Thursday, November 26, 2009
This next blog piece is going to be very laid back and unprofessional. None of these sentences you are about to read are going to look overstylized as they do normally in my film essays. You can't blame me, after all; I'm still recuperating from nirvana. No, seriously: I'm in total disbelief.
Two weeks ago, I met David Lynch.
I shook his hand. I got his autograph. I sat next to him in the audience. I got a picture taken with him and got to ask him a question during the Q & A session the very next day. Up until that point in time, I had never met a filmmaker- much less a great filmmaker whom I have admired ever since my early teenage years- ever. I didn't really expect to, either, until sometime after my mid-20's. This all happened so fast.
I have my parents to thank for this. My dad, first of all. He's a golf course designer, you see, and a company up in Fairfield, Iowa was considering hiring him to come up and help plan out a course for them. While searching online to find out more about Fairfield, my dad looked at some stuff about the town's college, Maharishi University, and discovered that Lynch was going to be there for their Visitor's Weekend, November 13-15, 2009. My dad forwarded it to me just because he thought I might find it interesting.
Then my dad got home (he works in Peoria, Illinois during the weekdays) and we started talking about it. He asked me if I would actually like to attend the Visitors Weekend, and I immediately said yes. Though my dad couldn't go, my mother and my sister were able to have their schedules cleared and, after registering (it was $150 overall), we seemed all set.
There was, however, a week of limbo that passed, when it seemed like it wasn't gonna happen- even though we had already paid. I received an email from the staff stating that I actually had to call them over the phone before receiving a confirmation. I couldn't get a hold of them for three days! Somehow my mother was able to reach them, at last, and then that was it. I eagerly waited out Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, November 14, we set out for Fairfield.
I always take my video camera along on these kinds of trips, but this was a special one because this trip actually had to do with movies. Okay, that's sort of an exaggeration: Maharishi has no Film department. It's a school that generally specializes in business courses. But you understand what I'm getting at.
"Diane, it's 3:00 PM and we're entering the Mark Twain town of Hannibal", I said while recording our car drive. That's my terrible Agent Cooper impersonation. It was funny, too, because my sister kept turning around with a confused look on her face. "Who's Diane?" she asks. "Is that the name of your camera?"
So eventually, we reach Fairfield, which is actually a very Lynchian town. Small, with peculiar figures walking around. We were staying at a Super 8. I was thrilled, but had no idea what was going to happen in the next couple of hours. I kept entertaining myself with the thrill of getting to see Lynch in person. I had no idea that there would be much more in store.
The staff's bus arrives at the motel, we get in, and in the next five minutes we're at Maharishi's Library Center. We sign in, get our nametags and then go upstairs for dinner. Then, the horror begins. Dinner consists of 100% vegetarian food, which makes some things hard to tell from the others. I put ranch dressing on my salad- only to realize that it's white yogurt, for example. Dinner ends, and when I put my tray away, it collapses and falls through the cart and onto the floor. The student chaperons are nice about it ("it's all good!") but I'm seethingly embarrassed. Suddenly, my sister walks up to me.
"Well, I saw him."
"Who?" I ask.
"Yeah," she says.
"Are you sure?" I'm skeptical. "What did he look like?"
"He had long, gray hair," she said, "and he's over in the next room."
My eyebrows are raised. "Ava, David Lynch doesn't have long hair... he has tall, thin white hair. And if he had actually be out here right now, everybody would be rushing up to him."
She and I examine the next room, but the guy that she saw isn't there anymore. I keep assuring her that she probably just saw some random dude. Truth is, I'm jealous that she could have possibly seen Lynch before I did.
All three of us head out to the auditorium. It's time for you-know-what. There's a blue banner on the far wall with Lynch's name on it, and Angelo Badalamenti music (notably the Laura Palmer theme) is playing on the stereo. To my shock, there's hardly anybody here yet. Most everybody is still out in the hall. And down at the very bottom row- the first row in front of the stage- are empty seats.
We're joined by a lady named Jen. She and I have been talking about a lot of topics, from Lynch to Lars von trier, while my mother and my sister (who don't know much about film) feel like "fish out of water". The four of us claim the empty seats at the bottom, but I'm nervous about it. How could these seats not be already taken? Something fishy's going on.
Indeed, when some of the staff walk out, they're concerned when they see us sitting in the seats. My mother is told that we may or may not have to give them up to the VIPs, but we aren't kicked out or anything. My mother assures me that if we absolutely have to move, she and my sister will volunteer, but that she'll do anything to get me to stay where I am.
The auditorium fills up in the next fifteen minutes. We're still in the seats! This is some kind of miracle. Three chairs on the stage stand directly before us. Soon, Bob Roth, the Vice President of the David Lynch Foundation, goes onstage, asks us for silence, and then welcomes us to Maharishi University. "It's gonna be a great weekend," he says towards the end of his speech. That's all I need to hear.
Onstage come three people: Dr. John Hagelin, President of the David Lynch Foundation (and who appeared in 2004's What the Bleep do We Know!?); the lovely Heather Hartnett, who does all the Foundation's interviews (and whom I got to meet later the next day); and then, the third person comes onstage.
"Here we go," I whisper to my mother.
Out comes David Lynch. He looks just as I imagined: tall white hair, and a beaming face. They sit down on the chairs, and again, I can hardly believe that we're right in front of them. They start talking about the Foundation and its efforts to promote transcendental meditation, and Mayor Malloy comes onstage to thank all three of them for coming to Fairfield, which has been voted as one of the "Fifteen Best American Towns You've Never Heard Of". The English folk singer Donovan also comes onstage to thank Lynch. And finally, Lynch closes with a typically Lynchian wisecrack: "Before you go to sleep tonight, think about how the Hamiltonian..." and I don't remember the rest. I was laughing too hard.
They leave the stage, for it's time for the musical performance by the student band. Bob Roth, who notices that we're occupying the front-row seats, suggests that the three VIPs go over and sit in the chairs lying off by the wall. John Hagelin and Heather Hartnett are happy to do so, but we look over and notice that Lynch is refusing to: he wants to sit in the front row! But there are no seats left, we notice Roth whispering to him.
Miraculously, we realize that Lynch turns to face our direction. He's
looking at us. He then points out to the one single empty chair in the front row- between my mother and Donovan. He mouths the words to ask if that seat is taken. I assume that he's talking to Donovan, but my mother told me afterward that he was actually talking to her...? Whoever he was talking to, they told him it was okay, and then Lynch begins strolling down the aisle, right in front of us. He sits down next to my mother.
Now, my mother is a life saver, and she turns to Lynch, tells him that I'm a fan of his and asks him if it's okay if she and I switch seats. He says it's perfectly okay, and just when we're switching, Lynch holds his hand out to me. I can hardly believe that this is happening, but I shake his hand.
"Hello, Mr. Lynch!" I whisper. "I'm a huge fan!"
"Yeah! Seen all your movies!"
"Oh, that's good!"
(sure, it's that kind of irritating small-talk, but what do you say to somebody like David Lynch?)
The student band comes on to perform, and they're terrific. I think Lynch might use their music in a film someday.
Meanwhile, my mother and my sister are giggling at the fact that I'm sitting next to such a genius. And I, meanwhile, am not sure whether or not to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming.
As the band performs their climatic song entitled "I Don't Know What Brought You Here (But I'm So Glad You Came)", my sister and the lady named Jen tell my mother that she ought to quickly snap a picture of me and Lynch within the same frame. She seizes the moment! Then Lynch goes onstage to thank us again for coming before returning to his seat. He's ready to leave, and I can sense the anxious audience members waiting to hop out of their seats to get to him, so I stop him short:
"Mr. Lynch, before you go, would you mind signing my copy of The Straight Story?" I hold out my DVD case and a green permanent marker. He is happy to do so.
"What's your name?" he asks me. I tell him. He begins signing. The autograph begins, "To Adam". And as he's signing his signature at the bottom, I realize the importance of this particular film in his career. I try to find the right words.
"Richard Farnsworth was great in this," I say. "He should have won the Oscar."
"Yes, he should have," Lynch nods.
He hands me back my case and then talks about how my mother is great because she got the idea to get us to switch seats. That's my mother's queue to ask him for one more favor: can we have a picture taken together? (as you can see, the picture of us applauding the song is unsatisfactory, but the fault is mine- since I look crabby in that photo). And Lynch agrees. The rest is history.
"Take care of yourself, Adam!" are his last words.
He wishes me well and taps my mother on the shoulder to bid the same to her. That's when the big mob of people rush up to him. Of course, we've already got enough memorabilia to last a lifetime.
But wait- there's more! The next day, on Saturday, is the Q & A session on Transcendental Meditation. I've got everything except video footage of me speaking to Lynch, so I decide to push for that. The Q & A is organized unusually: questionees have to sit on the steps and work their way down to the stage. I end up in an uncomfortable situation when I can't seem to find where the line begins and where it ends (some people are only sitting on the steps because they literally have nowhere else to sit in the whole auditorium), and there comes a point when I'm at the very top of the auditorium and have to stand behind a thick white barrier because I don't want to block anyone's vision.
Of course, I do find the line, and I work my way down the stairs like everyone else, and pretty soon, once it's my turn, the Q & A is down to only two more questions (why do I always show up at the last minute? lol). There's a weird moment when a blonde-haired girl tries to cut in front of me. "Don't get in a fight!" Lynch quips. The girl, bless her heart, backs off, and I proceed to the microphone:
So it's my turn. I ask Lynch a question about what kind of effect transcendental meditation could have on angry filmmakers. But I also make the mistake of misquoting Lynch: I had read a chapter in his book Catching the Big Fish in which he says, "for me, film is dead", and I assume he means that he thinks all film is dying out.
Lynch corrects me: he thinks celluloid is dying, but not film. "Cinema will never die," he declares. He also elaborates on why he believes transcendental meditation can advance the abilities of an artist. I bring up John Huston, Sam Peckinpah and Hal Ashby as filmmakers who were cut short because of drugs/alcohol abuse; and Lynch says that he thinks the whole notion of the "starving artist" is just a cheap way to get girls. He does say that meditators can still get angry, but that their anger goes away quicker and that they feel rejuvanated afterwards. "You want to live," he explains, "and living gets better and better."
Cinema will never die. On our way home that Saturday night, I had a million thoughts running through my head, but no longer would I question the fate of cinema. People have told me before that they think cinema will live on forever, but with Lynch confirming it for me, I can now think of it as a fact instead of a theory.
Thanksgiving is over, but let me conclude that I'm thankful for my friends, my family, getting the chance to meet David Lynch and- what's more- taking his advice home with me.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Clarence Brown's The Yearling is an immortal film about a boy and his deer. It is also remembered as the film with the first real Gregory Peck performance. Before The Yearling, Peck had been sluggishly cast in films like Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), and had yet to find a role suitable to his strongest capabilities as an actor. Though a favorite of producers like David O. Selznick, he was secretly loathed by filmmakers like Hitchcock and Vidor, who both learned--after directing him--that he wasn't meant for roles that were harsh or mysterious. “He's shallow, for one,” complained Francois Truffaut of Peck's Spellbound performance, “but the main thing is the lack of expression in his eyes.” That is true of Spellbound, but it is not true of The Yearling, in which Peck's eyes sparkle--and so do the eyes of the boy with the deer.
Based on the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling offers what was perhaps the first tailor-made role of Peck's career. Peck plays Penny Baxter, a former Confederate soldier who has retired into Lake George, Florida, to cut away a home in the scrub country. The opening of The Yearling is delightfully lush, as Brown and his cinematographer, Charles Rosher, slowly move us across a calm, misty river at sunset- before taking the camera's point of view and moving head-first into the woods, over the scrub country and out into the Baxter farm. Peck's narration gives us an idea of just how far Penny Baxter has come to where he is now. He is an unusually nice man, a lover of nature, and less concerned about whatever is happening in industrial America on the outside.
But The Yearling is really about Penny's twelve-year old son, the adorable Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who shares his father's appreciation of nature and who longs to claim one of the creatures of the forest as his own. The ten-year old son of a Nashville railroad accountant, Jarman gave what can safely be regarded as one of the greatest child performances of all time. Jarman, unlike Peck, had a lot of rich expression in his eyes, and it is a shame that- with the exception of a notable role in Ford’s Rio Grande (1950)- his career did not take off much after this film, despite winning the Academy Award for Outstanding Child Actor.
Jody thrives in what appears to be a fruitful childhood. On some days, he and his father will go off to hunt for “Old Slewfoot”, the notorious bear that stalks the backwoods; and on other days they will engage in town square fistfights with Lem Forrester (Forrest Tucker) and his gang of drunken rascals. Jody also has a friend his age, Fodderwing (Donn Gift), whom he envies because he owns scores of pets and even sleeps up in a tree house- although Jody doesn't quite know what to make of the fact that Fodderwing once tried to fly like a bird and ended up getting his legs broken. At home, Jody enjoys a friendly relationship with his father but is constantly scolded by his mother, Ora (Jane Wyman), who is bitter at having lost her other children to stillborn deaths. She is cold, but Penny wants to ease the relationship between mother and son. “Don't be afraid to love the boy, Ora”, he tells her with a hand on her knee, after she refuses to allow Jody to keep any pets in the house.
The first hour of The Yearling is devoted to Jody's daily life. It is only in the second hour when we finally arrive at the heart of the picture, when Jody takes advantage of a rare possibility: to find and bring home the orphaned fawn of a deer that Penny is forced to kill in order to stall a venomous snake bite. Feeling sympathy for the boy's desire for some responsibility in his life, Penny allows Jody to go find the fawn, and most everyone who hasn't seen the film is at least marginally familiar with the famous scene in which Jody finds a set of hoof prints in the sand, traces them to a set of plants, weaves them aside and then finds... the deer, nestled safely in a small clearing. Queue the heartwarming Herbert Stothart score. “It's me!” exclaims an overjoyed Jody at the sight of the fawn, whom he will later name Flag. “It's me- Jody!”
Let me stop myself so that I can briefly focus on the performances in the film. Peck, as I mentioned earlier, gives a performance that can only be described as exceptional. “He wasn't exactly credible as a Florida cracker," writes Peck's biographer, Gary Fishgall, "having imbued his character with more dignity and nobility than a nineteenth-century scrub farmer would have possessed in real life, but he made audiences believe in and care about the man”. I cannot improve on that.
But Jane Wyman, as Peck's wife, in some ways has to assume a harder role: this is not at all the well-meaning companion she played to Ray Milland in Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945), but a stern, unforgiving wife and mother who has let the loss of her children corrupt her patience; it is a better performance than that of her previous film, and exceedingly more brave.
And of course, young Jarman has such irresistible excitement in his eyes for an actor of ten years. Consider the scene in which Jody rescues Flag the fawn, carries him over the fields with explosive white clouds setting up the romantic background behind him, and then greets his ailing father at home. Penny sits up in bed, sees his son looking as happy as ever, and then even he has to smile. This, folks, is about as joyous a moment as cinema gets.
As for Clarence Brown, he was a fitting filmmaker for this material. The Yearling, like his Anna Karenina (1935) adaptation starring Greta Garbo, is a film with happy elements that, alas, cannot possibly end well without ending unhappily. In Anna Karenina, Garbo throws away her empty marriage to Basil Rathbone for the love of Frederic March. Then March abandons her, and- worse- Rathbone denies Garbo access to her son. She will lose all hope and throw herself in front of a moving train. In The Yearling, another type of gruesome sacrifice will have to be made, and that brings me to another thing about Brown: he knew how to handle films about sacrifices. He dared to tread along uncomfortable, taboo subjects that other Hollywood filmmakers wouldn't have touched. Though I haven't seen any of his other films, including National Velvet (1944) or his adaptation of Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust (1949), it isn't difficult for me to recognize him as one of the underrated Hollywood greats. I would put him right up there with Preminger, Zinnemann and Kramer as one of the masters of socially liberal literary adaptations- but that's just me.
I admit that I knew, from reading an online summary, that The Yearling was not going to end happily, so I braced myself for what was sure to be inevitable. We realize, as the film rolls on, that Flag is growing up to be a nuisance for the Baxters, and even when Jody commits back-breaking work to building the farm's third fence or so, this does little to stall Flag's ravenous appetite for the backyard garden plants. Even Penny realizes just how costly Jody's pet has become, and finally tells Jody that he must have Flag euthanized. Jody doesn't have the courage to and, instead, releases Flag into the wild. Predictably, this solves nothing, and when Flag returns, Penny and Ora conspire behind Jody's back and have the deer wounded. Jody comes rushing out in panic, and then his parents befall on him the responsibility of having Flag finished off. Jody is betrayed and hurt. “I hate you,” he screams at them. “I hope you die.” And there is a very moving moment after Flag is shot dead, when tears come streaming down Jody's face. It is a painful scene.
I have less admiration for the later scenes, in which Jody runs away from home, falls unconscious during a canoe ride down the river and is picked up by a steamboat captain who returns him to the farm. It's like something out of Mark Twain, and it feels false here. Another problematic scene is the one that comes afterward, when Penny tries to comfort Jody's misery by giving a speech on how life is hard and lonesome, and how a battered man needs simply to “take it for his share and go on.”
Yes, but isn't this a rather banal message for the film? Some would say that The Yearling is another one of those films about the death of childhood, and how death itself leads a boy to become a man. I don't see it that way; I think that The Yearling is about responsibility, and what happens when that responsibility eventually dies out. That's why I appreciate the final moment when Jody goes to bed and dreams of his days with Flag; it reinforces the real point of the film. Fishgall's biography talks about how Boseley Crowther and other film critics at the time were bothered by this last-minute touch of sentimentality, and how even Peck considered it to be a superfluous Walt Disney element- but I would have to respectfully disagree. The Yearling is not really a film about a boy being raised by his parents to become a man and learn the hard facts of life; it is about a boy who adopts a pet, cares for it, and then must come to terms with its death. Fodderwing's demise foreshadows Flag's demise. Someday, Jody will have to witness the passing of his parents as well.
To put it plainly, this is a film about death. Not just the death of childhood, but death entirely. How do you make your way through such an ordeal? The screenplay for The Yearling was written by Paul Osborn, who gives Peck the last word actually in an earlier scene in the film. In this scene, Penny, Ora, Jody and Flag have all managed to survive a raging storm which has destroyed their crops. Ora is breaking down and Jody is at a loss for words, but Penny at least manages to get out something of a decent summary. “Ma, it seems like sometimes a body gets struck down so low, ain't a power on Earth can ever bring him up again,” he says. “Seems like something inside him dies- so he don't even want to get up again. But he does. There ain't much of a world left for us, but it's all we got. Let's be thankful we got any world at all.”
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Repulsion was Roman Polanski's followup to Knife in the Water (1962) and is, quite simply, a psychological thriller as only he could have directed it. At the heart of the film is a lucid performance by Catherine Deneuve as Carol, a disturbed, painfully shy manicurist whose sanity is splitting in two, and whose inability to be understood by her peers is not unlike another Polanski heroine: Mia Farrow's pregnant housewife-under-conspiracy in Rosemary's Baby (1968), another story about a woman who stays in all day and, inevitably, lets temptation influence her common sense. If Rosemary's Baby feels like the better film today, that may be because we get to know Rosemary inside out, care about her, cheer for her and fear for her; Deneuve's Carol in Repulsion is a much less sympathetic character, and when she rejects the men who check out her lustful figure on the street, it almost feels as though she's rejecting the rest of us out in the audience. What is her motive? What makes her go so berserk? Polanski wisely refuses to answer such a cop-out question: “You can do what you want- it's a free country- but don't ever ask me to explain any of my pictures.”
Carol is not the kind of woman you would want to know. The men on the street don't realize exactly how batty the chick is. In the film, she will show up to work at the beauty salon and doze off when she's supposed to be staying awake. She will form a habit of crossing the street without looking both ways. At home, she will have fantasies of large cracks opening up in the walls. She will hang up immediately on angry phone calls. She will have nightmares of imaginary men breaking into her bedroom and ravaging her, and every time she will wake up sprawled over naked on the floor. She will find a plate of diced rabbit in the refrigerator and then leave it out to rot and decay until it bears resemblance to a deformed fetus. She will murder two people. She will kill each of them in two very different ways. And she'll do it all without ever knowing what she's doing and what is happening to her. Carol has given up on paying attention.
Consider a peculiar scene that occurs at the 59-minute mark. A depressed Carol is being sent home early, as a result of her sluggish behavior at work. A co-worker (Helen Fraser) tries to lighten things up by talking about a Chaplin movie she saw the other day. Though she never reveals the title, we can tell that it's The Gold Rush, and after she describes the scene where Charlie turns into a chicken, Carol bursts into laughter. It's the first time we have seen her smile in the entire film. But the joke really isn't that funny, and Carol's laughter is more overblown than it is human. She laughs louder (and longer) than her co-worker does, and she hasn't even seen the movie in question. She's laughing only for the sake of laughing. Carol evidently hasn't had a good chuckle in a while. Unfortunately, she's reached the point where even laughter is ineffective medicine.
Not that her misery isn't logical. Carol, a Belgian, shares an apartment with her brunette sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), who speaks with an English dialect. Helen is not nearly as cautious of men as Carol is, and at night she and her married boyfriend Michael (Ian Hendry) have loud sex in the bedroom next door, driving a mad Carol to wrestle with her pillow in a hopeless execution to drown out the noise. One night in particular, Helen has to rub it in by emerging from energetic intercourse with Michael and barging into Carol's bedroom drenched in sweat and wearing nothing but a towel, just so that she can demand, “why did you throw Michael's things away?” Nobody ever cuts Carol a break.
Well, to be sure, there is one person who tries to make things easier for her. This is Colin (John Fraser), the one man in Carol's life who honestly tries to take her seriously as a woman. But Colin can sometimes be just as naive as she is; we sometimes get the impression that he's only chasing after her because of the stories he hears from his friends at the local bar about her alleged virginity. Whenever they go on lunch dates, he does all the talking. After two failed attempts at a relationship, Carol disregards Colin as just another meaningless specter eating away at her peace of mind. And after Helen and Michael go on vacation, leaving Carol to look after the apartment alone (big mistake), her plagued reclusion begins. A distressed Colin breaks into the apartment, approaches Carol, tries to talk to her, and does not get a response. Then, when Carol turns her back on him, Colin turns his back on her, and an elderly lady walking her dog out in the hall observes them at a distance. Polanski captures all three of them astonishingly within the frame, resulting in one of the film's most extraordinary shots. It is memorable for reasons that are vague, but it is nonetheless memorable.
Repulsion is haunting on another level, that which stems from its technical aspects. The music by Chico Hamilton brings in shadowy flute melodies during scenes of silence, and it piles on thunderous drum rolls at excruciating climaxes. The cinematography by Gilbert Taylor photographs the film in beautiful black and white, and it also allows Polanski to take advantage of scene-to-scene transitions. One scene fades to darkness after Carol tips over a couch right on top of the camera. Another scene fades to white after Carol knocks over a lamp, leaving the lightbulb to shine straight into the lens. The murder scenes have their own originality: whether she's whacking with a candlestick or hacking away with a razor, Carol always directs her blows to the camera. Especially jaw-dropping are the dream sequences in which Carol has visions of male hands bursting out from the apartment walls, with one hand feeling for her waist and another hand grabbing at her left breast. One hand tries to reach out for Carol but fails, because it is being resisted by a "rubber" portion of the wall- as if it's attempting to make its way through an oversized condom.
Strangest of all is Polanski's decision to bookend the film with close-ups of Carol's eyeball. The Criterion essay by Bill Horrigan offers a theory: “It's perhaps Deneuve's presence, as a glacial blonde in distress, that has kept critics noting the film's Hitchcockian qualities ever since its release, not to mention its Psycho-like central poetic effect of the camera closing in on a woman's eye”. On the DVD commentary, Catherine Deneuve herself has another theory, which is that “the eye is really the heart of the head- the window in the soul, but the window in the head as well". Indeed, we are reminded of Janet Leigh's frozen eyeball in the earlier film, but that was the eye of a woman dead and destined for burial. Repulsion illuminates on the eye of the killer.
The screenplay by Polanski and Gerard Brach plays around with the impatience of the characters. If there's one thing Carol shares in common with both Helen and Michael, it's that all three of them have a tendency to change the subject on each other. Helen tells a story about the minister of health finding eels in his sink, but Carol would rather ask about why Michael stores his things in the bathroom. Michael would prefer to inquire about Carol's mysterious condition than he would answer Helen's question about whether or not they'll encounter the Leaning Tower of Pisa on vacation. Helen wants to know what Michael meant when he suggested that Carol “needs to see a doctor”, and when Michael starts talking about Pisa, Helen fusses that he changes the subject too much.
Another odd character is introduced by the screenplay in the form of the creepy landlord (Patrick Wymark), whose cold persona is broken down by the sight of a sulking Carol, sitting down on the couch in her transparent white nightgown, and he considers taking advantage of her mopey state. “There's, uh, no need to be alone, you know”, he grins. “Poor little girl. All by herself. All... shaking like a little frightened animal”. The landlord walks into the kitchen, circles around the couch, examines the family photos, and circles around the couch again before finally make a move on her. Polanski secures this sequence in one unbroken take that last for three minutes.
Ironically, the most three-dimensional characters in all of Repulsion do not even have lines, and we don't ever get a good look at their faces. They are a trio of old musicians who shuffle around the town square and use spoons for instruments. They appear in only two scenes. In the first scene, they dare to take their performance out into the middle of the street. In the second scene, as Carol hides up in the apartment, we can hear them on the sidewalk down below, clicking away like the crocodile from Peter Pan. What has Polanski put them there for? He claims on the DVD commentary that he merely thought it would be nice to include them in one of his movies, but he hesitates to go into further detail. Notice that after they make their first entrance, Carol's mood in the film begins changing. Does the racket of the musicians set off the spark that ignites her insanity? It's possible. And after it explodes, what then? We find out.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Robert Altman's Quintet is a film totally enveloped in a frozen wasteland that is like an all-you-can-eat dessert buffet for the eyes and the imagination. The wasteland is a blindingly white, snowy tundra that stretches in two directions: in the South, there used to be seals to hunt, but no longer; and in the North, well... nobody knows. And in between are the last remaining people on Earth, stranded in their own hellish limbo, with nothing left to live for in life other than to enact violence against each other because of the consequences of a simple board game. This is a survival of the fittest story, set in a futuristic ice age. In short, this is my kind of movie.
Quintet is the third installment in Altman's unofficial "surrealist" trilogy of the 1970's, a trilogy that began with Images (1972) and reached its peak with the incomparable 3 Women (1977). All three films are ghoulish minions spawned from Altman's rarely-seen dark side: with Images, he took a stab at the horror genre; with 3 Women, he redefined the meaning of uncertainty; and Quintet, lastly, was his interpretation of science fiction. If there are any noticeable differences, let it be said that the previous two films were about the psychological troubles experienced by women- wheras in Quintet, it is the men who spiral down into Freudian madness. But Quintet, like Images and 3 Women, was a box-office disaster, and there have even been (unconfirmed) stories of theaters promising moviegoers their money back in case they couldn't sit through the first 20 minutes. Why? Maybe the theater chains themselves considered the film to be one giant bore. Not one American soul could figure out what Altman was getting at with the film. At least with Images and 3 Women, the perplexity of the plot twists seemed intentional; Quintet was attacked by critics and audiences as confusing for all the wrong reasons.
Altman had a method for determining which of his films needed extra support. He knew that alongside those heavily lauded American multicharacter epics, there were other, more underrated films from his career that had somehow fallen off the face of the planet. They needed someone to lean on. Sometimes fans would go up to Altman and ask him which of his films were his favorite. He would answer them by, first, asking the fans which films of his they had liked the least. A couple of fans were reported to have mumbled, "Well, I didn't understand this Quintet thing...", to which Altman would snap his finger and point: "That's my favorite movie."
The film's screenplay by Altman, Frank Barhydt and Patricia Resnick is one that I would have happily directed myself had I been in Altman's shoes. Some charge that the film is too slow-paced, which may account for the accusations of supposed boredom; you could have fooled me, then, because I find that the film moves like a streak. In fact, I had to watch Quintet twice in order to fully comprehend the experience, and I ended up both enjoying and admiring the film even more on a second viewing. Maybe the popular opinion of disappointment with the film stems from the hard-pressed challenge of having to look at Altman tackle a genre like science fiction. The material is not unlike that of Richard Matheson, so it's possible that those who don't understand the goofy delight of a gritty Matheson story won't buy into Altman's approach. "The thrill is just the magic of it- of making somebody sit in their chair for two hours and be interested or curious", Altman explains in the Making Of documentary now available on the film's DVD, although he admits that the film didn't provide the sort of experience that can be easily digested by audiences. "When we did it," he said, "nobody knew what it was."
Altman bookends his film with shots of the tundra landscape. He begins Quintet with nothing but a white screen, tracking the camera alongside a lengthy barrier until we can just barely make out two blurry gray figures up ahead; and he ends the film with a long take depicting a single figure walking off into the far distance- off into nothing- disappearing into the blizzard. The beginning and ending of Quintet are the film's polar ice caps. Everything sandwiched inside is the last remaining ounce of civilization. The structure of the film is made to resemble that of the world.
The Earth seen in Quintet is suffering from reverse global warming. In these dark ages, children are never born, and the dead become buzzard food for stray dogs. Trailing out from the mist is Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter with no aspirations and no future. In tow is his young wife, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), the daughter of one of Essex' late hunting partners. She is the last pregnant woman alive, in a society where the women long so much for children that they begin acting like children themselves. Vivia, for example, has all the energy of a seven-year old. When she and Essex reach the sector where Essex' brother Francha (Tom Hill) currently resides, Vivia dashes from place to place, watching with a juvenile curiosity as others play the board game of Quintet. She is a thumbsucker. She throws tantrums: "I'm so tired of walking! I'm hungry!" In the sector's Information Room, she plays a sneak attack on Essex, and he refuses to go along with the joke: "Don't run off like that", he grumbles.
Tragedy strikes when Vivia and Francha are both killed in a freak explosion. Essex notices a gambler fleeing from the scene, and angrily chases after him. This is Redstone (Craig Richard Nelson), whose escape is short-lived; in the Information Room, Essex witnesses Redstone's sudden murder by another gambler, the Latin-speaking Christian fundamentalist St. Christopher (Vittorio Gassman). Finding a piece of paper in Redstone's coat pocket, Essex realizes that it is actually a list of marked gamblers currently participating in a deadly Quintet tournament in another sector. Deciding to take matters into his own hands and get to the bottom of the mystery, Essex follows Redstone's old trail all the way to an inn known as the Hotel Electra. It is here that Essex will assume Redstone's identity and journey into the Quintet underworld.
The Hotel Electra is populated by several colorful characters. The downstairs Quintet casino is run by the dealer Grigor (Fernando Rey), who warmly invites Essex into the tournaments even when secretly being aware that Essex is not the real Redstone. He gives Essex lectures on why Quintet is such an important economical factor in society: "The only intelligent expression left is the game of Quintet. All the elements of life are contained in it. Our art, our philosophy. All things of value fit the game. The game is the only thing of value". Was Altman a fan of Friedkin's The French Connection (1971)? Those who remember that film will recall that Rey played the narcotics king who eludes Popeye Doyle's grasp; the decision to cast Rey in Quintet could not have been a mere coincidence because Altman had previously cast another French Connection actor, Marcel Bozzuffi, in Images (he played one of Susannah York's ghostly tormentors). In both films, Altman thankfully makes Bozzuffi and Rey out to be more than just the stereotypical French cartoons that they were in Friedkin's film.
But at least Rey's Grigor in Quintet backs off from becoming a potential threat to Essex; the same cannot be said for St. Christopher, whom Essex finds preaching in the local charity house. Here, he gives the kind of pessimistic sermons that Jonathan Edwards wouldn't have dreamed of: "You must cherish your tortured life", he chants, "because it is a pause, an interruption of the void preceding AND following it!" St. Christopher is a dangerous, overzealous man, and he would sooner scare the charity house's inhabitants than he would help them. He is also, it is reported, the deadliest Quintet player alive.
Essex has better luck making friends with Ambrosia (Bibi Andersson), whose preference is to play "the sixth man" in the Quintet tournaments, meaning that she always gets to play the winner. She usually wins, but explains to Essex that the downside of playing the sixth man is that there is never anybody else left to play. Andersson seems to have the most fun out of all the actors in the film. When she lets down her red hair and downs a pair of pink pajamas at one point, she looks as sexy as ever; most of the time, however, she's dressed in an over-the-top winter wardrobe that truly catches the eye. You can imagine Ingmar Bergman watching Quintet and wondering where in the hell Andersson must have gotten than ridiculously oversized hat.
Then there is the matter of the game of Quintet itself. How do you play it, exactly? The rules don't make much sense when they are featured in the film. I'm not so sure we're really supposed to understand the rules, anyway; the game of Quintet is really just a MacGuffin, a plot device to help fuel the film's Darwinian thriller elements. The point is that these characters have become so obsessed with the idea of "killing" each other while playing the board game that they are beginning to raise the stakes by playing a reality-based game of cutthroat outside the casino. "Tell me- do I misunderstand the word, 'killing'?" Essex asks Ambrosia. "Not if you understand Quintet", she replies. As if that explains anything.
The female characters have all, understandably, been ruined by this poisonous underworld. When Essex locates the deceased Redstone's apartment, he finds Redstone's wife (Monique Mercure) inside, burning her hand over an oven. When Ambrosia realizes that she may be the next real-life victim in the Quintet tournament, she pleads for Essex to spend the night with her; rather than have sex, they instead literally sleep in bed with each other- and then Ambrosia begins sucking her thumb, just as we had seen Vivia doing earlier. The thumbsucking is further proof that, in the world of Quintet, women find the absence of children so unbearable that only by behaving like children will they cope with the pain of loss. In some ways it also distracts the females who take part in the Quintet tournaments. There is a scene where Ambrosia and the hotel's landlord, Deuca (Nina Van Pallandt), end up in the same room behind closed doors; logically, because they are both on the killing list, they should be seizing this as an opportunity to try to kill one another, but instead they make a pact to unite against the male players together. That is, until they are the only two players left in the tournament.
The men act like children, too. What else is Quintet but a pointless game of cops and robbers? Imbeciles like Goldstar (David Langton) don't last long because their temper overclouds their common sense. And when Essex is eventually forced to face off against St. Christopher out in the snow, they fail to make good on the promise of really duking it out- the duel ends with a pathetic thud. It foreshadows, actually, another duel in one of Altman's later films: the hurricane brawl between Kenneth Branaugh and Tom Berenger in the trashy neo-noir flick The Gingerbread Man (1998). That was another film in which Altman portrayed male violence as a moronic waste of time.
Quintet is often criticized because the characters are not three-dimensional. Nor should they be, in my opinion. When humanity has been so utterly driven to the ends of the Earth in the way that it has been in this film, it is only natural that the characters will begin to adopt a very dehumanized, very Kubrickian state of mind. Some might argue that this affects the quality of the performances, but I would beg to differ. As Essex, Paul Newman is given the standard Harrison Ford role, which requires him to be stoic most of the time; because of this, we have the pleasure of studying Newman's facial expressions over listening to the delivery of his lines, and in the process it results in a Newman performance that feels so different from his past work.
Others complain that Quintet has none of Altman's signature overlapping dialogue. This is true, but then again Altman didn't employ overlapping dialogue in Images or 3 Women, either. In surrealist Altman, characters wait for each other to finish speaking, and this is because Altman is not so much interested in realism as he is interested in expanding the films visually. To be sure, Quintet does contain one scene of overlapping dialogue- it is the scene where Grigor tries to talk over a drunken Essex, who keeps on mumbling about the fate of the planet's goose. They're headed North. Grigor pretends not to understand.
Aside from that, what a great-looking movie this is. The art direction by Wolf Kroeger truly maps out the beauty of the tundra, and the production design by Leon Ericksen presents us with a stupefying array of buildings frozen over. The lights in the apartment rooms are growing icicles. The lamps are emanating dry ice. The outside staircases are sometimes dangerously iced over; Stephen Altman claims to have broken his foot slipping on the stairs during production. Altman himself takes advantage of the shadowy production design by squeezing in his directorial secret weapon: the zoom effect, which is plugged into the film during various moments of surprise- from Redstone's murder to Ambrosia spying on Essex as he ascends an indoor staircase. Then there is the chilling musical score by Tom Pierson, which is just as eerie and magical as the score composed by Jerry Goldsmith for Alien, released the same year. I dare anyone to watch Quintet and then tell me that they didn't feel as if they were really there, out in the tundra.
I know exactly why Altman defended Quintet as much as he did. Like me, he was fascinated by the mythology of the film--by the maniacal madness of this strange little board game that he created. Is that so uncommon? Every artist takes some sort of morbid delight in creating a universe in which characters kill for the littlest things. Quintet involves a universe in which the only thing left to live for is the game.
But Essex does not give in. He leaves the people of Hotel Electra to die in whatever way they please, and journeys up North to accept whatever fate has in store for him. Altman closes Quintet with a long, long shot of Essex disappearing into the Northern distance, reminding us of the last shot in Truffaut's Missippi Mermaid, or maybe even the last shot of Visconti's The Leopard. Essex keeps walking on and on, until we can see him no more--until the Northern distance swallows him whole, and we feel as though we have been swallowed up along with him. What a glorious movie.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch is a bitter, difficult, brutally honest portrait of an artist who had a life and enjoyed liberty, but in the pursuit of happiness reaped nothing except mental and personal instability and misery. Entrapped in the middle of a Norwegian society that was traditional and unforgiving, he hung out in clubs with intellectual anarchists, experimented with contemporary art mediums, and sought sanctuary in whorehouses as a last resort for his sexual frustrations. By the age of 30, he was still without a wife, still moving like a parasite from one gallery to the next, having each time to endure the stinging criticism of those who did not appreciate his risky, pessimistic subject matter. Through it all, he was haunted by the memory of a married housewife: the provocative Mrs. Heiberg, who temporarily fulfilled his amorous longings--before disposing of him after his eerie demeanor became impossible to tolerate. Ultimately, Edvard Munch was a brilliant artist who left behind dozens of wonderful works of art. His life, however, does not inspire envy.
Watkins has been making movies since 1956, but his work is new to me. He specializes in the "docudrama", the type of film that treats a fictional story as if it is real and features characters who are interviewed by an anonymous inquirer sitting on the other side of the camera. The War Game (1965), Punishment Park (1971) and Resan (1987) have all gone unseen by me, but I fully intend to begin analyzing more of his work. Watkins, it seems, has not made a film since La Commune in 2000, and has now instead taken to online critiques of the media, which has led to numerous scathing essays posted by him on his website- one of which is literally one hundred pages long. As far as English cinema goes, one might suggest that Mike Leigh has picked up where Watkins left off.
In his writings, Watkins claims that "those who were once able to work critically within the media have been marginalized", so it can be assumed that his relationship with the media is like that of Vanessa Redgrave's relationship with Zionism: heated. But it would be a joy to see him return to filmmaking. Knowing that it was Godard who once said that the best way to criticize one movie is to make another movie, it might do Watkins a bit of good to make a movie exorcising his qualms with the media. That he succeeded in making an Edvard Munch biopic to help exorcise his qualms with the political backlash that assailed him following the release of Punishment Park is no exception.
A lesser filmmaker would have thought to tell Munch's complete story in one big compaction, but Watkins wisely focuses on the earlier, more important years, when Munch was in the twilight of producing works that were obscure, potent and controversial. Supplements on the Special Edition DVD hint that Munch's later years were happier and that his work grew more optimistic, but Watkins pays no attention to them--he doesn't even mention Munch's date of death (1944), which occurred at a time when the Nazis had almost completely overtaken Norway. To be honest, I am not sure if Watkins' refusal to display these facts for modern audiences works for or against the movie's effect.
Munch is played by Geir Westby, in a performance that is stoic for the most of the picture; as a visual artist, Munch's purpose in life was to observe, not to orate, and so Westby's lines of dialogue are reduced to a minimum. In light of how Westby is filmed, Watkins takes a uniquely European approach, alternating between immense close-ups of Westby (a la Dreyer) and more ordinary shots in which he is filmed from the waist up (a la Bresson). It allows Munch as a character to become less static and more flexible; one minute his facial expressions are worthy of camera attention, the next minute he's a wandering clone of his society like everyone else.
Munch had a bad childhood, ruled by a stern father (Johan Halsbog), who subjected his children to a strict religious upbringing and flew into angry resentment when Munch began rejecting his family's values. Munch's younger brother, Peter Andreas (Gunnar Skjetne), is the exact opposite: he studies law and keeps his faith, and, upon being interviewed by the camera's inquirer about whether or not life is fair, he responds that he does not believe it fair to judge God so harshly. But eventually, the religious faith of Munch's family members will prove to be powerless after all: his sisters will all die unmarried, Peter will die unhappily married to a twelve-year old girl, and Munch's father will perish into oblivion- with the troubled relationship between him and his son left unsettled.
That, and Munch's Expressionist art is trashed by the Norwegian critics. Throughout the film, Watkins keeps returning to the searing image of a young Munch inflicted with tuberculosis, and Watkins dares not spare the audience any pain in having to watch as blood overflows from the young Munch's mouth. He nearly died from it, and the disease was to claim the lives of both his mother and one of his sisters- inspiring his first major work, The Sick Child. It was laughed at by spectators who knew not what to make of the blurry faces and obscure quality, and a friend reportedly told Munch, "it is a piece of shit". Tuberculosis inspired another painting, Death in the Sickroom, in which characters with hyperbolic faces look on while a blank-faced figure, a stand-in for Munch, turns away from the perspective. These were drawn at a time when Munch was smoking and drinking heavily, his health detracting, while his paintings were rejected not just in Norway, but even in Germany, where the conservatives lambasted his work as "anarchistic smears". The liberals did not so much defend Munch's art as they did defend his right to book showings in the galleries.
Important figures pass in and out of Munch's adventures. In the film's beginning scenes, we see him defiantly hanging out at an underground intellectual's club headed by the charismatic anarchist Hans Jaeger (Asle Raaen), who spreads the words of Marx and Darwin and promotes suicide as the most effective form of rebellion. When Munch complains about the dinner table quarrels he has with his father every week, Jaeger suggests that Munch ought to go home and shoot his father dead. Jaeger himself will have to flee Norway after he publishes an anti-government book and even goes so far as to send it out to neighboring countries, leaving Munch without a mentor and without a friend. Then there is the free-spirited Dagny Juell (Iselin von Hanno Bast), a barfly who poses nude for what is arguably (in my opinion) Munch's most erotic work, The Madonna, depicting a haloed female as seen from the eyes of her partner during intercourse; we are told that Juell herself will later be murdered by a Russian lover.
Munch's other works seems to come naturally. His most famous painting, The Shriek (aka The Scream), is born out of "panic dread in what was apparently social progress", with Munch secretly inscribing the words "could only have been painted by a madman" in the blood-red sky. The Vampire, we learn, was originally not supposed to be about a vampire at all, but was a simple depiction of a woman kissing a weak man's neck; Munch did not protest, however, when the radicals insisted that it represented something of a darker nature.
Torturing Munch's fantasies and deepest regrets is the memory of the woman who may have been the soul mate who got away. Mrs. Heiberg (Gro Fraas) meets Munch through Hans Jaeger, and, for some strange reason, takes an instant liking to him- the first ninety minutes of Edvard Munch are devoted mostly to this affair. When Munch first spends time alone with her, he is noticeably nervous; he kisses the back of her neck, and then asks if that was the right thing to do. He is careful not to make any sudden advances on her. They have sex, but Watkins doesn't make their relationship feel sexy in the least, and we sense that Munch is desperately trying to release a carnal side of himself that might not even exist.
Before long, Munch realizes that he is only one of many male lovers that Mrs. Heiberg has wrapped around her finger, and pretty soon he is stalking her--whining about how she passes him by on the streets every day with another man at her arm. In her own docudrama interview, Mrs. Heiberg complains to the camera about how it is commonplace for extramarital affairs to be held by men, but not by women. Munch finds the break-up tough to cope with; there is a drawn-out scene in which he checks in at a whorehouse for the night but awkwardly waits for the hooker to make the first move. He and Mrs. Heiberg would never meet again.
"I felt as if there were invisible threads between us," he once wrote. "I felt as if invisible threads from her hair still twisted themselves around me. And when she completely disappeared there, over the ocean, then I felt still how it hurt, where my heart bled... because the threads could not be broken."
It is, yes, a remarkable film. It pulses and echoes with the poetic love of the people who made it. There is brief hope at the end when we learn that although Munch's career in painting may be coming to an end, his new career in engraving is just beginning. That may be true, but how can it ever erase those painful preceding years, when he sweated and almost died over a profession that would have driven others to suicide? The performance by Westby asks us to care about a cold, unstable genius, and it is no easy task. But we do. And sometimes, the most gifted geniuses in this world live sad lives. Edvard Munch lived a sad life, and Peter Watkins knows it.
Friday, September 11, 2009
This piece is being cross-published at Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder as part of The Brian De Palma Blogathon. The blogathon runs from September 7-16.
I am never going to forget this film. Not for as long as I live. Not for as long as I hold onto the love of cinema that I have always struggled so hard to keep kindled—keep burning—through anything; through thick and thin; through the lack of interest in filmmaking circulating in the grade schools, middle schools and high schools that I passed through and graduated from; through the overwhelming political apathy that has stung the state of Missouri in which I reside. It has been a long time since a contemporary film has held up a mirror to my face and shown me the kind of thinker, viewer, and audience member that I am. I found such a film in Redacted. It was the Brian De Palma film that I had been waiting for. It is still the fiery, passionate film that will haunt me, provoke me, and perhaps even influence me when my future career comes knocking.
Do you remember the last time a film made you want to stand up, shake your fist and scream? What was the film that made you want to pay more attention to the world that was dying, evolving around you? Spielberg's Munich (2005) was the first film this decade to which I had such a powerful response. De Palma's Redacted was another. These two films are quite possibly the boldest, most professional political statements of the last ten years, which is thrilling not least because Spielberg and De Palma are two of the greatest living filmmakers, both of whom descended from the most exciting cinematic decade of all time: the 1970's. During this time, Spielberg wowed audiences with bubblegum blockbusters while De Palma cheerfully scared the wits out of audiences with a set of Hitchcockian thrillers that- inadvertently- led critics to begin accusing him of "rip-offs," "misogyny," and an "obsession with gore." Even while De Palma had scored a dramatically intelligent film early in the decade with Hi, Mom! (1970), few had seen it during initial release; the same economic results befell Home Movies (1979), seemingly denying De Palma any further chances to make the smaller, more personal films that he had once made a career out of.
Then came Casualties of War (1989). As he did with Greetings (1968), De Palma had analyzed the hopelessness of young American boys snagged by the draft, but unlike that film, Casualties of War dared to go where no other motion picture on Vietnam had gone before—by focusing wholly on the cruelty submitted by U.S. soldiers onto the country's innocent villagers. Suddenly, De Palma could add "traitor" to the list of name-callings flung onto his resume. Who knew that he would revisit the subject matter eighteen years later? Why tell another story about an innocent foreign girl getting molested and murdered by our troops? "It's because," as De Palma explained to Robert Wilonsky in a Higher Definition interview now on the film's DVD, "this, to me, is the great story of these two particular wars: where you send young boys into a war with no clear purpose, in a hostile environment where they can't tell the enemy from the civilians; they band together, as the only way that makes any sense... and then, you're buddy's blown up... and then, they just go berserk."
But again: when our troops need our support at all times in order to help them win in a dangerous conflict, what good is there to tell a story that is not flattering—even if it is based on an incident that really happened? Because of this, prior to the release of Redacted in late 2007, right-leaning commentators and celebrities—ranging from Bill O'Reilly to even De Palma alumnus Gary Sinise—decided not to see the film, and instead already made up their minds: that the film was probably anti-troops; that it would inspire the enemy; and that De Palma had tarnished his reputation forever. Then of course there was the scathing review of the film by Michael Medved, who proclaimed that it was "the worst film I've ever seen" (even when it ultimately didn't make the top of his Worst of 2007 list by year's end), and things didn't get much better when Armond White (often known as the supreme De Palma apologist in the critics circles) dismissed the film as "the low point of a great filmmaker’s career." Within weeks, Redacted, which had only booked fifteen theaters, was dropped. So much ugly fuss had been made over a film that few had seen. Was it the anti-troops propaganda that Medved made it out to be? "It's a very sad story", De Palma admitted, but then he broke the ice by declaring of the film, "(that) you feel sorry for, obviously, the victims, but also the soldiers! Even the crazy ones! What got them that way?"
What did get them that way? De Palma pities them. That does not mean he excuses their crimes, or the crime of the war in general. Redacted is the best film made by any filmmaker on the subject of the War in Iraq. There is a reason for this: it tells the truth about the war. Or, rather, it makes a point that telling honesty from dishonesty is difficult when you look at a war such as this one. The film is outraged and in-your-face. Is it manipulative? Sure. But judging from the fact that the Bush administration manipulated the American public into buying the theory that the U.S. had to get involved in Iraq to recover weapons of mass destruction that were never even found, it is my opinion that only counter-manipulation will ever lead the public into the other direction. There are still millions of Americans who believe that our troops are fighting in Iraq in order to prevent another 9/11—as if the Iraqis ever had a hand in 9/11.
How else, other than manipulation, will audiences figure this out and be enraged the way De Palma was? Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs (2007), released in the same season as Redacted, is a film that means well, but, unfortunately, it does not fuel viewers with any new insights about the war and, in the end, looks like your stereotypical whiny liberal Hollywood statement. Critics and audiences call Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2009) "the first great film about the Iraq War," and to be sure, the film is excellent as a suspense thriller; but because the film is neutral and takes no stand on the war, it is hardly going to make apathetic viewers realize just what the hell is going on over there. Is De Palma the only one who is willing to hop into the fray? Why are filmmakers not making more angry political films these days? People don't care or debate as much as they used to. It's rather depressing.
Working from a screenplay written by himself—his first original screenplay since Femme Fatale (2002)—De Palma tells the story of a U.S. Army unit whose main daily objective is to stand guard at the hot, sweltering traffic checkpoints in the city. This is quite possibly the worst job anyone could have in the Army; the object is to stand at your post, look around for insurgents, and wave cars safely and efficiently through the checkpoints, waiting and sometimes yearning for something interesting to happen. The problem is that most of the Iraqi population is illiterate, and therefore, drivers sometimes do not understand either the signs made by soldiers or by visual aids posted at the side of the road. Throughout the film, the story of the soldiers will be told via a fascinating set of mediums, including: handheld camera footage; a French documentary entitled Barrage; a Middle Eastern news program hosted by a persistent female reporter (Sahar Alloul); Internet videos by soldier's wives and Al-Qaeda terrorists; Skype messages; and hidden cameras. De Palma wields all of these mediums with splendid multitasking. Whatever your overall opinion on Redacted by the time it's over, there's no denying that you've never seen anything like it.
Of the soldiers, there are about five substantial characters. Lawyer McCoy (Rob Devaney) is nice, respectful, and sums up the film's message when he asks his fellow comrades what "the first casualty of this war" is going to be. "Do you know what it's gonna be?" he asks them with an odd wisdom. "It's gonna be the truth!" Similar to McCoy in friendliness is Gabe Blix (Kel O'Neill), the intellectual of the unit, who would rather relax on his bed and read passages from the John O'Hara novel Appointment in Samarra than have to face the grueling atmosphere at the checkpoints outside. Then there is B.B. Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), the foul, obese grouch who is growing dangerously bored with the lack of sex in Iraq (Medved had a theory in his review that the character was modeled after Rush Limbaugh); and Rush's attitudes are shared by the mean, nasty Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), named after the gambling city, who at one point reminisces about his equally violent brother Vegas, a "wild card". Finally, there is Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), who records most of the handheld camerawork we see in the film. Salazar is the one who first takes us into the film's world, which he dubs "the oven", and he is also in some ways a stand-in for De Palma—he is shooting a documentary entitled "Tell Me No Lies", and he hopes to use all of the footage, after he returns from the war, to get into film school. The inside joke here is that "Angel Salazar" is in fact the name of a real comedian who has appeared in two De Palma flicks: Scarface (1983) and Carlito's Way (1993). Most people don't catch this.
Along with that, De Palma finds more time to put his tongue in his cheek by parodying the works of his Hollywood contemporaries- including Scorsese (Flake mutters that "it only takes one f***ing rat to bring the whole house down", in reference to The Departed), Spielberg (in the same scene, Flake proclaims a fallen comrade to be "our very own Private Ryan"), even Kevin Smith (Rush compares his boredom to that of the Clerks characters). De Palma references himself only twice- when Rush hisses about how certain things need to "stay in Vegas" and when Flake complains that when "you prosecute guys like us, you're just aiding the terrorists"- both lines of which were previously used by Don Harvey in Casualties of War. During the checkpoint scenes, De Palma plays Handel's "Sarabande" on the soundtrack, which Kubrick famously used to bookend Barry Lyndon (1975) to fit with the film's lush, classical style. But De Palma uses "Sarabande" for a different reason entirely. The main tunes of the piece are repetitive, and De Palma plays it twice on the soundtrack. It gets irritating having to listen to the same notes over and over again—as it should be: we grow as impatient as the checkpoint soldiers, who are waiting to explode. As noted by Ray Bennett in his review, the use of Handel's piece is "a reminder that nothing depicted in this film is new and that it's a shame it needs to be told again."
At first, the soldiers appear to be one happy family, but the fabric breaks in no time. When the inexperienced Flake commits his first combat kill, the casualty turns out to be a teenage girl in labor who had the misfortune to be passenger in a speeding car; McCoy believes that Flake needs to "show remorse", but Flake refuses and the two men get in a shouting match. From this point on, the morale of the unit members begins to blur, only worsening their impatience at the checkpoints; and when Master Sergeant Sweet (Ty Jones) is blown up in a freak explosion, Rush and Flake, unable to control their taste for blood, finally begin to devise a plan of sweet vengeance: raid on the house of the innocent fifteen-year old Iraqi girl Farrah (Zahra Zubaidi, in a brave performance that reminds us of Thuy Thu Le in Casualties of War), rape her, and then kill her.
But Rush and Flake make the mistake of announcing their plan to the other three soldiers at a nighttime poker game. Watch this scene carefully. De Palma has Salazar's camera encircle the soldiers at the table as they salivate over the naked women on the cards which they freely hold up to the lens. Then, when Flake begins announcing plans for the rape, he angrily directs Salazar to shut his camera off. Salazar merely puts it off the side, secretly leaving it on. Notice how Salazar, now sitting at the table with the other guys, keeps nervously looking over his shoulder at the camera. Am I seriously recording this conversation? he must be thinking. Should I save this for evidence? Is this what I'm going to use to get into film school?
Then comes the rape scene itself. It is the most terrifying De Palma sequence since the "Be Black, Baby" segment in Hi, Mom, and shot in an uncannily reminiscent manner; as with the "Be Black, Baby" sequence, De Palma uses a handheld camera with blinding night vision, capturing every moment of the yelling, the screaming, and the absolute brutality that certainly must have occurred in the true incident. Rush and Flake turn into monsters, becoming every bit as savage as De Niro's "cop" hired by the whiteface African Americans to beat up the blackfaced white civilians; and Sean Penn and Don Harvey's rapist soldiers in Casualties of War. McCoy, like Michael J. Fox in that film, is outspoken in his attempts to stop the rape and subsequent massacre, and soon he is taking orders from Flake, an inferior officer—a private—who threatens him with a gun in his face to repel him out the door. Salazar, meanwhile, catches it all on tape—tape that may or may not come in handy. The deaths of Farah and her family members all take place off-camera because, as De Palma himself said about the central murder of The Black Dahlia (2006), it would be too much to show the audience. But that doesn't lessen its impact.
So much unravels after this sequence, but unlike Casualties of War, Redacted has a strong last half hour. The rest of the film is not simply devoted to attempts to bring the crime to justice, as the earlier film was. De Palma finds even more to say about history and cultural perceptions of the war. When a character is kidnapped and then decapitated by Al-Qaeda terrorists in a video leaked on the Internet, one senses that De Palma is remembering the Nick Berg tragedy of 2003. When the rape crime is finally revealed to a shocked public, a high school goth-girl (Abigail Savage) posts a video on YouTube in which she records herself in an obscene rant against the soldiers who committed the crime, fantasizing about them getting tortured to death by the dead girl's remaining family members. One might incorrectly assume that this is De Palma's idea of justice, but it is not: De Palma is making fun of the ignorant online trolls who spew out death threats and fantasies while using profane language at the same time—as if that's somehow going to boost their image or make their "message" more agreeable. People like these, De Palma is saying, just don't listen to reason.
That reminds me of the acting in the film itself. Medved called the acting "atrocious" in his review, while A. O. Scott, a liberal, wrote, "... most of the actors, many of them appearing for the first time in a feature film, lack either the skill or the directorial guidance to endow their characters with a full range of credible motives and responses." Both of these criticisms completely miss the point of De Palma's method, which is to prove that people who talk in front of home video cameras don't always act the way they might in real life; Roger Ebert correctly noted in his review (one of the better reviews of the film), that, because the acting of the film is less than flawless, it seems more real. In another positive review, Scott Foundas (who even went so far as to hail Redacted as one of the ten best films of the year) wrote, "...it is the entire point of Redacted that we are observing crude, found video objects, and that their subjects, aware of the camera that's recording them, assume the awkwardly self-conscious stances of people in vacation pictures and birthday-party videos." As for the film's entertainment value, Armond White complained, "...De Palma fails to let movie lore become surreal and take viewers into a clarifying moral dream state like Femme Fatale..." but then listen to Foundas, who states that De Palma "...wants to rankle audiences, especially those who may enter the theater anticipating some genteel, hand-wringing, good-little-liberal lament about the physical and emotional scars of wartime. Redacted is unapologetically angry and direct, and De Palma does very little to ease you into the movie..." It would have been impossible for De Palma to make Redacted into an experience as "surreal" as Femme Fatale when the film had to be shot on HD. Surrealism is not the key here; debate and immediacy are.
There are, however, moments when the acting in Redacted shines, and these moments almost always stem from the performance of Rob Devaney as McCoy. Those who claim that Redacted is anti-troops obviously don't pay much attention to the McCoy character, who cannot hold back the guilt of witnessing and doing nothing to stop the rape, and finally decides that justice must be done. We are there with him every step of the way. As with Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War, we are rooting for him, and we sympathize with his guilt. But Casualties of War ended with an awkward scene on a train in which Fox talks to a girl who reminds him of the dead Vietnamese girl, somehow resolving his guilt; though the conversation with the girl on the train leaves him at peace, it doesn't satisfy the audience. De Palma corrects this error with one of the last scenes in Redacted, in which McCoy has finally returned home to his family for celebration in a bar. "Tell us a war story!" exclaims a friend behind the camera (obviously it's De Palma himself). McCoy consents, and talks about how proud he was to serve in Afghanistan, so as to hamper the threats that came from 9/11. But Redacted is not a film about Afghanistan, and so McCoy then segues into a monologue on what he experienced in the other country: "I get over to Iraq, and it's just a totally different story. You grow up really, really fast over there because everything you see—everywhere you look—is just death, and it's suffering. And the killing that I did do? It made me sick to my stomach. And what was I doing there? What was I doing in a country that has done nothing to me? Just following orders? Bullshit." Devaney's performance in this scene is phenomenal. Everything he says, we believe.
I have only one complaint about the film, and it is over the closing montage of real photographs taken from the War in Iraq. My beef is not with De Palma, but with the film's executive producer, Mark Cuban, who, disturbed by the photos and worried that the identities of the victims in them would be found out and thus result in lawsuits, decided to have final artistic control on the film and have the photos "redacted"- with the eyes and mouths of the victims blacked out. De Palma was furious over this, since the photos had already been available on the Internet (un-redacted) for quite some time; and claimed that Cuban wouldn't return his phone calls offering to buy up all the rights to the film so as to have artistic say. Cuban and the executives and Magnolia insist that redacting the photo montage works for two reasons: a) it prevents lawsuits, and b) it proves the film's point about how the war itself has been constantly redacted, denying the public the truth that is supposed to come out. But I have to side with De Palma: the only way the public is going to find out the truth about the war is if the pictures come out. By censoring the photographs, Cuban and the executives made themselves out to be just as treacherous as the Bush administration, artistic irony or not. If De Palma should be faulted for anything, it is including fake photographs of some of the film's actors amidst the montage. The last photograph we see before the film ends is that of Zahra Zubaidi lying on the ground in a pool of blood, and although it relates to the film's message of the blur between lies and the truth, it doesn't help succeed in carrying out De Palma’s original purpose for including the montage: to show us horrors that have come out of the War in Iraq. One doesn’t quite know what to make of the finished slideshow.
"Redacted deals with very moving material in a very new form," expressed De Palma in an interview with Simon Hattenstone, "and it may take a while for people to adjust to it. In time, they will come to accept it because all the information the Bush administration has been suppressing will come out, and we'll learn the terrible stories that they've been hiding from us for so long. Whether it finds it this year or in years to come, I just think the movie will find its audience." Will it really? I think so. Because our troops are still stationed in Iraq, it may be hard for some to appreciate the film when our reasons for occupying the country are still vastly unknown. But I also think Redacted will be admired, in time, because it is almost as if De Palma's career was preparing itself every step of the way for this film. When all the other directors chickened out, he responded by making a film that took U.S. occupation in Iraq head-on, no matter how many it troubled or offended. He was also willing to live with the painful consequences of what the characters—those of whom are still alive at the end—have survived. "I went on a raid in Samarra", confesses McCoy, now breaking down, "and two men from my unit raped and killed a fifteen-year old girl; and burned her body... and I didn't do anything to stop it." McCoy may have been unsuccessful, but De Palma found something else. He made Redacted, and with that, made one of the most perfectly constructed masterpieces of his career. For over forty years, Brian De Palma has been recognized as the modern Hitchcock and as a survivor of the Movie Brat era. In two years, he will be recognized as the filmmaker who ended the war.
Monday, September 7, 2009
A box perched on a dolly is rolling down a hill in the cemetery. A woman watches as it comes to a complete stop and then tumbles to the ground, lying only a dozen feet away from her. The box is shaking. There is something alive inside. Because of what we as an audience have seen elsewhere in the film, we have an idea of what is trapped inside the box- and we yearn for the woman to hustle up, run over and open it. Instead, she hesitates before slowly advancing forward, preparing to open the box with caution. The suspense of waiting is unbearable.
Is the woman's course of action a rejection of common sense? Not at all. She is not as fortunate as the audience; she has not seen what we have seen. If she had, then she would have no need to approach the box with such caution and would have opened it immediately. But she has not, and she does not, and so she takes her time. Sure enough, ignorance proves bliss. In some ways, by not having an idea of what lies inside the box, the woman suddenly seems to be in a safer position than we are.
Murder a la Mod was Brian De Palma's first thriller and his first full-length feature film. History has always told us that De Palma's first films were his comedic collaborations with Robert De Niro (Greetings; The Wedding Party; Hi, Mom!), and that he didn't truly begin paying homage to Hitchcock until Sisters in 1973. If I haven't convinced readers otherwise, then I will consider this review a failure. I want nothing more than to make sure that De Palma's very first full-length feature stands alongside the rest of his gleeful, gorgeous, underappreciated gems. You want deranged serial killers chasing after vulnerable, half-naked babes? You got it. You want a voyeuristic camera that never seems to give anybody a moment's peace? Here it is. You want to see an incident from every point of view? It's all in Murder a la Mod. To put it simply, this is the film that started it all.
Like a select number of De Palma films afterward, Murder a la Mod is purely an exercise in style. De Palma doesn't worry about whether or not you follow the plot, whether or not you take the writing and acting seriously, or whether or not you even care at all what happens to the characters. We spend the 80-minute running time getting to know people like Christopher the porno filmmaker (Jared Martin); his dumb blonde actress Karen (Margo Norton), who is falling in love with him; her lady friend Tracy (Andra Akers), who will also play an important role in the events to follow; the nosy producer Max Wiley (Murder a la Mod producer Ken Burrows), who keeps hounding Christopher to have his movie finished on time; and you know what? All of them are cardboard. We couldn't care less about who gets killed, who survives, who gains anything, who loses, etc. The only amusing character in the entire film is a skinny young man named Otto, who, when he's not busy playing a fashion photographer in Christopher's latest movie, delights in playing "tricks" on various crew members. Armed with two types of icepicks- a "trick" pick and a "real" pick- his tactic is to use the first (harmless) type of pick on his victims and then smear them with ketchup blood. Whether or not he ever even uses the real pick is a mystery.
Alas, Otto is off the screen for most of the picture, so we are usually in the company of the naive Karen and the hot-tempered Christopher. Christopher doesn't enjoy spending every day ordering girls to take their clothes off in front of the camera. This is what he does for a living, and it is detracting from his peace of mind. He always tells his actresses (one of them is an instantly recognizable Jennifer Salt) that he's only making these type of movies because he "needs the money to divorce my wife"; he then has the actresses repeat this line before undressing. In some of the film's first scenes, we watch as the actresses struggle to expose their bodies to the camera, as Christopher impatiently eggs them on to hurry it up already. De Palma would later recycle these scenes for Greetings and Hi, Mom!, both in which Robert De Niro played the radical pornographer Jon subtlety trying to get unsuspecting women to undress for his camera. But at least Jon was a potentially nice dude; in Murder a la Mod, Christopher is sexually frustrated, hard to cooperate with, and abusive to his actresses and even towards Karen- who reveals to Tracy at one point that she and Christopher haven't even slept together yet, since he would prefer that work come first. Says Tracy: "He sounds like a combination between Gregory Peck and Albert Schweitzer".
But that's quite enough of the plot. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the film's surprises; and how Tracy ends up in conversation with a queer little old bank clerk (John Quinn) who has her handcuffed to a briefcase, I will leave for you to find out. Let's just say that between 3:32 PM and 3:42 PM, something atrocious happens to one of the characters, and De Palma then proceeds to show us the event not from one perspective, but four perspectives. This plot device is familiar to anyone who remembers Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), but De Palma famously makes it his own in this film; he later recycled this device most famously in Snake Eyes (1998) and Femme Fatale (2002). One by one, we see different variations on the incident involving the rolling box, and later there is a battle of fists in the cemetery that, for some reason, reminded me of the axe duel in the dummy warehouse in Kubrick's Killer's Kiss (1955). Midway through the film, there is also a frenzied moment when De Palma's cameraman, Jack Harrell, races to keep up with a character who is rushing up the stairs, onto the roof, and then back down the stairs again- all in one take. We can't help, either, but take pleasure in watching Jared Martin, Margo Norton, Andra Akers and Ken Burrows as they helplessly try to turn Chris, Karen, Tracy and Max Wiley into believable characters without giving overly hammy performances.
And at the heart of it all we have the daffy, diabolical trickster Otto, played by none other than the Olivier of De Palma cinema: the great William Finley. It was thought for a long time that Finley owned the sole copy of Murder a la Mod right up until the year 2006, when the film was bought and redistributed onto DVD by- who else?- the cult classics home entertainment company Something Weird Video. The new DVD transfer is not entirely satisfying, as it lacks subtitles (it is difficult to hear what characters are saying in a few spots) and a Widescreen ratio, so therefore we end up getting only a fullscreen transfer and- I suspect- not the whole picture. Not that it's the end of the world; Murder a la Mod should be seen regardless of its current state. "It's everywhere! Why can't you see?" sings Finley in the film's title song. He's singing about the nature of the murder, of course, but I would like to think that he's also singing about the influence on De Palma's subsequent career by what resulted from Murder a la Mod. Everything that De Palma was, and is, came from this film. What's more, none of the characters exit the film without first being subjected to one of De Palma's cruel cosmic jokes. Even Otto makes a horrifying discovery of his own.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Land of the Pharaohs brings out the nine-year old child in me who once had an overflowing obsession with all things Egyptian: pharaohs, slaves, tombs, treasures, mummies, gods, goddesses, rivers, deserts, the Sphinx, and the Great Pyramids. I had never been to Egypt before (and have never been since, to my dismay), but I was amazed that an exotic culture such as ancient Egypt could ever have once thrived on the face of this old, weary planet. The Great Pyramids, with their impossible height and stupefying structure, are indeed one of the seven wonders of the world, yet there has never been a definitive explanation as to how exactly they were built. Howard Hawks was one of the many who were in awe of this strange historical mystery. We watch Land of the Pharaohs today, and it is hard not to share his fascination.
The film is not a favorite among Hawks devotees, who dismiss it as an uneven anomaly in his career. It lacks the sympathetic characters that normally highlight his films, while the overlapping dialogue that fans had come to expect from him is replaced by a dry, hard form of dialogue that has been celebrated in modern times as camp. Hawks, who regarded Land of the Pharaohs as a failure in the years to come, explained about some of the film's sillier dialogue: "I haven't any idea of how a pharaoh talks, or behaves, or acts, eats, or makes love, or anything. I was just completely lost."
Hawks started out by bringing in one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, William Faulkner, to write the screenplay. Faulkner, who was just as dumbfounded about Egyptian dialogue, requested permission to do what he did best and simply get the pharaoh to talk like a Southern plantation owner. Hawks said what the hell and thought that was a great idea. Then Harry Kurnitz stepped in, suggested that it would be more appropriate if the pharaoh talked like King Lear, and reformed Faulkner's dialogue. Further contributions by another writer, Harold Jack Bloom, changed the pharaoh's manner of speaking even more- until a point was reached when Hawks was left with a screenplay that went in so many directions, it was almost more confusing than the labyrinth of the pharaoh's tomb.
All the same, I look at Land of the Pharaohs and I listen to the dialogue, and I see and hear very little worth griping about. There is no reason why this film should have failed as miserably as it did, at the box office or during future receptions. At 106 minutes, Land of the Pharaohs is also just the right length. No doubt Hawks realized that the story was hardly worthy of the sort of lumbering three-hour treatment that had so equipped Cecil B. DeMille's epics at the time and, thus, the film was cut down just short of two hours. The ravishing musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin is used fairly often, speeding up scenes that otherwise might have felt as if they were stuck in the mud.
What we were left with is a film that is surprisingly fast-paced. Not once does Land of the Pharaohs fail to engage our attention. Peter Bogdonavich, on the DVD commentary, clearly leaves the impression that he is not a fan of the film, and remarks at one point that he and Hawks were in agreement on the opinion that, despite many outstanding sequences, the film cannot be defended as a whole. I beg to differ: I would consider Land of the Pharaohs one of my favorite Hawks films precisely because it provided him with the chance to step out of his less adventurous, more conservative outer shell.
The film is mainly circulated around the development of the first Great Pyramid (we never find out how the second one came to be). We are introduced to the pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who enters the picture returning from yet another victorious battle- this one having gone on for three months total. Coming home, he is greeted first by his priest Hamar (Alex Minotis), who is in the process of writing down a chronicle on the pharaoh that is almost surely never to be read; and then his wife, the Queen Nailla (Kerima), of whom he loves ever so deeply despite the fact that she has yet to conceive an heir for him. "Well, have I changed?" he asks, upon emerging from a bath to cleanse the gore and grime of the last three months. "Not very much", replies Hamar, who adds, "you're one war older, that's all". The frugal, thrifty Khufu is optimistic: "I hope to age by many more before my time is come. More wars, more treasure." The same day, Khufu finally makes the grand announcement to all of Egypt that an indestructible pyramid will be erected in his honor, to store his treasures and, eventually, his body, once his reign has ended. He is only in middle age, and already he is planning for his journey to the afterlife.
Khufu, you have to understand, doesn't want just any ordinary pyramid. His pyramid needs to be one that cannot be entered once closed off, so that to hold off all grave robbers and, especially, treacherous employees of the empire. To his knowledge, every architect in the country is unfamiliar with such engineering, all except for the bearded slave Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), a captured enemy who had once orchestrated the construction of strong defenses to hold off Khufu's forces in an earlier battle. But Vashtar proves difficult to cooperate with: not only does he bargain hard for the freedom of his people in return, but he is also an atheist, and he makes life difficult for all who are above his low working class. Faulkner's characterization of Vashtar is a reminder of another Faulkner character- the bitter cynic Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, who ruthlessly condescended to his family members in the aftermath of a sibling's death. The acid-tongued Vashtar is, similarly, not afraid to offend even Khufu himself, and suggests that it would be wiser to have his treasures dumped into the ocean instead of spending years building a pyramid to store them in. "I could make you wish those words had not been spoken", rages Khufu. A cool, emotionless Vashtar shrugs, "unfortunately, you have need of my talent."
Construction will take years. Once finished, Vashtar's plan is to have all passageways sealed off with giant stones, each with a gap in the middle. Then, rocks connected to the stones will be broken off to emit sand, causing the gaps to close automatically. The concept is so simple, and yet so brilliant- one that Faulkner, Kurnitz and Bloom invented themselves. The project excites all of Egypt, and millions of workers (in the film's case, 10,000 extras) leave their homes to come and help. When little progress is made, whipping men are brought in, and the process becomes an agonizing chore. In the film's most extraordinary shot, Hawks pans the camera so that it spins around the landscape for an entire minute and a half, as we get a good look at each and every one of the extras hard at work. There is a question of whether or not the shot could actually be described as a long take (a boulder that appears halfway through the shot and takes up the whole frame was probably an itching spot used to allow Hawks to cut and proceed later), but no matter: it is an unforgettable shot.
Khufu gets a few more wishes granted with each passing year- including the son he always wanted, the young Xenon (Piero Giagnoni)- but this is not enough to hold back his impatience. Then in comes Princess Nellifer, played by Joan Collins with just the right dose of icy villainy to make drive-in audiences giggle, and just enough drop-dead sexiness to give a Catholic schoolboy an erection to last a lifetime. She has come to the pharaoh in place of her country's offering, which would otherwise submit her people to starvation, and she feels that her flesh would be enough for the pharaoh. Khufu would rather have both her and the offering. She declares that he must choose. As consequence for insubordination, he rips off her cloak and has her sent down to the chambers so that the guards can punish her with a good whipping in her bikini, Princess Leia style. I suppose that this was Hawks's idea of a whipping fantasy. Or maybe it was the fantasy of Faulkner: it evokes one of his novels, the mainstream thriller Sanctuary, in which the sweet and innocent Temple Drake is kidnapped by the rapist Popeye and later horrifyingly submitted to his sadomasochist demands. Nellifer only goes through about 2% of what Temple Drake had to go through.
Nellifer gets it easy, perhaps, during a later scene when, after getting slapped across the face by Khufu, she responds by ravenously biting at his wrist. Suddenly convinced (or perhaps aroused) by her absolute committal, he waives the offering of her country, keeps her instead, and then makes her his second wife- a position she enjoys exceedingly. He opens up the main room of treasures to her but draws the line when she asks to take a set of jewels from his private domain. It is in this scene when Hawks, who has up until then kept the camera at a distance, gives us a close-up of a disturbed Khufu, and Hawks wisely reduces the rest of the film's close-ups only to similarly pivotal moments. It is also during this scene when Nellifer puts her smooth sexuality to good use, daring the timid guard Treneh (Sydney Chaplin) to remove the forbidden jewels from her shoulders.
Elsewhere in the kingdom, another sort of hanky panky is taking place when Vashtar's agile son, Senta (Dewey Martin), rescues an injured Khufu in the aftermath of a hazardous collapse of boulders inside the pyramid; and Senta- despite confessing his illegal knowledge of the pyramid's layout- is offered a reward, and selects one of Nellifer's female slaves, the rebellious Kyra (Luisella Boni). She refuses to cook for him or Vashtar's friend, Mikka (James Hayter), until they both insist that she is not to be kept as their slave; suddenly, she is springing into action, spicing up their soup with black pepper, garlic and bay leaves. It is only predictable that she and Senta will soon fall in love, and their romance isn't really developed- but then again, why the hell should it be? Obviously their youth and all that bare skin is bound to generate some sexual chemistry sooner or later. Mikka nudges Senta: "Maybe you didn't do so bad after all!"
Later scenes swallow the characters up in a perilous series of fiascos. Hawks smuggles in a scene of unbearable suspense when a charmed cobra snakes its way towards young Xenon, forcing the courageous Queen Nailla to commit an act of sacrifice. After this- an assassination attempt by none other than a jealous Nellifer- proves successful, Nellifer takes once step further when she sends her muscular servant Mabuna (played by an actor who, strangely, was uncredited by Warner Bros) to assassinate Khufu so that Nellifer may take his place, and rule as Queen. During this portion of the film, we realize just how cunningly Nullifer has all of the men in her life wrapped around her finger. Earlier we saw her telling Khufu to "choose" between her and her country's offering. Then she presents the ill-fated Treneh with the same dilemma: "Look at me, and choose. Either I am yours and you help me, or I go on without you. Which is it to be?" The choice that Treneh makes results in the film's only swordfight, between him and an ailing Khufu, while a pleased Nellifer watches from the shadows as the two men foolishly fight for her love.
Bogdonavich, in the DVD commentary, is admittedly correct when he adds that it is hard to care about who wins this fight. Both men are antiheroes, but unlike Paul Muni's murderous Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932) or Bogart's vigilante detective Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946), Hawks is unable to get us to care about what happens to either Khufu or Treneh not just in this scene, but at any time in the film. Although Hawkins's performance as Khufu is a commanding one, there is not enough madness in the character to allow us to sit back and marvel as with, say, Muni's portrayal of Camonte; and Chaplin plays Treneh as little more than a stupid sidekick who salivates over a set of T & A, and pays dearly for it.
Really, the most interesting characters in all of Land of the Pharaohs are Vashtar and Senta, the enslaved father and son who find themselves working to build a structure for one man, and find out for themselves how to survive in the midst of its centennial chaos. James Robertson Justice, as Vashtar, gives perhaps the best performance in the entire film as the radical thinker and architect, who daringly teaches Senta the layout of the pyramid and lobbies for the liberation of his people, even when he must face the possibility that he may or may not have to be locked up inside the pyramid once it is finished. Dewey Martin is effective, too, as Senta, who has witnessed the pyramid's construction ever since his childhood and grows up to be not an idiotic teenager, but an intelligent rebel on the verge of sexual awakening; the casting of Martin was wise because he had previously worked with Hawks on The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Big Sky (1952). Of the film's main characters, Nellifer is the only one who truly captures our interest, perhaps because of the real-life infamy of Joan Collins herself, or perhaps because Nellifer is one of the rare villainesses of Hawks's films who does a handy job of getting what she wants. Only at the last minute does Nellifer get her just desserts- in one of cinema's most famous climaxes of trickery and despair.
Despite Hawks and his own fans looking down on Land of the Pharaohs in the decades to come, we can at least somewhat be thankful that the Hollywood filmmakers who idolized Hawks would go on to cite the film as a reference for their own works. Scorsese recycled the love triangle of Khufu, Treneh and Nellifer- albeit much more successfully- for the love triangle of Sam Rothstein, Nicky Santoro and Ginger McKenna in his overlooked masterpiece Casino (1995); and Spielberg recycled the sand-in-stone technique for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), one of the many tongue-in-cheek moments in that film (and references to cinematic history) that was easily missed by oblivious young moviegoers. And even when Land of the Pharaohs may indeed be an anomaly in Hawks's career, I still wouldn't hesitate to champion it as one of my favorites of all his works. Like many a great Hawks film, it's expertly directed, beautiful to look at and, most importantly, it gets to the point. Asked once by Bogdonavich if Vashtar's final line ("We have a long way to go") was meant to foreshadow the fate of humanity, a droll Hawks- not one for subtlety- concluded, "Well... that particular phase of humanity".