A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Mike Smith gave an interesting talk at a local library about the history of the Academy Awards that featured clips from several Best Picture winners representing different eras of filmmaking. He chose the much-honored The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) to represent the World War II era, and commented that while American audiences today seem to need several years to pass before a film can address an important historical event such as 9/11 or Columbine, no such time lag existed for previous generations. Particularly during World War II, movie audiences got dispatches from the various fronts through newsreel footage that spared no one the horrors of war. With the immediacy of the war touching large numbers of Americans, feature filmmakers felt both a freedom and an obligation to present their war stories with the same unflinching reality. The Best Years of Our Lives, released right after the end of the war and dealing with the challenges of repatriated veterans, did nothing to sugarcoat the difficulties faced by double-amputee Harold Russell, who won an Oscar for his affecting portrayal of a soldier coming to terms with the loss of his hands and how his disability will affect the rest of his life.
In a similar vein, The Story of G.I. Joe premiered in June 1945, a mere two months after the death of its central character, Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent who was mowed down by machine gun fire on an island near Okinawa four months before the end of the war in the Pacific. Like illustrator Bill Mauldin, who concentrated on the lives of the ordinary “dogfaces” fighting the war on the ground in his cartoon “Willie and Joe,” Pyle attached himself to the infantry and wrote in plain-spoken style about the lives and deaths of the various G.I. Joes he met. The Story of G.I. Joe, a mournful one if ever there was, can be looked on as a public display of grief for a man who dignified the pain and loss of so many Americans.
The film focuses on C Company, 18th Battalion, a small outfit stationed in North Africa. The CO, Lt. Walker (Robert Mitchum), has to deal with two stowaways. One is Pyle (Burgess Meredith), who approaches him and asks to ride with the company to the front. The other is a stray puppy one of the younger soldiers has tucked into his jacket at the back of the truck. Walker orders little Arab off the truck, but ultimately relents as both Pyle and Arab become unofficial members of the company. This sweet moment is almost immediately shattered when enemy planes swoop down on the company. The men follow their training and scramble for cover while the gunner remains on the truck to shoot at the planes. After the attack, they reassemble, only to discover that Arab will need a new master. It’s a slightly predictable, but nonetheless wrenching moment. “The first death’s the hardest,” says Walker, in understated acknowledgment that there will be more. When the company hunkers down in the evening, we get a sense of the cold desert nights, as Pyle wraps up tightly in the sleeping bag he carries, and Pvt. Murphy (John R. Reilly), too tall for the Air Force, extends his long legs outside his tent, letting a draft in on his complaining tent mate.
As with a real company, men are killed and new ones rotate in. As the soldiers’ identities get obscured by quick succession, beards, mud, and rain, it’s hard to tell one from another. The film provides a core group of soldiers with character-defining behaviors to help us stay connected—‟Wingless” Murphy, horny Pvt. Dondaro (Wally Cassell), family man Sgt. Warnicki (Freddie Steele), dependable Pvt. Spencer (Jimmy Lloyd)—as they manage to survive actions from North Africa to Italy. But it is Ernie Pyle who forms the strong center of the movie. Pyle functions as something of a Greek chorus, which normally would relegate him to the sidelines, particularly as he drops in and out of C Company as his war coverage takes him all over the map. However, Wellman manages to keep him at the forefront, giving audiences familiar with his written dispatches a sense that they are still seeing the war through his eyes. Wellman performs this sleight of hand in a number of ways. For example, Ernie waits with little Arab for the remnants of the C Company veterans with whom he started his “tour” to return from a rain-soaked battle; like Ernie, we don’t see the battle, only its aftermath. We feel the weariness of the men as they come back, one by one, and perform their after-battle rituals, and wince with open emotion along with Ernie and Arab when one of them doesn’t return. In addition, Ernie earns the nickname “the little guy,” putting him on even footing with the troops, and is acknowledged every time he returns to C Company as one of them.
The Story of G.I. Joe doesn’t offer a strong chronology or an orderly passage of time. True to the experience of the GIs, the war just keeps going, and the soldiers keep going with it. The grim conditions are occasionally lightened, even during battle. In a tense sequence where Walker and Warnicki are hunting three German snipers holed up in a ruin of a church, the Americans dart in and out, laying down covering fire and counting with happy grins of camaraderie when one of the Germans falls. During the same action, Dondaro ducks into an inn where he comes face to face with a young Italian woman (Yolanda Lacca). He speaks her language, and the entire scene takes place in Italian with no subtitles. After the battle, Warnicki attempts to find a record player for a recording his wife sent him of their son saying hello. He gestures to the Italians, rotating his finger in a circle to show what he’s looking for, but instead of a turntable, one of them returns with a coffee grinder. What wonderful touches of realism and human connection!
A sense of futility descends frequently. As American troops are pinned down by Germans perched in the culturally significant monastery of Monte Cassino, Warnicki, a Catholic, says he’d rather live for his family than die for a piece of rock. When Allied bombers at long last appear to destroy the monastery, the GIs cheer, only to discover that the rubble of the monastery is as useful a position for the Germans as the intact building was. Eventually, Warnicki loses his battle with the demons in his own head and is shipped off to a psych hospital, a reminder, perhaps, of Pyle’s near crack-up. The question comes up frequently about why Pyle stays when he could go home, a question he can’t seem to answer for himself. The film betrays nothing of his troubled home life, but broken marriages aren’t skimmed over, as Walker’s split is signaled economically when he receives no letters from his wife during mail call.
The central performances of Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum form a strong core for the action going on around them. Meredith, age 38 at the time, seems rather older than the 43rd birthday he celebrates in the film, but as Steven Spielberg said when he talked about casting Saving Private Ryan (1998), the faces were older back then; 43 in the 1940s could look like 63 today. Meredith carries the gravity of those years, the quiet patience and unembarrassed emotion of a person secure in himself, and remains present but unobtrusive throughout the film. Mitchum has always seemed grizzled beyond his years to me, but in this film, he not only looks his age (28), but also acts it as a man barely old enough to lead a command of men not much younger than he is. He is world-weary when he talks about having to write condolence letters to relatives of his fallen troops, but the scene ends rather innocently with Ernie waxing philosophic, only to turn and find Walker has fallen asleep. The two actors work beautifully together and build a relationship that feels solid and genuine.
Although relieved by actual war footage, the sound stage shooting threatens to undermine the reality of the unfolding story. Fortunately, Wellman had such a good grasp on the rhythms of ground warfare and paid such close attention to detail that the film never loses its grip. For example, ensuring bodies retrieved from a battlefield show signs of rigor mortis not only adds veracity to a scene, but also defies those heroic final speeches dying soldiers always seem to have time to spit out before their eyes flutter and their heads drop abruptly to the side. The soldiers carry their rifles butt-up in the rain to prevent water from going down the barrel. There is no final victory to end the film on a high note either, only Ernie Pyle’s gut-twisting final line: “For those beneath the wooden crosses, there is nothing we can do, except perhaps to pause and murmur, ‘Thanks pal, thanks.’” Given Pyle’s vain hope that the horrors he has reported will convince nations not to make war again, that “thank you” belongs to the men and women who served alongside the fallen soldier, not to those of us who have risked nothing. We, it seems, have not learned any lessons at all.
A young man in a suit and tie walks up a tree-lined path. Passing through a gate marked Poplar Lodge, the man emerges on a green dotted with Adirondack chairs and fountains as a dreamy musical refrain scores his movements. A great house stands before him at the end of a wide plaisance. He descends a short, stone staircase and passes by the benches where the odd person sits reading. A long-haired woman watches him through a grated window in the great house as he approaches.
The young man is ex-GI Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty), and he tells Bea Brice (Kim Hunter), the administrator with whom he has a job interview, that he has always been curious about Poplar Lodge, an exclusive mental hospital for the rich that has stood in his home town for as long as he can remember. Brice shows him around the facility, starting with the worst patients, so locked inside their own heads that they probably don’t need to be locked in the rooms that contain them. She then brings him to the day room, where the more socialized patients play games, read, and converse. Warning him the work is hard and ill-paid, Brice hires him on the spot to train as an occupational therapist.
Lilith, Robert Rossen’s final film, represents quite a departure for him. Rossen, known for writing such gritty films as Edge of Darkness (1943) and Body and Soul (1947), and writing and directing the classic films All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961), hadn’t made a film in three years. He was seriously ill when he started work on Lilith, and had nothing but trouble with Warren Beatty on the set. This time in film history belonged to a new generation with new, more inward-looking concerns, and Beatty was perhaps the king of the silver screen’s sensitive, troubled young men. Lilith can be seen as a veteran director trying to move with the times, and coming face to face not only with his own obsolescence and pending death, but also perhaps with some deep-seated regrets.
Vincent (suggesting the mad Vincent Van Gogh) has returned from the Korean War a changed man. Laura (Jessica Walter), his fiancée before he left, gave up on him when he stopped writing to her and married a rough salesman named Norman (Gene Hackman), someone she apparently never stops comparing to the handsome, sweet Vincent. Vincent doesn’t have a reason for why he stopped writing when they run into each other at a bus stop one rainy day. He simply wants to find a place and purpose again.
He makes a good start at Poplar Lodge, encouraging Yvonne (Anne Meacham), a nervous socialite, to leave her room, and befriending the shy and staid Stephen (Peter Fonda). Stephen is infatuated with Lilith (Jean Seberg), the blonde who watched Vincent from her room in the opening scene, praising her flute playing with admiration that she made the flute herself. Stephen longs to be as creative as Lilith, to win her favor, but the young woman only has eyes for Vincent. Seemingly miraculously to the healthcare workers who have been attending Lilith for some time, she comes out of her barred room and socializes freely, even going on a picnic with the group, with Vincent and Stephen her constant companions. Eventually, Lilith seduces Vincent, and they carry on a passionate affair behind the backs of everyone but Yvonne, Lilith’s other lover. Lilith, the ultimate hippie chick, wants to love everyone. Vincent’s possessiveness, however, is bound to lead to tragedy.
It is hard to imagine a more intimate film than Lilith, filled as it is with passion and cradling nature redolent of the Garden of Eden where the mythic Lilith stood as an equal with Adam. Sexuality becomes animalistic as Lilith makes love with Yvonne in a barn and then takes an enraged Vincent in her embrace, a further connection with the sexually defiant Lilith of lore. Rossen, a progressive Jew whose membership in the Communist Party in the 1930s would lead to a two-year blacklisting in the 1950s, must have identified with this defiance in a heroine who, like another strong heroine he created, Martha Ivers in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, would be destroyed.
While water is a constant throughout the film, a standard metaphor for the unconscious, it is used with the utmost expression and specificity. The gentle rain through which Vincent and Laura catch up mirrors the too-temperate relationship that no longer interests a sensitive man exposed to the horrors of war. During the picnic, Lilith, Vincent, and Stephen wander near a river with cascading rapids. Intensely white and foaming, beautiful and dangerous, the rapids are the embodiment of Lilith’s allure for both men, contained by tangible borders but churning excitedly within them. Later, wading into a calm part of the river, Lilith dares to look directly at her reflection, an evocation of Narcissus, son of a river god and a nymph whose disdain for the love of others was his ruin.
Lilith is hardly a calculating seductress, but her disturbed mind fails to look very far outside of herself. She cannot recognize the depth of Stephen’s or Vincent’s feelings, and changes her affections as simple-mindedly as a child drops one toy for a new one. Vincent’s jealousy causes him to lie to Stephen, with deadly results. Perhaps Rossen was feeling pangs over naming names to the HUAC committee, and Vincent’s recognition of his own cankerous psyche forms the final piece of his personal puzzle.
Rossen is very good at directing his actors to maintain the fragile edge between sanity and madness. Peter Fonda plays Stephen with a childlike simplicity to suggest his delicate condition; this choice seems a little wrong-headed to me, but I felt an irritation with him that tracks with how it might be to spend time with someone who is not all there. Perhaps symptomatic of his conflicts with Rossen, Beatty doesn’t appear to be all that unstable. He does seem to be drifting until he finds purpose in helping the patients, but his growing obsession with Lilith seems more like genuine love, as the pair spends time alone riding horses and bicycles, flirting gently, and loving vigorously. That he is involved with a patient certainly signals a dangerous recklessness, but when the patient is the beautiful Jean Seberg, it doesn’t seem all that mad after all.
Seberg is luminous in this film, every bit the mythic muse of her character and her own legend. She plays to Rossen’s camera angles and lighting, looking at once angelic and then lunatic. Her sensuality burns the screen with its honesty, and she carries herself with a natural grace that adds to the elemental force of the film. It is possible to see the actual depth of her affections for Vincent, so well does she give and withhold simultaneously. Seberg acknowledged Lilith as her favorite movie, and it’s easy to see why from her complex and satisfying performance.
A Blu-ray of Lilith is supposed to be available in March, but early reports are that the transfer is a little soft. Because of the visual splendor of the film, something will be lost if you don’t get a chance to see it in a pristine print, as I did. Nonetheless, this film is well worth seeing in almost any condition for the interesting performances and as an excellent representation of 60s style filmmaking.
Tabu commences with a peculiar, droll vignette that refers to the days of Europe’s exploratory excursions into Africa. An adventurer in compulsory pith helmet treads forth into the wilds with native guides and porters, beating paths through the grass and leading columns through jungle and savannah as the image of the valiant penetrator of the unknown, armed with the nominal presence of the King, in the form of an empowering letter of proxy authority, as well as God, in his Bible. The explorer is, in spite of his noble mission, depressed and listless, driven on less by imperial ambition than by heartache. He’s pursued by the wraith, or fond hallucination, of his deceased wife, who blankly hovers over him when he rests and describes him as “poor and lost soul” when he decides to die if he can’t escape his heart’s pain. So the explorer walks into a river and is devoured by a crocodile, whilst his bearers dance in celebratory fashion; later, the legend of a ghostly woman with a crocodile at her feet haunting the region arises. This anecdote seems to have nothing to do with what follows except that it shares all its common themes: the troubled relationship between Europe and Africa, the sense of lovelorn melancholy, the immediacy of life and death and the strange way these phenomena commingle in the human soul, and the symbol of the crocodile, the glowering, toothy beast that becomes emblem for the latent animal passion in humankind, constantly at odds with its self-imposed attempts to cage it.
Tabu’s second movement leaps to contemporary Portugal, a fatigued, dully modern place where life is literally compartmentalised, squared off in safe bubbles of vacuously comfortable apartment living. Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is a 50ish woman who works with activist groups and occasionally provides lodgings for backpackers. She goes to the airport to meet a new lodger, a Polish girl named Maya who’s been travelling in South America. But a young traveller, who has a stilted conversation with Pilar in English, their common language, tells her that Maya decided to change her itinerary and hasn’t come. The young woman, of course, is actually Maya, a fact revealed with ruthless mirth as her companions shout her name to make her hurry up even as she’s still smiling politely at Pilar, who has decided to stick with younger friends. Pilar is devoutly religious and conscientious, taking refuge in providing solace and aid to others, but also excruciatingly lonely and frustrated. She sees movies and goes on adventures sometimes with a portly artist, who has a crush on her and makes an aborted attempt at a declaration of love, but Pilar secretly dislikes his abstract paintings and only hangs up the ones he’s given to her when he comes to her place.
On New Year’s Eve, Pilar watches fireworks from her balcony and listens to the sounds of distant parties. She is friends with a neighbour in her apartment block, the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), who’s looked after by a nurse, Santa (Isabel Cardoso), an African immigrant actually employed by Aurora’s absent daughter, a marine biologist working in Canada. Pilar rescues Aurora from a casino where she’s lost all her money, and not for the first time: in spite of a promise not to return to the casino, Aurora had ventured again because of a premonition she had in a dream. Aurora, at the outset retaining hints of charisma and autonomy, begins to spiral toward decrepitude and senility, accusing Santa of trying to impose voodoo curses on her. As Aurora worsens and is hospitalised, she rambles on about an escaped crocodile, imploring her companions to search for it in the houses of apparently imaginary neighbours, and makes a request to Pilar to find one of them, named Gian Luca Ventura. Pilar finds Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) in a nursing home and brings him to Aurora’s funeral. Afterward, when they have lunch in a shopping mall, Gian Luca begins to explain his and Aurora’s shared history.
Tabu maintains a deceptively pokerfaced style, exacerbated in the second half as it shifts to historical drama rendered as a virtual silent movie, with only the older Ventura’s voiceover and the omnipresent trill of insects to disturb the passage of dumb-show theatrics. Under the film’s quiet surface is a synergistic flow of seemingly offhand ideas that coalesce into an ever-deepening, fascinating drama of time, not merely as a personal experience, but also a cultural one. Tabu seems to belong to a distinctive strand of Portuguese narrative art, recently exemplified by Raul Ruiz’s film of Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel Mysteries of Lisbon, in its preoccupation with exploring, rather than merely employing, history and storytelling as ambivalent zones of knowing and repositories of truth, sometimes imperceptibly and yet always vitally entwined with the present reality.
Much of the beauty of the film’s first half comes from the exactness of writer-director Miguel Gomes’ feel for character types, and the film’s initial mood is defined by the omnipresent pall of frustration and solitude that afflicts the main characters, particularly Pilar, depicted in casual, but exacting detail as a study of an everyday tragic. Pilar inhabits a zone of ready empathy and pathos in her typicality, as an increasingly invisible middle-aged woman who exists on the fringe of many contemporary scenes without ever holding the centre. She’s brushed off at the start by a young person who wants to hang out with other young people. Her male friend/admirer is an entertaining companion who suppresses romantic affection for her, but he is nonetheless a problematic personality too different for her to respond to with immediate inclination. He falls asleep during a movie, leaving her mired in weeping solitude, and then later makes a clumsy overture of affection that he then quickly retreats from, leaving Pilar more confused than ever. Pilar’s selflessness is admired by all: even the recalcitrant Maya, whom Pilar later trudges past when she’s canoodling with a boyfriend, enthuses over Pilar’s generosity.
Pilar’s saintly solicitude counters Santa’s nearly taciturn demeanour, as Santa bears the racist-tinted suspicion of the increasingly paranoid Aurora and the nosey concern of Pilar with businesslike cool, as she holds to the course dictated by the status of her job. Santa’s unease with language is depicted, as she’s learning Portuguese and bounding to the top of the class thanks, ironically, to reading that prototypical imperialist text Robinson Crusoe at bedtime. The racial tension and role awareness extant between Aurora and Santa introduces a theme that pays off as the film’s perspective shifts to the past, as Aurora’s ease at bossing around her black nurse like a maidservant hints at a past spent in lordly command. But the degree to which the worm has actually turned is apparent, as Santa enforces the regime imposed on Aurora by her absentee daughter to keep her on a tighter leash after her last casino venture, the former colonised now the coloniser, serving/imprisoning the waning remnant of a departed raj. Pilar, whilst dipping toes in activism, internationalism, and artistic bohemia, seems deeply and definably unhip as a steady pillar of stolid faith and square, unfashionable values. She replaces her would-be lover’s painting with a cosy landscape and prays each night before going to sleep in her lonely bed. Yet there’s something about Pilar that refuses reduction to a twee bystander in her own life, in part indicated by her selflessness and the regard others have for her and confirmed by the rapturous, luminously poetic prayer that she recites at bedtime. When Pilar attends a protest rally against the UN, she recites her prayer during a silence that baldly and hilariously contrasts the witless chant the crowd recites.
This scene, rendered in one, slow zoom closing in on Pilar’s stoic visage, is brilliant, illuminating with enriching wryness the way humanitarianism has supplanted and become a religion for many, whilst perceiving how it offers stolid pieties and studied outrage in place of the rhapsodic power and poetic fullness still apparent in Pilar’s worldview. There’s a hint of irony here, as Gomes actively contends with the losses and gains of any historical moment, contrasting the smallness of much of modern life with the lost grandeur, poeticism, and romanticism of the past; but the past is rendered not necessarily as a lost golden age either. Similarly, present here is a hovering awareness of the way age reduces people from creatures of fecund sense to wearied circumspection, and the crossing point between the two can come and go in the blink of an eye, never to be regained. Aurora is the avatar for this notion, as the film examines her final weeks and then loops back to explore her past in an unexpected pirouette of focus and meaning. Like Aurora, Ventura proves to have been supplanted by a descendant. His house is occupied by a young spiv with key chain and sweatshirt, who theorises that his great-uncle now no longer occupies his house because “he went bonkers.” Pilar goes to the nursing home where the old man has been deposited, sitting in a waiting room whose sterile cul-de-sac quality is all the better communicated for being unexaggerated in its blank modern emptiness. When she extracts Ventura, she’s confronted with a snowy-haired gentleman who wears a weathered old hat that rests like a totem on his head, redolent of a fascinating past. After Aurora’s funeral, Pilar and Santa go to eat with Ventura in a shopping mall cafeteria, and Gomes’ drifting camera almost casually transforms the place, through the potted plants of the mall’s indoor garden, into an anticipatory simulacrum of jungle, the humdrum suddenly taking on a charge of the authentically exotic.
Aurora’s and Ventura’s shared past, as he explains it, goes back to colonial Africa of the early 1960s, whereupon the second part of Tabu commences, shocking as it reaches a climax, even as certain aspects are inevitable. The person Aurora once was is now revealed in sometimes unflattering detail: a strident planter’s daughter who was world-famous as a hunter, a mischievous, imperious, and occasionally cruel personality under the surface of her cool beauty, redolent of a coddled upbringing. Gian Luca was a playboy who washed up in Africa after meeting Mario (Manuel Mesquita), an adventurous jack of all trades who had once trained to be a priest; after getting a job with a mining company, Gian Luca became a fixture in the colonial community. In this fashion, Gian Luca was eventually introduced to Aurora, who had recently been married to a pleasant young member (Ivo Müller) of the local pseudo-aristocracy. The real incident behind the older Aurora’s rambling about an escaped crocodile proves rooted in the crucial incident that brought her and Gian Luca together: the crocodile was a baby, a present given to her by her husband, and its occasional escapes usually saw it ending up in a pool at Gian Luca’s house, where their mutual attraction soon erupted in a clandestine affair. The affair flourished in spite of, and in fact partly fuelled by, her pregnancy by her husband and the oncoming plunge into the immobility of motherhood that rendered Aurora even more reactive than usual: when one of her family’s cooks, a reputed juju man, predicted the pregnancy and that Aurora would eventually die alone and bitter, she sacked him.
Tabu, like many works of modern narrative art, is as much about its own telling as it is a story told, but the great final effect of Tabu is in how concisely it dovetails the impulses to both tell and make a show of the telling. The flow of Gian Luca’s speech is rarefied and yet riveting, reproducing the intended effect: the older Ventura’s soft-spoken narration underscores the action, rendered at once remote and ironic by the lack of dialogue, but unfolding with the curious grace and immediacy of personal anecdote. The film’s contrast between the humdrum realism of Pilar’s story and the historical romanticism and melodrama of Aurora’s could have become arch, but Gomes’ strict control and sense of humour are mediated through his stylistic choices. The change in film stock in the shift from contemporary to period setting evokes the past through a rougher prism, albeit one that is often more immediate, communicative of grittier, fleshier textures. The point underlying this is the notion that we in the present—any present—experience the past either through memory or through the remnant self-representation of the period—any period—and the effect of the artifice becomes ingrained with the meaning. An early scene in the Pilar half of the film, in which the artist first appears, depicts the duo as part of a tour group being shown through underground catacombs by a rambling guide who tells them theoretical details about the place—that maybe it was once used by Romans and Moors—but then reminds them that “what I’m telling you is stories, not facts,” provoking the artist to finally rebel and shout out, “Why do you keep talking such crap?” Pilar cracks up in hilarity, the only time she does so, and whilst the artist is himself hardly idealised, his comedic abuse evokes Gomes’ conviction that the past can only be reconceived and brought to life by the complex interplay of evidence and artistry. Gomes recreates the alien strangeness of early ethnographic documentaries in an early scene where the explorer’s porters begin to dance for the camera after the explorer commits suicide, recreating the gaze of the colonial project only to turn it back on itself.
Tabu’s mastermind has made a film in part about colonialism, though with an infinitely lighter touch than the shrill overtones that subject usually invokes, and suggests the commencement of a cycle playing out its last gasps in depicting the death of the last generation of colonial survivors. The world glimpsed in Tabu’s second-half flashback is engaged in the early processes of epochal shift, as civil war and the end of the direct colonialist project in Africa is commencing. The flashy, internationalist world of modern pop culture is infiltrating even this backwater, as Mario’s band becomes a minor hit with a song prized today by music fans for its simple grittiness. An offhand, recurring detail confirms the wheels of time and the sinuous links of history, in a peppy Spanish-language version of “Be My Baby” to which Pilar listens on the radio at one point, and which later turns out to have been recorded by Mario’s band when working as a backing band for a female singer during a sojourn in Europe. Later, the intertwined nature of personal and social history is elucidated in a more alarming fashion, as a murder that punctuates the story, a purely personal affair, is repurposed in a declaration of war by rebel guerrillas, signalling the start of general bloodshed. Similarly, the firm moral grounding of the old world is giving way, as Gian Luca’s tale depicts a too-early grasp at sexual independence and Aurora is exposed as a peculiar by-product of colonialism in her deadly, strident independence, both proto-feminist victim of repressive social ideals and backdated remnant of a culture created by murderous self-interest and built around a sense of domain and overlordship.
The film, it is eventually revealed, takes its name from a fabled mountain close to the plantations where most of the period drama unfolds. The mountain is considered sacrosanct by the native Africans and notoriously inimical to explorers, and one of the characters of the historical portion, Mario, had his life saved by the man who became Aurora’s husband when a disaster cost the lives of several of Mario’s friends at the mountain. Later, the more vivid and corrosive meaning of taboo rises to the surface as Aurora and Gian Luca’s adulterous passion cleaves apart the incestuously tight-knit colonial world and its careful balance of opposing forces based on studiously observed rules. The bond of fellowship between Mario, Gian Luca, and Aurora’s husband (who is never actually called by name; only his status counts in the fading memory of Gian Luca) is broken. At the same time that the bonds of colonial nicety are disintegrating, with revolution manifesting as whispers and tales of bloodshed, not yet manifesting and actually taking an act of intra-fraternal murder to give it a push towards fruition. So the arrival of systemic disintegration is, to all intents, the by-product of moral failure, a failure that is both illusory in empirical effect and yet linked by a web of circumstance, a network of cracks in the structure that conjoin.
The contrasts in character are employed to a fascinating end: just as Aurora is revealed as someone as different to the repressed but conscientious goody-two-shoes Pilar as night to day, so, too, is Gian Luca, who in old age seems like a remnant of a swashbuckling era, finally and vividly contrasted by his pal Mario, whose lust for life, industry, bravery, and egotistical rectitude seem quite humiliatingly greater than his more superficially dashing pal. But Gian Luca’s character emerges in his hapless surrender to fate and judgement, and Mario’s postures of martyrdom are undercut early when the voiceover informs that Mario’s fondness for the company of natives resulted in a son whom he sometimes indulged by taking him for rides in his car along with a half-dozen more village progeny. Gomes’ final point is less moralistic, however, than biological and systemic: good, bad, moral, immoral, everybody dies. But the shape of the hole left by their absence describes oceans of meaning. As melancholic as Tabu’s themes are, Gomes retains a constant supply of dry, faintly absurdist humour percolating throughout much of the drama, the comic often indivisible from the tragic. This is apparent in the slumping shoulders and depressively staring, can’t-give-a-shit visage of the explorer in the first shot, the hoots of laughter Pilar releases when the artist upbraids the tour guide and the windy pathos of the artist’s proposal, and most particular in the élan of Mario and his band’s performances for their pool-party cliques. Shots of Gian Luca tearing about on motorcycle, chasing Marion in his car, depicts a celebration of a reckless youth in pure untrammelled, rule-free space reminiscent of African comedies like The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981), albeit with that lawless spirit lost in an irretrievable past.
Gomes’ layers of storytelling engage finally with varieties of mythology. Aurora’s hunting prowess as a virgin, which deserts her not when she marries but when, having taken Gian Luca as a lover, she gives her pet crocodile a romantic name, hints at likeness to figures out mythology like Atalante and Die Nibelungenlied’s version of Brunhilde, again pointing toward the import of ritual and its partner, taboo, as a fabric that still ties together human relations. Conversely, Gian Luca’s mention of how her hunting had made her internationally famous harkens to an age of glossy magazine articles from the time when traipsing about Africa shooting animals (or saving them) made people quite famous indeed. The climax of Gian Luca’s narrative depicts murder, cover-up, and the loss of life’s fondest loves, fittingly melodramatic culminations that justify patience with the telling. What has been depicted in the first half proves to have been a logical, if no less tragic, end for Aurora, who paid long and bitterly for her transgressions. Gomes’ silent-film refrains pay off in the climax, as Gian Luca cowers in fear of the gun-wielding Aurora, and a point-of-view shot from behind his shielding hands allows a crack through which to watch Aurora as she fires the fun, an equally fatal, though not mortally so, glimpse of transgression. It’s the sort of visual epiphany that could have sprung out of silent cinema, and finally Gomes’ conceits coalesce into a singularly distilled moment made all the sharper by the antihero’s instinctive panic, uncertain as to whether he’s the target or the object of rescue. The light in Aurora’s eye seems hardly tethered to immediate reality, but rather to obey the hunter’s instinct. The narrative finally, acerbically notes, that after ending a man’s life, everything else in her life is an anticlimax. The inner sense of what we’ve seen, including Aurora’s alienation from her daughter, born on the floor of a grass shack and reclaimed by her father and undoubtedly left to be regarded forever thus as the icon of her own debasement, is left tragically illuminated. Few films have ever managed to twin the macrocosmic and the immediately personal with the grace and cleverness of Tabu.
Lincoln’s opening shots depict warfare: writhing bodies in primordial mud, flesh punctured by bayonets, and mouths yawing in screams of pain and murderous passion. White Confederate soldiers and black Union soldiers are engaged in war as primal and terrifying as anything out of Homer, evoking not merely the awesome violence of the American Civil War in general, but of war itself. Here is the threatening spectre of apocalyptic racial blood feuds, too, uncontained by nominal loyalties to uniforms and factions beyond skin colour.
Director Steven Spielberg’s gambit here clearly evokes some of his career’s many scenes of brutal conflict: this charnel-house vision is grimly realistic in its squirming, thrashing, intimate corporeal violence, and yet also distinctly stylised, bordering on abstract, in its depiction of clashing bodies and frenzied motion, a reductio ad absurdum of humanity in the very pit of self-willed dehumanisation. In such a moment men are not men, but rather bundles of desperate, murderous/survivalist impulse. Such dehumanisation is to be the stake of the story, but of a different kind, that is, the condition of the slave rather than the soldier, although these states are linked in many ways. The stylised quality continues in the subsequent scene at an army staging post, as columns of soldiers being deployed march past President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to another terrible, but possibly climactic, campaign. This is a churning cauldron of rain, squelching mud, filthy and sodden men, eerie light and shadow, the president backlit, half iconic, half ogrish, attempting to interact with patient politeness with the men. Lincoln listens to the testimony of two black soldiers (Colman Domingo and David Oyelowo), who are veterans of such internecine slaughter. One recounts his experiences, and the other tries to lobby for better treatment, pay, and advancement, looking forward already to the painfully slow crawl toward the epiphanies of the mid-20th century. Lincoln listens with polite rectitude, as he will continue to do through most of the following narrative, resisting outright declarations and positions until he has made up his mind and knows that his displays will carry weight.
The mood here is similar to the climactic scene of Spielberg’s previous drama, War Horse (2011), with a similar purpose, albeit with different inflections: where that film was mythic and romantic in its approach to a cruel historical milieu, this is quite different, but still sustaining that film’s sense of hovering on the edge of a dream memory. Spielberg imbues the soldiers’ camp with an appropriately bustling realism, but also somehow suggests a more ethereal, spiritual, elemental drama in the offing. This scene signals a nexus of testimonial artefact, historical tableau, and Brechtian drama, underscored when some of the white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan) attempt to recall the words of the Gettysburg Address, delivered in halting and stilted terms, whereas one of the black soldiers recalls it verbatim and with a certain poetic flare whilst walking off into the shadows, transmuted from immediate presence to an almost elemental voice, the scene suddenly empty except for Lincoln. The specific impact of Lincoln’s most famous speech is reflected back to the man himself, via the people to whom it was a missive of mourning and also a promissory note, a hope of a restoration of moral order and centrifugal reason to an age of wild slaughter.
This scene is a clear declaration from Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that what follows is a hindsight study, full of after-the-fact epiphanies and perspectives, an evocation of the inevitable gap between us and Lincoln, and between the man and his own works and words, rather than a documentary. It’s a necessary declaration, particularly as Lincoln soon devotes itself to a specificity occasionally redolent of political journalism, depicting the minutiae by which Lincoln and his “team of rivals” (per Doris Kearns Goodwin’s source history) achieved their last and greatest political coup against a backdrop of epochal brutality and moral compromise. Lincoln is as panoramic as it is biographical. Here is the Union’s political universe, the landscape of a society at war, a complex system of interrelated personages, institutions, ideals, and necessities. Lincoln’s recent reelection has empowered him to take bold actions to win the war and also find its essential purpose and meaning. The air of hallucination from the opening continues even as a more domestic, intimate note is struck, as the scene shifts to the White House, where Lincoln recounts a stark and distressing dream of riding headlong into calamity aboard a strange vessel (actually a stylised Monitor warship). His wife Mary (Sally Field) interprets the dream as his anxiety over an upcoming military assault, but then realises it actually portends his need to pass the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment.
Lincoln makes his desire clear to his Secretary of State, William Seward (a particularly cagey David Strathairn). Lincoln illustrates the spur for his determination to get the Senate-approved amendment passed in the House of Representatives by turning a petitioning interview with a petty-minded landowner and his wife (Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel) into a quorum on the abolition question. The couple tacitly supports it as a war measure, but finds the idea objectionable if peace were to come out of fear of an imagined horde of larcenous ex-slaves on the loose. Lincoln thus argues to Seward they need to get the amendment passed before Republicans elected on Lincoln’s coattails are swept into Congress, because the war could be over by then. Seward agrees to help but feels Lincoln should stay out of the murky activity this demands, as many Democrats sacked by their constituencies can be inspired to vote for the amendment with the promise of mid-level bureaucratic jobs and other semi-corrupt devices. To this end Seward puts together a team of operators, Bilbo (James Spader), Latham (John Hawkes), and Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), who begin working on the lame ducks.
Lincoln, in its subject matter and aspects of its approach, is definable as Spielberg’s follow-up to his antislavery epic Amistad (1997). But whereas the earlier film was rendered as a kind of visual-dramatic operetta, Lincoln is superficially cooler in style, offering character portraiture intertwined with a procedural take on political manoeuvring in the context of a particular society’s most crucial moment of redirection. Amistad depicted the process by which the slow asphyxiation of that primordial American sin, slavery, began, by both direct and violent action and legal minutiae and cultural reconstruction; Lincoln takes up the culmination. Spielberg’s instincts as a cinema artist and a practised, “mainstream” entertainer have often noticeably clashed in his films, but here they work in perfect tandem. Dashes of low comedy, even slapstick, graze against high-flown orotundity, grand carnage, bruising domestic tumult, and purposeful theatre of righteousness, all with a Shakespearean sense of interconnectivity, traced to common roots, a clash of essences enacted on every scale from the most intimately personal to the pan-national.
Lincoln’s depiction of the disparity between solemn institutional responsibility and the vulgar, lively, often absurd nature of communal life, has roots in Spielberg’s early films—The Sugarland Express (1974), Jaws (1975), 1941 (1979)—in which a carnival-like Americana was evoked with a craft similar to, if less cynical and purposeful than, Robert Altman’s. The film justifies its title in its concept of Abe Lincoln not merely as an icon of the era, but as its fulcrum, the man on whose face and, ultimately, whose very mortality, the struggle’s course is written. And yet in the course of the film’s narrative, Lincoln himself is often sidelined for stretches of running time, waiting for results of actions he’s set in motion, at once removed from them and yet feeling their abstract import all the more keenly as a result. It is this sense of moral culpability as well as virtue that Spielberg and Kushner look to as the measure of worthiness; a genuine engagement with the problems of human worth becomes a right and proper yardstick for determining that worth.
Everyone is judged by this maxim, from Lincoln himself, who is all too aware that his labours are often on some level at cross-purposes, wielding violence and subterfuge to secure the liberty of one sector of the populace at some expense to another, to anti-abolitionists who subordinate humanistic concerns to those of sectarian interest. These are represented in the film by the “copperhead” Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie), who attempt to forestall the abolition bill for various myopic reasons that masquerade as matters immediate, overriding, and pragmatic. Spielberg avoids repeating himself in regards to Amistad, because he can take it for granted that he’s already portrayed the immediate horrors of the slave’s condition.
Spielberg has big shoes to fill here, even by his standards; Honest Abe’s stature as the most iconic and admired American President in history has inspired some hefty artworks over the years, including John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which depicted Lincoln’s evolution from frontier whelp to canny lawyer whose meandering folksiness conceals a stiletto-like sense of purpose. Ford’s film is also about the world around Lincoln. Spielberg and Kushner’s Lincoln, on the other hand, is trapped within a more elevated but no less tumultuous community, that of high democratic politics. Whilst waging a war that calls into question every presumed bond, ideal, and motive in the nation Lincoln leads, he attempts to lay down its greatest claim for future self-respect.
Lincoln’s specific heft is saved for negotiating with two major political figures who stand as nominal partners, but who could also choke his efforts if they choose. The first is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Republican Party cofounder, a pure-bred optimate who claims to have founded a “conservative anti-slavery party”: Blair agrees to aid the bill but only on condition Lincoln lets him try to initiate peace negotiations with the Confederates. At the other extreme is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), leader of radical Republicans, set on imposing a punitively righteous reckoning on the remnants of slave power and whose cabal in Congress regards Lincoln as a prevaricating sell-out. Lincoln must tread the torturously narrow trail between the two camps. He agrees to Blair’s project and, surprisingly and problematically, it bears fruit: a team of negotiators led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) starts north for Washington. Lincoln is faced by an immediate crisis of conscience, albeit only a newly sharpened version of the one he’s been wrestling with for four years, as he must choose between negotiating an end to the murderous war but possibly ruin the cause for many believe it has been waged. Meanwhile, as Bilbo and his team work, they manage to sway a large number of their targets, but finally come up against insurmountable barriers.
Lincoln’s constant frustration with his businesslike War Secretary Stanton (Bruce McGill) during a Cabinet meeting sees his jokey non sequiturs segue into a lengthy exposition of the lawyerly skill and intellectual heft Lincoln is used to wielding not in frontal charges, but in sneak attacks, against positions as various as proletariat obtuseness and aristocratic pomposity. He outlines the seemingly impossibly tangled thicket of dilemmas and self-contradictions involved in his Emancipation Proclamation, an edict that theoretically could be reversed, and therefore his desire to see it backed up by constitutional amendment. It’s a hypnotic piece of actor’s linguistic legerdemain and screenwriting, with Spielberg, via Janusz Kaminski, executing a creeping dolly move towards Day-Lewis like with unblinking attention. The scene is all the better for the concision with which it aids not merely an understanding of the issues at stake, encapsulated with rapid-fire yet entirely coherent intensity by Lincoln, but also characterisation. The Lincoln who got himself elected to the highest position in the land suddenly reveals himself as well as the even more elusive one, the agonised moralist and thinker. Spielberg’s empathy with Lincoln could well be described as that of one communicator who knows well enough to coat ugly truths in sweeter flavours for another. Lincoln’s “folksiness” is consistently revealed not just as his way of buttering up people, but also of disarming them, making them underestimate him, of clearing space and shifting the style and intent of attention turned upon him. Later, Lincoln purposefully distracts his colleagues and military staff as they wait for news of the attack on Wilmington with a jokey anecdote harkening back to the Revolutionary War and its easy patriotic associations that stand in contrast to the somehow more painful immediacy of civil slaughter. Stanton, irritated beyond measure by another story, stomps out whilst the President rambles on, only to come back and grip Lincoln’s hand as news comes in.
War is only glimpsed at the very start of Lincoln, but it is manifest throughout the film, working as a slow poison that infects everything. This is made apparent on an ontological level, but described most tellingly in Lincoln’s home life, in barely dampened turmoil since the death of the Lincolns’ third son. His youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) has taken to wearing a uniform. He likes to lull himself to sleep studying Alexander Gardner’s photos of freed slaves, obsessing over their ragged desperation like many a morbidly conscientious youth of Spielberg’s generation (and after) fixatedly rereading Anne Frank’s diary. The White House is at once home and bunker, jail and mill for the Lincolns, a warren of light and dark, cosy nooks and painfully cramped spaces for nation-administrating labour.
Lincoln’s scenes with Tad call to mind irresistibly the father-son moments of Jaws, linked in the portrait of the paternal figure as an assailed, troubled figure in whom real authority and civil responsibility is invested, still keeping a grasp on his family life as a way to stay sane, but the sons also mimic his stance and reflect his own attitudes back at him with painful/beguiling acuity. The intelligent but unbalanced Mary lives in mortal fear of losing her eldest boy Robert (Joseph Gordon Leavitt), who’s been studying law but desperately wants to join up before the war ends for the sake of social and personal approval. Mary dreads the possibility of his death so intensely that even the promise of a cushy staff position can’t mollify her. Lincoln tries to give Robert a sobering experience by taking him to tour a hospital full of wounded soldiers: Robert demurs, but, following a blood-leaking cart hauled by orderlies with curiosity, he’s revolted by what proves to be its load of amputated limbs. But Robert is still not dissuaded.
One of the best, most realistically, penetratingly human scenes Spielberg’s ever filmed has Lincoln reduced almost to a wraith cowering in the window bay, accepting Mary’s wrath for failing to dissuade Robert until she attacks him for a lack of feeling, whereupon he finally reacts with the indignation of a man who had to bury his grief because he had to remain functional for his job. Field’s brilliance as Mary lies in how she suggests both Mary’s aggravating pathos, which has a showy, demonstrative quality, but also her frustrated intelligence and scathing verbal force. Such force is exhibited when, confronted by Stevens and his followers when Abe holds a White House gathering to court necessary support for the bill, she quietly and mercilessly rips Steven apart for his parsimonious interest in her efforts to decorate the presidential mansion. At such a moment, it’s clear both why Abe married her and also what she might have been in a different time, and also why she’s like sweating dynamite now. Mary finally sums herself up, perhaps a tad too neatly, but with apt self-awareness, as the necessary counterbalance to her husband’s heroic stature, the face of the gnawing fear and pain of the age.
A second female figure in Lincoln’s household is Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mary’s maid and a former slave, whom Tad asks with guileless fascination whether she was whipped. Keckley is the moral barometer, as her face and attitude often silently charts the course of events, feeling on the most immediate level the fear and hope the drama is depicting. Lincoln’s solicitation of her opinion is another fascinating moment, as Keckley asks him bluntly about how he looks personally at the racial problem. Lincoln (and Spielberg and Kushner) attempts to avoid mealy-mouthed piety at the risk of sounding standoffish, explaining his difficulty in assessing the matter because he doesn’t “know” black people with real understanding: “I expect I’ll get used to you,” he says with dry Midwestern humour, as if aware that in trying to regard the problem from Olympian heights, he recognises that common humanity is only ultimately a matter of neighbourliness. But humour only goes so far, as Keckley reminds Lincoln she’s the mother of a fallen soldier, questioning what this makes her for the country if not a citizen worthy of veneration as well as emancipation and tolerance.
A race against time enters this narrative as Blair semi-wittingly threatens Lincoln’s intentions with his successful entreaty to the Confederates. Their emissaries are ushered across enemy line into the hands of Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), to Union Army reception committee stacked with black soldiers, a seemingly calculated provocation. Grant, determining that the emissaries are serious men, recommends to Lincoln that they be interviewed, leaving Lincoln with a most definite choice, either to stymie the negotiators briefly to help ensure the vote’s passage, or allow the Confederate company to come straight on and possibly end the war. The issue leaves Lincoln a peripatetic insomniac, awakening his assistants in the night by sitting on their beds to discuss pardons for deserters, and finally, hovering on the edge of decision, seeming to discursively explain Euclidian geometry with two signalmen. But of course he’s actually considering moral calculus, drawing the lesson that peace and safety for one group cannot be obtained if it means abandoning another group to tyranny, and this informs his last-minute decision to order Grant to delay the emissaries and work on the vote for the bill. When he finally confronts Stephens, his entreaties fall on deaf ears. Spielberg pulls off one his most adroit pieces of editing, cutting to the infernal sight of blazing Richmond, its devastation the implicit result of both Lincoln’s politicking and Confederate intransigence. The images, long since soaked into the folk-memory of the U.S. and the world, of Lincoln’s journey across the pulverised battlefields to Richmond, and Robert E. Lee’s (Christopher Boyer) plaintive return of Grant’s salute after surrender, retain not gallant lustre but a newly bleak sense of the nature of leadership: “We’ve made it possible for each other to do terrible things,” Lincoln tells Grant.
In this regard, the John Ford film Spielberg’s Lincoln feels kin to is less Young Mr. Lincoln than his sublime Civil War segment for How the West Was Won (1962), where Grant and Sherman argued with palpable personal angst in the midst of carnage. The filmmakers’ relish of Lincoln as a protagonist and his mental alacrity calls to mind A Man for All Seasons (1966), and like that film, it manages to invest history’s saints with living wit and artistic poise. The depth and intensity of this film’s preoccupation with political and personal responsibility is thankfully leavened by counterpointing such weighty matters with Bilbo’s rather less moral, although equally determined, efforts, which include, at one point, his having to fend off a congressman who tries to shoot him. When Lincoln pays a visit to Bilbo, he amiably quotes Henry IV Pt. 1 to him (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow!”), a knowing glance at the Bard’s skill at conflating the business of kingship with that of knaves, and Bilbo’s Falstaffian demeanour sit well with this (a superbly bluff performance from the once wolfishly poised Spader). Lincoln’s decision to engage more directly with the vote-reaping process, as it looks like it’s failing, sees him directing his more intricate and psychological gifts at the problem, as appeals to self-interest and the ephemeral pleasure of being seen to do good cannot entirely sway more powerful, if not always more reasoned, emotional and intellectual stances they’ve encountered. William Hutton (David Warshofsky) is touched by hatred for blacks since his brother died in battle for their sake. George Yeaman (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) hates slavery, but fears sudden emancipation might expose the people it’s designed to help to calumny. One thing Spielberg and Kushner get particularly right is the degree to which the era’s political verbiage was as much theatre as message, pitched to the galleries rather than the cameras and to awe journalists into recording them like prophets rather than bewilder them until the news cycle ends. In the film’s broadest scene, as the anti-abolition forces try to bait Stevens, Stevens must muster restraint and linguistic cunning, mixed with raw abuse of his opponents, to survive the moment. He immediately earns the upbraiding of a fellow radical for demurring on the issue of equality, to which Stevens ripostes he’d do anything if it means having ensuring that the only inclusion of the word “slavery” in the constitution is an amendment proscribing it.
Lincoln is, by and large, a study in the fundamental dilemma of democratic government of how to identify and achieve the most good for the most people as a natural extension of the communal will rather than an imposition. The relationship, prickly and peculiar, between Lincoln and Stevens is the film’s ideological engine. When Stevens outlines a plan for post-war punitive legislation to reconstruct the American body politic by replacing Southern oligarchs with empowered free blacks, it’s startling how much force and beauty his plan still has. Lincoln drolly describes this as the “untempered version of Reconstruction,” but interestingly, Stevens, like Lincoln, is a study in human frailty under statuesque heroism, and all the more so literally, forcing himself to stand erect before the Congress when he must bend and shuffle to walk, clad in a dreadful wig to hide his bald pate, hiding his love affair with his mixed-race housekeeper Lydia Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). The ironic reveal of this dalliance fascinatingly confirms the sort of implications aimed at the abolitionists of the era, but Spielberg treats it with delicate good humour, as Lydia welcomes Stevens back from Congress with the bill in his hand, and segues to the politician getting in bed with Lydia and asking her to read the bill out whilst counting off the clauses himself. There’s a reprise of the almost recitatif-inflected opening here, as hallowed political language is again employed, but with the immediate force of its human implications presented in the most unexpected of fashions: the muted tenderness of the couple in bed automatically undercuts the scurrilousness, and instead imbues the film with the first glimpse of peace as a promise after the fractious bitterness and soul-searching.
The actual vote is a Spielberg set-piece of the first order, albeit with a difference, because, whilst the outcome is known, the tension is still remarkable, with Lincoln in part reduced to audience surrogate as he must wait for the result of the vote. The exact outcome remains in the balance until the crucial cry of “Aye!” escapes Yeaman’s lips, and even the Speaker (Bill Raymond) adds his vote to the balance. Spielberg pulls off a great discursion here as he cuts away from the final tallying to Lincoln in his office, awaiting word, alerted by the pealing of bells to his success, and then cutting back to the eruption of jubilation in the Congress where the dignified politicians rejoice like teenagers at a post-game kegger—a singular and well-earned moment before the reckoning. Part of the thrill here comes from the natural power of seeing great good achieved, and also from the simple release of the film’s weighty mood, as the Representatives whoop and hoist the amendment’s manager James Ashley (David Costabile) in the air, the man himself almost weeping with relieved glee, whilst Stevens, with the silent satisfaction of a man who’s triumphed against time and the world, asks to take the bill home with him.
If there’s a downside to the muted bravura Spielberg wields throughout this work, as the first drama he’s offered in a long time to gain near-universal acclaim, it is thus; the moments of truly expansive vision glimpsed in the likes of The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987) are dampened in favour of a more convincingly intimate, but less overwhelmingly pure exuberance in cinema. But Spielberg self-critiqued is still Spielberg, apparent in the authorial deftness of his camera precisely charting dramatic highs and lows, in shots as casually telling as the camera movement that follows Stevens as he strips himself of his worldly regalia and gets into bed with his mistress, or as strikingly odd as the semi-surreal visions of Lincoln’s dreams. Spielberg’s partnership with Kaminski has achieved more spectacular results, but rarely more expressive, and indeed quasi-expressionistic, in a film that uses the dance of light in an either naturally illuminated or candle-and-lantern interior world. There’s a strong suggestion of the influence of Victorian painting in the visual scheme, and a particular debt to Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic,” with its similar manipulation of source lighting to create a surgeon-hero bathed in the light of reason. A recurring motif of the characters framed in windows, poised between light and dark, hearth and world, sees Lincoln both demonic in his row with Mary, and ethereal, as he draws Tad behind a curtain to look out on the celebrations of the bill.
It’s peculiar to think of Spielberg, often described as the Peter Pan of American cinema, entering his autumnal phase, but whilst there’s still plentiful verve and control in evidence, the usual tones of a late-career masterpiece are here. Late in the film, Spielberg offers a brief sequence that feels utterly vital, a signature flourish that reveals much: a visit to a theatre, which at first glance is immediately processed by an expectant audience as Ford’s, but proves rather to be one where Tad watches an Arabian Nights arabesque that sees hero save damsel from devilish villain who falls only to release a phoenixlike spirit. There’s an obvious, deliberately naïve quality to this bit, offsetting the agonised dragon-slaying of the historical drama with its most childish, Manichaeistic representation. It is also reminiscent in its brief window of theatrical wonder to the pantomime visit in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), a moment spared for the mystique of the Victorian theatre and its transformative strangeness, a prelude to the cinema in transfixing spectacle remembered on the hazy horizon of popular culture.
There’s also a nod here to Spielberg’s awareness of his own wrestling with the themes of his “serious” films earlier in his career through his equally colourful stylised genre excursions, like the equally Arabian Nights-esque absurdity of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Here the fantasy illusion is ruptured in the worst possible way, as Lincoln’s assassination is abruptly announced to the theatre, and the horrified Tad begins to scream and scream. Of course, for Spielberg, the nexus of tragedy in Lincoln’s death is found in the fundamental image of an orphaned son, both consummation and defloration of the director’s career concern with paternal care and the child’s wayward path to maturation, and so the film connects history with a gaping hole in the family life. The film’s final moments, lapping back to Lincoln’s second inaugural address, risks lurching at last into the familiar refrains of the historical pageant, but manages to capture the vibrating question and threat in Lincoln’s words, still echoing 150 years later.
Really, Howard? You’re in film noir! Of course your partner was going to kill your hostage!
On Saturday, January 26, I had the unique thrill of being at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the premiere of the restored 35mm print of Try and Get Me! at Noir City 11. Try and Get Me!, whose original title The Sound of Fury was scrapped, changed to something more lurid, and remarketed for national distribution when the film flopped in California, isthe powerful film that blogathoners turned out in force to support during 2011’s For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, thanked a large coalition of organizations and people whose efforts were responsible for bringing this film back to pristine condition for future generations; yes, blogathoners, you received your due and the grateful applause of a sold-out audience.
From working with the Film Noir Foundation on the blogathon, I knew this film pushed the warning needle far into nasty. However, I was not adequately prepared for its visual and narrative power, or the nakedly emotional performances of Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, and Kathleen Ryan. Based on a real incident that took place in San Jose, California in the 1930s, Try and Get Me! is one of the darkest—and best—noir films I have ever seen.
When we first meet out-of-work ex-GI Howard Tyler (Lovejoy), he is in Seattle convincing a truck driver to give him a ride back to his California home. His young son Tommy (Donald Smelnick) is sassing his mother Judy (Ryan) when Howard comes through the door and gives his son half-a-dollar so that he can go to a baseball game with his friends. Judy is overjoyed that this extravagance indicates that Howard has found work—but he hasn’t.
One afternoon, after trying and failing to get day work, Howard heads for a bowling alley to get a beer. He ends up talking to Jerry Slocum (Bridges), fetching the conceited bowler’s shoes and following him home when Jerry hints that he knows about a job for Howard. He throws Howard an advance on his pay, and the elated man runs home to treat his family to gifts, groceries, and a good time. He has second thoughts when his job turns out to be getaway driver for stick-up man Jerry.
After the duo commits a series of robberies, Howard’s discomfort grows unmanageable. Jerry says they will commit the inevitable “one last job” that will set them on Easy Street for good: the kidnap for ransom of a rich man’s son. Snatching Donald Miller (Carl Kent) goes smoothly, but when the three men go to a quarry where Jerry says they will hold Donald, Jerry orders Howard to tie the victim’s legs with a belt and push him down a gravel pile. The kidnappers follow, and Jerry bashes Miller’s head in with a rock. He and Howard dump the body in the water at the bottom of the pit and leave town with Jerry’s girl Velma (Adele Jergens) and Velma’s friend Hazel (Katherine Locke) to provide themselves with an alibi. Eventually, Miller’s body is found, and Hazel, who thinks Howard is single and interested in her, soon learns from the conscience-stricken man that he and Jerry killed Miller and turns them in. Newspaper columnist Gil Stanton (Richard Carlson) and his profit-minded publisher Hal Clendenning (Art Smith) try the case in the press, and public sentiment turns ugly. Stanton realizes too late that his appeal to emotion has set irrepressible forces into motion that will mean a horrible end for Howard and Jerry.
Lovejoy fills Howard with a genuine pathos, portraying a man too desperate to understand what kind of person he has gotten himself mixed up with. Jerry treats him like a lackey from the start, having him fetch his shoes and fasten his cufflinks, bullying him into increasingly reckless crimes. Any confidence and command Howard might have had drained out of him long ago; his son loves him, but runs wild, and his wife’s quiet acceptance of their situation is almost worse for Howard. He feels he is not good enough for them, and his rapid slide into crime seems almost a fatalistic attempt to get out of the way of a better future for his family, a wish he eventually voices explicitly in the last act of the film. Howard has our sympathy, a decent man with a loving but stressed family life, whose own lack of guile brought him a form of mob justice we feel he doesn’t deserve.
Lloyd Bridges is insanely good as Jerry. A supreme narcissist without the brains to pull off anything as sophisticated as a kidnapping for ransom, his Jerry seems entirely without conscience. Obviously a sociopath, he knows a patsy when he sees one and closes one door after another behind Howard until there is no hope for escape. His partying with Velma, a blonde B-girl whose instinct when at the courthouse where Jerry and Howard are being arraigned is to pose seductively for the photographers, shows that he hasn’t given Donald Miller or Howard, for that matter, a second thought. When the angry mob forms outside the jail where the two men are being held, Jerry moves like a caged animal, pacing rapidly in his small cell, rattling the bars, bashing his head against the cell wall, and whining in a pained panic. His fear gives way to defiance: “Try and get me!” he challenges. Howard’s worried face is almost too painful to watch.
Ryan, playing a version of her loyal Kathleen Sullivan from the British noir Odd Man Out (1947), Irish accent and all, is quite affecting in pleading with Stanton not to characterize her husband as a monster. Her understated fear runs as a steady undercurrent throughout the film and economically characterizes the financial hardships and privations so many families felt in postwar America, the unease that defines much of what we call film noir. Katherine Locke has a truly kooky role—the plain friend of the sexpot Velma who lives in a fantasy of finding true love, believing Howard is actually her boyfriend whom she has a right to scold for his drinking. We’d laugh at her in another film, but she has just enough edge of crazy to her to make us hold back. Cliff Clark brings a no-nonsense authority to his supporting part as the town sheriff trying to uphold the law and keep his prisoners safe.
What makes Try and Get Me! truly extraordinary is Cy Endfield’s direction, his last major American film before the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s gobbled him up and forced him into exile in England, where he continued to make powerful films such as Hell Drivers(1957) and Zulu (1964). His camera is always on top of the action, as we can practically feel Miller rolling down the hard gravel to his doom and imagine his murder from indistinct movements Howard only hears and interprets with a wretched, horrified face. I have always wondered how a well-guarded jail could be breached by a mob. Now I know. Endfield’s climactic scene builds in intensity as the mob masses and works together like a colony of army ants to overpower the tear-gas-wielding cops with fire hoses and pull open the doors of the jail with gangs of men pulling on ropes in unison to the cries of “heave, heave, heave.” The audience in the Castro Theatre was breathless with horror, watching with compulsive fascination the extraordinary staging of one of the most compelling scenes ever committed to film.
Endfield was radicalized by the Depression of the 1930s, an era that produced Fury (1936), Fritz Lang’s version of this true story that accorded more with the zeitgeist of its time. Try and Get Me! appeared just as audiences and critics alike were turning against dissent and discord to achieve the artificial peace of the 1950s. Endfield’s nihilistic vision of group think and the court of public opinion was not destined to find favor in its own time. Looking at the film now, it seems timeless in the brutality of its psychology, making the haves of society as represented by Stanton and his circle seem decadent and profit-driven, and showing how desperation and lack of opportunity can prove a breeding ground for criminality of every type. Blogathoners, you should be very proud to have contributed to bringing this important, brilliantly realized film back to life for future generations to view and ponder.
One of the worst films of 2010 was The Kids Are All Right, a sitcom of a movie in which straight actors Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple dealing with the appearance of the sperm donor who is the biological father of their two children. Given the chance to reach a mainstream audience with a realistic portrayal of a family headed by two females, The Kids Are All Right instead self-consciously backs away from gay sexuality as fast it can, hiding a scene of lesbian sex under a heavy blanket and then rushing Moore into straight sex with the sperm donor. The only thing missing from the conventionality of this flat film is the nightstand sitting like a sentry between two single beds.
I wouldn’t have given The Kids Are All Right a second thought if not for the fact that it was cowritten and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, representing a shocking fall from grace for a director/screenwriter who created one of the most memorable feature debuts in many a year—High Art. High Art is everything The Kids Are All Right is not—assured, unapologetically frank about lesbian sex, nuanced, and authentic. Perhaps most important, Cholodenko offers a look at lesbians leading lives that contain as much love, dysfunction, ambition, and familial relationships as any other way of life.
High Art begins with Syd (Radha Mitchell) sitting in a small office examining slides submitted to Frame, the New York-based photography magazine where she works as an assistant editor. Her tragically hip boss Harry (David Thornton) dismisses her as his glorified gofer, though his condescension is a cover for his lackadaisical attitude toward his job and its subject matter. Dominique (Anh Duong), the editor of Frame, started as a receptionist at Interview, and her drive to succeed, her immersion in the art scene, and her cutthroat instincts form a mirror in which we can view Syd’s career aspirations.
Syd lives with her boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann) in a rundown apartment run by a slum landlord in the making. One evening, as she relaxes in a hot bath, she notices that the crack in the ceiling above the tub is starting to leak. She goes to the apartment above to let the tenants know about it. At the door is a thin woman about twice Syd’s age. After some perfunctory talk, the woman, Lucy (Ally Sheedy), promises to contact the super. Because service is slow to the point of nonexistent in the building, Syd returns to Lucy’s apartment several times to try to fix the leak herself.
The leak becomes a convenient excuse for Syd to explore an attraction to Lucy subtly encouraged by Lucy herself and the quality of the photographs hanging all over Lucy’s apartment. It doesn’t take long for Syd to discover that Lucy was once one of the hottest photographers in the New York art scene. The engulfing attention and demands made on her caused her to flee to Europe, where she became involved with Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a has-been Fassbinder actress, and spent most of her time snorting heroin and taking pictures as more of a reflex than as a serious pursuit. Her return to New York after a 10-year absence may signal that she is ready to start making photographs again, but the downward pull of Greta and the rest of their heroin-addicted circle of friends seems to be keeping Lucy in a holding pattern, that is, until Syd enters the picture.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and the obviously modest budget of High Art brought out the best in Cholodenko’s creativity, something the high-budget, high-profile The Kids Are All Right buried. The handheld camera work and settings—the apartments, the Frame offices, an upscale home where Lucy goes to visit her rich mother (Tammy Grimes), a restaurant, a mountain retreat—all must have been places opened to the cast and crew by friends and family. The lived-in, hazy look of Lucy’s apartment creates a realistic milieu for the kind of crash pad/opium den atmosphere needed to suggest the subterranean hideout of Lucy’s spirit. The unsuccessful photographs depicting Greta underwater reflect Lucy’s muffled talent. By contrast, the photos she takes of Syd when they go away together for the weekend to consummate their love are alive, vital, compelling.
The strong subtext of Syd and Lucy’s desire is ambition. There’s no question that the two women are in lust and could be falling in love, but what really pushes them together in an irresistible way is their individual hopes for themselves. Syd has a good eye and immediately recognizes that Lucy could be the great discovery that could raise her profile at Frame and help her push past her clueless boss. When she realizes how big her discovery—rediscovery—is, there is no stopping her from picking a fight with James, with whom she seemed to be happy, and running straight into Lucy’s arms. Lucy’s overtures to Syd are, to me, more touching. She seems to want to be saved from herself, from the pull of heroin and her codependent relationship with Greta. She is feeling the advance of age, signaled by her desire to return to New York and spend time with her aging, if difficult, Jewish mother, fearing the future, fearing her own mortality. Becoming the Lucy Berliner again seems a plausible way to ensure that her life will count for something once more, and continue after death.
The central performances by Sheedy and Mitchell are a master class in the way women love each other. Mitchell moves her braless torso in gentle curves, half-aware that she is being watched, not only by Lucy, but also by Greta. Cholodenko frequently directs shots that put Syd in the foreground, with Lucy in a corner of the frame looking at her with the eye of both a photographer and a seducer. Sheedy invades Mitchell’s space casually, agilely, but fixes her with her intensity. Syd’s response must feel like the kiss of life after Greta, who nods off in a drug haze when Lucy starts to make love to her. Indeed, although her German accent waxes and wanes, Patricia Clarkson plays a very believable Fassbinder actress, her superficial, needy vanity peeking out perfectly under her drug-layered performance. Overall, the drug scenes are very realistic—we can actually see Syd getting off after snorting her first line of heroin, and junkie-in-arms Arnie (Bill Sage) laying back in supreme pleasure after shooting up in Lucy and Greta’s bedroom.
The script is a bit precious at times, but often witty and revealing, such as when Syd holds forth on one of Lucy’s compositions, and Lucy responds ruefully, “I haven’t been deconstructed in a long time.” Perhaps at that moment she sees the true foundation of Syd’s affections toward her, but chooses to ignore them. Harry’s pretense that he knows who Lucy Berliner is when questioned by Dominique is appropriately sleazy and hilarious. Greta’s dialogue seems to have been lifted in part from a Fassbinder film, which is either very lazy or very clever—I haven’t made up my mind yet. The most touching scene is when Syd and Lucy are about to make love and Syd says, “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” The tenderness and reassurance Lucy provides, and Syd’s genuine tears of love and gratitude, are pitch perfect.
High Art offers a point of view in its final act. Photography—and by extension, film—captures moments in time that can move us with their emotional and physical content. The more universal the image, the more timeless it can be. Mere ambition and even enormously hard work have amazingly short shelf lives. True art can only come from those who can face the pleasure and pain of being alive and project that honestly.
Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road, published in 1957, bears a weight of cultural resonance that few modern texts can claim. Kerouac’s freewheeling ode to being young, energetic, irresponsible, and constantly on the hunt for new dimensions of experience brought the Beat clique’s artistic sensibility to a wide public consciousness, or at least one that didn’t involve obscenity trials, and helped animate the fantasies of footloose youth amidst successive generations. Kerouac had strived to create a specific kind of art, based in a celebration of movement and the moment, an artefact that resisted analytical introspection, but which also tried to turn reportage into a quest tale, that’s part Arthurian Grail saga, part John Bunyan-esque pilgrim’s tale, and part Walt Whitman-derived national poem. It’s a novel commonly, easily reduced to a basic celebration of a particular feeling and a rite of passage, a founding myth for modern youth culture. Many of the criticisms levelled at Kerouac’s writing are accurate, and yet few ever contend with the actual point of his labours, a point that was sharply at odds with the increasingly pompous, intellectualised state of the literary novel and its arbiters, which was to reject, or at least reconstruct, familiar literary values and try to drag the novel back to a state of experiential transmission: in an art form best known for its appeal to the introspective, he wrote about the specific thrill of doing stuff – dancing, driving, necking, jesting, raving on – as well as any writer ever has. Filming Kerouac’s novel had proved an elusive goal ever since. Transforming the “ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being”, as Kerouac described it, into artifice was the singular success of his labours, and trying to retransmit that as the recreated collection of sounds and images called a film, is doubly perverse.
A peculiar form of nostalgia possibly inflects the way the book is perceived now, as a wistful look back over the shoulder to when bohemian life and artistic expression weren’t bound up with pseud posturing, referential awareness, and politically correct touchiness, let alone the intervening age of reactionary schism that has toned the American social landscape, as Kerouac’s efforts to describe the openness and communality he encountered feels now more like the calm before the storm. By the time Easy Rider (1969), cinema’s fittest analogue to Kerouac’s novel, came along, the adventure ends with tragic, bigoted murder, and nobody doubted its plausibility. Kerouac, for his part, was trying to cast off cultural deadweight too, the staleness of pre-war politics, the immediate hangover of the militarisation of Western society, and the oncoming age of corporate-consumerist triumphalism. Perhaps for this reason, Kerouac’s message, and his method, could be therefore newly relevant; Kerouac’s attitude of aestheticized reportage lies behind a vast swathe of contemporary cinema. Brazilian director Walter Salles comes to the material after The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) similarly turned Che Guevara’s youthful peregrinations into a study in transformative revelation for the future revolutionary. In that film, Salles, to the irritation of some, avoided polemics and overt constructions of context, in favour of descriptive acuity, preferring to allow the meaning, or indeed the ambiguity, of situations speak for themselves. Guevara’s trip was one of growing radicalisation, something Salles described as based in direct encounters with the world, but he also allowed room for observations of the sorts of forces that would contradict and finally defeat Guevara’s efforts. Salles takes a similar approach to On The Road, avoiding commentaries on the Beat scene and its meaning to inheritors, instead offering it as a series of unvarnished personal observations that amass into not so much a narrative as a description of a life phase, and a journey of necessary growth for an artist.
Salles’ film can be described as a tonal betrayal of Kerouac’s book, in order to get at its own sense of the book’s truth. Where the novel is feverishly ebullient in its descriptions and expression, and the faiths it expresses overtly and implicitly, Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera are more restrained and, in a deadpan fashion, ironic and interrogative. They peer into Kerouac’s blind spots and finger the sore spots he placed Band-Aids over. The script was based not on the finished, polished novel but on the famous “scroll” draft that Kerouac pounded out on sheets of paper taped together, so as to let his tale flow out and recreate artistically the immediacy of the events he inscribed. The tone is closer to being an overt portrait of the real-life figures Kerouac was writing of, including himself, with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) less the gorgeous holy fool he is in the novel than the bad lot his model, Neal Cassady, could often be. This brings it closer in tone to an established, still proliferating body of film works looking at the Beats, including Heart Beat (1980), Naked Lunch (1990), The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), and Howl (2011). Some of these are fine, others are actively terrible: I still shudder when I recall the cut-rate 2000 film Beat, which starred Courtney Love as Joan Burroughs, uttering the line, “I’m staring into the abyss.” The cultish quality of Beat has often been its own worst enemy. Salles’ approach avoids that sort of thing, and also the hallucinogenic illustration of Cronenberg on Naked Lunch. Unlike in the finished novel, this version commences not with Kerouac avatar Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) having just been divorced, but just after his father died: Sal of the novel is indicated as a more mature figure, less sexually and socially formed, than the one we get here.
Salles and Rivera suggest squarely that the accord between Sal and Dean is, thusly, rooted firmly in their mutual search for a missing father figure, a father figure lost somewhere amidst, and perhaps indivisible from, the land around them. Dean’s father is a vagrant he’s long lost track of, only believing he’s somewhere around his home town of Denver, Colorado. Dean was born to the kind of rootless, perpetually yearning, fragmented lifestyle that Sal and his pals lean towards by choice and desire. Sal, a blocked young scribe hovering fretfully over his typewriter with nothing to say, is introduced to Dean when he blows into New York by Chad King (Patrick John Costello), mutual friend of Sal and poet pal Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), analogue for Allen Ginsberg. Carlo is quickly besotted with Dean, a recalcitrant but charismatic, fearless misfit, and has his first properly sexual affair with the young gadabout, although Dean has recently married teenage lovely Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Sal and Dean strike up a fast and solid friendship based not merely in that hunt for a father, but also in “intellectual” Sal’s desire for the kind of openness to life’s vagaries that Dean seems to wield so fearlessly, and Dean’s aspirations to the kind of artistic, ennobled non-conformist lifestyle that Sal, Carlo, and others in their social circle maintain. Dean soon departs the city, but later invites Sal to come to Denver, where Carlo has already followed him, and he finds that Dean has already divorced Marylou and taken up with the more centred, conservative Camille (Kirsten Dunst). Dean soon flees Denver for some solo adventuring, shacking up with Latino agricultural worker Terry (Sonia Braga) and sharing in her exhausting but simple lifestyle for a time, before returning to New York.
Salles has a gift for inscribing a sense of time and place in fresh and atmospheric fashion, and capturing behaviour in a way that feels at once acute and happenstance, avoiding the familiar indulgences of a lot Method-inflected improvisatory cinema and also the fussiness of many period films. Salles’ talents in this regard were particularly important to filming a book like this: the recreation of the late ‘40s atmosphere in On The Road is gorgeous, accurate to the argot and the tactile realism of the age without coming across like a bohemian dress-up party. Salles’ visuals, via the brilliant photography of Eric Gautier, capture landscape with a blend of stateliness and veracity. It’s in this regard that Salles’ film is most successful, his evocation of a grittier, fresher American landscape that’s been colonised by humans who share a language and a sensibility, but not yet invaded by mass market culture, a place where both joyous fellowship and dwarfing solitude, plenty and desolation are all easy to find. The opening sequence is a particular beauty, an in media res introduction that finds Sal stalking a lonely highway before explaining how he got to be there: he’s picked up by a truck carrying some other itinerants, and they share cigarettes, liquor, and ragged singing in the dull gloom of a dawn filled with outsized wonder and mystery. The bulk of the film is filled with moments of such beauty, the unexpected grandeur of dawn over a strange mountain range, the mystical lustre of a fog, the bleary beatitude of the distant New York horizon as Sal returns to the fold, raw desert, bleak snows, the outskirts of a town you’re leaving – familiar for any attentive traveller and conveying the world Kerouac tried to capture.
A film of the novel, rather than another straight biography of the Beat heroes, could, arguably, properly look like what Antonioni managed with Zabriskie Point (1970), or the best moments of Easy Rider or Alice’s Restaurant (1969), perhaps even, in the depressive counterbalance to Kerouac’s mania, the likes of Two-Lane Blacktop (1972) or The Brown Bunny (2003). If Oliver Stone or Francis Coppola – who was going to make the movie at one point and served as executive producer – had made this, in all likelihood they would have reproduced on an audio-visual level the indulgence of the characters and their world views, where Salles is more sceptical, evoking these elements without abandoning observational realism. Kerouac certainly wrote prose, a living, rambling creature drunk of pure sensatory overload in the American landscape, as a way of communicating the crypto-spiritualism of Kerouac’s sensibility, and yet On The Road is really more a kind of lyric poem that flows with words like a swollen river. The necessity of this is that without it, Kerouac’s tale can be taken for one of mere youthful hijinks. Salles’ approach is more literal and less encompassing, and his poeticism prefers to find constant minatory epiphanies, from the dull glow of a last cigarette smoked on a desolate morning to the fog wreathing the temple-like pillars of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the weird blend of alienation and fellowship glimpsed when a young cowboy hitchhiker sings a mournful ballad, listened to with melancholy fascination by his hosts. Lyrics of hellfire and damnation accord quietly with the bubbling unease and neurosis that lies beneath the fracturing threesome’s jaunty exterior, as Marylou contemplates the oncoming end of the journey and her affair with Dean, and Sal studies her simultaneous youthful promise and sphinx-like self-containment.
Salles and Rivera contour Kerouac’s mystical pretences into the drama and visuals, depicting these young men’s journey as a tightrope dance between saintliness and damnation in their search for transcendent states of being. The filmmakers also contend objectively with it, offering up Kerouac’s avatar for William Burroughs, “Old Bull” Lee (Viggo Mortensen), as a corrective who probes Sal’s description of Dean. Where Sal sees him as a kind of Benzedrine-imbibing St Francis, Lee writes him off as a selfish sociopath: “So he’s a holy man now, a religious figure in your eyes?” Lee asks with disdain. It’s a strange film indeed that offers up William Burroughs as the voice of wisdom, although Salles tempers it by having Lee describe Dean as potentially violent and then resume his own hair-raising habit of blasting away at bottles with a handgun in between sentences. He also shows off one of his pseudo-inventions, really a piece of installation art, which supposedly cleans out cancer-causing agents in his body. Meanwhile his wife Jane (Amy Adams), frazzled and possibly mildly psychotic, beats at trees trying keep small lizards from climbing all over them and advises Galatea Dunkel (Elizabeth Moss) in the arts of fellatio. The seriocomic concision of this sequence does point to how Salles’ approach draws out an element of the novel which is partly buried underneath the rollicking surfaces of Kerouac’s novel, that it was also a series of situational portraits, depicting his artistic, bohemian, and happenstance friends in islets of individual crises, eccentricities, and striving labours to create a new and better American art and life. And Salles is brilliant in laying bare the dark, manic-depressive, exiled underbelly of the frenetic, rhapsodic side of Kerouac’s writing. The lizards that infest Jane’s trees which she bats at fearsomely emerge as a superlative visualisation at the forces already eating away at the homey settlement of post-war America and enacted by these anti-heroes, wilful guerilla warriors against boredom and time who also represent the Id of the modern age cracking out of a chrome-plated skull.
And yet Salles evokes the religious core of Kerouac’s perspective ironically through characters like Lee himself: when the voyagers first arrive in Lee’s house, they find their friend sprawled in an armchair, clutching his infant son with his track-mark riddled arm exposed, a blend of Madonna and Jesus icon, a Dostoyevskian figure of beatification found through raw and debasing experience. Kerouac’s novel is plotless, and so is the movie, rightly if not promisingly for many viwers. Whereas with The Motorcycle Diaries there was a “…and now you know the rest of the story” aspect to lend weight to the meandering, here the ultimate goal, beyond Sal’s finally finding his muse, is more opaque, but what emerges is, rather than the youth culture Mahabharata, is a portrait in individual growth. Stripping away the mythos of this material leaves this aspect most crucially exposed: On The Road is not simply about the joys of being immature and yearning, but also about the moments in which youth, or at least the naïve, all-embracing mood of youth, passes and is reconfigured into wisdom, with Dean as one of those great friends you eventually realise isn’t a person you want to be, and eventually you never want to see again, but still the days of freewheeling kicks linger with the patina of a lost Eden. Sal’s evolution, both in the company of his friends and during an adventure alone, is the point if there needs to be one, his passage through his country and discovering it as a place of both cruel realities and raptures.
The minutiae, the day to day details of trying to survive such a lifestyle, are perfectly observed, like Sal collecting cigarette butts to make his own, and moving on with scowling impotence when paid a pittance for a day’s labouring. Whilst Rivera trimmed several excursions from the narrative, my favourite passage made the cut, that in which Sal hooks up with Terry and joins her Latino kith and kin as a wandering harvest labourer for a time. This interlude is at once grim, as Sal perceives his own lacks baldly in picking cotton and being introduced to the rude truth of working class life, staring exhaustedly at his pitiful profit for a day working in the sun placed in his damaged hands, and yet also experiencing a rare time of gritty, simple, erotic fecundity with Terry, before they part, Terry grinning to herself in immediate nostalgia for a relationship they both know ends with him returning to New York even as he calls for her to follow him later. The sequence is alive to the transitory beauty and sadness of this brief yet crucial relationship.
Likewise homosexual elements elided in the book and yet crucial to the Beat scene are given their due. Sturridge’s Carlo, with his airy verbal rhapsodies and charming pretence, captures something of Ginsberg’s talent, charm, and warmth even as he could easily seem like a colossal poseur, going through an extended internal wrestling bout with his psycho-sexual confusion, vowing to go off to Africa and smoke himself into opiated ecstasies and later recounting a failed suicide attempt with good-humoured dejection. Sal and Dean’s friendship is always charged with an element of attraction, culminating in a scene in which Sal is disquieted by catching sight of Dean hustling money by screwing a middle-aged businessman (Steve Buscemi). Hedlund, previously best known to me as the heroic void of Tron Legacy (2010), is surprisingly effective as Dean. Dean’s bold eccentricity manifests upon his first meeting with Carlo and Sal, coming to answer the door stark naked, Marylou lolling in bed in their flat, the fetid atmosphere of sex and booze and poverty belied by the glamorous rawness of the duo. Hedlund’s Dean surveys Carlo and Sal with a wide stare that seems at once open and somehow fathomless, blank, eternally hungry and unfillable. Dean is at once deeply egocentric and rapacious in his drives, qualities that will lead him to eventually hurt those close to him, and also a genuine misfit, anxiously generous, for whom the niceties of everyday life in modern, suburban America are a confounding trial. He also collects interesting people, mostly female, including the innocently, raucously randy Marylou, and the knowingly wicked Rita Bettancourt (Kaniehtiio Horn) who sucks down coffee laced with Benzedrine with a self-administered catechism, “Bless me Father for I will sin,” and whilst she and Dean rut, Carlo’s cries of complaint about the noise inspire Dean to march out and drag him into bed with them.
Sal and Dean’s relationship, and their mutual, strange one with Marylou deepens when Dean turns up unexpectedly at a house of Sal’s sister’s house where his family has gathered on Thanksgiving, with Dean having dumped Camille and their child off in the hinterland and taken up with Marylou again, in the company of another accidental wanderer, Ed Dunkel (Danny Morgan), whose wife Galatea has turned up at the Lees’ house outside New Orleans trying to locate her wayward spouse. After Dean volunteers to ferry Sal’s francophonic mother (Marie-Ginette Guay) to New York, he then sets out with Sal and Ed to rescue Galatea from the eccentric care of the Lees, rolling on their five-finger-discount way after they’re harassed by a cop who takes exception to these freaks and have to pay a steep fine — a rare moment in which the nettling force of authority descends on these escapees from normality. Sal’s already been invited into bed with Dean and Marylou at her behest, a threesome that stalled thanks to Sal’s self-consciousness that drives Dean irritably from the room, and their simmering mutual attraction and Dean’s determined adventuring manifests most amusingly when, after they’ve managed to divest themselves of the Dunkels and are driving across the Midwest, he has them all strip off and drive with Marylou between the two men, pulling them both off in a scene reminiscent of the mediated pan-sexuality glimpsed in Bertolucci’s 1900 (1977).
It’s hard to think of a more exact fashion for Stewart to shake off her Twilight-ingenue phase than this scene which amusingly, incidentally, trashes the prim love triangle of her famous franchise. Stewart’s best moment in the film is earlier, however, as Marylou and Dean dance with proto-raver abandon to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” to the delight of the New York bohemians, emissaries of liberation. When they turn up at the door of Sal’s sister’s and crash the family gathering, they’re more like envoys from an alien planet. Dean charms his way through dinner and then confesses to Sal of having recently passed through a bout of suicidal despair, having sat alone for hours with a gun trying to work up the will to kill himself. The characters are only half-willingly trapped on the outside, with Marylou surveying even the Lees’ fetid house in search of signs of domestic contentment, and Sal later peering through a department store window, studying televisions like these are the true artefacts of an alien landing.
Sal and Marylou’s relationship finds fulfilment in one night of ragged passion after Dean essentially dumps them both off so he can continue with Camille and his kid, Marylou chasing him off with a well-worded missive and then retreats to a corner to don her battle gear for a life of survival without him –- blood red lipstick all the better for seductively handling a hotel clerk. Salles repeats this motif after Camille in turn kicks Dean out after he and Sal come back from a night of fun, returning to a suburban house with the pitch of sullen fury mixes with baby screams into a symphony of nerve-shredding, Dean kissing his child goodbye and exiting with sullen grace, whilst Camille takes a long hard look at herself in the mirror and then steels herself in her nurse’s uniform, getting on with the business of living with a child. Salles’ quiet toughness on the sexism of Dean and others of this world is bracing. Galatea Dunkel’s tough, ruthlessly honest, if also priggish and self-important centrist values and unwavering criticality of these wayward lads is beautifully communicated by the ever-excellent Moss in a too-brief appearance. Dean’s hopeless inability to settle is however finally revealed as a pitiable curse rather than a mere convenience. The film’s final passage is majestic, a hallucinatory, Peckinpah-esque depiction of the pair’s final trip, a drive into Mexico where the pair finally find the orgiastic, consciousness-drowning experience – an indulgence of the carnal so immediate it liberates the spirit in a moment of rhapsodic lunacy – which they’ve hunted high and low for.
The duo meet up with young scallywag Victor (Joel Figueroa) hungry for US currency, with whom they share a joint the size of a stick of dynamite, before he leads them to a whorehouse where they find eruptive release, Dean shaking from stem to crown like a whirling dervish in communion with godheads as he fucks and vibrates to jazz. So exciting are these carnal cavaliers that the whores and their town farewell them as they continue to Mexico City, where a romp through the streets at night, passing through the very gut of a teeming organism of human life, becomes another dance between devils and enlightenment, Salles’ lenses highlighting Madonna statues and skull-masked children dancing around the duo. This is prelude to Sal falling desperately ill, lying sweating and tortured by visions of his lost friends, and finally abandoned by Dean who leaves him to recover whilst continuing to chase whatever the hell it is he’s after. Sal and Dean’s last encounter on a frigid New York street with Sal heading off for a concert sees Dean appearing out the darkness, at last fully transformed into the frazzled, glowing-eyed, hollowed-out demon-beset saint Sal had always suspected he was, begging Sal silently for forgiveness whilst bearing the marks of damage that his continued journey left him with, as if Sal in fact got off easy whilst Dean’s continuing the quest took him to a bleak and ecstatic place that left him with no future, only more road.
Sal soon after finally begins creating the work we’ve been watching, creating the scroll draft in an explosion of creative self-exorcism that leaves off with Dean’s name repeated like a catechism, their search for unfound fathers still haunting them and Dean now a roaming spirit somewhere in the west, transmuted by Sal’s imagination into the personification of all things strange and off-kilter in an America starting to worship the television and the washing machine. Riley, after his wobbly work in Brighton Rock (2011), returns to best form in playing Sal, who is always two people, the fawnish young romantic on screen and the croaky narrator whose experience is written in his vocal chords whilst his face transforms as the film unfolds until he’s lined and hairy and the hurt as well as blessings of his life on the road pools in his eyes. Like Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago (1965), he’s the dreamy but increasingly battle-scarred conduit for the drama as much as protagonist. On The Road as a whole doesn’t always sustain the intensity of Kerouac’s writing or its own best passages, and on some levels I can understand the problems some have with it: rather than a tale of great moment, this is a grace note, a recreation of time past that asks less, what can be, but rather, what happened? Rather then presenting a road map for modern hipsters, the final thesis of the film suggests that for all the philosophy and life hunger Kerouac tried to present, he also succeeded in painting a portrait of people permanently cut off from their world and their moment, aliens in their own society, no matter how many funky kids tried to emulate their example. But it’s this slightly bitter realism, the acute reflection of the dark and downside of life in bohemia in any era as well as its ephemeral joys, that I liked. And the film is, especially in its concluding passages, true to the Roman candle vividness and floundering yet desirous spirit of Kerouac’s work, a rich and marvel-studded misfire, whilst resisting being another classic illustrated, a demystification that finds raw humanity under the sainted prose.
Wait, let me get the familiar motifs of my yearly confession out of the road. Many films overrated, blah blah. Many good films vilified, blah blah. Bloody distributors, blah blah. Okay. Let’s go.
Several critics this year took the time and effort to declare this the year cinema died. This suggested, in part, a symptom of solipsism, as what’s much closer to the truth is that film criticism as a tenured profession with major newspapers and magazines is fading, if not dying. So it’s tempting to do as the Vikings do and burn the ship along with the corpse of the fallen warrior. The proposition that because more people watch certain TV shows than certain well-reviewed, but aesthetically difficult films and that, therefore, the art form is dying, could well have been clipped verbatim from a newspaper column in 1962. Granted, film is going through an upheaval at the moment in terms of the nature of the medium itself and the kinds of audience it can draw out of their homes. Like every other art form and entertainment at the moment that isn’t Xbox or You Tube, it has to fight for its survival and status.
From a personal perspective, 2012 did not prove a repeat of 2011, a vintage year for cinema. It seems like I spent most of this year waiting—waiting for good movies. I beat my own record for viewings of films released in the calendar year, which entailed increasing the amount of mediocrity and missed opportunities I willingly exposed myself to. Of course, several of this year’s most “important” films have been held back until the very last moment, or have received such listless distribution (e.g. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master‘s cursory Australian release), that I find myself genuinely bereft for not being able to comment here on several (but the lists are updated as time progresses). Only sheer luck and a helping hand allowed me to catch a couple more that grace my lists below.
I had hoped this year I might be able to curb my contrarian tendencies a little, but I instead find them stronger than ever. A lot of highly regarded films left me frigid if not bored, many quality works carried a distinct and quietly disturbing aspect of déjà vu or ambition without the strange heat of real creativity, and several of the handful of films I felt any true affection for have been treated with outright contempt by the cultural apparatchiks. There were many films I anticipated watching enthusiastically, perhaps too much so, like Holy Motors, The Deep Blue Sea, and Oslo, 31 August, where I admired them and saw their specific beauty, and yet in the end felt something lacking; perhaps it was the lack of true penetration of the inner life of the dramatic protagonists or, in the case of the occasionally very brilliant Holy Motors, a final sense of the often strained conceptual stunt truly adding up.
After watching the diptych of Australian-directed, American-set gangland dramas, Killing Them Softly and Lawless, I became afflicted by the knowledge that I’ve been watching the same scuzzball crime flick in variations since about 1990, a blend of detailed criminal argot, showy grit, method-inflected overacting, and gunshots to the head. This sensation sharpened to a point where both films proved to have one particular moment in common, a thug getting pissed off and delivering an even worse beating when the victim has the temerity to get bodily fluids on the thug’s clothes. Many films with potential seemed to lack that extra inspiration to break themselves out of the ruts of Good Little Movie or Nice Try, to whit Liza Johnson’s Return or Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister. It was sad and frustrating to watch a film brimming over with unruly life like Bachelorette take refuge in the cosy clichés of the chick flick brand it seemed to be attacking.
Others, like Rian Johnson’s Looper and Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice, tried on the other hand to be a bit too clever, failing to juggle all of the many balls they threw in the air. Looper also exemplified a breed that includes films like Sleepless Night, The Grey, and Haywire in setting up magnificently and failing to bring it all home. 2012 was overloaded with self-serious action films and spectacles with pretensions to substance, films like Looper, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, Cloud Atlas, The Grey, Chronicle, The Hunger Games, Haywire, and The Bourne Legacy. These often received glowing reviews and filmgoer enthusiasm, and some of them were genuinely good films. But there must be something wrong with me: most of these felt half-baked, failing to measure up to what a good craftsman, like Joseph H. Lewis, Andre De Toth, or Richard Thorpe, could invest in a pulp narrative 60 years ago. Skyfall was a case in point, sporting a great and intelligent core idea: to walk James Bond back through his half-mythical past only to bring him to a new beginning. But the idea was squandered through a listless and derivative story that finally left the film exposed, stripped of the pop-art exuberance that made the series interesting in the first place. By comparison, I found myself responding far more to the buoyant inanity in films like The Avengers, Wrath of the Titans, The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, films that do not try for a second to fake meaning. And there are few words fit for polite company I can think of to address those critics who have put the marvellous John Carter on their worst-of-year lists.
Yet, after all this, cinematic excellence still accumulated, like the gentle rain from heaven, as a better writer than I said about something completely different. In films of 2012, characters seem splintered off from the bulk of humanity like rubble flung off from some great collision. And indeed that’s how many people at large feel—I know I do. Look at the protagonists of films like Cosmopolis and Holy Motors, contained by their universe-unto-themselves limousines, travelling the cityscapes in search of a moment of transcendent creation/destruction, their immediate psychic and physical reality redesignated as an extended piece of performance art. Their bond with the actor-therapist heroes of Alps was inescapable: the Alps troupe filled in as simulacrums of the dead, as their own existences become voids to be fled no matter how painful the consequences. The wandering nonhero of The Day He Arrives, a film director entrapped by those long, improvised takes known as life, was surrounded by doppelgangers and numbing repetitions, elliptical events, and hazy, half-remembered epiphanies. The aged, haggard, aching characters share a dolorous existence in contemporary Portugal in Tabu, and the revelation of a past finds an exotic netherworld where melodramatic passion flared and died and led them to this end, the former colonial tended to a bitter grave by the former colonised. The alienated protagonists of the great diptych of unabashed horror films released early in the year, The Innkeepers and Kill List, were driven to distraction and despair by looming financial crisis and finding avatars for their own folly in the strange id-emanations that torment them. The ragged and bloodied survivors of The Grey fended off armies of wolves and the perishing cold, poised as onanistic avatars for the reality of trying to retain masculine self-respect in modern working-class life. The intergalactic swashbucklers of The Avengers had one of the most amusing and telling single shots of the year’s cinema, coming after the end credits of their own movie and added like a little supernal signature flourish by mastermind Joss Whedon, showing them exhaustedly and silently chewing over ethnic cuisine: saving the world is just another shit job.
Speaking of shit jobs, the victims and abusers of Compliance swam in the same reeking, overused frying fat. The physically broken and fiscally pummelled lovers of Rust and Bone hung off the edges of their society with what was left of their bodies and wits. The aging, exhausted cops trudging around the wastelands of rural Turkey in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia were haunted by the broken idols of the past and the accusing eyes of the living. The readily brutal heroes of Sleepless Night, The Grey, Kill List, Haywire, and Savages fought tooth and nail to keep their narrow foothold in the prosperous human community above chasms of existential fear. Hell, even the dwarfish band of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were looking for a way to get their home back off the dragon/finance company. Miss Bala’s titular wannabe beauty queen attempts to use her looks and body to escape poverty and gains her prize through the most ironically horrifying of entrapping nightmares, her body turned into a far more immediate commodity, peeling off the skin of her society and discovering the chaos and hypocrisy beneath.
Damsels in Distress
Batman found himself the thin black line between pseudo-revolution and toothless authoritarianism in The Dark Knight Rises, the richest vigilante in town engaged in a tango of toey flirtation with the most supine of criminals and recovering from having a back snapped by the most uppity of plebeian radicals. The übermensch antihero of Cosmopolis could be a distant relative of Bruce Wayne’s but without the altruistic delusions, glimpsed at one point splayed on all fours whilst receiving a rectal examination, gilded by sweat, and flirting with an employee. Later he casually shoots his bodyguard and revisits his childhood in a seeming quest to pull apart the fibres of his life one by one, before eagerly finding his opposite in life in Paul Giamatti’s pathetic assassin, luckless agent of a devoutly wished extinction. Even in the gentler parts of town, eccentrics had to fight to claim their space and right to exist. The protean boy and girl of Moonlight Kingdom, the collegiate, depressive do-gooders of Damsels in Distress, the Norwegian teens of Turn Me On, Dammit!, the bizarre family of Dark Shadows: all looked for redemption in love and fellowship, but still always faced the oncoming day when anomie would turn to crisis.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
Heroes exhumed from classical texts and history for this year’s films seemed to share this outsider-looking-in quality: the hopped-up holy anarchists of On The Road, rushing at a hundred miles per nowhere, were the characters in Moonlight Kingdom a few years older and a bit more damaged. The final day in the life of the protagonist of Oslo, 31 August, wandering the city disgusted with his failures and himself. Anna Karenina’s eponymous heroine alternating between stage and audience in wrestling between her moral and sensual sides. The princess of Snow White and the Huntsman, the living lodestone for a natural order degraded and exiled by a grotesque caricature of celebrity culture. Even Abraham Lincoln, in Steven Spielberg’s crucial film, attempts to leaven a great good at the price of surveying the wasteland his efforts wreaked, a sense of the moral cost of even supposedly moral struggle accounted for by corpse-strewn battlefields, blazing cities, and piles of rudely amputated limbs—and that’s to say nothing of his vampire-hunting sideline.
Oslo, 31 August
But for many, the unceasing battery of a world gone wrong gave way to moments of grace and epiphany: even the doomed hero Anders of Oslo, 31 August found fleeting moments of joy and beauty in his odyssey, even if he remained as repelled as he was compelled by things from which he felt himself eternally severed. He represented a striking inversion of last year’s number of peacefully conceding heroes, unable to escape a downward spiral that finally announced the rupturing of logic in the jarring cessation of a beautiful piano tune. Anna Karenina’s similar self-induced end came at the end of a life lived as a headlong rush of pleasure and pain. The triumph of the last seconds of Alps finally sees life and performance converge in a moment of perfection. Eruptive celebration momentarily breaks the mood of oppressively weighty and corrosive choices in Lincoln. There was surreal beauty in Rust and Bone, as Marion Cotillard’s character went from broken remnant to the carnal ferocity of her self-induced reinvention as a tattooed, hard-rutting fight promoter.
Declaration of War
And everywhere were fragments of insane beauty—images, images, images, the soul of cinema, laced with the muscle of sound, and sculpted by the edit. The ecstatic abandon of On the Road’s uncouth scallywags, their momentous dawns and fraying nocturnal revels. The dawn-light epiphany of Levin in Anna Karenina and the obscene beauty of Anna’s death, the thunder of the horses riding through the theatre and the abandon in her dance floor surrender to physical ardour. The swooning drug-dreams and hideous violence of Savages. The raging protest outside the limousine whilst within savants converse about how the external chaos is governed by mathematical certainties and inevitable defeat. The cross-edited visions of the equally phony Victoria Winters and Alice Cooper in straightjackets in a lucid game of accusation and anger essayed in playful pop cultural terms in Dark Shadows. The insane smile of Angelique Bouchard in the same film, still planted on her face even as she plucks out her heart and hands it over to the man who disdains her amour fou and collapses from within, revealing the lacquered mannequin her obsessiveness made of her. The teeming magnificence of the alien cities and the gorgeous desolation of Mars in John Carter, captured and contained in the redemptive lustre of Dejah Thoris’ sea-blue eyes. The awesome one-shot survey in The Avengers of the team in action that crossed the breadth of the city. The dawn-light swim of Oslo, 31 August where Anders watches his young and pretty companions with the descending pall of a man with no sense of the future. Cotillard saluting the whale that crippled her and the mammal gesturing back in Rust and Bone, and Matthias Schoenaerts punching the ice over his drowning son with raw, injurious desperation. The perplexingly magnificent dread landscapes of Tartarus and the Labyrinth in Wrath of the Titans. The sight of the duelling hero and villain of The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate being sucked up into a hurricane to continue their battle whirling in the eye of the storm. Valérie Donzelli’s distraught run through the hospital in Declaration of War.
The ecstatic thunder of the accordion band in Holy Motors’ entr’acte and the mystique of Edith Scob donning her Eyes Without a Face mask. In Tabu, the black-and-white, soundless sex scene that ruptures the film’s air of physically manifest decay and remoteness, the prayer shot through with rapturous poetry that punctuates the stolid modern pieties of a protest march, and the idiot enthusiasm of the frontier pop band. The egglike, bloodied remnant of the once-smug physiognomy of Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, touched by the grace of his wife’s forgiveness. The perpetual motion machine that is the hero of Sleepless Night eluding his pursuers by diving into a cotillion of clubbers grooving to Queen, enacting a primal drama against a backdrop of entitled hedonism. The racing intercut stories of Cloud Atlas, that incredible, pounding cyberpunk chase of the futuristic lovers, and the beatific suicide ritual of the young composer. The stone idol, carved by a forgotten society in the midst of a wilderness illuminated by lightning to shock a man into sudden awareness of his mortality, in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and the hovering, mysterious, marvel-provoking beauty of the peasant girl who astounds the tired, dessicated menfolk. The lost beatitude of romantic haven in the sight of Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in tipsy ebullience before the inevitable fall in The Deep Blue Sea, and the communal nostalgia dream of the sing-along in the tube station. The sinking ship and springing whale of Life of Pi, twinned moments of gleaming leviathans depicting the folly of humankind and the power of nature. The characters of The Day He Arrives shivering in a snowy, slushy dawn after a night of revels, departing to their separate, lonely abodes.
That moment in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Bilbo stands in his house, suddenly bereft, before his charge to join his new friends in an adventure; the swashbuckling charge of the dwarves through the kingdom of the goblins; and the gang’s dangling cliffhanger peril, saved by a feathered deus ex machina. The dazzling, terrible whirlwinds of violence that Miss Bala has to charge through repeatedly, and the strange semi-rape that sees her awkwardly trying to mount an injured, saurian beast of a drug lord who is both her protector and tormentor. The dark god’s hand erupting from the earth as the apocalyptic punchline of The Cabin In the Woods’ jokey generic play, after a menagerie of horror cinema’s icons have been released to commit gorgeous carnage. The liberated teens spinning high in the sky in Chronicle. In Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens and his black housekeeper/lover reading the 13th Amendment in bed together in celebration of a future made possible; the blazing buildings of Confederate cities; the arcane melodrama that evokes Manichaeistic struggle just before a titan’s death is announced to his son. The dying Goody of Vamps standing amidst Times Square, aging by the second even as she passes through a rapturous peeling back of the years and transformations of the beloved space to its once-quaint, cobbled self. The rage of the killer paterfamilias in Kill List, stoked to a world-melting heat by obscenity revealed, pounding in a paedophile’s head with a hammer, only to later be chased through stygian woods and hellish tunnels by masked demons determined to implicate him in the reckoning he thinks he can buy off with too-late righteousness.
Cinema is dead, my arse!
I don’t know if I saw a better-acted film this year than The Day He Arrives, purely by dint of the fact that the human behaviour it depicted seemed to flow with the happenstance energy and gestural concision of real life. This quality of extreme, almost invisible naturalism was shared by the cast of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, who all seemed to have been born in the clothes they wear and in the space they inhabit. But, of course, that’s not the only standard for great acting, which can also be the alchemical art of display that sometimes risks excess for the sake of finding something more finite and compelling. In that regard, one of the year’s most inevitably well-regarded acting efforts, Daniel Day-Lewis’ incarnation of Abraham Lincoln, was a surprising pirouette for the actor who had delivered two of the last decade’s greatest performances in a grandiose key (Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview): Day-Lewis offered not just the eloquence and folksiness of Honest Abe but also the shrewd lawyer, dry, bordering on parched, struggling against a subtly conveyed terror to hold together the remnants of his family and self-respect even in the throes of being transformed into an icon by his final successes, even reduced at one point to glaring out of the shadows of a window bay with baleful anger and sorrow at his accusatory wife. The incredible roster of support Day-Lewis has in Spielberg’s film emerged as a Dickensian roster of precisely illuminated, ever-so-slightly magnified portraiture, including Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, brittle and intelligent and tragic in her self-crucifying anxiety, Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, the most unprepossessing of ideologues revealed as a brutally witty moral swashbuckler, Gloria Reuben’s careful, but crucial, small part, and David Strathairn’s dusty, crafty William Seward. Michael Stuhlbarg, who helped fill out Lincoln’s cast with a memorably John Ford-esque, timorous congressman, also contributed the only performance in Sacha Gervasi’s lamentable rubbish Hitchcock, as crafty agent extraordinaire Lew Wassermann, that didn’t look like a mobile waxwork exhibit.
Well, all right, Scarlett Johansson made for a tolerably perky Janet Leigh in Hitchcock, too. She also continued her recent run of films suggesting she’s finally growing into the movie star zone into which she was thrust prematurely after Lost in Translation (2003) with her contribution to one fairly popular film this year, which sported a generally marvellous collection of character turns by actors playing emotionally crippled, physically misshapen, neurotically talkative misfits engaged in group dysfunction and rampant physical comedy. Wait, was The Avengers a Woody Allen film and nobody told me? I always grudgingly enjoy being forced to change my mind about an actor, and one I had dismissed as an asinine pretty boy quite genuinely impressed me with his gall this year in a diptych of roles: Robert Pattinson’s performances in Bel-Ami and Cosmopolis were received with disparate levels of interest and recognition, but in both, he cleverly played off his signature role as a beautiful bloodsucker, as the former film allowed him to play a conflicted and frightened man lusted after and idealised by the women around him in a fashion usually reserved for the opposite situation, and the latter let him play a smarmy billionaire driven by forces within to try to smash apart his own pharaohic hegemony as part of a masochistic experiment in system decay. In both films, Pattinson was nimble enough to depict the turmoil, even foolishness, under the surface of superficially purposeful cads. His Twilight costar, Kristen Stewart, weathered storms of scandal and popular opprobrium to expand her increasingly impressive resume with a lead performance in Snow White and the Huntsman that was sturdy and restrained until it finally bloomed in butch glory. Charlize Theron was splendidly arch playing Stewart’s wicked queen enemy. Stewart was also an affecting addition to the vigorous cast of On the Road as the blazing-eyed, jailbait bohemian Marylou. But the film properly belonged to Sam Riley, all doe-eyed naivete mismatched to a prematurely lived-in voice, and Garret Hedlund, the garrulous, but shark-eyed rough trade byproduct of a juvie hall education in a rougher, bleaker, but paradoxically freer America.
Denis Lavant was the glue that held the fractured pieces of Holy Motors together, at once a study of acting itself whilst sustaining a coherent characterisation of an actor as a character: it was impossible, of course, to miss Lavant’s physical dynamism and chameleonic talents, because the film was about those very talents so long in need of a vehicle, and the result was very much an exploration of the traditional symbiosis of filmmaking talent behind and in front of the camera. Kylie Minogue’s beguiling cameo and song likewise buoyed the film’s flagging second half like a visitation from another, classier planet. Aggeliki Poupolia led the cast of Alps, equally multitudinous, except, of course, where Lavant was playing the epitome of acting talent, the Alps team were the opposite, deliberately awful actors filling in for real people: as in Dogtooth (2009), but essayed in a subtler fashion, Poupolia’s genius at slow burns arriving at incendiary climaxes shook continents with its force. Amongst the manifold offhand pleasures of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, with the customary Johnny Depp grotesque front and centre, the real battle for acting honours fell to Michelle Pfeiffer as haughty matriarch and Eva Green playing her cabalistic minx as an undead Joan Crawford heroine. Green shifted to completely different register of soulful resignation opposite Ewan McGregor in David Mackenzie’s odd but occasionally striking parable Perfect Sense. Jennifer Lawrence underplayed her lead role in a film that made her exponentially more famous, The Hunger Games, to an extent that inspired some internet mockery, but it was a performance consistent with her breakthrough role in Winter’s Bone (2010) in trying to embody a heroine given to simply accepting the evil inherent in any situation and proceeding for the sake of survival.
Greta Gerwig’s star turn in Damsels in Distress was very much the key to the film’s seemingly insufferably arch, blithely self-impressed façade, cleverly shading into modes of honest pain, sly self-critique, and finally, pure goofy charm. Brit Marling might have committed the ultimate actress-writer faux pas in having someone else in the film she wrote describe her as beautiful, and yet her capacity to animate her character in Sound of My Voice as both radiant and yet, with suggestions of serpentine evil constantly lurking behind an ambiguous smile, was the work of someone who knows her stuff, and Christopher Denham was as impressive opposite her as he was wasted in Argo. Anne Hathaway may well get herself an Oscar this year for Les Misérables, but the role most people saw her in this year was, of course, Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, a ringer who successfully kept the ball in play with sufficient insouciant wit and poise to make up for the turgid, incoherent pseudo-epic around her. Her costar and rival for the listless affections of Bruce Wayne was Marion Cotillard, wasted in her second Christopher Nolan film. But Cotillard’s superlative performance alongside the equally impressive Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone was her artistic compensation, and much more than just the mischievously clever CGI that made her look like a double amputee: rage and grief and erotic force have rarely been presented together and with such force, especially without a trace of actorly showboating. Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina was, on the other hand, showboating with careful and compelling modulation, playing a self-dramatist for whom everything is, on some level, a theatrical gesture. Her befuddled, tortured husband was played with career-best pathos by Jude Law, who turns his fading matinee idol looks into an aesthetic weapon.
Another star who, like Law, emerged in the late ’90s and whose career had seemed to be slowing, had a suddenly incandescent year: everyone’s talked about the second coming of Matthew McConaughey, and I can’t really argue with it, though I wish it had been in better films. The best of the bunch was William Friedkin’s broad and excessively theatrical, but impressively seedy Killer Joe, which, of course, culminated in his forcing Gina Gershon to fellate a chicken drumstick, one of the most memorable single moments of 2012: Gershon’s own feral force, finally tamed by the cruellest of methods, was equally impressive. In Magic Mike, McConaughey provided the meaty, muscly, wolfish smarm to offset Channing Tatum and Alex Pettyfer’s well-exploited physiques and pleasant lack of acting talent. Bruce Willis, still an unflappably laid-back presence, was affecting as the dopey, but affectionate sheriff in Moonrise Kingdom, and sported an amazing manga hairdo for a couple of minutes in Looper. His confrontation with a weirdly convincing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his youthful alter ego in Looper saw two generations of male movie stars share a diner breakfast in by far the best moment in the film, presenting the amusing conceit of the older and younger versions of the same violent dipshit in different phases of self-deception. Emily Blunt, who backed them up, was the year’s most accommodating female movie star, handling thankless roles with class, including being surprisingly convincing as the besotted third wheel in Your Sister’s Sister, opposite Rosemarie DeWitt, who was, in turn, the only thing worthwhile about Promised Land. Their male costar in Sister, Mark Duplass, was also in Safety Not Guaranteed, playing exactly the same character in each, a slightly more lunky, blue-collar version of the smart, loquacious, but fragile boy-men so popular in modern comedy. Two films provided more than enough of that, so, of course, now he’ll be in everything.
Indie veteran Ann Dowd was the engine of Compliance, communicating middle-aged anxiety and quiescent vindictiveness without entirely losing her façade of amiable managerial politeness; full marks as well to her costar Dreama Walker for playing the year’s most hapless character. Pat Healy, as the villain of the piece, ably sustained the necessary, slippery, verbal wit and also appeared, completely unrecognisable, as the feckless coworker of Sara Paxton’s assailed, flaky hero/victim, one of the year’s most underappreciated lead turns, in The Innkeepers. Similarly strong in a low-key, quietly engaging indie film was Linda Cardellini in Return as a returned servicewoman beset by alienation and unable to live in the present; Michael Shannon and John Slattery gave her good support. Stephanie Sigman as the human ping-pong ball who temporarily becomes Miss Bala was a study in sustained terror, with gifts of bravery and loyalty occasionally showing through an otherwise wisely maintained mantle of acquiescence. At the other end of the scale, Cloud Atlas was hurt almost irreparably by its excruciating conceit of using its actors in recurring roles, with Tom Hanks delivering two or three of the worst performances of his career. But Jim Broadbent held his own in two segments, particularly in a peerless comedic turn as the editor stranded in an old folks’ home by his brother’s conniving. Doona Bae managed to imbue her part as a sagacious clone with sensuality and suggestions of spiritual grace that transcended the compilation of stereotypes and clunky axioms she represented. Ben Whishaw’s perpetual air of spidery intelligence likewise buoyed the film, as did his brief appearance in Skyfall as a Q for the new millennium. Noomi Rapace was intelligent and gutsy in Prometheus alongside the impressive, but extremely ill-utilised Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba, providing, in that immortally queasy robotic abortion scene, the only real reason to watch that unholy mess of a movie. Although they did not say a word, Ana Moreira and Carloto Cotta as the doomed lovers in the flashback sequences of Tabu, proved you don’t always need dialogue to deliver hypnotic performances, and Teresa Madruga as the saintly but solitary Pilar was the soul of the film’s first half.
I know that Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston, and Simon Russell Beale were very good in The Deep Blue Sea; in fact, it was impossible to miss, as if heavyweight dramatic acting had been included as an event in this year’s London Olympics. Come on, Rachel, one more sobbing moan for Britain. By contrast, Anders Danielson Lie’s excellence in Oslo, 31 August was predicated on a difficult part, as his namesake character only occasionally emerged from his position as melancholy observer to reveal his anger and despair, as well as self-mortifying impulses. Eddie Redmayne, also getting good notices for Les Misérables, offered a startling performance cast against type as a sociopath slowly but inevitably giving in to his worst impulses in weird and uneven Hick, which also featured another of Chloë Grace Moretz’s protean turns as the teenaged heroine who finally and fatally could not get out of his clutches. Blake Lively backed them up and also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages, cumulatively making a case for herself as a bonafide actress playing characters easy to dismiss as airheaded parasites who prove to have hidden depths and reefs. Amidst the wobbly satire and shenanigans of the chicks-behaving-badly epic Bachelorette, the key threesome of Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and particularly, Isla Fisher were game in inducing hilarity, empathy, and convulsive vomiting. In a similar vein, Alicia Silverstone was smart and endearing as the vampire long past pop culture expiry date fed up with playing the modern game of feigning eternal youth in Vamps. I dare say more people feel sympathy with her character’s plight than are willing to let on.
Favourite Films of 2012
Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Alps feels, at first glance, too much like another entry from the now familiar school of mordant Greek absurdist cinema exemplified by Lanthimos’ first film, Dogtooth, and Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011). Like those films, it’s a through-a-glass-darkly portrait of socially normative behaviour studied like an alien scientist watching humanity through a telescope held the wrong way around. But it holds together with greater integrity as both a story—though still infused with jolts of surrealism and enigma—and as a personal odyssey for its disintegrating heroine’s efforts to slot herself into other people’s realities. In other words, a distinctive filmmaker retaining his distinction whilst visibly and intelligibly evolving.
Joe Wright’s second appearance in two years on my list confirms me as a resolute Wright fanboy, I suppose, but Wright seems to me to speak in a cinematic language once fairly commonplace but now almost freakish—poised, yet expressive; smart, but emotional; showy and semi-experimental, but rooted in a passion for the material and a desire to engage the audience. Few others directors on the scene seem able or willing to be as formally animated and innovative without being precious to the point of irritation. The result shakes up a moribund subgenre, but also realises the inherent beauty and brilliance of Leo Tolstoy’s novel.
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
David Cronenberg continues on his recent roll, recasting Don DeLillo’s admired novel as his late-career critique of his very first movie, Shivers (1975), substituting the immobile trap of an apartment building for a self-sufficient limousine, and humans threatened not by parasites, but humans turning into parasites, feeding off larger, incorporeal organisms. Eric Packer, well-played by a cleverly exploited Robert Pattinson, is the wizard of high finance who’s conquered his piece of the world, but, now bored, does not so much give himself up to fate or primal experience as conduct another of his studies in systems, being this time the dynamics of disintegration, observing and even creating his own downfall with the same bewildered, semi-human fascination.
A delicious, if uneven emporium of droll absurdity from Burton, Dark Shadows did not escape the stored-up disdain for some of Burton’s profitable, but weaker recent efforts. Nonetheless, this was one of the year’s liveliest mainstream releases, a blend of retro psychedelia and good-natured satire at once deeply acerbic and perversely earnest in its investigation of retro obsessions, familial bonds and maladies, post-’60s liberation, and the joys of hate-sex on the ceiling. (See also Amy Heckerling’s delightfully screwball, accidental companion piece, Vamps.)
Some people complain that Sang-soo Hong makes the same movie over and over again, and that could well be true, but so do a lot of other directors, and very few with the same beguiling mixture of formal artistry and improvised elan. Hong digs so cleverly and yet subtly into the more melancholy aspects of modern life with its stripped illusions, trashed niceties, and collapsed hierarchies.
The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui Hark)
Less beautiful and controlled than Hark’s comeback film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), this follow-up nonetheless saw Hark perhaps surpass it by going totally for broke, in a breakneck ride of multiple factions, heroes and villains, deceptions, double-crosses, sand-dancing battles, and sky-riding duels. Result: Hark proves he still has a capacity to make even close Hollywood avatars like The Avengers look nearly anaemic by comparison.
Ti West’s bare-boned, classical horror aesthetic builds on the intoxicating minimalism of The House of the Devil (2009) for a slightly more traditional, but no less sustained tale of factotum depression shading into supernatural terror.
This year’s Sucker Punch (2011), with a twist: whereas Zack Snyder’s film from last year was flagrantly postmodern and cool in its take on CGI spectacle, John Carter is a reinvention of the yarn-spinner’s wheel, resolutely traditional cowboys vs. aliens stuff realised with more class, visual spectacle, and actual entertainment value than 50 dark knights rising. The big multiplex screens were bathed in all the lush, absurd splendour of turn-of-the-century scientification; just a pity so few people were sitting in the audience to see it. (See also another critically underrated spectacle, although likely in the end to be a far bigger popular success, Peter Jackson’s simultaneously grand and mischievous The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.)
Kill List (Ben Wheatley)
A restless, unsettling, mercilessly potent vision of contemporary angst, be it financial, military, or familial, churning the uneasy mindset of the millennium’s first decade into a great British horror film. Images as stark and appalling as any in classic genre cinema rub against a hazy, paranoid parable for the cost of maintaining a prosperous western lifestyle, whilst everywhere, demons wait.
Lest things get too grim in a time in which the political venality on display across the world will echo in infamy for decades, Lincoln reminds us of the potential nobility of the human condition, as manifest both in leaders reputed, like the title character, and in the lesser, or merely less-remembered, mortals around him. The way politics is an accumulation of, rather than a force upon, individual feeling and perspective has rarely been described with such ardour and intensity, nor stuffed historical countenances reanimated with such relish for the expressivity of words and the concise power of images. (See also Timur Bekmembetov’s trash-mash edition of the same tale.)
Cruelly but not surprisingly received with dismissal by many critics, this is youth culture mythology’s bleary awakening and its night-after hangover and self-critique. Walter Salles’ film of the Beat bible strips the material of legend and finds human foible, failings, and hope still rudely alive. It’s a film for people who both fondly regard the novel, but also hold it in perspective, and for people who know that life often requires looking disaster dead in the eye and then looking past it.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
What was perhaps most impressive about this work by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the way in which it manages to bridge several different kinds of movie-making without apparent effort or violating its quiet, ambling, deceptively deadpan façade. It’s an historical rumination. It’s as realistic a portrait of police and policing as you’re ever likely to see. It contains fragments of magic realism and eerie, almost expressionistic beauty and dread. It’s an oft-hilarious situation comedy. It’s a desolating study in time, age, and fate.
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)
Jacques Audiard has a cunning capacity to make far-out melodrama tropes and weird afflictions for his characters work in deceptively realistic, everyday contexts, which makes him often seem like the last of the great Victorian Naturalist novelists, the Zola of the banlieus. In part a nongenre remake of his romantic thriller Read My Lips (2001) as a raw, modern epic of sex and money, with damaged souls rendered literal in limited and injured bodies, Rust and Bone swerves a couple of times too many, but its boldness and vivacity linger large.
Tabu also directly contrasts the pettiness of modern life and the way age reduces everyone to less than they truly are with the outsized passion of yesterday’s youthful folly, with everyday depressive longing segueing into period melodrama, but with a constant, morally serious eye on the shifting vicissitudes of history and personal nature. Gomes’ masterful formal conceits constantly evoke another phase in cinema and life—black-and-white photography and a long, semi-silent segment—and yet avoids any hint of self-satisfied stunt.
Would Be on This List If I’d Seen It in Time
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino) Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot) The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Avengers (Joss Whedon) Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson) Miss Bala (Gerardo Naranjo) Oslo, 31 August (Joachim Trier) Savages (Oliver Stone) Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin) Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders) Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij) Vamps (Amy Heckerling) Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmembetov) Bel-Ami (Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod) The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard) Cloud Atlas (Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer) Compliance (Craig Zobel) Declaration of War (Valérie Donzelli) Haywire (Steven Soderbergh) Holy Motors (Leos Carax) Killer Joe (William Friedkin) Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson) Return (Liza Johnson) Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)
Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve) Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi) Hyde Park on Hudson (Roger Michell) The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona) Lawless (John Hillcoat) Les Misérables (Tom Hooper) Life of Pi (Ang Lee) Promised Land (Gus Van Sant)
Significant Blind Spots
Almayer’s Folly, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Bernie, Detachment, Flight, Frankenweenie, Girl Walk//All Day, Keep the Lights On, The Loneliest Planet, Lore, Monsieur Lazhar, Seven Psychopaths, Sister, Take This Waltz, The Turin Horse
My Year of Retro Wonders: Great Older Films I Saw First in 2012
All The King’s Men (Robert Rossen) A Bell for Adano (Henry King) Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur) Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks) Countdown (Robert Altman) The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kolatozov) Dark Waters (Andre de Toth) The Day the World Ended / Not of This Earth (Roger Corman) Die Nibelungen / The Tiger of Eschnapur & The Indian Tomb (Fritz Lang) Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder) The Earth Dies Screaming / Revenge of Frankenstein / Frankenstein Created Woman / Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Terence Fisher) Elevator to the Scaffold / Viva Maria! (Louis Malle) Farewell to the King (John Milius) Faust / Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau) Flowers of Shanghai (Hsiao-hsien Hou) Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa) Gilda (Charles Vidor) Hell’s Angels (Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding) Hercules in the Haunted World / I Tre Volti Della Paura / Knives of the Avenger (Mario Bava) Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack) Judex (Georges Franju) The Knack…and How to Get It / Royal Flash / Robin and Marian (Richard Lester) La Frissons du Vampires / Les Démoniaques (Jean Rollin) Laura (Otto Preminger) Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner / The French Lieutenant’s Woman (Karel Reisz) The Looking Glass War (Frank R. Pierson) Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey) Mountains of the Moon (Bob Rafelson) Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara) No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa) The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer) The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöstrom) The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson) Phantom of the Paradise/ Obsession / Blow Out / Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma) Sorcerer / Cruising (William Friedkin) The Stars Look Down (Carol Reed) Sword of Doom (Kihachi Okamoto) Tattooed Life / Story of a Prostitute (Seijun Suzuki) A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk) Torment (Alf Sjöberg) Track of the Cat / Blood Alley (William A. Wellman) When a Woman Ascends a Staircase (Mikio Naruse) Young and Innocent / Under Capricorn / Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock) Young Mr. Lincoln / Three Godfathers (John Ford) Zatoichi Monogatari (Kenji Misumi)
I did something strange the other day—I picked up a book at the library by a British author known for writing old-fashioned stories with old-fashioned values aimed at women in or approaching their golden years. My reason for choosing the book had to do with trying to suppress a bleak and angry outlook that has seized me in recent weeks, to escape into a fantasy of romance and tradition and charm. After about 60 pages, the plot conveniences, cliché-filled language, and attitudes about women with which I vehemently disagree shook me out of my fog and, if not exactly in the finest shape to face the world, I nonetheless saw that looking backward isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It seems that director Terence Davies, 67, is experiencing even more acutely the pull of the past. His 2008 poetic documentary Of Time and the City revealed the passage of time and the frailty of the physical as filtered through the environs of his hometown of Liverpool. With The Deep Blue Sea, Davies has lifted a 1952 chestnut from the British stage penned by Terence Rattigan, who would come to defy the trend in British theatre and film of so-called kitchen sink realism that bowed in 1959 with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Rattigan and Davies, both gay men in a country where homosexuality was illegal until 1967, could justifiably claim anger in their works. Their attraction, however, is to the refinement and moral uprightness of the days of empire, their sensibilities lodged squarely in the coded gay traditions of the stage and screen.
Sadly for Davies, his loathing of his sexual orientation and acute nostalgia have sent him into something of an artistic neverland. I say this with enormous regret, as his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, one of my very favorite films, is admirably clear-eyed about the rot beneath the veneer of high society while still exploring the tragedy of a fatal love. The Deep Blue Sea is squarely in the tradition of the 1950s women’s films Davies grew up on and loved, a genre I also love but recognize as hopelessly out of date. To recreate one of these films in 2011 without burrowing beneath the gay code or reflecting on contemporary attitudes toward a sexual coming of age makes this brand-new film a premature museum piece.
Set in 1950, The Deep Blue Sea tells with unabashed sentiment the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a young woman married to a kind, older member of the peerage, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), who is awakened from her comfortably dull life by the raffish sexuality of Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). Freddie, an RAF pilot during World War II, is restless and angry, offering an avatar of adventure and danger from his experiences that Hester finds bewitching. She believes she loves Freddie, so unacquainted is she with lust that she can’t distinguish one emotion from the other. Freddie remains tantalizingly out of reach, treating her with an offhand contempt for her bourgeois romanticism and inexperience. When her despair drives her to the suicide attempt that opens the film, Freddie is deeply offended that she absolves him of blame in a note she left for him, a magnanimity he neither needs nor believes, and determines to end the affair. Despite her husband’s willingness to take her back, Hester won’t put the genie back in the bottle, preferring to live in misery rather than to feel nothing at all.
On its surface, this is a story worth telling, one of a sexual and emotional awakening that sets its protagonist on the path to leading a more authentic life. Yet, in the oh-so-stately telling, there’s not much to distinguish The Deep Blue Sea from a Victorian frolic like Lady Windemere’s Fan except for its lack of wit. My, this story could have used a bit of Oscar Wilde’s social buffoonery or Douglas Sirk’s playful gay coding or even some down-to-earth sincerity. As directed by Davies, Simon Russell Beale plays a very nice man whose impeccable breeding and good English sportsmanship won’t allow him a moment of messy breakdown even though his life has just cracked wide open. The direction he’s given to be mild-mannered and magnanimous is, I suppose, Davies’ attempt to show the passionless marriage Hester is running away from, but Sir William just seems kind of pathetic and insubstantial. Surely Hester’s suicide attempt must have been at least partly a provocation to her husband’s maddening even-temperedness, but nothing about their relationship manages to break the surface.
Hiddleston’s Freddie comes off as a bit of rough trade, shouting incongruously like a caricature of the Angry Young Man, dumping on Hester without apparent motivation other than his slim backstory as a damaged war veteran. In the beginning of their affair, he and Hester certainly do seem physically magnetized, and I appreciated the sensuality that flairs through a couple of scenes. Their parting, perhaps the best scene of the film, gives Hiddleston a chance to show his tenderness and humanity as well.
The one redeeming facet of The Deep Blue Sea is Rachel Weisz. Rather than fall into the Harlequin Romance notion of a suffering woman in love, Weisz fills her Hester with genuine emotion. You can practically smell her longing for Freddie, feel her slightly contemptuous regret at hurting her husband, understand her seemingly foolish resolve to remain outside the comforting confines of her marriage after Freddie throws her over. When Davies gives us the cliché of a back alley through which Hester walks to find Freddie at the local, his frequent home away from the one-room flat they share in London, her posture shows that her helpless addiction to Freddie sits on her like the proverbial monkey on her back.
Davies is enraptured with Weisz’s limpid eyes, perhaps too much so. For all her beauty, Hester comes off as a weepy drudge too often in his hands. Worse perhaps, after the activity of Hester sealing her digs off so that she can die from gas asphyxiation and a somewhat cinematic start at letting her life flash back in her mind’s eye, nothing much happens. I’m surprised that the normally theatre-phobic film critics who have been captivated by Weisz haven’t torn this film a new one for being so stagey. With three anemic central characters, the film just becomes a boring slog, relieved at moments by the earthy pragmatism of Hester and Freddie’s landlady (Ann Mitchell) and the savage elitism of Barbara Jefford as Sir William’s mother.
It is equally baffling to me why this film generally has been critically embraced whereas the 2012 film that bears a close resemblance to it in theme, Anna Karenina, has foundered. Admittedly, the latter film is more modeled on the costume epic, whereas The Deep Blue Sea is a women’s film, yet Anna Karenina makes deliberate, effective use of theatricality to forward the story, whereas Davies’ film seems retrograde in nearly every respect. Even the cinematography, which Davies normally codirects with unusual aplomb, is all misty memory. Like Of Time and the City, this film feels too personal a project for me to relate to.
With the mystique sustained by Stanley Kubrick’s reputation for despotic precision and lofty solitude as a mature film artist, it’s at once amusing and fascinating to imagine him as a messily inventive ingénue with the usual roll call of geeky obsessions and filmic touchstones. Kubrick evolved from a camera-happy Bronx teen into a legendarily exacting visionary, and produced one of the most determinedly individualistic oeuvres in mainstream cinematic history, even as Kubrick attempted to hide from posterity the fruits of his apprentice days. Critic Pauline Kael backed him up in this, once commenting that his career began properly with The Killing (1956) and that, like a developed novelist, he ought to have been able to buy up and destroy his first two works. Kubrick almost managed this: thanks to the bankruptcy of its distributor, he was able to hide his first feature, Fear and Desire, for decades, and it has only recently reemerged from the realm of shadowy enigma known only to a handful of scholars and viewers with long memories. His follow-up, Killer’s Kiss, was never effectively impounded. Kubrick, a middling student with literary tastes, found a prodigious success as a photographer in the late ’40s, whilst still in his teens, first as a freelancer and then as a staff member of Look magazine. He married his high school flame Toba Metz, moved to Greenwich Village, and began to teach himself techniques of film production, a hobby that soon turned into an ambition. Kubrick made a handful of short documentaries and a brief foray into TV work before he finally set out to make his first feature-length film at the ripe old age of 25.
The circumstances were hardly auspicious. Kubrick scraped together a budget of about $10,000 for the shoot, mostly thanks to his chemist uncle and his father’s cashed-in life insurance policy. The screenplay was written by another of Kubrick’s high school friends, the budding playwright Howard Sackler, who would later find repute with his 1968 work The Great White Hope. Kubrick had five actors, five crew members (including Toba), and a team of Mexican agricultural workers to lug around the film equipment. Shooting took place in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, and the cast and crew were poisoned at one point by residual insecticide in a crop sprayer being used to create fog. Like most beginner works from notable filmmakers, there are obvious and powerful anticipations of Kubrick’s recurring interests, attitudes, and images. As movies unto themselves, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are near-equal mixtures of successful and unsuccessful elements, but for intriguingly distinct reasons that plainly reveal the young Kubrick trying to balance out the key aspects not only of his aesthetic repertoire, but also his personal intuition, perspective, and intellectual refrains.
Fear and Desire is beset by the limited cinematic scope on offer, with its handful of actors, props, and settings. Kubrick leans heavily on Sackler’s script and the actors to imbue the project with a conceptual scale far larger than the production elements would allow. The film’s literary affectations, replete with broadly obvious metaphors and archly meditative dialogue, often suggest exactly what this project is: a bunch of young bohemian neophytes trying to make a high falutin’ statement about “the nature of war” in such a way that places them on a far “higher” plane than the grunt work of mere genre filmmaking. At times, Fear and Desire recalls Coleman Francis’ Night Train to Mundo Fine (1966) for wedding cheapjack warfare to muddy existentialist posturing. Yet Fear and Desire, even at its most awkward and affected, bears the imprint of real artists, if ones still learning the meaning of art and the specifics of their own talents. Sackler’s dialogue occasionally possesses the music of poetry with hints of the influence of Eugene O’Neill, and Kubrick’s direction is consistently confident and fluent, especially considering the limitations upon him, and occasionally remarkable. Fear and Desire depicts a war without a defined setting, era, or antagonists. It’s conflict boiled down to essentials, a primal saga of lost and maddened individuals seeking personal meaning even in the midst of impersonal and indiscriminate killing, going up against men no different to themselves, emphasised by the fact that Kubrick makes them literal doppelgängers, the actors playing their opposite numbers.
A similar dynamic and mood to Kubrick’s later war films is clearly present in a blunt and embryonic form, as the struggle seems to stumble far beyond its nominal boundaries and the protagonists attempt to keep their heads and their souls together deep in enemy territory, for example, the beset patrols of Path of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) and the bomber pilots of Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). The landscape they fight through is an eerie, atavistic zone of dispute, with a forest out of the Grimm Brothers and a sludgy river that calls to mind Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad. Four soldiers are stranded here after their plane crashes: the educated, slightly supercilious Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), who reflects sardonically on their situation even as he tries to think of a way out of it; the likeable, poetic, but mentally fraying Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky); the stolid Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit); and the yearning, working-class philosopher Sgt. “Mac” Mackenzie (Frank Silvera). Stranded several miles from the front line, the quartet decide, after some argument and digression, to build a raft and float down the river to their own lines. They encounter an obviously domesticated dog, which they fear might be a tracker’s animal, but it instead runs off in confusion. As they bundle together logs into a makeshift vessel, a low-flying aircraft shoots over them, and the soldiers are worried that it saw them, but it proves to have landed in a field close to a hut where an enemy general seems to be residing. Desperate for food and weapons, the soldiers stage an assault on an outpost, successfully sneaking up on and killing two enemy combatants dining within, and then killing two more when they arrive.
This sequence is where a future great director seems most clearly emergent, with a burst of technique, rapid montage, which Kubrick offered only sparingly later in his career. He depicts the ambush of the two enemy soldiers, caught eating their dinner, as a frenetic explosion of physical and cinematic brutality, his edits carving them up into furiously squirming limbs, savage and desperate mouths, and spilt food mashed and clawed by desperate fingers into a whirl of corporeal mush. Kubrick entwines sustenance and death into the most basic of the essential parallels that will extend throughout his career, the closeness of primal experience to the surface of the human condition no matter how becalmed and effete its self-erected circumstances. The victorious raiders settle down to claim the weapons of the men they’ve killed and eat their food, with Mac slobbering down stew with wolfish glee, celebrating his victory—his proclaimed right to live another day and beat his competitors—with the most direct of statements and the least evolved animal enthusiasm. The anticipations here are redolent of the Neanderthal discoveries of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The script archly contrasts plebeian vulgarity, embodied by Mac, with the educated Corby’s quietly insufferable pontifications, as when he watches Mac and comments he’s found the perfect metaphor for war, “cold stew on a blazing island…with a tempest of gunfire around it to fan the flames,” and surveys the dead soldiers sprawled in the blank-eyed shock of sudden death and notes, as if sarcastically rebutting the title-expressed thesis of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, “No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago—before the Ice Age—the glaciers have melted away, and now we’re all islands.”
The enemy general, also played by Harp, shares with his fellow officer this tendency towards overt philosophising, in a darker, even weightier fashion, reclining with distinctly aristocratic poise as he reflects on his status as a destroyer and sacrificer of men with pain and misgiving. The schematic split of the characters remains ponderously obvious even as Kubrick’s cinematic wit and actors try to shake them into independent life. But it’s clear that Kubrick would reiterate the schisms he describes here, in increasingly sophisticated terms, to become statements enacted on macrocosmic and cultural levels in his later works, and most immediately in Paths of Glory and Spartacus (1960), where culturally elevated and educated figures parade their civility as justifications for oppressing others dismissed as subhuman. Mac, for his part, makes a play for existential victory: in recognising his essential inconsequentiality and probable fate after the war is finished to return to a life of effaced labour, he determines to destroy the enemy general, even if it means dying in the process, simply to prove his existence has meaning and effect on the larger scheme of things. To this end, he talks Corby into approving his simple but effective plan to row downstream on the raft and distract the general’s guards, giving Corby and the others time to strike at the general himself. Mac’s voyage down to the river is a thrilling moment sporting the most successful of the film’s attempts at presenting interior monologue, as Mac meditates on his motivations, at once pathetic and transcendent, shot from a low angle by Kubrick with dark sky and looming trees sliding by above and giving mystical force to Mac’s self-constructed destiny.
The film’s second great scene arrives as the team are forced to take a local peasant girl prisoner. The girl has been washing clothes in the river with some other women and comes across the soldiers hiding in the bushes,cueing an electrifying moment when the girl spots the eyes watching her from the behind the leaves and as her own eyes widen in alarm, the men suddenly erupt to grasp her. As even Corby’s interest in their captive seems a touch too intense for a moment, it’s Mac who drawls, half-sarcastically, “Let’s try to remain civilised.” Worried that this girl might have seen their raft, still sitting on the riverbank half-finished, the men tie her to a tree. Corby leaves Sidney to watch over her, but this proves to be a mistake. Sidney’s fermenting trauma from the killings in the hut begins to boil over, and the silent, uncomprehending girl becomes a blank slate for Sidney to write his insecurities and caprices upon, trying to entertain her with a grotesque dumb show in which he pretends to be a general dining, in between molesting her with a pathetic, dissociated neediness. When he unties her because she seems responsive, she runs off, and Sidney shoots her in the back. Sidney spirals into complete madness, randomly quoting The Tempest before dashing off into the woods. Kubrick’s career strand of vividly visualised, fetishistic, erotic textures is insistently nascent here, as he zeroes in on Sidney’s and the girl’s legs as he embraces her when still tied to the tree, his fatigues and combat boots and her bare legs in a sickly dance. Mazursky, who would become a noted director in his own right, offers a performance that anticipates Kubrick’s contradictory fondness for blackly comedic, violently expressive, almost cartoonish performances that would punctuate—and puncture—the veneers of studious realism in his movies. Among such performances are Timothy Carey and Peter Sellers’ turns for him, Malcolm MacDowell’s Alex DeLarge, and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance.
Mac’s plan proves fairly successful, but he is seriously wounded by fire from the riverbank. He drifts downstream, where Sidney, still deep in delirium, gets on board, and the two pieces of human wreckage float toward their lines. Corby and Fletcher succeed in assassinating the general and his aide-de-camp, with the inevitable irony that they are killing their own doppelgängers: the wounded general drags himself across the floor and out the door and manages to croak, “I surrender!” just before Corby kills him. Corby and Fletcher manage to flee in the general’s plane, making it back to their own base and then trudging back to the riverside to await Mac and Sidney as they drift through the enveloping fog. Kubrick returns to the opening shot of the forested landscape just as the pair on the raft float in toward the pair ashore, with Sidney plainly mad and Mac possibly dead. The haunting, numinous visuals filled with wallowing haze, and the awkward attempts by Corby to find words to rationalise their experience, all look forward to the coda of Full Metal Jacket.
Despite the film’s main fault, an inability to discern and sustain its best instincts, it is, in spite of Kubrick’s later dismissal of it as an amateurish work, actually marked out by a general avoidance of many pitfalls of such low-budget cinema. Kubrick’s blocking of his actors is usually strong, and sometimes he achieves some artful compositions. Kubrick is plainly fascinated by the spectacle and meaning of death, repeatedly presenting moments of demise as first a pounding wallop of mortality and then a sudden emptiness. He constantly returns to study the faces of the dead—the girl’s, the enemy soldiers, the general’s—to contemplate their shocked, staring emptiness, to ram home a sense of curtailed existence, the humanity suddenly gone from these puppets whose strings have been cut.
The initial cost of Fear and Desire was blown out considerably by post-production work, and despite impressing some notable culturati like James Agee and Mark Van Doren, it failed financially. Kubrick hurriedly signed on to make another short documentary for the Seafarers International Union to raise money for his next attempt, but he again needed added help from family and friends to fund Killer’s Kiss. Again, it was almost a one-man production for the erstwhile auteur, but this time, Kubrick firmly made his mark on the people who saw the result. Killer’s Kiss sees Kubrick seemingly more at home in the precincts of Manhattan he had spent his teenaged years haunting as a photographer, to the point where the film often feels less like a narrative movie than a photographic record and portfolio showing off the manifold attractions, both glitzy and seamy, of the cityscape. Certainly, immersing himself in this world allowed Kubrick to fill his film up with cinema verite inserts, and celebrate his native city with a zesty immediacy and authenticity that contrasts the studiously crafted, perfectly controlled facsimiles he came to prefer working in. Killer’s Kiss is an apt follow-up to Fear and Desire in some ways, similarly taking up a hoary situation and endeavouring to essay it with a stripped-down focus on psychological turmoil and experiential intensity. But where the debut film was literary in tone, Killer’s Kiss presents raw cinematic values tethered to a thin story pretext, one that shows Kubrick had been busy consuming movies, particularly recent noir films, as well as a panoply of Expressionist and Soviet filmmakers, and the dean of young America filmic geniuses, Orson Welles.
Kubrick’s subsequent move to always provide himself with a solid literary base for his films explained by the fact that his script for Killer’s Kiss is only sufficient. Sensitive palooka Davey Gordon (Jamie Smith) and degraded princess Gloria Price (Irene Kane) never quite feel real as characters, and the story is exceedingly simple. Nonetheless, Killer’s Kiss provides constant hints as to the diastolic nature of Kubrick’s eventual oeuvre. If Fear and Desire anticipates the hemisphere of Kubrick’s work preoccupied by human devolution, violence, and corrosive destruction, most usually apparent in his war films, but often emerging in others, Killer’s Kiss follows on from Sgt. Mac’s existential mission. It presents a hero who is beset by trials on an almost cosmic scale, and the questing protagonist, sometimes heroic, sometime not, but always driven in Kubrick’s films, comes fully to life here in its basic St. George and the Dragon tale of burnt-out boxer Davey who falls for his neighbour Gloria, but has to win her from mid-level gangster Vincent Rapallo (Silvera).
Gloria works in that common euphemistic profession of dance hostess in the club Rapallo runs. Kubrick stages his opening sequence as a study in urban alienation with underpinnings of mysterious connection, as Davey prepares for his evening’s bout and Gloria for a night’s work in their flats with facing windows over a narrow alley. Kubrick makes an oddball visual pun as he peers at Davey through the distorting glass of his fishbowl, likening it to the fishbowl proximity of the two apartments and lives whilst suggesting the perversion of natural community such city living sustains. He follows them as they leave their flats and emerge from the building simultaneously. Welles’ influence is immediately in evidence here in the deep focus and use of distortion effects, but the overall design of the sequence, tracing the two characters in their separate paths to events that will see them both put their bodies on the line for other people’s benefit, evokes more the Russian and German directors Kubrick went to school on: whereas Fear and Desire is replete with Soviet Realist close-ups and edits, here Eisenstein is present in the use of dialectic montage, and the holistic analysis of Dziga Vertov looms, too.
Kubrick dynamically intercuts to continue the sense of synchronicity conjoining the man and woman as Kubrick intercuts Davey having his hands the taped for the fight with Gloria dolling herself up in a dressing room at Rapallo’s club. The synchronicity continues as Rapallo mauls Gloria on the aphrodisiac high of watching Davey on television, as he is pummelled and finally knocked down in a fight scene. Their bout is depicted in a seemingly endless, nightmarish series of shots from below at the very edge of the ring, the fighters looming and reeling with sweat-sodden skin and forming near-abstract patterns of force, whilst Rapallo gathers up Gloria, fingering her back with consuming purpose like a spider crawling on a flower. After his fight, Davey goes home and suffers through a nightmare in which he’s flying along empty city streets rendered in a hallucinatory negative image, anticipatory of no lesser moment than the Star Gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Davey is spiritual antecedent to the peculiar avatars of the human condition who bob up again and again in Kubrick’s films, as a hero who is beset and outmatched by great systems of power, but ennobled by his contradictory mix of civility and brutality to become almost mythic in scale. Whereas this figure became increasingly more ambiguous in Kubrick’s work, Davey’s eventual outright battle with Rapallo over Gloria is simple in the extreme, almost on the level of the scuffle of the apes over the water hole in 2001, a contest for breeding rights.
Davey is awakened from his nightmare by the sounds of Gloria screaming, and he looks through the window to see Rapallo assaulting her. Rapallo flees, and Davey solicitously puts Gloria to bed and watches over her. Gloria explains how and why Rapallo came to be in her apartment, and recounts her tragic life story. She came from a fairly well-off family that sadly disintegrated with her father’s death. Her dancing prodigy sister, who had given up dancing to marry a rich man to help ease the family’s debts, committed suicide, an act for which the young Gloria blamed herself. The insertion of this odd, dreamlike sequence sees Kubrick straining to avoid lapsing into mere conversational filmmaking with sophomoric technique, and coupled with the uncertainty of the writing adds to the patchiness of the film’s total effect. But again, it’s an anticipation of Kubrick’s more concerted, applied games with chronology in The Killing, whilst the contrast of the brutal emotions Gloria describes with the artistry of the dancing on screen predicts Kubrick’s obsessive fascination with immediate contrasts of human civilisation and fragility.
Having at last breached the divide between them, Davey invites Gloria to accompany him as he quits New York and boxing for his family’s ranch near Seattle, and Gloria accepts. When they head to Times Square so Gloria can end it with Rapallo, Davey asks for his manager Albert (Jerry Jarrett) to come and pay him off there. Rapallo’s goons (Mike Dana and Felice Orlandi) mistake Albert for Davey and kill him, and they snatch Gloria away. Following Gloria’s disappearance, Davey goes back to his apartment, only to have to skip out ahead of some policemen who think that he killed Albert. Davey, realising what’s happened, follows Rapallo to a warehouse district, where his goons are keeping Gloria captive, and almost successfully bails them up long enough to get her away; but, of course, no dragon ever gives up a princess easily.
Whereas Fear and Desire saw Kubrick denaturalising his embryonic art by venturing deep in alien territory, Killer’s Kiss sings Kubrick’s familiarity with the environs he’s depicting. The story is plainly an assemblage of elements Kubrick obviously enjoyed in several contemporary noir films, including 99 River Street (1953) and Body and Soul (1947), and Kubrick presents some excellent noir-infused shots and sequences. But Killer’s Kiss still often feels less a genre pastiche than a rough draft for the New York indie film scene, which would explode within a decade, with aspects of cinema verite realism and improvisatory zeal: Cassavettes, Scorsese, Lumet and De Palma are lurking in its genome. Whereas in Fear and Desire there was nothing to point his camera at but the faces of his actors, this movie is often at its most engaging when simply, metaphorically glancing over its shoulder at street scenes and enjoying New York as more than a glorified set, a microcosm where romantic glamour and grit sit cheek by jowl, and the city’s protean strangeness can upset the best laid plans, most fruitfully illustrated when two fez-wearing bohemians at play in Times Square prove a nuisance to Davey, precipitating the narrative’s swerve into melodrama. Whilst the contrast with the stylised, set-bound New York of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is self-evident, the same essential atmosphere is evident, of a world unto itself filled with places offering both romantic sanctuary and soul-distorting experience. Gloria’s pointed, almost brutal rejection of Rapallo as too old (“You smell!”) suggests Kubrick’s understanding of the mercilessness of youth, later crucial to Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, showing that already Kubrick’s sense of character ambiguity and the way biology often trumps civility was even-handed and encompassing.
Kubrick’s visual patterning, so clearly developed in a work like The Shining, is nascent here, as he notes the painted ads for Rapallo’s dance hall with their lacquered, beaming fantasy girls, contrasting the realities of Gloria’s life. This seemingly casual but recurring piece of editorial illustration twins functionally with both Gloria’s ghostly sister dancing in hyper-feminine perfection whilst her sad end is recounted, and the climax, where Rapallo and Davey battle, quite literally, over their mutual object of desire in a space filled with idealised feminine forms— mannequins arrayed in endless variables on the essential human form, headless or handless, smashed as shields and cleaved into fragments in the ultimate dumb-show variation on the film’s obsession with the human body as battlefield. The scenes leading up to this final duel are dazzling in their way, indeed already quite masterly, apart from the awkward moment of Davey’s actual escape by jumping through a window, a stunt that’s poorly staged and a trifle unbelievable. Kubrick’s staging of Davey’s raid on Rapallo’s hideout, his near-defeat by the goons, and the subsequent chase through back alleys and across rooftops, the cityscape stretching around them like an alien landscape, emphasises raw physical force and experience again, with Rapallo leering over the captive Gloria with a punitive blend of erotic delight and fury, mocking her efforts to appease him, and the hero and villains equally composed of nerve, muscle, blunder and skill as they all contend with the danger of the chase. Here the hero and villain, with the villain clutching an axe exactly the same as the one with which Jack Torrance would menace his family in The Shining, are still cleanly demarcated, whereas by Kubrick’s later films, they would often coalesce into Janus-faced singular figures like Alex and Jack. The Welles influence becomes acute again in the mannequin warehouse fight, and possibly that of Michael Powell, too, for as the ballet sequence invokes The Red Shoes (1948), so this scene and aspects of the film in general recalls Powell’s Contraband (1940), where the kidnapping villains were undone in a warehouse full of plaster busts. The film’s final, cheering triumph for assailed lovers right on the cusp of apparent surrender to alienation again looks forward to Eyes Wide Shut.
Kubrick’s collaboration with Silvera in these first two movies is worth noting. Silvera was an African-American actor who was able to get away with playing a wide variety of ethnic roles, and he inhabits the characters of Mac and Silvera with a seamless, professional capacity that the young Kubrick must have appreciated, especially when compared with the more awkward, theatrical performances around him. Silvera offers strikingly different characterisations that sustain a common thread of frustration in being stymied in a desire for the better, sweeter, grander experiences in life, and it’s hard not to empathise with Rapallo’s pungent offence when Gloria spurns him, even if he is a monster. It’s certainly the first of a string of memorable collaborations Kubrick would have with reliable star actors like Kirk Douglas and Sterling Hayden, and, more particularly, peculiar or chameleonic character actors like Peter Sellers, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, and Philip Stone. Kubrick benefited from the changing state of the American film world in the 1950s, as the rise of television and legal blows to the hegemony of the studio system were beginning to create new avenues into the industry as producers and stars looked further afield for talent. Within a year of wrapping Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick would achieve his first truly impressive balance of form and function in The Killing, and within seven years of handcrafting Fear and Desire, he was stepping in to rescue the multimillion production Spartacus. Young Stanley was going places.
For those of us who were raised on lighthearted boy-and-his-dog/girl-and-her-horse films and cuddly Disney forest creatures, our first sight of a lion taking down a young gazelle on a TV series like Nature is likely to be a terrible shock. How cruel! Well, not exactly. The lion needs to live, too, and nature has seen fit to equip her with the ability to sprint, claw, and bite; the gazelle has speed and endurance to help level the playing field, so generally only the young or the old gazelles are eaten, leaving the healthiest and most sexually mature animals to continue the species.
Human beings are animals, too, and exhibit all the same bestial instincts to mate, tend to our young, flee from danger, and so on. However, human beings also have advanced thinking capabilities that can overcome our basic survival instincts; consider the sacrifices people make, even unto death, to help others. Nonetheless, in many ways, the way we arrange our social structures reveals the beast in us, particularly in our hierarchical pecking orders that depend inordinately upon those at the top to govern our human affairs wisely and embrace our advanced thinking abilities to care for all members of the society.
After Lucia, winner of the Un Certain Regard and Silver Hugo awards at Cannes and Chicago, respectively, takes a grim look at the workings of a pecking order among a group of teens from a prosperous area of Mexico City and how an infraction of the group’s rules leads to rapidly escalating, unconscionable bullying. Many American critics have found the severity of the hazing unbelievable, but I believe this reaction reflects the American tendency to draw a curtain quickly around unpleasant truths, develop positively spun marketing campaigns to pretend that something is being done, and then go back to business as usual. Mexicans appear to have more of an appetite for the lurid and an unblinkered acceptance of darkness in the world, with a particular appreciation for the animalistic underpinnings of human existence. The unflinching approach Michel Franco takes to machismo and human conflict, the plight of the vulnerable, and the archetypal pairing of sex and death makes After Lucia something of a horror masterpiece.
Alejandra (Tessa Ía) is an ordinary teenager from privileged circumstances who is dealing with the death of her mother in a car accident from which she escaped unharmed. Her father Roberto (Hernán Mendoza) wears his grief like sack cloth; in the opening scene, he very carefully drives the repaired car away from the mechanic’s after listening to what sounds like a rebuild rather than a repair and then simply abandons the car in the middle of the road and walks out of his life in Puerto Vallarta to start over with Alejandra somewhere else. Roberto, a chef, struggles to stay focused enough to open a new restaurant; when he walks out on the enterprise at one point, it is Ale who takes charge and makes him go back and get on with it. Almost miraculously, Ale has been brought into the cool-kid clique at her new school by its alpha male, José (Gonzalo Vega Sisto), and seems to be getting along just fine.
Unfortunately, Ale makes a fatal error when she is invited to a weekend party at a posh home. She gets drunk and lets José record them having sex on his cellphone. The video circulates online, arousing the jealousy of the girl who thinks José is her boyfriend. Soon, the taunting emails and physical abuse begin, the boys calling her a whore and exposing themselves to her, and the girls dressing her up like a hooker and cutting her hair off. She doesn’t tell her father or the school authorities about what is happening to her. She just disappears into the shell of her own misery and eventually, just disappears during a mandatory school trip to Vera Cruz.
After Lucia explores some very interesting aspects of human behavior, in general, and the social order of teens, in particular. It seems that Ale understands well the tendency of teens to attack the weak rather than to show understanding. For example, she is careful not to reveal too much about her background, saying only that her mother is back in Puerto when her new friends wonder if her parents will go ballistic when they find out she has failed a mandatory drug test at school. She is a person who contains her emotions by nature, but she also doesn’t want to be seen as having any defect, and having only one parent would pose a status problem for her. She hides the abuse she is suffering not only to keep her father’s fragile equilibrium and, more important, temper under control, but also to prevent the abuse from getting worse. When it can’t get any worse, she goes into an emotional coma, uncaring about what happens to her father or her tormenters. We want her to lash out, be sensible, but a young ego is extremely delicate and the centers of reason have not yet matured.
The horror aspects of the story have to do with punishment for having sex. Ale becomes the target for bullies, it seems, for sleeping with another girl’s boyfriend, but it really isn’t as simple as all that. Her tormenters focus on her sexual conduct and use sexual and physical humiliation to punish her for losing control. It is never revealed who sent the video around, as the cellphone was left in the bathroom for anyone to pick up, but suspicion rightly falls on José, who can prove his machismo, attack the girl who lays a claim to him he doesn’t want, and humiliate the new girl he brought into the group in the first place. It is even possible he befriended her with this ulterior motive in mind. One only has to think of the torment and murder of the character of Juanita, a newcomer to Cuidad Juárez, in Backyardto see a familiar dynamic at play. The disposability of strangers, the acceptance of brutality against women that women collude in to maintain the pecking order, and the fragility of the male ego, which demands violent retribution, all come into play in After Lucia. The film, particularly the last scene, is very reminiscent of the feral behavior and shockingly matter-of-fact violence captured so heartbreakingly by Luis Buñuel in his 1950 classic Los Olvidados.
The film shows a fine attention to detail and expert use of indirect narrative to communicate the events of the story. That first scene, which only hints at the tragic death of Lucia, comes graphically into focus as Ale remembers the details as she swims obsessively to relieve her stress. Conversations occur in the distance, out of earshot, leaving us helpless in the foreground to imagine whatever plot, or horrors, we like. The cinematography of Chuy Chávez takes in the beauty and modernity of this set of people, contrasting the savagery that emerges from it without the pressures of physical survival that make comparison by some with Lord of the Flies erroneous. Although many commentaries focus on how difficult this film is to watch, I actually found Franco’s style discreet, offering enough distance to allow me to view the film to the end and, therefore, see the full realization of his vision. Much more difficult was taking in the incompletely suppressed emotions Ía and Mendoza express with their brave, committed performances.
People who see After Lucia may use it to start a dialogue about bullying and the need for open communication between parents and children. I think that’s just fine. But this is no afterschool special. The issues it raises go to the very heart of the psychic minefield of sex and the human pecking order, as well as the depths of depravity and violence to which the id unchecked by human reason can sink. After Lucia will shake you up and never let go.
More than 20 years since the end of the Cold War, and nearly a half-century since the film was released, why is Stanley Kubrick’s seventh feature, a modish fantasia dealing with the perverse id and assailed mentality of its specific era, still so lauded, so beloved, so vital? How can a film with such subject matter still be considered a titanic work of cinematic comedy? Why does it stand tall when attempts to update it or reproduce its unstable blend of elements usually fall very, very short? Some answers: a great filmmaker at the height of his craft. A great comic actor also at his height, backed up by other superlative talents. A screenplay possessed of a pitiless intelligence and ornery wit. A time when taking risks in cinema was rapidly becoming more permissible, even necessary. Over and above all this, Dr. Strangelove helped to define something about the modern world that has survived even as the Cold War has faded. The apocalyptic anxiety it diagnosed and treated with mockery and gallows humour has hardly vanished, but has rather faded to the background static in our daily lives. Dr. Strangelove is a purgative rather than a wallow, however, a work of fatalistic fervour that is nonetheless perversely cheering precisely because it considers the worst the world had to offer and yet still finds the joie de vivre in it.
Dr. Strangelove began evolving when Kubrick, interested in dealing with the threat of nuclear war, had a book recommended to him credited to the pseudonym of former RAF officer Peter Bryan George. George’s novel, variously titled Two Hours to Doom or Red Alert, was a sober thriller depicting Armageddon almost brought about by a combination of human frailty and technological estrangement. Kubrick had been pushed close to the summit of Hollywood success in helming Kirk Douglas’ earnest projects Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960) only a few years after the precocious former photographer had broken into the industry with self-financed films. But frustrating experiences making Spartacus and One-Eyed Jacks (1961), from which he was fired, soured him on Hollywood. Kubrick had recently made what proved a permanent move to Britain to shoot Lolita (1962), a movie that established him as a more eccentric and individualistic director than anyone had realised, gifted at tackling taboo subjects whilst maintaining an ironic but fervent empathy for tragically human protagonists.
Kubrick was, at this time, also gravitating towards the burgeoning fringe comedy scene, and had been exploring the possibility of collaborating with edgy comic talents like Lenny Bruce and Jules Feiffer. Impressed by the raw material of Red Alert, Kubrick began working on a screenplay with George, but as he laboured, realised that there was a lode of dark, inchoate, innate absurdity beneath the surface of this seemingly sober assessment of nuclear strategy, a realm where supposedly sensible men talked in terms of “megadeaths,” politicians whose posturing endangered billions, and military leaders stuck in an earlier era could not give up the idea of winning conflicts with weapons that could raze cities to the ground in the blink of an eye and poison the earth beyond habitation many times over. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 had seen a two-week stand-off where the fate of the world seemed literally in the balance. The emotions this time stoked in people—rage, disgust, horror, fear, the despair of impotence—were primal, yet radically at odds with the post-war world’s most cherished goals of pacified insulation.
The gulf between those who had come of age before the destruction of Hiroshima and those who grew up after it exacerbated a generational disparity. A new strain of satire arrived in the late ‘50s, moving out of the coffee bars, student mags and revues, art and cult novels and onto television and movie screens. Pop culture was thus infiltrated by the influence of Dadaism, Surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and other avant-garde art movements that drew power from the century’s earlier tragedies, emphasising the impudent deconstruction of cultural maxims. Humourists, satirists, and quick-witted artists like Bruce, Feiffer, Tom Lehrer, Terry Southern, and Joseph Heller were rapidly defining the new taste for critical humour with an undertaste of blood and cyanide. Kubrick was about to bring hip comedy to the big screen properly with his adaptation of George’s novel. He hired Southern to help complete the travesty he had set in motion.
Some thought Kubrick was overreaching. His regular producer Robert Harris broke up their partnership, convinced Kubrick was headed for disaster. Bosley Crowther, the dean of mainstream cinematic taste for The New York Times, denounced the resulting film. But the howls of opprobrium were quickly drowned out by the howls of laughter and admiration. War is tragedy, the film seemed to say, but nuclear war is so inimical it lies beyond morality and human sensibility, and is thus absurd and might as well be laughed at. Dr. Strangelove, whilst moulding a definitive form of satire in cinema, clearly owed as much to slapstick tradition as to anything else, and sustained within its modish, anarchic immediacy is a strong sense of filmic tradition. In spite of its scope, intent, and the force of its impact on pop culture, Dr. Strangelove is also the cinema’s longest, most sustained banana peel gag: something goes wrong, the dumb boobs slip up, try to stay on their feet, but only succeed in bringing everything down with an almighty crash. The resulting film, whilst almost sui generis as a whole, had many progenitors: there’s a lot of the despairing joviality of Catch-22, the anarchic tilts of Duck Soup (1933) and Spike Milligan’s radio programme The Goon Show, a surrealist-slapstick pastiche on imperial-era melodrama and pulp fiction. Southern, who knew the tradition he worked in, slipped in an obscure reference to Jonathan Swift, and concludes the film with his own Modest Proposal.
Dr. Strangelove unfolds very close to real time, and this adds to the nauseating sensation of watching events that cannot be stopped, imbuing the action with a feeling of free-fall, a feeling actualised in the immortal plunge of Maj. T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), riding the bomb that brings about the end of the world. Taking advantage of a training operation that brings U.S. B-52 bombers within striking distance of the Soviet Union, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, who has gone insane and intends to start World War III, sends out an obscure battle order, Wing Attack Plan R. This allows him to order his planes to attack in case a Soviet attack has already wiped out Washington, disrupting the chain of command. The airmen in their stratosphere-cruising tin cans, tethered to humanity only by radio and with this contact strictly limited to a prearranged code to tune out false enemy messages, can only accept their orders at face value and proceed.
One plane, the Leper Colony, commanded by Maj. Kong, survives a missile attack that leaves communications cut off, but Kong proceeds regardless with determined bravado. Ripper order his XO, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a British officer present through an exchange program to ready the base for an attack and to cut off all contact with the outside world, to ensure that any attempt to capture him and halt his plan will be staved off as long as possible. Ripper hopes to force the government to commit to all-out war, but President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), resists the ministrations to do just that from his military advisor Gen. ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) and instead contacts the Soviets to warn them and offer aid in repelling the attackers. But as the Russian ambassador De Sadesky (Peter Bull) explains in horror, even one bomb falling would be too many, as the Soviets have constructed the Doomsday Device, which will automatically detonate and poison the entire planet, as the ultimate nuclear deterrent.
One aspect vital to appreciating Dr. Strangelove is the degree to which it is not a comedy at all. The grounded detail and informed perspective of George’s novel remained an important aspect of the film, and Kubrick’s insistence on tangible verisimilitude is apparent throughout in Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography, at once artfully expressionistic and harshly realistic, and particularly Ken Adams’ production design. Adams, who was to a certain extent inventing a lexicon of modernity in design through his work in this film and in the James Bond series, rendered sets like the interior of the Leper Colony and the War Room as spaces where functional technology has infused décor, and even the psyche, to become a denaturalised way of life where humans are mere aspects of the mechanism. The story is essentially believable, and plays out with thriller-like compression and logic. The notion that a U.S. Air Force general, a lunatic with a mind poisoned so fervently against Communist threats that he might abuse his authority and plunge the world into a nihilistic war, contained a note of quiver-inducing anxiety, suggested by the bellicosity of Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay and their conflicts with presidential authority. The secret root of Gen. Ripper’s rancour is, for all its hilarious paranoia, based on a genuine conspiracy theory once propagated by the John Birch Society that water fluoridation was a Communist plot.
The combat sequences and the bombing run of the Leper Colony feign a scrupulous procedural intricacy. Long before it became a compulsory aspect of cinematic pseudo-realism, Kubrick and Taylor employed handheld camerawork to give portions of the film a jerky, haphazard, grainy vibrancy, as if it’s all really happening, televised live and uninterrupted. Kubrick milks the interminable complexity and rigour of the procedures the airmen follow to build tension, like steps on some long, manual-dictated march to Calvary. The claustrophobic tightness of the Leper Colony’s interior is emphasised with camerawork where the actors’ breath all but fogs the lens. Minor technical details become the stuff of apocalyptic drama. The actual moments of violence in the film, in the battle for Burpelson and the suicide of Ripper, come without ironic distancing or farcicality.
Where the serious, orthodox elements edge into comedic style is in precisely the strange territory where the nuclear age infrastructure is revealed as both a by-product of, and new soil for, the perversities of the human condition. The most basic binary of all is constantly in evidence throughout: sex and death. The equation of fetishized military power and infrastructure with phallic sexuality wasn’t new in 1964 and is even more clichéd now, but Dr. Strangelove turns it into a key, recurring gag, and the root motive for the drama. The “Arms Race, the Space Race, and the Peace Race” are boiled down to a dick-size competition. Machismo is seen as the not-so-secret meaning of the Cold War, as the military men of the United States, a nation steeped in the mythology of manliness and exemplified by Stetson-clad Texan Kong and secretary-boffing Turgidson, suffer acute anxieties over loss of potency in the insulating and softening qualities of modern life. They’re doomed to fret that they’ll never be as real men as the Russians who have proved themselves in fire and battle, for, as Turgidson puts it, “Look at all them Nazis you killed!”
Muffley, the feminised liberal archetype, offends this type utterly with his recidivist cockblockery. Turgidson, introduced in a tryst with his leggy staffer Miss Scott (Tracy Reed, the only woman actually featured in the film soon outclassed by all those sexy, sexy missiles and curvaceous bombers), promises he’ll be back in time for “blast-off!”—a conflation of explosion and orgasm that the film later reiterates in the most spectacular terms. Indeed, everyone has their sex life interrupted by the erupting crisis, from the Leper Colony airmen leafing through their girly mags to Soviet Premier Kissoff being interrupted by Muffley’s call during a drunken debauch. Buck has to handle an irritated phone call from Miss Scott at the War Room table (“I thought I told you never to call me here!”), forced to mollify her in an excruciatingly funny vignette that conflates philandering executive and naughty schoolboy both in Buck’s ample frame: “Someday I’m gonna make you Mrs. Buck Turgidson!” he declares in a skewering of the era’s chauvinist mentality sharper than a dozen Mad Men episodes. But all are soon distracted by the promise of the ultimate climax.
The correlation deepens as Dr. Strangelove unfolds, as the dualities of life and death, sex and murder, chaos and creation, begin to infuse the visual and thematic substance of the entire work, expostulating the concept of the death instinct as inextricable from the sexual instinct, only now, the destructive element has become infinitely more powerful than sex. The carnal awareness never far from the surface in Kubrick’s cinema finds a partner here in Southern’s love for suggesting powerful, but queasily displaced erotic underpinnings to many a contemporary obsession. Here, the sex, like humanity itself, has become inextricable from technology. The opening credits, scored to a wryly lilting version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” present footage of a B-52 refuelling in mid-air, with the music transforming it into a gentle dance of aerial coitus: even the planes are doing it now. Hal 9000’s psychopathic hissy fit is only a stone’s throw away; Strangelove himself, contained in a wheelchair with self-animated limbs, is the misbegotten median of the process. Whereas in Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), Kubrick had studied the frantic rage of a ruling class in their inability to make individuals into mechanisms that obey their will and desires, here the process is far closer to completion. But the order is fraying from the other end: leadership in the modern world, both political and military, has devolved into a tangled skein of ass-covering, partisan piety, psychic fragmentation, and propagandistic fig leaves. The first breakdown of the system is the greatest, the ultimately irreparable one, that of Ripper’s sanity. The source of his breakdown? The onset of middle-aged impotence.
Dr. Strangelove is the crux of Kubrick’s career. Whereas the raw, humanist howl of Paths of Glory was obvious enough to let Jean-Luc Godard mistake him for an heir to Stanley Kramer as a cooker of cultural vegetables, Dr. Strangelove confirmed Lolita’s promise that Kubrick was now in the game for the antiheroes, misanthropes, and rogues. He would engage with macrocosmic concerns with an increasingly rarefied style that seemed, by the standards of commercial cinema, a detached, analytical, even misanthropic affectation. But what truly distinguishes Kubrick’s oeuvre, and Dr. Strangelove in particular, is the way the methodical filmmaking and the coolness of the director’s regard offsets the compulsion, the messiness, and the pathos of the human state.
Apart from a couple of minor excursions, Dr. Strangelove unspools as three extended, interlocking, cross-edited scenes, taking place in locales which are crucially, fatefully separated by space and communication, but which are also conjoined in cause and effect: the War Room, the Leper Colony, and Burpelson Base. In each locale, according to the classic rules of farce and also to the natural rules of intense situations, a slow-burning urgency, shading into hysteria, develops. What results is a tragicomedy of cross-purposes. Perhaps just as alarming as Ripper’s insanity is the way the other characters refuse to give into disintegration, trying until the last moment to do their jobs, and indeed refusing to waver from their roles, their world-views and presumptions, myopia continuing even past the point when it’s destroyed the world. The Leper Colony’s airmen (including James Earl Jones in his first film), though pushed to the limit, continue to operate with stoic professionalism. Muffley and Mandrake are linked not only by being played by Sellers, but by the fact that they each try to deal with the situation as best as they can, and resist the people around them who represent variations on a theme of martial lunacy and a love/hate relationship with the idea of mutually assured destruction. Muffley sacrifices his soldiers for the sake of peace. Mandrake is confronted by a lunatic who might possibly shoot him if he becomes too troublesome, and sways from meekness to forced bonhomie to exasperated clumsiness, but still tries constantly to find a way to save the world. De Sadesky continues to sneak photos of the War Room as it becomes clear the Cold War will now go underground.
Dr. Strangelove’s modernity is written into the textures of the film, in the chitinous flash of technocratic infrastructure, the chiaroscuro duplicity of the lighting where fluorescent glare and recessed glows illuminate the actors with unflattering harshness against enveloping darkness, the interplay of Taylor’s studiously framed and balanced photography and Anthony Harvey’s propelling edits. Kubrick had from the first balanced twin poles of realism and expressionism in his work. Dr. Strangelove is defined on many levels by the push and pull of these divergent impulses, adding to its power, as characters like Ripper, Kong, and Strangelove seem to lurch out of the shadows of the psyche, distorted and rendered hyper-real in their caricatured menace, into the studied authenticity of the rest of the film. Here, too, the later Kubrick, the notoriously spare and measured imagist, began to appear. Kubrick encodes messages of power and attitude in his visuals. Consider the framing of Scott’s Turgidson as he explains the situation for the President’s benefit. He is filmed from a low angle that emphasises Turgidson’s stolid turgidness, with a folder on the desk before him just edging its way into the frame labeled “World Targets in Megadeaths.” Kubrick maintains the same shot for much of the scene, in interchange with Muffley, who is shot almost at eye level but further away and framed between two foreground listeners, at once more reasonable-seeming but also smaller, pettier, his ineffectiveness plain. And Ripper, the animator of this situation, is shot in looming, dominating close-up from below, a glowering, inescapable death’s head, savage and unremitting. The basic technique serves its purpose in depicting the relations of these men and their characters in themselves, and resembles other moments in Kubrick’s canon, like the early exchanges of The Shining (1980), that perceive characters on their best behaviour but straining to keep cool, with a sense of quietly composing forces that will shatter the surface tension. In contrast, and yet without any sense of aesthetic disparity, the battle scenes are a maelstrom breaking up the film’s fastidious visual language, shot from the perspective a grunt or war correspondent hunkering behind a machine gun and crawling through the weeds.
Kubrick’s most obvious desire here was to achieve a documentary immediacy, compounding the film’s commitment to tactile realism. Death and carnage are rendered at once spectacular and remote, as Kubrick’s control of perspective makes space and distance an important aspect of fighting, reproducing the intent of Ripper’s orders in rendering the warring forces as an alien threat, distant moving things to be shot at. The nature of the action they’re engaged in is confused on both sides, as Ripper’s men assume the approaching force is Communist, whilst the attackers, as exemplified by Maj. “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn), have no idea what’s at stake. The suggestion that a politicised lie animates this action, and perhaps all such action, becomes inescapable, whilst the fact that the fighting soldiers are actually on the same side evokes the warrior doppelgangers of Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire (1953). They assault blocklike structures with a minimalist blandness and prefab look; Burpelson could be a school or a hospital or any other institution. The prominently featured signs proclaiming the USAF’s motto “Peace Is Our Profession,” could well be one of Kubrick and Southern’s satirical coups, except, of course, that it really was the USAF’s motto. The film’s most famous line, barked by Muffley to the wrestling Turgidson and De Sadesky, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”, simply restates this discrepancy more immediately, and echoes again through to the root premise of Ripper’s plot. His mantra of peace on Earth represents a conundrum quite understandably maddening to a warrior like him, for the only complete, guaranteed peace is that of complete annihilation, that Roman desert.
Dr. Strangelove’s connection to silent comedy was to be confirmed with a climactic pie fight, but Kubrick decided, probably for the best, that this element was best left restrained: Dr. Strangelove never gives into farce entirely. Classic slapstick comedy of early cinema heroes like Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd has clawed back ground from being considered the lowest of comedic arts, thanks to analyses of the implicit drama of circumstance, of human fallibility and ingenuity at war with a happenstance world. If the root of all slapstick was the banana peel gag, such comic artists inflated that basic principle into a systematology wherein individual ingenuity and striving faces a world that conspires against them, be it through social perversity, personal maladjustments, economic troubles, unruly inanimate objects, or machines that both perfect human abilities but also mimic and metastasize their faults. Such highbrow conceptual prisms might seem like gilding the lily, and yet they did return lustre to such arts that had for a long time been lost, particularly in the mid-20th century. That’s when slapstick was largely regarded as child’s play, and satire was ennobled as the intellectual, artistic end of the comedy pantheon. As Pauline Kael became fond of complaining, for a long time after the impact of Dr. Strangelove, it was not enough for a comedy to be a comedy: it had to have a satirical edge. Pricking pomposity, assaulting authority figures, mocking retrograde values and social pillars, insulting consumerism and capitalism and militarism: these became the worthy targets for the comic mind. Satire had long been subject to that old joke: it’s what opens on a Friday and closes on a Saturday. That was largely true in cinema as in the theatre, though filmmakers like Chaplin, Rene Clair, Jacques Tati, and Frank Tashlin had attempted over the years to dovetail it neatly with more familiar comic business in their films, combining their jaundiced appreciations of modern life with character comedy and good old-fashioned pratfalls.
To a certain extent, Dr. Strangelove only inverted the focus of such filmmakers, reducing the farcical to a supernal flourish that underlines the lunacy of the supposedly serious events on screen. When Turgidson tumbles head over heels in his frantic distress when Muffley proposes bringing the Russian ambassador into the War Room to prove his sincerity, or when Guano, hesitant to damage the property of corporate power to save the world, gets a face full of Coca-Cola, all divisions between slapstick and satire dissipate. Appropriately, Turgidson’s tumble was actually an accident that Scott refused to let shake him from character, and Kubrick saw how it suited the film. The characters’ names give obvious clues to their functions in this farce: Jack D. Ripper, obsessed with sex and slaughter, the dark heart of the Freudian taxonomy. Merkin Muffley, the girly-man with a wig where his privates should be. Kong, the chest-beating ape. ‘Buck’ Turgidson, talking macho manure and military guff a mile a minute. Mandrake, named for a natural aphrodisiac that’s also a slow poison, evoking the officer’s flailing mix of tenacity and ineffectualness. “Bat” Guano, fearsome, dim, and totally batshit. The specific tenor of these names is very Terry Southern, but it’s also one of the oldest tricks in satirical writing, going back to Aristophanes—the use of a name that’s based in a pun or an assignation that reduces an individual to a type, an exemplar, a singular quality that stretches across social groups: where tragedy evokes the apotheosis of the individual even in the face of annihilation, satire details the ignominy of the species, especially in the face of annihilation.
Of course, Dr. Strangelove, as well as being a Kubrick film, is also a Peter Sellers film. Sellers had played multiple roles in films before, including in two films that seem distinctly prototypical for Dr. Strangelove, The Mouse That Roared and I’m Alright, Jack (both 1959). But not since Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) had a comic actor dominated a film so completely and provided a display of such effervescent, chameleonic wit. Sellers sustains the film’s central sequence, in which Muffley must call Kissoff to warn him of the impending danger. He finds the Soviet Premier not hard at work ploughing the fields whilst dictating foreign policy memos as propaganda might have it, but ensconced with a mistress and completely soused. Muffley has to communicate with a careful mix of brotherly affection, paternal cajoling, and plaintive appeal. Sellers’ verbal brilliance here is uncontained, as his intonations signal every register of his conversation with the unseen, unheard opposite. Muffley’s way of handling people and the character of the person he’s dealing with come through, as we gather the Premier is boozy and good-humoured, delighted to hear from his Yankee friend, but with the volatility of a drunk, a volatility Muffley’s used to dealing with, surrendering all affectation of command in favour of a housewife’s wheedling. An extended parody on the popular perception of Adlai Stevenson and Nikita Khrushchev, and a variation on a gag style popularised by Bob Newhart, this scene is both the linchpin of the movie’s warped humour, whilst also peeking under the metaphorical skirts of the Cold War to find the very human protagonists behind the monolithic facades. Dr. Strangelove constantly suggests those facades are desirable for both sides, a construction that justifies their paranoia, their raison d’etre, whilst constantly revealing the permeability of these monoliths. De Sadesky scoffs at the Americans’ denial of plans to build a Doomsday Device when the Soviets learnt about it from The New York Times, and Kissoff advises Muffley that he can get in touch with the USSR’s super-ultra-maxi secret defence command through Omsk Information.
Mandrake, Sellers’ second and most fully realised character, is a bittersweet anachronism, the last proper British officer of the WWII generation, assuming a fraternal joviality whilst nursing grim memories of war and torture, operating according to a code in an age that sees him play second fiddle to bellicose Americans and clattering computers. Sellers’ talent for physical as well as verbal comedy is subtly but beautifully revealed as Mandrake contends with the crisis, from his forced good humour in displaying the working radio playing pop music to Ripper, a sign that the world outside is continuing as normal, then working himself to a peak of officious indignation in trying to order Ripper to unlock his office door, which Ripper had locked right in front of Mandrake without him noticing, the General’s psychopathic cool completely stymieing Mandrake’s gentlemanly forbearance. Mandrake is at first the embodiment of the stiff upper lip, responding to news that “we’re in a shooting war” with the driest English perturbation (“Oh hell.”), but is driven to ever more frustrated, vibrant anger as he contends with the obtuse suspicion of Guano, who takes him prisoner after Ripper’s suicide: “Shoot it off!” he commands the Major, needing the change from a Coca-Cola machine to make a world-saving phone call to the White House, his patience finally severing and speech reduced to staccato fragments, “Shoot! With a gun! That’s what the bullets are for, you twit!” Mandrake is, in spite of being as much a satirical type as Turgidson or Kong, also the audience’s essential figure for identification, a reasonable, all-too-human individual who operates according to the necessity of the moment. Whether deciding discretion is the better part of valour in dealing with Ripper or trying to establish authority over Guano when the moment demands, Mandrake experiences every moment like a trial by ridiculous ordeal, and Yeats’ classic line about the best lacking all conviction whilst the worst have passionate intensity is depicted in all its agonising truth.
Sellers’ third characterisation as the eponymous nuclear strategist confined to a wheelchair is the even more alarming counterpart to Ripper. Whereas Ripper plots Armageddon because he’s mad and seems, in his very last moments, to regain a certain lucidity, even nobility, in his confrontation of the darkest abyss of fate, Strangelove is the spirit of pure, malicious delight in a destruction that will sweep away the world and give him a chance to rebuild it according to his own perverted proclivities. Strangelove, the title character, is actually only central to two scenes, and yet he fixates the attention and haunts the mind as a kind of laughing devil. Sellers’ most bizarre and inspired grotesque, Strangelove, with grating Germanic accent overlaid on helium tones, snaps at words with toothy eagerness like an intellectual barracuda. He’s a compendium of some of the Germanic men involved with Cold War exigencies, including Wernher Von Braun, rocket scientist to the Nazis; atomic bomb designer Edward Teller; strategist Herman Kahn; and the coiner of the phrase “mutually assured destruction” John von Neumann. Strangelove’s shallow allegiance to democratic ideals and his inner, fixated ardour for the idea of a glorious Gotterdammerung is hinted by his literally Anglicised name, changed from Merkwuerdigliebe. He also, not coincidentally, calls to mind the great mad savants of Fritz Lang’s Expressionist films: Caligari, Mabuse, and especially Rotwang.
Whilst Dr.Strangelove was in the editing room, the recently premiered TV show Doctor Who was just introducing its iconic villains, the Daleks, the next stage of Strangelove, mutants created by atomic war completely encased now in their wheelchairs, speaking with an electronic version of the same harsh, grating, savage voice. Strangelove, it becomes clear, actually embodies the nuclear age, a twisted, semi-human remnant forged by one political culture joyfully obsessed with mass murder and now having found a new one to feed off of. His weird, leering pleasure in discussing all things apocalyptic rhymes with that look of feral joy displayed by so many of Kubrick’s antiheroes. But whereas with the likes of Ripper, Alex DeLarge, Jack Torrance, Pvt. Pyle et al., that savage smile signalled the shattering of the civilised veneer by the beast within, in Strangelove they work in perverse synchronicity; Strangelove is the ultimate result, as much as the Star Child of 2001, of human evolution, its fusion with its own works and wares, into a monstrosity.
Whilst Sellers dominates, Scott, Hayden, and Pickens are the invaluable back-up. Pickens treads a fine line in presenting Kong as a broad stereotype who is, nonetheless, not excessively buffoonish, possessed of a certain level of humour and determination that could be admirable in other circumstances, but who’s also blind on the most vital levels. Hayden’s Ripper is played deadly straight even as what he says seems innately silly. Hayden had almost disappeared from movie screens in the 1960s, sick of Hollywood and ashamed of his HUAC testimony during the McCarthy era, but here he brought effortless class to a role that could have been easy to overdraw. Actor and director collaborate in rendering the character genuinely frightening in his dead-eyed stare and vicious-looking teeth biting a cigar. When the pathetic side of Ripper emerges, and he explains in evasive terms the impotence that afflicts him, Hayden slows Ripper’s confident bark down to a slightly sluggish, peevish drawl, the faintly shambolic fool of fortune under the man’s fearful veneer glinting through. Ripper maintains a sickly paternal affection mixed with a weird sexualised threat for Mandrake, who listens as if every inch of his body is puckered in discomfort. Ripper embodies the splintered psyche of the age, panicked over his waning masculinity and conceiving it in political terms. Scott’s Turgidson, an avatar for LeMay, is unassailed by such anxieties, as obtuse, myopic bigotry incarnate, his pose of professional responsibility soon peeled back to reveal the garrulous, zealous, Commie-hating, bug-eyed big kid, one for whom nuclear annihilation is rarely more real than a football match. He reaches a soaring flight of lunatic enthusiasm in his rave about the talents of the American air force pilot that concludes with sudden realisation of the meaning of what he’s talking about, smacking his forehead and cringing. Turgidson soon rediscovers his balance as he listens to Strangelove’s plan for repopulating the Earth, almost panting with enthusiasm as he questions whether this would mean abandoning the “so-called monogamous sexual relationship,” like a kid about to given the key to a candy store.
All of Kubrick’s films are driven by the same fundamental dynamic, the friction between the primal and the civilised, and pushes towards extremes in either direction discovers antitheses latent within: the deadening effect of order provokes explosions of id-welling expression, and combat with primitive forces sometimes reinforces essential human qualities. Just as the evolved ape-men of 2001 have to combat their own devices to achieve transcendence, so, too, do these characters—except, of course, they fail this time around, but discover a strange delight in the notion. Similarly, the odyssey is another Kubrickian motif here, as the flight of the Leper Colony mirrors that of the Discovery and, later, the pod used by Dave Bowman in 2001, as technical disasters must be overcome and a mysterious world penetrated. The icy, forested, mountainous wastes of Siberia (actually Canada) they fly over are as vast, alien, and spectacularly strange as the hallucinogenic oceans and continents Bowman soars across, and conjoined by a similar sensation of lurching headlong into the unknown toward an event that cannot possibly be survived, at least not in the usual way. The scene in which the Leper Colony is nearly destroyed by a Russian missile is rendered vivid without visual effects, as the pursuing missile is registered only on a radar screen, and its explosion appears as a flash, whilst the navigator’s panicky voice is drowned by a wave of eerie interference before the shockwave wallops the bomber. Kubrick gets around the limitations of his budget through the simplest, yet most audio-visually impactful of means here, and more, as it captures the keenest sensation that 2001 would be far more committed to—the sensation of danger in isolation, far from home, tethered to a machine that might be the death of you.
Dr. Strangelove is, like many like-minded films that would follow, as much at war with its own cinematic genre as with any real-world concerns. Kubrick repurposes manipulative aesthetic tricks, usually employed in celebrating martial heroism in both life and cinema, to turn them back on the war story and mock its presumptions. The only incidental music in the film is a driving employment of Laurie Johnson’s spare variations on the Civil War anthem “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a choice that strikes at the mythology of American martial values as it accords with, but also mocks, Kong’s gung-ho purpose, and Ripper’s cry to Mandrake whilst wielding machine gun, “The Redcoats are coming!” The tune eventually drops away, leaving only driving martial drums to underscore Kong’s warlike zeal and race against time. Turgidson crows about the instilled ability of an American air force pilot to defy any obstacle, natural or military, to reach his target and fulfil his mission, only then to cringe in realisation of what this means: achievement of a goal in ignorance of the meaning and outcome of his efforts, dooming everyone else to oblivion. And indeed, the Leper Colony’s crew act just like they’re supposed to, and more; they exhibit brilliance and bravery in the course of their duty. If this were a WWII tale and they were trying to knock out a Nazi base, we’d be cheering them every step of the way, thrilling as they overcome every challenge, tearing up as the commander gives his life to make sure the payload drops. But here, it’s a horror show of nerveless proficiency and detachment from reality, with a laugh-yourself-sick punchline. Kong is so oblivious to the likely results of what he’s doing that he eggs on his men with promises of “important promotions and personal citations” once they get back. The Leper Colony crew’s resourcefulness means that even when they can’t bomb any of their assigned targets, they can try for another, which fatally takes them away from the areas Muffley has advised the Russians to cover.
Of course, at the very last second, Kong gets his bomb bay doors to open, and he plunges with the payload to the earth, whooping with joy every inch of the way, the bomb suddenly the ultimate bucking bronco and the greatest phallic substitute ever, the blast that results in redneck apotheosis and orgasmic eruption. This is the film’s most famous moment, and indeed one of the most iconic in the history of cinema, partly for its starkly beautiful reduction of the film’s themes to one singularly powerful image. Kubrick’s visualisation is perfect, camera affixed to the end of the bomb, gazing down at the yee-hawing Kong as the bomb tips and plunges toward its target with vertiginous rapidity, with only the rushing air and Kong’s bellows audible. Kong’s cries are inimitable and funny, but also unnerving in their exultant violence, and the scene, barely a few seconds long, seems to last forever. The bomb hits the ground in a flash of obliterating white, rendering this vision at once hilarious and almost heart-stopping in its force and strangeness. The concluding montage of atomic explosions, signalling the annihilation of the world, is scored to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” This choice of song is the film’s final, smirking coup, recalling its anthemic power and nostalgic meaning for the WWII era, repudiating the fatuous self-satisfaction of how-I-won-the-war types, and making an obvious point: that the notion that nuclear war can be survived is a fairy tale and the event impossible to liken to any previous conflict. Yet, Kubrick also invites us to revel in the sing-along cosiness, the communal affection and power the song communicates, as it feels like a last hug before the dark plunge, a final carouse with humankind, and an exhausted, conciliatory concession to the irrational. At its most ruthless, Dr. Strangelove is also at its warmest.
But even the end is not the end, as, faced with the certain destruction of life on earth, the cabal in the War Room listen with increasingly responsive and wrapt fascination to Strangelove’s proposal that they move a nucleus of human society underground to wait out the time it will take the Doomsday Device’s effect to dissipate. Not only does Strangelove’s idea give hope to the seemingly hopeless situation, it actually sounds like an Eden for the white middle-aged males left to repopulate the world with a potential smorgasbord of females. Whilst the world is being pummelled to pieces by atomic horrors, the men in the War Room are worrying about a future arms race and glowing with enthusiasm for living out the rest of their lives underground with a harem. Strangelove is finally unbound, his seemingly paralytic arm now taking on a life of its own, snapping as he speaks into Heil Hitler salutes with the involuntary passion of an erection, and grasping his crotch in auto-erotic frenzy. Strangelove is forced to wrestle and bite it into submission as he continues to expostulate his plan, and it becomes plain this Frankenstein’s Monster is erotically thrilled by the situation now before him, as. As he rises from his chair, restored to full working order, his final cry (“Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!”) confirms that Hitler’s dream is nigh complete. Emblematic of the film it concludes, Strangelove’s last line is weird and scary, and yet capable of wrenching the loudest of laughs from me every time I hear it. As Lynn sings, nuclear blasts, all real, rupture oceans and burn in infernal power, spreading fire in the night sky like a false dawn, poetic in their dread. In spite of all, we can still laugh at Dr. Strangelove’s vision. For the time being.
Among the many genius works of renaissance man Charlie Chaplin, City Lights stands as a singular achievement. It is not that other Chaplin films aren’t as funny, and the story for City Lights is certainly not as ambitious as, say, Modern Times (1936) or The Great Dictator (1940). If it were made today, we’d call it, perhaps dismissively, a romcom, a slapstick story of a poor man who loves a blind girl and uses his dubious encounters with the more prosperous outside world to help her.
Some may say that City Lights gets its reputation as Chaplin’s greatest film because of its miraculous last scene. No less a writer and film critic than James Agee had this to say about that famous scene:
At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.
As I watched that ending for the umpteenth time, and the hubby saw it for the very first time, our eyes moistened and our hearts agreed—this scene is indeed the finest ever committed to film. He and I, however, didn’t agree about what happened in the scene, and, in fact, I don’t agree with Agee about The Tramp suddenly seeming inadequate to himself when The Girl’s realization of who he really is is reflected back to him. But more on that later.
The film Chaplin made defied the demand for sound that was all the rage following the appearance of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1929. Wary of having his Everyman speak, Chaplin nonetheless wrote a score that used sound to put across some very funny gags indeed with both economy and wit.
The opening scene brilliantly sets up the great divide between the Establishment and The Tramp. Several rich poobahs stand on a dais in a square to unveil a statue they have donated to the city called “Peace and Prosperity.” Chaplin substitutes kazoos for voices, one pitched low for the men and another pitched high for the lady set to do the unveiling. No title cards are needed to understand the ceremonial claptrap that reaches its climax when the draping falls to reveal The Tramp sleeping on the lap of the central figure. Chaplin milks the uproar over the innocent desecration of this solemn moment by having The Tramp contorting with the grace of a born comic mime to free himself from the sword that has skewered his holey trousers; thinking further, one wonders what a figure with a drawn sword is doing in a statue called “Peace and Prosperity.”
From this antic opening, The Tramp moves through the crowded, uncaring streets to his fateful encounter with The Girl (newcomer Virginia Cherrill, discovered by Chaplin at a boxing match). In one of the many small comic moments that fill the film to overflowing, The Tramp negotiates the gridlocked traffic by climbing in one side of a car and emerging onto the sidewalk through the other side. When he closes the door, The Girl holds out a flower she entreats him to buy. Her entreaty startles The Tramp, who wonders why anyone would think he had the need for or the price of a flower for his ragged lapel. With great subtlety, Chaplin investigates this odd turn of events by having his Tramp take the flower and with slight, gentle movements, pass it in front of The Girl. When her eyes don’t register his movements, his heart instantly goes out to her, and he gives her a coin. When the owner of the car at the curb returns, closes the door, and drives away, The Girl calling out that he did not take his change, The Tramp understands the misunderstanding. From that point on, he plays the swell whenever he visits her and finds himself in both comic and dire circumstances as he tries to be her benefactor.
City Lights is chock full of comic set-pieces that showcase Chaplin’s nimble, cartoonlike movements, particularly when The Tramp comes into the orbit of The Millionaire (Harry Myers) who treats him like a brother when he is in his cups, but rejects him without recognition when he is sober. In perhaps my favorite comic bit of the film, The Tramp encounters The Millionaire on a riverfront as he slips a rope around his neck and prepares to lift the rock tied to the other end and toss it into the river. The Tramp runs to his rescue, only to have the rock dropped on his toe and the noose accidentally slipped over his head, dragging him into the drink. Naturally, in trying to rescue each other, both men end up pulling each other in again and again. The gag ends with the arrival of a policeman, but our fear for The Tramp is upended when The Millionaire declares him friend and takes him home.
The Tramp is scorned or asea when facing the work-a-day world. The Millionaire’s Butler (Al Ernest Garcia) does everything he can to get rid of The Tramp, while two boys on a street corner taunt him and pelt him with peas through a pea shooter. He tries to earn money to keep The Girl and her Grandmother (Florence Lee) from being evicted by shoveling manure from the streets. The Tramp watches a man lead a large team of mules down the street and heads in the opposite direction, only to be greeted by the completely unexpected sight of an elephant lumbering past him. It is with these visual surprises that Chaplin startles the audience and adds a certain whimsical warmth to moments of potential drama or romanticism. This is particularly true at the end of the first meeting of The Tramp and The Girl, when he sits quietly watching her as she gets up to freshen her flowers’ water in a nearby fountain. She fills a pot under his loving gaze, swirls the water around, and then flings it out, drenching her unseen admirer. He shakes himself and slinks off as the scene fades on the innocent Girl refilling the pot.
One of the most beautifully choreographed and realized scenes is The Tramp’s boxing match. After his arrangement to take a dive and split the $50 purse with his opponent falls through, The Tramp must do his best not to get pummeled by a fighter (Hank Mann) whose mere touch has sent men into a concussive swoon. The ingratiating smiles and handshakes he offers everyone from his opponent to his seconds are followed by a perfectly timed stutter step that keeps The Referee (Eddie Baker) between The Tramp and his foe. The Tramp manages a punch every fourth step and grabs the angry boxer in a desperate embrace to avoid a return blow. Further gags, again with The Tramp tangled in everything from the ropes to the bell marking the rounds, make for controlled anarchy and a rather suspenseful match. We almost can’t believe it when The Tramp loses, so close did Chaplin make the outcome, but winning is foreign territory to this outsider. Although Chaplin was by this time the most famous man in the world, one who remains an iconic influence today, he was emotionally bound in his work to his own beginnings as a poor boy who spent a good deal of his youth in a workhouse.
And then there is the final scene. Agee described the scene, and I would only draw your attention to something I learned from Roger Ebert. Notice what happens to the flower The Tramp takes from The Girl. In his close-ups, he holds it close to his face and simultaneously chews shyly on his finger while staring uninhibitedly at The Girl. In the reverse shot of The Girl, we see The Tramp’s hand lower, with the flower about chest high. So emotionally focused are Chaplin and Cherrill that this detail only registers after repeat viewings. I was quite reminded of a reader’s theatre performance I saw of Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell with Paul Henreid, Edward Mulhare, Ricardo Montalban, and Agnes Moorehead, in which my focus was so pulled by Mulhare that I never saw Henreid light a cigar. It’s magic in plain sight.
City Lights is, as its name suggests, lit from within because of the emotional depth of the connection between The Tramp and The Girl. The Tramp is a child with an unselfish love that seeks nothing in return, not even The Girl’s good opinion of him. Once The Girl touches and recognizes the hands she held so often, no terrible regard crosses her face; rather, she seems softly astonished and then sees that love, not wealth, has bought her sight. They outshine the brassy bulbs and neon of the metropolis in which they are barely bit players and prove themselves to be, like the painfully divided man and woman in F. W. Murnau’s masterwork Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans(1927), the real city lights.
Joe Wright’s fifth feature film, adapting Leo Tolstoy’s feted 1876 tome, seems on the face of it like a retreat to the safe ground of the period, prestige-laden works with which Wright first made his name: Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). Wright’s smart, stylish revival-cum-critique of the globe-trotting action movie, Hanna (2011), was a departure for the director, and stood tall as one of last year’s best films, even if it didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. It proves to have been only a warm-up for this extravagant rendition of Tolstoy’s panoramic tale of adultery and social hypocrisy. Financial difficulties meant that Wright had to reconceive his intended adaptation, penned by no less a personage than Tom Stoppard, and hit upon the idea of rendering it as a variety of theatrical melodrama. The result is a teeming pageant of artifice, and heightened, almost dreamlike beauty that throws into relief the always powerful, often raw and disturbing emotions experienced and expressed by its characters.
Tolstoy pushed the 19th century realist novel to its utmost limits of scope and inquiry whilst managing to maintain a grip on essential dramatic intimacy. The canvas of the average mainstream film is far more limited than what Tolstoy offered in creating around the centrifuge of Anna’s romantic tragedy an ontological portrait of his society in all its grandeur, contradiction, and pathos. This limitation is, ironically, one of the best arguments for rejecting Tolstoy’s measured, sprawling realism in film and adopting a style that can evoke the same meaning through cinematic means. Moreover, Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted many times, most famously with Greta Garbo in 1935 and a much-admired Russian version from 1967 by Aleksandr Zarkhi, thus raising the stakes for the worth of another version, whilst clearing room for radical interpretation.
Wright’s chosen approach is clearly patterned after Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1945), beginning amidst overtly theatrical settings that gradually give way to stylised reality and then general verisimilitude, and back again. There’s a certain similarity, also, to the porous boundaries of life and performance found in the films of Carlos Saura, where the performance consciously strives to recreate human drama and, in turn, bleeds over into “real life.” Whereas Olivier and Saura were paying heed of the theatrical origins of their material and turning the audience’s awareness of the artifice into an aspect of their cinema’s texture, an adaptation of a novel has no such original strictures or preordained conventions. On this level, the choice is less immediately apt, except that this setting invokes the closest thing there was to cinema at the time of the novel’s publication. For Stoppard, the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this sort of thing is hardly new, and Wright avoids any obvious meta-narrative structures, a la The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), another probable influence, about the nature of the performance.
Wright’s choices reorganise the predictable rhythms of the period literary film with boldness, vivacity, and a narrative that drives like an unstoppable machine. That’s very much the point, as the first third of the film turns stage machinery into a visualisation of the governing laws and dancelike niceties of a society that is narcotising in its materialism and formalism and alienated from itself. Anna (Keira Knightley), a wife and mother who is still young and something of a case of arrested development, is swept up in a passion that manifests as an elemental imperative, a natural law made manifest by Wright’s intricate staging that transforms the erotic passion that overtakes its heroine as a fatefully choreographed tötentanz.
The early scenes of Anna Karenina, then, are a whirl of stylised spectacle, as Wright’s camera roars around the interior of a huge stage, observing as cast and crew “create” the world of period Russia, stripping down and erecting sets for changes of scene, with actors shifting from squared-off illustrative postures to naturalism. The very first shot is of Prince “Stiva” Oblonsky (the ever-splendid Matthew Macfadyen) framed on stage in a barber’s chair awaiting his shave, the barber marching in and swinging his towel like a matador’s cape before proceeding to circle the prone Oblonsky, sharpening his blade. The suggestion of violence, with Oblonsky as a bull perhaps about to be skewered by his servant, reverberates throughout the film, where a promise of death lurks, of course, but also with one eye fixed on the future, still far off and yet dreadful and unavoidable, when the society it portrays will collapse. The opening’s tone is set, however, by a series of swift, overtly theatrical tableaux, true to the droll mood of the novel’s beginning, as the fatuous, cheerfully licentious, but sufficiently respectable Oblonsky has his domestic bliss ruined when his wife “Dolly” (Kelly Macdonald) discovers his affair with their children’s French governess (Marine Battier). In a fillip of Dickensian humour, Wright’s dancing camera glides across the theatre floor transformed into a room full of bureaucratic factotums, labouring in synchronised rubber stamping, and Oblonsky, master of what he surveys, marches amongst them. The bureaucrats then rise from their chairs and change uniforms on stage, or flee to the corners, and the ministry becomes a restaurant where Oblonsky lunches with his old friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).
The teeming variety of human action in these scenes borders on the frantic, as the extras rush to change roles and erect new settings, but is also intricately choreographed, all moving with purpose and design, movement and labour tellingly contrived to support the illusion of opulence, ease, and natural motion for the governing class. As such it serves as a portrait of this communal existence, its structure, pretences, and underlying laws, far more concisely and intelligently than any number of exterior shots of passing carriages would have in a more familiar adaptation. Oblonsky begs the intercession of his sister Anna to convince Dolly to forgive him, though Oblonsky has no actual intention of restraining his extramarital appetites. Anna bids farewell to her husband, Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and son Seryozha (Oskar McNamara) in Moscow, and, arriving in St. Petersburg, succeeds in convincing Dolly to reconcile with her husband.
Levin, a landed idealist and fretful, unconfident intellectual, has set his own heart on marrying Dolly’s younger sister “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander), and meets with Oblonsky to discuss it. Oblonsky warns him that he has a rival to his affections in the form of one Count Vronsky. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about him,” Oblonsky assures his pal dismissively, “He’s just a rich, good-looking cavalry officer with nothing better to do than make love to pretty women.” Kitty is vivacious but naïve, and she turns down Levin’s proposal in the hope of getting one from Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But her suitor, whilst meeting his mother Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams) on the train from St. Petersburg, catches sight of Anna, who has been conversing with the Countess during their journey, and is instantly drawn to her.
Tolstoy’s name itself has long been a byword for artistic enterprise that engages with the macrocosmic as well as the immediate drama. The brilliance of Wright’s conceit is steadily revealed throughout these sequences he uses for holistic realisation of theme. The “theatre” serves a multiplicity of settings and functions: whereas its aptness for evoking artificiality is passing trite, the cleverness here lies in the dialogue of settings, as, in the bustle and closeness of the “backstage,” realism, even authenticity, is located. Its ropes and catwalks and narrow stairwells offer a cunning simulacrum of the labouring grit and functional claustrophobia of the urban world in this period in Russia; it is the street, the market, the hovel, the factory, the hiding place, the feminine retreat. The gilded world erected on the stage and in the auditorium is a constant interplay of spectator and drama, social form and personal viewpoint, barriers ruptured most effectively and dramatically in the film’s central set-piece. Levin’s ill-fated proposal to Kitty sees him approach the girl who, situated upon the “stage,” is glimpsed lounging amidst painted swirling clouds, actualising his perception of her as a creature from a higher realm, one who tantalises and delights Levin’s fervently romantic heart even as he acts the solemn, sober intellectual. The clouds part, and Kitty descends to the stage level as part of a soiree. After his proposal is rejected, Levin climbs up the backstage fly space, which becomes the other, unromantic world, a slum, where he finds radical brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot) dissipating in a haze of fever and vodka.
The floor of the auditorium then becomes the railway station for the fateful meeting of Anna and Vronsky, a setting at once stylised and animated, replete with vividly visualised binaries: beautiful, white snow that crusts the thundering black locomotives, the whirling, colour-drenched crowds and the Morlock-like rail engineer whose appearance before Anna, covered in soot, perturbs her like a bad omen. When she lets Vronsky kiss her hand, it seems to shake the entire train—actually the portent of a dreadful accident, as the worker is glimpsed having been cut in half after being knocked under the wheels by the train’s sudden jolt. This moment is both an apt quote from Doctor Zhivago (1965), where the first physical contact of Zhivago and Lara was announced by a cutaway to the sparking coupling of a suburban tram: Wright cuts to sparking wheels and shuddering steel redolent of a more fervently sexual connection, and also a portent of bleaker tidings of Anna’s own predestined end. Vronsky is charmed by Anna’s concern for the engineer’s dependents, and in his own showy desire to charm her casually hands over a great wad of cash to rail staff to be given to the dead man’s family. This is a pungent moment where Wright’s feel for the underlying fiscal realities of this society are revealed as mixed inextricably with the vagaries of individual natures and brute reality, and the beginnings of a process of systemic rot.
The subsequent ball sequence cranks steadily into an erotic and emotional crescendo: Wright repeats one of his signature conceits from Pride and Prejudice in a shot in which Anna and Vronsky, dancing, are suddenly, dramatically isolated from the cotillion, hovering in bright light that excises them from reality. The sequence continues with an increasingly frenetic series of whip-pans and drunken camera whorls, evoking the great waltz sequence of Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949) in sustaining the sensual force of both the dance and the emotions enacted. Whereas in Atonement Dario Marianelli’s scoring provided the film with an unnerving aural analogue for the reality-ordering drive of its antiheroine, here it approximates her overheated psyche and palpitating flesh. The dancers’ serpentine arms weaving around each other with increasing suggestiveness, and Kitty becomes increasingly distraught as she watches from the sidelines, Anna and Vronsky’s instant ardour in dancing every dance together is all too obvious for both her and other onlookers.
Only after this sequence does this hermetic vision of period Russian society begin to break open. Wright’s theatricality expands to absorb Golden Age Hollywood’s mythical stylisation, with model trains standing in for the real things, and an ebulliently beautiful moment that seems torn from the most classically styled expressionist melodrama. Vronsky emerges from a haze when the train taking Anna back to Moscow is paused on a siding, snow piled, seething smoke and saturated light and colour, like the very ghost of Anna’s repressed desire. Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky, every inch the dashing gallant with blue eyes unwavering in every shot, dressed in uniforms so crisp and clean he could have been carved from a solid hunk of ice, has an eerie, otherworldly beauty, seeming at first to be an incubus born and bred specifically to locate the fault-lines in bourgeois propriety and strike hard at them, a male bimbo seducer without depth or character. Yet he’s actually as high-flown a romantic as Anna, obeying the natural simplicity of his ardour for her with fixated intent, even as his strong-natured mother tries to offer up alternative partners and dissuade her son from a course of action that will harm her son’s prospects.
Importantly, Stoppard and Wright preserve Tolstoy’s oft-denuded contrapuntal narrative, where Anna’s experiences are contrasted with those of a classic Tolstoyan seeker-hero, Levin, who searches for personal stability and happiness, whilst also trying to shake off what he sees as the ills of his society, including a self-loathing engendered by its Westernisation and the evils of its traditional hierarchies. Levin’s viewpoint offers a substantive diegetic channel for Wright and Stoppard’s inquiring, ironic approach—Wright based the film’s style especially in the tension between the Western affectation of the period’s Russian society—and offsets the raw, biological level for which romantic love manifests for Anna, who is plunged into a tragedy that plays out specifically because of social constructs which the characters themselves try to work around, but fail. The early shot of the barber sharpening his razor gives way to a scythe being sharpened, as Levin joins his peasants on his estate in reaping wheat. They’re frightened and confused by his labours, however, especially as, since their emancipation, they’ve lost the life security they used to prize, whilst Levin is beset by constant contradiction in his attempts to live by reason, which often dictates acting against his instincts, manifest most particularly in his love for Kitty. After being spurned by her he toys with the idea of marrying a peasant woman, and keeps swapping charged glances with one of his workers. Levin’s relationship with his more overtly radical brother informs, and haunts, his choices, as Nikolai, dying slowly of consumption, has married Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a prostitute he plucked from a whorehouse to prove his radical cred, though he treats her as basic chattel.
It is Levin who, notably, ruptures the film’s ravishing, yet stifling interior mise-en-scène when he first returns to his estate, the doors behind the stage parting and allowing him to step into snow-crusted fields. This visualises a clear schism between artificial city and natural landscapes, and sets up the dialectic that reverberates throughout. Later, Wright again refines an earlier piece of his own filmmaking, coinciding beautifully with a moment from Tolstoy’s writing: Levin is stricken by an epiphany when, having slept atop a haystack, he awakens in the dawn-light-drenched mist and sees Kitty driving by in a carriage, a gloriously visualised moment that evokes the romanticism of Pride and Prejudice’s similar dawn-light climax, but with an added spiritual aura and impact. Levin is ripped out of the ambient earthiness of his setting and announces not only his still-compelling love, but also his awakened self-knowledge and his surrender to forces larger than his reason, a surrender he doesn’t acknowledge entirely until the concluding scenes. His second proposal to Kitty, who, chastened and matured in her spurning by Vronsky, accepts the less glamorous but more substantial suitor, sees the duo avoid verbalising their feelings by spelling them with children’s letter-blocks. Vikander’s performance is particularly good in suggesting Kitty’s emotional authenticity and worthiness even when she makes childish mistakes, and the smartness of Levin’s choice becomes apparent when he takes her to his estate. They find his brother and his wife are there, with Nikolai dreadfully ill. Levin moves to obey the niceties of societal presumption to eject Nikolai’s woman, but Kitty instead sets about helping her nurse Nikolai, a triumph of humanist instinct that proves Kitty might actually be her husband’s moral superior as an embodiment of empathy.
The time Wright spares for this aspect of the story is indicative of the underlying attentiveness of this adaptation to the thematic breadth and heft of the tale, rather than reducing it purely to a tale of adulterous passion and social crucifixion: the possibility of a different kind of union is evoked and sustained. Nonetheless, Anna’s story proceeds with merciless force and clarity. Visions of her and Vronsky, both swathed in white and glowing in the sun on a picnic cloth, give way to the trap of space that Anna’s homelife becomes, mirrors and glasses turning faces upon themselves and conflating individuals into functions of one another, as when Vronsky and Karenin catch sight of each other in the mansion’s double doors. There passion gives way to domestic pretence—there’s a ruthlessly funny shot of Karenin neatly plucking a Victorian condom from a silver case on his desk before retiring to bed with his wife. Karenin, played superbly by Law, swings between poles of powerful emotion, from self-pity to vengeful fury to chastised forgiveness, but finally settling into a default mode of acquiescence to socially demanded wrong-doing. His sister Lydia (Emily Watson) talks him into banning Anna from coming to visit their son on his birthday, an injunction Anna ignores; Karenin guiltily watches from the sidelines, looking as if Anna’s angry glare burns a hole right through his self-respect. The film’s major set-piece and pivotal sequence, which sees the private become public and truths forcibly acknowledged, is a horse race in which Karenin observes Anna with chilly suspicion; Anna, in turn, spies on him in with a purse mirror, and drama unfolds on “stage” as Vronsky tries to win the race.
The audiovisual impact of this scene, with the horses thundering out of the darkness from off stage, is tremendous, and so, too, is the vividness of the shattering of the fourth wall as Vronsky’s mount falls and he crashes with it into the “audience,” wrenching Anna into an unfettered moment of hysterical concern that, like Barry Lyndon’s eruption of anger in Stanley Kubrick’s great film, leaves her fatefully exposed to forces that are inimical to individual definitions of happiness. The physical beauty Wright and DP Seamus McGarvey bestow on this film, and the gaudy, highly unreal spectacle in its most florid passages, is ravishing, even hypnotic in its lushness. The major objet d’art is Knightley herself, who perhaps represents the most lustrously fetishized screen presence since Marlene Dietrich, a possibly deliberate evocation. The costuming, providing eye candy par excellence, is also intricately employed as another dramatic device. Vronsky’s chill blue uniforms cut through the earthier tones surrounding him with the keenness of a straight razor. Anna’s veils, at first flatteringly thin, become thicker as she seeks to hide her face from the world, and yet they resemble cracks in a broken mirror, declaring the turmoil behind the perfect face they obscure. A deeper template revealed as the film continues is the ironic romanticism and orchestrated sedition of Luchino Visconti, especially Senso (1953), where every frame is drenched with physical lustre and yet eaten away at by the alternation of powerful, often ugly, but always authentic emotions that rupture that always-present fourth wall of social expectation. And hanging over the production as a whole is the spirit of Ken Russell, the doyen of radical Brit directors, an influence particularly apparent at a soiree where Anna and Vronsky’s affair is finally, properly sparked amidst the dazzle of fireworks and Kabuki-like posturing. I draw attention to these influences not to brand Wright as a filcher but in noting the depth of awareness of cinematic models evident here.
Wright constantly offers a tension between the immobilising spectacle and frantic movement redolent of hysterical energy, and, like the movie, Anna is defined by her constant, extremely neurotic movement; her triumphant moment is, paradoxically, the one where she’s practically paralysed by fever, a crisis that sees her able to achieve an almost saintlike scene of mutual forgiveness and rapprochement between herself and her two men, conquering Karenin’s righteous fury. There’s a touch of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Knightley and Law’s early scenes together as she charms her pasty overlord with her still-girlish mannerisms, mannerisms that fade and give way to leonine ferocity as she enters her affair. The filmmakers and Knightley allow constant glimpses of Anna’s vanity, mental instability, and faintly sado-masochistic impulses, side by side with her admirable qualities, making her a different order of character to the usual run of blankly admirable females bound to be tortured in such period fare, several of which Knightley has played before. Knightley, more restrained than in her full-blown neurotic mode in A Dangerous Method (2011), maps out Anna’s journey as one of compulsions, until she’s finally beset by a cringing disgust and reactive grief in the face of social disgrace and the probability of being exiled from both her home with Karenin and the temporary bliss she has with Vronsky.
The wonder of this Anna Karenina is the precision with which it captures and depicts the inner turmoil of Tolstoy’s characters, and the skill with which it finally removes, rather than adds, elements until, finally, emotional immediacy inverts the focus and the artifice retreats into the background. The film’s most striking moments are those where effect and matter are entwined, like the horse race, and when Karenin, tearing up a letter from his wife, hurls the pieces in the air, and they fall upon him and transform into snow, and his beset solitude in the midst of a fake city is rendered inescapably beautiful and sad. Karenin’s pathos is especially sharp, Law questioning “What did I do to deserve this?” as he sits before the darkened “theatre,” perfectly visualising his punch-drunk bewilderment and the gruesome sensation of being at once hollowed out by emotional shock and left exposed. Anna’s social crucifixion, an outing to the theatre that sees her confronted by her own most lethal anxieties, including watching Vronsky converse with Princess Sorokina (Cara Delevingne), the “child” his mother is trying to foist on him, and being loudly denounced by a society dame (Shirley Henderson) after her leering husband loans Anna a programme, results in Anna’s speedy spiral into a psychic collapse. This is momentarily assuaged, ironically, by Dolly, who cheerfully states to Anna she wishes she had the guts to follow in her footsteps.
By this time, the stage surroundings have faded to a near-general realism. But Anna’s fracturing psyche and perception of herself and others, communicated by images fragmenting in mirrors and the sight of Anna stripped down to her support garments, reveal Anna’s very person is the stage, stripped back to the frame to reveal the ludicrous assemblage required to sustain the illusion of polite femininity. Anna’s suicide, a breathtaking sequence, takes place backstage, where onlookers are locked in friezes, reduced to props in Anna’s aching loneliness and despair, rescued by the prospect of a pummelling juggernaut, a force that both saves her from and mimics the forces that have already run over her, and a bliss of extinction. Wright nods again to Lean’s Brief Encounter, zooming in to the exultant fear on Knightley’s face as the lights of the train carriages whip across her visage; unlike Celia Johnson, she takes the plunge. The final images of the film, with Karenin seated in a verdant field as his son with Anna and her daughter with Vronsky play together whilst Karenin himself seems to have found peace in paternal solitude watching over the children, resolves with a sense of natural grace and maturity. The stalks of grass invade the “theatre,” presaging the breakdown of the order depicted in the film. Anna Karenina is an orgy of cinema, undoubtedly likely to be too rich for the blood of some, and yet it offers an experience far too rare in this year’s cinematic output—a film both boldly conceived and successfully realised on many levels.
There’s a distinctive and interesting strand emerging in independent cinema of films using motifs borrowed from genre storytelling and scifi, in particular, to produce fablelike explorations of human nature, morality, and the slippery nature of mortal perception. Some examples of this strand include Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011), Benedek Fliegauf’s Womb (2010), and Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010). Whilst some slide too easily into obvious parable and pretentious discursion, others succeed in redefining both strands of creative endeavour, wielding both the low-key authenticity associated with low-budget and independent cinema and the wide-sweeping, metaphorical power of ideas that sprout best in nonrealistic contexts. Sound of My Voice follows hard on the heels of one of the best movies so far to emerge from this trend, 2011’s moody Another Earth. These films represent not only a genuine auteurist calling card for their respective directors, but also for Brit Marling, who, on both films, penned the screenplay with the director and played a pivotal onscreen role. Another Earth sustained its bold-type thematic conceits with a counterbalancing poeticism and an oddly unwavering conviction in its own absurdity; in spite of the different director-collaborators, this quality is transferred intact to Sound of My Voice, which represents an effective leap forward. Another Earth essentially appended a well-handled, but familiar emotional melodrama onto its metaphoric framework, whereas Sound of My Voice is more an intricately woven study in character and quandary meeting in a zone of ambiguous reality. Sound of My Voice could be described as a nonviolent, abstracted remake of The Terminator (1984) in the way it evokes a similar landscape of fear of the future counterbalanced by an eddying uncertainty in the present. It also bears certain conceptual similarities to this year’s Looper, to which it could actually be the superior work.
The curt, mystifying opening sees two young people, Peter Aitken (Christopher Denham) and Lorna Michaelson (Nicole Vicius), arriving at a suburban house in Los Angeles where they follow written instructions to leave their car, strip off their clothes, wash, and change into hospital gowns. They are then blindfolded and bundled into a van by ponytailed Klaus (Richard Wharton) and other helpmates in a mysterious cabal and taken to another, seemingly ordinary house. Upon arrival, each person goes through a strange and complex ritual handshake that’s been taught to them in the preparatory stages of this journey and introduced to Maggie (Marling), glimpsed emerging from a private room filled with the sounds of medical equipment. Maggie is a luminously attractive, youthful, and compelling presence who recounts her tale: she once awoke immersed in a filled hotel bathtub with no memory of who she was or where she came from. As she wandered LA’s low-rent districts, she was beset by illnesses, realised that she had no immunity, and became something of an urban legend. Klaus heard about her, tracked her down, took her in, and has built a peculiar kind of cult around her. Maggie states that thanks to her slowly returning memories and the cryptic tattoos on her body, she has realized that she is a time traveller from 30 years in the future sent back to illuminate a chosen few about the horrors and dangers that await and to train them mentally and physically to survive those dangers with positive meaning intact.
Peter and Lorna, however, are not true believers looking for a New Age guru, or at least, not in the usual fashion: they’re actually independent documentary filmmakers who were engaged in making a movie about cults when they heard about Maggie, and have jumped through many hoops to get close to this enigmatic figure. Both Peter and Lorna have their own baggage that makes them vulnerable to reacting unhealthily to this situation. Lorna, a recovering wild child and daughter of Hollywood royalty, has forcibly recalibrated her reality and approaches life with a measured scepticism, whilst Peter is the seemingly mild but emotionally damaged child of a woman who herself was taken in by a cult and died from a curable disease because she followed the cult’s credo in refusing treatments: Peter awoke “12 years old and without a mother.” Peter works as a teacher in his day job, and like Harry Houdini’s war on spiritualists, his and Lorna’s adventures into the weird and wondrous world of cults feels like a campaign of debunking rooted in a quiescent desire to find the real thing. Maggie’s story has the beauty, in a touch that feels a little like a spoof on Michael Biehn’s character in The Terminator, of neither providing nor requiring proof beyond her own persuasive explanations. The elaborate precautions the cult has devised to make the initiates strip away all of their belongings and clothing are intended, nominally, to keep bacteria out of Maggie’s environment, but also make it conveniently near-impossible for Peter and Lorna to track down her location and obtain footage of her. To get around this, Peter eventually swallows a receiver linked to a miniature camera hidden in his glasses. But this stunt presages an intense encounter with Maggie in which fear of being found out manifests on several levels.
Batmanglij’s visuals, editing, and audio are as precisely fashioned as cut glass throughout much of Sound of My Voice, expostulating with nerveless detail the process of Peter and Lorna’s journey into Maggie’s strange, hermetic world, a world carefully contrived to cut off normal recourses and alternate perceptions. Here, Maggie is queen, and via Marling’s cunningly pitched performance, she generates switchback-inducing emotions, shifting from beatific, therapeutic wholesomeness to insinuating slyness and disturbing provocation. In the film’s most rivetingly composed and keenly acted sequence, Maggie begins a session with her followers in which she gives them each an apple to eat, but tweaks the apple’s association with the tree of knowledge from which sin was plucked and turns it into a symbol of mind- and soul-clogging modernity. She demands that everyone vomit up what they’ve just eaten, and, of course, Peter, carrying the receiver in his stomach, attempts to demur. Maggie begins, with alternations of aggressive psychological assault and wheedling empathy, to probe Peter’s anxiety, quickly grasping on the powerful loss and anger beneath his inoffensive surface that seems easily provoked. She deduces not only his tragic background, but also seems to uncover abuse and alienation that followed. Peter begins to weep and finally gives in to the urge to vomit. He fingers through his puke to recover the receiver before anyone sees it whilst he receives a group hug from the cult. Peter later denies to Lorna that what he admitted for Maggie’s sake was true, whilst the audience has been privileged, thanks to voiceover-laden flashbacks, with the knowledge that at least some of Maggie’s deductions were accurate. Just how many is, however, impossible to judge.
Either way, Maggie is revealed as someone with both a powerfully manipulative sense of psychology that can be wielded with malicious force, but who is often healing and solicitous towards her flock. She can also be a pseudo-guru with a way of working with people that is alternately engaging and unpleasant: some of her drill techniques—group hugs, liberating dancing—are almost cornball New Age therapies. Others—self-induced vomiting and worm-eating—are more outlandish pseudotherapies, reminiscent of the kinds of exercises described by Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre (1982), for shocking the self out of the comfortable stasis of contemporary, urban life. More mysterious are some of the rituals of the cult, like donating blood, perhaps related to the filtering machine to which Maggie is connected, and her own first performance, striding in veiled like an ancient Vestal priestess and carting along an oxygen cylinder between aisles of her prone adherents. When she’s asked to sing a song from the future, she eventually gives in and warbles a ballad in a wispy fashion, only to have one of the flock, Lam (Alvin Lam), to state that he recognises it as a song by The Cranberries. After explaining that it was repopularised in her time by another artist, Maggie wisely (or cunningly) dodges requests to cite upcoming events by pointing out to her followers their own fuzzy memories of events 30 or 40 years in the past. She finally has Lam thrown out of the house by the brawny men who serve as her unofficial bodyguards, whilst Lam’s partner, Christine (Constance Wu), elects to remain behind. Maggie seems fatally unmasked, and yet as Lorna asks, why if you were a fake time traveller would you make such an obvious misstep? Maggie brings prophecies of war, shortages, and breakdown, but also promises of something close to an idyllic life in resettled communities in the countryside.
As Sound of My Voice plays out, it becomes clear that something special, if not exactly harmonious or healthy, is arcing between Maggie and Peter, with powerful underlying motives adding to physical attraction, whilst Lorna is engaged by one of the older cult members, Joanne (Kandice Stroh), who leads her up into the woods and teaches her how to shoot. Is Maggie really creating a kind of private army with the cult, or are such expressions simply a side channel for the liberating, destructive impulses of the people she’s attracted? Cults, the forces that attract people to them, and the mystique of the kind of person who can command them, seem newly of interest for independent filmmakers, as noted by last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene and this year’s The Master. Perhaps some of this interest can be attributed to the troubling power of charisma and the appeal of facetious messages that can be tweaked with political overtones. But it also seems based in a highly contemporary interest in alternate modes of living. Implicit in both Martha Marcy May Marlene and Sound of My Voice is a contemplation of the familiar problems and paranoias of such subcultures, but also disgust with a mass culture in which the many promises of capitalism and democracy have been seen to be failing and incompatible.
Denham’s excellent lead performance helps put across Peter’s schismatic nature: whilst he wears the familiarly affable apparel and affectations of a slightly nerdy member of the modern creative class, he carefully reveals the hard, almost inquisitorial sense of purpose that drives him. His motivation for making the documentary, as well as answering some obvious psychological needs, is actually predicated on a similar hate for the workaday and the banal that must have driven his mother into the arms of an alternate reality. The contradictory, but widespread feeling that modernity is a form of slow poison even as it extends, prolongs, and eases the burdens of life, is one that Peter’s mother embraced as a life truth and accepted the consequences. It’s also explicated and exploited by Maggie, as she encourages her flock to purge themselves of baggage and their attachment to transitory things as a way of preparing themselves for surviving upheaval. The assumption that Peter and Lorna make in moving into her circle that Maggie is a phony and a con artist running an egocentric empire, and worse, that she might be inculcating them for criminal acts, is constantly mooted. This assumption seems borne out when a woman, Carol Briggs (Davenia McFadden) approaches Lorna with evidence revealing that Maggie is actually a woman named Shelley Whittle who is wanted for armed robbery, and her elaborate precautions are a way of staying hidden whilst still running her scam.
Sound of My Voice tries to get at something more interesting and original, however, than reinforcing truisms about big demagogues in small ponds, for the tale is powered by the notion that even a person who is troubling, perhaps even dangerous, may have gifts and messages worth listening to, and that the wilful sceptic might, in fact, find a longed-for catharsis in such an enigmatic creature. Peter’s desire to exorcise his past is entwined with a desperate need to penetrate and strip away the layers of the mysteries with which he’s presented, cursed with an everlasting need to understand forces so powerful they can convince an apparently rational person to act in an apparently irrational way. As he gets closer to Maggie, her appeal precisely as someone who proclaims a counterintuitive weltanschauung offers precisely this contradictory appeal of the irrational within a seemingly cohesive framework, and Peter’s need for purgation begins to overwhelm his own judgement. Key to the unfolding folie à deux of Peter and Maggie is the suggestion that Peter seems more important to Maggie’s plans than other members of the cult, and for a disturbing reason. Maggie wants Peter to bring her one of his students, Abigail Pritchett (Avery Kristen Pohl), a young girl marked out by strange interludes of narcolepsy and aggressive altercations with other students, and who, at home, is watched over by a mysteriously solicitous father or guardian who treats her maladies, whilst Abigail constructs elaborate patterns with Lego-like blocks that testify to a peculiar brilliance. When Peter asks what she could possibly want with the girl, Maggie answers squarely that Abigail is her mother.
The fascinating central study in dichotomous desires to both embrace and defeat the irrational is counterbalanced by an even headier, but also more familiar, contemporary conceit, as Batmanglij and Marling toy with problems of perception and reality, teasing the audience right to the end with the question as to whether Maggie’s story is true. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter, as Maggie’s capacities are depicted in sufficient detail to make her a striking and an alarming figure, a benefactor and a destroyer, a visionary and a mind-rapist. I expect this is where the weight of the drama is supposed to lie. The more overt gamesmanship of the “choose your own adventure” narrative ambiguity is comparatively teasing and conventional, even as it clearly lays claim to the current vogue of offering questions without answers. Marling follows on from Another Earth, which concluded with a kind of moral-psychological cliffhanger, as the accursed heroine was confronted by her doppelganger and the audience was left to ponder exactly what this signified, whilst here the filmmakers seem to have demystified Maggie until a literally last-minute twist throws everything for a loop. The climactic moment, in which Peter actually manages to bring Abigail to Maggie, sees the strange and preternaturally gifted girl who doesn’t seem to know Maggie at all nonetheless reproduce perfectly the elaborate cult handshake, which Maggie claims Abigail taught her, moments before police burst in and drag the erstwhile futuristic envoy away.
The challenge to the audience—to interpret according to their presuppositions—is almost smug in its apparently clear dichotomy. Yet it’s leavened by a complicating ambiguity, as there are suggestions that the choice before the viewer is not a simple schism between faith and rationality, the wish to believe in Maggie and the need to dismiss her, as other dimensions are hinted at. Why does Carol, when she is first glimpsed, go through elaborate exercises to make sure her hotel room is not bugged, and why is the photo she later presents to Lorna as proof of Maggie’s actual identity smuggled to her through such a strange method? Why does Abigail write “terrorist” on a schoolmate’s backpack? What is the correlation between Abigail’s illness and Maggie’s? Either way, Maggie’s words to Peter—that he is the real centre of the mystery—reverberate with new clarity as he gazes into the white light into which Maggie has disappeared (taken off to prison or perhaps spirited back to the future) with his own perspective blown to pieces. His hunt for catharsis, far from having been simply answered, proves rather to have been made exponentially more complicated. The possibility that another drama entirely different from the two that Peter and Lorna are presented with, is thus also mooted. In any event, Sound of My Voice explores the need for, and the impossibility of, complete certainty, but it’s also ultimately about the very feeling of unease and longing such a lack generates. The varieties of anxiety, paranoia, and perceptual limitation explored throughout the film are left free-floating, described as a quality of life rather than the product of a specifically causal entity. This quality thrusts the work as a whole high above the usual meta-narrative games.
Batmanglij, who directs with cool restraint throughout, makes effective use of restrained, minatory stylistic flourishes, as in the flashbacks that fill us in on Peter and Lorna’s history, shown in grainy, haunted VHS footage in which a young, shirtless Peter rides a bike and bounds off into a darkness that seems almost existential and Lorna attends a party where naked men do push-ups, an amusing fillip of high-life decadence. Particular good is the visualisation of Maggie’s account of her history, her awakening as a stranded and stripped amnesiac and her wanderings in LA’s blasted zones, evocative fragments of desolate existence recalling John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984) as an exiled martyr amidst seamy humanity, whilst Klaus searches for her, an efficiently composed sequence that could almost have been another, perhaps even better film. Where Sound of My Voice treads water more critically is in the half-hearted depiction of Peter and Lorna’s relationship and their fraying accord, narrative function giving way to standard-issue indie-flick break-up, and the film never really works out what do with Lorna. The rarefied flavour of the film as a whole certainly isn’t for everybody, but if one values films that can achieve a lot with very little, then Sound of My Voice, in spite of its flaws, is a small gem.
I don’t write pans very often. My main mission as a film critic is to shed light on efforts I believe are worth people’s time and money to see. I don’t like to be unkind to the people who may have worked hard to get a film made and distributed and believe in what they have done, even if I think they missed the mark. But more than anything, bad movies do not inspire me. Writing isn’t easy when you can’t warm to your subject.
Nonetheless, sometimes I find it instructive to deconstruct a bad film so that we can all understand better how a production studio can take a truly singular event and regurgitate it as a hollow, craven bid for box office by reducing it to the lowest common denominator.
I’m going to do something a little different with this review, and I beg your indulgence. I’m going to quote a rather long passage written by ee cummings that brilliantly critiques a very famous publication that, despite the decline of print, is still a world favorite. The publication’s name is never revealed, but I’m sure you can figure it out. I believe that the formula outlined in this part of one of cummings’ “Non-Lectures” (original punctuation preserved) can be applied very usefully by the discerning moviegoer:
”Now listen” the subsubeditor suggested “if you’re thinking of working with us, you’d better know The Three Rules.” “And what” my friend cheerfully inquired “are The Three Rules?” “The Three Rules” explained his mentor “are: first, eight to eighty; second, anybody can do it; and third, makes you feel better.” “I don’t quite understand” my friend confessed. “Perfectly simple” his interlocutor assured him. “Our first Rule means that every article we publish must appeal to anybody, man woman or child, between the ages of eight and eighty years—is that clear?” My friend said it was indeed clear. “Second” his enlightener continued “every article we publish must convince any reader of the article that he or she could do whatever was done by the person about whom the article was written. Suppose (for instance) you were writing about Lindbergh, who had just flown the Atlantic ocean for the first time in history, with nothing but unlimited nerve and a couple of chicken (or ham was it?) sandwiches—do you follow me?” “I’m ahead of you” my friend murmured. “Remembering Rule number two” the subsub went on “you’d impress upon your readers’ minds, over and over again, the fact that (after all) there wouldn’t have been anything extraordinary about Lindbergh if he hadn’t been just a human being like every single one of them. See?” “I see” said my friend grimly.
“Third” the subsub intoned “we’ll imagine you’re describing a record-breaking Chinese flood—millions of poor unfortunate men and women and little children and helpless babies drowning and drowned; millions more perishing of slow starvation: suffering inconceivable, untold agonies, and so forth—well, any reader of this article must feel definitely and distinctly better, when she or he finishes the article, than when he or she began it.” “Sounds a trifle difficult” my friend hazarded. “Don’t be silly,” the oracle admonished. “All you’ve got to do, when you’re through with your horrors, is to close by saying: but (thanks to an all-merciful Providence) we Americans, with our high standard of living and our Christian ideals, will never be subjected to such inhuman conditions; as long as the Stars and Stripes triumphantly float over one nation indivisible, with liberty and just for all—get it?”
In fact, The Impossible tells just such a story of death and devastation and succeeds in adhering to The Three Rules with impeccable fidelity. The film is based on the true story of a Spanish family of five vacationing at a luxury beach resort in Thailand who were caught in the 2004 tsunami that killed 273,000 people across Southeast Asia. The recreation of the tsunami in the very resort where the family stayed provides an adrenaline rush for everyone from the eight year old fed on superhero movies to the 80 year old who is addicted to The Weather Channel’s killer storm programming. Rule number one: check.
The family, to a person, somehow managed to survive, and their appearance on the red carpet with Naomi Watts and the rest of the cast at the film’s London premiere fulfills rule number two: anybody can do it. If you or I had been swept up in a tsunami, we surely would have been able to survive, too, and get the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol and our certain publication promised we’d all get sooner or later. In fact, we’re entitled to be on a red carpet!
The final rule is fulfilled in the choice the producers made to recast the family as the Anglo Bennetts: Henry (Ewan McGregor), his nonpracticing doctor wife Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). I have no idea if the Bennetts are American, British, Australian, or some mix-and-match combination, and that seems intentional. The dialogue is specifically vague about where “home” is for this family who travel to whatever country Henry’s employer sends him. This choice thus offers the largest target audience for the film assurances that the white, English-speaking race survives because it deserves to. The fact that the tsunami occurred the day after Christmas, allowing the film to show the Bennetts celebrating the holiday, further fulfills the tenets of rule number three.
Once all the rules are snapped into place, the film can afford to embellish the drama with a few cheap moments of tepid emotion. We get the grief-stricken father, fearing his wife and oldest son are dead, staring at the red (of course) ball his youngest son got for Christmas being kicked around by the Thai heathens. We get to watch the badly injured mom being dragged along the ground by an old man who is mumbling in Thai—can’t he see he’s hurting her? But then Mom gets the royal treatment by the natives, who pack her carefully onto a truck that passes by other victims by the roadside and takes her to a hospital where it seems most of the patients are non-Thai. All I could think is that these Thais were resort employees and the hospital reserved for foreigners. The natives who wouldn’t be able to fly away to better care, intact homes, and plentiful clean water and food get one very brief moment of remembrance, as Henry, ridiculously searching for Maria and Lucas at night with a flashlight, briefly illuminates some photos of a Thai family strewn in the mud.
The film is loaded with laughable clichés and false drama. Eventually, the Bennetts all end up at the hospital, but miss running into each other over and over again. Maria is removed from her bed while Lucas goes off to help mainly white people look for their relatives; no one seems to know that she was taken to surgery, so Lucas gets to furrow his brow in the orphan tank until the film tries to wring a fake grief out of us with a nurse bringing Maria’s personal effects to Lucas to identify. The resort idyll, the happy moments of opening Christmas presents in paradise and playing in the pool, are floated to contrast the slowly dawning awareness signaled by the sound of thundering surf that disaster is about to strike—it quite reminded me of the last happy moments of the family about to be ripped asunder in the melodrama A Fool There Was, circa 1915!
It almost goes without saying that none of the people in this film emerges as a real human being. McGregor is given a moment to break down on the cellphone generously offered by another displaced white person who has lost his family, and milks it for all it’s worth. Watts tries on the unattractive appearance look that won her friend and compatriot Nicole Kidman an Oscar for The Hours, but sadly, in my mind, I kept thinking she was Kidman. Tom Holland gives the most full-bodied performance in the film, and I commend him for trying to be real in such a calculated scenario. He seemed personally embarrassed that Watts had a couple of boob shots thrown in because, well, people’s clothes get torn in tsunamis, and so, well, we can show a little skin and feel righteous about it. This is film paint-by-numbers at its cynical worst, sinking any chance to help people understand and empathize with human misery on a grand scale. After Superstorm Sandy, Americans especially would have been better served by a real look at disaster to help them cope.
The end of the cummings Non-Lecture gets the last word:
“I get you” said my disillusioned friend. “Good bye.”
The true romantic adventure film is a rare breed. Not an action film where a romance is grafted on as a momentary distraction from stunts and gunfights, a romantic adventure film generates excitement not just by posing danger to the characters’ bodies, but also to their innermost selves and their relationships. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a true romantic adventure film, was produced by Alexander Korda at a time when he and Alfred Hitchcock were the key drivers of British cinema in the early sound era. Korda’s productions, with their determinedly classy, yet peculiarly minimalist, intimate style, gained initial success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), buoyed by Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning turn as the rapacious monarch. This and other productions tried to make virtues out of some of the perceived faults in the British industry, with its reliance on a theatrical tradition and cramped budgets, and exploited Britishness for its own sake whilst also bringing a noticeably tart perspective on that Britishness that perhaps only an immigrant like Korda could. At its best in films like Henry VIII, Rembrandt (1936), and The Scarlet Pimpernel, Korda’s house style interrogated assumptions about cinematic structuring that were quickly becoming truisms under Hollywood’s influence. With a gentle sense of dramaturgy, and intricate, dramatically encoded sequences playing out in a fashion moulded after historical tableaux plays, Korda’s films shared a spirit in common with those of William Wyler and Jean Renoir and anticipated Andre Bazin’s theories of mise-en-scène over montage. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a peculiar by-product: an adventure film without set-piece derring-do, and hardly even a gunshot—and it’s one of the most exciting films ever made.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is based on Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s literary hero, an English aristocrat who rescues the innocent victims of the Reign of Terror that accompanied the French Revolution. Orczy was herself actually Hungarian, but had married into the English aristocracy. Her first Pimpernel book debuted in 1905, and she was still alive and churning out books about her hero when this film was made. Orczy’s creation was and is fascinating and deeply consequential for pop culture, as she can in many ways be said to have invented a crucial type of modern hero: the man of action defying oppressive forces with disguises and cunning whilst maintaining a secret identity that masks his true nature. Simultaneously, whilst she stopped short of creating a proper female action hero, Orczy clearly invested a telling amount of interest and energy in creating Marguerite, Blakeney’s beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, yet initially morally questionable French wife who evolved throughout Orczy’s cycle into one of Percy’s agents. The Scarlet Pimpernel is built as much around the central romantic tangles and tortures the couple put each other through—an extended and fascinating metaphor for the problems of identity of many a couple actually settling down to the problem of really living together—as it is about period gallivanting and historical fancy.
Orczy had constructed that historical fancy around the plausible wish fulfilment of saving innocents from the worst excesses of a political movement. As the 20th century progressed, this fantasy was to become increasingly urgent, and when Korda’s production was released, geopolitical overtones vibrated through the whole affair. Leslie Howard would play an updated version of the hero he plays here in Pimpernel Smith (1941), and in doing so, reputedly inspire Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust. In the 1934 film, the sensation that something evil is happening just over the horizon, played out in icy diplomatic niceties and by men utilising proto-Cold War techniques, is nonetheless palpable, and the period French Revolution setting starts to sound more and more contemporary as Percy condemns men who “use high-sounding principles an excuse for the most bestial cruelty.” Indeed, The Scarlet Pimpernel, made five years before WWII started, feels more than a little like the first WWII movie, offering as it does a template of flight, disguise, and infiltration that any number of spy adventure melodramas in the coming years would. It even lays out a template for the kinds of patriotic encomium such films would often see, as when Percy recites the “this England” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. The coolness of the Korda style, at odds with the kind of florid historical filmmaking becoming popular in Hollywood that would soon flower in the second coming of the swashbuckler, builds and emphasises tension in an entirely different fashion to what one expects. As witty and defiant as Percy can be, there’s no campy winking at the audience in the fashion of Errol Flynn’s films, and the absence of a music score, already by 1934 an unusual lack, emphasises the sombre, subtle pitch of the drama.
The film begins with a discursive sequence of soldiers parading under the window of the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce). The Prince’s bluff and hearty charm seems for much of the movie as disconnected as the rest of his countrymen from the international reality, his soldiers marching prettily but not actually doing anything. The Prince confesses his pride in the fact that the Scarlet Pimpernel, rapidly becoming famous for his escapades, is English. In Paris, the situation the Pimpernel is fighting against is coldly depicted as victim after victim is sent to the guillotine in an assembly line of slaughter, and a neat dissolve from the guillotine itself to the Revolutionary logo of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality packs ironic punch. A priest (Bramwell Fletcher, of The Mummy “He went for a little walk!” fame), actually one of the Pimpernel’s agents, gets an earful of bloodlust from a barber, before visiting a prison where families of the fallen nobility cringe in the cellar as a revolutionary official announces: “Madame Guillotine has fresh meat today.” The fake priest delivers a message in a bible to the family of the Count de Tournay (O. B. Clarence), his wife (Mabel Terry-Lewis) and daughter Suzanne (Joan Gardner). De Tournay, the former ambassador to Britain, is introduced playing cards with his fellows and contemplating with hard-won wisdom that his class has been “sheltered all our lives,” establishing him as a nice aristocrat fit to be rescued. As victims are called up to the tumbrel, rapid vignettes of grace under pressure include one aristocratic woman placing aside her book and adjusting her gloves with seemly calm, whilst outside the baying crowd awaits. Wife and daughter are dragged away to their deaths, torn from the Count, who is held back to be taken Robespierre.
But the Pimpernel’s promise to the De Tournays is good, as the crowd is distracted by a man on the rooftops shouting royalist slogans, a first sign of the depths of Percy’s cleverness in using the crowd’s own inchoate passion against it. As they pursue the rooftop agitator, Percy is able to swoop in and spirit away the family. The Pimpernel himself is disguised as an aged hag transporting her plague-ridden son out of the city, successfully bluffing his way past a guard who has already been seen capturing an aristocrat trying to escape and congratulating himself on his ability to sniff out his quarries. Moments after the Pimpernel gets out, a squad of mounted soldiers arrives to inform the guard he just let the Pimpernel escape, but the soldiers, under Sir Andrew Ffoulkes (Anthony Bushell), are themselves members of the Pimpernel’s band, and they escort the De Tournays across the Channel to safety. Meanwhile, Percy loses his hag’s guise, after a moment of deadpan transformative humour as Percy takes some snuff from his gold box whilst still in full ratty regalia, and then maintains the most businesslike of attitudes as he strips off the drag. He’s alerted by his operative Armand St. Just (Walter Rilla) that they have to return to rescue the Count and that a new, dangerous enemy has been set after them, Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), the Republic’s envoy to England. Armand also happens to be the brother of Percy’s wife, the former actress Marguerite (Merle Oberon), who is regarded as a traitor and murderer in French aristocratic circles because of her apparent role in the execution of the Marquis Saint Cyr and his family, the first aristocratic clan to go to the guillotine.
The remainder of the narrative revolves around a peculiar question: is Percy’s wife one of the people he despises? Is he operating out of guilt for her actions? Marguerite is first mentioned in a tavern conversation between Ffoulkes and the De Tournays, as they tell him about her evil acts, and he states with defensive pride that “Everyone in London knows Lady Blakeney.” Marguerite is introduced thus, like her husband, first through gossip and second-hand perception, an accumulation of legends that address only one apparent side of their natures. She is first glimpsed properly having her portrait painted by George Romney (Melville Cooper), supervising her conversion into a perfectly aestheticized image as Romney would do for Emma Hamilton. Percy studies the work twice, once in full fop character and then again more like himself, and finds it frustratingly lacking, as he attempts to discover the true woman behind the various images of her. As the husband wears a mask of false identity, he is questioning whether his wife does, too. When Armand asks about the chill between the couple, Percy explains that he once asked if she had truly denounced the Saint Cyrs: “She flashed back a yes as sharp as the guillotine!” “So that is why you ceased to love her,” Armand says, “What a tragedy.” Percy replies, “I shall love her ‘til the day I die, that’s the tragedy.” Such a line captures The Scarlet Pimpernel‘s rare feel for the smouldering romanticism lurking under the seemingly stoic and staid English surface. The very French and expressive Marguerite is conversely suffering her sudden and chilling alienation from Percy, who, as far as London society is concerned, is a shallow, witless gadabout obsessed with fashion and trivialities.
True to Quentin Tarantino’s maxim about secret identity as a mask that reveals and critiques, the version of himself that Sir Percy Blakeney presents to the world is a stinging study in English upper-crust complacency and cloddishness. Percy maintains his cover by playing a jackass, fop, and effeminate pseudo-wit. He predicts Beau Brummel by advising the Prince in fashion, ridiculing his tailor’s efforts (“I’ll have you know that this is the last word in sleeves!” “Oh I should hope so, for there should never be another like it!”), and reciting to anyone who’ll listen his poem about the Pimpernel (“They seek him here, they seek him there…”) which he has to censor when repeating it to society ladies. The fat, old former soldiers he teases as they lounge about his club congratulate themselves on their superiority to such callow youth: “What that young man needs is a year of two’s hard campaigning, facing powder and shot!” declares Winterbottom (Edmund Breon), whilst one of the Prince’s circle, contemplating the horrors in France, muses, “What do you expect of a lot of foreigners with no sporting instinct? If it wasn’t for our fox hunting and grouse shooting, I dare say we should be cruel, too!” When Marguerite wonders if Ffoulkes might be the Pimpernel, Percy derides the idea: “The fellow couldn’t hit a ball at Eton!” This tint of satire on the worst traits of the English upper crust is, of course, contrasted in how Percy and his fellows actually represent their class’s best qualities. Even the Prince finally reveals his hidden grit when, disgusted by news Robespierre is planning to execute the French King, he’s introduced to Chauvelin, who he welcomes as a private citizen: “We shall try to forget the government that sent you,” before turning his back and getting on with his pleasant evening.
The Scarlet Pimpernel’s layered and wit-laden script was composed by many hands, with Korda and Orczy adding some material to the credited foursome of Lajos Biró, S. N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, and Arthur Wimperis. As per the Korda style, and perhaps partly reflecting the fact that the story had first appeared not as a novel but as a stage play, the narrative moves forward in a series of intensely orchestrated and carefully composed sequences. The actual job of direction fell to American Harold Young, making his third film after a long career as an editor: Young’s subsequent career would be largely unremarkable as a maker of B-movies, including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). But the entire production bears the imprint of Korda, particularly in the carefully composed crowd scenes. Korda’s approach to spectacle was strange, offering lavish sets, casts, and costuming, and then often dismissing them, preferring to concentrate elliptically on peripheral details. The Scarlet Pimpernel deliberately detours from many key moments of action, and yet avoids staidness with its supple and functional cutting and quietly musical visual pacing.
Notable are little minuets of telling close-ups and dramatic camera angles in compositions that are fastidiously balanced, often with characters framed in association with statues that match their personality. A brilliant, pivotal moment occurs when Marguerite finally realises her husband is the Pimpernel, camera zeroing in on a tell-tale feature of a painting she stares at, and cutting back to a high shot of Marguerite gazing up, the moment of realisation rendered electric. The effect shifts emphasis from the physical intensity of the drama to the emotional, making The Scarlet Pimpernel all the more singular. It’s tempting, if running the risk of making facile presumptions, to ascribe some of the emotional intensity of The Scarlet Pimpernel to the way it offers such a fervent metaphor for the lives of so many of its creators. Korda and Howard were Hungarian with Jewish backgrounds, busy dissembling as perfect English entrepreneur and actor, whilst Orczy was also Hungarian, and Oberon was part-Indian, a side of herself she had to keep suppressed to avoid the censure in a still often segregated cinema screen.
One doesn’t look to The Scarlet Pimpernel for in-depth political considerations, and yet the brief depiction of Robespierre (Ernest Milton) is an amusing study in dictatorial power as the self-dramatized posturing of a child prodigy, one that seems cleverly pitched to evoke caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler as bratty buffoons for audiences of the 1930s. He stalks away from his desk after writing a death warrant with showy gravitas and situates himself before a nobly bearded bust, before calling Chauvelin and declaring effetely to De Tournay that “I send you people to the guillotine for the future happiness of the human race, but I don’t allow torture!” Chauvelin is both smarmy and serpentine in his confident espousal of the revolutionary cause, and also acutely aware of his vulnerability, tasked with capturing the Pimpernel and knowing it means his neck if he can’t. Chauvelin blackmails Marguerite into helping him identify the Pimpernel, having traced the various leads to Percy’s social circle. To manipulate Marguerite, he uses both standard pressures—arresting Armand and holding his fate over her—and his sinuous and unsettling psychological grip on her, as the keeper of her darkest secrets. Chauvelin was partly responsible for Marguerite’s denunciation of the Saint Cyrs, though her animosity towards the clan after the patriarch had her thrown in prison when his son wanted to marry her, was still powerful.
The film’s multiple story strands collide in a lengthy sequence at a ball held by Lord Grenville (Allan Jeayes) in which dancing is dismissed as frou frou in favour of the far more intricate cotillion of role-playing and gamesmanship. Percy swaps gracefully between fop and spymaster (he’s able to rescue himself from the coterie of trailing women and make contact with one of his agents with the cry, “Zounds! That’s a monstrous good collar!”), Chauvelin stalks through the proceedings with his hunting-dog smirk, and Marguerite is caught between camps, cold-shouldered by the De Tournays until the Prince, who worships Marguerite, commands them to make friends. Marguerite is tasked by Chauvelin to obtain a message Ffoulkes has tucked in his sleeve, and Marguerite rises to the challenge in a sublimely odd sequence in which dance music drifts sonorously in from the ballroom, Ffoulkes tries to both aid Marguerite and read the message, and Marguerite looks for a chance, any chance, to see it, too, whilst a confused crackle of the erotic and the illicit infuses the game of deception. She finally succeeds in getting hold of the letter and is able to reveal its contents to Chauvelin, that the Pimpernel will be in the library at midnight, which proves true, only Percy makes a play of being asleep on a couch, sprawled with indolent laziness. Percy seems to fake Chauvelin out by this means, but his joke proves to have been a bit too clever, for Chauvelin quickly realises the truth and sets in motion a plan to catch Percy the next time he ventures to France.
The weight of sustaining the film falls heavy on Howard’s and Oberon’s shoulders. Howard was just hitting the height of his fame, as he was starring in the hit play The Petrified Forest and had played the lead in a Hollywood adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage opposite Bette Davis. At first, Korda had offered the role of Percy to Charles Laughton after the success of Henry VIII, but fans of the books objected. Howard’s specific screen persona here came to the fore, in playing a man who seems emotionally obtuse and physically mild, and yet who actually possesses surprising moral and mental force; Howard would offer several variations on this character before his sad death in 1943. His performance as Percy, nonetheless, has a clarity and simplicity of technique that puts me in mind of Paul Scofield, in the precision of his shifts of character registered in diction and restrained physical emphasis, his delightful skill in swinging from pallid overcivility (the curse of his Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939) and mincing foppishness, to an unconventional, but steely, convincing rectitude. He’s particularly excellent in the key scene the couple have after the ball, in which Marguerite distraughtly confesses how Chauvelin has used her, and Percy asks just what she’s done in exchange for her brother’s freedom, with a sudden revelation of the anger and pain he’s been sitting on. As Marguerite breaks down and appeals to him with real desperation, he comes precariously close to kissing her as he realises she’s a victim and not a villain, but remembers himself at the last moment and pulls back with obvious difficulty.
Oberon was still a fairly fresh-minted movie star, although she had been leading a life laden with novel-worthy mystique for much of her life, rising from headliner in Bombay nightlife in her early teens to several years of bit roles after landing in Britain, and discovery by Korda, whom she would marry. She would go on to be an underutilised but reliable star in Hollywood, but she inhabits the difficult role of Marguerite perfectly. She keeps Marguerite’s emotional quandaries in focus, smouldering with guilt and disaffection even as she’s called upon to be the perfect, nerveless beauty, wife, secret agent, and emotional prostitute, speaking with rueful sadness after her husband’s made another of his embarrassing displays, “The biggest fool in England has the most complete contempt for his wife,” and insulting Percy with bite, “You were a man once!” The quiet romanticism of the film is indeed laced with the bitter taste of its opposite, the Noel Coward-esque cynicism apparent as Percy, in character and yet delivered with cold brutality, responds to Marguerite’s proposition that they should help Armand get married, “What has poor Armand done to be sentenced to matrimony? You should know better, my dear.” Massey likely never quite had as much fun in a film role as here, playing Chauvelin with a plummy, come-and-go accent, but more effectively offering his hangdog face and perpetual five o’clock shadow to imbue a faint air of shifty dishevelment to Chauvelin’s pretences to elegant villainy, the inelegant method and functionary brutality underneath constantly in evidence. His exchanges with Percy in foolish guise are droll in Chauvelin’s recoiling disgust of the seemingly oblivious aristocrat who sneakily makes jabs at Chauvelin’s fear of the guillotine under the pretext of giving him fashion tips; whenever Percy reaches to adjust Chauvelin’s cravat, the envoy recoils in alarm.
Chauvelin has his moment of triumph as he thinks he finally has Percy exactly where he wants him, in front of a firing squad, mouthing orders in anxious delight until he hears the shot. Once Marguerite ventures into enemy territory to warn Percy that Chauvelin is laying a trap for him, but once again makes herself perfect bait, as Chauvelin takes her prisoner and uses her as a means of forcing Percy into exchanging himself for her. Here the moral, physical, and romantic danger facing the characters crystallises in another marvellous moment of smouldering romanticism, as Marguerite declares she wants to die with her husband and fainting, Percy offering a last, breathlessly romantic kiss to her prone form before letting her be carried out. Percy pauses for his moment of poetically graceful patriotism before heading out to die—except, of course, Percy is too clever for Chauvelin, and, in one of the great action hero bluffs, his firing squad proves to be formed entirely of his own men. What’s rare about this last act is that in avoiding traditional action movie stunts, it generates a fervent tension that’s altogether sublime. The very finish twists Percy’s earlier black description of matrimony as a sentence, as he revises Chauvelin’s own pronouncement that Marguerite would be free when Percy died into an epigram of fidelity of a couple reforged into strong and confident partners in adventure. It’s worth noting that a sequel was produced three years later, but the only returning cast member was Bushell, and the film, whilst competent, was essentially an afterthought, which goes to show that half-hearted sequels are hardly a recent phenomenon.
Maverick Japanese director Seijun Suzuki has built a sizeable reputation outside of his native country, and yet he is still nowhere near famous enough. A genuinely great film artist on a level with the most reputed names of world cinema, Suzuki’s oeuvre was, for better and worse, famously defined by his struggle against being pigeonholed as a director of gangland melodramas. He subjected the genre to increasingly strange and astounding formal experiments and thematic detonations, until he finally, effectively sabotaged his career with the mighty surrealist thriller Branded to Kill (1967). Fired from Nikkatsu Studios, Suzuki spent more than a decade in purgatory, spurned by other studios, before he returned as a maker of oddball, outright art films. Suzuki tested the tensile integrity of visual narrative with ever more daring force, keeping pace with and even outdoing the many western directors engaging with formal experimentalism during the ‘60s. In later work, he pushed ever closer to abstraction and complete fragmentation of narrative.
A product of the time when he was still part of Nikkatsu and yet also clearly a renegade, Story of a Prostitute is both a lacerating study of historical military and sexual insanity, and a monument to Suzuki’s own outsider bravado as a filmmaker and an relentless, ferocious commentator on his society. Breaking momentarily free from his allotted role at the studio, Suzuki inverts the usual focus of the genre films he made, with the stoic, loner action heroes he was already aggressively disassembling, to look at a determined, unruly, but ultimately self-destructive heroine and make a sustained assault on the evils of Japan’s recent past. In seguing into territory more readily associated with the female-centric works of Kenji Mizoguchi and the humanist angst of Masaki Kobayashi, whilst essaying drama with a force equivalent to the bristling provocations of Nagisa Oshima and Koji Wakamatsu, Suzuki here reveals the rare depths of his gifts.
Suzuki’s jagged, rapid, impressionistic stylistics are in constant evidence throughout Story of a Prostitute. Where the title might make one assume this is to be a realistic study in a woman’s move into the oldest profession in a style familiar from Mizoguchi’s films, Suzuki introduces his anti-heroine Harumi (Yumiko Nogawa) as already long immersed in the life, and with her carnal intensity and deeply asocial streak, in some ways utterly suited to it. Story of a Prostitute takes up the story of such a woman at the point where most others would leave off, and continues a thematic strand from Suzuki’s Tattooed Life (1964), where his period heroes aspired to flee Japan for the colonies in Manchuria but were constantly stymied by forces far larger than themselves.
Harumi is a creature doomed to survive on the margins of glorious enterprises. The opening is both dazzlingly artful and entirely efficient. The stark opening titles show a woman struggling across a vast volcanic wasteland that stands in for the frontier world in China where the story mostly unfolds. A voiceover states: “Prostitute, harlot, strumpet—Harumi is one in Tianjin.” Harumi is first glimpsed before a huge mural of a dragon motif, dressed impeccably for her trade, suggesting at once a formal acceptance of her role but with vivid emotional turmoil within, as the narrator explains that her Japanese lover, Tomoda, has just returned from Japan with a bride.
The declaration of Harumi’s status and profession immediately indicts her not as a meek or pathetic victim but as someone who will embrace with increasing volatility her role as a transgressor, a kind of guerrilla warrior against the entrapping paradigms of male dominance and military hierarchy. Her aggression is precisely envisioned in the very next shot: a knife hacks into frame, bright against the surrounding darkness. Harumi is wielding this weapon. The third shot is split, one side presenting a stylised tavern, represented as a table and chairs surrounded by epic darkness, and Harumi, wielding the knife, threatens her lover’s bride, telling her to go back to Japan, whilst the other side of the frame contains the wedding photo for the couple, emblem of the formal ties and powers that now weigh against Harumi. Suzuki cuts to a fourth shot, an inversion of the last in that now he offers an all-white room as the space in which Tomoda apologises to Harumi and explains that nothing need change between them. Harumi continues to insist he get rid of his wife, but then kisses him with voracity and bites his lip almost clean off, as visceral a depiction of erotic intimacy segueing into physical horror as any in cinema.
Suzuki makes a brutal jump cut then to the most innocuous of sights: the hinterlands into which Harumi travels with two other prostitutes recruited to serve at brothels in the frontier town of Buken. The crudity of the garrison soldiers is shocking to her fellows, but attractive to Harumi, who wants to lose herself in a delirium of sex, and the endless queue of virile, sex-starved soldiers at the town provides just what she wants. On the road to the town, the convoy is assaulted by the local partisan army that dogs the Japanese throughout the film. Trucks are blown to pieces by charging partisans on horseback, and soldiers crowd around a dead fellow, whose body is slung into the back of another truck, where it bobs pathetically on the continued journey. Such is the ferocity of the attack that Harumi’s fellows immediately jump out of the truck, wanting to walk back to Tianjin if they have to. But as Harumi flatly states she might as well go on because she has nowhere else to go, they climb back in and acquiesce to her cold realism. Now Harumi catches sight of handsome Corporal Shinkichi Mikami (Tamio Kawaji), just released from a stint in hospital, whilst a commander, angered by the attack, gestures to a nearby village and declares, “We’ve got to kill some men and set an example!” They reach Buken, a walled city, grimy and degraded—as unlikely a scene for imperial glory as any conceivable, on the edge of a wasteland that seems to stretch across the borders of the liminal to become an existential desert.
The girls are told they’ll be serving up to a hundred soldiers a day, but Harumi finds herself marked for a slightly different role than the one she wanted: she is swiftly claimed as the nighttime bed partner of Adjutant Narita (Isao Tamagawa), a swaggering bully and lascivious brute whose imperious claim over Harumi’s body offends her profoundly, except when he’s actually screwing her, and shocks her into a stance of resistance. When she learns that Mikami is his aide, she determines to seduce the corporal, partly out of revenge and partly out of sexual fascination. But her path to this fulfilment is made difficult by the fact that Mikami, though attracted to Harumi, is slavishly indoctrinated by the militarist ethos and truly tortured by the thought of transgressing his role. Harumi’s determination to gain revenge over Narita is illustrated with bravura as she imagines him coming upon herself and Mikami in an embrace: he turns into a photograph, and is torn to pieces. Harumi’s confident belief that her own fecund erotic power can destabilize the hierarchy is underlined as Suzuki offers a shot of her, clearly stripped but framed from just above her breasts and encompassing her grimly smiling face, as an icon of ripe, subversive intent. When she first tries to seduce him in a shed adjoining the brothel, Mikami slaps her when he thinks she’s mocking him: as her fellow prostitutes mass around Mikami and abuse him, Harumi screams in hysteria. Finally, she manages to bed Mikami by suggesting he’s a virgin, and she gradually emboldens him to sneak out of the barracks after dark to make rendezvous with her. But when Mikami is caught, he’s imprisoned, and during a partisan raid, is sent out on a suicide detail.
The small collective of prostitutes interests Suzuki in a fashion similar to Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse, except rather than a street of shame, Suzuki offers an entire world of it. Suzuki refuses to cordon off the masculine and feminine trials of war and whoredom, instead seeing them both as entwined matters of life, death, and above all, human freedom. He gives time to the prostitutes’ banter, fears, their collective sensibility, their louche deportment, play, despair, and gossipy pleasure in their moments of rest, before the columns of soldiers are marched in to begin the exhausting business of assembly-line rutting. At first, the girls doubt it when they’re told they’ll all find sweethearts amongst the soldiers—“How will we find the time?” one asks incredulously—but later they’re glimpsed rushing out to find their loved ones when the soldiers return from the front. The world Suzuki creates is at once fervidly seamy and tangible, a place of unremitting squalor and decay, and yet also littered with expressionist beauty, the town and the environs of the brothels with their décor and fine architecture long since pummelled and brutalised. Concurrent to the central matter of Harumi’s attempted rebellion, Suzuki offers two different case studies in schismatic grasps for individual affirmation. An aged colonist comes to the brothel to arrange for one prostitute to marry his son, whom the father suggests is busy working out on their remote farm. Sachiko (Kazuko Imai) takes up the offer, as she’s the most eager—she’s lugged a tea set to this godforsaken place for a traditional ritual just in case she gets lucky. She ventures into the wasteland, only to return sometime later bedraggled and dejected, raving that the son was actually a lunatic as her tea set falls from its case and lies on the sand.
This pathetic story is contrasted with that of one of Mikami’s fellow soldiers, Uno, an intellectual who keeps getting into trouble for reading things he’s not supposed to: busted down to the ranks and bullied by his sergeant, Uno comes to spend time at the brothel only to read his copy of Diderot, lounging in the room of the one Chinese prostitute at Harumi’s brothel, who watches him with confused affection. The association of soldiers and prostitutes is a time-honoured one, but what is the dividing line between the two professions actually, considering that they both theoretically surrender their individual desires for communal ones and give up control of their bodies? Suzuki keeps insidiously asking the question, and equates the demand with a surrender of will and individual thinking rights. Just as overt is the equation of Harumi’s body with the land the Imperial Army is attempting to subjugate, yielding to force and yet filled with shame for it, and attempting to mount an opposition. The first time Narita visits Harumi, he throws out the sergeant she’s sleeping with, and calls Harumi a whore. When she mouths off at him, questioning if the Emperor would use his language, as Japanese officers are supposed to be the mouthpieces of the Emperor, he strikes her with the scabbard of his sword and reduces her to cowering like an animal before he strips her violently and fucks her with impunity. Harumi does not merely give in to this force, but actually gives herself up to it, surrendering to masochistic desires, but she writhes in weepy self-loathing afterwards, and conflates Narita and her former lover Tomoda, still fantasising about clawing his face.
Suzuki’s textural experimentation was often as much about keeping himself from getting bored as it was about illustrating his films in the most original and vivid fashion possible. Story of a Prostitute is, however, an overflowing trove of stylistic riches where form and function are tethered in dazzling prolixity. Oftentimes, Suzuki’s dedication to cinematic freedom evokes the Unchained Cinema of Murnau and other Expressionists of the ’20s. After the spectacle of the early scenes, Suzuki calms down, relatively speaking, for a time, as he engages with a story that expands on two distinct planes, the personal and the macrocosmic. The personal is predicated around Harumi and Mikami, particularly Harumi’s overheated emotions, bordering on mania, and her sometimes discursive, often reactive way of conceiving the world, distorting the visual texture of the film. In the sequence in which Mikami slaps Harumi when she first makes a pass at him, Suzuki offers a slow-motion shot of Harumi stumbling out of the shed and collapsing in the dirt, accompanied by the sound of the slap and Mikami’s angry declaration, and then showing the actual moment in a flash cut, as if it’s a moment Harumi will have on loop in her mind for ages, raw in disbelief. Harumi kneels on the earth, squirming in inchoate frenzy and still locked in dazed yet urgent slow-motion, screaming, “It isn’t true!” with a passion as striking as it is obscure: Harumi’s face in the act of screaming is its own point, an expression of a primal force that can no longer be stymied.
Harumi’s fantasies occasionally flood out of her mind and onto the screen, like the ripping image of Narita, and a later moment when she imagines driving Mikami to a rebellious frenzy by running across the brothel courtyard, stripping naked and hurling herself onto Narita, causing Mikami to chase her with sword out, ready to kill his commander, only to arrive and snap into a solicitous salute. Suzuki constantly proffers shots through windows, cracks, dividing frames and bars in visualising the schisms in his characters’ psyches and assailed situations. On the macrocosmic level, Suzuki’s direction is a study in a time and place and distinct camps of entwined and also polarised forces—soldiers, partisans, men, women, mind, body. Suzuki expostulates this in cool master shots that absorb milieu and detail, and tracking shots as spectacular and revelatory as anything in Kubrick or Welles, his camera powering through landscapes of panicking humanity and war. In another quietly astounding throwaway moment, Suzuki’s camera roves up and down the length of a banquet table at which solider carouse with whores and geishas, one the girls attempting to seduce the dismissive Narita, the atmosphere raw with the frenetic boisterousness that covers deep unease; finally the camera seeks out Mikami as he sneaks about in the shadows, looking for Harumi.
Suzuki and screenwriter Hajime Takaiwa are unsparing in their depiction of militarist lunacy and colonial brutality. When a detachment sent on a punitive hunt for the partisans is wiped out, Narita leads a larger force to find them. Outside a small, abandoned town, Narita’s forces find their skeletons in a pit where their bodies have been incinerated. Narita leads the soldiers in a moment of service for their dead, the closest the film comes to any kind of sentiment for the Japanese military, and just as the service concludes, the town’s populace appears out of the dust clouds, returning to their homes. Narita promptly leads the soldiers in brutal reprisals, as random prisoners are hauled out of the crowd and hacked to death with swords. Uno is finally so appalled that he refuses to surrender to this level; he steals a horse and flees, and is last seen rising amidst exploding shells, and assumed dead by his superiors. Uno’s successful rebellion is, Suzuki suggests, clearly the result of his intellectual curiosity, whereas Mikami and Harumi are finally doomed by their lack of capacity to conceive of alternatives to their traps. Uno later turns up, having joined the partisans, and Mikami attacks him in a frenzy, asking, “Are you even Japanese anymore?” For Harumi’s campaign to liberate Mikami from his psychological fetters, products as they both are of a system and society that reduces individuals to chattel in the face of unchecked power, and Harumi’s wish to descend into an amour fou finally proves incapable of overcoming a different mad love, that of Pavlovian patriotic violence. “Die before you come back!” Narita tells his men.
Where most of the first part of Story of a Prostitute is grounded resolutely in the tension between intimate frenzy and collective oppression, the last phase gains overtures of spiritual intensity, signalled as Harumi and Mikami are found in a formalistic, sensual pose, bathed in hallucinatory light, momentarily escaping their liminal selves in a moment of genuine amatory transcendence. This intimation is expanded later in the film’s major sequence, as the imprisoned Mikami is let out to man a machine gun well beyond the city gates during a partisan attack. Whilst the town flounders in panic and the rest of the garrison race to battle and then to flee to save their necks, Harumi searches for her lover amidst scurrying refugees and fear-bitten soldiers. She finally learns that a wounded Mikami has been left at the post because it was considered more important to bring back the machine gun. Harumi makes a charge across the plain as bombs explode around her and tracer bullets scourge the air. When she finds Mikami, damaged and unconscious, she lays him on the floor of the trench and settles down to die alongside him, watching the firefight now rendered mute, turned into a dazzling fireworks display burning with all the fevered, pyrotechnic force of Harumi’s psyche, at the edge of mortality. Harumi seems to remember, or imagine, an idyll of a seaside village, perhaps her hometown.
But the couple is left tragically alive, taken prisoner by the partisans, who, in a coup of ironic disparity, are revealed as humanitarian and conscientious. Protesting that he and his fellows do not hate Japanese soldiers, a surgeon treats Mikami’s wounds in a cave temple filled with icons of the Buddha, lending the ensuing struggle not a tone of ethnic or political conflict but one between the dual poles of human identity, the communal and the personal-spiritual, with the latter, exemplified by Uno, defined as necessarily lonely. Mikami, for his part, sticks to his creed with increasingly fanatical determination, even as Harumi begs him to go with her and the partisans. Harumi evolves from whore to Madonna, singing songs with mystic power enough to delight the partisans, and praying in the midst of the carved Buddhas, suffused with angelic light. The partisans abandon them, and they’re brought home by their own side. However, far from being rewarded for his sterling patriotism, Mikami is now even more embarrassing to Narita and the Japanese command. The finale devolves into a tragicomedy in which the question becomes whether Mikami will die by the hand of the army he serves or his own. When Narita has a sergeant take him out to execute him and pass it off as a combat casualty, the sergeant can’t deliver a death blow with Mikami staring at him. His fellow soldiers refuse to shoot him and another partisan attack sends them all scurrying back to town again. Harumi finishes up tackling one of Mikami’s captors in an attempt to free him, and the confusion of the attack and a whirlwind evocation of one of Kurosawa’s rainstorms in invoking the pummelling force of the inevitable turned on humans, gives them a perfect chance for an escape.
Mikami determines to die instead with a grenade Harumi has stolen for him, slave to his personal commitment to his soldier’s oath. Suzuki offers flash stills of Harumi as she wrestles with her lover; but realising she can’t prevent his death, she grabs him and waits with him until the grenade blows them both to pieces. What their end means, if anything, is pondered over in a sadly equivocal epilogue, as their memory is abused and condemned by officers, whilst the soldiers hold their personal opinions and grief inside. Suzuki moving through the ranks, allowing their thoughts to flow in voiceover, and suggesting that the grinding gears of official reality and private truth are beginning to break down the machine, even as Narita and his superiors start out to pursue the partisans, with Narita’s superior musing worriedly that, “China is a large country,” as the soldiers march off into the dust. They are watched by the remaining girls of the brothel who have a funeral for what’s left of their friends, with the Chinese woman musing angrily over the cult of death that has claimed two new victims, no matter what private satisfaction they gained from it. By this end, the only thing that is not in doubt is Suzuki’s fulminating fury against the waste of life, the ignorance of militarism, and the strange power of love, even as it annihilates itself.
Reggae is in my blood. Around 1980, when I was only a couple of years out of college and on my own in Chicago, I started visiting a new club called the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary that featured live reggae music seven nights a week. Lodged a block from Wrigley Field among traditionalist neighbors who fought the installation of lights at Wrigley for night baseball until just a few years ago, the club’s marijuana perfume and rhythmic music filled with revolutionary messages and prayers from musicians who worshipped Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ were an endless source of irritation.
For a person like me whose early enthusiasm for the blues, jazz, and bossa nova turned into a passion for world music like reggae before it became a market niche, the Wild Hare let me escape the great white stiffs of the Great White North as the only club where I could reliably count on a man—always Jamaican or Ethiopian—to ask me to dance. As I worked up a sweat on the concrete floor that always turned my legs to rubber bands, I could only glance with condescension at the uptight white boys who did nothing but sit at the bar drinking Guinness at one of the few places in the city that served it while I chanted uncomprehendingly (and probably offensively) “Jah Rastafari” along with the band.
Along with local and small touring bands, a lot of big reggae stars played at the Ethiopian-owned club, including Jimmy Cliff, Dallol, and Shabba Ranks. The biggest star of them all, Bob Marley, was already too big a draw by the time the Wild Hare opened to play there. He made his one small-club appearance in Chicago at another of my hangouts, The Quiet Knight, back in 1975, but alas, I had not caught rasta fever in time to see him. In fact, until yesterday, I had no idea he had played there; a mention of the appearance is only one of numerous eye-opening facts I learned while watching Marley.
From its conception in 2008, Marley was meant to be the definitive documentary about the life of the Jamaican superstar. Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, both superb craftsmen of music documentaries, picked up and then dropped the project. It fell to Kevin Macdonald, an impressive documentarian in his own right with a spotless film pedigree as the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, to meld archival footage with talking heads to tell the cradle-to-grave story of Bob Marley. Ziggy Marley, the oldest son of Bob and his wife Rita, acted as an executive producer of the film and provided photographs and footage that had never been exhibited publicly to help flesh out many facets of his father’s life.
One important facet of Bob Marley’s life was that he was so-called “half-caste,” with a white English-Jamaican father and a black Jamaican mother. The film shows the only known photo of Norval Marley, a handsome plantation overseer who was “the” Marley of Jamaica until his charismatic son took over that title. Norval had almost no contact with Bob and his mother, traveling constantly and fathering other children with other women, a practice Bob would pick up along with his father’s good looks. Bob would also deal with the prejudice against half-castes by saying his allegiance belonged to the god who chose to make him half-black and half-white; his shaky status and his life with his black mother most likely turned him toward his African heritage and his pride that Africa is the place where the human race began.
Marley has footage of Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, a rather funny portion of the film in which we learn that Selassie emerged from the airplane in Kingston, saw the massive crowd on the tarmac, and turned right around and went back in. Selassie’s visit, however, marked a turning point for Marley in becoming a Rastafarian and growing his trademark dreadlocks. Scenes of Marley smoking marijuana in spliffs and pipes, lost in a haze of smoke, follow. Marley’s wife admits that Bob was almost perpetually stoned, though whether you view this as the religious devotion Rastafarians say it is or a consequence of being a poor musician, or both, is up to you.
Regardless of your views, there is something to the assertion in the film that pot smokers are laid back and peaceful, something Marley and his band The Wailers always preached and lived. It is rather amazing to see footage of two violently opposed political groups in Jamaica come together briefly during Marley’s 1978 One Love tour and Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party (PNP) join his rival from the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), Edward Seaga, onstage at Marley’s urging. This gesture is even more extraordinary considering that extremists tried to kill Marley and The Wailers at his Hope Road compound only two years before when a planned free concert by Marley was coopted for political capital by the PNP, angering JLP supporters.
Interviews with family members and intimates are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the film, which mainly concentrates on Marley and the music. Incredibly, Macdonald talks with Mrs. James, Bob’s grade school teacher when he lived in his rural hometown of St. Ann, who remembers his musicality. After Bob and his mother moved to a Kingston slum called Trench Town, Bob met aspiring musician Desmond Dekker. Jimmy Cliff recalls auditioning and recording Dekker, and then being approached by Marley. He immediately noted Bob’s use of lyrics to convey a message, recalling Marley’s first recording “Judge Not” as an assertion of his human rights; Macdonald shows a young boy looking stern and punching the air as the song plays in the background.
Thus, the interviews become voiceovers with scenes that illustrate what the speakers are discussing, for example, a tall Rastafarian walking along a street in Trench Town with his enormous dreadlocks piled high under a knit hat and Marley’s song “Knotty Dread” playing under the voiceover. A result of this “reenactment” is that we get a sense of Bob Marley’s life as it was lived, a visual representation of his inspiration, and lively and colorful images that invite audiences to participate rather than nod off to a wall of words. Amusing and interesting capsule facts are scrawled on the screen as well, such as that there is no record that “Captain” Norval Marley ever rose above the rank of private.
Each step in Marley’s rise to superstardom is given attention, with remembrances from such figures in his life as childhood friend and original band member Neville “Bunny” Livingston; Chris Blackwell, who signed the Wailers to Island Records; and manager Danny Simms. Simms recalls how ambitious Marley was, agreeing to open for The Commodores in Madison Square Garden less than a year before his death so that American radio stations would play his records. Marley may have thought that the concert and radio plays would find him an audience among African Americans, which seemed as indifferent to Marley as white audiences were enraptured by him. The film is chock-full of concert footage and music, charting his career in a way any fan will absolutely adore.
Marley’s personal life adds to the film’s well-rounded portrait of the artist. Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World 1976 and Marley’s most famous lover, figures prominently in the film; when asked why Marley attracted so many women, she says incredulously, “Look at him!” Rita Marley seems to have had a laissez-faire attitude to Bob’s lovers and their children (she took lovers of her own), and thought that the key to his romantic success was that he was shy, recalling their own courtship. Cedella Marley, Rita and Bob’s daughter, is not so forgiving of the free love that pervaded her parents’ life, asserting that her mother was made unhappy by Bob’s philandering. In truth, Cedella seems the most unhappy with her father, complaining throughout the film of his lack of attention and even a lack of time alone with him in the days before his death.
Most informative and touching for me was an account of Marley’s final illness. I had always heard he had brain cancer, the joke going around that the ganga got him. In fact, in 1977, he was spiked in the toe while playing soccer, and when he went to have it looked at, the doctors diagnosed him with melanoma in the nail bed. Marley refused advice to have the toe amputated, worrying that he would not be able to dance or play soccer. In 1980, after a run in Central Park, Marley collapsed. When he was taken to the hospital, he was found to be riddled with cancer. Without real hope for recovery, he played his last concert in Pittsburgh, lost his dreadlocks to chemotherapy, and vainly sought relief at a holistic clinic in Germany. The film concludes by showing his burial site in St. Ann and surveying Marley’s lasting influence on world culture.
There is a lot of information out there about Bob Marley, much of it false or half-true. Marley is a treasure to fans and future generations who want as accurate and big a picture as may be possible on film of a man who freed a lot of people with his music.
Live concert audio from The Quiet Knight in Chicago, 1975
In spite of his decline in stature, Oliver Stone is one of few living American filmmakers who maintains the mystique of a certain kind of artist, one that can stir intense feelings of both admiration and opprobrium. Stone’s status is thanks to his unabashed political viewpoints, his willingness to play the provocateur, and his style of filmmaking. As difficult as it is to take Stone seriously in some of the attitudes he’s adopted or had heaped upon him—mainstream film intellectual, leftist historian, or grand visionary—the man does demand admiration is his engagement with cinema not simply as a means of storytelling, but also of expressivity in its many layers, from the theoretical to the tactile. His greatest works tend to have a quality of incantatory hallucination, reprocessing whatever material he’s working with, be it popular history, conspiracy theory, or biopic, into a neon-emblazoned, pseudo-mythological tapestry. But Stone’s always had one foot planted in pulp storytelling, going back to his early directing and screenwriting work, including his first two films as director, Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981), both horror movies. Stone’s career in the last decade or so has been floundering, with the deliriously bad Alexander (2004) and patent plays to recapture former glory with the half-assed Bush biopic W. (2008) and the half-witted revisit of Gordon Gekko, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). Savages, which embraces Stone’s pulp side, is a neo-noir follow-up to his efforts in the genre, Natural Born Killers (1994) and U-Turn (1997), and seems, at least superficially, a triumph for his stylistic impulses over his analytical passions. Yet, whilst imperfect, the result is easily his best film since at least his panoramic 1999 football epic Any Given Sunday.
Savages, based on a novel by Don Winslow, who cowrote the script, is built around some hallowed motifs of the classic noir film. It presents a central character who has the recent experience of war and the attendant psychological hangover that finds a bleak accord with troubling forces on the home front. Stone makes this motif more personal, as he translates this classic noir figuration into the maxims of the southern Californian counterculture Stone experienced from his own plunge into early ’70s Hollywood after returning from Vietnam. Add a third layer of experience: Savages is very contemporary in its depiction of pacific idealism and ruthless survivalism in purified conflict, and throws moneyed, layabout Yankee insouciance against Mexican machismo in a drama layered with conceptual grit and no small amount of absurdist camp. His “heroes” form an oddball ménage à trois. Surfer girl O (Blake Lively), short for Ophelia, is pretty and pretty spoiled, but not actually vacuous, as a scion of Laguna Beach aristocracy. She’s shacked up with two men who have been pals since school and still are, in spite of their yin/yang disparity in temperament. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) a former soldier, is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, whilst Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a bohemian with a gift for botany, one the two lads have parlayed into a hugely successful marijuana growing and selling operation. They provide their nation with bountiful pleasures and make a small fortune in return, supporting their blissed-out lifestyle in a vaulted castle high above the beach. Like Shia LaBeouf’s character in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Ben is attempting to walk a tightrope between desire for the kind of high capitalist success firmly instilled in him as a young, intelligent American, and ideals-driven altruism dictated by his other ingrained faiths, and clearly represents Stone’s simultaneously hope and fear for the passions of modern youth.
At the film’s outset, Ben returns from a trip to oversee the various charities and life improvement projects he’s been funding in Africa and South-East Asia. Chon, on the other hand, has no real purpose in life other than trying to burn the experience of war out of his system with sex and weed; his reflexes, once prodded, snap him back instantly into a warrior posture. Their names evoke both Cheech and Chong, the iconic stoner humourists, and Ben and Jerry, famed hippie entrepreneurs. O is squeezed between them, sometimes literally, as beauty and emotion actualised both in a primal fashion—O is constantly associated with natural images and the carnal attractions of sex, getting high, and rolling on zephyrs of other, sometimes more numinous sensations—and a much more contemporary one, as the avatar of all pleasures that come from being rich and young. Of course, it is O who becomes the true battleground, as a fearsome Mexican drug cartel is determined to annex Ben and Chon’s operation. The brewing storm is announced when the lads receive an email video of a masked killer playing with severed heads, as prelude to a more superficially businesslike approach by envoys of drug baroness Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), making a proposal that soon proves to be, rather, an ultimatum. Although the boys turn it down, they’re smart enough to know that the cartel won’t really take no for an answer, so they order their wizard broker pal Spin (Emile Hirsch) to liquefy their assets, and plan to lay low in Indonesia.
But the trio spends rather too long in a last druggy orgy, and the following day, O is snatched whilst making a final “pilgrimage” to the local mall, with one of Chon’s army friends, asked to watch her, shot by Elena’s goons. Elena’s number-one thug and stateside operative is Lado (Benicio Del Toro), introduced assassinating an American lawyer, Chad (Shea Wigham), and encouraging his trainee Esteban (Diego Cataño) to finish off Chad’s girlfriend (Karishma Ahluwalia). Lado takes delight in his capacity to dole out violence, pausing to take piquant snaps on his cellphone of the carnage he’s caused. Lado supervises O’s kidnapping and housing in a rough tin shack in the middle of nowhere, where she’s quickly driven to despair by both the unpleasant surroundings and companions, and the constant diet of pizza (“Maybe a salad once in a while?!” she demands of her captors). Meanwhile Elena, ensconced in her mansion in Tijuana, applies specific pressure upon Ben and Chon to get them to cooperate, inducing them to ship a huge quantity of their product to her people, but, with seemingly incongruous honesty, paying them what they’re owed. Nonetheless, Chon insists that they have to regard the cartel as “Taliban,” fanatics impossible to deal with who will probably kill O once she’s no longer immediately useful. They turn to their friendly neighbourhood corrupt DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta), to get information about their enemy. Dennis, who turns a blind eye to the boys’ operation in part because they give him weed to help ease his dying wife’s pain, resists helping them, at least until Chon drives a knife through his hand. Using the information Dennis hurriedly obtains, Chon forms a strategy: gathering together more of his army buddies, he raids one of Elena’s money shipments, hoping to shake her organisation and capture enough cash to buy O back.
Savages could have easily toppled over into smarmy, black-comic grotesquery or cloddishly nasty thriller fare, but Stone’s sense of style and his range of dramatic modes keep the film in a dance between definitive postures. Stone’s delight in semi-experimental visual flourishes, a hallmark of his major work but muted of late, returns with an artful restraint, as he creates a strange lysergic mood around O and her voiceover reveries, the sensual indulgence which forms the texture of her life with Ben and Chon. The sunstruck, corporeal tincture of Dan Mindel’s photography is replete with dreamy double exposures and switches between colour and monochrome that seem less forced than when Stone used such touches in earlier work; here, they feed his efforts to capture the feeling of stepping back and forth between places of sensual ecstasy and the flashy crudity of everyday life in a consumer paradise. This paradise is one into which Elena, Lado, and the rest of their crew erupt like an invasion, both a spreading of the blight of the Mexican drug wars right into the backyard of the privileged pups who get wasted on its products whilst barely noticing where it comes from, and a familiar emanation of existential terrors vital to the genre. But savagery breeds savagery, and the key irony here is Stone’s mindfulness that privilege and wealth are always, on some level, the product of violence and pillage and that the memory of how to gather and keep such advantage might be shallow beneath the seeming blitheness of its inheritors. Chon proves all too ready to go medieval in defending his and Ben’s lady fair from the barbarian hordes, and Ben must get in touch with his basest character, too, if he wants to help save O and prove his equal stake in her rescue.
Film-buff winks are spread throughout Savages, including O’s likening of the trio’s situation to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and there are hints and hues of New Wave classics like Easy Rider (1969) and Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). This referential streak is most apparent in Hayek’s supremely entertaining Elena, who wears a black dragon-queen hairstyle and plays the role handed to her almost by accident—she was a trophy wife who inherited the cartel from her husband and then had to grow into the role. The notion that Elena is both a genuinely cruel and powerful overlord and a self-constructed piece of theatre is underlined when, late in the film, she strips off her wig, revealing her real, netted hair, like one of Pedro Almodovar’s camp queens of chic. Moreover, whilst Elena is introduced applying ruthless, vindictive pressure upon Ben and Chon, seeming to relish her capacity to force them to exactly what they don’t want to do, Savages explains Elena’s own curious quandary. She has a daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverría), whose safety she has protected by making it believed she is dead, when, in fact, she’s living exactly the same mall-rat lifestyle as O, and even grazes past her just before O is kidnapped. The parallel is obvious, as is Elena’s eventual concilatory moves toward O, who is a momentary stand-in for Magda at Elena’s usually very lonely, if luxurious, dinners. Everybody else is someone Elena has to snap, bite, and wound to keep them in line for the sake of her prosperity and safety. When Ben and Chon finally turn the tables on her by capturing Magda and demanding a straight swap for O, Stone makes it an alarming inversion of immediate sympathy and power: Elena visibly struggles between twin poles of desperate maternal deference and her more familiar stance of potentate aggression, and as O more confidently asserts herself in the face of this dilemma, Elena wallops her in the face with a brittle fury that’s partly, palpably justified.
Stone’s artifice-infused approach might seem at odds with the grim and vicious material with real-world ramifications. And yet it seems very much part of his purpose, to invert the usual moral standards and assumptions of this sort of fare, placing it a distance from pablum like Man on Fire (2004), where destroying sundry Latinos who dare to endanger the pretty white girl is easily facilitated. Given that Stone made his first real mark in the mainstream penning the racist paranoias of Midnight Express (1978), his journey to the point where he offers Yankee stoners and swarthy brutes as two sides of the same coin is notable, if not entirely reconstructed. In a crucial plot movement, Ben and Chon use Dennis’ information and Spin’s skill to construct a false trail that will incriminate Elena’s loyal lieutenant, Alex (Demián Bichir). In a more conventional thriller, this turn of events would lead to a dramatic coup where an enemy would be neatly disposed of by his own nasty fellows, but here Stone tightens the screws of moral implication, as Lado turns Alex’s torture and execution into another of his sadistic pieces of performance art. Lado makes it even nastier by getting Ben to set Alex on fire, a consequence to his and Chon’s deception that ensures they can’t neatly wash their hands of what they did. Lado suspects the lads are behind the robbery, but he himself is playing a game, having signed up with Elena’s arch rival El Azul (Joaquín Cosio), whose rise has made Elena desperate and forming the reason for her attempts at hostile takeovers of independents like Ben and Chon.
Whilst moral ambiguity is undoubtedly part of Stone’s aims, his capacity for sympathy, or at least for finding the absurd humanity in even the most disturbed and disturbing characters, is deeply enmeshed with the film’s actual purposes. Lado, with his calculated effronteries—from Alex’s execution to his revelation to O that he raped her when she was drugged—feels like a skit on the kind of hulking quasi-ethnic monster Javier Bardem played in No Country For Old Men (2007), the familiar merciless villain revealed, as the film goes on, as a hypocrite. He is uptight in his need to assert his machismo (he turns back the titular pejorative on our heroes for their perverted sex lives) whilst kowtowing to a woman, and finally revealing that he’s nowhere near as smart and effectively ruthless as he thinks he is. By the same token, where it would have been easy to make the lead characters dim bulbs, as in far too many blackly comic modern thrillers, Stone gives his heroes peculiar nobility. Where it would have been especially tempting to present O as a caricature, as the story’s narrator, she is something like its poetic mediator.
Stone desires, with appealing earnestness and a romanticism that has occasionally rescued his oeuvre from hyped-up macho excess, to leave his heroes with their fundamental passions undimmed. Perhaps one reason a lot of critics were irritated by the trio is because Stone so patently does not wish to punish them for their transgressive lifestyle, but only wishes them to break off entirely from a corrupting world, as opposed to the more familiar stance seen in such post-global financial crisis parables, like this year’s good Swedish thriller Headhunters, in which the hero is clearly conceived as an avatar for modern venality in need of a lot of punishment and cleansing before redemption. Much as he wants to indict Ben, Chon, and O for participating in the vile roundelay of this war of possession, Stone wants to preserve for as long as possible the ideal they represent and sustain in their ménage à trois, for the trio really do add up to one good person. Stone desists from studying any fault lines in the relationship: a last-minute confession by O that she knows one day their idyllic partnership will end is a mere parenthesis to a final drift into a wilfully “savage” state.
There are obvious parallels between Savages and another of the year’s strong films, Miss Bala, which depicts the drug war from a Mexican perspective. Each film revolves around some strikingly similar motifs, particularly in following an essentially innocent beauty at the mercy of rapacious criminals, and in spite of their great differences in style and emphasis, both end sarcastically with the powers that be parading a victory that is mendacious and the protagonists held in jail until it’s safely expedient to dump them. Wherea Miss Bala is elliptic, experiential, and grave, Savages has a kind of Rabelaisian fecundity. Miss Bala is a nightmarish present-tense; Savages is predicated on a vision of fundamental farcicality. If Savages maintained the intensity and clarity of its best scenes, it would be a small classic, but there are many points, particularly in an awkward third quarter, where it fumbles for focus. Maintaining a grip on narrative integrity has always been a problem for the director, and here Stone becomes a little too fond of Travolta’s excellent, funny, but properly supporting performance as the six-faced, corrupt, but not really malevolent, Dennis. On the other hand, Savages, with its overt playfulness of story and style, resists disintegrating entirely, as several of Stone’s recent works have done after good starts, and, in fact, manages to get back onto an even keel for an excellent finish, as the exchange of O and Magda sets the scene for a Peckinpah-esque orgy of killing. Stone goes for the sort of narrative switchback many a would-be cool, young director has pulled off in the past two decades in offering a false finish and then a “real” one.
Thus, in the first version, O offers a high tragedy ending that sees Magda reject her mother and flee, Elena and Lado killed, and, when Ben is mortally wounded, O and Chon decide to join him in death. And then we get “what really happened.” What’s different about Stone’s take on such a gimmick is not that it simply tries to pull the rug out from under the audience by jerking between emotional reactions, or, like many variations on this idea, essentially representing the director winking at the audience to let them know they’re actually above such recherché things as endings, but that it actually suggests that the first, downbeat ending is in fact the happy, romantic one. The sight of the threesome expiring together is indeed a kind of perfection, an apotheosis and proof of their mutual loyalty and their retained purity in the face of horror, that the “real” ending denies them, leaving them to face growing older and possibly apart. On the other hand, Elena gets to make a genuinely sacrifice for Magda, outing herself at least as the Joan Crawford character she’s hinted at, Lado speeds away with an impish wave to become a kingpin in his own right, and Dennis gets to make himself the hero. Given that Savages is finally less about drugs, crime, or geopolitics, than it is about strange versions of love, and about the fear of loss, of either the openness of youth or the consolations of aging, the “true” finale is about the vagaries, ironies, and unavoidable compromises of life.
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