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.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting African-American storyteller Michael D. McCarty when he came to the Chicago area to bring his mostly African tales to eager audiences at the Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival. His performance was a reminder of how rich in wonder and home truths the world’s stories are and why films that tap these ancient fables are so compelling.
I received a reminder of this fact yesterday as I watched the Senegalese film Tey. Director/screenwriter Alain Gomis introduced the film by asking us not to worry about the confusing premise too much and just focus on the present. Good advice, because Tey tells the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community.
The opening moments of Tey put us directly into the doomed man’s shoes. Satché’s (Saul Williams) eyes flutter open and we see what he sees—his bare stomach and the top of his pants. His hands pat his stomach, and then we hear some crying and wailing. Satché emerges from the bedroom to the hugs and tears of his family and friends as they mourn his impending loss. They go into the courtyard of the compound and sit in a circle. Satché’s father praises God that his son was chosen, and the assembled offer testimonials both kind and cruel about Satché. His mother (Mariko Arame) has the final word, a heartbroken mother telling how much she will miss him. Then it is time for Satché’s best friend Sélé (Djolof Mbengue) to take him out and ask him, “What do you want to do?” The rest of the film chronicles how Satché chooses to spend his final day of life.
Satché’s fate echoes through many stories I’ve heard over the years, particularly from Joseph Campbell, including the grace killing of the noble hostage well told in the Brazilian film How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971). Christians might see the story of Christ in this tale of a man chosen by God to die, but it’s hard to know if Satché’s death will be a transformative sacrifice for his community despite the honors bestowed upon him and joy surrounding him. There is something of the heroic soldier here, a man who has seen “the fear,” as the people he encounters call it. Yet, we also see a child soldier in camoflage fatigues carrying a weapon as Satché scans the streets of Dakar, somewhat undercutting the notion of the bravery society assigns to state-sanctioned violence.
What is most important, and what director Gomis emphasized in the post-screening Q&A, is the familiar admonishment to live each day as though it were your last. For Gomis, this is not a call to achieve as much as you can in whatever time you have, as it is in many Western societies. Indeed, Satché is chosen in the prime of life, before he has been able to put his American schooling into practice to help rebuild Senegal; he will never have the chance to rush to achievement as the fictitious Mozart did in Amadeus (1984).
Instead, Gomis focuses on connection, on living completely in the moment. This realization creeps up on Satché, coming to fruition when he finally grieves for himself after Uncle Thiemo (Jean Mendy), the man he has asked to wash him for burial, demonstrates on Satché in both a chilling and oddly reverential moment what he will do to prepare Satché for paradise. After this, Satché’s life force weakens, and he must be helped as Sélé walks him to his home and gives him the left-handed handshake that signals they will not see each other again for a very long time. Gingerly, Satché pushes open the metal doors portentously marked with Xs and goes into the courtyard of his home to see his wife Rama (Anisia Uzeyman) and two young children for the last time and lay down that evening to die.
With handheld and stationary cameras, Gomis’ cinematographer Christelle Fournier shoots extreme close-ups and scanning shots as Satché takes in his surroundings and the people in his life. We see leaves and the shadows the leaves make on the ground. We watch Satché drink the milk out of a coconut from a young man who is heavily in debt to a missionary school, and we wonder who is more unfortunate—the educated young man who will be in servitude to a debt for many years to come or the one who will not wake up the next morning. Uncle Thiemo tells Satché that he will actually live longer than someone who does not know when he will die because Satché has the awareness to really take in the most important aspects of his life in his final day. Indeed, Gomis recreates the feeling of all times converging in a single moment of being completely alive when Satché sits in his compound with Rama and sees his children, now teenagers, say good-bye and walk out the gate.
During the Q&A, Gomis commented on the positive changes Senegal has been undergoing slowly as more of the young people who went abroad to get educated and find opportunities are returning to the country, a detail he added to Satché’s story. We were shocked to learn that there are no movie theatres left in Senegal, and therefore, this film will not be seen in its own country outside of a cultural center or two that might set up a screening. He said he cast American actor Saul Williams as Satché because he admired Williams’ acting abilities, because he looks so Senegalese, and because his lack of knowledge of the languages spoken by the other cast members would give him an aura of standing a bit outside of the everyday world.
Gomis’ instincts were dead-on in every aspect. Tey is a hauntingly beautiful film that confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability.
Tey screens Tuesday, October 16, at 2:30 p.m. Alain Gomis is scheduled to attend the screening. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)
Shun Li and the Poet:A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) is, for better or worse, one of the defining films of the modern era. Splendiferously entertaining, it’s also a stylistically powerful film, one that rarely gets praise as such, as if it all sprang fully formed out of the head of the Zeus of nerds. Star Wars has been since its release the first step most any young film fan takes—including, yes, me—towards a love of the medium. It also is usually the first target for the budding film snob. I admit to having made both steps, and then come back again. The essential glee of the original trilogy is in its conceit of taking the kids from American Graffiti (1973) and sticking them in spaceships to go tearing about the galaxy fighting The Man, only to confront the ultimate terror: perhaps one day, they’ll be The Man. Watching the first film again recently, I was struck by how much Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo look and sound so very, very ’70s, and how strong the semi-satiric tint is. It’s not hard to imagine the whoop of good-humoured knowing in the first preview audience’s appreciation of this hunk of old-fashioned corn, invested with disco-era wit and pizzazz, purveyed for their entertainment, after having to pretend the likes of Airport (1970) and Earthquake (1974) were fun. Lucas tried to avoid that sort of specificity and self-mockery in his prequels, which have far more of the formalism of chivalric romance to them, and laid himself open to intense criticism in the process.
Return of the Jedi has consistently remained my favourite of the original trilogy. Don’t get me wrong: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), often cited as the best of the series, has some formidable qualities. With an eye for scenery and touch with actors, experienced filmmaker Irvin Kershner proved an uncannily good choice to lend deeper stylistic and thematic reflexes to Lucas’ Roy Lichtenstein-meets-Hugo Gernsback model. The sheer immensity and beauty of the scifi vistas on display in the second episode are indeed the most lovingly detailed and tactile, answering the gritty, technocratic zeal of the opener with a stylisation that blended vivid Technicolour Expressionism with Amazing Stories covers. Add to this the intelligent expansion of having Luke (Mark Hamill) trained as a Jedi by the diminutive Yoda (Frank Oz), and the genuinely brilliant twist of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones/David Prowse) proving to be his father, and you have a model middle episode. But I’ve always found the episode inert on a story level, and the subplot of Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the rest of the familiar Millennium Falcon crew, whilst witty, essentially treads water for most of the running time. In contrast to the impressively malefic vigour of Luke and Vader’s light saber duel, the action for the other characters sinks to a level close to lesser Doctor Who episodes where people run through corridors firing badly aimed rayguns. Return of the Jedi, on the other hand, is if anything almost too busy: it wraps up the outstanding plot strands, offers a final battle of tremendous scope, introduces the real villain of the saga, Ian McDiarmid’s palpable Emperor Palpatine, and fulfils the mythic overtone the series had strained to reach from the start.
Jedi also has Ewoks, a point usually counted against it as a sign Lucas was giving in to excessive juvenile appeal, planting seeds for his later total concession to it with Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). That knock is probably true, and yet the Ewoks have never bothered me. I have to admit that a certain amount of the charge this episode carries for me lies precisely in the simultaneously funny and slightly horrendous sight of the furry little beggars taking on the imperial forces, and giving a good enough account of themselves to make the victory of others a possibility. The Ewoks, superficially silly little furballs, actually prove to be jokers in the deck who help turn a well-laid trap into a double-edged blade. The Ewoks, almost unbearably endearing as they are, simply exacerbate the basic appeal of the series—the little guys take on the overwhelmingly powerful and come out on top.
It’s tempting to stress some of the peculiar, countercultural synergy invoked by the Ewoks’ place in the story as pseudo-indigenous warriors who use guerrilla tactics to bring down an unstoppable superpower: parallels with Vietnam and the shift of empathy around to Native Americans in the Western genre are not inappropriate, but could easily become laboured. Much more immediate credulity was given to the same “weird yet handy aliens as metaphorical version of aboriginal populaces” pitch when they were rendered as giant cat-people in Avatar (2009). Another major strike listed against the film, but again one that doesn’t bother me as much as it might, is the fact that the plot boils down to a replay of the first film, with the rebels trying to take out another Death Star. Perhaps it’s the fact that the script introduces some neat variations on the theme, as the Emperor deliberately suckers the rebels into trying to repeat the past, or the sheer scale and vivacity of the imagery in play, but Jedi succeeds in painting an equally enjoyable portrait of techno-fascist blitzkrieg versus outsider bravura.
The visual and aural drama achieved by Lucas and his design team, including concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, production designer Norman Reynolds, and cinematographer Alan Hume (replacing Gilbert Taylor and Peter Suschitzky), plus John Williams’ rich and inspired scoring and the teeming brilliance of the special effects, formed a large part of the film series’ capacity to rip a practically Pavlovian response from so many viewers. Yet, none of it would have mattered much if the sense of epic wonderment was not backed up on some level by a genuine love of story: the drama and characterisation of the series are always elemental, and yet always leavened by a care for detail, no matter how fleeting, even down to bits of throwaway humour that offer surprises, like the trainer weeping over his dead pet, which seemed to everyone else like a voracious hell-beast. The brightly coloured, but scuffed, tactile, even degenerating technocratic sheen of the first film shades into a darker, cleaner aesthetic, with the Nuremberg-via-Swedish-Moderne beauty of the Empire’s architecture. This contrasts vividly with the wastes of Tatooine and the forest purity of Endor, the name of which retains a biblical echo, and the look of the films echoes the thematic tensions based in the gap between technology and humanistic values, control and freedom, destruction and repression. The manichaeism of the conflict between the “dark” side of the Force and its counterpart is reductive, yet it also accounts for much of the nagging power of the series, in how it consistently invests the surface drama with an undertow of primal psychological anxiety, overt action always flowing in counterpoint to a nearly unseen battle for mastery over the forces of creation and annihilation themselves, the difference between them never farther apart than a choice.
The job of directing Return of the Jedi was actually offered to David Lynch before production, but he passed to do Dune (1984) instead: the thought of Lynch tackling Star Wars material is a fascinating what-if of cinema history. Coscreenwriter Lawrence Kasdan might have made a good choice to step up to the plate, but he was already moving off in his own direction. The job was eventually given to relatively unsung Welsh filmmaker Richard Marquand, who had displayed a talent for blending realism and theatrical passion in the context of pulp material and lending a contemporised edge to old-fashioned storytelling, in his spy thriller Eye of the Needle (1981). Marquand’s subsequent output was highly uneven, with the Joe Esterhasz-penned Basic Instinct prequel Jagged Edge (1985) notable between two weak pop romances, but his death just four years after making this film was still a sad loss. Marquand displayed formal gifts for keeping the elements of action on a colossal scale, which perhaps demand much more attention than they’ve ever been given. One telling aspect of Return of the Jedi’s influence is that it’s still pretty much the go-to point of reference for staging for franchise climaxes, with the likes of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (2011), all taking some cues in story and style from Marquand’s film. Also telling is how few of them manage to reproduce its economy and intricate, deceptive blend of complexity and naivete.
One element of the series that was commercially daring at the time, though it now seems relatively familiar, was the scruff-of-the-neck approach to hurling the audience back into the storylines, which the iconic opening explanatory scrawls only partly mitigated. There is only the plunge into stories already in motion, with a handful of expository remarks to give a context. Return of the Jedi relies on knowledge of previous episodes to make sense of it and also to give it power. Far from limiting its appeal, however, this touch helped make the series as pop-culturally pervasive as it is, engaging the audience in the serial-like dynamic (“Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of…!”) over a longer period of time than usual, but all the more intense for that reason, whilst also looking back to the ritualised, in media res structuring of classical epic poems. The oedipal death battle between Luke and Vader is gripping for having watched Luke’s evolution from a bright and eager farm boy to a baleful figure of fate, and supped on Vader’s blackly humorous poise as bringer of wrath and cruelty. The film’s first movement wraps up one of the major dangling threads of Empire, as Luke, Leia Organa, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2D2 (Kenny Baker), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) infiltrate the palace of grotesque Tatooine gangster Jabba the Hutt, where Han Solo, frozen in carbonite, is kept as a trophy on the wall.
One particular reason why I love Jedi is because it’s the episode that’s most in touch with its pulp forebears, quoting from a broader range of such models with humour and a solid, physically concrete lustre. The film’s first third is essentially an extended riff on pirate flicks and Orientalist adventure sagas, with Jabba as a particularly caricatured Sydney Greenstreet-esque sheikh, with his dancing girls and court of sycophants fugitives from some particularly overworked id. Those tropes are blended with some monster business, as Jabba drops those who displease him into a pit with the ferocious Rancor, in the most successful of the series’ many hat tips to Ray Harryhausen. The familiar, oversized grandiosity of the Fritz Lang-esque sets and the proliferation of bizarre alien faces here is invested with defiantly dark humour and an edge of weirdness more intense and psychological than anywhere else in the series: for example, C-3PO and R2D2 are ushered into a robot dungeon where unruly fellow droids are being tortured, and Jabba’s gremlin pet laughs in mockery at the humiliations doled out to those who incur his displeasure. The crypto-S&M edge reaches an apotheosis when Leia, caught in the act of trying to extract Han from his hibernation, is chained to Jabba’s throne as his latest harem girl, reduced from a heroine hitherto defined by independence and asexual power to a scantily-clad pet abutting the distinctly penile monster. It’s an image that provoked a million adolescent fantasies; rumour has it the whole concept was concocted in riposte to Fisher’s complaints she never looked like a woman in the earlier episodes. In the context of the series’ elemental logic, it’s practically a rape fantasy, and interesting as just about the only overt element of eroticism. The creative team leaven it by giving Jabba’s comeuppance to Leia herself, who strangles her would-be enslaver with her own chains, a surprisingly potent image of female self-reclamation riding on the back of soft-core sexploitation.
Meanwhile Luke’s appearance to rescue the crew from Jabba and annihilate his power takes the form of a sequence of pure, scifi-tinted swashbuckling. Gone are the postmodern quotation marks of Star Wars, when Luke and Leia made their swing across a vast airshaft. In Return of the Jedi, that self-doubt is gone, and pure adventure is in, as Luke and Leia flee Jabba’s sail-barge on a rope, and the barge crashes and erupts in fire, a climactic flourish and a promissory signature that the bad times are ending. Jedi is, indeed, distinguished structurally by the destruction of corrupt regimes, first Jabba’s, and then the Empire. Whilst moral shading of the enemy is hardly a priority of the series, in this case, there is a distinct and purposeful schism set up with the wickedness of Jabba, and the malignant, fascist-chic technocracy of the Empire. Whereas Jabba suggests a caricature of lascivious greed, an emanation from the subconscious, the Empire is a polar opposite, a projection of the superego and a deracinated obscenity on a cosmic scale. The eroticised domination Jabba assert over Leia and Han is rendered on a far more grandiose scale by the Empire over everything, but finally twinning back to the Emperor’s weirdly sexual desire to possess Luke, son of his own “seduced” underling Vader, a note the insistently underscores the final confrontation of Luke, Vader, and the Emperor and erupts when it becomes plain that Luke’s sister Leia could be similarly subsumed.
The mythic quality of the Star Wars series was apparent from the start, but perhaps more apparent in terms of its specific imagery and wide story arcs rather than in the serial-like zest of the actual storytelling. Lucas’ reading of Joseph Campbell had encouraged him to create a web not only generic but also of cultural influences, and the retro-futurist society he dreamt up blended elements of the Western, Asian wu xia and jidai geki genres (the word “Jedi” derives from the latter), Arthurian and Norse sagas, early scientifiction romps like Burroughs’ Barsoom tales, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and more sophisticated space operas like Lensman and Dune. In this episode, the fact that the films had evolved into an active expression of a mythological tradition, with roots in tribal campfire tales, acknowledged when C-3PO recounts the team’s adventures to a thrilled audience of Ewoks for whom C-3PO has become an ironic kind of god-shaman (with the real god-shaman Luke behind his apparent miracles), inculcating wisdom and stirring the tribes to action. The saga here takes a humorous meta-narrative glance at its own storytelling zest as a ritual of immeasurable legacy. Even the accidental edge of incestuous attraction that had flitted between Luke and Leia in the earlier episodes, before plot loops were closed by making them prove to have been siblings, links with a strange neatness to the way that theme is always linked to questions of mysterious roots and family, taboo and heritage, which constantly resurface in the mythic pantheon, from Oedipus and Jocasta to Siegmund and Sieglinde’s romance in Wagner’s version of the Nibelungen myth, whilst Luke’s battle with the father figure takes on Freudian overtones, hinted at in Empire, as Luke sees his own face in a decapitated Vader’s helmet, the paternal figure swathed in anonymous alienation.
In the previous episodes, and particularly in Empire, Vader’s faceless malevolence had been perhaps the series’ most remarkable coup, fearsome and alien, blackly comic in his casual violence and psychopathic wrath, and always weirdly charismatic in his towering, contemptuous brand of evil. Jedi does to a certain extent rob him of this stature, though that’s not incidental, as the Emperor wants and needs Vader to be beaten down in order to replace him. But it’s a peculiar sop to our sensibilities—the need to feel that anyone so attractively wicked has to be redeemable, even pathetic, on some level. Yet one of the sleights of Jedi is how the Emperor hardly seems paltry next to him. On the contrary, thanks to McDiarmid’s terrific performance (one that would withstand pressure in the prequels), he is even more insidiously, penetratingly effective, but crucially, without charm: he’s like a sleazy uncle just released from prison for unmentionable acts, now completely and utterly devoted to his own malicious pleasures, goading Luke with glee over the seeming cast-iron trap he’s set for the rebels. By comparison, the actual forces of the Empire, represented by the likes of Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), seem effetely castrated, in spite of wielding colossal starships, forever walking on eggshells with puckered anxiety over displeasing the almost godlike wrath of Vader and the Emperor.
The pseudo-spiritual edge with which Lucas imbued his tales—the mystique of the Force and the Jedi—was the most significant innovation he brought to the cinematic space opera, and taken most clearly from the element in those Asian genre films where the hero ascends on both a physical and metaphysical journey. The journey is here expressed through Luke’s slow development from callow farm boy to a new member of the resurgent breed to which his father once belonged. Marquand’s Eye of the Needle and Jagged Edge had both posited the fascinating attraction and repulsion of evil in immediate erotic terms, whereas here it’s slightly more distanced, though no less potent. In spite of the fairy tale politics and deliberately remote settings, the fundamental reflexes of the series always lay in specific post-1960s questions of personal liberty and identity. Easy enough to see in Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Yoda—the echo of the yearning of the counterculture era for enlightened figures of new-age mysticism—and the Emperor as their evil, Mansonesque flipside. But is Luke’s confrontation with his evil father an emblem of specific generational conflict over giving in to the compromises and cynicism of age, a by-product of the series’ flower-child underpinnings, or a confrontation with a Freudian nightmare of the self and the chain of creation that always binds together the sex and death urges? Both, more, and none.
Still, the evolving conflict that leads to the confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor is the touch that has proven the most fascinating element Lucas and his cadre of cocreators, including veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett and Kasdan, were to give to their take on the mythic form. The narrative impulse is strained by contradictory needs, between the urge toward grand action and the necessity of pacific self-control that finally moves, like the deepest heroic myths, into the realm of mysticism, even religion: a conquest of the interior duality that is a greater triumph than conquering a foe, and yet also key to besting that foe. Thus, Luke’s experience runs in counterpoint to such forebears as Siegfried/Sigurd who, in the Norse version of his mythology, defeats monsters but only learns fear in awakening the cursed Brunhilda; or Percival’s shedding of his armour to find the grail; or even Jacob’s wrestling with the angel who visits him. But Luke’s attainment of enlightenment, exemplified by the capacity to step back from wrath and prostrate himself before cruelty, is a Christlike gesture, and the only one that can liberate his father from the totality of evil. Whilst the battle continues, the real climax of Jedi is the moment of Vader’s confrontation by a choice, as the Emperor tortures Luke to death, his inhuman visage swinging between his son and his overlord with an intensity sharpened to Wagnerian heights by Williams’ scoring.
The smashing of the malignant machines of the Empire (Lang’s long shadow again?) is nothing compared to the simple act of Vader picking up the leathery old bastard who has perverted his life and hurling him into a pit. If the prequel trilogy achieved anything at all, it is that this action is even more palpable. Like much of the rest of the series, the power of this moment lies in its emotional directness and storytelling savvy: in spite of the wealth of special effects on hand, it’s achieved by the rapid alternations of close-ups between Luke’s agonised face, the Emperor’s sadistic glee, and between them, Vader’s unreadable mask covering emotional reflexes that are titanic. The journey from Luke’s discovery of his slaughtered foster parents in the first film by the forces Vader seems to represent most purely, to the moment in which Vader, so long the angel of death, expires in his arms as a wheezing, pathetic old ruin, finally disassembles the seemingly simplistic moral divides of the series. Luke attains manhood at last both by killing and redeeming his father, and whilst the other rebels get down with the Ewoks in a moment of goofy triumphalism, it’s Luke who stands out from the crowd, giving his father’s body a Viking pyre funeral, and gazing into the night and seeing the shades of the men who made him.
Otherwise, the action-adventure element of Jedi is beautifully straightforward, and the zest of the set-piece action scenes, including the speeder chase through forest trees at unnerving speeds, are still technically impressive and entertaining, all the moreso for not being belaboured. The series appeal to a delight in nerdish detail is likewise as strong as ever here: the exactly designated spacecraft, the fleetingly glimpsed characters with striking, weirdly memorable looks and names, including Jabba’s underling Bib Fortuna (Michael Carter), Lando’s blithely introduced sidekick for the final battle, and the much-loved Admiral Akbar (Tim Rose), the rebels’ crayfish-faced commander. Lando’s evolution from shifty corsair to swashbuckling hero, clearly taking cues from many an Errol Flynn forebear, is completed as he leads the seemingly doomed attack on the new Death Star and refuses to buckle in the face of impossible odds, convincing Akbar to stick it out in a space battle that rewrote the book on special-effects spectacle. It’s tempting to state that special-effects arts had reached a kind of perfect mean with this episode, rendered with intricacy and more sophisticated than almost anything seen before and yet retaining a physical, tactile quality that CGI, with all its fancifulness, would lose: it’s the fearsome beauty of the battle scenes that has always gripped me, the sense of real, gigantic hunks of metal smashing into each other, the wild, frantic battles that wend between the great ships, and the final race of Lando and Wedge (Dennis Lawson) into the heart of the Death Star to destroy it. The three-tiered struggle of the finale—the space fight, the forest guerrilla war where the Ewoks try to buy the rebels under Han and Leia time, and the multiplaned duel of wits and will between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor—is sustained with a use of dialectic montage that’s a long way from Griffith and Eisenstein and yet linked, and it’s achieved with a deceptive ease that demands admiration: in spite of the rapid shifts of focus and tone, the action retains a seamless, associative integrity, with no shot that’s incomprehensible, no action that is poorly linked with another.
Most gratifying perhaps to the cinephile’s eye are Marquand’s knowing quotes from the panoply of antecedents that always lurked in the series, quoting the landing of Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942) in the early scenes of Vader arriving in the Death Star, Chewbacca swinging into action with a Tarzan howl, and the Ewoks blowing their horns in the call to battle reproducing the calling together of the tribes of Israel in The Ten Commandments (1956). The mythic, aspiring tilt of the series and its roots in knowing pastiche are in constant, balanced dialogue throughout Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to forget the slacker-era cynicism well summarised by the characters in Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) in dismissing Return of the Jedi as empty triumphalism in comparison to the “real” crappiness of The Empire Strikes Back’s end. That sort of cynicism is, for me, a reminder of the political defeatism that was so popular, and has proven so corrosive, in the late twentieth century. Whilst I would hardly argue that the Star Wars films radicalised a generation, nonetheless in a fashion similar to the ’30s Errol Flynn films and their possible formative influence on ’50s and ’60s radicals, I suspect the spirit of Star Wars, often dismissed by some as reactionary, lurks behind many a contemporary rebel weaned on such fare. We all need to remember that some regimes can, should, and shall be brought down by the plucky outsiders.
My recent encounter with the greatness of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen fired up my hunger for fantasy-adventure cinema again. Few films new or old could be expected to measure up to such a standard, but I still ventured out in search of satiety to the nearest multiplex, where the promise of a contemporary fix awaited in the form of neophyte director Rupert Sanders’ aggressive reframing of the Snow White myth as grim(m)ly inflated epic. For most folks, naturally, the essential, classical vision of Snow White is the trilling teen in medieval garb sweeping up between songs, as found in Disney’s game-changing animated film of 1937. The actual Grimm Brothers story, hewed from a folktale which had spread in variations right across central Europe, is a good distance from that cutely domesticated version. Whilst the Disney film retained faint echoes of its fundamental darkness, the source material proffered some epic cruelty, ending properly when the Evil Queen was hoist by her own fashion-diva petard, forced to put on a pair of red-hot iron shoes, and danced about in agony until she fell down dead. Such is the shudder-inducing climax of a tale couched in the visceral strangeness and unfiltered emotional and psychological wellsprings of such tales.
Sanders’ attempt to present a more grown-up, gritty, warrior-princess version of the legend isn’t the first to try to move back towards the source material: 1997’s TV-made Snow White: A Tale of Terror has a minor cult following who enjoy its outright gothic nasty, and some classic horror films like Argento’s Suspiria (1976) have invoked it. Snow White and the Huntsman, however, aims more for dark-hued adventure, a template which at first might make most think of The Lord of the Rings films. On closer inspection, it is closer in spirit to a tradition of modern fantasy filmmaking like Krull (1984) or The Neverending Story (1984) or Willow (1987), and, proportions maintained, mainstreams the mythopoeic inquiries of John Boorman. Director Sanders, amazingly, is a first-time filmmaker, plucked from directing British advertising, thus putting him squarely in a column with Ridley Scott and Legend (1985), as well as Hugh Hudson and his revisionist Tarzan epic Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), which also prefigure this kind of film.
Snow White and the Huntsman has proved a surprise hit with audiences in spite of largely mixed reviews from critics, and perhaps both responses have similar reasons, for the film has clearly managed to dovetail young audiences of the moment: Kristen Stewart loyalists from the Twilight franchise and fans of the sturdy heroine of The Hunger Games (2012). The first franchise almost immediately exhausted critical goodwill and the second will soon enough, but I found Snow White and the Huntsman vastly superior to either; it represents a formidable, if hardly flawless, entry in the genre, more evolutionist than revisionist. The film’s essential pitch mimicks a contemporary craze infiltrating a lot of modern takes on retro culture by freely rearranging their elements with ironic disparities, if not quite on a level with the overt absurdity of mash-ups like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) or the pseudo-novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Snow White, even in the older, nastier, story, is a traditionally passive figure, the adolescent changeling victimised by an avatar of aging, narcissistic, self-loathing femininity, who finds harbour taking care of seven boy-men, and is finally awakened from a rapturous coma of pubescence by the kiss of sexual awakening. The sense of hierarchy encoded in the tale is inevitably retrograde, and Snow White and the Huntsman takes the risk of sounding like one of the popular Politically Correct Fairy-Tales books from the ’90s in disturbing the tale’s internal tensions, which like most folktales practically screams for Freudian interpretation as a metaphor for essential processes of youth, the fear of the mother being supplanted by the daughter, and the drug-like intensity of the most intense moments of puberty. If there’s a problem with giving such tales a warlike makeover, it is, of course, in the sense that the innately feminine material has to take on a macho aspect, as if girls are only strong when they’re acting more like men.
Still, Sanders and screenwriters Hossein Amini, Evan Daugherty, and John Lee Hancock, take the hierarchism seriously, positing Snow White as a princess who gradually takes on an aspect clearly inspired by the concept of King Arthur in Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) as a unifying entity who is intimately tied to the natural as well as human order. Thus, Snow White’s familiar coterie of trailing animals is recast from simply reflecting her niceness to symbolise the way she becomes the fulcrum for a return of that order, and steps into her father’s place as the anointed ruler of the hazily medieval kingdom in which the drama unfolds. Snow White and the Huntsman succeeds, unlike last year’s post-Twilight fairytale reconfiguration, Red Riding Hood, in restoring gothic grandeur and a sense of metaphysical, Manichaean weight to the folktale panoply.
In a lengthy prologue, the recent history of the medieval kingdom of Tabor is laid out by Chris Hemsworth’s narrating hero, equipped with amusing Scots accent, as King Magnus (Noah Huntley), and Queen Eleanor (Liberty Ross) give birth to a baby whom the Queen dubs Snow White because of her wish to have a pale-skinned child that would match the perfect beauty of blood on snow. Snow White (played as a girl by Raffey Cassidy) grows up friends with William (Sam Claflin), an occasional teasing brat who’s the son of her father’s loyal brother, Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan). Not long after her mother dies during a harsh winter, a mysterious army attacks the kingdom. Magnus rides out to battle but finds the enemy are magical simulacrums that shatter into metallic fragments when struck. He rescues from their midst a prisoner, the stunning Ravenna (Charlize Theron), and, enchanted by her looks, decides to marry her. But she poisons and stabs him in the marriage bed, consummation of her plot to take over this kingdom as she had done with several others. Her real army steams in and slaughters everyone in the castle except William, who just manages to escape, and Snow White, who is secretly kept captive in a lofty prison where she grows into the adult shape of Stewart. Ravenna’s malignant regime slowly reduces Tabor to a wasteland, while she has been keeping herself young and beautiful thanks to a spell woven by her witch mother and the occasional ingestion of the life force of other pretty young women.
When the advising magical mirror she keeps on the wall (here a large bowl of polished brass that disgorges a liquid metal familiar) tells Ravenna she can secure her state forever by plucking out the heart of Snow White now that she is of age, she dispatches her unctuous brother Finn (Sam Spruell) to fetch the girl. When he tries to ravish her before delivering her to his sister, Snow White stabs him with a nail torn from the wall and manages to lock him in her cell. She flees the castle through its sewer only to be stranded in inhospitable terrain, finally collapsing in the midst of a miasmic, evil-infested forest.
Enter Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemworth), stage hunky, freshly plucked from a trough after losing a tavern brawl by Finn, for he’s one of the few men who know their way around that stygian woodland. Ravenna coaxes Eric into the venture by promising to revivify his dead wife. But once he’s led Finn and his team through the woods and located the trapped and desperate Snow White, Eric realises he’s been lied to. He kills Finn’s men and chases Finn away, and irritably leads Snow White, whose identity he is unaware of, out of the forest and into the care of a village of women and children who are hiding out from Ravenna whilst their husbands are off fighting with Hammond’s resistance, in which William is proving himself a budding hero. Finn is sent out by his recriminating sister with a large force, and William, having learned that the royal sibling is hunting the girl he thought was dead, joins up with Finn’s army in hopes of finding her. When Finn’s army attacks the village, Eric is forced again to save Snow White and flee with her into the wilderness, where they are taken prisoner by a gang of dwarf bandits, including Muir (Bob Hoskins), Beith (Ian McShane), Coll (Toby Jones), Gort (Ray Winstone), Duir (Eddie Marsan), Nion (Nick Frost), Gus (Brian Gleeson), and Quert (Johnny Harris). With Finn still on their tail, the lot of them flee into the deepest, enchanted glades of the forest, where fairies flitter through the air and the land still hasn’t been poisoned by Ravenna’s influence. A colossal white stag, embodiment of the natural order in the forest, pays homage to Snow White as its human equivalent.
Sanders fills his film with some derivative but still consistently striking visuals, achieving a genuine majesty and hallucinatory intensity at some points and investing the tale with a lucidly sensual feel: there’s a heady, aptly symbolic force behind his recurring employment of motifs of blight and rot despoiling pure mantles, from blood dripping into blindingly white milk to the contrast of black crows and dark trees with the dazzling lightness of snow, that convey visually the essential oppositions of spirit. The two über-femmes at war in the narrative convey divergent visual textures in their physiognomies whilst, natch, their internal selves are opposite: Snow White embodies the contrast of light and dark, blight and purity, with her hyper-contrasted beauty, and yet she is, of course, all good, whilst Ravenna’s efforts to retain an unblemished exquisiteness sees her retain the look of the honey-haired golden girl, except, of course, she has a howling void where a soul should be. In one weirdly affecting and beautiful moment that tweaks an old sexploitation gimmick in DeMille epics, she bathes in a tub filled entirely with milk, rising out of the fluid coated in the stuff as if she’s made out of plaster, whilst the run-off is collected by desperately hungry peasants. Ravenna congratulates herself for this generosity, recalling her own days of childhood struggle with Finn. Meanwhile, Snow White subsists in her chilly, barren cell, gazing up toward the sun she’s only seen through a narrow aperture for years, looking disturbingly like a concentration camp survivor, her sturdy bone structure still impressive in spite of her pale and filthy form.
Sanders, then, whilst joining the ranks of many directors tackling fantastical fare for the sake of making a name for themselves perhaps on the way to other things, actually seems to have an affinity for this material: the scenes in the refugee village situated in a reedy marshland reminded me, oddly, of moments in Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), and a similar sense of chaos surrounding fringe worlds of subsistence invades the scenario here. He imbues his film with tactile qualities in engaging with the pseudo-ancient, mystically pervaded world it portrays, and it helps that he displays a fairly judicious sense of when to employ CGI and when not to, making the film one of the most profitable fusions of new and old approaches. There’s a wild grandeur to the sequence in which Snow White, escaping her castle prison, has to hurl herself into the sea to escape from high, ragged cliffs and is swept ashore, and an air of malevolence in her subsequent struggling through the stygian forest after leaving her horse trapped in the surrounding mire (recalling a key moment in The Neverending Story). The edge of malevolent anthropomorphism the Disney film loaned this portion of Snow White’s odyssey is here built upon, with trees that harbour batlike demons and mossy growths that sport winking eyes, as if the poor girl has stumbled into the very swamp of the id. Later, as heroine and helpmates take refuge in the faerie glades, stylisation takes a sharp swerve toward more familiar visions of lustrous nature, as a pantheistic undertone emerges, conflated, as in the Siegfried and Arthurian myths, with an overlay of Christian idealism—Snow White, early on, prays when alone in her cell to offset the misery of life under Ravenna—where a natural balance can be restored. Snow White’s holistic link to the world around her, giving a deeper, less immediately chauvinist meaning to the way the word “fairest” attaches to her, is first signaled when she and Eric are attacked by a troll in the haunted forest, a terrifying beast that swats Eric seven ways from sunset but investigates the girl with respectful interest. Nonetheless, Eric’s essential decency is proven as he (grudgingly, of course) takes on the job of protecting rather than hunting Snow White.
Ravenna is one of the more engaging villains in a mainstream film of recent years, and Theron, who, Monster (2001) Oscar notwithstanding, has had a difficult time finding a true niche in Hollywood, presents her as a memorably egomaniacal creature who throws temper tantrums like a super-villainous Lucy Van Pelt and justifies her utterly rapacious hostility through rewriting all reality according to her personal prejudices. There is sympathy for this devil: the spell her mother worked was designed to help her retain her beauty in full knowledge it would be her best weapon in a brutal, covetous, sexist world, and harsh experience has made her misanthropic beyond all reason. Her worst moments of evil are almost always capped by proclamations of her own righteousness as an avenger of past wrongs, rich against poor, man against woman, whilst, of course, she is doomed to constantly repeat those crimes in her sociopathic ruthlessness, devastating the wealth of Tabor and reducing it to a poverty-stricken hell hole, and leaching off young women with literal, relentless parasitism: Eric’s wife, we learn eventually, was one of the many reduced to a haggard husk by this parasitism, and then killed by Finn. This spin on the Bathory myth gives heft to a more immediate drama being enacted here, between the older woman/actress whose days as a stunning beauty are numbered, and the younger woman/actress who is supplanting her. As some of the less gentlemanly comments I read up to the date of the film’s release pointed out, Stewart is a less classical beauty than Theron, a contrast that is aptly exploited throughout, particularly in the finale where Stewart takes on an amusingly butch façade in leading her army against Ravenna’s.
Rest assured (for better or worse), this is not the post-don’t-ask-don’t-tell Snow White. Our heroine has two guys to choose from (probably as another result of Twilight, love triangles are definitely back in), but the film further tweaks the familiar tale, as Eric proves to be the true love whose kiss will rouse the girl from her coma. Said coma is induced when Ravenna, in one of the film’s more peculiarly protean twists, transforms herself into William and feeds Snow White the poisoned apple, the forbidden fruit taking on suggestively Sapphic dimensions. Sadly, explorations of the erotic dimensions of fairy tales, as in predecessors like Legend or The Company of Wolves (1984), are as verboten these days as it is in the superhero genre, and the sensual edge of Sanders’ filmmaking never gets any real manifestation save in the inevitable climactic moments where we wonder which necrophile hero will revive the heroine. Instead, today’s fantastical filmmakers are expected to stress such material as avatars for less internal, symbolic, intuitive problems, a la the faux civics of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies as opposed to the fetishism of Tim Burton’s, or the naïve romanticism of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, as opposed to the monstrous sexuality of the original. Whilst the schism between William and Eric as a potential partner take on clear, social dimensions—William is sleek, ardent, boyishly pretty, whereas Eric is a hulking, virile proletarian—the film avoids making either one morally or physically lesser or covertly villainous to make for a simple choice for our heroine. Finally, the rough-trade huntsman wins out because he’s more substantial than his nobleman rival; damaged, aggrieved, and occasionally boorish, he is nonetheless stolidly reliable and swaggeringly sexy.
Whilst Eric is a fairly lumpen hero, I will cop to a bit of a man-crush on Hemsworth, who’s got all my good will after his turns as Thor; unlike too many would-be beefcake icons of the last few years to rise in Hollywood, he actually offers charm and hints of acting chops to back up the physique, whilst also dwarfing some who have tried to mould themselves into an action hero. Speaking of dwarves, the little guys who form a warrior band that guard Eric and the Princess are played by an astounding battery of fine British character actors (though perhaps it is a bit egregious to cast such actors in such parts, especially when Warwick Davis needs work) and characterised as pugnacious yeomen, classically working-class and frustrated, angry, and depressed by having lost their self-respect as miners and craftsmen. They prove eager, in spite of their initial criminal misanthropy, to sign on the Princess’ adventure, and the notion of a kind of class rage driving a desire for regime change flows through Snow White and the Huntsman with surprising doggedness, if not exactly depth.
If there’s a fundamental problem with Sanders’ film, it manifests mostly on a scripting level. Not that there’s anything overtly bad about it: composed by an unlikely battery of serious wordsmiths, including Amini, who wrote Iain Softley’s brilliant unpacking of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove (1997) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive last year, and Hancock, whose The Alamo (2004) was unfairly disastrous. But in grafting the Grimm brothers’ tale onto a familiar fantasy-adventure template, Snow White and the Huntsman accepts that template too completely, hitting all the obvious story points. It kills off a likeable character at a crucial moment to give the last act emotive juice, and charges into an action finale that, like some weaker modern fantasy-adventure films (Willow and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ), culminates in a dully staged tussle between heroine and villainess in a remote tower when they could be using the whole world as an arena.
It’s this lack of fundamental imagination on a story level that finally retards the very real qualities of Snow White and the Huntsman—with so much potential ground to cover, was remaking every swashbuckler where an exiled princeling fights to reclaim the kingdom really all they could come up with? Yet there’s a fascinating tension in the depiction of Snow White as embodiment of all the fundamental graces who must learn how to kill, even if it is an entirely evil enemy, to restore her world. When Eric’s kiss jolts the Princess out of her coma, she’s not merely awakened but born again hard, wandering out before her mourning subjects and sparking them to life in turn with the compulsory rousing speech, and appearing moments later in armour to lead the cavalry out. It’s a gleeful and pretty hot image, though I could have used a better, more attentive sense of build-up to this moment. But the charge of the cavalry along the shore to Ravenna’s castle, with our heroes in the lead and the dwarves inside the castle to raise the portcullis for them, is a truly thrilling moment of epic sweep, strongly reminiscent of the finale of El Cid (1961), The Lion in Winter (1968), and the best scene in Scott’s otherwise ramshackle Robin Hood (2010). The fade-out leaves what will happen in her budding romance with Eric, who hovers uncertainly at the edges of the royal pomp of her coronation and for whom she looks in initially frantic distraction, perhaps to be reconciled in the proposed sequel in the works. For once, I look forward to a sequel, in the hope that Sanders can broaden his mythic imagination without losing his grasp on the finite mixture he sustains here.
The ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tales of Siegfried or Sigurd were vital building blocks for much middle and northern European folk culture. This was true long before Richard Wagner conflated them for his delirious, impossibly long, musically ostentatious opera cycle, and certainly long before J.R.R. Tolkien absorbed them into his The Lord of the Rings tales. Tolkien’s variation, in repositioning the material as a battle against tyrannical evil, tried to present a completely opposite contemporary tilt on the stories to that assumed by Hitler and the Nazis, who annexed aspects of them through Wagner as lynchpins for their own mythology. Siegfried, the anointed, pure hero who defeated the dragon and yet fell to a spear in the back, presented to post-WW1 German nationalists a powerful metaphor for what they saw as the betrayal of their great struggle by politicians. The possibly apocryphal story of director Fritz Lang’s encounter with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who, as Lang later recounted, asked him to become their master filmmaker, is today known by just about anyone with pretences to film scholarship. It’s one of those singular moments where, as with Eisenstein’s contretemps with Stalin or Ronald Reagan’s co-opting a popular sci-fi adventure for a planned weapons system, where cinema history and political history suddenly unite with genuine import. In Lang’s account, he was approached on the back of their adoration of his two-part 1924 film of the epic poem Die Nibelungenlied, and its science-fiction follow-up Metropolis (1926), works riven with Lang’s malleable sense of human masses and colossal design bound together as expressive instruments that seem to dwarf individualism in the face of historic forces. The fact that Lang’s wife and collaborating screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, became a Nazi (albeit, so she said, to protect Indians, like her later lover, living in Germany), and that many of his cast and crew would be doomed, like or not, to keep working in a Goebbels-run film industry, deepened the seeming surety of Lang’s links to the new regime.
However, there were dimensions of Lang, half-Jewish and Austrian-born, and his aesthetics that the Nazis had not understood or had wilfully ignored, and this was one dragon he decided not to cuddle up to. Lang left Germany, arrived in Hollywood as an artistic hero, and finished up as a near-forgotten B-movie helmsman, albeit one who would be rediscovered just as his career was ending. Such is the lay of Lang’s fall from his pinnacle as the world-shaking cinema titan who bankrupted UFA and inspired the likes of Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock to become filmmakers. It’s neither fair nor entirely apt that the original mythology or Lang’s film of it should have to withstand such evil cultural and historical associations, but they still remain. Made nine years before Hitler’s rise to power, Die Nibelungen’s dedication “To the German People” in the earlier context reads as encomium to a beaten and deeply depressed nation trying to struggle its way out of a dreadful collapse in political structures, economic terrors, and appalling loss, whilst the film radiates the sensation of the pre-war neo-classical love for mythology and fantasy now scratching beneath the fanciful veneer of the iconography and finding the real emotion and hard lessons such surviving tales still contained. The tale’s depiction of a maddened clash not only of individuals and peoples, but also values and world-views, fighting each-other to a bloodily apocalyptic nullity, reflects the still sharp memory of the Great War as noble yet incoherent tragedy.
Lang himself hated Wagner’s chauvinistic mash-up, and based his films squarely on the saga written by an anonymous poet who was probably part of the court of the Bishop of Passau at the turn of the thirteenth century. The poem was a product of a phase in European history when rulers were attempting synthesise new loyalties and codes of behaviour, as well as put the burgeoning numbers of poets and troubadours to some use, through formalising national mythologies in the pattern of Homer’s epics: most of the Arthurian tales came out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court a little earlier. Like such works, Die Nibelungenlied, which obviously combined transmissions of Greek myth, passed on from hazy sources, with folk memories and legends, was a study in medieval ethics and social constructs, which stressed ambiguity on a human level by presenting cast-iron order and morality imbued on a cosmic level: heroes fall because of their blind spots, and the righteous often appear to be uglier than the villainous in attempting to assert an absolute ethic, and finally history, or fate, or society, wins over the individuals even as each venerate the fallen. The poem also neglected most of the oversized mythological details, like Siegfried’s descent from the Norse gods, and instead presented a story squarely set in an historical context, and in spite of fantastical touches like the dragon Siegfried kills and the magical helmet he wears, the tone is largely that of this earth.
The first part of Lang’s work thus kicks off, rather than climaxes with, Siegfried’s greatest mythical hits and, in the total scheme of the films, moves through them at lightning speed. Lang’s film preserves the feudal flavour and fearsome, atavistic sensations of the poem, and yet is also a prototypical version of the same modern moral universe, inflated in scale and resonance but still recognisable, as that Lang explored through less distant prisms in subsequent films as diverse as M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Such was a universe where a daemonic quality in human nature wreaks havoc, and mankind on a social level is often disturbingly mindless and reactive. The nobility and ethical strength of the individual barely keeps afloat when such forces are unleashed, the heroes’ loving impulses often transmuting into a hard and unforgiving vengefulness, one that risks becoming monstrous and inhuman in the name of maintaining a human, moral shape to the universe. Lang’s sensibility thus intuitively grasps some of the subtler inferences of the original myth and many like it. In the immediate context of Lang’s run of ‘20s work, where the Dr Mabuse films explored the paranoid mindset of the contemporary and Metropolis posited fables in the future, Die Nibelungen looked for same in the distant past. In each, a similar, sinister sense of plots laid and hatching evil is facilitated by borrowed guises as the means to insidious ends: Siegfried’s use of his magic helmet equates with Mabuse’s use of disguise and the robotic Maria in Metropolis. Lang’s personal art was perhaps most strongly defined in and contained by Die Nibelungen, because, as has been noted, the essential figurations of the tale recur again and again in Lang’s films. Clearly, for Lang, Die Nibelungen was more than a national myth: it was his own.
The early stages recount how Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of the king of Xanten, has been residing for years with bedraggled old blacksmith, Mime (Georg John), of a race of barely-human mountain men, learning hardiness and craft in a lofty cave. Siegfried is introduced forging a sword sharp enough to cut a feather that falls upon its edge, impressing Mime, who tells his charge that his apprenticeship is over, and that he can return to his father. But another mountain man speaks of the castle at Worms, seat of the king of Burgundy, and of the beauty of the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Siegfried decides instead to do deeds mighty enough to win Kriemhild. Fate gives him his chance right away, as he encounters, on his way, a colossal dragon that rules a mountain grove, in order to present to the world his own vision for mankind’s conquest of death and terror. Siegfried kills the dragon and showers under the blood that runs from its carcass, making him impervious to physical wounding, except at one spot on his back where a leaf from a lime tree falls and sticks. This is the first and most overt moment in the film which seems like a progenitor with endless resonance through subsequent fantasy cinema, perhaps the first great leap forward from Georges Méliès’ rough sketches, with the proto-animatronic dragon moved by steam-powered puppetry, glimpsed drinking from a pool and lashing out at the miniscule but dogged attacker with tail and fire: just about every special-effects driven movie made subsequently owes something conceptually or technically to this scene, from King Kong (1933) through to Jurassic Park (1992) and on to the present.
Siegfried’s legend begins to precede his approach, as his deeds are recounted in Worms to Kriemhild, her mother Queen Ute (Gertrud Arnold), and her brothers, the King Gunther (Theodor Loos), and the younger Gernot (Hans Carl Mueller) and Giselher (Erwin Biswanger), by court troubadour Volker of Alzey (Bernhard Goetzke). Meanwhile, Siegfried, continuing his journey, encounters Alberich (John again), a Nibelungen or goblin metal-smith, who possesses a fabulous treasure, as well as the magic helmet, which confers invisibility. Alberich assaults Siegfried whilst wearing the helmet, but Siegfried overpowers and kills him, leaving Siegfried with his treasure and the great sword Balmung. Now, invincible and able to command the loyalty and needs of men, Siegfried conquers and then commands twelve petty kings, and brings them as his followers to Worms. Siegfried, a king in his own right, hopes to forge stronger bonds between the various European kingdoms. Whilst Siegfried and Gunther become friends, and the court’s band of fraternal warriors are dubbed ‘Nibelungen’ to celebrate the new compact, at the insistence of Gunther’s truculent advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Siegfried won’t be allowed to marry Kriemhild until he helps Gunther marry too. For Hagen has convinced Gunther to expand his realm by wedding the Queen of Iceland, Brünhild (Hanna Ralph), who lives in a fire-ringed castle with an army of shield-maidens. The prodigious Queen has set no easy requirements for suitors: they have to beat her in three tests of strength, on pain of death. Gunther is anything but a champion, and he prevails upon Siegfried, donning his magic helmet, first to invisibly guide his actions in the joust, and then to take his own guise to subdue her on the wedding night when she continues to reject him. In gratitude, Gunther not only lets Siegfried marry Kriemhild, but also goes through a ceremony of blood brotherhood with him.
Lang’s eye, with the tools of the amazing set design and decoration by Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, and Erich Kettelhut, and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian and Aenne Willkomm, allows the essential conflicts and thematic tensions of the early stages of this drama accumulate through distilled signifiers. The initial sight of Worms as described by the mountain men appears like a dream vision, rising above the primal landscape of craggy mountains and colossal forest trees, tangles of wilderness and stygian depths of the unknown, through which Siegfried makes his heroic advance. It’s impossible to miss the similarity of imagery in the moment in which Siegfried follows Albrecht into his cavern to the scene in Metropolis where Fredersen follows Rotwang into the catacombs, although the journey is closer in spirit to that of Freder in the latter film, a trek into the underworld where the hero risks his life but emerges with riches. Siegfried, simultaneously, moves from the very fringes of the world, through the midst of the forest via the dragon and various semi-human races he encounters, to Worms, which, with its soaring battlements and radiating aura of centrifugal power and gravitas, seems like a bastion of all humans can achieve.
The formalistic world of the Burgundian court sees the characters and architecture arrayed in geometric precision, revealing the increasing influence of modern art styles like Cubism infiltrating Lang’s visuals, whilst also channelling the simple precepts of medieval heraldic decoration: such motifs do not however merely look impressive, but communicate ancient assumptions of hierarchy and power, encoded in the very scenery of the drama. Individuals are dwarfed by the might of the church and the palace, and they move into place with precision in obedience to feudal hierarchy at the court. When Siegfried, pretending to be Gunther, overwhelmed Brünhild, he did not actually deflower her, but he took her armlet, a symbol of chastity, and kept it as a trophy. When Kriemhild finds it and innocently sports it, Siegfried confesses his loyal act of deception. Meanwhile, Brünhild, still harbouring misgivings and gnawed at by her actual ardour for Siegfried, starts throwing her weight around in preferring to destroy what she can’t have. She describes Siegfried as a vassal and claims pre-eminence over Kriemhild upon entering the church, an act of contempt that angers Kriemhild so much she retaliates by telling Brünhild the truth about her wedding. Brünhild, maddened to mania, lies to Gunther that Siegfried actually slept with her when pretending to be him. Hagen, who has wanted an excuse to pilfer the Nibelungen treasure, sides with Brünhild when she demands Siegfried’s assassination.
The dialectic of values that permeates Die Nibelungen is reflected not only in the visuals, but in the opposition of characters. Siegfried, whilst embodying classical ideals of Germanic tribal youth, is also imbued with the nascent patina of Christian idealism in borrowing St George’s mantle (although some have also suggested, interestingly, that this aspect of the myth could have roots in the infamous defeat of the Romans by the Germanic tribes at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, when the Romans wore scaled armour), penetrating the stygian depths of the forest and extending the bulwarks of civilisation, but utterly at a loss when drawn into the orbit of the political, human world. Defined against his virtue is Gunther, whose essential lack of personal direction and strength contrasts Siegfried’s meritocratic gifts carefully imbued by experience and upbringing, a warning against the dangers of mere inherited power. Even more polarised is Hagen, the unrefined old Teutonic, virile, amoral, fearless, shameless, and loyal to the interests of his nation and the improvement of his king, whether the king likes it or not. The demure Kriemhild seems, at first, the polar opposite of the awesome Brünhild: Kriemhild, quiet, eyes constantly downcast, appears the perfectly deferential, decorous medieval maid, whereas Brünhild is a more ancient kind of women, physically dynamic and wildly tribal, carrying associations with Greek mythical heroines and huntresses like Diana and the champion Atalanta, given superpowers by her intractable chasteness, and Lang and von Harbou stack her portrayal heavily towards hues of misanthropic lesbianism. Initial appearances are partly deceiving, as Brünhild proves increasingly volatile and vindictive once her virginity and sovereignty are surrendered, whilst Kriemhild, who early in the film interrupts a violent quarrel between Siegfried and Hagen with a pacific gesture, grows after marrying Siegfried exponentially in character and stature, until she becomes an all-powerful engine of wrath.
Siegfried and Kriemhild embody the persistence of idealism in civilisation, being reconstituted as the Roman world, distant and increasingly irrelevant, is assailed by Attila and his Huns. But idealism is not necessarily positivist in such a realm: it invokes justice and order as well as liberty and socialisation, and the occasional harshness of those concepts. Hagen and Brünhild, who are both, tellingly, constantly sporting helmets with winged crests that evoke more distant tribal roots and totemistic meaning, are refrains from older times, potent and powerful, but also destructive and self-defeating in their extreme sensibilities. Upon her arrival in Worms, Brünhild, who has before clearly been pagan, consulting an old völva who cast the runes, must kiss the cross in the first act of domestication. This historical world depends utterly on codes of behaviour and ritual that enforce and allow assumptions of trust. The gullibility of Siegfried and Kriemhild and the weakness of Gunther are heightened to amusing extremes, and yet of course it’s actually about demonstrating the level of trust invested in those one fights with and lives with. Hagen violates those presumptions in the most profound manner possible, as he tricks Kriemhild into sewing a cross on the back of Siegfried’s robe that marks out exactly where the leaf that despoiled his invincibility stuck, under the pretext of wanting to protect Siegfried in battle. Out on a hunt, whilst Siegfried drinks from a pool, Hagen spears him in the back.
Die Nibelungen is very long – the two chapters in their full-length cuts take five hours to unspool – in part because Lang plays every scene with a smouldering, slow-mounting intensity that registers with electric fixation and precise weightiness the characters’ actions and reactions. In the sequence of Kriemhild’s confrontation with her dead husband, the slow burn pays off for one of Lang’s brilliant little pirouettes of style, as Kriemhild awakens in the night and wanders from her bedroom, the castle now suddenly a trap of voluminous, haunted space, the hunting party returning from the stygian night with Siegfried’s body on his shield. When Kriemhild comes upon Siegfried laid out, she bends over his body in utter devastation. Whilst there’s much less of the overtly experimental and symbolic technique Lang would use in Metropolis here, Lang employs such elements sparingly and exactingly, and here interpolates a livid piece of imagery as Kriemhild envisions Siegfried standing before the blossoming tree where he was kissing her earlier, the tree of spring then waning in wintry fashion to take on the aspect of a glowing skull. Violent tragedy has been prefigured by an earlier dream Kriemhild had as Siegfried first entered her life, of a white bird being torn apart by black ones, rendered in abstracted animation. Kriemhild’s squall of shock soon segues into realisation that Hagen is the murderer, and she rises from Siegfried’s corpse pointing her finger at the warlord with abysses behind her electric eyes, demanding he be punished. But Gunther, who acquiesced to the crime, his brothers, and Volker all, for the sake of the loyalty that is their own, absolute value, step in front of Hagen, announcing their intention to stand by him. Kriemhild vows revenge, and later finds, when Siegfried’s body has been laid out in the cathedral, that Brünhild, having already revealed to her husband that she had lied about Siegfried’s actions, has killed herself there with a dagger in her heart, and rests bent over his corpse, bringing the curtain down on the first chapter.
The bipolar swing from the transcendental adventure of dragon-slaying to this ugly scene seems to chart a grimmer side to the evolution of human civilisation, out of the forest’s shadows and into the different shadows of human emotional and societal conflict. Kriemhild must evolve further and find a way to slay this entirely different kind of dragon. Like her dead husband, she embarks on a single-minded pilgrimage through the forests to fulfil a vow that will change the shape of the world. Strong female characters in Lang’s work were remarkably common even after his marriage to the imperious Von Harbou broke up, and although at first the drama is driven ironically by a clash of intemperate ladies, Kriemhild and Brünhild, later Kriemhild, like the diptych of Marias in Metropolis but contained within one body, is both goddess and succubus, saviour and annihilator, lording over men as she commits unremittingly to her programme no matter the horror that ensues. Whilst Brünhild comes to resemble a femme fatale of the order of Joan Bennett’s Kitty March in Scarlet Street, Kriemhild, like Spencer Tracy’s Joe Wilson in Fury, Henry Fonda’s title character in The Return of Frank James (1940), and Glenn Ford’s Dan Bannion and Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat, is slowly transformed by her dedication to vengeance into a merciless, inhumane force.
If that dedication is held far higher than the mob mentality, here presented in the form of the Huns, invoked throughout Lang’s films, it’s because it retains a fearful kind of beauty, a singular force that stands rigidly opposed to nihilism and defeatism, and thus constitutes as sure a bulwark against utter moral chaos as Worms’ battlements, but which in any other setting but this demands better answers. The formerly demure, ultra-feminine Kriemhild now becomes the baleful icon, resembling Klimt’s vision of Pallas Athena, cowering grown men with her gaze, her brothers downcast and ashamedly tentative before her, as she accepts an offer from Attila (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to become his new wife, as he promises to avenge any offence done to her: Kriemhild forces first Attila’s envoy, Rüdiger von Bechlarn (Rudolf Rittner), a Germanic vassal of the Asian conqueror, to swear this oath. She demands it again when she reaches Attila’s keep, in a spellbindingly intense sequence that sees the magnificently ugly Hun warlord and the beautifully icy German widow find a deep understanding in unflinching gazes and oaths of binding import. Attila is later so nervous about the well-being of his wife and his child she’s giving birth to, he can’t prosecute the siege of Rome he’s started, and when news comes of the baby’s safe delivery, he charges with his men back to his stronghold to cradle his babe with childish glee, and grants Kriemhild’s request to invite her brothers for a stay. Along the way he passes by the film’s oddest piece of symbolism, a gaggle of naked children dancing around the one tree in an otherwise blasted plain, emblems of the endangered but growing state of civilisation in this age.
Whilst Metropolis, with its genetic heritage passed on through so much of science fiction that followed and its giddy, frenetic sense of technique, is the most famous of Lang’s films, Die Nibelungen has all of its virtues and none of its faults, not simply in telling a more lucid story – it is admittedly easier to transcribe a work of great classical literature than compose one’s own parables – but also in conceptual depth, narrative integrity, and consistency of acting. The performing is practically cabalistic in its concentration, particularly from Schön, who does some of the most operatic eye-acting in the history of silent cinema, and that’s saying something. As Metropolis is to science fiction, watching Die Nibelungen feels very much like encountering the ür-text of just about the entire canon of historical fantasy-adventure cinema. Whilst many entries in these genres had been made before, Lang’s boldly composed visions seem to have sunk the deepest roots in the imagination of filmmakers, even those who have never seen them, but rather seen the films they inflected. Beyond the impact of his use of special effects, Lang’s visual alchemy presented an indelible model for anyone working with such material. The temptation to completely reinvent the world presented in a movie according to aesthetic choice and artistic desire is always theoretically open to filmmakers, but as it’s so often a realistic medium, few feel free to do so with material set in the modern world, a choice that is however less fraught in fantastic and historical settings. Thus Lang’s holistic sensibility, turning everything within the scope of his camera into an expressive instrument, could find free reign here, and gave to followers an expressive palate that could be used in endless and intricate variations. The influence spreads over a vast spectrum of cinematic icons: the compositions and stylisation of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1946-58), the historical swashbucklers of Michael Curtiz and epics of Cecil B. DeMille, the visual motifs of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, and Orson Welles, through to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (over and above the poem’s influence on Tolkien), John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur (1981), and historical dramas like Anthony Mann’s El Cid (1961), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Fellini Satyricon (1969). Even sci-fi like Star Wars (1977) bears its imprint; Hagen – or is it Kriemhild? – can be called the absolute original Darth Vader. Lang’s way of settling his camera down to absorb a set composed in precise, static geometry prefigures the self-conscious reproduction of such effects by Sergei Paradjanov. The finale seems to have particularly inspired the core battle sequence in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985).
Die Nibelungen moves with the relentless stateliness of classical tragedy, which is indeed a genre into which the story finally moves, even as the narrative finally erupts with action in an hour-long final sequence of transfixing force. Structurally, it is broken, like an epic poem, into “Cantos” that commence with brief explanatory, pre-empting notes. Kriemhild’s determination to uphold the values she considers sacred – justice and oaths of loyalty – runs headlong into Attila’s own specific absolutes, in this case the nomadic leader’s insistence that an offer of hospitality cannot be violated, so that even whilst he puts the Burgundians in his wife’s lap, he won’t prosecute the vengeance she wants. So, she carefully whips up the Hun warriors, who, wanting to aid the woman whose beauty and statuesque strength seems to them practically god-like, will do anything she asks, so that when the Burgundians arrive, a fight erupts between the partying soldiers of both sides. When a Burgundian soldier runs into Attila’s banquet hall in the keep, shouting, “Treason!”, Hagen promptly, punitively slaughters Attila and Kriemhild’s baby. At the pleading of another of Attila’s German vassals, Dietrich of Bern (Fritz Alberti), he’s allowed to lead Attila, Kriemhild, Rüdiger and others out of the keep, before the Nibelungen close the doors and defend themselves against the waves of Huns who try to hack through the doors and invade via ladders to the roof. The Nibelungen, with their shields and mail as well as fighting prowess, prove near-invincible for the unarmoured, swarming Huns, and so Kriemhild invokes Rüdiger’s oath and demands he lead his own men in, an act which entails the worst possible crisis of conscience: Rüdiger has promised his daughter in marriage to Giselher. But the power of the oath wins out, and Rüdiger moves ominously in to attack. When he tries to strike down Hagen, Giselher leaps in front of the villain in trying to plead with his would-be father-in-law, and dies instead. In the battle that follows, Volker kills Rüdiger, whilst the Huns swarm over Gernot as he pleads with his sister to call them off. Hagen mocks Kriemhild from the keep’s steps after another wave of attackers is beaten off, and finally Kriemhild gives the order to burn the keep to the ground with the remnant Nibelungen inside.
The power of these scenes is virtually indescribable in the infernal concision of the images, especially as the end comes for the Nibelungen, Volker defiantly playing his instrument – in pointed contrast to an earlier scene where he smashed another after Kriemhild left Worms without making peace with any of them – and leading the warriors in song. Attila, outside, in a maniacal trance, rocks his hands to the time of the song, and Kriemhild, at the suggestion from another German vassal that’s she’s been consumed by hate, gestures to the keep and states, “I’ve never been more filled with love,” in admiration for her brothers’ fidelity to their principles. They won’t even let Hagen go out to hand himself over when he proposes to do this. Finally, Dietrich, who, like Attila, is another real historical personage brought into the drama (his real-life analogue was Theodoric the Great, the Visigoth king who conquered Italy), ventures into the keep and overpowers Hagen, dragging him and the king, the last left alive, out to meet the final act of the tragedy. The bleak and dizzying beauty and emotional force of this ending come not simply from the feelings evoked within it and by it, but from the moral ambiguity of it all, as characters one despises suddenly prove themselves heroic beyond measure and true to their private code. Even Gunther gets himself wounded in trying desperately to pluck the fiery arrows from the roof, and Hagen tries to protect the prone king by standing over him with his shield as blocks of masonry crash upon it. The various postures of the characters, their world-ordering sensibilities, finally meet in a mutually annihilating showdown where each major character is forced, one way or another, to destroy what they love most. It’s the darkest possible ending in many ways, and yet bizarrely elating, and it makes, by comparison, most modern descendants of this truly great film experience look childish.
It might seem like a leap from the earthbound historicism of The Sea Hawk to the second instalment of a 1980s TV-derived scifi franchise, and yet they’re both, essentially, pirate movies. Lately, pondering the synergy of elements necessary to create great adventure films, I had to admit that, in revisiting Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (the numerical was added after initial release), I saw it has just about all of them: wonder, action, character, myth, darkness, depth of concept and execution, originality and also noble cliché, a sense of fun, and a sense of legacy, both future and historical.
Gene Roddenberry’s adored TV series “Star Trek”, which ran from 1966 to 1968, ironically became a much bigger hit after cancellation, through syndication showings in the ’70s. The show possessed a ragged, trippy, perfervid energy and channelled scifi’s essential creeds and some fresh ideas into some generically familiar archetypes, stereotypes, and situations—not for nothing did Roddenberry label it “‘Wagon Train’ in space” when pitching it to execs. It survived in part because it channelled a post-counterculture hunger for New Age ideals and inclusivity into a futuristic context, and resulted in the birth of the Trekkie, still the emblematic scifi fan of a strong and obsessive breed. So strong was the series’ belated following that an animated series resulted, and then a push for a movie edition, which reached fruition after the success of Star Wars (1977). The initial result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), directed by that sturdiest of old pros, Robert Wise, modelled itself after the show’s more inquisitive episodes, whilst pinching liberally from Arthur C. Clarke. Wise’s sense of visual grandeur and the probing script partly made up for a stiff reintroduction for the old cast and a weak grip for the series’ familiar human element. The general feeling was that the result was a flabby disappointment. Roddenberry’s fussy creative control got the blame, and it’s clear in retrospect that he was trying to revive his creation with a tone anticipatory of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994), which, with its ponderously plastic air and drones for heroes, was still similarly curious in its best moments. The Motion Picture made enough money to warrant a sequel, but for the second spin around the galaxy, producer Harve Bennett hired a fresher director with a zippier understanding of the underpinnings of such feverishly followed cult works.
Nicholas Meyer started off as a writer, with the likes of the campy comedy Invasion of the Bee Girls (1972) and the novel The Seven-Percent-Solution, adapted by Herbert Ross for the screen in 1976, before he made a directorial debut with Time After Time (1979). Meyer revealed a grasp on the minutiae of figures like Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells, and understood the curious nostalgia that resided within the survival of those characters, revelling in the ironic contrast between the Victorian sensibility that spawned them and the modern perspective on their charm—a sensibility that was ironically similar to the inner, fantastical spirit of Star Trek. Certainly, the catchphrases of Star Trek, like Spock’s “Fascinating,” were becoming as specific as Holmes’ “Elementary,” and Meyer understood that. Meyer responded to his new job by going to school on the original series to carefully recreate its essentials, and did an uncredited overhaul on Jack B. Sowards’ script. The Wrath of Khan was perhaps the first film to provide a nominal sequel to a TV episode, 1967’s “Space Seed,” in which Ricardo Montalban had guest-starred as Khan, a genetically engineered superman exiled centuries before from Earth with his followers, who, when salvaged by the Enterprise on its five-year mission, tried to take it over. They were defeated and left to start a colony on a new planet. Whilst such continuity tickled series fans, having seen “Space Seed” was in no way necessary to understanding the plot of the movie. Indeed, it was slightly confusing, as Khan had never met Enterprise crewman Chekhov (Walter Koenig, who joined the old show after “Space Seed”) but recognises him here. Khan was reconstituted in the film as a phantom from the past of James T. Kirk (William Shatner) who emerges to torture and terrorise him precisely as he’s looking down the barrel of a dull and barren middle age, his swashbuckling days as a space captain behind him.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is today often identified by its moments of unfettered camp, and yet it’s actually a deftly balanced work: warm, funny, dashing, often tongue-in-cheek, and yet emotionally and intellectually quite earnest, filled with lush, fluidic imagery and well-paced action. It’s a film that manages to do many different sorts of thing at once, and for very good reason, it’s become a kind of code word for a movie series highpoint. Meyer gave Wise’s stately approach a kick in the pants, and whilst the same elements of wonder and speculative intelligence that The Motion Picture belaboured are still in evidence, here they’re carefully dovetailed with the onrush of a plot that’s more than a little like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World(2003) in space.
Meyer’s most personal and effective touch was to remake Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForrest Kelly) into men reminiscent of his earlier takes on Holmes and Wells. They are men out of their time, aware of retro paraphernalia and culture, offering a continuity with the geeks of Earth past, and possessed of an energy and idealism that’s all the more vital in a future world. The film’s very opening depicts one of Kirk’s prize pupils, Saavik (a pre-Cheers Kirstie Alley), a humourless Vulcan neophyte who nettles under the painful lesson of the “Kobayashi Maru,” a test that places potential officers in a situation where they have to find their grace under the imminent inevitability of death. As well as offering up a memorable fillip of series lore, the fact that Kirk administers the test which he himself successfully subverted in his student days presents a thematic echo that rings out through the rest of the story up to its tragic climax. Kirk, with his recurring refusal to believe in the kind of no-win scenarios the test prescribes, must face the real cost of such a situation.
Meanwhile, Chekhov, working under Captain Terell (the late, great Paul Winfield) aboard the Reliant, is searching for a lifeless planet to conduct a vast new scientific experiment with the fantastic new Genesis Device. Beaming upon a planet they believe to be the lifeless Ceti Alpha 6, they fall into the hands of Khan and his fellow survivors, who had been left to form a colony on that planet’s neighbour by Kirk: the planet is, in fact, their former Eden, laid waste by cosmic calamity, and they have only just clung to existence. Now mad for vengeance for the suffering of their exile and the deaths of his wife and several crew from attacks by native animals, Khan takes control of Chekhov and Terell with brain-infesting slugs and sets out to trap Kirk and take control of the Genesis Device. The device has been developed by scientist Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), her son David (Merritt Butrick), and a team of researchers on a space station neighbouring the lifeless moon of Regula 1. The device is an incredibly powerful mechanism with the capacity to reshape planets into life-supporting spheres, albeit with the caveat that any life that exists there already would be obliterated, thus making it a work of terraforming wonder that could also be a terrible weapon. David is paranoid about possible military uses of the Device and interference by the Federation, and when Chekhov, under Khan’s control, messages the station ordering the Device to be handed over, pretending the order comes from Kirk, that paranoia seems justified. Carol tries to contact Kirk to demand an explanation, but her message fades out. The Enterprise, on a training mission for the young recruits, heads to Regula 1 to see what’s going on, only to fly headlong into Khan’s ambush.
The Wrath of Khan‘s reduced budget impacted the quality of production noticeably, littered with rather pasteboard-looking sets and props. There are some clunker line readings redolent of a rushed shoot, and Khan’s crew, all strangely much younger than him, look like escapees from a futuristic roller disco musical. But that’s all part of the fun, and otherwise, the film retains the polished look of an A-grade saga. The film’s colour rich and futuristic, yet also fleshy and colourful in an aptly pulpy fashion, is thanks to Gayne Rescher’s photography. The special effects were done by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic outfit, and included a ground-breaking use of computer-generated imagery for the demonstration film of the Genesis Device’s purpose. The effects are very uneven, and yet still possess an epic lustre. I can’t help but admire the suspense Meyer can wring out of scenes of grim-looking crewmen marching about with what look like vibrators with light globes attached: god knows what they’re going to do with them, but damn if doesn’t look important. Similarly, it’s fascinating how poetic the moment in which Carol brings Kirk into the cavern transformed into a paradise by the Genesis Device is, in spite of the obvious matte paintings, in a way that still dwarfs all the CGI landscapes of Avatar (2009). Much of the film’s impact, it has to be said, is due to composer James Horner, who two years earlier had been working on Roger Corman quickies before he gained notice for his mock-epic work on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Horner’s soaring, seafarer-like score permeates The Wrath of Khan with a sense of galloping excitement and swooning awe in such moments as the Enterprise’s sailing out from it space dry dock and Kirk’s first glimpse of the Genesis cave.
Whilst the series’ egalitarian, progressive ideals were certainly heartfelt, “Star Trek” simultaneously always sustained an element of retrograde, imperialist thinking in its assumptions, with a future universe where political stability is enforced by gunboat diplomacy. Khan’s name emphasises this aspect. Rather than revise the discrepancy, Meyer emphasises links with Victorian drama and an imperialist adventuring tradition. Kirk and Khan constantly quote favourite novels, Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities respectively, whilst the story and visuals make reference to a charming retention of seafaring codes in space. The Federation uniforms (redesigned from the hideous things sported in The Motion Picture) make the crew look awfully like Redcoats, and a crewwoman blows a futuristic version of a midshipman’s whistle when Kirk first boards the Enterprise. Simultaneously, The Wrath of Khan does something the series, with its limited budget and effects, and episodic style, could never do properly, which was offer, at last, a genuine space battle.
So perfectly does The Wrath of Khan lay out a form of a swashbuckler that the number of similarities in plot and theme between it and Master and Commander demand a few moments to list. In both, the heroes fight off a superior enemy who gets the jump on them in an initial ambush. The emphasis on the battle of wits between captains is all-important. Spock and McCoy are to Kirk as Maturin is to Aubrey, presenting the schism of man of action and man of thought in the context of the supposedly well-oiled machine of these ships of war. The Genesis Device and resulting planet are equivalent to the Galapagos Islands as cradles of wonderment and new potential that excite that scientific mind, a mind which is stifled in being merely obeisant to militaristic exigencies. In both, the physical maiming of a younger crew member is a major tragedy and spur to action. An ambush is facilitated through one ship pretending to be another: Aubrey’s ploy of disguising his ship as a whaler contrasts Khan’s use of a captured Federation ship to sucker in Kirk. Major acts of sacrifice are required to save the heroes’ ship: Spock’s fatal venturing into the reactor to repower the Enterprise matches Hollum’s suicide in belief he’s the Jonah that haunts his ship, and Aubrey’s hacking free a fallen mast, though its means a man must drown.
In spite of its interludes of cheese, The Wrath of Khan builds story and character with a novelistic intelligence, as individual scenes that often seem discursive and casual actually contribute to the thematic imperatives of the tale. The opening joke, where the revelation that the chaos that engulfs Saavik’s captaincy is, in fact, the Kobayashi Maru test—McCoy, sprawled on the floor, demands praise for his performance—will inexorably lead to a moment where such chaos erupts for real around Kirk. He’s the only candidate who ever beat the test, and did so by creative cheating, and, of course, has to stare down the barrel of exactly the situation it was supposed to depict. Mortality is already weighing on Kirk’s mind at the outset, as it’s his birthday. Spock’s and McCoy’s birthday presents to the aging admiral are both antiques for his collection, a leather-bound copy of A Tale of Two Cities and a pair of ancient reading spectacles, apt for Kirk’s retro sensibility, but also reminding him of the march of years. The film actually lets us see Kirk’s apartment in San Francisco, as McCoy breaks out a bottle of illegal Romulan ale—that’s the sort of throwaway touch that I love and that gives this phase in the franchise real personality. McCoy warns him against letting himself become an antique, too, and to get back to captaining, not training callow recruits.
Saavik is posited as a potential love interest for Kirk: she tries to flirt with him whilst trying to understand the purpose of the Kobayashi Maru test, but proves fatally unreceptive to his sense of humour. But she’s also a potential replacement for both him and Spock, an heir to both their legacies. Carol, Kirk’s former lover, and David, actually his son, albeit one he’s barely had any contact with before, present shades of alternative lives he gave up in his love for gallivanting through space, and give immediate, personal flesh to the film’s recurring motifs of existence as a chain of creation and destruction, birth and death. In spite of the futuristic setting, The Wrath of Khan feels intimately contemporary to the early ’80s, as David’s outright contempt and suspicion for Kirk and the Federation channels obvious hints of the ’60s Generation Gap, whilst Carol’s decision to keep David in her world suggests the impact of feminism and new parenting options, leaving alpha male Kirk in a slightly befuddled mid-life crisis.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary potential of the Genesis Device seems to invoke all of the characters’ essential quandaries and capacities, promising both apocalyptic destruction and miraculous creation. Carol, to cheer up Kirk when he’s feeling depressed about the carnage that’s struck his ship and his son’s ferocious antipathy for what he stands for, ushers him along to take stock of a miracle: the grand cave within the Regular moon that she’s turned into a slice of Eden with the Genesis Device, her gift of maternal beneficence to all. Spock and McCoy, upon first learning of the Device’s existence, swing immediately into one of their classic ethical debates. Spock’s coolly measured curiosity striking sparks against McCoy’s fiery, knee-jerk humanism. McCoy mocks the Genesis Device by channelling advertising speak: “According to myth, God created the Earth in six days. Now watch out! Here comes Genesis! We’ll do it for you in six minutes!’ The thematic conflict of the human and the destructive is even acted out on the level of the canonical texts that preoccupy the characters—the shamanistic nihilism of Moby-Dick and the humanistic idealism and sacrifice that defines A Tale of Two Cities. Spock is, of course, the tragic hero, the Sidney Carton of The Wrath of Khan. His logical and unemotive persona, which McCoy always assumes to be inimical to humane concerns, proves, as Kirk croaks in delivering a eulogy for his dead friend, redolent of the most human soul. Spock, now actually the captain of the Enterprise, hands over command to Kirk without concern when crisis is nigh, reminding his reluctant friend that “You proceed from a false assumption—I have no ego to bruise,” and giving Kirk exactly what everyone knows he needs at the same time. Spock becomes the paragon of selfless action and finds his fulfilment of logic in the act of giving his life to save the Enterprise’s crew from certain destruction.
Spock’s achievement of a kind of transcendence paves the way for a resurrection (though Nimoy was actually hoping to jump ship permanently), befitting his new status as demigod. He thus fulfils the religious imagery that he’s been associated with since the first film, which found him engaged in a rite to cleanse himself of feeling in primal landscape. Spock’s nirvana overtly contrasts Khan’s failed attempt to become the Destroyer of Worlds. Khan, genetically engineered and clearly associated with a remnant spirit of Nazi eugenics and an accompanying übermensch mentality, his own constantly stated superiority itself is a kind of godhead for his supporters—“Yours is a Superior Intellect,” as their salute to him goes, and one which his lieutenant Joachim can’t quite complete in dying as both salute and curse—proves weakened by exactly the egotism that Spock resists. Khan’s ruthless intelligence proves constantly susceptible to elements he can’t master, and his monomaniacal focus, like that of Ahab whom he constantly quotes, proves both infinitely destructive and yet quaintly impotent. “I shall avenge you!” he promises the dead Joachim, suggesting that in spite of his brilliance, he’s got all the capacity to learn from his mistakes of a goldfish.
The film’s booming moments of melodrama, such as Shatner’s immortal scream of “Khaaaaaaaaan!”, are either flaws or strengths depending on taste, but surely a helluva lot of fun either way. More to the point, such touches are part and parcel with the film’s resolutely nonironic, defiantly old-fashioned air. Meyer invests the film with an outsized quality that seems distinctly operatic: indeed, Kirk’s scream comes at the conclusion of a sequence that builds like an aria, as the two bull males gibe and wound each other with a spiritual ferocity that befits the talents of Shatner and Montalban, each capable of being both very good actors and colossal show-offs. Montalban, at the time a prime-time staple in “Fantasy Island” and still showing off his marvellous physique at 62, latched onto the role with gleefully outsized zest and finally gave Shatner a run for his money as the franchise’s biggest pork roast. That said, “Khaaaaaaaaan!” notwithstanding, Shatner’s at his best in the film, swinging from flip, sardonic good humour to introspection to larger-than-life heroism with a few well-judged bats of his eyelids and shifts of the inimitable Shatner voice. If Spock is the film’s tragic hero, Kirk here finally ascends to something like warrior-poet status, conjuring grace notes of wisdom hard-won from tragedy and gazing at the Genesis Planet with a truly affecting sense of wonder and rejuvenated spirit.
Whilst it would stretching things a little to call The Wrath of Khan an intellectual adventure movie, nonetheless, it is distinguished by the genuine intelligence that permeates through the various layers of its plot, character, and theme, and how the film plays them for dramatic value. The central, biblical invocations of the Genesis Device are then overlaid with the Christlike sacrifice of Spock, lending the film a mythopoeic quality of actual depth. Too many modern, action-oriented, scifi films today treat their specific genre’s basis, in science and inquisitive theory, as a source of glib MacGuffins. The contrast with J. J. Abrams’ entertaining yet comparatively shallow 2009 reboot of the series is constantly tempting: whereas that film treated its scifi gimmicks and pivots of plot with throwaway contempt or utilitarian purpose in the name of composing a straightforward adventure, Meyer wrings such flourishes and moments to heighten suspense. Thus, the key moments of the cleverness of the heroes are relishable in staging and impact: Kirk’s foiling of Khan’s apparently complete victory by taking advantage of his superior knowledge of the Federation ships, managing to remotely lower Khan’s shields and hit him with devastating and unexpected force; the rabbit-out-of-the-hat glee of the revelation that he and Spock have fooled Khan into thinking repairs that would take two hours would actually take two days by the simplest of ruses; and the final battle where, at Spock’s suggestion, Kirk taunts Khan into following him into the Mutara Nebula, where interference leaves the two ships blind and lacking shields. There, the greater experience of Kirk and Spock sees them best Khan by simply thinking in the three-dimensional terms that a spaceship offers, whereas Khan’s mind is stuck hopelessly in the 20th century, culminating at last when the nearly crippled and dying Enterprise can still sneak up behind the Reliant and pulverise it to a drifting ruin.
Even with Khan defeated, however, the danger is still not past, as he triggers the Genesis Device as his final apocalyptic stab at a pyrrhic victory: the device’s capacity to bring life means nothing to him, but it comes to mean everything for those left to behold it. In spite of the film’s wobbles, the contrivance of the finale, as the down-to-the-wire crisis demands Spock venture into a radiation-flooded room to restore the ship’s power, is nothing short of storytelling perfection. Meyer’s willingness to reach again for operatic heights is apparent in Kirk’s forlorn cry of “Spock!” as his hideously seared and dying friend makes his last salutary “Live long and prosper” sign through the Perspex that divides them. As his body is fired off in a photon torpedo tube in a scene inspired by a similar stellar funeral in Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), “Amazing Grace” surges on the soundtrack as his casket plummets onto the Genesis planet at the same moment a sun emerges from behind: it’s like Wagner in space by this stage. The final effect, ironically, wasn’t entirely what Meyer was after, presenting rather a sop to old Trekkies who couldn’t stand Spock’s death being taken too lightly, and yet it gives the film its truly grand final lustre. The Wrath of Khan fulfilled not only the best elements of Roddenberry’s original series, but connected it to the oldest and most complete forms of adventure mythology, positing the struggles of its sky-shaking heroes in the context of the birth and death of titans and worlds.
Fireworks (1947) / Puce Moment (1949) / Rabbit’s Moon (1950) / Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) / Scorpio Rising (1964) / Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) / Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) / Lucifer Rising (1971-81)
By Roderick Heath
The first context in which I ever heard of Kenneth Anger was probably the same as most people, if they know him at all: as the author of the two Hollywood Babylon books that digest the gossip Anger heard growing up in the fringes of the film world, to expose the mythology and seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood. But Anger’s true metier was making a steady stream of experimental, surrealistic movies, commencing in his teens in the early 1940s, struggling through the ’50s, and finally finding an audience in the adventurous-minded ’60s. When Anger screened his breakthrough work Scorpio Rising (1964), it was the subject of much litigation. But it proved a potent inspiration for young filmmakers and brought Anger a squad of famous fans and collaborators in the counterculture era. Anger, assertively homosexual when it was far from kosher and willing to tackle the matter in his films through allusive, but unmistakable terms, counts as one of the inventors of modern queer aesthetics, as well as a vital contributor to cinema culture in general. Anger’s films represent different levels of realised ambition. With their often perverse, always striking cavalcades of associate images, Anger’s films come across as, and were certainly designed to be, broadcasts from the outer precincts of American society and the modern psyche, looking back to an unattainable pagan past and detecting the codified ways in which primal instincts infuse and distort the contemporary world.
Anger, born Kenneth William Anglemyer in 1927, began his involvement with cinema as a child, so his own personal legend has it, appearing as one of the nymphs in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a film that had an effect on Anger’s later cinematic style and interests. He started making films as a kid, but considered his career to have started with Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), featuring several touches, like sped-up footage and dubbed-over pop music, that would become signature traits.
His first really defining work is considered to be Fireworks (1947), a striking homoerotic parable that reveals the depths of Anger’s early debts to Luis Buñuel, to whom he pays explicit tribute by recreating his cigarette-smoking pose in Un Chien Andalou (1929), and to Jean Cocteau, from whom he borrowed an interest in totems and transformations. But there’s also a violently, vividly original aspect to Fireworks, which commences with a single young man (Anger) lolling in his room, fingering a photograph of himself being carried by a hulking sailor, with a sculpture of a hand with smashed fingers sitting on his table. Phallic jokes recur: at one point, the young man seems to have an erection under his sheet, but he brushes away the cloth and finds to his disappointment it’s just a statuette; later the sailor unbuttons his fly to reveal a sparking rocket. The young man ventures out into the night, obviously hoping for a pick-up, but instead he encounters a formidable gang of sailors, including his sailor, armed with rude weapons found on the street.
Anger cleverly obfuscates exactly what happens to his hero except for impressions of something dreadfully violent yet also searingly erotic, in offering visions of his twisted, assaulted body from obtuse angles in a visually brutal experience. His eye are gouged, his upside-down mouth yaws wide in screams; white fluid, which many have thought to be metaphorical semen, pouring on his body, and, most incredibly, a hand holding a broken bottle neck, grazing the shattered edge over his belly, before Anger cuts to hideous shot of flesh being peeled open by determined hands, only to find a wavering compass within the carrion. The images are charged with carnal viciousness, but also metaphorically communicate the discovery of inner nature through acts on the body both pleasurable and aggressive. The young man, seemingly torn to pieces, is then returned to his room, with the sailor from the photo appearing amusingly with a tacky Christmas tree on his head and a candle on a stick that sets fire to the young man’s masturbatory collection of photos: the Christ myth reinterpreted as heroic gay romance mediated by chintzy, five-and-dime, religious paraphernalia. The final image of the two men lying together and the fingers returned to the statue is an emblem of phallic restoration. Coming from the time it does, Fireworks pulses not just with obvious gay interest, but also a psychic awareness of a strange new age—the compass within the flesh has a science-fiction quality to it in its fusion of man and machine, as well as body-horror, and the bleak, otherworldly visions of the outside world have a post-apocalyptic aspect. If it’s one of Anger’s most easily decoded works, it’s also one that possesses eerie, transformative, memorable power. It also got Anger prosecuted for the first time, but the Supreme Court of California finally judged the film to be art.
Anger spent most of his young life in Los Angeles, surrounded by movie industry people, listening to the gossip of the city’s gay community and communing with the ghosts of the already distant days of the great silent stars and the ideals of glamour that had fostered the city’s prosperity. Aand yet that age had been suppressed in a welter of shame for its outsized, amoral grandiosity, in pointed contrast to the grubby, castrated contemporary scene he portrayed in Fireworks. Whilst Anger gained the material for Hollywood Babylon from this background, he also absorbed something more mutable, something he tried to articulate in a film he never finished. The film intended to capture the ghosts of the departed inhabitants of the colossal movie mansions littering Hollywood (Billy Wilder would, of course, get around to his more literal treatment of this subject in 1951’s Sunset Blvd.). Anger did, however, complete one scene, which he finally turned into the short Puce Moment. As it stands, it’s a study in trying on nostalgic glamour, as a vampy young flapper sorts through her dresses and lounges amidst fragments of upscale bohemian décor, in seething shadows and colour that imbue the images with a flavour in slight tension with the stylization. One part animated ’20s Vogue photo spread, one part hazy nostalgia dream, this fillip sees Anger embracing a familiar camp-informed fondness for celebrating the apparel of haute couture femininity, albeit charged with a sense of mystery altogether rarer.
Anger left the U.S. in 1950, moving to Paris, to live with some blacklisted friends, partly at the behest of Jean Cocteau, who liked Fireworks. Anger repeatedly began and had to abandon films in the ’50s, including one that was supposed to be a fantasia on the life of the occultist and pansexual deviant Cardinal d’Este, of which, again, only one scene was completed, later shown as Eaux d’Artifice. Another unfinished project, which eventually the saw the light as Rabbit’s Moon, retold a Japanese myth of a man who falls in love with the moon, where a magical rabbit lives, and was enacted by members of the Commedia del’Arte, André Soubeyran, Nadine Valence, and Claude Revenant in the traditional guises of Pierrot, Pierrette, and Harlequin. Harlequin distracts Pierrot from his pure worship of the moon, to which he repeatedly stretches his arms, pulsating in repetitious shots with secretive energy, by dangling Pierrette before him. But Harlequin then snatches her away, leaving Pierrot to be ministered to by two nymphs (shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the consolations of music and a mirror, and then is pointed to the path to join his rabbit love. In the last image, the rabbit sits in the midst of the forest, and Pierrot plummets to the earth, having presumably tried, and failed, to climb to the moon. Puce Moment and Rabbit’s Moon form fragments of colourful, but frustrating and opaque ambition from Anger.
Anger had begun to cordon off his own area in the avant garde, however, in his fascination with cultural detritus and iconography—a form of fetishism which, both overt and subtle, throbs beneath such retro imagery. He struggled through the ’50s and early ’60s to make more movies, with only one inarguably completed, signal film to show for it: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film was inspired by a party given by some friends for which the theme was “come as your madness.” Anger, impressed with the results, decided to make a movie of the event transformed into a mystical spectacle. Here Anger expanded upon another interest important to his art: his life-long fascination with Aleister Crowley and pagan religion, especially Crowley’s personal creed, Thelema. (Anger subsequently made a documentary film with his friend Alfred Kinsey that looked into Crowley’s Abbey of Thélème in Palermo.) Built around the theme of a celebratory pageant in a lustrous palace from Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan,” Pleasure Dome depicts a number of pagan gods gathering together in the palace of a multitudinous titan, alternately garbed as Shiva, Osiris, and Nero, initially glimpsed swallowing jewels,and played by former silent film actor and dancer Samson De Brier. His guests include a pantheon of fascinating counterculture figures. The writer Anaïs Nin appears as Astarte, wearing a bird cage around her face. Anger’s friend and fellow pioneer in alternative cinema, Curtis Harrington, plays a servant based on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Margaret Cameron, the wife of a Crowley acolyte who would later play the mysterious Greek witch in Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), appears as Kali, rendered as a fiery-crowned über-femme. Pan turns up, accepting the gift of fire Kali gives him so that she can light her cigarette from his palm, before he conjures Aphrodite (Joan Whitney) from the flames.
As with many of Anger’s, images in the film seem wrung out of some collective unconscious, and also strike like the dark inverse of ’50s religious and historical epics with all their themes turned inside out, celebrating victorious, fertile paganism and anarchic antimoralism. Anger wildly superimposes the gods’ faces against cabalistic emblems, including the Eye of Horus, a constantly recurring motif in Anger’s later films, as is shots from silent movies, here with visions of Babylonian worship and calamity perhaps out of Intolerance (1916): glimpses of the god as Osiris, with Isis (Katy Kadell) suppliant before him, clearly evoke a silent film style with sepia tint, make-up, and gesture-acting. It’s all scored to Leos Janacek’s “Gagliotic Mass.” Characters, religions, genders all merge into each other, masks within masks revealed, but the film has a faintly visible narrative, as a beautiful young man amongst the guests is clawed by an orgiastic crowd like Orpheus assaulted by the Bacchantes. This sacrifice to the perpetuation of natural rhythms and archaic ritual also evokes the assault in Fireworks, as the imagery proliferates in an ecstatic fury. The whole thing, on one level, is a camp tribute to a kind of vanished heyday of high-society decadence, as well as the ambition of Crowley to turn Judeo-Christian European society’s mores and myth-history inside out. Anger perhaps succeeds better with images than any cant could accomplish: his pictures tear the fabric of reality, religion, mythology, sexuality, and character to pieces, and then glue them back together in any form he sees fit. In doing so, Anger created one of the founding documents of psychedelic and camp aesthetics.
Anger struggled for quite a few years after this, writing Hollywood Babylon and publishing it in France chiefly to raise funds, and attempting to shoot a film version of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But it wasn’t until he made Scorpio Rising that he made a proper comeback. He moved away from the historic artifice of his ‘50s works to explore a more contemporary fetish, celebrating the paraphernalia of motorcyclists, overlaid with pop music. In doing so, Anger discovered aspects of popular culture that practically no one else had recognised before, discerning the latent fetishism and delirious eroticism in the music, the homoeroticism in the macho excess of the leather-clad motorcyclists—the gone-wrong sons of the queer-bashing sailors of Fireworks. Divided into several acts, Scorpio Rising commences with languorous sequences of young men obsessively repairing, tending, and reconstructing motorcycles, the mechanisms of the machines explicitly defined as love objects by the songs playing. One young cyclist lounges in bed reading comics before finally, indolently, piecing together his biker uniform and venturing out into the night. By now familiar Anger motifs recur, but in a newly confrontational style, as wayside denizens, bohemian effuse, and gay corsairs congregate to party whilst his iconic biker Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is conflated with Jesus, glimpsed in excerpts from an old silent film, and Hitler, waving a Nazi flag like a barbarian priest summoning armies of the night to orgy and rampage.
Anger described the film as “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans,” his letter bomb to contemporary American culture. Amongst other things, the film perhaps proved Anger the most original and intelligent user of associative montage since Eisenstein, synthesising a series of connections between religion, sex, subcultural obsession, mechanics, and politics. Anger’s unfinished, ill-fated follow-up, Kustom Kar Kommandos, indicates with its title his ongoing thesis. A capped, cigarette-smoking, blonde-haired death’s head winks at the audience repeatedly in Scorpio Rising, evoking old VD posters as well as medieval folk-myth, having pushed the sex-death association to a limit. His method of reconstructing inanimate objects as eroticised things through careful lighting and dreamy photography segues into shots of bared chests fringed by leather, signalling Anger’s developing refusal to approach gay imagery so obliquely, leading to swiftly glimpsed sadomasochistic abuse, like a whip-scarred ass and a man being held down, again evoking Fireworks, with fluid being poured on his buttocks. The sexuality and fury of Scorpio Rising is encoded in its structure, rising from the languorous sensuality and indulgent observations of the early scenes into a hyperkinetic montage driving towards a deadly pile-up, with the red revolving lamp of an ambulance the inevitable last image.
Scorpio Rising courted controversy, and got it in spades, finally being banned by an all-female jury. The ban was later overturned, and Anger became a counterculture hero. He started hanging out with famous freaks like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who would both make substantial contributions to two of his most important later works, Jagger composing a score for Invocation of My Demon Brother and Faithfull appearing in Lucifer Rising. Much the same as Anger’s early works had looked back with some nostalgia to an earlier period of subcultural revolt associated with Crowley, so, too, his own films are fascinating records in image and idea of another era. Anger’s adoption by the age he helped to create, ironically, brought him into close contact with some of the forces he’d been attacking in his films.
With Invocation of My Demon Brother, he returned to familiar structural motifs, commencing as he had done with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and would again in Lucifer Rising, with a figure who seems to possess powers of magic or, at least, prophetic talent awakening. In this case it’s a white-haired man with a demonic aspect, looking about a room full of naked male houris and conjuring visions where they grapple, conjoin, meld into beasts of many backs. Freaky youths smoke a joint from a skull-shaped holder, and Anger himself plays a ranting priest of Thelema waving the Nazi flag and stalking around his psychedelic temple performing rites, as footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam swerves into the burning of a dead black cat in a funeral, footage of Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey, and, as a kind of grace note, hippies performing a gentler rite that concludes with a charred figure holding a sign that reads: “Zap – you’re pregnant – that’s witchcraft.” That closing message literalises the sensibility that runs through Anger’s films, the inextricability in his eyes of mysticism from corporeal sensation and the cycles of creation and death. Bodies writhe with symbols projected on them, including a swastika seemingly reclaimed for its original mystical roots.
As such, the final few moments of Invocation suggest an antistrophe from the malefic swirl of much of the film, the most frenetic and evil-feeling of Anger’s works, with its bolder homoeroticism shading into a portrait of a world of disintegrating substance. Watching it, I felt as if Anger had tapped into something dark within the period that would be acted out by a true-life, ranting, Nazi-flag-idolising priest of destruction, Charles Manson. I did not know then that one of the people who appear in the film, Bobby Beausoleil, went on to be convicted and now sits in prison, as one of Manson’s clan of killers. Anger had chosen Beausoleil a few years earlier to appear in his project Lucifer Rising, but by the time of Invocation, culled from footage put together for the Lucifer Rising project, Beausoleil and Anger had ceased to be friends; Beausoleil drifted close to Manson and killed Gary Hinman for Manson. Such a mind-boggling subsequent chain of events solidifies the impression of Invocation being Anger’s most acutely tuned reportage from the fringe. Eventually, in spite of Beausoleil’s incarceration, Anger made peace with him, as in prison, Beausoleil seemed at last to be a collaborator who couldn’t argue with Anger. He commissioned Beausoleil to write the impressive score for Lucifer Rising, which Anger pieced together over the next few years, after tossing out a score written by Jimmy Page, who appears in the film briefly, after a row.
Fittingly, Lucifer Rising, in spite of its name, betrays creativity on Anger’s part that’s generally more positive-feeling, more spiritually searching, if no more literal or free of menace. Beausoleil later reported that Anger’s idea was indeed to construct an antithesis to the death-worship of Scorpio Rising. Anger even builds a visual joke out of that contrast, countering how Scorpio Rising’s title was spelt out as metal sequins on a leather jacket, with “Lucifer Rising” appearing as colourful letters on the back of Lucifer’s robe. A Von Danikenesque idea caps off the film that links Anger’s primal, mythical figures with glowing flying saucers. But the film commences with shots of volcanic lava and protoplasmic creation, before a bare-breasted Isis (Myriam Gibril) overseas the birth and growth of crocodiles and salutes the arrival of Osiris (filmmaker Donald Cammell) at the Temple of Karnak, the pair stirring up storms. This is the pair whose “Aeons” are supposed to have passed, according to Thelemic lore, and they’re waiting for the time of Horus. Meanwhile, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins), whom Anger had insisted be played by a young rebellious type, awakens in a mysterious palace, seats himself upon a throne, and claims a blood sacrifice, spearing from on high a young woman. Drenched in blood, he has to bathe. Faithfull appears as a woman, identified as Lilith, the rebellious female demon from Kabbalah lore, who rises from a hollowed, stone resting place by the light of the moon and travels to perform invocations to her male counterpart, Lucifer, in front of the Sphinx and pyramids. Seemingly rejuvenated, or possibly in an earlier time, she follows the path of torch-carrying worshippers to the Externsteine in Germany, a former German pagan site, high on great stone pillars, and seems to penetrate the magic abode of Lucifer.
Here the images lose all intelligibility as magi seem to congregate, visions zipping past with urgency and threat, swooping tracking shots describing vignettes of people with covered faces shuffling cards, Page reading an ancient tablet and regarding a photo of Crowley, and images of slow-motion explosion evoking the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970) in celebrating disintegration fantasy. Anger reappears ostensibly as the same Magus appearing in Invocation of My Demon Brother, performing rites in showers of sparks and stirring the seas to rise. Lucifer concocts apocalyptic magic and gets a birthday cake. Lilith seems anguished by having smashed a table, cries into a blood-stained scarf, and crushes a dried flower she seems to have meant to present to Lucifer. But they’re reunited at Karnak, and this time, a living lotus passes on to Isis, as she and Osiris watch spaceships arrive. In spite of the arcane symbolism and trippy pseudo-myth, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anger was making films about the act of creativity itself, his whirling incantations resembling the feverish labour that must have gone into these films. In any event, they form awesome, ludicrous, brilliant sprawls of imagery. Anger’s DNA flows like an underground river through much contemporary American cinema, including the films of John Waters, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant, and virtually every pseudo-surreal music-video director, like Tarsem Singh, from the late ’80s on.
Yusheng Liang, who died in 2009, is credited as one of the writers who modernised the wu xia novel, the imperishably popular Chinese mythological pulp genre. One of his most iconic works, The Bride with White Hair (1958), has been adapted several times for the big and small screens, but never more famously than with the two-part epic made by Ronnie Yu and David Wu, who split directorial duties but shared writing credits on both films. Both directors parlayed their success with this movie into disappointing Hollywood careers, but The Bride with White Hair diptych is one of the most eye-catching and dramatically inventive examples of the evolving modern Hong Kong genre cinema. It was made when the classic wire-fu style defined by directors like King Hu and Tsui Hark had not yet been corrupted by CGI, but it is vividly modern in other respects. The aesthetics of the Hong Kong genre school both recall Hollywood’s all-but-lost enthusiasm for raw storytelling and cinematic action panache, whilst retaining its own peculiarities, and The Bride with White Hair pushed the boundaries of the school. Its relatively unsheathed erotic edge and its modern thematic concerns pick at the surface the generic conceits and traditional assumptions, and present wild variations on its central issue of masculinity and femininity in fatal conflict.
The Bride with White Hair’s unusual structure offers a prologue that depicts a party of Imperial soldiers travelling to a distant, enchanted mountain where they’ve heard grows a rare flower with amazing healing properties that blooms only once every 10 years. They need the flowers to cure the Emperor’s health, but when they reach the peak, they’re astounded to find a man seated in the billowing snow, watching over the flowers. He slaughters them, declaring that there is only one person the flowers are for—Zhuo Yihang, whose life story is recounted in flashback.
Zhuo was an orphan adopted into and raised with the values and fighting techniques of the Wu-Tang clan, one of eight syndicated sects that form the Chung Yuan. Zhuo proved to be a problematic student because of his innate individualism and discomfort with a life lived according to strict hierarchies, but he was also clearly the most talented. In spite of the efforts of one of the teachers, Bai Yun (Law Lok-lam), to promote his daughter Ho Lu-Hua (Yammie Lam) as a potential chieftain for the Wu-Tang, Zhuo, after clearing himself of charges of assault and battery against some young men from rival clans, is nominated to lead a coalition of their forces against the forces of Ji Wushuang. The enemy, named for conjoined male and female twins (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) who are evil sorcerers and who were once expelled from China by the Chung Yuan clans. Now the twins have returned at the head of a cult of followers who practice human sacrifice and erotic rituals.
Their chief warrior and strong right fist is the whip-wielding Devil Wolf Girl (Brigitte Lin), so dubbed because she was raised from infancy by wolves and retained a devilish relish for battle after being trained in the deadly arts by Ji. But Zhuo, seeing her at war, remembers her when she was still living with the wolves and playing her pipe under the moonlight. He tracks her down after a battle to a ruined city where she bathes in a sacred spring. In spite of her fury at his intransigence, she has to return to her overlord before she can kill him. Such a sequence has echoes through to Western mythology, and the myth of Artemis and Actaeon, with its coded relationship of voyeurism and the inviolable female space. Later, when the Chung Yuan army advances into Wushuang’s territory, Lian and the cultists ambush the coalition encampment, and she and Zhuo square off. Zhuo challenges her to a weaponless fight, but Lian is struck by an arrow shot by Lu-Hua, and Zhuo protectively rushes her away to the ancient city, where he helps her recover and becomes her lover. He gives her the name Lian Nichang, and during his absence, he’s written off as a traitor by the clans. The male Ji Wushuang desperately desires Nichang, and is stoked to heights of jealousy; when she returns to the cult to be ask to be released from it so she can live with Zhuo, the male insists she sleep with him first. When she fails to please him, she’s forced to undergo a punishing ritual humiliation.
The Bride with White Hair films share common traits with Hong Kong cinema, from the style of humour and character interaction that seem distinctly more naïve than what we’re used to in Western cinema, to the fluent, utterly confident sense of storytelling that seems at once beautifully simple and irreducibly sophisticated, moving at a pace that forces the viewer to keep up. Both episodes soar to rare heights of stoked emotion and drenched décor effects, but it’s the way their inflated set-pieces revolve around metaphorical versions of everyday travails that really drives them. It’s most marked in Nichang’s singular insistence that Zhuo trust her, a key component of any adult relationship, made here to hinge on an act of mass murder and magical shape-shifting. But likewise, Zhuo’s chafing against the authoritarianism and clannish narrowness of Chung Yuan life evokes any kind of discomfort in imposed social roles.
Yu was most interested in taking a Romeo and Juliet angle on Yusheng’s novel, emphasising its heroes as struggling with the deterministic forces that have created them. Throughout the two films also flows a richly transformative investigation into extreme visions of gender conflict and emotional violence. Nichang, in particular, lives on a balancing point between transcendent epiphany and infernal rage in the first film, linked to the natural world and primal forces, whereas fellow orphan Zhuo is associated with human, hierarchical society and its entrapping concepts. But both are characterised as exceptional rebels who cause terrible destruction because of their wayward personas. In the sequel, Nichang relentlessly pummels a young woman almost to death to save her the lesson never to trust a man. The bizarrely linked male and female villains of part one, who, with their magic powers, can pummel people without touching them, also embody the story’s twisted take on heterosexual relations, and add immeasurably to the perversity and drama of the action. The his/her arguments between the twins, sister perpetually mocking her brother for his agonised lust for Nichang, which proves to be their Achilles’ heel, builds to the amazingly pathological images of the brother stabbing his own arm in masochistic frustration, the sister screaming and begging him to stop, and later, when he’s trying to have sex with a willfully passionless Nichang, his sister, “lying” on his back mocking him, building to eruptive frustration that causes him to smash Nichang’s head repeatedly against the bed frame. It’s the sort of scene where you wonder why David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven didn’t come up with it first.
Dashes of Spielbergian ambition dot The Bride with White Hair’s visual texture, with the Indian styling of Ji’s infernal cult, massed in a chanting relish of evil, suggesting the influence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), as well as a hint of Bollywood flavouring. But with its colour-drenched frames, dramatically tilted camera angles, and the eerily beautiful, yet lightning-paced images of the warriors bounding through fog-shrouded forests, Yu, like Johnny To’s wild The Heroic Trio from the same year, effectively synthesises Hollywood high style with the traditional effects of wu xia cinema. Yu also employs a headlong rush of narrative clearly learnt from Tsui Hark, and he’s not terribly interested in developing with clarity a political subplot involving General Wu San-Kuei (Eddy Ko), an officer Zhuo had known since childhood who sets out to become Emperor, adding to a slightly diffuse quality to the narrative that is the film’s biggest fault. But the blend of fantasy imagery and a knowing yet unself-conscious use of that imagery’s protean possibilities for investigating complex aspects of the psyche help the film earn comparison with the classical mythology it evokes.
The blend of the utterly fantastic and the emotionally overwrought builds to two brilliant sequences. The gauntlet Nichang has to walk in leaving Ji’s cult sees her walking upon hot coals, and shards of jagged glass while being mercilessly beaten by the cultists. She emerges, bloodied and near collapse, but still manages enough pride and power to walk out. But when she returns to the ancient city, she finds Zhuo has left. Fellow members of the Wu-Tang, including Lu-Hua, have tracked him down and convinced him to return to explain himself to the head priest, but on arrival, they find the other Wu-Tang have all been massacred, the head priest’s severed head dangling from the ceiling, and one wounded man reporting that the Wolf Girl attacked them. When Nichang arrives looking for Zhuo, the remnants of the cult attack her, and even Zhuo believes she’s guilty thanks to the dying man’s testimony. Nichang is deeply offended and heartbroken at the distrust, especially after what she’s been through for Zhuo, and when Lu-Hua manages to stab her with a sword, rather than dying, she’s transmogrified into a white-haired demon. She skewers Lu-Hua with a sword, tears off her red wedding gown to reveal a white one, and slaughters the rest of the Wu-Tang in a supernatural fury. The first massacre proves to have been the work of Ji, having used their power to assume Nichang’s form, and she and Zhuo join forces long enough to slice the evil sorcerer in half, allowing the male to release a sigh of relief before dying: “Such a relief to sleep this way!”
Yu’s film concludes on a bravely unresolved note with the haunted Zhuo on his mountaintop vigil, transfixed by his failures, and Nichang having disappeared into the underworld, now a spirit of purified wrath. Wu’s follow-up takes the story well beyond the limits of Yusheng’s novel: it’s 10 years later, and Zhou continues his vigil as the time of the flower’s blooming comes near. The Wu-Tang is struggling to rebuild after the massacre, but Nichang has entirely embraced her dark side and is relentlessly killing off all the sects of the Chung Yuan. The Wu-Tang tradition has come down to its last heir, Fung Chun-Kit (Sunny Chan), who’s marrying Yu Qin or “Lyre” (Joey Mann), daughter of another clan, taking the risk of incurring Nichang’s wrathful efforts to destroy all marriages within the clan. The image of the severed Ji twins presages a theme developed here of gender war, as Nichang has become a declared misanthropist, saving wronged and dishonoured women and bringing them into her cult, including her chief henchwoman and crypto-lesbian lover Chen Yuanyuan (Ruth Winona Tao), inculcating them with powers to become ruthless killers whilst giving them each a taste of revenge on their specific male abusers. On Kit and Lyre’s wedding night, Nichang breaks into the temple and savagely beats the couple, but when one of Feng’s friends manages to help him escape, Nichang spirits Ling to her hidden fortress and brainwashes her into becoming a psychotic assassin of men. Feng is nursed back to health by tomboy Wu-Tang adherent Moon (Christy Chung), who’s in love with him and sad that he married Ling, but sets out with him and a band of other young Chung Yuan warriors to seek out and storm Nichang’s fortress.
Wu’s half of the story presents several mirroring images of both the first film’s characters and their travails: where Zhuo and Nichang’s schism was something they tried to resolve in spite of their disparate worlds, Kit and Ling’s split is artificially imposed. The original’s core love triangle is reconfigured into a proliferation of grazing, inchoate relationships. Moon pines for Kit and is admired in turn by his determined but less good-looking fellow warrior Liu Hang (Richard Suen), who proves nonetheless a determined and able helpmate. Moon, with her mannish affectations—she’s seen constantly chewing on a cigarette—but thoroughly heterosexual ambitions stand in contrast to the cult Nichang runs with her collective of female assassins and their hideout’s air of lush sensuality. The clan warriors are placed under the command of the aged “Granny” of the Au Mei clan (Lily Chung), whose own mane of white hair sees her momentarily mistaken for the witch when she comes to take command. Moon fires off arrows at her, but she’s so good, she catches the arrows between her teeth. She’s also a disarmingly unaffected, calm, and wise person who prefers acting in defence and delegates to Kit when the time to attack arrives. Nichang in her transmogrified witch state can throw out her long white hair in tentacle-like coils that pierce the skin and drip poison. Moon is riddled with strands of the hair, and she’s left on death’s door, forbidden from attempting any kung fu; but she still leaps into the fray to save her friends with tragic results.
A lot of credit for the heft of the films is owed to its terrific pairing of Cheung and Lin, two of the best actors in Hong Kong cinema (though Cheung’s contribution to the second film is disappointingly brief), and especially Lin, who commands the films like an empress. They both considerably overshadow the younger actors in the sequel. There’s a touch of tribute to John Carpenter as the languorous, suggestive sequences of Lyre being ritually subsumed into the cult by Chen Yuanyuan echo the similar scenes of heroines in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), whilst the scene in which Kit dances before his wedding, blindfolded and playing a lyre given as a wedding present, has a quality similar to the rapturous little touches with which Zhang Yimou would decorate his wu xia films. After one fight scene, Wu cuts to observe the glittering drops of a slain ma’s blood drip from the fronds of a silvery bush, a poetic flourish of a kind that dots both films, and it’s worth noting the intensity of the design element to the films, with the great costume design by Emi Wada and the set decoration, especially in the recurring contrast between the livid whiteness of Nichang and setting rendered either in red, the same as the red blood that spits out of so many bodies, or rich nocturnal blue. Wu, a long-time editor who also served in that capacity on the first episode, offers direction slightly more prosaic than Yu’s, and the initial Seven Samurai-like story set-up more familiar, failing to ruffle the settled rhythms and naïve humour of the genre as much.
But the story arc again echoes with fidelity a familiar mythic tale, and proceeds with wildly eccentric energy, building to even more floridly grandiose climaxes. When the Chung Yuan war party is all but wiped out infiltrating Nichang’s citadel, Kit and Liu are advised by Granny to seek out Zhuo Yuhang, as she’s one of the few who knows where’s he’s been hiding all these years. Wu obfuscates whether they find him in the chilly extremes of the sacred mountain, cutting from them stumbling away in a blizzard with Zhou watching them from his pinnacle, to the determined young duo deciding to attack the fortress again with planted explosives. It’s in the last few minutes that Wu’s installment goes for broke as his heroes give battle, Lei dying in combat with one of female cultists, dynamiting both himself and her after giving her a kiss to show her what a “real man” is like, and Zhuo turning up in time to forestall Nichang from killing Kit and Lyre. The confrontation of the two former lovers, long delayed, pays off in the delirious image of Zhuo, once again dropping his arms before Nichang, being skewered by her long tendrils of hair, proffering the magical flowers that get burnt to a crisp by a falling cinder. Zhuo’s proof of his still-smouldering ardour and contrition brings Nichang back from a homicidal rage, only to gain a sword in the back from the jealous Chen Yuanyuan, and all three die as the fortress falls flaming about their ears. It’s the sort of giddy, Wagnerian climax that one so often expects from fantasy-action tales, but so rarely gets.
Even in its early stages, Tom Cruise’s career has been marked by risk taking. Not long after his star-making turn as the privileged teen having a wild weekend in Risky Business (1983), and just before his Air Force recruitment film Top Gun (1986), Cruise appeared in a smallish fantasy film that might have changed perceptions of him among casting directors and fans alike. In it he plays a Puckish forest child whose love for a princess imperils all that is good in the world, though admittedly, he does go on an heroic quest to fight the forces of darkness. That he made this film certainly must be down to his desire to work with the best directors—in this case, Ridley Scott, whose stylish Blade Runner (1982), his last film before Legend, was in a class by itself.
Scott’s earlier scifi/fantasy films, including the highly popular Alien (1979), focused on a menacing near-future. With Legend, Scott turned his gaze toward a pre-Judeo-Christian world. With its emphasis on enchantment, the primacy of true love, and violence without blood and death, this simple story, briskly told, was obviously made primarily for tweens and teens. Yet such is Scott’s skill that this tale is richly embellished with the power of myth for people of all ages via the mythmaking vehicle of the 20th century—film.
Simply, Darkness (Tim Curry) is bothered to learn that two unicorns still roam the earth. No longer content to simply be half of existence, he sends his goblins out to kill the creatures, without which Light will be banished forever. An innocent princess named Lily (Mia Sara), the beloved of Jack (Cruise), is used to lure the unicorns within range of the goblins’ poisoned darts. One is hit, but the other escapes. After the goblins cut off his horn, the world is plunged into darkness, with snow and ice covering the formerly verdant landscape. Lily sets off to right her wrong, and Jack and several elves follow to rescue her and the female unicorn, which has been captured and awaits execution.
Legend honors the era of the Goddess like few mythological works I’ve seen. Some associate the feminine with night, but it is actually the moon, which brings light to darkness, that is feminine. Lily is no silver-spoon princess who looks down on the beings of Mother Earth—its peasants and the embodied spirits of nature represented by elves and sprites. Indeed, when she visits the home of Nell (Tina Martin), a rosy-cheeked peasant woman, she waxes rhapsodic on the riches to be found in the humble cottage and surrounding forest. She loves Jack, whose spritely appearance makes him seem a cross between mortal and enchanted—an earthly man and proper male opposite who is at home in the feminine. When she realizes that she helped the minions of Darkness attack the unicorns, she decides to take action on her own.
Jack is an interesting character. Looking like Peter Pan (traditionally played by a woman), he is mortal, but has crossed over into the semi-deified world. Gump (David Bennent, the wonderful star of The Tin Drum), who seems to be the lead elf, has accepted him completely as a forest being, and let Jack in on all the forests’ secrets, including the location of the unicorns and, when he must fight Darkness, the cache of armor and weaponry he will need for his hero’s quest. He berates Jack for letting Lily touch the sacred unicorn, but recognizes that Jack’s love trumps such rules. In this, Legend is much more forgiving than the deity who expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
Scott’s film shares some elements in common with his earlier works, particularly Blade Runner. The underground palace in which Darkness lives is reminiscent of Blade Runner in its dark, claustrophobic, semi-fascistic look. Yet it also exists on a scale of grandeur that fits not only the physical size, but also the importance of Darkness in the universe. Earth inscribes a perfect circle not only around the sun, but also on its axis, the latter action giving equal time to darkness and light. “What is light without dark,” says Darkness, a simple lesson for the physical life of our world that Scott honors and showcases. Jack’s ambiguous status also echoes the uncertainty about Deckard’s status as a human.
Scott also creates some wonderful images. When Lily looks at a clock with moving figures in Nell’s cottage, a portend of her future emerges when she sees snow covering the figure of the young girl being chased by the carving of death. The image of the male unicorn prostrate under a tree, snow swirling to cover him as his mate paces and bucks frantically around him is beautiful and poignant. A dancing black dress Darkness presents to Lily as her wedding gown (Liz Gilbert, whose face is covered in black gauze) is macabre and beautifully lit by leaping flames from his enormous fireplace. Scott’s dazzling palette of colors in the early sequences is a splendid tribute to nature.
I quite admired the make-up and costume designs, but alas, some of the masks were ill-constructed and rather laughable, and whatever was used to keep them affixed to the actors’ flesh didn’t work very well. Nonetheless, a green creature arising from the moat around Darkness’ castle to eat Jack was quite impressive-looking, as was Darkness himself. Annabelle Lanyon, who plays the sprite Oona, has an elfin face as it is, and her otherworldliness is accentuated by intense blue contact lenses and pale, wispy hair. I was transfixed whenever she was on screen.
It’s hard to really talk about performances in this film, since the dialogue is so basic and little complexity is required of the actors. Nonetheless, Bennent is an enormously gifted actor who projects gravity and strength despite his diminutive size. Cruise and Sara make an appealing couple who really do seem to be in love. And well, Tim Curry is at his Tim Curryest.
We’ve grown used to filmed myths and legends of the most bloated proportions these days. It’s nice to reflect on a film that infuses our hearts with the same kind of magic with economy and simplicity.
I think it’s very interesting that Catherine Breillat has continued her recently begun survey of female-centric fairy tales (the first, Bluebeard, premiered in 2009) with a film made for French television. Only in France, perhaps, could a controversial director with a penchant for filming explicit sex make a film certain to be watched by millions of girls—and that is certainly good news for the future women of France. For Breillat brings her feminist sensibilities to the story, borrowing freely from other fairy tales (mainly Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”), to create a hero’s journey for girls and both subtly and directly confronting male audiences with the damage they do to women.
The film opens with an old woman (Rosine Favey) laughing wickedly while holding in her arms a baby who looks only minutes old. She is a powerful fairy who intends to curse the child, a princess named Anastasia, to die at age 16 after pricking herself on a spindle made from a yew tree standing in the graveyard. Three young fairies (Douina Sichov, Leslie Lipkins, and Camille Chalon) arrive too late to prevent the old fairy’s curse because they stopped to bathe in a nearby pond. After a comic scene in which the fairies peck at each other about their boasts to more power than they have, each nonetheless is able to mitigate the sentence when they arrive to bestow their blessings on the princess: one says the girl will sleep rather than die, the next says she will fall under the spell at age 6 and dream a full life for 100 years, and the third offers her the gift of awakening at the age of 16 because “childhood lasts too long.”
The film moves immediately to a 6-year-old Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) who strains at the restrictions of being a girl and even proclaims she is really a boy named Vladimir. Perhaps in a fitting punishment for rejecting her gender, she is stricken with the spindle prick while dressed in a ridiculous pink kimono over a short, lacey tutu as she prepares to dance en pointe among a flock of similarly garbed girls. She finds herself in an underground cavern filled with skeletons and ruled over by a boil-covered man who says he is a reflection of her rotting flesh. She wins her way out of the cavern by bowling down some bones and goes into the wider world.
Anastasia is whisked by an empty train to a country of dwarves, who eject her. Her next and most important stop is a trackside cottage, where she is taken in by a woman (Anne-Lise Kedvès) and her son Peter (Kerian Mayan), and becomes Peter’s sister. She is delighted to shed her ballet costume and dress in Peter’s clothes, and the pair becomes inseparable. From this point on, the film moves forward in a faithful rendering of most of the parts of “The Snow Queen.” Peter looks into the face of the Snow Queen (Romane Portail) one snowy night. His heart is pierced with ice and his eye is tainted with a snowflake; his subsequent rejection of Anastasia and desire to break free is diagnosed by his mother as Peter reaching that Awkward Age. But one night, he leaves with the Snow Queen, and Anastasia sets off on her hero’s quest to find him and melt his heart. Her quest will take her back to the country of dwarves and a meeting with their albino king and queen, onto an encounter with the bandit maiden (Luna Charpentier) and her gang when they attack her coach, and finally on a doe-back ride to Lapland before we return to the castle where the story began. The 16-year-old Anastasia (Julia Artamonov) awakens to the sight of Johan (David Chausse), a handsome descendent of Peter, looking down upon her. If you’re waiting for a title card that says “They lived happily ever after,” you haven’t taken the lesson of the quest to heart.
Although the film is titled The Sleeping Beauty, all the action really occurs in “The Snow Queen” section of the film. This, I think, is Breillat’s strategy for turning the negative images of women Charles Perrault set to paper right on their head. First, Anastasia is no passive beauty who falls asleep just as she is awakening to sexual feelings. She may be a princess whose wish is others’ command, but she knows that she belongs to a second-class gender. The evil fairy is old, an image of a woman deformed by the self-loathing patriarchy engenders in women. The young fairies know they aren’t strong enough to fight the power, but it seems that the 100-year dormancy is a prayer that things will be better for women in the future.
Anastasia’s journey resembles Dorothy’s in Oz, right down to the little people, and ends with the shaman telling her that she has always had the power to defeat the Snow Queen, as evidenced by the fact that she won over many powerful and dangerous people and got them to help her. But the journey offers additional lessons. For example, Anastasia tells Peter he is being cruel by cutting back the rose bushes outside their home. Peter explains that brambles benefit from a cutting back, sending more shoots out during the growing season and producing flowers of many colors for all eternity. Anastasia answers that there is no eternity. Is it best to please ourselves by making the rose bushes produce abundant blooms, or might it be better to let them grow their own way, even if they stop looking beautiful or spread their prickly branches widely? Anastasia has an instinctive feeling toward the roses, but trusts in Peter’s love—a trust he will betray by falling for a projection of the feminine rather than the real thing.
When the film reaches past the traditional ending of “Sleeping Beauty,” Breillat brings Anastasia into the present. Anastasia flirts with Johan, letting him unbutton only a few of the many buttons running down the back of her old-fashioned dress. Her desire awakened, she imagines a mature version of the bandit maiden (Rhizlaine El Cohen) has returned. The young bandit excited Anastasia during her adventure by threatening to stab her, and their mutual excitement erupts again in a fantasy of lesbian love. Now prepared, Anastasia is ready to consummate her passion with Johan, but honestly tells him that her true love is Peter, that all men must understand that women stay true to their idealized lover. The next time Johan comes to see her, he finds only her dress. Heartbroken, he does not see her again until a few months later, walking down the street dressed provocatively in modern garb. She’s pregnant but rejects him nonetheless to live on her own terms, saying that she entered his world alone. The world of fairy tales, it seems, has nothing to offer modern women, a condition Breillat’s films might begin to repair if only she didn’t express so much pessimism about the possibility of gender equality and mutual support.
Breillat’s visual lyricism creates magic and whimsy. Watching Anastasia riding on the back of a doe across a snowswept vista is positively breathtaking, and the cast creates weirdly compelling tableaux awash in color and grandeur. The switch to the flat, unadorned world of today is a rude awakening that is perhaps a bit too bleak and heartless. Breillat has done much to explicate the feminine world to itself and to astute male viewers, but perhaps she is getting impatient at the lack of progress. I can only send words of encouragement to her and those who find so much inspiration in her work.
The year’s Palme d’Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, has earned enthusiastic notices from critics around the world, testament to the arrival of its director Apichatpong Weerasethakul among the elite of world cinema. This Thai screenwriter and director has a refreshing point of view that pays tribute not only to his personal history and his country’s traditions, but also to the influence of the Chicago experimental film scene to which he was exposed while attending the film school of Chicago’s Art Institute. Festival goers who are unfamiliar with Weerasethakul’s films or point of view and who simply want to see what captured the top prize at Cannes are likely to be disappointed with this film. It takes more patience than the average film, and its magic realism isn’t of the twee variety most Americans are used to. Thus, I’ll pass on some advice Mexican director Francisco Athié gave me and the rest of the audience attending a screening of Vera, his psychedelic meditation on death: “It is like an LSD trip. If you go with it, you will have a good trip. If you do not go with it, you will have a bad trip.”
The film is set in a rural area of northern Thailand, where the title character Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) has a successful farm. We see him out among his workers, one of whom shows him the pest problem they have in their tamarind grove. Boonmee is concerned about his farm and his workers, since he is in end-stage renal failure and has no heirs to whom to leave the farm. His sister-in-law Jen (Jengira Pongpas) has come up from Bangkok with her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee) to look after Boonmee. She worries about the immigrants he has employed to work on his farm, particularly a young man from Laos who handles Boonmee’s dialysis treatments: “Aren’t you afraid they will kill you and steal from you?” It’s obvious that Jen will not accept his offer to give her the farm, even with Boonmee’s promise that he will return as a ghost to help her out.
This promise isn’t as empty as a Western viewer might think. During a dinner the three are sharing, the ghost of Boonmee’s wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) appears. She says hello to her sister and nephew and later tends to Boonmee’s care after his Laotian helper returns to Laos to marry. Also joining them at the family table is Boonmee and Huay’s long-lost son Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who has become a monkey ghost. His dark form and glowing red eyes don’t seem to frighten anyone, and he tells his father he watched the search parties Boonmee sent out to look for him but didn’t dare return. He had set out into the woods to search for a monkey ghost he had photographed and ended up mating with it. Weerasethakul films the flashback—the darkroom where the photo was developed, Boonsong’s search in the forest, the search party—one of the films within the film.
The main film will be interrupted several times to tell different stories that may or may not relate to Boonmee’s past lives, including an absolutely mesmerizing story of a homely princess who mates with a catfish that quite reminded me of a mythic story of agrarian communities I heard from Joseph Campbell about a maiden who mated with an eel. It seems clear that Weerasethakul based this film not only on a book of past-life stories a monk collected from people he encountered, but also on universal mythic traditions. He also seems to chart the evolution of the human race, as Boonmee, followed by Jen and Tong, is led into a deep cave like a salmon to its birthplace and, there, expires. His funeral comprises the last leg of the film, which will see a worldly monk from Bangkok become spooked in the rural monastery and seek refuge in Jen’s hotel room, and one final surprise from Weerasethakul. Not only does the monk use the hotel shower in an extended sequence that vaguely echoes the homoeroticism of Weerasethakul’s previous films, but he also goes out to dinner with Jen, only to look back before they leave the room to see them still sitting on the edge of the bed watching television. Weerasethakul’s comment about cinema’s ability to have two “lives” occurring simultaneously (the real life of the actor, including his ability to watch himself on the screen while sitting in a theatre, and his character’s life) is a staple of experimental film, but it also refers to his examination of reincarnation.
Uncle Boonmee is the last part of Weerasethakul’s “jungle” trilogy (I’d call it a reincarnation or time trilogy myself) that includes Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century. With each film, the director has grown more confident in mixing the worlds he has wanted to explore. The first film was clearly demarcated into two halves: one, a standard drama of a budding homosexual relationship and a fable about the encounter between a soldier and a powerful shaman who transformed himself into a tiger that suggests the consuming power of love. Syndromes and a Century looked at the continuity of human behavior and interactions and, thus, history’s tendency to repeat itself, as Weerasethakul explored his parents’ history in its first half and then updated it to modern times with the dialogue nearly the same in each half. With Uncle Boonmee, Weerasethakul has gone for the big score, showing how all times coexist—and certainly personal memory mixed with national history and the collective unconscious shows this to be true. The ambition of this film is enormous, and that Weerasethakul pulls it off with grace, humor, and beauty shows his is a talent that has finally matured. I sincerely hope audiences will dig deep and allow his connection with our symbolic and mythic dimensions to reach them.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives screens Sunday, October 10, 3 p.m., and Friday, October 15, 6:30 p.m. (rush tickets only). All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Previous CIFF coverage
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
This is an entry in The John Huston Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies.
Whenever the subject of profoundly underrated movies comes up, John Huston’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s legendary novel is one I think of immediately. Melville’s colossal work, with its multifaceted symbols and thickets of Victorian prose, is impossible to condense entirely as a film, and yet Huston managed the ungodly job of reducing that tome to two vigorous, fascinating, simultaneously sensual, and incantatory hours of cinema. If lead actor Gregory Peck’s performance as Captain Ahab was a bit less studied, I’d put it ahead of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) as my personal choice for Huston’s masterpiece. Stylistically, it explored new territory in attempting to fuse the traditional effects of classic Hollywood filmmaking with a fresh hue of realism and metaphysical grandeur. Huston sat himself at the crossroads between cinema and literature, and in his greatest works, negotiated a rare alchemy. His simultaneous respect for the source text and the expressiveness of his camera are in fine balance throughout most of Moby Dick, and it’s a film that seems both authentically historical and ahead of its time.
Huston wrote the script with Ray Bradbury—now there’s an unexpected partnership for you—and maintained his practise of sticking as close to the letter of a text as possible, which, in the case of Melville’s work, demands adjustment to the sonorous musicality and archaism of the dialogue. It is, of course, adaptation, and yet Huston’s fascination for characters whose private madness manifests as obsessive, self-destructive, but officially aspirational quest, the most consistent of his themes in the first part of his long and ragged career, is immediately personal. He had travelled from the modest symbol of the Maltese Falcon through to the gold dust of the Sierra Madre, the revolution of We Were Strangers (1949), the heist of The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the art of Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (1952), and later, the psychoanalysis of Freud (1962) and the preaching of Wise Blood (1979). The object of this quest evolved from mere corrosive greed to something deeper, an unquenchable need to control the world through some lens, in his protagonists. Like Lautrec and Treasure’s Fred C. Dobbs, Captain Ahab’s a man degraded in worldly condition who nonetheless tries to prove himself equal to gods in his own way.
Moby Dick came at a fraught time for Huston, who was entering the middle and still rather underregarded phase of his directing career, which extended more or less to 1972’s Fat City. Huston’s epochal run of collaborations with Humphrey Bogart had recently ended with the square flop of his leisurely, self-satirising comedy-thriller Beat the Devil (1954), which lost Bogart a lot of money. If the years to come saw Huston’s oeuvre lose the shape associated with many great directors, his efforts to expand the lexicon of mainstream cinema’s expressive techniques whilst maintaining reverence for good writing didn’t go anywhere.
When Ishmael (Richard Basehart) issues his famous introduction, Huston kicks off a subtly rapturous piece of filmmaking that accompanies his meditations on the mystic gravity of water: Ishmael appears in the frame silhouetted against the sky, and then proceeds downhill, following the paths of cataracts and streams until they lead him to the sea and New Bedford itself. When he arrives there, the patrons of the Spouter Inn, including genial innkeeper Peter Coffin (Joseph Tomelty) and fiercely friendly sailor Stubbs (Harry Andrews), induct Ishmael into the peculiar fellowship of whalers, and then glimpse the ivory-legged Ahab in a flash of lightning, limping by the inn. Huston builds up the presence of Ahab as a being of fear and force with tremendous skill, even though he doesn’t make a proper appearance until more than a half-hour into the film, through the relentless drum of his false leg on the deck of the Pequod and the reactions of other men to his twisted, foreboding form: “His looks tell more than any church sermon about the mortality of man,” Quaker agent Peleg (Mervyn Johns) advises Ishmael. When he finally does appear, he’s a gross fusion of the natural and unnatural, stalwart Yankee and shaman, fused with the bone of the whales he decimates and idolises in the most perverse of fashions.
Whilst remaining keenly faithful to the book Huston stages Moby Dick as a succession of lengthy and intricate sequences, so that structurally his film is less novelistic than symphonic (the importance of Philip Sainton’s flavourful, frenzied score, amazingly enough his only work for the movies, is inestimable). After Ishmael’s arrival, he attends the sermon of Father Mapple (Orson Welles, in a splendidly judged piece of arch character acting), where Huston’s camera drifts up the centre aisle, passing by the singing congregants engaged in social ritual and religious contract, whilst the wall, sporting the memorial markers for the dozens of men lost at sea engaged in New Bedford’s business, tells its own version of the story of whaling. It’s a shot that welds the communal and the private, the historic, the physical and metaphysical, the emotional and the ironic all together. Mapple himself, preaching his ferocious version of the tale of Jonah and the whale (what sermon does he give every other week?), presents the first visual and thematic correlation between mystic and master, in climbing onto his pulpit fashioned like a ship’s prow. In much the same way, and with an equally fervent but more equivocal, bizarre fashion, Ahab preaches the sermon of the white whale and the necessity of destroying it to his bewitched crew, to annihilate “what mauls and mutilates our race.” Whilst Queequeg (Friedrich Ledebur) is defined as a heathen—in response to the pointed questions of Peleg’s fellow Quaker Bildad (Philip Stainton), he replies by hurling his harpoon with such deadly accuracy all objections are ceased—he and the other non-Caucasian men who form the ship’s trinity of harpooners are the first to recognise Ahab’s cabalistic god.
The first great sequence is the Pequod’s sailing day, a thrumming piece of cinema with precisely outlaid vignettes, from a congregant (Iris Tree) handing out bibles to the crewmen being ignored decisively by Queequeg; the silent chorus of widows and wives watching their menfolk prepare to disappear for three years; first mate Starbuck (Leo Genn) waving farewell to his wife (Joan Plowright) and children who keep a more distant vigil; Ishmael and Queequeg’s encounter with the ranting seer Elijah (Royal Dano); cabinboy Pip (Tamba Allenby) dancing and beating his tambourine under a flowing Stars and Stripes; the crew raising sails and leaving port whilst singing authentic shanties (taught to the cast by A. L. Bert Lloyd, who leads them on screen); and the final shout of “Around the world!” by the helmsman that echoes about the bay as the ship sails out of the harbour. This is one of the great scenes in cinema, in how it not only offers up precise, heartfelt, rousing detail, but also describes an entire organic world with such depth that it seems torn out of racial memor; the helmsman’s cry resounds with such a sense of space and solitude that the awe of communing with the ocean that the men are embarking upon is in itself a spiritual challenge. This also reveals what Huston had learnt from Don Siegel, who had cut together an embryonic version of the scene for Huston’s 1942 programmer Across the Pacific.
“Captains can’t break the law!” shouts Flask (Seamus Kelly), the Pequod’s hot-headed third mate in riposte to Starbuck’s suggestion that they can topple Ahab from his post: “They is the law, as far as I’m concerned!” But Starbuck, whose “courage was one of the great staples of the ship…there when required, and not to be foolishly wasted,” objects to Ahab’s deification and his quarrel in turn with the “thing behind the mask” that animates the forces of the world and Moby Dick in particular. He suspects Ahab means to tear down god in killing Moby Dick and determines to stop him, and yet Starbuck’s own objectifying Protestantism is blind to the force of nature itself: “Moby Dick’s no monster, he’s a whale! We don’t run from whales, we kill ‘em!” he barks at the Pequod’s crew, thus committing them to the same suicidal mission for which Ahab has already perished. Genn’s terrific performance is worth noting for the way he balances calm with a curious, deeper ardour, particularly in the scene where his nerve fails him and he can’t shoot a suddenly reflective Ahab. Huston’s most cunningly added flourish is to situate Ahab’s anticipated meeting with Moby Dick, plotted from a chart he’s compiled that allows him to follow the movements of whales, at Bikini Atoll, then infamous for being the location of American H-bomb tests: Ahab’s date with the white whale is humankind’s date with annihilation.
Huston’s efforts to infuse the industrialised cinema that had given him his break with a deeper, more fluent realism of look and feel had led him to shoot deep in Mexico and Africa, and for Moby Dick, it led him back to Ireland, where he would live off and on for the rest of his life. To stand in for the old Yankee whaling town of New Bedford, he utilised the historic town of Youghal, and he worked with his director of photography, Oswald Morris, to find a way of diffusing the hitherto overbright and cheery Technicolor so that the film would take on the a more incisive, subtle palette. Huston had already experimented with colour effects in Moulin Rouge, and whatever the dramatic weaknesses of that film, it was a successful experiment in mise-en-scène. The look of Moby Dick, with its detailed, yet muted colour, possesses a quality that looks more modern than many ’50s films and yet also captures the look of period daguerreotypes and lithographs. The model work in the whaling scenes is inevitably dated, and Huston edited those scenes furiously to maintain the impression of terrific physicality and interspersed real footage of traditional whaling in the Azores.
One great pleasure of the film is the remarkable depth of actors who dot the landscape, sometimes in the smallest of roles, like Bernard Miles as a Manxman crewman, and Francis de Wolff as the captain of fellow whaling ship the Rachel, glimpsed only in distant long shots and yet still affecting in pleading with Ahab to aid him in searching for his missing son. Basehart was a bit too ripe to be playing Ishmael—at 40, he was two years older than Peck—but it’s certain Huston cast him for his open, yet weathered looks and rich baritone, which makes for a stirring voiceover. The whole cast, even German actor Ledebur as Queequeg, seem chosen with such care they almost seem born for their roles.
It’s an irony then that the most commonly cited weakness of the film is Peck’s performance, which, though by no means bad, is not quite right either. Peck was and is associated with onscreen humanity and decency, and lacks the innate sense of wildness and unswerving authority necessary for Ahab. Peck is more acutely stylised in his performance, straining his mid-century naturalism to approximate the outlandish “supreme lord and dictator.” Huston had originally wanted his own father Walter to play the part when he first came up with the project, and Welles had wanted to make a version himself; both Welles and John Huston himself, as Peck later said, would have made more ideal Ahabs. Nonetheless, Peck, with his lanky uprightness and air of physical force struggling to accustom itself to the weight of his false leg and the scar that has cleft his face, embodies Ahab as the Yankee golden boy regressed into primitivist spell-casting. His eyes flash in threat and ardour as he explains his motives, his voice swings from low menace to bellowing fury, whipping his men into bloodlust. He eyes Ishmael with strange intent when pronouncing “body” in addressing Ishmael (to Ishmael’s quivering fixation), as if detecting the strange charge between him and “same body” friend Queequeg and appealing to flesh and soul in turning his crew into a cult to hunt down the whale.
In the second extraordinary sequence, the Pequod, stuck becalmed at Bikini, becomes the scene of devolution, as Queequeg, convinced by his soothsaying bones that he’s going to die, sits immobile after paying the carpenter to build him a coffin, and the crew, sweltering in a tropical evening, the moon as hot as a sun, begins to fray. The chipping of the carpenter’s labours and Pip commencing an eerie song and dance provide a strange rhythmic music for the action as Ishmael appeals to his friend to come around, and a bored crew member, testing Queequeg’s resolve, slices long bloody lines in his chest. Huston’s editing here, and the use of sound, is brilliant in creating a stygian mood, and builds to a remarkable, silent tussle as Ishmael tries to save his friend from mutilation, only to be set upon and threatened with murder himself before Queequeg comes around to save him, and the cry of “Thar she blows!” finally breaks the spell. Moby Dick appears like “a great white god,” as Pip describes him, jumping clean over the longboats hunting him, and the Pequod gives chase, ploughing through a storm at Ahab’s behest—he even threatens Starbuck with a lance when he tries to cut rigging. Ahab play-acts a masterstroke of theatre when St. Elmo’s Fire illuminates the ship, taking the last step towards shamanism in snatching fire from the sky and “put(ting) out the last fear.”
All that’s left is for the final, consuming battle with Moby Dick, in which Ahab finishes up straddling his nemesis’s back and stabbing him with fury whilst screaming his curses, before drowning and beckoning in death to his crew. The whale furiously bashes the hull of the Pequod in and crushes the puny humans who taunt him with animalistic rage before succumbing to Ahab’s harpoon wounds. It’s the most ambitious scene of action Huston ever attempted, and it’s brilliantly staged, even if the special effects now look ropy. In compensation, Huston’s cutting manages to be both coherent and yet full of sound and fury, signifying quite a lot indeed, as the great whale’s teeth rake the waters and his tail smashes down on the helpless men, leaving Ishmael to drift clinging to Queequeg’s coffin until rescue by the Rachel, the sole escapee from this annihilating hour. It’s a deeply affecting end to a film ripe for reevaluation, and Huston himself, a man who constantly tried and often failed to keep one foot in a world of macho excess and another in artistic sensitivity, pushed both impulses to a limit in Moby Dick.
From amongst his too-few crop of marvels, Sergei Paradjanov’s best-known film alongside 1968’s Sayat Nova, was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and it was the one that made his name. Although rendered in a similar hallucinatory, totemistic, folk-myth design as Sayat Nova, Shadows is quite different in that it at least tells a concrete, discernible narrative, managing to conjure something like the immense, segmented sprawl of classical sagas in an hour and a half. Where the later film tackled the cultural landscape of Paradjanov’s native Armenia, Shadows, based on a novella by Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky, describes the culture of the Ukrainians of the Carpathian Mountains in the eighteenth century (as suggested by the flintlock pistols the men carry), but could, in truth, be of almost any time. Whilst Shadows offers up the dramatic and tragic life of Ivan (Ivan Mikolajchuk), and his Romeo-and-Juliet love affair with Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova), the story provides a mere framework for Paradjanov’s visuals fugues and ritualised evocations.
Nothing has meaning in Paradjanov’s films unless it linked to the totality of the natural world and the chains of tradition. Shadows unfolds in a series of linked, but segmented chapters that both extend Ivanko’s story and portray the world in which he lives, a world that is elemental even in its spirituality. In the first few minutes of the film, the young Ivan (I. Dzyura) loses most of his family. Ivan is almost crushed by a tree his older brother Olexa is felling: Olexa dashes to push Ivan out of the way, and is killed himself. At the church funeral, his father Petyik Paliychuk (Aleksandr Gaj) mocks the wealthier farmer Guteniuk (A. Raydanov) who, he says, “gives money to God but fleeces the poor.” Enraged, especially when Guteniuk’s wife calls him and his wife beggars, Paliychuk pursues him outside and spits insults, until Guteniuk strikes him dead with his axe. Ivan’s mother (Nina Alisova), who’s already lost all her other children and now her husband, and thus cheated of prosperity, maintains a bitter hate of the Guteniuks, but Ivanko’s one redeeming light in life is a daughter of the hated clan, Marichka (V. Glyanko as a girl), whom he first spied at his brother’s funeral. In the melee that followed his father’s murder, he slapped her, but then chased her down and made friends; by the time he had forgotten his father, he was welded to her like steel, sharing a nature-child love, playing in the woods together without clothes.
When the pair grows into young adults, they’re still perfectly in love. But Ivan’s mother’s resentments against the Guteniuks have not faded, so their love can still only manifest beyond the boundaries of the town, in the woods and fields. Ivan goes to earn some money as a shepherd in the mountain pastures above the town. One night, when the land is wreathed in a thick fog and the shepherds work to keep their flocks together, Marichka wanders out into the forest, drawn by the light of a strange star. She comes across a lost black lamb on a steep ledge, and, trying to rescue it, plummets to her death in the surging river below. Ivan joins search parties looking for her and comes across her beached, frigid body. He spends the next few years in a state of unproductive grief, increasingly tattered and slovenly, his looks lost behind a beard and filth. He slowly returns to a normal life helping the local church, and especially when he encounters Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva), a young woman with an estate; they share a charged moment when he shoes her horse and she laps up the sight of him. They are soon married, but the past and the future for these two soon prove sadly tangled.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is an immersive experience in the best sense, demanding a reorientation of narrative priorities and outlook, but rewarding that attention with a vigorous sprawl of fantastic images and vividly envisioned metaphors. Many filmmakers, especially more contemporary ones, would try to capture a sense of the historic and the alien through a kind of minimalist preciousness, but that was as alien to the madly inventive Paradjanov as blockbuster action. He created images with physical force and expressive enthusiasm, with some visions, like his grand crane shots plunging through forests and swinging over gorges, that seem to defy all physics of film photography. It’s hard then to write about the electric quality of such images as Ivan and Marichka embracing in the woods as a sun shower pelts them with glittering bolts of rain, as if the very elements are blessing them.
The spiritual is innately physical here, and the film’s soul, like that of the society it portrays, is Christianised, but often still reflexively pagan, even pantheistic. This contradiction is lessened in an environment where nature is all-powerful. Emblems of religion and spirituality are hewn out of the raw materials provided by nature, wood and stone, and the vagaries of the elemental world are cruel and haphazard. “Beggars like them shouldn’t be allowed in here!” the Guteniuk matriarch screams in the church as the Paliychuks mock them, and the church, linchpin of social ritual in the mountain villages, fades into unimportance as magic and misfortune become governing lights: the narrative of Shadows seems to move further back into the mystic past rather than forward with the world, as characters, stripped of what they want, choose deeper, darker alternatives. Marichka’s death, not even halfway through the film, is a truly shocking one that leaves both Ivan and the story in tatters, and picking up the pieces becomes the most arduous of processes. Paradjanov here uses the most effective and simple of devices, bleaching all the colour out of the film, snatches of gossip on the soundtrack charting the village’s reactions to his ruined state as he goes through his labours and bathing with a dissociated disinterest.
Paradjanov’s animated, often first-person camera constantly invokes the experiential, sensual world, tethered to the corporeal and yet charged with spirits unseen and lurking: from Ivanko’s father being bashed on the head by Guteniuk, blood running down over the lens, or the camera seeming to fall with the tree that crushes Olexa, to the whirling camera in the very final scene, life is a disorientating cascade for Ivan. In the most intricately orchestrated sequence, when Marichka is lost and drowns, and as Ivan and the villagers search for her, a hand-held camera chases Ivan and others through the gloom of morning, faces and bodies appearing out of the fog, tumbling down slopes, torches burning in the haze. When Ivan eventually boards a great raft with others to ride down the river in search, Paradjanov’s camera flies overhead in a stunning crane shot, as the vessel emerges from the murk and disappears again like a momentarily substantive dream. Clear geography and visual order are blurred, even as the setting is explored in the most atmospheric of fashions, so that one practically feels Ivan’s adrenalin-stoked, frantic leap to action, resolving finally in a slightly askew shot as Ivan sits on a stone in silent grief, with only the lower half of Marichka’s beached body in the frame. His energetic search, the whole logic of his life, the giddy rush of adolescent love, and the bounty of nature, come to an abrupt, sickened, motiveless halt.
In the second half, Ivan’s marriage to Palagna seems motivated entirely by mutual attraction, and their union, which sees a ceremonial yoke placed over their shoulder whilst they’re blindfolded, a revivifying one for Ivan. On their wedding night, Ivan strips Palagna bare and tears off the last item—a bead necklace, which shatters in his grasp—leaving her breathlessly, silently expectant, and rigidly cautious: a scene that’s teeth-grindingly erotic even as Paradjanov cleverly avoids nudity. Their marriage soon proves to be a haunted disaster, for though they labour prosperously together in the fields, Marichka, desperate for Ivan’s physical love, finds him increasingly unresponsive, and in their first Christmas together, Ivan is struck by the sight of a deer grazing near Marichka’s grave as one did just after she was buried. Both husband and wife begin attempting to commune with the spirit world, unable to face the one immediately in front of them, the sterility of which is confirmed in a wide shot of the couple eating their Christmas feast in silence. Ivan makes offerings of food to attract spirits, and Marichka seems finally to appear to him, gazing forlornly through the window, but Palagna doesn’t see her and pins up a curtain. Later, Palagna strips off her clothes and walks into the night to play shamanka, begging the spirits to make Ivan love her and give her a child.
Paradjanov’s psychology, symbolism, and sorcery come together now, as Palagna is approached by the local magician, Yura (Spartak Bagashvili), stricken with fascination for this transgressive woman who, like himself, is obeisant to older gods. Yura is glimpsed, in the film’s second brilliantly orchestrated sequence, working magic to turn away a destructive storm by enchanting a pair of horses he then rides out into the fields to create a counteractive wind. Exhausted, he falls to the ground, and when Palagna approaches to congratulate him, he begs her to come soothe him. A tree close by explodes in flames as the pair screw on the ground: an image conjoining Yura’s mastery of magical power and his masculine force, as he gives Palagna, who’s been associated visually with dead and barren trees, the orgasm she hasn’t been getting from Ivan. Yura, although not pretty like Ivan, draws all the potency of the physical and spiritual worlds into his frame, and he soon proves the most fearsome of cuckold-makers.
This cruel ménage soon enough comes to a head when Palagna and Ivan go to a tavern and sit at the same table as Yura, and Palagna, when her husband’s not looking, cuddles up to the magus. A friend tells her off, and Ivan fronts up to Yura, but the sorcerer strikes Ivan with a hex. Ivan reels outside, dazed and shattered, and glimpses Yura and Palagna, having clearly claimed each other’s affections. He wanders off through felled woodland, the smoking, severed stumps of what had once been forest perfectly reflecting his now-denuded existence and wasted psyche. As he drinks from a spring, he glimpses Marichka’s spirit, and chases her into the forest, both of them strangely greyed and deathly-looking; when Marichka finally reaches out to touch Ivan, he dies with a scream.
The stinging paradox of this plot—that fulsome, seemingly naturally imbued love isn’t strong enough to hold off a chain of destructive events and the inevitable process of decay, and yet imbues these paltry lives with legendary greatness—defies potential sentimentality, even if the finale’s suggestion that Ivan and Marichka are reunited on another plane isn’t so far from, say, Titanic (1997). That they could only find their fulfillment as shades tied to the forest is a fine and fair solution to the impossibility of their lives and also to the violent brevity of this way of life, and yet it is certainly death, whilst in the film’s very final scene Ivan’s fellow villagers get on with life, turning his wake into a rollicking party. Ivan essentially dies in the same way as his own father, though Yura does not strike Ivan with his axe, instead merely slamming it on the table to work his hex. The reduction of Ivan’s life story to that of an unlucky fool who dies a cuckold after a bar fight seems to contrast the charged atmosphere of mystical meaning, but the immediate and the spiritual are still bound together here, for Ivan’s final failures are offenses to nature as well as mankind. The tree that is Palagna, the living essence, is something Ivan fails to bring to fruit, chasing instead the wispy remnant of eternal, sterile love into the forest.
Throughout the film, events and motives are tangential, especially emotion, extreme passions driving events on with organic but illogical force: Ivan’s father denouncing Guteniuk to expel his grief over Olexa; Ivan slapping Marichka to punish her for her father’s violence and then forgetting his father when being with Marichka; Ivan marrying Palagna to forget Marichka, whom he loses in a totally capricious accident; Palagna’s acts to make Ivan want her putting her in Yura’s orbit and then forgetting her husband. Even the accidents and idiocies of this world are inspired by some other, possibly noble, cause. There’s a coarse, realistic kind of psychology here, where people sublimate one need into another, and small twists of circumstance throw lives entirely off course. Tribal microeconomics are also described with terse import, as the prosperity of the Paliychuks is degraded as their labouring menfolk have been steadily decimated (Mother Paliychuk recites the names of her many lost sons and her husband) and the Guteniuks’ rapacity contrasted, an imbalance with long-reaching, murderous consequences. Ivan is the victim of a world out of equilibrium before he even arrives in it. What holds that world together is communal ritual, the reflexes of which are a refrain of the film’s texture: from Paliychuk’s funeral marchers, tramping in single file across the snow-caked land, to the villagers dancing in a long line, Marichka and other adolescent girls arrayed with sprigs in their hands in the church, blessed in their youthful fertility, and the curious binding motif of Ivan and Palagna’s wedding: universal customs described in specific terms, of course.
The faces and bodies of Paradjanov’s actors are more important than traditional acting abilities; Bagashvili’s fearsome visage suggests a human intermediary with Noh masks. The earthy realism of the cast is so convincing, it’s hard not to believe they weren’t simply recorded for documentary purposes. Which is, of course, very difficult acting, and Bestayeva is particularly compelling, with her blend of desirous disappointment and dismissive pith, snapping with force at Yura when he comes upon her making her naked invocations, “What’s wrong with you? Never seen a woman before?” The achievement of the film is to make the historic and the alien seem as vivid as the life around you, and though Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is a more conventional film than Sayat Nova, it is certainly no lesser. l
Unlike most of the New Wave directors to emerge from the critical collective at Cahiers du Cinema, Jacques Rivette’s most admired work came in the early ’70s, a time when compatriots like Truffaut were either negotiating with the mainstream or in total retreat from it, like Godard. Rivette seemed energised by the mood of the waning days of the counterculture and concurrent intellectual flowerings of post-modernist and feminist theory, and he made his best-loved movie, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), in this period, as well as his highly regarded made-for-television epic Out 1 (1971). As if rejecting all explicable comment or interest in the fallout of political revolts and the New Wave itself, Rivette began to celebrate imagination, play, and ambiguity of the self as a counteraction and commentary on a repressive backlash in contemporary life.
Rivette embarked on what was to be a quartet of films titled “Scenes from a Parallel Life,” each playing on a generic mode and employing a peculiar unifying concept—a war between two goddesses, daughters of the sun and the moon, over a cursed jewel. Rivette made only two of the films before suffering a breakdown and experiencing harassment by authorities, and the completed works were barely screened. Those two films, however, Duelle and Noroît (1976), have a status as hidden treasures.
Rivette’s an acquired taste, but for anyone who can adjust to his wavelength, which isn’t so much obscure as merely reticent, he’s an alluring artist entirely dedicated to realising the most beautiful effects through the simplest means. Rivette’s interesting, if ill-shaped debut, Paris Belongs to Us (1960), introduced many of the elements he found intriguing: the dynamic exchange between life and art, ties of family threatened by worldly trials, and an ironic juxtaposition of humdrum reality and fantastic theorising, arch paranoia, and forces of power. The goddesses whose war Duelle describes embody the anxiety over the place of everyday humans between blocs of power and favour that can be associated with the counterculture shadow-enemies of Paris Belongs to Us.
Rivette had come a long way since his debut, for Duelle is a carefully paced and utterly controlled work, all the more fascinating because like many of Rivette’s films, a high level of spontaneity was utilised in its production, if not quite as much as he often otherwise favoured. This time Rivette had written a story outline and created the characters and situations rather than give his cast all the room to invent their own, but still did not actually write the scenes until a few hours before they were performed (the scripting credits are given to Eduardo de Gregorio and Marilù Parolini). This edgy, happenstance energy infuses the performances even whilst Rivette’s camera maintains a balletic grace.
Rivette, like all the other New Wavers, was also an inveterate film buff, and Duelle sports a magpie’s selection of tropes lifted neatly from favoured films of French poetic realism and Hollywood noir. The initial model was the great Val Lewton/Mark Robson horror film The Seventh Victim (1943). This is immediately apparent in the way Rivette renders his Paris, like Robson’s New York, a depopulated, magic-realist space full of poets and changelings, dreamers and sufferers.
Duelle’s basic plot is slowly fleshed out, and the era it is set in only hazily defined, evoking a Paris where dance halls and gambling clubs unchanged since the heyday of Jean Gabin rubs shoulders with more definably modern locales and styles. It begins on “the last night of the new moon for this winter.” A woman calling herself Leni (Juliet Berto) approaches a young hotel clerk, Lucie (Hermine Karagheuze), searching for an Englishman named Max Christie who stayed at the hotel a year before. Leni claims to be his concerned sister, and pays Lucie to dig up what she can about where he’s gone. Lucie suggests Leni talk to her predecessor at the hotel desk, Elsa (Nicole Garcia), who now works as a taxi dancer at a decrepit nightclub called the Rumba. Leni, in an entirely different guise, approaches Elsa, who recalls Max’s expansive joie de vivre and tells Leni to look up his companion, Sylvia Stern (Claire Nadeau). Another mystery woman, the jaunty Viva (Bulle Ogier), and her helpmate Elizabeth (Elizabeth Wiener), trail Lucie’s brother Pierrot (Jean Babilée) and Sylvia when they return by train from Amsterdam. Later, Viva pays Pierrot’s debt when he loses at cards and ensnares him in her plans to locate the “Fairy Godmother,” a legendary cursed diamond that Max, Pierrot’s former partner in shady deals, had first turned up.
When Leni tracks Sylvia to an aquarium, Sylvia babbles to her about how Max had “fought and defended,” and that he suffered and has recently died. Sylvia is wracked with guilt and sees herself as heir to his struggle. Leni runs off when Pierrot arrives, and shortly after, Lucie receives a phone call asking her to come to the aquarium. When Lucie arrives, she finds Sylvia dead, with a bruise or burn mark on her neck. Lucie hides when Viva enters the aquarium and bends over Sylvia’s dead body, and trails Viva back to a gambling club she frequents, where the two play roles and try to elicit information. Viva theorises that Lucie was brought to the aquarium to set her up. Elsa, whose real name is Jeanne (she felt her real name was vulgar), is falling in love with Pierrot, who promises he can give himself to her completely now. And she discovers the Fairy Godmother itself, attached to a choker band now in Pierrot’s possession, and fondly places it around her neck, setting in motion a fresh chain of contest, decay, and death.
“Duelle” is an invented word, a feminised version of “duel,” and it’s with good reason the film has such a title: the story is strung along by a series of intimate pas de deux between competing characters who exhibit and swap places of command and submission, desire and pathos. Every sequence up until the very central one is dominated by interactions of only two characters; in that centrepiece, a crucial sequence in both the literal (as the 15th of the film’s 30 individual scenes) and narrative sense, as the core characters encounter each other in the Rumba and William Lubtchansky’s gliding camera absorbs them as they chase, challenge, flirt and dance with each other. It’s here the story finally becomes less opaque, whilst, ironically, the cinematic technique becomes more overtly surreal; The Fairy Godmother works an influence on Pierrot, who approaches a mirror, raises his hand—as Elsa recalled Max once doing—and cracks the glass with magical force. This gesture reveals to him the two demi-goddesses, Leni and Viva, in their true forms, approaching each other in ritualistic style and pledging to continue their metaphysical contest for the jewel, holding their hands up like Pierrot’s gesture. This, it seems, indicates the mirror-image, dualistic bind of the two supernatural forces (even if, in their disco-glam outfits, they look like they’re about to start singing “Dancing Queen”).
Lucie, the first and last person we see in the film, is glimpsed initially looking fearful and unsteady on her feet—it proves she’s trying to keep her balance atop an inflatable ball—with Pierrot helping her remain steady. It’s a superb metaphor for both their relationship at this point, a conflation of the film’s parable of human life, and its tenuous, reinventing-the-wheel approach to cinematic form. Leni’s recurring line, “You’ll see me again,” is, at first, a throwaway, but becomes a phrase laden with threat; the intrusion of the goddesses into the everyday lives of the protagonists heralds annihilation in a situation that works in cruel cycles and seems to have happened before, with Max and Sylvia having played out the parts of Pierrot and Elsa—indeed, the drama is built around a pantheistic rhythm, linked to seasonal shifts.
And yet Duelle’s unique approach plays out nearly straight according to the dictates of a noir narrative: the characters battle over an emblem of wealth and steadily annihilate each other and themselves in the process. The Fairy Godmother jewel plays the same poisoned-chalice device at the heart of The Maltese Falcon and especially the Great Whatsit of Kiss Me, Deadly: like that manifestation of raw, consuming power, the jewel leaves marks upon the flesh of those who encounter it and spells inevitable doom. However, Rivette’s dialectic removes standard, dependable props from those familiar arcs, rendering the tale overtly mystical and inexplicable, and the spaces have to be filled in with intuition. Rivette begins with a familiar theme of his, Lucie’s desire to save her brother who’s enmeshed in a mystery (a la Paris Belong to Us), and plays her honest naïveté against the femmes fatale, Viva and Leni. The familiar economic and social parables of noir are present: Lucie, Pierrot, and Elsa/Jeanne all come from a low social bracket and are desperate to rise; the demi-goddesses live and pose as aristocrats, and the jewel is what they all covet.
Such aspirations shade into less modest ambitions, to take on gods and transcend fate and nature. Viva and Leni’s prize in gaining the stone is a chance to live like a mortal for longer than their allotted 40 days in winter: “I’ve been young for far too long,” Leni confesses sadly to Pierrot. As Jonathan Rosenbaum cogently pointed out, the goddesses seem purified metaphors for the idea of movie stardom itself, locked in perpetual, pristine shape. The conceit of employing supernatural drama is on one level amusing and defiantly ludicrous, and yet Rivette, an aficionado of ancient Greek drama (several of his films revolve around attempts to stage the works of Aeschylus and Euripides), employs the idea of gods taking on human form and interacting with mortals with the same blithe tone as those classical works, and for similar ends. Rivette simultaneously exploits the way his characters encapsulate refined concepts often conceived in the traditional binary oppositions of mythical works—male/female, power/impotence, desire/hate, mortality/transcendence, and so on, beginning with the utterly archaic dialectic of sun and moon—and also deliberately evoking the wider pantheon of sexual identity inherent in pagan traditions. Thus, the characters constantly alter the parts each plays in relation to each other. This dedication to fairytale logic is reflected by a recurring motif, a quotation from Cocteau’s play Knights of the Round Table, in which Merlin explains a breakdown of purely mathematical and physical logic: “Two and two no longer make four/All walls can be shattered.”
Similarly, in Duelle, people, within themselves and in relation to others, contain multitudes. Pierrot changes personas with the various women according to their natures (and vice versa), caring and soft with his sister, firm and solicitous with Elsa, challenging and aggressive with Viva, and finally, with Leni, both combative and in sympathy—both of them love Elsa and yearn to escape their lot. Pierrot’s the only major male character in the film, both with the potential to defeat them all and yet also at their mercy. In a droll sequence, Viva, who otherwise is the more constant of the two goddesses, sheds her imperious Marlene Dietrich-ish suits and air of utter command to play the ditzy, seductive drunk to tie Pierrot closer to her. Berto’s Leni alters from genteel fragility in approaching Lucie at the outset, to trenchcoat-clad femme fatale with Sylvia, to seductive butch with Elsa. There’s a vein of tongue-in-cheek costume-play here, one that emphasises the teeming talents of its actresses, but also constantly smudges settled sexual and social identities. Both Berto and Ogier affect ambiguous looks and roles throughout the film as they contend for control, and a crackle of sexual attraction lies underneath all the characters’ dealings with each other, except for Pierrot and Lucie, whose relationship is forlorn in its anxious sibling protectiveness and anxiety. A strange empathy runs between all the characters, alternating with a determination on each person’s part to emerge victorious—that is, alive.
Rivette is a classic art house director, of course, but as I’ve noted before in my review of Fascination, Rivette’s aboveboard filmmaking in works like this bears many similarities to Jean Rollin’s underground horror (the aquarium scene particularly resembles a similar one in Rollin’s Lips of Blood), and I’m starting to wonder if there’s a phrase that can describe this specifically French style of fantastic cinema, airy, beautiful, but deliberately lacking in artifice: perhaps “surrealist-naturalism” would cover it. Rivette’s deconstructive approach is perhaps most amusingly, and oddly manifest in utilising pianist Jean Wiener to provide only source music, at the Rumba Club but also in other, rather more bewildering situations. The links with other traditions are equally apparent—Rivette revealed the depth of homage to Cocteau not only in quoting him but in casting the sinuously graceful, very cool Babilée, who had danced in Cocteau’s stage productions of the 1940s, and his character possesses the kind of haunted taciturnity wielded once by Louis Jouvet in Marcel Carne’s Hotel du Nord. His death—he is put down out of pity by Leni as he begins to succumb to the stone’s corrosive influence—exudes delicate tragedy.
Rivette avoids standard forms of suspense-building, and yet Duelle constructs an increasingly tense atmosphere that comes to a head in brilliantly simple and riveting sequences, like that in which Pierrot, working with knowledge given to him by Viva, attempts to trap Leni by dazzling her with light, confronting her like a gunslinger in a hotel corridor and driving her back, locked in momentary shock as he opens room door after door, and, finally, when Viva chases down Lucie, threatening her with a sword-cane and teleporting her to a different location thanks to the pure magic of a jump-cut. In such a fashion, Rivette manages to both deconstruct how cinema creates excitement and still generate it. Finally, Lucie, apparently the weakest element, emerges ironically as the victor in this war, when she accidentally discovers the power of the Fairy Godmother to annihilate the incarnate goddesses when drenched with her blood, a trick that firsts destroys Viva after she stabs Lucie and her spilling blood reveals this power. With certain, vengeful purpose, Lucie catches up with Leni in the park where she was to duel with Viva, and wipes her out, leaving Lucie to dazedly recite the Cocteau poem, her fate, and indeed what is now her status (victim? dying? hero? new demigod?) entirely ambiguous. Either way, it caps a tantalising experience. l
Kathryn Bigelow’s been saddled with one of those milestone Oscar wins that carries the whiff of cultural formaldehyde, but I find her victory inspiring and amusing in the same way Peter Jackson’s was: the ascension to mainstream laurels of a directorial talent rooted in fare beyond the pale. Indeed, a very large part of the impact of The Hurt Locker was imbued not by any deep, inherent dramatic qualities but by Bigelow’s spare, yet intense vision, which first truly gained attention with her mighty reinvention of the vampire movie Near Dark. Truth be told, Near Dark is a far more nuanced, provocative, gripping, multileveled work than The Hurt Locker, but because it’s a horror film, nobody paid it that kind of attention. And yet each time I revisit Near Dark, its innate confidence and supple intelligence become more defined. I’m now convinced it’s one of the best American films of the ’80s.
Near Dark was also one of a small but well-remembered barrage of vampire movies in the mid ‘80s, including The Hunger (1983), Fright Night (1985), Vamp (1985), Once Bitten (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), and A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987), that subjected the classic mythology to their own modish, modernising bent. Near Dark has had possibly the deepest impact on subsequent works, including Joss Whedon’s popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise, both of which make use of Near Dark’s ideas for portraying a peripatetic, clannish demimonde of bloodsuckers. And yet it also sustains a mood in common with other films of its era, like John McTiernan’s Nomads and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (both 1986), that peered beneath the prim surfaces of contemporary America and suggested parallels for both forgotten underclasses and latent animalistic drives and chaos in emissaries of darkness. Likewise, Bigelow’s spare, eerie evocation of the West fuses disparate versions of American culture into an original and arresting whole.
A running theme of Bigelow’s work is one of an intrusive outsider within a group that has developed a family dynamic, a dynamic as much defined by fractures as by fellowship. In Near Dark, it’s Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), a coltish cowboy-wannabe still trying out his act when he and some of his young friends spy pale, young, ice-cream-licking waif Mae (Jenny Wright). Caleb approaches her, and she seems, in her alternately distracted and eager fashion, to dig him in return. After a night of toey, curious flirtation, Jenny becomes panicked about making it home before sunrise, and when Caleb stops his truck and refuses to take her further without a kiss, she agrees, but bites him on the neck and runs away. Caleb, quickly becoming ill, tries to make it home as the sun seems to burn him, and is snatched up by a speeding Winnebago before his veterinarian father Loy (Tim Thomerson) and younger sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) can come to his aid.
Caleb’s been snared by members of the clan of vampires Jenny has been a part of for five years: Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), the leathery, hardened, pragmatic patriarch, mated to Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), a feral-freaky former victim of Jesse’s who serves as mother figure to Mae; wild good ole boy Severen (Bill Paxton); and Homer (Joshua Miller), a vampirised child housing an embittered man’s psyche. The vampires usually kill their prey—in this case, Caleb—immediately, but Mae begs for his life and promises to see him properly inducted into their ways by teaching him how to kill and feed off humans. Caleb, at first uncomprehending and terrified, tries to return to his home by bus, but has to bail out when he is afflicted with dreadful sickness that is only cured by drinking blood out of a gash Mae makes in her arm. However, Caleb can’t countenance the necessary act of killing people to feed. Loy and Sarah, meanwhile, begin a relentless highway hunt for Caleb.
Other films had toyed with fusing aspects of classic Americana and Western mythology with the horror movie, with mostly embarrassing results (eg, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, 1966), and with replacing the vampire genre’s traditional air of old-world decay and aristocratic glamour with other metaphorical impulses. Few succeeded like Bigelow did here. Her intelligence is proven throughout in the way she manages to conjure imagery that fuses multiple influences. In the same way that The Cramps’ recording of “Fever”—which plays throughout the film’s most infamous, iconic scene—takes a popular, playful song defined by slippery, deceptively subversive sensuality and invests it with an eerie, gothic vibe, so, too, does Bigelow rake over the sparse, desolate feel of the classic Western and do something new with it. The screenplay by Bigelow and Eric Red cunningly effects a psychic link between the Civil War, the Western tradition, the gangster movie, gothic horror, the counterculture, street culture, and the lost working class (“trailer trash”) left behind in Reaganite America, presenting them all as rooted in the landscape and the mood of alienation, otherness, and rebellion latent in the louder national identities.
These wandering vampires, living out of cars and motels, feed off the easily missed in a vast nocturnal Midwest of scantly lit, depopulated streets, bleak motels, diners, honkytonks, and bus stops full of drifting flotsam. Carnivorous callousness contrasts ironically with the care that manifests between people, both in the human world and in their world. A ticket seller won’t help out an obviously ill young man, and Caleb’s assumed to be a junkie by a plainclothes cop (Troy Evans). And yet a security guard giving Caleb a few bucks to pay his fare, and Jesse and Diamondback, both resembling hippie wash-ups, adopt the social refuse they come across. Yet that pair also embodies something far more primal and dangerous. They reign over an amusingly sick facsimile of a nuclear family governed by their own perverse family values, wolfish in their darkness and lean hunger. Jesse himself is actually a Confederate veteran (“We lost!”), still embodying the bushwhacker creed. Bigelow plays games with the usual codes of that family structure, with the young boy the most grotesque of the lot and Caleb reduced to a mooching deadbeat getting his sustenance directly from Mae’s veins. The carefully cast Wright seems both delicate and doe-like in some scenes, and a strong, powerful antelope in others, relating to Caleb as if he is the damsel in distress—which he is initially.
Near Dark’s crucial, classic scene depicts the clan invading an isolated bar (“Well I’ll be goddamned,” Severen declares: “Shit-kicker heaven!”), where Severen delights in terrifying, insulting, and slaughtering the patrons, defying and outdoing all the macho posturings of the clientele. Jesse cuts a waitress’s throat and drains her blood into a beer glass. Mae wipes blood coating her lips away as she marches up to a terrified young cowboy (James LeGros) and then asks him to dance, and Caleb gets a gutful from the shotgun-wielding barman (Thomas Wagner), which Severen avenges by slicing the barman’s throat with a few deft kicks of his cowboy spurs. The sequence’s woozy black humour, atmosphere of malefic menace and judicious flourishes of dazzling gore are spellbinding as the patrons, for all their air of seamy toughness, realise they’re contending with something completely unnatural. The vampires, however, fail in their nominal purpose, which is to impress Caleb with their strength and prerogative and create a clear ground for him to have his first meal of live blood. It’s a brilliant scene, all the more so for the fact that it succeeds in being both horrific, as opposed to merely gross-out, and compulsively entertaining, so charismatic is Paxton’s hammy, relished evil and the thrill of power and undercurrent of lethal misanthropy that unites the vampires. Caleb chases after the young man, who resembles himself, when he dashes out of the joint, but lets him go out of empathy for the terrified lad.
This proves a near-fatal mistake, however, as the incensed clan consider killing their unwanted charge. The young man leads the police to the hotel where the clan are shacked up, and the violent shoot-out that follows, with every bullet hole allowing in a deadly bolt of sunlight, sees Caleb save the day by fetching their van and crashing it though the room wall, giving them the chance to flee. This literally earns Caleb his spurs, as Severen gives him one of his. Layering the narrative are fascinating character and story flourishes that often tweak the familiar presentiments both of this type of narrative and the kinds of family and sexual dynamics it portrays. Loy’s protectiveness for Caleb and Sarah blurs the line between patriarchal and matriarchal care. Jesse and Diamondback’s recalling, like an old married couple, how they met (“And I just knew you were trouble,” Diamondback purrs), a relationship born in violence that has become uniquely loving. Mae and Caleb’s relationship is defined by alternations of dewy teenage love and amusing, unnerving fluctuations of power and need.
The image of Caleb drinking from Mae’s arm as lightning flashes and oil derricks pump and grind away behind them is one of the most memorable in the history of the horror film, blurring all divides between sex and sustenance, male and female, technical and supernatural, the modern and the primeval, a visual simile for the industrial, bodily, and emotional heart’s everlasting workings. The circular equation of blood equaling both family and life closes logically when Loy’s transfused blood proves to have the capacity to restore Caleb to humanity, a gift Caleb is then finally able to extend to Mae. Most uneasy and bizarre is Homer’s lot, as he insistently reminds his fellows: “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a big man on the inside and have a small body on the outside?” Having vampirised Mae out of a desire for her that’s remained for him painfully unconsummated, Homer sets his sights on Sarah. Homer, instantly besotted by Sarah’s forthright attitude, is somehow forlornly innocent and creepily redolent of a paedophile all at once, the most thoroughgoing example of how Bigelow blurs dichotomous concepts into each other. Even Mae’s ice-cream eating at the outset was only a prop (food is inedible for vampires) to draw in just such a victim as Caleb.
Bigelow’s style, with her crisply photographed widescreen frames (courtesy of Adam Greenberg’s beautiful photography) and rhythmic editing, was and is definitely modern. And whilst in initial scenes, Pasdar’s and Wright’s performances feel touchy, even blowsy, nervous, and slightly unfocused, these acting traits are actually a Bigelow trademark—the offbeat affectations often expose the uneasy threat at the heart of her tales: Jeremy Renner’s The Hurt Locker performance is similar. That Paxton, Henriksen, and Goldstein had all been in James Cameron’s Aliens the year before lends a touch of stock company camaraderie to the project, and they’re all ruthlessly convincing. The feel for the dizzying spaciousness of the prairies, and the inverted, claustrophobic night that swallows that flat and featureless land is moody and precise. The motel shoot-out, technically excellent action filmmaking that undoubtedly presages Bigelow’s later move entirely into that mode, evokes a very similar scene in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). But Bigelow’s love of Western iconography is most often in evidence, as Caleb’s growth into manhood sees him finally saddling up and riding to the rescue like a good cowboy to face down Severen in a High Midnight climax on a deserted street.
It’s only here, really, that Bigelow loses her total grip on the proceedings, as Severen’s demise via a jack-knifing, exploding truck apes, but doesn’t match, a similar scene in her then-husband’s The Terminator, and Caleb’s strutting confrontation with the vampires seems a bit unlikely considering he knows what they’re capable of doing to his once-again-human ass. The subsequent rush of Caleb, Mae, and Sarah to escape the remaining clan sees one of those amusingly quick-rising suns that often afflict vampire films. Nonetheless, the finale recovers to offer a blindingly bizarre, exciting, yet poignant consummation. Homer, chasing after Sarah in desperation, catches fire in the rising sun and burns away to a cinder, and Jesse and Diamondback roast alive in their station wagon as Jesse glowers in defeated ire whilst she beams at the glory of going out with her man. In such moments, Near Dark staked an irretrievable place in the hearts and minds of movie fans. l
“What big teeth you have!
She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamour of the forest’s Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.”
—Angela Carter, “The Company of Wolves” in The Bloody Chamber
Former poet and novelist Neil Jordan had one film under his belt, 1982’s Angel, when he attempted to adapt for the screen several werewolf-themed stories from British novelist Angela Carter’s acclaimed collection of retold fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. His and Carter’s resulting screenplay for The Company of Wolves took some cues from Carter’s own radio adaptation and stands as something of a last gasp for the gothic horror movie, as well as an intelligent and original cross-breeding of genre motifs with something altogether more surreal and adroitly evocative. Inspired by the look of old Hammer and Roger Corman films, Jordan interpolated a more knowing, explicably symbolic, almost postmodern approach to the genre. The result is one of the most interesting and intelligent of ‘80s films of the fantastic, but also an underachieving work that doesn’t quite live up to its boundless potential.
Carter’s method with her stories was to interrogate the psychosexual codes in gothic fiction and fairytales and reinterpret them in altogether more cogently sensualised, darkly tangled, and evocative forms. The story “The Company of Wolves” transmutes Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” into a fable of burgeoning sexuality in which the wolf is insatiable male sexuality incarnate and the girl becomes master of her own desire. Jordan’s adaptation combined this story with other tales from the collection, adopting a narrative strategy like a Chinese puzzle-box. There is a framing story of a contemporary teenage girl, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), from a bourgeois Thatcherite family comprising her father (David Warner) and mother (Tusse Silberg) fretting about her self-isolating angst, and her older sister Alice (Georgia Slowe) abusing her for using her lipstick. Rosaleen has locked herself in her bedroom, Alice’s lipstick still on her mouth, as she suffers through the (hinted) travails of her first period. She sleeps restlessly, plunging into a dark dreamland where her bedroom transmutes into a dark, snarled forest through which Alice runs, pursued by wolves who bring her down and kill her.
In this dreamscape, Rosaleen’s parents are peasants in a small forest village that mourns Alice’s death. Rosaleen’s willful, wisdom-spitting Granny (Angela Lansbury) warns her to learn the moral of Alice’s death: always stick to the forest paths. Granny proceeds to educate her in other aspects of woodland lore: never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, and run like hell if she sees a man standing naked amongst the trees, for werewolves always take their clothes off before transforming. Granny knits a bright red shawl for Rosaleen whilst telling her anecdotes of werewolf lore. In one story, a young village woman (Kathryn Pogson) married a tinker (Stephen Rea) who excused himself from their wedding night and never came back. He returned a year later, after she had remarried, and, enraged by this betrayal, began to transmute into his wolf form. Fortunately, her second husband (Jim Carter) arrived in time to cleave his head off, and then beat her for letting him in.
Rosaleen, pursued by a homely, but passionate lad of the village (Shane Johnstone), begins to take up her Granny’s mantle as a storyteller with an edge of a seer, conjuring stories that may come from within her mind and yet also seem somehow linked to a hidden reality about her. Her tales include one about a witch (Dawn Archibald) who, impregnated and then abandoned by her noble lover (Richard Morant), walks into his wedding party and transforms the guests into wolves, and, later, offersa tale about a lonely wolf-girl who crawls out of the village’s well and is protected by the local priest (Graham Crowden) before returning to the netherworld. Meanwhile, the village is terrorised by animal attacks, and the men arrange a trap that successfully lures a wolf, which they kill, but when Rosaleen’s father brings the paw he cut off back as a trophy, he finds it has turned into a human hand. One day when making the trek to Granny’s, Rosaleen encounters a rakish, impudent aristocratic hunter (Micha Bergese), who taunts her with his ability to navigate the forest with a compass and bets her a kiss he can beat her to Granny’s. Bad luck for Granny that he wins his bet.
Most folk tales such as Carter was revising combine pungent metaphors for familiar physical and psychological phenomenon with a simple, pointed moral and message. As such, they were modes of education, of transmitting cautionary lessons and artful fright to keep the kids close to home and hearth. This purpose is thoroughly refracted through an acerbic modern eye in Carter’s stories and Jordan’s film, evoking the way premodern cultures sustained a body of lore—particularly feminine lore—through traditions and intergenerational story-sharing. Unless she wants to fall victim to the wolf in man, sticking to the well-worn path, both morally and physically, through the tangled thickets of the dark, nightmare-hiding wood is the firm rule Rosaleen must follow. Rosaleen’s mother, however, after copulating with her husband, tells Rosaleen that if there’s an animal in man, there’s one to meet it in women; not unexpectedly, there’s a chill distance between Granny and her daughter that Rosaleen has to decode as a difference in generational understandings. Rosaleen then becomes a bridge, a synthesiser, deducing new meanings and lessons through her own understanding. Where Granny offers warnings and rules, Rosaleen offers parables of justice and redemption.
Jordan’s stylisation both pays homage to the cinematic traditions of the gothic film, but also yearns to dig far deeper into the history of the genre, to before it had been mostly detached from the folk heritage. The imagery blurs firm demarcations between genres. As Rosaleen’s dreaming takes over the narrative at the outset, objects in her room, like her dolls and toys, become grotesquely oversized and begin moving as the edges of the room blur into a forest realm; then the process reverses at the end. Jordan offers up some startling sequences, particularly in the anecdote of the wedding party, where the foppish guests, resplendent in wigs and gowns, explode their clothes with claws and hair and snouts and dash off into the woods in howling anguish, leaving the witch to bow to the party’s menservants, who applaud her and break out the champagne: it’s an almost perfectly distilled scene. The werewolf transformations are similarly bizarre spins on what had already become a familiar special-effect art after The Howling (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981): when Rea’s aggrieved husband transforms, he peels off his skin in a gruesomely powerful vision of self-consuming rage, revealing the bloody musculature of the wolf within, and later, when the Hunter transforms, a wolf’s snout springs fully formed out from his mouth.
The Company of Wolves is certainly no standard werewolf film, yet it stands as a strange cousin to the same year’s more popular A Nightmare on Elm Street. Like Wes Craven’s film, it is built out of dreams within dreams, offering literalised figurations for the terrors of teenagers inheriting the loaded lore of their elders, becoming aware of the corrosive aberrations of adulthood when the certitudes of given reality suddenly give way and terrifying paradoxes become apparent: both films end with monsters exploding out of dreams and into the lives of their pubescent heroines. These films each represent a brief, but promising moment when the horror genre was aware of its own subliminal nature in a fashion that hadn’t been seen since the heyday of the expressionists. There’s also wit in the sequence in which Granny recounts the anecdote of how most werewolves are created when the bastard sons of priests meet the Devil, who gives them an unction that transforms them: in the version Jordan offers, Beelzebub is played by Terence Stamp (and Rosaleen is his blonde chauffeur), and he comes rolling up to one such young man in a 1920s car (Jordan had first tried to get Andy Warhol). And yet this touch reeks of a joke surrealism that’s against the grain of what the project is attempting.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why Carter’s writings appealed to Jordan, whose other early work sported a light frosting of the surreal: the motifs in Mona Lisa (1986) and The Miracle (1990) of lost children, hazy sexuality, and questing fathers; the reality-bending outlook of the young psycho in The Butcher Boy (1997); the changelings of The Crying Game (1993) and Breakfast on Pluto (2005). And the visual flourishes Jordan brought to such works reflect an artistic temperament with one foot planted in reality and the other in the metamorphic realm of magic-realism. Jordan brings a distinct sensibility to the tale, particularly in designating the wolf-husband of the first legend a “traveling man,” a tinker familiar from the Irish landscape, not specified in Carter’s story, lending parochial familiarity with the kinds of prejudices that can be encoded in such mythology. That story ends with the unforgettable image of the young man’s head, sliced from his lupine body, bobbing in a pail of milk: maternal sustenance, death, innocence, and villainy all churned together.
And yet Jordan, who was still learning his cinematic craft at the time, fails to fully capture that mythic perception here, and more problematically, can’t come to grips with the potent sensuality Carter was able to offer in her precise prose. The recreation of the set-bound atmosphere of classic horror movies is lovingly precise in its flagrant artifice, courtesy of production designer Anton Furst, pointing forward, in its way, to Tim Burton’s less layered, but spiritually similar takes on the folk-tale and gothic traditions in Sleepy Hollow (1999), Big Fish (2002) and Corpse Bride (2005): indeed, Furst is most famous for his work on Burton’s Batman (1989). Whilst the structure of The Company of Wolves does not pretend to fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the various interrelated stories do comment on each other, the final impression is more of disjointedness rather than dream-logic. Unlike a film very similar in its essence, Jaromil Jirês’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Jordan didn’t know enough about movie-making then to fragment his visual narrative successfully into a trancelike indistinctness, and the result is a film both gorgeous to look at yet both curiously literal-minded and fussily indirect.
Take the misjudged moment when the Hunter kills Granny, her severed head a mere plaster façade that shatters against the wall, a rather pointless flourish, especially because in the story, the old woman’s desiccated bones rattle under the bed whilst the girl and her animal lover consummate a dark desire, a grotesque but canny reduction to a fine point of how new life springs from and finally ignores the old. Jordan seems somewhat afraid of the deeper recesses to be found in the material. The fact that he cast barely pubescent actress Patterson as Rosaleen necessitated his excising the eruptive sexuality that Carter evoked in the final few lines of her story before her heroine went to sleep wrapped in the wolf’s paws: “She will lay his fearful head on her laps and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage wedding ceremony.” Jordan’s touch feels far too precious for such stuff, and, in his wimpier edition, Rosaleen merely turns into a wolf, too, and runs into the forest with her hirsute beau when the villagers track them down. Where the film needs finally to achieve galvanising fantasy revelry, it settles for a potted pretension.
The Company of Wolves doesn’t quite work as adaptation and fails to fully resolve as an individual film. But it’s a long way from being a dismissible or inessential work: scenes from it stick in the memory like few films of the past 30 years. It’s certainly the best of Jordan’s several flirtations with the genre, including his failed ghost comedy High Spirits (1988), the psycho-thriller In Dreams (1999), and especially his murky blockbuster adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), which likewise portrayed a taunting, fey male overlord’s bizarre relationship with a prematurely wise girl. The Company of Wolves is still one of the most intellectually dextrous and least veiled evocations of a folk-mythological past in English-language cinema, and a fascinating by-product of the British horror tradition. As Rosaleen learns in the final driving moments, changelings can awaken from a dream but can’t always forget what they see in themselves. l
In 1697, French author Charles Perrault published Bluebeard, a dark fairytale of a rich nobleman with the bad habit of murdering his young brides. Perrault is credited, more or less, with inventing the fairytale, and in 1901, the man credited with inventing motion pictures, Georges Méliès, filmed Perrault’s story. Since then, a number of filmmakers have approached the tale, sometimes following Perrault faithfully by sparing Bluebeard’s latest child bride, sometimes sending her to share the tragic fate of his previous wives. Regardless of the ending, however, Bluebeard is a tale affirming the power of patriarchy and the danger women face when they disobey the rules of men.
Now Catherine Breillat has unleashed her feminine point of view and cinematic ingenuity on Perrault’s invention. An acknowledged personal project of the veteran director, Breillat has two young actresses play sisters reading Bluebeard for the upteenth time—stand-ins for the children she and her older sister were in the 1950s—and intersperses their play and conversation with scenes from the tale. It seems more than likely that Breillat was exploring her own childhood fascination with the story while slyly poking at gender politics that infuse various traditional stories, from Cinderella to Salome.
Adventurous and imaginative Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and her timid older sister Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti) enter an attic filled with artifacts from their parents’ and grandparents’ earlier lives. They’ve been told not to go into the attic, but Catherine disobeys because playing there—which they’ve obviously done several times before—is so much fun. Catherine wants to read Bluebeard again, but her sister, claiming sensitivity, balks. Nonetheless, the headstrong younger girl persuades her and begins reading the story aloud.
We are transported to a choir of schoolgirls dressed in ridiculously severe white wimples that cover every strand of hair and, incongruously, grey dresses that expose their legs. One of the students, Anne (Daphné Baiwir), is fetched by Sister Barbe (Suzanne Foulquier) to see the severe Mother Superior (Farida Khelfa). Anne’s sister Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) has eluded the old nun, to Mother Superior’s annoyance, and she is sent again to retrieve “the bad seed.” Once Marie-Catherine arrives, Mother Superior informs them that their father has been run over by a carriage as he leapt to save a small child from its wheels, and is now dead. With a quick prayer for the father’s bravery and a stern admonishment for the girls to stop their blubbering, Mother Superior banishes the now impoverished sisters from her uncharitable school.
As the sisters watch creditors cart away anything of value in their home—from furniture to a picture taken almost as an afterthought off the wall—Anne curses her dead father for acting without a thought for them and bellows at her ineffectual mother for dyeing all of their dresses black. Mary-Catherine has a much different reaction when viewing her father laid out on his bed—he looks more handsome, she thinks, and no longer intimidating. The very different attitudes of the girls—the older and prettier one much more conventional, the younger, darker one more reflective—will prove decisive when they are called to a party at Bluebeard’s castle where the lord will pick his new bride.
The young people gathered for the party dance and disparage the ugly Bluebeard. Mary-Catherine, younger than the rest, has gone off by herself; she plays with a grasshopper and walks in the woods. There she meets Bluebeard reclining against a tree. He tells her that people call him an ogre, so that is what he has become. Mary-Catherine is not afraid of him, nor does she think he’s an ogre. This is the first of several touching scenes between the two, together in their isolation and thirst for knowledge.
Breillat has a tricky balancing act in structuring a film with two rather fanciful, parallel stories. Although the girls in the attic represent the real world, they come from an earlier time, one in which a conversation about what a homosexual is, though charming and funny, is a little too modern. She also has a number of points to make—not only is she taking a look at masculine and feminine power, but she also has a go at sibling rivalry. By making her points in several ways, she ran the risk of diluting the film’s power.
And yet, Breillat pulls it all off magnificently well. She knows how to tell both stories in an engaging and appropriate way, using two extremely likeable little girls to keep us in the modern story, and casting the mesmerizing Créton as Mary-Catherine to humanize her stylized approach to the fairytale. Her fabulous locations for the Bluebeard story, particularly at the convent school, are like an instant time machine, with the authentically medieval office from which the authentically severe Mother Superior ruled without an ounce of humanity creating the threatening ambiance of the best fairytales right from the start.
Breillat graphically illustrates Catherine’s imagination to signal her attitude toward the characters, particularly the two sisters. When the girls are being carted back to their mother’s home, a single, angelic tear hangs under Mary-Catherine’s eye, while Anne has two disgusting columns of snot affixed between her nostrils and upper lip. Anne is shown to be bratty, disrespectful, and vain, rather like the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella. And like that fairytale, although Anne is prettier, Bluebeard chooses Mary-Catherine on whom to bestow his love and riches, emphasizing a theme Breillat has said she wanted to bring out—the competitiveness of siblings and how that competitiveness can play out in unexpectedly good or tragic ways.
Marie-Catherine matures quickly following her wedding, assuming the mantel of mistress of Bluebeard’s chateau seemingly effortlessly. She has the enormous Bluebeard wrapped around her dainty little finger, scolding him for putting her child-size bed at the foot of his own. “I’m not a dog,” she complains, and has the bed moved into a broom closet that is the right size for her and from which all persons but she are excluded. This space seems to contain her true Self, a place from which she can venture and feel her way toward adulthood. She does this on her wedding night, when she tiptoes silently across the ancient, wooden planks to watch secretly as her husband removes his shirt, exploring a sexuality she will have to grow into.
Marie-Catherine is always honest, and Bluebeard assures her that as long as she remains truthful, she will never have anything to fear from him. But when he returns from an extended journey to find party guests at the castle—something he encouraged Marie-Catherine to do—he grows cross and jealous. He cannot overcome his primitive nature, and chooses almost immediately to test his new bride. He gives her the gold key to the room that, unbeknownst to Marie-Catherine, contains the bloody corpses of his previous wives, but admonishes her not to use it. Ah, the weakness of Eve! Marie-Catherine’s curiosity sets up the grisly scene of three decaying corpses nailed above a huge pool of blood, which the horror-loving Catherine wades into, muttering “I’m not afraid” to herself as she passes between the discolored legs of one of the women. On Bluebeard’s return only a day later, he asks Marie-Catherine for the gold key, but she lies and says she lost it. Exposed to his violence and his capriciousness in telling her she could invite friends and then being angry when she does, she fears obeying him by being truthful. She has been forced to lie, to betray her own nature to save her life.
This is the way in which Breillat explores the gender dynamics that confront women. Marie-Catherine and Anne’s father was their sole financial support; even when trying to act in the most human way possible, he has compromised the welfare of his family because of the economic structure of their environment and doomed his daughters to a convent or worse because no man will marry a girl without a dowry. Marie-Catherine is a clever and empathetic girl, but she can’t tame the beast of patriarchy represented by Bluebeard. Even though Breillat is careful to show Bluebeard’s ambivalence about sending Marie-Catherine to her death, we are still faced with the entire weight of patriarchy (note Bluebeard’s enormous girth and appetite)—its suspicion of women, its demand of absolute obedience even as it makes obedience nearly impossible to practice, and the necessity of women to be untrue to themselves to survive.
The final two shots set up a parallel between Marie-Catherine and Catherine in an unexpected way. Marie-Catherine, now as wealthy in her own right as she hoped to be, stares vacantly as she gently strokes the severed head of her husband, which rests on a silver platter. This can be seen as a challenge to patriarchy that this film itself represents, but it also serves to reinforce negative stereotypes of women in its parallel with the wanton, amoral Salome. The delightedly “wicked” Catherine, too, finds that imposing her will on her gentle sister results in a form of wish fulfillment that has a price. Breillat provides an obvious moral to men, but an equal caution to women to care for their sisters in arms and avoid the excesses of conquest. l
The entertainment value of entertainment sometimes seems to have become less and less valued. A more broad-minded way of looking at genre fare has entered contemporary criticism, transformed by an academic reading of subtext and semantics that can often invert the presumed value of high and low culture in movie-making, with the potential message-making power of generic films acknowledged. An instance of this can be seen in numerous commentaries I’ve read on 2009’s diptych of scifi allegory, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and James Cameron’s Avatar, many of which made both films sound like sticky tracts on racism and environmentalism rather than the rip-snorting action flicks they are. Nor is it hard to see why this element still tends to be emphasised: an action-adventure film still can’t really be just an action-adventure film without having some variety of pretension attached to it to justify its existence.
All of this is a long way of saying that I didn’t know until I’d watched it that Cameron’s Avatar is vintage Cameron, probably his best film since The Abyss (1989) and an unabashed scifi swashbuckler.
Here’s the plot. A couple of hundred years in the future, humans are now engaging in gleeful colonial rape of neighbouring planets, executed by the people who obviously never took a cultural studies class at college. The people who did are represented by Sigourney Weaver, as Dr. Grace Augustine, a humane scientist who’s trying to communicate with the understandably xenophobic natives of Pandora, the Na’vi (Native, get it?), who, with their glamorous blue complexions and long, pendulous bodies, resemble nothing so less than a race of Kate Mosses. She does so by creating hybrid bodies, or avatars, that can be mentally controlled by human operators. The mining company whose concerns take precedence over all projects, represented by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi, caricaturised, if not ineffectively) and their hordes of mercenary bullyboys, led by the formidable Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), want the Na’vi shifted from their home over a particularly large and juicy seam of “Unobtainium,” an obscure ore that, like everything else on Pandora, seems part of its amazingly interconnected ecosphere, which, Grace realises, resembles a colossal brain.
Into this scenario comes Jake Scully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine whose identical-twin brother, intended to be one of the anthropologist avatar operators, dies just before embarkation. Thus, Jake, having the same genetic make-up, can plug into his brother’s intended body. Grace is initially appalled by having a solider imposed on her team, and Selfridge and Quaritch immediately presume him to be a malleable tool to gather information. But Scully takes to his new part-time body like a duck to water, and his mysteriously anointed status, bestowed by the Na’vi’s nature-deity, which proves to be rather more than a merely ethereal being, gives him a foothold in the Na’vi tribe. Quicker than you can say “A Man Called Horse,” Jake is trained by whippet-hipped Na’vi chick Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in Na’vi ways, earns induction into their tribe and religion, and gets busy Na’vi style with Neytiri. And, when the time comes, and the humans’ bulldozers and gunships come rocking in, Scully’s loyalties are, of course, brought into desperate question. When Quaritch kills Grace, Jake and a few human confederates, including tough-girl helicopter pilot Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) and nerd Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) are left with few options. Will Jake man up and show the Na’vi how to fight off the invaders? Well, duh.
Avatar has much in common with the last major Hollywood swashbuckler, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), in the way it contrasts and intertwines yearning, conscientious, scientific spirit and Enlightenment idealism with martial vainglory and ra-ra action: if it’s not half as smart and nuanced as Weir’s film, it executes action better. Of course, the uptown guy in me kept thinking that it was an inferior variant on Malick’s The New World, with hero Jake and Neytiri taking the place of John Smith and Pocahontas and utilising a battery of special effects to evoke the same feeling of wonder and awe in the natural world that Malick was able to conjure with some stalks of grass. Where Malick turns the familiar into the spectrally strange, Cameron specialises in turning the utterly alien into the cosily familiar.
But, if it’s a stock story, the film knows it, and stock stories have always been a motif of space opera upon which to hang evocations of wonderment. There’s a reason why such a plot has survived a couple of thousand years: scenes of Jake taming and riding a kind of dragon to rouse the Na’vi to follow him is pure Joseph Campbell (or is it Robert E. Howard?), backed up by the Dickensian character names. It’s long been Cameron’s stand-out trait to fuse intriguing genre ideas pilfered from a multitude of sources with a rocking matinee pace: just because it’s older doesn’t mean The Terminator is any different in this regard, even if, like Spielberg and Jackson and George Miller and many others, Cameron has long ago left behind the bargain-basement gore and cruder provocations for blockbuster blandness, a development that film fans can never quite forgive. But Avatar sports great ideas, with its concept of a biological version of the internet conjoining organisms in a web of awareness and reliance, lending the hippy-dippy nature mysticism an unexpected solidity. And, of course, the metaphoric potential for on-line networking and gaming, and traditional cinephilia, in the avatar concept will launch a thousand term papers in the near future.
Although Avatar is indeed cutting-edge technical cinema redefined, Cameron remains utterly, blissfully indifferent to many modern Hollywood faults, like its love of excessively tight framing, space-distorting editing, and wobbling cameras that destroy most contemporary would-be thrill rides. His sense of spectacle is just as cleanly organised and visually easy to read as it was 20 years ago. If you don’t have a taste for action and spectacle, that’s all well and good; I’ll see you later at the Tarkovsky festival, no fear. But then again, a shot of one of the Na’vi’s six-legged riding beasts running away from battle engulfed in flames evokes the stumbling horse in the battle scene of Andrei Rublev, and like that film, it raises the question of whether the divisions of pagan nature-worship and more polite creeds might be wrong-headed, with an overall concept of humanity and nature fatally out of balance. Avatar is also, like The New World, about the American dream of an Eden, and, like The Last of the Mohicans, a fantasy of cross-cultural merging that promises the growth of a new and better kind of man by embracing values rejected by the Old World. When Wes Studi turns up playing the Na’vi chief, I nearly laughed out loud, not knowing if this was a cunning or corny casting cue. Both? I could say that of the whole film. But Studi isn’t playing Magua here, the embodied spirit of the savage in man: that part is reserved for Lang’s Quaritch.
Ironically, and amusingly, that Old World is now one of super-technology and asshole corporate types, and the New conceptualises god as a unified natural scheme, pantheism with some organic cyberpunk jive thrown in. Some right-wingers have criticised Cameron for offering greenie propaganda, and they have a point—in fact, it’s utterly, thumpingly obvious—but Cameron is a bundle of contradictions as a director. He doesn’t analyse the divides between his preoccupations, but sets his disparate selves in highly unironic conflict, which is perhaps why he’s so popular. A supreme Hollywood technocrat who began in special-effects production, he’s also an unabashed romantic who gives us a love affair between two animated cat-people that’s warmer than most of those found in modern romantic comedies. A fetishist of military lingo, hardware, and attitude, he often deals out ruthless punishment to soldierly and authoritarian types for blind arrogance and aggression. A pillar of Hollywood cultural imperialism, he, like George Lucas, constructs fables of embattled outsiders fighting to overcome unstoppable monopolies and spends huge sums of money on making films that metaphorically reflect the exploitation of third-world populaces.
Cameron’s not very subtle—anyone who’s seen his award speeches knows that—but he is a canny filmmaker and curiously ardent one: Avatar, even more than Titanic, flies a long way on pure enthusiasm. If it’s a better film than Titanic, a film I liked well enough for its visual beauty, strong stars, and felicitous quotations of ’30s screwball comedies and Victorian melodrama, it’s because Cameron’s love of antisocial rebelliousness and resolutely contemporary sense of character and dialogue fit far more easily into the not-too-distant future than into the not-too-distant past. Where he never had a hope of successfully grafting his American love of the fighting chance onto a situation defined by accepting the inevitable, he’s in his element with Avatar. In engaging with his conjured alien milieu, he maintains a depth and care in his scifi and metaphorical concepts that eluded the less detailed, more self-congratulatory analogies of District 9, whilst also cranking his narrative up to an action climax that is too long, but brilliantly done. What’s inherently likeable about Avatar is that it wears its values on its sleeve: it’s not busy hiding behind a glaze of hip alienation and elusive visuals.
It’s not perfect. Not nearly. Cameron’s habit of writing dialogue that drops like lead weights now and then hasn’t altered, his storytelling in the first third is occasionally choppy, and if the imagery doesn’t tap into your sense of wonder, the obvious narrative will leave you cold. The special effects are indeed amazing in their immersive detail, but the film’s greatest avatar is Stephen Lang: building on his impressive, if brief, turn in Public Enemies, his face carved to an Easter Island idol under a mean crop of white stalks standing at parade attention, his villain is the best kind—one you both enjoy enormously and badly want to see get it in the neck. Requiring no more props than some make-up scars, Lang as Quaritch offers a hybrid of every gung-ho hard-ass in screen history and the mean gym teacher from your nightmares, embodying everything malevolent about the über-macho type. His and Scully’s relationship, defined at first by patronising paternalism, and then, finally, by nakedly bellicose warfare, evokes the clash of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River. Like that film, it’s fundamentally about the irreconcilable clash of force and felicity, frontier and civilisation, but it also reveals changes in the popular zeitgeist ever since: the world’s gone native, and the best cowboys have joined the Indians.
Worthington himself is, well, worthy: his capacity to play undoubted masculinity with low-key soul is intact, and it’s to her amazing credit that Saldana projects as much charisma CGI’d nearly out of existence as she did in her other scifi hit of 2009, Star Trek. But it’s Lang who animates the film and drags it toward sheer mythic confrontation. Of course, I can see through all of Cameron’s tricks, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed them enormously, though, admittedly, my expectations were mild. Avatar will probably win a lot of Oscars and make a mountain of money. For once I won’t mind. l
The realists and the impressionists are at it again. No, we’re not in 19th century France or Nazi Germany. Our battle is in the very commercial realm of animated film. Here’s part of a comment from a Serbian IMDb reader about the recent Spanish film De Profundis: “A pretentious must-not see. This is not an animated movie. Unless you think of animation as two similar but different shapes of a body joined together by a computer animation, and than (sic) put in a loop.” Putting aside the fact that there was no computer animation used in this film, this comment clearly shows the influence of Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks computer animation on the viewing tastes and expectations of moviegoers. Looking at the changes in animation between this film and 1973’s Fantastic Planet, and the maybe coincidental fact that I found the earlier film in a dumpster (!), will tell you a lot about how post-modern art is being eclipsed once again by the human inertia toward literalism.
Fantastic Planet, a Palme d’Or nominee and winner of a special jury prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, creates a Dali-esque planet to which human beings, called “oms” (hommes), have been introduced, like an invasive species of plant or animal. The film begins with a female om clutching a baby running feverishly to try to escape some menacing force. Her fear and concern for her child are palpable. In the end, however, she is raised in the air as her child watches her dropped over and over until she will never move again. Pan out to reveal several, blue-skinned, reptilian giants, children of the home race of Traags who were playing and accidentally broke the om. One of them, Tiwa (voice of Jennifer Drake), pities the baby and takes it home as a pet. Her parents disapprove of her plans to give him a Traag name, so she names him Terr, after his home planet of Terra. So now we know the name of the story’s narrator (Eric Baugin).
Terr is Tiwa’s close companion, cradled by her everywhere and able to listen in on her school lessons through a set of headphones downloaded with all of the advanced knowledge of the Traags. But both are growing up. Tiwa no longer plays with her toys and pets. Terr decides to run away and drags Tiwa’s headphones with him. He falls in with a band of wild oms who live in a nearby park and shares the Traag knowledge with them. When a group of oms kills a Traag who was trying to step on them, the government decides to carry out a massive campaign to de-om the state. The oms, using the knowledge they gained from the headphones, decide to build a rocket and fly to the planet’s moon, called the Strange Planet, to be free. There, they learn a crucial secret of the Traags that they can use to attain recognition and equality on the home world.
The highly imaginative renderings by the relatively modest (by today’s standards) design and animation department pay little heed to the physical laws of our real world, maintaining realism only for the oms and standard bilaterally symmetrical biology for the Traags. Other creatures, plants, and land formations show no such respect for realism, lending a weird otherness that the script furthers with a made-up vocabulary for Tiwa’s lessons on the complex history, science, and culture of the Traags. The animation is a little stiff, but not in a distracting way.
The film muses on how a highly intelligent race could literally sever mind and body by positing that the Traags spend most of their time in meditation. That meditation, in which the mind represented by a head floating in a bubble, is actually necessary for procreation shows that even in an animated fantasy, the French believe everyone has an obsessive preoccupation with sex. The bare-breasted and naked female oms and Traggs certainly show that tendency in the animators.
The environmentalism of the time, particularly with regard for animal rights, is a major theme. Treating sentient creatures like pets, exterminating them like vermin, and doing the equivalent of pulling the wings off a fly as a form of recreation underlines the folly of human hubris over the natural world. Reverence for the mind over the body can lead to species suicide. The reasons for this divorce are clear from a very original scene of giant, but fragile statues in human form dancing as a prelude to sex and then falling to pieces. Ultimately, the fanciful Fantastic Planet says humility and frailty must be the price for life.
De Profundis pretty much sums up my profound emotional experience of this sad fairytale told using the beautiful, haunting pastel paintings of its creator Miguelanxo Prado. This wordless feature, scored with an ethereal mix of music and sound effects by Portuguese composer Nani Garcia, tells the tale of a seascape artist living on an island with his cello-playing wife who accompanies a fishing boat one day to sketch their work and the creatures they draw from the ocean. In horror, the crew brings up an eel—a bad omen—which they toss back. Nonetheless, a storm builds, and an enormous wave scuttles the boat, sending all hands to the bottom of the ocean. The artist, however, is taken in hand by a mermaid, one he imagined in a painting, and shown many of the underwater treasures that have made their way into his art and the art of his country. Eventually, they come upon an underwater city, which the mermaid tries to dissuade the man from approaching. There, he remembers his life on land and can no longer remain underwater as a man.
De Profundis hearkens back to an approach called limited animation. The commenter from Serbia objected to, for example, the cellist moving her hands, bow, and head in a repetitive loop. But in one hauntingly beautiful scene, the camera moves us into an empty room in the artist’s house and toward an open window. The long, white curtains flutter so realistically (reminiscent of the blinking eyes in the otherwise still-photo film La Jetée), I wondered if they were live-action imposed into an animated frame. This short sequence shows clearly that limited animation was a choice Prado made to draw us into his paintings much as the artist was drawn into the fanciful underwater world of his mermaid.
The images Prado shares are colorful and evocative, and he takes care to allow his images to shimmer in wavy underwater distortion. His creatures, like his deep-sea lantern fish, are accurately drawn, yet used in a very dynamic way as a menace to the artist as they circle him, their sharp teeth threatening from perpetually open jaws. Yet, Prado also creates his own kind of wonder. The fishermen bait their hooks with glowing balls of music a young boy sings for them—a true siren’s call for their quarry.
The direction is flawless, as Prado takes his camera through the artist’s studio, down stairs, outside with the kind of meticulousness of a master scene setter. He introduces whales as the cellist’s friends early in the film even as he sets the scene for the cruelty nature will inflict on her and her beloved husband. The whales return by film’s end, and with them, a new storm of tears fell from my eyes. This is simply one of the loveliest, most moving films I’ve ever seen. l
I always like it when awarding organizations get it right, and when the Big Three of the Western film world—AMPAS, the Golden Globes, and the Cannes Film Festival—named Black Orpheus Best Foreign-Language Film, Best Foreign Film, and Palme d’Or winner, respectively, they most certainly got it right. This Brazilian/French/Italian coproduction reimagines the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a doomed romance between descendents of freed black slaves in the hillside favelas (shantytowns) surrounding Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. In doing so, Black Orpheus connects this pre-Christian story with the Christian Passion in a place watched over by a giant figure of Christ.
The title card shows a Greek frieze from antiquity into which the figures of Orpheus and Eurydice have been chiseled. Then we are plunged immediately into a favela readying itself for Carnival. Musicians in bright, satin costumes create a pulsing African beat to which the townspeople sway, even women carrying large bundles of laundry on their heads. Soon the music gives way to the quieter rhythms of village life, scored by Luiz Bonfá—specifically, “Manhã de Carnaval,” which becomes the running theme song of the movie. We meet a smiling Serafina (Léa Garcia) watching two boys, Benedito (Jorge dos Santos) and Zeca (Aurino Cassiano), flying kites. The arrival of a streetcar pulls us into the plot.
Streetcar driver Orfeo (Breno Mello) conveys passengers, including the young and beautiful Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), into town. Orfeo is a natural flirt who has left a string of lovers all over town, though one of them, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), has pushed him aggressively into a promise of marriage. Filmic love triangles are plentiful, but one member of the triangle usually knows at some level that a grand passion is in the offing. I am reminded of Gene Kelly as he pursues a reluctant, then compliant Leslie Caron in An American in Paris. Black Orpheus confounds this formula by having Orfeo flirt with and then dismiss Eurydice as too young; for her part, Eurydice is single-minded in her desire to get to cousin Serafina’s home, and Orfeo is an unwelcome roadblock.
Orfeo returns to his home, which adjoins Serafina’s, and his menagerie of animals—a reference to Orpheus’ ability to charm all the beasts with his music. He has gotten his precious guitar out of hock in time to play at the Carnival festivities. Zeca brings Benedito to Orfeo, claiming that Orfeo makes the sun rise with his songs. Benedito asks Orfeo what songs he plays—are they religious? No, says Orfeo, “I just make them up.” He then starts to improvise a song, the aforementioned “Manhã de Carnaval,” improvising lyrics about the rising of the sun and love. Eurydice hears the song, and in keeping with the Orpheus myth, is enchanted. When Orfeo discovers that she is now his next-door neighbor, he tries to seduce her. She runs. When he catches up with her, she is crying. “I was attracted to the song,” she says. Orfeo—a handsome and virile man—is not accustomed to women appreciating his creative inner life, and his heart is touched.
Sadly, Eurydice is a troubled young woman. She has run away from home; both she and Serafina know that if her guardian finds her, he could kill her. Eurydice has an additional worry right where she is. Previously, when Mira and Orfeo went to the marriage license bureau, a clerk, jokingly referring to the myth, says “Orfeo loves Eurydice,” without knowing there really is a Eurydice in town. Mira has noticed Orfeo’s transfer of affection and vows to kill Eurydice.
The vital heart of Afro-Brazilian culture is on display in this sweetly intense film. There isn’t a musical note or drumbeat struck that there isn’t also a swaying or dancing group of people responding. Although young, Eurydice comfortably allows the music to reach inside her. She and Orfeo dance with pleasure in a scene that communicates love of life rather than merely sexual or romantic intrigue. We’ve seen love dances before—again, I’m reminded of An American in Paris—but in Western films, the dances always tell the story. In this film, the dance is part of the story, part of a life in which both women and men find pleasure and expression. There’s no need for a Gene Kelly trying to persuade men that dancing is macho. How foolish this would seem to these Brazilians.
The film reaches a peak during the actual Carnival parade. Orfeo, dressed in gold like a Greek god, is the major domo of his town’s dance crewe whose theme is the rising sun and who dress rather ironically in colonial garb. During this celebration that ushers in a period of sacrifice leading up to Easter, Orfeo and Eurydice will enact another such sacrifice. Eurydice has seen the figure of a man dressed as Death (Ademar Da Silva) before the parade; frightened, she runs to Orfeo, who promises to protect her always. During the parade, Eurydice has taken Serafina’s place; veiled, she can dance with Orfeo without Mira being the wiser.
Unfortunately, Serafina and her dumb boyfriend can’t resist coming to the parade, and Serafina calls to Eurydice. Both Mira and Death, who has been watching Eurydice, take after her, but only Death manages to separate her from the crowd. In the empty trolley depot, they play a truly frightening cat-and-mouse game, moving in the troughs under the tracks and above the ground on the trestle structures, Death glowing red with menace. Orfeo reaches them; Eurydice yells his name. He throws a switch for more light, but only succeeds in electrocuting his beloved.
The descent of Orpheus into Hell is handled in a truly wonderful way here. An elderly streetcar conductor named Hermes (the messenger) takes Orfeo to the Bureau of Missing Persons (guarded, of course, by a dog named Cerebus), a building empty save for a janitor sweeping up miles of paper recording missing persons who are never found. Again, this seems a subtle reference to the Sacrifice of the Cross by which all humanity is saved. However, Orfeo seeks Eurydice in a pre-Christian ceremony in which spirits possess the singers and dancers. At Hermes’ urging, Orfeo joins in the singing, and Eurydice’s voice comes to him. He wants to see her, but she warns him not to turn around to view the source of the voice, or he will lose her forever. Impetuous, he disobeys her and is told by the old woman whom Eurydice has used as a vessel that she is lost to him forever.
Orfeo insists on seeing Eurydice, and in a beautifully shot and symbolic scene, descends a spiral staircase to the morgue. In an unnecessarily comic scene involving a morgue worker with a cold, he finds Eurydice, claims her body, and lets her “lead” him wherever she will. He walks with her body up a bluff, thanking Eurydice for taking him on a beautiful path surrounded by flowers. He will be met on this path by a furious Mira, who will decide his fate. The tragedy played out, life renews itself as Benedicto, Zeca, and a very young girl dance to Bonfá ‘s “Samba de Orfeo” and wait for the sun to rise.
The fabric of one corner of Brazilian life is on full display in Black Orpheus, including actual footage of Carnival that seems to have been shot by Camus. Camus has a spectacular eye for the majesty that is Rio, utilizing the natural beauty to accent and lend power to this timeless love story. At the same time, comic interludes of varying degrees of success reminded me of Shakespeare’s construction of tragedies. Music, both primitive and contemporary, fill this film; besides Bonfá, Antonio Carlos Jobim contributed music, including the now classic “A Felicidade.”
Finally, we have the sensitive lovers themselves. Breno Mello was a soccer star appearing in his first film; while he and the rest of the nonprofessional cast are sometimes awkward, Mello’s heartbreak over the loss of Eurydice is deeply touching. Marpessa Dawn, an American dancer with acting experience, is the shining light of this film. She manages to be a real person despite the whole weight of cinematic love stories pressing in on her. In a rather touching, though coincidental coda to this film, Mello died this past July, and Dawn followed only six weeks later.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hubby was friends with Marpessa when they both lived in Denver. He said she had a serenity and confidence that drew people to her. He did not know she starred in Black Orpheus, and had never seen it. One week, it was playing at the Ogden, and Marpessa told him about it and agreed to meet him for the screening. The house was packed, and the hubby couldn’t find her. Finally, in the dark, he called, “Marpessa, are you there?” A disembodied voice called back, “I’m here.” When he told me this story, I immediately said, “You were Orpheus!”
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