beauty and demands of the trail to show all the bad breaks and bad choices that have brought Strayed to this point.
The film toggles between her progress on the trail and her past life. It is through these lengthy flashbacks that we learn Strayed’s story—her abusive father and impoverished life with a single, uneducated mother. Dern’s hippie-spirited Bobbi is a complete joy and a person who shows the beauty of the present moment that I wish more of the film had given us on the PCT. Seeing Bobbi attend the same high school as her daughter speaks volumes about her backstory—married too young, dropped out to raise her unplanned-for child—and her spirit. When we learn she is fatally ill with cancer at the tragic age of 45, the loss is ours as well as Strayed’s. The other significant people in Strayed’s life—her brother and ex-husband—are sketchy, though both Sadoski and Keith McRae make the very most of their supporting parts.
Indeed, the entire film is filled with perfect cameos of the people Strayed meets along the trail. The farther she goes, the more real those people become—a generous farmer (W. Earl Brown) and his wife (Ann Hoag) who invite her to have dinner and take a shower in their home, a friendly and helpful hiker (Will Cuddy), even a one-night stand when she goes into Portland to avoid a snowed-in part of the trail. Her memories become snippets of roughness—her father (Jason Newell) pushing a fist near her face, her boyfriend shooting heroin into a vein in her ankle, a forceful sexual encounter in a hotel room.
Of course, Wild is a showcase for Witherspoon, a controlled, conventional actor who is a good fit for this material. Strayed is too smart to be anything but honest—in fact, she’s a terrible liar in a scene in which she initially fears for her safety from the farmer—and not given to open displays of emotion. At the same time, Witherspoon can convey just enough vulnerability to put across Strayed’s love for her mother, sorrowful regret for her failures, and bald-faced terror when she encounters a real threat on the trail. She proved with Walk the Line (2005) that she is fully matured from the child actor she was. In Wild, she’s unafraid to show sexual desire, and her acting is largely unself-consciousness.
Writer Nick Hornby produced an understated script that could perhaps have used a bit more of his trademark humor. I found Strayed’s struggle with her backpack in a tacky motel room one of the most memorable parts of the film. That, unfortunately, is a problem. The film feels flat, with staged moments like Strayed’s encounter with a rattlesnake that seemed like a fugitive from a TV western. The cinematography should have been a slam-dunk, but the unimaginative set-ups and pedestrian lensing captured little of the trail’s beauty. Dropping a red fox in at certain moments as a spirit guide was hokey, but it was nice to see a wild animal that hadn’t been wrangled within an inch of its life in the movie.
Perhaps the hardest part of the film for me was how little I liked or cared about Strayed. The last letter she writes to Paul is a kiss-off, telling him that she’s gotten him out of her system and has no further use for continued communication. Nice way to use a guy you’ve abused to keep you alive in the wilderness and then kick him in the ass once more just for good measure. Strayed reaches the Bridge of the Gods between Oregon and Washington, and we learn, in her own words, that she’ll meet her current husband and have two kids. So finding herself with a mold-breaking trek meant learning from her journey and her self-destructive behavior how to be a good conformist. Ultimately, despite the many good things it has going for it, Wild left me sadly uninspired.
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Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film
Debut feature film of: Claude Chabrol, director and screenwriter
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s not often that a film—especially a debut film—grabs me and pulls me into its orbit with the irresistible force of a black hole, but that’s exactly what happened to me and, impressively, the hubby, when we started watching Le beau Serge. I stipulate that I’m predisposed to like films by Claude Chabrol, one of my favorite filmmakers, but Shane is famously fidgety in the opening minutes of a film, wanting to know what is going to happen before the credits have even finished rolling. Running roughshod over the usual settling-in period, Le beau Serge grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck with an ominous energy and holds us tight to the bitter end—bitter being the operative word.
1958 was an interesting year in cinematic and Gallic history. Just as the supposed end of the classic period of American film noir was reached with the release of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, the Cahiers du cinéma critics were gearing up to start making their noir-influenced independent films, with Chabrol being the first out of the blocks with Le beau Serge. This bleak film shot in Sardent, to which the Paris-born Chabrol was evacuated during World War II, has the kind of quasi-confessional aspects of personal remorse and social unease that were then being unleashed by the angry young men of the United Kingdom. A reference in the film to a townsman serving in Algeria prefigures the May coup attempt in that French-occupied country that would see a member of the old guard, Charles de Gaulle, return to power. Interestingly, Jacques Tati’s nostalgia for small town France got a big-screen airing in 1958 with the debut of Mon oncle; Le beau Serge is a radical counterpoint to that humorous fantasy.
François (Jean-Claude Brialy), a handsome young man, returns to his home village after 10 years in Paris to rest and give his tubercular lungs a chance to heal. His family home has fallen into ruin, and he is forced to take a room at the local inn. His friend (Michel Creuze), who had no illusions that he would ever leave the village and become anything but the baker his father was, reaches to grab François’ suitcase from the bus driver on top of the bus. A discordant note is struck in the film score as two men are viewed on the opposite side of the bus. They are François’ great childhood friend Serge (Gérard Blain) and Serge’s father-in-law Glaumod (Edmond Beauchamp). Both are drunk and belligerent, and seem oddly menacing. François tries to capture Serge’s attention, but fails. As he makes his way up the street to the inn, villagers greet him and have to remind him who they are. He doesn’t recognize anyone but Serge.
Class resentment is Claude Chabrol’s thematic calling card, and he starts flashing it with this, his very first film. François has distanced himself from the villagers, his head stuck in books in a rented room with faux-brick wallpaper (Chabrol revels in tacky interiors) as a symbol of his outsider, intellectual status. He believes he can save the villagers from themselves, showing up the ineffectual priest (Claude Cerval) in the process in an echo of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). He especially wants to reform Serge, whom he tries to persuade to leave Yvonne (Michèle Méritz), the wife he took when he got her pregnant, only to be trapped in an apparently loveless marriage when their baby was stillborn. Yvonne is pregnant again, but that doesn’t seem to bother François, who wants Serge to join him in bourgeois striving. The urgency of François’ yearning to see Serge in the opening scenes of the film and his continued efforts to connect with Serge contain homoerotic overtones that the film’s title, which translates as Handsome Serge, tends to endorse. In fact, Serge, a Marlon Brando knock-off in his black leather jacket, is kind of a mess—often covered with mud from his delivery job and his drunken carousing. François is much more handsome and is targeted immediately by the promiscuous, 17-year-old Marie (Bernadette Lafont), Yvonne’s sister who lives at home with their father. While he’s perfectly happy to diddle Marie, it’s clear he thinks she is in no way good enough for him.
While his films preponderantly critique the French bourgeoisie, Chabrol has always saved some contempt for the pettiness of the underclasses as well, allowing mere resentment or even boredom to burgeon into murder. With Le beau Serge, Chabrol highlights the self-delusions of the villagers as well. Serge seems to enjoy wallowing in his degradation and refuses to abandon Yvonne, claiming that he loves her. That may be a lie, but he certainly does need her to blame for his own lack of ambition and as an excuse to get drunk early and often. The townspeople also seem to have conspired in pretending that Marie is Glaumod’s daughter—Marie tells François she’s not—so that he can keep from jumping her bones. Glaumod all but forces François to tell him the truth about Marie, and then blames him when nature takes its course.
Indeed, the entire film, which assumes François’ point of view, looks at the villagers as little better than animals, and incestuous ones at that. Although the village is poor, there is a real life in it, with meals and dances and daily work. But François’ dealings with Serge, Yvonne, Marie, and Glaumod reduce the environment to squalor in a manner that must have influenced Bertrand Tavernier’s dissipated look at French colonialists in Africa in Coup de torchon (1981). Serge literally starts sleeping his drunks off in chicken coops, and the final scene is the birth of Serge and Yvonne’s baby, a basic animal act if ever there was one.
From the standpoint of filmcraft, Le beau Serge shows the influence of the Italian Neorealist movement. Like the Neorealists, he populates his frames with actual villagers and shoots from life, with natural lighting. A village dance looks and sounds quite like a similar dance in Luchino Visconti’s early Neorealist film Obsessione (1943). Yet, Chabrol includes a score by Émile Delpierre that telegraphs feeling in a very melodramatic way. Some have criticized the score, but it is part and parcel of Chabrol’s heightened sense of reality and wicked humor, a dark opposite to the light and urbane music of Tati.
The final scene is shot through with arresting images—Yvonne’s martyred face looking all the world like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); François shining a flashlight into every stable and coop, his utterly black form contrasting with the light and making him seem like a human void; François sliding a passed-out Serge along the snowy ground like a sack of potatoes. Serge’s maniacal laughter at the birth of a son might mean a new start—or just another person to start blaming.
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Director/Screenwriter: Ruben Östlund
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s the holidays, and in this part of the world at least, audiences finally have the opportunity to see the feel-good Swedish movie we’ve all been waiting for.
. . . . feel-good Swedish movie?
Yeah, not exactly what I was expecting either—but then, I’d be lying if I said you’d really feel all that good at the end of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. In true Swedish style, this closely observed parable about social roles and the lies we tell ourselves and others mixes an ounce of bitters with its liberal doses of comedy and leaves behind a queasy-making aftertaste.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) arrive at a frightfully luxurious ski resort in the French Alps with their two children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren), for a rare five days of quality family time. As with many modern families, Ebba pries Tomas and the children away from their electronic masters for a beautiful day on the slopes. The family cuts a fetching figure of togetherness as they shuss on a pure pillow of snow, pose for photos, and nap together in almost identical blue underwear on the king-size bed in the master bedroom.
Trouble stirs when a controlled avalanche is triggered by the report of cannons rimming the resort for just this purpose. The Swedish family and others dining on the resort’s outdoor terrace start snapping photos and shooting videos with their smartphones until they realize that the advancing snow seems to be coming perilously close to the resort. In the panic that ensues, Tomas runs away, leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves. Although only harmless spray from the avalanche reaches the café and dissipates quickly, something just as dangerous has been loosened between Tomas and his family. The remainder of the film watches this family as they blunder through their disillusionment at discovering the head of the household has feet of clay.
In 2014, the idea of a male protector seems almost prehistoric, particularly in Sweden, the divorce capital of the world, and Tomas and Ebba’s marriage is something of an anachronism compared with the friends they meet at the resort. For example, Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg Faber) has an open marriage and picks up at least two different men during the trip, astonishing Ebba by saying that if her husband were enjoying himself with another woman, she’d be happy for him. To Ebba’s question about whether she is afraid of being left alone, Charlotte says she doesn’t like the idea, but that her life doesn’t revolve around her husband and children. Ebba, on the other hand, is especially vulnerable to her family’s opinion. Harry and Vera, free of the many social layers that burden adults, initially despise their parents and throw them out of the master bedroom with torrents of jeers, causing Ebba to try to accept Tomas’ version of events—that he didn’t run off—to win back their children’s trust. Tomas’ continuing and fervent denials only set off a series of increasingly hilarious—and harrowing—episodes, as the children worry about divorce, Ebba’s anger repeatedly bubbles and bursts like a thermal hot spring, and Tomas crumbles into a blubbering mess of self-pity.
Relationship troubles have been the stuff of high comedy for centuries, and Östlund knows how to draw the absurdity of the situation out of his actors. Kuhnke’s sad-sack look is so cluelessly nonchalant that I cracked up every time I saw him; his embarrassment at being caught out as the self-centered guy he is makes his intense self-loathing and over-the-top crying jag two-thirds of the way through the film ring like a cracked bell. He confesses to cheating at games with his kids and being unfaithful to his wife—it’s like watching Bill Clinton begging forgiveness from his wife and the nation through his voluptuous smirk and twinkling eyes. Östlund ups the ante by introducing Mats (Kristofer Hivju), a divorced friend of Tomas’ from their bachelor days, and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius), and the pair very nearly walks off with the entire picture. After he and Fanny have been drafted by Ebba into a little game of “Courtroom” and watch in growing discomfort the event captured on Tomas’ smartphone, Mats stammers out an unconvincing defense of Tomas’ actions as the force majeure (irresistible compulsion) alluded to by the film’s title. Infected with outrage but well aware of the cliché she and Mats are, Fanny scolds him for running off with her and ignoring his own children, and the two have a hilarious bedroom argument that is both absurd and painfully real.
While Force Majeure focuses most of its attention on the failings of men, especially bourgeois men, it ranges over the whole of humanity, contrasting our social constructs with our primal instincts. Modern conveniences, including exquisitely appointed apartments for the well-heeled vacationer, insulate this family from the snowy, rocky environment they have chosen to visit. Yet they depend on funiculars, chair lifts, covered conveyor belts, and tow chains get them to and from the ski runs—the effect is similar to Charlie Chaplin threading helplessly through a series of giant gears in Modern Times (1936). Watching Tomas and Ebba argue in the hall amid massive wooden beams or in a funicular with a craggy mountainside passing behind the window only confirms the pettiness of these two mortals, so protected by their wealth and technology that Tomas’ failure to think of his family before himself is actually all but irrelevant. It’s telling that their solution to restoring family faith and harmony occurs on the mountain, the only place where this instinct really has any use at all, and even that solution must be faked—another stab at Tomas’ loss of animal prowess.
Force Majeure isn’t perfect. In Bergmanesque fashion, the semi-tragedy of this family’s illusory happiness is laid on thick, in both appropriate and unfortunate ways. One of Ebba’s reactions to her husband’s fecklessness is to go skiing by herself, a potent symbol for both her vulnerability at this moment and her potential strength. But then she sees Tomas and the kids skiing on the other side of a wood and breaks down sobbing in a somewhat heavy-handed symbol of her lost state of grace. Tomas’ breakdown goes on for too long, mainly to set up a joke group hug, a joke that fell flat for me. Another joke in which two young women come over to Mats and Tomas and say their friend thinks they’re cute, and then return to say that their friend wasn’t pointing at them after all, seems an unlikely and schematic way to showcase the men’s considerable egos. Better was a nighttime swarm of drunken men screaming and jumping like apes, Tomas unwittingly caught in their bacchanal of raw testosterone.
The film drags on too long and includes an unnecessary and improbable emergency that panics Ebba in a false equivalency with Tomas’ fear and shows Tomas to be a changed man, willing to own up to who he really is. That he tells the truth to Harry may be a small glimmer of hope that the next generation will be better than Tomas’, but frankly, I wouldn’t bet on it.
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Directors/Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
By Roderick Heath
The cinema of Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has hardly lacked admiration since their breakthrough La Promesse in 1995. The duo all but defined a new style of European realist cinema, charting the evolving moral, economic, and social states of their native environment with keenly felt authenticity, but also quietly blending aspects of many forebears who covered the same terrain of utterly ground-level human experience. The brothers have stuck to a basic template that’s served them well, turning what at first glance would seem to be major impediments—the recessed, caught-between nature of Belgian identity, the lack of fame and import accorded to their native city of Seraing, an industrial and port city of staggering ordinariness—into perfect keynotes for their studies. The stark character drama of their first Palme d’Or winner, Rosetta (1999), portrayed the dogged and perhaps unwelcome persistence of common human feeling even when survival dictated determined self-interest in its hard-bitten young heroine. Two Days, One Night, their latest opus, deals with a spiritually similar drama, but inverts the focus. Like the brothers’ previous work, The Kid with a Bike (2011), Two Days, One Night tries to comprehend the forces both overt and subtle that create not just the context for individual failures and miseries, but also the forces that bind communities and that snap into action once they’re faced with intolerable situations.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is first glimpsed dozing on her bed, waiting for a tart she’s baking to finish, when she’s roused by a phone call. Sandra’s immobility proves to be portentous, as she’s recovering from a bout of intense depression. The phone call reflects this: Sandra, barely recovered and still emotionally fragile, is faced immediately with a crisis her condition has precipitated. She learns that at the solar panel factory where she works, the foreman, Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), has essentially given her coworkers a choice to either keep Sandra on or receive their annual €1,000 bonuses, because the company can’t afford both. The call has come from Sandra’s friend and advocate Juliette (Catherine Salée), who believes that if they can confront the factory boss Dumont (Batiste Sornin) quickly enough, they might be able to call another vote on the Monday morning when she can be present and argue her case. Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), a chef in a local fast food restaurant, encourages Sandra to fight for her right to be heard, and when she and Juliette manage to catch Dumont just before he drives home from work, they gain his harried acquiescence to another vote. What becomes immediately clear to Sandra and Manu is that she can’t afford to wait until the Monday to plead her case with her fellow employees: she must lobby them individually with pleas not to agree to her sacking.
Sandra’s journeys to confront her coworkers are laced with more than a plea for her economic survival, as Sandra’s very sense of self and worth is at stake. At first, she can barely be stirred from her bed, her sense of uselessness and unworthiness now seemingly affirmed as she has been implicitly indicted by her coworkers as a being no longer worthy of their loyalty and affection. Only her husband and Juliette’s unswerving loyalty get her moving, though their loyalty feels almost cruel to a person who can barely face the mirror, never mind the outside world and the glares of people she has to beg for her job. To achieve her ends, Sandra quickly realises, she not only has to confront people who have effectively declared her a nonperson, but has to do so in their own little worlds, their own lives, some of which prove to be as straitened as her own and all of which involve a certain rupture of comfortable privacy and precious leisure time, or, indeed, the lack of either. Some are busy with second jobs or coaching children’s sports teams, or looking after babies or trying to kick back.
Most of us have been in a predicament like Sandra’s at some point in our lives, and the Dardennes are brilliantly attuned to the states of mind and little epiphanies that move with quicksilver intensity during such times. The shifts of Sandra’s headspace are casually but acutely noted, as she murmurs in a momentary wish as she and her husband sit eating ice cream in the park, “I wish that was me…that bird singing.” It becomes clear through such touches that the Dardennes are actually telling two closely related, but slightly asymmetrical stories: the tale of Sandra’s recovery, as well as the crisis that both threatens it and confirms it. Fighting for her job and sense of self causes Sandra many anguished moments of doubt and self-disgust, particularly after a violent incident she believes she’s precipitated. But Sandra’s journey is, of course, only intersecting with others, and indeed becomes a study in the uncertainty principle, as her knock on the door both encounters individual quandaries and collides with and catalyses them. This proves particularly crucial when she visits the home of Anne (Christelle Cornil), who explains that she can’t want to give up her bonus because she and her husband are renovating their house, but promises to talk it over with her husband and asks for Sandra to return. Sandra comes back to find the couple quarrelling violently, and soon after, Sandra and Manu find themselves taking Anne in after she leaves her husband.
The tight and remorseless structure bears out some of the Dardennes’ influences. The film’s plot is driven by cause and effect of almost Sophoclean concision, up to and including the limited timespan, the traditional 24 hours of Greek tragedy expanded to about 60. Echoes, too, of French realism like that of Emila Zola can be found, and those particularly Spanish genres, the picaresque and tremendista stories of wanderers and of slices of lives afflicted by sudden calamity. Cinematically, the Dardennes have always seemed close to the unvarnished, resolutely proletarian work of early Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but they’re better character students than Loach and far less untidy than Leigh. Their films often feel closer to the rigorous, unblinking portraiture of Robert Bresson and Neo-Realist studies in compressed desperation and blue-collar straits, including Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948), except, of course, the world has changed so much since those works were made, and today’s economic turmoil is more elusive and insidious. As some have noted, Two Days, One Night is something like a thriller as we cheer on our heroine through mounting tension and twists of fate, with Jean-Marc, unseen until the “climax,” cast as the antagonist who’s carefully laid the carrot and stick on the employees. There’s even a strong echo of High Noon (1953), stripped of its gunfighter bravado, and reduced instead to a round of pleas for conscience versus self-interest; that film’s roots in the milieu of the blacklist is crucially similar to the forces the Dardennes are exploring. The film also bears the imprint of Flemish art traditions, the internationally renowned product of the Dardennes’ corner of the world: Holbein’s “Hunters Home from the Hunt;” Rubens, in the glimpse of Hicham’s wife as Madonna with child; and Hicham himself hefting about farm produce in echoes of a once-popular subgenre of Flemish painting. Nor are these mere aesthetic echoes, but they also are reminders of art fundamentally based in things people actually do, and a belief that in such things lie deep truths.
The Dardennes often evoke religious images and ideas in their work, not with the sense that they’re quietly proselytising, but rather to invoke the most common roots of communal ethical understanding, the vivid and collective intensity of parable. The ethical drama is as important as the surface fate of the characters, whilst Sandra, our everywoman hero, moves through a range of possible likenesses: Jesus sacrificed for our sins, Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Pamina called back from the dead, Diogenes searching the marketplace for honest men. Whilst Sandra and Manu are working to keep their toehold in the middle class, the question as to what sort of person Sandra is and can be becomes a vital issue, and indeed, seems the question that plagues the woman herself most powerfully. Seeing the melancholic self-contempt etched into her face, we can only immediately assume empathy for her, for she’s such a hapless and assailed creature, and yet a dissonance is carefully built, as Sandra’s rounds uncover the degree to which people remain mysteries to each other even when in close contact. Her workplace is filled with such vile characters and subtle iniquity that it seems reasonable to assume working there might have precipitated her depression. The question looms by the end: does Sandra have the kind of mettle she looks for in her fellows?
The Dardennes’ characters are so often in desperate search of something, usually a definite goal, a job, a loved one, but with a hint of existential anguish lurking just behind that official end, because they’re lost in the world. The very elusive issue in Sandra’s life is also the crucial question of the film: where’s our solidarity? The political dimensions of the film are immediate and powerful, of course. This is a portrait of working-class people and the kinds of problems that afflict them. The boss Dumont is portrayed believably as a man with his own reasonable motives and worries, a person of responsibility and judgement who tries his hand at Solmonlike wisdom and repeatedly fails, and thus becomes party to barbed and cruel choices that make one of his employees a scapegoat, transmitting downward the pressures of the market to the level of the individual employee, the canaries in the coal mine of capitalism, the one who has no room to move and can’t shift the effects any further. The choice to situate this drama in a struggling solar panel factory nicely complicates the situation insofar as it’s not some long-caricatured bastion of capitalism. Interestingly, implicit but not actually spoken aloud in Two Days, One Night is the prejudice against Sandra’s psychological malady as unreal compared to a physical injury that would mark her as a nobly injured worker.
The film correlates this invisible state of crippling with the equally hard-to-discern nature of financial distress in a modern Western state, where the accoutrements of suburban life give an illusion of stability that can become a perpetual goad to anxiety. This belief in Sandra’s status as a glorified malingerer is plain in what proves eventually to be the conspiracy against her whipped up by Jean-Marc, who has characterised her as a useless drag, a feeling some of the workers clearly share. The Dardennes are keenest in studying the links of individual psychology to larger subjects. They trace unfailingly the stew of fear, annoyance, frustration, anxiety, outright transference, and prejudice that conspire against Sandra, as well as the empathy, common feeling, and scruples that aid her and gain her unexpected fellowship. The worst reactions Sandra encounters, from Anne’s puerile inability to face her at all to Jerome’s (Yohan Zimmer) assault, suggest intense displacement, and even Jean-Marc’s conniving is rooted only in his function as the man who turns top-down whim into achieved fact. Sandra is introduced to gradations of personal necessity, as what might seem as a luxury to one of her coworkers is for another an overriding and desperate need. Sandra also stumbles into the subtle distinctions of class between the nominally equivalent workers: Alphonse (Serge Koto) is one of the factory’s contract workers whose job security is much less assured than the other workers, and he informs Sandra that he’s afraid to vote for her in case it pisses off his bosses.
The film’s moment of biggest dramatic potential becomes instead an almost comic diminuendo. With echoes of Chantal Akerman’s stringent portraits of hapless domestic women, Sandra, after a particularly hard rebuff from one of her coworkers, goes home, does the housework, fixes her kids lunch, and then goes into the bathroom and takes a fistful of antidepressants to kill herself. Juliette comes by to break news of a fresh chance, whereupon Sandra admits to her and Manu what she’s just done, with a blankly sheepish look. The Dardennes cut straight to Sandra in a hospital bed, fresh from her stomach pumping and already clearly itching to get moving again, suicide already no solution for a woman who’s starting to relearn the joy as well as the pain of fighting for herself. The Dardennes build the film around two interludes of listening to music in the car as Sandra and Manu drive about on their torturous route: the first time Sandra irritably stops her husband turning down Petula Clark’s French-language version of “Needles and Pins,” “La nuit n’en finit plus,” whilst the second sees the pair joined by Anne, singing raggedly along to Them’s “Gloria.” Such a scene suggests the influence of another classic feel-good movie moment where characters sing along to a pop hit, but without the feeling of vulgar manipulation; instead they rather capture the vitality of the place pop music has in many people’s lives that no other art form can touch, and its power to bond them.
Cotillard’s French-language work has seen her moving from strength to strength lately, and Sandra complements her turn in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (2013), a role that offered and demanded more acting pyrotechnics, but was similarly about a woman learning to repair herself and operate in a harsh world, eventually turning her weak points into points of armoured strength. The Dardennes only recently broke with their general preference for nonprofessional actors in lead roles: the rest of the cast mixes in several actors, including Rongione, who have become regulars. Cotillard, whose signature smoky eyes deliver registers of sensation like a seismograph, both blends in with the scenery seamlessly and lends the proceedings the finite intelligence and charisma a good actor can offer, defining her character’s states of mind and mood with pointillist precision. The outcome of the meeting on the Monday morning that will decide Sandra’s immediate fate is in doubt until almost the very end, but by the time Two Days, One Night reaches the destination it’s been heading to with inevitability for every little swerve in fortune, it is clear that Sandra has all the tools she needs to continue and formed a small fellowship who affirm both her and their own rights to exist. When Sandra is given a Faustian offer that could swerve off the worst, however, we realise that the entire movie has been leading to this point, as it presents Sandra with the same dilemma she’s presented everyone else with, only intensified in its you-or-them meaning. Sandra’s eventual choice is bound thus to entail defeat either way, fiscally or morally. Which choice you prefer may say too much about yourself and the world you live in.
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Director: Laura Poitras
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Every weekday, I hop on a Chicago Transit Authority train for my hour-long commute to and from work. My fellow commuters pass the time in a variety of ways—sleeping, staring out the window, reading a book or newspaper, talking to a fellow passenger. However, the majority of them use their commute to text, check email, play games, browse the Internet, listen to music, and do the myriad other things smart phones have made possible in this miraculous age of technology. They also do one thing they may not realize they are doing—provide the U.S. government with abundant information not only about themselves, but also about the people and places they know and frequent.
We know this is happening and how because in 2013, a 29-year-old contractor for the National Security Administration (NSA) named Edward Snowden provided Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, then both reporters for the British newspaper The Guardian, with thousands of documents that offered ironclad evidence of the widespread, highly invasive government surveillance program being conducted by the NSA on American citizens and foreign nationals—including heads of state—around the world. How we came to know what the government never meant for us to know is the shocking, compelling, and utterly engrossing story of Citizenfour, easily the best and most important American documentary since Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), though I expect a timid AMPAS will find some less-explosive documentary to honor with an Oscar, one whose director can safely accept it in person. Director Laura Poitras now lives in Berlin, having moved there several years ago after suffering repeated government harassment dating back to 2006, when she started producing films dealing with life in the United States following the 9/11 attacks. Poitras was essentially drafted to make this documentary because “citizenfour,” the alias Snowden used when he first contacted Poitras, says she self-selected as the recipient of his information based on the films she’s made.
Citizenfour presents an almost perfect balance of the disclosures that tore the veil surrounding the massive surveillance programs of the NSA and its even more effective cousin in the U.K., the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the human drama of the whistleblowing experience for both Snowden and the journalists who made his disclosures public. The intriguing cloak-and-dagger beginning—white-lettered email messages typed on a black background and masses of code scrolling their way up the screen—pulls one into the story. Poitras’ voiceover recitation of these and other messages are as far as she intrudes into the narrative, though her participation is absolutely pivotal to the end result.
After following instructions on how to secure her communications, Poitras receives a series of encrypted emails that outline the scope of the information Snowden plans to share with her; each allegation is appended with the assurance, “I can prove this.” She is encouraged to bring Greenwald into her work. Snowden contacted Greenwald first, but refused to proceed when they were unable to communicate securely. Eventually, Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill travel to Hong Kong to meet Snowden and discuss the way they intend to share the information with the public. Her camera focuses on Greenwald as he sets up for the first filmed interview with Snowden in his suite in the Mira Hotel—it’s thrilling to get to know this maverick at the same moment in film time as Poitras and Greenwald do.
Snowden is younger than the reporters expected. He’s good-looking in a geeky kind of way, intelligent, and articulate. He’s realistically paranoid, unplugging his hotel room’s phone because, he reveals, modern phones have a chip that acts as a room bug whether you’re on the phone or not. Most important, he’s principled. He was welcomed into the halls of power with the highest security clearances available in the NSA, and he was horrified by what he saw. He observed the massively invasive nature of programs like PRISM and Tempora that were collecting data from everyone, not just suspected terrorists and, crucially, being run entirely in secret. Remembering the early days of the Internet when young students and university professors from all over the world could freely converse with one another, he is appalled by what this democratic tool has become. He displays a surprising degree of humility, deferring with a touching amount of trust to Greenwald, MacAskill, and Poitras in all things journalistic. He says he wants to reveal his identity early to prevent our personality-driven media from focusing on a manhunt rather than the information he’s disclosing. He knows he will have to give up his home and family, maybe forever, and has done what he can to protect those he loves, though he is distraught about the effect his disappearance will have, especially on his long-time girlfriend. His hope is that his actions will inspire others to come forward.
Poitras puts the story in a brief, but effective context. She takes viewers from the 9/11 attacks through early hearings about NSA abuses, showing archival footage of former NSA intelligence official William Binney revealing in the early 2000s that the organization, through its Stellar Wind program, was spying on American citizens illegally. Importantly, Binney, a double-amputee, remembers FBI agents storming into his home with guns drawn: “I don’t know why.” Then Snowden explains the spying capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ programs in a fairly easy-to-follow way. These explanations may no longer be necessary for most viewers of crime TV dramas, as CCTV is ubiquitous in British programs and real-time video capture from cellphones was part of a storyline in the Nov. 9, 2014, episode of CSI; nonetheless, it’s helpful to know that the metadata that we are always assured protects our identities has been jettisoned in favor of personally identifiable data collected on a routine, daily basis.
Snowden’s caution—he admonishes Greenwald for having too short a password for his computer and Poitras for leaving an SD card in her computer drive for several days—doesn’t seem far-fetched in this context and once his revelations become public in The Guardian and are picked up by media around the world. As Snowden watches Greenwald being interviewed on CNN, his concern for his own safety and the sheer magnitude of what he’s done reflect on his pensive, worried face. Poitras is followed in Hong Kong, causing her to cancel plans to do additional filming and return to Berlin, and Snowden is whisked from his warren at the hotel to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Hong Kong, then to a safe house, and finally to Russia with the help of WikiLeaks.
Following this rapid-fire series of events, the authorities start to get their wits about them. Greenwald testifies in his adopted country of Brazil about U.S. spying in that country; Greenwald’s partner is detained for nine harrowing hours at Heathrow Airport. Snowden is charged in the United States with “willful communication of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person” under the Espionage Act of 1917; President Obama says Snowden should return to the United States where he will be treated with all the rights and privileges to which he’s entitled in the U.S. justice system. We are then treated to a meeting of ACLU lawyers and others looking into Snowden’s legal defense who say that choosing to charge Snowden under this 100-year-old law enacted during time of war allows the government so much discretion that they would not be able to mount an effective defense.
The film’s cumulative effect is deeply discouraging. High-level government officials, including then NSA Director Keith Alexander, are shown apparently lying to Congress. Big-name electronic communications companies like Google, Yahoo, and Verizon are revealed to have provided, either voluntarily or through some form of coercion, whatever the NSA has asked for. The sheer numbers are almost too large to comprehend: 1.2 million Americans on a security watch list, 200 million text messages captured per day, thousands of terabytes of data captured and available for mining now or in the future.
Nonetheless, Poitras is a true believer who knows how to encourage audiences that even this seemingly insatiable machine of high-level control can be fought. A nighttime shot of Snowden in his new home in Russia reveals that the girlfriend he clearly loves very much has joined him in exile. Further, Snowden learns from Greenwald that someone else has taken the big risk to come forward. Together in another hotel room, the two talk and write down messages. Poitras tantalizingly films brief glimpses of the sheets of paper. Nothing is explicit except a diagram that shows boxes and arrows that point to a final box around the acronym “POTUS.” Both Greenwald and Snowden smile—courage inspired, mission accomplished.
Trailer for Citizenfour on TrailerAddict
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Director/Co-screenwriter: Tobe Hooper
Few film titles have ever reaped such totemic power or attention-getting frisson as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. With bold, tabloid headline-style of hype and impact, such a title remained an easy reference point for both horror fans and haters for years after the film’s release in 1974. Every syllable seemed to usher in the age of depraved gore cinema, the quintessence of the slasher film, bathing perverts of all stripes in a sea of vicarious nastiness. Co-star Gunnar Hansen recalled Johnny Carson deriding the film’s very existence. Censorship troubles were universal. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was banned three times in Britain, wasn’t released in Australia until nearly ten years had passed, and remained verboten in places like Germany and Finland for decades. You can’t buy that sort of credibility as a horror filmmaker. This was the perfect product for the time of the Video Nasty as they were called in Britain, as films that had once been limited to select cinemas suddenly could be brought right into your living room via VHS. And yet, in some ways Tobe Hooper’s debut feature film was mild even for 1974. His work offered barely any on-screen bloodletting or dismemberment, and even had a pretty low body count: only three murders are committed in the course of the film. In spite of the title, the only time we actually see a chainsaw come in contact with the human body is when a killer drops it on his own leg. Compared to what guys like Lucio Fulci, Adrian Hoven, and even Ken Russell had done already, Hooper’s violence was clean and restrained. Indeed, Hooper had wanted to make a “PG” horror film, with the low budget forbidding gore spectacle anyway.
So, were those politicians, protectors of public morals and censors merely responding to that potent title? Yes and no. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre still packs an unholy wallop for its intensity as well as the potency of its suggestion, the force with which it invokes horror as a primal experience rather than a metaphoric one, an engulfing plunge from mundanity into nightmarish antiverse. In this regard, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might well have been the truly definitive modern horror film, the culmination itself of a movement started by Psycho (1960) now finding crystallisation, predating Halloween (1978) and accompanying Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) in defining the traits of the slasher film. A rampaging, all-too-corporeal homicidal maniac rather than a supernatural ghoul, with a mask and a memorable nickname. Young people as protagonists, vulnerable out of their urban enclaves, rendered both as identification figures for the generally, equally young audience, and also as deliberate victim-ciphers. A powerhouse approach to narrative after a deceptively calm start. The absence of any traditional heroic figure, substituted by the survival instinct of a single, helpless woman. Beyond specific impact on the genre, there is, indeed, the concept of film as total plunge into experiential spectacle here – thus, ironically, helping invent the ideal of the contemporary blockbuster in the most unlikely context.
The film’s slow passage from reviled underground myth to commonly acknowledged classic available for sale in your suburban DVD store was unlikely. Like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead six years earlier, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was pieced together by a hardy team of regional filmmakers, even further afield in the American showbiz universe, and yet the peculiarly egalitarian appeal of their product, plus the distribution muscle of a Mafia-connected guy enriched by receipts from Deep Throat (1972), let their product be sold internationally in the greatly changed movie universe of the 1970s. The gruelling, low-budget shoot and its circumstances were written into the film’s eventual texture, infusing it with an air of heat-frazzled, sweat-sodden hysteria, physical strain, and simmering aggression. The hostility the film received as a product beyond the pale ironically echoed the film’s thesis of economic disadvantage driving people to extreme acts and perversities. Hooper and Henkel’s debut work had been a film about life in a hippie commune, Eggshells (1969), Following the killer yokels of Easy Rider (1969) and Deliverance (1972), moreover, Massacre exploited a similar fear of social atomisation, a modern landscape breaking into obliquely composed camps but arranged along roughly similar fault lines – urban/technological/liberated versus rural/labouring/traditional. What had been funny and pathetic in John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941), with its gap-toothed sons of the soil acting like Barbary apes, had become a source of anxiety, the devolution of humankind in the midst of a nation that prided itself on progress turned heart of darkness.
Hooper’s inspiration, which reputedly struck in a hardware store, turned the implements of proletarian labouring into murder devices, also mixed in impudent reflections and inspired twists on the native culture Hooper had grown up with: cattle, cottage foodstuff industries, Texas barbecue, folk art, and the ethic of freedom and clannish self-reliance. The film’s most clearly defined characters, Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin Hardesty (Paul A. Partain), have roots in precisely the rural area where they find their special Hades, rather than total outsiders, and the plot is motivated by little more than their attempts to revisit those roots on a Sunday drive with their cool pals from town, drawn out by news that a remote rural graveyard where the Hardestys’ grandfather is buried has been desecrated. Hooper’s disquieting early images offer flash bulbs briefly illuminating shrivelled corpses, giving way then to the grotesque, starkly artistic image of a corpse tethered to the top of a gravestone, with another’s severed head in his lap.
The theme of morbid artistry offered as a bleak confirmation of a remnant expressive intent in the Sawyer clan even as they seem to indulge the most depraved outlets for it percolates with strange power throughout The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The Sawyers are not, unlike Jason Voorhees in the early Friday the 13th movies, mere bestial morons, or emblems of evil like Michael Myers, but people who clearly retain identities and even a type of ethic, but whose complete rejection of their worth by the values of their society has inspired a similar, complete rejection. By contrast, in spite of their light veneer of countercultural identity, the interloping young people around Sally and Franklin, Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn), seem hopelessly bland and insulated.
The quintet of youths in their Volkswagen van, iconic vehicle of hippie adventuring, traverse the Texan landscape on a stinking hot afternoon and find their attempts to live up to the On The Road creed immediately turns into disturbing self-satire, as they pick up a weird, dim-witted Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), near a slaughterhouse. The Hitchhiker quickly bemuses and appals the youths as he slices open his own hand with Franklin’s pocket knife, takes a polaroid photo of Franklin he doesn’t want to pay for, sets fire to the photo in a kind of folk magic ritual, and finally loses his temper and slices Franklin’s arm with his own straight-razor. He’s chased out of the van and he runs alongside, kicking the vehicle and smearing his own blood on the side as if trying to mark a hex. The slaughterhouse, hub of the local economy, repels Pam, but the old method of killing the cattle, with a hammer blow to the head, morbidly fascinates Franklin and the Hitchhiker, who explains that it was “better” than air guns because it employed more people.
The gritty, visceral contact with harsh facts of life celebrated by decades of westerns is farcically inverted throughout Massacre; it’s a film for the oncoming age in modern western society when nobody who counts works with their hands, or, indeed, does anything real. And yet corporeal reality actively afflicts the characters. The heat. Hunger. Fuel. The youths are first introduced to the audience when wheelchair-dependant Franklin has to take a stop to pee, necessitating a laborious process of Kirk laying down boards for him to descend in his chair and pee in a can. A passing cattle truck sprays Kirk with dirt and sends Franklin tumbling down a hill, the first in a mounting litany of exhausting and then cruel attacks on the physical stamina of these people. Franklin’s trials continue as he fights to enter his old family home, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence’s excruciating metaphor for broken-down modern humanity in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, also a man in a wheelchair, whilst his memorable angry, bratty meltdown, “If I have any more fun today I don’t think I can take it!”, becomes the film’s sarcastic motto.
One of Hooper and co-screenwriter Kim Henkel’s most cunning touches in this regard was to make their characters human to the edge of insufferable: aggravation slowly mounts as the whiny, needy Franklin feels no need to play stoic, Pam prefers reading horoscopes to actuality, Jerry slowly detaches irritably from his companions, and Sally becomes increasingly exasperated with her brother’s wheedling. Except for the Hitchhiker’s wild behaviour, it would just be a rotten outing. Sally and Franklin’s old family house, when they find it, is infested with insects and slowly disintegrating: clearly their family abandoned it as rural prosperity waned. Franklin has no survival capacity, and is fused in a mix of affection and frustration to Sally, whose possible romance with Jerry is strained and thwarted by sibling responsibilities. Franklin can barely even get into his old family home, and ruptures in childish tantrums as he’s left behind his thoughtlessly mobile companions. Immobility was, by the cold standards of ancient hunter-gatherer societies and the colonising wave of Europeans both, death, and the threat of being stuck afflicts both Franklin in particular and the quintet generally: worry about running out of petrol. Hints here of the social Darwinism that flowed through the writings of signal western writers like Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Edna Ferber. The youths visit a small gas station close to the old family house, where the owner (Jim Siedow, billed only as playing “Old Man”) sells them barbecue but can’t give them fuel.
When Kirk and Pam try to salvage their day by going to the mythical spot of childhood adventure Franklin remembers, a swimming hole, they are instead distracted by a distant puttering motor: Kirk is inspired to track down the owner and buy some petrol. They soon find the motor is a generator, providing power for a nearby farm house. Kirk ventures inside, searching for an owner, only for a large man, masked and clad in a butcher’s smock, to emerge from a back room and smack him over the head with a hammer. Kirk collapses and fits like a dying, damaged animal on the floor, before the assailant whacks him again, pulls him inside, and slams shut a sliding steel door. Pam, outside, waits and then ventures in after him, only to stumble into another room littered with moulted poultry feathers – from a chicken that’s kept, obscenely, in a bird cage – and pieces of human bone. The hulking man reappears and grabs Pam and takes her into the back room, which proves to be a makeshift slaughterhouse in itself, and hangs her on a meat hook, to dangle in agony whilst he fires up and chainsaw and starts to carve up Kirk’s body like a steer carcass. Such is our introduction to Leatherface (Hansen), the youngest and weirdest of the three Sawyer brothers, slaughterman and butcher whose livestock is you.
Hooper’s brutally mordant sense of humour is exposed more clearly amidst the carefully delayed eruption of horror, as the inevitable punch-line to the themes set up earlier arrives: humans turned into food by a clan that can’t get work providing food by other means, such as they did. Later, when Jerry comes in search of his friends and penetrates the slaughter room, he finds Pam locked in a meat freezer still alive, before Leatherface again dashes in and bashes him to death. One quality that gives the violence in Massacre a rare potency by comparison to more flashily shot horror deaths is the complete absence of artifice and indeed the speed of the killings. One moment there are characters, the next, lumps of dead meat. Leatherface himself, although a figure of dread of a brand never quite put on screen before, has a hapless, almost childish quality to him, stomping about in fretful anxiety after his home has been repeatedly invaded by quickly swatted pests. Like Franklin, he’s the family member who’s “special,” with a sibling charged with his care: the Old Man slaps the Hitchhiker for leaving Leatherface alone like they’re lost siblings of Moe and Curly Joe De Rita. The mirroring of the Hardestys and the Sawyers is smartly asymmetrical: the cannibal clan are old-fashioned insofar as they include members of more than one generation and live by attendant retrograde values, whereas the two Hardestys have lost roots and gained generational loyalties; and yet family still ties them together just as doggedly.
One of the qualities that makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seem such a pivotal moment in the genre cinema is its realism – not realism in the sense of being strictly believable, for there’s still those strong undercurrents of absurdism, surrealism, and black humour throughout – but realism in the way it posits its sense of horror in worldly terms. No supernatural forces are evinced here; the force of the irrational that breaks down the fabric of the presumed is here rather partly mental, partly social. The fear here is generated by the kinds of menaces newspapers and TV news reports propagated and indeed which lots of people, particularly women, faced and do face every day. Plenty of other horror films had been set in the present day, amidst the trappings and social, technological, and psychological givens of the commonplace in modern western society, and quite a few had engaged the social scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre however looks like a hatchling that had not quite escaped the egg before, but was now all too free. Massacre was released amidst a handful of works that set off another great shift in the preoccupations and popularity of horror films, including See No Evil (1971), Last House on the Left (1972), The Exorcist (1973), The Wicker Man (1973), and Black Christmas. Although the supernatural figures in some of these, and would remain a fixture in the genre, tonally all had moved into the utterly present-tense, leaving behind the traditions of Gothic horror in all but some remnant style.
Much like Deliverance again, Massacre tackles a common concern of the time, the worry of the lack of authenticity in the face of an increasingly coddling and insulated society, only for the shock of immersion in true primal tests, represented both by the landscape and by humans who have somehow devolved, to prove overwhelming. Where John Boorman and James Dickey had implicitly constructed a parable about changing modes of manhood in Deliverance, Hooper and Henkel went a step further in essentially erasing a masculine hero figure and instead putting the plight of the victimised woman at the centre. The undercurrent of glum misogyny starting to infiltrate some parts of the horror genre arose from the new room to depict hitherto forbidden fantasies, soon to bloom in the overt invitations to ogle and then sublimate in watching the butchery of young women offered in many slasher films. There is a touch of that predicted here as Hopper lets the audience have a good eyeful of McMinn’s lovely back and butt in short-shorts moments before she’s hung up on a meat hook. There is also, however, a certain sly and bitter cinematic wit apparent there, as well as a brutal simplicity that cuts through that kind of blather; Hooper skirts outright gore with clever effect, as the viewer knows implicitly that when Leatherface hangs Pam up, the viewer knows she’s quite skewered, not dangling from clothing, with repulsive but frank effect. Mostly the film is strikingly non-exploitative although it deals with the relentless brutalisation of Sally: indeed, Hooper’s intent seems to have been mostly push into a realm beyond sexuality to depict the Freudian death-romance at an extreme.
Of course, the horror film is a genre that is predicated around exploiting the anxieties of its audience, a risky endeavour not everyone wants to cede power to, and one often worked in balance with the time-honoured purpose of the campfire tale, which was to literally keep the kids close to the campfire and not wander off into the dangerous dark. The shift in genre obsession around this time clearly invoked the shifts in society where young women were officially “liberated” and now had to face a sink-or-swim world that was once a manly preserve. The explosive popularity of the slasher film, with its diptych of sex-as-death and final girl’s survival battle, was precisely attuned to this zeitgeist. Massacre’s main contribution to this was the idea of making the victim protagonist, purely by dint of her efforts to survive. For their part, Hooper and Henkel were satirising and transmuting the social tension they were familiar with from their recent days in the Texas college counterculture, and following Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick’s sublimation of the era’s churning tensions and violent backdrops into cinematic snarls.
Hooper and Henkel applied their grounded experience to the mythology that had sprung up around that most infamous, specifically American of killers, Ed Gein, the Wisconsin Ghoul whose escapades with grave robbing, necrophilia, taxidermy, and cannibalism had also inspired Psycho and also 1974’s much less-known, but in many ways equally interesting, docudrama-like Deranged. Why was Gein’s legend such perfect fare for filmmakers? The oppositions it invokes – dank insanity and Oedipal dissolution amidst settings redolent of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting – are undoubtedly powerful, the spectacle of taciturn, stoic self-reliance championed in the pioneer ideal turned septic, whilst the Sawyers take the “don’t tread on me” independent creed to its ultimate extreme. Some critics have noted the implicit similarity of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, one of the names of Natty Bumppo the Hawkeyed hunter, to Leatherface, the annihilator who’s run out of frontiers and been forced into regression rather than movement. Like the classic western hero, strangely, the Sawyers are sexless. Even Sally’s hapless, pleading offer to “do anything you want” is met with sneering disinterest by the brothers, who can only plan to kill her. Unlike the eventual codification of the slasher killer, though, they’re not punishing transgressions, but the mere existence of the kind of fecundity they’re cut off from.
Sally and Franklin’s doomed attempt to track down their friends as night falls is both the real start of the film, in a way, and also apogee and climax of the everyday aggravation they suffer through, as Franklin’s whininess and Sally’s increasing irritation are pushed to extremes in the tense situation, with Franklin’s caution ironically proving wise. Sally endeavours to push Franklin through the woods, only for Leatherface to spring out of the dark and kill Franklin by hacking him to pieces, sending Sally scurrying off into the dark in terror. Sally’s desperate attempts to survive take up the remainder of Massacre, and yet the structure inverts as Sally becomes the outsider and the dynamics of the Sawyer family (not actually named as such until Hooper’s oddball 1986 sequel) sweep to the fore.
The last third of the film is indeed, if not actually one sequence, then certainly can be described as a single, extended set-piece, as Sally flees Leatherface through the woods, which conspire as much against would-be killer as well as prey, until Sally reaches the shelter of the gas station, the threat seeming to halt at the threshold of the Old Man’s door just like the Headless Horseman is supposed to stop at the bridge in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” But where Ichabod Crane found that the Horseman could still strike from a distance, Sally quickly finds her sanctuary illusory, signalled in a weird visual discursion to study the paraphernalia of the Old Man’s barbecuing business, which conceals infinite cynicism and degeneracy in the guise of good ole home cooking. The young siblings resentful of the Old Man’s standing apart from the actual business of killing, in spite of his evident sadism displayed when he enjoys poking the bound and trussed Sally, and dismiss him as “a cook” whilst they do all the work. And yet the Old Man keeps his brothers in line with a stick.
Sally thus reaches the ninth circle of hell in a calculated travesty of down-home family values, tied to a chair made out of human bones at a clan dinner where the three brother alternate sarcastic hospitality with mockery and jeering in a symphony of cruelty. Hooper’s filmmaking evolves with his subject, lucid, calm, and distant at the outset, then pushing increasingly close and invasive, with insinuating tracking shots and long zoom shots, alternating with low angles that subtly magnify the gestures of his actors. At last, in these climactic scenes, the technique erupts in gruelling close-ups of the cast’s faces, pushing in to Burns’ eyes in ultra-close shots, as the visual language of the film closely matches the sensation of incipient madness and the ultimate descent into irrationality, at the outermost limits of narrative containment. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Massacre lies in how the film offers glimpses of extreme and utterly grotesque depravity, and yet somehow manages to invest it with a sense of humour so dark it’s subterranean, finding existentially pitiless humour in the sight of the Sawyer’s Grandpa (John Dugan), a leathery old husk brought down to join in the family festivities, greedily and gleefully sucking blood from Sally’s finger, and the yowls of the family in response to her waking screams.
The careful travesty of family rituals, inspired by Gein’s craziest ideas but taken a step further, evinced around the house, likewise radiate a twisted sense of comic commentary – chairs made of bones and cured limbs; Grandpa set up in his attic abode with a corpse filling in for grandmother, and dog skeleton wrapped in a fur propped up for company; and a dinner table laden with skulls under a light shaded by a human face. What is ultimately so beggaring about the world the Sawyers have built around themselves lies in this complete subversion of the excised place of death in modern suburbanised society. As repellent as Hooper makes them, therefore, nonetheless they stand for a powerful notion taken to a reductio ad absurdum, whilst the film’s sense of black humour feeds rather than retards the spiralling sense of madness and suffering. The Sawyers eventually, happily decide the honour of butchering Sally should go to Grandpa, whose past as slaughterman is legendary: “Old Grandpa’s the best killer there ever was,” Old Man tells Sally by way of trying to reassure her that her end will be merciful, “He did sixty in five minutes once – they say he could’ve done more if the hook and pull gangs coulda gotten the beeves outta the way faster.”
But Grandpa can’t even hold the hammer, and keeps dropping it with dull, gut-wrenching thuds into the metal pan the Hitchhiker tries to hold Sally over. This resort to a bizarre variety of sentiment on the part of the Sawyers proves their undoing, as it gives Sally the chance, in her hysterical will to survive, to throw off the Hitchhiker and make a break, crashing through a window for the second time and plunging into disorientating daylight. The very finale of Massacre, much like the earlier eruptions of action, is startling for its speed and compressed, wild energy, as Sally tries to flee from her tormentors although she’s cut and bruised and can barely walk, the Hitchhiker crazedly slashing at Sally with his razor as he catches her, but he’s taken a step too far, and the Sawyers’ pursuit of Sally retains a farcical edge in spite of the pulse-pounding intensity of the sequence.
The degree to which the youths were out of their depth the moment they turned off the main road, so the Sawyers find themselves thwarted as they chase their recalcitrant prey out onto the highway that passes their little kingdom. Within moments the Hitchhiker is crushed by a cattle truck, a deus ex machina loaded with multiple ironies, emblem of the bigger, mechanised food industry that displace them, driven by a black man (Ed Guinn) whose bulk and invocations of hearty fertility – his truck is named “Black Maria” – instantly mocks and subverts the rotten presumptions of the film’s arch reduction of white conservative self-interest. The driver saves Sally’s life again, and his own, by knocking Leatherface down with a wrench thrown in his face, causing Leatherface to fall down and be sliced by his own petard, before both run for dear life. Sally just manages to scramble into the back of a passing pick-up truck, leaving behind Leatherface on the road, still poised in a strange zone between primal terror and peevishly frustrated child.
Sally’s giddy, maniacal laughter of triumph and relief as Leatherface disappears in the distance is definitely one of the great moments in cinema, as is the last image of Leatherface spinning in maniacal anger with his weapon in the dawn light: the dance of death is over, the last survivor escaped alone to tell thee, echoing another great American art work about hunting and death, “Moby-Dick”. Like The Wicker Man, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ends at dawn with its emblem of horror silhouetted against the rising sun. The final seconds belong to Leatherface, dancing as if engaging in pagan rite of the dawn stumbled of an atavistic time warp, letting his chainsaw scream in fury for him like the howl of the repressed, oppressed subconscious that might have been thwarted but will never be erased.
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Director: Roger Corman
By Roderick Heath
When you want to talk about Roger Corman, you have to take into account that there is at least three of him. The most famous is the low-budget film director and producer whose name became a by-word for cheap and tacky movies, building small empires from the stray audiences and industrial detritus of the movie business, and whose career has stretched from providing screen filler for drive-ins to VHS shelves to VOD. The second, the won who received a special Oscar, fostered the careers of dozens upon dozens of actors and filmmakers, some of whom went on to have major Hollywood careers, by giving them jobs in his low-rent domains, trusting young on-the-make talent in the same way that he, lucky in his time, got unexpected breaks and became a film director before he was 30.
The third Roger Corman is perhaps the most controversial, insofar as many deny he exists, and yet has been acknowledged elsewhere ever since Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival: the important American filmmaker. Corman’s ingenious touch and wily acumen as a director, perpetually motivated by the most nakedly mercenary wonts and yet somehow always characterful and idiosyncratic, had been apparent since his early work like The Day the World Ended (1956), and his first work in the horror genre, if a rather jokey one, The Undead (1957). Those films were made at a time when Corman’s place on the lowest rung of Hollywood belied his status as one of the few filmmakers in town tackling the psychic underside of modernity via perfervid little fantasias designed to tap the tastes and wallets of young audiences. This he essayed through a brand of cinema that seemed, through its very sparse and straitened creativity, to approximate the mind-space of Elizabethan theatre: even something as magnificently absurd as The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958) has the kind of delightful quality to it that suggests a play put on by talented kids after raiding the old chests laden with forgotten potential props in the attic. Usually working with screenwriters Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna, Corman’s films, for all their diverting lacks in production values, often had rich conceptual cleverness and an impudent take on storytelling niceties that often legitimately strayed into the territory of the post-modern. Just as a crudely lettered sign could fill in for a forest in Shakespeare’s day, a man in a tatty monster suit could be the hinge for Corman’s films to become little fugues and bonsai myths.
In 1960, Corman made a move up-market. American Releasing Corporation, the company run by B-movie specialists James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, had morphed into American International Pictures, thanks in part to Corman’s gift for penny-pinching and money-spinning, and their seizure of the nascent youth market. Corman sold them on the idea of making a more ambitious type of product to what they had so far done: to make a relatively classy horror movie in colour, to try and reach the same market Hammer Studios had recently uncovered. Needing a subject to go up against Hammer’s repertoire of Gothic literary sources, Corman chose as a subject a specifically American source of horror fare, one that was also, conveniently, in the public domain: Edgar Allan Poe. The first film he adapted from Poe, House of Usher, proved such a hit that AIP immediately became a dominant force in the new, wide-open post-studio era of exploitation cinema, and Corman made a slew of Poe adaptations in the next four years: Pit and the Pendulum and Premature Burial (both 1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (both 1963), and The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964), as well as two films that fit thematically if not pedantically into the series, the famously, hastily assembled The Terror, and The Haunted Palace (both 1963), named for a Poe poem but actually the first film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story.
Corman turned from his usual writing team and commissioned a screenplay for House of Usher from well-regarded sci-fi writer Richard Matheson. Matheson was contributing scripts to Rod Serling’s epochal TV show “The Twilight Zone” at the time, and Corman also used scripts by another of the show’s writers, Charles Beaumont, for the Poe series. But the true key to the success of the series was gained when Corman obtained the services of Vincent Price, a stage and Hollywood actor who had a frustrating career in movies for fifteen years, usually playing smarmy upper-crust playboys or menacing Byronic types, until House of Wax (1953), one of the few major American horror films of the decade, had turned him at last into a niche star. Price started drifting towards becoming a full-time horror actor as the decade wore on but many of the films didn’t know what to do with him, for instance The Fly (1958) which cast him as straight man: Corman however offered him roles that stretched his gifts and played on his capacity to shift from avuncular to menacing on the drop of a hat, and offer facially and vocally expressive performances influenced by theatrical melodrama perfectly attuned to the stylised, expressionistic needs of Gothic horror. Price starred in all of the Poe films except for Premature Burial, which featured Ray Milland, lending his inimitably over-large style in cunningly pitched variations that confirmed his second career as a cult figure. In Pit and the Pendulum, the second of Corman’s Poe films, Price plays two parts which merge towards the end, conjoining those two poles of his personality.
Pit and the Pendulum opens with a desolate and eerie vista traversed by a lonely coach, setting the film’s toey, tense mood in motion. Poe’s original story, one of the most brilliant examples of the writer’s gift for composing what seem like remembered nightmares recorded in lucid detail, was a tale of sadistic suffering anticipatory of Kafka and Orwell, set in a Spain where the terror of Inquisition becomes a cosmic force, and the hero is only rescued in the last few sentences by an avenging army. Corman’s budget couldn’t cope with that, so he and Matheson stuck close to the template that had worked on House of Usher, sticking with the Spanish setting and theme of the Inquisition but shifting the location to a remote castle and revisiting the gambit of an outsider, this case John Kerr’s invasive Englishman Francis Barnard, entering a family house dominated by an intense and morbid air of familial guilt. Worked into the story is a greatest hits-like collection of Poe themes like burial alive, personality possession, erotically-tinged guilt and melancholic obsession. Francis comes to Spain in search of facts about a woman, in this case his sister Elizabeth, who had married Spanish nobleman Nicholas Medina (Price), but has recently died in mysterious circumstances.
Arriving on the blasted, Salvador Dali-esque shoreline where Medina’s castle teeters on the edge of a sonorously rolling sea, Francis bangs on the door and demands admittance with a haughty, bullish determination to learn why his sister died. He soon finds himself up against a thicket of confused explanations, with the mood of distrust heightened by Nicholas’ bleary sense of responsibility, and the sketchy details of Elizabeth’s demise which prove to have been partly covered up. Soon Francis pries from Nicholas, his sister Catherine (Luana Anders), and family physician Doctor Leon (Antony Carbone) the truth as they know it, that Elizabeth died from a heart attack, caused by her accidentally sealing herself into an iron maiden in the torture chamber conveniently located in the castle’s basement, which morbid allure had drawn her to: the chamber had been constructed by Nicholas’ father Sebastian, an infamous torture artist employed by the Inquisition.
Unlike the mostly mood-driven House of Usher, however, Pit and the Pendulum develops an inwardly spiralling mystery with the classic Gaslight (1940) theme of machinations to drive a person mad for worldly gain. The characters try to solve strange portents infesting the castle, including signs that Elizabeth may well have risen from the grave, a possibility that touches Nicholas deeply. The trauma behind Nicholas’ quivering anxiety and specific fear of burial alive is rooted in an anecdote Catherine has to relay to Francis: Nicholas secretly witnessed Sebastian (also played by Price in flashback) luring their mother (Mary Menzies) and her lover, his brother Bartoleme (Charles Victor) into his torture chamber, where he bashed Bartoleme’s head in and tortured their mother before walling her up alive. Although Leon assures them that Elizabeth was quite dead, the mysterious sounds of her beloved harpsichord being played in the night, a whispering voice shocking the maid Maria (Lynette Bernay) whilst cleaning Elizabeth’s room, and Francis’ discovery of a network of secret passages, begin to suggest the true situation is stranger. Francis eventually theorises that Nicholas is creating the disturbances himself, because he’s mentally unbalanced and suffering dissociative fits. Acting on the possibility that Nicholas’ own belief that Elizabeth might still be alive or at least to satisfy Nicholas’ obsessive anxiety, the men break their way into the sealed crypt below to investigate. In her coffin, they find a gnarled and twisted body that does indeed seem to have died in screaming agony whilst sealed in alive.
The blend of firmly geographical realism with an undertow of obsessively morbid style that steadily eats into the texture of the film until it breaks out in hallucinogenic blooms, exemplified by Pit and the Pendulum, became Corman’s specific touch. Amongst Corman’s Poe films, this one had probably the most evident, immediate impact on some of Corman’s rivals, particularly Italian brethren including Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, from whom he in turn stole Steele: Freda remixed the plot of Pit and the Pendulum for L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hichcock (1962). As Paul Leni and Tod Browning had done years before, Bava would accomplish so masterfully on Operazione Paura (1966) and John Carpenter would manage on Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), Corman transforms environment and the absence of people and action into a dramatic element key for creating tension and mystery, as cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s camera restlessly probes the Medina castle in the night, the camera suggesting a lurking intelligence in spite of the absence of human presences, long before the eerie sounds of Elisabeth’s harpsichord begin to echo about the castle.
Author Stephen King has said the moment of the discovery of Elizabeth’s entombed body marked the start of a trend towards ever-more-intense shock-effect horror in the genre, and it is arguable that the film provides the bridge between the lip-smacking sadism of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and the eventual sub-genre based around torture as source of horror that flowered regrettably in the last decade or so. Where Hammer had effectively drenched its horror films with Technicolor to paint them in illustrative verve that made them stand out at a time when the genre was usually too cheap to afford colour or still essaying mood through Expressionist lighting, Corman was the first filmmaker since Michael Curtiz’s work with two-colour Technicolor in the early ‘30s to really seize on the format as an expressive tool, carefully employing costuming and décor in commentary. In spite of the cramped budgets, Corman’s eye for talent snared him two collaborators with years of experience in studio cinema, Crosby and art director Daniel Haller. The palette they created for Pit and the Pendulum grips the actors in a world of musty browns and greys, the dust and dirt of the grave infesting the frames, except for carefully coordinated splashes of colour.
Corman was fond of blurring the boundaries between distant past and future, and even dramatized the idea in Teenage Caveman (1958), as time eats itself, ouroboros-like. Even the land around the castle has been desiccated as thoroughly as by nuclear fallout, one way in which Corman manages to link the threat of desolation he had explored with real fascination in his scifi, with its nuclear age angst, with Poe’s timeless psychological realm. In a similar way, Les Baxter’s scoring, the most inventive of the composer’s work on the Poe series, utilises electronic sounds and strange, almost musique concrete effects throughout, throbbing and droning in weird, echoic manner, recalling the score of Forbidden Planet (1956) but with futurism replaced by atavistic dread. When Steele’s Elizabath finally appears, rising like a wraith from the shadows, she is nonetheless wrapped in brilliant white with blood-stained fingers, a perverse angel crawling her way out of the fetid psychological trap her husband’s obsessions inadvertently forced on her and which she has now turned into a weapon. Corman would get to work out this concept most fully in the colour codings of The Masque of the Red Death, where he gained Nicholas Roeg as a collaborator. It’s hard not to read Corman’s background as a trained engineer – a career he abandoned after two weeks – in the precision of his use of space and elements, as well as the on-time, on-budget ethic he stuck to as a filmmaker.
The Poe series tends to take pre-eminence in serious appraisals of Corman’s oeuvre, understandable considering their higher budgets and concomitant, relative smoothness and vivacity, although they do lack to a certain extent the antic humour, self-reference and self-satire that define so many of Corman’s cheaper early films, which shone out particularly bright in the knowing burlesques on Poverty Row enterprise and minor entrepreneurial artistry in A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Little Shop of Horrors, the multi-genre send-up in Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), and his mini-epic of meta-humour, Rock All Night (1957). But the bare-boned, apocalyptic morality plays he was also good at – The Day the World Ended, Gunslinger (1956), The Last Woman on Earth (1961), The Intruder (aka Shame, 1962) – provided a basis for the conceptually hermetic, sparsely populated, intensely oneiric worlds he conjures in the Poe films. One of the most interesting aspects of Corman’s works lay in how, even in his cheapest films (indeed, sometimes particularly there), he was one of the few directors of his era who incorporated visual art as both an element in the films and as stylistic guide, in a fashion similar to how other filmmakers were leaning on Saul Bass to inject their work with the same veneer of stark, modernist quintessence. The pretences to classical integrity in the Poe series stymied his playfully deconstructive instincts his early films often displayed, but Corman compensated by turning the films in referential pieces, quoting Poe on screen during the films to provide literary bookends to his visualisations. The opening and closing credits depict seething colours, a simple effect rendered with paint running in oil, making everything in between some like the feverish product of a mad artist. Artworks that seem to contain the remnant personalities of their subjects becomes a recurring motif in Corman’s films, here manifesting first when Nicholas shows Francis portraits of his father and of Elizabeth, rendered in anachronistic styles, and later, in the waking-nightmare finale, ghoulishly stylised paintings of hooded monks glaring down at the tortured hero, turned into twisted, elongated icons with a faint of echo of Eisenstein’s perversion of medieval Russians into human illustrations in Ivan the Terrible (1945-57), breaking down the barriers between set, décor, costuming, and camera effect. Reality starts to melt on the edge of mortality as the paintings are doubly distorted by lens effects and screen-flooding colours.
Corman’s later, brief shift into semi-experimental, psychedelic film with The Trip (1967) notably followed on from both the technique and themes he was exploring here and elsewhere in the series, presenting the mind unfettered experiencing past, present, and dream-state in a melange. Moreover, a theme that threads through much of Corman’s oeuvre, a portrait of the attempt to create as a process involving eternal frustrations and cruelty to both self and others, blithely portrayed in stuff like Rock All Night, A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, but more seriously engaged repeatedly in the Poe films, The Trip, and elsewhere, here crystallises as Nicholas laments his incapacity to transcend through art in his attempts to capture Elizabeth’s face on canvas, and so, again like many of Corman’s antiheroes, recreates himself to cope. Corman’s noted admiration of Ingmar Bergman, again expressed more completely in Masque of the Red Death, feels most acute in this theme with similarly obsessed the Swedish master, if essayed in far more high-falutin’ ways. True to the intensely psychological understanding Corman and Matheson both shared in relation to Poe’s tales, they relentlessly link the dank, mysterious abodes beneath the castle with the fetid areas of the mind, the castle a mimetic map of that mind, and signal that in spite of Nicholas’ surface vulnerability he maintains a dangerous and obsessive link with his father’s world. When Francis first enters the dungeon, Nicholas appears suddenly from a closed door – a trick Corman repeats when Elisabeth bursts into the film – behind which the sounds of machinery working have startled Francis and Catherine: all Nicholas will say is that “machine needs constant repair.” Why on earth Nicholas needs such a machine we only learn in the climax.
The deliberate, patient, neurotic tempo of Pit and the Pendulum tightens a spring that won’t release until the finale, but punctuated with brief outbursts of hysteria and intensely rhythmic fulcrums, including the sequence where the men break into Elizabeth’s tomb that sees the hacking pickaxes becoming time-keepers counting down to their own entrance into the tomb, and the later scene where Nicholas finds himself exploring hidden passages. He’s drawn on by the siren call of what sounds like his dead wife, the dazed and terrified man becoming steadily more distracted, at first cringing as he touches thick cobwebs and then stumbling through them without noticing. When Nicholas follows this labyrinth to the opened tomb and sees something climbing out of his wife’s coffin, Corman doesn’t shift the beat, but watches just as calmly as Nicholas retreats in panicky fear and finally collapses until Steele’s Elizabeth suddenly erupts from the shadows screaming his name, turning her husband, or her prey, into a scurrying animal and then catatonic cuckold. Nicholas survives however by going constructively mad, as it becomes clear that Leon and Elizabeth are lovers who have plotted to destroy Nicholas by driving him mad. Nicholas then arises, his own personality subsumed by his murderous, tyrannical father, closing the very circle of inevitably inheritance Nicholas had feared but also armouring him against evil.
Price gives a quintessential example of his gift for oversized, expressive style, perhaps indeed one of his most florid, although his showiness, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of grand barnstorming melodrama actors as Tod Slaughter, disguises his skill. Price shifts between personas with consummate ease and provides the film with its dramatic nexus, telegraphing Nicholas’ quivering boy-man fear and anguish striated with fixation, his constant worry that he might inevitably inherit his father’s evil dooming him to just that. Next to him, everyone else except for Steele looks stolid and strained. Kerr, whose big claim to fame prior to this was appearing in Tea and Sympathy (1958), has the relatively thankless job of playing Francis, who mostly comes on as obnoxiously insensitive, but he’s effective enough as sounding board for Price’s spectacke and plays the character with admirable chilliness that makes Francis seem, at least for the first two-thirds of the movie, to be something like its villain, relentlessly pounding on vulnerable and empathetic Nicholas’ fragile nature. Francis proves however to more a hapless interloper, in a vein that renders him intriguingly close in function and identity to the “final girl” as that figure would arrive in the ‘70s horror genre, as he loses all agency and undergoes terrible suffering and has to be saved by a woman and servant: here Corman and Matheson clearly signal something changing in the genre. Anders, who also appeared in Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide the same year, had a kind of raw, slightly uncertain charm that suits her character, who retains innocence amidst the emotional wreckage that is her family legacy and has avoided her brother’s neurosis but certainly feel the weight of experience, staring blankly into her own imagined version of family horror as she narrates it to Francis.
For horror fans the undoubted appeal of Pit and the Pendulum acting-wise lies in seeing Price and Steele together. That promise was partly hampered, as Steele had her speaking voice post-dubbed by another actress, because her regional English accent sounded oddly out place amidst the mid-Atlantic brogues everyone else in the cast adopted to play Spaniards. Nonetheless Steele’s physicality blazes for her few minutes on screen in her first major movie after being promoted to genre stardom by Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), her remarkable face, the very image of the femme fatale capable of shifting between modes of porcelain doll-like beauty and utter evil, leering gleefully over Price’s prone form, sweetly mocking him with the litany of people who have betrayed him or sinned in his immediate life. Gloating pleasure turns abruptly to queasy fear as Nicholas starts laughing back at her, and grasps her as if the most intimate lover’s embrace as Elisabeth squirms fearfully in his arms before gagging her and shutting her in an iron maiden. Transformation via psychotic breakdown unleashes demonic sexuality as Nicholas/Sebastian gives Elisabeth a voracious kiss. This wonderful moment nails down the base erotic element in so much of the horror genre, the alternations of power within sexuality, the broken wall between desire and hatred, as well as the performative skill of the duo.
Nicholas’ insanity next leads him to chase down Leon, who plunges to his death in a secret pit, and so Francis, who stumbles down into the dungeon in search of Nicholas and finds him now entirely subsumed by the personality of Sebastian: Nicholas knocks out Francis and substitutes him for Leon as stand-in for Bartoleme, and subjects him to Sebastian’s ultimate torture machine – the pendulum. Nicholas/Sebastian gloats over his tethered victim before setting the torture machine in motion and memorably welcomes Francis to his zone of nullification of reason, giving it names from a panoply of cultures and describing it as the ultimate metaphor for the state of human kind before setting the gears in laborious motion and the machine begins lowering the blade remorselessly towards Francis’ stomach. Price goes gleefully for the rafters here in one of his bravura shows of theatricality, but both he and the film also, finally reach the point of crisis they’ve been working to with sneaky skill, both filmmakers’ showmanship and torturer’s converging to offer a spectacle of torment that allows perfect summation of both the plot and the obsessions of the characters, from Nicholas’ torment/fascination to Francis’ obsession with knowing the whole truth and being given an intimate lesson in fate.
The final action is entirely riveting, as Catherine and servant Maximillian (Patrick Westwood) break into the chamber: when finally they gain entrance, Maximillian battles Nicholas whilst Catherine tries to halt the pendulum, resulting in Nicholas falling to his death beside Leon and Francis only saved by the thinnest of margins. This is thanks in no small part to Catherine’s pluck and awareness, which up until then have been neglected, another of Corman’s most integral themes. The ending is technically happy as the good guys stumble away unharmed, and yet Corman saves up one of the most coldly ironic final shots in horror film history, as Catherine, Francis, and Maximillian leave the dungeon. “No-one shall enter this room again,” Catherine vows, only for Corman to veer his camera back to the iron maiden from which the gagged Elizabeth stares in silent mortification, doomed to the nastiest possible punishment for her crime. The ritualistic final quote direct from Poe that ends the film ironically fills in a description of the very sound Elizabeth can’t make: the primal scream of purgative fear.
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Director: Gene Fowler Jr
By Roderick Heath
Ladies, has your husband turned into a stranger? Is he withdrawn? Pensive? Acting oddly? Is your bedroom colder than the refrigerator? Does he seem to be hiding a very different face from you? Then you may have to consider he might be an alien imposter.
The science fiction cinema that enjoyed a wave of popularity in the 1950s saw officious optimism and dark introspection jostling in close proximity, constantly battling for psychic supremacy. The broad and obvious association of the atomic age’s terrors with the panoply of giant monsters that stalked across the screen and the intrigued, visionary idealism of potential space travel were accompanied by subtler variations. Starting with Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953), the theme of possession or outright replacement of human beings by aliens became a recurring notion. This theme was quickly reused in a slew of genre films that followed, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Invaders from Mars (1956), War of the Satellites (1957), I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and Village of the Damned (1961). All of these films exploited the fear of a loved-one suddenly turning into a stranger, the everyday and familiar suddenly subverted and turned into masking travesty. What was going on in the popular and artistic psyche at the time to make this a notion powerful enough to serve such repetition? Certainly this fear could cover vast territories in the modern psyche, from the most intimate personal disillusionment to raging schizoid fantasies, all somehow latching onto the new extremities and uprooted mood of the age.
Where the earlier films stopped at the fringe of bedroom, however, I Married a Monster moves right into that realm, a move fraught with peril for filmmakers in those waning days before the age of the contraceptive pill and the sexual revolution blew it all open. The early rumblings of something changing were already echoing through prominent melodramas like those of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Mark Robson, to which I Married a Monster, one of the most genuinely odd and subtext-laden of major ‘50s sci-fi films, feels closely related, whilst also touching on territory Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang had been exploring for decades, the zones of mystery between human beings and the seething psychosexual forces enacted there. I Married a Monster digs incisively into the headspace of its moment of making, delving into questions about that fulcrum period that something like Mad Men tries to examine second-hand: the difficulties and discomforts with prescribed social norms in the time and how it manifested in utterly “normal” settings, and diagnosing fraying social contracts. Director Gene Fowler Jnr broke into momentary genre cinema auteurship with the equally oddball, metaphor-heavy I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), establishing a template of transformative unease and primal fear situated in entirely normal circumstances, symbolised by apparently idyllic Eisenhower-age Midwestern towns. Both films tellingly co-opted the common magazine article ploy of the time in their titles, of breathless confessionals and reports from the dangerous zones of life.
With I Married a Monster, with its script penned by Louis Vittes, who previously penned the more prosaic monster movie Monster from Green Hell (1957), Fowler shifted attention from teenage angst to marital, kicking off with an archetypal collective of male friends gathered for a bucks party at the local country club of another pleasant regional town, with Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon) due to be married the next day. Sourly miserable jokes are thrown about, but Bill sets out to check in with his bride with happy confidence, driving along the dark rural road back to town. He brakes suddenly to try and avoid hitting what looks like a body stretched on the road. The body disappears as Bill investigates, who is set upon by a bizarre octopoidal alien that glows in the dark, and enveloped by a creeping mist that spirits him away. Bill still turns up the next day to his wedding to fretful Marge Bradley (Gloria Talbott), and the couple head off to their honeymoon at a seaside resort that quickly turns as cheerless as the thundery weather: Bill has suddenly developed an aptitude for driving in the dark with his headlights off, and when they get to their hotel, instead of diving into bed with his nervously eager bride, Bill prefers to gaze into the lightning in poetic raptures, and the strobing light reveals that somewhere under his handsome, all-American exterior lurks an extra-terrestrial.
Months later, the increasingly disturbed Marge pines for children but her marriage isn’t delivering those, or anything else. Her GP, Dr Wayne (Ken Lynch), checks her as A-1 fertility-wise, and suggests Bill come see him, an idea that turns the already chilly atmosphere around the house Arctic. Even worse, when Marge buys “Bill” a young pup as a birthday present, the formerly dog-loving man finds the animal aggressive and suspicious, and later, when Marge is safely in bed, “Bill” descends to kill the dog and passes it off as an accidental death. Beginning to suspect something genuinely strange is going on, Marge follows “Bill” when he leaves the house one and tracks him into the woods outside of town, where she sees things that seem beyond human reality: an alien being floats in gaseous form out of “Bill”’s body and reforms solid before heading into a secreted space ship. The shell of “Bill” falls flat on the ground, insects crawling over its stony face, and Marge flees in dizzy panic.
Fowler defuses any doubts about whether Marge’s controlling perspective is unreliable by making it clear early on what’s happening, but nonetheless expertly grows a sense of tingling atmosphere as he patiently charts the mounting evidence she finds that this conspiracy is not just in her mind, and the avoidance of making any mystery about the substitution shifts focus agreeably onto what are the motives of the aliens and how Marge will respond. Fowler intelligibly contrasts domestic domiciles of the suburbs with not just the mutable menace of the woods that fringe such safe, civilised zones, but also with the inner precincts of the town, a crude caricature of urbanity yearning for the status of a grown-up city where outcasts, reprobates, unhappy upright citizens, demimondaines, and drifters keep odd hours and the underbelly of this world is usually kept safely contained. Whereas in Teenage Werewolf Fowler’s junior artificial werewolf stalked pals on moonlit country paths, here Marge’s flight through the woods turns into a whirl of hallucinatory fears, looming alien faces and zombie-Bill chasing her in her mind. Like the same year’s The Blob (for which I Married a Monster was actually produced to partner on a double bill), Fowler turns the venturesome night of a small town into a zone of simultaneous threat and embrace in the suburban enclave, the Everytown locale turned into island amidst darkness where beasts roam.
Fowler’s promise as a director was never really fulfilled: whilst his first two works are still the objects of fervent cult admiration, as often happened with directors who revealed an affinity with the fantastic genres, his subsequent works out of those genres rose in respectability but declined in interest and in between a bit of TV directing, he returned to original job of editor. Importantly, Fowler had cut The Woman in the Window (1944) and While the City Sleeps (1956) for Fritz Lang, and Lang’s impact on Fowler seems particularly deep: Lang’s feel for environment as actor in the cinematic space, his fondness for thickets of psychological disease in his characters, and constantly recurring themes of sinister conspiracy, oppressive regimes, and infiltration are all clearly apparent here. I Married a Monster sports intelligent filmmaking, with arresting moments evoking the strong influence of not just Lang but also Alfred Hitchcock on his efforts. A sequence depicting Marge lying in bed listening to her husband’s approach, cross-cutting with his steps up the stairs, strongly suggests Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946), both films that likewise revolve around female protagonists under threat in their marriages (notably, Fowler also had Hitchcock’s regular editor George Tomasini working for him here).
Fowler pulls off the kind of invisible edit Hitchcock and Orson Welles were fond of early in the film with a hint of dextrous humour and thematic import when he uses flashing lightning to mask a shift from the window of the hotel restaurant newlywed Marge and “Bill” are nervously toasting each-other in, to their room upstairs: Fowler hides his technique with the same device he reveals his alien – the lightning – and mixes in a joke about deceptions and slippery realities. The Farrell house becomes a noir-ish zone of shadow and telling compartmentalisation, repeating shots of “Bill” and Marge in turn watching their partner in the kitchen from the living room, observing each-other playing at domesticity whilst filled with unease and shame. Fowler notably echoes a moment in Lang’s Fury (1936) when Marge finds herself floundering in the middle of town after fleeing the aliens in the woods and hears blaring, cheery music, only to find a dull and desolate bar with a few sleazy denizens. Wiseguy Weldon (James Anderson) and punchy barman Grady (Max Rosenbloom) mock her reports of monsters as the ravings of a frustrated closet alcoholic, but are also tantalised by this wild-eyed escapee from Squaresville. Weldon tracks her to her house and hangs about hoping she’ll emerge again looking for fun, only to be confronted by the town’s two assimilated policemen Schultz and Swanson (Jack Orrison and Peter Baldwin) and executed by them when realises what’s going on. Marge tells their chief, Capt. Collins (John Eldredge), what’s happening, and he counsels patience, but of course, flashing lightning reveals that he too has been possessed.
Fowler’s little universe proliferates with ingenious fragments of surrealist destabilisation, which often pack a sneaky thematic wallop and totemic encapsulation of the genre’s essence. Mysterious mists slide out of urban alleyways, enfold men and erase them. The hatch for an alien spaceship is secreted amidst the woods just beyond the fringes of a town. Dead animals mark the progress of monsters hiding in suburbia. The obsessions of Middle America, like security and stability, are tweaked only slightly to be turned into punitive sarcasms. The streets of the idyllic town become zones of fascistic repression, so that a lurking “criminal type” is not just confronted and waved on by enforcers of the illusion of peace, but knocked unconscious and shot dead on the street. An unhappy marriage and the moans of a billion wives that their husband just isn’t the man they fell in love with anymore becomes a literal wedding to an alien interloper. The tread of a husband’s feet on the stairs, so easily translated into fear of an abusive spouse or Marge’s own sexual anxieties, becomes the step of the secreted beast. Aliens watch humans from the forest and study their behaviour with intent of conquest and mimic their bodies, then sit around in bars refusing to drink like teetotallers, but end up using the time to whine about their mates and their lots in life just like their hosts.
In the film’s most strikingly eerie scene, the teasing hooker who hangs about Grady’s, Francine (Valerie Allen), wanders the desolate space of the town’s centre, sauntering with a hungry sensuality that’s clearly anything but domestic. Beings emblematic of free-floating sexuality and reproductive craving come into contact and conflict, as Francine tries to chat up a stranger with a hooded jacket she sees staring at dolls in a store-front window: too late does she see that her prospective John is an alien. The alien blasts her with a ray gun as she runs off, momentarily turning her to a blazing spectre before fading into oblivion, before the monster turns back to its weird, sad, solitary study of another species’ iconographic celebration of its offspring. It’s already been made clear by this time that the aliens do want to mate with human women, as the gang of replaced males have discussed. One quality that elevates I Married a Monster is not just its broad metaphors but its web of reversals and epiphanies. The gang of male friends annexed by the aliens who stand in place of normality, far from being agreeably Norman Rockwellian types signifying free and easy Americana, aren’t particularly likeable. In fact they’re mostly a mob of liquor-swilling, disgruntled, misogynist jerks conjoined by their general dread of the trappings of domesticity they nonetheless head into dutifully. The only difference between them and the aliens is that the aliens know why they’re passing.
These men in grey flannel – most of them work in insurance – are already a step away from losing themselves anyway. If they resist, like Sam Benson (Alan Dexter), they’re assimilated by the aliens. Sam’s double then does the work of proposing to his long-time girlfriend Helen Rhodes (Jean Carson). Helen is in turn so delighted from being saved from being a “career woman” that she remains wilfully oblivious to Marge’s warnings that connubial bliss isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Another of Bill’s pals, Harry Phillips, drunkenly proposes “mass suicide” as the solution to marriage: after he’s replaced by an alien, Harry then complains in exactly the same bitter way about how disgusting his new body is. One of the tell-tale signs of assimilation is sudden giving up of drinking, a biological necessity for the allergic aliens but also a neat gag on the presumed niceties of marital life that the other, unchanged males still chafe against. Another of Bill’s pals, Ted Hanks (Chuck Wassil), rails against the chains of marriage (“Even a convict gets time off for good behaviour.”) and tries to make humour out of his wife Caroline’s (Darlene Fields) emasculating gift for baseball pitching that almost got her a try-out for the Yankees. Once most of the gang are assimilated, they gather with their wives for a picnic where the alien Sam falls out of a rowboat: the aliens are as unfamiliar with water as they are with liquor, so Ted leaps into the lake alone to haul Sam out whilst the others all stand, shirtless and buff, a hilarious spectacle of masculinity turned passive and ineffectual.
Caroline’s pregnancy however forestalls Ted’s replacement and, later, fatherhood brings him out all smiles, handing cigars to Marge and Dr Wayne – not a casual detail, as Wayne, by now convinced of the truth of Marge’s warnings, realises that the town’s recent fathers must still be human, providing a reliable force to muster and take on the infiltrators. I Married a Monster posits parenthood as not just as an act of biological urging but as a commodity of value, a communal need as well as a personal one, one which the male aliens are forced, ironically, to share intimately with the broody women of Earth. Once the veil drops between “Bill” and Marge and the alien appeals to his potential mate for understanding, he explains that all of his species’ women have died out during their long and agonising exodus from their dying planet, and now they have no choice but to seek mates on the way. “You have no idea how rare life is those cold, countless miles of space,” “Bill” reports with a hint of haunted exhaustion, correlating the deadness of the void with the infertility that has stricken his race and the distances between the two worlds with those between men and women. “We came together for breeding purposes only,” “Bill” says of his species’ unemotional nature, but begs Marge for understanding as he confesses to be “learning what love is.”
Of course, like most ‘50s sci-fi films, the Cold War’s special paranoias infest I Married a Monster, and the aliens, with their coldly unemotional, communal ethos, readily call to mind the archest caricatures of Communists as unfeeling, obedient hive minds. But the film suggests other varieties of modern pressure upon the essential stability of the idealised nuclear family unit that would soon burst it open. Critics and theorists have argued for decades over the political meaning of Siegel’s pod people, but in the end the suggestion that they represented a kind of Rorschach test for our anxieties in an age buffeted by the uprooting of old securities feels most accurate. I Married a Monster has this quality too, but the film ultimately evokes more personal, interior anxieties. Much in the same way that Invaders from Mars beautifully communicates a child’s fear of the loss parental love amidst its tacky wonders, I Married a Monster is most crucially about the idea communicated in its title, the fear of the otherness in the partner who romantic ideals tell us are supposed to be fused into our very sense of self. The film is explored chiefly from the wife’s point of view in being tethered to a man who cannot perform for her in bed. Talbott’s performance, her only real star moment, fits her oh-so-‘50s apparel, angular and vivid, shot through with breathless need and tremulous determination. Like the same year’s much less accomplished but still gaudily symbolic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, I Married a Monster conflates marital melodrama with monster movie and proto-feminist inquiry: both Marge here and Allison Hayes’ fraying heiress in 50 Foot Woman are beset by aliens who neatly turn percolating unease into ripe manifestations, and troubled by men they love without recourse.
The infiltrating aliens of It Came From Outer Space were detached from the Earthlings, merely following their own programme; the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers inimical opportunists mimicking humanity but erasing its essence. Here something more different again is at work, for I Married a Monster is simultaneously enriching and disturbing in the quiet but powerful empathy it offers for both sides of its coin. The fake “Bill” is revealed as a creature that feels the lightest breezes of humanity in his human form, and responds with yearning, albeit a yearning laced with colonialist entitlement, an entitlement the other aliens never doubt. Tryon was an actor who had near brushes with major stardom (particularly in The Cardinal, 1963) but quit to become an accomplished horror writer, and he was cast with alacrity here. With his vivid cheekbones and Action Man doll’s physique, he’s almost a caricatured ideal of ‘50s manhood, but Tryon’s ambiguity is always apparent, the actor displaying churning emotion under his stolid surface with deceptive passion. Tryon was beset by sexual confusion until he finally came out in the early ‘70s, and the film’s strong undercurrent towards reading as a metaphor, at least in part, about hiding as a gay man with a beard wife feels acute even when you don’t know this biographical detail. The newly replaced “Sam” visits “Bill”, ostensibly over an insurance policy, where “Sam” has to reveal himself with an overt gesture when “Bill” won’t get the hint, whereupon “Bill” welcomes him to the club, in a scene that feels like an elaborate form of cruising. Not for nothing, then, do the town’s successful breeders go out hunting for the hidden misfits who cannot reproduce. Notably, although Tryon disliked having to act in this film he tackled the theme of people being drafted into playing roles in an uncanny community himself in his later novel “Harvest Home.”
Whilst the fantasies are still mostly veiled here, a new phase of the horror and sci-fi genres based in the fervent fear of physical perversion seems nascent. So too, indeed, does the shifting balance between horror and sci-fi themselves, a year after Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein. There was often little distance between the genres during the decade anyway, in works like Them! and Creature from the Black Lagoon (both 1954) with their inky, nightmarish sagas of monstrous advent, with only the most fundamental underpinnings of the two genres – the irrationalism of horror and the solid cause-and-effect of sci-fi – to distinguish them. Here, the emphasis on the psychological nature of the disquiet and the dark visual palette betray the shift. I Married a Monster’s anticipations are interesting and vital, including David Lynch’s placement of surrealist fragmentation in homey surrounds in Blue Velvet (1986) and TV’s Twin Peaks, whilst the eroticised fear of deviant birth and strange sexuality inevitably feel like precursors to David Cronenberg and the progeny of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Marge’s recoiling horror at the thought of being impregnated with an essentially alien foetus looks forward to Cronenberg’s darkest fantasies like the infamous births of The Brood (1978) and The Fly (1986) in particular, making I Married a Monster, in spite of the dated social assumptions it anatomises, one of the most forward-looking of the major ‘50s sci-fi films, as well as just about the last.
Putting its slippery meanings and weightier invocations aside, I Married a Monster is above all a fun, smart, well-made film (all the more impressively so for its budget) that delivers everything you want from a ‘50s monster movie: only the slightly pokey pacing and structuring of the middle third mar it, plus the slightly laborious effect of some of the dialogue scenes, the product in part perhaps of screenwriter Vittes camping out on set to make sure all his lines were served up exactly. But Fowler delivers a great finale as Marge realises she’s completely trapped by the secret regime that controls the town, but finally convinces Dr Wayne of what’s going on. This sets Ted and other recent fathers on the warpath, moving in a posse to hunt for the space ship and stage a raid on the two unmasked aliens guarding their ship. The attackers find themselves hopelessly outgunned as bullets just pock the skins of the spongy alien flesh in an ingenious little special effect, whilst the ray guns of the enemy blast the men to atoms. But Fowler employs a fun irony as one of the men’s German Shepherd dogs successful bring down the two aliens by attacking and ripping open their distended, tentacle-like neck arteries: it’s a bit of payback for their canine brethren killed earlier that also, amusingly, underlines the film’s theme of species self-loyalty.
The men are then able to penetrate the alien craft where, in another fillip of quality strangeness, the missing men are found dangling like sides of beef, hooked up to projection devices to sustain the aliens’ disguises. The rush to free the men however precipitates tragedy for the aliens who have taken their places, especially “Bill”, who has suffered from being taught what humanity as he remained nonetheless tethered to alien mission, only to be inevitably destroyed whilst fighting for his species’ future, and also is aware of it in a more personal manner thanks to his new human impulses to make it worse: “Bill”, “Schultz”, and “Swanson” dash to intervene but as each host is disconnected they fall one by one and dissolve into gruesome stew: back in his office, the fake Chief Collins pulls out a tiny transmitter and signals to his brethren to give this wild and nasty planet before melting into the same mush. Real Bill pops out of the spaceship into Marge’s arms moments after his doppelganger meets his end, and the fade out presents a last, haunting vista, of an alien fleet moving past Earth and heading on to friendlier climes. “It’s a nice idea anyway,” the fake Bill said earlier, writing his own epitaph, “Making visitors feel welcome.”
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Director: Terence Fisher
By Roderick Heath
A fog-rimmed lake. A sonorous voice on the soundtrack telling us we are now in Transylvania. A carriage careening through the twilight forest, the driver whipping his horses in frenzy, his comely passenger panicking as her journey to a new life seems to be turning into a nightmarish ride in unknown territory. What looks like dead body lies on the road, blocking the way. A mysterious stranger watches from the woods, looking for his opportunity to stealthily climb aboard the coach and work his mysterious purpose. Now that’s how you start a horror movie.
Amongst horror movie fans and connoisseurs of Hammer Films’ output, The Brides of Dracula has slowly gained repute, to the point where some state today that it’s the best horror work the studio ever made. The film’s delayed rise to such acclaim was due to its being overshadowed and dismissed as a by-product at the time of its release. Christopher Lee had played Bram Stoker’s vampire overlord in Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958) to audience-delighting, icon-making effect. Titling a film The Brides of Dracula without Dracula actually turning up was received as a bit of a cheat, and after Lee resumed the role, Hammer’s first stab at extending its vampire franchise was obscured. Lee, frightened with good reason of being typecast, refused to play the role again, and would not buckle until 1966’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness. In the meantime, Fisher and the creative team at Hammer tried to synthesise a replacement for Dracula whilst retaining his antagonist, Peter Cushing’s Dr Van Helsing, for another bout with evil. Lee and Cushing wouldn’t be reunited in their archetypal roles until Dracula A.D. 1972. The film’s development was rocky, with three credited screenwriters including the studio’s two main horror scribes, Jimmy Sangster and Peter Bryan, and contributions from producer Anthony Hinds, Fisher, and Cushing, and a planned finale that was dropped and then used in another film. And yet Brides stands alongside the likes of Fisher’s own The Gorgon (1964) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Don Sharp’s Kiss of the Vampire (1963), and John Gilling’s The Reptile (1966), as one of the supreme Hammer films, a fiercely concentrated and lushly executed work of the studio’s peculiar brand of Technicolor Gothic, instantly recognisable for its near-operatic sense of colour and drama.
The Brides of Dracula arrived when Hammer’s budgets and ambitions were expanding, with more elaborate sets and some special effects, but still limited enough to deliver some of the shoddy pleasures associated with the brand, here apparent most particularly in a delightfully unconvincing devil bat. But Brides is a vibrant work, one that revels in being freed from the specific mythos of Dracula himself whilst still remixing the themes and images established so vividly by Fisher’s first take. Early sequences provide a tweak on Stoker’s template by placing a woman, rather than a man, in danger in a remote locale, and emphasising more forcefully the theme of the innocent abroad taking a plunge into the abyss. The innocent here is Marianne Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur), a young Frenchwoman on her way to work as a student-teacher in the small town of Badstein, in the usual hazily defined Mittel Europa of Hammer works, supposedly in what the narrator describes as, “Transylvania – land of dark forests, dread mountains and black, unfathomed lakes – still the home of magic and devilry as the Nineteenth century draws to a close.” The thunder of the opening resolves in a fake-out, as the body on the road proves to be only a peculiarly shaped log, which the fretful coachman (inevitably, Michael Ripper) clears out of the way. But this anticlimax turns out to be a ploy by the stranger in the woods (actually Black Park in Buckinghamshire, soon be all too familiar to audiences of Hammer films) who catches hold of the back of the coach and rides secretly with it into the nearby village.
The stranger’s part in the film proves the most enigmatic element, an emissary of evil who’s never named (although the credits and the famously whacko novelisation by Dean Owen call him Latour) and vanishes from the proceedings having performed his deed, as he bribes the coachman to leave the village and abandon Marianne while she’s in a tavern having dinner. Already gilded genre cliché is already in play, but with a twist: the locale is strange, the underlying mood tense, but the locals are friendly enough in a workaday fashion, until the time of dread falls upon them, at which point the innkeeper so solicitous to Marianne (Norman Pierce) and his wife (Vera Cook) are gripped by enigmatic, hysterical urgency. Fisher offers a lovely weird moment when an abrupt silence draws the attention of Marianne and the innkeeper, who have been conversing pleasantly, to the front door, and see that the stranger is standing there, watching them with a satisfied smile, whilst everyone else in the room has fallen gravely quiet. Marianne is advised to flee by the two solicitous hoteliers, but before they can bustle her away, the sound of another coach coming into town signals the limits of their bravery and resistance. “Don’t open it,” the wife says; “I must,” the man replies in bleak concession to life under a tyranny. Tyranny in this village has a courtly face, however, as the owner of the coach Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt), who offers Marianne hospitality for night, beguiling the young woman with aristocratic indulgences, like fancy wine. Marianne accepts and dines with the Baroness in the castle overlooking the village.
The Baroness offers that most hallowed of gothic horror tropes, the devolved remnant of the ancien regime reminiscing with exultant sadness about the times when the castle was the scene of grand parties and conspicuous consumption. By this time, however, Marianne is privy to the mysterious secret of Castle Meinster, having glimpsed from the room the Baroness assigns her a young man, standing on a balcony far below. The Baroness admits this is her son, the young Baron who is, she explains, beset by a malady that has destroyed their lives, a malady he picked up in his wild, indulgent youth: “We pray for death, my son and I,” she reports, shocking Danielle but also stirring her empathy. However, during the night, Marianne catches sight again of the Baron, this time seemingly about to hurl himself to his death from his apartment balcony. She screams out to stop what she presumes to be his imminent suicide, but after she find her way through the house into the Baron’s apartment, she is confronted by the contrivance that makes his suicide by jumping impossible: he’s chained by the leg. The Baron, far from being an imprisoned lunatic, steps out from the shadows to reveal himself as a starkly handsome, soft-spoken romantic idol who appeals desperately to Marianne to find the key to the lock on his ankle in his mother’s room.
The Brides of Dracula offers a fun burlesque here on classic historical romantic fiction, calling back to British cinema’s mid-‘40s heyday of films in that genre when James Mason and Stewart Granger played roguish, black-hearted seducers not that far removed from Hammer’s Dracula. Marianne is cast as plucky damsel freeing the cruelly imprisoned heir with an impressive feat of bravery, stealing into the Baroness’s room and locating the key and then, when she’s almost trapped by the Baroness’s arrival, escaping through the window and traversing a narrow ledge to safety, all whilst still clad in her nightgown. But Marianne’s act of love-struck bravery proves, of course, to have been performed in the service of bottomless evil, because the Baron is a vampire, held in restraint by his mother and kept sated with young women like Marianne. The freed Baron shields Marianne from the Baroness’s wrath however, telling Marianne to go pack and then addressing his mother with smoothly menacing intensity that compels her to follow him back into his former prison. Marianne, once dressed and ready to leave, hears a strange cackling laugh echoing from the Baron’s apartment and descends to investigate. Rather than her beautiful prize for gallant action, Marianne only finds Frieda laughing in nihilistic delight over the Baron’s discarded restraint, and the cracked servant happily makes Marianne face the consequence of her act: the Baroness sitting dead in an armchair. Marianne, horrified and panicked, flees into the night and traverses the forest by moonlight. Frieda remains behind, muttering a Shakespearean soliloquy as she admonishes the dead Baroness for her history of indulging the young Baron until he finally become an undoubted monster, and anticipates the Baron’s inevitable return to his coffin, waiting empty for its owner’s return.
Hammer’s brand of horror was usually quite literal and straightforward, portraying eruptions of the irrational in a thoroughly tangible context, an alternative to the otherworldly approach of German expressionism. This alternative was rooted in a peculiarly British variety of magic-realism, one that had long lurked within classic gothic literature and romantic fiction, a distorted, magnified sense of the compellingly vicious that had generally only found cinematic expression in Britain through Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, and the charismatic bounders and bitches of the Gainsborough Melodramas of the ‘40s. Evil, no matter how supernaturally powered, becomes a materialist thing infesting and infecting the human world in the Hammer ethos, whilst Fisher’s approach to the genre’s monochromatic moral essence was resolutely totemic and vivid, staked in flesh and blood and stone and wood. Social evil is indivisible from the less palpable kind, feeding each-other. The Brides of Dracula, however, sees the director straining beyond the studio’s usual realistic template, as he would again with The Gorgon. As usual with Fisher’s direction, the dramatic, geographical, and interpersonal relationships are all mapped with an exacting sense of linkage, progression, cause and effect in Brides. He builds a little world with the fastidiousness of a model train enthusiast, where all the elements exist precisely to facilitate others and are demonstrably connected, like the plainly visible chateau above the Meinster village set, and the keen camera movements and angles in the chateau that make the set feel both labyrinthine and spatially coherent.
Yet Fisher often invested his horror films with hints of dark fairy tale and folk myth, an inflection fully apparent in images here like Marianne stalking the shadowy halls of the fairy tale castle, trying to free her demon lover, and then running away into the dark forest like Snow White, only to be found as a sleeping beauty lying in the midst of the woods by an improbable Prince Charming. The Brides of Dracula skirts of a kind of airy cinematic mysticism usually associated with continental filmmakers like Lang, Cocteau, and Franju, with their love of permeable realities and blithe manifestations of the fantastic. The film also harkens explicitly to Fisher’s early, pre-Hammer work, the Hitchcockian thriller So Long at the Fair (1952) where another young female traveller falls through the permeable barriers between normal and abnormal worlds, faced with jarring disappearances and conspiracies of silence. Van Helsing speaks of vampirism not as individual monstrosities but a “Cult of the Undead,” a “remnant of one of the ancient pagan religions,” which introduces a note of dense, conspiratorial evil reminiscent of Lang’s films, whilst the darkly romantic fairy tale motifs in a proto-modern world anticipate Franju’s remix of Judex (1963). Moreover, Brides may well be the most specifically influential of Hammer films, certainly in its visuals the quintessential studio entry. The rich Technicolor photography by Fisher’s regular photographer Jack Asher painting a world in musty, muted blues and browns that suggest a permanent autumn in the world, punctuated by eye-gorging, saturated hues in clothing and décor, evoking Victorian lithographic and book plate illustration to generate a sense of gothic atmosphere. Neil Jordan, with The Company of Wolves (1984), and Tim Burton, in Sleepy Hollow (1999), would later pay explicit tribute to that style, with Burton even recreating the windmill featured in this film’s finale for his tribute.
The morning following Marianne’s adventure sees a passing coach halt on the forest roadside. A casual downward pan reveals Marianne sprawled unconscious on autumnal leaves. The passenger in the coach proves to be just the person you want to find you after a terrifying encounter with a vampire: Dr Van Helsing plucks Marianne off the ground and transports her to the village, where the innkeepers are surprised and happy to see her safe. Van Helsing has been invited to the village by the local Cure (Fred Johnson) who suspects the nature of the evil previously held within the Chateau and wants Van Helsing to investigate. Van Helsing carefully teases out details of Marianne’s story whilst trying to shield her from the nature of the danger she faced, hoping to speedily return her to normality, but this proves a miscalculation on his part, as he leaves the door open for the Baron to approach Marianne still playing the hapless young lover, his mother’s death dismissed as tragic culmination of her own violence. Van Helsing escorts Marianne to her new place of employment, a Girl’s Academy run by the sweet-and-sour couple Frau and Herr Lang (Mona Washbourne and Henry Oscar). Van Helsing calmly faces down the overbearing Herr Lang, whose own wife describes him as “a little bit terrifying,” when he chastises Marianne for being late and in a man’s company: Van Helsing producing his business card with its long list of impressive doctorates instantly turns petty overlord into grovelling bourgeois. This joke is repeated with a slightly more pointed inference later when Baron Meinster turns up to romance Marianne, and Lang, not knowing him, threatens to throw him out. The Baron explains he’s Lang’s landlord with suave assurance, but gets a measure of revenge as he congratulates Lang on maintaining “such a charming house and grounds – at so low a rent.”
Cushing’s Van Helsing here wields the same specific gravitas he held in Dracula, as the unremittingly rational being who battles supernatural evil with the trappings of religion and myth but with the method of a scientist, slowly cutting out the cancer of ancient ills as the emblem of modernity as faith. “Who is it is who has no fear?” Baroness Meinster asks him when he approaches her: “Only God has no fear,” he replies, but Van Helsing hesitates at no threshold. Cushing was better off than Lee in returning to his character, as Lee would find to his increasing chagrin as he was reduced to an intensely glowering monster in Hammer’s later Dracula entries, whilst here Cushing was allowed to develop nuances in the role. Van Helsing had been courageous but brutal in Dracula, embodying the puritanical force pounding life out of the sensually gorged lovers of the vampire overlord, but turning on a penny to solicitously comfort a small girl with fatherly grace. Here that side of him is emphasised as he appears as the essential crusader hero, bringing relief from tyranny and insidious evil.
Producer Hinds quipped once that he and Fisher and Sangster had all regarded these films as their own babies but Cushing was certain of it, and Cushing’s contributions to the script perhaps helped this recasting of the hero in something like his own image, kinder and with a dash of romanticism. Van Helsing engages in rivalry with the Baron for Marianne’s affection as well as her soul, the Baron’s pretty boy charms pitted against the spindly savant’s hangdog intensity and winning out initially. Cushing pulls off a marvellous scene when Marianne informs Van Helsing she’s now engaged: he congratulates her with a good grace that’s ever so slightly pallid, but when she mentions just who it is she’s marrying he reacts with horror and checks her hands for signs of the tell-tale venereal stigmata of the “kiss of Dracula.” “Do you love him?” he asks in mild incredulity, and quickly leaves when Marianne answers yes, silently astounded at the perversities of existence but not swayed from his mission.
The deep veins of perversity that spread through The Brides of Dracula are indeed a source of the film’s specific richness. The notion that vampirism was a metaphor for sexuality permeates Fisher and Sangster’s take and permanently inflected the genre, but here Meinster’s attentions are indiscriminate and suggestively pansexual. Even Van Helsing, who’s seen a thing or two, is revolted by the discovery Meinster has drunk his mother’s blood, and this comes on top of the narrative’s hints of homosexuality, as the good doctor himself comes in for the vampire’s attentions. The film’s title suggests the Girl’s Academy will be a feasting ground for the bloodsucker as one would be in Lust for a Vampire (1970), but Meinster only attacks one of Marianne’s fellows there, her fast friend Gina (Andree Melly). On the night of his first release, Meinster kills a village girl (Marie Devereux), and her heartbroken father is confused and appalled when the Cure, after finding her buried in the churchyard, tells him she must be removed. Van Helsing, who overhears, assures the Cure that he can prevent the girl’s revival, but when he arrives in the churchyard finds Frieda lying upon the grave, playing midwife in encouraging the new vampire’s emergence in a travesty of birth. This cues one of the most memorable scenes in the genre’s history as it climaxes with the ecstatically morbid images of the girl’s white hand thrusting out of the earth, and then pushing back the lid of her coffin and sitting up with a dead-eyed smile of sensual gratification. This image of a vampire’s birth has an iconic perfection, and indeed it could well have been the first depiction of this morbidly beautiful process.
Van Helsing can’t help but watch in disgusted but mesmerised fascination, a spell only broken when the Cure, who’s just arrived, bellows his protest and then leap to secure Frieda whilst Van Helsing chases the vampire. Van Helsing’s pursuit is stalled however by Meinster, transformed into a huge bat which dive-bombs the vampire hunter until his kitbag tumbles open and his crucifix spills out. Van Helsing heads up to the Chateau Meinster, where he finds the Baroness, now revived as a vampire, haunting her own castle. The splendidly patrician Hunt was most famous for her role as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), which Fisher had edited, and her casting here plays on that role as a reclusive and haughty grande dame whose hospitality entails destruction (Jackson, playing her servant, was also in the Lean film where she played the fearsome Mrs Joe), but here is allowed to retain more pathos as an eerie, existentially tormented victim who hides her new vampire fangs like a demure maiden behind a veil. The Baroness recites with dread the indulgences that brought disease upon her son and self and now believing herself cursed to eternally bend to her son’s will. David Peel, chiefly known as a stage actor, was received badly as a stand-in for Lee when the film came out, an understandable response as far as it goes.
Peel is, nonetheless, a coldly confident presence as a younger, more sadistically callow but superficially debonair evil lord, charming Marianne with his Mod hairdo, hints of intense sensuality, and precise, plummy Old Vic accent reminiscent of a better-looking edition of fellow Hammer alumnus Michael Gough: he’s the vampire prince as a mix of boarding school bully and toffy-nosed pop heartthrob. Meinster is presented as a Byronic sleaze who takes active delight in spectacles of cruelty, stripped of even the faint remnant of noble hauteur Lee gave his Dracula. Peel handles the alterations between the smooth façade he puts on to people he needs to charm and the animalistic savagery of his true nature with élan, particularly when he suddenly appears from nowhere whilst Van Helsing talks to his mother, teeth extended and mouth dripping blood, hissing like a snake at the sight of its only natural predator.
Meinster and Van Helsing have brief but vigorous tussle as the doctor fends off vampire by sliding his crucifix down the length of a table toward him, forcing the vampire back, cringing in pain. Meinster flees after upending the table to trap Van Helsing in turn, leaving Van Helsing alone with his mother. Fisher offers another starkly simple yet rhythmically powerful aside as Van Helsing waits for the dawn to give the Baroness the release she craves, whereupon he takes out stake and hammer and drives it through her body: Fisher cuts from the spurt of red blood to a deep crimson curtain which Van Helsing rips down and spreads across her body with solicitous care that mirrors the vampire midwifery, laying the desiccated matriarch to rest like a mother himself putting a baby to bed. The scoring by Malcolm Williamson, an Australian-born composer who later became Master of the Queen’s Music, is particularly notable in this sequence, a lightly funereal organ on sound rising to a crescendo that helps the vigorous cutting and colour inflate the brief sequence into something rhapsodic. Van Helsing’s return to the village coincides with news of Gina’s death at the Academy. At the Cure’s urging, Van Helsing goes with the local GP, Tobler (Miles Malleson) to look at the body, and convinces Tobler to let him deal with the problem by quickly quarantining the body locked in a stout, padlocked coffin and assigning reliable people to keep a watch over it. Marianne relieves Frau Lang in this task and waits with the school’s stable master Severin (Henry Scott). Before Van Helsing can return with his vampire killing kit, however, Severin is killed by Meinster in bat form, whilst Marianne is confronted by Gina rising out of her coffin.
Fisher borrows a flourish here from M. R. James’ “Count Magnus” as the padlocks on Gina’s coffin fall one by one to the floor unlocked. The vampire Gina stalks the terrified Marianne with fiendishly sensual intent even as she begs her forgiveness for “letting him love me” whilst urging Marianne to kiss “your little Gina.” The lesbian vampire film still has to wait until the following year’s Blood and Roses to come out of the coffin however, as Van Helsing arrives in time to chase Gina off, but Brides does rack up the possibly more interesting landmark of gay vampiric activity later. Van Helsing breaks his unspoken compact to protect Marianne from the truth as she confronts her with the Baron’s nature and forces her to tell him where she expects to meet him. This proves to be an old windmill at the edge of town, a marvellous arena for a final confrontation where Van Helsing finds Gina and the other vampire bride with a harshly mocking Greta. Van Helsing holds off the two girls with his crucifix but Greta simply jumps on him and fights for the talisman, only to accidentally plunge with it over a balcony and crash to her death on some boards laid over a well. The cross drops through a crack into the well before Van Helsing can retrieve it, leaving him vulnerable to Meinster when he enters producing a chain from under his cape and almost throttling Van Helsing to death with it, before gleefully biting his nemesis, taking enough blood to put him under his command. The Baron then goes to drag Marianne out of the Academy and bring her back so that he can force Van Helsing to watch her initiation into the undead fold.
When he wakes up, Van Helsing is distraught to find the vampire’s mark on his neck, but he isn’t out of tricks yet. In another of the film’s innovative and clever ideas, much mimicked in vampire cinema ever since, Van Helsing tries a radical cure. He stokes a branding iron red hot in a brazier and then jams it against his wound, scalding him hideously but removing the stain of this most transgressive “kiss.” A little dab of holy water from a cask the Cure gave him heals the burn immediately, and Van Helsing is back to form. When Meinster returns he doesn’t realise his enemy is able to fight, and before he can vamp Marianna, Van Helsing helps to a face-full of holy water that leaves him horribly scarred. Meinster escapes after warding off Van Helsing by kicking the brazier over, turning the windmill immediately into an inferno, but Van Helsing escapes with Marianne to the mill’s upper balcony.
The climax originally intended of Brides was for Van Helsing to use a curse to call down other vampires as bats upon the Baron, for his transgression in drinking his mother’s blood. Budget constraints and Cushing’s objection to the idea Van Helsing would engage in black magic meant this concept was abandoned, only to be used a few years later in Kiss of the Vampire. Meinster’s comeuppance here is less spectacular but still original and memorable, as Van Helsing jumps onto the mill’s sail and drags it down to turn the whole structure into a crucifix, pinioning the Baron under the shadow of religious sanctity and finally killing him, leaving a fade out with Marianne in Van Helsing’s arms and the mill with the two vampire girls within going up in flames as the credits roll. The Brides of Dracula was released in what proved a banner year for horror cinema as the commercial force of Hammer’s success unleashed a new wave of films, including Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio, Roger Corman’s House of Usher, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and it stands tall with them in the genre’s mottled history. After all but dying out in the mid-1940s, the horror film was well and truly back from the dead.
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Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
By Roderick Heath
Like a miniature, speeded-up version of the ’70s new wave that reinvigorated American cinema, the mid-1990s saw a flurry of excitement about the burgeoning independent film scene. Hollywood suddenly saw a mine of talent in the fringes as Sundance became the hottest spot in the film world following the triumphs there of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino. Low-budget filmmaking no longer had to be a seamy zone for rejects and mercenaries, but could promise invention and a tidy profit as long as a new, young audience remained hungry for this kind of storytelling. A lode of young and interesting filmmakers who had pieced works together on hopes and prayers suddenly gained access to major distribution and studio funds, and were quickly drawn into the big, mean world of commercial cinema. The scene didn’t really last very long, and quite a few of the new talents fell by the wayside, but others have proven to be the backbone of what’s left of serious American cinema. Paul Thomas Anderson made his name with a benighted debut film he called Sydney, but that a nervous studio renamed Hard Eight (1995). A fine, intimate work situated at the crossroads of crime drama and character study, Hard Eight didn’t prove to be a Reservoir Dogs (1992). Anderson recovered from that trial and decided to adapt a student film he’d made in 1988, The Dirk Diggler Story, a mockumentary about a fictional porn star. The resulting feature, Boogie Nights, proved to be ambitious and provocative. Most importantly, it was cunning in appropriating everybody’s pop culture memory in just the right way to get attention.
Anderson has since evolved into one of the most distinctive directors on the current film scene, but at the time he didn’t mind letting his roots show, annexing the same zone of retro fetishism and cineaste allusiveness Tarantino had explored, but skewing it to his own, more rarefied purpose. He unabashedly quoted masters, including Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese as well as more obscure classic cinema deities like Mikhail Kolotozov. But he also found the glory in the seamiest and most degraded types of cinematic achievement. Boogie Nights followed Scorsese’s Casino (1995) in making nostalgia for the barbed, seedy, lawless side of the ’70s cool again. Anderson took a chance with his subject matter that doesn’t seem like such a chance now largely because he took it: after ’80s conservatism and ’90 political correctness, delving back into the world of ’70s hedonism and the “golden age” of the pornographic film industry seemed doubly perverse. Anderson created a miniature genre of modern storytelling that gets off on the lost style of a past recreated in bright colours, whilst analysing the cultural shifts that buried both the best and the worst of that lost time.
The chief inspiration for Boogie Nights was the life of John Holmes, a superlatively endowed porn star who got himself blackballed by the industry for a time for his drug-addled unreliability and became entangled with criminal associates who probably drew him into a drug heist. They targeted a major dealer who repaid Holmes’ confederates in what became known as the Wonderland murders, whilst Holmes himself died of AIDS in 1988. Anderson’s take mimics Holmes’ grindhouse tragedy whilst changing its emphases and investing it with tinctures of parable and satire. Anderson’s seemingly outrageous intent proved only skin deep, as he avoided not just punitive censorship, but also presented the second variation on his obsessive theme of finding family in a hostile world, ironically locating that family within a realm usually painted as cruel and obscene. Shocking things do happen in the film, and the flaws and hypocrisies of the characters are often laid brutally bare. Yet the peculiar warmth Anderson feels for them, the quietly lucid humour he invests in their behaviour, and the acknowledgement of an adolescent joie de vivre unleashed in their private world made for Anderson’s most accessible work to date.
Anderson’s view of the era through pop-coloured glasses is cleverly justified by the media-created fetishes of its young hero, Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), whose bedroom walls are a shrine to adolescent desire, from idolisation of Bruce Lee and kung-fu prowess to muscle cars and music heroes, with only a smattering of girly pictures. Eddie’s only special feature, his enormous penis, gets him laid often enough, so he craves fulfilment in other places, places his limited smarts can’t access. Eddie has hopes of finding entry into that bright and shiny world of celebrity and success and works at a flashy disco, Hot Traxx, run by Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), where he’s surrounded by the fashionable and beautiful. Luck, or something like it, is on Eddie’s side when porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) enters Hot Traxx one night with his stable’s two finest fillies, Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham). Jack spots Eddie across the crowded dance floor, sensing something about the lad, whose slightly naïve look doesn’t prevent him thinking Jack is another old perv who wants to take a gander at his wang. Eddie’s life in his parents’ home is quickly revealed to be excruciating, and a critical explosion of contemptuous rage by his mother (Joanna Gleason) drives Eddie to leave and run straight into Jack’s arms, where he joins Amber and Rollergirl as part of a pick-up nuclear family. Eddie soon proves as close to a natural in the business as it’s ever seen, and takes a stage name that comes to him as a vision emblazoned in neon: Dirk Diggler.
Anderson presents much of Boogie Nights as an extended fantasia where the kinky energy and specific needs of these aberrant people are channelled into powerhouse success that makes their dreams, however tawdry, come true. Anderson’s simplest yet most radical idea was to invert the usual moral lessons of stories set in such a milieu: as long as the characters stick to the basic understandings of their “family,” they survive and prosper. The familial relationship of Jack, Amber, Dirk, and Rollergirl is rendered especially perverse when one notes that all of them have sex with one another, save for Jack and Dirk. But most of the bad that happens to them is imposed by the big, wicked world beyond their hermetic life, where they’re mere delusional misfits, and when they try to reach beyond its limits, they are swiftly and mercilessly punished. Boogie Nights therefore explores a similar idea to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), which likewise viewed the rock bottom of the Hollywood totem pole as a place where society’s rejects can find fellowship, though with an in-built irony that these aren’t exceptional artists, but rather people who have gotten lucky mining a seam of gold nobody else will touch.
Jack entices Eddie with a monologue that explains not merely the immediate satisfactions of his business, but a yearning for loftier achievements—Jack’s desire to make a movie that can hold his audience from the raincoat brigade with actual dramatic values, and thus achieve respectability, not such a ludicrous ambition in the days of Emmanuelle (1974). Anderson thus used the golden-age porn scene as a way to comment on Hollywood and the filmmaking world in general, glimpsing the pretences of purveyors of the more elevated form through the ambitions of the least. Dirk proves to be the catalyst for Jack’s dream, as he becomes not just an instant star that Jack can build more ambitious productions around, but comes up with a great idea to make just such a movie as Jack dreams of. With stable mate Reed Richards (John C. Reilly), Dirk thinks up a hero named Brock Landers, a cross between James Bond and John Shaft and an actualisation of all Dirk’s fantasies about achieving multifarious grandeur as savvy jetsetter, streetwise tough guy, and legendary super-stud.
The warm embrace of Jack’s world has a duplicitous quality, as it offers freedom, but only in stasis. Those who try to move away from its orbit quickly discover how inimical the outside world is. This Garden of Eden clearly has its own serpents lurking from the start, too. Jack’s production manager Little Bill (William H. Macy) is quietly tormented by his wife’s (Nina Hartley) wholehearted engagement with the hedonistic lifestyle around her, a subplot that seems wryly comedic in portraying marital misinterpretation of modern licence, but soon reveals a cruel streak driving emasculated pathos to extremes. Horner’s backer, “the Colonel” James (Robert Ridgley, who had played Jack Horner in The Dirk Diggler Story) is the very image of the kind of sleaze who annexes ’70s permissiveness for his own unsavoury ends, whilst maintaining a façade of prosperous bonhomie. He first appears at one of Jack’s epic pool parties with a painfully thin, barely pubescent model in tow (Amber Hunter), and within a few minutes, the girl has OD’d on a bad batch of cocaine brought by another of Jack’s guests, who freaks out over the limp form with blood streaming out of her nose. The Colonel has his driver dump her outside a hospital. Later, the Colonel is arrested and imprisoned, unsurprisingly, for keeping a collection of child pornography, a sin which even the forgiving Jack can’t abide. The Colonel explains all to Jack through prison glass after he’s been arrested, Jack’s face screwing up in rueful fury and shutting himself off from the Colonel’s curiously naïve pleas. Cocaine proves to be Dirk’s dark muse, making him grandiose, paranoid, and intermittently impotent, eventually destroying his partnership with Jack after he feels threatened by a potential rival in Johnny Doe (Jonathan Quint). Dirk and Reed are drawn by a friend, stripper Todd Parker (Thomas Jane), into a drug-fuelled crime after their attempts to break into music are disastrous; the allure of easy cash breaks down what little good sense they have.
Boogie Nights is such a crowded, dazzling, busy film that it demands multiple viewings to comprehend every trick it pulls off. Anderson’s script resembles a short story collection bundled into an ingenious whole, a stunt that feels intent on mimicking Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) but with all-original material. The storylines are gleaned from real histories from the porn scene, but transmuted by imagination into something very different from the kind of roman-a-clef melodrama the process implies. Boogie Nights’ structure resembles Altman’s communal, multicharacter zones, but the style—a relentless, experiential push—owes far more to Scorsese, and particularly Goodfellas (1990), including the famous Copacabana tracking shot and cocaine-fuelled paranoia sequence. Anderson’s appropriation of Scorsese’s keynotes takes them a step further, charging them with encompassing force. The film’s first half is replete with dancelike tracking shots and rhythmically edited sequences that bind the criss-crossing and interaction of his characters into synergistic panoramas. Anderson uses steadicam shots that pace through Jack’s and Eddie’s houses to communicate a sense of open communality and functioning life. His camera pirouettes often pay off in punchlines like the whole Horner cast dancing Saturday Night Fever style upon the Hot Traxx dance floor, unified in the flashy, vivacious glory of their moment. Or Eddie’s early return home, when Anderson’s camera swivels 360, noting his festooned idols with a rock-and-roll version of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” blaring on sound, turning his gauche fantasies into contemporary worship.
As well as offering a multifaceted insight here into Eddie’s mindscape and the culture that defines him, Anderson finds a fun, hip way to communicate an idea that’s obsessed him more gravely in There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) that in America, business and the wares it propagates are religion—except that Eddie is a worshipper, whereas the protagonists of the later works are ministers. Boogie Nights’ vein of comedy moves smoothly from observational wryness to outright satire and then to pitch-black absurdity. All of Anderson’s films have a comedic edge, but usually it’s buried more deeply and rendered with a queasier tone, whilst Boogie Nights retains a larkish quality even as it takes turns toward seething darkness. Indeed, it gains power because these two impulses are entwined, mostly sourced in characters who have varying degrees of sweet dumbness or cluelessness about how to act in the world. Dirk’s oblivious side, his and Reed’s initial competitiveness and their later, mutual, blinkered boosting, offer character comedy laced with warnings about how badly they’ll fare when they try to go it alone, paying off in hilarious vignettes of the pair trying to start a recording career, wielding cringe-inducing cock-rock and wheezing off-key renditions of power rock anthems (Stan Bush’s “The Touch,” actually written for The Transformers: The Movie, 1986, never knew what hit it). Anderson’s deep lexicon of such half-forgotten pizzazz informs this pastiche of retro media artefacts. Boogie Nights may well have created a proliferating contemporary aesthetic dedicated to such recreations, chasing the elusive texture of those artefacts.
The film’s funniest vignettes are built around that mimicry, in Amber’s short film about Dirk, the solitary scene actually depicting the film crew at work, and the glimpses of the Brock Landers movies. These vignettes are precise in their reconstruction of weak edits, bygone methods of hype, wooden acting, and try-hard charm, reflecting back through a distorted mirror the way time can turn even the most outré material into amusing, deracinated relic at best or camp at worst (the stilted way Moore recites the line, “This is a giant cock!” deserved some kind of award on its own). And yet Boogie Nights was and is much more than a retro parody. Andersons’s career-long fascination with Americana and the peculiarities of subcultures are articulated with obsessive detail to a degree that borders on anthropology. The recreation here of the late ’70s vibe, from the tummy-hugger shirts to the fake-wood-panelled rooms, provides the surface credulity whilst articulating Anderson’s fascination with lifestyle as a mode through which his characters as citizens in a consumerist society express themselves, their desires, worldviews, even philosophical and religious impulses, ideas that would culminate in The Master, where religion, business, and lifestyle are all fused by the great American guru. At first, having cool things is Dirk’s religion, but Dirk, a seed in the same soil that produces the haute-capitalist brutality of Daniel Plainview and the transcendental hucksterism of Lancaster Dodd, giddily celebrates his victory at an adult film award ceremony by rejoicing in how his films have helped people, liberating them from sexual repression, his success now a way for everyone to achieve happiness.
Anderson’s nimbleness in avoiding depicting the very business that concerns him is cunning, turns necessary self-censorship into a game of concealment played with the audience until the very final scene, when Dirk’s dick is suddenly seen in all its glory. By then, the all-important penis is regarded not in action, as the weapon of culture-changing, orgasm-inducing potency that could link it to pagan phallic art, but presented like the kind of consumer object Dirk himself adores: he finally learns and accepts a not-so-pleasant truth, that his body is his only commodity. The one sequence depicting actual porn photography makes a show of its own evasiveness, by emphasising instead the transmutation of low-rent reality into mythology, via the wonderment, ranging from envy to lust, of the onlooking crew, and the filmmaking process itself. Moreover, the plot of the movie being shot sarcastically reflects the plot of Boogie Nights, as Dirk plays a young man auditioning for a porn producer played by Amber and finding immediate favour. Anderson’s obsession with the theme of master/pupil, father/son relations is here given its gentlest variation by turning Jack into the gruff, almost biblical patriarch and protector of his flock and Dirk into the prodigal son who falls from grace when he gets too big for his breaches, wanders the desolate wilderness for a while, then contritely returns to beg forgiveness.
Whilst Dirk’s story anchors the film, the galaxy of characters around him vie for attention, cast by life as well as by Jack as supporting players. They vary from comic relief, like Reed and TT, to characters of tragic dimensions, including Little Bill, Amber, whose ex-husband uses her profession as a barrier to her seeing their son, and Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a chubby, schlubby aide on the film crew who falls head over heels for Dirk. Anderson mostly avoids the doll’s house aesthetic this brand of Altman-inspired filmmaking often devolves to when it comes to his gallery of types, though he does get a little cute and unavoidably scant with some of his characterisations. Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker) was supposed to allow exploration of the domestic abuse many former porn starlets suffered once they tried to settle down with men outside the business, but with that subplot cut, she simply seems to be written out of the film when she proves to be superfluous. Don Cheadle’s Buck Swope, a hi-fi expert with a day job as well as one of Jack’s stars, is a black guy with a mysterious predilection for country music, a touch that might have been far too precious. But Anderson is even able to invest his tale with intricate meaning, as this joke about his character both highlight’s Anderson’s interest in lifestyle and self-definition and deepens when Buck finds himself cold-shouldered by banks for loans to start an electronics store, a business he knows inside out, as the Moral Majority backlash begins and his past stymies his future. Anderson somehow imbues most of the character vignettes with lodes of power that come out of nowhere, startling moments like Scotty tearfully repeating “I’m a fucking idiot!” after coming on to unresponsive Dirk, and Amber bawling after a custody hearing where her ex, John Doe, brands her as a scarlet woman — such moments are glimpsed and then shied away from, as if with a sense of guilt at having accidentally seen such scenes of exposed pain and humanity. Rollergirl drops out of high school, bewildered by an exam and sexually insulted by a classmate (Kai Lennox), and completely reinvents herself as a media creation who quite literally never takes off her roller skates.
After the relatively straightforward realism evinced in Hard Eight, Anderson’s rare gift for constructing intensely rhythmic, intricately detailed cinema emerges here. The tableaux-like set-pieces in the film’s first half, the summery pool party driven by a wandering camera that acts like a seemingly casually observant visitor who’s eye is attracted by various vignettes and then a bikini-clad bottom right into a pool (quoting Kolotozov’s legerdemain in I Am Cuba, 1964, and like that film depicting the end of an exploitative Eden). The fateful New Year’s Eve tragedy later in the film is an even more intricate nexus of staging and exposition. Moreover, such scenes depict how the characters connect, or fail to, and make choices about how to deal with life, from Scotty’s masochistic self-abuse to Little Bill’s homicidal explosion, and Buck connecting with sweet-natured costar Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters); all are not just linked but entwined with a cosmological sense of human becoming and failing. Amidst the microcosmic events that affect the lives of their employees, Jack and the Colonel and rival porn producer Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall, crucial actor of Anderson’s first three films) talk about what’s about to make the macrocosm shift. Gondolli warns Jack that video is about to change the porn industry, a notion Jack rejects vehemently as the death of what little pretence to artistry their industry has. From today’s perspective, with the internet having slaughtered porn as an industry, there’s some irony in this now, but also Anderson was also probably considering the first rumblings of the digital filming movement in the late ’90s and its looming impact on the art form he loves, couched in the terms of a character defending what craftsman’s self-respect he has. The New Year’s motif might have seemed excessive, and yet Anderson finally makes time itself and the inevitable shifts it causes part of the texture here, concluding with Little Bill’s murder-suicide as the bang that quite literally ends the ’70s and shifts the tenor of the film.
Perhaps Anderson’s signature directorial touch, an extended filmic movement intercutting depictions of the characters spiralling in islets of behaviour that see them push to hysterical extremes before hitting epiphanies, was first offered here in the film’s last third. Anderson entwines exiled Dirk, Jack, Amber, and Rollergirl hitting rock bottom in varying ways, from Dirk foray into male prostitution ending in a gay bashing, to Jack and Amber trying their hand at a kind of prototypical reality television as they ride about L.A. and pick up a random male to have sex with Rollergirl. Their lucky man proves to be the classmate whose teasing drove Rollergirl out of school, and when he perform badly, he insults her and Jack. Jack loses control and beast him to a bloody pulp, and Rollergirl gets a few of her own kicks in. The two acts of violence here are mutual—Jack and Rollergirl lashing out at an emissary of the world that absorbs their product but disdains them, and Dirk being singled out as a pervert to be punished. Michael Penn’s scoring of this movement, a low, throbbing, urging drone with chimes, as if time is ticking down toward some doomsday, is particularly great. Anderson charts two diverse reactions in his characters, as Dirk tries to prove himself in the outside world whilst Amber and Rollergirl retreat into a haze of drugged-up, mother-daughter mind-melding and decide they don’t want to leave a room within the safe confines of Jack’s house.
Degradation segues into confrontations with death and crime. Buck, caring for a very pregnant Jessie, enters a bakery only for a gunfight to break out around him when an armed robber enters: Buck is left splattered with strangers’ blood—he wears an angelic white suit, in a darkly arch Kubrickian joke—and frozen amidst corpses, but sees a chance to exit his personal perdition by snatching up the bag full of cash the robber dropped. Such an utterly random/contrived twist anticipates Anderson’s fascination with both narrative capriciousness and classical theatrical devices like the deus-ex-machina, as would again be used in the climax of his follow-up, Magnolia (1999). Boogie Nights’ late swerve into more familiar crime territory stymies to a certain extent the film’s masterful examination of its characters and their unusual world. But nobody could really expect Anderson to resist the ready-made climax the Wonderland case provided, albeit still subjected to his wayward sense of humour and gift for creating cringe-inducing situations. Todd talks Dirk and Reed into joining his hare-brained scheme to sell fake cocaine to dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), and then springs his actual intent to rob Rahad’s fortune.
The careful construction here as the deal becomes increasingly uneasy is beautiful, punctuated by precisely employed yet random-feeling details that work on the nerves like nails on a blackboard, in Rahad’s hopped-up friendliness and the firecrackers let off at random by his young Chinese houseguest (Joe G.M. Chan). Rahad swans about in a kimono, life scored by the blaring mix-tapes he makes in objection to the song-order artists impose on their work in yet another form of lifestyle self-management. The episode combusts with Todd and Rahad’s bodyguard (B. Philly Johnson) ending up very dead, and Rahad chasing Dirk and Reed off into the night with a shotgun, deadly crime and high farce commingling. Dirk returns to Jack and is accepted after admitting his faults, making for a suitably mythic catharsis. Dirk is a “big shining star” for all his foolishness. The final scene, an obvious tribute to the simultaneously pathetic and learned vignette of Jake LaMotta at the end of Raging Bull (1980), sees Dirk restored and reciting dialogue in character that once again nudges the theme of the film. Dirk may never become as slick and knowing as Brock Landers, but he has found some peculiar wisdom.
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Director: Michael Curtiz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Although director Michael Curtiz and the rest of the team involved with making Casablanca could not have known it at the time, this last line of dialogue from the film perfectly characterizes the love affair movie audiences have had with this quintessential World War II romance since it premiered on November 26, 1942, in New York’s Hollywood Theatre. During the war, audiences were hungry for news and stories about the war, and films like The Battle of Midway (1942) and Mrs. Miniver (1942) mixed with documentaries like The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), frankly racist anti-Axis cartoons, and newsreels to keep the public informed and morale high; Casablanca was timed to appear about the same time as the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8 and the presumed liberation of Casablanca itself. While other wartime films have lived on, none have generated the ardor fans feel for this story of “three little people” caught in a love triangle. What makes this film so compelling that it lands regularly among the top romances of all time?
Casablanca is much more than just a boy-meets-girl kind of romance, and to show that, I’m going to have to go all schoolmarm on you. The birthplace of most of the philosophies that guide Western societies is Greece, and the Greeks had four terms for the main types of love human beings experience: agape, eros, philia, and storge. Agape means love in a spiritual or humanitarian sense, wanting the good of another. Eros, the most common love in Hollywood romances, is the passionate love of longing and desire. Philia is more general and can extend to family, friends, or activities. Finally, storge is natural love, as by a parent for a child; importantly, Greek texts also use this term for situations people must tolerate, as in “loving” a dictator. Casablanca activates each of these forms of love, giving audiences a quadruple whammy of loves so powerful that the film has become the stuff of legend, with well-remembered quotes that distill the essence of these forms of love.
Let’s start with eros, the love that’s launched a thousand movies. The central love affair of the film is between Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), one so intensely romantic that it’s impossible to forget. Certainly, Rick’s passion for Ilsa is undying, but he keeps it under deep cover as he plays the morally indifferent, womanizing proprietor of Rick’s Café Americain, a far cry from the freedom fighter he had been when he met Ilsa in Paris weeks before the Nazis marched into that most romantic of cities. He has forbidden Sam (Dooley Wilson), the piano player he escaped Paris with on the day Ilsa abandoned him, from playing the couple’s song, “As Time Goes By.” When he hears it and races to scold Sam, he comes face to face with Ilsa, dewy-eyed with remembrance and longing for Rick. How many of us wonder at a fate that tears the thing we want most away from us (“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”) and then returns it transformed into an instrument of torture (“If she can stand it, I can. Play it!”).
It could be argued that the marriage between Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and Ilsa is an example of eros as well, and for Victor, that is probably true, though the parental role he played in Ilsa’s life might mean that his began as a storge kind of love. For Ilsa, the relationship is most definitely a complicated example of storge. Not only is her love more that of a child than a grown woman—and, to be frank, gender norms often cast women as children in an unequal balance of relational power—but also one of accustoming herself to a man for whom she has no real romantic feelings, something particularly acute once Ilsa and Rick are reunited. Victor has been through great hardship at the hands of the Nazis, but his greatest tragedy is poignantly communicated when he tells Rick that he knows they both love the same woman: “Apparently you think of me only as the leader of a cause. Well, I’m also a human being. Yes, I love her that much.”
Storge and philia are best exemplified by Louis Renault (Claude Rains), Casablanca’s French police captain. A functionary of the Vichy government, Renault is the ultimate survivor, making his way by having no convictions at all. Flattering Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a Gestapo officer who has been pursuing Laszlo since his escape from a Nazi concentration camp, Renault says, “We are very honored tonight, Rick. Major Strasser is one of the reasons the Third Reich enjoys the reputation it has today.” Strasser says, “You repeat Third Reich as though you expected there to be others!” In a deft sleight of hand that reveals his storge regard for France’s conquerers, Renault replies, “Well, personally, Major, I will take what comes.” Renault’s double meanings in dealing with Strasser are doubled by his philia love for Rick as a man of like mind, “the only one in Casablanca with less scruples than I.” Beneath their nonchalant exteriors, both nurture the love that conquers all in Casablanca—the love of humanity, agape.
Yes, the central love of Casablanca is agape after all. What sacrifice will the characters in this film not make for love of country, of humanity. It is this attachment to an ideal, to the thread that binds us all together at the most basic, spiritual level that resounds in generation after generation of movie fans. While there are incredible scenes of romantic love throughout Casablanca, led by Ingrid Bergman’s luminous presence and Humphrey Bogart’s commanding tenderness, the most soul-stirring scenes are explosions of agape, such as when Laszlo commands the combo at Rick’s to play “La Marseillaise” to counter the Germans singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” in celebration of their own camaraderie. The two songs are perfectly counterpointed in Curtiz’s editing and Max Steiner’s scoring, a symbolic battle of ideals to justify the sacrifices the film’s audiences and their proxies on the screen were then making on and off the battlefield. That this scene still resonates relates only in part to what modern audiences know about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis—the love of freedom is a love that’s bred in the bone.
Curtiz and the smart script by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch continually counterpoint the soul-shriveled with the virtuous. The murdering, greedy fixer Ugarte (Peter Lorre), whose possession of the letters of transit that could see Ilsa and Victor safely out of Casablanca constitutes nothing more than a get-rich-quick scheme, contrasts Rick’s motives in keeping the letters, a way to regain his lost love and not for sale to Victor at any price. Yvonne (Madeleine Lebeau), Rick’s jilted lover, perverts romantic love by keeping company with the German officers.
Yet both Rick and Yvonne let go of their bitterness when confronted with the power of agape. Yvonne joins in singing “La Marseillaise,” tears streaming down her face, and Rick utters his immortal speech as he sends Victor and Ilsa off to continue the fight in America: “I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” His eros love resolved and transformed by these paternalistic words into storge love, he has set Ilsa free to make her marriage a real one and found freedom for himself to return to a life that can express its love of humanity and perhaps, one day, to find romantic love again. Casablanca’s rare and wonderful ending leaves us not longing for the lovers to unite, but uplifted by the universal love that it so beautifully affirms.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gunn
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers:
The US summer blockbuster season has just passed, and what a dismal time it was for critics, audiences, and studios alike. A parade of banal sequels and listless franchise expansion have meant that some are seriously questioning just what Hollywood is good for right at the time when the mass cinema industry’s basic presumptions are being challenged. Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest in Marvel’s world-conquering, epoch-defining hits, was one of the few real critical and commercial bright spots of the season— an industry surprise considering the source comic’s lack of legacy and its deliberately volatile, tongue-in-cheek take on fantastic fare. The building blocks of Guardians seems at first glance to be quite a distance from Captain America’s boy scout decency or the PG naughtiness of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, offering a hero who seems to have nothing more going for him than the vocabulary, horniness, and general attitude problem of an ’80s movie delinquent and a talking racoon who likes taking out his confusion with a Gatling gun set in distant climes of classic space opera. But audiences seem to have been hungry for a little more bite and jollity in the genre, and Guardians has been generally received as a genuine throwback to the kind of goofy, audience-delighting hit that made the 1980s a rather good time to be a kid—or at least, that’s what the hype reported.
Director and cowriter James Gunn was not, at first glance, the kind of filmmaker one expected to score such a hit, as his biggest claim to fame prior to this was his dark, unstable farce Super (2011). That work subjected the superhero genre to aggressive deconstruction, exposing its heroes as stymied vigilante wingnuts and sexual fetishists out of their depth, essayed with a blunt and rather obvious method but managed with a spirit that made the film as entertaining as what it was satirising. Gunn emerged from the infamous, outrageous exploitation studio Troma and entered Hollywood writing Scooby-Doo (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) before making his directing debut with Slither (2006). Undoubtedly Gunn’s clear understanding of what he was kidding made Marvel hire him. The studio’s product has been, in the past two years since The Avengers (2012), devolving into bland and shapeless pablum, and new ingredients have definitely been required. Gunn’s writing partner on this film, Nicole Perlman, did script-doctor work on Thor (2011), still my favourite Marvel movie. The hope that something of Super’s corrosive spirit could be blended with Thor’s grandeur to create something as simultaneously wry and spectacular, knowing and unfettered as, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Flash Gordon (1980) rose in my heart.
Guardians kicks off with an unabashedly Spielbergian touch, in a prologue set in 1988: a young boy, Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff), is called in to his dying mother’s (Laura Haddock) hospital room to say goodbye to her. She leaves him a specific and peculiar gift: a mix-tape filled with all her favourite oddball pop hits. When she expires, Peter runs outside to grieve, only for a mysterious UFO to fly over and pick him up in a tractor beam. Twenty-odd years later, Quill (played as a grown-up by sitcom star Chris Pratt) is now a low-rent corsair and space stud zipping about the galaxy using the dodgy nom-de-guerre of Star Lord. He’s trying to escape the influence of his adopted father, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), leader of a band of pirates called Ravagers who picked up young Quill on a contract to deliver him to his real, mysterious father, but kept the kid and raised him as one of their band (sadly, no Pirates of Penzance jokes are forthcoming).
Quill snatches a chance to make himself rich when he locates a mysterious orb in a wrecked spaceship on a remote planet that every other goon and chancer in the galaxy is after. Yondu is incensed that Quill beat him to it and doesn’t plan cutting him in, whilst warrior Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and his henchmen fight Quill for it. Peter gives Korath the slip and heads to Xandar, a squeaky-clean intergalactic imperial hub that recently signed a peace treaty with the phlegmatic Kree race, after a protracted and bloody war. But once there, he’s immediately attacked by three rivals, one of whom, Gamora (Zoë Saldana), is after the orb. The other two, Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), are bounty hunters after Quill, but after a struggle in the streets of Xandar’s capital, all four are arrested by the peace-keeping Nova Corps, led by sarcastic Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and flung into a rough prison floating in space called the Kyln. Initially antagonistic and mutually contemptuous, Quill, Gamora, and the bounty hunters soon find themselves bound together by a mutual interest: money. Gamora hopes to make a fortune selling the orb to the omnivorous “Collector,” Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro) and offers the others a piece of the action, necessitating an escape plan.
The constituent parts of Guardians are interesting and occasionally spark, particularly the characterisation of Rocket, whose loyal companionship with Groot stems from their background as products of crimes against nature committed in some genetics lab. Rocket’s unstable, resentful, acidic take on the world around him is used to cover up some major existential pain that leads him at one point to nearly shoot up a bar full of people just to release his anger. Groot has a vocabulary limited to three words, “I am Groot,” with variations of intonation that only Rocket can understand in a ready jest on similarly opaque utterances by Chewbacca and R2D2 in the Star Wars films. Groot tends to express himself more through the language of his “body,” like when he releases glowing buds to swim in the air for both lighting purposes and a little symbolic commentary, and, most strikingly towards the end, when he sprouts a thicket of lush foliage to enfold and protect his friends from harm. For a more dramatic thicket of backstory, we have Gamora, whose body is a literal lethal weapon, trained since childhood along with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) by their adoptive father, intergalactic harbinger of doom Thanos (Josh Brolin), who destroyed their civilisations.
Somewhere along the line, however, Gamora rebelled. She pretends to be in the service of her father and chief bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) but actually intends to foil them. Nebula chases after her sister in an inevitable, quasi-sibling feud of mythic proportions. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a hulking alien Quill and the others meet in the Kyln who seeks revenge on Ronan for killing his family and signs up for any business that might lead him to his foe. Gunn’s referential framework here, likeably enough, can be seen as encompassing not just obvious touchstones like Star Wars and such predecessors in the space opera realm like Lensman and Buck Rogers, but also John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and some its pop culture children, most of which have appeared on TV—Red Dwarf, Lexx, and Futurama. There’s also some kinship with much more disreputable ’80s fare like Ice Pirates, The Last Starfighter, Night of the Comet (all 1984), and My Science Project (1986), half-clever, scrappy, rascally movies that blended genre fare with a pop spirit that ironically contrasted the traditionally weird and epic zones of scifi with characters still locked in mundane, earthly zones of understanding. Guardians has clear ambitions to annexing that tradition.
Well, that’s what Guardians of the Galaxy’s ambitions are. The film’s actual achievement is, by contrast, so minor that it counts as the biggest disappointment from a big movie I’ve had since Gravity (2013). How could I fail to like what’s clearly entertained audiences so fully? I don’t know. I’m desperate for good space opera. Perhaps therein in lies some of the problem. Guardians threw my mind back to the Pirates of the Caribbean films insofar as that, like those works, it’s overloaded with raw material that could make for truly great, weird, original adventure films—perhaps, indeed, too many because neither Pirates nor Guardians have any idea how to put them together. Guardians isn’t a traditional superhero story; in fact, it’s Marvel’s first work that, though based on a comic series and linked via plot elements like Thanos to other strands of the Marvel universe, represents new genre turf. Yet Guardians fails to escape the template Marvel has established of superfluous motivations and static characterisations, without any place of real interest to take its stories. The early films the studio put out had the advantage of being origin stories, a necessity in setting up superhero franchises that frustrates some comic book fans but helps make the phenomenon coherent for the rest of us. A maxim often bandied about in reference to the comic book genre is that second films are the best, because the business of setting up character and situation has been done and the sequel can hit the ground running.
But Marvel has been proving that maxim untrue, because their sequels have tended to be ramshackle hunks of fan service with plotting that is painfully superfluous. Even this year’s superior, but still highly overrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which tried to shift into new territory by borrowing a veneer of hard-boiled cynicism from ’70s thrillers, still readily descended into info-dump explanations and bland, bloodless action. Guardians is technically an origin story but tries to behave like a swinging sequel. Similarly, although Gunn makes many gestures toward placing his work in a grand tradition of zippy fun, the actual product he ends up with is a by-rote work with occasional touches of impertinence that fail to add up to anything substantial. Rather than a flow of loopy, inspired humour and madcap action, Guardians offers up zany ideas harvested from its source material and then lets them sit around serving no function. Guardians wants to act like the usual epic claptrap of its genre is mere background whilst playing up the idiosyncrasies of it heroes, but it remains enslaved to a banal edition of its genre as it overcompensates by stuffing in more plot elements and antagonists than it knows what to do with.
The biggest lack of Guardians is any faith—or even real interest—in storytelling. The early fight between Rocket, Groot, Quill, and Gamora on the streets of Xandar is a good example, simply allowing the three different plot strands/character groups to collide on the street. The prologue sets in motion a theoretical sense of longing for family that Quill gains through his new compadres and invests plentiful melodramatic thrusts to give the story some charge. Yet Guardians’ attempts to get emotional and exciting flounder without ever feeling urgent or convincing. The team comes together and becomes inseparable mostly because that’s what the story demands they do, without much effort put in to developing convincing camaraderie: we go from Rocket drunkenly threatening to kill everyone to superfriends real fast and a couple of low-rent group bickering sessions. The closest we get to a scene of real emotional bonding, touching almost on a love scene (that verboten thing in this perpetually preadolescent genre), comes when Quill and Gamora take a timeout so they can share backstory, delivered in lumpen stare-into-the-middle-distance manner. Guardians lopes from scene to scene without a clear sense of direction. Drax summons up Ronan and his legions for no better reason than the film needs a bit more banging and blasting at that juncture. We spend ages waiting for our heroes to encounter the perverse Collector. The moment they reach his lair, the film swerves ridiculously as one of Tivan’s servants (Ophelia Lovibond) tries to master the infinity stone to escape his influence and instead causes a big bang in a twist that feels less like a radical blindsiding to keep us on our feet than a clumsy waste of time and money.
Imagine getting an actor of Del Toro’s calibre and wasting him like that. In fact, Guardians stands as an incidental monument to the decadent lack of interest in the talent Hollywood has its disposal in the age of the FX blockbuster. Fine actors—Glenn Close! John C. Reilly! Benecio del Toro! Josh Brolin! Djimon Hounsou!—are hurled into the mix and then given absolutely nothing to do. The film even makes a show of this by casting Vin Diesel as a tree that only speaks three words. Quill’s status as intergalactic lady’s man and arrested-development miscreant might have been funnier if J. J. Abrams’ take on James T. Kirk hadn’t already done basically the same thing. Having him flip the bird to the Nova Corps whilst getting a mug shot taken scarcely constitutes investing him with a lode of real character and comes across like a rebellious gesture that’s been relentlessly examined and finally approved by a corporate strategy meeting that thinks it’s being edgy.
Similarly, Gunn throws up the comic’s wacky ideas—a crazy anthropomorphic racoon! a space hero who’s a total scrub!—and expects us to find them outrageously entertaining and not pay any attention to how little invention has gone into the stuff that surrounds them. For instance, in Ice Pirates, a film usually written off today as an example of what could go wrong with the ’80s fantasy template, there’s a genuinely inspired aspect to the final battle, which takes place in the midst of a time warp where the heroes pass through a lifespan’s worth of events in a few minutes even as they charge about trying to defeat the bad guys. Even the ramshackle charms of Flash Gordon sported more real wit, like the impromptu football match in Ming’s throne room that entwined a great, specific joke about culture shock with slapstick humour. By comparison, Guardians has a dismaying lack of cleverness for all its enhanced budget and technical advantages.
Gunn and Perlman’s script does throw up some wisecracks that are pretty funny: the most edgy and unexpected comes when Quill, responding to Gamora’s peevish complaint that his spaceship is filthy, tells his other new friends, “Oh she has no idea. If I had a black light this’d look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” But the humour doesn’t add up to much. There are great long patches without anything particularly amusing going on, and really only the fanciful effects that give us Groot and Rocket distinguish them from comic-relief characters in decades worth of second-string westerns. Drax comes from a race that speaks in vaguely medieval fashion but has no understanding of metaphor, a potentially fertile idea for comedy, but the script develops the idea lazily (apparently though Drax can’t comprehend figures of speech like “over your head,” he has no problem using simile). Pace’s Ronan is supposed to be a fearsome figure of genocidal intent and deep wells of resentment behind his status as a vengeful extremist, but he arrives on screen as basically the same glowing-eyed, hooded bad guy Christopher Ecclestone played in Thor: The Dark World (2013). At the outset, we see Gamora close to Ronan, but what side she’s really on isn’t questioned for any narrative intrigue, whilst the relationships are spat at us by the movie without much care for impact or how we connect them, such as who Thanos is, what his connection to Ronan is motivated by, what Gamora and Nebula’s relationship was before Gamora’s treachery.
The film’s simultaneously flippant yet somehow witless take on employing generic niceties keeps the story from ever seeming important, and thus there’s no vitality to the inevitable wham-bam climax. Guardians makes an outright joke of the obvious McGuffin status of the object that motivates the plot, the orb which holds an “infinity stone,” a source of immense, primeval power. As Quill says, “It’s got a real shining-blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.” Rather than amusing me with the plain cheek of this self-referential jive, though, this line highlighted how fed up I am with blockbusters that can’t sustain a proper storyline or be bothered investing real stakes in a plot that connects convincingly to the heroes’ predicaments. Similarly, the film’s soundtrack is replete with the hits that feature on Quill’s inheritance, his mix-tape, utilised as an ironically jaunty soundtrack in place of the usual blaring Wagnerian stuff. There is inherent fun to watching Quill dance across an alien landscape to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” or planning battle to the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” But again I felt after a while that the music was being used to disguise the film’s lack of imagination and skill: the songs are patched over the sequences rather than carefully wound into them, unlike, for recent example, the ingenious deployment of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” during the best scene in the otherwise insipid X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). The film tosses out what it sets up as a clever escape sequence in the Kyln, as Rocket lists required objects, only for Groot to almost sabotage it by casually snatching one object and setting off anarchy, and the would-be clever sequence dissolves into so much visual white noise.
What Gunn is trying to do here is actually quite difficult, certainly more difficult than he seems to have realised. It’s certainly not impossible: the action-adventure film that satirises itself as it goes along whilst not deflating the excitement. Look at a really great predecessor that did this sort of thing: the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The careful deployment of information, the steadily constructed tension, hints of character, unfolding of incident. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) nailed exactly the mix this film is after, veering blithely between high myth and low comedy, timeless thrills and fleeting insouciance, as did just about any Hong Kong action of the ’80s. Gunn’s work isn’t particularly interesting visually, zipping by its alien landscapes as just so much more CGI fodder without a sign of wonder or investment in the fantastic, betraying the film’s references to Star Wars and the like as the smarmy pretensions of a second-rate jokester. The film’s action scenes are big and expensive and noisy, and yet remarkably dull, failures as cinematic spectacle just as the script fails at satiric comedy. There’s an odd moment in the final battle when a bunch of spaceships join together like a giant Lego set to form a kind of net to catch Ronan’s ship. This is another striking idea, one that comes out of nowhere, performed by a bunch of characters whose presence in the film has been vague at best. Guardians tries to have its cake and eat it, but doesn’t know how to bake and can’t chew.
To me, the film’s one real flash of excitement came when Gamora and Nebula finally meet in battle, a conflict where, for all the weaknesses in its set-up, at last showed a buzz of emotional investment in the fight and the sight of physical dynamism in the actresses and their stunt stand-ins that is the essence of this type of cinema. But even this doesn’t count for much because it’s over before you know it and only ends with a set-up for a sequel (isn’t everything?), and it’s thrown into the mix with about 15 other vignettes pieced together without much intelligent scene grammar. Finally, right at the end, something of Guardians’ ambitions came to fruition in Groot’s final sacrificial action, and the borderline-mystical joining of the ragtag team who become the eponymous Guardians by virtue of their exceptional weirdness, as well as pith, to defeat Ronan with the infinity stone. Pratt does give Star Lord his all, and he could well be a promising action-comedy star. This and the black-out gag featuring a dancing baby groot almost convinced me that I hadn’t wasted my time. And yet, it is easy to understand why Guardians been such a big hit, and I can’t even discount the possibility that some day it will be as big an object of cult veneration as the ones it invokes. Either way, my personal, dismal movie-going year continues unabated.
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